Saturday, October 22, 2016

It's 2016, and I'm Still Loving America

I have sent my aunt, an American citizen, not one but two messages over the last week, each of which can be summed up as 'Judging!' 

And what's not to judge? All countries have the politicians they deserve. And the United States, amongst its many millions, has not only thrown up a Republican candidate who is egotistical, self-serving, manipulative - and to be fair, these words describe anyone, anywhere, who is too interested in power - but is also a Bobo doll of vice, springing up after every blow to show you that not only is he racist, xenophobic and profiting from bankruptcy, but also a serial sexual predator. A country that brings such a man's political ambitions dangerously close to fruition, is a country in spiritual, moral, ethical crisis. 

But at a time when it's easy to be suspicious of America (so much easier than saying 'the States') and Americans, I want to talk about something else. I visited the US earlier this year for a much needed and much anticipated holiday. I didn't sightsee or travel much. Just spent time with family and close friends along the East Coast, soaking up three weeks worth of summer sun. And while I was there, I didn't notice the anger, the heat, or the vitriol we've associated with this election year. My lingering impression of the country was, and continues to be, one of expansiveness and abundance. Just space - lush, gloriously unkempt, in all its muchness - filled with sun, sky, cloud, tree. Posing a joyful contrast to the dense, tense, fraught veriticality of so many cities (particularly mine). 

Our spaces, our landscapes, are the making of us. I've written before about how Bombay can sometimes make it difficult to breathe. Everything that matters seems to be in short supply here - space, time, access and correspondingly, patience and kindness. We don't know how to concede a single inch, and we don't know how to stop fighting to claim another's. 

But to live in a country as expansive as America, as rollingly and extravagantly beautiful as I've known it to be, is to able to believe in abundance. To believe in abundance is to know that there is enough - in nature, in the world, in life - out there for you. There are chances, there are possibilities, they only need to be sought out and encountered. I think this abundance reflects in so many of the best things about the United States - the extraordinary ferment and creative impulse of its popular culture, art, fashion, music and cinema, down to the founding myth in Neil Gaiman's 'American Gods'; in the public sunniness and cheerfulness that is the status quo; in the belief that the country is to be enjoyed and explored, however one might choose to do so; in the capacious imaginations of anyone who believes that they can make it and do it - the enduring American dream that captivates us all.  

And yet this largeness, this spaciousness can be oppressive. It can fuel an unthinking wastefulness; it can lure you with false promises; it demands filling up with heart and soul and failing both of those, with stuff. The claiming of one's own destiny is a project for which circumstances and temperament render many people ill suited. And how can one reconcile with failure, or even succeed modestly, in the land of grand ambition? 

I think these elections have really been about these twin American narratives: more for many more versus the conviction that one has somehow been cheated and ended up with 'less.' The first narrative, this time around, has drawn its power from contrast rather than conviction. But I am hopeful that it will triumph. Because for all its wrongs, its questionable politics of convenience, its war machines and military-industrial-cultural complexes, its consumerist frenzy and inward gaze, the world still needs America to believe in the American dream.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Sacred and the Secular: Splitting the Difference

Somewhere around the 160th page of Edward Slingerland's 'Trying Not To Try,' a thoroughly engaging distillation of the twin strains of ancient Chinese philosophy - Confucianism and Daoism - as they pertain to the question of a life lived in accordance with the 'Heavenly Way,' I suddenly realized the importance of a living, breathing, culturally coded connection to the sacred. Slingerland's book is filled with studies from contemporary cognitive science sitting alongside popular cultural asides, but the ways of being that he is trying to explain really come alive through stories, parables and koans, through exchanges between masters and monks, between teachers and (often unwitting) students.

These stories put me in mind of the hundreds of stories I have grown up with by virtue of simply being Indian. My cultural inheritance consists of myths, legend, fables, histories - sketchy tellings dense with import, entirely forgotten but accumulating nevertheless, trace by faint trace, in my consciousness. Everywhere I expect, and encounter, meaning. Where there isn't myth, there is history. Where there isn't history, there is superstition. There isn't a lake the Pandavas didn't drink from, a temple not pillaged by invaders, a fortress not betrayed by a conniving minister or soldier, a coastal town not altered forever by seafaring adventurers, a church whose architecture is absent of colonial imprints, a grove that has given up all its ghosts.

Humans are story-telling creatures and yet even among this species it is astounding, sometimes, the extent to which we Indians absorb and emit story. The air we breathe is thick with story and yet we complacently create more - churches and mosques where miracles happen, idols who grant wishes and visas, celebrities who become demi-gods, rapes and murders that confirm our belief that this is the worst of all ages, herbs that will cure all.   

This is how we become, in India. This is how we know what to, and what not to, do. This is how we learn how to be. We inherit thousands of years of story and the luckless among us - the untouchables, the poor, the aboriginal, the feminine - the ones whose stories are negated - are crushed by oppressive narratives. Some of us are luckier, and we carry our tales a little more lightly, confident in the knowledge that they have validity and worth. Either way, though, we would all be very different without our stories, completely unsure of how to travel the distance between the present and the unknowable future.   

