The Asymmetry of Values

Prisoner’s Dilemma is a very useful tool in the arsenal of game theorists, precisely because it is so simple to formulate and so generic to apply in modeling diverse social “problems” or interactions. The dilemma should really be no dilemma if we were all honest players (in the game theory sense of the world). Simply put, it’s a non-zero sum game where blind co-operating choices are optimal for both parties. Two “prisoners” charged with the same crime are taken into two rooms and given a choice to confess. The “payouts” are such that if both refuse to confess, they get a minimal punishment based on whatever evidence that is already there. If one confesses while the other stays silent, he is let off while the other gets a maximum punishment. If both confess, both get a medium punishment.

In terms of total punishment (to either player), both confessing is the worst case, while both staying silent (thus covertly “co-operating”) is the best case. But humans are a funny lot. And if one cannot trust the other, staying silent is the suicidal strategy, as you’re not really trying to minimize the total punishment, but rather just minimize your own possible punishment (which also should be minimum for co-operating players, but trust is not a coin that is high in circulation). The dilemma (or rather the paradox) here is that logically the two should co-operate to minimize the punishment but they both know that their worst case is if they co-operate but the other rats them out. And hence, the same logical course may make them “both” rat-out the other, and end up with a very sub-optimal payoff.  In the parlance of the game theory, the player either “co-operates” (with the other player, not the authorities) or “defects” (rats out the other player).

The more interesting version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma is an “iterated” Prisoner’s Dilemma where the same game is played a number1  of times between the two players where although they cannot communicate with each other for the decision, they can use the knowledge of previous decision history (for both). It gets interesting because now you actually can either build (mutual) trust or make the other player pay for their defection, by defecting yourself, and indeed use the knowledge of all previous games to know/guess the other’s strategy, and try to exploit it.

One would think that in such an iterative version of the game, the best strategy might be some fancy algorithm that takes into account tons of things. In competitions where programs played against each other, the boringly obvious winner2 is the one using tit-for-tat strategy (co-operate first, but retaliate if other player defects). Just rat-out someone who ratted out last time, and co-operate if they co-operated the last time. In terms of minimizing average punishment (or maximizing the payoff), this simple one game memory strategy works surprisingly3 well: as good as any, and certainly better than any naively good-natured ones (so-called “generous” strategies), or the obviously sociopathic ones.

***

To be fair, I wasn’t planning to write about the Prisoner’s Dilemma. It is very well documented and discussed (including in the context of genetics by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene). What I wanted to write about was the expectation of symmetry that we, or many (if not most) of us seem to, almost instinctively, carry in our minds with respect to our relationships. And this seemed like a very good way to impress upon the apparent soundness of such an expectation. The symmetry seems to be (from experimental data, even if not formally) essential to an elegant solution — even if  a delayed symmetry — especially when the game (and again I use the word in the game theory sense, not to divorce it from serious interactions, rather the opposite) is not a zero-sum game (where one only wins by beating the other). Even if not “essential”, it definitely seems “sufficient”, because it takes care of exploitative counter-plays by simply replaying it.

But, and there is always a but, when you have a blind strategy that’s not benign/naive, although it protects from the worst case individually, symmetry basically degenerates into endless retribution. Tit-for-tat, also known as eye-for-an-eye has its limitations: as Gandhi rightly put it — it makes the world go blind. Think about it: a symmetric strategy to blind hate is blind hate. And that is where you have a measured asymmetry as a group strategy (or rather: ethos) to have some sort of stability in the system to protect against such run-away destruction of all value.

