At the end of a rainbow

Lucy found her diamond sky

A World ‘Rat’tled

In the 1920s, there was war, hunger, a few rich people and poverty. Today the situation is the same, except that there are many more people at war, hungry, rich and poor; not to mention the gazillion animals and plants who have died while we figure out better ways of killing each other. Anyway, while our questionable path to the even more questionable progress requires urgent counter-measures, I am trying to figure out some personal mess. My analysis led me to trace the substantial source of my mental unhinging to the 1920s, in particular to a tribe of scientists called ‘Behaviourists’.

These misdirected, well-meaning group of people thought that mind was a useless thing to study since we can’t see it or measure it; instead, one should focus on how different prompts can result in desired behaviour and measure these quantities. Voila! The mind goes out of the window. Their experiments were lauded as a success as they could make pigeons play table-tennis, make rats walk a tight-rope and do many other circus tricks by giving rewards for the right move and punishments for the wrong one. Well, that’s okay, but the act remains a reaction to environmental stimulus as the pigeons weren’t thinking of winning the table-tennis grand slam or the rules of the game. Scientists eventually moved on, but the behaviorist story seemed too attractive to let go, after all, who doesn’t want to be a control-freak? So began the cultural appropriation of an idea, in the form of schooling and parenting through a series of rewards and punishments; from chocolates to slaps to obsession with degree certificates. Humans are predictably more complex than pigeons and rats, and this form of mind twisting only allowed kids to figure out the rules, instead of understanding why they were there in the first place. It also made ‘things’ synonymous with happiness, and so here we have a hyper-thingified world with everything up for grabs.

By the time I was born, it seemed too late to save the world, and instead I was already one of the rats scampering along with other rats to find that extra tidbit of good grades and nods of approval. Unfortunately, my parents weren’t too good at doing these reward/punishment schemes. Sometimes good marks meant a treat, and sometimes bad marks also meant a consolation treat where they would generally do a good cop interrogation. Well, that meant they were open to reason, and that meant I could talk my way out!

Well, not always, but the idea remained. Now, look at the trouble it got me into. Neither here nor there, the metaphorical chimera of romantic ideas and peer pressure. I am not looking for the cookie but apparently, those are the only things one is supposed to worry about. I got jostled into an engineering degree, finished it and left the field altogether; walked into a PhD degree, walked out of it, later walked into another one and now contemplate being a farmer. People confuse introspection for whimsicality, and the courage to risk a fall by stepping off the perpetual treadmill as laziness. I am only learning to shrug off the labels. Looking around, I see many other rebellious rats too. If culture is a form of collective imagination, maybe we could bring to life a new culture of freedom; and we need be rats no more.

(Image credits: 1996 edition of The Wizard of Oz, illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger. Sourced from http://www.brainpickings.org)

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I’m wheel, thank you

The first time I saw a bicycle, I was simply amazed to see the grace and speed a person could acquire by mastering the art of maneuvering a pair of wheels. Naturally, I wanted to own one badly. However, like most Indian parents with limited financial means back in the 1990s, they had to be convinced that I was going to use to for eternity carefully . After all, they had to consider scrimping enough to buy a hyperactive seven-year-old what they considered a perennial accident voucher on wheels.

Always the smart one (according to himself), my dad struck a deal with me with the twin aims of weaning me out of my new-found love and teaching me how negotiations work (none succeeded). He suggested that I borrow cycles from neighbouring kids for two months, and, if I still felt like I really wanted one, we could buy it. Else I could just continue borrowing a cycle occasionally when mood beckoned. Sounds fair, right? Well, kids don’t exactly belong in the ‘saint’ category to lend their toys to others, especially when they can’t get anything in return. They are also as xenophobic as their parents. So, as a Bengali girl in an orthodox Punjabi colony, my chances of getting a cycle to practice where as much as someone making billions selling imaginary cow fodder(Oops, it happened). The girls wouldn’t allow me to touch their ‘ladybird’, an apology of a cycle just lacking a Barbie head for a bell, and I treated the cycle with equal contempt. One snotty-nosed boy, however, agreed to lend me his bike in exchange for a few cartoon stickers I had been hoarding.

