Living Up To

David Foster Wallace, that enigmatic genius who mesmerized many with his stupefying, and brilliant book Infinite Jest (my very short review here), struggled with the weight of its success (literary, mainly) for the rest of his life — not a very long life after that point, owing to his tragic suicide. That struggle may well have contributed significantly to his suicide, by many an accounts.  

Thomas Pynchon, one of the early influences on Wallace’s writing, and an enigmatic/cryptic force himself, had this to say in a moving obit to Wallace [Edit: Dammit, see the PS]:

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”.

That got me thinking. In a sense, it’s a good problem to have, right? You already have a massive work out there, in the prime of your life, written, published, validated, celebrated. I mean, many if not most struggling writers (extrapolate this to anyone in any creative profession) would love to be there. I know I would. And I’m not even a struggling writer. I mean, I would even be ready to exchange my place to be a struggling writer. But that’s besides the point. 

David Foster Wallace

So back to the point, isn’t that what most writers would settle for? But, apparently, if you’re tipped to be in the league of champions, you don’t think that way. And if you’re already in the league, like Wallace was, you would probably trade real immortality for one more work that creates bigger ripples in the pool of literary world. Just one more. And then … 

Part of the problem is, of course, that that’s never a real trade on offer. The only immortality on offer is through your legacy. And your legacy is not your bestest. It’s your latest. And hence the imperative to live up to, if not surpass, your best work, every time. A kind of monkey in the room that would make living hell for almost anyone. Even someone as obviously gifted as David Foster Wallace. 

This term, living up to, is a very curious term. I first came across it way back in my formative years, from my cousin/friend Mahendra. Those were the days, when email was not an option, at least not for most, including me. And we would make do with the three P’s that most long distance relationships/friendships predicated on: pen, paper, post.

And boy, did we write? In those days prior to availability of instant communication, that delay — between one person writing, posting, the postal delays, the other person writing … — it made all the difference. It gave one time. It took away the pressure that availability of instant replies brings with it. It also made one treasure the process of writing. The overheads meant one wanted the communication to be worth the wait, the delayed gratification.

Again I digress. But Mahendra, in one of his letters — not sure if he remembers — wrote that when writing (to me, I’d like to remember, he said, as that strokes my vanity) a letter, the pressure of “living up to” contributed to delays in responding. It didn’t sound right then, given that I was at an age when it didn’t matter to me — living up to and all that. One wrote, one read, one got ideas, one wrote … There was so much to respond to, that the thought of “living up to” never bothered me. But now, years later, I see that. I think once we think those golden years (twenties typically) have slipped from our fingers, we start measuring everything. Living up to becomes natural. Inevitable, maybe.

There is possibly another angle to why I didn’t feel that need to live up to the level of communication. Maybe I was just responding, and wasn’t really driving, or starting the communication, generating new threads. So obviously my cousin, who I greatly looked up to, had to take lion’s share of that. And that’s why he felt that, even if mild,  pressure to live up to.

It’s not at all strange that when we’re young we don’t typically have these notions (except for those ahead of the game). Because we think the best is yet to come. That a dud here, a wasted opportunity there, hardly matters. We know there will be better days. That we’ll live up to our dreams of ourselves sooner than later. But as the sand starts slipping through our fingers, we start looking back. Because the reassurance is not in the future, but there, in the past. And we want to beat that ghost of any semi-success in the past, because, what’s the point of life if the best is already back there?

Back too Wallace, though, I’m not sure he was anywhere close to that point. Not when you think of his output after that, even if it’s not in one fictional form where he probably wanted it (I can’t comment on his last, posthumously published book, as I’ve not yet read it). But when one has a crowing achievement that makes everything look pale by comparison, what option does one have but not to live up to it? It’s curious that one of the kings of American writing, should name his last work in progress The Pale King.

My heart shudders at the thought of that terrible terrible waste, in pursuit of that obsession with living up to. And yet, if not for it, we wouldn’t have a lot of great literature. Or art. And much more. Still, I’d rather have seen Wallace alive, and kicking. One can’t have everything, I know!

PS: Dammit I was fooled. That’s not Pynchon. I had seen it long back on Salon, and believed it. It was a spoof (in fact the Salon link in my bookmarks does not work now). Serves me right! When one can’t find references, one should smell there is something wrong. Anyways, it was a supremely well done joke (and I’m not saying it just because I was fooled by it). You can find the full text here.

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Fifty thousand shades of religion

“What’s you name”, asks a fifty-sixty-something aunty living in my building to my kid as we get into the elevator. Never known to talk to strangers, he lets us do the talking.

