Conversations: An Art of Learning

I’m not a huge fan of the Facebook Ticker, that annoying thing that keeps on posting you updates of actions of your friends, as if the news feed isn’t enough distraction in your life, anyways. Lately, though, I’ve installed a Chrome extension called Todobook. This turns your Facebook newsfeed into a todo list, and only after you have cleared it, do you get to read the newsfeed. That too for some grace time. The thing is, muscle memory trumps (no pun intended) you. So I still go to Facebook tab. And I am presented with a, sometimes empty, todo list instead. And so I look at the tickler. I know, it defeats the whole purpose. But I never claimed I’m perfect. Or any tool is perfect.

Long story short, I saw a friend reacting to a post by someone named Gauri Brahme, whom I did not know. The post was written in Marathi. And when I read it, my first reaction was “this needs a wider audience”. And so I asked for her permission to translate and repost it with attribution, which she gave pronto. As it happened, I sat on it for couple of days, which isn’t that bad, considering I’m an expert procrastinator. So here is the post. I don’t know whether I plan to translate every post in the series, as they come. But I’m translating (bit loosely, as is my habit) this one with the whole context.

 

Here is the original post, in case you read and understand Marathi. Translations can never be as good as original. But they can strive to be the next best thing. In any case, any shortcomings are mine alone. Here goes:


 

As it happens, both of our children are on the cusp of teenage. naturally, they are full of those questions. As parents, we are often challenged to answer the questions. After all, no one’s omniscient. Perfect parents are as much a myth as perfect kids. But many times, some answers manage to hit a bulls-eye, so to say. Sometimes in the flow of conversations emerge some interesting answers that the children can make sense of. I’m planning to jot down some such conversations, under “Conversations with Neel and Radha” series. At present targeting at least five posts. And if they help at least some other parents like us, with kids of that awkward age, teenage and thereabout, in their upbringing, even a little, I will consider that a success of these writings.

Conversations with Neel and Radha #1

 

Daughter: Mom, what’s a divorce?

Me: Divorce is a quarrel between a married couple, a mom and a dad for instance, that ends in a decision to stay in two different houses.

Daughter: But everyone quarrels, right? That doesn’t mean they go and stay in separate houses.

Me: Yes, but that’s when the quarrels end and are forgotten. Your dad and I, you and your brother, we quarrel all the time, don’t we? But then later we forget it all, and are all smiles. But sometimes people cannot forget their quarrels; cannot forgive one another. They can’t bear to stay together anymore. And so they decide to split up.

Daughter: But is that right or wrong? Why does everyone go silent at the mention of a divorce? Why does the atmosphere become so tense suddenly, when the subject crops up?

Me: How can we decide that? It all depends on the individuals, and the situation. Sometimes people make wrong decisions.

Daughter: But then how come they don’t understand (that they’re making a mistake)?

Me: It happens. Remember, you used to like those floral frocks till last year, but this year you only wear the jeans. We change as we grow older. Our likes/dislikes change. Situations change. It’s like that.

Daughter: Did you and Daddy ever think it — after a quarrel — that you should get a divorce?

Me: Many times. But it’s in the spur of the moment. It has never affected our friendship. We’re still each other’s best friends. So we can forget it all. That’s’ why we are together.

Daughter: So living separated is not a wrong?

Me: No, it’s not wrong. If you’re happy alone/separated, rather than unhappy together, what’s wrong with that?

Daughter: So why do they say divorce is bad?

Me: Again, who are we to decide what’s good/bad, right/wrong? It’s a personal decision. We should accept it. Many times we don’t know the full story.

Daughter: You mean, Prajakta should not feel sad when talking about her parent’s divorce?

Me: Of course she’ll feel sad. It’s only natural. Any child would want both their parents together. But when she tells you, you have to take care that your reaction doesn’t make her feel worse.  [Translator: Emphasis mine]

Me: It’s fine. Some things just don’t work out in life and it’s ok. Got it?

Daughter: Yes, got it.


Original copyright: ©गौरी ब्रह्मे (Gauri Brahme). 

आमची दोन्ही मुलं “Teenage” च्या उंबरठ्यावर आहेत. सहाजिकच त्यांना सतत “असले तसले” विविध प्रश्न पडत असतात. पालक म्हणुन आम्ही अनेकदा त्यांच्या प्रश्नांना योग्य उत्तरं देण्यात कमी पडतो. सर्वज्ञ कोणीच नसत.परफेक्ट किड्स जशी नाहीत तसे परफेक्ट पालक ही नाहीत. पण बऱ्याचदा काही ऊत्तरं जमुन जातात. संवादातुन काही गोष्टी उलगडत जातात आणि मुलांना थोडी फार पटतील अशी उत्तरं दिली जातात. आजपासून असेच काही संवाद “नील-राधाच्या गोष्टी” या सदराखाली इथे लिहीन म्हणते आहे. निदान पाच पोस्ट्स सध्याचे टार्गेट आहे. माझ्यासारख्या अनेक पालकांना, ज्यांना टीनेजमधली, अलीकडची, पलीकडची मुलं आहेत , त्यांना संगोपनात या पोस्ट्सची थोडीफार जरी मदत झाली तरी उद्देश सफल होईल असे वाटते.

