Monday, April 30, 2012

Now or Later? Or Not at All?

Procrastination doesn't number amongst the cardinal sins - pride, greed, lust, envy, sloth, gluttony and wrath. Towering rages, affairs, boastfulness, jealousy and covetousness all carry an unmistakable whiff of 'wrongness' - they are the stuff of ethical lapses and poor judgment. Every religion and culture spins cautionary tales around these acknowledged vices and we grow up knowing that they represent decidedly thin moral ground.

Stacked up against these transgressions, procrastination seems to be a minor failing at the very worst. Perhaps even a necessary coping mechanism for those contending with crowded calendars and over scheduled lives. It is an irritant - no more, no less. Which makes me wonder why worthies across the ages, ranging from Martin Luther to Abraham Lincoln to the anonymous authors of smug proverbs have asked us to guard against it.

There's no denying that procrastination is pervasive, more common than we'd like to admit. It's easy to convince ourselves that procrastination is the sign of a reasonable Ego at work, one that is merely distinguishing between the essential and the unessential. It's prioritization rather than postponement. But the truth is that procrastination represents nothing so much as the momentary triumph of the Id over the Super Ego. In procrastinating, we are Yielding to Pleasure rather than Performing our Duty. We know this, which is probably why procrastination is so closely tied to guilt (manifested as occasional murmurings which soon acquire a more strident tonality). 

In putting things off, we are buying time - to do something else, to do something more interesting, or to do nothing at all. But procrastination is insidious. We most often postpone tasks that are tedious and mundane - whether it's paying bills, visiting dentists or fixing faucets - just the kinds of inconsequential things that have the capacity to bring daily life to a grinding halt when left undone long enough. Before we know it, we have bought time only to lose it. We come away from these experiences believing that we've learnt our lessons and will be more prompt. Next time.

Why do later what you can do now, especially when you know you shouldn't? Because delaying gratification is very rarely perceived as being its own reward. Are procrastinators pessimists, forever thinking that now is a bad time to start? Or are they optimists, thinking that the future will be better suited to the accomplishment of a task? The only way there may be through, but who can say when is the right time to begin? There's no time like the present - but for what, exactly?

Its no wonder that in this country at least, people can be found consulting pundits and astrologers to get a fix on auspicious planetary alignments. The biggest commitments - the ones we're most likely to try to buy time for, to re-assess and re-think - take place on the dot, as per cosmic schedules. After all, there's no keeping the universe waiting. If only that principle applied to humbler but no less essential deeds, but unfortunately, in these matters we have only our judgment to rely upon.  

Sinning is about choices - right or wrong? Should I or shouldn't I? Deciding whether to do something now or later also tests our fiber. Not to the same degree, perhaps, but with greater frequency. By that measure, procrastination ranks among humanity's evils - little, but potent in its own way.   

Monday, April 23, 2012

Sugar and Stationery

No matter how old you are, some things manage to always transport you back in time, making you feel as though you were five or eleven years old - chubby-cheeked, carefree and in possession of an embarrassing wardrobe and dubious haircut.

Markers are one of those things. There's something special about reaching into a box filled with colours, grabbing one (or two) and sullying a blank sheet of paper. The sheer pleasure of making a mess? The tangibility of grasping, doodling, drawing? I'm not sure.

And then there is candy. Yellow, red, green, orange bursts of adulterated sugary flavours and unadulterated bliss. Chocolate can be sickly sweet but also sophisticated and grown-up. Candy on the other hand, is most emphatically for kids. Let me not forget lollipops - unseemly gooey blobs precariously mounted on little plastic sticks.  There isn't a finishing school in Switzerland that can teach a young woman to look elegant while sucking on one of them, and that's precisely the point.

Tutti-fruity bread from the local bakery, many loaves of which were consumed in the perilous quest for a taste of ever-elusive sugared fruit. An extinct brand of bite-sized ice-creams which contained chocolate in a vanilla core. Strawberry jam on white bread. Polka dots. Plastic beach buckets. Sand pits. Petting furry dogs (or any animal). Pencil boxes, geometry sets and eraser collections. Diaries with heart-shaped lockets and keys on a string.

Sugar and stationery. The paraphernalia of childhood. Occasional adult fixations.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The TOI: Rendering itself Redundant?

