Books as the last refuge.

When I’m at home you’re most likely to find me sitting on a sofa in a windowless room in my basement, barricaded behind shelves and stacks of books. This is my refuge. This is where I come after fighting against the world. Without knowing it, in this respect I’ve turned into my father. He had set up part of the house where I grew as a personal library.

Many of the conversations with my father that I remember most vividly were around books– not only their content, but in which distant city he had bought them and for how much; the marginalia and the editions. I never had much small talk with him. But he would share his excitement whenever he found a rare book. He was a consummate collector and a voracious reader, up most nights reading.

As my father got older, his eyesight began to fail him. He would keep a magnifying glass on his table next to the table lamp. His recurring nightmare was no one would take care of his books. This was his “Après moi, le déluge“. I brought over to the United States some of the books he had collected- the moth-eaten copy of Tagore’s “Hungry Stones” he won as a prize in school, the yellow-paged “Kobita Shomogro” of Bishnu Dey he bought from the Kolkata Book Fair.

Instinctively, I understood. When my basement flooded a few years ago, my first concern was “what will happen to my books?” Fortunately, the damage was minimal, though the concern remains.

What is a home anyway? Home where your books are safe and have space. Home is the permanent address for your books.

When I visit the house where I grew up, I still find my bearings. The books on the shelf are exactly as I had placed them decades ago, their pages slightly dusty and worn. And it is comforting. In a world where nothing exists and no one can be relied on anymore, books offer a sense of security and escape, false perhaps, but much needed.

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Oh, the luxuries of traveling by car!

Travel by car is relatively comfortable in India these days. The roads are improved and the cars are modern. That was not always the case, and certainly not when I was growing up. There were two kinds of cars- the Hindustan Motors Ambassador and the Premier Padmini- and neither had been updated with creature comforts in decades. The seats were reasonably utilitarian but sofa-like. But you hardly ever enjoyed the seats. The cars were always loaded with more people than there were seats, so you sat on someone’s lap or someone sat on yours. Few cars had air-conditioning. No matter. We were all lucky when we were in a car instead of inside an infernally hot and crowded local bus.

Of course, there was no certainty in traveling by car back then. Hovering over your head to be uttered by the driver at any time were the three magic words- “gaari jabe na” (car won’t go). There was never any point asking why. It could be any number of reasons. Maybe the shoddy car had lost a part on the road. Or maybe the car had overheated. Or maybe the road had washed away in the rain. Or perhaps the road never actually existed anywhere except in someone’s imagination. It was something you accepted as an Absolute Truth.

If the car did go, you could not take for granted that you would arrive where you wanted to when you wanted to, since you were completely at the mercy of the driver. No Indian man has ever admitted that he does not know the way to get somewhere. The driver is too proud, and the villager is too keen to not offend. If the driver stops to get information, it is rarely reliable. Left may be right. Five minutes may be fifty. Time and space are elastic concepts in the expansive worldview of my people.

Just like the parable of blind men describing an elephant, you could ask five people for directions to a place and get five different answers. It does not really matter that that none of them know the answer or have been there: one had heard that the road was closed. Another had heard of dacoits stopping people. Yet another has heard about a new bypass. Someone else might stop you with a log across the road until you pay up for the local puja. Destination? What is a destination? Everything is maya.

Drivers also made it a habit of not telling you about problems with cars, or when they were running critically fumes until it was too late to do anything. I remember one time I was riding in an Ambassador that was so low on fuel that it stopped mid-river on a wood and bamboo fair-weather bridge. We had to gather villagers to help us push the car across the bridge- which fortunately did not collapse under the weight of the car and the mob pushing it- after which went then went with jerry-cans to fetch petrol.

Time was a flexible concept also. One time, we were going to a wedding in Kharagpur. As we arrived at the destination, we realized that we had arrived before the bridegroom and his party. There was a jubilant mob that approached up with “bor esheche! bor esheche!” (The bridegroom has arrived! The bridegroom has arrived). Thinking on his feet, my father immediately summoned us to get in the car and barked at the driver to drive off. Running a recon mission later, from a distance, once we observed that the actual bridegroom’s retinue had indeed arrived by bus and that the coast was clear, we headed back. It was a narrow escape. 

