Saturday, October 13, 2012

Between Utter Certainty and Pervasive Doubt

I had a rather alarming conversation a few days ago. One in which a child of about five years told me, in no uncertain terms, that people 'go to hell' when they commit dietary transgressions. You know, the kind when your faith forbids you from eating something and you go ahead and stock lots of it in your fridge anyways. Because it's who you are that counts, not what you eat, insert other platitude of choice, etc.
 
At the time, I was  annoyed enough to want to remind him that 'hell' is theoretically and philosophically speaking, not a construct consistent with our theology. Was he sure, I wanted to ask, that he didn't just mean these reprobates would reincarnate as cockroaches? But sarcasm doesn't always yield results when it comes to five-year-olds. So I retained my high ground and glared.  
 
One week later, I'm still thinking about that 30 second exchange. More specifically, about moral certainty. Is it dangerous? Does it help? Isn't doubt important? Or is that just what people say when they envy others their absolute, unvarying, confusion-eliminating codes of conduct?
 
Knowing, or thinking you know what's right (which amounts to the same thing) comes in handy. People are complicated, the world is a big place, paths start somewhere and lead someplace else and I suppose clearly defined "'do's and 'don'ts'" serve well as heuristics for the conscience. They guide and clarify. They make for fewer stumbles and missteps. They are the basis for judgment (which can be a good thing). They help you decide how you feel about things.
 
And they also contain the seeds of prejudice. In breaking the world into more manageable pieces, they reduce its complexity. In drawing clear lines between action and consequence, they might obscure the truth of things.
 
So what's the alternative to complete and utter moral conviction? Fundamental doubt? Isn't there something in-between? Like relative certainty or reasonable doubt? Isn't that how we talk about LBW decisions in cricket and High Court verdicts? Can these terms be applied to matters of conduct and the conscience? Does science count as a belief system? If so, what are its operating and guiding principles - and where does one find out more about them?
 
I'm going to hazard a guess and say that the only real alternative to dangerous degrees of certainty and paralyzing degrees of doubt is faith. I don't know anything whatsoever about the technical definitions of these terms. But the way I see it, faith implies belief, it implies commitment, it implies knowing that there's some principle worth adhering to in a chosen socio-religious-political ordering system. Faith runs deep and strong. It's built over time. And because it has grown organically,  it has more give. It accommodates questions. It allows for some yielding and maneuvering. To have faith is to know that at the heart of the system/structure, lies something of value. And it is also to know that between the heart of it and the surface of it, lies significant space for questions.
 
Moral certainty can also run deep and grow over time. But more often than not, it is inherited. From parents, preachers, schools, weekly visits to the local branch of ___________. Its roots lie in something unyielding, in a rebuttal of other points of view. It is brittle, prone to breaking and so adherents cling to it all the more strongly when it is threatened. To be morally certain is to know, to be sure, to be so sure that there is no longer any need to distinguish between the spirit of the law and its letter.
 
Faith is knowing but still being willing to ask questions. Moral certainty is not having any questions at all. Default doubt is never being sure of what to ask.
 
At least, that's the way I see it.  

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Stick A Fork In It

As a knowledge worker, a member of the species obstensibly scheduled to take over the world in the 21st century, I spend my days clicking, typing, swiping. My brain hums, my fingers move but when at work, my hands and the rest of me are mostly static, unmoving. My imagination and trains of thought might go places, and indeed cover impressive amounts of ground, but most of me is there, in the chair, on the phone, online. I like what I do (a lot). But the doing is intellectual, intangible. At the end of the work-day, literally speaking, I don't have a lot to show for my labours. Unless I fire multiple print-outs, which seems like cheating and is anyways bad for the environment.
 
So, denied the school-room pleasure of going home clutching an arts and crafts project and proclaiming 'See what I made!', I have turned to cooking. I am no culinary artist, I have no long neglected talent and I have no pretensions. None whatsoever. But I know the basics. I slice, I dice, I saute, I blitz, I grate, I stir, I look at the watch for a bit, I lift and I empty. Things get messy, sauce is spilled, my fingers get burnt. My hands smell (strongly) of whatever ingredient I've run through the mill. But ultimately there is something there, undeniably there, for everyone to see, and you can literally stick a fork in it.  
 
You can stick a fork in it, and like it. Or dislike it. Ask for it to be made again, ask for the recipe to be tweaked. Scrape the bowls clean, or slip the leftovers back in the fridge. But there's no denying that there it is, in all its 'it-ness' - food. Some. Thing. To. Eat.
 
The joys of taking something, and making something. Who knew?*
 
 
*Turns out, I think I kind of did.I just wasn't paying attention.
   

Sunday, August 19, 2012

An Ultra Marathon. Of a Certain Sort.

I'm no sports buff. I mean this. I watched the Olympics this year for a grand total of about 45 minutes (including advertisements). I have nothing against the Olympics, of course. I'm sure they're wonderful, the Greatest Show on Earth. Sportspeople - particularly those who seem to triumph against physical, mental and circumstantial odds - deserve all the glory that the Olympic stage provides. I do not contest claims that the Olympics celebrate history, legacy and the triumph of the human spirit in ways that no other event does.

