The Unbearable Weight of Words

If you want to be a writer, first be a reader, or so say many masters of the craft, when talking about writing. I suspect they’re basically saying you don’t know what good writing is till you have read good writing, and reading a lot of quality writing will change you as a writer. All true, probably. I’m not a master to dare contradict them.

But I suspect, even if they don’t mean it that way, there are more reasons to read writings — good, great, wonderful, fabulous, out of the world, the kinds that make you want to shout out to the world just because you’re able to get them.

One reason in particular.

When you read that kind of, knocks you flat, stuff, it pushes you into an existential crisis as a budding writer. I mean, why bother writing, if you know you’re, in all probability, never going to reach there, or somewhere about there. Even to the base camp of the summit, really. Or realistically. It plunges you into a writing block so freakin debilitating that you think: is this where the story ends? Literally.

Oh, did I say the reason was going to help you become a better writer? No, right? Just that it’s important. To have stared into the abyss. To have a sense of the depth of utter despair that is always just a step away on that path. For if one doesn’t have a heart for that, one shouldn’t be aspiring to reach the summit.

Of course, there is another way. To ignore summits. To aim for mediocrity. And if one is lucky, to taste success, in the conventional sense, and to build one’s house far from summits, one story higher than all that’s around, and to stand in the gallery and marvel at where one has reached. Many happy stories have endings like that. If you care for them, that is.

But maybe, the stories worth living are those that don’t have such happy endings, somewhere in the middle. Maybe, one needs to hit a wall and rethink one’s route. Maybe, rethinking “why” one should aspire, is a step to sustain that aspiration. And to ask that why one needs to read the best of the best. Maybe there is no happy ending. But maybe, the route to the base camp is itself worth stepping out of one’s comfort zones for. Seriously, though, why bother, otherwise?


My friend and co-conspirator at Gaizabonts who has again generously offered the image that serves as the featured image here, and also has indirectly kick-started this post as part of FB comments. Thanks Atul!


Muse, Interrupted

Stories lost in no man’s land,
ideas fleeting through the mind,
before one could catch them,
be possessed by them
we do manage to catch
ideas, dead, dry like creepers hanging on to empty skeletons of their former selves,
characters who refuse to open up their souls to you,
a medley of distractions,
chasing without a target, rhyme, reason
the muse, how long will she wait?
and why?
we all believe we’re special
raised on a diet of pulped up culture
and peppy psychology of winning
we’ve turned the mirrors into disco lights
we’re dazzled by their empty iridescence
and when
at the end of the day
we turn ’em off
we wonder why we didn’t
get enough done
and perfect that we are
in our own exalted images of selves
we find an honorable blame
enough to prove our conscience
a generic, opaque fallibility


we fail like everyone else
but we want to succeed like no one has
and we don’t
the muse leaves
to better homes, or better prospects at any rate
and we stare
at the emptiness
in disbelief
a shallow incomprehension
because we’ve lost
the habit of hanging on
to a futile looking dream
like the creepers, almost dead

As Time Goes By

Another year bids us goodbye. That is: another repetition of a random marker, one of many methods of demarcating time, but one that is now universal by its overall acceptance. In Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, the power of gods is decided by the number of people who believe in them. Sir Pratchett probably just wanted to make a point about the arbitrariness of belief — it’s been a while since I read it, so cannot say with certainty — but all myths, and all conventions, definitely need the numbers to survive. So while different calenders still survive, and different new years are still celebrated,  they are like the small gods, while this Gregorian Calendar is the big league.

Anyways, the point wasn’t that (it rarely is with me, as the regular — haha, it feels good to use the term — readers already know) at all. As the year comes to an end, I got thinking, how do I want to spend the rest of it? I mean, I hate parties, I hate to step out on the NYE, because, more or less, I hate crowds, and lines at restaurants, and overpriced food, and collective superficial euphoria, and most things that come on the television, and so on. So, over the years, I’ve welcomed the new year in my sleep — or more precisely by waking up to the sound of firecrackers, which, yes you guessed it, I hate.

So how is it going to be this year?



There is a weird pop-wisdom (popularized recenlty by Steve Jobs, no less) that runs something like this: live every day like it’s the last day of your life. For some reason, it’s considered self-explanatory wisdom, even an obvious one. But is it?

