Friday, November 26, 2010

Remembering

Today marks the second anniversary of ‘26/11.’ Terror in India has a long history - 26/11 was a tragedy unlike any other, but it wasn’t our first.

Many of today’s twenty something Indians, and indeed, most citizens of Bombay, have grown up with terrorism forming part of the backdrop of their lives. My own first memory of experiencing an unease I could not fully articulate dates back to the riots that followed the 1993 Bombay blasts. While I was not directly impacted in any way, I could sense that something in the city had changed. I emerged from those turbulent times unscathed, even though friends living nearby were later to tell me that they slept with chili powder under their pillows and sticks by their front doors. Parsi friends described how either Hindu or Muslim neighbors would come to the baugs seeking refuge – who showed up pleading for help depended on which mobs were running loose on a particular night.

But life soon resumed its course, even as the city slowly disintegrated into ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ areas. Members of religious and ethnic communities have always tended to live in clusters, but the riots demarcated rigid boundaries where there was once porosity. This suspicion of the ‘other’ has only grown with time, with the ‘self’ being defined in increasingly narrow terms. Bombay continues to retain cosmopolitan tracts and pockets. But for the most part, the city has splintered, perhaps irreversibly so.

My life (and the city’s) since 1993 has been punctuated by blasts on buses, blasts on trains, blasts around prominent tourist and commercial hubs, and most recently, 26/11. Terrorism has also reared its head elsewhere in this country, repeatedly, month on month, year on year. We are in a permanent state of war, both internally and externally. Assaulted by headlines about blasts here, strikes there, threats inside, attacks outside, we have lost our capacity to mourn and our willingness to remember. It doesn’t help that all our commentators and talking heads seem to react to everything with a knee-jerk ideological perspective, wherein they are so wedded to their constructs of ‘victim’ and ‘aggressor,’ that there is little constructive dialogue and only a trite acknowledgement of loss.

When I read the post I had written immediately after 26/11, I cringe at the quality of the writing. But the truth is that that was how I felt in the moment – angry, shocked, sad – bereaved, almost. I felt it was profoundly important to retain a memory of the attacks, and how they made me feel – bitter, vulnerable, resentful. I believed that my memories, and the collective memories of all of those who were impacted, could compel us to take constructive action, seek change, demand governance.

I was initially surprised by people’s reluctance to speak about 26/11 and attributed this hesitance to denial, to apathy born of disaster overkill, to an inability to care. But now I think it was pure embarrassment – at the apparent ease with which the city was held to ransom, at the conduct of our politicians, at the fact that the South Bombay constituency had an abnormally low voter turnout in the elections immediately afterwards, at the conviction that things would not be very different if the events of 2008 were to repeat themselves. Because, after all, we were not very different either.

Remembering is a conscious act. It requires effort. It demands that we think about what went wrong, and try to do things differently. And in the absence of any evolution in policies, any strengthening of our police and security forces, any improved interaction between intelligence agencies, any indication at all that this city (or country) is any safer, remembering is a hollow gesture. So spare me the TV and print specials, the editorials and the special editions. For over two decades, we have shown ourselves to be less than willing to respond to our memories  in any meaningful way. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Malfunctioning Compass

A friend and I spent a good amount of time this morning mulling over what currently passes as ‘cool.’ She claimed that she was doing research for work, but I had no such excuse. I suppose I was animated by the perverse desire to find out exactly how flawed my coolness compass was.

Cool is impossible to define, evanescent, nuanced. We are encouraged to think that cool is subjective, that it derives from the zeitgeist; but for most people, cool is what an influential subset of people do. Of course, once that subset expands to a significant majority, coolness collapses in on itself. Everyone wants to be cool, but to make the effort (or even the desire) apparent is a fatal error. In fact, striving to distance one self from cool is almost guaranteed to confer distinction – another way in which to interpret ‘cool.’ Whether embodied or articulated, cool is elusive. Or so theory, statistics and analysis would have us believe.

My candidates for cool, based on selective and flawed observations of my milieu, included the following – entrepreneurship, photography, the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, kitsch, the suburbs, Bollywood style parallel cinema, Japanese (well, maybe Korean) popular culture, teaching, lamenting the death of Indian fashion.

These suggestions were duly dismissed – no small surprise, given that one of the coolest things college students at the world’s greatest universities report they are currently doing is imbibing vodka through their eyeballs. This is a trend sweeping campuses, and is evidently an effective way to get high. Not to mention an equally effective way to disinfect one’s corneal tissues.

Vodka soaked eyeballs? Nuanced? Elusive? The cool crowd deserves more credit. It just reclaimed cool from respectability. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

More Chaos, Less Consistency - Psychology for a Digital Age

I’m not sure where it was that I first heard about ‘online therapy’ – counseling administered chiefly over the internet. Some quick browsing indicated that a number of psychologists are keen to embrace the opportunity to access clients who may be unwilling or unable to opt for more traditional face-to-face therapy. Several others are worried that an internet-based practice could easily morph into a low-investment, high-returns business wherein the best interests of the client would be less than paramount. Debate about the value of such a practitioner-client interaction is lively and ongoing, and shows no signs of being resolved anytime soon. The only conclusion that seems to have been reached is that the internet is irrevocably here, and that the psychological community will have to come to terms with it.

In the past, psychologists could occasionally seem like sages, providing telling insights into human cognition and behavior. Freud (not a psychologist by training but certainly a clinician) revolutionized our understanding of the psyche, Jung mapped our dreamscapes, Piaget decoded the complex underpinnings of childhood development, Skinner demystified learning, Rogers and Maslow explained motivation and spirituality, and Sternberg and Gardner made breakthroughs in their studies of intelligence and creativity. Psychologists responded to what was happening in the world – soon after World War 2, Adorno and others investigated the roots of anti-Semitism and pro-Nazi complicity. New York street crime galvanized social psychologists into examining issues of social responsibility and apathy, and the civil rights movement prompted the study of racial prejudice. Inquiry also reflected philosophical currents – shifting from determinism to humanism to an interest in multiculturalism.

Yet as far as the internet is concerned, psychologists seem to be two steps behind, grappling with a phenomenon they don’t quite understand. This has something to do with the nature of the internet itself – always changing, always expanding, accommodating more strains of thought and special-interest communities everyday. Ostensibly, psychologists are interested in exploring the right issues – how can learning and work be adapted to the internet? How is the internet shaping identity and relationships? What are the methodological issues that need to be addressed in this particular field of inquiry? Yet the conclusions reached are curiously stilted, in all probability due to the nature of the questions being posed. Research topics are either so broad as to be almost generic (“Investigating the relationship between the internet and social capital”) or very narrow (“Understanding narcissism as demonstrated on undergraduate students’ Facebook profile pages ”). It is educators, sociologists, anthropologists and media specialists who currently seem better equipped to situate their queries so as to provide both depth and breadth with respect to topics such as blogging, cyberbullying and instant messaging.

