Sunday, January 25, 2009

Through the Looking Glass

They sat in silence, viewing the world through their individual looking glasses, and contemplating on what greeted them on the other side. A smoke had been shared just a moment ago and both of them had kept themselves busy trying to blow rings at each other. But now, when just the smell lingered around, they did not know what to do with their hands or minds. While Ritwick lay on the bed staring at the wall above, Shlok smiled goofily as if a long lost memory had suddenly found its way through an unknown recess. The duo seemed to be walking through the same corridor, albeit in different directions, peering through each keyhole at leisure, picking up lost pieces, and trying to recreate something that had happened a long way back in time. Surprisingly, not even a trace of worry distorted the expression on either face. It seemed conspicuous by its absence, and they did not talk about it, lest the unwanted guest make a sudden appearance.

There was just a hint of a breeze and the curtain on the door quivered when caught in it, the yellow flowers on it appearing to be daffodils “fluttering and dancing in the breeze”. The ceiling fan was idle and two of its blades formed a smiley that conveyed its sadness at being singled out. The radio-clock played an instrumental number from an unknown Satyajit Ray flick that seemed to have been made for the occasion. Ritwick hummed along, oblivious to his pathetic attempt at impersonating the tune, while Shlok tried his best to ignore him. A solid rectangle of light filtered in through the lone window in the western wall. The window seemed to be greeting the sun’s dying rays, politely bending them to suit its own whims. So what bathed the room was not a fiery white, but a mellow mixture of yellow and red, almost maternal in its feel. The motes danced around in the pale yellow radiance and traced out abstract patterns while doing so. Needless to say, the room on the terrace was almost perfect for imaginary afternoon philosophical sessions. And so they did. In other words, I made them do so.

“We do not believe in consequences anymore.”

Shlok propounded this while still smiling goofily and so the effect of the observation was lost on Ritwick. Ritwick, in turn, continues staring at the wall for sometime before giving his two cents.

"For the record, I believe you have copied that line from somewhere. However, I will ignore that for the time being. I understand your need to temper your actions with purposiveness. For some time now, I have feared that my actions do not have any consequences. Sometimes, I almost detest it when people like me, people who have been more fortunate than so many others, trivialize everything in life. Everything has to be associated with being cool, hip, fun, and all things cooler. I guess you have only taken this abhorrence of carelessness to a higher level. Didn’t you say something about deciding that whatever you do has to have a certain purpose or consequence to it? But does that mean we deny ourselves every other pleasure in life just because of its inconsequentiality to others? I will confess that I do not propose a solution to this problem. But my instincts still shriek that a balance can be struck somewhere in between. Can’t we be selfish and selfless at the same time?”

Shlok stifles a chuckle and stops staring at the wall above. Instead, he occupies himself for sometime by observing the two lizards on the western wall, the one with the window. They had emerged out of their secret lairs early (the sun had still not set) and seemed to be engaged in a furious round of courtship. Somehow, their love and hate relationship seemed to symbolize everything that was going on in his life as well. Finally, when Ritwick had started fidgeting at his indifference, he carefully crafts his reply and tries to make it as abstruse as feasible.

"Consequentiality is definitely a way out. The efficacy of all actions lies in their impact on others. Didn’t we read about Gandhiji’s talisman in our NCERT books? Weigh our actions and see how they affect others? I think the idea is to detach your self to the extent where you may love all, and enjoy all. There is neither pain there, nor unhappiness. You might say why bother about all this. But to me, the otherwise is tantamount to cheating my purpose. I am afraid, my friend, that there is no middle path of indulgence. You can be either happy or sad. Indifference is the best lie that we craft for ourselves. It helps us in getting by that sense of guilt that’s innate in all of us. It helps us in believing lies like ‘we can be selfish and selfless at the same time’. It helps us in ignoring the consequences of all our actions.”

Ritwick looks at Shlok as if he had been slapped for breathing too hard. However, he regains his senses and finds something to say.

"Isn’t that taking things a bit too far? It is a liberating experience to give in to our weaknesses sometimes. Not everyone can be a Gandhi or Amte. Not everyone can be a Mahatma. You are becoming increasingly inflexible in your thoughts and actions. Why don’t you experiment more often? Not just with relationships and people, but with your ideas and opinions as well. Just let it go and enjoy being weak for some time. I have visited those lands and it was a welcome experience.”

Shlok smiles serenely and says, “That’s how I have come to look at things. I am afraid that retracing my steps is not a luxury that I can afford. But we are talking nonsense. I must not make you think anything. What about love and girls? What’s your take on them? I know you are not homosexual.”

