Conversations: An Art of Learning

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

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

 

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


 

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

Conversations with Neel and Radha #1

 

Daughter: Mom, what’s a divorce?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daughter: So living separated is not a wrong?

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

Daughter: So why do they say divorce is bad?

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

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

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

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

Daughter: Yes, got it.


Original copyright: ©गौरी ब्रह्मे (Gauri Brahme). 

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

#नीलराधाच्या_गोष्टी

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

Notes on Ijaazat (1987)

Growing up, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to good Hindi films beyond the usual masala mix. I remember watching Shabana’s superlative performance in Arth, on a bad VHS tape on a borrowed VCR/VCP (it was a rage those days, to borrow it from the Video store for 12 hours, mostly night hours, and watch 3-4 films back to back, and return it all early morning). I remember Nasir’s nuanced portrayal of a visually impaired man in Sparsh. I remember Anupam Kher’s stinging rage in Saaransh. All these films I watched for the first time with not a lot of understanding of films, but their almost visceral quality meant I didn’t need a lot of it. It was almost instinctive. Then there were a bunch of light but meaningful, semi-realistic movies directed by one of the three talented directors : Sai Paranjape (Chashme baddor, Katha), Basu Chatterjee (Rajneegandha, Piya ka ghar, Choti si Baat, Baaton baaton mein),  Hrishikesh Mukherjee (too many to name). And so on.

All this was a backlog, mostly, that I cleared up before moving on to more contemporary movies. Meaning, these were the movies already released before I started watching movies (before I was 10 years old, as well). Then there were directors I grew up with, who made meaningful cinema, that I had started to understand more and more, thanks to a lot of decent movies already consumed — people like Govind Nihlani, Tapan Sinha, Ketan Mehta, Shyam Benegal, Jabbar Patel (Marathi, mainly). And of course, there was Gulzar. A poet/writer turned director, who gave us a bunch of fine films. But for some reason, his one movie that has really stayed with me was Ijaazat.

I don’t recall when I watched it first. Definitely not when it came out in theaters. I was 11 then, and the movie wouldn’t have made sense. But few years down the line, I caught it on another marathon VCR session, when some of my elder cousins were visiting. And the timing was just right for me. Given the times, and the place, the movie seemed progressive to me, with two female characters who were strong in their own ways, and with non-conventional relationships, and open discussions about love, an almost poetic portrayal of love, longing, acceptance, and limits of it all. (If you haven’t watched Ijaazat, stop right now. For one, you should be watching it. Plus, there will be enough spoilers, and enough assumptions)

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I will not even say that Ijaazat was Gulzar’s best film, but for young people in that era trying to get a sense of love, it was a fascinating movie, for it’s time, at least. And yet, when I look back at it now, I’m tempted to re-examine/deconstruct the movie (always a bad idea).

One of the questions that has bothered me all these years is – why is the character played by Anuradha Patel named Maya? I mean, a free-spirited girl has to have a name that signifies unreal/illusory? Is it a subconscious belief of the writer that such a girl has to be illusory? Contrast it with the names of the other two main characters: Mahender and Sudha. More earthly, not philosophical.

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Ijaazat, if you look at it from this angle, is a story of a typical Indian man (because make no mistake about it: while Maya is atypical Indian women, Mahender is a typical Indian man) who wants exotic girlfriend and settles down for homely wife, due to social factors. I know that’s very reductive. Because, Mahender wanted to marry Maya, but at the moment of decision, she is nowhere to be traced. But consider this, for five years, he has stretched the engagement with Sudha, and it’s clear to everyone she’s not his first choice. And still, when his grandfather picks up a wedding date like rabbit out of a hat, he goes ahead with the marriage because he can’t trace Maya. Now let me get this straight, if he could have traced Maya, she still wouldn’t have married him, being a free-spirited crazy feminist. What then? Was he just waiting for her ijaazat to get married to Sudha?