Interestingly, some psychologists have been quick to identify and diagnose internet related disorders such as addictions to surfing, cyber-sex, gambling and shopping online, and to offer treatments for the same. This is indicative of an underlying tendency to look at the internet in faintly moralistic terms – is it good or bad? Questions about what the internet is doing to us posit the internet as a concrete entity acting upon individuals in specific ways. But it is apparent that as with other forms of technology, the internet has insinuated, and been allowed to insinuate, the very fabric of our lives. Any attempt to investigate it as a self-contained object ‘apart’ from its users is doomed to be inadequate.

Does the internet isolate us, or does it enable us to make new connections? Do we use the internet to experiment with multiple identities, or to refine the one we are best known by? These are limiting questions, because they are based on the assumption that there is one answer, or a similar tendency that will hold true for a certain set of people at a certain point in time. At most, such questions allow for the researchers to claim that behaviors lie ‘somewhere in between’ on a pre-defined continuum. They do not sufficiently accommodate the answer ‘both.’

The complexity of the internet lies in the fact that it allows untrammeled choice with respect to self-presentation and community membership. The lines between the public and the private are in constant, often intentional flux.  The possibilities for agency are immense, and so are the possibilities for conformity. One can be one’s best and one’s worst self online. The high-tech world of the web is uniquely suited to the expression of the most primitive fantasies and desires, even as language and information are evolving to keep pace with the potential for knowledge sharing and communication.

One interpretation of this constant upheaval is that engaging with the internet is a project in being truly authentic, in many ways at once. The internet places us in multiple contexts at the same time, and accordingly, a person can choose to edit, censor or express. If, as Erving Goffman explained, our social lives involve the enactment of multiple roles, then the internet can be thought of as a theatrical kaleidoscope that permits us to essay more than one role at a time, although we do think strategically about how our performances will be refracted onto different stages and for different audiences. This is not an argument in favor of lives being lived online to the detriment of day to day functionality. It is an assertion that what is online need not necessarily be ‘fake’ or a ‘façade.’ Even pretense is likely motivated by an authentic psychological need, just as purported internet-specific addictions are often symptomatic of persistent ‘offline’ problems. The relationships between users and the internet, online and offline behavior, the public and the private are clearly more complex than psychological inquiry has currently allowed for.

Cognitive psychologists have it simpler, since the neural responses to stimuli are more easily measured and more standardized. But when considering the personal and social implications of internet use, it may be too much to expect a consistent clustering of responses. Bottom-up analysis and qualitative research (suited to understanding lived experiences) would be a good place to start, even if the goal is to catch up with the subject(s) of interest.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Julia Roberts Has It Wrong

Last week’s edition of the HT Brunch was a particularly anemic and formulaic exploration of Diwali, with checklists on how to decorate one’s home and throw festival parties. Today, the papers are telling us what Bollywood has-beens will be doing to bring in the New Year. Julia Roberts has gone on record to say that Diwali belongs to ‘everyone,’ that it celebrates self-confidence and humanity – a wildly inaccurate interpretation that in its misplaced earnestness, itself plays to type.

Fortunately, in spite of what the media serves up as the ‘festive spirit,’ Diwali has largely managed to transcend clichés; has evaded the more corrosive forms of commercialization; has retained relevance, appeal and allure.  

Like all festivals, Diwali offers a way in which to mark time; offers respite from the grinding realities of everyday life; offers a very large collective the opportunity to look forward and begin things anew, unblemished by the failures and setbacks of the past year.

Diwali also has meaning that is all its own. Hindus believe Diwali marks the return of Ram to Ayodhya, Jains believe it is when their last tirthankara, Mahavira, attained nirvana. Everywhere, Diwali has been adapted to fit a range of cultural and sub-cultural narratives and myths, but most people will celebrate it as the New Year, filled with promise, a time for food, family, friends, bonhomie, largesse and shopping.

In my experience, Diwali is a festival for pragmatists, for hard-headed accountants and businessmen as well as for the devout – an example of how Hindu theology, vast, sprawling and complex, can accommodate the spiritual needs of both the ascetic and the merchant, the yogi and the bhogi. It is partly a festival that celebrates wisdom, and mostly a festival that celebrates wealth. The meek may eventually inherit the earth, and karma may reap dividends in other lives, but it is money, ambition and enterprise that will turn the wheels of the world in the present. It is important to remember, though, that this is not a festival that valorizes greed, but rather one that encourages people to respect wealth and the responsibilities attendant upon its accumulation.

My community has celebrated Diwali in the traditional way for years, fusing Hindu rituals with Jain beliefs. All the rites center around prosperity and wisdom – the cleaning of our homes so as to welcome Laxmi, rituals marking the placement of orders for books of accounts, the worship of these books and silver and gold coins, the ceremony accompanying the inaugural credit/ debit entry into the books, the purchase of new clothes and the consumption of deep-fried and sweet food (everyday cooking being considered inauspicious, and diet-friendly food wholly blasphemous). A few days later, Saraswati is appeased through the worship of books, pencils and lately, CDs – all the paraphernalia of learning and knowledge.

What appeals most to me is the festival’s emphasis on light – lamplight, lantern-light, fairy lights, firecrackers and electric razzmatazz of all sorts – as a redemptive, protective, even healing force. Almost every part of the country is luminous at this time of the year, and even battle-scarred, world-weary Bombay takes on a softer glow.

Wisdom, wealth, bright and bold beginnings. I wish you a Happy Diwali and a Prosperous New Year.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Failing Feminism

This past week, I’ve been exposed to some interesting interpretations of femininity and what it means to be a woman. I watched Anita Ratnam present ‘Her and Bliss,’ a wonderful lecture-performance that depicted some of the many facets of the sacred feminine. I then attended a lecture that outlined Kali’s evolution from a little-known tribal goddess to one of the most powerful divinities in the Hindu pantheon. Being a goddess, clearly, is complicated.

Being a woman, even more so.

But it was when I was reading anthropological literature about women’s experiences as fashion models – supposedly as research for an ongoing project, but largely just an exploration of a topic I found oddly compelling – that I was forced to acknowledge that being a feminist is, quite simply, fraught.

Feminist scholars have long shared a love-hate relationship with fashion. To oversimplify the extant literature I’ve been skimming through, fashion models are either perceived as agents in the perpetuation of stereotypes about femininity, or as beautiful women caught in the same cycles of discipline and power as us lesser mortals.

Either-or. Something to make one long to hear faint echoes of old-school feminism, when change and progress seemed less nebulous, and when feminism seemed like it could claim something resembling an overarching agenda. Although, even back then, this unity of purpose must have seemed tenuous – for how could one ‘ism’ ever be expected to satisfactorily address the aspirations and demands of radicals, structuralists, race activists, cultural relativists, well-meaning liberals and socialists?