Even so, week in, week out, I find myself drawn to humbler things. To sports I can relate to. To contests I see in my everyday life. There is a whole breed of contemporary competitive sports that we are nurturing unknowingly, by the simple fact of going through the motions of our lives. There's the sport of 'Extracting Maximum Mileage From a Mundane Event by Posting Pictures, Tweets and Status Updates.' There's the sport of 'I Hit More Stores and Got Better Deals' that reaches a peak during sale season. And then there is my current preoccupation - an event that demands more stamina and will than either of these two - 'The Weekend Marathon.'  The race to prove that one's weekend is bigger, better, packed with more than another's. It's not for the faint of heart. It's one of those long-drawn contests, starting early on Friday evenings and terminating very late on Sunday (or very early on Monday). It requires some amount of forethought and planning. And bragging rights last only five days.  

A city tabloid I subscribe to occasionally features a column detailing what the 'cool people' do during weekends. I don't know these cool people personally. When I read about someone who is able to read great literature, take tap-dancing/salsa lessons, visit family and friends, walk dogs along promenades, write poetry, visit organic markets in trendy suburbs, cycle to city limits, bake pies for the elderly (crust made from scratch) - all in two or one and a half days - I find myself thinking: Is this for real? What are these people made of ? Are they multi-taskers? Do they split up for different activities and then compound their schedules? Will they ever write a book about their fabulous Saturday-Sunday lives? Will the release party last All Weekend?  

Then I realize that I do personally know people whose weekends are, in fact, incredibly elastic, crammed with all kinds of goings-on. I have a friend who is a doctor. A surgeon, to be precise. This means that he is really always on call, unlike some of us who feel hard-pressed about 'thinking 24x7.' In between saving lives (or limbs), this friend manages to socialize, raise his family, buy art, visit his farm outside the city every weekend and make it back home in time to offer bags of organic tomatoes to anyone who's dropped in for chai on a Sunday evening, take lessons in watercolour painting and schedule early morning fitness mania. This is the truth. Every last word. I have a colleague whose weekends (as per other colleagues) are the stuff of legend. I've heard her recount a couple of these over lunch and I must say I am impressed, although (if there were a weekend sweepstakes), I would undoubtedly put my money down on my friend.

These weekend ultra-marathoners are human dynamos. Seeing, doing, learning, meeting, eating, drinking. They set the bar for the rest of us.  

There are others types, too. The ones who have retired hurt from the weekend race or decided not to take part at all. The ones who do mysterious things like 4AM 'con-calls' with Norway and audit M&A transactions and file all kinds of applications in all kinds of places, adhering to all kinds of deadlines. These are the ghost-friends - the ones whose presence I sense but can't establish. They become disembodied voices at one end of my cell-phone - kind of awake, but not really.  Because every moment not spent turning the wheels of Big Money is spent sleeping. I never meet them because that would mean that they would have to pull off the covers and get out of bed. These friends also fulfill an important function. They are the people whose weekends make the rest of us feel better about ours.

Then are all the in-betweeners. The more sporadic race-runners. The ones who do a little, then a lot, then a little again with their weekends. The ones who are happy coming in 3rd, 4th or 5th place. The ones who aren't happy, but resigned. The ones whose we-time must be balanced with me-time. The ones who participate just for the fun of it.  

Ha! Honestly though, who am I kidding? Weekend stress gets to all of us.  It's our chance to demonstrate how plugged in, eclectic, fulfilled and interesting we all are. People compete to win. It's the ultimate marathon for the non-athlete. Forget the Olympics. For anyone dealing with mega-event withdrawal, the real event is right here. Complete with live telecasts on Facebook.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Honest Voices. Good Things.

Good things may or may not come to those who wait. I tend to believe that good things have their own sense of timing. This has meant discovering two writers whose voices resonate with me in a way that they would not have a few years or even a few months ago. They are voices with which I could imagine having an earnest conversation. They are voices whose owners I would want to be friends with. 

First up, Cheryl Strayed. Her advice columns, written for theRumpus.net under the moniker ‘Dear Sugar’ have been credited with redefining the genre. Note: I've had to take this particular statement (pronounced by worthies at Salon and The New Yorker) at face value. But what I have done myself is read the column and follow in the footsteps of thousands by developing the need for a regular 'Sugar-fix.'

What makes Sugar so compelling? For one, she takes on almost any kind of question with equal seriousness. She calls letter-writers out on their hypocrisies and assumptions, softening the blows with pet terms of endearment. In drawing freely from her own - complex - story, Strayed is empathetic but also eloquent. It's a tricky trapeze act -  inhabiting another's concerns while wielding writerly skill. But she pulls it off.
Then there is Nora Ephron. Seasoned journalist, Dorothy-Parker-but-smarter, New Yorker, the woman whose directorial persona hung over blogger Julie Powell as she released her second book detailing dalliances with the S&M community (a somewhat unexpected follow-up to her wildly successful memoir Julie and Julia). Nora Ephron was someone to be reckoned with. She’s written screenplays and a book about the break-up of her marriage. These are large canvasses that can accommodate grand sweeps and flourishes. But she has a gift for shining in spaces with less wriggle room - whether she’s describing her relationship with cookbooks, her reliance on turtleneck sweaters, her hair management ordeals or the ‘history of lettuce.’

What I find most appealing about these writers isn't their skill. It's the force of their honesty.