Its clear to both Mahender and Sudha, and also to viewers, that it’s a marriage of convenience.  And still they go through it, and try to make best of it. But it’s no wonder that it cannot survive the return of Maya. And when she does return, cracks do start appearing, especially as her presence is there even in her absence. And Mahender is not content with the convenience. He wants it all. The homely wife and the exotic girlfriend. And so he is even ready to impress on his wife what Maya is, and what she means to him. Trouble is, the relationship is not at that level of maturity to really survive that. And Mahender has made no real visible efforts to insure that level is reached, or even attempted. For him, it’s something that just has to be.

Another scene I want to deconstruct is the one before the climax, when Mahender is updating Sudha about what happened after she left him, about Maya’s death. I wonder if Maya’s end is symbolic of something? Free-spirited girl, riding a bullet, being killed by a scarf getting into the spokes? Just accident as usual? Or something more? I leave it to you to decide for yourself, but I smell a big rat. Besides, what was the need to kill Maya? To get sympathy for Mahender, who couldn’t choose between contradictory wishes (Grandfather’s wishes, his vow to his wife, his love for Maya), needed a redemption, I guess. But why? Because, and that’s where we come to the climax, Sudha needed to be able to ask him his “blessing” for her new life, and to be able to touch his feet (seriously, in the same film that has Mahender living with his girlfriend, an ultra feminist?) while doing that. For her to ask his Ijaazat, she had to forgive him first, and what better way than portraying poor Mahender who lost it all to accidents and misunderstandings?

Ah, that’s a load off, that I’ve been carrying with me for god knows how long? Because, while I completely loved the movie, the multiple times that I have watched it, some things have always nagged me. And now I realize that I had fallen for a stylized patriarchy. You guessed it, this was targeted for 8th March, but lazy me couldn’t finish it in time. But while I call out its latent patriarchy, I must applaud Gulzar for creating one of the most fascinating female characters of the era, even if named Maya. So, let’s raise a toast to this conflicted film, and to all Mayas, and Sudhas, and to a world where Mahenders would be strong enough to make their decisions without being constricted by their umbilical chords.

 

Boys Do Cry

The Australian Open tennis championship just concluded over the weekend with Roger Federer claiming his 18th grand slam title, adding to his tally after a wait for five long years, when he made to a handful of finals. Incidentally this was his first victory over Nadal since 2007 in a grand slam. A match loaded with memories of 2009 epic which anti-climaxed in the fifth set, which Nadal won 6-2, ending Federer’s hard court dominance. Till then, except for the 2008 Wimbledon, Federer was the king of everything but the clay. After losing Wimbledon 2008 in 5 epic sets, and then again Australian in similar fashion, Federer was distraught. He cried uncontrollably during the presentation.

AP AUSTRALIA TENNIS OPEN S TEN AUS

Roger “Crying” Federer

In a career that has spanned twenty years, and as illustrious as any in any contemporary sports, this is still seen as a blemish.

He cried! Cry baby. Rotlu …

Cut back to previous era. 1993. Wimbledon Ladies Finals. Steffi Graf was struggling in the final set, down 1-4, and Jana Novotna, who had yet to taste Grand Slam success, playing the finest grass court game, dominating the multiple times Wimbledon champion like never seen on that Center Court, one points away from cementing a double break, and going up 5-1 in the decider.  She double faulted. Missed another two relatively simple shots she was making all day long. And she lost it 6-4 in the end. Never winning a game there after. In the post match ceremony, she couldn’t hold back the tears and found the shoulders of the Duchess of Kent to comfort her. They called her choker. No one ever questioned her crying.

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A Royal Shoulder to Cry On

Girls cry. Boys don’t cry. Especially not the sportsmen.