Feminism today is thought of as being deeply unfashionable, if not entirely antiquated. It doesn’t help that contemporary feminism is difficult to terms with, continuously assuming new positions and striking changing poses against the backdrop of a complex world. Contemporary feminism allows for all actions, gestures, conditions and objects – high heels, burkhas, arranged marriages, prostitution, becoming a home-maker, French parliamentarians taking their babies to work, abortion – to be interpreted as either empowering, or as symptomatic of socio-cultural oppression, depending on where one comes from and how one sees things.

The oppression-empowerment binary seems superficially similar to the ‘for-against’ foundation on which early feminism was built, but it is in fact fundamentally different. The words can be, and are, frequently used interchangeably. To put it simply, where one feminist sees oppression, the other sees empowerment. All except the most intractable contradictions are reconciled by invoking the word ‘choice,’ which fulfills the remarkable function of making the inequitable – such as the commoditization of women’s bodies – acceptable. ‘Choice’ as it used in the discourse of contemporary feminism is semantic sleight-of-hand at its most accomplished.

The politics of choice, the complexity of choice, the idea that social conditioning and obligations might, in fact, be shaping choice – these are questions that contemporary feminism, at least in its popular forms, often neglects to address. Academic feminists will engage with such questions, but all too often, their arguments are theoretical feats, having little or no bearing on change as it must be achieved in the world.

It’s impossible to define and describe feminism in any one way. It is also true that different women will interpret feminism differently, and will try to adapt it to the truth of their own lives. It's almost amusing to suggest it, but feminism needs to reconsider its own political correctness - there are only so many competing interpretations or points-of-view that any movement can accommodate before it collapses in on itself. And things can truly be said to have reached a point of no return when Sarah and Bristol Palin are anointed as flag-bearers for the new wave of Christian feminism. 

Feminism has had more than its fair share of adversaries and critics. Today, the criticism seems at least partly justified – which is unfortunate, because gender inequity remains pervasive, and the world needs its feminists. It’s often hard, though, to tell whether it is feminism that has failed women, or whether it is women who have failed feminism. 

Saturday, October 16, 2010

An Unraveling, Of Sorts

It is possible to stumble upon the unknown in Bombay even after spending a lifetime here. I visited a set of fairly standard-issue corporate offices this morning – there was little traffic to contend with, and I managed to make my appointment well ahead of time. As I took a turn off the main road to find my way to the parking lot, I was suddenly confronted by a totally different landscape – acres of land, still green with shrubbery, upon which were situated the crumbling shells of abandoned textile mills.

Bombay’s mills are rapidly being converted into shopping complexes, residential and commercial properties, parking lots, hotels and even nightclubs. This is a city hungry for real estate, and any available space is acquired and redeveloped with unusual rapacity. But remnants of the city’s past – moss and lichen covered chimneys, rusting gates and signboards, stone-built sheds and storehouses, dilapidated structures that will soon be dismantled by wrecking balls – are still visible, most notably in central Bombay.

In the immediate aftermath of the textile industry’s bitter and acrimonious collapse, a pall of gloom hung over the mills. Rumors began to swirl around these contested tracts of land – some of them were believed to be haunted, others actually became sites for petty crime, even murder. Soon, the mills were visited only by the suspect – prostitutes, drug dealers, gangsters. Even today, late at night, the streetlights in many of these precincts are dimmer, the roads are wider and darker, and the by lanes are quieter.

Much has been made of the dismantling of the mill-based ecosystem. The erosion of tenements, community kitchens, recreational spaces, local celebrations and festivals has been swift and seems irreversible. Urban activists are attempting to document these spaces and nuances by collecting narratives and memories and organizing seminars and lecture series. But the oncoming surge of gated communities, superstores and supermarkets is insistent, and is bringing a new demographic and culture in its wake. This is evolution, of course – but the new seems very roughly grafted onto the old, and it is obvious that stakeholders in the mill communities have had very little control over the terms of the ‘revitalization.’  

All cities change, constantly. But it is critical to attempt to negotiate such changes collectively. This is why the mills are symptomatic of so much that has gone wrong in Bombay - unemployment and concomitant resentment run deep, and today the area is not so much a saffron as a linguistic bastion, home to political parties that preach parochialism and peddle violence.

I spent two and a half years working in a redeveloped office complex in central Bombay. My surroundings felt oddly unfamiliar – to step out of the office was to stand out, to be conspicuous. I may have been a resident of the city, but I obviously came from someplace else. Since then, I have felt this way several times – not only in Parel, but across the city. Most of the newer offices and residential complexes I have visited seem to bear little relation to their immediate environment, and it is often easy to identify who occupies which side of these micro divides.

Like most people, I appreciate being pleasantly surprised by my city. But I find it somewhat discomfiting that I need to travel only fifteen minutes away from home to feel like I no longer ‘belong.’ Urban coexistence is many things, but I cannot accept that it involves occupying self-contained worlds that overlap only occasionally, in the most superficial ways. 

Friday, October 8, 2010

Memories

There are certain things that can never fail to tug at your heart. Going through old photos is one of them.

I spent the better part of one of my evenings this week rummaging through stacks of dog-eared photos and dusty albums for a photo montage my parents wanted to put together. I had expected to stumble upon the embarrassing and the amusing - photos of my mother in bell-bottoms, photos of my father taken during his (mercifully) short experiment with a beard, photos of my aunt in shoulder pads, photos of a gap-toothed, boyish self. 

But something else happened. It was as if memory, long stoppered, had suddenly been set free in all its bittersweetness. Over the course of a few hours, I saw my grandparents as newlyweds, as first-time parents, young, ebullient, full of ambitions and hopes. I saw my parents, aunts and uncles as wide-eyed and wild-haired children and awkward adolescents. I saw my family as it had once been - closer in both joy and sorrow - before disputes over property, business, and insults real and imagined bred resentment and fractured relationships. Looking at those smiling faces made me long to reach back into the past, to warn them of the untimely deaths, debilitating diseases and bitter arguments that lay ahead. 

It would be wrong to say that all I felt was sorrow and nostalgia. Because those stacks also captured moments of unalloyed joy - celebrations to mark a birthday or the purchase of a first home and a first car, weddings, graduations, holidays. I realized that many of those familiar faces had in fact formed the unvarying, unchanging nucleus of my 'family life.' And there was ample fodder for jokes - photos providing unassailable evidence of questionable sartorial choices and hair styles gone awry. 

Later that night, I wondered what my grandmother, one of the focal points in the small universe of our extended family, made of these memories. Did she mourn the passing of her once striking beauty, now faded into a quiet dignity? Did she often think of those who were no longer present?  

