General ravings, Musings, Potshots

One last “Eff Off!” at the Web Spiders

Are you one of those who despise, detest or otherwise dislike the kind of crap that’s being dished out in the name of ‘news’ by media?  Are you increasingly nervous about discussing politics—especially issues related to Modi and Trump and Brexit and Kashmir and Iran and Triple Talaq and Article 370—because people, even people you know well, fly into a rage at the drop of a secular hat or communal topi?

If so, I’m like you.

I’m scared of the growing intolerance among people. I deeply distrust and often loathe the news that I get via media – meaning all media, including social media.

I see a sinister connection.

That’s why I’m writing this Fèihuà (Chinese: bullshit – click here to know how to say it]

But first, I have a confession to make. Despite my aversion to and distrust of media, I follow media news, daily and avidly, sometimes even with immense amusement.

Each day, I spend between 30 minutes and an hour surfing through a variety of TV news channels, English and Hindi, in no particular order (feel free to gasp in horror): channels like Wion, Times Now, Republic TV, Aaj Tak, Rajya Sabha TV, DD News, BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera come to mind.

Experience has taught me that spending anything more than an hour on these news channels is as pleasant as  swallowing 10 ml of strong ammonia solution; which incidentally I actually did when in school (for details on symptoms, please click here).  It probably explains why I still find a lot of things difficult to swallow; especially in the media.

Oh, and I also glance through the following online papers/magazines at least once each a week: Newslaundry, The Wire, Quint, and Dawn (Pakistan). I also get two daily newspapers—Indian Express and Times of India—on which I spend a maximum of 30 minutes before turning to the Sudoku in the former which takes me anything between 5 minutes and forever. I read select WhatsApp forwards from select friends; I do not exist on Facebook or Twitter or any of the other social media platforms.

Blanch in horror you well might, precious reader; but I inflict this media bombardment on myself for two reasons:

  1. I recognize that I need the media to know what’s going in the world—because the world is too big and there’s too much happening too fast everywhere for me to experience and understand personally. But I simply refuse to take the easy, lazy way out and depend on just one media source for news, or on friends to tell me the news.  I believe no media source is telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth; yet every media house is perforce putting out bits of  truth at the behest of its corporate/political paymasters because it knows that even a semi-literate bakra like me will not swallow pure lies. In this situation, with so many scattered locations of what are at best ‘bits of truth’,  the closest I can get to know the whole truth is to make the effort to sift and scan through every shade of media—from the deceitful extreme Left to the deceitful extreme Right, from pro-CPM through pro-Congress to pro-BJP, from capitalist to communist, pro-Islamic kook to pro-Hindutva kook via pro-Christian kook, from ultra-conservative to neo-liberal—to identify these truth-bits and put them together like pieces of a jigsaw. Without prejudice, without pre-conceived notions, with as much balance as I can summon up in what’s left of my deranged mind. In doing this I have complete faith in my own discerning power to tell truth from lie, right from wrong; yet I remain aware that I can make mistakes, and I try and stay alert for traps.
  2. I enjoy taking potshots at the media for brazenly partisan or false reportage, so it’s important for me to know the various varieties of ng’ombe (Swahili: bullshit) that the media is manufacturing and selling me in the name of news. Only with this knowledge can I develop my own superior varieties of ng’ombe to counter their assault.

It’s not easy absorbing and sifting through so much multimedia garbage daily; it’s not always pleasant.  I know it’s probably futile, and you’re welcome to laugh at me, but still I keep at it— like Sisyphus rolling the rock up the mountain, knowing it’s only going to roll down again. I keep at it because I think this is the only way I can remain – and maybe even crawl along – the top of the slippery, ever-narrowing Wall of Balance that runs between the two great Chasms of Choice that define today’s world.

That’s the thing: everything has become ‘binary’ – have you noticed?

I feel pressurized to choose, all the time, between great extremes, stark opposites. I feel driven to take radical positions on all kinds of issues and ideas and events and things about which I know little and have little or no personal experience on, issues that really have no bearing on my daily life, but that seem to have somehow become incredibly important for me, and every person on the planet, to have and to express very strong views on: political views, religious beliefs, ideologies, causes, calls to war.

And often I feel this pressure too: other people, not just media-folk, are always trying to CONVERT me to their view(s).

And such is the pressure to opine, so immense the flow and intensity of information that batters me, so compelling its power, that there’s no time to think – leave alone reflect. I’m asked to choose at once.  Choose NOW.  At every step, every turn, I am being pressurized to choose between binaries: between extremes of opinion, world-view.