Another time jump.  Two years ahead. Another Australian Open. Not a final though, a quarter final. Pete Sampras Vs Jim Courier. Courier had taken first two sets on tie-breaks, and Sampras had equalized by taking the next two. The fifth set, at a changeover at 1-0, we watched with disbelief, as Sampras started crying out of the blue. He just sat their and cried. A guy, known for his emotionless, precise, almost mechanical game play, who’d shrug off breaks, and lost sets, and restart the machine the next point. Sampras, it transpired later (this wasn’t the twitter/facebook era, after all, with access to all information) had a mini breakdown, thinking about his ailing coach Tim Gullikson. It was a surreal moment. Almost proving to the rest of the world that Sampras was, after all, a human being.

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The Human Touch: Crying for the Couch

Another jump. Wimbledon again. 2012. Final. Federer,  who had just joined the 30 something club, was struggling to find answer to an in form, local hope, Andy Murray, who was still looking for his first Grand Slam title. Murray took the first set and was going strong in second, when the roof closed due to the rains, and Federer  found that something extra that champions seem to snatch from thin air, and took the first half opportunity to equalize the set score, and then pressed and pressed the now hapless Murray and never really look back to claim his 17th at his favorite venue. In the post match presentations, Murray cried. A scot, too.

andy-murray-becomes-emotional-after-losing-the-mens-singles-final-to-switzerlands-roger-federer

Even the Scots Cry

He cried!

And of course, two years down the line, Warwinka defeated Nadal in Australian Open. 2014. Men’s final. Rafa, the gladiator, was struggling with injury. It looked liked he was going to forfeit that match sometime during second set. But he hung around. Even got a set out of Wawrinka, who was unsure what to do with an opponent on the verge of passing out on court. It was then, post match, that Rafa — the guy whose career is a symphony of pain and grit, a tribute to what mind can do even when body is not willing, even capable by all estimates; the guy who on court personifies the male aggression, control, power, strength, stamina — let out a few tears.

RSI TENNIS-OPEN S SPO TEN AUS

Rare Tears of a Modern Day Gladiator

Yes. Boys do cry.

Even some of the toughest and strongest do. Those tears are the dues that need to be paid, sometimes. After bottling it all in. Playing a match, and a persona at the same time.

Incidentally, each and every story here has a part two.

  • Sampras did win that match. He lost to Agassi in the final, but went on the win Wimbledon and US Open that year. And more after that.
  • Novotna came back to Wimbledon finals in 1997 to lose to another star, Martina Hingis. But came back again in 1998 to win on the same ground where she mysteriously self-destructed five years back.
  • Murray went on to break his finals jinx in the US Open the same year, defeated Federer on the same home court, in a five setter, for Olympics Gold, and came back to win two more titles there.
  • Nadal went on to win French Open the very next grand slam the same year.
  • Federer went on to complete his career grand slam, and get multiple slams. Even defeat Nadal on the same ground full eight years later.

No the moral of the story isn’t that crying guarantees success. Or anything that simplistic. But I want to underline the fact that these are champions, before and after those tears. Those moments just took their dues.

Buy why just sportsmen? Crying is such a human activity that to keep half of humanity away from it through strong social conditioning seems harsh. A culture that calls boys sissy for crying (not that anything is wrong with being a girl, but why can’t one be a boy who cried?). A culture that frowns on grown up men crying. A culture, where even the ladies frown on men crying. Maybe, back in the days of hunter-gatherers and warriors, it made sense. But in the post-feminist, post-modern age, where we see equality being rightfully promoted everywhere, men still aren’t allowed to cry in public.

I am no stranger to tears. And yet, when I’m watching a movie in a theater, and something moves me to tears, the next moment, my inner thoughts are, can someone see me cry? Will there be an interval now, and it will be too short a time to wipe my tears, and hope for the redness in the eyes to go away? And I lose the moment, the beautiful moment, when the filmmaker had managed to connect to the innermost me, and move me. From there, I’m suddenly in another world, of cultural stereotypes, and mass bullying. Still, I routinely cry at the movies. And risk the red eyes, and stuffy nose at interval or the curtains. Even otherwise, sometimes. It’s not easy, but then years of conditioning is always harder to fight.

