Saturday, September 28, 2013

Nice to Notice


I enjoy the rains. I love the respite, the weekends spent with good books instead of good friends, the alterations of mood and tempo, the bhuta-pakora-chai rituals being played out dozens of times. I love the illusion of a lull that seems to go hand-in-hand with our monsoons. But it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and as I write this post at the end of yet another wet week the over-riding sense is not that of delicious delight but of a dampness made almost solid. 

In the absence of any honest-to-goodness desi sunshine, I paid attention to the things that kick-started my mornings this week and kept me ticking till I negotiated my way to the coffee machine at work: Little kids, scrubbed and in uniform + pigtails, being led to school-buses by scruffy dads and yummy mummies; taxi-drivers who inhabited the front seat of their Maruti 800 as if it were a throne and maneuvered it to its destination with a lack of urgency that's entirely alien to their species; the surprisingly cool breeze off the sea-link; a grey van bursting at the seams with houseplants; two skinny young men bent double as they cracked up over a joke; discovering I had an extra hour to myself before it was time to head out Thursday morning.   

In the vein of my previous post, it really is nice to notice. So much better than the alternative.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Look-See

I'm one of those people who likes going places, but doesn't particularly enjoy getting there. Early morning wake-up calls, cab rides to the airport, queues at check-in, hustling to get a seat you can settle in before boarding announcements are made, the long lines that build up in total defiance of the fact that only select row numbers have been called out for by ground staff - it's all too predictable and monotonous and makes even non sci-fi fans think longingly of Star Trek style evaporation and re-assemblage at destination. 

But there are small joys - the occasional well made cup of coffee, spells of quiet, and airport bookstores that sell Harper's well-designed and entirely-too-appealing Agatha Christie books for only 199 rupees a pop. I buy them even when I've already packed another book for the explicit purpose of reading en route. Agatha Christie! 199 rupees! Cover art! Need I say more? 

And so I recently bought myself a copy of 'Murder on the Orient Express,' featuring Poirot with his little grey cells and Belgian affectations. It's a book that makes for truly enjoyable reading, but what struck me most about it was a particular scene early on in the narrative in which Poirot, eating alone in the Orient Express' first-class dining car, spends his time observing his fellow passengers and 'sizing them up.' He looks at them and makes assumptions about what they might be like, playing a detective's version of 'connect the dots' on his day off. It made me think about the last time I had really looked at a stranger, paid attention to her, tried to learn something about her from the way she dressed, spoke or moved, and I couldn't bring a single instance to mind. 

When did I stop looking at people and noticing their oddities? Did this non-seeing start with digital music players and become cemented by cellphones and smartphones? Are people less striking and interesting today than they were when Christie wrote? Do we get enough and more of each other through relentless newspaper and television coverage and web-based chatter? It isn't cultural conditioning, for sure. Indians can never be accused of being too polite to stare. In fact, we've probably raised the global stakes on creepy once-overs and insistent violations of personal space. And yet - in looking at a person, many of us don't really think about her (or him). We slap on a label - cool/not, hot/not, from boondocks/not - and leave it at that.  

Anonymity is a kind of liberation, of course, but have we lost the twin arts of observation and deduction? Should we be more curious about the people around us, what they might be like, and what they might do? Should we be paying more attention to what's happening around us - literally around us - as opposed to exclusively staying on top of the big news stories of the moment? I know I need to do more on all of these counts.

There is one place where the art of noticing and spotting is thriving - the Internet, with its hundreds (if not thousands) of street-style and urban portraiture blogs.Some of these bloggers are good at what they do. Others are somewhat twee and/or labored. Either way, I wouldn't want them to become my custodians of observation. Observation can so personally rewarding, why delegate it to someone else? Obviously, I'm not advocating for making strangers uncomfortable and being intrusive. But developing a certain quality of attention to them could make spaces and places less anodyne. Even if that space is an airport on Monday morning. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Having My Say. Asking my Questions. Same Difference.