This preponderance of story explains to me, somehow, why Indian popular culture lacks the ferment of popular culture in the United States. Because societies that are secular, less preoccupied with constantly coding the sacred, have to rely on popular culture to fill in the blanks - the blanks of tribe, of value, of morality. And secularism is not a problem we have. 

No wonder we have fewer strains of pop music, fewer sub-cultures, not too many hippies and nowhere near enough hipsters and liberals. No wonder our mainstream cinema has, in its all too short history, chiefly been engrossed with ideas of patriotism, nation-building, class conflict and modern-day romance. These are topics on which our mythology is either silent or inadequately accessible. No wonder our writers, for the most part, write books that are less fantastical. We don't need modern-day myth-makers like Tolkein, Rowling, Gaiman, or Pratchett. We have too much fantasy and magic already. What we need is a tethering to reality, some sense-making and interpretation of the world as it is. That's why we have Rushdie - magical, but also real. Recognizably fantastical. 

Our conviction that we are connected to what is sacred is often dangerous. It makes us less receptive to change, less inventive, less creative, too complacent, too preoccupied with the past, not concerned enough about the work of building an equitable society for the future.

But I'm suspicious of stripped down secularism as well. What happens to a people when they believe that they have to create everything they will ever need? When they realize they will have to invent not only the future, but also the past? When truth has to be absolute and self-evident, all hard edges, like the shining cube of science I wrote about a couple of weeks ago? When success is a busy striving, contingent on control, with failure logically anchored in individual deficiency rather than complex circumstance? When things that should be shimmering and mysterious find no place in the popular discourse? Sense-making is a life's work, and stories that telegraph the sacred give us somewhere to start.

So what is that fine balance between the sacred and the secular? Where we are conditioned but also curious? Where the old stories inspire us to tell newer, better ones? Where a glorious past doesn't preclude an adaptability to the ever-changing present? Where you can feel relieved that the ancients knew, but that you now understand? The sacred and the secular - what I wouldn't give to split the difference in this country, today.    

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Happiness: The Formula is Flawed

The word 'science,' in my imagination, is a shining cube, all edges. And I think of it that way, in spite of having been a good science student, because I find the language of science to be completely impenetrable. At times I think this must be because language has failed science - it has simply not been able to keep up with the pace of scientific enquiry. Other times, I think this must be because scientists (at least some of them) look at the world so differently than civilians that they fail words - the things they say sound plastic, tinny, hollow - even though they are right.

And what makes me say this? An article (and here I am to be faulted for failing to remember where it was posted, and who it was by) about some of the pitfalls of positive thinking, with a lead researcher quoted as saying that life is about a range of emotions, and that all of them - including the negative ones - have a purpose and role to play in our emotional well-being. In a similar vein, another researcher is quoted by the Scientific American as saying that "It is impossible to avoid negative emotions altogether because to live is to experience setbacks and conflicts."

There's something not quite right about the language of these statements. There's nothing wrong with them - they're perfectly accurate - yet their assigning of value and utility to what are the most fundamental aspects of human existence, their cooly composed validation of what is, essentially, the truth of human experience, is disturbing. These statements are so very reductionistic, boiling the emotional, ethical mess of living down to a handy equation:

Some happiness + some (not-happiness) = life.

But I suppose the problem isn't so much with science, although there's a long and pedigreed history of scientists refusing to acknowledge or investigate the intangible and non-quantifiable. That's changing rapidly, as it should. The problem is with a culture and a mindset that allows for happiness to be spoken of as if it were a consumer good, available for purchase at a nearby store, easily assembled, D-I-Y style, once you've taken your kit back home.

Happiness is not the sum of constituent parts such as yoga, pop psychology, work-life balance, polyamory, athleisure, acai/chia infused waters, the right Instagram feed and openness to experience. It will not suddenly manifest, fully-formed, when your lifestyle is finally aligned with what the gurus of the day preach. I think of it as an undercurrent that runs through our lives. We define it for ourselves and earn it through an authentic and hard-won distillation of our experiences and their meanings.

Many - most of us - fail to be happy. One of the reasons for this is that we mistake the lifestyle for the living. The other is that we're barking up the wrong tree, because happiness is overrated.

Positive psychology and philosophy have taught us so much about well-being. But they've dangerously skewed the conversation towards feeling good. And what has this emphasis on feeling good cost us? We routinely and unthinkingly stigmatize sadness and sorrow, forcing the unhappy to hide in plain sight. We traffic in weekend retreats and self-help books that confuse happiness with convenience. There's a preoccupation with being happy as opposed to what it takes to become happy. And is becoming happy the same thing, or even as valuable a thing, as becoming better?

Everything doesn't happen for a reason, and terrible, horrific things happen to good people. Adversities are not perceptual problems. They can break us and embitter us, with good reason. But some challenges help us grow, if we have the opportunity and the courage (the two are not one and the same) to let them. That's the stuff of life, isn't it? To take what we have and get - and where choice is possible - to make something of it?