I can't pretend to know the answers. But I do know that when I get to be her age, I want to look back on a life filled with photo-opportunities, captured in decades and generations worth of dusty albums and dog-eared photos. What's a life without pictures? 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

'The Rebel Sell' - Bluster That Just About Passes Muster

I’ve spent the better part of the last few days reading a book called ‘The Rebel Sell: How The Counterculture Became The Consumer Culture,’ co-authored by Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath. It is an unabashed polemic that outlines some of the self-defeating contradictions that lie at the heart of the idea of counterculture, and indicates that the well-entrenched lines drawn between consumerism, capitalism and countercultural rebellion might be surprisingly blurred.

Potter and Heath make a case for incremental change achieved by working within and with institutions, draw an important and compelling distinction between dissent and deviance, credit capitalism with offering consumers choice as opposed to conformity, and reclaim respectability for mass culture, civility, predictability and norms. In doing this, they take apart the well-worn and much-loved narratives and tropes of our times – ‘finding ourselves,’ ‘altering society’s consciousness,’ ‘seeking deep and meaningful solutions,’ ‘being authentic,’ ‘ethical shopping.’

This is useful, especially for those of us who question the myth of a single, overarching system and find it difficult to believe that articulating protest solely through lifestyle-centric gestures is worthwhile. The authors also interrogate the value of a continuous agitation against all forms of society, order and business. What I found most interesting was their description of counterculture as the unwitting engine of consumer culture. According to Heath and Potter, as self-styled rebels continuously redefine the cultural ‘edge,’ ‘cool’ becomes a moving target, and companies churn out products that help individuals compete against one another in the race to be different. As symbols of cool become mass, rebels have to find a new way in which to distinguish themselves, and so a new set of desirable products is created.

Rebel Sell is an intentionally provocative analysis delivered with sometimes scathing snarkiness, and is frequently problematic. Sweeping arguments are constructed on the basis of a handful of pet theories – whether these are Hobbes’ ideas about man in nature, game theory constructs such as the prisoner’s dilemma and races to the bottom, or Veblen’s theories about competitive consumption. The authors also seem to have envisioned contemporary history as a pre-60s, post 60s binary. As other reviewers, most notably in the Guardian have already mentioned, there is an almost complete preoccupation with the counterculture as it has evolved in the West, particularly in Northern America. An attention to fringe and non-mainstream movements in other parts of the world would have leavened their arguments with some nuance.

I find it difficult to dismiss countercultural ideas on the grounds that they haven’t effected tangible change – this depends to a large extent on how one defines change. Countercultural ideas have provided alternative ways for us to look at ourselves and the world, have inspired works of art and creativity, have compelled people to ask significant questions of their governments and institutions. These ideas can have murky origins, and often descend into indulgence, superficiality and violence (summit protests, anyone?) but they have also catalyzed thinking and action committed to change.

Potter and Heath are advocates for a well-regulated market, global trade, and entrepreneurship, which seems reasonable. What is bizarre is their dismissal of the idea that industry and trade lobbies shape global policy, and negotiate from a position of strength with governments in impoverished nations. This assertion is made on the basis that there is little conclusive evidence to prove that governments are buckling to industry on issues such as environmental protection. That sounds suspiciously technical, and the throwaway nature of their claim makes it evident that the authors expect us to take their word for it.

Even if I were to concede that business exerts limited influence over Canadian politics, anyone even glancingly informed about the developing world would have to consider this an instance of breathtaking disingenuousness. Most of us in India consider bullying by big business a given – just opening a broadsheet or tabloid in Mumbai, on any day of the week, offers proof enough.

But in spite of its many flaws, Rebel Sell is an interesting read. It offers a refreshing perspective and is highly recommended for anyone seeking an alternative to the Chomsky-Klein paradigm. Most importantly, it is a timely reminder that deliverance and good karma do not come packaged in fantastic smelling body scrubs, organic groceries, Burning Man festivals and fair-trade lattes – we cannot change the world by simply changing where and how we shop, and it is a stinging indictment of so many of us that that is all we are content to do.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Like a Deer in Headlights

I’m not the kind of person who normally veers off track – I’m fairly good at hauling myself up by my bootstraps, keeping my nose to the grindstone, setting my shoulder against a wheel and keeping it there – I suppose what I am trying to say is that I believe in Being an Agent.

But even the best of agents have their moments of weakness. I experienced mine this weekend, and had to acknowledge that I was perilously close to reaching a Point of No Return. Like they (used to) say on that ridiculous show anchored by couturiers Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, I was ‘hooked, booked and cooked,’ as in ‘Nita was hooked, booked and cooked by Mukesh.’ They said that. To quote Dave Barry, ‘I swear I am not making this up.’

But this is not about HDIL Couture Week’s tantrum-throwers extraordinaire and their small screen misadventures. It is about the fact that I found myself rushing home, looking nervously at the clock, and interrupting my grandmother as she watched a Makhmalbaf movie so that I could catch the latest episode of Ugly Betty. They shot it in the Bahamas, Shakira made an appearance, and Betty and Matt got back together. But still. It was a thing to make me cringe.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to steer clear of television. I’m very suspicious of its capacity to hold people of all ages and intellectual capacities in thrall; of its ability to consume hours of our days. I tend to watch television when I am in need of something anodyne to take the edge off a particularly unpleasant or difficult train of thought.

So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I realized that I had spent the better part of the last two weeks absorbed by Kitty’s struggles with cancer, Booth’s obvious feelings for Bones, Betty’s metamorphosis into a better-dressed butterfly (don’t blame me, they lay their metaphors on fairly thick) and the worst year of Ted’s life. I’m fairly well informed about Castle’s exploits. I also watched an episode of Criminal Minds, although the gusto with which the ‘detectives’ discussed serial killing and rape ensured that that was a one-time lapse. I’d watch 24, but eight seasons down, I know it’s a zero sum game. Jack Bauer will bring down governments, defeat drone armies, lose someone he loves, and save the world. This does not mean I have watched all eight seasons of 24. I just get to hear the jokes.

Watching all of this has felt a bit like bingeing, with the only difference being that I’ve had an overdose of images, plotlines and pre-fabricated emotions. Even though I’m consuming content, and not calories, a diet seems to be in order. Having had only one other addiction – Indian style masala tea – I’m not sure how this is supposed to work. Should I taper off my intake, opt for portion control, or go cold turkey? What is the television equivalent of eating right? Does it involve watching Mad Men and HBO mini-series, in small doses? If so, what would my Sunday ‘cheat treat’ be – Laguna Beach reruns? Gossip Girl?

I’m intrigued by the fact that I am framing this conversation in terms of excess, purging and addiction. Which brings to mind the question – do we have a surplus of content in our lives, a surplus of guilt and good intentions, or both? Whatever. I’ll wait till Oprah gets back from Australia to figure this one out. Xoxo.*

 * You know you love me (fill in breathy voice).