What's that quip about how opinions are like _________, every one's got them? 

Well, it's Narendra Modi, and the Prime Ministerial race, and the political discourse in this country, so I feel entitled. 

In response to all the questions about how I feel about Narendra Modi as a Gujarati, I would have to say......I don't. Really. I believe that reducing Modi to a Gujarat phenomenon is a cop-out. The truth is that Modi could have emerged from a number of states in this country. The question that needs to be asked is what it is about our culture, society and politics that makes him legitimate and likeable. Of course there is something to be said for context, for the fact that Modi's won consecutive elections from Gujarat. But to limit the conversation around Modi to Gujarat, as some commentators and analysts do, is to claim a false distance from the possibility - and truth - that prejudice and discrimination manifest almost everywhere in India, every day. These instances are just not on the radar quite as persistently. 

Modi's success and his growing personality cult parallel the rise of a certain rhetoric of growth and prosperity in India, and the crystallization of the idea that quality of life can be measured in very specific ways - roads, public transport, industrial investment. These things are important - but the reason they dominate our popular notions of development so disproportionately is because there's a large number of Indians who believe that they need to make a choice between populism and effective government. They're interested in the idea of secularism and collective progress only tangentially, because no one - no political party, and almost no mainstream media outlet - is creating dialogue around equitable growth and what it means for us all as a people and a country. Social welfare and justice are not constructs that come fully formed from some mysterious ether. Some one needs to take responsibility to explain why they matter, and to frame the smaller pictures we're so fond of as an electorate in terms of a larger vision or idea. Otherwise, why be surprised if this purported 'big picture' lacks takers? 

In any case, it's hard to dispute that Narendra Modi's been able to use this seeming scarcity of political choice to his advantage. The fact that he is able to set the terms by which other parties and their policies are judged is largely due to a massive failure of imagination on the part of the Congress. India's G.O.P. still has a year to re-present the issues, but will it demonstrate the intent and the initiative? 

One more thing. I read an incredibly silly column in the Mumbai Mirror today about how Indian Americans worry about 'explaining' Modi's rise to power to their friends in the US, given the State Department's refusal to issue him a visa. I'm confounded that this is a talking point that merits actual inches in newsprint. Choices about whether or not Modi should run India should be based on what people think he can or can't do for this country, here. Why do we believe that our leaders need endorsement from institutions abroad? Why this continuing preoccupation with how we 'look' to others, instead of how we see ourselves? 

That being said, I have no idea about which way the winds will blow. I am prepared to be surprised either - and every - way. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Perfectly Impractical

I’ve written earlier about my interest in poetry. I’ve had plenty of conversations with friends about the inherent ‘value’ of certain disciplines, and while my position on the essential importance of literature and the liberal arts has been consistent and earnestly argued, I worry that I’ve occasionally come off as a bit of an apologist. I’ve made the mistake of appropriating the construct of ‘usefulness’ and applying it to these disciplines – purely for argument’s sake (or so I told myself).

But the thing is, there’s always been a tiny, insistent and annoying voice emanating from an unknown recess in my mind that’s been asking me – ‘What if you’re mistaken? What if this stuff really, actually, doesn’t count?’

I’m happy to report that those doubts have now been laid to rest. I’ve been taking ModPo, an online course in poetry run by Prof. Al Filreis of the University of Pennsylvania on www.coursera.org. It’s only been a week, but I’m intrigued, inspired and engaged. Most importantly, I think I finally get it. At least as ‘it’ relates to poetry.

I’ve realized that great verse can make something of a moment, a mood – compressing something vast into something bejeweled and small, or expanding something small into something large and expansive. It can make the stuff of reality more vivid, moving, inspiring, complicated, fraught, surreal. It can change the way we look at the possibilities offered by language – and while I’ve always been curious about how language can shape perceptions, I haven’t paid enough attention or given enough thought to how language can shape relationships. Or to how the form in which we speak is almost as important as what we say. 