#नीलराधाच्या_गोष्टी

लेक :आई, डीव्होर्स म्हणजे काय?
मी: डीव्होर्स म्हणजे भांडण. एका आई आणि बाबाचं भांडण होतं आणि ते वेगळ्या घरात रहाण्याचा निर्णय घेतात, तेव्हा त्याला डीव्होर्स म्हणतात.
लेक : पण भांडण तर सगळेच करतात. पण म्हणुन काय सगळे वेगळ्या घरात नाही ना रहायला जात?
मी : हो, पण नंतर भांडण मिटत सुद्धा न? मी, बाबा, तु, दादा भांडतोच की आपण सगळे. पण नंतर भांडण मिटवुन हसायला लागतो. भांडण विसरतो. काही लोकं त्यांची भांडणं विसरुच शकत नाहीत, एकमेकांना माफ करु शकत नाहीत, मग ते एकत्र राहु शकत नाहीत, म्हणुन मग ते वेगळे रहातात.
लेक : पण मग हे चांगलं आहे की वाईट? डिव्होर्स म्हणल की सगळे एकदम चूप का बसतात? इतका टेन्शन का येत वातावरणात एकदम?
मी : चांगलं की वाईट हे आपण नाही ना ठरवु शकत. ते त्या त्या व्यक्तीवर आणि परिस्थिती वर अवलंबुन आहे. कधी कधी निर्णय चुकतात.
लेक : पण मग ह्या लोकांना कळत नाही का, की ते चुकीचा डिसीजन घेतायत?
मी: नाही समजत. तुला नाही का फुलफुलांचे फ्रॉक मागच्या वर्षी खूप आवडायचे. पण या वर्षी फक्त जीन्स घालते आहेस. आपण वयानुसार बदलतो, आपल्या सवयी, आवडीनिवडी बदलतात. आजुबाजुची परिस्थिती बदलते. तसच असत हे.
लेक: मग तुला आणि बाबाला नाही असं वाटलं कधी? की भांडण झाल्यावर डीव्होर्स घ्यावा?
मी: अनेकदा वाटलय. पण आमच्यातली फ्रेंडशिप संपली नाहीये. आम्ही अजुनही एकमेकांचे बेस्ट फ्रेंड्स आहोत. त्यामुळे भांडण विसरुन आम्ही पुढे चालायला लागतो. म्हणुन एकत्र आहोत.
लेक: पण म्हणजे वेगळं रहाणं यात वाईट काही नाही.
मी: वाईट काही नाही. एकत्र राहून दुःखी राहण्यापेक्षा वेगळे राहून सुखी रहात असतील तर काय हरकत आहे?
लेक : मग डिव्होर्स वाईट अस का म्हणतात सगळे?
मी : चांगलं, वाईट हे आपण कोण ठरवणार? हा त्या व्यक्तीचा निर्णय आहे आणि तो आपण मान्य करावा. अनेकदा आपल्याला संपुर्ण परिस्थिती माहीत नसते.
लेक : म्हणजे प्राजक्ताला तिच्या आई वडिलांचा डीव्होर्स झाला आहे हे सांगताना खर तर वाईट वाटायला नाही पाहिजे.
मी: तिला वाईट वाटणारच ग. कुठल्याही मुलाला त्याचे आई आणि बाबा दोन्ही हवे असतात. पण हे तिने तुला सांगितल्यावर , तुझ्या रीऍक्शनबद्दल तिला वाईट वाटायला नाही पाहिजे , याची काळजी मात्र तू घेतली पाहिजेस. तिला वाईट वाटण हे सहाजिक आहे , पण तिने हे तुला सांगितल्यावर तु अस काहीही बोललं नाही पाहिजेस ,जेणेकरुन तिला अजुन वाईट वाटेल. It’s fine. Some things just don’t work out in life and it’s ok. Got it?
लेक : ह्म. Got it.
©गौरी ब्रह्मे

The Annus Horribilis

The thing about years is that we tend to make a big deal out of their starting and ending. When those markers are actually just conventions. So we’re really celebrating conventions. This time around, we’re actually cursing an almost arbitrarily demarcated time period because a lot of bad things happened in that period. Like Brexit. Trump. Parting of David Bowie and many more singers, artists. We all know the list,  and there are a lot of things that don’t make it to the list, depending upon where you are, who you are. In areas of the world, every year for last few years has been a annus horribilis. Countries are losing battles with internal strife, religious orthodoxy, even secular statist ideologies, economic crisis and so on. If you’re celebrating on the eve of a beckoning  new year, you’re probably already luckier than a lot of people in the world.

