Tuesday, June 1, 2021

రాయమనే కథలే ఓ సంచారి

On most days, I don't really understand what goes on in my head. Sometimes it's nice, when I'm surprised that I know the answer to a question I didn't know I knew. At times it's a thrill when I'm trying to remember the name of a filmmaker and try to go around clicking hyperlinks in my head until, voila!, I suddenly reach the destination. But many times, it's infuriating/ alarming/ exhausting to learn that what I thought, what I was led to believe, was a permanent fixture, suddenly revealed its transcience and simply disappeared. This is as true for interests and worldviews as it is for resolutions and emotions. The latter two I understand, having lived with them all my life more or less. The former two I'm still coming to terms with. 

Let me try to illustrate the point with an example: A month ago, I discovered this wonderful podcast called History of Philosophy. As usual, I didn't just want to dip into it but wanted immerse myself in it, to start from the basics, so I started from the first of over a hundred episodes. I heard 3 or 4. Loved them. I went around looking for essays/ books involved. I felt that I had discovered what it is that I wanted to do, that this was to be my vocation. I imagined myself going back to college to study, impress everyone with my original mind and do tremendous research that would bring me joy and accolades. I beat everyone I spoke to with that hammer for those few days. It also became my stock lens for understanding my world. And as suddenly as it flared up, my interest in that dissipated. I realised I wasn't able to concentrate on the podcast, I had to keep rewinding. Then I spent the next few days cursing my immense stupidity for letting my fantasy take wings despite similar previous experiences. I told myself that I should learn from this experience and embrace who I was. That my interests were varied and the intensity with which I pursued them would ebb and flow. That my primary mistake was my desperate need to associate myself with one thing at the cost of everything else. I was looking for that one thing which would let me escape from the frustrations and consolations of having to keep thinking, keep figuring out, keep updating my mental models. That I was trying to live like an archetype, for the simple reason that it'd cost my less mental energy, instead of celebrating the reality that my being couldn't be reduced to simplistic tropes. I knew that this solace was temporary too but I enjoyed it. I hoped to learn from it and deal with the next crest with more equanimity, all the while knowing that I possibly couldn't hold onto this rock of realization when the next wave inevitably hit with surprise and force. That I'd dive in naively, greedily, because it was too hard to resist the temptation. 

And as if on cue, the next wave, Christopher Nolan's films, hit rightaway. Back to square one of fantasizing and imagining and telling myself that I'd finally arrived at my truth. WashRinseRepeat.

I'm not exactly complaining because I genuinely seem to enjoy this aspect of myself. Truth be told, I'm probably too much in love with myself so its actually a bit of a problem. But I find it interesting at my mind's capacity to shift and change so much while also essentially remaining roughly in the same area. My interests haven't changed drastically- It's still mostly a bit of science, a bit of society, philosohy, art and tech. It's the temporariness and, more interestingly, the intensity that's.. well, what exactly is it?

--

I watched a few films in the last few weeks and I've been meaning to briefly write about four:

  • Siddu Jonnalagadda's Krishna and His Leela, and Maa Vinta Gaadha Vinuma. I call them Siddu Jonnalagadda's because despite being helmed by different directors, he co-wrote, edited and played the lead role in both and I see enough simalarity between them to claim that they both carry his signature. I thoroughly enjoyed both movies- the humour, the charm, the urban upper-middle class air, the women. I also like how plot mechanics really kick in only, almost like an afterthought, at the end. Viva Harsha is growing on me, especially after Colour Photo, and I love his exchange with Krishna in the pub:
    • అన్యాయం గురు ఆ అమ్మాయి
      నాటె జోకూ
      అజ్జా బాన్ చేయాలి అలాంటోళ్ళని
      వాటె.. నువ్వు నేను నూతిలో కప్ప
      వేర్వేరు
      ఇట్సె బొంబై మాటర్ రా ఇదంతా, నీకర్థం కాట్లేదు. ఇట్సె యో.. ఖూ..
  • Gaadha was more mainstream in its treatment if not for its plot but I like how things were kept interesting by using Bharani gari character as a framing device. And the idea to cast Fish Venkat as Fish Venkat was gobsmackingly inspired. I also liked the Carnatic tinged music of both films though it infuriates Sravani to listen to this 'debasement'. So I listen to it on headphones.
  • Chaitanya Tamhane's The Disciple is a remarkable achievement. I found out about Court years ago, via Moi Fight Club I think, and took pride in the fact that it'd premiered in Venice. When I watched it, I liked it but I thought it was a bit too pretentious. And at that point in time, I was a huge pretentious snob myself (you should see my absolutely ignorant, inferiority-complex-shrink-wrapped-in-superiority-complex comment on BR sir's blogpost about Ship of Theseus to know what I mean. I can't because it literally gives me goosebumps from embarassment) so I suppose I need to rewatch it to make a more upto-date, hopefully more genuine, judgement. I fell in love with The Disciple as I was watching it because it genuinely made me feel, and to a large extent remind similar feelings of ineptitude, what it is to desperately seek greatness. While this would've made it a great film in itself, what drove it to stratospheric heights is the scene in the bar where Sharad hears stories about Maai that he doesn't want to. While I could go into a pedestrian interpretation of how it throws a light on the need for deities, I will refrain from doing that because it'll debase the impact of the film. I will suffice it to say that Tamhane's control was such that my impression of Maai totally flipped after that. I was thrilled.
  • I can't remember why I didn't watch Dunkirk earlier, it's probably got to do with my usual grandstanding about how Nolan is a limited director without inspiration, which ironically was probably lifted from Tom Shone's profile of the man in The Guardian, but I watched it a few weeks ago because I knew I was going to get a copy of The Nolan variations. I must say I enjoyed it and I found Nolan's use of different timeframes really interesting. While it makes for great cinema, and that can be a respectable end in itself, I also thought it did a meta-commentary on cinema itself. We tend to remember 2 hours of a great movie more vividly than months, if not years, of our lives. And in that sense technology, both physical and mental (eg: narratives), help us get more bang for the buck. If one way to measure the 'success' of a life is to manage to collate the 'memorable experiences', while understanding that at any point in time we are what we have access to, both within our head and without, then these technologies allow you to pack in more within a life. So maybe there is a way to say objectively that my life is better, in terms of how fulfilling it is and how much I enjoy it, than that of an average person born 2000 years ago, or 15000 years ago, or even 100 years ago. In a way technology allows you to have greater leverage over your immediate physical spacetime and consequently on your agency which must be one of the foundations of a good life. 

--

April also happened to be the month when I was able to read/listen/think about ideas that I was able to put together to form a interesting little framework. Now that I think about it, my interest in Nolan's adamant materialism was probably lead by this phase which in turn was preceded by reading about/around Darwinian Evolution in the previous few months.