Maybe other people come to these realizations in other ways. The point is that for me, and for several other people taking this course, insights into the power and potential of language and linguistic structure seem to be coming thick and fast. Which is wonderful. And which is enough. Enough reason for poetry to be practiced, to be taught, to be learnt and analyzed and to maintain a space in public life. 

The same probably holds true for whole host of other disciplines – history, philosophy, aesthetics, ethics. Are they useful? Maybe not in the practical sense. But practicality is overrated.  It’s easy and maybe even logical to cut funding to these departments and direct it towards – I’m not sure – Engineering? Medicine? Economics? The world runs on usefulness, skills, employability, applicability, numerals, results.  But shouldn’t there be some space for students to explore things purely for the sake of pleasure, curiosity and passion? Do we want to build institutions that only wield one yardstick of worth and accomplishment? That tell us that being inspired is somehow, optional? That teach us all of the answers but not how to ask any of the questions? Do we want to take a punt on ideas originating only from certain kinds of intellectual spaces? Do we want to assume that inspiration will always travel upwards and downwards (never sideways), creating a virtuous loop of invention and innovation?

There’s someone taking my course who is currently in a hospice, and using the time he has left to study language and philosophy. I find that moving, and it reiterates my belief that there are the things that make life possible, manageable and workable, and then there are the things that make life worthwhile. So much of what we care about – truth, art, beauty, fiction, nouvelle cuisine, architectural conservation - is strictly speaking, unnecessary, and yet we would be so much the poorer without them. These things don’t exist and thrive in a vacuum. And by uprooting the academic and institutional ecosystems that nurture them and make them possible, we’re setting ourselves up for a fall. No matter what the spreadsheets say.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Shtick That Sticks


Shtick. It's a fun word, a real mouthful, almost something you spit out instead of say.

Shtick is Yiddish for a show-business device, something done for dramatic or theatrical effect. Outside of the arc-lights, it is also defined as a 'characteristic attribute, talent or trait that is helpful in securing attention or recognition.'  It's this latter species of shtick that I'm interested in - part habit, part performance, part personality tic. 

There's plenty of literature out there on the complexity of social interactions, which describes how we use masks and facades to 'perform' our way through life. The jury's out on whether these performances are desirable and emotionally healthy, but in an imperfect world, they're certainly necessary. 

The social shtick is more than a facade or a mask. The shtick has a bit of an aw-shucks quality about it, although I'd assert it's anything but. It's not simply about maintaining a certain demeanour or selectively expressing certain parts of one's personality. It's about developing an entire act, consciously or otherwise, which draws attention to us in a very specific way and also casts the people around us in a certain light. Once we portray ourselves as the earnest ingénue / the dilettante/ the city-slicker/ the cynic / the pretend-jock/ the nice-guy, then our friends, colleagues or family members, perforce, also have to play along, whether they like the role they've been assigned or not. A shtick allows us to disarm, disengage and deflect while also dictating the terms of what should ideally be a collective performance. What good is a mask when it comes up against a routine?

The shtick is at best endearing, at worst, manipulative and disingenuous. As performers, we might enjoy the routine but eventually grow weary of it. As observers, we are sometimes complicit in the development of the act. And sometimes we just watch, slightly confused about how a conversation took a particular turn, or how we ended up looking like the ___________ in the room. Either way, whether performer or audience, I'd beware of the shtick that sticks. Like any act, it can become worn with wear, threatening to evolve from routine, into habit, into constraint.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Of Literature Majors and Con Jobs


"Literature majors are an ongoing con job."

Quote from a friend who shall remain anonymous. Alleged original source: said friend's friend, who too shall remain anonymous. 

Now let me put that statement in a little bit of context. We were talking about a number of different things, including, but not limited to, the current state of the US economy, unemployment rates world-wide, the hyper-segmentation of disciplines in academia, the commercialization of higher education and the unrealistic expectations that college graduates seemed to have of the world, anchored in the increasingly wide-spread assumption that we are all destined to live life to our full(est) potential and that if we want badly enough for something to be true, it will fall into place. Even though most newspaper headlines on most days belie this assumption. 

