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?)

The Good Within

At the end of the yoga session today, my instructor, an elderly lady, had this to say, as we were getting up from the shavasan.

“आपल्या आतल्या परमेश्वराला नमस्कार करा, दुसऱ्यांच्या आतल्या परमेश्वराचा आदर करा”

(Pray to the god in you, and respect the god in others)

Let’s keep aside for a moment the duality (unwittingly?) implied here — for the God in each one of us is supposed to be the same — because that wasn’t the point, just a convenience. After all it’s easier to see a God in ourselves, but so much harder to see one in others. So let’s just gloss over that for a moment. Let’s also gloss over the, almost radical (as Douglas Adams first put it), atheism of yours truly, and the irony of someone like that quoting this. But this simple advise carries such a deep wisdom.

So let’s peel away the religious layer, because however it may make it easy for most (religious) people to grasp/follow, they are not needed to make sense of this (and may even distract from groking [1] the underlying thought). For what exactly is a God within us? Isn’t it that innate frame of reference with which we judge our actions? Our moral compass — something as unprovable as God? Or to put it very simply, with an extra ‘o’, the good within us?

What better way than to remind oneself of the good within us and other, every now and then, and see beyond the petty vices? If I could just ask myself, “If you do this, would you think better of yourself, or worse?”, every time before I did something, and only did that (with obvious exceptions where mortal danger forbids it, or in general, one is not courageous enough to risk something) which made me think better of myself, I know I’d be a lot happier, lot saner, lot calmer person. And yet, I don’t. Not even half as frequently as I’d like.

Similarly, if we just kept the “best within the other” in our mind as we interact with them (again, there are trade-offs I agree, especially with a lot of zero-sum games and dove strategies not being optimal in iterated prisoner’s dilemmas [2] that life throws at us in heaps), we’d be all that, and more (happier, saner, calmer, …). And yet I don’t. I let the petty distract me, take me over, enrage me, blind me, make me just a reflexive automaton.

We don’t need Gods within to make us better people. We need to trust the good within us.


[1] Grok: A word coined by Robert A. Heinlein for his 1961 science-fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land. (from Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grok)

[2] Highly recommend Richard Dawkin’s Selfish Gene for a detailed discussion of Prisoner’s Dilemma and Hawk/Dove strategies.

The Festive Conundrum

Festivals always make me pensive. I think a lot of it has to do with the time I first started on my road to atheism, when festivals meant conflict. Yes, I know atheism is not incompatible with festivities. In fact, if one thinks dispassionately, festivities have less to do with religion and more to do with society. But in a society that is predominantly, and overtly religious, it’s hard to disassociate festivities from religion — even the “theological” part of religion, of untenable beliefs, and anachronistic rituals.  

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In a sense, all social customs, overtly religious or not, are potentially anachronistic, because they are all rooted in specifics that either have, or could, change with time. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig (or was that in Lila?) has a very interesting take on this. He introduces a static vs dynamic “quality” differentiation (while refusing to define quality, but that’s another matter). Static quality is all social customs, beliefs, with their inherent “stickiness”. This comes from early initiation, and unquestioned obedience (okay he may not have said it, as it’s been years since I read it, but …) This static quality is really what makes society society. Because in its absence, there is no continuity, no sense of “belonging”, no common identity. One can’t identify with a constant flux. You need static quality to survive as a group. Dynamic quality on the other hand, is by definition, threatening this very stability. But without dynamic quality, you cannot adapt to changing situations. It’s like there is no “cultural evolution”. So memes are like static quality, and mutations are dynamic quality, one can say.