Things are much different these days. Everyone knows exactly where he or she is just from looking at a phone. You can call or text to say how long it will take you to arrive. There were no such facilities back then. Certainly, there was a lot more guesswork, especially at night. After a long bumpy journey, many a time I was relieved to think I had finally arrived at my destination, only to find that the taciturn driver had only stopped by the road to relieve himself.

Learning

Open the door of the closet you have been hiding in and take a look. There is sunlight streaming into the room. The monsters are gone. It is now safe to come outside and learn the stories behind the dry facts and formulae you were forced to commit to memory as a child.

Leaving your assumptions at the door, you enter.

A fact presented as a fait accompli is not a truth. A theory that has no predictive value is useless. If you cannot get an answer to “why?” you keep exploring. This is the classroom you deserved as a child, but have discovered as an adult.

“I need an answer now.” The impatient world rudely intervenes.

“Make up your mind. We have no time.”

“Time is not ours to own,” you want to say. Instead, you smile.

The order is repeated. “Make up your mind.”

You look at a slurry of dreams and memories. You mix in experiences and aspirations. You are taking your own sweet time. You making up your mind on your own terms.

You are finally learning.

On kindness

The Buddha did not answer questions about the existence of God because these questions are irrelevant to the challenges of day to day life. In the morning, more relevant than the question, “does God exist?” is the question, “which toothbrush is mine?”

Everything that brings you joy will also make you vulnerable. Seasons change. Generations are forgotten. Our place in the world is small and we are insignificant except to the few people for whom we matter. Our personal joys are only a small drop of water rolling on a lotus leaf beside the immense pond of human suffering.

In this ephemeral world, the fleeting conversations and the tiny interactions of kindness matter as much as anything else.

Of all the stories and parables in the life of Buddha that can inspire us– and indeed there are many– there the one I wanted to share with you. Siddhartha had starved himself to the point of death in search of enlightenment. Returning from his bath in the river Niranjana, he collapsed. At that moment, a stranger, Sujata came to him and offered him a bowl of kheer that saved his life.

Who knows, maybe your act of random kindness today will save the next Buddha?

On why I travel

I have a peculiar relationship with travel. I complain when I am on the road, but I am listless when I am back at home. I daydream about heading out when I’m in one place for too long. The Germans call it wanderlust; others say there is a travel bug. A Bengali proverb mischievously describes someone like me with a rhetorical question- “have you come here with your horse still saddled up?”

I have crisscrossed the planet many times and each time I have felt a sense of restlessness and paradoxically, of peace. Each time I have been away, I have been reminded of why I yearned to be back. Each time I was back, I reminisced about the parts of me I left in places far away. I have lost count of how many flights I have fallen asleep on, and of how many hotel beds I have woken up in- dissolving in the hallucinogenic intervals of lost bags, smudged entry stamps in passports, and midnight chats in taxis flashing by half-built buildings and bright neon hoardings.

Sometimes, being jet-lagged is waking up and not knowing where you are, what time it is, or how long you have slept. In hotel rooms, I have been awakened by the noise of the bathing of strangers in adjacent rooms, their laughter in hallways in the middle of their night, or their quarrels on balconies in languages I do not know. Travel enough and you collect so many of these snap audio tales.

Each trip taken connects me with other people. As Andrew Solomon observes: “you cannot understand the otherness of places you have not encountered.” Paris is not just the Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower: it is the city where Eastern European migrants play classical violin in Metro stations. Oaxaca is that child full of promise coloring pictures of azul mountains on a curbside. Cusco is that blind indigenous old woman with a wizened face selling scarves at San Pedro on Easter Sunday.

I do not travel to simply see places, as I once did. I travel to remind myself of my insignificance, to feel gratitude for the light and the air, to be hypersensitive to the strange and wonderful human race, and to rage and sob softly against indifference and cruelty wherever I see it. So often, it is the case that other people make travel interesting and the places themselves are just stages for their presence. 

Ultimately then, travel is form of disciplined self-negation. When you travel, your own problems do not matter in the face of the pressing need to find food, shelter, or a working internet connection. These are not theoretical abstract concerns. Even when you are lying on a beach staring at the waves or impatiently waiting for a train that will not come, you are waiting for something.

And so, travel is a form of hyperawareness- of finding yourself looking for patterns that are familiar. In strange lands, I search for a warm smile, a kind word, and a shared meal. For ultimately, you do not acutely miss the people you are with, until you are separated from them and forced to wander among strangers.

