Fading

Some days I scan the dark figures flitting along the sidewalks for a face. I plant footsteps until my muscles ache, until I gasp for breath, until exhaustion and numbness force me to seek shelter indoors. I see many haggard faces during these jaunts, but never the one I want to see.

One day, on the Metro I saw a woman transform her own face. She was rather plain looking when she got on the train and sat down. But then, she opened her makeup kit and painted a new one with the brushstrokes of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Everyone was busy reading the morning papers, playing with their phones, or listening to music; no one else noticed the metamorphosis. I had never seen her before: I never saw her again. Maybe it never really happened.

There was a homeless man who sat on a bench in the park I cut across to get in to work every day. I sprinted past him in spring as the first leaves sprouted, in summer when lovers sat in the shade of trees, and in autumn as the crimson and burnt-orange leaves fell. He always stared at the statue of the famous admiral in the center of the park. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” I thought, as I rushed on every day. On the coldest day of winter, the bench was covered in rags– it looked like a termite mound. I wanted to go up to the homeless man to say, “everything is going to be all right!” but I did not have the courage to brush the thick blankets covering the bench, and lie to the face I had never really noticed before. Instead, I glared at the statue and walked on. I never saw the homeless man sitting on that bench again. Maybe he was never really there.

It frightens me when I walk out of the shower and the mirrors are so foggy that I can’t see anything clearly. I wait for the condensate to streak down like tears. For a moment, I am taken aback by the face I see.  I try to remember what it looked like to test my memory, but always fall short.

There are many faces I see every day. Some of them seem familiar… Is it true that none of them are exactly like they were when I last saw them? Maybe, as they change incrementally every moment, they reach a point after which I will no longer be able to recognize them. Or maybe, incremental is not the right word? As we sleep, what if black dotted lines are etched and a sharp scalpel is taken to our serene faces so we wake up different each morning?

Snapshots are not helpful either. I can recall the face in one photograph, but it doesn’t look like the face of the same person in another. Photographs only serve as crutches for failing memories to lean on. We build memories around deceptive hazy images, which crystallize shades and oblique angles.

I shut my eyes and try to remember what you looked like. All I can recall from all those years that I knew you are a few disjointed fragments. I am bitterly saddened: I am scared because I am forgetting your face.

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Headphoney

It is a truth universally acknowledged that no one should ask the parents of a recently-married desi bride their impression of their new son-in-law. I made this egregious error once, failing to realize that I did not have a few hours to kill in an excruciating manner similar to waterboarding. I was immediately subjected to a long, well-prepared speech on the son-in-law’s virtues. Had I not know the individual in question, I would have been excused for assuming that he was sole inheritor of Kuber’s treasure, taught general physics by Igor Irodov, with mores of King Harishchandra, the visage of Adonis, and the cricketing technique of Sir Don Bradman. The fact that I actually knew the poor old chap or that I could just as easily have discovered his credentials had been embellished lavishly by conducting a simple web-search did not have any effect on the force of the conversation. Desi parents and in-laws are happily oblivious of Google.

In my error-prone, inquisitive ways, I recently made a similar mistake in asking an acquaintance what he thought of his newly-purchased headphones. I was informed in gory detail not only about the various merits of his own headphones, but also how he made the decision to purchase that particular pair. The gusto with which he outlined this life-changing event is usually reserved for justifying wars. I could not help but get the sense that there had been a gaping void in his life which was waiting to be filled by the mass-produced pair of headphones which were “just right for him”.

Nowadays, you can buy a fascinating variety of headphones (or svelte earphones). That was not the case in India when I was growing up. We put cassettes into tape-recorders and listened in our rooms keeping the volume down, whenever our parents were at home. When we listened to disco tracks composed by Bapi Lahiri, we kept out fingers near the volume knob, ever poised to turn the music down at the slightest sound of anyone else. Of course it didn’t matter during festival-time: everyone suffered through the same songs screeching distorted on the highest volume-settings of rented loudspeakers. The mic-walas in turn were catholic in their playlists: Hindi filmi, followed by Bhojpuri or Oriya folk-songs, Marathi dance-numbers, and Bangla khemta. If there was a pounding beat, they played it and you listened. You’ve heard about noise-canceling? You shut the windows and put the pillows over your ears. Music was communal, or so you told yourself as you tossed and turned in bed all night.