So boys (and men), do cry (yes, notice the comma). Rebel. Claim the territory that has been kept away from you purposefully. Making you a little less human, for the sake of a gender stereotype. Let it out sometimes. Some moments deserve the tears. You don’t become bigger by denying them those dues.

 

 

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.  

 

The Good Within

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Unbearable Lightness of Silence

I

These awkward silences
don’t feel sorry about them
they’re just a reminder
that we need to tune better;
that awkwardness
is just a discordant note
a note misplaced.

if at all
we should be awkward
about forced conversations
something
we’ve been trained
to feel natural,
comfortable about

the two of us
we need to practise
our timing
of silence,
that is all

II

Who are these people
who leave a thank you note
on your doorstep?

are they “your people”?
are they us or them?
do we even know?

they’re not trying
to be kind
because why would they?
it’s not like they know you
or you them
they just stopped
at your closed door
and left a bunch of flowers
because they cared
about something
you said, or did, or made
something that touched them

not because you are
their brother, sister,
friend, teacher,
whatever;
so I ask again,
are they,
“your people”?

III

The unbearable lightness
of silence
of power failures
of no network access
of a book forgotten at home,
it weighs on us
because in that moment
when it happens,
we’re there,
in the moment

but
what really is weighing
us down —
the information noise
the constant agitation
petty debates
allegiances to party lines
substance free addictions
warning sounds of distractions
need to belong
need to be seen liberated
the dogmas and the isms
tyrannies of loves and hates —
isn’t unbearable
because we’re never
in the moment
to feel it

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.

***

img_20140921_150651

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!

Between the World and You

Son,
they will tell you never to lie
that’s the biggest lie
but you’ll learn that soon
you’ll learn
that the most important thing
in a grown up world
is to learn when to lie
and how to lie
without being called out
because the only thing
that civil society does not like
is someone caught lying
because that requires us all
to repeat the lie
about never lying

Son,
you’ll learn soon
that one choice
you’ll have to make
again and again
is between
the others hating you
and you hating yourself
and how you make that choice
will make you.
no, I will not
influence it one way
or another
because I’m already made
by those choices
or unmade
the way you look at it

Son,
you’ll learn soon
that personality ethics
trumps character ethics
more often, than not
and hollow victories
seem sweeter
than honorable defeats
that we humans
are addicted
to hollow victories
and that all the books
you read
history and fiction
will try to tell you
otherwise
because we need
those myths
to endure
honorable defeats

Son,
you’ll learn soon
that that
which you thought
you couldn’t live without
is probably something
you’ll not even miss
in years, months, weeks
yes
people, things,
even ideas …
especially ideas …
but that does not mean
you should live
as if
there is nothing
you cannot live without

or maybe you should
who knows
what will work
for you

Son,
you’ll learn soon,
that the world is not
what it tells you it is
and that it’s a good thing
maybe
just don’t let it
hurt you a lot
maybe a little
for if you never
shed a tear
over such things
you’ll never know
what it is
that you really want
what you lost
or found


[1] Title inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s poignant book “Between World and Me”, that I blogged about recently.

[2] Character vs Personality ethics: From Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

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.  

img_20161030_192801

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]

The Anatomy of Pain

Thoughts on Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Before starting this post, I was thinking of calling it a review. But how does one review raw, visceral pain, and cold and deep wisdom at the end of it? Make no mistake about it, this is not a book. This is a slap. Directed at America, or the white-America to be precise, but it’s just coincidental that that is the target, because it could easily be a book about so many peoples, by so many peoples.

