The Unbearable Weight of Words

If you want to be a writer, first be a reader, or so say many masters of the craft, when talking about writing. I suspect they’re basically saying you don’t know what good writing is till you have read good writing, and reading a lot of quality writing will change you as a writer. All true, probably. I’m not a master to dare contradict them.

But I suspect, even if they don’t mean it that way, there are more reasons to read writings — good, great, wonderful, fabulous, out of the world, the kinds that make you want to shout out to the world just because you’re able to get them.

One reason in particular.

When you read that kind of, knocks you flat, stuff, it pushes you into an existential crisis as a budding writer. I mean, why bother writing, if you know you’re, in all probability, never going to reach there, or somewhere about there. Even to the base camp of the summit, really. Or realistically. It plunges you into a writing block so freakin debilitating that you think: is this where the story ends? Literally.

Oh, did I say the reason was going to help you become a better writer? No, right? Just that it’s important. To have stared into the abyss. To have a sense of the depth of utter despair that is always just a step away on that path. For if one doesn’t have a heart for that, one shouldn’t be aspiring to reach the summit.

Of course, there is another way. To ignore summits. To aim for mediocrity. And if one is lucky, to taste success, in the conventional sense, and to build one’s house far from summits, one story higher than all that’s around, and to stand in the gallery and marvel at where one has reached. Many happy stories have endings like that. If you care for them, that is.

But maybe, the stories worth living are those that don’t have such happy endings, somewhere in the middle. Maybe, one needs to hit a wall and rethink one’s route. Maybe, rethinking “why” one should aspire, is a step to sustain that aspiration. And to ask that why one needs to read the best of the best. Maybe there is no happy ending. But maybe, the route to the base camp is itself worth stepping out of one’s comfort zones for. Seriously, though, why bother, otherwise?


 

My friend and co-conspirator at Gaizabonts who has again generously offered the image that serves as the featured image here, and also has indirectly kick-started this post as part of FB comments. Thanks Atul!

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As Time Goes By

Another year bids us goodbye. That is: another repetition of a random marker, one of many methods of demarcating time, but one that is now universal by its overall acceptance. In Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods, the power of gods is decided by the number of people who believe in them. Sir Pratchett probably just wanted to make a point about the arbitrariness of belief — it’s been a while since I read it, so cannot say with certainty — but all myths, and all conventions, definitely need the numbers to survive. So while different calenders still survive, and different new years are still celebrated,  they are like the small gods, while this Gregorian Calendar is the big league.

Anyways, the point wasn’t that (it rarely is with me, as the regular — haha, it feels good to use the term — readers already know) at all. As the year comes to an end, I got thinking, how do I want to spend the rest of it? I mean, I hate parties, I hate to step out on the NYE, because, more or less, I hate crowds, and lines at restaurants, and overpriced food, and collective superficial euphoria, and most things that come on the television, and so on. So, over the years, I’ve welcomed the new year in my sleep — or more precisely by waking up to the sound of firecrackers, which, yes you guessed it, I hate.

So how is it going to be this year?

 

***

There is a weird pop-wisdom (popularized recenlty by Steve Jobs, no less) that runs something like this: live every day like it’s the last day of your life. For some reason, it’s considered self-explanatory wisdom, even an obvious one. But is it?

If I knew, when the day started, that it’s the last day of my life, how would I live it? Let’s see. It would be too late to run through the list of “important things to do” to make sure the family is somewhat set to deal with the eventuality. I mean yes, I’d possibly come up with a list of passwords and likes, that I need to handover to the spouse. Let her know the list of credit cards that need to be stopped (they need to be, right?). And such sundry things. That would take less than an hour, I’d recon. Then I’d probably call up a very small list of people and bid goodbye. Few more hours. Then I’d probably spend rest of the time with my loved ones. Cook something good for them. And as the hour approaches, put on the last of the Jazz pieces I’d like to listen to, once again. A bit of Mingus. A lot of Coltrane. Love Supreme as a finale.

Here is what I will NOT do: work, plan for future, read, watch movies, contemplate on philosophical issues, exercise, help others, sleep, learn anything new, try anything new actually, write …

You see why it’s useless?

I think the better wisdom would be: live every day as if you know when you’re going to die. So that you can come up with the perfect plan. And stick to it, because we know there will be no extension. Prioritize time because you know exactly how much you will have, no more. It’s the uncertainty, and more precisely the apparent abundance of time, that stops us from a lot of it. Not just the non-emergency of it. Because emergency is not the best way to schedule your life goals. Especially, when you don’t know when you’re going to die. Like the most of us.

***

So what has this got to do with the new year’s eve?

