Sunday, February 28, 2010

Significantly Tiny

Ian's ambition was to build the Total Perspective Vortex. The machine was once an artifact of science fiction, but Ian had toiled to make it a reality. Whoever entered into the vortex could see their true place in the Universe. In science fiction, this piece of truth was so debilitating to humans who realized that their existence was so insignificant in the grand scheme of things, that it crushed their very soul. But Ian being an intelligent scientist, had tweaked the machine such that everyone would see the same thing, reasoning that all of us human mortals are insignificant to the approximate degree. He was also convincing himself that contrary to the science fiction, he would be strong enough to face the truth and not let it crush his soul. Yet, as he stood in front of it to test it out, his trepidations started gnawing him again. Would he be able to face such a shattering truth, even he, who was intelligent enough to build such a powerful and perceptive machine? (Original Source: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams)

Those familiar with "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" must be able to identify this machine, and the courageous character who survived this machine, claiming that he was shown to be a "terrific and great guy". We can always interpret his response in two ways - he was either quite strong to face the truth, or his ego was so bloated and his perception of truth scaled in proportion to the Universe, that he was happy that he could place himself, however infinitesimally, in the huge Universe, whereas a little ant could have probably not even found his tiny dot.

The most interesting question here is - How significant should something be, for it to be significant. When I write down significance so many times, the first thing that I am reminded of is statistical significance. A man-made cut off of 0.05 is really more arbitrary than statisticians would want us to believe. Although, I now have a genial Advanced Statistics Prof, who laughs off saying he no longer believes in empiricism and experiments, for even if your experiments yield nice p values, there is something called as Type 1 Error, according to which 5 % of all published experiments could be false. An extreme view, one might think. But there is a lot of truth to it. We are all aware of how easy it is to toss away the results of a Control as being insignificant when it inches to 0.06, and how we celebrate the results of the Treatment that just about stops at 0.051. Papers are still written and accepted with such marginal significance and insignificance, and hypotheses and speculations fly high. Ah, there is replication validity, some might say. But how many complex experiments are replicated? And how many "simple" experiments are replicated more than a 100 times to catch those stray 5 false positives. Truth is arbitrary, and it is manipulated by significance.

The next interesting question is - Why would a man be so crushed to see the truth of his insignificance? Our lives propel due to us attributing meaning, purpose and significance to everything that happens to us. If someone were to tell a toiling student that his efforts, his aim for success and his life are tinier than a piece of grain in the grand scheme of things, he would lose his mind and his sense of identity. It's crippling to face the truth that our lives are meaningless and our pains and angst are worth a naught. If motivation, purpose and meaning are removed from our lives, it becomes nothing. Existentialists argue that we need to therefore create meaning and purpose for ourselves to combat this feeling of lack of purpose. Associating causality is part of human nature, else he wouldn't have survived.

So the next pivotal question is - How significant should our lives be, for us to find purpose and meaning? If significance is arbitrary and subjective, it follows that it has its own scale of measurement. A doctor who witnesses a woman in labor finds hardly any significance to the whole episode. But to the woman, it is one of the most significant moments of her life. The scale of such qualitative impressions are markedly different from person to person. If one were to step into the machine and see that his life is as big as the tiniest meteor in the galaxy, it still doesn't say anything! Size can be no valid scale! We have teeny tiny deadly viruses who can significantly wipe out human existence! If we believe that every little speck of dust on the Universe plays its role in the shaping of the Universe, then each of us have our own tiny significance. And that's exactly what Beeblebrox from the science fiction, perceives. Our minuscule significance is notable, considering our limitations and the expanse of the Universe.

At this point, there are serious questions on whether such a machine can even be built. What can it be its measurements to come up with the value of significance. Significance is a proportion, something that can exist only in comparison to something else. A virus's significance to Earth may be very high, but its significance to other planets may be very low.

