Saturday, December 26, 2009

Reflections: David Copperfield

Why ever am I reading this book now? Isn't Charles Dickens meant to be a part of the rigor of teenage and high school years? Well, as part of indulging in a lot of unnecessary pursuits, I did manage to read "Oliver Twist" when I was thirteen. And it was then that I encountered the meaning of depression. I cried my heart out for Oliver, that by the end of the book I melted into a puddle of my own tears. In that state of agony, I took a vow never ever to read Charles Dickens again and masochistically subject myself to misery and tragedy. But Fate has his own plan. Two of his books wafted their way to me. After ignoring them for two years, I convinced myself that I'd outgrown that sappy girl and would be mature enough to appreciate the book for its literary merit.

Most people know the story of David Copperfield. Abandoned as an orphan, and treated with disdain, as a young boy, David goes through heart-wrenching perils. Ill-treated at school, and then kicked off to work as a waged-laborer, David scraps his pennies together and trudges along poverty, dreariness, and loneliness in a cruel world. But his strong-will pushes him to go in search of his aunt, who generously adopts him and tries to make a decent man of him. From then on, David remains loyal and true to his benefactor, hones his skills and education and grows into a compassionate and goodhearted man. He meets a host of interesting characters, each with their own peculiar stories of their own, all intertwining to repeatedly throw David in tumult and loss. Despite things going wrong and tragedies befalling him, David emerges unscathed in spirit and helps to resolve the problems of his friends and family.

Dickens brings in a subtle undercurrent of romance, with comedic and tragic interludes. As expected of most novels in this era, the story is centered around Victorian virtues that define honor, decorum, good and bad; especially for a lady. But it seemed to me that Dickens was making a subtle point condemning some of those - especially with the way he handled Emily's "dishonorable" act of running away with her lover when she was betrothed to another. His characters are clearly defined as black and white, good and evil, that the good is detailed as the personification of a paragon, and the bad is morphed into the Devil himself. In a way this portrays the simpler times when good and evil could be so well culled out from each other, and however weary the battle between good and evil, there is  a piercing clarity on what should happen. The relief to the reader is that all ends well, and the loose strings get tied up, arranged neatly in their places, and the book is closed with thoughtless satisfaction. A commendable aspect is that the characters are fleshed out incredibly well, with each having such unique, overpowering personalities, leaving them immortal and memorable in our minds.

Now onto the important question. Was Dickens successful in his attempt to brew all the misery in the world and make me shed tears? Yet again? Almost. But this time, my strong emotions were not towards the protagonist or the other characters. I was overwhelmed by such intense exasperation to read Dickens' ludicrously long sentences which easily crawled down to 15 lines, containing more than 90 words, a dozen punctuations to stilt the senses, and multiple redundancies reiterating the same point, that I often lost track of where, how and what the sentence originated to convey. It's an irony that being an incessant rambler myself, even I couldn't bear Dickens' meandering prose that I was ready to cry and pluck away a few hundred pages of the book, just to regain my sanity. I just don't understand why he needed to inflict so much of convolution. It's almost as if Dickens paused writing and said, "Hmm. Now that I've written half the book, let me pause and do an experiment. An interesting jugglery with grammar, if you will. I shall take a simple sentence and using the rules of grammar and the sophisticated vocabulary I know, I shall mesh together the most complicated sentence ever constructed in the history of literature. And I shall continue to do this in the pretext of perfectly describing my characters and the things that they see and feel. Let's see if my reader is smart enough to appreciate this ingenious attempt of mine." This reader unfortunately doesn't have enough stuff in her head to deeply appreciate such linguistic acrobatics. To me, it turned into a book that would never ever end, winding on like a soap-opera that one can pick up and continue watching  even after missing a dozen episodes (in this case, a liberal 20 pages at a time).

But of course, this is not to say that the whole book was filled with such meandering and wearisome prose. Quite befitting his literary fame, Dickens truly awed me in several places. The prose shone with his superior skills; of threading together eloquent sentences and tempering them with profound meaning and beautiful metaphors. Like little jewels they lie strewn across the book, sometimes buried in his turgid sentences, and never to be excavated. But if we are to hand-pick them and refurbish the story around them, not only would we save plenty of trees by cutting down a few hundred pages, but it will also turn into a book that one would want to pick up ever so often. But it is blasphemous of me to even utter such impetuous statements and corrupt the sanctity of the Classic, so I shall let it pass.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Reflections: Ever

Fantasy tales serve as Chicken Soups for my Soul. They go down deliciously warm, soothing the chills and comforting the little girl inside me with their liberal doze of syrupy antidote; an antidote that quells the afflictions of reality. There exist no Zen principles to assuage the little girl as does a fantasy tale of magic, and miracles and most importantly, happy endings. Perhaps I'm just a recluse seeking refuge outside of reality, but sometimes, that seems to be the only cure to bolster faith. However, regardless of any deeper reason, I don't think I can ever outgrow such enchanted stories. Ever, is an endearing children's fantasy, which I would have probably relished twice as much if only I'd flown back to my childhood. Always one for mythology and stories centering Gods and mortals, this book brought me back in touch with the ten-year-old who sincerely believed in Magic.

Olus, the God of the Winds is a lonely young man earnestly flying across the skies searching for someone who would be his friend and companion instead of revering or fearing him. His parents repeatedly warn him against getting entangled with mortals, whom they allude to as soap-bubbles, due to their evanescent existence. Inevitably, Olus finds himself enraptured and in love with a pretty damsel, Kezi, whom he ardently follows, taking the role of her guardian angel. Due to the twisted mix of a debt and a careless oath pledged to the believed omnipotent and omnipresent God Admat, Kezi is forced to offer her life as a sacrifice to Admat. Olus is stricken with grief and avenges to save Kezi. As Olus begins to get much closer to Kezi, she discovers his existence and falls in love with his valiant gallantry. Together, Olus and Kezi try to resolve their conundrum. The only rope of hope is for Kezi to defy her fate and turn immortal so as to evade death and lead an eternal life with Olus.

Most fantasy books are woven with subtle themes on life, and the truths we try to seek, and this book is no exception. It is interlaced with an under current that explores the meaning of fate, destiny, and God. When Kezi realizes that Olus is also a God, she grapples with herself to define her belief in Admat, the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-pervading God, when Olus, another God doesn't even know who Admat is. It's a clever comparison of invented religions and Gods, versus the forces of Nature, who are in a more concrete sense the Gods who rule us mortals. The book also creates a nice metaphor to signify what it means to grieve, lose ourselves and fall into our own created depths of sadness and hopelessness. But Levine packs her punch by infusing generous bouts of optimism, as Kezi walks against the chosen path of Fate and creates her own destiny by holding onto her armors - strong-will and faith. The God of Fate strews Olus and Kezi to face their darkest fears, and fight their toughest battles, in order to give them a chance to alter the course of their destiny. This is reminiscent of an adage that says that God puts people through the toughest tests to hone their mettle.

It is also interesting that the God of Fate himself reiterates, "Fate may be thwarted. I long for a happy outcome." Well, how sweet are these words that spill out of Fate's own mouth? It's befitting to reflect on this and on the meaning of faith, on this very day that professes miracles and merriness.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Language of Thoughts

Professor Lapin and his assistant were quite excited about their current research that involved developing a lexicon for a previously unheard and unknown language. The first identified word in the newly found tribal language was "gavagai". They heard this word being used whenever a rabbit was present, so Lapin was ready to associate the meaning of the word "gavagai" to rabbit. But his assistant intervened by pointing out a possible confound. For all they knew, "gavagai" could mean "hey look! Rabbit!", or "a single rabbit" etc. It could also be embedded with some other cultural or physical adjectives that they were unaware of. In order to thoroughly establish the validity of the word and meaning, Lapin and his assistant need to not just make more observations, but essentially live long enough with the tribe to get a grounding of their culture, so that they understood the ties it has with the formation of words and the language. Is it true that one needs to understand culture to comprehend its language? Is there any way by which the "truth" of the words can be objectively ascertained? Does truth become subjective to language? (Original Source: Word and Object, by W.V.O. Quine (MIT Press, 1960))

I can very well see through the challenges that emerge from a research standpoint. I have no idea how linguists work, but I'm certain that the standards for establishing validity are same across all disciplines. There are two parts to this excerpt - one deals with the effect of culture on the evolution of language, and the second deals with how language by itself can afford how we form concepts and thoughts and can thus influence the way people think and behave, therefore affecting how the culture evolves. It's sort of like a symbiotic feedback loop - culture->language ->thoughts->concepts->culture. Since culture is on either sides, envisage a circle instead of my linear diagram.

