New Essays!

Have been doing quite a bit of writing, just not on the blog. Here are a couple of essays I wrote.

One intends to explore the various facets of India, and by extension, some reflections on our current state of affairs. It is called Tales From a Mosaic.

Another is sort of a meteorologist’s manifesto, and does a quick, buoyant round up of my view of the field and the people in it, called Beauty and Strangeness.

2014 elections: the death of decency

The ordeal is finally over. After more than a year of having to endure twitter/facebook posts on economics, history, politics, ethics and conspiracy theories by people whose only information came from a couple of books and random websites, one hopes things might cool down a little (for now at least). We have a new government, and its immediate effect should be the suspension of catfights on social media. The social media websites must have been banging their heads about using precious hardware to store the crap generated by Indians over the past year, all of which pointed to the same thing: the death of decency within Indian society.

It may matter who holds power at the centre, or it may not. But one thing is certain: to call ourselves citizens of one nation, members of one civilisation or simply human beings requires traits that have been completely abandoned over the past year. Mutual respect, restraint in thought and action, tolerance of opposing world-views, attempts to put oneself in the other’s shoes — all these are vitally important as we Indians march towards a future where each and every individual has the capacity to hurt many people, both physically and psychologically. Like someone once said, it is foolish to expect that leaders will be good or even decent; It is upto the people to provide the counterbalance to the inevitable abuse of power by political leaders. This is possible only when we embody the traits mentioned above, among others. Without these, we become susceptible to manipulation and eventual physical or mental slavery.

Before going ahead, one thing must be acknowledged: Politics, however practiced, is a dirty game: one cannot sip tea in elegant settings and talk high-minded philosophy in the process of engaging in politics. Politics is a game to garner as much power to oneself within the framework of certain rules (which are rarely followed, unfortunately). It is unlikely that someone indulging in politics, for however noble a cause, will come out of it more emancipated than before he entered it (There are exceptions to this rule, but that’s what they are: exceptions). The only hope is to emerge out of politicking with at least the same amount of dignity that one went in with. It is by this metric that the ‘politically awakened middle class facebook user’ has miserably failed.

I mention Facebook simply because that is the one medium to which I have been exposed (not fatally, one hopes), dinosaur that I am. But without doubt, this has been the case with every medium out there, web-based or otherwise. Long-term friendships have broken apart. Prejudices in the form of ideals have hardened due to the incessant brainwashing. Respectful dialogue has been replaced by invective. Personal identities have been drowned by the mob identity. Self-criticism and introspection has given way to a smug self assurance typical of morons, even among otherwise discerning people. All this in the name of getting this or that crook into power.

This is one fact that all of us must agree upon: politicians, regardless of their place in the spectrum, are crooks. And all we have achieved is break bonds and burn bridges in the name of one or the other, arguing that this or that crook is less crookish than the other and therefore a great hope for the nation. The politicians, party workers and other assorted hired guns have always been hungry for power, regardless of what they tell themselves or others. It has been justified by various means: For a United and Strong India. For a Corruption-Free India. For a Secular India. For the Dalits. For the Muslims. For the Hindus. No matter what the justification, all one wants is the means to power. I am not being cynical, but merely stating a matter of fact. What one does with power is normally secondary during elections to the actual acquisition of power. In the song-and-dance sequence that is the Indian elections, any and all means to attract attention is used, and most of them have the unfortunate consequence of dividing people. What the British taught us over a hundred years ago, we have learnt well. Probably, too well.

About the elections themselves, one thing was certain: the Congress Party was going to lose, and lose spectacularly. This was obvious for a very long time. Even if there were no scams, the sheer force of anti-incumbency would have removed them from power. The scams and the global recession/volatility (which was not under their control) helped a great deal, no doubt. The same thing happened in Karnataka, when the extremely corrupt BJP government was overthrown and power was handed over in a platter to the only alternative by the people. This would have happened even if the Karnataka Congress Party had sleepwalked through the elections.

The reason I brought this up is to underline the fact that the Indian voter is not stupid, and not insulated from the happenings on the ground (unless he is posting photos of what he ate on Facebook). The spectacular fall of the BJP in Karnataka happened without major drama in the social media and without the spewing of venom at all and sundry. This begs the question why this was the case in the national elections.