Around that time, I got my first Walkman. The headphones had a flimsy plastic and metal band which went over my hair and ruined the Salman Khan style desperately needed to be a dashing school-student. The sound was tolerable or maybe it wasn’t: I wasn’t an audiophile back then and Kumar Sanu isn’t particularly improved by 5.1 surround sound. I broke the band of my headphone from use and had to tape it back together again. The sound in one ear faded and would drop unless I held the wire at a particular angle. The chug-chug crescendo of the Howrah local train pierced occasionally by the “Oy, salted nuts!” shriek of the hawker added to the ambient effect of Nadeem-Shravan’s Aashiqui.

From that to noise-canceling headphones, which drown out roaring airplane jets and wailing infants at 30,000 feet – we have all come a long way. There has been an explosion of headphones and earphones- in-ear, behind-ear, clip-on-ear, ear-covering , and covering-half-of-face-in-case-of-dipping-temperature models. Despite the innovations, the concept remains the same: we are essentially bringing a couple of vibrating wires very close to our electricity-conducting brain-boxes.

Still, I must admit that headphones are indispensable. Some days, on the Metro train I distinctly hear thumping beats coming from in-ear phones of passengers standing three meters away. Jay-Z at any volume is toxic: at those decibels it must turn the brain to mush. These innocuous-looking devices are weapons of mass destruction.

Everyone has a favorite pair of headphones. I own a a number of headphones including a pair of noise-canceling ones which fully cover the ears. They drown out pesky external noises as I listen to Lisa Kelly croon “Now we are free” from Gladiator, while slavishly preparing quarter-end business reports. Unfortunately, because they work so well, they also deprive me of one vital function – the ability to listen to what is going on outside. Just as a secondary function of sunglasses is to allow the wearer to lech in a socially-acceptable manner, headphones assist in casually listening to conversations without fear of being ostracized as a habitual eavesdropper.

I have older headphones for that purposes, because to eavesdrop, you need ones that allow you to listen clearly when the sound is kept at low or no volume. Of course, you will initially be tested by those around you who suspect that you’re not listening to music. As a kid, I used to keep my eyes shut and feign that I was sleeping. When I would be called out, I’d screw my eyelids tighter together and get caught in the act of overacting. As divine punishment for my treachery, these days I sometimes get asked, “are you sleeping?” when I am in fact sleeping. Lesson learned. The key is acting normal.

Years of practice have made me an expert at headphone-enabled eavesdropping. From my vacant stare you have absolutely no way of knowing that I can hear every word you’re saying about me.

As the year passes by…

As you read something that interests you, do you ever feel that you’d like to pause and visit again later? To retrace your steps and savor every word?

I’ve written quite a bit at this blog in 2011. I’ve read millions of words more. I have a hard time holding on to some of the pearls in the constant tidal wave of information that inundates me on a daily basis. Being able to mark links on Twitter has definitely made it a lot easier. Using links that I’ve tweeted or retweeted, and predominantly, for my own sake, I’ve decided to post links to some of the outstanding content I’ve read this year.

Depending on interest and time, I may post links to other types of content – news, travelogues, humor columns, science, current affairs, and sports,  but the first set of pieces I’d like to highlight focus on deeply personal experiences. Each of the links below is to an essay, column, blogpost, or poem which has made me think for a bit. (There is even a commencement address written by a famous luminary who you might either admire or loathe). Not all were written in 2011. Not all will be to your liking. But they’re quite introspective. And they’re full of feeling.

This is not a “best-of” list. This is not a “must-read” list. I have no delusions of literary talent or archival skills. If I read your personal post and failed to cite it, blame my failing memory. (You’ll notice that most of the content is skewed towards the end of the year and for that simple reason).