Although Shlok had raised this subject as a mere diversion, he knew that Ritwick’s understanding of the subject would bring him one step closer to comprehending what went on in his friend’s mind. Ritwick, on the other hand, was oblivious to all such underpinnings and plunges headlong into his narrative.

"Do not blame me for philosophizing, I know that’s you forte, but I guess getting to know about love is more important than being in love. The rush that you get out of anticipation can hardly be matched by fulfillment. I fear it becomes a downhill ride from there on. I even read a piece about this in that zany tabloid that people call a newspaper – The Times of India.”

Shlok can not come to terms with Ritwick’s understanding of ephemerality. Trying to think several things at the same time, he looks out the window. The sun has almost set and soon the mosquitoes would be swarming the place. So he gets up and switches on the bulb, the artificial equivalent of the orb which had just breathed its last. As he proceeds to close the door, Ritwick continues his line of thought.

""Do not get me wrong, but I find it hard to believe that something as fascinating as love can actually last long enough. I believe that the phase we call ‘being in love’ lasts for just one-eighth of our lifetime. Let me put this in a more familiar perspective. It’s merely a three hour movie in a day long extravaganza. What do we do with the remaining 21 hours? Mope about how we wasted every other opportunity chasing that one dream? Look for something better in all the remaining places? Believe me, but it’s most important to find what makes one really happy. I think it’s the only thing that can turn the 3 hour movie into a day long festivity. It’s the only thing which can make other experiences complete, and make them last. Everything else falls into place then. But most of us never get there in one lifetime. So it’s a bit of a predicament, like everything else.”

"So, if I have understood you correctly, you do not believe in the entire concept and would rather stay away from it?”

It’s not that simple. It’s not just black and white I presume. Normally, people end up falling in love mostly due to lack of choice. In a perfectly normal relationship, without any labels mind you, they end up giving each other so much of themselves that even the prospect of staying apart seems an impossibility. On the other hand, giving up more, without adverse repercussions and without altering the very nature of the chemistry, appears just as unlikely. People are often consumed by the other person. Love, and a lifetime of it perhaps, seems the only way out. In a way, it is the malaise and the cure. And we never read the symptoms right. So it doesn’t matter if I believe in it or not. Doesn’t matter if I want to it or not. There is no running from it. It will end up coming back to me. For better or worse I do not know.”

"That’s an interesting line of thought. Love is due to compulsion eh?”

"Please don’t make it sound derogatory. It is one of those things I still want to believe in. And you are making my entire understanding of it sound profane.”

"Not at all. Your thing about losing a part of ourselves to the people we love is quite intriguing. Because the only escape from that is detachment. And hence the paradox you see. Love seems a way out. But would you risk it? Would it prove to be your undoing? The realization that your happiness is inextricably intertwined with that perpetual fear of misery.”

"So what do we do Shlok? Do we deny ourselves the fleeting pleasure for fear of the pain we might have to endure later? Do we do that and isolate ourselves from even the momentary blip of happiness? I understand that is painful to be possessive about things that have the downside of not lasting forever. But does anything really last? Is it easy to let go? These things might be better understood if viewed from a different perspective. Because the one we posses is grossly inadequate. And so I go on for now. I cling to my possessions, thinking that some of them can last. Baah. But I am rambling again.”

Shlok shifts around on the bed and turns to face Ritwick, who is now sitting upright on the carpet.

Keats gave us two important thoughts: ‘Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder’; and also ‘Ignorance is bliss’. As long as we our sufficiently ignorant, we tend to stick to the pretence that meets the eye. The idea is whether we wish to be joyous in our ignorance. If that be it, then I have nothing else to say. If not, then maybe you should ask yourself whether you want to continue this slumber of never ending dreams. It’s more comfortable then, isn’t it? To be asleep and be fed with an imagery of permanence: your dollops of utopia?”

Ritwick racks his brains in order to comprehend Shlok’s discourse in its entirety. When he fails spectacularly in doing so, he does what only he could – come up with an example of Shlok’s philosophical ramblings from popular fiction.

It’s like the Matrix isn’t it? We are happy as long as we are in this make-believe world of the machines. But as soon as we are granted freedom from that slavery, we realize how the decision to break free was not as easy as it had seemed. Cypher’s actions capture this dilemma very effectively. Once he has seen the ‘real world’, he wants to return back to his matrix. To his well paying office job. To his fancy dinners. Ignorance is bliss as you say.”