***

There is, of course, a more intimate version of many of these games being played in close relationships — friendships, romantic relationships, close family/blood relationships, work relationships, and so on. I wouldn’t venture to model any of those, but I think with all the above, one can intuitively see mappings onto prisoner’s dilemma. What’s clear is that any long-term relationship is a non-zero-sum game. It better be. And it’s an iterative game, not an “all the stakes in one go” game. And assuming that you want to keep on playing the game (a dimension missing in the previous discussions), which assumes you’ve found the “right” opponent (aka partner) to play it with, symmetry might be a sub-optimal strategy. Yes, it can cut the losses (or may have more equal distribution of losses), but one really has a shot at co-operating for maximum profits. And dogmatic (or calculated) dove4 strategies as Dawkins call them (co-operate more than defect) may well be optimal (or you should really be quitting the game).

All along, this is what I wanted to write about, I guess. That “asymmetry” that I’ve already discussed in past (internet protocols are asymmetric — liberal in accepting data, but conservative while sending it — and I’ve used a now archaic RFC in the context of relationships before, without really bringing in any game theory). I have believed, and continue to believe it, that it’s this very conscious “asymmetry” that is necessary for stable relationships, as it is for a stable society. But what about the defectors?

***

In the context of relationships, I’d broadly categorize the defectors into two types: conscious ones and unconscious ones. If you’re in a relationship (romantic or otherwise) with a conscious defector, you should really consider if playing the game is worth it. Because what conscious defectors do is reduce a non-zero-sum game into a zero-sum game — especially if the other keeps on co-operating. The “symmetric” strategy is obviously one way to stop being the loser in the zero-sum game. But that is just a value-destroying option. Tit-for-tat with a conscious defector is just turning into a conscious defector. Destroying what’s of value to you consciously is a toxic strategy for your long-term well being. So, if you ask me, the choice is very simple here, or as they say, black and white.

The most interesting “grey” area remains the unconscious defectors. Especially in romantic/spousal relationships, which involve choice as opposed to “blood ties”. Most long-term relationships are based on mutual trust, tolerance, sensitivity, and many such bedrocks. But much of this is rarely symmetric. Everyone has different natural levels of trust, sensitivity, tolerance, etc. Yes, they do evolve over time, but in the steady state, there are these levels that come into play subconsciously. What’s more, something like sensitivity is rarely symmetric in the first place, in an individual. Someone who is highly sensitive to criticism doesn’t necessarily refrain from criticising others. One who doesn’t like to be shouted at doesn’t necessarily control their vocal chords when they’re the aggrieved party.

Auden, in his infinite wisdom, had said: “If equal affection cannot be, Let the more loving one be me”. Extending that same asymmetry, then, if you’ve found someone who you believe is for the keeps, shouldn’t you aspire to be the more tolerant, more trusting, more sensitive (extrinsically), more understanding, or the more ‘noble’ for the lack of better word?  But what does one do when that person is an unconscious defector? The more understanding one will have to forgive a lot more. The more tolerant one will stoically ignore offenses while paying for her lesser offenses. And so on.

Is virtue its own reward? Or is it its own punishment? Is it just a matter of threshholds? Is a dogmatic asymmetric strategy a healthy one for the virtuous co-operator, against a good-natured unconscious defector? Is the price of virtue really the price of playing the game, even when the game is rigged the moment you walk into it with dogmatic co-operative strategy? The dilemma will live on.


  1. The number of iterations is unknown to players – because if they are known, it ends up folding into the standard prisoner’s dilemma (provable by induction).
  2. Ref: https://www.forbes.com/sites/rogerkay/2011/12/19/generous-tit-for-tat-a-winning-strategy/#3492bb1e66eb (While this is true in spirit, there is a cheeky meta-strategy where sacrifice to “your own kind” strategy seems to win when the spirit of the rules is ignored: https://www.wired.com/2004/10/new-tack-wins-prisoners-dilemma/. Then again, in the real world there is no “spirit of the game”)
  3. I say surprisingly, but it’s not really surprising if you consider that many simple strategies do work wonderfully well in practice — (like the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth).
  4. Dawkins in his book “Selfish Gene” discusses “Evolutionary Stable Strategies” and the literature on this has a primary dove vs hawk (peaceful/non-retaliatory vs aggressive/retaliatory) classification. Dove strategies survive only with doves, but even a minority of hawks will overtake the population.
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Age is Just a Number

Yes, age is just a number. A number that just measures one dimension. A rather predictable dimension. Life happens on other dimensions, orthogonal to it. Life, learning, wisdom, happiness, stoicism, compassion, empathy, creation, giving, humbly accepting, appreciation, solitude, courage, fortitude, humility, fairness, spiritualism.