Choose—and be judged. Choose—and be rewarded by group acceptance, or condemned by social isolation.

Choose between binaries like: Love Modi vs.Hate Modi. Love Rahul vs. hate Rahul. Bhakt vs. Tukde Tukde Wallah. Left—Right. Majority—Minority. Brahmin—OBC. Hindi—Tamil. White–Black. Us–Them. Blah–Blah.

Thus far, I’ve managed to gasp “Thloh!” or “Eff Off!” at the Spiders, and those who quote them, without giving in to the pressure of choosing; without becoming a groupie – a bleating Animal Farm sheep, whether of this flock or that.  Thus far, I’ve not alienated friends.

But I’m getting weary, I’m feeling more and more alone.

And I’m writing this because I’m also increasingly alarmed. I notice that people I’ve known for years and decades, wonderful loving people, young and old, are succumbing and becoming sheep; impatient and angry sheep, intolerant and abusive sheep, narrow-minded sheep. They follow cheer-leaders (bleat-leaders?); they echo the crowd; they parrot the safe slogans, the politically correct spiel. It doesn’t take much gentle conversation to reveal that they don’t make the effort to read and research and reflect and work things out on their own.

They don’t have the self-confidence any more. The self-confidence to swim against the tide; to be individual, unique.

I’ve said this before: I believe the information maelstrom on every issue, every subject, every topic, is designed to sap our individuality, our self-confidence; to addle our minds so that we respond like digital switches. ON-OFF. And that’s why, I believe, the whole world is becoming more and more impatient, more radical in opinions, more intolerant of differences.

O noble reader, I do believe every media house everywhere in the world runs on a business strategy that is even more simple, powerful, effective and sustainable than the age-old strategy followed by the shrewd paanwallah who blends a little opium into his qiwam (kimam).

For the paanwallah, I, you, all of us, are loyal clients to be hooked…and to stay hooked on his paan alone for the rest of our paan-eating lives.

Easy way to escape: don’t start eating paan.

But in the Web of Pseudo Reality woven by today’s marketing–advertising–media (MAM) Spiders, using artificial intelligence and Big Data and Allah and Rama and Jesus and Marx knows what other psychometric and information technology tools, we are already hooked, already trapped and secured.

We are a billion little flies in the Web. Flies with brains (sure, go ahead and laugh, I know that leaves me out…I wish). Flies that can make choices.

Our minds are trapped in the Web; the Spiders have painstakingly (lovingly?) wrapped us up in translucent pouches woven from silky-soft strands of psyche that define our personalities, our attitudes and emotions, our responses to stimuli—a thousand and more strands of our own private selves that we have so openly, so eagerly and thoughtlessly placed in public domain over the years. Our Facebook and Instagram profiles, our Likes and Dislikes, our Twitter and Snapchat and WhatsApp groups and follower lists and forwarding patterns, our responses to countless seemingly trivial online tests and surveys, our Google searches, YouTube and Netflix watch-lists,  reading habits, patterns of travelling, shopping, eating-out, entertainment…

Easy way to escape: none. [But for a while you can try screaming “Thoh”! “Eff Off!” and suchlike.]

And the Spiders now feed on our naked minds, for they can better predict and measure our responses to different stimuli, our behaviour in different circumstances. The Spiders use our minds as testing grounds for innovative propaganda ideas and actions on behalf of their transnational political–corporate–religious–criminal–terrorist clients.

That’s why for us, the flies in the Web of MAM, every day is becoming like every other day—a long, blurry, endless  series of frenzied jumps from one stressful decision to another, one crisis to another, one worry to another, with no time to think or rest or reflect. Only the Products of the Day change; only the Products of the Day dominate our conversations when we meet; and each of us must make a YES-NO choice in regard to each Product each day. There is no place for neutrality, moderation, no room for a third way, a middle path…and a pall of dread hangs over the very idea of choosing not to choose. I am made to feel I must choose, one way or the other…or be condemned to the pseudo-death of total social isolation.

And what are these Products of the Day?

You guessed it: Love Modi vs.Hate Modi. Love Rahul vs. hate Rahul. Bhakt vs. Tukde Tukde Wallah. Left—Right. Majority—Minority. Brahmin—OBC. Hindi—Tamil. White–Black. Us–Them…ad nauseum, ads and advertorials nauseum.

So it is that sooner or later, you and I will succumb to making a choice without hesitation. Without thought. To respond instantly and ferociously to just about anything and everything, however trivial, however important.

