Tuesday, August 15, 2017

India at Seventy

I'd written, a little over five years ago, about how complicated it sometimes felt to be Indian, how being Indian was essentially a mix of delight, despair and confusion. This has changed. These days, being Indian is mostly, for me, an exercise in fervently hoping that nothing particularly unsettling flashes during my first few minutes on Twitter - a commually charged lynching, a healthcare tragedy, irresponsible reporting, public figures engaged in even more public mud-slinging, the slow erosion of intellectual freedoms and the rewriting of a shared history. 

Let me also state, before the whataboutery chorus chimes in, that no, India has never been perfect, never been a country of peaceful coexistence and equality, never been a land of opportunity for women, never been free of the sceptre of persistent, crippling corruption. Previous governments have failed to address emerging cracks in our economic, social and cultural facades; even broken them wide open when it felt like the convenient thing to do. 

So much of what ails our country today has little to do with a ruling regime, and much more to do with gradual institutional and administrative decay, with a collective narrow-mindedness that has caste and religion at its heart, with our determined disavowal of responsibility towards one another, with powerful corporations 'doing CSR' by writing cheques rather than embracing the influence they could exercise. Then there is the media -  often irresponsible, occasionally incendiary, looking in the wrong places for the wrong things. And finally, there is social media - that charming ecosystem of thought-bubbles, self-appointed thought policers, troll patrols. We are all very complicit. 

Even so. People in positions of power have a responsibility to allow us to determine our own relationships with alcohol, to condemn violence in the name of 'majority values' (whatever those might be), to supply oxygen cylinders to hospitals and to hew their versions of our past closer to fact than fiction. 

I am absorbed by the politics of the U.S.A. at the moment because their President is unfailingly entertaining, and also because it is a way of understanding what is happening, what might happen in India. We have so much to gain, and so much to lose. There are so many wounds from which we still have to recover - I cannot read about the Partition without flinching - do we really want to inflict any more? For a nation of people who believe in karma, aren't we playing terribly fast and loose with our thoughts, words and deeds in the moment? 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

A Call to Disarm

I've spent the last ten days, like most people who care about this type of thing, trying to make sense of what seems to be the prevailing, completely perverse order of things. I furiously hit refresh on the New York Times home page that fateful day, refusing to believe the numbers stacking up. I've scrolled through anguished Facebook and Instagram posts, devoured election post-mortems by some of the world's cleverest people, leafed through The Economist's even-handed (though subtly quivering) assessment of a world soon to be presided over, notionally at least, by President Trump. 

As an Indian citizen who lives halfway across the world, and who expects her country to get along as well with the United States as it ever has, I've got to say it - this was never about Donald Trump. It was about the fundamental social contract people around the world are brought up to believe in - that all of us have more in common than we know; that people are often much better than they seem; that decency matters; that the least we should expect from our leaders is the pretence, if nothing else, of aforementioned decency.

That contract stands nullified.  

And the response to its nullification has been rage - mournful rage from those whose candidate lost, and vindictive, gleeful rage from those whose candidate won. In the immediate aftermath of these elections, Twitter in particular and social media in general have become echo chambers amplifying our collective breast-beating/chest thumping. 

And in these divisive times, it's clear that the one thing that unites us all is the contempt and disdain to which we feel so entitled. I am - surprise, surprise - what would be considered liberal, and what I consider being basically reasonable. And though I hate to admit it, I am sensing a strain of finger-wagging superiority in much of the liberal commentary, the scold behind the seams of each sentence, just waiting to excoriate. To paraphrase a line from Will McAvoy's memorable rant in the opening episode of 'The Newsroom,' - 'If democrats are always right, how come they lose all the time?' They don't lose all the time, but I get it. 

And yet righteousness is so much the lesser evil when ranged alongside the nasty's-the-new-honest discourse of the right. Because what better way to rebuke anyone who thinks they're better than you than to revert to one's basest instincts? Bullying, name-calling, gutter-sniping, death threats, rape threats, digital beheadings - what's a little pathology between political combatants? 

That is what this has become. Fanned by the hungry flames of 24x7 cable news media, politics is neither about argument or disagreement but more of a no-holds barred dogfight in which one side keeps claiming the moral high ground while the other furiously lunges at its jugular. Everyone - and I mean everyone - is angry, issuing battle cries and calls-to-arms. Here's the thing though. When did we all go from having our values to fighting for them, all the time? 

This isn't the quaint outrage fatigue of the early noughties. I know where I stand, which lines I draw in the sand, the things I will speak up for and against. It's just that being battle ready and trigger happy accomplishes nothing. Whose minds were last changed on a political issue by reading an article or a tweet? Who has had a dignified exchange of opposing views on television? We're expending so much fire and brimstone with our ceaseless skirmishes that we have nothing left with which to do the work. 

Let's not mistake preaching to the converted and taking on a few trolls with the real thing. Change is not content. Even though the great flaw of our world today is that it feels like it. If change is what you want to accomplish, know that progress can be won quietly. In this day and age of resistance to everything, let your deeds flourish under the radar. Lick your wounds. You will never get to set the terms of the engagement online. But you can reclaim ground in the world. Stop fighting everything you're against. Just go do what you're for. Or nothing, because remember what a famous man once said about being the change you want to see in the world? 

That's what I tell myself, these days. And I'm beginning to like what I hear.

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. 
Creative Commons License
This work by ToruJ is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.