Shlok couldn’t help smiling at this unlikely analogy. He tries to weigh it against his own statement. But then decides against it. Both of them had had enough for a day. And it was beginning to show.

"Yeah, right. Somewhat like The Matrix. But I guess its time for dinner. And I can hear your Mom calling us downstairs.”

As is expected out of such conversation, both the pseudo-intellectuals dwelled more upon the questions which were never asked. Nothing substantial is expected to come out of the conversation. For what Morpheus called the “real world” tends to downplay dreamers like themselves. In all likelihood, they will go back to living their lives in a manner which would be the exact opposite of their ideas and opinions. But change can only come in minute quantities. We do not live in an age of revolutions. They are a thing of the past. The very fact that this conversation dwelled upon a subject like this is, is an improvement. I am sure they will work something out.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Annus Horribilis

As a new year dawns on the horizons of our lives, so do new aspirations, new resolutions, new ambitions, and the most important of all, a new hope. In a time when our reason is being held hostage by non-stop, barbaric, commercial free television drama being played out in broad daylight for the convenience of everyone, hope is probably the lone thread that tethers our confidence in clichés like love and peace. For as Andy Dufresne rightly said, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies”. The task at hand, therefore, is not to set aside the last twelve months and forget about them. But rather, to learn from what happened then, so that we can effectively manage the tensions and conflicts within, hoping all the while that reason will prevail and the madness which has gripped our consciousness will come to an end.

In the past twelve months we saw fanatics from both the sides of the fence falling over each other. So while cadres from Bajrang Dal and VHP attacked villagers in Orissa for having converted to Christianity, terrorists struck with impeccable and brutal precision at the very heart of the country, striking down not only the poor and helpless but also the rich and mighty. And while old division lines became much prominent, new lines were drawn for reasons both selfish and petty. For the Bombay that our forces defended with spirit and gumption in November was the same one that Raj Thackeray and his goons from Maharashtra Navnirman Sena had sought to purge of the “bhaiyyas” only a short while ago. For while the MPs from the Telangana Rashtra Samiti resigned from their posts to demand the creation of a new state, ULFA militants set off a series of bombs in Assam to send a similar ultimatum to the government. Even Nature wreaked havoc in the Indian heartland and Bihar saw several millions of its inhabitants wading through waist deep waters, scouring the horizon for dry land and respite. But that is not where the buck stopped. The relatively stable domain of economy took a fall because of the global meltdown and the great Indian middle class became a victim of an uncertain future. The domino effect the Wall Street recession hit India hard, with jobs becoming scarce, firms asking workers to stay back at home for several days a week, and the BPO sector laying off thousands of employees.

No wonder that the past twelvemonth has been eliciting comments like “Thank God it’s over” from all and sundry. But was 2008 the annus horribilis indeed? Would matters be simpler if I were to list down years that were just as bad, if not worse? For a nation that has only recently celebrated 60 years of independence, the contenders for this dubious distinction are a plenty. Each one of 1984, 1966, and 1948 can vie for this honour with remarkable ferocity. For each one of these years was peppered with murder and violence, riots and rebellion, and uncertainty and distrust. However, it is only expected that a bias or prejudice will creep into any choice that we make. For instance, for a secular Indian no year was more nightmarish than 1992 or 2002, when the pogrom against Muslims was executed with utmost finesse and impeccable coordination. Indian citizens of the Sikh faith must be having the darkest memories from 1984. This predicament is only expected because India is not Sweden or Norway where everyone speaks the same language, follows the same faith, and no one is very poor. Never before has a single political unit been carved from such diverse and disparate parts. Moreover, because media tends to be biased in favour of spectacular, dramatic events, the citizen tends to do so too. As a result, many of the less visible sufferings of the even lesser visible people are conveniently ignored and forgotten. For even if the fidayeen had not attacked Bombay and Thackeray’s hooligans not taken law into their own hands, millions of Indians would still not have access to proper sanitation or civic amenities. Any choice that we make, therefore, must either take into account all these factions, or risk being labelled either parochial or broad.