If I knew, when the day started, that it’s the last day of my life, how would I live it? Let’s see. It would be too late to run through the list of “important things to do” to make sure the family is somewhat set to deal with the eventuality. I mean yes, I’d possibly come up with a list of passwords and likes, that I need to handover to the spouse. Let her know the list of credit cards that need to be stopped (they need to be, right?). And such sundry things. That would take less than an hour, I’d recon. Then I’d probably call up a very small list of people and bid goodbye. Few more hours. Then I’d probably spend rest of the time with my loved ones. Cook something good for them. And as the hour approaches, put on the last of the Jazz pieces I’d like to listen to, once again. A bit of Mingus. A lot of Coltrane. Love Supreme as a finale.

Here is what I will NOT do: work, plan for future, read, watch movies, contemplate on philosophical issues, exercise, help others, sleep, learn anything new, try anything new actually, write …

You see why it’s useless?

I think the better wisdom would be: live every day as if you know when you’re going to die. So that you can come up with the perfect plan. And stick to it, because we know there will be no extension. Prioritize time because you know exactly how much you will have, no more. It’s the uncertainty, and more precisely the apparent abundance of time, that stops us from a lot of it. Not just the non-emergency of it. Because emergency is not the best way to schedule your life goals. Especially, when you don’t know when you’re going to die. Like the most of us.


So what has this got to do with the new year’s eve?

Nothing really. What it reminds me of, this new year thing is that it’s that time of the year again, to take a stock. Because it seems like the right time to do it. And it’s that time of year when you know very little time is left — of the year. How should one spend it? Like it were the last day to change anything about the year (it is!). And if there is anything I want to change about 2017, it’s the writing part. Or the non-writing part, to be precise.

So here I am. Trying to write. And to keep the flame burning, through to the next year. And hope, it will be better, the next year. But let’s face it, without a serious plan, it won’t be. But even acknowledging that is a good start, right? And the thing about “last days” is, it’s too late to change anything substantially. It’s too late to plan. It’s too late to do anything but relax, and reminisce, and remember, and maybe think about what wasn’t, and what was, and what could be.


In more ways than one, 2017 was the Annus horribilis. And I’m strictly speaking of writing. Yes, I wrote some verses, some non-fiction pieces, which were not cringe-worthy. But where it counts — fiction — it was the worst year since I started writing (if one could call it that — but I would, even if it’s basically writing for oneself). This was the year distractions got the better of me. This was the year I’ll write off, happily. I’m even happy it’s ending. Because however arbitrary, a new year seems like a new start. At least I know that over the last 365 days, I’ve failed in prioritizing something that gives me a sense of achievement. I’ve failed terribly. Completely. And what better way to spend the last night of the year than to admit that to oneself, and to the tiny part of the world that cares about it (like you, maybe, because you’re still reading this). Maybe this is the rock bottom that I needed to hit. And the last thing: of course I know 2017 is not to blame for any of it. It was only the messenger.



Memories and Us

Only false memories can be so vivid,
to seem unquestionably real …
false, or manufactured, or wilfully distorted,
maybe it’s the effort —
to invent them out of thin air,
to recreate them, as per our whims,
to mold them into what we wished they were —
is what makes them seem more vivid
than real memories …

The real memories
that are struggling
to hold on to the last straw
as they drown in an abyss of oblivion
bereft of colors,
their once unforgettable scent fading,
the fabric of their real slice of reality
ragged, and tattered …
their very being turning into an apparition

No, it’s not us who need memories to survive
that’s a lie
planted by memories,
a survival tactic,
for it’s they who need us
without us, they are orphaned,

Infinity of Jest, Finitude of Grace

A major part of growing up is coming to terms with the fallibility of our heroes. Okay, make it “gradual erosion of faith in our heroes” or “being almost free from the belief in heroes”. The same heroes, or rather, the same faith in the existence of heroes, that was our ladder to adulthood, that sometimes we want to cling to, rather desperately. However, as we start seeing more and more shades of gray, the photographs of heroes in our attic start seeming gradually lackluster. And yet, curiously, even ironically, more real. As if, finally, we have access to the third dimension which, hundreds of two-dimensional projections were a poor substitute for.

