Reflections – 2017, 24th Jan

There is a poignancy to the expression: “succumbed to her own melancholy”. I came across it in “Love, Terror, and Cigarettes” (a New Yorker piece  about German writer Gregor Hens’ Memoir, Nicotine). In the book, Gregor uses it to describe the demise of his mother, possibly a suicide brought on by depression. It got me thinking. So much of us, despite our glorious civilization and its pinnacles of achievement, is the chemical lotcha in our brain. The melancholy is just an aspect of it. We succumb to so much — to our fears, our joys, our pride, our ambitions, our dreams. And that is all within us. There is a universe floating in those chemicals that define us, despite our best efforts. Our longing to break free and travel to other worlds is probably just an extension of our longing to break free of the universe that we’re trapped in, inside our heads. And the harmony that we sometimes see in the external world is just our hormones making us believe it’s alright. That, it all fits; it all has a rhythm — accidental or otherwise.  

 

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!

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.

Paris, Mumbai, and the Rest of the World

Sometimes I feel words fail us more often than they help us. Then again, when words fail us, the shock makes us remember. So our counting isn’t exactly faithful. We need words to tell us that words have failed us.
 
#ParisAttack seems like a distant echo of what happened in Mumbai, circa 2008. In 12 days it would be a seven year anniversary of those dastardly attacks. Last Saturday, I was in Mumbai, at Gateway of India, opposite the iconic Taj, one of the prime sites of the 2008 attacks. It was the first time after the 2008 attacks which left Taj burning for hours, and those images haunting us for days, that I was there. Standing there, between the sea, and the heritage building, what struck me was that the world hasn’t changed much.
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Mumbai, for sure hasn’t. The freeway, the flyovers, and the metro notwithstanding. I got a mochi to sew my floaters for mere 10 rupees (15 cents?). When I handed him a twenty, still a pittance, he looked at me wearily, nodded, and put the money in his pockets. I thanked him for not thanking me and moved on.

Mumbai is a microcosm of our world. Living shoulder to shoulder are richest and poorest people, plush office spaces and slums. You look outta window of your upper middle class friend’s place to see a row of makeshift houses. You take a ride on the new Eastern Freeway, and see dilapidated housing colonies, a reminder of Mumbai that was, that is.

I’ve never been to Paris. But Paris, people who have been there, seems to touch them in some ways. Especially the young ones. Strike that. The young parts of everyone. There is something intoxicating about a city with never ending night life, art, high culture, and a beacon of intellectualism — whatever the philosophies. Just like Mumbai.

And yet, there isn’t one Mumbai, one Paris. Mumbai has burned due to religious riots many times before 2008. Paris has had it’s share of race riots. They both have their de-facto ghettos. They both are microcosms of our world — opening up at seams to show an underbelly that’s not in line with the romanticism of the privileged. Blast or no blasts. Attacks or no attacks.

The fact is, the world is being hurt everyday on a scale not very different from from happened to Mumbai in 2008, or Paris today. Beirut, Baghdad, just today, for instance. They don’t move us the way a Paris does, a New York does, a London does, a Mumbai does. There is a point to ponder there.

Mumbai bleeds everyday. More people die of preventable diseases everyday, than terrorism on worst days. Our response to terrorism wouldn’t be effective till we let the world let itself down, every day. Day after day. And it doesn’t move us the way the prime time images of a terrorist attack do. No this is not about whataboutery.

In such times, the social networks light up. Out comes analysis. Out come the daggers. Cheap points are scored over corpses not even buried, or burnt.

We let the words let us down. We let the words let the world down.

May we learn to use worlds to heal. We owe that to the world.

We are the word. We are the world.

Of Slowness, in the Fast World

When someone says about a book or movie that it was too slow, I’m tempted to ask: compared to what? Is there a gold standard of pace for a book, or a movie?

“It is too slow” could well be a judgement on the one passing that judgement. It could just hint at our inability to concentrate, of our lack of patience, our fast shrinking attention spans. Stories have their own pace. Not all can be rushed. Fast paced isn’t necessarily good. Not all subjects can be handled at fast paced. Not many, even. Quickies may have their use, but to recall a controversial ad, asli maza instant nahin hota (the real pleasure is never instant).