And as my progressive choices help the Spiders categorize me and adjust their individualized Product presentations accordingly, I easily, almost unconsciously, adopt a certain narrative; a certain ideology; a certain world-view. I won’t even know that my mind is trapped and my vision clouded.  On the contrary, I will continue to think that I’m broad-minded, sober, independent, unbiased; that I am right, WE are right. And I will eagerly try and convert others to my view — because there is comfort in numbers, there is less fear of being socially isolated.

And the sheer beauty, the sheer horror of it all is, my short-term memory becomes shorter and shorter till it dwindles to nothingness. And because this is happening to everybody, I can switch my opinions, my stand on issues, my entire world-view, 180° overnight – or even within an hour —without my feeling in the least bit guilty or ashamed about being hypocritical or deceitful or unprincipled. And without anyone even noticing.

In the Realm of Subliminal Consciousness, Conscience withers… and Memory dies” – Bakasura the Great, 2477 BCE

I know there’s no escape from the Web while I live. The sleepless Spiders watch; they see all, know all.

So long as I have ever used the Net (and I started  20 years ago), so long as I have a mobile phone, so long as I use any social media platform, so long as I use credit cards and debit cards and passports, I am naked before the cold, clinically efficient, half-machine half-human million-eyed monsters that are the Spiders of MAM.

Even if I fling my phone away, shoot my TV set (and cable operator with it), burn my credit cards and de-register from all social media, I will be as free as a butterfly impaled by a sharp pin on wax paper.

You too.

If you don’t believe me, watch this TED talk to learn how and why the entire Brexit farce-turned-horror of June 2016 was orchestrated by a Spider named Cambridge Analytica and Facebook et al … leaving the peoples of Britain, and indeed the EU, still grappling with the aftermath in August 2019. Watch this TED talk to understand why, and how easily, Russia and Cambridge Analytica manipulated the entire American electorate to turn against Hillary Clinton and vote for Trump as President. If you want a detailed account of all this and much more, watch ‘The Great Hack’ (it’s on Netflix; here is a trailer.)

You might think: “Arre boss, this is all about USA and Britain, what’s it all got to do with India that is Bharat, hahn jee?”

Well…check out how the same Spider—Cambridge Analytica—was wooed by our very own Indian National Congress and possibly other political parties to help win Lok Sabha elections: [click here]

Of course, gentle reader, as soon as you visit any or all of these links, the ‘data points that define your existing electronic psycho-profile will instantly be updated and suitably modified by the Spiders on countless databases in unknown locations on the Web of MAM…

And then you will wait, as I do.

You and I  wait, secure and comfortably numb in our own little silken pouches in the great Web …we wait for the next Spider, the next brain-numbing stab of e-heroin that always marks the start of the next Product of the Day campaign…

But don’t worry: we’ll have forgotten the pain, and the very memory of today, by tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

Beastly encounters, General ravings, Musings

Anopheles Dream: an exploration into the Nature of Reality

I’m not sure what philosophy is.

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 drink, therefore I am…

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.

Now.

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.

Ha.

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.

Ha!

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.

My moment of enlightenment (mosquito can be seen near right ear)

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.

General ravings, Musings, Potshots

Infernal principles for Internal Security

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.

Musings, Remembering

Nicotine Dreams: a Remembrance

Be warned, O gentle reader: this one’s a reminiscence of sorts: rather long, very rambling, and rather personal.

It’s May 13th going on 14th … a time of year that always reminds me of my father, R S Paramasivan, mother Jaya, and the closely related subject of cigarettes.

Dad supported, unsung, the lives of tens of thousands of tobacco farmers across the country during his 50 years of heavy smoking. In these worthy and heady efforts he was joined enthusiastically by brother Bala and yours truly once we had entered our teens.  Bala started early as Dad had – at the age of 15 or thereabouts; I took my first puff when nearly 16. Dad initially smoked Wills Gold Flake (it came in a tin of 50 cigarettes till the early 1960s), and later switched to Wills Filter. Bala and I smoked Charminar till well after we started earning our own money; Charminar, to the discerning smoker, was not merely the most affordable but among the best of cigarettes the great and benevolent Goddess Nicotine had ever wrapped herself in for the benefit of humankind.

Initially, both Bala and I made feeble efforts to hide our smoking habits from the parents: but both of us received, in turn, the same gentle but stern admonishment from Dad: to smoke without embarrassment or concealment. By way of example Dad cited his own lesson from 1942; he was sitting in the woodshed at the old ancestral home in Coimbatore, puffing away at a Players’ cigarette filched from his elder brother Markand, thinking himself safe from the gaze of his father (my grandfather or thatha, a formidable old judge with fearsome temper), when to his horror he heard the tap-tap of the old man’s walking stick on the gravel outside the shed. Dad was about to stamp out his cigarette when he heard thatha’s dry voice: “For heaven’s sake, if you must pollute your innards, don’t hide in there…smoke outside here in the fresh air. Besides, you might set fire to the house by smoking in there!”