But the aim of the Total Perspective Vortex is to instill a sense of humility in all of us. It helps us reevaluate our values, our priorities and the way we conduct ourselves in relation to others in the Universe. Even though what matters is each of our perceptions of significance and meaning, it is a worthy exercise to be made aware that everything and everyone around us are equally significant in their own little ways. Every time we feel the burden of our life weighing on our shoulders, it helps to reflect on our real place in the grand scheme of things.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Reflections: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Everybody is likely to be proud and content of at least one of their attributes... and possibly worried of losing it someday. I for one used to be quite happy with my memory. It served me well for a little more than two decades of my life and I basked in the glowering warmth of those who dearly wished I would forget a few things. Perhaps I incurred far too many curses, for now my ability to retain much in my memory has been rapidly dwindling, causing me to resort to reminders for reminders. As I have rattled on previously, one's memory is far too precious in defining one's identity. My recent fear is me waking up in another twenty years (if at all) and wondering who I am. With such a strained panic, if some wizard were to materialize in front of me and ask me if I would make a trade to gain an expansive photographic memory which would be in tact no matter how old I aged, wouldn't I love to jump at the offer? Absolutely. But that's what nerds like me ask for...memory. If a vain teenager were asked this question, what do you think she would like to retain no matter how old she became? Wrinkle free-skin, luscious hair, a perky body. Beauty. Youth. To many, beauty and youth are the definitions of their identity... things that they cling onto with a crazed unimaginable fear of losing themselves one day. So, what if such a wish did come true? Would she have the world under her feet? Would she be the luckiest person in the world? Would she be comfortable with such vanity and superficiality and not let them taint her conscience?

The Picture of Dorian Gray is an incredibly interesting psychological experiment on the depths of human vanity. Oscar Wilde deftly explores how we define morality and conscience and what shape we give to our soul. Dorian Gray is an extremely handsome man with perfectly chiseled features. He inspires a painter to give life to his beauty through an exquisite portrait. Just as how Eve was hypnotically deceived and "poisoned" by the snake, Dorian's mind falls into a trance due to a cunning influence of a friend, and in a moment of frenzy he makes a feverish wish to give anything to preserve his beauty, while the lifeless portrait of him would instead bear the signs of his old age. And the wish comes true.

I received this book as part of a surprise parcel from my exceptionally generous and sweet friend, who just woke up one morning and decided to send me gifts! I really am lucky to have such friends! And being the mind reader that she is, all the books she sent completely appeal to me! And this book hit the bull's eye.

All our scriptures insist that any pursuit for the satisfaction of the senses leads us to misery. But an accompanying view is that human beings live on instincts. Our ancestors survived because they heedlessly acted on their senses. It seems to be discordant with our nature to rebel against our instincts, to suppress them and contrive the necessity to act rationally and in concert with what we have been taught as good and virtuous. Dorian Gray represents a man who was convinced that man achieves his highest sense of purpose and integrity, if and only if, he were to focus on pleasuring his senses, with very little thought or suppression. He turns into someone who awakens the "evil Mr.Hyde" from within him, and feeds him with his vanity, materialism and callousness. The pleasure of sadism corrupts him. But something in him that represents him, deteriorates due to this hedonistic life. With every sin, every materialistic hoarding, his portrait turned ugly, evil and aged. The horrific transformation that Dorian could witness is shown as a metaphor, mirroring the deterioration of his soul. As much as Dorian derives pleasure from its atrophy, he couldn't completely be blind to it. Wilde hints at how our conscience, even if it be made separate from our body, cannot be ignored. It is sure to haunt us, no matter how much we isolate ourselves from it.

This, in essence, was Wilde's take on the philosophy of morality. Man's implicit conscience defines morality for him, no matter what religion, or era. Sins need not be categorized as applicable to the Victorian era, or the present era; the conscience always knows. As natural as it might sound to always act in tune with our senses, if the mind is totally cut off, our acts and decisions tend to run out of hand, and place us in scenarios wherein our senses can no longer help us, or benefit in any way. In a philosophical sense, Wilde seems to start with the hypothesis that the mind and the body need to be separate, but he crafts a clever tale to convincingly disprove the hypothesis, asserting that the mind (the soul/the conscience) and the body need to harmonize with one another. He also burrows into the ways and means through which man defines and values his identity. In reality, one's identity is deeper than what the body embodies. Personality is the result of the orchestration of many subtle factors emanating from our consciousness and self-awareness. It is difficult to give form, shape or color to them. But that is what Art tries to capture. A good artist is one who is perceptive to see through such ethereal aspects and is creative and imaginative to represent them through a physical, abstract artifact. In the context of such a discussion, Wilde also explores the meaning of Art and the role of an artist in capturing the abstract from a concrete physical form. Does Art mirror the artist or the inspiration? Or does it instead obscure the artist? What does Art truly represent? Or what should Art truly represent?