Still, we’re never really free of belief in heroes, because, in a world ruled by chance and chaos, we need that straw to keep afloat. And so, when someone else tries to cut down our heroes to a size too small for a pedestal, we instinctively cringe; or — get angry, or combative, or even, dismissive.

David Foster Wallace (DFW), one of the best-known American novelists of our era, killed himself in the month of September, nine years back, a day after the date that no American will easily forget, two days after the World Suicide Prevention day, ironically. With DFW, one is never sure if the connections are tenuous or real. And I get a feeling, that’s exactly how he would have wanted it. Being sure would have defeated the purpose.

In last two decades, as I’ve struggled to make progress on my personal, non-professional, ambition of being a writer (or wanting to be a writer, to be precise), there are a few writers (and I’m really talking about fiction writers) I have looked up to. Umberto Eco, for instance, or Amitav Ghosh, Arthur Koestler, Orhan Pamuk, Hermann Hesse, Zadie Smith, Kamila Shamsie. The list is long, and not exhaustive. But if there is one writer who I’d have liked to be, one writer I’d have liked to write like (not exactly same, obviously, but you know what I mean), it’s got to be DFW.

I say this based, not just on his masterpiece Infinite Jest, but also his debut book, Broom of the System, or his unfinished symphony, Pale King, tied up into some semblance of a novel by his longtime editor and friend Michael Pietsch, and his Interviews with Hideous Men, and other short-story collections; I’ve read every word of Wallace with adulation. And especially with Pale King, I’ve cried thinking of DFW writing that, while feeling inadequate as a writer, and a human being, and killing himself, denying us all a lot more he could have produced, with his abundant talents, but above all, denying himself all those years of unlived life.

And so, when I read his longtime friend and competitor Jonathan Franzen’s piece “Farther Away” (from his eponymous collection of essays), dealing with, among many things, the death of David Foster Wallace, my reaction was almost visceral. In a sense, because, on some level, Franzen was right (if not on many levels, after all, he knew Wallace, I just read him). Especially when he says:

The people who knew David least well are most likely to speak of him in saintly terms.

And I got to know about that more when I recently read DFW’s biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. It talked of a Wallace that one would have a hard time imagining just reading his fiction — because that kind of understanding, that level of pathos, that kind of empathy, as exemplified by his writings seems incongruous with some of the aspects of his personality, especially the (lack of ?) personality ethic. Then again, it’s always a possibility. Growing up has taught us as much, if nothing more.

Still, Franzen’s writing about his self-confessed friend seems devoid of grace.

A bit of context is due for those who do not know the background. Jonathan Franzen and DFW shared a borderline healthy (or unhealthy, as you see fit) rivalry as writers. With Infinite Jest, DFW seemed to have pulled ahead into a territory that’s reserved for a few. Much of what Franzen writes about DFW seems to be weighed down by that enormity — and it’s almost like Franzen is angry with DFW because he basically cheated Franzen of a chance to prove he could beat DFW to it and more.


Franzen makes no efforts to hide his anger at DFW for killing himself in a hideous way:

At the time, I’d made a decision not to deal with the hideous suicide of someone I’d loved so much but instead to take refuge in anger and work. Now that the work was done, though, it was harder to ignore the circumstance that, arguably, in one interpretation of his suicide, David had died of boredom and in despair about his future novels. The desperate edge to my own recent boredom: might this be related to my having broken a promise to myself? The promise that, after I’d finished my book project, I would allow myself to feel more than fleeting grief and enduring anger at David’s death?

Strangely, though, this seems to be the only way in which Franzen seems to relate to DFW’s suicide — this being the only sympathetic interpretation in the article. Thus, subconsciously, elevating himself to DFW’s level — a boredom of the Titans.

That just sets a tone for a piece, that for every other distraction in it, is basically about DFW — and Franzen’s getaway to reflect on the relationship, in its glorious contradictions. But what is shocking, for a close friend of someone who’s grappled with depression all his adult life, and a very perceptive writer, to have almost completely ignored the elephant in the room.

In the summer before he died, sitting with him on his patio while he smoked cigarettes, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the hummingbirds around his house and was saddened that he could, and while he was taking his heavily medicated afternoon naps I was studying the birds of Ecuador for an upcoming trip, and I understood the difference between his unmanageable misery and my manageable discontents to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not. (emphasis mine).

