For many years, we’ve been told by visitors that the hours spent inside The Bookshop don’t feel like…time. One long, lucid dream, is the closest one can get to describing it. The sounds of the shop create a force of meditative gravity. One can feel themselves slowing down, centering towards their senses. Its like my mind is thanking me, someone once mentioned.
There is, of course, our resident team of cats and dogs waiting out on the porch; punctuating uncompromising silences with their mewls and barks. Certain quiet summer afternoons and somber winter evenings are instrumented by the sound of our kettle boiling up as we look askance in its direction, begging for some coffee. The birds chirping boisterously, for dusk has set in.
As the end of the year nears and the festive season comes in full swing, there is the peal of conversation that turns The Bookshop into…
It’s such a heavy, intimidating word: like ‘intellectual’.
I’ve read a few people who are called ‘philosophers’ – Russell, Thoreau, Camus, Huxley, Gandhi, Sartre, Vivekananda come to mind (and leave the mind as quickly as they come). I’ve found them really interesting and absorbing to read because…well…they are common-sensey in a kind of deeper way. They don’t use long, hard-to-understand words like ‘philosophy’. They talk about the simplest, most common day-to-day things: people, situations, events and feelings and emotions that you and I and everyone else feel and experience. But they delve so deep into these things they talk about that very soon you find you’re looking at and experiencing just about every possible thing in the universe.
Right now I sit here, muttering and stuck for ideas as I always am, while Tangerine Dream’s moody notes beat on my tympani and gently stir the frail wings of the mosquito that sits on the wall across the room, relaxing and soothing our respective muscles and joints and nerves jointly and severally in gentle, soporific and sonorous waves.
I stare at the mosquito. It stares back at me.
I shift my stare to the white rectangle of a blank Word document. It too stares blankly back at me.
After profound thought, I decide to undertake a philosophical Exploration of Reality.
I touch the ‘Enter’ key.
I feel, I felt, the Enter key! It felt hard but not too hard. As I pressed it down, I heard a slight, soft click. I released the pressure of my finger; the key sprung back. And even as I went through these steps, in a fraction of a second, I saw the blinking vertical line of the cursor dart down the white virtual page on the screen. I felt, I heard, I saw.
All these things I understand well! I know what these senses are, of touch, sight, of hearing. As I do the sense of smell, of taste.
I am aware.
I know the shapes and hues of the hills and forests, the houses where I lived in childhood, the expressions on people’s faces; I can feel winter sun’s warmth, a neem tree’s cool shade, a caress, the slap of an affectionate cat; I know and can recall the taste of mango and rum, of keema and sambar; the sighs of pine trees and tired people in a queue, the howls of lonely puppies and unseated politicians. I know the smells of coffee, of freshly peeled oranges, of grass growing in a Himalayan meadow and smouldering in a chillum, of Mumbai in the monsoon and crowded Metro trains in Delhi. I know the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feels of the millions of things, living and non-living, small and big, that I have ever encountered in my long and misspent life and that have influenced me, shaped me, made me what I am.
But now I ask myself: are these sensory phenomena and their vasanas—their impacts on the sense organs by which I perceive them—really ‘real’? Do these phenomena actually have an absolute, immutable, non-relativistic quality about them? Do their characteristics transcend space-time, are they perceived the same way by others, human and non-human, irrespective of frame of reference?
Do bacteria shiver in winter the way I do? Are goats and dust-mites moved by music as I am?
‘Of course not!’ shrieks the Voice of Rationality in my skull. Pressed for evidence to the contrary or in favour, however, the Voice of Rationality subsides into muttering curse-words like an aggressive Delhi driver who’s not been allowed to overtake on the wrong side.
The Voice of Rationality, too, has no answer.
If, then, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the reality or unreality of the animate and inanimate things that impinge on my senses and enables me to sense them….what of my senses themselves? Are these senses with which I perceive the Reality around me false? These senses that have helped me define and delineate and categorize and sort and arrange and play around with the objects – living and non-living – that have surrounded me from birth, and indeed enabled me to create my version of Reality; are these senses ‘unfixed’, variable, entirely subjective, and therefore unreal?
‘Of course not!’ comes a feeble croak from the Voice of Rationality. ‘Because if indeed our senses are unreal, non-Absolute, then what you and I and everyone else’s devar and mausee and periappa think of as Reality is in fact Unreal. Illusion.
In that case, I press on triumphantly, what I think of as Reality is real only to me – this world of shapes, of objects living and non-living and their interactions with me and with one another, their patterns of behaviour – are quite unique to me, and me alone.