Here they are:

  • I'd been reading Dr. Velcheru Narayana Rao and Dr. David Shulman's extraordinary Classical Telugu Poetry, and as I was going through the long introductory essay, it struck me that  it was probably the first time in my life that I was reading an introduction and exploration of Telugu culture from a Social Science view. They had placed the poets, and by extension their works, in the context of the social, cultural, political and economic conditions in which they lived and worked. Maybe it'd been done before but I hadn't been fortunate enough to come across that interpretation. The little old Telugu culture I had read/heard/was told about had, for the most part, spoken about these mythologies and works of literature as being born fully formed. They were అపౌరుషము. Again, apologies if that's not true, but that's how I saw them. And so they became hard to access, their apparent perfection both uninteresting and hard to believe. This essay, by charting the evolution of the form across the ages, and by creating brief but humanising sketches of the poets helped me get over my bias (that I'd developed as a resistance in my childhood when I was told that these were great but never really learned how they came about) and made me feel grateful and fortunate to be able to access them centuries and worlds away from where they were created. The material aspect of it made them so much more real and precious. I could sense their humanity reaching out from far, far away.
  • I discovered David Deutsch's The Beginning of Infinity in Naval Ravikant's podcast. While I've listened to only a couple of hours of the audiobook, I found his articulation of the Scientific Method quite helpful. Deutsch coins a phrase called 'Good Explanation' which he says is essentially how human progress is/ has been made. So religious concepts, mythologies, folklore, heuristics, customs/ rituals, infact maybe even superstitions, are developed by humans to better understand their environment so that they can thrive. What we call Science, and he argues that Enlightenment is the inflection point, is essentially the best method we have discovered as a species for generating 'Good explanations' about the world. Every theory that comes up not only is not final but in some ways both is created by and subsumes the previous explanation because it had proved inadequate to the task. I found this model of thinking quite useful. Another argument that absolutely floored me was his insistence that scientific discovery, despite its popular image to the contrary, is a supremely creative act. Infact, all theorising is. He says that we don't go around looking for data and then let theory drift up, so to speak, once enough data has been collected but create theories and then go about verifying their validity as more and more observations are recorded. I found this flip absolutely riveting and I think it makes sense in my day-to-day experience.
  • In Jonardon Ganeri's essay for Aeon on the Tree of Knowledge, which is a terrific read in its entirety, he writes about how what we generally assume to be laws of living, that are handed down by our parents as traditions, are best understood as methods or strategies that must be applied intelligently. There need not be anything irrefutable/sacred about them. This again was extremely liberating because I had spent years listening to people tell me that one should follow the guru, not everything can be understood via the intellect, that these traditions have been handed over by 'masters' and the like. Nothing against them but now I was able to see that these are probably part of just one method of pursuing whatever it is that you're seeking and so all other methods aren't misplaced or wrong by definition. Limited, maybe. Primitive, maybe. Valid nonetheless.
  • From that essay, I discovered the History of Philosophy podcast written by Ganeri and Peter Adamson. I haven't gone past the first few episodes, yet, but I'd made one staggering discovery. That the what we call the six systems of Hindu Philosophy, Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Mimamsa and Vedanta actually started as certain methods of understanding and interpreting the world. So, for example, Samkhya started by the belief that enumerating the world was a good method to get started for understanding it. Similarly, Mimamsa was apparently about inference and analogy via argument to understand. Likewise, Yoga was literally about putting various things together and building a more cohesive worldview. A union in that sense of the word. Again, I need to reinstate that my knowledge of this is extremely rudimentary and I could be totally wrong in all this. Neither have I gone back to confirm if this is what was told in the podcast, nor cross-referenced it from other sources. What I'm trying to put across is what I started thinking after listening to those episodes and that I find it useful in thinking about the world.

From what I can surmise, the one common thread among all these ideas has been the material and evoltionary aspect of things.  This, like I stated earlier, probably comes from my cursory readings of Darwinism which I must've sought out in the first place because I was looking for an alternative to more, for the lack of a better word now, supernatural explanations of the world I live in. Not that they are necessarily wrong, it's just that at this point in time, I neither find them convincing nor useful. It could be a right hunch or my limited capability, but at this point in time, they don't seem right.

Sticking to more materialistic, this-worldly explanations also lets me feel pride and a sense of community with other humans. For as long as I sought ways which were either religious or mystical, I felt a sense of inadequacy in being myself. As if I had fallen and had to be lifted by a guru or some such deus ex machina. As if I could only be hauled across by a benevolent deity. This, on the other hand, while making me feel genuine humility at the extent of things I didn't know, atleast fills me with awe, gratitude and belonging with a much larger family of human beings across time and space. I can feel a sense of kinship. I feel less alone, less deficient. I don't know if its the right thing. Except it feels right. And that's my sole compass; Atleast for now.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

AK/DB

My head contains a few fascinating dichotomies- Dravid/Laxman, Federer/Nadal, Anurag/Dibakar etc. Ofcourse, like some mental models, they are less accurate depictions of the world than arbitrary placeholders to interpret and communicate better. Deekshith and I spent hours discussing Dravid/Laxman. We love both of them but it is more interesting, and revealing, to ascribe to them select characteristics and debate on which are more valuable/cool. So, Dravid's the architect, the spine, the selfless, disciplined monk; Laxman's the artist, the lifeblood, the impulsive, imaginative artist. Similarly, Federed/Nadal is the distinction between a gifted genius and a never-say-die hustler1. Invariably, the approach is reductive. Humans, probably achievers of that level even more so, are way more complex and adaptive than these characters. Yet, narratives need characters and we need narratives to not only understand the world but even build our personalities.

In the world of cinema, we have, say, Nolan/Fincher or Truffaut/Godard or Ray/Ghatak. Let me reiterate: the classifications are almost arbitrary and generally speaking the folks who are discussing like both people but are trying to convince the other, while simultaneously trying to tell themselves, why one is better than the other2. My favourite point of departure, and I suspect to a lot of Indian film aficianados of my generation, is Anurag Kashyap/Dibakar Banerjee3. I could spend, and infact have, hours going through their filmographies with an equally passionate friend. 

To set out the rules of the game, let me sketch their personalities from my understanding of their films:

AK is the prodigy, the angry, driven artist. Someone so immensely talented and so in love with films that he managed to crack, and infact reshape, Indian cinema despite being immensely sensitive and genuinely naive in many aspects. It is hard to imagine Anurag being anything other than the filmmaker that he is, someone who learnt films organically and operates intuitively.

DB is the smartass, someone who's always carried a chip on his shoulder for being the cleverest person in the room. His approach to cinema is scientific, almost clinical, mixed with a dash of whimsy and genuine whackiness. He could've earned success in any field, and to a certain extent did, with his fierce intellect and ease of expression. I suspect the primary reason he ended up being a filmmaker was because it afforded him an opportunity to fiddle with his myriad interests.

Both are unarguably immense talents and it is my pleasure and privilege that I've been able to watch their artistic journeys evolve. 

Sandeep aur Pinky faraar is a terrific watch. It gave me a lot to think about, both while watching and later too. There, lies for me, the essence of DB's filmography. I love every one his film's I've watched because they appeal to my intellect, to my aesthetic taste, to my sensibility. I believe I understand his worldview. I respect his craft and am stunned by some imaginative leaps. But I don't really feel anything for the characters. Again, let me be clear, I don't mean it as a complaint. I'm very happy for what he makes. I'm just making an observation. I felt nothing when the lovers are butchered in the masterful first segment of LSD, not when Dr. Ahmadi is killed, not when Salman learns about Reena's affair with Sudhir, and not when Sandeep miscarries4. I clearly, indelibly, am aware of the artist behind these machinations. They are almost scientific observations of characters5. He works with types to tease out human behaviour and so characters, despite being interesting in themselves, work as part, and only as part, of the narrative.

AK is a master storyteller and while I don't particularly feel much for his characters too, probably because of his total immersion and love for 'mainstream' cinema I feel that his characters frequently exceed their brief and pull the narrative in their directions. Which is why his characters seem so real and emphatic. I'm thinking right now of Badshah Khan in Black Friday and how I genuinely felt for him. Even larger-than-life, seemingly unreal characters like Faizal Khan can't help but reveal their humanity. That is probably why his observations of small-town India seem more sincere than DB's scientific curiosity. AK genuinely seems interested in people for their own sake; DB is happier interpreting them as nodes in much larger social structures. 

