The Curse of Wisdom

Our collective epitaphs will read:
they played a fiddle
as their world was burning

Two decades is what separates
us from them
those with a starry-eyed worldview
still not consumed
by pervasive cynicism

They don’t have
the hindsight benefit
of two extra decades …
they still believe
in revolution

We worry
about tax rates,
the temperature of the wine
and whether it’s dry enough
or too dry,
and if the maid
will come on time tomorrow
and traffic en-route work …

We taste ennui often
and even that is now mundane
it’s the side effect
of our pervasive cynicism

Revolutions,
we know
kill their best,
and even if they succeed
in toppling a regime,
they rarely bring in
the promised alternative
the void is filled
by the worst of those
who survive the revolution

So we’re weary
of revolutions,
and we look at those
who do not have the hindsight
of two decades,
but we cannot remember
the days
when we thought
just like them

Yes
two decades later
most of those
ready to throw their lives
at the altar of revolution
will be worrying
about taxes, and
choice of schools for the kids
and insurance payments

But today,
they are on the road
today, they believe
they need to fight
for that future
that, or a different one
it does not matter
but today they want to fight
for a world
we have lost hope
of ever seeing …

In the end
we all deserve
the epitaphs
we get.

The Trouble With Epilogues – El Camino

I’m a huge Breaking Bad fan. I believe it was one of the best drama ever made for the television: using the medium to its near maximum potential; paced perfectly, written/directed/acted brilliantly, with a fantastic soundtrack, great cinematography, fabulous dialogs; with great story arcs, season by season — with many season finales which could also have been series finales in their own right, and yet the next season taking on from there into another brilliant story arc;  with fantastic and believable characters, and a plot that is at the same time both stretching credulity, and yet somehow entirely believable. In short, there was not much to complain about, really.

Okay, if you’ve not watched Breaking Bad, all seasons, a suggestion: just go watch it/finish it already. For there will be spoilers here, and anyway, why would you even read this blog if you haven’t watched Breaking Bad? 

So, when I heard about a Breaking Bad movie, I was wondering, what’s the point? There were theories about how Mr. White having possibly survived that pyrotechnical series finale and other such fantastical possibilities. If true, it would have been a terribly disappointing epilogue to the series.

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I was looking at Netflix recommendations, on a Saturday night, when El Camino popped in the list. Watching it wasn’t really an option. Two hours later, though, I was left with mixed feelings.

My short review: El Camino is to the series what epilogues are to novels. Possibly as unnecessary in terms of story-telling, and possibly as satisfying.

The movie is shot beautifully. It’s paced perfectly for a different medium than its predecessor. Aaron Paul, who has always impressed in the series, does one better here – with his character having found a new dimension : a cold maturity forced by the events in the final season. He speaks less, acts more with his face and body language. He is brilliant. It’s his movie through and through. There is also a cameo by Jesse Plemons who I didn’t really notice in the final season. 

el camino - aaron paul

El Camino, in a sense, is the writers paying dues to Jesse Pinkman — the most tragic character in the series, being virtually enslaved by both Walter White, with psychological ploys, and then by the Neo-Nazis, literally. While Walter White does find an unlikely redemption in the series finale, Jesse ends the series running away from the site of carnage, with very little part played in it (except forgiving Walter through his actions), after being confessed to, and freed, by Walter White. That confession and apology essentially tells Jesse that his whole life was a worthless lie, and he was just a pawn all along.

It’s in that context that this “epilogue” is immensely satisfying, as it provides Jesse with redemption of his own. It’s in that sense, that it’s a worthy scion to the illustrious series — even though it more or less lacks the drama of the series, except for a brief cowboy kind of standoff. Then again, with so much drama over the five seasons, an epilogue didn’t really need drama. Also, no epilogue has space for drama — as that’s where the narrator is winding down, and tying up the loose ends — of all types: from the plot to character arcs. It does seem a little empty after having “Breaking Bad” in its name — the movie — but that’s entirely intentional, and understandable. All in all, if you loved Breaking Bad, I’d recommend it. But don’t go in expecting it to be another episode of its prequel. That it isn’t. And thank god for that.  And make no mistake about it: it’s not a movie that will stand on its own. Which epilogue does?