The joy of birds? Really? And this, while he starts the paragraph with “he loved his dogs more purely than he loved anything or anyone else”. How can a friend miss the forest for the trees?

This is where it starts making sense, though:

The depressed person then killed himself, in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most, and we who loved him were left feeling angry and betrayed. Betrayed not merely by the failure of our investment of love but by the way in which his suicide took the person away from us and made him into a very public legend.

A cursory google search will give you some interesting figures (link):

  • In 2015 (latest available data), there were 44,193 reported suicide deaths.
  • Currently, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
  • A person dies by suicide about every 11.9 minutes in the United States.
  • Every day, approximately 121 Americans take their own life.
  • Ninety percent of all people who die by suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.

David Foster Wallace may have been a genius. But he was a part of those statistics. Just one in many. What’s more, there is a strong link between creativity and mental disorders, as discussed by Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene.

“We of the craft are all crazy,” Lord Byron, the high priest of crazies, wrote. “Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.” Versions of this story have been told, over and over, with bipolar disorder, with some variants of schizophrenia, and with rare cases of autism; all are “more or less touched.” It is tempting to romanticize psychotic illness, so let me emphasize that the men and women with these mental disorders experience paralyzing cognitive, social, and psychological disturbances that send gashes of devastation through their lives. [SNIP]

In Touched with Fire, an authoritative study of the link between madness and creativity, the psychologist-writer Kay Redfield Jamison compiled a list of those “more or less touched” that reads like the Who’s Who of cultural and artistic achievers: Byron (of course), van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Jack Kerouac—and on and on. That list can be extended to include scientists (Isaac Newton, John Nash), musicians (Mozart, Beethoven), and an entertainer who built an entire genre out of mania before succumbing to depression and suicide (Robin Williams). Hans Asperger, one of the psychologists who first described children with autism, called them “little professors” for good reason. Withdrawn, socially awkward, or even language-impaired children, barely functional in one “normal” world, might produce the most ethereal version of Satie’s Gymnopédies on the piano or calculate the factorial of eighteen in seven seconds.

In the years that I’ve read more and more about DFW, I’ve asked myself this: “would I be willing to host his demons, if that were the precondition of being the kind of artist that he was?” The answer is a rather quick and an emphatic NO. We lesser mortals, the statistically normal humans, are blessed with a missing bone. We wouldn’t know what to do with the demons. It’s not a kind of price one chooses to pay. It’s what one pays because there is no choice.

Later in the piece, Franzen tries to be more charitable:

That he was blocked with his work when he decided to quit Nardil—was bored with his old tricks and unable to muster enough excitement about his new novel to find a way forward with it—is not inconsequential.

Fiction was his way off the island, and as long as it was working for him—as long as he’d been able to pour his love and passion into preparing his lonely dispatches, and as long as these dispatches were coming as urgent and fresh and honest news to the mainland—he’d achieved a measure of happiness and hope for himself. When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death. If boredom is the soil in which the seeds of addiction sprout, and if the phenomenology and the teleology of suicidality are the same as those of addiction, it seems fair to say that David died of boredom.

But here again, even at his charitable best, Franzen cannot accept DFW as just one in those thousands, who kill themselves, unable to cope with chronic depression. Occam’s razor asks us to pick the simplest explanation. Franzen, on the other hand, comes up with a twisted logic of “phenomenology and teleology of suicidality (sic) being same …” He wants to be fair, to his friend and competitor. But what is fair about dissecting a dead person who cannot question anything, even the reason (or unreason) he chose to be dead over being alive. Franzen, one suspects, would have taken the deal, demons and angels together, if it were on table, but is angry that it’s not on the table.

It’s this tone deafness of the article, even when he has access to the big picture from a close distance, that has kept me from reading Franzen’s fiction all these days since I read this piece for the first time. I know that’s not a right response. And that I’m doing a Franzen here, trying to read a betrayal in a survival strategy. Maybe, I lack the grace too.