Before I let you go, I want to spend a little time comparing AK's short from Bombay Talkies and DB's short from Lust Stories (my favourite film from each anthology)6. The ambition of AK's short is so immense, and his cinematic grammar, including the delicious use of songs and slo-mo is so exhilarating, that it felt like a perfect encapsulation of what it means to spend sometime inside his head. This is gutsy, instinctive filmmaking- a small town guide having the courage, and the naivety, to dream that he could meet Amitabh Bachchan. AK thinks of the world as an immense movie theatre. There are so many interesting characters, so many larger-than-life dreams, so many quirks and anxieties and ambitions that it must be extremely hard to choose one story and travel with it long enough to transcribe it into a movie7. DB's Lust Stories short film on the other hand is a very intimate, and immensely tragic, story of a man having an affair with his best friend's wife. These are extremely rich, privileged people and yet they are sad, lonely, cynical. DB does not treat the story by amping up the pain, confusion, frustration. They are all self-contained (almost always), intelligent, articulate, yet not smart enough to truly understand, or even attempt to learn, what it is that they're truly feeling and want from life. One way of narrating this story is to turn it into a heightened drama. Another would be to turn it into a bleak, despairing account of a cold, cruel world. Maybe there are other interpretations but I can think of only these two now. DB does neither. He goes the matter-of-fact route. The characters don't transform, they don't learn something about themselves, they don't really evolve, there is no new knowledge being conferred on their beings. They remain who they are- bitter adults living in self-denial. But they're not depressives, they're like many adults. And when they think of their past, they remember it with longing and nostalgia. They laugh easy. The scene of them talking, Sanjay Kapoor eating, Jaideep Ahlawat cutting mangoes when a dead-serious conversations suddenly takes a turn into sheer absurdity ("half-fry, half-fry, half-fry") and they burst out laughing is cinematic gold. Not only does it tell me about those two, and about many men I know including myself, it also tells us how easily we navigate the multitudes of our selves.

A part of me also understands that reducing each movie to its 'essential' scenes or trying to unpack what 'core ideas' the filmmaker is trying to convey in this cinematic contraption is ridiculous. And I hope this doesn't really come off like that. But I use these specific scenes/tropes to interpret and communicate my thoughts and feelings.

Like I said, I love these artists and I'm so grateful to them for their work. Thinking and talking about cinema is one of my life's greatest pleasures.

1Sportswriters are enviably good at painting characters with a few broad strokes. Rohit Brijnath's essay on Fab Five is a brilliant illustration of that type of writing. The Architect/Artist label comes from, if I remember rightly, Rahul Bhattacharya

2It goes without saying, and yet I feel compelled to spell it out, that this is not similar to guys fighting over who is the bigger star or the more popular politician

3I've been meaning to do this post for years now but this sudden drive comes from having just returned home after watching Sandeep aur Pinky faraar

4I'm thinking where this expectation to empathise and feel for/as characters comes from? That's the grammar of mainstream cinema, right?

5There's something Kubrickian about his work

6I want to spend sometime later thinking about the similarities and differences between the opening, long shots of Mukkabaaz and Sandeep aur Pinky. I don't understand how, but if someone had showed met these two shots in isolation, I have a feeling I would've been able to easily point out which was made by DB and which one by AK

7To be fair, this insight is not very original. It seems to come largely from what Zoya Akhtar spoke about him in a Rajeev Masand interview before the release of Bombay Talkies

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

a bicycle for my mind

The Seen and the Unseen is not just my favourite podcast. It is, and apologies for my inability to come up with a more appropriate phrase now, the world feed I most look forward to across all media. I absolutely adore good conversations, and Amit Varma's podcast has given my way more than I could ever have asked for. He's recorded 215 episodes as of this week and I must've listen to about 50 (including the rare abandoned ones) and I thought I'd list my favourite conversations and highlight one or two memorable takeaways. 

So, in no particular order:

  • Fixing Indian Education with Karthik Muralidharan- Probably, by a tiny margin, my favourite episode. Not only is the subject matter important enough to demand complete attention, on top of that Muralidharan's energy and optimism is infectious. Key takeaways, from memory: the sorting vs the human development functions of education, the ineffectiveness of increasing teacher salaries on teaching standards, implementation of vouchers to create dynamism and competitiveness among government schools. Also, Pareto principle is very useful- 80% outcomes come from 20% of the effort.
  • What have we done with our independence with Pratap Bhanu Mehta- Prof. Mehta says something terrific and I paraphrase, "We usually blame our politicians for changing their statements. While a politician must have principles, we must remember that they do not have an autonomy over truth. It is their responsibility to listen to competing claims, arbitrate between them, and take them to positions of power. In that regard, a politician's willingness to backtrack on previous utterances is a feature not a bug. We should be more afraid of those in authority who steadfastly hold their opinions in the face of contrary evidence. Also, sometime in the last few decades, we mistook respecting others people with respecting all opinions.
  • The Ideas of our Constitution with Madhav Khosla- Madhav is one of my favourite scholars, for his ability to convert seemingly boring Civics textbook stuff to thought-provoking philosophy. He also brings history back to life with terrific immediacy. From this episode, I remember two things: 1. If democracy was just about elections, then we wouldn't need such a big constitution filled with guidelines and rules. They would've just said, win elections and do what you want. 2. The Indian Constitution was created to be an edifying document. And its intention was to make us equal citizens by treating us as one.
  • Who broke our Republic? with Kapil Komireddi- The genius of Nehru's (via Khilnani) Idea of India is that it is expansive enough to hold all the other ideas of India. It is, in my opinion, the highest manifestation of a liberal society because it accommodates, and celebrates, (almost) the entire spectrum of humanity.
  • Jahangir the Curious with Parvati Sharma- There's this lovely bit where she conveys how quickly the Mughuls became 'Hindustan-ized' using a vivid illustration, and I paraphrase, "Babar, who never felt at home in India would go to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan at the slightest pretext. And there he would happily gorge on melons and pomegranates, claiming that they were the best fruits in the world. His great-grandson, 70 years later, when he went to Afghanistan and tasted melons, scowled and said that they were no match to the greatest fruit in the world- the mangoes of Hindostan."
  • The art of narrative non-fiction with Samanth Subramanian- I absolutely love Samanth's writing, my favourite is this autobiographical sketch about quizzing, and in this episode he elucidates on how he designs his non-fiction pieces. Essentially, the quest is to identify the themes around the topic at hand and find angles to interpret them. Once those are in place, the piece must stitch a narrative through them.
  • BJP before Modi with Vinay Sitapati- I find Sitapati to be an electrifying communicator of his work. I liked this conversation so much that I read Jugalbandi the following week and thoroughly enjoyed it. My key learning came when Sitapati said, "Our fears that we will end up in a Hindu Rashtra in the future are moot. We already live in a Hindu Rashtra. The BJP is not fascist. They do not need to abolish elections. Infact, the RSS/ BJP's one hundred year old project is to consolidate the Hindu vote. Once they have it, they will always be in the majority." Another useful framework for understanding BJP's thought process is their obsession with 3 things: 1. Hindu Unity 2. Sacred Geography 3. Demography and Elections. From his method of working, another nugget was, "Perfection is the enemy of production".
  • A scientist in the kitchen with Krish Ashok- Another episode I absolutely loved and bought the book of. I am so grateful to Krish for demystifying and deromanticising the act/ art of cooking. And for unequivocally saying that there is no 'authentic' version of a dish. If you find something tasty and nutritious, then its good enough.
  • Indian Society: the last 30 years with Santosh Desai- This was a lot of fun too primarily because I love listening to anything about India since the 90s. I remember Desai articulating something that I'd always felt but more succinctly, "The ceremonies and rituals of a court house exist to obfuscate and distract us from the fact that an individual, the judge, does not really have the moral right to pass sentence against another individual, the implicated citizen. The rituals of a modern, secular nation-state, then, are not very different from the ceremonies of a medieval kingdom."
  • Political Ideology in India with Rahul Verma- Verma talks about the book he co-authored with Pradeep Chhibber on ideology in India and he argues that the western classifications of Left and Right (Social or Economic) don't apply to societies like India which are much more diverse. Instead, they point to four different axes (federalism vs centralism, reservation vs anti-reservation.. I can't remember the other two) and I found that a much more useful apparatus to differentiate between the ideologies (atleast on paper) of different political parties in India.
  • The Gita Press and Hindu Nationalism with Akshaya Mukul- I discovered the podcast when I started reading Jaithirth Rao's The Indian Conservative on Juggernaut, didn't like it too much, but wanting to learn more about the conservative cause in India, looked up to see if he had spoken in a podcast. That's when I found his Seen and the Unseen episode, and finding him equally unimpressive there as well, abandoned that episode but I guess I must've liked Amit's style of interviewing enough to try another episode; This must've been around Oct 2019. And this is the episode that I selected and boy was it the right choice. It is still in my top 5 episodes of the show and it was an absolute blast listening to the conversation. Mukul's analysis of the Hindu Right's evolution was staggering both in its scope and lucid presentation. And my respect for him increased manyfold when I discovered, months later, that he refused to collect a prize for the book because it was being handed over by Modi.