So let’s just let 2016 breath its final breaths, and lets also acknowledge all good that  the year may have given us,  too. I’m sure there will be a list of that too, if we just think a little.

img_20161231_175050

The Last Sunset of 2016

Personally, this year has been not significantly different than last few years. And it’s a good thing. I was able to read a few good books. Discovered a few new authors worth following. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for instance. Or Ursula K. Le Guin (unbelievable that I waited all these years), Claire King, Eli Shafak, N. S. Madhavan, Thomas Mann (again, all these years!). I had a conservative goodreads reading challenge of 18 books for the year. I did 24. This year, the good thing is I actually read a few more than last year when I mostly heard them as audiobooks. I got back into reading long-form articles, and non-fiction. I reviewed a decent number of books, movies on my blog.

Which brings me to this blog of mine, which definitely did better this year, although the most important category for me remains a concern — not a single fiction piece. But reviews, poems, and a few rambling pieces on random subjects. Still a good year. I’m still floating after all these years. That’s not at all bad, is it?

I discovered (in the sense that I finally started getting them) a ton of Jazz artists (still, mostly, those from the classic era — like Jaki Byard, Joe Henderson,  Horace Silver, Roy Brooks, Nat Adderley). It was a good musical year, especially with Apple Music coming to India at a very affordable rate. Also, rediscovered the penchant for old hindi songs of the golden era, as my six year old got interested in them. Memories of generations now passed on the second time – a testimony to the timeless quality of the era. Also, a bridge across generations, as my father and my son have a common musical memory.

In all fairness, I’m going to think of 2016 as another year that gave some, and took some. Like any year really. See you in the next arbitrary time slice. With more fiction, hopefully. For what we make of an year, is partly up to us.

 

The Thin Ice of American Dream

Dear America,

I guess you’ve realized by now that the rest of the world cares far more about you than you do about it. Yes it’s unrequited love on most part, except for the cases where it actually has seemed like getting reciprocated, only to find out in due course, that love isn’t same as being used. Our dear neighbor, for instance, knows how that feels. Being used, being owned. But then I digress.

You must be wondering, in those few moments when your narcissism is dampened by some internal crisis — everyone is supposed to have those, right? — what have you done to deserve this interest? On a remote chance that you actually have wondered, let me spell it out for you. Again, I not being you, I could actually be wrong. But let’s use the trick that one uses while watching movies: suspended disbelief.

It’s strange. I give you that. From the vantage point of any neutral observer from distant lands, the choice you have today is curious: xenophobia, racism, sexism, authoritarianism, pathological dishonesty, every-kind-of-bigotry, combined with the exact same virtues of capitalism — incompetent fool inheriting wealth and using every trick in the book to serve self-interest — on one end; and systemic corruption, political establishment at it’s ugly best,  a will to get power-at-any-cost, on the other end. Yes, I give you, that the choice is not pretty.

And consider us, sitting outside. A part of us should ideally be saying: “God knows, they deserve Trump. Why should only the rest of the world suffer? Let ’em Americans suffer a bit too. Or a LOT”. But seriously, you know what, we still wish you well. I know you’re baffled about that, so let me, as I promised I would, help you with that.

For the greater world out there – especially the non-European world, which you guys fondly call third world, and which you guys sometimes bomb into the stone-age, in an effort to make lesser humans there understand the value of western democracy, which is on trial today (or tomorrow, for I still haven’t adjusted my mind clock to account for your DST); America is land of dreams. I know, I know, it’s not your fault, that we choose to believe in a myth that you beamed into our bedrooms, via your terrifically talented media, that sold us this post-racism, post-sexism, post-feminism, post-religion, post-xenophobia, land of equal and abundant opportunity, where everyone has a chance to move up, and reach the top. You even had a serial about a white guy with a white girl adopting two really cute black kids, and another one about a quaint little town of Rome, Wisconsin,  where an ethical and upright white police chief, a Jewish defense attorney, a black public prosecutor, a white judge, all lived happily ever after, dealing with issues of prejudice, and ethics, and morality, and religion with adult, almost saintly, composure. You had your legal dramas, where the underdog won, more often than not.

You had your first amendment holding up a mirror to the third world, which could not even dream of that. You had your non-hierarchical, talent always prevails, kind of corporate setup with written ethics, and all. You had your diversity programs, and anti-hate-speech laws, and what not. You made us believe, that maybe, just maybe, it’s possible to create just societies by creating right legislature, and by making sure it’s enforced correctly, by sticking to democracy at all cost, because, in the end, it will help in the triumph of the right (not the political, or religious, just the right), and the just.