Those of us who know at least a couple of languages (or better yet polyglots), will be well aware that each language has its own set of unique words and grammar rules than cannot be translated to other languages. Many friends of mine have raved about books in a certain language that can never be translated into other languages without losing some of their truest literary beauty and form. I've even struggled to explain the meaning of certain very common words in my mother-tongue to another person from the very same country and culture, but from a neighboring state. This is because each language is heavily based on metaphors that are relevant to the nuances of a culture. Such is the confluence of culture, traditions and the physical nature of our environment, found in our languages. A popular example is how the Eskimos have a large array of words differentiating the various types of snow. Due to their climatic conditions, these people were in need of forming different words in their language to specifically relate to the subtle gradations and kinds of snow. In South-India, there is no word for snow, except of course if we are to adopt the English word into our vocabulary. Or our leaders would be kind enough to expend their time in inventing authentic and convoluted words from the root of the language.

Consequently, it is also true that our concepts and thoughts concerning the word "snow" will be constrained because of the language. If we don't have words to define and conceptualize different kinds of snow, our knowledge/truth about snow is also limited. Similarly, our abilities to express ourselves and communicate meaning among others are also dictated by the rules and structures afforded by the language. The more poorly designed the language, the harder it is for us to think in terms of the language, the lesser concepts we can frame, the more time it takes to express, the greater the complexity of the expression, and less information or misinformation gets communicated, thus jeopardizing meaning and truth. Another favorite example of mine is that of computer programming languages (despite them being arguably different from natural languages). But a programmer will largely agree that the rules of a programming language can either constrain or expand their abilities to not just program efficiently, but also afford unique thought processes for problem solving and expression. With dynamically typed programs and object-oriented programs, the consensus is that these languages provide more scope and freedom for solving problems and expressing the solutions more effectively. In effect, they allow us to conceptualize and think differently.

This notion, that language structure affects the way we think and form cognitive concepts, is called the Whorfian-Hypothesis. Science is a little divided on this hypothesis. While many (including me) agree that there is some truth to it, it doesn't extend completely to all cognitive concepts or processes. There have been many scientific studies disproving this hypothesis. A popular experiment proved that a culture in which people have no linguistic representation of any color except black and white, still formed cognitive concepts of the primary colors "blue", "red" etc, such that they could arrange the secondary colors around them. Some argue that this is merely perception, rather than conception, but there are many more studies that have attempted to disprove it.

Therefore to a large extent we think in terms of our language, and our cognitive boundaries are sort of determined by the scope of our language structure. But as evidenced in the current generation, the use of SMS-English has led to additions and abbreviations of "words" to our daily vocabulary, such as "lol", that even the structure of the language seems to slowly change. This is due to the technological instant-messaging culture. Hence language is sure to correspondingly evolve. It leads to an interesting question of how this change in language will affect the thought processes of the future generations.

Finally, does all of this relativity with language and culture imply that the expression of meaning will be affected? Two people speaking the exact same language are prone to multiple misunderstandings. Given that, is it plausible that the "truth" remains relative to every language, for we cannot completely express and translate the meaning and embedded context, however expressive we try to be? To a certain extent, yes; which is probably why we resort to Logic, Mathematics and equations to be more objective about what we want to convey. But the field of Logic has its own can of worms, so I'm not going there :).

Sunday, December 20, 2009

When Heroes Fall

I've always been intensely disturbed by earthquakes. It represents an indescribable blend of fear and pain, seeing one's home, a safe cocoon, a loving space of cherished memories crashing down all over one's self, crushing, crumbling one's mind and senses, hopes and security, comfort and pride. When the very foundations on which one's life rests rumble and crack, and the feeling of utter helplessness and panic tear at one's heart, there acts a force pulling one out of the raining debris, while an opposite force seals one's tracks to the shattering earth; glued in denial, scurrying to salvage as much as possible. A scorching pain running through one's body, stuck with the necessity to run out to save ourselves, as the elements of our existence wipe themselves out, pushing us out into the dusty streets, to rebuild everything from scratch.

Perhaps this is no different from the way we feel when our heroes and beliefs fall, crashing down ignominiously, pulling us down to a spiraling descent till we hit rock bottom. With a life built around them as scaffolding structures, nothing makes sense anymore as the very scaffolds buckle. With a million shards of prickling pieces hailing down, where does one start to pick up the pieces and assemble them all again in a meaningful design? In denial we desperately hold onto our beliefs from falling, burdening our whole weight of existence to bolster the structure, making excuses to cover up the cracks, assuring ourselves that they can be mended, explaining away the disappointments, and scouring the corners of our mind to rationalize the faith. But there comes a point when we fall down hard with the obliterating structures, bruising ourselves harder than we can bring ourselves to stand up again.

But life goes on. Despite only a bleak hope of putting the pieces together, we pack the debris and burden ourselves by carrying the knapsack through the rest of our journey, with a relentless, unrealistic hope and yearning to somehow, someday put them all together to make sense of them again. Wishing to quieten the nagging questions of when and how the safe cocoon of beliefs started to disintegrate, how the epitome of protection is no longer accepting of us, how the footsteps that were obediently followed led to a barren desert... how everything burst into nothingness like pricking on an inflated balloon.

Perhaps it doesn't seem fair to blame the heroes and our faith; maybe the fault lies with us for being careless and fallacious in building and supporting our life on them.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Reflections: Meeting of Minds

This little book captures a dialogue between the 14th Dalai Lama and Chan Master Sheng-Yen on the topic of Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism. This is a recount of a seminar/lecture on Buddhism that took place in New York City, about a decade or so ago. How did I ever get my hands on this book? By some strange coincidence, the book and I met serendipitously this morning while I was going through an abandoned closet. It perhaps belonged to some ex-resident. I took it as a sign that I needed to read more on Buddhism ;).

Since the dialogues took place between two venerable Buddhist practitioners, there is promise for the book to hold some deep and authentic principles. The book starts with an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, by Dalai Lama himself. He gives a brief outline of the history and propagation of Buddhism, and on the different versions of the tradition currently being practiced; chiefly Himayana and Mahayana. The crux of Buddhism rests on the Four Noble Truths - Knowing the nature of suffering, Giving up the causes for suffering, Attaining the cessation of suffering and Following the true path. The Philosophy of Middle Way preaches that the true causes for suffering stem from "Karma" or retribution and "delusion" or Ignorance. Through meditative practices that demand intense absorption and concentration of the mind, one is supposed to gain insight and clarity to rid themselves of delusion/ignorance, and develop the spirit of altruism to care for, help and love others, so that one may be detached from the needs of the self. From my understanding there are two kinds of meditative practices - one being gradual and the other being more instantaneous or "sudden". Both require discipline of the mind, but the "gradual" practice goes through a stage-wise incremental progression of disciplining the mind, with clearly demarcated stages of learning, finally leading to the state of "emptiness". In the instantaneous practice, a disciplined mind can get a leap of sudden insight and peace. However as the Dalai Lama says, the leap of insight might be instantaneous, but it is due to the accumulation of experiences, knowledge, thoughts, and above all discipline, playing in after years of training. The true state of emptiness is in realizing the absolute nature of everything around us, as opposed to realizing the relative (empirical) nature of things. The venerates also lay open the strong potential for a developed and trained consciousness to be able to attain a keen sense of intuition or pre-cognition. Rather than discuss this phenomenon in the light of clairvoyance, the Dalai Lama attributes this to a keen sense of memory and mindfulness. If the mind is cleared, burnished and focused, a person can perceive and understand things much better... similar to a person being able to see the road clearly due to proper visual acumen, as against a person whose vision is clouded with dust.