Honourable mentions- I enjoyed these episodes as well but don't have/ remember one or two 'money insights'- The art of translation with Arunava Sinha, Srinath Raghavan's three episodes, Manu S Pillai's three episodes, Ramachandra Guha's Gandhi episodes, Matt Ridely's Evolution episode among many others. I'm actually surprised by how few episodes I've listed because I could spend hours talking about the stuff I've learned from the show but I guess this list will have to do for now. It's more a sign of my rusty writing than anything else.

That's my very succinct introduction, and a minor recommendation list, to the Seen and the Unseen. In all honesty, until I discovered this podcast, I had no idea a cultural artefact like this could be, would be, created about India today. For that, I'm filled with gratitude and appreciation for Amit. 

I have spent enough hours listening to the podcast while vacuuming the house, setting clothes out for drying, walking around Westmead/ Wentworthville, to the library, to the swimming pool, to Coles/ Woolies, to parks nearby, completely engrossed in one of the conversations and while I hope they have made me atleast a bit smarter, I'm sure they've captivated me immensely. It's been a pleasure and a blessing.

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

hopefully spirals

 I haven't counted but I feel that most posts in this blog must be dealing with my thoughts or feelings. They are a chronicle of the world, if at all, only because of the effect events in the real world have on my internal being. It's as if I'm a batsman who's wearing one of those fancy mics and is narrating to the world what he feels about the previous ball, the state of the match, interesting titbits from his previous matches, and answering questions the commentators ask. What's worse is that there's no commentator here, no one asking questions. I'm constantly thinking and talking about what's going on inside, even when no one asks, because I can't help myself. I'm obsessed with myself, my opinions, feelings, analyses, interpretations, and narratives. I live to talk about myself, usually to myself, occasionally to others. 

Some of the intentions are good, I guess. It is to understand and improve myself. But the problem with my eyes constantly looking within is that it turns into a hall of mirrors. There is no opening for something novel to enter. In addition to that, such self-obsession turns life into a certain deal-making exercise. My only question for any new experience, even before setting out is, what am I going to get out of this? And I then preempt the entire experience by imagining and reorienting my narratives to include and be shaped by that. It's an insanely stressful way to live. I could live like that though. Unfortunately, it's also terribly unromantic and I refuse to live like that. 

The most recurring question before, or infact even after an experience, can't be, "How has/ will it impact me?". I believe I know enough about life to realise that the world is way more complex than any of my mental models, and also that I can't optimise it all the time. Narratives can only be woven in hindsight and generally speaking, most of us don't have the inclination nor imagination to look back and imagine many counterfactuals. "What is the opportunity cost of the life I've lived", is not only a (to a certain extent) pointless question but also very hard to answer even inadequately. Algorithms and mental models are useful, admittedly, but it is important to understand their place and limitations. Maybe this is the romantic in me talking but I refuse to believe that I can calculate and optimise all aspects of my life and when done, I could lead the perfect life. We won't know the impact of some of our actions until after many years, sometimes not even then. If there's one thing I'm sure of, its this: Our decisions are good or bad not based on their inherent quality (assuming it exists and can be measured) but by our state of mind when we look at it. We live in an eternal now, and that is both our cross and our fortune. 

I don't think there was an exact moment when I went from doing stuff for its own sake to doing stuff because it fits into some image/ narrative I desire at that point. Both aspects have always existed but sometime in the last few years, the latter probably started becoming louder than the former on most days. And understandably so, I suppose,  because being a carefree bachelor is quite different from being married. I'm more conscious of social mores and self-preserving than I usually portray myself to be, and so my moments of whimsy and recklessness are more valuable than more conscious calculative actions. There I go, trying to optimise aspects of the self to optimise my life. But again, I'm talking about this, openly, honestly, on a blog without thinking through the repercussions of my actions. What does that mean then?

I like thinking about living but I don't know if that's stopping me from living itself; By living I mean the process of allowing a lot of varied experiences to affect me. Part of the reason for that shift is also the move to Australia. In India, life knocks at your door and literally pulls you out. There's so much happening. Here, its much more easier to live in a cocoon and you have to make an effort to really engage with 'life'. Or again, am I looking out for something that's not available here thereby missing out what's specific to this country.

Another aspect that I'm trying to change is the practice of blogging only when I feel I have something substantial to say. I actually like that intention. Part of the reason I left social media was because I didn't want to constantly be sharing frivolous reactions and opinions, but the problem with that, atleast when it comes to blogging is that the rustier I get, the harder I find it to articulate when I want to. Additionally, this blog is probably the only avenue where I genuinely produce, and by that I mean where I focus my energies to create something, and when this is cut-off, it makes it really hard for me to function properly. So I'll try to post more often- and try not to worry about how I will be perceived, or if it will decrease the unit value of each post, or flay desparately to produce original thoughts. Again, none of those qualities seem particularly bad, but they don't seem to be giving me any solace (assuming that's what I need now) at this point in time.

Nothing in these thoughts seems particularly new. I'm sure there's a rationale for exactly the opposite behaviour in one of my previous posts. But what do I do? Such seems to be the way of my life. Two steps clockwise, two steps anti-clockwise.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

బ్రతకటానికి బ్రతకటం

"Evolution is the greatest idea anyone has ever had" -Daniel C. Dennett

Generally the phrase "living for living's sake" is used in a rather derogatory tone, as if to say that a being's life purpose must be greater than "just living".

I've been reading a bit about evolution lately: KL Evans' Charlie Kaufman, Screenwriter (surprisingly fecund in more ways than one), half of Jerry A. Coyne's Why Evolution is True (accessible and fascinating) and am a quarter way through James Suzman's Work (astounding both in its intellectual scope and TIL moments) and a WhatsApp forward with this info1. And it’s beginning to dawn on me that the imposition of particular ways of living to transcend over 'basic living' is, in the world I live in, rather misplaced.

I think I understand what people mean when they say 'just living'. In that connotation, it means to live to eat, sleep, procreate and stay alive as long as you can. The 'quality of life' doesn't matter. And I think I agree with it, especially having rallied against that kind of unremarkable living for years now. But I think that disdain comes from, atleast from me, being unable to grasp the giant strides humanity, the species, has taken over the past few millennia where people have exponentially gained more comfort and security that now they spend most of their day worrying about how to live their lives. It's an astounding achievement to so easily overlook.

If I'd been born, say, 10,000 years ago, a large chunk of my day, and consequently life, would've been spent in extremely trying circumstances. Staying alive and passing my genes on would have been the biggest achievement. You know, 'basic living'. And now such a life is frowned upon by many2. Now we (have to) work on improving our lives and creating/ doing something of value for other beings. This could be something as primitive as gaining social status to something more sophisticated (there’s my value judgement) as advancing knowledge. There is definitely a qualitative difference between the two but by their design of being driven by the ends, they're similar.