My typical reaction to this kind of a statement would have been a knee-jerk defense of the power and beauty of literature, of the cultural and political importance of the written word, of writing's fundamental role in expressing what makes us human, of the significant role theory can play in our appreciation and understanding of literature. All of which are things that I hold to be truths. 

But we weren't talking about literature, we were talking about literature majors. And in a world in which the educated and qualified are struggling to find the right - or any - opportunity, in which the hipster-on-food-stamps is not a hypothetical construct but an actual person, in which 30 somethings I know of are reluctantly pursuing internships, in which students who have been encouraged to follow their hearts and have done so are now looking around, wondering what comes next, this was a question worth considering. Are literature majors con jobs? 

Let me be the first to say that a world without literature, art, poetry, philosophy, intelligent analysis and critique would not be a world worth living in. Knowledge does not have to be useful, it is does not have to be a tool, it does not always have to be deployed in the building of bridges and the invention of wonders and the healing of mind and body. It can involve exploration, navigation, wondering, asking and answering simply for the sake of doing so. It doesn't always have to save lives, and it is enough that it enriches them. Strictly speaking, imagination, ideas and inspiration are a particularly human indulgence and have nothing to do with the necessary business of staying alive. But they are what make the necessary things bearable and even rewarding. A purely functional evolution without creativity and artistic refinement would, in my opinion, be no evolution at all. 

And yet.....enjoying and appreciating literature/ romance languages/ art history/ cultural studies is not the same thing as studying them. And studying something you enjoy does not equate to being employed and/or employable after four or more years of pursuing your passion. Being a student of literature and philosophy will equip you with certain skills that you could certainly use to your advantage in a professional setting. But other people might have acquired those skills, and a few more besides, in the course of obtaining their engineering and business degrees. And any one who has been told differently, any one who has been told that their literature/ history/ film studies degrees will grant them a competitive advantage in getting - and keeping - a job outside of academia has been conned. Because the educational-industrial complex has not  grown fast enough to absorb the number of humanities and liberal arts graduates it produces, and it has not equipped them with enough of the skills they need to thrive outside of its own ecosystem. 

I have long resisted the idea that the hard sciences are somehow superior because they can be more effectively applied to the solution of practical problems. After all, an MBA degree is a bundling of multiple 'useful' skills and yet I would be wary of asserting that it contributes to our civilization's intellectual and cultural capital in any meaningful way. Applicability is a poor measure of the inherent value of any discipline, but it is as good a measure as any of the employability of a skill. And in our post-recessionary world, that's the currency job markets recognize. 

I want kids to study the humanities and social sciences, just as I did. But this choice has consequences and students deserve to have them spelled out. In studying literature, students will learn how to construct and deconstruct arguments and texts, how to reason, what to admire and even aspire to. But the playing field that is the job market they graduate into, will be far from level. Professors and parents who tell them differently are perpetuating a myth based on a hypothetical universe that operates as it should, and not as it simply does. 

More power to those who make the impractical decision, regardless. Those who expect differently have simply been had.  

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Right or Reasonable?

Certain kinds of conversations with certain kinds of friends always, inevitably, take a turn for the worse. Declamation meets counter-declamation, opinions get shrill and arguments out of hand. Sometimes it seems like the only way to close the discussion while keeping one's own, and everyone else's dignities intact, is to pass around a plate of something to eat - or - much simpler - slink away. 

The quotable quotes cottage industry will furnish us with many cliches and homilies that attest to the power of  dialogue. The ideal conversational exchange opens us up to different points of view and new information. There is give and take and participants walk away, somehow enriched. The assumption being that once opposing or at least differing opinions have been pronounced and facts stated, having done each other the courtesy of actually listening, people will absorb what's been said, re-evaluate their position and potentially  (the chances are slim but never say never) re-state it. 