One particular aspect that appealed to me was Dalai Lama's definition of "religion".
"The perfection of Buddhist practice is achieved not merely through superficial changes, such as leading a monastic life, or reciting sacred texts. Whether these activities in themselves should even be called religious is open to question, for religion should be practiced in the mind. If one has the right mental attitude, all activities, bodily action and speech can be religious. But if one lacks the right attitude - that is, if one doesn't know how to think properly - one will achieve nothing, even if one's whole life is spent in monasteries and reading scriptures."

The focus laid on the need to think is impressive. He also goes on to clarify the misconception that the need for deep thinking implies that one has to be esoteric and intelligent. Both the Dalai Lama and Chan Master Sheng-Yen emphasize that bookish or "brainy" intelligence is of little use, unless one can assimilate knowledge to gain deep insights. In order to do this, one doesn't have to be esoteric or literate.

The Dalai Lama also defines Dharma as being applicable to people who lead non-monastic lives. For ordinary people, ruling out immoral acts and acting on anything that is useful and productive in promoting the happiness of others is in consonance with the spirit of Dharma. Of course, it leads to questions on what really is moral and immoral and what are the right ways of promoting happiness in others.

I do realize that these deep questions can't be answered within a morning's worth of perusal on the principles. But this is a start and I am glad I found this book.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Reflections: The Spirit of Buddhism

Having read random essays and snippets of books and quotes on Buddhism, this book marks my first formal entry into understanding Buddhism. The main reason for my being drawn to it is the emphasis it lays on the power of the human mind, in delving into its depths and conquering it, and in tapping the energy it holds to arrive at a state of clear discernment. The second reason is its philosophy in propagating compassion and all-embracing love towards everything within and outside of us, while continuing to stay detached from emotional entanglements. Sogyal Rinpoche's book is a collection of some of his essays and talks on the fundamentals of Buddhism and the qualms he has on its future adoption by the Western World.

Sogyal Rinpoche's concerns regarding the dilution of Buddhism to suit the practicality of the modern world are quite well-balanced. Both him and the Dalai Lama, admit that there are aspects to Buddhism that are tightly tied to the cultural parameters of the erstwhile era, and may not translate with much relevance to the current era. In Dalai Lama's words, "A new way of thinking has become the necessary condition for responsible living and acting. If we maintain obsolete values and beliefs, a fragmented consciousness and a self-centred spirit, we will continue to hold to outdated goals and behaviors". It always impresses me when spiritual leaders of a certain faith are open-minded to critique their own faith and admit that there are certain aspects of the tradition that need to be revised, whilst retaining the essence. I wholeheartedly agree that in this quest for revision it is easy to forgo the essence of the traditions by morphing it carelessly to suit our needs... the entire spiritual path gets lost in doing so. From my understanding, the true essence of Buddhism (or for that matter any religious/spiritual path) is in disciplining the mind to gather a fundamental grasp on the teachings and their implications, and to routinely implement and act on them in our everyday lives. It is said that the twin qualities required are deep appreciation and thorough integration of all principles, so that one may gather a holistic understanding. Most often people selectively apply principles without gaining any integrated insight on the overall philosophy, and this is one of the greatest dangers of diluting a tradition. Such people may be very pious and devoted to the tradition, but only in a superficial way that extends merely to certain rigid practises performed without any knowledge on their significance. Sogyal Rinpoche reinstates in almost every page that such superficial applications need to be reformed.

Sogyal Rinpoche also touches upon the kinds of physical and mental healing afforded by Buddhism. In Buddha's words,
We are what we think.
All that we are,
Arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world
Speak or act with a pure mind-
And happiness will follow you.

The notion that physical and health-related impairments are mostly caused and influenced by the mind, is now widely acknowledged. Objective scientific research on biochemistry has validated these hypotheses. Negative energies on craving and desire, pride and closed-mindedness are linked to the deterioration of the body. Ignorance and Ego are chided as the primary causes for our suffering, physical and mental hurt and the impediment towards everlasting peace. Buddhism insists on meditation to calm the mind, gradually transcending to a state of healing of the body and mind. The exploration of positive energies and positive thoughts being linked to peace, is again the basic philosophy of Eastern Spirituality. And there are many (including me) to attest the power of meditation.

In line with holistic understanding, Buddhism also warns us against holding onto a wrong view and deepening our convictions by fabricating evidences to support our view, and thus being completely blind to the truth. I appreciate Sogyal Rinpoche's incorporation of meaningful psychological explanations to elucidate why and how people form wrong opinions, and continue to misconstrue the truth by sticking to their false beliefs. Our thoughts can create our own version of reality within our heads, leading to terrible Ignorance and a bloated Ego preventing any reformation or learning. But there is a subtle meaning that arises in this context - on the one hand, the author claims that constant doubts and questions are dangerous as they form a protective shield of defense, impenetrable to help or truth, but on the other hand, he insists that one must always be open to questioning and doubting their beliefs and views, for being closed-minded about a faith jeopardizes our consciousness and peace. In my understanding, one has to strike a balance especially when one enters a spiritual tradition, s/he needs to enter it with some basic implicit faith... constant skepticism will surely go against any learning. But it is pertinent that one is always open-minded to revise thoughts and views. I am reminded of Descartes' popular statement, "The only thing I am certainly sure of, is that I am thinking and doubting everything. Cogito Ergo Sum". Since last year I have firmly held onto it, but I don't know if I've passed onto the other extreme of skepticism, devoid of any faith. In the travails of a spiritual journey, perseverance and underlying faith are important to carry forward.

There are quite a few redundancies throughout the book, but perhaps this is just the author's way of reinstating the principles, or is a consequence of patching up different essays together. And needless to mention, many principles and underlying philosophies of Buddhism are in congruence with the essence of Hinduism. This book is a mere introduction, helping readers to merely dip their toes into the deep waters of Buddhism.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Reflections: Dibs in Search of Self

Every child is born different. But some are more different than others, that understanding them requires a special skill-set comprising of patience, insight, faith, the ability to look at the world through the child's eyes, the courage to look into ourselves as seen by the child, and above all, an unending well of unconditional love and empathy. Perhaps one needs to get in touch with one's self before even trying to comprehend how the other person is reacting to us, and what it really means. A mind-boggling problem has no fault of its own; it's merely our limitation in not trying hard enough to isolate the variables, and not being open-minded enough to attempt different approaches to solve the problem. A problem that is abandoned as being hard and unsolvable will never be solved, although it will continue to retain an unjust label.

Dibs is a five year old who doesn't talk, play or interact with people. He has violent fits of temper tantrums when it's time to go home from school, and can never address himself in first person... the word "I" is unfamiliar to him. The aggrieved parents, mourn in humiliation for having been burdened with such a child, and console themselves that Dibs is mentally retarded, much beyond their help. When doctors and psychiatrists are perplexed and are ready to cast off Dibs as an unsolvable anomaly, Dr. Axline steps in as a miraculous intervention. Through her innovative child-therapy paradigm called "Play Therapy", Dr. Axline provides Dibs with the opportunity to get in touch with his innermost self, and helps him unlock his fear, anger, resentment, sadness and utter loneliness. Dibs not only emerges as a sensitive child, slowly shedding layers of emotional withdrawal, but also exhibits superior intelligence far surpassing his age. This is a true life story of a young boy, who grappled with himself in trying to understand himself and the world around him better.