And for this, we looked away when your foreign policy made sure that much of this dream is denied to parts of the world where your “strategic defense interests”, or oil, or ideological interests, mandated you to start and sustain wars, which your non-privileged foot-soldiers fought, while the privileged dunked drafts and became Presidents, and trumpeted glories of American penchant for freedom in the larger, third-world. When your unholy alliances supported or replaced with another/worse dictators, provided weapons for most wars fought anywhere on the earth, killed unarmed civilians and tagged them “collateral damage”, supported dangerous religious extremists/terrorists, supplying them with  weapons and intelligence, all for balance of power in your civilized world, then killed some of them and made America safe again. We looked away, because, in this seriously screwed up world, we needed to believe in a myth, to survive, and to become better.

If you should go skating
On the thin ice of modern life
Dragging behind you the silent reproach
Of a million tear stained eyes
Don’t be surprised, when a crack in the ice
Appears under your feet
You slip out of your depth and out of your mind
With your fear flowing out behind you
As you claw the thin ice

The Thin Ice, The Wall* by Pink Floyd

Today, you’re an inch away from taking away even that myth. So you see, why we care?

We care, because we don’t want the thin-ice to be broken, and for us all to fall into an abyss from where there is no return. We care, because we want to believe, that a better, more equitable, more just, more humane, less suspicious, more embracing, world is possible, if we all, to borrow Rushdie’s words, concentrated a little. But then again, don’t let our expectations of you hold you back from the path of self-destruction. Maybe we need to see that abyss under the thin ice, and to find new beacons, more worthy of that title. Maybe you showing the world your real heart is what the world needs — for its been blind to it so far, despite all you have shown us. Maybe you need a president that truly symbolizes you. Maybe you really need Trump.

With Love,

from the-third-world


[*]: Not that Wall

Tools Are Us: aka “The Frankenstein Chronicles”

Louis Sullivan, considered by many to be the father of Modernist architecture, is attributed to be the originator of the phrase “Form follows function”, although the principle itself is quite ancient. Just like Architecture, and Industrial Design, “world wide web” has gone through waves of design philosophies, and thanks to Google’s groundbreaking clean design when it landed on the scene, that seemed to be following the modernist adage to the letter, look and feel of web-pages saw a major shift to more utilitarian design rather than (most of the times) one based on gaudy aesthetics (or anesthetics, really) that the early visual web (anyone remembers the grotesque Altavista and clone pages?) epitomized. But forgive me if I’m erring on (or overly simplifying) the web design history, as I’m sure I am, given that I’m no expert there (or anywhere). The point is, from Yahoo/Altavista to Google, and ironically from Google’s own (although acquired, not created) Blogger to WordPress (ha, couldn’t resist that!), and so on, blogs/webpages have been moving to a cleaner, efficient, functional designs.

Yes, there is a point that I’m actually driving at. We’ll come to that. Recently, Atul Sabnis at Gaizabonts, who has been responsible for many posts on this blog — by providing subject matter directly/indirectly — wrote a post (yes, Atul, I’ve been very careful with blog and post differentiation lately) which I read on my phone. Then, in the usual blogger’s spirit (a, no doubt, vanishing trait, for better or for worse), I wanted to comment on the post. Now, remember this: I’m actually quite used to browsing, even reading short-to-medium length pieces on my phone. And still, I found it not very easy to find a way to comment on this post. Also remember this: Atul isn’t exactly a “form over function” kind of guy, rather the opposite, and is much more likely than the average Joe (including yours truly) to choose templates with a consideration for things like “ease of doing comments” (ha! couldn’t resist that, either.) So I don’t think it’s a problem with that one template problem. Yes, I went and checked my own blog and a few others, just to be sure. Yes, it’s not very difficult to do, but the thing is comments section isn’t in the prime real estate of the posts anymore. They have been relegated to the afterthoughts section.

Sign of times, yes. The fact is, these days, most people do not read blog-posts on original blogs, but are led there from twitter/FB/. Which means that, a lot of time people comment right there, if they do comment that is — because not many have time to write comments these days (except for those who we wish rather didn’t have the time for that: a human derivative species identified with a mythical animal that has brain the sign of peanut and body the size of gorilla, whose name starts with a T). So much better to RT/forward, press the like/love button. Yes, I’m a bit of an old-fashioned guy in these matters. While FB comments are good to have, if the alternative is no comments,  the problem with them is that they are for a subset of blog readers. Yes, point could be made that it’s thanks to FB/SM that those comments are even made and/or visible to more people than would be possible in the pre-SM era of blogs. Fair enough. Still, I prefer those comments on the blog, where there is a common audience, possibly interested in those comments. But maybe that’s just me.