Back to the “conflict”, then, as an atheist, one is fundamentally disconnected to the religious rituals, for them to make any sense — especially for oneself. And yet, these rituals seem to bind people around you into a quasi-happy group. I mean, random people seem to be more gracious to each other during festivals. But to perform a ritual without identifying with it seems like a cop out, especially in the early days of atheism, when one still hasn’t acquired the escape velocity, and is likely to be mindful of being pulled back. Not participating in a ritual is like breaking a social contract. Suddenly you’re rejecting that communal (in the social, not religious, much maligned sense) experience, that so many around you seem to share. And depending upon the level of their involvement, they get hurt, angered, dejected, frustrated … The very same people, who are your world up to that point.

The thing with any conversion (and renunciation of religious belief is one) is that the recently converted are more zealous about their newly found faith (or lack of it). And so, it’s sometimes difficult to see, in that phase, that those people around you, who are actually participating in the religious rituals aren’t necessarily believing in them any more than as a long standing communal activity — like a tea club. It’s the ritual that matters — participating in the ritual, with others — not what it was intended to be, once. And in a sense, what is anachronistic, is what one thinks people following it think of it.

Years later, as I’m much far more settled in my lack of belief, and as I raise a child of my own who, by all the leading indicators, is getting prepared to tread on a similar road, the issue of rituals takes on new dimensions. As we enter an era where life is turning more cosmopolitan, multi-religious, and multicultural, the “communal” has its different dimensions as well. But there are still the traditional groups — especially in Indian context where lot of families are still predominantly non-cosmopolitan, uni-cultural, uni-religious — and their sense of belonging, and identity, that’s on offer as a default “first” club. And like it or not, it’s a heritage that is for the taking, for the next generation. And which means, by refusing to participate in the shared rituals, one is risking estranging this next generation from those identities. It’s not that there is anything inherently wrong with that estrangement, but ideally, that should be their choice to make. And so the conflict continues.

So what exactly do festivals mean to me, now?

[To Be Continued]

Friends 2.0

Sometimes I wonder if social media only friendships (as in friendships formed on social media, based on common interests or appreciation of “web personality”, without meeting the person for any significant amount of time) are a lot more brittle than those formed in real life (and extended on social media, after moving away due to compulsions of life — relocation etc). I seriously hope it ain’t so, but a few examples do seem to hint at that.

I say I hope it isn’t so, because over the last few years, my most cherished friendships are formed, and sustained primarily online. I have met some of these people once or twice, if at all, that too in socially awkward (like a lunch with a bunch of people I’m meeting first time, and even most of the people are meeting each other for the first time). In such situations, people are cautious, guarded, and generally not themselves. Yes I’ve talked to some of them on chats/calls for extended time, I know a lot about their lives, probably more than I know about some other IRL (in real life) friends.

I took to Facebook way before many, at least back home (before that there was Orkut, of course). What I liked, above all, was the non-demanding nature of the medium (then). It wasn’t a big deal. Not many were there. Those who were there, didn’t check it every now and then, and responded at leisure. It was not the tyranny of casual responses then. Along the way, apart from getting back in touch with older school/college friends, I also discovered new friends (not just on FB, but through FB many times, as blogs were discovered, people were noticed thanks to common commenting patterns on a friend’s blog, and so on).

But while, it’s been mostly positive — in terms of finding new people who you can connect with intellectually (primarily) and emotionally (to the extent that one can in online only relationship), this journey has also highlighted the pitfalls of such relationships. Mainly, the lack of strong emotional base that comes naturally to old style friendships/relationships. Of course, I don’t want to generalize. And it’s not like it’s guaranteed in old style friendships. Just as without emotional bonds, intellectual bonds are weak, not being able to connect intellectually, does strain emotional bonds as well, many times. So if your relationships are bounded by “availability” of like-minded friends (and I don’t mean your copies, but those you could connect with, and sustain a level of interactions with — both intellectual and emotional), you are at a loss too: the very reason that the online relationships look so tempting, in the first place.