But some of us travel the world with imaginary soap-boxes tucked under our arms. We have made up our minds, we know where we stand, the ground is firm beneath our feet. It's more important to have our say than to be swayed, to find a version of the truth and stick to it even in the light of conflicting data. Consistency is key. Conversation is combat.  

And what about those who never enter the lists? The ones who are receptive, flexible, adapt to the tides of informational and conversational flow, understand that a particular position is not permanently tenable? The ones who are being reasonable? The non combatants, as it were? Do they simply lack conviction? Is being reasonable an act of conversational cowardice? 

It can seem that way. After all, what kind of person simply changes their mind, particularly in the light of another's rhetoric and argument? 

Being reasonable, looking at an issue from multiple angles and arriving at a supposed ideological middle ground is, for some people, a cop out. It negates the need for constants and absolutes and insulates them from the agitation, anger and despair that accompany moral and intellectual certainty and of which change  can be born. But being reasonable is also perhaps a logical response to the profusion of isms, the many persecutions, the plurality of perspectives that are coming to define the world we inhabit. For one version of any story, there are several others, all competing for validity and voice. Is it really possible to be consistent when many narratives - equally compelling - come to light? Is the reasonable person looking for a way to be hopeful? Is being reasonable an empathetic response to the fact that sometimes, there's no privileging one kind of pain over another? 

The way things are, it's easy to  erect the scaffolding of a particular argument and build, build, build. It takes a certain courage to acknowledge and work with the complexities and realities of our world; to be consistently - and not conveniently - consistent.  

Opinions rock the boat, being reasonable brings us back on - a slightly altered - course. Ideologues take us to the brink, negotiators bring us two steps back and one step forward. In thinking about change unreasonable people use the world as it should be as a starting point. Reasonable people start with the world as it is. They are both architects of different kinds of change - big and incremental - the team we vote for depends entirely on the kind of change we believe we need. Which says something about us. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Grown Up. Ness.

I'm terrible with names. Of people, books, places, movie stars, TV shows, songs, bands, restaurants. What I am good at is keeping in mind chunks of detail - phrases, associations, memories, plot points, actors, structure. The internet is a boon for someone like me because I end up using these fragments to get to what should have been my starting point - the name of whatever it is I was thinking of and consequently, looking for.
 
A couple of weeks ago, I was thinking of a movie I'd recently watched and fallen a little bit in love with. It's called Beginners, stars Christopher Plummer, Ewan McGregor and an extremely adorable scruffy dog - a terrier, I think? My search for the name took me to a well-written, equal parts matter-of-fact and contemplative NY Times review. The article closed with the movie's rating and an explanation for the same, 'Beginners is rated R...Grown up language and feelings.'
 
Grown up language and feelings. What a lovely phrase. And, for the last two weeks I have been thinking over and over and over again - what exactly does it mean? What are the words and feelings that constitute being an adult?
 
The language part of the question is easier to answer. The 'grown up' part of a vocabulary includes, but is not limited to - curses, euphemisms, polysyllabic words, jargon, terms that signify everything and nothing and rightfully become the fodder for games of bullshit bingo,  the forbidding artillery of academia, isms, all the phrases that help dissemble, obfuscate and hedge bets. On the brighter side, there is potential for nuance, precision, beauty, wit and arguments well constructed.
 
The feelings part of the question is one that I'm still grappling with. There are reams of psychological, sociological and possibly even spiritual literature that address the question of the tipping point between childhood, adolescence and adulthood. This is tricky terrain, an area that experts and researchers can still only theorize about. I have nothing to draw on but my own experience and observations, and a sneaking conviction that children are not always the simpler and more innocent creatures we presume them to be.   
 
