No Man’s Land

We’ve shrunk
the no man’s land
now it looks like
a thin red line
and both sides
want you to redraw it
fresh, with your blood
as a token
of your membership,
and there are lines
long, tiring lines
on both sides
of people out to prove
their allegiance
to their one truth,
timeless, even self-evident,
with a drop of their blood
drawn out with
a sterilized syringe
bravely enduring
the harmless little prick,
and intent to paint
the line red
again, and again
lest we forget
the wrongs,
of the other side,
and the line
doesn’t ever dry out
or change color,
on both sides,
the color of blood,
and the color of rage,
is the same red.

We’ve raised
our fences
made them formidable
tall, and strong,
with spikes on them,
electricity flowing
through them,
and menacing reminders —
the skulls,
of erstwhile fence-sitters,
naive idiots,
who couldn’t take sides,
adorning them,
and there are watchers
on both sides, watching
intently, your every step,
weapons ready,
just in case,
you climbed the fence
but they needn’t bother,
because no one,
wants to sit on the fence

Featured Image: Church Behind a Fence by Atul Sabnis

The Festive Conundrum

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


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

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

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

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

So what exactly do festivals mean to me, now?

[To Be Continued]

Friends 2.0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Revolution Will be Tweeted

The revolution will be tweeted
quoted, retweeted
bookmarked, pocketed
plastered on the wall
liked, shared, pinned

No, you can’t
the revolution
not now
but it could be
upvoted or downvoted
questioned, and answered

The revolution will be trended
will be #foodporn’ed

The revolution will have
its fifteen minutes
of fame
and if lucky,
it will survive
as a buzzfed

The revolution will be whatsapped
it will bring a smile
to your otherwise dull day
a chuckle, or a shudder
if you are an intellectual
but it sure will be forwarded

No the revolution
cannot be deleted
once it is,
it is forever
relegated to obscurity
after the few hours of fame
there will be no epitaph
no grave, just a timestamp
revolution will live on

The revolution will not be attended
it will be delivered to you
in any way you choose
push or pull, even digested
it will bother you
as a notification
in the right hand upper corner
till you’ll take a look
do the needful
without taking a step

The revolution will be branded
angel funded
Revolution will be irresistible
festive, unprecedented
it will be your last chance
while the stocks last
and if it doesn’t suit you
it can be refunded
hassle free

the revolution will be monetized
taken over

the revolution will be changed

it won’t be the change
it will just be
commented upon …

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?

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?


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.

Fifty thousand shades of religion

“What’s you name”, asks a fifty-sixty-something aunty living in my building to my kid as we get into the elevator. Never known to talk to strangers, he lets us do the talking.

“Rehaan”, says my wife.

Fifty-sixty-something aunty has an animated expression on her face — wonder concealing  surprise, and the effort needed for that is not concealed — probably because no effort is made to conceal the effort.

“Isn’t that a muslim name?”, she asks, quite sure that we don’t look muslim. Continue reading

Retribution, Thy Name is Human

So looks like we’ve moved on from Kasab’s hanging. Not that I had a doubt we would be hung up on it for too long, for in India there is always something else to beat to death (pardon the double-entrandre: that wasn’t intended, but seemed apt once it came out like that (being hung up on a hanging, is also a good mixed half-metaphor, isn’t it?), especially given our media, and our obsession with it. Continue reading

On the ‘Verses’, and Soft Targets

The regrettable Rushdie affair is kind of over, with media moving onto other stories,  I suppose. A lot has been said on the subject, and I guess people are bored. But then, the advantage of a blog that’s rarely read is that one can go on and drag dead horses around. One’s gotta capitalize on blessing in disguise.

My reaction to the whole affair will be no surprise to anyone who reads this blog. I’m terribly upset by the politicization of everything cultural, and the way philistine mobs are ruling the country covertly, under the disguise of democracy. From Mistry, to Rushdie, we’ve seen how political landscape has subverted the cultural scene, making India’s claims to being a liberal democracy hollow. Continue reading

The Dream Merchants

In the nineties India started liberalizing, or so the history books will say. The economic liberalization — forced by the foreign reserves situation or not — is supposed to have started then. In the small towns of India, though, the only liberalization that we saw in the nineties was the liberalization of media (yes, for a brief period, it was more liberal than today, in terms of censoring or lack of it). The satellite TV arrived in India, and with that, India (or Indians) suddenly had a window to the world. Before that there was, the iconic, The World This Week — with its last segment, ‘The News Makers’, that served most Indians their weekly glimpse at the world at large. But with the cable TV, the world entered Indian houses in the earnest.

Back to liberalization. In my engineering days, the debate was about liberalization, and how it could end up destroying Indian economy, making us slaves of the West again. The most frequent topics of the Group Discussions that were a hurdle to the coveted jobs, and MBA admissions, were two back then: the brain drain, the economic liberalization. But the actual liberalization was yet to reach we the people. We the people satisfied ourselves with dreams — the dreams sold by the dream merchants.

Zee TV, one of the first Indian channels on the cable TV had this program called The Dream Merchants. Among other things it showcased the best advertisements in the world. It’s curious how dreams were sold back then. We could not even aspire to buy any of the things being sold to other people by those ads. Not just because we did not have money. We sure did not. But even if we were to have it, the things themselves were not sold here. Yet. Instead, we were sold the dreams. Those who bought them, had to leave India to take the delivery. Most did not even understand the ads. We did not know the language. But that was a minor problem. Bigger problem was that we did not have the language. We did not have access to the cultural capital that went into the making of that language – visual or otherwise. And so we marvelled at the incomprehensible. The way, in Hollywood movies, African tribal is shown marveling at the magical machines of the West.

Two decades have passed. Now we don’t worry about brain drain so much, or at all. More importantly, now we have the cultural capital, we have the language (hell, we are the language — the ads have changed to accommodate the cultural capital of the East). We have the monies (yes, not just money), some of us; many of us, even. The tables have turned. Now we’re the merchant’s dream. No one sells us dreams any longer. They sell us goods. In plenty. We buy them. In plenty.

I was a staunch capitalist; not surprising, for someone who revered Ayn Rand once. Today, I don’t know where I stand. Staunch capitalists are in constant fight with the idealist within them (so must be staunch socialists). For years, I believed that choice was what was keeping us from better things. Today, with all the choice, when people seem to choose the soap operas, and the inane pulp of Bollywood and Hollywood, the music whose only fame to claim is being recent, lifestyle that’s unsustainable, ideas that are indistinguishable from the banal, diet that’s killing us; it’s hard to pretend to believe in the freedom of choice as the answer to everything, or anything.

Liberalism was doomed the day it had to be qualified as economic liberalism. It was free, but free like a bull left to roam around with no idea of what was worth mowing down, and what was worth harvesting. The illusive marriage of economic right and social left, never seems to find a date. And left free to do whatever they want to do, people do whatever they want to do. It’s not a pretty picture.

I wish they start selling the dreams all over again, those dream merchants. I wish we could go back and reinvent a right that’s centered on left, a bit. I wish we could choose differently, as Indians. As humanity. But we’re obsessed with the idea of choice, not with what we do with it.

I wish dream merchants will sell us a dream that tells us that all this chaos is a precursor to something else. But they’re busy selling us goods. And we’re busy buying them.