Though religious missionaries are always in the news for almost always the wrong reasons, we have seen the emergence of multiple missionary orders during this elections. Facebook Missionaries of BJP, AAP and INC were of course the most vociferous,  but others were present too. Their activity was the source of both amusement and concern. They ensured that our elections became Americanised, with cults of personality taking prominence over ground realities. It was sad and shocking to see one politician’s ‘undeclared’ wife being subjected to a media circus. Another politician being slapped or having a shoe thrown at him was celebrated with glee. ‘Friends’ on Facebook were calling each other Fascists, Naxalites and AAPtards (whatever that means). Caricatures were no longer for irony, but for vicious attack. One conspiracy theory video on Youtube was answered using another video, left-leaning articles being shown as the reply to right-leaning articles. A sad way to expend the enormous energy and creativity India today radiates, to the whole world’s envy. Like all missionaries, the desire to impose one’s world view on others at all costs has disabled the lifeblood of Indian civilisation, that which has kept her alive for thousands of years: the capacity to understand, assimilate and create.

All in all, India now has a poisonous, divisive and menacing air about it. Of course, this is not the product of one elections, but a progressive trend caused by the systematic application of the tactics of the British Raj by all the political parties with the hope of ‘harvesting our souls’, as someone put it. With the polity in tatters and hopelessly divided, no counterbalance exists to keep our leaders in check. That, to me is the greatest contribution of the BJP, INC and AAP in this election. Congrats, and all the best!

The ‘Practical’ person

Being practical seems to be normal state of being for the majority of the people. In fact, being practical is often equated with maturity, adulthood or ‘coming of age’. It is considered that magical threshold beyond which you finally understand your place in the cosmos and how it (the cosmos) works. You now can share the table with the big boys, with that glass of liquor essential for socialising among practical people.

Watching so many people make this transition (since this is the age (25+) around which most people take that leap into the abyss) gives fodder for thought and amusement. The first visible change is in clothing: you shift from the ‘Yo!’ clothing of your foolish, immature, larval/pupal stage into the big, beautiful wings designed by van Heusen or a cheaper brand. Running shoes are now, unfortunately, used only while running. Spectacle frames thin down (while your own frame fills up), your favourite sports watch gives way to a less accurate, but way more expensive, analog watch.

The second visible (and audible) change is in language and mannerisms: gone are the golden days where you could spout four letter words with gay abandon; you start to address each other with great civility, which most of the time is not very sincere. You start talking intelligently about topics you have no clue about, especially those pertaining to the economy and politics, with Facebook being the ideal place to show your ignorance and practical (i.e., worldly) bent of mind. You look forward to shaking hands with other practical people and vice versa; you would never shake hands with children or other such degenerates. Phones are now a means to balance bank accounts rather than multiple girlfriends.

Though I find practical people amusing, it does not mean I don’t respect them. It is within the structures created by practical people that impractical people like vegans and scientists (or what is worse, vegan scientists) can survive and even thrive. They are the cogs of that giant machine we call civilisation, on which some lazy, good-for-nothings get a free ride. Practical people run the world, may be even helped create it, though it is unlikely they would ever be able to conceive of it. They are normally peaceful, predictable and law-abiding, since they find comfort in following law, ritual and custom, without thinking too much about them.

Adulthood is a most unfortunate period in life. It is the time when practical people combine the worst qualities of the infantile and senile. Thus, they are stubborn, cranky, narrow-minded, think they know better, and are proud of being so. You can bully children and ignore the old, but these options are unavailable when dealing with practical people. Because of their strong conviction that they understand the world and how to go about life, they are fiercely combative when faced with something outside their ‘operating parameters’, and go on to advise the ill-informed on the correct ways to lead life.

The practical life is like the perfect prison: you know you are in it, and are proud of being in it and never want to leave it. It ensures you can keep body and soul together by an incessant performance of certain rituals and without the anguish of constant self-doubt or constant self-improvement. Practical people do admire people from outside their world, but only if they gain success in terms that make practical sense, like money or fame. However, this admiration is accompanied by the belief that they can (and should) only dream about such things from the safety of their couch.