In the chapter on fire, James Suzman reasons that once we'd learnt to tame fire, we could eat a larger variety of foods (thereby decreasing food-gathering time), did not have to spend nights worrying about carnivorous animals and spent nights gathered around a crackling fire developing social bonds and subsequently telling stories; We had more leisure. And yet, using Levi-Strauss' structural model, he argues that that, paradoxically, led to the creation of the concept of work. The earliest humans till then were purely biologically driven. Once they found it easy to find food, stay securely and procreate fairly easily, they realised that they were bored. They had time in their hands with nothing to do. And that probably led to the creation and evolution of culture, which then started an accelerated feedback loop3 where it became easier and easier to fulfill life's basic obligations and spend time doing more ‘fun’ stuff, and we had more and more time to fill. Ergo, you have art, and science, and all those wonderful things. And also consumerism and mid-life crises.

These ideas in my mind then struck bonds with what I'd read a few months ago: a part of Erich Fromm's Man in the age of Capitalist Society (meta-Social Studies if you will) and a brief introduction to Alistair MacIntyre's narrative being (from Michael Sandel's terrific, and very useful, Justice). And then it dawned on me, hopefully rightly, that once we got past physical compulsions, as a society we started creating subtler needs and aspirations for our members4. Both our physical, mental and spiritual environments took shape to find the least-resistant way for life to move forward5.

This is a non-teleological view of the universe which brings me to the starting point of this post- The point, in as much as there is, of life is to live. It's a question I've been grappling with for years and even though I've had similar epiphanies in the past, and by all evidence this will be short-lived as well, it seems both ludicrous to state it but also emancipating.

Having said all this, I must also say that I believe that all lives are not equal. I don't say this from a Social Darwinist stance but what I learnt from Sandel's chapters on Kant. I think Kant's articulation of, among other things, freedom is absolutely terrific. And because I found Sandel's example so accessible, I'll just use that:

Imagine you are walking on the road on a very hot afternoon. You are sweaty and tired when you come across a hoarding for Coka-Cola with splashy colours and a photograph of a really enticing cold bottle. You start salivating. Now, you could just walk across the street to a store and buy it. Every part of your body is craving for it. As you start to make your way, a small voice pops up in your head that reminds you that its not at all good for your health and that maybe you should drink water. You resist that thought. It becomes louder. You tell it that it's only this one time, it should be fine. It tells you that you'll feel worse once the hit wears off. You tell it to bugger off, you are free to do what you want and if you want to drink a cola, you will drink a cola.

Now, you might think that you are making a choice, expressing your freedom. But in reality, you are slave to your 'lower' biological urges and have been manipulated by a well-designed advertisement. On the other hand, when you resist that impulse, inspite of the fact that you are seemingly bound a 'virtuous' cause, you are experiencing a higher freedom. He makes the distinction between those two freedoms as heteronomy (following a more desire-driven impulse) vs autonomy (a more objective, reason-guided calling).

I don't generally end with advice but I'm compelled to give in case someone, especially a later version of me,  finds it useful:

  1. Environments are important. Structures are stunningly useful and once instated can be hard to budge. (“We shape our buildings thereafter they shape us” -Winston Churchill) That’s why it’s so important to design our environment to (I don’t want to use the word optimise) give as much support as possible for our lives to blossom. Yes, there's a lot to unpack in that statement and I don't want to get into an argument about it now, but as a heuristic, its important to remember that our environments have a much bigger impact on our lives than we like to think. But are they deterministic? I don't think so, I think we still have 'elbow room'.
  2. As you grow older, the plasticity of your brain decreases and you become more set in your ways. So old people literally have a hard time changing their ways. I don't know what I can do about it except try to keep it at bay for as long as possible. Apparently, as you grow older, your world narrows down because your brain makes the choice to protect your body6. Which is why being fit is so important.

The 'rightest' way to live is to keep finding what makes you feel deeply alive, I have a few broad markers for identifying that state but a lot of the knowledge is also experiential, and act accordingly. Admittedly, I'm a beginner student of evolution but in many ways, it has created more wonder and clarity within me than the bit of religious searching I've done over the years. 

--

I actually wrote most of this piece about a week ago but sat on it because I felt what came out was valuable and it would be best if I could 'work' on it further to shape it into a better form. A lot of thinking has happened this week (specifically around a startup idea, what I want to do with my life, and how do I work) and I think I'm not a very calculative/ rational person when it comes to living. The more I try to shape my life, bring it to order to improve it, the more I fail. I could be lazy, incompetent, undisciplined, and not as intelligent as I like to believe I am, but I find joy in reading and writing in this sort of messy way. I seek to find processes so that I can tap this 'joy of work' at will but it creates more anxiety than I like.

Bottomline, I don't really know what's the right thing to do. Thankfully, I seem to atleast identify some of the moments when I'm feeling really alive. Maybe life is like that, islands of joy in a sea of ennui, confusion, anxiety. Is it wrong/ right to want joy all the time?

1 A few other resources that don't specifically deal with Biological/ Cultural Evolution also helped: Vinay Sitapati's Jugalbandi (a ripping yarn with many insights), Amit Varma's conversation with Krish Ashok (my tongue was salivating but not more than my mind), C Thi Ngyuen's Agency as Art

2 Reminds me of Inkoroju vellipoindu from Amaravathi Kathalu and Bangaru Murugu. They 'simply lived' without worrying too much about the purpose of their lives

3 The bit on brain plasticity was a marvel. Unlike most other creatures which evolved to thrive in a certain environment, we learned to learn and so can adapt to/ dominate many environments quite easily

4 I don't know if we came up with it as much as life evolved in those ways. Like Yuval Noah Harari's pithy quote says, 'We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.'

5 At this point I have a non-teleological view of the universe

6 I got this nugget from this absolutely terrific Airbnb experience that Anindo suggested

P.S- I should probably post the stuff I wrote as part of my BWW workshop. It seems ridiculous to 'hold' onto them to unleash more 'value' from them later. When did I become so transactional?

P.P.S- Maybe I won't become anything more than an occasional blogger? Maybe I don't have it in me to be a successful writer. Why is that so bad? Why am I so driven by that image of myself? Because I live in a society that tells me to use the talent I have, improve it via hard work and achieve success (material wealth, social recognition, attributable impact on society etc.)? Maybe that's not such a bad idea, but is it a particularly good one?

Thursday, December 24, 2020

why write

How long has it been since I sat down after midnight while music played through the earphones and started blogging. Not writing for a deadline nor something I think I ought to. Just the simple act of opening this page and start typing. The most recent image I can conjure up in my head is from, probably, 2014 and I'm sitting in my computer room in Dilsukh Nagar. What might I've been listening to? Maybe The Grand Budapest Hotel OST. Or maybe Shankarabharanam or Saagara Sangamam, my perennial favourites, like I'm doing right now.

I started watching Shankarabharanam earlier in the evening. I don't think I've ever watched the entire film. I've been meaning to write on Viswanath gari films for a while now, especially since I discussed it with the Cinema Kaburlu guys, Chaitanya and Teja, for a video essay and I've been putting it off. Ofcourse, I haven't seen a majority of his films, but the ones I like, I've watched, thought of, spoken about, listened to quite a bit. They would be, in the order of preference, Saagara Sangamam, Swarna Kamalam, Subhalekha, Shankarabharanam, Swathi Muthyam, Swathi Kiranam I think. But what do I write? An introduction, an interpretation, a tribute? I don't know enough to write a study and I'm not preposterous enough to write my take- "This is what I think, its my opinion". I hope I'm not filled with as much hubris yet.