 

Bigotry has no Expiry Date

Bigotry has no expiry date
it doesn’t die its own death
it ages well

they protest:
but it was so many years ago —
as if
years make you
less of a racist
by default;
less of a casteist
less of a chauvinist
less of a pervert —
more, of a human
somehow
automatically

but we’ve all seen
people turning more and more
into what they are —
age hardening their biases
worsening their bigotry —
even the prospect
of a looming death
cannot cure bigotry

‘cos one has to
shed one’s skin,
bleed for those
one treated
as sub-human,
cry their tears
feel their fears —
earn the right
to wipe their tears

yes, there are examples
glorious ones
of penance
and redemption;
but that metamorphosis
doesn’t happen
because of graying hair
or altered hormones
time doesn’t morph
the core of your hate
into an all-encompassing love

time is all powerful
but the power
is power of decay
of entropy
of slow destruction;
the long path of reformation
has to be traversed
by one and all
alone
purposefully

no,
there is no
expiry date on bigotry
on mass hate,
anyone who uses time
as a defense
has not cleansed their blood
yet
they’ve just learned
to keep the hate
hidden well.

Of Books, friends, and Algorithms

Artificial Intelligence based “recommendation systems” are becoming ubiquitous. For every book you buy or browse on Amazon, for every book you rate in Goodreads, there is “you may also like” list made for you. And to be fair, it works. You find books there that you would like, based upon what else you have liked, and what people who’ve liked the same things as you have also liked. Artificial intelligence algorithms are already good, and getting better at this.

But when I go back to the books, anda to the authors that went on to become most cherished experiences of my life, very few have come from the algorithms, many have come from friends. Most from just two or three friends. And it’s not like these people were my close friends before — it was like in the process of this read recommendations, and discussions around those books, the friendships cemented. With those friends at least, the foundations of friendships were built on the books.

The reason why I wanted to clarify that part is important (at least in my mind) — it wasn’t like they knew me deeply to be able to know what I will enjoy. Hell, my teen/post-teen phase was dominated by Ayn Rand’s writings; and knowing that me would hardly have helped anyone to recommend to me some of the more literary authors that I ended up absolutely wowed by later on.

The thing about AI algorithms is that they are not required to take a leap of faith on your behalf. Your friends, on the other hand, have to. The act of recommending someone a book/movie/music even food is a leap of faith. Every recommendation carries with it its own risks — one of a potential disappointment (that’s personal to the one recommending), other of being judged by the one you’re recommending something to. Even if these risks are not overt, they are part and the parcel of the act. AI algorithm doesn’t feel the first, and the only way it has to deal with the second is as a data point to further learning. Unlike friends.

However, it’s that unique challenge that friendship throws at you make you take that leap of faith. And it’s through that leap of faith does one really beat the urge to do safe recommendations, like an AI algorithm would.

For me, it’s those friends who took that leap of faith that have influenced my reading most, widening my horizons, challenging my ideas of what I ought — or ought not — to like. It’s through these friends that I’ve been introduced to authors like Hermann Hesse, Umberto Eco, Amitav Ghosh, Marquez, Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Joan Didion, Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Koestler, Orhan Pamuk, Milan Kundera, Terry Pratchett, Geoff Dyer, Zadie Smith, Stephen Fry, Kamila Shamsie, Mikhail Bulgakov, Murakami, Borges …

And it’s those friends who keep pushing the boundaries of my reading. Like this one that was recently lent to me by one of those friends – a book that started this rumination:

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I’m only a few pages into it, but I know I am going to come back to it again and again. And there was no way I’d have picked this up, if not for the friend who practically put it in my hands. And it’s the faith I have in his ability to point me to new lands that I’d relish, that made me drop everything else I was reading and pick it up. Only friendships can do that. In the AI dominated world of the future, I still think, if humans still have something worthwhile left to do, this act of faith will be one. Thank you all my friends who have contributed to my growth as a reader. I owe it to you to pay it forward. If, in the unlikely event that you’re reading this, you know I’m talking about you.

On Love and Hate

Love and hate are not the opposites of each other. They are really two different planes. Love needs energy. It cannot sustain by itself. It’s like the slow-burning fire that needs wood to be replenished.

Hate feeds on itself. And it feeds, it grows. A perpetual machine, if there was one. It doesn’t need energy. It generates its own energy.

Love is discerning. So it cannot encompass faceless, nameless, multitudes. Love requires connections – one on one. It doesn’t operate in groups.

Hate is opportunistic. The more the merrier. It loves the multitudes. It is flexible. It can jump from one to the other, from one to many, from many to one.

Loving is like gardening. It requires constant attention. Even when it looks like everything is fine. Or when it looks like there is no hope. One does one’s best and trusts it all works out.

Hate begets hate. You could ignore it, and like a weed, it still grows. A little bit of attention, and like a wildfire, it can consume the entire wood.