As a reader, I've always appreciated wit, verbal fencing, turns of phrase, elegance, observation, detail, insight. I haven't been equally appreciative of old fashioned authenticity. In being honest, writers can become indulgent. They begin confessing things we aren't ready or willing to hear. Honesty makes things - content and quality - precarious. It's difficult to do honesty authentically. And well.

But in reading Ephron and Strayed, I think I finally get it. There's something magnetic about truth - experienced personally, articulated compellingly. Steve Almond, in his foreword to Strayed's 'Tiny Beautiful Things' says that this magnetism has to do with the lack of honesty in our times. I agree. We're all too frequently glib. Slippery. Parenthetical. Too clever by half. So clever that we start conversations and speak in voices that don't end up saying very much. Which is why discovering Strayed and Ephron has been so enjoyable. And a 100% certified Good Thing.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Monsoon Musings

One of the first pieces of non-fiction I can remember encountering is a book called 'Chasing the Monsoon' by Alexander Frater. I was a middle-schooler at the time and was oddly compelled by the idea of reading something that wasn't a story. Somehow, it made me feel grown-up. Not to omit the fact that chasing clouds across a chaotic and vast country seemed a piece of foreigner's nonsense - it was an enterprise no Indian would undertake, a whimsical quest no Indian parent would countenance. Which of course rendered the book doubly intriguing and exotic.

I must confess that I don't remember very much of the book. I don't think I ever got past a chapter or two. Non-fiction would reveal its charms to me much, much later, sometime around my early twenties (how it pains me to acknowledge that that particular time in my life is past). But it did leave me with the impression that while the rains rained everywhere, they monsooned only in India. Gloriously and uproariously wet and temperamental, the Indian monsoon was unique and identifiable - it traced a defined trajectory and left mixed blessings in its wake. 

Knowing what I do now, I realize that in undertaking his quest, Frater was no pioneer. In developing a (presumably temporary) infatuation with the monsoons, he had in fact arrived late to a large and fairly raucous party. I'm no anthropologist or culture-studies maven, but I doubt monsoon fetishism anywhere else can compete with India's feverish, high pitched version. We do monsoons differently here.

Kalidas' Meghdoot (Not strictly monsoon, I know. But it traces the path of a cloud). The malhar raga - miyan ki malhar, megha malhar, gaud malhar, and all its other complex, nuanced permutations. Miniature paintings based on the monsoons, populated with peacocks, trees in full bloom, lightning, thunder and lovers either ensconced indoors or separated by surging rivers. Our mythology is rife with torrential rains, particularly when it comes to Krishna. Researchers believe that the importance of elephants (that figure in the divine dreams of both Mahavira's and Siddhartha's mothers) can be linked to their symbolic significance as the harbingers of rain.  

And then there are the baser (or more commonplace, if you'd prefer) rituals that accompany the monsoon - rain dances in movies and  outside of them,  hosted by questionable hotels and respectable housing societies alike. Food magazines and newspapers doing specials on pakoras and fritters. Fashion magazines insisting that this year, designers have found a way to make raincoats and PVC desirable. Corn eaten on the cob, by the sea. Lychees. Resigning oneself to floods and delayed local trains and traffic jams. Abstaining from seafood. The annual examination of rain-preparedness conducted by dailies and tabloids, which this city almost always fails, sometimes with devastating results. Monsoon weddings.

We may style ourselves as a 21st century power, but our relationship with the monsoon is anachronistic, even primal. We need our rains, we enjoy the respite that they provide, but they  extract and endow in equal measure. Floods. Landslides. Death. Crops. Water supply. Growth rates.

The absurdity of our reliance on the rains strikes me with greater force now that the headlines are proclaiming that India is confronting the specter of drought. Drought? A word that rings of the past, of helplessness, of factors utterly and completely beyond our control. In a country in which the politicians and do-gooders both fail us, which has been impacted by economic doldrums originating elsewhere, which is roiling internally and which consents to targeted violence disguised as morality, it seems odd that pundits would discuss the weather. The thing is, India's rains aren't just a barometer of the mood or the stock market. Our collective relationship with the monsoons runs deeper than that. For better or for worse (and often it is the latter), the monsoons form part of our yearly experience of the world. We feel differently when it rains.

And with the monsoon having seemingly forsaken us, I, for one, am feeling worried. Disappointed. Confused. It isn't smooth sailing till it rains. And it isn't June, July, August or September either.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Memory, Remembering, Social Media - Our Many Selves


I recently read Daniel Kahneman's interview in Der Spiegel.* The conversation was littered with interesting results and hypotheses, which comes as no surprise given that Kahneman is a multidisciplinary titan. His path-breaking Nobel prize-winning work has furthered our understanding of the frailties, flaws and quirks underpinning human cognition. Kahneman (and his collaborator, Amos Tversky) have busted the myth of human rationality. With his latest book – Thinking, Fast and Slow – Kahneman goes even further, examining the extent and mechanics of our innate irrationality.

One of the most compelling conclusions he discusses in the interview is the existence of two selves – the Experiencing Self and the Remembering Self. The Remembering Self has an unfair evolutionary upper hand. We are hardwired to privilege memory over experience, and so the experiencing self must often suffer monotony in order to provide the remembering self with fodder for memory. Memory also trumps experience in more insidious ways. Apparently, recall of experiences is shaped by peaks and troughs, beginnings and ends. So entire hours, days, and even weeks of pleasant (though unremarkable) experiences can be sullied by a bad ending. Apparently, it doesn’t matter how things happen as much as it matters how they begin, peak and end.