In my book, grown up feelings would include certain varieties of love and loss that need not be more acute than those experienced by children, but are possibly more specific. The love for a romantic partner. Lust. Loss. Regret. Resentment, which is more complicated and insidious than jealousy. Bitterness ensuing from repeated or emphatic disappointment. Resignation. Pervasive anxiety, born of the knowledge of factors beyond one's control - although childhood is also rife with its own worries, some of which cause children to mature far too soon.  A sense of acceptance. Pleasure in food, wine, single malts, art, fashion, performances. Joy derived from the excellence of another and also from one's own personal and professional accomplishments. The satisfaction inherent in identifying one's limitations and pushing past them. New (age-old) fears.
 
Is it easier being a child? Possibly, although the transition to adulthood now occurs early and abruptly. Children remain children very briefly, and their spontaneity, truthfulness, fearlessness and ability to embrace and delight in the moment pass all too quickly. Have you heard anyone between the ages of 6-10 speak recently? Their savvy, world weariness and self possession is disconcerting.
 
One of my newly minted theories about growing up is that it is a process of  acquiring the vocabulary with which to experience, discern and explain the world in a more sophisticated, complex way. Grown up words allows us to articulate grown up responses to situations, to feelings, to thoughts, to beliefs. This is both pleasurable, and painful. Is it possible and even desirable to dismantle this architecture, to regress to an imagined childhood simplicity? Can religion, faith and art harness verbal and ideological facility to elevate the spirit? Or do they merely end up complicating the simple and simplifying the complex? 
 
Aha. There we have it. Complicating the simple and simplifying the complex. My working definition of being a grown up.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Here, Not Away.

I'm become something of a lapsed reader over the past few months. I own multiple stacks of books that I perpetually intend to read. I pick one of them up, make it past a few chapters and then put it back down. I carry slimmer volumes around in handbags stuffed to capacity, all in the hope that a one hour window in my working day will magically open up, at precisely the same moment that I am experiencing an unusual degree of receptivity and concentration. Yes, I know.
 
In the meantime, though, I've been wondering about why it's important that I (continue to) read at all. I've spent a reasonable number of hours curled up with books, and maybe this lapse is a natural progression? Maybe, once I've chalked up enough half-read titles, I'll move on to something else - film, indiscriminate eating, walking tours, cat video production? In thinking about this, I keep playing back something a colleague once said - 'People read to escape.'  Does this have something to do with it? And, more to the point - do they?
 
It's easy to understand why books are seen as an 'out.' Other people, other worlds, other concerns - pedantry, history, contemporaneous hand-wringing, science fiction and fantasy - striking notes that range from the reassuringly relatable to the expressly exotic - accompanied by the proliferation of communities dedicated to giving favorite narratives their own spin, coupled with the constrasting but ever present stereotype of the reader as sole inhabitant of a self-constructed ivory tower - this seems all of a piece with wishfulness, wistfulness, wilful immersion, away-ness.
 
But when I  revisit the books that I most enjoyed, I realize that what I experienced when reading them wasn't escape, but a very forceful presentness. In those moments, bringing all my attention and emotion to bear on a character or a plot point, imagining, anticipating  and then feeling each 'twist' or development, I was fully aware and engaged, much more so than I have been through many classes, meetings, social encounters and conversations. The best writing - insightful, warm, joyous, laugh out loud funny, terrible and tragic, grand, remote, great - evokes a response that can be startlingly real, sometimes uncomfortably so. Even non-fiction, that preserve of research, analysis and opinion, can cast a unexpected light on the prosaic, misunderstood and taken-for-granted, making the world look a little bit different.  
 
I've written elsewhere about why reading is important. But what the actual act and experience of reading can do to the reader at a particular point in time is another thing altogether. Maybe the reason I don't read as much isn't that I've outgrown escapism. Far from it. It might be that I don't have the resources, right now, to fully inhabit the present.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Anatomy of a Summer's Day

Stops and starts. Jagged edges, none too smooth. Half begun, mostly undone. Unease about easy lassitude. Books picked up and put down. Music feeling easier than it normally does. Verse read so abruptly it reads like staccato.  Extended naps casting day-long trances. Sitting and staring. Thoughts that miss the train to somewhere. Good intentions come to nought. Long lunches and unhurried conversations. Snippets only peripherally absorbed. Minutiae that consumes hours. Plans unspooled. Semi-articulated ideas fashioning and unfashioning themselves. Tall drinks of water we forget to sip at. Bare feet in band-aids. Everything going nowhere, exactly as it should (not). 
 