It’s probably unfair to expect authors to be better than us in empathizing with others — yes, even those authors whose writing seems to overflow with empathy. Because, writing, above all, is a self-serving exercise. But, it does seem rather strange, that someone who understands motives and motifs, can open themselves to a charge like that, by being so transparent (if they were actually — daft otherwise). And yet, it takes a kind of courage to open one’s heart, with all its pain and anguish, even at the risk of sounding insensitive. Franzen has displayed that in abundance.


Ironically, the grace I was looking for, in this context, came from a this piece:

I wish he had spoken to me, or I to him: I could have offered him some fatherly  advice on the futility of competing with your younger self: every review of every novel I’ve written since Gravity’s Rainbow contains the phrase, either explicitly or implicitly, “not as good as.” It is clear that taking the Big Dirt Nap was already very much on his mind when he delivered the 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College:  “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms nearly always shoot themselves in…[sic] the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.” After the antidepressants and electroshock therapy had failed, I guess he assumed he had nowhere else to go, and succumbed to Entropy.

I say ironic, because, this wasn’t written by the author of Gravity’s Rainbow, and an early influence (that DFW went to lengths to deny) on DFW, Thomas Pynchon, that reclusive writer who’s avoided the eye of the media religiously, and successfully. This was a parody piece published in Salon, as a spoof Pynchon piece, now unavailable (I had to dig up this passage, which I remembered vaguely, from the Internet Archives WayBack Machine snapshot).  Many fell for it. Including me. Because it seemed like something that had to be written, about DFW. And what better person to write it, but Pynchon, a father figure that DFW consciously, and consistently, disowned. For death makes all amends impossible from the one who has died, leaving those who are left behind, to forgive, and forget, magnanimously. Because they’ve still got that one thing the deceased doesn’t have: a chance to make things right, even if unilaterally, and marginally. It’s what grace demands.

Maybe, there is no Infinity of grace. Maybe, the celebrated authors, who we assume, have been given a special x-ray vision into people’s souls, are as blind with petty human emotions like anger, and pain, as the rest of us. Maybe grace is finite. And one has to find it in a fictionalized parody alone. Maybe, in reality, grace is a price too steep for even the Titans to pay.


“Dhoondh ujade hue logo me wafa ke moti. Yeh khazane tumhe mumkin hai kharabo.n me mile”

(Search the pearls of loyalty in those who have lost everything else, for maybe there, in the broken men, you may find those treasures)

That’s a loose translation of a couplet from Ahmad Faraz’s ghazal. But that’s incidentally what Infinite Jest is all about, among other things. Maybe the Titans are too upright to expect grace from. Maybe, we’re cursed to find it only in those we shy away from. And definitely not within.

The Narrative Games

There are stories all around us. Not all are interesting when one tells them, but when they are unfolding before you, they manage to hold your attention.

Last week, I was traveling back home, from a business trip when I witnessed a story. I boarded the flight and sat down in my aisle seat on the left half. A few minutes later, a couple with two very young kids arrived. The mother sat in the half of the row in front of me, with two kids on either side. The father took the aisle seat on the right.

Another couple of minutes later, boarded a girl who had the window seat in the same row, on the father’s side. The boarding was almost complete by now, and the attendants were getting ready for the safety drill. For a few mins, it looked like the middle seat next to the father was going to be unoccupied. Everyone put on the seat belts. Just then another (very good looking, incidentally) girl boarded, the last one to board, and took the middle seat. The father who had gotten up to give her access, quickly sat back into his seat, not looking at his wife, who was trying to get his attention.

Soon, the plane started taxiing to the runway, and the status quo was maintained for a while. But as soon as the plane took off, and the seat belt sign was off, though, the mother got up, and so did the father, as if on cue, and they exchanged seats. In a few minutes, she had gone off to sleep in her new seat.


There are of course multiple ways to interpret this simple sequence.

1. The simplest: the mother got jealous, and didn’t want the husband to sit next to a very attractive girl.

2. Mother was feeling sleepy, and the boys were not sleeping, so she decided to let the dad take up the duty of putting them to sleep.

3. The boys wanted their dad to be next to them.

4. The mother thought that the father, who was a heftily built man, was getting uncomfortable in the aisle seat, especially considering the person next to him was a girl.

5. The father, and not the mother, initiated the exchange because he thought his wife was getting uncomfortable with him sitting next to a (very) good looking girl.