Comforting thought? I don’t think so. Because in a sense this means that in living our everyday lives, we are just marking time between dramas. And for those of us who lack the gift of theater, drama is occasional and perhaps even unwanted. Does this mean we’re condemned to eke out an existence that’s evolutionarily damned?

Maybe not. What if experience were to be immediately translated into something worth remembering? What if social media – Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Pinterest, status updates, photo uploads, likes, comments – were a sort of salvation we’ve unwittingly invented for ourselves? After all, we spend time on these sites to elevate the mundane into memory. We take pictures of an otherwise ordinary meal and upload it for posterity. We create something and feel the need to share it as a display picture or a link. We share what we think/feel/do, on impulse, with a community of friends and family. Dinner and drinks become events, complete with invites. And blogs, of course, serve to crystallize what would otherwise be merely passing thoughts and snatches of conversation. What if, in some bizarre way, social media – criticized for the frenetic engagement and self-absorption it seems to engender – is really just one way in which we make something of our experience?

It sounds preposterous, but it might not be. In the same interview, Kahneman describes how Buddhist tradition emphasizes the importance of being present. Zen masters, as per the few books I’ve read, seek total and complete awareness. Meditation requires being in the here and now, and that’s hard work. Maybe, at some unconscious level, meditation slackers and heathens (i.e., most of us), unconsciously sense that the moments and years are slipping away. Maybe we grasp at tweets and updates in order to preserve them. “The days are long, but the years are short.” And it would be terrifying to have little to show for them.

I’m willing to bet that if intrepid researchers try to replicate Kahneman’s work 10 or 15 years down the line, they will come up with surprising results. The Facebook generation is likely to have a very different sense of memory and experience, and will probably not distinguish between the two in the manner of previous generations. But we are talking about evolutionary processes here, and hard-wiring may not have changed to keep pace with our social media habits. Biology may not have got the memo.

Even so, it’s a fascinating question. What selves are we, the foot-soldiers of web 2.0, fashioning? 


*Thanks for the link, KS. You are, as always, too kind.  

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Appraisal Apprisings


Where I work, it’s appraisal season. It’s that time of the year when apprehensions become almost tangible, rumors about poor profits begin to circulate, when the doomsday prophets ask everyone to scale down expectations, and the more combative types insist that if their expectations aren’t met, then they will be left with no option but to…

The appraisal is corporate drama, almost as compelling as a new business pitch, although it suffers from a smaller scale and fewer actors. It is that moment when organizations are forced to do what they dread doing when it comes to ‘talent’ and ‘human resources’ – they have to show the money. But it’s not the money that’s the source of the dramatic tension. Paycheques themselves get second billing. The lead role is played by the organization’s assessment of an employee’s value. What is this person actually worth? What tangible or intangible value is he perceived to add? Can he take on more responsibilities and stress? Does the company want him to stick around? How badly? How much do people like him, and more importantly, how much do people - his bosses or team members - like working with him? 

Ultimately the answers to all these questions are compounded into a single number – the percentage gain in one’s salary. 

And this single number is the source of great tension. Because in the age of talent as capital, organizations aren’t equipped (or willing) to deal with the sometimes startling clarity that a single number provides to people. It’s easier to obfuscate, to dissemble, to serve up praise-criticism-praise sandwiches, to say that within the larger scheme of things, that single number can be seen very differently. Which is to say that 10% isn’t really just 10%, or 27% isn’t just 27%. Appraisal committees are formed to add a little context to the clarity. And employees leave the appraisal wondering what exactly they should be feeling. How should they react to the number? Is it an accurate reflection of their effort, their work and their worth? 

Some people are obstinate enough not to be swayed by context. Others believe that their contributions have been acknowledged – and they most certainly have. But many people teeter between feeling satisfied and vaguely underappreciated. And there’s an entire supporting cast of sympathetic or resentful colleagues, unusually cheerful bosses and suddenly approachable senior management to add texture to the goings-on. 

One number, and a whole lot of subtext. The truly outraged exit the stage, the murmurs eventually die down, and the drama is seemingly over. Until the next financial year.   

Monday, June 18, 2012

Growing Up, Taking Notes, Giving Addresses

Growing up is a stripping away of illusions, isn't it? We must surrender certain beliefs, acquire a practised air of unconcern, sacrifice enthusiasm at the altar of practicality. The older we grow, the wiser we become - wiser to our frailties and others', more comfortable with the things that should make us very uncomfortable. We lose our sense of fight and lie to ourselves by saying we're just becoming more understanding. Or we swallow the bitterest pill of all and become cynical and resentful, because one of the chief perils of growing up is knowing that we will never be 17, or 27, or indeed even 37 again - doors have slammed shut, chances have passed us by and the possibilities for re-invention are thin on the ground.

But then, when we've resigned ourselves to growing up, we will discover Notes, Memoirs, autobiographies, interviews and commencement addresses, all relaying pearls of wisdom and experience acquired over a lifetime. We will hear Neil Gaiman exhorting young people to make good art, we will hear J.K. Rowling making a case for empathy, we will read about Steve Jobs'  connecting the dots, we will hear Meryl Streep talk about craft. Ray Bradbury will say something important about joy. And we will think, very hard (even if it is only for a couple of minutes) about how wonderful that essay/ address was, and how exactly it corresponded to our world-views, although we would have probably tweaked a bit here and added something else there.