Typically, I’m almost prudish when it comes to handling books. And if there is one rule I never break, it’s “do not write/mark” rule. But two pages into Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book and I broke it. It ironic, because the book talks about violence against black bodies, among other things, and here I was, black pencil in hands, marking furiously over the white paper, underlining black characters, a sort of violence against a body of book. And yet, curiously, it didn’t feel like violence. It seemed like remembering, or rather a battle against forgetting — a great sin that the author talks about.

img_20160910_201919_hdrBetween the World and Me is a black American’s heartfelt letter to his son, about growing up as a black in white America. No I’m not going to write much about it because frankly, this small book is something that everyone should just go and read. I mean no one should need convincing that it needs to be read. It should be made a compulsory reading (I’m kidding of course, but you get it, I assume). Because it’s such writings, that have — if anything has it — a tiny chance at changing the world, in  tiny little way. Because, someone needs to make us look at all that we choose not to look at. It’s relevant for everyone. For black Americans, because really, it’s just so patently obvious; for white Americans (or as Ta-Nehisi Coates would say: “those who believe themselves to be white” Americans) because if he can’t reach them, no one probably can; by anyone really, born with privilege, because it’s only by reading something like this can you start seeing that invisible power and how it affects others; or without privilege, because there are lessons for them, a tiny bit of hope, and a lot of wisdom to draw from.

What is striking about The World and Me, though, is its expanse — on both emotional and ideological  axes. Early on, the author talk about his life as a kid growing up in Baltimore, in black neighborhoods. In that context, he touches upon his son’s disillusionment on hearing that Michael Brown’s killer cop will go scot-free. This is what he says:

I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.

That may come across as negativity, but as you read through the book, which pretty much sets to help his kid to “find some way to live within it all of it”, it’s as much about hope, and wisdom, and compassion, as anything you’d read before or after it. And the whole book is written with this unrelenting honesty, because, understanding is crucial to survival.

He’s scathing about America (and beyond a point, he doesn’t bother qualifying it as white America, because the America that he talk about, the one with agency is — and there certainly is no doubt in his mind — white America):

Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.

And

But a society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can protect you only with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or succeeded at something much darker.

And much much more.

But it is not all bitterness. The idea is to understand, be aware, and yet survive, even flourish. To seek one’s answers, one’s way of “getting out”. And hence there is great introspection, within the dissection of all that’s wrong. And so he discusses the process of trying to find the “way out”, or rather a way from the streets he grew up with, full of fear (not just his, but everyone’s, even those with guns, and attitude), to the “dream” presented on the television where kids have mundane little problems to deal with.

But how? Religion could not tell me. The schools could not tell me. The streets could not help me see beyond the scramble of each day. And I was such a curious boy.

One answer for him was the very process of introspection, through putting on paper the feeling, observations, the whys …

Your grandmother […]  taught me to write, by which I mean not simply organizing a set of sentences into a series of paragraphs, but organizing them as a means of investigation. When I was in trouble at school (which was quite often) she would make me write about it. The writing had to answer a series of questions: Why did I feel the need to talk at the same time as my teacher? Why did I not believe that my teacher was entitled to respect? How would I want someone to behave while I was talking? What would I do the next time I felt the urge to talk to my friends during a lesson? I have given you these same assignments. I gave them to you not because I thought they would curb your behavior—they certainly did not curb mine—but because these were the earliest acts of interrogation, of drawing myself into consciousness. Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing—myself. Here was the lesson: I was not an innocent. My impulses were not filled with unfailing virtue. And feeling that I was as human as anyone, this must be true for other humans. If I was not innocent, then they were not innocent. Could this mix of motivation also affect the stories they tell? The cities they built? The country they claimed as given to them by God?

But this, surely, couldn’t be enough. There were, also, predictably, reading. Although reading can take you either way.

Your grandfather loved books and loves them to this day, and they were all over the house, books about black people, by black people, for black people spilling off shelves and out of the living room, boxed up in the basement. Dad had been a local captain in the Black Panther Party. I read through all of Dad’s books about the Panthers and his stash of old Party newspapers. I was attracted to their guns, because the guns seemed honest. The guns seemed to address this country, which invented the streets that secured them with despotic police, in its primary language—violence. And I compared the Panthers to the heroes given to me by the schools, men and women who struck me as ridiculous and contrary to everything I knew.

There was also the questioning of non-violence of the civil rights movement, because:

How could they send us out into the streets of Baltimore, knowing all they were, and then speak of non-violence.