Dibs' story is one of resilience and faith. Having hidden himself in the labyrinth of hurt and rejection, he found his way back to the surface, passing through the winding mazes of his suppressed emotions and bravely crumbling the walls of defense he had built around him. One of the most painful things to me is feeling the pangs of a child, aching for love and acceptance, being misunderstood, and unfairly rejected by the parents themselves. To children, parents are the essential blanket of security and comfort into which they can always be assured of protectively snuggling for basic warmth and love. Stripping the child of such an essential garment and leaving him in the middle of a strange and cold place, lost and scared, unaware of whom to turn to, is beyond cruel. Suffice to say that I spent many parts of the book being teary-eyed and wanting to reach into the book and give the poor deprived child a hug. Dibs' reaction to run inside himself and lock himself up securely, away from the world of people, away from hurt and loneliness, can very well be understood.

But Dibs was a special child. When a person lent a rope for help, he bravely caught onto it and clambered his way up, however hard the journey became. And his parents, despite their prior mistakes, made an effort to look into themselves, identify their mistakes and redeem their bonds with the child. As Dr. Axline herself admits, such a successful story where parent and child both do their best in reaching out to each other, and in learning about themselves, is quite rare indeed. Reading through this tale reminded me of many more young children whom I'd met recently, casually classified as "emotionally challenged and disturbed" and put under Special Education, with a string of hope towards healing. It's quite surprising how such children open up in a flurry despite remaining mute and withdrawn for hours together. A single statement by me, "If you have any questions, you can ask me. Feel free to tell me whatever you want as you play", elicited a sudden response, "Can I tell you something then? Sometimes I get very angry... yes I do. Mom yells and I get even angrier." The kid's face and his words will remain seared in my memory. You see, all day long no-one had asked him to open up and talk about whatever he wanted, with the assurance that the other person will listen. It was as simple as that to get through to the child. He had no pressure to answer specific questions, no pressure to perform , that judged his capacity, his intelligence, or his worth. He didn't have to bother remembering colors, spellings, months in a year, or how to add numbers. He was given the opportunity to just talk about anything. But I wish I were a child-therapist, for I was clueless on how to properly respond to him except by showing my concern and interest in his conversation.

Dr. Axline's pioneering work in Play Therapy has been quite an eye-opener to me. Her immense faith in children and her simple, yet profound philosophy that children need not be restrained and pushed into rigid boundaries is quite a lesson for all of us. I've always held the view that children's seemingly random behavior does contain plenty of meaning and insight; their expression is just so different from our notions of meaningful expression, that adults completely miss the insights that emerge. It's true that adults often interject with a more definitive pattern of play... a child who starts to play with building blocks, is immediately directed into an agenda that makes more educative sense to us, "Let's build a house now", "Tell me what colors these blocks are". Kids have been branded with low IQ, when instead of successfully doing the task of classifying wooden blocks based on their shapes and colors, some three-year-olds end up building a Choo-Choo train with the blocks and fail the test. To me such children have far higher IQ for exhibiting such creativity! (apart from being absolutely adorable to do so!). Performance in such tests and their behavior are no measures of a child's competence. Education and directed learning are of course important, but Dr. Axline's therapy demonstrates that uninhibited, judgment-free expression helps children get more in-tune with themselves, and it is vital for kids to have such an opportunity every once in a while. The therapy also demonstrates that children are taught to be more self-reliant in the world, and are led to accept reality as it is, with the understanding that nothing in the world can be completely controlled. I guess an important element is that Dr. Axline reaches out and treats the child as an adult, appealing to the mature and rational side of him, rather than babying him with child-talk and bribes.

But I do have some questions and concerns with this paradigm. During many therapy sessions Dibs displays intense anger and hate towards people who had hurt him, and his expressions disturbed me a little. Dr. Axline patiently let him deal with his anger and Dibs did get over his negative feelings with a more positive outlook. But it was marvelous and unbelievable to me that a child could re-arrange his feelings with such clarity, deal with them and get over them so maturely, with hardly any probing or direction from the therapist. What if a child doesn't resolve his negativity as well as Dibs? What should the therapist do? Despite all my understanding of positive reinforcement, Dr. Axline's approach was devoid of such explicit reinforcements, that I'm doubtful it will work with children in need of acceptance. All these questions are of course unreasonable to be answered with this one book, but Dr. Axline has another book called "Play Therapy", which has promptly entered my wishlist.

Reading this book was a personally moving experience. Dr. Axline's writing is so profoundly deep and insightful, and her prose did not give the slightest indication of her being an academician. The words were rich and beautiful, bringing to fore the beautiful complexity of the human psyche.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Reflections: Yuganta

The Mahabharata is one of the classic Indian epics that most of us grew up with. Bonding with grandparents meant being regaled with the countless little stories that branch off as distributaries from the main storyline, only to culminate in the end as tiny pieces fitting a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. Before being introduced to Sesame Street and Walt Disney, most of us first started with Amar Chitra Katha's graphic books on Ramayana and Mahabharata. Despite the sheer volume and intricacy of these epics, and the depth of complicated implications they held on morality, right and wrong, I followed the stories with surprisingly little difficulty or confusion. The morals that were stated were accepted and imbibed unquestioningly; so much so that most of my fundamental grounding on morals and ethics have been born out of the stories and characters in these epics. Unfortunately, now that I've "grown up", the once placid clarity of these stories has been muddied with my nagging questions with certain incongruous morals that come across from these stories. Understanding the Mahabharata is by no means a simple feat. It is a never-ending journey for most scholars, and for people like me, it's an arduous life-long process. Books such as these are stepping stones in the journey.

Irawati Karwe's book is a thesis that explores many different facets of the Mahabharata; its history, its social and cultural structures, its sociological relevance in today's era, the possible amendments and misinterpretations of some of the verses over the years, and an in-depth character analysis of some of the prime heroes. For many, some of the book's discussions may be unpalatable to their beliefs and strong sentiments, for Karwe plunges into an impartial dissection of the characters, analyzing their decisions and actions in various segments of the epic, thus provoking interesting lines of inquiry and interpretations. By thus delving into the psyches of the characters, she brings out the human elements of worshiped heroes. But it's commendable that Karwe takes a very balanced view and doesn't swing to any extreme. Nor does she impose her analysis and insights on the reader. By kindling thought-provoking questions and substantiating them with logical, anthropological and historical evidences, she lets the reader assimilate their views. With the extent to which Mahabharata is convoluted and dense, it's inevitable that it opens itself up to multitudes of conflicting interpretations, and by exploring these issues one is merely strengthening their understanding of the epic and the values it echoes, and Karwe accomplishes this deftly without ever disrespecting it.