There was this little ritual that both Bala and I went through on the occasion of our respective 16th birthdays. In both cases, the venue was that renowned shrine of generally ethylated spiritual activity, the Shillong Club. I still recall how Dad solemnly pulled out his pack of Wills, offered me a cigarette, and then lit it for me with the murmured words: “Henceforth, it is not for this coal to call the kettle black. Be open, unashamed, in whatever you indulge in, and bear the pain it brings honestly. A vice is vice only when hidden.  To hide it is to admit you are ashamed of it.”

And what did mother Jaya think of all this, you might ask? Well…quite understandably she didn’t approve of Dad’s smoking, or of our smoking either. Right from when we were kids she called Dad ‘chimney’ in various languages at various decibels, and accused him of ‘setting a bad example to the children’; she severely criticized Dad, and later Bala and me too, for  ruining our health and blowing away all our money in smoke. Her disapproval of our smoking waxed and waned throughout her life; she was utterly delighted when Dad finally quit smoking in 1990 (he was 63 then).

But in her valiant efforts at getting us all to quit smoking, Mom faced a rather unique hurdle, one that Bala and I first became aware of when Bala was around nine and I, seven. We noticed that, ever so often, in the middle of perfectly innocuous conversation, Mom would murmur: “Leave me the eltee, Raj”. …Or sometimes Dad would casually remark: “I’ve left the eltee, Jaya…” or something like that.

Eltee? What in heck was ‘eltee’?

We asked Mom and Dad what eltee was, of course: several times, on several occasions. We never got a straight answer from either of them: we were kids, our queries were deflected by them with the ease all adults have in dealing with inquisitive kids. But they had not reckoned with our shrewd cunning, brought up as we were on a diet of mystery and detective stories written by the likes of Enid Blyton and Arthur Conan Doyle. We observed their movements closely; we sought temporal and spatial patterns in their usage of the term ‘eltee’; we noticed ‘eltee’ was used most frequently in the mornings, when Dad was about to leave for office. And finally, we discerned a distinct sequence of repetitive actions: as soon as Mom called out to Dad to “leave the eltee”, Dad would duck into the bathroom and out again, and then Mom would  hurry toward the bathroom…

Ha.

And thus it came to pass that upon a fateful day, even as the faint echoes of Mom’s ‘leave the eltee’ reverberated off the pinewood rafters, Bala jumped up and overtook Mom as she sped towards the bathroom—and he emerged triumphantly waving a lit cigarette, chased by a frantic and indignant Mom. “Eltee!” Bala yelled. “Eltee’s actually LT!  LT means ‘last three’, it means last three puffs…Dad left the last three puffs for Mom. Mom’s a smoker!”

Poor Mom; we never let her forget that. She was only an occasional smoker compared to us three chimneys, and she quit altogether by the early 1980s…but we gleefully reminded her of her fondness for the nicotine vapours every time she gave us a bhashan about smoking too much…

But now, back to Dad.  The year was 1977. Mom and Dad had shifted to Assam’s new capital, Dispur (Guwahati); I, a college student in Shillong, was home studying for my BSc finals. Bala had become a banker, and was furiously puffing away somewhere in southern India: Cochin, I think.  Upon a day, word came from Delhi that Mom’s father (my maternal thatha) was very ill. So Mom at once left for Delhi, for what was expected to be at least a month’s stay. She didn’t have to worry about how Dad and I would manage in her absence—thanks to her training all three madmen in her family could cook and keep the house reasonably clean and running. But Dad was smoking about 60 cigarettes daily, and developed a cough so racking that it worried Mom no end. At her urging, he promised her he would try and give up smoking altogether while she was away.

The day after Mom left, Dad ambled into my room. “I want to try and keep my promise to Jaya about giving up smoking,” he murmured, almost shyly. “Will you consider joining me in a gentleman’s agreement?” Of course, I agreed to hear him out. As we walked to the drawing room, he spelled out his proposal. It was simple and ingenious.

First, he announced that he wanted to quit smoking from the following morning. “You can help me in my resolve if you too quit smoking for about a week,” he added hesitantly. “Because the initial one week of nicotine abstinence is the hardest part, especially when surrounded by the glorious fragrance of tobacco. I know it’s being unfair on you, so don’t hesitate to refuse…”

“No, no, of course not, Dad!” I broke in. “I mean, yes! I’ll quit too…no problem!” I meant it too; after all, I too wanted Dad to get better.