One things I’ve observed (and I’ve seen others express similar thoughts) is that in web-social situations, we’re often a lot more aggressive, a lot less forgiving, a lot more reactive. Again, on average, and there are notable exceptions (those, I feel envious of, in a positive sense). This could be side effect of a more “cerebral” level at which these interactions happen (and I’m conscious that many lament the exact “lack of” intellectual content in some of these forum — but that’s really noise that any big enough gathering is going to have, and in the end, we hang around because we see the enriching conversations or interesting pointers, and so on). On the Internet, it seems, belonging to groups (liberal/conservative, and hundreds such schisms) is a peer-pressure equivalent. In old style relationships, many times, it doesn’t matter. And so one doesn’t need to prove one identifies to this/that ideology, this/that political thought, and so on. But on FB/Twitter, and such platforms, it almost isn’t optional.

The other problem is the offense. Offense has always been subjective. What your best friend, or a younger sibling can get away with is very different from what others could, but in web-social situations, in the absence of strong emotional bonds, there is very little “credit” in anyone’s account. And you never know when you’ve done an over draft. And god save you when that happens, because rebuilding those bridges becomes herculean in an online only relationship. It’s like, you suddenly realize, the person doesn’t know you at all. And then there is that reactive sense of being betrayed, almost. The thing is, you almost don’t have non-verbal cues to help you, and words are bitches, when they know you need to rely on them alone.

Add to that, the ease of ending the 2.0 relationships — unlike the old world ones, where one is bound to bump into a person, and look into their eyes, or forced to introspect, to doubt one’s hard stance. In web-social situation, it’s so much easier. You stop acknowledging the person. It’s like a break-up with a text message, and better (in a warped sense, really), because you don’t have to deal with what that does.

Over the years, I’ve resigned to suddenly losing a friend 2.0 to a misunderstanding that can never be explained, as it gets worse with explanation. Of offending someone with no intention and again being totally, completely, powerless about conveying to that person where you were coming from; of thinking you know somebody to realize you don’t, at all, really. The only antidote, is to meet those 2.0 friends you care about, whenever possible. Spend face to face time with them, preferably not in gatherings. It is not foolproof. But nothing is. It’s just that when you spend half-an-hour with a person, you know a lot about them that you don’t in online interactions for months/years. It builds the credit that friendship really needs. It comes in handy, in conflicts. The second is to be aware of the limitations of the medium, and be careful in dispensing, and be magnanimous in accepting. Okay magnanimous is too big a word. But you get it, right? Be a little more forgiving, and expect a little less forgiveness.

As it happens, this last is relevant to every relationship. 2.0 or not.

Thoughts on Harmony

The other day, a friend, who has a good ear for music, in fact a connoisseur of Indian classical music, was commuting with me in my car. Normally, I am alone when I commute, and so I listen to audiobooks on my way. That’s pretty much how I’ve got any reading done at all, over the last few years. If one can call listening to audiobooks reading. There I go again.

So that day, instead of putting on the audiobook that I was reading, I decided to play some music. It could be pretty darn disorienting for someone to listen to Pamuk somewhere on the 133rd page of an extremely slow paced book. But then again, since I don’t listen to lot of music in the car, except for some bollywood numbers that my kid enjoys, or when I’m suddenly left with no audiobooks in the queue due to bad planning (which is, to be fair, not that seldom), right in the middle of commute. Now this friend of mine is little picky when it comes to music. So current Bollywood was ruled out. What I had besides that, were a few of my cherished Jazz albums. Couple of Mingus ones, and Coltrane.

lovesupremeSurely, I reasoned, no one can mind The Love Supreme? I mean, isn’t that a confluence of all that’s good about music? Like harmony, dissonance, melody, all employed to investigate spirituality.  I mean, it never occurred to me that it could just be my blind love. But later that the day, my friend commented that it was cacophony.

 

 

 

Yup. C.a.c.o.p.h.o.n.y. Something that dictionary defines as : “a harsh, discordant mixture of sounds.”

That got me thinking. Dissonance by definition is discordant, right? But harsh? And how much of discordance separates orchestrated/controlled dissonance from cacophony?