Nothing really. What it reminds me of, this new year thing is that it’s that time of the year again, to take a stock. Because it seems like the right time to do it. And it’s that time of year when you know very little time is left — of the year. How should one spend it? Like it were the last day to change anything about the year (it is!). And if there is anything I want to change about 2017, it’s the writing part. Or the non-writing part, to be precise.

So here I am. Trying to write. And to keep the flame burning, through to the next year. And hope, it will be better, the next year. But let’s face it, without a serious plan, it won’t be. But even acknowledging that is a good start, right? And the thing about “last days” is, it’s too late to change anything substantially. It’s too late to plan. It’s too late to do anything but relax, and reminisce, and remember, and maybe think about what wasn’t, and what was, and what could be.

***

In more ways than one, 2017 was the Annus horribilis. And I’m strictly speaking of writing. Yes, I wrote some verses, some non-fiction pieces, which were not cringe-worthy. But where it counts — fiction — it was the worst year since I started writing (if one could call it that — but I would, even if it’s basically writing for oneself). This was the year distractions got the better of me. This was the year I’ll write off, happily. I’m even happy it’s ending. Because however arbitrary, a new year seems like a new start. At least I know that over the last 365 days, I’ve failed in prioritizing something that gives me a sense of achievement. I’ve failed terribly. Completely. And what better way to spend the last night of the year than to admit that to oneself, and to the tiny part of the world that cares about it (like you, maybe, because you’re still reading this). Maybe this is the rock bottom that I needed to hit. And the last thing: of course I know 2017 is not to blame for any of it. It was only the messenger.

 

 

The Honest Conundrum

Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory is a character that is currently one of the best-known TV personalities (okay, all ya GOT fanatics, I concede there is a chance one of the 100 odd GOT characters might be well known in some circles, but …), to the extent that he’s become a trope. Terms like Sheldonish behavior are now heard not so infrequently. The character, commonly believed to be one exhibiting the Asperger syndrome (although denied by the creator),  is also considered to be brutally honest. The term is not new, of course, nor unique to him. We all know a person or two, whom we casually refer to as being brutally honest. It’s of course not easy being one such person in a society that pays lip service to honesty but institutionalizes many kinds of dishonest behaviors, in the name of “things you need to do for the sake of society/people/family/etc”.

But the term itself is quite interesting. What does brutal honesty mean? Why is the term even there? Language is the biggest barometer of culture, and the very fact that we have a term like that shows our instinctive aversion to honest assessment, especially when we are being judged. Consider for instance statements like, “this is what I honestly believe”. Can one really have a dishonest belief? One could hold a right/wrong belief, or true/false belief. But can one hold a dishonest belief? How does that even work? Does one “know” one is dishonest about what one believes? Or is one unconsciously dishonest about one’s belief? And if it’s the latter, then how is it dishonest?

Back to brutal honesty, then, does it mean we only want honesty from others when they think/feel what we want them to? Or, if we’re a bit more tolerant of criticism, and get ego kicks out of “taking criticism” when it’s mild, and/or sugar coated?  But the moment it’s unfiltered and stark, comes the label of “brutal honesty”. As if others owe us gentle honesty because our fragile egos need protection.  The way we treat those we brand “brutally honest” speaks volumes about our culture. And to be brutally honest, it’s not very pretty. In The Big Bang Theory, being fiction, one sees a benign exasperation as the worst case scenario, but in real life, Sheldon will have to be extremely lucky to have a caring circle of friends around him. He’ll be ridiculed, ostracized, and in not so rarified environments (unlike one where the theoretical physicists, and experimental physicists, are working/living in), will be lucky to even hold a job. That is the brutal truth.

 

Rain in the Cities

Cities have their histories, peoples, cultures, monuments. They have their unique, even overpowering, smells. They have their streets, planned or unplanned, neat or dirty, congested or empty, and so on. Another unique aspect of cities I’ve noticed is their relationship to the rains.

Mumbai, where I have never quite lived, and have never quite stayed away from for more than a year at a time, and where I spent a couple of years in the (then) quaint  IIT campus, has a very passionate love-hate relationship with the rains. June, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot [1], is the cruelest month (or half month) in Mumbai, as the city, just coming off a long summer, is at its sweaty worst, with humidity flying off the roof in anticipation of the rains; and if you travel in the local trains at that time of the year, there is only one predominant subject: baarish kab aayegi (when will it rain)? The anticipation of rain in Mumbai is like at no place I know of. Not even the farming villages very immediately dependent on the rains. Maybe it is because, while others are not quite sure, and hence are even afraid of anticipating, lest the rain gods take offense and disappoint, Mumbai is quite sure of the rains, blessed as it is with an abundance, every year. But that’s not all of it. In a city where every square foot seems to be exorbitantly priced and still occupied, rain is a respite from the sweat and the heat, and the sheer monotony of a clockwork industrial life.