As dark and brooding as the book might appear, Wilde's masterful and contemplative writing is a treat. Despite the tragedies, the cynicism and the pessimism, the book encodes hope and optimism for humanity.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Reflections: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Who are we? Where did we come from? If each of us were to draw our genealogy map, most cannot list anyone beyond the last three generations. There are many of us who have hardly heard, leave alone seen, our great grandparents. With the floodgates of genetic research flung wide open, how priceless would it be to unearth the histories of our ancestors to better understand ourselves and those around us. We might finally understand why we are the way we are, and hopefully find some wisdom to project a better path for the future - for the benefit of us, humanity and the whole planet.

After many discussions on several topics that are weaved into this book, I received the book as a New Year's gift from my dear friend. It's wonderful that my New Year started with such an excellent gift. It has helped me answer questions that I have battled with for a while and has opened my mind to interesting vistas sure to help me sort out many of my future doubts. Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan have put together the story of humanity - right from the formation of the planet from mere star dusts, to the evolution of the most complex species, some blessed with enough intelligence to trace their histories. It's a story about how there came to be a structure in the midst of random chaos, how an impeccable ecosystem was established to sustain a cycle of energy, and how mere cell reproduction was perfected with Nature's laws of survival to bring about selective multiplication of the fittest of species. Well, we all are aware of evolution. Is that all this book talks about? Yes and No. It's about evolution, but from a perspective we have probably never considered before. It not just asserts that we come from animals, but tries to bridge the gap between the two of us, explaining how the very "animal" instincts that we now denigrate actually helped the survival of our ancestors, and our nature and personalities are shaped by them. The objectivity of the discussion helps us view animals and us in a much clear light to contrast the differences and the similarities, while trying to answer the question - what makes us humans? How are we different?

There are just far too many things that are interesting in the book, that left with enough time and a patient audience I would likely ardently discuss every page and paragraph. But to save our sanity, I have picked some excellent themes that were explored-

Altruism or Selfish Genes
Those who have been victims of my past discussions on this topic will thank their stars with this revelation of mine - my confusions have been finally resolved. Every act of ours has a layer of selfishness behind it. But being selfish isn't bad. It is one of the reasons why we exist today. But like many out there, I could never reconcile with the argument that even a man who sacrifices his life to save the lives of those who aren't even his kins, can have any trace of selfishness tainting his motive. After all isn't survival the key instinct? How can there be any selfishness in choosing to not survive, just to help the survival of others? Ah, the answer lies embedded in that exclaim - it is indeed to help the survival of others, the species. If some thousands of our ancestors hadn't chosen to sacrifice themselves to save their species, there would have been no human race. As much as it is embedded in our genes to survive and procreate to keep our race thriving, by the same logic our instincts are wired to sacrifice ourselves to save our species (escalating from our family, our community, our nation, our planet, our species), if their survival were threatened. The utilitarian logic of saving millions at the cost of one/some, stems from our selfish genes. Not convincing enough? Well, there are evidences of monkeys, bees and even ants, assumed to be automatons that lack emotion, logic or intelligence, demonstrating such brave altruistic acts. Is this unvalidated research? Nope, scientists still assert this, as is evident from this new article. And adding the cherry atop the icing, here is another reason to bolster this. Most animals, especially those living in colonies and communities, such as ants, bees, monkeys and even us (after all, haven't read time and again that "Main is a social animal"?), can only exist in a society that maintains a symbiotic relationship - it reduces to basic economics. We cannot survive without our group. That's man's greatest threat to survival. Therefore, it is indeed in his long term best interests that he cares for and tries to protect his social circle. Those who are short sighted and who have started disconnecting themselves from this instinct, restrict their filed of concern to themselves, sometimes their own family, while some still see far enough to want to protect whales and tigers.

Cultural Diversity and Natural Selection
I have been harping on world peace, the unity of humanity, with the dream of the whole world living as one big happy family. And this is the first time, I have relinquished such a dream - not out of resignation or pessimism, but I finally comprehend the design behind diversity and isolation of pockets of communities. This is because, the more diverse the cultures, the more diverse the gene pools, which means the more chance of survival. If a certain genetic trait is lost due to our unanimity, how would we survive a certain deadly virus that is immune and can be cured only with the lost gene sequence? Humanity would be at the brink of extinction. Kind of why inbreeding is dangerous and therefore repulsive. Our world will essentially be one happy family with minimal variations in gene sequences. Precisely why our ancestors lived in communities, and why there continues to be hostility on some level when it comes to complete genetic intermingling. It finally makes some iota of sense as to why inter-racial marriages are still regarded with such intense revulsion. But of course, there HAS to be some amount of genetic mixing between clans/races, otherwise it leads us back to a similar problem - homogeneity of genes within communities. No surprise that even female monkeys invariably get attracted to males from another clan, while facing stiff resistance from many monkeys from either clans. It is amazing that this balance that impels some genetic mixing and some genetic preservation has lasted so many billions of years. I finally face reality - and this what the book gives us in liberal doses. I concede that the world cannot and should never be just one big happy family. Diversity is valuable to us, not homogeneity.