“Rehaan”, says my wife.

Fifty-sixty-something aunty has an animated expression on her face — wonder concealing  surprise, and the effort needed for that is not concealed — probably because no effort is made to conceal the effort.

“Isn’t that a muslim name?”, she asks, quite sure that we don’t look muslim. Continue reading

On the ‘Verses’, and Soft Targets

The regrettable Rushdie affair is kind of over, with media moving onto other stories,  I suppose. A lot has been said on the subject, and I guess people are bored. But then, the advantage of a blog that’s rarely read is that one can go on and drag dead horses around. One’s gotta capitalize on blessing in disguise.

My reaction to the whole affair will be no surprise to anyone who reads this blog. I’m terribly upset by the politicization of everything cultural, and the way philistine mobs are ruling the country covertly, under the disguise of democracy. From Mistry, to Rushdie, we’ve seen how political landscape has subverted the cultural scene, making India’s claims to being a liberal democracy hollow. Continue reading

The Dream Merchants

In the nineties India started liberalizing, or so the history books will say. The economic liberalization — forced by the foreign reserves situation or not — is supposed to have started then. In the small towns of India, though, the only liberalization that we saw in the nineties was the liberalization of media (yes, for a brief period, it was more liberal than today, in terms of censoring or lack of it). The satellite TV arrived in India, and with that, India (or Indians) suddenly had a window to the world. Before that there was, the iconic, The World This Week — with its last segment, ‘The News Makers’, that served most Indians their weekly glimpse at the world at large. But with the cable TV, the world entered Indian houses in the earnest.

Back to liberalization. In my engineering days, the debate was about liberalization, and how it could end up destroying Indian economy, making us slaves of the West again. The most frequent topics of the Group Discussions that were a hurdle to the coveted jobs, and MBA admissions, were two back then: the brain drain, the economic liberalization. But the actual liberalization was yet to reach we the people. We the people satisfied ourselves with dreams — the dreams sold by the dream merchants.

Zee TV, one of the first Indian channels on the cable TV had this program called The Dream Merchants. Among other things it showcased the best advertisements in the world. It’s curious how dreams were sold back then. We could not even aspire to buy any of the things being sold to other people by those ads. Not just because we did not have money. We sure did not. But even if we were to have it, the things themselves were not sold here. Yet. Instead, we were sold the dreams. Those who bought them, had to leave India to take the delivery. Most did not even understand the ads. We did not know the language. But that was a minor problem. Bigger problem was that we did not have the language. We did not have access to the cultural capital that went into the making of that language – visual or otherwise. And so we marvelled at the incomprehensible. The way, in Hollywood movies, African tribal is shown marveling at the magical machines of the West.

Two decades have passed. Now we don’t worry about brain drain so much, or at all. More importantly, now we have the cultural capital, we have the language (hell, we are the language — the ads have changed to accommodate the cultural capital of the East). We have the monies (yes, not just money), some of us; many of us, even. The tables have turned. Now we’re the merchant’s dream. No one sells us dreams any longer. They sell us goods. In plenty. We buy them. In plenty.

I was a staunch capitalist; not surprising, for someone who revered Ayn Rand once. Today, I don’t know where I stand. Staunch capitalists are in constant fight with the idealist within them (so must be staunch socialists). For years, I believed that choice was what was keeping us from better things. Today, with all the choice, when people seem to choose the soap operas, and the inane pulp of Bollywood and Hollywood, the music whose only fame to claim is being recent, lifestyle that’s unsustainable, ideas that are indistinguishable from the banal, diet that’s killing us; it’s hard to pretend to believe in the freedom of choice as the answer to everything, or anything.

Liberalism was doomed the day it had to be qualified as economic liberalism. It was free, but free like a bull left to roam around with no idea of what was worth mowing down, and what was worth harvesting. The illusive marriage of economic right and social left, never seems to find a date. And left free to do whatever they want to do, people do whatever they want to do. It’s not a pretty picture.

I wish they start selling the dreams all over again, those dream merchants. I wish we could go back and reinvent a right that’s centered on left, a bit. I wish we could choose differently, as Indians. As humanity. But we’re obsessed with the idea of choice, not with what we do with it.

I wish dream merchants will sell us a dream that tells us that all this chaos is a precursor to something else. But they’re busy selling us goods. And we’re busy buying them.

Tale of a proposition

It’s kind of late in the day, but then what the hell.