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Mumbai – A wet game

The ending of the movie The Perfect Murder (1990 – Merchant Ivory Productions) captures the essence of Mumbai’s affair with the first rain — before the drains choke, and local trains stop functioning, and the low-lying areas are flooded, and roads are closed, and it’s already too much rain. The first rain is seen as the solution to all of the city’s problems (as they are the solution to the perfect murder in the city, in the film). The happiness on the streets is comparable to no other collective happiness (except for a cricket World Cup win for India, maybe), as the sheer numbers are on its side. But there is a sense of relief that really underlines the happiness. The megapolis needs the assurance that there will be water, and food, for the next year, just as a farming community in a village needs it, even more, maybe.

But while Mumbai was and is (and will be) my other home, always, the city where I grew up, Solapur, a city past its golden days during the heydays of cloth mills, now a sugar economy, has a very different relationship to rains. Solapur district is highly drought prone, and while keeping aside the irony of massive sugarcane farming in this belt, thanks to the Ujani river dam and canal networks, while the city remains thirsty through the summer months (center of the city used to have water supply once every three to four days, till the last year’s excellent rains in areas upstream the Ujani basin), rains are welcome just about anytime there. Only, one has to seriously redefine “rains”, especially if coming from Mumbai like areas of abundance. But the four months of monsoons transform the region like anything. Whatever little rain, the skies are overcast, temperatures are moderate, and there is never a chance of missing a day’s work due to rains.

The funny thing is, while growing up, we’d have schools being shut because of a passing showers, almost. That’s how rare it was to see rain. And for someone who’s grown up there, rain is always special. Even when one is locked into a room three days because of downpour (as I later experienced in Mumbai). Rain is the transformer. Not just for a week, but for the full season, even with little delivery. One doesn’t complain.

And there is Pune, my home for one and a half decade now. Pune is blessed with just about adequate rains, most of the years, and it is neither left dry nor is it flooded, except for the rare cloudbursts, combined with the (not so rare) unpreparedness of the local governing bodies. But lately, it looks like Pune is always waiting for the rains, just on the horizon. Pune’s monsoon has learned from its people: promising to come on time, and never managing to.

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View from Office. Post Pre-monsoon showers.

But when it does rain, Pune is a different place too — once the clogged drains are cleared up, a tad too late, that is. The outskirts, where hills haven’t been destroyed by buildings, turn lush green — an invitation extended by the Sahyadri ranges to all the people to come visit, because while there is a strange beauty to Sahyadri in the summers, with scorched red, bare tops, and a game of shadows in the valleys, the majesty of the ranges in the monsoons cannot be described in words.

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View from Lonavala hill top (stitched panorama)

It’s no wonder that the season of the rains kickstarts the cultural activities (including the festival of Ganesha, the loved deity in these parts) in Pune. It’s like the seeds of creation need the rains to begin sprouting. But, even for the increasingly IT-fied city, with indoor work with AC at full blast, the rains change everything. There is a smell in the air that washes away all the sins of the vehicular exhausts. There is green somewhere, if not everywhere, in sight. The commute is better (even if slightly longer in duration).

Lastly, I remember rains in the Silicon Valley. And the contrast couldn’t be more. There was no visible joy in the cold rains there, even with a long-running drought. Maybe the fact that one can’t walk into the rains and feel it on your bare skin, as it soaks into your clothes, that stops rain from being a kind of celebration that one is used to living in this part of the world. But I’d rather be here when it rains. And however cliched it may sound, enjoy them with a plate of hot bhaji and chai.


PS: The ruminations were inspired by an unusually stoic driving by me on the roads today, as post the night rains, and with very very pregnant skies promising more, the atmosphere was calming my nerves. But rain has again decided to show Pune how it feels to wait, on the other side of a promised meeting.


[1] Someone who’s grown up in western India, April is a hot, hot month, with no respite from the heat in any form — no cold evening winds, no passing rains/showers, nothing — it’s very easy to misread T. S. Eliot’s “April is the cruelest” month, as something very literal. So while I paraphrase assuming a literal meaning, it’s anything but! Ref: (Quora: What did T. S. Eliot mean when he said that April is the cruelest month?)

Laughter Challenge(d) 

One thing that WhatsApp has done for me is that it has made me aware of a progressive loss of (what is generally called) sense-of-humor in myself. To be honest, it doesn’t feel like loss, really. But it does call for some thinking.

Humor that hits low is easy. Even lazy. It derives its power from deep rooted prejudices, casual (but caustic) stereotypes, and social power imbalances. And in turn, it ends up cementing those prejudices, reinforces the stereotypes, strengthening the unfair status quo — little by little, over million retellings, shares, chuckles, guffaws. It even takes sides, lazily, safely. It has the numbers with it and is proud of them. Almost to the point of arrogance. It looks away when it needs to. It’s lazily accepted, and it believes that acceptance sanctions its existence.