I, I alone AM.
“Kazhudai vishtaham,” whispers the mosquito on the wall. It has covertly been listening to my thoughts.
It is, I realize with a start, a Tamil-Sanskrit scholar whose ancestors date back to the Sangam era.
“Donkey’s droppings,” the mosquito translates helpfully, and takes flight.
I am chagrined, deflated. I am also bitten several times by the mosquito.
As I mentioned earlier before I rudely interrupted myself: philosophy and I don’t get along.
I find solace in Odomos, and in the fact that physicist Richard Feynman didn’t like philosophy too much either: he found it boring, pointless, filled with long, complicated words and explanations that didn’t seem to mean anything.
Feynman’s supposed to have said: “Philosophy is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”.
By his own admission, Feynman took an unholy delight in replying, in the most philosophical manner, to the too-clever-by-half questions framed by people who want to appear extremely profound and deep.
An example—Feynman’s reply to a question from the audience, at the end of a lecture he had given on the properties of light:
Q: When you look at something, do you see only light or do you see the object?
Feynman: The question of whether or not when you see something, you see only the light or the thing you’re looking at, is one of those dopey philosophical things that an ordinary person has no difficulty with. Even the most profound philosopher who’s sitting eating his dinner, hasn’t any difficulty in making out that what he’s looking at perhaps might only be the light from the steak, but it still implies the existence of the steak which he’s able to lift by his fork to his mouth. The philosophers who are unable to make that analysis and that idea have fallen by the wayside through hunger!
Hail Feynman, hail the great philosophers of MAD Magazine and other immortal epics.
Now that a new BJP-led Union government has been sworn in amid much swearing by Congress-led Opposition leaders, the time is ripe for all Indian citizens to play a role in helping the government chart a course for our nation over the next five years. In this spirit, and sans any influence of ethylated spirits, we humbly offer the following guidelines that we hope will help the government in protecting our notional national interest.
It’s 43° C in the shade here in Delhi, with a scalding hot wind ripping the leaves off trees and propelling kilograms of nano-sized dust particles through the tiniest cracks and crevices in the doors and windows to fill the room where I sit, listening to the air cooler roaring in futile rage, eating juicy chunks of chilled watermelon in between keystrokes and cheering myself with visions of my not-so-favourite netas roaming the streets and campaigning for votes in this infernal weather.
Indeed, there is Dharma in this world.
Delhi’s incendiary summer is a good time to remember the crisp chill of Holland’s winter. I visited Holland in December-January; a dreamy, timeless three weeks during which I re-learned the sublime and long-forgotten art of simply being. Base camp was my friend Udai’s apartment in Delft – it’s the prettiest little town I’ve ever been in. Delft is young by Indian standards (it’s only 600 years old) but its history is linked closely—oh so closely— to the history of India, indeed of the whole world. There was so much to see, to experience, to learn…not only in Delft but in Leiden, Rotterdam, The Hague … no, it’s impossible to find words to describe it all, I don’t know where to start, so I won’t even try – at least not now.
Right now I’m just going to place a few photos of Delft, from here and there. Like this…
I did miss two things, briefly but deeply, in Holland.
One was seeing tulips carpeting the earth out in the countryside like in the photos I’ve seen. Winter is off-season for tulips. So, I plan visiting Holland again, in April/May 2020.
The other thing I missed is actually a person: a friend, the first Dutchman I ever met, I’ll call him Helm, for it wouldn’t be fair for me to use his real name without asking him, and sadly I can’t do that now because Helm and I’ve lost touch since we last met in Shillong in the mid-1970s. I was then pursuing an elusive college degree in Shillong, invigorated in my chase by the healing vapours of garden-fresh cannabis and affiliated psychoactive substances. Helm was a visitor to Shillong from Calcutta, over three successive years, each time just for a fortnight or so. He was a Masters student (of Comparative Religions, if memory serves right) at the Viswa Bharati University, Santiniketan (Calcutta); a few years older than I, tall, broad, strong, golden-haired, ruddy-faced, always clad in white kurta-pajama and clogs. Helm was learned, earnest, serene, yet with a ready smile and a huge laugh that could shake the dust and woodlice off the rafters. Helm lugged his classical guitar along wherever we wandered—exploring the hills and rills, meadows and forests, taverns and caverns—and when the heady ganja and mellow kyat had soothed the spirits sufficiently and the comfortable silences had settled, he would pull out the guitar and pluck and strum beautiful melodies and belt out folk songs – Dutch, sometimes English – in a powerful baritone. He even taught me one Dutch song: I only remember the tune now, the lyrics are long forgotten.