Which has been my biggest fear with the podcasts as well. I recorded a couple of podcasts with Cinema Kaburlu on Trivikram, then I did one on Rohit and Sasi's work despite telling myself not to do it (I just had to do it, I immensely admire Nirudyoga Natulu, Story Discussion 1 & 2 and if this was 2013/4, this blog would've had quite a few posts going gaga over their work) and a few days ago did a recording with Medi Chaitanya on Meheranna's Chedu Poolu anthology as a trial. The reason I told, keep telling, myself not to do a podcast: Its too easy. Nothing against the medium- I absolutely love and admire Amit Varma's Seen Unseen but there's so much work behind every episode and the conversations are of such a high calibre. I don't want to be the guy droning on in a podcast, a bloody uncle who's peloing gyaan because he found the mic. There's a wonderful exchange in The end of the tour where DFW says that he doesn't want to become someone who writes one book and spends his time going to parties and talking about it (scene 96- read it, its articulated way better there). Ofcourse, I've done nothing comparable to Infinite Jest, not even managed to finish reading it, but the even minuscule feedback the podcasts have gotten has made me very nervous.


A voice in my head says that I'm unnecessarily complicating what was done for fun and with honesty. But a louder, saner voice I think, tells me that all the good intentions in the world don't mean shit when they're not backed up by serious work and rigorous thougt. To paraphrase Venkat Rao's The Gervais Principle, I'd rather be the sociopath, can accept myself as a loser but never, ever want to end up a clueless idiot. Thankfully, my years of exalting at whatever comes out of my head as inspired are over. Or I desperately hope. Ofcourse, it is a valid question to ask, what this blog is then? Its a semi-public forum where I try to wrestle with my thoughts and express them with as much honesty as possible. I might do this as a journal but I have scattered notes in many places over the years and this blog is a much better organisational drawer. This blog is also sort of a backup: all my "work" is here in case I don't end up creating anything of value ever. My engraving on the beam, a feeble shout to the universe.

These thoughts have been running in my head since the last two days as I've tried to start on Viswanath gari essay. Most of it is plain laziness, a hope that inspiration will strike and drive me, fear that what I have to say is neither original nor "correct", an inability to look seriously at anything I create, but also, somewhere deep inside, a feeling of futility. What difference is it going to make? I'm not complaining, I feel thankful for being able to feel all these things. I've also been meaning to write a couple of Telugu essays to send to Rajanna for Sakshi (one of them is putting together learnings from The Great Derangement, Michael Sandel's Justice, a bit from Fromm and maybe Alasdair MacIntyre), and I have the basic structure sketched but I haven't taken off from there. 

I feel so cut-off from the world (wow, talk about the tyranny of distance), as if all my actions are futile and frivolous, that I haven't found inspiration to put out what's going on inside. The podcast recordings slightly helped I guess. But ofcourse, as the world is tackling COVID, climate change, authoritarian regimes, discrimination and injustice, what is the point of squabbling over the work of a writer-director or interpreting/ cherishing the work of another director? Somehow, I'm unable to summon my old self and respond with a buzzkill remark. I genuinely think right now that, yes, words I write are too less, and mostly self-serving, but I feel obliged to put them out. Not entirely because I'm weak and cowardly and unimaginative and its easy to do that than more powerful actions and all those things; also because they're alive and powerful and important. Because, and I can't find another other way to say this, it's the right thing to do.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

writing this post feels so good

Mary Cooper: Sweetheart, are you sick? 
Sheldon: I hope so, because if this is well, life isn’t worth living. 
-The Big Bang Theory 
 
I hope I'm having a mid-life crisis. Otherwise, there is no reason for me to mope around half-heartedly. I'm so bored, and I use that word fully understanding the privileged life I'm living. I spent years running a process in the back of my head that sought to find out anything more to life than its material aspects. Now, I just want to engage deeply with what's here and now.
 
I find it sometimes difficult to teach in an Art dept. in a research university. The disciplinary epistemology is, unsurprisingly, relentlessly Idealist, anti-intellectual, and theological, wrapped in the American presumption that self-actualization is the point of everything. 
-Benjamin H Bratton on Twitter
 
What is a good life? మంచిగ బతుకుడంటేంది? అదేదో లాబ్ల టెస్ట్ చేసి ఒక ఫార్ములా కనుక్కున్నంక దాన్ని అప్లై చేసుడు కాదు అనిపిస్తుంది ఈ మధ్య. I read a while ago that part of the problem with Humanities over the past few decades has been its reformulation as Social "Sciences". And as much as the practitioners can learn something from the Scientific approach, a different modality is required to assess the situations ((I have a problem using the word, er, problem when talking about many real-life events/ situations; Because they're not problems to be solved but happenings to see, understand, dance with, learn from etc.) it deals with. 

Anyway, back to my immediate situation. 

I don't know how many of you think about "How to live?", but I do; a lot. It's another matter that most of it is either short-lived or confined to the space within but I relish having conversations with, and around, that question. I did and, fortunately, still do. Because without that question being the central focus of my life, and it doesn't have to be like a formal problem that I need to solve but more like a guiding light, I don't think I'm doing much justice to being human (though it would be hubristic of me to assume that other types of being don't/ can't do it).
 
I want to stop hedging everything I do. I'm so risk averse that it inevitably pushes me into the 'mainstream' route despite knowing other options. It is evident in the way I speak/ write1;, in how I deal with taking a stand, in how I take life decisions. I refuse to fully embrace my gut instinct. That quality in itself is not probably a bad thing, its better to be skeptical about my own claims to knowledge and clarity, but I've taken the game to the other extreme where I just follow what others insist on, probably for a good reason, probably not, and then whine about it later. I don't want to come out on the losing side. And its bizarre because I consciously refrain from framing life in those terms. 
 
Lose against who? Because I don't mind 'losing' in material terms as long as I make experiential/  narrative gains. I think there are two opponents:

    1. Posterity- This is a big deal for me. I don't want to grow old and looking back realise than I'd taken the wrong turn somewhere and ended up far from where I ought to have been. This presupposes the fact that our lives are teleological and that there's one correct way in which I can achieve self-actualization. Where I can transcend all doubt and regret. Even I know with some certainty that this is ludicrous. I'm always going to have regrets (which in itself is a function of my present state of mind than past events). And if not, and if the universe has a purpose for me, I needn't worry about taking the wrong turn because I will eventually be led to light. And anyway, its ridiculously hard to second guess the 'right' thing to do going forward not partly because right and wrong are posterior labels.
    2. Audience- "लोग क्या कहेंगे?" I have no idea who these bloody people are or why I want to impress them. Sravani is convinced I perform to an imaginary gallery inside my head and I think she maybe right. I'm always performing, giving imaginary interviews, humbly deflecting compliments, cherry-picking anecdotes to fill New Yorker type profiles. And it is this audience I'm most afraid of disappointing2. This feeling probably comes from growing up with a sense of entitlement and while that may have given my more than a little intellectual confidence, it has also led me to believe that, and there's no unarrogant way to put this, I'm built for greater things than most people. Although, I don't seem to have the necessary ingredients needed to accomplish that.

Thus far we've covered the personal angle. Now, to a more social view.

I understand that we need first principles to guide us into living the good life. But I also know principles come from experience, are not sacred, and might sometimes have to be broken to do the right thing. If they are broken, we call the person lacking integrity and doing arbitrary things as a matter of convenience or malice. If they are not broken and things move downwards, we say the person lacks imagination and courage to go beyond prescription and do the right thing. This is as much true for running a constituency as much as its true for following a certain social script you get handed over to you for being born in a certain place at a certain time. 

Again in The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon talks about Münchhausen's Trilemma:
 
This is a classic example of Münchhausen's Trilemma: either the reason is predicated on a series of sub-reasons, leading to an infinite regression; or it tracks back to arbitrary axiomatic statements; or it's ultimately circular: i.e., I'm moving out because I'm moving out. 
-Sheldon Cooper

This is the problem with searching for prescriptions for How to Live. Because I've lost belief in the sacred, I can't believe in something for its own sake. But the moment it becomes more prosaic, it loses its sheen, and thereby, its power. Either way, I don't get the simplistic, one-size-fits-all mantra for life. To claim individual sovereignty is to strike a (Faustian?) bargain to carry the load of my actions and their outcomes. And yet, I also know that's not entirely feasibly, not just for reasons of practicality but also because we now see that the world is complexly interwoven and not only can we not really ascertain the outcomes of our actions but also that we're too powerless in the larger scale of things3.