Obviously, my first attempts were a far-cry from my imagination of sailing through the streets and whizzing past the crowd. I bruised myself enough to contemplate if the bike was possessed by the evil spirit of some grumpy old aunt. Never underestimate the ego and stubbornness of a 7-year-old though. I could have rivalled the pride of Edmund Hillary the day I managed a complete ride without falling off the bike. From then, I only wanted more; ride while standing on the pedals, ride without holding the handlebars, race against the wind; basically, I convinced dad that my existence would be useless without possessing a cycle. And, that is how I got my first bike.

Fast forward two decades later,  the mere sight of a cycle would still make my hands itch to ride one but a spate of unending, seemingly rational,  reasons kept me from buying one. I hadn’t ridden one in years. Then one fine day, my partner bought one for himself because, it seems for the IT guys, their increasing skills in coding is only matched by the girth of their belly. A sudden pain of adulthood on reaching the threshold of thirty convinced him that he had to get back in shape. Before his limbs turned into flabby pillows that is. So, began his furious morning peddling while a familiar longing grew in my heart. I still had plenty reasons to pass the idea of riding along, one of them being the onset of the infamous Mumbai monsoons. I convinced myself it would be wise to think about it after the rains. Then, the next day I found myself with a beautiful bike because I couldn’t ‘refuse’ my partner’s insistence on buying me one. Good one, you lying heart, good one.

The memory of our body is magical, for it remembers things we are hardly conscious about. The moment I climbed the bike, my limbs just knew what to do. Only, my nose didn’t. It turns out early morning rides in Mumbai don’t make for a gust of sea breeze caressing your face. For all the speed possible, I was stuck behind a garbage truck, finally overtaking the nostril-torturing machine only to realise that I was cruising past a giant landfill. There is no escaping the all-pervading stench. So much for riding your dream.

But again, a city is only what we make of it. We are forever making choices through our actions or lack of it. In Italy, bicycles outsold automobiles for the first time since WW II. The trend is catching up throughout Europe. Elsewhere, there are drives for local waste management. It seems the metaphorical wheel is turning anyway, and we can always alter the path it takes. As a growing number of cyclists inhabit the city, maybe wheels of change will follow too.

Image: (c) Hulton Archive/Getty Images | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

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A strange silence

It is not the screams that keep me awake at night,

Nor the haggard faces in a queue.

Animals being killed numb me not,

Nor the bruised bodies nursing broken minds.

The apathy, however, sickens my being,

It numbs my senses to know

That there won’t a helping hand for those who fall,

Nor a sigh of grief for those gone.

No anger for justice long lost.

Not even a pause to see if we are at fault.

Only a strange silence echoes in the dark.

A quiet horror of a blinkered life,

till it blinds the soul out of us.

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Quiet flows the passion

Tucked away in the cantonment area of a city yet to feel the full blast of urbanisation and ‘smart development’ lives Mr D on his one-acre farm. A most self-effacing personality, he preferred talking to his plants rather than humans around him. “I always loved gardening, I grew vegetables at school too…” he mentioned on being asked the motivation behind his painstaking efforts to grow a plethora of plants around his house for the past 20 years. His latest achievements have taken the local horticulture society by storm, as he has managed to cross-pollinate different varieties of hibiscus plants to grow flowers having novel colours and leaf shapes. It is almost like watching Mendel in the 21st century, except that time seems to flow differently once you enter the garden, abuzz with the biological cycles of different plants, animals and insects; it is no longer linear. As he explained the various cycles of growth, maturation, death and rebirth of the plants he shares an intimate connection with, one is only made to realise how stark and artificial are the boundaries we create in our relationship with nature. Perhaps the paradox of our society lies the fact that the more we seem to ‘know’ about nature, all the way up to distant galaxies, the lesser we seem to ‘experience’ what it really is. Indeed, if the act of holding a ripe tomato grown in one’s garden can seem like a surreal experience, or walking naked feet on grass wet with the morning dew seem like a luxury, haven’t we lost connection with something fundamental to our being? As Alan Watts once wrote, “You didn’t come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here.”