The great experiment

 

Nearly ten years ago on a whim, I started this blog. At about the same time, I also joined Facebook and Twitter.  For all intents and purposes, this blog has been on life support for years. I’ve also severely restricted my forays on Facebook to infrequent personal updates. What I had been doing almost without fail for nearly a decade was to tweet. After nearly 50,000 tweets, I felt that it was a good time to take a break.

Twitter works mainly because there things are always happening in this hyper-connected on the world- on a political, cultural, and social level-  all waiting to be experienced on a collective basis in real-time. Conceptually, it is brilliant. There are always elections, political speeches, horrendous crimes, blockbuster movies, natural disasters, prejudices, and television shows to drive instant reactions. You will never run out of things to feed the machine.

I’m not above the fray in joining these events- after all people face existential threats such as climate change, bigoted world-leaders, and discrimination on a daily basis. But after a while, it started to become tiresome trying to keep up with a world that was “very much with us” all the time.

A few years ago, I decided that I would not tweet mainly on current affairs, but about emotions, experiences, and new learnings. I would skip the latest gaffe or outrage of the day, and focus on what I exclusively found interesting, regardless of whether anyone else cared or not. There were two exceptions: I did comment on gender issues from a personal perspective; and on the beautiful game- international football, which I found irresistible.

These past few years I tweeted about places, food, science, history, culture, art, and poetry (in four languages). I tweeted about my emotions in sending off my son to school on his first day and of leaving my homeland again on a jet plane. I tweeted about reading Neruda’s poems on Machu Picchu and feeling nostalgia for an unknown world. I tweeted about the creation of the universe, on the formation of black holes, on how to rig elections, on the Panama Canal, on a radioactive disaster in Brazil, and on the fall of Constantinople. I tweeted about eating simple marketplace tamales that brought tears of joy to my eyes.

After a while, the returns on Twitter started to diminish: I found a core group of friends on Twitter whose tweets I was interested in, but those voices were drowned out in the cacophony of mean-spirited, hypocritical, angry, or perpetually inconsolable voices that I was trying to escape from in real-life.  The compulsion to broadcast new experiences and knowledge to a largely unknown audience was disappearing, and often I was simply repeating myself.

Tweeting was becoming something I did- a chore. I was taking photos of meals and trips to the grocery store and sharing them. I was engaging in conversations with an unknown virtual audience instead of the real people surrounding me. I appreciated the company, but at times, it also meant that I was disconnected from the here and the now. “Better to stop and enjoy the cup of coffee and go for a walk leaving the phone at home,” I thought.

So is this a long-winded, self-absorbed rationale for quitting Twitter? Well, not quite.

Do anything for ten years and you’ll meet some good people. There are people who are consistently putting out exceptionally brilliant perspectives on Twitter. There are people who are sharing amazing essays, poetry, travelogues, and art. There are people who know the best places to eat and the things you have to do when you visit their hometowns. These are people who I’ve never met, but who I feel I know on a personal level and who I care about. And if you have a specific question, Twitter is still an amazing place.

Ten years is a long time, but it also passes by quickly. A few days ago, I was browsing through photos from a trip to Hawaii I had taken exactly ten years ago, and reminiscing about all that has happened since then. So much has changed.

Ten years ago, I was more arrogant, angry, and restless than I am today. I am sure of less now, but appreciative of more. My hair has grayed a little bit more, but my eyes are kinder. I am still a work in progress. I have fewer friends and family, but I care for their well-being more. I stop to hold doors for people, I talk in lower volumes, I tread on grass softly, I empty my pockets for the poor, and I am pained when see indifference. I have gained so much in experience, but have lost so much in the process. In ten years through external and internal conversations, I have come to terms with my own privilege and the relatively easy life and path I have had because of my socioeconomic, caste, gender, and educational background. Me now and me ten years ago? We are different people.

And so, a very selfish, narcissistic reason why I won’t be able to retreat completely from social media is that it served to fossilize my thoughts in amber. So many of my consequential and trivial thoughts were splattered all across these platforms. I’ve seen myself change through the lens of social media.

That’s the Great Experiment in my view; that’s the key difference social media makes to each of us. Tweets, blog-posts, and Facebook updates remind us of the journey. They’re mile-markers to tell us where we were on a particular day in a particular time.