Monday, September 27, 2010

Curioser and Curioser

I recently read an essay by Nicholas Thomas entitled ‘Licensed Curiosity: Cook’s Pacific Voyages.’ The essay doesn’t make for particularly easy reading, but it does make a few thought-provoking points. Thomas explores multiple ideas here – the impact the Pacific voyages had on the British public, the dubious morality of this kind of colonial project, and the tentative nature of science.

What I found most interesting was his discussion of ‘curiosity,’ regarded by the Georgians as a character flaw that indicated a lack of integrity and intellectual heft. According to Thomas “…there are many forceful statements in a variety of genres to the effect that curiosity is feminine, unstable, somehow tarnished…curiosity was deeply, almost casually linked with commerce…and with the moral ambiguities and latent corruption of commercial society.”

Reading the essay reminded me that we don’t pay enough attention to the words we use – so many of them have long and remarkable histories that are sandpapered away by the easy casualness of familiarity. Throwaway lines such as ‘Curiosity killed the cat’ give us a clue to the word’s contested past, but these are not phrases to which we attach much significance.

To think that curiosity was once considered morally tentative, almost a vice, is to be reminded that knowledge was once disputed and ‘in the making.’ Around the time of Cook’s voyages, disciplinary territories were very much up for grabs, scholars and proponents were still developing investigative procedures for their preferred areas of inquiry, and were also working to establish that such inquiry, was in fact, worthwhile.

Would it be too much to say that our relationship with, and approach to knowledge has changed almost completely since then? We can get degrees in more specialized fields of study than ever before, can access more information, can pursue very diverse interests. Almost no one I know harbors doubts about whether or not knowledge has intrinsic worth, although there is still a disciplinary hierarchy with ‘hard’ sciences ruling the roost. We also value curiosity and encourage its expression – the internet itself is a sprawling testament to the wide range of our interests.

All of this is good, except for the fact that we tend to confuse an equal respect for disciplines with an ‘equivalence’ of disciplines. As a psychologist, I am quick to challenge students and professionals who dismiss the social sciences as ‘soft’ studies – but I am equally uncomfortable with colleagues who claim that qualitative enquiry will always answer questions more deeply, and address issues more meaningfully than quantitative research. I am sensing more of an academic ‘extremism’ amongst researchers, an unfortunate ease with making unsubstantiated claims on behalf of a discipline.

Standards for learning are also being loosened – the year I gave my school-leaving exams was one of the first years in which students taking the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (I.C.S.E) were given the option to ‘drop’ the sciences for economics and commerce (previously, only students with persistent learning disabilities were offered this alternative). Even at the age of 14, the choice seemed like something of a cop-out. Since then, I hear that maths has also been converted into an ‘optional’ subject. Consequently, one has a significant number of students passing through the country’s premier high schools with only a middle-school understanding of maths and science.* I am not sure about the statistics, but I’m willing to assume that a disproportionate number of these students are girls, who have historically been socialized to think of numeracy as a male domain.

Moreover, grading is increasingly being relaxed, to the point where students with percentages in the late 90s couldn’t get into a college of their choice in Bombay this year – simply because there were so many of them. Just this morning, I read that a number of I.C.S.E schools in the city have decided to substitute exams with continuous assessment, and percentages with grades, ostensibly to ease ‘pressure’ on students up to the 8th grade.

While I appreciate the spirit in which the measure has been undertaken, I entertain doubts about the implementation – do we have the training, the know-how and the syllabus to administer continuous assessments, given that so many schools have relied on examinations for decades? Do we have any way in which to ensure that the projects and essays which will replace exams will ensure learning? I ask this question because I know for a fact that wealthy students in elite schools ‘outsource’ assignments to consultants. How will the 8th graders be equipped to make the eventual transition to a point and marks driven school leaving exam?

It seems to me that we have today is an odd mix constituted of greater flexibility in assessment and basic study, accompanied by the perception that all fields of inquiry are equal and will provide us with equivalent sets of skills. There is less opportunity to cultivate an interest in subjects that aren’t immediately appealing, and almost no requirement to persist with fundamentals that seem boring and difficult.

This somewhat tenuous foundation, combined with easy access to vast swathes of information, can either result in people knowing much more about less, or less about much more. It’s a bold statement to make, of course, but I think it has some merit. I’ve been hearing murmurs about the dangers of living in a society inhabited by highly-specialized knowledge workers – I’m less familiar with the perils associated with a dilettante culture, but I’m sure the literature is out there.

There is an imbalance between the knowledge potentially available to us, and the tools we are being equipped with to engage with it. Are we being offered greater freedom to exercise our curiosity, or being implicitly told that curiosity is ‘enough?’ Where will this lead? I’m curious. 

Boon, Please!


Last week saw the culmination of one of the highlights of my year – Ganesh Chaturti, the 10 day period during which Ganesh, or Ganpati - son of Shiva and Parvati, brother of Kartikeya - is fêted, fawned over, appeased, beseeched, and eventually immersed.

Ganesh Chaturti, following close on the heels of Ramzan and Paryushan, heralds the beginning of an extended festive season. The city shrugs off the scars that are annually inflicted by the monsoons and puts on a brighter face. All manner of buntings and fairy lights are dusted off and displayed, loud and tuneless music emanates from every street corner, and crowds duly fall into orderly lines outside the main sites of worship.

Say what you will about the commercialization of this festival – pandals that seek sponsorship from construction companies and patronage from dubious politicians, cash donations worth hundreds of millions of rupees that bypass regulations, plaster-of-paris idols that grow larger every year and contaminate water bodies, Bollywood stars who capitalize on the occasion to drum up publicity for movies that aren’t worth watching, the almost complete departure of the celebrations from their community-centric roots – it is still a collective outpouring of devotion that has the power to take one’s breath away.

It is possible to argue that the millions who visit Ganesh pandals have misplaced their faith. After all, there is no way to establish that this idol (and not another ‘Raja’ a few hundred meters away) has the power to grant one’s heart’s desire. Any skeptic will assert that self-fulfilling prophecies, not divine intervention, are to be credited for the dreams that do come true. But these are arguments that would ring hollow when confronted by the sight of devotees at Lalbaug standing in queues that run kilometers long. They come from around the country, they come to seek blessings and give thanks, they even come from different faiths, they come because it would be inconceivable not to.

One may not understand it, but it is impossible to begrudge Ganesh the affection he commands. Shiva is majestic but frightening and temperamental, Rama is virtuous and admirable, Brahma is remote, but Ganesh is a god to love. He enjoys all of Krishna’s accessibility and popularity, without having to bear the burdens of wiliness, political astuteness, and a checkered romantic past. He is rotund, calm, beatific – slow to anger, quick to remove all obstacles to success. My community made a break with Hinduism centuries ago – but we have yet to renounce ‘Ganpati,’ who is invoked before beginning all journeys and business ventures.