***

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Our relationship with technology is interesting, to say the least. We crave for the fruits, however forbidden, but are always afraid that they may come with a hidden price-tag (or snake, to use well understood imagery). Scientists, especially those in love with gizmos are rarely presented as dependable, responsible, members of society. They are, at best mostly harmless geeks, and at worst blind-to-anything-but-the-possibility-of-innovation mad scientists who are tools at the hands of someone who wants to destroy something, or rule everything. Basically, unwitting, or uncaring agents of the power hungry. This, of course, gets worse if the object of their creation is capable of wielding power by itself (himself? herself? do anthropomorphic machines have gender?) and not through human proxies. That explains the obsession with the concept of Frankenstein, that has been portrayed in various incarnations, in popular literature (and even cultish, dystopian science fiction) and movies. We live in the dread of the Frankenstein. Even a more benign one, that may just take away our jobs, not necessarily our lives.

***

Still, we love tools that these inventors, technologists, mad-scientists invent. We adore them. We need them. But tools use us just as we are using them. They change us. Tools are like memes. They need to change us for their survival.

How we think, how we write, how we speak, how we express, this all is shaped by the tools we use. Even how we read, how we consume, how we listen. Between the stimulus and response is you, say some of the self help gurus. I agree. But sometimes between you and the world there are tools. And they change your response. They can even change the stimulus, in route, to get a different response.

Our fear of Frankenstein is both paranoid-ly unreal, and almost instinctively right. Frankenstein isn’t one machine turned rogue. Frankenstein is every tool/machine that changes us, by bits and pieces, even imperceptibly. It’s through us that tools rule us. By making us constantly aware of the here and now, social platforms are making us turn away from the sublime, and the timeless. By making us aware of the power of likes from complete strangers, social platforms are making us conform to the standards of faceless strangers. By making it easy to like a post, and harder to comment, blogging platforms are changing us into hit-and-run readers.

The lunatic is in the hall
The lunatics are in my hall
The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
And every day the paper boy brings more

— Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon (Brain Damage)

The Frankenstein is here, and now. And it’s us, not the tools and machines we invented.

***

The origin of the “Frankenstein” is curious. The first novel, by Mary Shelly, has Frankenstein as the creator of a “monster”, not the monster itself that it later started to be associated with – to the extend that Cambridge Dictionary has this entry:

Frankensteinnoun 

something that destroys or harms the person or people who created it:

Example: “In arming the dictator, the US was creating a Frankenstein.” 

Wikipedia entry from Frankenstein (novel) has this interesting tidbit:

Part of Frankenstein’s rejection of his creation is the fact that he does not give it a name, which causes a lack of identity. Instead it is referred to by words such as “wretch”, “monster”, “creature”, “demon”, “devil”, “fiend”, and “it”. When Frankenstein converses with the creature in Chapter 10, he addresses it as “vile insect”, “abhorred monster”, “fiend”, “wretched devil”, and “abhorred devil”.

And so the nameless creature,  has actually managed to steal the identity of its creator, and in all probability will outlive its creator — who has become nameless, identity less. Because now the creator is any man, while the creation is Frankenstein.


PS: This curious inversion, is an apt parallel to what I said up there: “[Frankenstein] is us, not the tools and machines we invented”. Till I looked on Wikipedia for origins of Frankenstein, after I wrote those words, I was blissfully unaware of this inversion — I assumed that Frankenstein is actually a fictional monster, not its creator!

Atheistic Revelations

Religion is on rampage in India, and in much of the world. And I don’t mean to single out any religion. It’s just a matter of opportunity, not will.

Technically, that’s not correct. It’s men who profess to believe in religion who are on rampage in India, and much of the world. This includes rank and file believers on the ground, or religious leaders. But no one is ready to excommunicate these people from their religious order, so religions will have to bear a brunt of the wrath of those who are on the receiving end. It’s only fair.

Atheists are under attack everywhere. And in most of the so called civilized world, even the law is not a refuge for them. The thing is, as a believer of x religion, one can go out and say things about y religion, and law would probably save their rights to even bigoted speech, especially since one can claim that x religion holds it as sacred belief.

I think the time has come for atheists to declare themselves as a religious sect and publish their (un)holy books, and claim special status from law, just like any other religion.