At the centre of his farm, we came across a huge Mango tree. He explained it was planted by his father by tying four different varieties of tiny Mango saplings together. As they grew, the stems fused to form a single trunk such that now a the tree yields different varieties of mangoes. It seems miraculous, yet so natural for things to grow together. Now, he did the same with a few Hibiscus saplings and wonders if different coloured flowers will grow on the same plant. A tender bond of curiosity passed on from father to son.  Along with it a quiet passion to salvage the fast eroding biodiversity, and an intimate knowledge of plants gained through direct experience. Perhaps, more people will embody his spirit and find themselves re-awakening to ancient wisdom. As the Earth continues to speak through the more sensitive of us, through enchanting beauty or visceral pain, we are forever embedded in a web relationships often forgotten. If only we are willing to listen, there is much to learn, much more to unlearn.

(Illustration by Emily Hughes from The little gardener)

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A voiceless speech

There it stood, even when it was hacked.
For roots run deep; not fast, not away.
A hundred years had passed before it,
a hundred more could have followed.
But when a road had to be carved,
like a stake through its heart,
What can the voiceless say?
Voices were given to deified stones instead,
with chants that could kill or revive.
But never will roads pass through it,
rarely do mortals and gods collide.
So, they rather hacked a muted living being
to pave the way for a promised tomorrow,
among spectators many, and mourners few.
For, who could partake a dying tree’s sorrow?

 

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Shattered

I am not free, though the space stretches endlessly
I am tired, yet I am restless
of the forced linearity,
the imposed definitions,
the false security.
The haunting shadows under scrambling footsteps.
The blaring neon signs.
Those scattered minds,
those prejudiced eyes,
those greedy hands,
those hungry lips.
But wait! Am I not standing in front of a mirror?
Then who do I see staring back at this madness?
Shatter! The sound of breaking glass.
Now I only have a wall to break.

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Gaps, holes and windows

“So, there seems to be a gap from the year 2005 to 2006?” The interviewer looked at him reproachfully; a look he was rather tired of getting every time he applied for a job. He cleared his throat and said, “Yes, but I did not have any arrears, I just took a drop to prepare for engineering entrance exams.” “Ah okay” replied the interviewer satisfied with the explanation, as if preparing for engineering entrance exams is the only honorable rites of passage for any Indian teenager, and sacrificing a year in that pursuit could be forgiven. The conversation carried on, but for the umpteenth time he wished that he could just sit back and say, “Well, I initially wanted to prepare for exams just like all my peers but I found many other interesting things to do, and so spent a year learning tabla, reading classic novels, and heck! even tried penning a small novel about my insipid life. Honestly, it was quite enjoyable till I had to get back on track and enroll for an engineering degree…”

This is an all too familiar story, but it is incomplete and deserves a better ending. The word “curriculum” is derived from the Latin word curricle which refers to carriage horses on a race course. No surprises that only being on “track” is seen as a virtue, and stepping off it as useless or even dangerous meandering. For the growing Indian middle class, formal education is seen as the authorization for a monthly pay-check, and duh, isn’t that supposed to be the “good life”? However, that certainly doesn’t seem the case when you work to pay bills to stay in a place from where you can work. Roundabout, right? Not just that, it is a downright vicious cycle, and yet we cling onto its empty promises of freedom dutifully shackled by expectations of the society.

By the time one realizes this quagmire of a dream, inertia of a certain lifestyle keeps dragging on. So, there is really no other way to reflect unless one consciously steps off this conveyor belt of an education system and tries to figure alternative directions for oneself. Interestingly, in the west, this is termed as a “gap-year”, and is meant to give an individual time to think, travel, learn or earn according to one’s agency rather than follow dictates of any institution. It is widely accepted as a logical space and time required to get a grasp of the direction one would like to take in life. However, in the Indian context, it is seen as some inconceivable wastage of time that would lead one to start work later than others and they would supposedly always lag “behind”. I have met many people proud of the fact that they finished college a year or two earlier than they are supposed to, and got placed in the usual monotone jobs immediately. I have also met people defying this push into glorified labor and instead choose to travel, write, dream, draw, paint and work freely towards a world they imagine to be better than one they live in right now.