6. The mother thought that the girl in the middle seat will be more comfortable with a woman being next to her, because, she herself would have been more comfortable that way, having listened to horror stories of girls being molested on planes, buses, trains.

7. The father, the mother knew, is a molester, and she’s really trying to save the girls from his prying hands (or trying to save her husband from the consequences).


I’m sure we could keep on coming up with multiple such reasons or their variations/combinations. But do we? Or do we (or rather, our minds) lazily pick up the Occam’s razor and select the simplest interpretation?

I think the storyteller’s role becomes crucial here because his/her job is to steer the reader/listener to a particular interpretation. Of course, there are lazy story tellers, who will pick up the simplest of sequences themselves (like yours truly here), in the hope that the readers will instantly pick up the “most obvious” interpretation, and thus believe the narration very much like real-life, aka, realistic. But is realism just the “most common” or “obvious” view of reality? Because if that’s what story-telling does (and here, I cannot but use examples of writers like Chetan Bhagat, and many “romance” writers who are popular currently in Indian writing scene) then art is basically majoritizing  of narration, and hence just reinforcing the norm (not ethical, but statistical) as the only reality worth talking about.

This is where the interesting story tellers come in. Either as writers, or film-makers. Some of them give us enough extra slice of reality to subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly — something that propagandist story-tellers fall into, even though they’re going beyond the norm) nudge us to a different reading of reality (for instance, I’ve also tried to nudge you into a specific interpretation by adding “not looking at his wife”, when in reality, since I was in the next row, would have found it difficult to make that claim with certainty), forming a different interpretations of the actions of protagonists, for instance, by giving us enough glimpses into the minds of the characters, say, or painting the relationships between principal characters with a fine brush. While some, want to go beyond even that nudging and give you enough contradictory seeming clues to put the burden of interpretation on you entirely (David Lynch? Pynchon? Wallace?).

Then there is another category of story-tellers who provide you enough clues, but also some misleading clues, although, they want you to solve the puzzle. There is an answer they want you to have, but don’t want to let it be too obvious, lest the fun is lost. But these story-tellers, are also a little afraid that the listener/viewers/reader will entirely miss the point and come up with a different interpretation based on the clues that they pick up. Someone like Nolan, for instance, who ended up explaining his intended interpretation of Inception.

The thing is, there are so many stories and so many interpretations. And one way to look at our evolution as readers/watchers is to evaluate the complexity of the chess game that one is able to play, at the level. Then again, profound can be captured simply. So one can’t have a hegemony of complexity of narration.

PS: There was another colleague traveling on the same flight who was seated in my row, but in the other half. He was trying to tell me something when the couple boarded. I asked him today, after writing this, what was it that he was trying to tell me, and he narrated this:

“The guy (the father) was very frustrated with his child’s tantrum, and he picked him up and told him “if you don’t shut up, I’ll throw you out of the window”. Anyone wants to go back to the list for a different interpretation, with this tidbit? There is also very interesting takeaway, in all this: the narrators miss many stories as they concentrate on one. In a perfect symmetry: where the reader/listener ends up walking away with just one interpretation.


Picture Credit: Atul Sabnis of gaizabonts.


Incidentally, there is a small story of the book too: read on the photo page. Atul is a story teller in various mediums.





The Honest Conundrum

Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory is a character that is currently one of the best-known TV personalities (okay, all ya GOT fanatics, I concede there is a chance one of the 100 odd GOT characters might be well known in some circles, but …), to the extent that he’s become a trope. Terms like Sheldonish behavior are now heard not so infrequently. The character, commonly believed to be one exhibiting the Asperger syndrome (although denied by the creator),  is also considered to be brutally honest. The term is not new, of course, nor unique to him. We all know a person or two, whom we casually refer to as being brutally honest. It’s of course not easy being one such person in a society that pays lip service to honesty but institutionalizes many kinds of dishonest behaviors, in the name of “things you need to do for the sake of society/people/family/etc”.