I’m thinking of a fictional trial set in not so distant future, involving an adherent of atheism who claims that his religion requires him to say things that he’s being prosecuted for:

Prosecutor: Can you tell us what is your religion?
Atheist hero: Atheism
Prosecutor: That’s not a religion
Atheist hero: It is. As per the Xth amendment of the constitution of out country, atheism has been granted …
Prosecutor: Okay. So you do believe in existence of God?
Atheist: No
Prosecutor: (with an “I got you now” smile) And you said this, in your statement, that “God said to me, it is the need of the hour to …”
Atheist: Correct.
Prosecutor: That’s contradicting what you just said.
Atheist: No. I do believe that God said that to me.
Prosecutor: A non-existent God?
Atheist: God’s existence doesn’t depend on my belief.
Prosecutor: Then how do you know it was God who said that to you?
Atheist: Because he said to me, “I’m God, and I have chosen you to say this to the world, because, I’ve lost my faith in anyone who professes to believe in me”
Prosecutor: That’s absurd
Atheist: Why?
Prosecutor: You can’t claim to speak in the name of God you don’t believe in.
Atheist: Actually I do. My religion needs me to. Please refer to exhibit 13 …

And so on …

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.

Making an Example: Justice in web 2.0

Social media is obsessed these days with the idea of social justice (social — as in social media). In a sense, it’s just a fallout of the overall lack of confidence in the legal justice system. Not that many of these crimes and misdemeanors will ever be reported. But even assuming they were to be, no one expects any resolution, any justice, given the long drawn out trials and hope breaking legal process.

“Justice Delayed is Justice Denied”, is a legal maxim quoted randomly, but the fact of the matter is that even with the so called expedited trials, it takes years for a verdict. As a society, we are prepared for that: bhagwaan ke ghar der hai andher nahin (there is delay is God’s court/house, but no darkness/injustice), an antithesis of the justice delayed line, is all too well known to us. Everyone is assured of the final judgement — either on the day of judgement, or in the karmic cycle. But no one has seen that judgement. And even the devote believers will be unwilling to let go a more secular, more earthly justice in favor of the justice of God.

In a nutshell, that’s our plight as a society. In days before impersonal government machinery took it upon itself to administer justice (mostly retributive) — and indeed in some parts of the world, including our beloved country, even today– vigilantes and other self-proclaimed cultural conscience keepers routinely took it upon themselves to dispense justice — or their idea of justice anyways (essentially efficient revenge or settling of scores). Now, in most of the civilized world, we’re supposed to entrust the deliverance of justice to third-party, to keep biases out. For sounds reasons, I’d add, because bias is not an easy thing for a wronged party (and many times, that’s both parties, if you ask them) to see, and to compensate for. It’s hard to be objective about what’s an appropriate punishment for a crime (or even who was the perpetrator, and who was the victim) when one has a personal stake (would you have said the same thing if it was your family member that had died, went the standard rebuke to anyone opposing death penalty for Yakub Memon, recently). But when one has to wait an eternity for the appropriate punishment, it’s difficult to not want quick(er) fixes.

This is where social media seems to be coming in handy. Here, it’s easy to take the justice to the objective third party — those fellow twitter happy judges out there, individually unqualified for the job, but as a collective, more than qualified (or so they/we believe). And it has indeed started becoming our kangaroo court.

My dad is fond of recounting stories of the so called kabool courts in Bombay of yore, where for petty traffic offences or the likes, one was brought in front of a magistrate (I believe), and asked to pay a paltry fine if you agreed to the guilt. The catch being, every no would double the fine. You were there to say gunah kabool (guilty as charged). Any dissent was costly. And useless. (Note: this is all anecdotal, so take it with a generous helping of salt).

Cicra 2015, Twitter is the new kabool court. Here everyone who is charged is guilty. Be it a guy who (allegedly) talked rudely to you. Or who (you believe) tried to sexually harass you in broad day light. A tweet with a photograph is enough to pronounce someone guilty as charged. Within minutes to hours (depending on when you hit those high-influence twitteratis) the offender is shamed by random third-party who has no reason to be biased.

No reason, indeed. But, the problem is, we the twitterati always side with the accuser. What if the accuser was mistaken? What if the accuser was deliberately manipulating the facts (either selectively telling parts of the story, or adding dubious facts)? We the twitter happy twitterati will RT everything. Possibly punishing an innocent. Possibly punishing someone for a misunderstanding.

IMG_0380Who has the time for such nuances when thoughts need to be compressed in 140 characters? Excluding images worth a thousand characters. Images that could destroy lives. But we have to judge, we believe. Because, the system we entrusted the judgement has failed us. And we the men and women of the web 2.0, are collectively infallible.

Or, are we?

The other aspect of this web 2.0 justice is that one hears this quite often: “let’s make an example of him, so that others will think twice …”. So, the new kabool courts will not just punish unilaterally, they’ll punish with an intent. This reminds me of another Mumbai phenomenon. I’ve heard stories where pickpockets are thrown over railway bridges, or from moving local trains (the real danger for pickpockets is the public: Confessions of a pickpocket). When crowd has nabbed a pickpocket, the justice can be swift (and extreme). The same logic of “that will teach them a lesson”. The problem is, what if the accusation is wrong? What if it’s a paranoid man who thought someone was trying to pick his pocket? Nope, no one has times for such nuances.