I've meandered a bit here but its such a relief to be able to write, even if its just a bunch of convoluted thoughts. I want to meet interesting people, see different places and lifestyles, read gorgeous writing, do something meaningful; And document my experiences. I've come to the conclusion that there's no permanent panacea for dissatisfaction and confusion, and maybe that's not a bad thing, but in as much as I can navigate the world to increase a few aspects of being, I'd really like to work on it.

God, reading this post, I'm so thankful and relieved at being able to blog this. I'm probably never going to be a 'great' writer, and I don't know if I want to be, but as long as I can blog, regularly and honestly with atleast a modicum of grace, I don't want to ask for more.

1 The fact my writing is so obfuscatory is because of my personality. (We could discuss later how the mask reveals more than it'd like to) 
    1. Because I don't want to 'tamper' with the high-quality thought process that's unspooling, I don't like to work on it. Maybe a part of it has also got to do with the fact that staring at it head on only reflects my incompetence and breaks the delusion of profound truth. 
    2. Because making a statement means being open to be held accountable to it later and though I make a point of saying I'm not afraid to be wrong, maybe I am. Or maybe its just intellectual honesty. Because only my doubt is experiential, most clarity seems borrowed and temporary.
In his poetic Physics in Seven Brief Lessons, Carlo Rovelli exalts doubt. I hope he knows how insidious it can be. And I also hope my doubt is more intellectual honesty than just cowardice and/ or laziness.
2 Truth be told I'm also afraid of disappointing/ confronting many real people but in that case, atleast occasionally, my rebellious streak breaks out.
3 Could that be one of the reasons for the rise of spiritual gurus advocating individual action as the highest calling?

Sunday, October 25, 2020

read, write, write, read

Many of us live by scripts. Our life goals, aspirations, disappointments, perceived insults, escapisms, for that matter almost everything we do after waking up everyday are defined by scripts. Scripts that have been handed down to us by our family, our social circle, the religion and the country we're born in, most importantly the century and decade we're born in among others.

They're like the railtracks of our lives. I think its a useful metaphor. We stop at various stations, travel parallelly with others for times long and short, our reality is defined by what space of the world we're traversing through and who's cordoning us. Infact, when someone's life takes a turn for, what we assume is, the worse, we say that they have been derailed. I suppose the purpose of experience and education is to grow more conscious of those tracks and figure out if we want to head the way the tracks are guiding us.

--

I've been trying to get this blogpost out for over two months now. There are a few notes scribbled here and there on what I wanted to write about: primarily around Amitav Ghosh's deeply insightful The Great Derangement, Mike Elias' post Wittgenstein's Revenge on Ribbonfarm, Prof. Mehta's phenomenal SeenUnseen episode, Sean Illing's essay Flood the zone with shit and, maybe, a bit of Drew Austin.

My constant affectation of saying that I'm unable to write, that I have nothing to write about, that I don't really want to write because I'm afraid it'll only show my incompetence has turned into a curse. I haven't been able to write since the past many weeks. And ofcourse when I don't write, it means I'm not thinking (because this is the only avenue where I let my thoughts unspool) and that's bloody terrifying. I haven't also been able to read much (not just books but even essays and online articles) and what's worse, haven't been able to listen to the more intensive podcasts (specifically The Seen and the Unseen). I only have been listening diligently to NL Hafta and the only reason is because its almost entertainment with a whiff of news to elude the guilt gene.

Damn I need to write. And often. Albeit the imperfect, confusing, inconsistent, meandering, self-indulgent stuff I write. It is my primary tether to reality without which I'm forever scrambling to stay afloat in the vigorous flow of information bits I consume. And I need to keep reading, abandoning books, essays, Wikipedia articles as I do, without which my mind seems to disintegrate and chip-off in medium-sized chunks while its looking at itself.

<Fit in the Geoff Dyer quote from Out of Sheer Rage that I read recently and which is perfectly apt here but I can't seem to remember what its exactly or where I read it. I think its got something do with surety being always just-elusive but not in such a crass language.>

While I can't seem to find that quote, I will leave you with these ones. They perfectly illustrate why I find it incredibly hard to read Dyer: Because he gives voice to my deepest anxieties in gorgeous, lilting prose which creates in me shame for appropriating his words, and envy at his ability to hold onto feelings I am unable to even look at and force them into definite, sharply boundaried words which then makes my skin tingle with electrifying humiliation.
 

“I am always on the edge of what I am doing. I do everything badly, sloppily, to get it over with so that I can get on to the next thing that I will do badly and sloppily so that I can then do nothing - which I do anxiously, distractedly, wondering all the time if there isn't something else I should be getting on with.”― Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence

“The sea: you watch it for a while, lose interest, and then, because there is nothing else to look at, go back to watching it. It fills you with great thoughts which, leading nowhere and having nothing to focus on except the unfocused mass of the sea, dissolve into a vacancy which in turn, for want of any other defining characteristic, you feel content to term 'awe'.”― Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Balagopal Reading Group- 17 Oct 2020

Balagopal Reading Group
Development-Globalization-Democracy

Two aspects to Globalization:
  • The entire world becoming an uninhibited, unrestrained marketplace
  • A revolution in communications connecting anyone from corners of the world

Readings- 

Mr. Wolfensohn and his falsehoods- K. Balagopal/ 24-11-2000

"..has been refuted by the Opposition parties, but in understandably vague terms"- understandable because they also agree/ collude with and ostensible opposition is just political posturing?

Need more context around this-Possibly this BV Raghavulu essay (yet to read)

BG raises the question of distinction between guidelines, even conditions, and behaviour-altering prescriptions

The tussle of highest power between Republic Sovereignty and Multi-National Corporations is quite old. But is it really that different from the collusion of Big Business and a National Government?

-Mandatory Policy Directive:

  1. Governmental subsidy should be reduced and eventually be taken down to zero
  2. Cross-subsidy: "the rich could be charged more so that the poor could be charged less" should be completely eliminated
  3. Tariff proposals must be approved by the World Bank
  4. By 2007, distribution of electricity must be completely in private hands
  5. Tariff payable by customers must increase by 15% for first two years, and 12% thereafter

To what extent should the executive have unguided fiat? And when is it okay for the legislature to create an independent body to oversee its workings? Isn't the office of the CAG an example of that? Also, this reminds me of a P Sainath talk criticising the Jan Lokpal Bill for wanting to create an 'independent', unaccountable body to oversee the workings of the elected representatives.

"Mr. Wolfensohn was telling lies"- What were they?

I remember this time when CBN wanted to turn into the CEO of Andhra Pradesh and wanted to run an efficient Economic state-corporation a la Singapore.

The World Bank is obsessed with giving out loans to third-world countries, under the guise of poverty alleviation, because:
"as little as possible of Society’s savings should get into the hands of the State, because that way lies fiscal profligacy and economic disaster, or so the new wisdom says. And then, as much as possible of the resources that do get into the State’s coffers must be put to use for developing the high-tech and high-cost infrastructure that multinational Capital needs if it is to grace these wretched lands."
"The World Bank's model of restructuring puts a high premium on the capitalisation of all natural resources"- This, though quite obvious since the past few years, must still have been accepted knowledge even at the time of writing. That this obsession with 'growth' was unsustainable and, more importantly, unrequired. This is the famed insatiable hunger of capital. I guess most of us thought that those in power knew what they were doing until GFC blew away all pretensions of control and anything other than greed.

"These natural means of livelihood – of `poverty alleviation’ - are put out of the reach of the poor, and reserved for the engines of growth."