No I don’t endorse slowness for the sake of it (although, neither do I criticize it). I’m not saying everything slow is wonderful. But what I am doing is questioning our collective clamoring for everything fast paced. We are, it seems, too bored of nuances. We have no interest in stories that one can’t “tell (it) and get over with, already”.

Long back, the Pune Times supplement of Times of India used to carry a small column by someone (okay hint, he was a bong), I’ve entirely forgotten about, but who I used to enjoy reading, once in a while. Incidentally, it wasn’t slow (who has time and space for slow column in, essentially, an ad supplement). And there is one particular piece of his that I still remember, or in any case the gist of it. He talked about how he noticed a road one fine day, in a way he hadn’t noticed before.

Our lives, rushed and busy as they are, don’t leave us with enough time, it seems, to notice the scenery. So much so that, you could be driving on the most beautiful road, with your spouse, out to celebrate your first anniversary, and all that, and a slow driver in front, slowing you down would make you angry.

Move on, already.

We can’t live in a moment. When a beautiful moment is being extended by traffic, we see traffic, not the moment.

Milan Kundera in his comparatively less well known book, Slowness, serenades with this theme: slowness and memory. He deliberates on the issues of slowness, and speed, coincidentally, using the metaphor of driving.

[T]he man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instant of his flight; he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time; he is ousted time; in other words, he is in a state of ecstasy[…]

Speed is a form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man.  As opposed to a motorcyclist, the runner is always present in his body, forever required to think about his blisters, his exhaustion; when he runs he feels his weight, his age, more conscious than ever of himself and of his time of life.  This all changes when man delegates the faculty of speed to a machine: from then on, his own body is outside the process, and he gives over to a speed that is noncorporeal, non-material, pure speed, speed itself, ecstasy speed.

Have we, then, delegated the faculty of speed to a machine: the big bad machine that we’re part of, the modern living — career, and the monotony of fast-paced living? Kundera laments the loss of slowness:

Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folk song, those  vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars?  Have they vanished along with footpaths, with grasslands and clearings, with nature? There is a Czech proverb that describes their easy indolence by a metaphor:  “They are gazing at God’s windows.” A person gazing at God’s windows is not  bored; he is happy. In our world, indolence has turned into having nothing to do,  which is a completely different thing: a person with nothing to do is frustrated,  bored, is constantly searching for the activity he lacks.

When we read a slow book, do we have nothing (better) to do? Do we perceive the slowness because we have lost the art of gazing at God’s window?

And more in the context of the current post:

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.

A man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down.

Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace, as if he were trying to distance himself from a thing still too close to him in time.

In existential mathematics that experience takes the form of two basic equations: The degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.

This whole chain of thought started because of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. As I deliberated whether to pick it up, I chanced upon a review on goodreads. The reviewer said she was contemplating dropping the book just thirty odd pages into it because the narration was “unbearably slow” (her words, not mine). She ended up giving the book five stars and a stellar review. 

While reading it, myself, I kept on recalling Kundera’s words about speed and memory. Remains of the Day is a recollection of a bygone era. And how do you make someone remember a lost era, really remember, and cherish, and let it live as a ghost that much longer, unless one slows it down to a whisper, or its equivalent in speed. When a child throws a tantrum, we tell him/her that when you shout, you get attention of everyone for a moment, but no one remembers what you said, because it will be lost before you could even speak. When you whisper, by contrast, you may not get the attention of everyone, but those who will listen to you will listen to you with rapt attention till you’ve said what you wanted to.

When you tell a story slowly, unfold it gently, let it seep in into the very being of the listener, let it hang in the air, for the air is heavier than the pace of the narration, when you let it germinate in the mind of the reader … well, it seems you could lose a lot of readers. But whoever hangs around past those thirty odd pages, you’ve got them hooked. Invested in your painstakingly painted world. Spellbound. Enthralled. Mesmerized.