Since I always love character analysis of any sort, Karwe's discussions on the heroes (Bhishma, Gandhari, Kunti, Draupadi, Yudhishtra, Vidura, Arjuna, Krishna, and Karna) erected entirely new personality dimensions of these characters, helping me understand some of their actions. She presents evidences of certain events and occurrences being glossed over by later additions to the verses, because with the onset of the Bhakti cult, literary scholars were weighed down with the necessity to glorify characters in epics with a Godly aura of hero worship, and thus made amendments to the verses with excuses and reasons justifying certain lapses in idealistic behaviors of the heroes. But Karwe only praises the Mahabharata for its realistic characters and conveys her disappointment in it being altered to project a misleading picture. She holds the view that the Mahabharata is a record of actual historical events surrounding characters who were very human, fallible and grounded in reality. She compares this against Valmiki's Ramayana, wherein it's a popularly held notion that Valmiki used his poetic license to shape extremely idealistic characters to inculcate morals and bhakti. The Ramayana portrays an idealistic son, the first monogamous husband, a pious and ideal wife, ideal brothers, ideal friends, and even an ideal villain, Ravana, who, despite lusting for and kidnapping another man's wife, never coerced her, and followed all the rules of Dharma in fighting a fair war. Karwe contrasts this with the Mahabharata, wherein Yudhishtra, despite being hailed as the Lord of Dharma, had his own weaknesses such as being addicted to gambling, that led to disastrous consequences. I could never understand how Yudhishtra being such a strict follower of Dharma could stake his own wife, Draupadi in a game of dice. This is just a speck of my resultant confusion with understanding Mahabharata's discussions on Dharma. The other main instance is when Karna's chariot gets stuck in a rut and he is forced to get down without his arms, he requests Arjuna to not fight till he gets on the chariot quoting that it is against the Dharma of war to strike a man when he is disarmed and on the ground. When Arjuna chivalrously waits, Krishna interjects saying that Karna doesn't deserve to be treated with Dharma, since he acted against Dharma by inciting Draupadi's humiliation and mercilessly killing Arjuna's son Abhimanyu when he was disarmed and on the ground. This fuels Arjuna and he kills Karna. While reading this, I couldn't shake off playing the scene in Ramayana, when Ravana being similarly disarmed, was graciously told by Rama that he will not fight him since it's against the rule of war and was asked to return the next morning with his arms. Rama still held onto Dharma, despite Ravana committing an unpardonable crime of kidnapping Sita. Both Krishna and Rama are worshiped as avatars of Vishnu, so whose action of Dharma is the strongest and most righteous? Is it right to avenge a person with adharma, or is it much virtuous to be merciful and benevolent, whilst playing a fair game of all the rules of Dharma? Similarly I have never understood why Draupadi was married to all the five Pandava brothers. One explanation is that Kunti inadvertently asked Arjuna to share whatever he had won with his brothers. But isn't it against Dharma to take this literally and share one's wife? The other explanation is that Kunti wanted all her five sons to be united with a common ground, so that they will fight a fierce battle without any reason to fall prey to disunion, and since she noticed all her sons to be attracted to Draupadi, she deemed it best that the brothers not have a disagreement or causes of internal jealousy because of a lady. To me, this is feeding into base instincts, at the cost of objectifying a woman. But then again, as Karwe reminds us, every character has their own entanglement of good and bad, virtues and vices, strengths and weaknesses and the web of Dharma weaved by the epic is probably more relevant to the specific circumstances of this era and should not be taken literally.

I completely agree with this view that every Dharma has it's own relevant time and place. Another example that Karwe highlights is that, in the days of monarchy, propagating one's clan or dynasty was of utmost importance and every ruler was obliged with this Dharma. So in the event that a King is unable to bear any children or sons, it is written in the Shashtras that the younger brother should step up to help his elder brother by offering to beget children with the sister-in-law. In the Mahabharata there are many instances wherein princes were born out of such unisions with brothers-in-law or other wise Brahmans (such as Vyasa). Another reason for this rule could be that, since every family was threatened with constant war, this measure that brothers could "share" wives was meant in the spirit that every brother should protect and take care of his sisters-in-law as they would their own wife, if their brothers were killed in war. In today's era, Hindu Dharma has evolved and professes against such a rule and polygamy in general. A woman's sanctity has taken on a whole new definition and starting from Ramayana, a younger brother looks upon the elder brother and sister-in-law as his father and mother. Similarly, the Mahabharata talks of the practice of Sati, and has a constant undercurrent of class and caste distinctions dictating its stories. While these practices were relevant in that era, they outgrew our current era, and in the previous century we strove hard to abolish Sati and the caste system. Therefore trying to blindly apply the rules of the Shashtra and Dharma become irrelevant and it is very disheartening and dangerous when people selectively apply rules that suit them by qouting "Hindu Shastra", and conveniently forget the rest. However, Karwe brings about the balanced notion that all our Dharmas have not stemmed as entirely new stalks, but are mere branches whose roots are in the Shashtras. Understanding the Shashtras and their underpinnings are therefore vital in figuring out Dharma. And it's unrealistic for Dharma to be a static and staid definition.

Also, despite all this analysis I do hold the view that the Mahabharata is largely a mythological tale probably based on a real historical event, but has only been exaggerated and embellished with metaphors to signify and give some grandeur to the tale. For example, it is unlikely that the Kauravas actually had 100 siblings. Similarly, the other tales are probably metaphoric too to a large extent and reading too much into their realism and analyzing their multiple layers of complexity is a futile illusory attempt, for nobody really knows where fact and fiction separate. My concern and curiosity have only been in the discussion of Dharma as voiced by the characters.

I have to put an end to my rambling here, despite wanting to pour all my thoughts on the other characters. This was a very stimulating book that has helped me rearrange some of my thoughts and questions on the great epic, its immortal characters and the elusive meaning of Dharma. But I still have a long way to go before I can gain a coherent understanding of all the concepts.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Reflections: Animal Farm

Human beings grow up with an inevitable ego that they are better than other animals - creatures with just sparse senses, incapable of thought, language or intelligence. Religious, social and philosophical theories try to mold us as superior beings, who are above and beyond animal-like impulses, who are far more cognitively developed than lower-order Pavlonian-creatures who obey their behavioral responses, who have the innate clarity to discern between good and bad, uphold equality and harmony, and who are blessed with an alacrity to work against Nature, to innovate, progress and stay invincible.

But looking at the world around us, the societies and civilizations that have risen and fallen, it's an irony that we humans start bearing the very same animal attributes that we were taught to overcome; worse yet, we indulge in these "primordial" animal traits with a devious use of our "sixth sense" - the power of thought. When this sordid metamorphosis afflicts people, the hope for Utopia, for love, peace and harmony evaporate, leaving the world dry and parched of freedom and equality.

George Orwell yet again explores the strong theme of dystopia through this book. In this tale, farm animals decide to revolt against humans, after years of suppression and cruelty. Through a brave rebellion they oust their human master and start a civil society, founded on seven noble commandments that profess peace, harmony and equality to all animals. What started as a socialist society with a vision towards Utopia, soon started turning rancid. The most cunning and power hungry pig, Napoleon, employed his conniving political tactics to gradually amend each of the seven commandments to suit his dictatorial authority. The gullible, naive and "illiterate" animals are swayed into trusting Napoleon and his entourage of cunning pigs and vicious thug-dogs. Those unfortunates who dared to rebel, ended up as snacks to Napoleon's dogs.

Orwell's prose is laced with intense satire at our political schemes, the manipulative conspiracies and the utter disregard with which the "lower-classes" are oppressed, and beguiled, causing the rich to grow richer and the poor to grow poorer. Just as how ironically, humans start degrading in their values and turn into animals, the pigs, who started a revolution to liberate animals from humans and to keep away from human-traits, soon started acting like men - greedy, selfish, hypocritical and treacherous. The metamorphosis is so seamless that men and pigs become indistinguishable - each having changed with the others' vileness.

Orwell's tale is a tragedy that most countries and societies have faced, and still face. He masterfully hints at how every society despite being started with hopes and promises of equality to all, succumb to core human vices, such that the term "equality" eventually transforms to gradations of social-classes. Although Napoleon, the pig, is a caricature of Joseph Stalin and his totalitarian rule, each person can associate Napoleon with plenty of "leaders" and political swindlers of their society. The book fuels righteous anger and has its heart wrenching moments. I enjoyed Orwell's crafty analogies to depict our societal cultures in the light of simple farm animals. I particularly liked the raven, Moses, who preaches to the animals of a mystical hill that grew sugar-candy and line-seed cake, wherein all animals could be blissful and happy forever. The animals, despite being skeptical of such a hill, wanted to hold onto the belief to distract themselves of their miserable lives and hope for a more sanguine future.