Small excesses that slip through our cracks when it's really truly summer.
 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Heavy and Halting

I have mixed feelings about Hindi. Is that because I've grown up in a place that has concocted its own coarse, bent-out-of-shape version of it? Is it because my classes equipped me with grammar and a vocabulary, but with no ear for or appreciation of the language? Did it all start when I heard a girl from my school use the word 'parantu'  when asking a sandwichwala to make her a sandwich without butter, and realized that I probably sounded exactly like her when I spoke Hindi - awkward, correct but lacking any sense of context? My pronunciations were always off, my handwriting too spiky, my comprehension one step removed.
 
Hindi was a foreign land and the syllabus that was supposed to help me navigate it only seemed to reinforce this sense of alienness. Short stories and plays that were filled with unfamiliar names, references and words; poems written by heavyweights that quite literally crushed our tentative interest; and everywhere the omnipresent theme - women in society, dowry deaths, the travails of the dark-skinned, religious unity, the importance of striving to be a better person, national pride. Confronted by a Hindi text or even an essay topic, we knew we'd have to weave in or decode a lesson somewhere. The way things were (and might still be) even the most competent teacher couldn't have helped us. And truth be told, some of my Hindi teachers were a type in themselves - stern, thin-lipped, forbidding. Hindi seemed to be a language that took itself too seriously, and when the mandatory exams were done, I chose to let it ebb almost entirely from my life, cultivating my study of English and my facility in my mother-tongue. Looking back, it's no surprise that I ended up speaking Hindi only when I was engaging with strangers. I've dreamt in French when I briefly took lessons, but never - ever - in Hindi.
 
Why bring this up now? Because in watching a Hindi play this week, I felt all the associations of awkwardness bear down upon me again. I understood most of what was being said but yet it felt as though I couldn't get to the bottom of it - the language, gestures, expressions and ultimately the plot coming together to articulate an aesthetic that was for some reason, faintly but undoubtedly - and annoyingly - impenetrable.
 
This is partly the fault of the play, whose conventional plot and none-too-subtle metaphors had me wincing as I recalled my textbooks from years past. But it's mostly mine. Hindi is, after all, the language of our government, our popular movies and songs, of much of our public discourse and I'd like to engage with it in a more active, meaningful way. I'm on a quest to watch more plays, more movies, and read more texts but am struggling to find those that don't come across as stage-y or stilted. One braveheart has volunteered to conduct an introductory tour of Hindi theater, and more recommendations are welcome.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Thing About Things

Why do people like stuff quite as much as they do? What about 'things' strikes a silvery-tinsel-spangled chord in our brittle and blase 21st century hearts? Let's be honest - most of us have been there. Coveted, lusted, longed, schemed, plotted, mulled - not in pursuit of an ideal or an idea, but something much baser than that - a representation or an approximation of a thought or desire. Beyond the boring connotations of status and the projection of self, what stuff does is erect fortresses. Stacks 'em up and builds 'em high. Enough so that we don't have to see or consider the unseemly, ugly and difficult. Stuff is the psychological ballast we buy, the defenses we employ, the fun we have. And lest this be seen as a lamentation, it isn't. It's exactly what some of us do with our constructs and arguments. As effectual, or ineffectual - depending on the kind of day we're having, or the mood we're in.

Stuff can make the living of life a little pleasanter, easier, brighter. Ideas can sharpen edges but stuff softens them. Stuff is the tangible, corporeal proof of quality of life, in some ways of material progress and accomplishment.

When it comes to it, if I had to choose between a democracy of ideas or a democracy of stuff, I'm not sure which way I'd go.
 
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