It's so much more interesting to wrestle with these questions than to receive them as verifiable fact from the scientific study of the day. So much more wholesome to embody them than to encounter them on Pinterest, reduced to bursts of inspiration as fleeting as the kick from that mid-afternoon coffee. 

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Of Music, Memory and Mystery

A decade ago, or, to put it more accurately, in another lifetime, I completed the equivalent of a Bachelor's degree in Hindustani classical music. Stretched between completing college applications for my Master's studies, psychology lectures, practicals and five music lessons a week, I didn't so much give my final music exam as slowly implode through it. Later, I gingerly lifted myself from the wreckage, found all my vital bits intact, and walked away, never to look back. 

Not true. I still love music. But somewhere between the second year and the very demanding fourth and fifth years, between the twelve and fourteen raga syllabus, between the memorization of dozens of intricate internal aural structures, between the development of an ear for sur and taal and the infinite variations of each, between the eight hours a week of classes, music became less a labour of love and more plain labour. It was one more subject added to the long list of those I was studying for my (actual) B.A. degree, one more sphere of knowledge to condense into handy byte-sized bits, breathlessly exacavated at exam time. 

But music is the ultimate abstraction, and it is never so much learned or studied as absorbed. You grow your knowledge of music, you nurture it, you make space for it temporally, physically, mentally and, some would say, spiritually. Music isn't a lifelong pursuit. It is a life-long meditation. 

Which might be why my superficial knowledge of ragas, acquired over the fraught and frantic last two years of musical schooling, simply evaporated over the course of my Master's degree and career in, well, nonmusical things. I'd attend concerts, identify the occasional raga, maybe even a bandish, if I was lucky, but draw a complete blank regarding its formal, theoretical sub and super structures. The finesse was gone. All I had was clumsy recognition. 

What's more important than what I have lost, though, is what I have gained and retained. Years of learning from the most generous of teachers have honed my listening skills. I know, instinctively, whether a musical performance has genuine quality. I have been taught to look beyond musical showmanship and attend to a performer's depth of understanding. The things they tell you about listening well being a joy? They're true.  

And then there are the memories of the music itself, living, thriving trace memories. There have been times when I've heard a raga at a performance, and hours or days later, begun humming something at home that I thought I'd forgotten years ago - interestingly, a fragment of the same raga or a sister raga from the same thaat. An echo, almost, belatedly responding to the call of sound. 

Sorting through my bookshelf yesterday, I stumbled upon my second and third year textbooks and was delighted to find that I remember almost every bandish from those more relaxed years - note for note, inflection for inflection. 

How do musical memories work? It's incredible, and incredibly mysterious. After all, as I mentioned earlier, music is the ultimate abstraction. Listening neither depends on, nor leaves behind, bio-chemical markers. We can all claim to have been moved by music, to remember exactly where we were, how we felt, what we were doing when we heard a particular song. But the music itself? How do we remember it? Isn't recollecting music, playing it back to ourselves in our minds, hearing it without the stimulus of sound - the abstracting of the abstraction - the ultimate illusion? 

We never got around to studying musical memories that one year I studied cognitive psychology. And while I'm sure the research in this area has progressed by leaps and bounds, I've never bothered to investigate any of it for myself. It's laziness, for sure. But it is also a certain pleasure in the idea of mystery and magic, in the sense that the intangible, the ineffable, is as much a part of me as the tangible. Is as alive, if not more.  

Not all those who wander are lost. Not all that can be explained, should be. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

A Reluctant Millennial Tangles with Time

I have a problem with time. 

It is absolute, it defies tinkering, it is unyielding and impossible to escape or evade. 

And yet, people of all stripes are spinning their own temporal fantasies, relishing their second (or third) flushes of youth, exploring frighteningly early adulthoods, experiencing protracted adolescences, enjoying unprecedented longevity. 

Against all odds, the biggest one of them being reality, of course, we've managed to endow time with a sort of sociological subjectivity. Identify with the generational quirk or cultural current of your choice, and you get to speed time up or slow it down. Or, more accurately, you get to interpret time as having accelerated or stalled. 

It's all very confusing. 

The problem is, of course, that we experience time through age. And age no longer means what it used to mean. The conventional markers - college, post-graduation, first job, second job, marriage, home ownership, parenthood - are nowhere close to irrelevant, but they're all being relocated and reframed by the tidal wave of individual choice. 

How apt that we have witnessed the launch and evolution of Facebook's Timeline. We watch hundreds of personal trajectories unfold, moment by moment, marker by marker. Fodder for occasional delight, casual voyeurism and garden-variety jealousy and anxiety.   

It's absurd. You show up at the prescribed place and the prescribed time, on the verge of a chronological landmark, and find that the ground is still moving underneath your feet. 

It's liberating. You show up at the prescribed place and the prescribed time, on the verge of a chronological landmark, and find that most things - if not all - remain possible. 

We have the blessing of choice, and bear the burden of having no one to blame. It's a weighty contradiction to live with, and yet we do so, everyday. 

Perhaps that's the cosmic joke. We, this luckiest of generations, came of age a while back. We just didn't know it then. Do we know it now? 
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