This is a book that makes us introspect on our values and triggers us to prevent the human-animal metamorphosis that threatens to put our civilization on a path to dystopia.

And I need to make a note that I received this book as a loving and thoughtful birthday gift :)

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Reflections: Mental Fight

As we sink in the rut of everyday life, wallowing in helpless routines, our roads following the same winding patterns, with entangled, dusty webs weaved from our past hanging down, clouding our vision and perception of the possibilities ahead, we need a jolt, a force from above, as pristine and piercing as an ice-cold rain, lashing at us to reawaken the senses, to wash away the musty webs, to refresh the mind, to kindle us with the sweet smell of rain-bathed flowers, the crisp greens and the earthy aroma of fertile seeds awaiting us. Such a new beginning, of shedding off murky layers, recharging the mind and standing at the brink of a new era, demands immense mental stamina; to refuse to turn back at the past, to learn from our mistakes, to vow never to tread the same paths and to pledge to bring magnificent dreams to fruition, uplifting ourselves and the whole of humanity.

Mahatma Gandhi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world". Ben Okri, through his optimistic and fiercely exhilarating verses, eggs humanity to start a new beginning at the dawn of the 21st century. With the human civilization just stepping out of kindergarten and growing into a clever young child, he reminds each of us of our responsibilities and ambitions and urges us to tap into our immense potentials. Despite history being tainted with wars, genocides, refugee camps, slavery, oppressions, economic depressions, nuclear weaponry, epidemics, global warming, poverty and hunger, Okri implores humanity to cast off the horrors of the past, and to look forward to a glorious future wherein we cease to make mistakes that pull down the human race, and instead strive towards redeeming our innermost dreams and uplift humanity. It's always wonderful when we can restart our lives with a clean slate and work with recharged energy from the wisdom of our past blunders.

In Okri's words,
Everyone loves a Spring cleaning,
Let's have a humanity cleaning.
Open up history's chamber of horrors
And clear out the skeletons behind the mirrors,
Put our breeding nightmares to flight
Transform our monsters with our light.
Clear out the stables
In our celebrated fables
A giant cleaning
Is no mean undertaking.
A cleaning of pogroms and fears
Of genocide and tears
Of torture and slavery
Hatred and brutality
Let's turn around and face them
Let's turn around and face them
The bullies that our pasts have become
Let's turn around and face them
Let's make this clearing-out moment
A legendary material atonement.

Confronting our monsters, facing reality, charging forward with mental grit and courage, whilst wearing a hat bursting with endless dreams, involve a mental fight we are all familiar with. How does one sustain this mental stamina without falling prey to exhaustion?

Those who are exhausted have lost
The greater picture,
The greater perspective.
They are trapped in their own labyrinth,
Their lovelessness, selfishness.
For those with limited dreams,
There is chaos to come.
I hear them talk about the end of history.
But those of us who haven't tasted
The best fruits of time yet,
To whom history has been harsh,
We think differently.
We know that history is all there
To be made in the future.

There is no exhaustion where there is much
To be hoped for, much to work towards,
And where the dreams and sufferings
Of our ancestors
Have not been realized
Or redeemed.

And one cannot hope to realize their dreams and change the world without first realizing themselves. To us, every day in life is the awakening of a new era, waiting to be lived, waiting for our ripples of creativity and innovation to carry forth changes in the ocean of humanity.

You can't remake the world
Without remaking yourself.
Each new era begins within.
It's an inward event,
With unsuspected possibilities
For inner liberation.
We could use it to turn on
Our inward lights.
We could use it to use even the dark
And negative things positively.
We could use the new era
To clean our eyes,
To see the world differently,
To see ourselves more clearly.
Only free people can make a free world.
Infect the world with your light.
Help fulfill the golden prophecies.
Press forward the human genius.
Our future is greater than our past.

Isn't this a powerful enough spell to rejuvenate our minds? It surely served as a tonic to my mind. Nature also seemed to smile on at me as the Snow Queen finally graced our frigid land with her visit, and I opened my eyes to a window of dazzling whiteness right after a dose of Okri. As I gleefully made my first footprints on clean slates of unblemished creamy whiteness, Okri's words rang louder in my heart, reminding me of a new beginning, of better thoughts of a renewed life.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Good Bribe

The Prime Minister was striving to be a morally conscious politician, however oxymoronic the ambition may sound. A certain businessman who was known for his corruption and sleaze but who had successfully wriggled out of all criminal and civil convictions desired to be hailed and respected by the whole world. He approached the PM with an offer that he would donate 10 million pounds to help provide clean drinking water in scores of villages in Africa, provided the PM guarantees that he will be knighted in the upcoming New Year's honors list. If the PM were to disagree to this "offer", the businessman assured that he would surely squander his money, rather than put it to good use. Does it make any moral sense for the PM to sell one of his country's highest honors for a bribe that would be overwhelmingly beneficial to thousands of people? (Original Source: "The Pig That Wants to be Eaten", Julian Baggini)

One the one hand this scenario seems to be a little more straightforward because the stakes don't seem to be high on either sides. Well, of course thousands would be deprived of clean drinking water, but it is clear that the means by which clean water could be provided is, by Kantian terms, categorically wrong. But from a Utilitarian perspective, does it seem like moral pretentiousness to satisfy one's moral principle at the cost of such an opportunity wherein the consequences reduce to: 10 million pounds being prodigally spent versus being judiciously spent to save thousands and establish a future for many more thousands. And is it even realistic for a political leader to persevere to be so ethically clean?

In the short term, it might seem like honoring the businessman with a Knighthood has very minimal adverse effects to society at large. A businessman with as much clout and wealth would only get the ego-pampering of being addressed as "Sir", which seems harmless enough. But in the long term, the honorable title will slowly be tarnished and lose its honor and distinguished reputation, especially if such a trend continues. Apart from insulting other merit-worthy members of the Knighthood, it sets a universally unacceptable rule that money can buy reputation and honor. Rather than stand as inspirational role-models, unscrupulous men who weasel their way into being honored, set a horrendous example to young adults. Once morally wrong exceptions of this kind are begun to be made by each political leader, the values in the society will surely start degrading. The consequences of such moral degradation may not be apparent in the short term, but will start to show its ugly face in the long term.

Perhaps my evaluation is unrealistic to a political leader who faces corruption and morally challenging issues of much greater magnitude which threaten to incur extreme consequences, that something as seemingly "simple" as this case requires just a brush off the shoulder, rather than invest any deeper thought. Rigid straightforwardness without the ability to be diplomatic and smart enough to tweak and prune a few things and people along the way, seems a rather unsuccessful and unrealistic strategy for a PM to employ. Therefore, if the PM did consider to take the money in this case, I guess I can be tolerant and understanding of the decision from a practical standpoint, since the consequences are not too severe. But if he were to repeat this too often, I wouldn't be able to excuse his decision, for he starts to jeopardize the moral sanctity of the society, which is far more difficult to re-establish than provide proper infrastructure to a developing nation.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Reflections: The Prophet

Over dinner a couple of nights back, I was asked if I'd read "The Prophet". I shook my head casually, causing my friend to almost choke on her food, stutter in disbelief and immediately instigate a dire book-worm-emergency. I was promptly rushed to the nearest Barnes & Noble, was made to procure the book and was sent back home with an earnest plea to read it the very same night. And here I am, fully cursing myself to have gone past all these years without reading this! And I can't thank my friend enough for her supreme presence of mind to get this book to me right away!

I've heard people who are averse to reading ask me (sarcastically, of course) if I could prescribe one book to them that would answer all questions and spew all the knowledge there is to acquire. I usually evade the question with a smirk, but NOW I can smugly thrust this book into their hands. Through the voice of a Prophet, Gibran succinctly and most exquisitely conveys his views and philosophy concerning the most fundamental themes of our lives - on love, marriage, children, creating our abode, philanthropy, eating, drinking, talking, working, dealing with joys and sorrows, pain, buying and selling, crime and punishment, good and evil, legal systems, freedom, reason, passion, self-knowledge, teaching, friendship, perception of time, beauty, pleasure, religion, prayers and on death. In addition to these broad and all-encompassing themes, his verses espouse so many other deep and wise tenets.