So I looked at the whole dissonance affair a bit. In a wikipedia article I found two very interesting bits:

In music, even if the opposition often is founded on the preceding, objective distinction, it more often is subjective, conventional, cultural, and style-dependent. Dissonance can then be defined as a combination of sounds that does not belong to the style under consideration; in recent music, what is considered stylistically dissonant may even correspond to what is said to be consonant in the context of acoustics (e.g. a major triad in atonal music).

[snip]

Most historical definitions of consonance and dissonance since about the 16th century have stressed their pleasant/unpleasant, or agreeable/disagreeable character. This may be justifiable in a psychophysiological context, but much less in a musical context properly speaking: dissonances often play a decisive role in making music pleasant, even in a generally consonant context – which is one of the reasons why the musical definition of consonance/dissonance cannot match the psychophysiologic definition. In addition, the oppositions pleasant/unpleasant or agreeable/disagreeable evidence a confusion between the concepts of ‘dissonance’ and of ‘noise‘.

From Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consonance_and_dissonance

So while, objectively, dissonance is discordant, when one listens to musical dissonance, the perception can very from pleasant to unpleasant. From beautiful to harsh. Indeed, cacophonous.

But that’s not all that I wanted to talk about, because that’s not all that came to my mind as I kept thinking about it — about the inability of my otherwise well ear-trained friend, to perceive the beauty, the progression, the poignancy of that (in my mind) superlative piece of music.

Indian classical music doesn’t much concern itself about harmonies. Sometimes when I think about it, I find it rather strange — something as refined as Indian Classical Music never exploring (at least seriously, to my rather limited knowledge) harmony. Indian classical music is predominantly individualist! So while it is ready to shade the dependence on melody that any early musical forms have, it tends to keep the supremacy of the lead singer/player intact. There is singer or principal player, and there is accompaniment/rhythm section. In modern times, there have been many experiments to explore harmony. Shakti comes to mind. But somehow, if you compare to either Western Classical (which has almost no improvisation) or Jazz (which is highly improvised — a property it shares with Indian Classical), on the complex harmony scale it seems to be just a hesitant attempt (and they had John McLaughlin!).

That really led me to another thought lane. Growing up we’ve heard a lot in school books about “unity and diversity” and later on about syncretic culture, and various castes/creeds living “in harmony”, and so on. Are we romanticizing it? Is this harmony basically just an illusion at worst, and “live and let live” at best? Is this harmony like the polyphony in our classical music, where there is one primary citizen, and the rest are there only to “support in every which way” that primary citizen, so to speak?

No I’m not an expert on music. Anything but. Nor on culture, on Indian culture, even. And these are just threads that were started in my head as I pondered over that confusion, that judgement of cacophony. It made me wonder, are our ears not trained for harmony, much less dissonance? Are we too individualistic a culture (with exceptions like Bhakti/sufi traditions, and many more, I’m sure) to really appreciate harmony and dissonance? Is what we believe to be cultural harmony just disjoint themes playing together, oblivious to each other, or just tolerant to each other’s existence, but not playing towards a common goal, a larger polyphony?

I would like to believe it’s not so. For how would Europe, a much closed mono-culture, have developed both the appreciation and repertoire for Jazz and Western Classical Music, with harmonies at their core?  With Jazz one can understand it a bit, because Jazz did not originate there, and it was more of melting pot effect that it got adapted. But what about the stupefying harmonies of the classical masters?

And what about dissonance? Is it really anti-thesis of harmony? Or does it actually complement it. Our present day culture seems so much closed to any dissonance — not just musical. Did we reach here because decay or because it’s just a logical progression of an emphasis on one superior culture/idea/religion/race/tradition? Is our instinctive rejection of dissonance as noise/cacophony just a result of the internalized belief in fake harmony?