I may not wait in line to see him, I do not ask him to intercede in matters on my behalf (well, maybe that one time), but I do make it a point to join the throng that bids Ganesh farewell every year. I do this because it is fun, because it is a childhood ritual that I am yet to tire of, because it is an excuse to eat junk food while standing in the middle of the street. Mostly, though, I do this because it is one of the few times that I truly share an experience with my fellow city-dwellers - we are all happy to welcome Ganpati, and we are all sad to see him go.  

I am not sure whether there is such as thing as a ‘spirit’ of this city. I do not believe that the 16 million of us are tied together by some kind of mystic, ineffable chord. Bombay is a city that needs shared spaces, but more importantly, a shared love affair. Who better than an elephant-headed, boon-granting, rodent-borne god, enshrined in pandals large and small, to create this meeting ground? 

Friday, September 17, 2010

Another F Word

Over the past few months, I’ve noticed a growing interest on my part in food – its history and role in modern culture. Perhaps fittingly, this interest has expressed itself through more time spent reading about food than actually preparing it (I tend to survey most things from the vantage point of an armchair). I’ve also devoured two memoirs in rapid succession – Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Kitchen Confidential,’ and Jacques Pepin’s ‘The Apprentice.’ Both are chefs who owe much to France and share a fondness for home-style French cooking. The similarities end here - while Bourdain’s book is a booze-soaked, cocaine-flecked trawl through New York’s restaurant kitchens, Pepin’s is a genteel recounting of his childhood, friendships and evolution as a chef.

Chef’s memoirs, courses in culinary history, branded product lines and cooking reality shows are just some of flotsam and jetsam currently being borne aloft on the twin tides of chef-superstardom and a wide-spread obsession with food. It’s interesting that this preoccupation with fabulous, professionally prepared (or at least, professional-looking) food is peaking at the same time as paranoia about food. People in many parts of the world are spending more on food than ever before, while also convincing themselves to eat less and less of it.

A growing group of writers and cultural commentators have attempted to explain these contradictions - Michael Pollan’s name comes to mind almost immediately, and there are several others. Our complex relationship with food is, of course, just one example of a seemingly pervasive cultural schizophrenia, but it is one of the most disturbing, because it plays itself out several times a day in insidious ways.

Reading Pepin’s book today, I was taken aback by the force of his love for food – his appreciation of it, his willingness to make cooking the anchor of his professional and personal life. All his memories are colored by the textures, flavors, and aromas of food. This is no surprise, given that he is an internationally renowned chef. But it is still oddly compelling to encounter an unabashed love for something which so many of us today regard with such suspicion.

Food is increasingly fraught – engineered rather than grown, analyzed rather than relished. Even the dedicated consumer of whole rather than packaged foods has to worry about contaminants, artificial coloring, and pesticide residue. Quelling these doubts is only one step – calorie counts also loom large in our collective consciousness. We make complex trade-offs between what goes into preparing a meal, and how much of it can be ‘safely’ consumed. Given our morbid fear of fat, (addressed in this NYT Magazine Article) eating is a high-wire act – portions weighed against ingredients and nutritional value.

This can be taken to absurd extremes – my own brush with a restaurant menu that offered ‘protein plates,’ ‘grain plates,’ ‘macrobiotic plates,’ etc is just one example. Metaphorically running our fingers down this list (twice), a friend and I, both reasonably intelligent human beings, were stumped. We ate someplace else, convinced that calculating which combination of plates would actually amount to dinner wasn’t the best way to spend an evening. 

Nutritional experts, who will use every available forum to urge us to be more careful about what we eat, also say that we can have our cake and eat it too. Food can be healthy and appetizing, provided we substitute regular pasta with wheat, white bread with whole-wheat bread (preferably multi-grain), sugar with demerera (but we are reminded that in India, this is often just white sugar colored brown), sunflower oil with olive oil (but not too much), milk with soy, regular salt with sea salt….

This is in addition to reams of research about what is or is not good for us – most of it contradictory. Wine has calories, but studies have shown a glass a day to reduce the risk of, let’s say, strokes. Caffeine is bad, but studies show that up to (not more than) 6 cups of coffee a day can reduce the risk of heart disease; chocolate is alright in small quantities, especially if it’s dark; fruits should be eaten with the skin for fiber, but without if they look too shiny and suspect….

Keeping track of all of this information, and sifting through it for advice that can be painlessly implemented is an exhausting process. I suppose this is why I found Pepin’s book, in particular, to be so refreshing – old-fashioned carbs; lashings of butter and cream; less caution, more enjoyment; a conviction that every occasion demanded a great meal, and that every great meal was its own occasion. We know more about food now – possibly too much. But we’re still fascinated by it – which is why we buy books, visit cooking demonstrations and watch shows to learn recipes that we never prepare. In our imaginations, we’re eating well; in practice, we’re eating right; and in reality, we’re accomplishing neither. 

Friday, September 10, 2010

Seeking Sports News. About Sports!


My parents are not what you would describe as avid football fans. They watch the occasional Premier League and World Cup game. So I was a little surprised when both of them commented in quick succession on Wayne Rooney’s extra-marital escapades, saying more or less the same thing - ‘What’s wrong with these guys?’

Footballers having affairs; spot-fixing investigations; the sordid mess that the Commonwealth Games in Delhi have become, with reports of Indian athletes being caught doping, and organizers being caught with their hands in the till – just a quick overview of headlines in the sports sections over the last couple of weeks. And if we were to look only a little further back, we’d be able to add money-laundering at the IPL; the French football squad’s descent into factions; Tiger Woods’ excesses and controversy at the Tour De France to the list.

We admire our athletes because we believe they transcend ordinary physical limitations; practice their sport with a monk-like zeal and discipline; compete for greater-than-ordinary spoils. We expect sports to be entertaining - but sports, at least at the national level, have never been just about entertainment. While political and corporate battles are motivated by power and greed, we believe that sporting contests are motivated by the desire to win – a desire born of pride in representing one’s country. Somewhere, underlying all these beliefs and assumptions, lurks the naïve hope that not only are our athletes stronger, faster, and tougher than the others, but somehow, better. We don’t expect them to be models of propriety, but we do hope that they are endowed with some semblance of character.

While it’s always problematic to look back at the past as a ‘simpler’ time, I do believe that there was an age when sportsmen and women competed with a certain amount of pleasure and pride – and the sports headlines were about sports. Perhaps it was because athletes at the time didn’t have a choice – the material rewards and temptations were limited. Perhaps controversies were better concealed and less widely disseminated.

My father grew up watching the greats play at Brabourne and Wankhede. They made 250 rupees per test match, didn’t star in commercials, and played memorable cricket. They may or may not have been great men, but they weren’t embarrassments (either on or off the pitch).