We have the hours, minutes, and seconds. We do not know what do do with them. We get stuck into vortexes. Time doesn’t stop in vortexes. It doesn’t spin. It just drags on, watching our helpless struggles, with an impassioned bemusement. It’s these willing, torrid affairs with the vortexes that make it hard to trust age as anything beyond being just a number.

***

Wisdom is a mirage. Especially, a vision of one’s own wisdom. The wisdom that tells us the limits of our own wisdom is rare. Age just complicates that further. The conventional wisdom that wisdom comes with age is what makes us believe we’re wiser than we are — especially, the older we are. The young do not care about “wisdom” or the lack of it. They’re too confident in their ability to reign in life, to need the safety net of wisdom. It’s a liability for the youth. But as we approach the middle age, we sense a need for it. The trick is, not to feel entitled to it, just because one has seen the passing of the seasons. We are good at looking without seeing. We’re good at forgetting, of isolating ourselves from pain, longing, loneliness, sorrow, despondency. We want wisdom without its price.

***

Expectations of reciprocation, especially the “equal and opposite reciprocation”, is the biggest killer of relationships. Our preoccupation with reciprocation comes from our obsession with symmetry. We need to treat reciprocation as we treat taxation: it needs to be progressive. He (or she) who could do more, should do more, for the other. Then again, I don’t mean this prescriptively. Maybe, the golden rule here is, do the best you can, according to what the other means to you, and according to your means. Do not try to match the other’s kindness, generosity, help, care; deed to deed, emotion to emotion, time to time, money to money. And. more importantly, do not expect you to be matched, either.

Call those you want to talk to, don’t wait for the call.

Visit those you want to spend time with, don’t wait for them to visit you.

Write to those you want to share your deepest thoughts with, don’t wait for them to open up the conversation.

Let the “need for reciprocation” not stop you. If it’s not welcome, your effort to connect, by all means, stop. But to close down the communication lines because the other doesn’t quite live up to your idea of reciprocity is the biggest, and silent, killer of relationships.

Yes, age is just a number, but it can teach us this: if we want someone in our lives, we gotta be ready do our bit, unconditionally. Once, twice, maybe even thrice. We have hours, minutes, and seconds to invest if we just rescue them from the vortexes.

 

 

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!

The Narrative Games

There are stories all around us. Not all are interesting when one tells them, but when they are unfolding before you, they manage to hold your attention.

Last week, I was traveling back home, from a business trip when I witnessed a story. I boarded the flight and sat down in my aisle seat on the left half. A few minutes later, a couple with two very young kids arrived. The mother sat in the half of the row in front of me, with two kids on either side. The father took the aisle seat on the right.

Another couple of minutes later, boarded a girl who had the window seat in the same row, on the father’s side. The boarding was almost complete by now, and the attendants were getting ready for the safety drill. For a few mins, it looked like the middle seat next to the father was going to be unoccupied. Everyone put on the seat belts. Just then another (very good looking, incidentally) girl boarded, the last one to board, and took the middle seat. The father who had gotten up to give her access, quickly sat back into his seat, not looking at his wife, who was trying to get his attention.

Soon, the plane started taxiing to the runway, and the status quo was maintained for a while. But as soon as the plane took off, and the seat belt sign was off, though, the mother got up, and so did the father, as if on cue, and they exchanged seats. In a few minutes, she had gone off to sleep in her new seat.

***

There are of course multiple ways to interpret this simple sequence.