Same goes here, with web 2.0. At least in real life, aversion to physical violence (especially extreme violence that could end a life) might hold back a few. Here, it’s just an RT, or a share. In our search for quick justice, and making an example, what if we made an example of a wrong person? But then, we the men and women of the web 2.0 are collectively infallible.

Or, are we?

The Hangmen

After prime time (and not so prime time, yesterday night) drama lasting days, with appeals, and petitions, Yakub Memon was finally hanged today.

First of all, I wish to thank the judiciary. Their job wasn’t easy. This was a high pressure case — public pressure on one hand to hang him, and pressure to afford him a lenient sentence from one part of intelligentsia — and while I have my doubts about death penalty per se, not just in this particular case, I cannot thank the judiciary enough for doing their best within the framework of justice we have in our country. Kasab, Guru, and Yakub Memon all have got the chance to defend themselves. Due process was followed.

The judges have ruled.The President has made his mind. The Governor has had his say. I’d request fellow liberals to not question the judgement beyond this point. I think it was the former Attorney General Soli Sorabjee who had said: the Supreme Court isn’t final because it is right, it is right because it is final. For many who have expressed opinions on the case, we do not have access to the full admissible evidence, and it’s time to move on. Questioning the court’s verdict is meaningless now, and counter-productive.

We’re not a country that has reformative justice (beyond juvenile) system, as far as I understand. We’ve retributive justice. The change is not going to happen overnight. As a society we believe in retributive justice. Indeed, the popularity of our action films are a testimony to that. What we have done, in civilized world, successfully, is to move away from personal vendetta to retribution through a neutral party — the government, and its various arms.

“Use kanoon ke hawaale kar do, kanoon use saza dega” (hand him to law enforcement, they will deliver justice — actually that’s not a right word to word translation, because saza is punishment, and punishment is supposed to serve as retributive justice, to compensate in whatever way those who lost a near/dear one) is a dialogue one is used to encounter, especially in the 80s/90s Bollywood movies. There is a reason for that. As persons affected by a crime, it’s very difficult to be objective about “justice”. A state machinery, working within well defined processes to investigate, and indeed punish on behalf of society is a step in the right direction. That even someone like Ajamal Kasab, seen on camera killing people, in a war against our state, got a chance to be heard, and the due process was followed is a huge step away from a crowd frenzy filled instant vendetta.

IMG_20150316_143904The next step — of moving towards reformation — is that much more difficult. Our jails are more likely to turn a petty criminal into a hardcore one, rather than reforming him/her, if there is such a possibility, to begin with. Our society is no different. We kill in the name of family honor. We kill for the want of a male child. We kill in the name of religion. We kill in the name of philosophies …

But that tiny possibility of reform is something that we have to believe in — both for individuals and for the society at large. If not, then really, it’s hopeless.

Beyond retribution/reformation, there is always the notion of deterrent that justifies punishment — even severe ones. But for deterrent to work, the system has to be swift, and consistent. That is a pipe dream considering the fate of cases against those who are accessed of organized violence: from pre 1984 to 2002 and beyond. The terribly long delays in dispensing justice, the systematic abuse of arms of law to change course of investigation, lack of any working witness protection program, corruption at every level, have made deterrence a joke in our country.

Yes, what we’ve achieved today as a society is plain old retribution in a civil manner. Let’s not gloat about it. Civilization demands more of us. We should aspire to be more than hangmen.

Unbearable Heaviness of Being – Life in the New Web

Umberto Eco, that brilliant Italian intellectual who writes medieval whodunnit (or rather whytheeffdidtheydoit) mysteries on weekends, when he is not teaching, or writing papers/books on semiotics, or cultural commentary, or non-fiction books on some obscure subjects, once said in an interview:

I have a secret. Did you know what will happen if you eliminate the empty spaces from the universe, eliminate the empty spaces in all the atoms? The universe will become as big as my fist.

Similarly, we have a lot of empty spaces in our lives. I call them interstices. Say you are coming over to my place. You are in an elevator and while you are coming up, I am waiting for you. This is an interstice, an empty space. I work in empty spaces. While waiting for your elevator to come up from the first to the third floor, I have already written an article!

Okay, so we’re not exactly Umberto Eco. And even before we begin, we should forget about writing an article while waiting for an elevator, but surely, there is something to take away from those words. Time, the currency that we can’t buy, is precious. But if we use those empty spaces well, maybe, just maybe, we won’t need to buy it. Right?