I’m not insane (I’ve only lost my mind)

Imagine that you are locked up in an insane asylum. You are perfectly sane, or so you think. In fact, you have lived your life with the assumption that you are normal. Now, you are stuck inside a mental ward because the doctors have diagnosed you with a very serious mental illness.

The doctors think that you have to be isolated from the rest of society because you have been identified as a threat. And society has willingly abandoned you.

Inside the ward, you struggle to come to grips with your helplessness. Because you have no legal rights as a human, your movement is restricted and you are deprived of privacy for even your most basic daily activities. The nurses and attendants have complete control over you. You are shocked that they go on with their business without ever talking to you or even noticing you. They even talk about you in front of you in degrading terms as if you are incapable of comprehension. You cannot change your situation or station in life. If you commit the “grievous sin” of talking to the staff without first asking for permission, you suffer a merciless beating.

Understandably, you are scared and nervous, but you also believe you will be released soon if you act normal. You go about your daily life trying to convince others that you are not insane. Unfortunately, your every act is perceived as a symptom of your diagnosed insanity, which of course, leads you to even greater desperation. You come to realize the unspoken dictum in society that a psychiatrist’s diagnosis is seldom if ever reversed. In fact there is rarely an opportunity to even get a second opinion. With your institutionalization, you have been deprived of one of the most basic tenets of a democratic society; you have been handed a verdict with little chance of any sort of appeal.

Does this sound like a ludicrous run-of-the-mill plot from a low-budget potboiler? Surely, the scenario that I have painted is a little too far-fetched. Or, is it?

In the early Seventies, David Rosenhan, a professor of psychology at Stanford University in California, devised scientific experiments to answer an eerily similar question: how effective would professionally-trained caregivers be in separating the sane from the insane? In 1973, the results of his experiment were published in a research paper in the prestigious American scientific journal Science.

Let us took a closer look at what Rosenhan found. His experimental setup was elegantly simple. He planned to have eight normal volunteers, including himself, masquerade as psychiatric patients. These so-called fake patients would try to gain admittance to twelve psychiatric hospitals and if admitted, they would immediately revert to behaving what they perceived as “normal” to try to get out.

Rosenhan wanted to perform his experiment thoroughly and put a lot of thought into the design. The psychiatric hospitals were chosen carefully to represent a good geographical mix within the United States. Also, there was a mix of public and public hospitals, and both small and large ones in the experiment. What Rosenhan was striving to achieve was to test if there was any variance to detection of deception in different clinical settings.

In addition, Rosenhan chose his volunteers to represent what society generally considers “serious” individuals. One of the volunteers was a psychology student. Among others were a psychiatrist, a housewife, a painter, a pediatrician, and three psychologists. Five of the volunteers were men and three were women, so there was little gender disparity. None of the volunteers had ever experienced symptoms of any serious mental disorder, so their history gave them a clean chit too.

To keep from the fraud getting detected, volunteers were told to hide names and occupations when they visited the hospitals. An elaborate background story was created for each one of them. Upon arrival at the hospital, each fake patient complained that he or she had heard unfamiliar, muffled voices that uttered the words “empty,” “hollow,” and “thud”. These words were chosen deliberately because Rosenhan felt that they might be construed to existentially signify the meaningless of life, but by no means did they indicate any serious psychiatric disorder. Apart from these falsifications, the volunteers were instructed to provide truthful information to the consulting psychiatrists as long as their anonymity was preserved.

Before approaching the hospitals, the fake patients expressed concern that they would be exposed as frauds. Such anxiety, however, turned out to be completely unfounded. Each and every fake patient presented the same symptoms to psychiatrists in the twelve hospitals tested and not once was the deception detected! Interestingly, the most common diagnosis which occurred eleven times in frequency was schizophrenia. One psychiatrist diagnosed manic-depressive psychosis. Both of these conditions are usually adequate grounds for separating patients from the rest of society.

As part of the plan, once admitted, each fake patient acted as he or she normally would do as far as possible under the circumstances. Each attempted to engage both the patients and the staff in normal conversation as much as allowed. Visitors of these fake patients did not detect any behavioral changes during the stay. Remarkably, despite this observation by external sources, the notion that these fake patients might be sane (or recovering) was never even considered by the hospital staff. The fake patients were in a quandary because normal activities such as writing notes in a diary were judged to be typical symptoms of mental illness. Interestingly, it was common for the other genuine patients of the ward (for lack of a better description) to expose the fake patients as being sane!