1. The simplest: the mother got jealous, and didn’t want the husband to sit next to a very attractive girl.

2. Mother was feeling sleepy, and the boys were not sleeping, so she decided to let the dad take up the duty of putting them to sleep.

3. The boys wanted their dad to be next to them.

4. The mother thought that the father, who was a heftily built man, was getting uncomfortable in the aisle seat, especially considering the person next to him was a girl.

5. The father, and not the mother, initiated the exchange because he thought his wife was getting uncomfortable with him sitting next to a (very) good looking girl.

6. The mother thought that the girl in the middle seat will be more comfortable with a woman being next to her, because, she herself would have been more comfortable that way, having listened to horror stories of girls being molested on planes, buses, trains.

7. The father, the mother knew, is a molester, and she’s really trying to save the girls from his prying hands (or trying to save her husband from the consequences).

***

I’m sure we could keep on coming up with multiple such reasons or their variations/combinations. But do we? Or do we (or rather, our minds) lazily pick up the Occam’s razor and select the simplest interpretation?

I think the storyteller’s role becomes crucial here because his/her job is to steer the reader/listener to a particular interpretation. Of course, there are lazy story tellers, who will pick up the simplest of sequences themselves (like yours truly here), in the hope that the readers will instantly pick up the “most obvious” interpretation, and thus believe the narration very much like real-life, aka, realistic. But is realism just the “most common” or “obvious” view of reality? Because if that’s what story-telling does (and here, I cannot but use examples of writers like Chetan Bhagat, and many “romance” writers who are popular currently in Indian writing scene) then art is basically majoritizing  of narration, and hence just reinforcing the norm (not ethical, but statistical) as the only reality worth talking about.

This is where the interesting story tellers come in. Either as writers, or film-makers. Some of them give us enough extra slice of reality to subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly — something that propagandist story-tellers fall into, even though they’re going beyond the norm) nudge us to a different reading of reality (for instance, I’ve also tried to nudge you into a specific interpretation by adding “not looking at his wife”, when in reality, since I was in the next row, would have found it difficult to make that claim with certainty), forming a different interpretations of the actions of protagonists, for instance, by giving us enough glimpses into the minds of the characters, say, or painting the relationships between principal characters with a fine brush. While some, want to go beyond even that nudging and give you enough contradictory seeming clues to put the burden of interpretation on you entirely (David Lynch? Pynchon? Wallace?).

Then there is another category of story-tellers who provide you enough clues, but also some misleading clues, although, they want you to solve the puzzle. There is an answer they want you to have, but don’t want to let it be too obvious, lest the fun is lost. But these story-tellers, are also a little afraid that the listener/viewers/reader will entirely miss the point and come up with a different interpretation based on the clues that they pick up. Someone like Nolan, for instance, who ended up explaining his intended interpretation of Inception.

The thing is, there are so many stories and so many interpretations. And one way to look at our evolution as readers/watchers is to evaluate the complexity of the chess game that one is able to play, at the level. Then again, profound can be captured simply. So one can’t have a hegemony of complexity of narration.


PS: There was another colleague traveling on the same flight who was seated in my row, but in the other half. He was trying to tell me something when the couple boarded. I asked him today, after writing this, what was it that he was trying to tell me, and he narrated this:

“The guy (the father) was very frustrated with his child’s tantrum, and he picked him up and told him “if you don’t shut up, I’ll throw you out of the window”. Anyone wants to go back to the list for a different interpretation, with this tidbit? There is also very interesting takeaway, in all this: the narrators miss many stories as they concentrate on one. In a perfect symmetry: where the reader/listener ends up walking away with just one interpretation.

 


Picture Credit: Atul Sabnis of gaizabonts.

From: https://www.flickr.com/photos/atulsabnis/16043765717/in/album-72157650244516635/

Incidentally, there is a small story of the book too: read on the photo page. Atul is a story teller in various mediums.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.