The opposite of love is not hope. It’s indifference. Ignoring the very existence of the other.

The opposite of hate is not love. It’s acceptance. Of the being of the other.

Love and hate are two different planes.

Narcissus 2.0

Mirrors everywhere
in every direction,
every dimension
curved, warped, broken,
fluid, distorted —
distorting …

You look
at your myriad reflections
trying to stitch together
the real you

What if,
Narcissus had fallen in love
with himself
that wasn’t really him?

What if it wasn’t love
but the idea of being in love
with oneself —
one’s recreated self,
stitched back
from a thousand reflections:
each distorted
in its own way?

The inner you
that we all are
so obsessed with —
it feeds on these reflections
it sees itself through those eyes,
those distortions
and contradictions

Like a huge jigsaw puzzle
with pieces that don’t quite fit,
with overlaps that don’t quite match;
but we still force fit,
because we are eager to see
the whole picture
in its illusory unity

the id
the self
the ego
the aham —
a quilt of reflections
from mirrors we have chosen —
for they tell us
a nice story

We’re Narcissus
who kept on checking
reflections in a pond after pond
till he found one
that made him look
ravishingly good,
and blamed it on Nemesis.

A Good Man

Last month we accompanied our son to Chiang Mai, Thailand, for the finals of World Robotic Olympiad. The event was at the International Convention Center — an impressive venue, with a picturesque backdrop of mountains, with excellent facilities to host an event like that. Since we were mostly at the venue, all three days of the competition, on the last day, we decided to step out, as the teams were busy with their trial runs before the actual runs started. It was Sunday, and there was a flea market very closeby that we had spotted from the bus on the way. We headed there and were quickly disappointed, as it didn’t have anything we would have liked to carry back home. As we were heading back, we saw a small convenience/grocery store. We wanted to buy some Thai rice and so we stepped in. It was like a family run store. The proprietor (we assumed) was an elderly man.

As we were done with our very limited shopping expedition (this wasn’t Walmart, after all, just a small local grocery store, in a primary non-residential, remote, part of the city), we approached the payment counter. The glass countertop had a bunch of international notes displayed like souvenirs. As we paid with local currency, our guy asked us where we were from.

“India”, we said.

“Ah!” exclaimed he. “I have these currency notes for many countries, but not for India. Are you carrying any Indian currency?”

We were. I pulled a ten rupee note and handed it over to him. He checked it out.

“Gandhi”, he said, looking at the note.

“Yes! You have heard of him!”, exclaimed my wife.

“Yes”, he nodded.

We smiled.

“Have you heard of Modi”, she asked.

“Yes”

Then looking at the note again he said, “A good man!”

“Yes he was”, we nodded.

“How much do I pay for this?”, he asked.

We brushed off that idea, of course. “It’s a gift from us”

“I’ll display it”, he said, happily.

“Can we take a photo”, I asked.

“Yes yes”, he said, getting ready for one.

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A good man, I recalled again, earlier this week, as the controversy over a statue in Ghana hit the news. The small man on the note. The small man who runs that convenience store, with a happy, eager smile. A good man. That’s how one would like to be remembered, no?

 

Schrodinger’s Cat Has Only One Life

The thing about writing, specifically (at least for me) writing fiction, is that there is this moment when the story (doesn’t matter how long or short) is ready — you’ve penned the last full stop, or question mark, or exclamation mark, or pressed the save icon, or the keyboard shortcut, whatever. That moment, when the story is between you and the world, when it is a Schrodinger’s story so to say — neither dead nor alive, when you don’t know if you would kill it then and there, or expose it to the world, and you with it. It’s in that moment that as a writer (and I am using the word in its most liberal sense) you’re the happiest person. Or should I just speak for myself, not make gross generalizations based on a strong personal experience.

Okay then, that’s what I will do. That moment, when I know that a story is ready — not necessarily for the world, not necessarily safe from my own doubts (is any story ever?), not necessarily worth the (proverbial) paper it might be printed on, not necessarily good/decent; in other words: not necessarily something anyone else should/would care about — is the moment I’m at the happiest. It’s a moment that makes writing worth all its troubles: all the doubts that keep eating at your sanity, all the misery of being stuck in a place where all the roads seem to lead back into it, all the anger at terrible stuff that seems to be getting written and published, all the anger at oneself for not being able to write anything that convinces the inner critic, all the cluelessness, all the anxiety (would I ever write anything better than that piece I wrote when I was young, which, btw, now I believe was shit) , all the helplessness, despondency.