One of the pleasures of growing up is that our years add weight to our advice. Only grown-ups can truly give commencement addresses. In fact, grown-ups from all walks of life spend a significant amount of time sharing excerpts from an imagined/ real commencement address. What else is that lecture on values/ manners/ ideals/ cleaning up a room, if not an extract from a much longer and more impressive text (shared in that moment just for one lucky child's benefit)?

Our growing up will be the making and unmaking of us. It would be nice to grow up in a way that leaves us with something compelling to say. What will our mantras and buzzwords be? What lessons will we have learnt? If we really end up doing everything that grown-ups are supposed to do (being responsible, learning how to parallel park and how to balance chequebooks, playing politics at work or even better, becoming bland and inoffensive) will we have any time left over for the stuff of commencement addresses? And most importantly, if we are doing commencement address-worthy stuff, are we making notes? Are they in order and will we be embarrassed if someone reads them? Incentive to start scribbling, no? And also incentive to do something worthwhile.      

Note: Some of the commencement speeches referenced here were discovered on www.brainpickings.org. I remain unsure whether this is a 'hat - tip' or a 'via' acknowledgement.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

St. Thomas Cathedral, Mumbai: Looking (Very Far) Back

A cursory knowledge of Bombay's history would equip anyone with the following facts - there is a terminus in South Bombay called Churchgate, named rather unimaginatively after a pair of gates that allowed access to the British settlement known as 'Fort'; that this church - the spiritual hub inside the setttlement - was known as St. Thomas' Cathedral; and that St. Thomas is credited with bringing Christianity to Indian shores. Knowing this, one would expect St.Thomas' Cathedral to be large, imposing, smug and self-important. It isn't. Through most of my life, St. Thomas' has been charmingly crumbled and moth-eaten. Even as I child, I worried about what would become of it. Those worries were misplaced. Benefactors, church-goers, heritage do-gooders, perhaps even the government (I am clearly hedging my bets here) have taken on the task of restoring the Cathedral to something of its former glory. Of which I am glad, because this church has occupied a special place in my imagination ever since sheer dumb luck helped me happen upon Ruskin Bond's 'Strange Men, Strange Places,' a slim volume of non-fiction that traces the lives, triumphs and failures of idiosyncratic Westerners who came to India during the Raj  to find their fortunes. Mercenaries, soldiers, missionaries -  many of questionable motives, all unquestionably characters, and several commemorated or buried in the Cathedral.

I've visited St. Thomas over the years,  eager to show it off to friends from out of town. Today, I went back - again with friends - but for myself. I've forgotten the Bond-compiled back stories (although that should change, since someone somewhere is probably shipping the book to me as I type), but I still found enough to marvel at - the elaborate plaques and engravings, the beautiful stain-glass windows, the carving and the woodwork.

But what has always fascinated me the most are the glimpses into lives snuffed out centuries ago - the 28 year old Captain ______, mentored by Nelson, who vanquished an enemy fleet much larger than his own and perished while doing so; the 26 year old adventurer who died on his way back from one of the first expeditions to the South Pole; the soldier who won praise from non other than the 'inexorable' Tipu; the twin brothers who fell in action, both within a year of each other. There are plaques erected in the memory of generals, army chiefs, heads of navies, 'first recorders,' 'assayers,' surgeon generals, commanders of corps of engineers, municipal commissioners, bishops. Others remember young children; wives who were 'amiable,' and 'full of virtuef';  men who were 'cheareful, filled with gentleneff.' In their names and titles I recognized the names of Bombay's streets and institutions. I liked the flourishes in the sculptures, the rhetoric in the epitaphs and the flagrant religious symbolism.  

I know I am looking at the memories and accounts of colonialists, conquerors, men and women who who exercised an unreasonable amount of power over 'natives' and didn't always wield it well. These are the same people who have been accused of grafting their world-view on ours and of therefore having altered forever, and for the worse, how we see ourselves. Some of them responded to what they felt was a call of duty - to the Empire, to God - others came for less exalted purposes. Many of the men who rest in the Cathedral may even have led battles and raised arms against Indians. 

But with their engineers, geographers, commissioners, water-works designers, horticulturalists, school principals and doctors, the colonialists also built this city. They gave it laws, a police force, a University, an architecture, a tram and train network, a sewage system, museums, hospitals and dare I say it - an identity. Their decisions may have served limited interests, but they were also just regular people, struggling with the question of how to bring up families, and adhere to long-held values in a bewildering foreign land. They may have invented the white man's burden, but they may not have known any better.

The reflexive parochialism we absorb from our environment encourages us to brand the British as villians and oppressors. Textbooks will assert to the gloriousness of ancient Indian culture, to the to efficacy of rural self-government, to the inherent guilelessness of Indian princes and to the corresponding scheming of our European overlords. It's easy to believe this version of events because our break with the British has been complete in some ways. Apart from pockets of Anglo-Indians and a few expats, I can't bring to mind any  English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh families who have lingered on in Bombay. There are no places selling British food, British beer or British nostalgia. There are only gymkhanas populated by the stuffy So-Bo elite. And a clutch of eccentric old-school Parsis who still hang portraits of Elizabeth in their living rooms.