IMG_20150616_143525168

Enter web 2.0, and the onslaught of claims on our time. There is facebook with notifications — a friend has commented on your status, another friend has just posted her vacation pics, another intellectual friend has that insightful article from New Yorker maybe; there is Twitter — the latest #hashtag, the news you lived without for all of your life before twitter was born (you didn’t even know about that for a long time), or some mention by someone; there is WhatsApp, with never ending jokes and forwards, telling you you have a hundred unread messages; there is gmail, that long time darling we ditched the moment facebook dazzled us with all the attention; there is tumblr, instagram, quora, foursquare …

Then you have the ever-increasing list of things-to-do in some app, articles to read in Pocket, watch-later list of youtube videos, wants-to-read list in goodreads, nevermind the pinterest boards that are a visual representation of probably-never-to-be-realized-aspirations …

Those interstices that Eco talks about are fast filling up. We’ve given it a nice name: social. Somehow it seems better than to sit in a room, alone. “Go out, do something”, our moms used to say when we did that. Now moms are busy liking the social exploits of their sons and daughters. But I digress (Maybe Nicholas Negroponte  can write “Being Social”, as a followup to his excellent book: Being Digital).

Those interstices …

Some years back, I used to ruminate when I walked or drove or sat waiting for someone to turn up somewhere. Most of that was actually quite banal. Okay, maybe all of it. But then I should be pardoned to think, that somewhere in those thoughts, were the germs of some of the creative writing I did back then, definitely at a rate far surpassing the current, and possibly quality (the non-existent can’t have a quality, so definitely-maybe?).

Now, I have audiobooks with me for such instances. I consume. Yes, probably the world is better off without more mediocre writing. But imagine Eco filling up those interstices with Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, or audiobooks.

Slowly, and surely, many of us are turning into full time consumers of media. When blogs came on the scene, everyone turned producers. For a brief period, the web seemed like turning us into a society of (albeit virtual) prosumers. The mirage was too good to last. Now we consume each other’s vacation photos. And yes, produce those, too. So maybe, fundamentally, nothing’s changed.

Those interstices …

They are filling up. And maybe it’s not such a great thing, after all.

We need those empty spaces.

——

PS: I did write this piece (I don’t know what else to call it?) in an elevator. While it was stuck and jammed. And there was no data signal. Okay, maybe I just dreamed it. Still …

PS2: I don’t know about the revolution, but this will be tweeted. And it will fill up those interstices. For you and me.

Condescendingly Yours

Language is not just a tool of communication and thoughts. It’s also a record of prevalent attitudes of society. Recently, after years of deliberation, I picked  up Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The decision seems vindicated, about three fourths into the book, but that’s a different subject than what I had in mind while starting this post (not blog — as rightly condescended (sic) by Atul in his blog-post Mind the gap). The subject is the word condescending itself.

Back to Pride and Prejudice — one of Ms. Austen’s character Mr. Collins repeatedly compliments another character, one  Lady Catherine De Bourgh for her “affability and condescension”. Not many modern speakers of English, will use these two words in the same sentence, except when trying to be ironic, maybe. And yet, Ms. Austen (actually just her character) seems to have been using the word condescend in borderline — if not completely — positive sense. So I decided to go after the other or older meanings of the word.

After all, I’m sure Jane Austen is no Humpty Dumpty saying ‘when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean’

So here is its etymology from: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/condescend#English

From Middle English condescenden, from Old French condescendre, from Late Latin condescendere (to let one’s self down, stoop, condescend), from Latin com-(together) + descendere (to come down); see descend.

There is one clue, alright. For you really have to believe that some people are above others for them to descend down to their level — for if the former is believed, then the latter would be indeed a noble, and laudable act! So in post-liberal world (yes, the irony is intended, but we’d let it go at that) it’s no wonder that the word has lost its positive connotation. And it’s equally less surprising that in the 19th Century’s class conscious English society, it had a positive connotation indeed.

And while I was looking for these things, I hit upon another post which pretty much talks of the same thing: http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2010/05/lady-catherines-condescension.html. Funny thing is, the author says “By its very nature, condescension now implies that the recipient is inferior and is being patronized” — probably not realizing that patronize might well have gone through same fate!

Then again, another thing that strikes me is that Ms. Austen has only Mr. Collins use the word at all, and for a character who is shown to be vein, patronizing and overbearing, and not really respected much by the central character, with whom, we can safely assume, lie the author’s sympathies and sensibilities. So I guess even in early nineteenth society the word and the attitudes had started losing their sheen? I don’t know if Ms. Austen was ahead of her time, or behind, or with the times, but it looks like for a Victorian novel, the book has many modern ethos, even borderline feminist themes. So all in all, usage of one word cannot be made a complete guide to times. What it can do, is to get you thinking about them. That’s half the battle won, right?