“Good, good, thanks!” Dad went on. He reached into his pocket and produced the ever-present Wills packet. He opened it to show that it had precisely eight cigarettes left in it. “This is my last stock,” Dad whispered. He placed the pack almost reverently on the mantel-piece, laid a matchbox next to it, and then, with a sigh, went on: “Now then…as friends who trust one another totally, let us agree on this: if either one of us weakens in our resolve, if either one of us is overcome by the urge to smoke, let us not be ashamed of our weakness. Let us, instead, bravely and honestly, without needless guilt or anxiety for the other, help ourselves to a cigarette from this very pack. Every morning henceforth, each of us shall silently, independently, check the contents of the pack. That way, if either of us finds that the number of cigarettes is less than eight, the one will know that the other has given in…yet we will have only empathy and understanding, and our efforts to quit will continue.”

And so our project began.

I can only tell of my own experience. It was pure, unadulterated hell. Even after six years’ smoking, the agony was almost unendurable, of not having my after-coffee smoke in the morning, then the after-breakfast one, then the elevenses one, the noon one…I will spare you the hideous details. I will say this in all honesty: the only thing that kept me from charging into the drawing room and chain-smoking all eight cigarettes in that Wills pack on the very first day, as soon as Dad left for work, was the realization that Dad must be going through the same agonies as I was, but multiplied a hundred-fold.

And so I stuck to my resolve. And so did Dad. Two, three, four days we stayed off the damned cigarettes. Dad was an early riser; our deal was, he made breakfast and I made lunch, and we made dinner together. I rose usually around 7.30, sat with him over coffee and breakfast, and then he left for work…after which I checked the pack to ensure there were still eight cigarettes left in it. There were…there always were! A stage came when I used to hope, pray I would find only seven cigarettes, just so that I could tell myself, ha! Dad’s given in, so I might as well give in and smoke one too…but no, Dad was resolute.

Sometimes, late at night, I crept up to the Wills pack and sniffed it…but I didn’t dare open it.

The sixth day dawned, bleak, dismal, hopeless, tobacco-less. Both Dad and I looked drawn, hollow-eyed…yet we bravely assured each other that our appetites had increased, we were sleeping better, even breathing more deeply. Dad left for work; around noon, I rose from my books and was chopping vegetables for lunch when Dad charged into the house. “I have to go to Shillong!” he roared. “North Eastern Council meeting…I don’t know how I’ll get through the wretched thing without smoking, these damned Delhi-wallahs drone on and on for hours…and I detest that circuit house food…I only hope I can be back for dinner by tomorrow night…”

In ten minutes he had packed a suitcase and left. I was alone.

I was alone…all alone! For a night and two days, at least. Alone, with the allure of eight Wills cigarettes permeating the house like some siren’s perfume filling my nostrils…

I shook off the cowardly temptation angrily and returned to my chopping vegetables. The rest of the day passed in a haze; I pottered in the little vegetable patch in the backyard, observed interesting hunting spiders and warrior ants, lunched without tasting anything, and spent the afternoon staring at my physics book and comprehending nothing. As dusk deepened into night, I sipped my coffee and knew I’d reached the end of my tether.

It was the work of an instant to slip on my Keds and stride towards the little beedi-cigarette kiosk about 200 metres away. I bought a packet of Charminar, smoked two immediately, and smoked the third over a second cup of coffee on the verandah back home. I was careful to empty the ashtray into the bin…it wouldn’t do for Dad to know that I’d succumbed to temptation. I felt bad about breaking my agreement with Dad and not smoking a Wills as we had agreed to do;  but told myself that I was doing it for his good…Dad was  being so brave about trying to quit,  he must soldier on! By bedtime, I had convinced myself that I would throw away the remaining Charminars the next morning; having given up for five whole days, had I not proved that I could give up any time?