All these questions! And for all you know, it could just be my undeserved reverence for The Love Supreme. I sure could be little less touchy about it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

The Elasticity of Memories

We all love to tell stories. And by that I don’t mean to speak on behalf of the writers, clandestinely smuggling myself into the group. On the contrary, I’m speaking on behalf of us non-writers, wanna-be-writers, poseur writers — everyone who does not seem to have a blanket license to tell stories. Irrespective of such a license, if there were one, we all love to tell stories to right people, and sometimes to the wrong people, much to a mutual displeasure. Still, that urge to tell stories is one of the things that makes us human.

But what separates those who just tell stories from those who narrate, who mesmerize us with their accounts of everyday banality, who make us listen spellbound, who make us laugh out loud, who make us cry, who make us want to say: if only I could tell a story like that?

Do those who reuse their memories, their experiences — in their writings, or in conversations over coffee, or with friends/family, or during random encounters on long distance trains, or just to kill time while waiting at a queue — color their memories with different palettes? Are we, the others, mostly bad painters who can’t for their life find the right colors, the right contrasts, the right textures? Or are our memories dull to being with? Are they colorless, and what is needed is not faithful rendering of those grey memories, but a keen sense of coloring, of dressing up the ordinary.

Does it mean, then, that the honest story tellers are bad story tellers (unless they’re blessed/cursed with very colorful memories)? Of course, I don’t want to accuse the masters of being dishonest, but maybe they are a little generous with the shade card of truth. However tempting it is to use that accusation, though, when we look at our own stories that we tell, again and again, over months and years, we’d probably see ample evidence of that same generosity on our parts. Art of story telling is the art of ever-so-subtly changing the details, of making memories more interesting than they are.

A man can tell a thousand lies
I’ve learned my lesson well
Hope I live to tell
The secret I have learned, ’till then
It will burn inside of me [1]

Is that deliberate? Or is that automatic? And like a story changes when it moves from one narrator to another, over endless replays of the game of Chinese Whispers, doesn’t it also change when it moves from one audience to another, even with the same narrator? Is it because our memories are elastic, and we make out of them what we want to, without even being aware of that distortion — an act of a subconscious will? Or is it that our memories are so fragile that to arrive in one piece they have to patch and re-patch themselves, like the poor people have to patch their clothes, all the times, to stop them from opening at seams, and elsewhere?

It is not like it’s only an individual memory that suffers (or shares) this fate. Even collective memories are just a common denominator of our changing, elastic, individual memories, already morphed into a reality-inspired-fiction. The thing is, our childhood memories are folk lores that we collectively chose to retell, subtly manipulated by the keepers of those lores. The keepers who, thanks to their unquestioning love, typically are biased towards re-tellings that shield us. Try telling your mom that her  memory of some instance in your childhood is not faithful, and you’ll see a sanctimonious hurt that will be hard to heal. But what is a faithful memory? Is there such a thing? And if there is one, is it an exception or a norm?

I tell stories from my past, often. And I’m sure if someone recorded and replayed them to me, I’d barely recognize the recorded memories.  But a retelling is not necessarily a better telling. It’s a telling that may show you in a better light, at the cost of the story that is too monochromatic. Do those who master the art of re-vitalizing memories put their stories before themselves? Does that selfless, and yet very selfish at the same time, act liberate their stories, and make them more charismatic, more alive? They probably do.

Meanwhile, those of us, who do not have that license to tell stories, must struggle with the banality of our retelling, and futility of our instincts for both authenticity and self-importance.  Like those wandering dervishes, we need to be the story we want to tell. Our memories are elastic enough to allow for that.


[1] Snippets from lyrics of Madonna’s Live to Tell.

Meditations on Love, and Love Stories

Yes, love can die. it’s more fragile than hate which can survive a lot more. Unlike hate, which has got allies, love has to survive on its own. Especially love in real life, involving real people. The reel love is, at best, a harmless prank.