Definition of Humanity
So what makes us humans? What makes us so special, gives us the right to control, dominate, pollute, and head on a path to bring eventual destruction to ourselves? Is it our ability to think, to reason, to speak, to feel, to create and appreciate art and music, to exhibit a culture, to be in a monogamous relationship, to create and use sophisticated tools, to put together codes of religion and morality and to philosophize about our souls? Sadly, no. Discussions about chimpanzees, baboons, bonobos, bees, ants, sparrows and a host of such varied animals provide evidence that many animals display such characteristics, although the scale of their abilities is still not comparable to us. I like how the book emphasizes that these animals differ from us not in kind, but only in the ways. Baboons and most birds mate for life. Baboons and birds are capable of expressing talent and appreciation for music. Most animals are capable of showing affection, emotion, caring for their group, they are capable enough to establish their own chain of social hierarchy, their own methods of hunting, and even mold their own tools. It has been proved that even an accomplished scientist, after spending several hours with a friendly chimpanzee, can still not learn the seemingly "simple" skill of the chimpanzees to shape a twig, insert it into a termites' hole, manage to get some termites on the twig, extricate it carefully from the narrow hole and eat the little treats sitting on it. Well, can chimpanzees catch a fish like us? No... but just not yet. Macaque monkeys have exhibited high standards of morality, by choosing to rather starve than try to reach for their food that was hooked to an electric switch administering a shock to another macaque monkey, every time the food was touched. Seeing the other monkey flinch, the other stopped trying to reach for the food. And macaque monkeys show this trait despite not being taught the virtues of altruism, or about God or morality.

But would every human be as considerate as "low-level" creatures such as the monkeys and ants, to sacrifice ourselves for our group? No. Do animals engage in violence for the sake of greed? No. Do they try to kill or attack unless there is a need. No. Do animals execute calculated murder? No. And what about us humans? Having all 6 senses we don't bother about the planet, we don't hesitate to eradicate communities for industrialization and choose to rationalize all our acts and stay blind to morality. As I have ranted previously, we humans have lost in touch with Nature's ways, that many instincts that are wired in all other animals have faded in us.

How free is our will?
Centering around this, the authors tie in a brilliant discussion on free will. If we are to disrupt the social structure of animals, and for experimental purposes, we artificially create a society with 10 extremely aggressive males and 2 females, will such a society survive? No. As was the pitiable catastrophe that ensued when scientists unwittingly put in a mismatched group of baboons in the same cage. There was anarchy and violence, for Nature never creates or encourages a group in which there can be so many "leaders" or alpha males. And leaving just 2 females for so many alphas, just did not agree with the animals' natures. Can we blame the animals or their nature for the violence, killing and bloodshed? Does it make sense to talk about the baboons' free will? The experiment is an example of how each species has it's own set of core natures which cannot be shaken off. If social engineering is poorly and artificially designed, it will result in mayhem, and there is very little relevance to free will. Humans need to be wary of their limitations as well. Our reason hasn't evolved enough for us to cast away all concerns of upsetting our social and ecological balance. Our survival hangs on the balance that we take for granted. It's not about our free will to do what we want and argue that reason and intelligence will help us sustain. We are not omnipotent.

That was my major take-away from the book. Understanding our ancestors is the first step towards truly understanding us - acknowledging our limitations and staying within their boundaries, realizing which vestigial instincts we need to shed off, for although they might have been beneficial to our ancestors, they no longer apply to our phase of existence, and how to truly extend our potentials and "special" adaptive features of intelligence and reason to grow, and evolve our future generations into much sophisticated creatures. Sadly, the current trend seems to be a horrific regression.