So here goes…

  1. Moving account of a son coming to grips with his father’s alcoholism http://t.co/GMzOms0W
  2. Someone… who is permanently offline http://t.co/hNshY6yq
  3. “We came back to India, instead, because we needed fixing.” http://t.co/a49zXX5q
  4. “There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises…” http://t.co/BnC9zAQa
  5. An All-American Bakhr-Eid http://t.co/p0pa2CP2
  6. “”It’s as Amreekan as turkey and chicken khorma.”  http://t.co/F3AdApTT
  7. “Eighteen years of education lost to the perspective of a three year-old.” http://bit.ly/shkcAC
  8. “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” http://t.co/iqcUBVWC
  9. “The Price of Oranges.” http://j.mp/pqFJ9L
  10. “Let me breathe it in an ear that will never be formed, so that it can be known by a mind that will never know memory.” http://t.co/8dTmAfT
  11. The baton passes. And how! http://bit.ly/sMm1Db
  12. A father writes to a son during the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984. http://t.co/MmmYZDY2
  13. On permanently being in college. http://bit.ly/tiqk5a
  14. Note to self: http://bit.ly/vp3Sa8
  15. “…of the temporal distance between known and unknown.” http://bit.ly/w3i1Nt
  16. “It’s probably a merciful thing that pain is impossible to describe from memory.” http://t.co/c2HgubPP
  17. Poem: On living with a severely-autistic daughter. http://t.co/O66BTXrR
  18. “Some knitted, some read the day’s paper, some were lost in a siesta under blankets put out in the sun.” http://bit.ly/rHXVNs
  19. Poem: Thirty-one. http://bit.ly/t7J8Kg
  20. Poem: The monument. http://t.co/9vxK9jU

Obviously, I take no credit for writing (or even discovering) any of these pieces. They’re damn good ones, all the same.

Subramanian Swamy, Free Speech at Harvard, and the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States

There has been debate over the past few days regarding the decision of Harvard University to cancel two summer courses taught by Subramanian Swamy. Earlier this year, Janata Party President, Dr. Swamy wrote a highly-charged column in which he called for disenfranchising Muslims in India who did not “acknowledge that their ancestors were Hindu.” He also called for the destruction of hundreds of mosques across the country.

The Harvard amendment to exclude Dr. Swamy’s course was proposed by Comparative Religion Professor, Diana Eck, who noted that there was “a distinction between unpopular and unwelcome political views.” From the resulting vote, it was clear that a majority of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences viewed Dr. Swamy as unwelcome in their institution.

In response to the decision, a column in The Hindu put forward the opinion that Harvard should have stood by Dr. Swamy’s right to freedom of speech:

“Freedom of speech is probably the most sacred constitutional guarantee of all, and the true test of this sacred right is when someone uttering morally repugnant thoughts exercises it. The U.S. courts have long held that in times like these, there is a need to swallow hard and understand that, in a free society, any restriction on speech or expression must be taken under very serious consideration and pass some very stringent tests regarding public safety, and clear and present danger.”

If you parse the text written by a Harvard-educated lawyer carefully, you will note that Dr. Swamy’s right to express his opinion as enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution is alluded to; and the underlying premise, while not directly stated is that Harvard has denied Dr. Swamy this right by removing his classes from their roster.

Any such assumption is incorrect. Harvard did not infringe upon Dr. Swamy’s “freedom of speech” as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

First, let us take a look at the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

As stated in a report presented to Congress, the First Amendment has been interpreted as not only applying to Congress “but to all branches of the federal government, and to all branches of state and local government.”

It should be noted that the right to exert free speech does not immediately prevent the right of another party to react to it. The First Amendment gives me the right to say what I want about my employer. It does not protect me from the consequences of my action: termination of employment and further litigation for divulging company secrets. Just because I can tell my wife whatever is on my mind, doesn’t mean that she can’t approach a court of law for divorce proceedings.

One might argue that these situations constitute personal matters. However, the First Amendment cannot always be involved when it involves public servants either. The Supreme Court has ruled that the matter on which free speech is exerted must be a public concern and that “on a matter of purely private concern, the employee’s First Amendment interest must give way, as it does in speech cases.”

Finally, although there is rigorous debate over the boundaries of academic freedom, recent cases have indicated that First Amendment protection is not universally applicable even to professors at publicly funded institutions. The most notable example of a tenured professor coming under flak for his comments is that of Ward Churchill who compared victims of 9/11 to Nazis. The University of Colorado where he worked initially declined to fire Churchill citing First Amendment protection. Churchill was fired later for an unrelated charge of “academic misconduct” after which he sued his former employers for violation of his First Amendment Rights. A lower court awarded Churchill one dollar in restitution. An appeals court ruled that the University of Colorado was immune from his lawsuit. In other related cases, courts have ruled that while academic freedom is a “special concern” of the First Amendment, protections (or lack thereof) offered to any one citizen must be offered to others.

With these considerations in mind, note that Dr. Swamy was a temporary teacher at a private institution who was requested to teach two courses. He was not prevented from writing his column. He was not prevented from espousing his views. He was not terminated from a position which he held as a permanent faculty-member. Faculty members of a private university convened and voted to remove his two courses from consideration. In reality, had Dr. Swamy been a permanent faculty employee of the university, he would not as easily been dismissed, but that is the reality of the academic world.