Unlike those love stories where we’ve to trust a stranger telling us that they lived happily ever after — always they, always ever after — as if, that moment, when the evil villain was defeated, and the prince charming and his beautiful princes took their vows, will last forever, no questions asked; unlike those love stories, that stop inexplicably when cohabitation begins, between two madly in love. Stop being told, that is, not being. In real life, love doesn’t come with an autopilot mode.

Or unlike those truly timeless love stories where, love becomes immortal by the virtue of being unrequited, because the evil villain wins, or because it’s cut short by untimely actions of time, real life love doesn’t have a ghost mode.

The fact of the matter is that very few love stories delve into love, fulfilled over days, months, years, even a lifetime, surviving everyday the banal, the routine, the grotesque, the frustrating: the bad hair days, the mad days, the sad days, the days when words don’t come easily, the days when words won’t stop, when they should. Hurting words, only partly unintended. The sick days; the hectic days when sacrifices are tiny, too tiny to stroke your ego, too frequent for the ego miss, too insignificant to birth a martyrdom, too “on the line” to identify a martyr; days that fly by in a cluster; days when nothing seems to go your way, when no answers are forthcoming. No relief. No real escape.

Love, real life love, has to survive in the interstices between these mundane and crazy moments. It has to find a way to reinvent itself, creating an illusion of a timeless continuum. It has to find a way to grow, to strengthen its roots, to aspire for skies, to liberate, yet to be latched, by choice.

No wonder many love stories only survive when love is interrupted, or never has to face the test of life almost ordinary on average. Almost ordinary, but for the magical moments, like those fleeting sightings of the fireflies, on a dark night. But isn’t that dream — that impossible and yet entirely plausible dream — that makes love special? Maybe waking life is an illusion. Maybe we’re meant to be the dream.

Narcissus, Interrupted

The myth of Narcissus is well known. This son of the river god Cephissus and (a nymph [More on this later]) Liriope was led to a pool by Nemesis, the goddess of revenge (allegedly for ignoring/shunning the affections of Echo), and who, as expected fell in love with his own image, never realizing it’s not a real entity, and eventually committed suicide because of the futility of that love which could not be fulfilled.

Recently, while reading a popular answer to a question on quora (“Why do I look good in the mirror but bad in photos?”) I was reminded of the story of Narcissus. Do read the answer, it’s really interesting. But just to sum up, as a context to this post, the theory is that we don’t love our own photos because we’re used to seeing a flipped impression of us, and our face being asymmetric, we are conditioned by our mirror gazing, to love ourselves in a flipped sort of way.

At this point I’ve a few threads that are threatening to run away, so bear with me if I seem to go off in different directions. I’ll try to tie them up somewhere.

One: This really introduces an (or another?) element of (albeit dark) comedy in Narcissus’ story. I mean, he died falling in love with an image of himself, which was not even how he really looked. It was a flipped image of him! So Narcissus wasn’t even in love with himself. Now, in a sense this myth pretty much confirms to a very skin deep idea of love to begin with, in accordance with lot of the classical myths, eastern or western. But be it as it may, what we have here is double mirage! We’ve been told the apocryphal story of Narcissus — as a reminder of falling in love with oneself. But Narcissus wasn’t even in love with himself. He was in love with a flipped skin-deep version of himself.

Two: Is the original apocryphal tale more relevant to us? We with our selfie sticks, and IMG_20140714_212020811front facing cameras, and instant push to Facebook/Instagram … Funny thing is, we hate our selfies, and spend so much time trying to make them better. When all we need to do is to flip them. But that raises another problem for groupies. Because if we flipped our groupies, everyone else in them would now not so good to us, as we’re used to seeing them non-flipped. So for us to like ourselves, we’d have to (slightly) hate others! The choice, then, like Narcissus, between liking us, or liking the world.