It’s a fleeting moment though. For the demons that you had just managed to stuff into a cupboard for a very brief respite, come running out. The cat is out of the bag. There is no turning back now. One has to confront it. So what if the world doesn’t know of its existence, you do. You are Schrodinger. You fu**ing created the cat. You ought to now open the box, and deal with the reality that was in there, unaware of you.

Not all cats have nine lives. Surely, not Schrodinger’s — for one would say with a very high probability that it is alive, and be right 8 out of 9 times. Sometimes, it is alive, and Schrodinger is so confused, that he buries it. Sometimes, Schrodinger carries it around as if it were alive, and gets ridiculed. Sometimes, he just keeps staring at it, not knowing what to do with it, and it keeps staring back at him, with a deadpan gaze that is neither apologetic of its existence, nor pleading for its life. It’s as if, the gaze is coming from within. In that moment, Schrodinger is the cat.

 

The remains of the words, not to be

IMG_20180615_144822.jpg
words never written
words that will never be written.
words, lost to time
to serendipity
to their time that never was
to opportunities wasted,
to procrastination
to neglect
to priorities misplaced
to unreliable memories …
words that were never meant to be
the scattered remains of the words,
that could have been.

Bourdain: Man Unknown

People die all the time. Celebrities too. And when we hear that we tweet a RIP. A quick Facebook post, maybe. We change the DPs, maybe. But, we move on. The world doesn’t stop for anyone. Still, some deaths, more than others, makes us want to ask of ourselves the questions of legacy: our own legacy.

Anthony Bourdain, Chef turned Travel/Food writer and TV host, a firey opinionated free-spirit, who afforded many of us a vicarious trip into many corners of the world, died today. By all accounts, death by suicide. A man I knew only from his biographical books, opinion pieces, and TV shows. And yet a man who seemed like a spirit friend. And I know I’m not alone who’s lost a part.

A part unkown.

A free spirit finally tamed by the inner demons.

I rarely cry for celebrities. But as I read the outpouring of love and despair on social media over this man whose life was unlike possibly anyone’s who’s mourning him right now, it’s hard to see clearly the letters that I’m typing. It’s hard to keep the strands together in my head, and to put them into words.

My love affair with his words started with his book “A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal”. It was love at first sight. Bourdain’s capacity to present slices of different cultures got me hooked. This was before I knew anything about him. Even that he had written the best selling Kitchen Confidential. Or nothing about his TV shows. I was fascinated. I had to read Kitchen Confidential, which charmed me too. And onto other books, and finally his Parts Unknown show with CNN. I do not watch too much TV. In that, I do not watch much of travel/food shows, and the likes. But Bourdain had me at the first look, and I kept vicariously traveling with him, to different parts. From Scotland to Marseille to Hanoi to Greek islands, to Beijing and Moscow, and so on. What set him apart from many other hosts was how he got people really talking, and the unusual cast of visitors on his shows, his empathetic listening, and not to forget his absolute reverence to local food traditions. Food for him was a communion of sorts, one would be forgiven to believe — a communion in spirit for a hardened atheist.

There are tons of memorable moments in Parts Unknown. Two come to my mind.

One, from what seems like a completely different era, when Obama, then still the president, made an appearance on the show, filmed in Hanoi, Vietnam, in a non-descript restaurant, learning from each other (Obama learning the noodle slurp, Bourdain the ketchup law for kids growing up). It was such a surreal exchange, and yet so natural.

The other was the Rome episode where both my wife and I sensed an undeniable chemistry between Bourdain and Asia Argento (we didn’t know they were dating, or who she was). I googled after the episode, and learned they were indeed dating.

This still from the show probably speaks a lot more than we’ll ever know. Filmed at Palazzo dei Congressi, he and Asia Argento discuss the facist past of the country, and an optimism about human beings. There is a poignancy to it that will always haunt me now.

ANTHONY BOURDAIN: PARTS UNKNOWN

Talking to a friend on Twitter, these lines tumbled out of me:

Some people, although you don’t know them, seem like they were a you in another possible world. You’re of course wrong. But grief doesn’t work with that knowledge.

Anthony Bourdain was really a total stranger, but his death doesn’t feel like that. I will miss him. I so wish his fight with his inner demons were better known to people around him, and they could have helped him in it. The fight that he lost today, never to fight another fight — someone who wasn’t afraid of taking on fights (as he very recently did for Asia). I just hope there are more worlds after, because, if anyone should be visiting them, it’s his restless soul.