I have a weekend newspaper ritual. It isn't particularly original, involving some combination of early mornings, tea, music and solitude. I spent a better part of this day with the eminently readable Mint Lounge, perusing an issue brimming with nostalgia pieces about summer-time - summer foods, summer drinks, summer fun and summer boredom. Oddly enough, this set me thinking not about summers, but about newspapers.

The newspapers of my childhood included a children's weekly (its name lost in the mists of my past), The Asian Age (packed MJ Akbar's punch and was guaranteed to leave inky rub-offs on one's fingers), The Mid-Day (with sports pieces penned by Khalid A H Ansari, who I noticed was more of a quoter than a writer) The Afternoon (helmed by  BusyBee, as whimsical a chronicler of cricket and Bombay as one could wish for) and of course, The Times of India.

The Times of India. Reassuringly large and thick, crammed with content and columns, boasting of pedigreed names on the masthead (a sprinkling of whom remain). The paper one read to improve one's vocabulary, to learn about the world, to feel grown-up. Even the Bombay Times of the past was an institution of sorts, run by Malvika Sanghvi, with contributors ranging from  Nikhat Kazmi to Deepa Gehlot to Anil Dharker to the D'Cunha's. One went to it for party pictures but also for a point of view about the city and its culture.

But things changed, and how. The paper became smaller and thinner, uncomfortably so. The Bombay Times featured the faces of new columnists. Grammar and spellings became suspect. There were more colour pictures and more ads. The editorial featured not one, but opposing points of view on the same page, as if the idea were to demonstrate even-handedness and a perverted sort of fairness. And then there was the open allegiance to info-tainment, which meant nothing at all to the average Indian till the Times chose to define and elaborate the concept.

Info-tainment meant news delivered with lashings of masala, it meant spirituality delivered in convenient capsules every Sunday, stories accompanied by separate blurbs articulating the 'Times View' (a function the editorial no longer performed), it meant civic dialogue moderated by the reliably acerbic Bachi Karkaria under the arc-lights at St.Xavier's College, broadcast live on Times Now. Lately, it has come to mean adopting one or more populist initiatives every year (for what good is a newspaper that is not an Agent of Change), having an editorial director rather than an editor, proclaiming every 'first,' and every 'record' number hit as if the paper is the news, not a vehicle for the news.    

The best that can be said of the Times is that it is transparent. It proposed to create and set new standards for journalism and it has delivered on this promise. Profits sit above principles in order of priority, mediocrity beloved by many is merit, stories must entertain rather than move, and Chetan Bhagat is accorded the same status as Swaminathan Aiyer. If you can't out-reason them, out-shout them. And while the Times still has reporters worth reading, I find traces of a deliberate self-consciousness in their writing. There is too much cheekiness, too many clever asides, too many (metaphorical) shrugs of shoulders and turning away from conclusions to be entirely accidental.  

The Times doesn't take itself too seriously. It takes the paper to the people and gets them flashmobbing.  It's a formula that works - the Times media empire is going from strength to strength and other newspapers - the HT, the DNA - are attempting to imitate some elements of this formula - the citizen initiatives, the Bollywood chatter, the glossy pullouts. The Times is clearly giving us what we want, and what's wrong with that?

What's wrong with that is that we can get what we want anywhere - it's a consumer's world, and almost everyone is retailing some object of desire or perceived necessity. In positioning its paper as a product, the Times is inviting itself to be judged by a consumer's standards - and these standards are fickle at worst, cyclical at best. Entertainment, no matter how influential and beloved, comes with a shelf-life.

A newspaper can reinvent itself, adapt to new formats (notably digital), juggle price-points and find interesting ways in which to relay content. But it is still a resource, not an FMCG product or a television show. For the most part, people read papers not to be entertained but to learn about goings-on in the world, and perhaps to understand how to interpret these on-goings. Of course most readers want to read something engaging rather than stilted and stultifying. They are likely to prefer publications whose sympathies are closely allied with their own. Who wouldn't?

But the question of how one informs is very different from the question of whether to inform. A newspaper's power lies in informing, in knowing and communicating. This is its sphere of influence - the only one where it can hope to excel and succeed. In giving us what it thinks we want, the Times circumscribes its own clout. We are told we live in a knowledge economy, that the creative class is rising, that three thousand rupee tablets and affordable technology will fuel our fierce ambitions. In this world, what we will want, over and above our other wants, will presumably be to know. And where will that leave the TOI and all the papers that are following its lead?
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