Education, for what its worth should open these windows of possibilities, and gaps need to be seen as crucial to one’s development as a person capable of reflection. Then maybe, instead of being the rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, who keeps singing I’m late / I’m late / For a very important date. / No time to say “Hello, Goodbye”. / I’m late, I’m late, I’m late, We can be real protagonists of wonderland waiting to be created.

costume_sketch___white_rabbit_by_aliceinwonderland

 

 

 

 

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I speak fluent Emoji?

Call it the priggishness of convent education or more sympathetically, some love for words that have always left me uncomfortable around the SMS lingua franca. They say language is as much a living organism like anything else; growing, evolving, aging and dying. However, I mostly imagine natural deaths unlike the violent strangulation that words undergo when people find most vowels unnecessary and random exclamation marks sufficient to communicate entire sentences. No wonder divorce is so common nowadays, or more simply I am just growing old and grumpy (Both are true). I am not sure about you, but when kids write, “2b or nt 2b…”, I can only imagine the ghosts of Victorian poets tearing their ghostly white wigs in alarm and despair.

True, this is not the Victorian era, but why should writing increasingly resemble the transcript of a kid trying to talk with its mouth full of bananas? We may be getting smarter, but we seemed to have kicked eloquence right outside the window. Of course, eloquence never helped save any time; time is money; money is a way to buy more time? Things are complicated around that corner. Coming back to violent deaths of language, there is another trend that makes even the scarce typing of words unnecessary. Welcome to the age of Emoji, now so essential that messages sent without one is considered impolite or downright hostile. Indeed, some of you may even find it odd to imagine phone conversations without the range of Emoji available today, but this epiphany is as recent as 1998, and was first developed in Japan (trust the weirdest fads to come from there). It soon became so popular, that serious research went into documenting and drawing expressions that could be culturally universal. That’s perhaps the simple yet profound realization; a smile is same in any language.

As usual, I hadn’t really gotten used to the Emoji affair till my messages were construed as unhappy/curt/unclear unless there was an appropriate cartoon face appended to it. It is interesting to note the widespread use even in official mails, the apparent stronghold of formal language. It has seemingly functioned to ease the tone of official conversations, though left to me “Please report to my desk tomorrow at 9:00 am :)” looks plain creepy with that face in the end. Well, that’s just me of course.

Studies show that emoticons such as smiley and sad faces are changing the way our brain works by triggering parts of the brain usually reserved for looking at real faces. i.e we have different areas in brain to process words and faces. Before the advent of emoticons there was no reason to process a colon followed by closing parenthesis🙂 as a facial expression but now it does because we have learnt to represent this as a face. So, while the heydays of literature had words evoking a variety of emotions, now we have Emojis standing in for a number of words. The Oxford Dictionary named 😂 (Face With Tears of Joy) its 2015 Word of the year. Welcome to the era of Emoji Dick (yes it exists; the emoji version of Moby Dick). Now, is that good, bad, ugly? Well, in all truthfulness and brevity, it just is. Love it or hate it, it will be around till the Japanese come up with the next global fad.😉

Emoticons have become massively popular, being used in text message and online conversations, along with art projects such as this Banksy Exhibit

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Of jelly legs and dry mouths

As a species, ‘we’ are usually outright embarrassed or mildly mortified at the sight or mention of behaviours which remind us our bestial origins and primary identity. Of course, a vast majority take genuine pleasure in toilet jokes and intercourse but would rather not declare the same while introducing themselves. Such are the complexities of human interactions. However, there is yet another phenomena reminding most of us that our brains haven’t come a long way from our savannah foraging ancestors. This happens to constitute sweaty palms, clenched fists, temporary lack of control over limbs and other not-so-comfortable visceral experiences. Yes, it is the all too familiar stage-fright. The range of bodily reactions occur due to the brain’s interpretation of the scenario parallel to a bunch of hyenas cornering the poor little rabbit ‘you’. After all, wired as we are to be concerned about our reputation in the society, the idea that our little performance might damage our mostly imagined stature in the society triggers an evolutionarily robust stress system– adequately prepared to escape the hyenas, except there aren’t any here! So, while your legs wobble in anticipation of a sprint, you have to manage that confident stride up to the dais and while your pupils dilate to cover long range action, you squint at your notes as the last resort of inconsequential help.

