Saturday, October 22, 2016

It's 2016, and I'm Still Loving America

I have sent my aunt, an American citizen, not one but two messages over the last week, each of which can be summed up as 'Judging!' 

And what's not to judge? All countries have the politicians they deserve. And the United States, amongst its many millions, has not only thrown up a Republican candidate who is egotistical, self-serving, manipulative - and to be fair, these words describe anyone, anywhere, who is too interested in power - but is also a Bobo doll of vice, springing up after every blow to show you that not only is he racist, xenophobic and profiting from bankruptcy, but also a serial sexual predator. A country that brings such a man's political ambitions dangerously close to fruition, is a country in spiritual, moral, ethical crisis. 

But at a time when it's easy to be suspicious of America (so much easier than saying 'the States') and Americans, I want to talk about something else. I visited the US earlier this year for a much needed and much anticipated holiday. I didn't sightsee or travel much. Just spent time with family and close friends along the East Coast, soaking up three weeks worth of summer sun. And while I was there, I didn't notice the anger, the heat, or the vitriol we've associated with this election year. My lingering impression of the country was, and continues to be, one of expansiveness and abundance. Just space - lush, gloriously unkempt, in all its muchness - filled with sun, sky, cloud, tree. Posing a joyful contrast to the dense, tense, fraught veriticality of so many cities (particularly mine). 

Our spaces, our landscapes, are the making of us. I've written before about how Bombay can sometimes make it difficult to breathe. Everything that matters seems to be in short supply here - space, time, access and correspondingly, patience and kindness. We don't know how to concede a single inch, and we don't know how to stop fighting to claim another's. 

But to live in a country as expansive as America, as rollingly and extravagantly beautiful as I've known it to be, is to able to believe in abundance. To believe in abundance is to know that there is enough - in nature, in the world, in life - out there for you. There are chances, there are possibilities, they only need to be sought out and encountered. I think this abundance reflects in so many of the best things about the United States - the extraordinary ferment and creative impulse of its popular culture, art, fashion, music and cinema, down to the founding myth in Neil Gaiman's 'American Gods'; in the public sunniness and cheerfulness that is the status quo; in the belief that the country is to be enjoyed and explored, however one might choose to do so; in the capacious imaginations of anyone who believes that they can make it and do it - the enduring American dream that captivates us all.  

And yet this largeness, this spaciousness can be oppressive. It can fuel an unthinking wastefulness; it can lure you with false promises; it demands filling up with heart and soul and failing both of those, with stuff. The claiming of one's own destiny is a project for which circumstances and temperament render many people ill suited. And how can one reconcile with failure, or even succeed modestly, in the land of grand ambition? 

I think these elections have really been about these twin American narratives: more for many more versus the conviction that one has somehow been cheated and ended up with 'less.' The first narrative, this time around, has drawn its power from contrast rather than conviction. But I am hopeful that it will triumph. Because for all its wrongs, its questionable politics of convenience, its war machines and military-industrial-cultural complexes, its consumerist frenzy and inward gaze, the world still needs America to believe in the American dream.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Sacred and the Secular: Splitting the Difference

Somewhere around the 160th page of Edward Slingerland's 'Trying Not To Try,' a thoroughly engaging distillation of the twin strains of ancient Chinese philosophy - Confucianism and Daoism - as they pertain to the question of a life lived in accordance with the 'Heavenly Way,' I suddenly realized the importance of a living, breathing, culturally coded connection to the sacred. Slingerland's book is filled with studies from contemporary cognitive science sitting alongside popular cultural asides, but the ways of being that he is trying to explain really come alive through stories, parables and koans, through exchanges between masters and monks, between teachers and (often unwitting) students.

These stories put me in mind of the hundreds of stories I have grown up with by virtue of simply being Indian. My cultural inheritance consists of myths, legend, fables, histories - sketchy tellings dense with import, entirely forgotten but accumulating nevertheless, trace by faint trace, in my consciousness. Everywhere I expect, and encounter, meaning. Where there isn't myth, there is history. Where there isn't history, there is superstition. There isn't a lake the Pandavas didn't drink from, a temple not pillaged by invaders, a fortress not betrayed by a conniving minister or soldier, a coastal town not altered forever by seafaring adventurers, a church whose architecture is absent of colonial imprints, a grove that has given up all its ghosts.

Humans are story-telling creatures and yet even among this species it is astounding, sometimes, the extent to which we Indians absorb and emit story. The air we breathe is thick with story and yet we complacently create more - churches and mosques where miracles happen, idols who grant wishes and visas, celebrities who become demi-gods, rapes and murders that confirm our belief that this is the worst of all ages, herbs that will cure all.   

This is how we become, in India. This is how we know what to, and what not to, do. This is how we learn how to be. We inherit thousands of years of story and the luckless among us - the untouchables, the poor, the aboriginal, the feminine - the ones whose stories are negated - are crushed by oppressive narratives. Some of us are luckier, and we carry our tales a little more lightly, confident in the knowledge that they have validity and worth. Either way, though, we would all be very different without our stories, completely unsure of how to travel the distance between the present and the unknowable future.   

This preponderance of story explains to me, somehow, why Indian popular culture lacks the ferment of popular culture in the United States. Because societies that are secular, less preoccupied with constantly coding the sacred, have to rely on popular culture to fill in the blanks - the blanks of tribe, of value, of morality. And secularism is not a problem we have. 

No wonder we have fewer strains of pop music, fewer sub-cultures, not too many hippies and nowhere near enough hipsters and liberals. No wonder our mainstream cinema has, in its all too short history, chiefly been engrossed with ideas of patriotism, nation-building, class conflict and modern-day romance. These are topics on which our mythology is either silent or inadequately accessible. No wonder our writers, for the most part, write books that are less fantastical. We don't need modern-day myth-makers like Tolkein, Rowling, Gaiman, or Pratchett. We have too much fantasy and magic already. What we need is a tethering to reality, some sense-making and interpretation of the world as it is. That's why we have Rushdie - magical, but also real. Recognizably fantastical. 

Our conviction that we are connected to what is sacred is often dangerous. It makes us less receptive to change, less inventive, less creative, too complacent, too preoccupied with the past, not concerned enough about the work of building an equitable society for the future.

But I'm suspicious of stripped down secularism as well. What happens to a people when they believe that they have to create everything they will ever need? When they realize they will have to invent not only the future, but also the past? When truth has to be absolute and self-evident, all hard edges, like the shining cube of science I wrote about a couple of weeks ago? When success is a busy striving, contingent on control, with failure logically anchored in individual deficiency rather than complex circumstance? When things that should be shimmering and mysterious find no place in the popular discourse? Sense-making is a life's work, and stories that telegraph the sacred give us somewhere to start.

So what is that fine balance between the sacred and the secular? Where we are conditioned but also curious? Where the old stories inspire us to tell newer, better ones? Where a glorious past doesn't preclude an adaptability to the ever-changing present? Where you can feel relieved that the ancients knew, but that you now understand? The sacred and the secular - what I wouldn't give to split the difference in this country, today.    
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