Further, the decision to not recall Dr. Swamy does not immediately cast aspersion on free speech in America. In 2007, Columbia University invited Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, widely-detested in the US for his views on Israel to speak in New York. That was a decision made by another private university. Some disagreed with it. In 2010, Rev Terry Jones was never legally barred from his hateful speeches on Islam or his threats though they could’ve been construed to incite violence.

In China, you can get in trouble for criticizing the government, in Palestine for questioning Israel, and in Saudi Arabia for pretty much anything. Even in many liberal countries of Europe, questioning the historical authenticity of the Holocaust, will land you in jail for a few years.

In my opinion, viewpoints that do not pose an immediate threat to citizens should be allowed to be voiced even if they are reprehensible, so that they can be exposed.

In any case, the crux of the matter is that whether or not the decision was harsh and that it should have gone the other way can be debated, but an argument cannot be made that the decision was unlawful.

Inferno

A private hospital in Kolkata is issued a warning by the fire brigade to clear its basement. Months pass by. Nothing happens.

A fire starts in that basement. The television channel crews arrive.  The newscaster keeps saying “Jaise ki aap dekh rahen hain… as you can see.”

Yes, we can see.

The fire brigade approaches the building. Billowing smoke makes the approach difficult. Hydraulic cranes move in like slow moving sauropods.  One firefighter is standing on the crane beating against thick glass with what looks like a wooden plank, trying to break it. The camera focuses in on him. He doesn’t give up. Neither does the glass.

The camera moves to the shocked tear-stained face of a middle-aged woman standing outside. Some people who were going to the market in the morning have stopped in their tracks. There are news-crews, curious onlookers, politicians, and policemen.

Some men are now inside breaking glass to release the smoke. To let in air to those who were hooked up to oxygen cylinders.

Word has it that when those who were well enough to move suspected something was amiss and wanted to escape the hospital, they were asked to pay their bills before being allowed to leave.  At least they had a choice. That is more of an option than what bedridden patients had.

There is anger. In the past, indignant crowds have vented frustration. They have beaten up doctors. Because grievously injured doctors take better care of their patients. They have blocked roads. Because creating roadblocks is the best way to ensure the sick get to hospitals on time. They have set fire to public property. Because burning down buses is the best way to ensure nothing else burns down again.

The government will blame the management. The Opposition will blame the government. Heads will roll. Arrests will be made. Buildings will be required to comply with fire ordinances, or else!

Or else, what?

We always need a tragedy for nothing to happen.

Hamsadhwani

I cannot recall when I first heard someone say that humans should try to save the earth from imminent destruction. It may have been written on a sign, or I may have read it in column. It is a common argument: humans need to act now to save the earth or we might propel the planet toward destruction.

The possibility that one day we will inflict the full force of our ruthlessness on the earth is quite real. At some point in our history, we may succeed in pushing the climate to a point of no return, we may annihilate ourselves through a cold and dark nuclear winter, or we may generate a grave pestilence against which we have no defense. But can we really destroy the earth?

No. The earth needs no saving.

But how can you say that humans are not capable of destroying the earth? That our planet needs no saving? In a very short span of time, humans have put a physical mark on the landscape like no other species before us. We’ve lit up the night sky and etched wonderworks which are visible from space. We’ve climbed the tops of mountains and dived into the depths of the oceans.

For the earth is not just any planet. It is the only one we know which teems with life. The myriad life forms on earth are as much a part of the planet as the oceans, ice-shelves, and canyons. And we’re killing these life forms off at an alarming rate. If we continue to impact the environment, won’t that threaten living organisms which are a constant part of this earth? As for anthropogenic climate change and nuclear war – wouldn’t events such as these be cataclysmic for the planet?   

The earth does need saving.

Here is a hypothetical scenario: if someday the technology that aliens in science-fiction novels use to pulverize the earth becomes a reality for our descendants, would they contemplate using it? There is not an iota of doubt in my mind that they would. For all of our skills, we are still capable of extremely short-sighted suicidal tendencies. We don’t lack the impudence to think about destroying the planet: we lack the technical ability. The earth will survive because we can’t destroy it, regardless of how hard we try. At worst, we are a  pesky comet or a supervolcano. We are not a heating sun or a supernova. Life, as it exists on our planet is supported by the alignments of the planets, the precise temperature of the sun, the gravitational pull of the moon, and other planetary and geological wonders which we cannot violate.