Of course, I didn’t throw away the Charminars the next day. I held at bay the wolves of temptation till about 3 p.m, when I snatched the Charminar packet, grabbed a matchbox from the kitchen and went and stood out in the garden near the picket gate. With trembling, feverish fingers I drew out a cigarette, lit it and inhaled…

Ah, the ecstasy of being filled my mind, all was well with the world again, music resonated from the Cosmos…

So utterly transported was I on the nicotine fumes that the arrival of Dad’s office car caught me completely unawares. Too late, I saw Dad step out of the car and walk rapidly toward me, his eyes fixed on the half-smoked cigarette. I was about to drop it and stamp it out when Dad yelled:  “No! Don’t waste it!” The next instant he grabbed the half-smoked cigarette from my fingers and stood there, puffing away and recounting to me,  in short broken phrases between puffs, what had happened in Shillong. “Bloody meeting started at 9 in the morning… Raj Bhawan, Governor sitting next to me puffing away…Home Secretary was there…also chain smoking…insufferable speeches…terrible coffee…by 10.30 I knew was finished. I asked a bearer to get me three packs of Wills…I’d smoked 10 by the time the damned meeting ended…”

Thus ended the gentleman’s agreement Dad and I had, on giving up smoking. However, our bonds of trust and faith were only reinforced by our shared trauma. And Dad did cut down on his smoking thereafter—to about 30 a day, which was quite something, and of some small consolation to Mom.

Now all this happened in 1977; so well might you ask, O patient reader: what in heck has any of this to do with May 13th going on 14th?

Well…bear with me just a while longer, we’re nearly there….

We now race through the following years and decades, to 2001. Dad and I were living together in Delhi, where he and Mom had settled after his retirement in 1986.

Mom had died in 1996, after a shockingly sudden, mercifully brief, illness. That story is for another time, another place…

In a way, after Mom’s passing, for Dad and I it was like being back in Dispur in those 1977 days – only now we knew Mom wasn’t going to come back. Dad had of course quit smoking many years earlier; but the long-term effects of those smoking decades were steadily, increasingly, becoming manifest. I was working out of home by now, which made it so much easier to spend time with Dad and take care of stuff and do the household things and all.  Bala was in Bangalore, but dropped in whenever he could. So all in all, things were going quite smoothly and peacefully…but Dad was growing weaker, the COPD was deep and irreversible, and by May 2001 we knew his end was near. Dad insisted that he be allowed to die without any invasive medical intervention of any kind, just as Mom had insisted in her time. And so, just as Bala and I had given our word to Mom in her time, we gave our word to Dad that we would do all we could to help him pass the way he wished.

And so we come, at last, to the night of May 13th, 2001. I was lying down next to Dad; I’d been sharing his room for nearly a year, for by this time he was so frail that he needed help just shifting position. Also, glaucoma had virtually deprived him of vision, so….anyway, it had been a good day, a quiet, peaceful day like many. Dad had sipped about half of his evening broth, which I thought was all right, and was now fast asleep. We had a little night lamp glowing blue.  I had by then become a very light sleeper, alert to his every breath. I was just lying on my back, listening to his breath, and fell into deep, dreamless sleep.

I’m not sure what it was that made me open my eyes…but I sat up with a start when I saw Dad sitting upright, staring straight at me, with a strange, gentle smile visible in the dim blue wash, a smile that softened the deep lines in his face.

“What’s the matter Dad…” I mumbled, struggling to clear the mind. I looked at the alarm clock next to me: it was just after 2 a.m.

“No, no, don’t worry, I’m all right…I’m all right,” he patted my cheek, ruffled my hair like he used to when I was a kid, and then slowly, carefully lay down again. “I awoke from the most extraordinary dream…” he paused and again he smiled.

I stared at him. He lay there and gazed back and his smile grew wider. “Relax, lie down, I’ll tell you about my dream,” he said with a chuckle. It was a long time since I’d heard that chuckle…it was soft, but took me back down the years and decades.

“Do you remember that gentleman’s agreement we had in Dispur… to quit smoking together?”

I was astonished. I nodded, and after a moment I too lay down.

Dad went on, softly. He took a while telling of his dream, pausing for breath every few words, but his voice was eager, clear. “In my dream, it was as though both of us were back there in Dispur, in 1977…although strangely, even in my dream the house we were in was this house, not the Dispur house.  In my dream I knew there was that packet of Wills with eight cigarettes in it in the drawing room, lying on the mantel-piece – even though this house doesn’t have a mantel-piece. In my dream I awoke…if that makes sense!” He chuckled. “In my dream I awoke, and saw you sleeping next to me, just as you were a little while ago, right there, next to me. I awoke with this huge craving for a cigarette! I didn’t want to disturb you, so I quietly slipped out of bed and crept across to the drawing room, and I found the Wills packet on the mantel-piece, and I took out a cigarette and was about to light it…when it struck me that the smell of the cigarette might awaken you!  So I hesitated, because I knew you were so tired, and I stood there wondering whether I should creep up to the terrace and smoke the cigarette, all the time also feeling bad that you would find out I had given in to temptation and smoked …” He paused and smiled.