Back in college, my now-partner-then-classmate trudged up the stage clutching a few pieces of paper only to realize that the lights were dimmed to project the powerpoint slides (another bane of our society). Unable to bear the torture, he fumbled with the flashlight in his phone and read the text verbatim, making it look more like a ghost drama rather than academic presentations. In my case, despite all possible preparations, the day I am supposed to give a public talk begins with me vomiting empty stomach. So much for gut instincts. Our physiology reveals our closeness to animal brethren to a degree we rarely admit but can’t control anyway. So, what we really manage to do is adapt to the situation through practice, situation and relaxation tactics to avoid a full-scale stress trigger. Heart beats fast, but heck that means you are alive, and probably mean what you say! As aptly put by Mark Twain, “There are only two types of speakers in the world. 1. The nervous and 2. Liars.” For the all upsides of being capable for anticipating the future, perhaps it is best to make peace with the occasions when the unwanted clairvoyance backfires (literally), for we are a bunch of nervous idealists aren’t we?

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Compassion management

In a world ridden with apathy and general callousness, this title would rightly seem bizarre. After all, has anyone ever had a fatal dose of compassionate acts? Well, I would hunt for the origin of the phrase “being smothered by love” for that. It turns out that there are indeed people whose concern often oversteps the bounds of societal etiquette, turning it into a case of disaster management for the rest of the family, in order to avoid subsequent glares (and occasional avoidance for a lifetime). Not that family members are immune to such extremist versions of compassion, it is just that they learnt to deal with it by returning the acts of kindness. In my family, our father has bagged the “deadliest kindness of the year” award for quite sometime now. Once, we were visited by family friends, whose young brat of a son was creating a ruckus like most brats do. This was perhaps a novel phenomenon for dad, whose children (i.e. me and my brother) had grown up being showered with a healthy dose of shouts and slaps, such that our ‘brat-iness’ never got a chance to show itself in its full glory (until much later, when it is nicely dubbed existential angst). Now, taking his own adequately weird children as representative of the entire spectrum of child behaviour, he instantly asked the parents, “Have you shown him to a psychiatrist? He may need serious help and medication.” To be fair, he was genuinely concerned; but this was a proclamation about a 3-year-old healthy Punjabi boy. I mention Punjabi, because you might want to take a minute to imagine his father’s nostrils flare and his fists tighten as my father (the puny Bengali guy) carried on breezily about his self-acclaimed experience in handling children and so forth. When my mother’s eyebrows (raised high enough to hit the ceiling) also didn’t work as a signal to stop, she hurriedly offered some chocolates to the boy and lavishly praised his talent for breaking things, before bidding them an abrupt farewell.

Visits to doctors are generally memorable for the fact that one has to cough up money and phlegm at the same time, with nothing but trust that the former will take care of the latter. In our case, along with the sick kid to be diagnosed, came a concerned father who would want to make sure that nothing but the right medicine would be ingested by his child. Fair enough. But for our doctor, it meant defending every punctuation of his diagnosis, along with justification for not considering the other trillion possibilities that father would have read on the internet (or homoeopathy leaflets). I think only the Hippocratic oath kept this doctor from getting violent, though he did ask us to only come with our mother in the future. As a family, we have tried our best to indulge in ‘compassion management’ and compensate for his concern, and over time he does realise that seeing flushed cheeks combined with a puckered face together is a pretty good indication to stop talking, though often it does end with, “have you had your blood pressure checked? You don’t look quite normal.” Well, someone once said, “compassion brings us to a stop, and for a moment we rise above ourselves.” I completely agree, except that the nature of those stops and rises can be quite different.

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