My thoughts would be incomplete without the authors' articulate and wise words:
"We achieve some measure of adulthood when we recognize our parents as they really were, without sentimentalizing or mythologizing, but also without blaming them unfairly of our imperfections. Maturity entails a readiness, painful and wrenching though it may be, to look squarely into the long dark spaces, into the fearsome shadows. In this act of ancestral remembrance and acceptance may be found a light by which to see our children safely home."

Monday, February 15, 2010

Unnatural Resistance

How vividly I remember those fragile tiny fingers, twining and wrapping themselves in their cushy blob of a palm. I inched my finger close to his, fascinated on how huge my Tarzan like nails and fingers seemed next to his delicate wisps of nails. I could easily spend the afternoon squeezing myself near his bed, transfixed at his peaceful and cherubic face, even as a tinge of jealously would pass through me; a wistful wish to blissfully sleep like him, lulled by the soft rhythm of the ceiling fan, and the cool puffs of the afternoon breeze. For the longest time I never thought he would grow to be bigger and taller than me. It never occurred to me that one day I would no longer be able to play with his ears, tugging and bending those supple and soft ligaments like a piece of dough, as he concentrated on taking his toy apart.

Soon I was helping with his alphabets, then assuaging his fears and disappointments at losing his "lives" in video games, and then... I seem to have lost track of time and events, transported to some world where time coagulated just around me. Today he stands towering over me sporting a trendy chin strap, his eyes holding a curious mix of childlike mischief and amusement when I get mistaken for his younger sister. Somewhere down the road, I stopped growing and the tiny little being rapidly grew and transformed into this young man who now seems like a stranger from another planet, when all I know is he isn't that baby I wanted to bundle in my arms.

Starting from tiny seeds blooming into dainty flowers to my strapping cousin, the miracle of life and growth never ceases to amaze me. Almost like a child giggling over how the moon zooms and runs along with her, not caring to understand that the moon stays put while she chases after it, I seem to have frozen in this notion that everyone around me continues to grow, while I remain being the same silly and confused girl. How cliched, you might say. And I agree. But when I see those around me bringing in their own little bundles of joy, it hits me hard, to the point of being disconcerted, uneasy and queer. When did they grow up? When did I grow up? Will I ever feel grown up? When my heart thuds as I enter a dark room, I wonder if I will ever be able to snuggle and comfort a little being someday when the lights go off. What measures are there to qualify us as having grown and being responsible enough to facilitate the growth and well-being of another life? None.

Such instincts have been wired in us, many say. Scientists have given me plenty of comforting proof that even a docile little bird can hammer her beak off if her nest were threatened. Chimp mothers face unthinkable tortures and put up brave fights just to safeguard their babies from being eaten by other chimp males. Just as I am counting my blessings for living my life in this pampered age, why do I see ignorant human mothers starving and neglecting their young? Isn't something terribly amiss? I thought these were the kinds of species and genes that were weeded out by natural selection a million years back. Or have we humans isolated ourselves so much from Nature's fundamental traits, with technology having insulated us from the wrath of natural selection, that we are now reduced to materialistic automatons who no longer identify with Nature, and are programed with the only objective of conquering academic and career goals?

Perhaps we are now at an evolutionary phase where nurturing is no longer just an instinct. Just as how everything now comes bubble wrapped with an instruction kit, nurturing and parenting have now become a science - to be meticulously imbibed through books and kits and games teeming aplenty. No, I am not sarcastic or resentful. I'm grateful. But I can't help being aghast and resentful at those who stay blind to every modicum of help and guidance showered their way, quoting their ignorance and discomfort at handling the angst and pains involved. My grandma often used to wisely remind us kids every time we flinched on getting hurt - "Females are born to go through pain. Grit your teeth and learn to bear it". In a world of hassle-free root canals and pills for everything, why are we still complaining? Where is this line of "evolution", which seems to resist the idea of going through any pain for one's child, leading us to?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Green Conundrum

The Greens faced a predicament. Their country farmhouse served as their home and as their business quarters. While their business was generating a good revenue, the heavy machines used on the site were causing serious damage to the foundation of the farmhouse, threatening to bring down the house in about five years. Unfortunately the profit reaped from the business wasn't sufficient to help the Greens find a new place or remedy the structural damages to the house. But the Greens were firm on preserving the house for their posterity and so slowed down the production machinery, thus decreasing their revenue. A decade later, when Mr. and Mrs. Greens had passed on, their children inherited the farmhouse which was in a state of near dilapidation. The children grimly realized that it would take hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate the house. But the irony was, since the Greens had slowed down production and slimmed down their profits, the children hadn't inherited enough money to take care of the damages. If the Greens had indeed carried on production, not being so concerned with the short-term consequences, they might have left enough money for the children to resurrect the house. What went wrong with the Greens' intention to save the house? How did their concern and consideration turn impractical and result in the house being irrevocably damaged? (Original Source: The Skeptical Environmentalist, by Bjorn Lomborg)