After reading Gibran's poetry, one is surely at a loss for words to describe its beauty and astounding metaphors. I'm positive there is not a single adjective in his verses that can be substituted with any other word from our ever-expanding dictionary. It was humbling and gave me goosebumps all the way through. The words inspired me, comforted me, awed me, stirred me to the brink of tears and above all enriched me. Despite having come across many of the verses at some point in my life, the process of going through a 96-paged-Gibran marathon of soaking in his impeccable verses, was immensely gratifying.

The one theme that really surprised me and helped me re-evaluate my perspective was Gibran's philosophy on freedom:

You can only be free when even the desire of seeking freedom becomes a harness to you,
and when you cease to speak of freedom as a goal and fulfillment.
You shall be free when your days are not without a care nor your nights without a want and a grief,
But rather when these things girdle your life and yet you rise above them naked and unbound.
And how shall you rise beyond your days and nights unless you break the chains,
which you at the dawn of your understanding have fastened around your noon hour?
In truth that which you call freedom is the strongest of these chains, though its links glitter in the sun and dazzle your eyes.

Of course, I want to share every other verse and fill up this whole space, but I've gone through a laborious process to pick just a couple more verses.
If any of you would punish in the name of righteousness and lay the ax unto the evil tree,
Let him see to its roots;
And verily he will find the roots of the good and the bad, the fruitful and the fruitless,
All entwined together in the silent heart of the earth.
And you judges who would be just,
What judgment pronounce you upon him who though honest in the flesh yet is a thief in spirit?
What penalty lay you upon him who slays in the flesh yet is himself slain in the spirit?

I was very impressed with such balanced and wholesome wisdom that Gibran portrays.
You have been told also that life is darkness, and in your weariness you echo what was said by the weary.
And I say that life is indeed darkness save when there is urge,
And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge,
And all knowledge is vain save when there is work,
And all work is empty save when there is love;
And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.

And he alone is great who turns the voice of the wind into a song made sweeter by his own loving.
This book is surely one of my most precious possessions, and probably the one book that I would take with me if I were cast on a lonely island.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Everyone knows that empty vessels always make a lot of noise. But the world needs them. It needs to drown itself in the din and be surrounded by their sheer vapidness. There is a queer comfort in being drenched in such emptiness. It gives the freedom such as dancing like a silly ninny amid glaring psychedelic lights; identities are lost, thoughts are expunged and the mind revels in numb pleasure.

The art of such noise making requires a special talent. One needs to be totally empty, but at the same time should also be positively confident of completely brimming with ambrosia. It follows that one shouldn't care about humility. Yet, how does one showcase their nothingness in a package of imagined ambrosia just through confident noise? Ah, there comes the next important quality; to possess the art of being "bubbly". It sort of reminds me of a child filling a glass with Coke; the bubbly effervescence froths up so joyously to the brim cascading rapidly down to the sides, that the child thinks that the glass is more than full and stares with amazement at the sparkly bubbles. Of course, less than 30 seconds later he realizes that the glass is barely filled and the bubbles dwindle to fizz and then to nothingness. But what he remembers are the bubbles... the empty little pockets of air, and he craves to see them again. The charm that the bubbles wield is incomparable to some mundane-pulp full-nutritious juice. Blurghhh....

In today's information-overloaded, Internet-crazed world, the two qualities are alluded as PR and promotion. With information being thrust on our face every single minute, it makes sense that one needs to sell themselves with much more vigor...attracting mindless attention through tooting and blaring horns in a dance of "bubbles". This translates to 90% bubbles, 10% drink. Well, one gets carried away with the deceptive and bubbly entertainment that one hardly stares down at the cup to notice its sparse content. This of course means that the genuine, albeit boring orange juice needs to do something to get noticed! After all, it is surely unrealistic to expect people to hunt down for a plain cup of juice. So, well, aren't carbonated orange juice much popular? Of course! Even sparkling water exudes more panache! Add a hint of artificial flavor to the same sparkling cup, viola... pure water is officially out of the competition. No wonder zero-caloried-zero nutrition-artificial drinks make so much money!

That's the future of our world. Empty bubble makers who can make hypnotic noise to perpetuate mediocrity. Is it wrong that I'm disgusted with such conniving superficiality? Well I better not be. The old ladies in my family often drawl when there is a new-born, "Doesn't matter if the child is fair or dark. A child who can talk his way through the world, will be a successful survivor". Amen to that.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Evil Genius

All critics were floored by the cinematography, the acting, screenplay, and the original score of the movie... all these elements were so brilliantly rendered. But they also had to concede that the movie was morally repulsive. It presented a worldview that one race was the most superior, and that the members had the right to deride and mistreat humanity. Cruelty to the old was shown as necessary, and childless women were justified to be abused by men. Despite the movie perpetuating such horrendous injustices, some critics argued that it was a great work of art from the perspective of technological artistic rendition. Such innovative, praiseworthy techniques were employed that they felt that the movie should be released from a cinematic art standpoint. However to many, the message that the movie conveyed couldn't be separated from the medium through which it was conveyed, that they couldn't appreciate one aspect while utterly loathing many other aspects. Should the movie be exempted from being banned purely due to its artistic merits? Are the art enthusiasts right in citing freedom of expression of art? (Original Source: "The Pig that wants to be Eaten", Julian Baggini)

I have been mulling over this for the last few days, trying quite hard to step away from the apparent, nagging practicality of the issue. My greatest difficulty (as faced by the critics in the excerpt) is to tease apart the medium and the message. To me, it just doesn't make sense to call something a work of art unless both the concept and the technique come together holistically. The greatest artists of our times are lauded for not merely their technical merit... if so, there are tens of thousands of art students in accomplished universities who are flawless in their technical adroitness; artistic genius comes together through conception, and rendition of a concept that is clothed with technical brilliance.

However, on my recent pondering, I was reminded of a particular challenge in Food Network's Challenge series. The competition was to design and put together a crystallized sugar display that artistically depicted the theme of a literary classic. I love watching such challenges, and this particular competition really piqued my interest. However the results were a little disappointing to me. This is probably the only instance when I could differentiate the technical and artistic components from the theme/concept depicted. Of the 4 groups, there was one team whose display exhibited expert technical skills and was visually very aesthetic; however their depiction of the book's theme was not up to mark, and in fact I couldn't find much correlation in their design to the actual story of the classic... but the piece by itself was a beautiful abstract piece of art. On the other hand, there was another team whose depiction of the classic was expertly done, but they lacked in technical expertise and their piece did not come together with much visual appeal. The judges seemed to be in much deliberation, but finally the team with expert technical and visual representation won. I would have probably awarded another team which did reasonably well in both components, in spite of their not greatly excelling in each component.

Another example of a movie that faced a similar fate is the Hindi movie Khaagaz Ke Phool, directed by Guru Dutt. It has been documented that when the movie was initially released it was met with cold disapproval, for the concepts it explored seemed to be too revolutionary in the 1950s of Indian society. Many were deeply offended by its open exploration of "morally depraving" ideas such as infidelity. Despite its great artistic value from a technical, cinematic point of view, the movie failed to appeal. But in recent times, Guru Dutt has been posthumously acclaimed for the movie, and the movie is still hailed as a memorable work of art.