School, was obviously a part of the answer, but :

I came to see the streets and the schools as arms of the same beast. One enjoyed the official power of the state while the other enjoyed its implicit sanction. But fear and violence were the weaponry of both. Fail in the streets and the crews would catch you slipping and take your body. Fail in the schools and you would be suspended and sent back to those same streets, where they would take your body. And I began to see these two arms in relation—those who failed in the schools justified their destruction in the streets. The society could say, “He should have stayed in school,” and then wash its hands of him.

Then there was what Ta-Nehisi calls “The  Mecca” — the Howard University, where his idea of “black” world changed, enlarged. And he wants his son to know about it, because:

My work is to give you what I know of my own particular path while allowing you to walk your own. You can no more be black like I am black than I could be black like your grandfather was. And still, I maintain that even for a cosmopolitan boy like you, there is something to be found there—a base, even in these modern times, a port in the American storm. Surely I am biased by nostalgia and tradition.

In his mind, the importance of this stable “port in the American storm” cannot be emphasized more because, it is there that :

The black world was expanding before me, and I could see now that that world was more than a photonegative of that of the people who believe they are white.

And it is from this realization, comes a deeper, more profound, understanding :

“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons. There will surely always be people with straight hair and blue eyes, as there have been for all history. But some of these straight-haired people with blue eyes have been “black,” and this points to the great difference between their world and ours. We did not choose our fences. They were imposed on us by Virginia planters obsessed with enslaving as many Americans as possible. They are the ones who came up with a one-drop rule that separated the “white” from the “black,” even if it meant that their own blue-eyed sons would live under the lash. The result is a people, black people, who embody all physical varieties and whose life stories mirror this physical range.

Through The Mecca I saw that we were, in our own segregated body politic, cosmopolitans. The black diaspora was not just our own world but, in so many ways, the Western world itself.

And it’s not being anti-white, or anti those “who think they are white”.  It is not about black superiority. Rather beyond. Understanding the complex history of slavery, including that in black history which was less than ideal.

It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own especial Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness. And there was so much terrible out there, even among us. You must understand this.

This acceptance, this rite of passage, was just an extension of that “introspection”, taken from the personal to the race, one’s race, not the other.

The writer, and that was what I was becoming, must be wary of every Dream and every nation, even his own nation. Perhaps his own nation more than any other, precisely because it was his own.

I could have stopped right there. I was saturated. I was stunned. I was moved. I was taken on a whirlwind ride through the heart of pain. But I kept reading. Because, what else can one do, faced with writing of this caliber?

Of course, The Mecca, can enlighten, but the world is still the same world, even though you see it with different eyes. Later in the book, Ta-Nehisi talk about losing a friend to the machine — cops killing him, and getting away with it. The world changes slowly. Painfully slowly. Wounds open before they can heal. There is a lot of poignant writing about it, including his meeting with the friend’s mom, a successful Doctor. Her son, who could have possibly got into any college of his choosing, but chose Mecca, and was killed one day, as police tailed him, and shot him.

I asked [her] if she regretted Prince choosing Howard. “No,” she said. “I regret that he is dead”.

She said this with great composure and greater pain. She said this with all of the odd poise and  direction that the great American injury demands of you.

There is the realization, again, and again, that not much has changed, although a lot has:

And she could not lean on her country for help. When it came to her son, Dr. Jones’s country did what it does best—it forgot him. The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.

It’s through all that, that he has to find his answers. And pass them on to his son. Hoping they would fit, at least partially. This book, is that labor of love, of knowledge, and understanding, of pain and suffering, and of surviving, when even the bare basic survival seems like a challenge. I cannot think of anything that I should have been reading in those times when I was reading it. This has to be read. These excerpts cannot do justice to the book. This commentary is superfluous. He has to be read. Maybe, then, the “dream” would be less harsh for others. Maybe, we would see more of hell around us. Maybe, we will learn to be better humans. It’s a tall ask. But so was starting where Ta-Nehisi started and to write this book.