“And it was at that moment, when I was wondering whether I should go upstairs and smoke or just get back into bed, that I actually awoke from my dream, and realized where I was, where I am, and I was so amused and amazed by it all, I sat up and looked at you…”

“So that’s why you were grinning!”

“Yes…what a mad dream it was, wasn’t it!”

It was. It was a crazy, wonderful, timeless dream, and I don’t know how long Dad and I stayed awake after that, not talking much yet reminiscing deeply of Shillong and Dispur and Coimbatore times, and smiling a lot and chuckling a little, and I ruffled his hair awhile till he fell asleep, and at some point I too drifted off…

Dad didn’t wake up on the morning of the 14th.

Bala and I are glad he slipped away just as he had in his dream; we know Dad wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Remembering you and Mom with love, Old Man.

 

 

General ravings, Musings

Holland: Remembering Eternity…

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.

Yayy.

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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Musings, Potshots

Lessons in Economics – from Rahul Gandhi and from Suresh

I must share with you two really profound – and radically contrasting – lessons in Economics I learned today. One, from  Congress President and Prime Minister-aspirant Rahul Gandhi; the other, from my colleague-become-friend of some 24 years, Rickshaw and Thela (wheelbarrow) Operator Suresh.

First, Rahul, who “chose to explain a bit of economics to voters” while addressing a public meeting on April 19th at Bajipura (Gujarat). To quote from today’s Indian Express article [click here to read]: Suresh and Rahul

He (Narendra Modi) has taken money from your pocket, and you have stopped purchasing goods like shirts, pants, watches, and mobile phones.’ Rahul explained. ‘This led to the shutdown of factories in India and many labourers lost their jobs. The unemployment rate is now at its highest in the past 45 years.’

He continued: ‘Under the NYAY scheme, an amount of Rs 72,000 will directly go into the bank account of women. Then you will start shopping, and when you shop, the factory will start functioning, and the unemployment issue will be solved.’

He also said, if voted to power, ‘We will give 22 lakh government jobs in one year, which are currently vacant, and 10 lakh youths will be given jobs in various panchayats.’

Rahul’s insight really made me think, O gracious reader. In a weird and woolly way, it kind of makes sense, no?

Only one thing about Rahul’s economics troubles me: Rahul’s plan to create 22 lakh government jobs (+ 10 lakh quasi-government jobs). Since the 7th Finance Commission, even the lowliest central government employee in India starts with salary of Rs 18,000 per month; that’s Rs 216,000 (2.16 lakhs) annually. Which means that, even assuming that every one of Rahul’s 22 lakh new government employees draw only this minimum salary, the annual salary bill for these worthies will be Rs 47520,00,00,000.

That’s Rs 47,520 crores every year! At minimum government wages…

To me it seems a hell of a lot of money, just for the sake of having 22,00,000 more leech-like sarkari babus making life miserable for you and me and all other honest, tax-paying citizens. Especially so, because that Rs 47,520 crores is going to be forked out every year by honest, long-suffering income tax payers like you and I!

But then, I console myself, Rahul Gandhi has been advised on his NYAY scheme by globally renowned economists like our very own P Chidambaram, Arvind Subramanian, Raghuram Rajan, and also British Nobel Laureate  Angus Deaton and French economist Thomas Piketty. Undoubtedly there’s something  I’m missing, ignoramus that I am…

Enter, Suresh.

At my request, Suresh brought his thela over around 11 a.m and was helping me clear out some old furniture and stuff. As usual, over a break for a banana and chilled glass we discussed the state of the world. “Who will you vote for?” he asked. “I know I will not vote for AAP this time,” I replied.  “I’m more and more inclined to vote for Modi’s BJP-NDA…”

“I too will vote for Modi,” he said firmly. “Of course, I suffered a lot when the note-bandhi [demonetization, 2016] happened. All my earnings are in cash even today;  nobody pays a rickshaw/thela-wallah any other way but cash. And of course with prices always rising, it is a very hard life for a daily labourer like me. Besides, as you know, for much of last year, I could not work…”

In mid-2018, Suresh’s five year-old son was diagnosed with cancer. Thanks to the chemotherapy and the excellent medical care he received and continues to receive at the Delhi Government’s Lok Nayak Hospital, the child is now recovering well…but for Suresh and his wife, it has been a year of indescribable anxiety, physical and mental trauma….with the financial pressures (to raise over Rs 2 lakhs for the treatment, when there was no time to even ply his rickshaw or thela) only adding to their stress.