I learned much from Helm: about the beauty of all religions and the horrors inflicted across the world in the names of gods and prophets, about humanism, tolerance, the need to remain curious as a child throughout life, how travel can open minds. Helm didn’t educate me on the tulips of Holland, but he taught me a far more valuable life-skill, one that is deeply rooted in India’s glorious heritage and culture—the refined art of making the purest charas (hashish) from the cannabis plants that grow in such profusion in the meadows of Meghalaya. It was a primary objective of his annual pilgrimage to Shillong, to manufacture sufficient stocks of charas to keep him going in Calcutta till the winter break when he went home to Holland. Thanks to Helm, I and a few friends drastically cut down our ganja-smoking; we switched to charas.
Wherever you are, Helm of Holland, may peace be with you. It was wonderful visiting your beautiful, eternal country: I remembered you, briefly but deeply, when there. Who knows, the One willing, perhaps we shall meet again someday, in this life or in another, in some timeless rolling meadow filled with music and laughter and companionship and comfortable silences and mounds of stroopwaffel and the divine fragrances of tulips and mellow wine and ripening ganja plants in the sunshine…
Ever since India successfully conducted its anti-satellite (A-SAT) missile test, our crass netas have given political twists to the event that would make a boa constrictor straighten in envy. Considering the kinds of comments that they and their acolytes are making, and with Lok Sabha polls looming over the horizon, we, the wee people, have good reasons to worry about whether our newly elected MPs will even understand, let alone be capable of handling, critical strategic issues such as space technologies, missile defense, nuclear deterrence and the like.
But there is hope! Unconfirmed and officially disavowed sources reveal that the Lok Sabha Secretariat is alive to the challenge, and is preparing a series of small booklets on science and technology for the enlightenment of our newly-elected MPs.
Here are a few sample definitions leaked from the draft Lok Sabha booklet on ‘Aerospace Science for MPs’:
Satellite: This is simply another name for party follower or chamcha. Satellites can be of two common kinds:
‘Polar’ or ‘Poll-ar’ satellites are rather unstable, and remain loyal only so long as their leader has a chance of winning in polls.
‘Jio-synchronous’ satellites, also known as ‘Jio-stationary’ satellites, are more stable and loyal, because they are held securely to their leader/party by the attractive gravitational forces of G, 2G or even 4G.
Space Debris: The countless pieces of metal, plastic, composites and affiliated junk that are now orbiting the earth, and that have resulted from the break-up of old satellites launched by different countries during the last 50 years. About 97.9% of all the space debris is ‘clean’ debris, because it comes from NASA satellites sent up by USA. The remaining 2.1% of the debris is ‘dirty’ debris because it comes from Indian and Chinese satellites.
Escape velocity: The very high velocity with which politically connected fraudsters and affiliated crooks escape from India to other countries when a new government takes over in Delhi. ‘Relativistic’ velocity (also known as ‘Maxis’ or maximum velocity) is the highest attainable escape velocity, usually achieved only by crooks who are close relatives of political leaders.
Global positioning system (GPS): A wonderful technology that helps government to keep track of the escaped crooks, and guide them to safe havens when necessary.
Inertia: Describes the tendency of a government to remain forever in a state of supreme inactivity; or if roused into motion (usually by sting operation), to continue moving aimlessly along a fixed path to nowhere until halted by the ‘fictional’ force of Opposition.
Launch window: The auspicious interval of time for a new politician to launch her/his political career by filing nomination papers for Lok Sabha or assembly elections. Launch window is determined by specialists in astral science called ‘astronauts’. The term astronaut itself is derived from the ancient Sanskrit: astra-nath—‘one who rules over stars’ (Ref: Goru Gauswamy et al., 4300 BCE. Space Explorations. Muttal Press: Takshashila).
Re-entry vehicle:Pathway for political deserters to return to their parent (or grandparent) party. As re-entry usually generates intense heat from party rivals, re-entering politicians require rings of protective coating. Hence, the re-entering politicians are popularly called ‘turncoats’.
Star wars:Spectacular electoral battles waged between stars affiliated to Bollywood, Mollywood, Tollywood and other non-Dawood studios. If firearms such as Shotguns are used by the star-candidates during poll campaigns, we call them ‘shooting stars’. Sometimes, the winning stars are given Cabinet portfolios, in which case we call them ‘acting ministers’ if they turn up for work; or else, ‘deadwood’.
Warhead: An especially strident jingoist, usually seen on TV talking-head shows calling for nuclear attack on neighbouring nations, political opponents, and occasionally, neighbouring panelists.