Three: Are those, who spend a lot of time taking their own pictures (and looking at them, and editing them) get more tuned to the other (as in non-flipped) version of themselves (skin-deep)? Do they start liking their selfies (and indeed pictures taken by others) more? And in that limited sense, are FB, Instagrams, and the likes, actually making us more comfortable with our real images? Fast forward a few years, and the generation that started with this online reality, as early as age four or so, may actually start not liking their reflection in the mirror after a while. Would that, then, be the end of narcissism as we know it (only skin-deep, again), or the beginning on the real (in the virtual sense, sigh) narcissism, corrected for the mirror bias?

Four: Maybe, Narcissus being so perfect, did actually have the perfectly symmetrical face, and so he was indeed in love with his own (or almost indistinguishable from his own) image.

Okay, there is no way I’m tying those threads up. So I’ll just touch upon what I promised to talk more about, later, earlier in the piece.

Nymph, wikipedia tells us, “is a minor female nature deity typically associated with a particular location or landform. Different from other goddesses, nymphs are generally regarded as divine spirits who animate nature, and are usually depicted as beautiful, young nubile maidens who love to dance and sing; their amorous freedom sets them apart from the restricted and chaste wives and daughters of the Greek polis

This again, got me thinking. In popular culture, we’re used to hearing the term nympho/nymph (short for nymphomania) as a slur/abuse. It denotes someone (actually a female someone – unless used clinically) with uncontrolled or excessive libido. So how exactly did a word for minor nature deity transform into a less-than-flattering term (and even a psychological condition?) like that. Was this just a puritanical spin put by later day organized religion that wasn’t comfortable with the animistic worships (how better to diminish deities than to portray them as excessively sexual, especially female deities?). Or was it something else?

The same wikipedia entry was helpful:

Due to the depiction of the mythological nymphs as females who mate with men or women at their own volition, and are completely outside of male control, the term is often used for women who are perceived as behaving similarly. (For example, the title of the Perry Mason detective novel The Case of the Negligent Nymph (1956) by Erle Stanley Gardner is derived from this meaning of the word.)

Which got me wondering, if it was plain sexism, after all, as society turned more and more male dominated? How, indeed, dare females stay sexually out of control? Shame the nymph.

Et tu, Atticus?

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has been in news, mostly for non-literary reasons. There is the controversy around it being just a rejected first draft of what finally became her only published work, “To Kill a Mockingbird”. There is a controversy about the way HarperCollins got the rights to the book (if it is not a draft of TKMB, that is). And so on. I was in two minds about reading the book, given that it could well have been an exploitation of an author who is not in a state to make the decision, but I knew that I was going to read it eventually. I did it way before eventually.

I’m now ambivalent about what I think about it! Or maybe not.

While TKMB is a simple, morality tale, with clearly defined hero, with Go Set a Watchman we get the grey shades of reality. In a sense that’s to be expected. The former is first person narration of Scout, a young girl learning right and wrongs from her perfect father, the latter is the reality couple of decades down the line, told in third person, with the girl a young women now, living in a big city (New York), and in a position to be much more objective about her hometown, and her family.

Spoilers ahead!! Although they’re really not spoilers if you have been reading at all. Everyone knows the central revelation of Go Set a Watchman. But let me retract a bit.

A few years back, I wrote a blog post about moral authority. In it I mentioned that Atticus Finch is my idea (or rather, an ideal) of the model parent, a moral authority figure. I’m sure I was not the first one to say that. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been the last one, if this book wasn’t published, that is …

This is what I said about Atticus:

Atticus is in so many ways a father I’d want to be. Arch-liberal, understanding, clear in his thinking, gentle, approachable, trusting, always there when needed and yet ready to dissolve in the background when not needed,  never over-reaching or over meddling.

And yet, and yet, Atticus is the moral compass. By walking the walk, the unglamorous ‘right’ walk, the everyday, non-heroic walk, he is setting an example for his kids to follow.