Speaking of extinctions, most species that existed on this planet – by some estimates, 99% or more – became extinct before we could contemplate our place here. We helped death along by precipitating the demise of the passenger pigeon and the dodo. Before we become extinct, we will continue to kill off other species. Perhaps, in our final dying moments, the number of species which are wiped out will spike. But the earth will survive as it has in the past. We are in a hurry to modify our surroundings because our lifetimes are short, but evolution does not follow human timetables. With time, traces of the ugly abominations we erected will vanish and new life forms will develop and cherish this wonderful planet. Maybe they will be wiser than us? We will never know. When our time comes, we will go. The earth will still survive.

Are you saying that if the earth is physically destroyed that would be a tragedy, but that the extinction of life around us is inevitable? If the earth changes because of us, then we have failed to save it. You can’t deny that humans have modified the planet like no other single species before us. If we don’t save the wondrous life around us, wouldn’t that be a tragedy? Don’t you feel a pang of sorrow when you see a polar bear stranded on shrinking ice knowing that it might be too late to save the species? When you know that there are plants in the Amazon River basin that are dying because of massive deforestation to feed our so-called progress? We can do something about it. We should do something about it. We’re an advanced species with the gift of conscious thought and the power to make decisions that impact our planet.

I never condoned inaction. We’re currently in the middle of a mass extinction, no doubt. This worries me immensely and I wince to think about how many forms of life we are destroying each moment, some perhaps, without our knowledge. The fact remains that the earth is the only planet I will ever know. I wish I had many lifetimes to study it, to observe it, and to simply be filled with wonder. I’ll do whatever I can to save the polar bear, the panda, and the tiger, even though for some species it may be too late. I do not attempt to explain why I feel this way logically, but I consider this part of what makes me human. Our descendants deserve to enrich their own lives by knowing the life we have around us; by killing it off, we’re failing both our ancestors and our descendants.

On a human scale, the plants we farm and the animals we’ve domesticated have changed irreversibly already. As natural surroundings change, so do organisms. Plants and animals should live unaltered according to my own convenient whim. But this is an anthropocentric view. My curiosity, my sorrow, my acknowledgement of the scale of tragedy of death has no bearing on what happened billions of years on this planet and what will happen for billions of years after my infinitely short life. What I can do is to try to prevent destruction in my own lifetime.

I’ve heard the argument that humans are an advanced species, but why do we take that at face value? How are we superior? There are other organisms which exceed us in numbers: there are many more tiny bacteria in the human body than “human” cells.  There are organisms which can live in more extreme environments like the boiling cauldrons of sulfurous springs. Many species of bacteria can replicate in the span of minutes. Tortoises live longer than us by decades.

And species we consider primitive? If all living organisms trace their roots back to common ancestors that arose several billion years ago, if we all evolved over the same billions of years in a constant struggle to survive in our changing niches, how are any more advanced or primitive than others? The dodo was no less suited for its environment than the monstrously-oversized chicken is in an assembly line farm where it thrives. We precipitated its demise. Who is to say that some day some other organism doesn’t precipitate our own? Neither is the sloth lazy nor the snake vile, in an absolute sense. For all of our superiority, a minor change in atmospheric temperature might wipe us out, without causing the least discomfort to a unicellular bacterium.

That is not to say that humans are not unique. We possess intellect. We can manipulate tools. We can record our histories and archive our collective thoughts. We have certain skills which no other organism possesses. We can analyze and learn from our mistakes, when we choose to do so. To be able to express emotions, record abstract thoughts, and attempt to understand surroundings are both collectively and individually a blessing. I am grateful for the written words on this screen, longevity due to modern medicine, notes of Hamsadhwani, the frescoes of Ajanta, bitter dark-chocolate, and comfortable walking shoes, among countless other gifts.

But, quintessentially, in our minds humans are the most advanced species on the planet because we are human. Perhaps, since I am a member of the species, I find nothing wrong with this prismatic viewpoint. But, increasingly I believe that the earth was not created for us and will not perish with us. There is nothing divine about us. We are not the Chosen Ones.

If this world is all we have- and there is no compelling reason in my mind to believe otherwise- there is nothing more spiritual than trying to preserve it. Especially with the sobering knowledge that ultimately it is an impossible feat.

In reality that is what saving the earth is about. It is about saving ourselves and the life we know and value.