It must have been a practical person who first thought of cursing people using the phrase ‘may you live in interesting times’. But then, this is a Chinese curse, and the Chinese are known to be very practical people. Being practical ensures you fit in, blend, and most importantly survive. Being practical means understanding and accepting the way the world is structured. It is something like travelling using public transport: Only an impractical person will wait for a direct bus from Yeshwantpur to R.T. Nagar (for example). The practical person understands it is easier to get a bus to Mekri circle, change over to a Yelahanka bus, and then finally get a bus from C.B.I to R. T. Nagar. If you don’t understand the previous sentence, you obviously are not a very practical person.

On the other hand, the impractical person, will have to wait for half an hour, finally give up, hitch a ride half the way, walk few kilometers, lose her way, ask a few people for directions, and finally land at her destination half an hour late. However, during this ordeal, she might have met some interesting people at the bus stand, some kind person willing to give her a ride, noticed a small bookstore that is only visible when you walk past it, increased her patience, humility and stamina, and probably figured out some problems with the public transport system which, if she ever gets into a position of power, she might change for the better.

A world overrun by impractical people will be unliveable; in the same way, a world ruled by practical people will be brittle and intolerant. While civilisation may be by, for and of practical people, it makes a lot of practical sense to carry along the free-riding man-children who carry in them the seeds of unconventionality which will make all the difference when what is practical today becomes impractical tomorrow.

Why do we like to cook?

I could have named this post ‘Why do we like to dance?’, but decided to name it what it is because of my new found hobby, cooking. A more apt name would have been ‘Why do we “zone out” so often?’, but it would have been incomprehensible to those whose lingo is not yet up to the mark.

To begin with, one must differentiate two kinds of cooking — one that is done purely with the motive of fulfilling a goal — ‘eat to live’, ‘pack children’s lunch boxes’, ‘Guests are arriving in an hour!’ and so on; and another whose main motive is not just the above but also something beyond it. What that ‘beyond’ is will be my focus here.

First of all, we must observe one thing about cooking that seems quite strange to people who don’t cook — cooking actually seems relaxing to people who come back tired from work! It involves more than a little mental and physical labour and yet people seem to love doing it. In fact, it is probably the one thing that is as pleasurable (if not more) than eating itself!

To answer this, we must first have a look at what it is that exhausts people nowadays. Leave out those who perform physical labour to earn their bread, who are exhausted by the sheer expenditure of energy: Most of those who will be reading this really don’t fall into that category. What seems to exhaust us is explained by people in two vague-sounding terms — ‘stress’ or ‘strain’.

So, what is it that is being stressed or strained? Surely not our muscles; most of us do not use them outside gyms or jogging tracks. Obviously, it is our senses; more precisely just one or two of them. This is pretty much a modern, white collar phenomenon.

It is remarkable that we can feel exhausted by simply staring at a spreadsheet or computer code for an extended amount of time. It is equally remarkable that the world can run because of people simply staring at spreadsheets or computer code for an extended amount of time. Welcome to the Information Age: all that is need to crank the wheels of civilisation nowadays is a computer.

With the assumption that all that matters is information fed into the thinking part of the brain, the computer and similar technologies like the television and Walkman try to feed in as much information as possible, in as focussed a manner as possible, preferably using only a single sensory system. It seems like there is some problem with this assumption — everyone nowadays complains of stress and strain without moving a muscle!

The problem seems to lie in the fact that humans have evolved to experience the world with all their senses — hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, thinking and feeling (yes, not just the physical senses!), whereas the modern living and work place seems to assume the exact opposite: humans function best when they work free of ‘distractions’, so deprive them of all extraneous sensory inputs and feed all information through one or two sensory systems.

This is the guiding principle behind the construction of most classrooms, laboratories, appliances like the TV, computer, tablet, workplaces (think cubicle!),  supermarkets and pretty much any modern place of production and consumption. People need to be ‘focused’: ensure they are not ‘distracted’ at any cost. Think about it: monochromatic or dichromatic color schemes, ACs to ensure the exact same temperature and humidity, noise absorbing ceilings and carpeting, coffee makers and canteens (no kitchens!) — The modern living and work places resemble the interior of pyramids, fit for the mummified dead, than places where actual living, feeling human beings exist.