Nearly two thirds into Go Set a Watchman, there is nothing to contradict that. Then comes the shocker. Atticus, the same Atticus who epitomized “equal rights for all, special privileges for none” in TKMB, is a closet racist, a white supremacist.

Listen, Scout, you’re upset by having seen me doing something you think is wrong, but I’m trying to make you understand my position. Desperately trying. This is merely for your own information, that’s all: so far in my experience, white is white and black’s black. So far, I’ve not yet heard an argument that has convinced me otherwise. I’m seventy-two years old, but I’m still open to suggestion.

Or

“Then let’s put this on a practical basis right now. Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”  [..]

“Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?”

Of course, there are different ways to look at this.

One: the two Atticus are different characters. After all, these are two different books. The outcome of trial of Tom Robinson, for instance, is different in two books. This also seems to go with the theory that this one is just a draft that eventually became TKMB.

Two: Some events in two decades changed Atticus. Although the novel doesn’t give us enough to understand such a drastic transition. Which gives us:

Three: Atticus was a closet racist all along, and fought for Tom’s rights because of his ideas of justice wouldn’t allow an innocent man to be hanged/punished for something he didn’t do.

It’s this three, which is most troubling to accept for fans for TKMB, going by the reactions and reviews. How could Atticus, the paragon of virtue, of justice, deny a whole race something while he’s ready to put his career on line to save one from what is just an end result of a systemic injustice propagated in the name of the same beliefs (of superiority of one race)?

A big part of growing up is about coming to terms with the idea of many in one. One doesn’t need to look beyond our own forefathers, to understand that it’s possible to be extremely just in one sphere, and to be unjust (through their actions/beliefs) in another. So in that sense it’s hardly a surprise. And yet it’s a letdown of sorts.

What is disappointing about Go Set a Watchman, is its ending, which didn’t seem to live up to the conflict. Scout is almost apologetic of having judged her father, after a less than convincing post-facto defense by his brother, Dr. Jack Finch. Yes, I’ll come to that. Because that’s the real point of this post — a natural followup to that post on moral authority.

The question is, what happens when you grow up with an infallible moral authority figure, to learn one day that it was based on a projection/part information, or a lie, or a contradiction? Scout says it better than I could:

I believed in you. I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anybody in my life and never will again. If you had only given me some hint, if you had only broken your word with me a couple of times, if you had been bad-tempered or impatient with me—if you had been a lesser man, maybe I could have taken what I saw you doing. If once or twice you’d let me catch you doing something vile, then I would have understood yesterday. Then I’d have said that’s just His Way, that’s My Old Man, because I’d have been prepared for it

The truth is, looking up to an unfailing moral authority can stunt your growth (and this is exactly the logic used by Dr. Jack Finch to convince Scout that this was necessary to cut the moral umbilical chord that was binding her to her father, but it doesn’t cut …) as an independent, moral authority. And in that sense, it’s better to have the moral authority in your life to be imperfect, for even you to see, as you grow up, that this is not all. That your conscience is your own, in the end. And you need to work to that, all your life.

Final verdict on the book: a nice read as a companion to TKMB, but nothing you’d regret not reading. On some levels, it is more nuanced than a morality tale that TKMB is, but it has neither it’s energy, or it’s lyrical flow. It seems like the first draft refurbished into a novel for a quick buck. But it’s still an interesting read, more for ruminating on the lines of this post. I’m not complaining. Although I’d give it maybe 2 out of 5 on pure literary merit.

—–

PS: The cover of the book throws a curious coincidence. The titles of the two books are of similar form (To/Go Kill/Set A Mockingbird/Watchman). Hinting at the first draft published at book theory, again. For all you know, it’s settled now, already.

PS2: I wonder what would have Gregory Peck done if he had to act in the movie on Watchman? Would he, like Jody Foster in Hannibal case, have refused to portray an Atticus 2.0 which completely wiped out the 1.0 version in couple of paragraphs?