“But still, I think I will vote for Modi,” he repeated. “I think because of Modi, nowadays the sarkari-log, the babus are more scared to bully and exploit people like me.  The babus and other people are also more scared to do do-numbaree (black marketing). People tell me, arre look at price rise under Modi; but I tell them, I don’t think Modi is to blame for price rise.  I think the real reason for price rise is because people, more and more people, are greedy. People nowadays buy much more than they need, or can use; that’s the reason.”

He then described how, two weeks ago, he was helping a couple in the neighbourhood pack their belongings to move out of the city. “They had two wall-cupboards filled with only chaddars (bed sheets and bed-covers),” he murmured in awe.  “They had more than three hundred chaddars in there, single and double! Most of them were new, untouched.  If one couple buys so many hundred chaddars, why won’t prices of chaddars go up, sir? It’s like that with everything…”

Suresh’s words, too, made me think.

Unlike Rahul, who has a team of illustrious economic advisors, Suresh has none.

But  Suresh has something that I think counts for much more: common sense, that comes from experience of hard ground realities.

I’ll go with Suresh’s insights into economics.

Jai hind.

Musings, Potshots

Balakote: A Post-Mortem for countless Jaish-e-Mohamed cadres

 

Balakote Post MortemAs Indian political leaders, and even some Indian journalists, question the veracity and impact of the Indian Air Force strikes on Jaish e Mohammed facilities at Balakote on February 26th, their questions resemble those of the smug lawyer who was questioning a pathologist in the Coroner’s Court:

Lawyer: Doctor, before you signed the death certificate, did you check the patient for pulse?

Doctor: No.

Lawyer: Did you check for blood pressure?

Doctor: No.

Lawyer: Did you check for breathing? For heartbeat?

Doctor: No.

Lawyer: (triumphantly)  So, doctor, do you admit it is possible that the patient was alive when you signed his death certificate?

Doctor: Well…let me put it this way. The patient’s brain was sitting in a jar on my desk when I signed his death certificate. But I guess it’s possible he was alive; indeed, he might even be practicing law somewhere.

I, dear reader, have no doubts at all about the IAF strikes on Balakote and their impact on the Jaish cadres sleeping in the targeted buildings. The several thousand kilos of penta-erythritol tetranitrate carried by those Spice missiles and thrust through the roofs of the buildings would have wreaked horrific destruction when they went off within – ripping apart metal, concrete, brick, wood, human flesh and bone.

I entirely empathized with the IAF Chief when he curtly told the media: “Our job is not to count bodies.”

Unlike the doubters as well as the gleeful war-mongers in their TV studios and editorial rooms, I do NOT want proof on how many JEM personnel were killed, or how many brooms and hoses were needed to clean up their remains.

Only the post-mortem of the deceased JEM cadres remains to be concluded.

The Coroner’s Court is noisy.

Two groups among those present—one Indian, the other Pakistani—are particularly strident. But strangely, both groups are screaming more or less the same things.

The Modi-led government is lying.”

“The Indian government is lying.”

“There was no Jaish camp in Balakote.”

“Where is the proof that there was a Jaish camp at Balakote?”

“Where’s the proof that the IAF hit their targets or killed any Jaish men?”

“The IAF hit nothing…only a few trees.”

How can Indians and Pakistanis be united in screaming against the Indian government?

Well…

The Pakistani group – comprising the Pak establishment, ISI, army and media – hates India in general and the Modi-led Indian government in particular. This is sad, yet understandable.

The Pakistani group’s hatred has been stoked by the IAF strikes on Balakote, which have gone down well among the Indian public in an election year.

The Indian group – comprising Congress, CPM, TMC and other Opposition parties, as well as large sections of Indian media –  hates the Modi-led government. This is sad, yet understandable.

The Indian group’s hatred too has been stoked by the IAF strikes on Balakote, which have gone down well among the Indian public in an election year.

Easy to understand…no?

I pay no attention to politicians because I do not trust politicians.  By definition, all politicians lie. Nikita Khrushchev put it succinctly:

Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.

With a few noble exceptions, I pay no attention to journalists because I do not trust journalists. Try this out: take any event or issue, look at five different newspapers or TV news channels or websites, and you’ll get at least 19 different versions of ‘fact’, varying continuously and seamlessly with every passing hour. Breaking news is no longer distinguishable from breaking wind. As Thomas Jefferson put it:

The advertisements are the most truthful part of a newspaper.

Who, then, O long-suffering reader, can we trust to show us, tell us, the truth?

I don’t know about you…but I’ll stick with the Indian armed forces.

Be at peace, O deceased Jaish men.  Unlike your Pakistani army handlers,  I at least acknowledge that you once lived.

Jai hind.