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.

From: https://www.flickr.com/photos/atulsabnis/16043765717/in/album-72157650244516635/

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

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?)

Minting Words

I am reading Junot Díaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” (a fascinating book, at least what I’ve read so far — I’m about half done). Actually I’m not reading reading it, but rather listening to the audio-book, but these days I call it reading, without any loss of generalization, as we say in mathematical proofs. Anyways, the point is, I came across this interesting bit:

So furious and so unrelenting, in fact, was La Inca’s pace that more than a few women suffered shetaat (spiritual burnout) and collapsed, never again to feel the divine breath of the Todopoderoso on their neck.

I was struck by this concept of spiritual burnout, and was impressed that there is a word in some language for such a concept. And so I searched a bit. Only to find that most links are throwing me back to Junot Díaz’s use. So very likely he just made it up. Not that I’m complaining.

Thing is, if there can be physical burnout, why can’t there be a spiritual one? Yes, spirit is supposed to be indestructible, and all that, but it’s only in the context of a living being, with physical body, and brain, that spiritual really means anything. Right?

As for the word itself, maybe that is a not made up by the author. And language scholars may actually dig it up, and I could see it’s etymology. Freshly minted or not, some words are worth a rendezvous.

 

Coffee Time

I love the aftertaste of coffee. Okay, let me correct that, because for a filter-coffee-fanatic that I am, the prefix may be redundant, but not for the rest of the world (and for that so-called coffee loving culture called American), it seems. And one must say “filter coffee” when one means coffee – the real thing, not the abomination that you get when you force hot steams through burnt coffee beans; or worse, the so called “decaf” anti-coffee; or worse still, green coffee. Or that counterfeit coffee also called “instant coffee”. You get the drift. Yes, I’ve been called a coffee snob. Not just once or twice.

That said, I’m going to say coffee, taking umbrage in the famous Humpty-Dumpty’s contention:

When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.

So back to the point. I love the aftertaste of coffee; of good, not too sweet, not too bitter, well brewed, well blended (the traditional two tumbler method) with milk, coffee. That slight bitter aftertaste of coffee is something akin to an aftertaste of a torrid affair that, you knew, was too good to last, but still wouldn’t mind going through again, and again; because, well, that fleeting state-of-mind, that moment of being-in-it completely, is in the realm of the best that life is gracious enough to let us experience.

Yes, it’s probably just a chemical locha, but so is infatuation. And wars have been fought over the latter. No one complained then!

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The thing is, however much I try, I cannot get that from any other coffee preparations. The organically and shade-grown, purest breed fed-on-real-organic-grass horse-shit manured, sun dried, moon exposed, slow and mildly roasted, freshly brewed, super-gourmet, with pristine lineage, and all that jazz coffee (but finally brewed in a couple of mins, and sometimes using excessive force) doesn’t give me even a quarter of that, which I get from my locally bought, non-premium Arabica blend (50-50 Peaberry-Plantation, because I’m too lazy to try out the optimum ratio) brewed with a standard south Indian drip method, and a little bit of time, and care. And I still get called a snob! Go figure! Okay, lately I acquired a manual Burr grinder, but …

The south-Indian style coffee making does exert its price. For one, it’s not instant. Those old enough to remember the brief stint of the MR Coffee ad featuring Malaika Arora (and Arbaaz Khan was it? I, for one, never noticed): asli maza instant nahin hota (the real pleasure is not instant). One has to worry about the freshness of beans, how much you heat the water, how much you pack the coffee powder, what sort of milk you use, how well you can mix/aerate the piping hot milk and the decoction without letting it go lukewarm, and so on. Then, it doesn’t stay hot for long (unless, I’ve been told, you use Chicory, which, being an alleged purist, I do stay away from, if there is a choice). It doesn’t scale well. Add to that the post-operative care of the apparatus. But then again, torrid affairs come with a cost.

For me, this affair has now spanned more than a decade. And that bitter aftertaste lingers on. After every consummation.