Who is to decide, then, which year has been the most horrible of them all? Is it even feasible to do so? Will time throw up a new contender each passing year? As an unlikely democracy and an unnatural nation, India had always been destined for a bumpy ride. To compound the grievances, in its eagerness to make rapid strides towards development, India has neglected the fissures, factions, and tensions in its own society. These splinters have drifted so far apart that even in times of national calamity they find it hard to suppress their sectarian affiliations. Noted historian Ramchandra Guha remarks that “for India to remain united and untroubled would be a miracle. For it to be democratic and free of conflict would be doubly so”. Reflecting upon these troubles times, Ashis Nandy, a renowned sociologist, says “in India the choice could never be between chaos and stability, but between manageable and unmanageable chaos, between humane and inhuman anarchy, and between tolerable and intolerable disorder.” No wonder that I have been able come up with so many nominations for the dubious honour of annus horribilis. But does that mean India is doomed forever? Is there no way in which its chaos can become manageable, its anarchy, humane, and its disorder, tolerable?

In a society that is being torn apart along various lines, it is very important to seek out the breeding grounds of hatred. India remains a nation where legend, myth, history, tradition, and culture often overlap. Sometimes, Indians can not tell one from the other. What prompts the annihilation of innocent people in the name of God or regional diversity? Why new division lines continue to be drawn on some pretext or the other? The answers to these questions won’t be easy to come up with. However, it is essential we try to resolve these perpetual problems in light of reason and rationale. Even if the solutions prove to be detrimental to many of the notions we have adhered to most of our life. As the bureaucrats deliberate on methods of settling the variety of disputes, the cycle of violence rages on, varying in intensity and form. As it does so, new hostages to history are spawned, ensuring “that the future generations are taught new wrongs to set right” and even older wrongs to avenge.

Reference: Outlook (January 12, 2009)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Boy Who Never Told Anything

This is about a girl I knew not so long ago. That she had the ability and not the craving to be happy was what I’ll always remember about her. Needless to say, it was she who wrote this and not me.

* * *

The arm beneath her head was falling asleep and she wiggled her legs a bit. She always slept with her legs thrown about in gay abandon as if they were breaking free from the shackles of being prim and proper the whole day. There was a slight chill in the air and the blanket felt warm against her body. There was some grit on the sheet. A full moon was smiling cherubically, her battalion of stars fading in the glory of her pale light. Sleep was a few groggy breaths away so she turned to lie on her stomach, propping up her elbows so she could look at the moon better. She smiled at the imperfect circle it was today. One side looked slightly worn down as if the sun’s fury had melted her to make the stars.

Thoughts often rummaged through her mind like inquisitive children. Poking through the carefully stashed away memories, their grubby hands undoing the covers she had draped them in. Sometimes those fingers tickled up a laughing anecdote. She had read about people smiling into nothingness. The first time she did it herself she self-consciously shrugged her shoulders. But then some people, some weird little things often made her mouth dance into a crazy little curve, those laugh lines giving her a look of wry abandonment. He used to find her laugh lines infinitely attractive. She didn’t even notice them before he mentioned it. And now each time she looked in the mirror, she made it a point to smile, just to see those lines crease around her mouth.

Thinking of him saddened her, her spirit suddenly weighed down by her heart. And with nothing better to do, she reached out for her journal, flipping through its pages, covered in her scribbles. Pages of doodles and psychedelic designs. No matter how many dogs and flowers she started off with, she always managed to end up making concentric circles – an indication of her eddying thoughts? There were realms of angry outpourings, strings of quotes, cuttings of interesting ads and passages of mundane nothings.

Her journal. Her closest friend, her stubborn conscience, her cruelest critic. Often uncomfortable around her closest friends, she managed to talk to this inanimate book with unnerving enthusiasm. With fierce loyalty. With unbridled passion. She carried on rummaging, reading a quote, seeing a long-forgotten picture, some calculations of her monthly expenditure gone awry. The stars were beginning to fall asleep. She felt peaceful. The hammering of her mind was gently soothing itself into slumber. With a smile she hummed a silly tune.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Man in the Library

A man cleans the books he might never be able to read himself. He is meticulous in his efforts, taking care to pull out each of the hard bound volumes one by one from the shelf, cleaning them with a soft cloth, and then gently pushing them back into place. Does he abuse his blatant inadequacy? Or does he revere the wisdom he has been unfortunate enough to forfeit?

The supervisor whispers some instructions in his ear and moves on. He makes sure they are not ignored and goes back to what he was doing. He is sitting cross-legged on the floor, oblivious to my constant oblique glances, and my preoccupation with him. The knowledge and wisdom he polishes so dutifully benefits people like me, who try to gauge his thoughts, and write them down; so that eventually one more volume may be added to the shelf he has moved on to.

If life wasn't meant to be ironic, he wonders, then what was?