Guidelines for Indian Railway travellers on how to change into pajamas at 130 kmph
Some years ago, O gentle and hapless reader, I’d drawn up a set of guidelines for the intrepid male Indian Railway traveller, on the fine art of shaving on express trains without performing involuntary self-circumcision or castration. [Click here to view]
Now, bowing to widespread demands from orthopaedists, podiatrists and orthodontists who wish to remain anonymous, and ignoring thy vociferous protestations, I present a similar set of guidelines on how to change safely into pajamas during overnight train journeys…a process that is normally, and in the interests of public decency, undertaken in the toilet. For the sake of simplicity and brevity, these guidelines too are directed at male travellers: however, they can be adopted, with slight adaptations as needed, by travellers of all genders.
1 – Enter toilet with pajamas securely wrapped around neck, or tucked into waistband of trousers. Bolt door.
2- Carefully open up pajamas and tie them by the string (naada) to the clothes-hook behind the door. Use a good, strong knot like a square knot or clove hitch (you may click here to learn how to tie these knots and/or tie yourself in knots). Note: do not simply hang the pajamas from the hook, because the slightest jerk of the train will dislodge them on to the yucky floor.
3-Roll up both* trouser legs to at least 6 inches above the ankles (*if three-legged or more-legged, roll up all trouser legs). This will protect your trousers from the swirling muck on the floor, and also make removal of the trousers easier.
4- Remove trousers, step by step and leg by leg as outlined in (a) to (d) below. [Warning: This entire process demands patience, extraordinary courage and lightning reflexes, to counter the violent lateral movements of the speeding train and to guard you against the perils of falling headlong into the W.C., and/or injuring various limbs, bones, joints and appendages]
(a) Lift right leg and use left hand to clutch on to clothes-hook or pajamas tied to hook, in the absence of any alternative dependable object to clutch. Note: do not attempt to clutch edge of washbasin, W.C. chain or pipes, for these may suddenly disengage from wall, plunging you into W.C. Also, do not clutch tap of washbasin, as the tap might open, soaking you head to foot in spray of water that adds to slush on floor and undoes all the gains of Swacch Bharat Mission.
(b) Balancing on left leg and lengthening the spine, take several deep breaths (depending on freshness of air) and then slowly and cautiously draw off trousers from right leg, using your right hand. Be alert against losing balance and lunging head-first into wash basin, wall or W.C.
(c)Clamp your teeth firmly around the rolled-up bottom of removed (right) trouser leg. Lower right leg to floor. Carefully replace the left-handed grip on clothes-hook with right-handed grip. Then, breathing shallowly through the trouser-leg clenched in teeth, lift your left leg and draw off the trousers from that leg, using your left hand.
(d) Open jaws and grab at the falling (right) trouser leg with left hand. Ensure that you have not inadvertently pulled off underwear along with the trousers (a chill draft in the nether regions is a sure indicator of this unfortunate situation – in which case, you may retrace earlier steps and start afresh).
5-Sling trousers over the right shoulder, taking care that you do not sling them into W.C. or allow any dangling portion of trousers or self to touch the inundated floor. Regain balance and composure by taking several deep breaths (if possible).
6- Untie pajamas from clothes-hook. The process of undoing the good knot(s) you tied earlier requires you to use both hands and possibly your teeth as well; hence, extreme care is advised.
7-Sling pajamas over left shoulder (taking same precautions as you did with trousers on right shoulder). Now, remove trousers from right shoulder and secure trousers to the clothes-hook by belt-loops, or fly zipper if loops are not strong enough.
8- Roll up both pajama legs to half their lengths. Then, lean against door for support, and with pajamas pressed against the left hip, execute a series of small, kangaroo-like hops till you succeed in slipping your right foot into right pajama leg. Note: All too often, the hasty traveller inadvertently slips right foot into left pajama leg, setting off a catastrophic sequence of agonized leaps that invariably ends in strained muscles, sprained joints and worst of all, ruined pajamas. [Tip: use fluorescent marker pen to mark right and left legs of pajamas before-hand (rather, before-leg)]
9- In similar fashion, slip your left foot into left pajama leg.
10- Lean away from door, and standing upright, use both hands to pull up pajamas and knot them around waist. This penultimate step is also the most dangerous, as with both your hands occupied in tying the pajama knot, chances of diving into the W.C at various angles are maximum.
11- Remove trousers from clothes-hook. Clutch hair in agony as you see your cellphone drop from the trouser pocket into the W.C. Pull chain, open door and exit.