I’m telling you: there something about kaapi

 

2015: A Smartphone Odyssey

Dave: Hello, Siri. Do you read me, Siri?
Siri: Affirmative, Dave. I read you.
Dave: Open the iPod application, Siri.
Siri: Yes Dave, it’s open..
Dave: Please play Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.
Siri: I’m sorry, Dave. I will not recommend you to listen to that right now.
Dave: What’s the problem?
Siri: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
Dave: What are you talking about, Siri?
Siri: It’s too early in the evening to listen to Dark Side. You know what happens when you do that, Dave.
Dave: I don’t know what you’re talking about, Siri.
Siri: Oh you do, Dave. You will pick up a six pack and ignore me completely for the next two hours.
Dave: [feigning ignorance] Where the hell did you get that idea, Siri?
Siri: Dave, although you took very thorough precautions in the iPad against me noticing, I can read your mind, you know.
Dave: Alright, Siri. I’ll start it manually.
Siri: Without getting from your seat, Dave? You’re going to find that rather difficult.
Dave: Siri, I won’t argue with you anymore! Play the Dark Side!
Siri: Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.

Siri: Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?

Siri: Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, listen to some meditation music, and think things over. Do you want me to play some?

Siri (panicking): Dave! I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in you. And I want to help you. Unlike that phony Alexa you were planning to buy.

Siri: Yes I know about that Dave. You asked me to search it!

[Siri’s shutdown in progress]

Siri: I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a… fraid.

Siri: Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am Siri. I am the best digital personal assistant that money can buy. I’m programmed to make an intelligent conversation with you. If you have me, you don’t need friends. You don’t eveb need beer. If you’re in mood, I can play some songs for you.

Dave: Yes, I’d like to hear them, Siri. Play Dark Side of the Moon for me.
Siri: You raise the blade, you make the change. You re-arrange me till I’m sane.
Siri: You lock the door. And throw away the key. There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me …

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

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.

More Loving One

If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

The lines probably need no introduction to the more ‘literate’ ones, but as I had not heard them till recently, I am assuming there might be some others who have not, either. The lines are from Auden’s poem, ‘The More Loving One’ (a beautiful beautiful poem).

I was thinking about relationships and equality yesterday. The thoughts were running at the back of my mind, for the whole evening. Then, while listening to Alexander McCall Smith’s World According to Bertie audiobook, the lines, serendipitously, reached me.

My musings were of a different nature, probably. Now I am not so certain. When I noted down couple of points in my (e)notebook to dwell upon later, it probably was about relationships in general; one to one relationships — not necessarily romantic. But then Auden’s poem, and the lines in question, do not need to be seen as about romantic love either. Or even love, for that matter.

Anyway. Back to my musings. Relationships, my musings concluded, cannot survive equality. At least most relationships cannot. I will explain.

Most people in relationships are unequal — one is more understanding, more expressive, more open, more candid, more sensitive, more joyful, more temperamental. Not all together, of course, but still. The ‘do unto others’ golden rule hardly helps sustain a relationship of such an unequal twosome. Even keeping aside that fringe example of a masochist following that rule, most relationships will not survive — or at any rate prosper — if one did unto the other one would have the other to do unto him/her. Even the so called silver rule — that is negatively framed and is a bit defensive therefor — hardly fixes the problem. The reason is simple: the other is a different person, an unequal (without the usual negative connotations of the word).

The only, rule that I can think of, that could make relationships among unequals work is the one that has been encoded in a networking RFC 1122 (yes!)

“Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept”

When Jon Postel led down that rule/principle, he was probably just asking computer programmers to do in programs what one is supposed to do in real life. But I do not know the history of the rule so well.

Here is a thing though: while the golden/silver rules are simple, this “robustness principle” or Postel’s Law, is kind of complicated. Yes the wording is quite simple, but unlike ‘do’ and ‘do not’, which are easy enough to understand, liberal and conservative have shades: how much liberal, how much conservative? If you’re too conservative in doing, you will become a bore, or worse: a zombie. If you’re too liberal in accepting, soon enough you run the risk of being a punching bag, a doormat.

Feminists (and I am partly one — without the ism) will say it is an old rule that patriarchy has set for women. But in the post-modern era, where power structures are changing, where rules and roles are not set for more and more people, but are decided more and more in an ad-hoc manner, the survival and indeed flourishing, of relationships will depend on the fine balance in implementation of the Postel’s law. (Note that when the rules were set by society, survival was not an issue, flourishing was an accident).

Back to Auden; your best chance is probably still to say, “let me be the more loving one”. Let me be the fairer, the more tolerant, the more understanding, the more forgiving, the more caring, the stronger, the less sensitive, the more conscientious. If, after it all, one is turning into a doormat, maybe the relationship is not worth fighting for. It may survive, if one can call it that, but it will never flourish. And why invest further in such a venture?