I was reading the other day about the voting demographics for “Prop 8“, and curiously, the Obama phenomenon, looks like, turned decisive there too:

1. The Obama candidacy meant much more African American turnout than usual

2. The African Americans voted 2:1 in favor of (invalidating same sex marriages) Prop 8

And considering the margin of difference, who knows what would have happened, if the voting was “usual”.

Of course, all “what ifs” are useless, and many simplistic. There was also a huge young turnout, including white Americans. And although I didn’t get the figures (my internet connection hasn’t been helpful), I’d think that they would have voted more against than for prop 8. So the exercise is purely academical. Besides, voting is a voting. What would have happened if smaller number had voted, wouldn’t by any stretch have been any more democratic.

But that’s not the point. The point is, the same people who are so passionate about their ‘civil rights’, are voting, 2:1 against someone else’s civil rights. It’s a worrying statistics. It tells us of total compartmentalization of perception of pain. Only our pain matters. Only our pain is valid. Other people’s pain, even when it doesn’t encroach on our liberties, is irrelevant. What matters is their prejudices, and how it affects us. Never, our prejudices, which affect them. Wait! Our prejudices? But we are free of prejudices. Only they have prejudices. We have “beliefs”.

In a sense, Obama, by staying noncommittal on Prop 8 has delivered the  first real change. I guess, one can’t complain him of only talking — he done it without even talking.

I shudder to think what the voting statistics and demographics would be, if a similar proposition were to be put to test in India. For one thing, it would not be anywhere close to the 51-49 race that it’s been in California. It will be something more like 90-10 (with city demographics probably something close to 70-30). May God bless America.

The majority African American position, if I were to characterize it a little frivolously, is:

“Man, why do them motherfuckers treat us like second class citizens, man. It’s not like we’re one of them fagots or something!”

That kind of sums it nicely, doesn’t it?

PS: More interesting tidbits (from Democracy, Religion, and Proposition 8):

“Proposition 8 was enacted by a vote of 52% to 48%. Those identifying themselves as Evangelicals, however, supported Proposition 8 by a margin of 81% to 19%, and those who say they attend church services weekly supported Proposition 8 by a vote of 84% to 16%. Non-Christians, by the way, opposed Proposition 8 by a margin 85% to 15% and those who do not attend church regularly opposed Proposition 8 by a vote of 83% to 17%”

That begs another what-if. What if the African American’s hadn’t been converted to Christian faith, and still had their pagan faith. Would they still have voted 2:1 against?

Homosexuality: a meta (or non) normative take

This post started as a comment to Sakshi’s post for the ongoing blogathon (which I heard about, thanks to Sakshi) on the subject of homosexuality. It’s a well written post, in the sense that it expressed the right sentiments — people’s sexual inclination should be none of anyone’s business. And in that sense, society needs to accept, if not respect, the choices and move on. Yes choices.

However, after making a claim about homosexuality being a challenge to the normative, rather than being abnormal, Sakshi makes a stronger appeal:

Normative needs to include all forms of sexualities.

This got me thinking. [It’s been a while since I’m writing a real non-fiction post, so bear with me if I’m not coherent]

Continue reading

The poor little IITians!

Indian television media es-special today seems to be the proposed fee hike by the IITs. For the uninitiated (are there any?), the IITs have proposed a fee hike from 25k per annum to 50k per annum. And there is a widespread concern (the same channels would like us to believe) of what will happen to poor but brilliant students.

Have they heard of the Kota System? The factory charges 50K for JEE coaching (correct me if I’m wrong), and is responsible for about a quarter of selections to the premier engineering institutes of the country (again, correct me if I’m wrong). That’s just “one” institute. Now I’d be curious to know how many of those who clear IIT JEE have not opted for any expensive classes. How many do not come from previleged social classes (upper-middle class and above).

Without those figures, the debate is useless. But who’ll tell that to this great Indian Tele-media circus?

Hell, the mess bill of a typical IIT student runs up to about 12-18K per year (that was 7 years back, I’m assuming it would be 1.5x more now), out of which 5-6K is canteen – that’s Colas, Milk Shakes, Burgers, and the likes. Add to that cell phones, eating outs, booze, cigarettes, bikes, multiplex tickets, branded clothes, shoes and so on… Do the math. And you’ll know we’re subsidizing the well to do (I’m not even counting the future potential). Yes, a few poor/lower-middle-class guys do manage to enter there, I’m sure, but that’s no longer the typical IITians, and it would be much easier dealing with them as economically backward students, with scholarships or soft-loans. They do not justify a blanket subsidy to the rest 70-80% (and I’m being conservative, in my guesstimate). Again, I’d be loved to be proved wrong.