But the term itself is quite interesting. What does brutal honesty mean? Why is the term even there? Language is the biggest barometer of culture, and the very fact that we have a term like that shows our instinctive aversion to honest assessment, especially when we are being judged. Consider for instance statements like, “this is what I honestly believe”. Can one really have a dishonest belief? One could hold a right/wrong belief, or true/false belief. But can one hold a dishonest belief? How does that even work? Does one “know” one is dishonest about what one believes? Or is one unconsciously dishonest about one’s belief? And if it’s the latter, then how is it dishonest?

Back to brutal honesty, then, does it mean we only want honesty from others when they think/feel what we want them to? Or, if we’re a bit more tolerant of criticism, and get ego kicks out of “taking criticism” when it’s mild, and/or sugar coated?  But the moment it’s unfiltered and stark, comes the label of “brutal honesty”. As if others owe us gentle honesty because our fragile egos need protection.  The way we treat those we brand “brutally honest” speaks volumes about our culture. And to be brutally honest, it’s not very pretty. In The Big Bang Theory, being fiction, one sees a benign exasperation as the worst case scenario, but in real life, Sheldon will have to be extremely lucky to have a caring circle of friends around him. He’ll be ridiculed, ostracized, and in not so rarified environments (unlike one where the theoretical physicists, and experimental physicists, are working/living in), will be lucky to even hold a job. That is the brutal truth.


Rain in the Cities

Cities have their histories, peoples, cultures, monuments. They have their unique, even overpowering, smells. They have their streets, planned or unplanned, neat or dirty, congested or empty, and so on. Another unique aspect of cities I’ve noticed is their relationship to the rains.

Mumbai, where I have never quite lived, and have never quite stayed away from for more than a year at a time, and where I spent a couple of years in the (then) quaint  IIT campus, has a very passionate love-hate relationship with the rains. June, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot [1], is the cruelest month (or half month) in Mumbai, as the city, just coming off a long summer, is at its sweaty worst, with humidity flying off the roof in anticipation of the rains; and if you travel in the local trains at that time of the year, there is only one predominant subject: baarish kab aayegi (when will it rain)? The anticipation of rain in Mumbai is like at no place I know of. Not even the farming villages very immediately dependent on the rains. Maybe it is because, while others are not quite sure, and hence are even afraid of anticipating, lest the rain gods take offense and disappoint, Mumbai is quite sure of the rains, blessed as it is with an abundance, every year. But that’s not all of it. In a city where every square foot seems to be exorbitantly priced and still occupied, rain is a respite from the sweat and the heat, and the sheer monotony of a clockwork industrial life.


Mumbai – A wet game

The ending of the movie The Perfect Murder (1990 – Merchant Ivory Productions) captures the essence of Mumbai’s affair with the first rain — before the drains choke, and local trains stop functioning, and the low-lying areas are flooded, and roads are closed, and it’s already too much rain. The first rain is seen as the solution to all of the city’s problems (as they are the solution to the perfect murder in the city, in the film). The happiness on the streets is comparable to no other collective happiness (except for a cricket World Cup win for India, maybe), as the sheer numbers are on its side. But there is a sense of relief that really underlines the happiness. The megapolis needs the assurance that there will be water, and food, for the next year, just as a farming community in a village needs it, even more, maybe.

But while Mumbai was and is (and will be) my other home, always, the city where I grew up, Solapur, a city past its golden days during the heydays of cloth mills, now a sugar economy, has a very different relationship to rains. Solapur district is highly drought prone, and while keeping aside the irony of massive sugarcane farming in this belt, thanks to the Ujani river dam and canal networks, while the city remains thirsty through the summer months (center of the city used to have water supply once every three to four days, till the last year’s excellent rains in areas upstream the Ujani basin), rains are welcome just about anytime there. Only, one has to seriously redefine “rains”, especially if coming from Mumbai like areas of abundance. But the four months of monsoons transform the region like anything. Whatever little rain, the skies are overcast, temperatures are moderate, and there is never a chance of missing a day’s work due to rains.

The funny thing is, while growing up, we’d have schools being shut because of a passing showers, almost. That’s how rare it was to see rain. And for someone who’s grown up there, rain is always special. Even when one is locked into a room three days because of downpour (as I later experienced in Mumbai). Rain is the transformer. Not just for a week, but for the full season, even with little delivery. One doesn’t complain.