Contrast this with a kitchen, and you get the picture why cooking is so much fun. Cooking is probably one of the earliest activities of the non hunter-gatherer human, and has not changed in its basic form for at least 6000 years. What we cook may have changed, but nothing else. It is a feast for the senses unlike any other: A well cooked meal is not just about the taste, it is about how it looks, smells, feels to the touch and feelings of happiness and contentment that it evokes. Here, the human being as a whole, and not just her brain is being stimulated. It is probably the most multi-dimensional of all activities that humans perform (with the performing arts coming in at second).

While cooking, we have to stand, walk, chop, grind, grate, stir, smell, taste, hear, mix, blend, heat, cool, wash and what not. There is simply no other activity that is even remotely close in terms of the sensory palette that offered to us, and we do all this almost unconsciously, so deeply ingrained is the activity of cooking in human civilisation. Living as we do in an artificial environment that has been consicously designed to deprive stimulation to our senses, cooking is our refuge, our hiding place, the one activity that cannot be done any other way if it has to be done right.

Cooking is therefore one of the few activities that makes complete use of all human dimensions, not just the cold, calculating, logical one. It is but a small wonder then that avid cooks find cooking relaxing, meditative and even therapeutic. It is no coincidence that good cooks seem to be ‘bursting with energy’, whereas those who cook because it provides them food are normally weary of cooking and look to eating out whenever possible.

What is more worrying is children growing up in such a sensorially poor world. Children, more than adults even, learn best through the use of all their senses rather than purely by information alone. There is a difference between reading about a sea breeze and experiencing one. There is a difference between learning about electricity and making a bulb glow or experiencing an electric shock. Learning purely by information flowing into the brain is necessarily boring, unidimensional and ‘stressful’. This does not mean we should put up a projector and show ‘educational’ movies. This is more of the same. What it means is that we have to rethink education, learning and living, adapting to the necessities of our age without losing what it means to be human.

What to preserve?

Here, we will focus on our cultural heritage rather than our natural one, since the latter has been the focus of popular attention in the recent years.

The preservation of certain forms of art, architecture, handicrafts for fear of their being lost in the mists of time has been a matter that has preoccupied many a diligent individual. As is probably well recognised, it is only the form of the cultural artefact (be it art or anything else) that is preserved, not the substance. It is easy to explain the previous sentence with an example. Indians all over celebrate some or the other form of a harvest festival. This makes sense because India has been (and continues to be) a predominantly agricultural nation. Many Indians are no longer farmers and nor do they have any remote connection with farming, and yet they continue to celebrate such festivals in towns, cities and even places outside India. Thus, they continue a tradition that makes sense only in an agricultural setup even when they no longer live within such a setup. Thus, the form of the harvest festival is preserved (with some modifications maybe), but there is no substance backing it. It is similar to Christmas being celebrated in a predominantly secular West.

Most cultural traditions have an inherently multi-faceted nature: they are not purely religious, nor purely economic or purely anything else, but a mixture of all these. When the factors that underpin these traditions change, the traditions themselves must change to adapt, else die out. This is the stage at which preservationists intervene, and try to preserve a snapshot of the dying traditions for posterity.

Most cultural traditions are naturally evolutionary, since socio-economic conditions change over time. To preserve a snapshot means to pull that tradition out of the context that makes it meaningful and ‘museumize’ it. There is also an inherent bias in the preservation of such traditions: those which are aesthetically striking and appealing (like music and dance) have a better chance of being preserved than others (like how to milk a cow or how to make dung cakes).

Without taking sides as to whether it is important or not to preserve certain parts of our cultural heritage, one must still ask as to what end such preservation is directed. Most farming traditions, for example, arose in a context where there were no chemical fertilizers and pesticides or even irrigation. Now, as we realize that chemical farming cannot go on indefinitely, there is definitely value in preserving these traditions. Here, we are not only preserving certain agricultural practices, but also a world-view that appreciates the necessity of maintaining a balance with natural processes. Only within such a world-view will these agricultural practices make sense, and are meaningless otherwise.