If Rosenhan’s experiment presents a bleak picture to you, rest assured that there is a somewhat happy ending. Thankfully, all the volunteers were ultimately released with their “sanity” intact. Hospital administrators had been informed of the experiment prior to the undertaking to prevent the possibility of extended hospitality.

When word of the results of this experiment got out on the street, there was a ruckus. Staff at a very prestigious hospital that had not been part of the original experiment doubted that such serious inaccuracies could happen at their own establishment.

Rosenhan put this claim to the challenge. He told the staff of this hospital that as part of his study, he would send one or more fake patients in the following three months. However, this turned out to be no more than a bluff. No volunteers were sent by Rosenhan in that time-frame. Strikingly, even though no fake patients had been sent to the hospital, the staff examined 193 patients who were admitted for psychiatric treatment during this time and came to the conclusion that that forty-one were not real patients at all!

By this point, you may be wondering how this elaborate experiment concerns the rest of us, since it is unlikely that we will ever be treated for a serious psychiatric disorder. However, all of us will have to visit a physician at some time or other. Statistical studies have indicated that physicians are more likely to diagnose a healthy person as being sick as opposed to find that a sick person is healthy. So much for rational objectivity in the medical sciences!

What can we conclude from this analysis? We can not accuse all physicians of ignorance or malicious intent because that conclusion is a far stretch from the truth. However, we can also safely assume that the results of misdiagnosis are not equal in all cases. Obviously, it is better to treat a healthy person for a disease he or she does not have than to turn away a truly sick person with a clean chit of health. Overmedication or prescribing the wrong medicine is generally not as harmful as failing to detect a real disease. Understandably, physicians almost instinctively err on the side of caution.

The problem is that when a wrong diagnosis is made, it can be difficult to reverse. In the Rosenhan study, after the psychiatrists had diagnosed the fake patients with serious psychiatric disorders, the staff believed that they were patients and all normal activities were perceived as supporting the diagnosis. This tendency is known in psychology as a confirmation bias and it is fairly ubiquitous in our everyday lives.

How does a confirmation bias form? A proposition either preconceived or with mild support finds favor. Then, all information that supports the proposition is magnified in the mind. Any information that can be stretched to support the proposition is also accepted as additional confirmation. Information that directly contradicts the proposition are either ignored or avoided.

The confirmation bias comes to us naturally. Instead of looking dispassionately at evidence, we are programmed to unconsciously sort through data to find patterns that support our theories. Every time the gambler wins a jackpot, it confirms his belief that he is talented. If he loses, it is an unfortunate thought that has to be avoided and put at the back of the mind. Every dream that can be somehow made to fit in with reality is proof that the psychic has supernatural skills; thousands more that cannot be distorted to fit in with reality are either forgotten or explained away.

Even the nature of the information does not matter. The same data is used by the party in power to show that government is succeeding in improving the lives of citizens, and by the opposition to claim that the same citizens are worse of than they were before.

So, should we strive to be completely open-minded in our lives, then? I would argue that such a human does not exist. What I am advocating is that it is possible to train the mind to think critically to try to avoid conformation biases. A simple test is to ask ourselves what evidence we need to reevaluate our currently-held positions. Are we fairly flexible in our views? Do we need an insurmountable burden of evidence to even consider other alternate viewpoints?

All of us like to surround ourselves with those that agree with our views. When our views are uncontested, this allows us to safely stay within our own mental comfort-zones Personally speaking, I often find it difficult to be told that I am wrong and to accept this as a fact. However, to think rationally it is also necessary to be flexible and to consider opposing viewpoints. I know that this is easier said than done. There will always be those that seek to justify religious intolerance, gender bias, caste discrimination, or racism based on what they consider “evidence” that the cohort they belong to is superior to others.

Just take a moment to consider the terrifying power of biased thinking. What would happen if every judge selectively scrutinized evidence to convict an alleged criminal; if every leader rushed into war without heeding warnings from generals; and if every scientist abandoned new ideas that did not conform to rigid theories? That would be an insane world indeed!