And there is Pune, my home for one and a half decade now. Pune is blessed with just about adequate rains, most of the years, and it is neither left dry nor is it flooded, except for the rare cloudbursts, combined with the (not so rare) unpreparedness of the local governing bodies. But lately, it looks like Pune is always waiting for the rains, just on the horizon. Pune’s monsoon has learned from its people: promising to come on time, and never managing to.


View from Office. Post Pre-monsoon showers.

But when it does rain, Pune is a different place too — once the clogged drains are cleared up, a tad too late, that is. The outskirts, where hills haven’t been destroyed by buildings, turn lush green — an invitation extended by the Sahyadri ranges to all the people to come visit, because while there is a strange beauty to Sahyadri in the summers, with scorched red, bare tops, and a game of shadows in the valleys, the majesty of the ranges in the monsoons cannot be described in words.


View from Lonavala hill top (stitched panorama)

It’s no wonder that the season of the rains kickstarts the cultural activities (including the festival of Ganesha, the loved deity in these parts) in Pune. It’s like the seeds of creation need the rains to begin sprouting. But, even for the increasingly IT-fied city, with indoor work with AC at full blast, the rains change everything. There is a smell in the air that washes away all the sins of the vehicular exhausts. There is green somewhere, if not everywhere, in sight. The commute is better (even if slightly longer in duration).

Lastly, I remember rains in the Silicon Valley. And the contrast couldn’t be more. There was no visible joy in the cold rains there, even with a long-running drought. Maybe the fact that one can’t walk into the rains and feel it on your bare skin, as it soaks into your clothes, that stops rain from being a kind of celebration that one is used to living in this part of the world. But I’d rather be here when it rains. And however cliched it may sound, enjoy them with a plate of hot bhaji and chai.

PS: The ruminations were inspired by an unusually stoic driving by me on the roads today, as post the night rains, and with very very pregnant skies promising more, the atmosphere was calming my nerves. But rain has again decided to show Pune how it feels to wait, on the other side of a promised meeting.

[1] Someone who’s grown up in western India, April is a hot, hot month, with no respite from the heat in any form — no cold evening winds, no passing rains/showers, nothing — it’s very easy to misread T. S. Eliot’s “April is the cruelest” month, as something very literal. So while I paraphrase assuming a literal meaning, it’s anything but! Ref: (Quora: What did T. S. Eliot mean when he said that April is the cruelest month?)

Laughter Challenge(d) 

One thing that WhatsApp has done for me is that it has made me aware of a progressive loss of (what is generally called) sense-of-humor in myself. To be honest, it doesn’t feel like loss, really. But it does call for some thinking.

Humor that hits low is easy. Even lazy. It derives its power from deep rooted prejudices, casual (but caustic) stereotypes, and social power imbalances. And in turn, it ends up cementing those prejudices, reinforces the stereotypes, strengthening the unfair status quo — little by little, over million retellings, shares, chuckles, guffaws. It even takes sides, lazily, safely. It has the numbers with it and is proud of them. Almost to the point of arrogance. It looks away when it needs to. It’s lazily accepted, and it believes that acceptance sanctions its existence.

Humor that hits high is anything but lazy. Not many find it “funny”. Still less choose to laugh. It carries with it a risk — to relationships, to jobs, to life/freedoms in some places, even. It makes people uncomfortable because many a time it hits close to home. Sometimes it hits us, even. It demands introspection, not a reason why anyone would want a joke, right? Very few forward it because it makes others we love uncomfortable. It doesn’t bring in any change, at least not in the short-term. One reason being: it doesn’t go viral (for the reasons aforementioned), either in the traditional slow but sticky sense, or the modern fast sense, even if a short-lived one.

The thing about humor is that it is a communion of sorts. It binds people. It creates a social conscience. It forms a homogeneous group. Laughter is the price of entry, the only ritual — of belonging. More and more, I’m not willing to pay that price. Don’t get me wrong. I do want to belong. But not at the cost of changing myself — into something I don’t particularly like being. As George Costanza would put it: “It’s not they, it’s me”. At the end of the day, I like to look into the mirror and see there someone that I like. I’m selfish, that way, yes.

Yes, it means a lot less laughter. Everything has a price. But in my life, there is enough laughter to filleth my cup over.  I’d rather choose.