This is an analogy on the current debate on environmental conservation and protection. Obviously the Greens did not make a practical and rational decision when they cut down on their profits while not taking any steps to remedy the house, or find a new place. Their decision was not just short-sighted but their priorities were mismatched, and they were not proactive enough to find a solution to the problem. They just seemed to delay the inevitable and deemed it as the best "solution". But when we draw parallels between this scenario to our problem of a world being depleted of environmental resources, and damaged due to our plundering, our option to consider relocating to another "home" is not as simple. While great minds like Stephen Hawking have been stressing on such endeavors, there are far too many challenges involved. With the effects of environment abuse unveiling itself and intensifying with every passing year, we seem to have an even more pressing need to find a "solution" to mitigate the damages early.

The skepticism in the excerpt is - if our industrialization and production is cut down to an unrealistic scale in an attempt to restrict the damage, it isn't a solution. It merely prolongs an inevitable disaster. Wouldn't it be better to be equipped with the technology and economic means to deal with the problem when it strikes, rather than not have the means to deal with the problem, with merely the consolation that it manifested a few years later? Theoretically, the argument seems to be logical. But finding a place/planet that is conducive to human habitation is far more complex than just involving money or technological growth. We don't have the liberty that the Greens had in being assured that there would always be another home, however modest in comparison to the existing home, that will help them survive. It doesn't sound logical to continue amassing profit and technology when none of them are assured of helping us find a solution. Until such a time, it makes sense to be overly cautious to conserve and preserve our planet. And it seems mind-bogglingly shocking to me that we can be so complacent about restarting or simulating our complex ecosystem in another planet - down to the life sustaining microbes. We have absolutely no idea if we humans can indeed survive in a different ecosystem. What makes us take this current planet for granted - a result of billions of years of meticulous and intricate evolution.

Besides, without even going into the specifics of the Kyoto protocol or the recent Copenhagen Summit, or the many controversies circling around claiming that Global warming is an unproven scientific falsity, I stress that it is every individual's social responsibility to treat their home with consideration. It doesn't seem unrealistic to me to insist that we don't litter our own home and not pay heed to many of our inconsiderate behaviors which can be rectified with simple steps. Monitoring the callous ways in which I was living, I was shocked that I spent so many plastic water bottles, containers and money only because I was forgetful or lazy to carry water and reuse a bottles. This in fact reduces my cost of buying plastic, which forms a significant component of trash, even per person. Similarly, how is at an increase in cost if I put in more effort to not use the drier and use a clothes line, at least during summer? Not using the drier for three whole months was a tremendous conservation of electricity and it brought down my bill significantly. Never before have I noticed how many plastic cups, plates and cutlery get trashed every time there is a small get-together amongst friends. A fun weekend dinner does not require so much waste. If we looked beyond the short-term discomfort of washing dishes (which anyway get dumped into a dishwasher or handed over to a domestic help), it is an economical benefit for us. Of course, using the dishwasher is also incurring excessive water wastage, but if one has to trade off their options due to practical challenges in dealing with our time pressured lives, then a thoughtful trade off is better than indulging in thoughtless and inconsiderate behavior. For months now, my dear friend has been tirelessly campaigning about waste-management, which will also promise a good organic garden. But the lukewarm responses suggest that people would rather invest a lot of money in buying fertilizer sacks than deal with collecting waste and popping in earthworms, which hardly require much effort (aside the ickiness associated with earthworms ;)). Such inertia to put in some labor and effort is what is saddening. Similarly, if one were to take account of the number of pages of paper that get printed out per useless meeting, per office/school, when everything is electronic, and if we were to notice how carelessly they get strewn in every other bin except the recycle bin, such carelessness is appalling. Contrary to the excerpt's claim, many of our compromises involve effort and consideration - not money and impediment of growth. If we looked beyond comfort, we can do much more.