A great example of trying to revitalise not only a tradition but also the context is Gandhi’s attempt to revitalise the khadi economy in rural India. This was to be accompanied by socio-economic reform at the village level by ‘constructive workers’ and large scale marketing in the urban areas to make it economically viable. There was also the moral dimension to it in asking the urban rich to relate to their underprivileged brethren by spinning some thread on the charkha. With Gandhi’s death and an intellectual tide that was against his ideals, this attempt was museumized as well into the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC), and only with the emergence of new organisations like Dastkar and Desi are such traditions looking to re-emerge.

It is only when cultural traditions make sense within a certain world-view can they be innovative and inventive and alive. Otherwise, they have to be kept on ‘life-support’ at a great social and economic cost. The preservationist’s attempt to create an unchanging snapshot of the same will only result in decay and perversion of the traditions, like has been done by various politicians and ‘cultural’ groups looking at gathering power by projecting themselves to be the saviours of ‘the great ancient Indian traditions’. The vitality of a tradition lies in its ability to respond to its present context. This response may lead to strange results, like handloom weavers wearing modern polyester sarees and ‘modern’ urban elites wearing traditional handloom garments, but it shows that a world-view is refusing to die and responding to changing (albeit unfavorable) circumstances.

Humanity has matured to a sufficient extent to understand what is necessary to maintain its continued existence on this planet, though it has not matured enough to act on this knowledge. It is something like learning to dance: understanding how to perform a particular step is much easier than getting your body to execute it. We know with some confidence what is the world-view that will help us live in harmony with the rest of nature. Ensuring we develop and preserve traditions that take us toward this end should serve as a thumb rule in making the decision about what to preserve, and what not to.

Being useless

First of all, something from XKCD that echoes my sentiments:

The mouse-over text for this panel goes like this: “The only things you HAVE to know are how to make enough of a living to stay alive and how to get your taxes done. All the fun parts of life are optional.” For some reason, this part of life is completely overlooked when trying to describe what makes an ideal human being. We seem to have internalized a fact of dubious validity that if one is useless, then it is a bad thing. Good is equated with useful (to someone/thing) and bad with useless.

It is undoubtedly true that since we live in the company of other humans, and all of us are trying to prop up a gigantic structure called society, that we need to work with each other, and for each other. It is therefore only fair that we are rewarded when we do our part, and are useful to others. Only thieves and politicians seem to think otherwise, and also those who beg and borrow without ever trying to find something useful to do. But somehow, somewhere, the fact “you need to be useful to survive” gets transformed into “you survive to be useful”.

As a personal ethic, to live in the service of others is undoubtedly a very noble thing. But problems arise when everything is judged by its utility to yourself or to society. By this standard, bureaucrats (the earnest ones anyway) are useful and painters useless. Farmers are useful and folk singers useless. If we keep eliminating useless people and things from society, then, like the cartoon says, life would not be very much fun indeed. Also, it is very easy to apply double standards: A sports person who has spent his entire life thinking about himself, his body and his technique becomes a hero if he wins a medal, though his actual contribution to society is similar to that of an orchid to a forest.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the word ‘useful’ itself has different meanings at different points in history. It is socially defined and it defines ‘The Box’ within which society operates. People of science were not only considered useless but even dangerous a few hundred years ago. Nowadays they are worshipped as saviours of humanity. Therefore, some who is very useful and maybe even invaluable at a particular point in history is so because she operates completely within ‘The Box’, and is happy doing so. If everyone thinking outside ‘The Box’  are eliminated, civilisations will stagnate and die out.

It is therefore important that society tolerates useless elements like beggars and philosophers. They may be parasites, but as long as they don’t suck the life-blood out of the society, like politicians, they should be allowed to survive and persist. They may harbour ideas or examples of ways of living that may lead the way for future generations, or their ideas may be eternally useless. But being different, being useless requires conviction and courage (however misplaced), both of which are rare qualities in society.

At a more personal level, being useful implies leading a life that is mainly governed by the needs of others. As experience will inevitably show, the ‘others’ are a mix of deserving and undeserving people, and you have no control over which kind you end up serving. It a very rare set of people who can truthfully say that they serve only deserving people. Also, people and things have values that are not included in their utility: beauty, inspiration, serenity — these are also things that we as a society must value, and seeing how things are progressing, maybe value more that brute utility. Being useless is something that is brainwashed out of us very early on, maybe it is time we re-learn what it feels like!

Write to be understood, speak to be heard, read to grow. — Some dude.

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