It would be too much to say that I am disappointed in our athletes. To say so would be to presume both a claim on my part, and an obligation to behave on theirs. They say a society gets the government it deserves. Looking at the sports pages today, I’m beginning to think that our society is getting the athletes it deserves as well.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Cricket for Cynics

We all know the cricketing world has been in turmoil over the last couple of weeks. For those who were orbiting the earth, or stuck in that traffic jam in China, here is a quick account.

  • News of the World, beloved of journalism junkies everywhere, ‘stings’ Mazhar Majeed, a British-Pakistani real estate mini-mogul + football club owner. He claims to have most of the Pakistani cricket team in his pocket, and a couple of them bowl no-balls at a pre-decided time during a test match at Lords
  • Scotland Yard begins an investigation. The ICC huffs and puffs. The evidence against Mohammed Asif, Mohammed Amir and Salman Butt is incriminating, and the English team refuses to play against them

So far, so predictable. Things then begin to get really interesting.

  • There is an outcry in Pakistan. The Prime Minister says the nation is ashamed, and Zardari says he is ‘disappointed.’ That’s probably because he wasn’t getting his cut
  • Even as commentators and ex-cricketers are frothing at the mouth, and assorted Chief Justices are saying they told everyone so, the Pakistani High Commissioner in London claims to have investigated the matter in a two hour conversation with ‘the boys’
  • Conspiracy theories begin to circulate – Pakistani ministers speak darkly of a ‘foreign hand,’ also known as The Neighbor Who Gets Named All The Time
  • Asif’s ex-girlfriend brings to life the phrase ‘dishing the dirt,’ saying that she has access to mobile phone records that indicate he was participating in match-fixing. She also says he has a drug and alcohol abuse problem. More recently, i.e. today, she accused Asif of being physically abusive. Without minimizing any of her relationship issues, I would have to say that this is one woman you don’t want to break up with
  • As his colleagues answer questions about their propriety and conduct, Shahid Afridi shows up to take charge. This is the same person who faced disciplinary action a couple of months ago for chewing on a ball
  • The PCB dithers about whether or not to drop their players. So the ICC goes ahead and takes their decision for them
  • Conspiracy theories now fly thick and fast – apparently R&AW, Sharad Pawar (the ICC president) and a vast network of Indian bookies have been planning this for months. We don’t have confirmation yet, but Manmohan Singh and PC may have been in on it too
  • Yasir Hamid, a Pakistani batsman, gets his 15 minutes. He is caught in another sting-op by NOTW. He says fixing has been going on for months, and that he was dropped because he refused to play ball. Later, he backtracks by saying that the NOTW offered him a British passport as inducement to confirm the story

Wow.

I was going to make this a post about how the cricketing public had had Too Much, and how Enough was Enough. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that what we have here are the makings of serious drama - drugs, conspiracy theories, wads of cash sewn into jackets (so Spy vs. Spy), coded SMSes.

This particular fiasco is a worthy successor to IPL-gate, which was a potent mix of tax breaks, backroom deals, shadow companies, Bollywood celebrities, Lear jets, parties, pre-arranged team auctions, meetings with the Dalai Lama and (bizarrely enough), a South African model who was barred from entering India. Tweets brought down Modi and Tharoor, but they firmly resurrected the sports scandal.

It may not be cricket, but it’s definitely entertainment. Lalit Modi would approve. 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Interpretation as Action

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been entering bookstores with a certain amount of trepidation. Even the most casual and fleeting visit brings to mind my many lapses of judgment. All the books I should have read (but haven’t), and all the books I did buy (but shouldn’t have) begin to loom large in my consciousness, and I end up feeling vaguely embarrassed and not a little guilty.

If you’re anything at all like me – a reader who compensates enthusiasm for discrimination – you will understand what I mean when I say that I read well, but not wisely. I have long accepted that my reading is, and will continue to be, erratic and all-too-embracing. I have a terrible habit of letting new books languish on the backs of shelves while I borrow something else from libraries and friends. I go back to books months, or even years after I’ve first bought them.

Lately, I’ve come to realize that the books I buy function less as potential reading material, than as a collective index for my momentary good intentions and passing fixations. My collection of books is not a catalogue of what I’ve read, but a catalogue of where I’ve been, what I’ve been interested in, and what I felt I should know more about.

For instance, over the past couple of months, I’ve bought autobiographies of master chefs, historical fiction about a clique of American poets who were inspired by hummingbirds, a satirical campus novel, an alternative history of the Hindus and tomes on fashion illustration. Having completed only one of these, I am now planning to embark on an overview of African-American art during the Harlem Renaissance, and on a survey of the evolution of DC Comics. But even as I'm writing this post, I notice I have Murakami’s ‘Kafka on the Shore,’ at arm’s length. I bought it almost a year ago.

You call it an attention deficit, I call it catholicism. There’s no such thing as buying too many books. Especially when you can find a way to derive something interesting from a collection without having read any of it. It’s a useful (and guilt relieving) trick. 

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Between the Lines

A number of the English language channels I subscribe to have recently begun subtitling most of their content. This is probably helpful for people who can't successfully decipher American and European accents, or for those who like to get their reading done while watching television. 

A totally unremarkable development? Yes. Unworthy of attention or comment? Again, yes - until you begin to consider these subtitles as living experiments in navigating the treacherous waters of Indian Sensibilities. There's a great game of Taboo being played out here, to hilarious effect. Some examples: 

Slut = 'Jezebel'  
Whore = 'Bad woman.'
Man-whore = 'Man-whore' 

I'm tempted to read a patriarchal and chauvinistic sub-text into this lapse, but to be honest, what else are you supposed to call a man-whore? I'm not sure there's a Biblical equivalent for 'Jezebel,' but if there is, I now know where I can expect to find it. 

More examples: 
Breast = No known substitute, so it is consequently beeped out.
Sex = Same as above. Except that sometimes you hear the word, sometimes you don't.
Screw = I am yet to observe a consistent pattern here.
Damn = Darn

While I have no objections to broadcasters making viewing more ‘family-friendly,’ I’m not sure I understand what subtitles have to do with this effort – if the accompanying visuals and dialogue leave very little to the imagination, what is prudish subtitling expected to achieve?

Perhaps subtitling is the broadcaster’s tentative defense against the three C’s that are routinely invoked by the Indian morality vigilante – the Corruption of our Culture and Children. Perhaps subtitling is part of a systemic hypocrisy in which everyone – censors and channels – is complicit. In any case, I’m going to file this one under ‘Fig Leaf, at risk of Immediate Decomposition.’  

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Property Paeans, Property Pains

It is a well-established truth that when residents of Bombay, particularly those of a certain vintage, get together for a meal or a drink, the conversation will inevitably veer to the topic of real estate – who has property, who doesn’t; who owns what, and how much of it, and where; who’s planning to buy what, and at what price; and did you hear about that new development the Lodhas/ Rahejas/ Lokhandwallas are planning?