Conservation of resources is a good practice regardless of any selfish motives. One doesn't have to go on crazy marine expeditions to stop whale hunting to demonstrate their commitment to preserving the ecosystem and the environment. There are plenty of little things we can do, each in our own seemingly little ways, to be considerate to our habitat. Paying attention to what we throw in the trash and how we use natural resources will surely provide ample opportunities to remedy our ways. It doesn't necessitate frugal living, as is commonly misunderstood. It only requires living thoughtfully in communion with Nature, showing her the consideration she deserves. But these steps alone are not going to be enough, and investment in research to explore other habitable planets is surely a long-term practical solution, which I don't think will be hampered due to us being minimal in our use of non-biodegradable substances.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Reflections: The Palace of Illusions

Each of our realities lies tacit and veiled within our perceptions. Truth and the objectiveness of reality will continue to be an elusive subject of much discussion for philosophers. Almost all of us continue to go through experiences in life wherein each involved member of the experience holds onto their version of reality - that which is bound to be qualitatively different in subtle ways from the others' perceptions. Someone always has their point of view, which try as they might, cannot be translated to others, leaving each person to go through their own emotions and interpretations of the experience. I often wish that I video-tape most of my interactions with people, just so I could go back to the scene and watch it as it transpired so that everyone involved will have a better sense of reality than our imagined versions. Even so, the lenses through which we view such a video will be tainted with our perceptions, our expectations and insecurities. The mind is apt to play such tricks... completing sentences that were never uttered, giving life to insecure emotions, reading between the lines and ending up with a convoluted mess of misinterpretations which we will steadfastly cling onto as being the actuality of the episode. Such differences in thinking and perception are mostly attributed to gender differences. Much has been written and researched about how men and women are differently wired. It's a fact that a man and a woman who witness the very same scene will notice things differently, perceive different kinds of aspects, thus affecting the overall interpretation. If that's the case with mundane events in life, how interesting would it be to read a woman's perspective on a historic epic?

Several authors and poets have delved into the nuances of Mahabharata - concentrating on its myriad stories, the discussion of Dharma, the beauty of the literature, and in-depth character analysis. But it takes the epic to another level when we witness the events through the eyes of a woman - and not just any woman, but one of the stars of the epic - Draupadi herself. Divakaruni demonstrates a lot of creativity by identifying with the true spirit of a woman as strong and resilient as Draupadi. She narrates the epic tale taking the voice of Draupadi, bringing to light aspects of the tale that have never been considered before - a woman's emotions, the dynamics of her various relationships and the roles she plays in realizing the inevitable fate of thousands of people.

I was a little apprehensive and skeptical about this book, for it's easy to get carried away and sensationalize the story, and perhaps even introduce irksome controversies in the name of wielding one's creative license. But the most commendable aspect is that the author does a wonderful job of drawing her creative interpretations within the line of the actual tale. Her research and facts are sound and her take on Draupadi's thoughts and emotions resonate well with us. Draupadi is crafted as a strong-willed rebel, a feminist of her era and an intelligent woman weighed down by her rage and vengeance. The reader sees her grow and evolve, both through her thoughts and actions, that she gets transformed into a realistic character.

Divakaruni also focuses on the ravages of the war. Instead of glorifying the war or the victory of the Pandavas, through Draupadi, she brings out the horrendous aftermath of war, teasing the discussion of who really won, and what the true meaning of victory is. She shows Draupadi's pain and regret, her disappointment at how everybody was fueled by their fire of revenge, intensified by their ego, and blinded by their anger and desire. The manner in which Dharma became a loose term, only to be manipulated and rationalized by both teams towards their gains, is stressed and highlighted, despite it not being discussed in depth. It was heartening that Divakaruni chose to dwell on such aspects of the war, making the reader introspect on how such a war could have possibly been evaded and how each character was caught in his/her own web of revenge and ego. It's an irony that such a great battle to uphold Dharma reduces to mindless revenge and ego.

The one surprising thread in the book is Divakaruni's conception of a strong attraction between Draupadi and Karna. I have heard of Karna's possible attraction to Draupadi, but never before have I come across Draupadi's undying fascination with Karna, tinged with regret and wistful imagination of how her life would have been had she married him. I can see how this interpretation is sure to ruffle a few feathers, for Draupadi is worshiped as a Pativrita. But for me it added an interesting dimension to the tale.

Divakaruni's writing is lucid and beautiful. Some of her metaphors are not as put together as I would have wished, but in all, her writing flows well. The book attempts to recreate the "reality" of the Mahabharata as experienced by a woman, enhancing our comprehension of the epic by adding more shades to the already rich hues.