But in spite of all the political and educational hectoring, we all know intuitively that things during colonial rule were a little more complicated than our textbooks would have us believe. It can seem unpalatable, but the truth is that our history as Indians is their colonialists'  history as well. We are so keen to disown the past that we are forgetting its part in our making - and some of what it has made of us has been for the better. And in St. Thomas Cathedral I realized with a certain force that here we all were, in the same place, ages apart. Three Indians taking pictures of British tombs in Bombay, delighted to be (re)discovering this particular slice of their past.  


In memory of Henry Curwen, editor of the Times of India


In memory of Mary Prescott, the first principal of the institution now known as The JB Petit High School for Girls


The biggest cheese - Commander in Chief of the East Indies Navy
Ok, this one is cool just because it has the words 'Hollywood House'
View of the Cathedral (to the right of the entrance) 
 
Bas relief commemorating a young and valiant naval officer, construction ordered by the Houses of Parliament, no less


An interesting sculptural detail...

...or two


Saturday, June 16, 2012

One of Those Days

Living in the world that we are in, doing the things that we do, meeting the people that we meet, it's easy on some days to just feel...talked out. Out of conversation, out of idle chatter, out of points of view and persuasive arguments, out of pleasantries. It is on days like these that writing provides respite. Here, in no particular order of importance, are my ten reasons as to why writing trumps talking:

1. It can be accomplished in silence.
2. You don't have to be sensitive to body language, posture, volume and the entire host of non-verbal cues.
3. It puts that other well-meaning voice that exercises better judgement (and apparently lives in your brain and manifests your unconscious) on mute.
4. It gives you a chance to feel superior about grammar and spelling (this one is more in response to another person's writing, but still).
5. You can play around with fonts.
6. You get to complete a sentence without interruption.
7. It demands effort and thought. It's hard (maybe even impossible) to write on auto-pilot.
8. It is one of those increasingly rare things that slows you down.
9. It's solitary but also inclusive. You can share an essay, an e-mail, a blog-post with dozens, hundreds even. You can't converse coherently with more than....four.
10. You can start someplace, end up someplace else, and trace this journey. Great conversations do the same thing, but they're difficult to document.
11. Freebie! It's possible to carve a niche for oneself as a prodigious writer. The prodigious talker space has been claimed, and how.

Talking can also (and frequently does) trump writing. But not on One of Those Days.




Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Go Forth and Judge


Judgement (Noun): 


1. An act or instance of judging.

2. The ability to judge, make a decision, or form an opinion objectively, authoritatively, and wisely, especially in matters affecting action; good sense; discretion.

3. The demonstration or exercise of such ability or capacity.

4. The forming of an opinion, estimate, notion, or conclusion, as from circumstances presented to the mind.

5. The opinion formed.

On the whole, judgement seems to be a good thing - a faculty we should develop and exercise. The weighing of circumstances, the summing up of situations, the formulation of opinions distilled from facts and observations.

Judgemental (Adjective):
Of or denoting an attitude in which judgements about other people's conduct are made.

Technically a neutral term, but rarely used as a compliment. We think of judgemental people as those claiming to occupy a moral high ground, looking down on lesser mortals and casting aspersions. We're also convinced that this high ground is necessarily precarious, and secretly hope that someday, it will crack and send the aforementioned judgemental person crashing into the depths that range below.

Dramatic, I know. But interesting. What happens in the space between judgement and judgemental? Why is one good, and the other, not so good? Why are we encouraged to have more of the former and as little as possible of the latter? To put it another way - why do we feel that when it comes to people 'the opinion formed' should not be voiced or acted upon?

Sometimes I wonder whether we are caught in the grips of a courtesy crisis - whether we have spent so much time learning to be nice to one another, that we have forgotten that nice has its limitations. Then, when people refuse to queue or hold doors open or let senior citizens take seats in crowded buses, I realize that I am way off the mark. We are experiencing a courtesy crisis of epic proportions, induced by a lack and not an excess of manners.

The suspicion of judgement(ality) is not about courtesy. It is about something else, a faint but pervasive sense of entitlement born out of the unique contemporary belief that all of us are the Universe's Chosen Ones. Harsh, but true. I've been part of sports days where 'everyone winning' was a mandate and trophies were always shared; heard teachers tell me that intent and intelligence were interchangeable; seen bosses and HR managers read the party line on how teams would have to share responsibilities and rewards. In and of themselves, these beliefs are well-meaning. Put together, they reveal the existence of a belief system that doesn't always distinguish between the world as it should be and the world as it really is. And when you look at it closely, a worldview that requires everyone to win is actually a worldview that means no one is allowed to fail.

Whether we like it or not, we aren't all equal. We are all equally deserving of courtesy, justice and dignity and we should be treated as such by law, government and other institutions. We must have the same rights. But that doesn't mean we all have the same abilities. Some of us are just smarter, slower, nicer, meaner, luckier, richer, prettier, more committed, lazier, chubbier, sillier and wittier than the rest. Some of us are genetically and/or environmentally wired to be better at chess, debate, cricket and kick-boxing (any one, not all of the above). Some of us are dealt golden hands by fate, some of us aren't. What should be is irrelevant. What's fair is irrelevant. It's just how it is.