However, in contrast to Guru Dutt's movie, the one in the excerpt doesn't deal with merely revolutionary concepts that are currently hard for society to digest; neither does it offer much intellectual speculation on progressive changes in society. I doubt that in the coming hundreds of years, humanity would ever rationalize to go back on certain very basic virtues, such as treating women, elderly and the whole of humanity with respect and consideration. In all these thousands of years, humanity still abides by some very basic principles of living that have remained untouched by all our numerous societal revolutions. Putting aside the debates on artistic merits, it's obvious that the welfare and harmony of society come first. Any work of expression that vilifies human instincts in such negative ways should not be allowed to perpetuate. Such thoughts and ideas pander to extremely inhumane instincts, that the argument on freedom of expression of art is very trivial to me. And the elite art enthusiasts form such a very slim percentage that the movie is bound to reach a majority of audiences on whom the message will leave a stronger impact, than the artistic splendour. Finally, my definition of art is a representation which integrates a delicately beautiful thought in an aesthetically appealing manner; one without the other cannot be suitably called as art. I think the movie should be banned.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Evolved Promises

The Senator was surprised to see Drew, his friend from college, enter his office at so late an hour. His surprise turned to confusion when he saw Drew holding a gun. "I've come to kill you", said Drew. The senator was aghast. "Well, don't you remember. You told me several times that if you ever vote Republican, then you should be shot! Now you're a Republican Senator, so I must fulfill my promise, carry out your instruction and shoot you." "Are you out of your mind? I said that as a figure of speech twenty years ago!", cried the Senator. "Well, it was no casual remark. Here I have proof of your writing and signature, authorizing me to kill you if you turned Republican. It was also witnessed by several of our friends. Don't tell me not to take this contract seriously. If so, living wills will be meaningless. And the issues surrounding euthanasia will be made more complicated if the decision made by terminally ill patients prior to their vegetative state, cannot be executed. A contract such as this has to be binding!" (Original Source: "The Pig That Wants to be Eaten", by Julian Baggini)

Perhaps an example of following the letter of the law, instead of its spirit. But what cranked my circuit was Drew's argument pertaining to other contracts such as wills and those made by terminally ill patients. All of us progressively change or evolve with every passing year and with life's experiences. Does it then make sense for us to commit to something and make a decision for our future-selves who may probably disagree with our past judgments? Are we being unrealistic to expect people not to change their thoughts/decisions? Being aware of this dilemma, is it reasonable to provide some leeway to wriggle out of the contract, without incurring consequences such as what the Senator faces? I'm sure warning bells are ringing all over the place with such a suggestion; those with commitment related fears, and charlatans will have a ball.... there would now be a universal rule excusing betrayal. And the worst part is, every decision and promise will become evanescent if we can't hold anybody's words down to anything concrete, thus destroying the very meaning of trust and promise.

If the prospect of disrespecting contracts/promises is so unpalatable, why shouldn't the Senator be killed in this scenario? I think it all adds up to the implications of the contract. Contracts such as mortgage payments or even marriages involve at least two people being tightly wound in the ramifications of the decision. Backing out of such contracts negatively affects those with whom the contract was drawn. But in this case, the Senator's decision is personal and Drew's breach of "promise" by sparing his life, doesn't adversely affect anybody, and in fact only saves a life. Changing one's political view can probably be argued as being not so innocuous, for it can adversely affect society in the long term due to the kinds of decisions a Senator can take. But in this particular context, there are surely no such severe indications.

What about euthanasia? Can a person's decision to be taken off the ventilator if at all he goes into coma be taken seriously at a later point in the patient's condition, for this decision also involves the patient's family and friends. I think it is reasonable to make a decision for the future when we are sure that our future-self will not have adequate cognitive capacity to make an informed decision at that point. And I think it's fair to respect such a decision, however early it was made relative to the patient's condition.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Reflections: The Summing Up

It's a bit of a challenge to categorize this book with an overarching label. Many might argue (including Maugham himself) if I called it a memoir. Simply put, the book is Somerset Maugham's wise reflections and thoughts on what he calls as - the pattern of his life. He sums up 60 years of his professional life with interesting interludes on his insights on life, the art of writing, philosophy, religion and human psychology.

I really looked forward to Maugham's revelations about himself for it's always interesting to learn about the person behind the creative mind. And I wasn't disappointed. While some critics might be disappointed at the absence of entertaining or controversial anecdotal personal details about Maugham, I readily welcomed this approach. I'm not exactly curious about overly personal details about anybody, and this is one of the first books that steps away from baring out one's personal life through sensational revelations, which somehow create the impression of more emotional connection with the reader (and ends up as a best seller). Instead Maugham bares out his entire mind, every nook and cranny of it, and to me that is far more of a revealing endeavor than through dramatic secrets from one's personal life. But that is not to say that he completely shies away from his personal life. Personal experiences do shape thoughts, and Maugham does divulge a few details, if only to further buttress his arguments.

Having lost his mother at a very early age and being in the custody of his rather unkind uncle, Maugham struggled through childhood. Added to this grim atmosphere, his severe stammering worsened his self-esteem. He entered medical school, for that was the most honorary educational pursuit for a young English gentleman at that time. With his keen observational perspicacity, his experience as a medical student and later as a doctor, helped him immensely in being a part of and in understanding the whole range of emotions humans are capable of. It was like peering into a kaleidoscope straight into the human psyche/soul. Having witnessed intense rejoice and love at the beginning of life, and finally the sheer despair, helplessness, suffering, fortitude, fear, pain and peace when life ends, Maugham sharpened his ability to understand human psychology and give life to his characters. In essence, he says that a writer can never create a character anywhere close to reality, unless the writer himself realizes those emotions and translates them into words. It's reasonable to say that the characters developed by a writer are just collages pasted from fragments of the writer's own personality, sometimes magnified in their dimension. He does acknowledge that his popular work, Of Human Bondage, is semi-autobiographical, for the exercise of writing was therapeutic in venting out his pain, resolving his haunting issues and moving on with his life.

Maugham calls his passion to write and read to be almost compulsive. He alludes to himself as an introvert, always restless to get to his books rather than be encumbered by the company of people. He wrote with an unstoppable force; yet he humbly shares the frustration and relentless rigor that he went through to perfect his skill. It's hard to imagine that a revered writer like him could ever go through such a period of meticulous learning and revision. One of the marks of a great man is this simple humility. He goes on to define the art of writing, drawing in examples of good writers, and the criteria that define stellar writing. In his sardonic manner, Maugham distinguishes good writing from pompous writing, wherein the writer merely tries to obscure their writing through convoluted sentences and fails at communicating. This discourse was extremely enlightening to me. He later shares his professional journey as a writer, starting from his simple plays to his major works. In all honesty, his opinions and dissecting arguments about the art of play-writing and the intricacies of the theater went right above my head. Still, I was able to gather a few interesting tid-bits.

Finally towards the end, Maugham sheds his insights on the philosophical and spiritual questions that he grappled with all through his life. Having been a doctor and seen so much pain and suffering, especially in the eyes of young children, Maugham resigned his faith in an all-merciful God who helps us move mountains just through our faith. He makes a balanced argument on faith, determinism, free-will, immortality, and Karma, and as the reader waits for his final concluding remarks, he makes a characteristic cynical statement to dismiss each argument as being unconvincing to him. Perhaps another mark of a wizened mind is knowing that we know very little about the mystic universe. He attributes our beliefs and quest to find meaning in our lives, to our ego. We humans engage in a search for understanding three basic elements in our lives - Truth, Beauty and Goodness. Maugham analytically puts forth his arguments on the intrinsic value (if at all) of these basic elements. He concludes that the beauty of life is that -"each should act according to his nature and his business". Very simple words, yet this was his philosophy in setting a pattern to his life.

Needless to say, Maugham's writing shines with his mastery over the language. His writing does get tedious and verbose at times, but perhaps I'm just a philistine coping with his superior writing style. The book is a huge learning experience on the art of writing, on how to craft expert sentences to convey one's thoughts, aside all the wonderful wisdom it holds.