I’ve been observing this for months now – well-spoken adults with diverse interests and engaging personalities, circling round conversational topics before settling down to talk about the one thing everyone is really interested in – property.

While I understand that real estate is one of those few things that promises a preposterous bang for one’s (big) bucks, I am beginning to think of this fixation as some sort of malaise. Sure, we all want to get a footing on that slippery property ladder, and buy ourselves our little pieces of sky (or smog, or leaky roof) – but is it something we need to talk about quite so often?

I suppose this an unfortunate by-product of our city’s lack of space. To live in Bombay is to live in a constant state of ‘crunch’ – not enough room for cars on the street, not enough room for commuters in trains and buses, not enough room for restaurant tables to be placed more than 6 inches away from each another, not enough room to walk without elbowing someone at 6.30 in the morning on Marine Drive.

Property paucity (and the accompanying absence of planning) is the perennial Bombay bugbear. It’s a problem that has long been out of control and is now beyond redemption. So what do we do when confronted with this urban morass? We buy space, or we dream about buying it. And the more the city closes in on us, the more we begin to feel an urgent need to claim tracts and islands and oases of breathing room for ourselves.

Of course investing in real estate is about making money. It’s also about successfully providing for one’s family, fostering a sense of pride and stability, establishing a tradition of home-ownership, proving that one has achieved success, planting a flag in this city and making it one’s own. But I suspect that once a certain level of material comfort has been achieved, it’s mostly about fantasy, a longing for room in which to stretch one’s legs and reclaim one's soul.

Either which way – I don’t want to hear about it. All guilty parties (and they know who they are), must consider the line drawn, the gauntlet thrown. 

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

An Essay Induced Changing of Gears



A couple of days ago, I decided that I needed to watch Star Cricket’s live telecast of England playing Pakistan in a test match at Trent Bridge. An ordinary enough way in which to while away a rainy afternoon? Possibly. But for me, on that day, this was a conscious act, a decision, a Moment of Reckoning. I’m exaggerating, but only a little. I promised myself that I’d watch half an hour of the game without distraction - no channel surfing, no riffling through the day’s newspapers, no listening to music with the commentary turned all the way down.

And why did I do this? Because, the previous evening, I’d been lucky enough to read an essay by Jeanette Winterson entitled ‘Art Objects.’  It’s an essay about art, but mostly an essay about a cultivating a relationship with art – about making the effort to engage with an artwork. The words ‘making an effort’ are key – Winterson shifts the onus of ‘connection’ onto the audience, asking viewers to shed their inhibitions and prejudices, to look beyond instinctive ‘like/dislike’ responses, to appreciate that art has it’s own language – essentially, to accept that absorption and delight in an artwork is a privilege, not a right. And that earning this privilege takes openness, willingness and time. Winterson is openly dismissive of the museum model of art viewership, where people make hurried dashes through galleries, stopping only to take pictures of particularly celebrated works.

All of which rather uncomfortably brought to mind my own visits to renowned museums, made just a few days earlier. I’d like to say that I lingered over my favourite works, and took the time to really attend to what I was looking at. But the truth is that in spite of my purported interest in art and artists, I was guilty of many of the sins Winterson enumerates. I reacted instinctively to what I saw, I made snap judgments about what was/ was not worth my attention, and I moved between works far, far more quickly than I should have. In my own defence, though, it’s difficult and almost embarrassing to ‘take your time’ with an artwork when people are literally queuing up behind you, awaiting their ‘turn.’ It’s simpler to just take a picture and promise yourself that you will be back later, with more time on hand.

But even so….

Of all the important and valid (and some not-so-valid) points that Winterson made in her essay, the one that resonated most with me was her insistence that “Art takes time.”

Time. That one commodity we all lack. A luxury. Right? Right.

Or…That one commodity that we are least generous with – both when it comes to others and to ourselves? Think about it. To take time is to give oneself permission to move slowly, eat slowly, drink slowly, think slowly, do slowly, to listen, to absorb, to learn.

A love of immediacy has been blamed for phenomena ranging from the hollowness of this year’s Hollywood summer blockbusters and the staccato-SMS nature of Hindi movie dialogue, to the growing inability of school students to process long texts (and I do not mean text-messages) at an uninterrupted stretch. Most commentators agree that this need for speed seems to go hand-in-hand with a cultural preoccupation with the new, the exciting and the different. Ebert has described this as a quest for ‘frisson,’ and others have blogged, written and spoken eloquently about what such a quest might imply for us, our relationships, work and culture.

Given the way trends work, it’s no surprise that in the internet age, slowness is fast (!) gaining its own cult following, with movements dedicated to Slow Food, Slow Reading, and a host of other things.

It’s interesting that some of these movements, especially Slow Food, are comfortable conflating a return to slowness with respect for indigenous cultures, the preservation of regional cuisines and the promotion of organic farming. Under the aegis of these movements, slowness acquires a philosophical and even moral weight, which is of course, problematic. While we need to explore ‘speed’ and ‘immediacy’ critically, we also need to remember that these are afflictions of the privileged, at least with reference to terms and gestures such as frisson and the leisurely consumption of a five course meal. There are too many people imprisoned within loops of slow change and missed opportunities. This is not a repudiation of slow, but just a thought I think we should bear in mind before making slow-is-good, fast-is-bad generalizations.

And it’s doubly important that we guard against flippancy and faddishness with respect to slow. Because this reduces slow to a momentary distraction, a passing blip on our collective radar. Moreover, it is also important to not only be interested in slow-ness, but also explore what it means that we now have to grant ourselves permission to be slow.

It means that taking time with a book, with music, with movies or even a game of cricket tests our patience. We’re too primed to hit pause – on anything.  It means that we are uncomfortable with standing still, with waiting or with doing nothing at all. Which makes it difficult for us to negotiate and contend with things that we genuinely find interesting. One example would be the museum visit I mentioned earlier – if taking my time makes me uncomfortable and even makes me feel a little guilty (I mean, other people are waiting to look at this!) then how am I supposed to derive any pleasure out of the experience? So what happens is that we compress our interests to fit our narrow bandwidths and small windows of time – read 30 minute novels (they exist) during the commute, listen to music while we walk/ clean/ drive, eat in quick bursts. And our engagement, and joy in that engagement, shrinks accordingly.  

Not all instant reading/drinking/ eating is unavoidable or even unpleasant. Maybe someone somewhere likes the cup-noodle experience. There’s something to be said for instant gratification – that it’s pretty good! But it would be nice to allow ourselves to occasionally do things differently. Winterson’s essay was a timely reminder that seeing is sometimes a way of being. And if seeing is a way of being, then I must conclude that slow is the way to go.   
 
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