And because it is how it is, it is OK. I don't mean that we shouldn't work tirelessly towards creating more equitable and inclusive societies. That commitment is a given. But in our everyday personal and professional interactions, it's important to acknowledge that we can't all have it all, no matter how badly we want it. Maybe someone else is more deserving of the glory and the credit. Maybe the fact that they are willing to take certain shortcuts does count for something. Even if it doesn't, what can you do?

The world is complicated and so are we. And once we accept that, we will become more comfortable with our own (and others') judgements. We will reconcile ourselves to the fact that we like some people better than others and respect some people more than others. And we will stomach the fact that some people don't like us very much, either.

We think we shouldn't judge, but we all do. Some of us will judge others on the basis of lifestyle choices, others on the basis of haircuts and music preferences. Others will judge people who judge. Organized religion has institutionalized judgement. So has the Mumbai police, but that's a topic for another post.

So, if you're reading, I encourage you to form your opinions, to articulate them, but not to take them too seriously. Tomorrow is another day and you might have a new perspective - better not to be too wedded to one point of view. Judge recreationally but remember to play (at least a little) nice, because the world is smaller than you think, and nastiness can weigh on you after a while. So try to be better, but don't forget to be. To judge is human.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Madonna, Mehdi Hassan and Mornings

I'm happy to report that I started this weekend as I should all weekends - with a cuppa, a newspaper and FM radio. Switching between stations, I stumbled upon a protracted homage to the late 80s - early 90s school of pop music. Madonna, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, Olivia Newton-John, Mariah Carey among others. And I realized that I like pop music. A lot. Not in an ironic, wry, tongue-in-cheek, it's-so-bad-it's-good way. But in a genuine, head-nodding, silly-smile-on-face sort of way.

Great pop music (and yes, naysayers, there is such a thing) is incredibly earnest, not in the least self-conscious, filled with love, ideas for changing the world and a little bit of angst and doubt - all set to sugary and frothy notes. It's easy listening, and with taxes and the traffic increasing the way they are, easy listening is just what we need. I'd written about jazz earlier, comparing it to a witch's brew - all chocolaty bitterness, knowing and grown-up. But pop music is the spiritual antithesis of jazz. It's got more heart than head, and this heart almost always stays stuck between the ages of sixteen and twenty. There's nothing knowing about pop. Pop is still figuring out the world - dressed in T-shirt and shorts, sipping on a big glass of sweet pink something while she does so. Hers isn't the life unexamined, just the life more responded to than understood.

I would stretch this analogy to classical and semi-classical music in the Indian tradition if I could retain even the slightest semblance of intellectual honesty while doing so. I can't, so I won't. But I will say that there's an interesting symmetry here that merits thought.

I watched my first ghazal performance last evening, after years of listening to Hindustani and (a little bit of) Carnatic classical music. Purists can be skeptical about ghazals - they are often structurally loose, technically unsound, and performed in informal settings and modes. Ghazal greats will agree - many of them have classical training and ability, but the skills of the ghazal singer are very different. Ghazals are much more about the couplets, the poetry, the give and take between performer and audience.

The few ghazals I've heard put me in mind of a polished poetic dandyism - and I say this with the greatest respect. Ghazals are elegant, stylized, filled with verbal and visual flourishes. Of course there's a great deal of soul underneath the poetry. Which is why ghazals are best sung not just in a certain kind of voice, but by a certain kind of person - someone who's seen the world, has had his heart broken and actually enjoys the idea of being heart broken because it lends depth to his witticisms. When I think of ghazals, I think of handsome men in sherwanis and churidaars, with flowers in their buttonholes.

Classical music, in my opinion, is less about the personality of the performer, and more about her intellect. It's beautiful and sophisticated and also more rarefied. The bandishs are important, but words matter less than they do in ghazals. Classical music sets a mood and a tone, it can move and delight a listener - but in order to do this, the performer must be intelligent, sensitive, innovative and very, very accomplished. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that classical music is less forgiving of its performers. They have to be brilliant before they can be personalities.     

If only music could really make the world go round. It's not often that I think about jazz, pop, ghazals and gayaki. Like I said, there's probably no better way to start the day.      

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Space to be Silly

As a rule, this blog is more tell, less show. But habit can constrain, and conscious of this, I am going to go against the grain to share an utterly delightful image. Part of a Vanity Fair album that celebrates the glory days of Cannes, this picture of three women sunning themselves, smoking, and getting their hair done - all at once - made me smile. As if that weren't enough, the salon is abutted by a tea-room, (in case someone feels like caffeine). On a mellow morning, magazine in hand, who wouldn't?  
 
 
Via Vanity Fair.com

There's such candour in this picture, a claiming of the 'outside' for one's own purposes. In India, people I know seem to navigate the 'outside' and the 'inside' of their worlds very differently.  I've noticed an emergence of extremes in  'outside behaviour' - ranging from a complete and total disregard for others (queues at temples) to a tense watchfulness (queues at museums). And women, I find,  are frequently self-conscious in public spaces. Men will have their ears cleaned and their bodies pumelled by masseurs in bustling crowds, but women will retreat into the corners demarcated by propriety.   'Being outside' is fraught - which is such a shame, because public space is always better used when we are comfortable doing what we want and like with it - provided we share and play nice.

Comfort and whimsicality in public spaces needn't be luxuries. We could afford ourselves a little more of them. Couldn't we? Starting with getting our hair done in the sun. It would be the makings of a statement, the sanctioning of a little bit of silliness. I think it would be fun - doing something outside without caring very much about it. Not noticing it at all.  