A Whole Lot of Love

It’s in such times that I curse myself for still sticking with my good old bare-basic mobile phone which doesn’t even have a camera.

As I was driving through the Goodluck Chowk (as it is fondly known because of the lovely old Irani hotel – Goodluck Cafe, although I’m sure it has some big name like Sambhaji Maharaj Chowk or something like that) I noticed a bunch of policemen standing all over. Must be 20 or so. The first thing that crossed my mind, given the recent events, was that maybe some MNS supporters pelted stones or something like that, to celebrate the recent victory. But the policemen looked pretty relaxed. Then I remembered the famous Archies shop. Oh, it was safe and sound, don’t worry.

Amazing site that was, though: a line of policeman outside the love-merchants. I visualized the Police singing “whole lot of love”, while some goons (sorry self-chosen cultural police) singing “we will we will rock you”. Love rocks.

Literary questions

It’s no secret that Amitav Ghosh is one of my favorite writers (not just Indian favorite writer). So on a Sunday morning I checked the Hindu Literary Review (which is another favorite of mine) and there was this Ghosh interview, I had to read it. The interview probably deserves a blog on its own, but what got me more interested is a reference about “Anxiety of Authenticity”. So I dig it up, and there it was: Vikram Chandra’s piece entitled, The Cult of Authenticity.

Some time back I wrote a blog, The Unintentional Exoticising, that tried to do a Devil’s advocate, or rather sympathized with another Devil’s advocate. At that time I wasn’t aware of this Vikram Chandra piece, or I wouldn’t have bothered writing that blog. True, the piece is slightly (?) long and repetitive and even polemic in nature — the last kind of inevitable after the barrages from the other side, yet it is a much needed voice from that side — the voice that we need hear a tad more often, to compensate for the noises from the other side of the other side.

Chandra talks about this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” predicament of the Anglo-Indian writers, a vernacular as pure Vs english as impure generalization, identities of cosmopolitan Indian writers, futility of notions of Indianness and authenticity and so on. The issues of “intent” are covert, but they interest me, always:

It apparently never occurs to Dr. Mukherjee that style is something that one feels in the pit of the stomach, that Narayan may be interested in a minimalistic representation because it grows from the marrow of his Malgudi bones, that perhaps when Narayan sits down at his desk with his pen and his paper, he is not thinking of his pan-Indian or international audience, not any more than Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver were thinking of their audiences in Ghaziabad and Vishakapatnam when they chiselled their laconic turns of phrase. But no, in this understanding of the universe, to write in English is to be transparently vulnerable to the demands of the market, any market. And conversely, to write in anything but English is to be preternaturally chaste and upright.

It’s a pity that the essay is so long that one is prone to jump forward just when he actually delivers the punch.

All art is born at this crossroads of ambition and integrity, between the fierce callings of fame and the hungers of the belly and the desires of one’s children and the necessities of art and truth. Michelangelo knew this, and Ghalib knew this. There is no writer in India, or in the world, no artist anywhere who is free of this eternal chakravyuha, this whirling circle that is life itself.

And while he’s at it, he even questions the questioners motives:

… the most vociferously anti-Western crusaders I meet are inevitably the ones who are most hybrid. It is these comfortably situated citizens, these Resident Non-Indians, who, beset by a consciousness of their own isolation from “Real India,” feel an overpowering nostalgia for an Indianness that never was, for a mythical, paradisaical lost garden of cultural and spiritual unity…

Intent again, albeit through a excerpt by Jorge Luis Borges, who ends up dismissing intent as insignificant in the larger scheme of things:

I believe, moreover, that all the foregoing discussions of the aims of literary creation are based on the error of supposing that intentions and plans matter much…. Therefore I repeat that we must not be afraid; we must believe that the universe is our birthright and try out every subject; we cannot confine ourselves to what is Argentine in order to be Argentine because either it is our inevitable destiny to be Argentine, in which case we will be Argentine whatever we do, or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask. I believe that if we lose ourselves in the voluntary dream called artistic creation, we will be Argentine and we will be, as well, good or adequate writers.

And Chandra chips in with this fabulous one-liner:

To be self-consciously anti-exotic is also to be trapped, to be censored.

In the end Chandra asks, “How should a writer work, in these circumstances?” and comes up with his own answer: ignore criticism, beware of praise, write freely, don’t think about either audience or critics, be local and global at the same time, be fearless, and most of all covet the goddess, of good writing. The answer couldn’t have been more difficult.

Wikipedia: The coin has too many sides?

