Of Books, friends, and Algorithms

Artificial Intelligence based “recommendation systems” are becoming ubiquitous. For every book you buy or browse on Amazon, for every book you rate in Goodreads, there is “you may also like” list made for you. And to be fair, it works. You find books there that you would like, based upon what else you have liked, and what people who’ve liked the same things as you have also liked. Artificial intelligence algorithms are already good, and getting better at this.

But when I go back to the books, anda to the authors that went on to become most cherished experiences of my life, very few have come from the algorithms, many have come from friends. Most from just two or three friends. And it’s not like these people were my close friends before — it was like in the process of this read recommendations, and discussions around those books, the friendships cemented. With those friends at least, the foundations of friendships were built on the books.

The reason why I wanted to clarify that part is important (at least in my mind) — it wasn’t like they knew me deeply to be able to know what I will enjoy. Hell, my teen/post-teen phase was dominated by Ayn Rand’s writings; and knowing that me would hardly have helped anyone to recommend to me some of the more literary authors that I ended up absolutely wowed by later on.

The thing about AI algorithms is that they are not required to take a leap of faith on your behalf. Your friends, on the other hand, have to. The act of recommending someone a book/movie/music even food is a leap of faith. Every recommendation carries with it its own risks — one of a potential disappointment (that’s personal to the one recommending), other of being judged by the one you’re recommending something to. Even if these risks are not overt, they are part and the parcel of the act. AI algorithm doesn’t feel the first, and the only way it has to deal with the second is as a data point to further learning. Unlike friends.

However, it’s that unique challenge that friendship throws at you make you take that leap of faith. And it’s through that leap of faith does one really beat the urge to do safe recommendations, like an AI algorithm would.

For me, it’s those friends who took that leap of faith that have influenced my reading most, widening my horizons, challenging my ideas of what I ought — or ought not — to like. It’s through these friends that I’ve been introduced to authors like Hermann Hesse, Umberto Eco, Amitav Ghosh, Marquez, Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Joan Didion, Alexander McCall Smith, Arthur Koestler, Orhan Pamuk, Milan Kundera, Terry Pratchett, Geoff Dyer, Zadie Smith, Stephen Fry, Kamila Shamsie, Mikhail Bulgakov, Murakami, Borges …

And it’s those friends who keep pushing the boundaries of my reading. Like this one that was recently lent to me by one of those friends – a book that started this rumination:

IMG_20190519_160735

I’m only a few pages into it, but I know I am going to come back to it again and again. And there was no way I’d have picked this up, if not for the friend who practically put it in my hands. And it’s the faith I have in his ability to point me to new lands that I’d relish, that made me drop everything else I was reading and pick it up. Only friendships can do that. In the AI dominated world of the future, I still think, if humans still have something worthwhile left to do, this act of faith will be one. Thank you all my friends who have contributed to my growth as a reader. I owe it to you to pay it forward. If, in the unlikely event that you’re reading this, you know I’m talking about you.

On Love and Hate

Love and hate are not the opposites of each other. They are really two different planes. Love needs energy. It cannot sustain by itself. It’s like the slow-burning fire that needs wood to be replenished.

Hate feeds on itself. And it feeds, it grows. A perpetual machine, if there was one. It doesn’t need energy. It generates its own energy.

Love is discerning. So it cannot encompass faceless, nameless, multitudes. Love requires connections – one on one. It doesn’t operate in groups.

Hate is opportunistic. The more the merrier. It loves the multitudes. It is flexible. It can jump from one to the other, from one to many, from many to one.

Loving is like gardening. It requires constant attention. Even when it looks like everything is fine. Or when it looks like there is no hope. One does one’s best and trusts it all works out.

Hate begets hate. You could ignore it, and like a weed, it still grows. A little bit of attention, and like a wildfire, it can consume the entire wood.

The opposite of love is not hope. It’s indifference. Ignoring the very existence of the other.

The opposite of hate is not love. It’s acceptance. Of the being of the other.

Love and hate are two different planes.

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.

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 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.

 

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

The Annus Horribilis

The thing about years is that we tend to make a big deal out of their starting and ending. When those markers are actually just conventions. So we’re really celebrating conventions. This time around, we’re actually cursing an almost arbitrarily demarcated time period because a lot of bad things happened in that period. Like Brexit. Trump. Parting of David Bowie and many more singers, artists. We all know the list,  and there are a lot of things that don’t make it to the list, depending upon where you are, who you are. In areas of the world, every year for last few years has been a annus horribilis. Countries are losing battles with internal strife, religious orthodoxy, even secular statist ideologies, economic crisis and so on. If you’re celebrating on the eve of a beckoning  new year, you’re probably already luckier than a lot of people in the world.

So let’s just let 2016 breath its final breaths, and lets also acknowledge all good that  the year may have given us,  too. I’m sure there will be a list of that too, if we just think a little.

img_20161231_175050

The Last Sunset of 2016

Personally, this year has been not significantly different than last few years. And it’s a good thing. I was able to read a few good books. Discovered a few new authors worth following. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for instance. Or Ursula K. Le Guin (unbelievable that I waited all these years), Claire King, Eli Shafak, N. S. Madhavan, Thomas Mann (again, all these years!). I had a conservative goodreads reading challenge of 18 books for the year. I did 24. This year, the good thing is I actually read a few more than last year when I mostly heard them as audiobooks. I got back into reading long-form articles, and non-fiction. I reviewed a decent number of books, movies on my blog.

Which brings me to this blog of mine, which definitely did better this year, although the most important category for me remains a concern — not a single fiction piece. But reviews, poems, and a few rambling pieces on random subjects. Still a good year. I’m still floating after all these years. That’s not at all bad, is it?

I discovered (in the sense that I finally started getting them) a ton of Jazz artists (still, mostly, those from the classic era — like Jaki Byard, Joe Henderson,  Horace Silver, Roy Brooks, Nat Adderley). It was a good musical year, especially with Apple Music coming to India at a very affordable rate. Also, rediscovered the penchant for old hindi songs of the golden era, as my six year old got interested in them. Memories of generations now passed on the second time – a testimony to the timeless quality of the era. Also, a bridge across generations, as my father and my son have a common musical memory.

In all fairness, I’m going to think of 2016 as another year that gave some, and took some. Like any year really. See you in the next arbitrary time slice. With more fiction, hopefully. For what we make of an year, is partly up to us.

 

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.

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.