Thursday, May 31, 2012

It's Complicated

What is this made of?
Why are cows considered sacred?
Can you explain the rules of that game which is a bit like baseball?
How many languages do people speak here?
Please tell me the story of the Mahabharat.
Why don't Indians like football?
How come your clothes are so colourful?
What is the significance of marigolds at weddings?
India has Christians? You're kidding me! How did they get here?
Tell me EVERYTHING about your culture...it's FASCINATING
Why do dozens of people break into dance in your movies?
Are you trying to tell me that there are people here who won't eat potatoes?
So caste is illegal, right?
Why do adult Indians live at home? 
Why are there so many posters of politicians everywhere?
Why won't Delhi autowallahs run on meter?
There's a billion dollar home in Mumbai? Who built it? Isn't it in bad taste? Why didn't you guys do something about that?
What's your government doing about poverty?

Being an Indian has it charms: Masala chai. Rajnikant. Sachiiiin, Sachiiiin. A.R. Rahman. Permission to be spoiled and indulged into one's late 20s. Incredible vegetarian food. Even more incredible arts, crafts and textiles. Saris and kurta-pajamas to make the chubbiest of us look distinguished. Laying claim to the invention of the zero, etc.

But it also has its drawbacks. Such as being at the receiving end of a barrage of questions about this complex and often bewildering country. Searching for an answer that lies somewhere between simple and simplistic, I feel like a bad tourist guide, a failed citizen. And I wonder if anyone else, having a similar conversation, is feeling a little bit like this.

Of course visitors and tourists turn to Indians with their queries - it's only natural to expect us to have explanations. But the realities of India are so varied and vast, it's hard to gather them into anything approaching a coherent whole - assuming, of course, that one doesn't want to converse solely in superficialities and convenient (half)truths. And it is impossible to know everything about everything. Even anything about everything. Whether its sport, film, politics, religion, society, temple architecture, women's rights, even rickshaws - there are too many things always in flux, always turning back on themselves, always open to interpretation. Too many moving parts to reconcile into a whole.  

It's a complicated business, being Indian. Equal parts delight, confusion and despair.    

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Read. Chew. Repeat.

Access to information, to texts, to opinions is a wonderful thing. We're a generation accustomed to push-button enlightenment on a whole range of topics ranging from Zen meditation to who-was-that-famous-woman-who-had-to-get-a-botched-lip-job-corrected-because-she-looked-like-she-was-smiling-all-the-time? We have self-appointed (and altruistic) sign posters who direct us to all sorts of interesting and entertaining material on the web. There are services that exist to separate the informational wheat from the chaff. All of this is over and above the content created by traditional media such as television and print.

A great swathe of people across the globe are information savvy and in a sense, empowered. This empowerment makes learning, growth and work possible. On any given day, I'd say that we're lucky and that I wouldn't switch to a simpler, less cluttered age for the world.    

But there are days I would give the world (or a substantial chunk of it) to actually be able to absorb all the information I have encountered. Those are the days on which the sheer variety and quantity of data I have accessed has me feeling sluggish and dazed.

Over the last week, with a little time on hand, I decided to monitor my information consumption and identify the onset of my mental lethargy. Two days into the experiment, the signs were all there. I'd read about the creation of the hand-sanitizer market in India, Einstein's words on kindness (via a favourite website), stumbled onto a debate about 'curating' links (via the same website), watched all the TV commercials released in a local market over the last 4 weeks, gone through a dozen Webby newsletters at one go, skimmed through articles about the fuel price hike and its implications, also skimmed over movie industry gossip, read an interview about neuroscience in late 19th century Vienna (and re-read it because I forgot it all rapidly), glanced at a cultural digest's list of infamous cinematic characters, eye-catching magazine covers and design breakthroughs for 2011. This was in addition to e-mails and data actually related to work. This isn't an exceptional amount of browsing by any standards - many people I know will (figuratively) cover substantially more informational ground than I do in the course of a day.

In spite of this, I felt a little overwhelmed and also frantic - for the life of me, I couldn't remember anything I'd read the previous week, even though I knew I'd found my Sunday newspaper's cover story interesting enough to spend 45 minutes with it. It felt exactly like a meal gone wrong - as though I'd nibbled at too many things at a buffet, culminating in an uncomfortable and dissatisfying fullness.  

The pundits have already proclaimed that like it or not, we live in an age of omnivorousness. Information and media must be consumed freely, without discrimination. This is the evolutionary demand of our times, the trait on the basis of which nature will/ will not select us. I know this, but even so, when it comes to information, I find myself wishing that I could exercise a rather old-fashioned virtue - abstinence.

As with eating, so with reading and seeking, I tell myself. Exercise self-control. Take bites. Chew. Slowly. Don't dig into something just because it is there - is it really all that necessary, or even good? Is it worth my time? Will it be memorable? Do I need to walk this one off? Isn't less really more?     

Maybe. Maybe not. I'm running the risk of being left behind in an old-school data bylane while nimbler, fitter minds and genes whiz past me (and mine) on an informational super-highway. How interesting that this uniquely twenty first century issue comes down to the simple mechanics of biting and digesting. I can only assume that evolution (or intelligent design, if you prefer) has an in-built capacity for humour. Or a cosmic tongue hidden in some cosmic cheek.  
 
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