Humor that hits high is anything but lazy. Not many find it “funny”. Still less choose to laugh. It carries with it a risk — to relationships, to jobs, to life/freedoms in some places, even. It makes people uncomfortable because many a time it hits close to home. Sometimes it hits us, even. It demands introspection, not a reason why anyone would want a joke, right? Very few forward it because it makes others we love uncomfortable. It doesn’t bring in any change, at least not in the short-term. One reason being: it doesn’t go viral (for the reasons aforementioned), either in the traditional slow but sticky sense, or the modern fast sense, even if a short-lived one.

The thing about humor is that it is a communion of sorts. It binds people. It creates a social conscience. It forms a homogeneous group. Laughter is the price of entry, the only ritual — of belonging. More and more, I’m not willing to pay that price. Don’t get me wrong. I do want to belong. But not at the cost of changing myself — into something I don’t particularly like being. As George Costanza would put it: “It’s not they, it’s me”. At the end of the day, I like to look into the mirror and see there someone that I like. I’m selfish, that way, yes.

Yes, it means a lot less laughter. Everything has a price. But in my life, there is enough laughter to filleth my cup over.  I’d rather choose.

Horizontal Immortality

Some people are good at making you think. Not because they say something special. That’s secondary. It’s because they say something that you will find worth thinking about. In that sense, they are made for you, in a very self-centered way of thinking. In the blogging sphere, the person who has given a lot of ideas for me to blog about, is Atul Sabnis (and I hope, I’ve also returned the favor in part, but I have long stopped worrying about symmetry in such matters — not everything has to be reciprocated, and sometimes just the action of graceful acceptance of a gift, intended or not, is itself a part reciprocation). I am sure you’ll find many posts triggered by his posts if you were to dig into this blog’s archive — no, this isn’t a trick to get you to read more on my blog, although, of course, I would not mind it.

Anyways, today Atul wrote about “cloning oneself “, and how that is not an answer to our problem of not being able to be at two places at the same time, because, we still won’t be able to share the experience. The clone isn’t us, and experience cannot be “had” like that. But that made me ask, suppose you could clone yourself, such that, you could actually have multiple experiences, and you were never constrained by time and space. Would that be an answer?

Immortality has been a major theme for humanity because we’re all afraid of death — most of us, at least. But while we want to turn back the clock in our cells, and experiment with immortality, one ideological opposition to immortality has always been that it will make life (more) boring, because so much of life’s excitement comes from the fact that it’s limited and uncertain.

Being able to indiscriminately clone oneself and with shared experience, a variation of Dark Lord’s Horcruxes (incidentally, even the Dark Lord is limited in number of those Horcruxes that could be made, as every division hurts him, metaphysically, if one can call it that — but that was Voldemort’s plan for immortality), is a kind of horizontal immortality. For what is the aim of immortality, but to have unlimited experiences? Does it matter, how long you live, if you can experience it all? Yes, one can’t experience all in the future, but as it happens, we experience just a tiny tiny part of the present, because we can only be at one place at one time. So if we can be at multiple places at the same time, we’re for all practical purpose experiencing it all.  And that means, we’re not required to choose what we experience. We are not worried about the fear of missing out, the dreaded FOMO.

What I’m also reminded of is Borges‘ story: Funes the Memorious, where the protagonist is almost paralyzed by the fact that he remembers every damn detail or everything he experiences. His problem was the opposite of the fear of missing out. It was the tyranny of not missing out on any details of a memory, even after trying. His memory is immortality in another dimension, that makes it impossible to experience anything, as forgetting is an integral part of experiencing — it’s another form of discernment, of choice, even if implicit, not explicit.

Someone whom I follow on twitter asked recently: is FOMO necessarily bad? By the nature of reality, we miss on almost all that’s happening around us, experiencing a pin tip worth of the complete ocean, at any moment. In a moment lives the experience of lifetimes, sliced across all living consciousness.

So why should we fear the missing out? Why fear something we can do nothing about. And for the same reason, why should we fear death, for we’re already missing so much, that death doesn’t change that significantly. Life, however, can change what we experience significantly (because it’s finite by definition). But life is a choice (implicit or explicit). This vs that. Here vs there. He vs she. Our values are derived from the fact that we’ve limited time, which we need to live to the fullest. So why wish that we didn’t have to choose? To choose is to live. And immortality, horizontal in time, or linear in space, makes choosing meaningless, and hence life meaningless. We shouldn’t wish to clone ourselves, for the same reason that we shouldn’t wish to live forever. Instead, we should choose what we can. We should live, while we can.

 

 

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