Ishiguro has managed that with The Remains of the Day. Maybe, like the bygone era that it depicts, where life wasn’t so fast, after all, was destined to be relegated to such memories, and that too, meant only for “those few amblers of yesteryear, those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars”, as Kundera puts it.

Those who don’t mind “gazing at God’s windows”. Those with nothing better to do.

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.

On the Write Path

This blog has never had a huge following. It’s both by design and accident.

Design, in the sense that, the blog author has resolutely resisted any suggestions or instincts to increase the reach of the blog, or its influence. The kind of things the new media lives by, for mostly the right reasons.

Accident, because the blog author wasn’t born a particularly talented writer. He just loved to write from the time he remembers. And to read what he writes. Yeah, that’s kind of conceited. But what the hell.

Now the blog has reached an existential fork where there are two alternatives: to continue writing without much of a readership, or to take active steps to increase readership.

There is of course a third-fork — to stop writing, but given how vain and conceited the blog writer is that’s not even an option.

WordPress is an excellent blogging platform. One of the reasons, is that it tells you a lot about what is resonating with whom. The stats are quite thorough that way. I know people who publish posts only in specific time windows because that’s when they (know they) get maximum hits. It’s funny how this new media has made writing just like Bollywood music/movie. If you miss your window, you’ve missed the bus.

It does raise questions about the intrinsic worth of your produce (or creation if that sounds too marketplace). If your writing can’t survive being presented to the world at the wrong hour, or minute, why exactly should it be considered of value (and for those friends I’ve no doubt about the value of their content)? [The concept of] value, said Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged, presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what?

There is a parallel, but related, unending discussion that I’ve been having with multiple people, like a low intensity war fought with different people at different times, but logically the same one, where I’ve been told: “If what you are writing is good, more people should see it, which means, it’s upon you to make sure that happens”.

The problem is, everyone in the web 2.0 world thinks that what they’re writing is good, and that more people should see it. And that it’s their duty to make sure it happens.

And so are born repeated plugs, you scratch my back I scratch your back (reciprocat-ry follows), hash tag overloads, invitations to “like” at one end, and conscious efforts to increasing klout, tailoring content to suit your readership, following and engaging the ‘right’ people (not because you like what they share, but because you want to increase your influence/reach), etc at the other end.

My most loved piece on this blog, by far, going by the stats, is a parody/rebuttal of a post in India Ink, NYT, “Why I left India (Again)”. That happened because a couple of influential twitterati shared the link. You should write more of this, said a well meaning friend. But seriously, that was hardly a piece that could satisfy one as a writer. On the other hand I have written a few posts on this very blog which have made me feel satisfied, at least in the sense that they have made me feel I’m on the right path, the write path. Many/most of those haven’t registered any heartbeat on the stats-o-meter.

Take the road less taken, says the pseudo-Frostian advice by consensus. In all probability, the road less traveled is a lonely road. It goes to nowhere. Those who take it rarely get to tell their stories. And maybe that’s why, most don’t take it.

So what will I do? Will I take the sane advice by infinitely saner-than-me friends and change course, or continue on the road to nowhere? Join the highway, follow the rules, and wait for a roadkill, or be the roadkill in a godforsaken part of godforsaken woods?

Does writing have value outside of its readership? But more importantly, in the current context, does a writer need readers to write? Do they matter? Will I write if I’m the only person reading? Does it feel good when your writing reach more people? Hell, yes, right? Not any people, but the kind of “imaginary audience” you had in mind when you wrote? Isn’t writing also a way of touching upon other people in some way? But if the road to that changes the very journey, is it worth it?

Questions!

Here is what I will change. Over the next few weeks (not sure how many), I will do one thing differently. I will control the inner-critic (starting today, with this piece). I will post more often, more regularly (I’ve been told this is important to increase readership!). It won’t be pretty. But survival is rarely pretty. And for this blog, it’s come to that. For this blogger, it’s come to that, or so all the leading indicators say. And in that process of staying afloat, maybe I will prove to myself, that I am on the write path. Or, maybe I’ll see you in the woods someday?