The recent (actually not so recent, but ongoing for sure) debate on Wikipedia post the Seigenthaler fiasco has thrown light on larger issues, and in that sense, the fiasco was a blessing in disguise, but for Mr. Seigenthaler — who has all the reasons to be upset.

In Wikipedia, academia and Seigenthaler, Danah Boyd, among other things advices not to throw the baby with the bath water.

I am worried about how academics are treating Wikipedia and i think that it comes from a point of naivety. Wikipedia should never be the sole source for information. It will never have the depth of original sources. It will also always contain bias because society is inherently biased, although its efforts towards neutrality are commendable. These are just realizations we must acknowledge and support. But what it does have is a huge repository of information that is the most accessible for most people. Most of the information is more accurate than found in a typical encyclopedia and yet, we value encyclopedias as a initial point of information gathering. It is also more updated, more inclusive and more in-depth. Plus, it’s searchable and in the hands of everyone with digital access (a much larger population than those with encyclopedias in their homes). It also exists in hundreds of languages and is available to populations who can’t even imagine what a library looks like. Yes, it is open. This means that people can contribute what they do know and that others who know something about that area will try to improve it. Over time, articles with a lot of attention begin to be inclusive and approximating neutral. The more people who contribute, the stronger and more valuable the resource. Boycotting Wikipedia doesn’t make it go away, but it doesn’t make it any better either.

A perceptive reader has raised an important disctinction that has to be kept in our mind while thinking about these issues:

The issue isn’t accuracy per se. It’s accountabilty. WP may be on the whole more accurate than a paper encyclopedia. But it’s easier to hold an institution or person accountable for an inaccuracy.Perhaps this idea of accountability is a misguided notion, but I think it undergirds much of our ethical framework. To the extent the WP framework allows for anonymous posts, its structure undermines this check. You can’t sue anonymous. And I would expect that if the WP folks have done a decent job drafting their submission policy, they pretty much diclaim liability for anything submitted. So while the community polices accuracy, nobody is ultimately accountable.

And then there is Wales’ own defense that’s quite interesting (from the same article, I’ve lost the original reference)

Imagine that we are designing a restaurant. This restuarant will serve steak. Because we are going to be serving steak, we will have steak knives for the customers. Because the customers will have steak knives, they might stab each other. Therefore, we conclude, we need to put each table into separate metal cages, to prevent the possibility of people stabbing each other.What would such an approach do to our civil society? What does it do to human kindness, benevolence, and a positive sense of community?

When we reject this design for restaurants, and then when, inevitably, someone does get stabbed in a restaurant (it does happen), do we write long editorials to the papers complaining that “The steakhouse is inviting it by not only allowing irresponsible vandals to stab anyone they please, but by also providing the weapons”?

No, instead we acknowledge that the verb “to allow” does not apply in such a situation. A restaurant is not allowing something just because they haven’t taken measures to forcibly prevent it a priori. It is surely against the rules of the restaurant, and of course against the laws of society. Just. Like. Libel. If someone starts doing bad things in a restuarant, they are forcibly kicked out and, if it’s particularly bad, the law can be called. Just. Like. Wikipedia.
I do not accept the spin that Wikipedia “allows anyone to write anything” just because we do not metaphysically prevent it by putting authors in cages.

There is : Why the media can’t get Wikipedia right
Then there is Wikipedia Watch!

The most recent addition to the debate is: The real issue: Wikipedia can be better:

Comparing Wikipedia to Encycolpedia Britannica and concluding that they are comparable and, therefore, that Wikipedia is better because it allows more democratic access to authors is like concluding that a mule is superior to a hinny because the former is more common than the latter. For the record, a mule’s parents are a female horse and a male donkey, while a hinny is the offspring of a male horse and a female donkey and less common than mules.

And more importantly:

I think that Wikipedia’s raison d’etre is founded on excellent grounds, that anyone should be able to contribute to a single record of the knowledge shared by humanity. It’s incredibly productive to create a proving ground for knowledge.

The part 2 Making Wikipedia better takes it further, with some very pertinent points:

The greatest problem with the Wikipedia, in my opinion is that it inherited from the encycolpedia the notion of a single entry about a given topic. Wikipedia must encompass differences of opinion much better than it does. Rather than have a single entry about controversial topics, such as George W. Bush or sociobiology, the most productive approach would be to allow the reader to see contending views-—more than two of them, as life isn’t binary—presented as a series of articles under the same heading.

Going by the signs, the debate is just heating up, and I have a feeling this won’t be a worthless debate…