Infact seen this way, populism is an expression of democracy where a large group of shunned people get together to pull down the 'elites'. The bigger problem ofcourse is to prevent from a new elite rising up. I need to read up if any society (larger than a tribe of few hundred people, if even that) has managed to create a more equitable society for large periods of time. And if not, why our 'liberal' obsession with that? Or is a vocal opposition to that idea in itself the means and the end to keep power in check?

The World Social Forum Arrives in Hyderabad (Opposition to Globalization)- K. Balagopal/ 09-08-2002

Opposition to World Bank-style Globalization must be global itself:
So that those in power get to see the large numbers of people opposing them
So that people opposing globalization for various reasons get a chance to speak with each other. Some of those flavours of opposition:
Leftist groups who believe that Globalization is only an intensification of capital exploitation
Environmental groups, artisan groups, housing rights groups etc.- Possibly because they're against the global homogenization of everywhere (?)
Some who may not oppose capitalism or the market-economy but believe that "in the form of neo-liberalism it lacks the minimal human concern that civilised existence demands"

Principal international agents of Globalization: the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO etc.

World Social Forum meets at the time, and as opposition to, World Economic Forum on the first principle that Social Concern is missing from the prescriptions of WEF on the Third World.

They identified Discrimination as the opposite pole of Globalization.

The intention of the WSF is good but to organise something at this scale requires large funds and that means, obviously, to reach out to the 'Elites of WEF'.

Its the same old problem: Should you protest against Facebook's policies on Facebook itself? If I don't, I might show personal integrity but it is detrimental to my cause. And if I do, I might be able to reach large sections of people but my message would be corrupted before I get a chance to say it.

Another: As a liberal nation, should I allow illiberal organizations to form in my country. If I don't, I'm undermining my own principles. And if I do, I'm letting an enemy build enough forces to pull me down despite my nobler intentions. And ofcourse liberalism is not a suicide pact.

The best answer I've received so far to this conundrum has come from Kapil Komireddi in this wonderful, despite Komireddi's know-it-all tone, conversation with Amit Varma around his book, Malevolent Republic. Komireddi argues that Khilnani's Idea of India, which in itself is an articulation of Nehru's vision, is the one idea that can hold all the other ideas of India, and the same can't be said for, say, the Hindutva Idea of India, and so making that a much higher principle.

So I think that Mathematical formulations of political problems is not always the best way to proceed and to enter the realm of politics is to move away from definite absolutes to a more porous reality. Like Prof. Pratap Bhanu Mehta says, a politician who compromises is a way better politicians than the one who argues as if he has an autonomy over truth. Ofcourse, its important to understand the reason for compromise and if its purely lacking in higher principles.

"People’s movements tend to be represented in international gatherings by those who have access to funds, who are not those who are truly representative of the ideas and aspirations of the masses."- I don't understand if he's saying this is a good or a bad thing.


Do turkeys enjoy Thanksgiving? 

(This was not part of the readings but was shared as it was a speech at WSF 2004)
 

Discussion-

Like Gujarat was the laboratory of Hindutva, AP was the laboratory for Neo-Liberal reforms.

Basheerbagh 2000 protests

Neo-liberalism is not the state moving away from regulating the market but re-regulating it to suit the need of MNCs

Electricity is : Production -> Transmission -> Distribution

And WB forced CBN to unbundle and handover distribution to private firms

WSF one crucial schism was between Social Forums and NGOs

Why are NGOs more accepted than Armed Resistance in a Capitalist society?

EPW article- Electricity Bill 2020

Direct Benefit Transfer is a way to slowly remove Subsidy

"Now we are no more citizens, we are tax-paying consumers"

This is being celebrated by the middle-class because they think corporations improve on efficiency

Chomsky- The pandemic is a creation of the neo-liberal product

Progressive International

Do we want everyone to oppose Capitalism or we want to create a coalition?

Amartya Sen's conception of Freedom

Federalism vs Capitalism- Stars Project in Education. Federalism is interested in State-building and as such is not in favour of or against Capitalism. But now we see Big Capital using Federal structure to entrench itself further.

"State not being the bigger power must compromise infront of Capital"

Protest infront of two companies profiting from Iraqi war (from the Roy essay)- Related topic is SC recently ruling that Shaheen Bagh protestors cannot protest and inconvenience people for long times. But if the protest is not causing disruption, isn't it just posturing?

From ascendancy of free markets of that time, we've come down to countries wanting to close down their borders

The importance of groups representing themselves (Eg: Not an Economist talking on behalf of farmers regarding Farmers Bills 2020)

Even well-meaning leaders, once they come into power, inevitably end up being controlled by capitalists. What can be done to fight that?

Amaravati example: Inter-Shudra rivalrly between Kammas and Reddys

30,000 acres of land was taken without spilling a drop of blood

"Ideology has served its purpose when it becomes commonsense"

Another participant: The Inter-Shudra rivalry is not an essential part of it.

Narmada Bachao Andolan opposed WB in the 1990s.

WB pulled out of Amaravati because Jagan, who is more pro-welfare, won with a huge mandate and they felt that their demands would not be met.

Apart from the economic dispossession, there is also cultural dispossession. The sacred sites of tribals have literally been submerged."The perversion of mind is more dangerous than appropriation of matter"- BG
All said and done, you must agree that Capitalism is enticing.

<I left the discussion about an hour in>

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Migrations and the making of cultures in Early India- Prof. Romila Thapar

Prof. Satish Chandra Memorial Lecture

Lecture Notes-

Introduction by Prof. Mridula Mukherjee-

Prof. Satish Chandra's work- Argued it wasn't Aurangzeb's religious outlook but structural issues with Jagirdari System that led to the decline of the Mughal Empire. Part of galaxy of RS Sharma, Romila Thapar, Romila Thapar, Arjun Dev.

Indian Historical Congress

Indian Ocean Studies

His work was inspired by the Anti-Imperialist, Nationalist framework of the Allahabad School. And by Marxist thought.
He was always stringently secular.

Prof. Romila Thapar's work- Pre-eminent Historian of Early India

Books- Penguin History of Early India, Ashoka and decline of Maurya Empire, Past and Prejudice, Past is present

Her work was to focus away from kings to a larger public.

She rejected the idea of India as an unchanging society and worked extensively to answer the British question that Indians didn't have a sense of history

Migration and the Making of Culture in Early India- Prof. Romila Thapar

Prof. Chandra's contribution- Indian History advanced out of a Colonial perspective and even a national perspective to a much larger scope.

"How does the past relate to the present was a question all of us were driven by"
If you understand the past, you might begin to understand the present. And if you are able to understand the present, you might begin to understand what the future holds.

The choice is subject is in the nature of a plea that India's historians should focus more on migrations as shapers of cultures
3 examples:
1. Aryans in 2 BCE
2. Kushans in Early centuries CE
3. Arab traders in second millennia

Today we may call them foreigners but earlier we understand how much they contributed to the host culture

Migration should not be mistaken for Invasion
Invasion: Can be dated to a particular point in time. A large body of trained and armed soldiers, who use maximum violence to conquer and loot. If they're victorious, they take over governance and appropriate revenue
Migration: Entirely different in historical impact. Is not a uniform process. Who came, from where, to where etc. Large groups of people in a slow place move about. Migrants transported their goods and cattle, so their progress was slow.

Migrations do not become invasions; Invasions at most indicate possibility of a migration

Pre-modern times:
Pastoralists- for new grazing lands or when they were driven out. Look for places with similar ecology and more sparsely populated regions. A small group generally set out first.
Peasants- seldom migrate. When they migrated, it was because of high taxes.
Traders- Much lesser numbers compared to pastoralists. Migrant traders often had partners in their home country.
Eg: Cities like Bukhara had areas specifically assigned for traders

Historians these days are arguing that what we call tradition is invented. But the invention of patterns of living come from many sources including many groups who migrated to an area and settled there.
a. If the language of the migrator and the host differ, then one of them adopts or a mixed language comes up
b. Status is based on technology, if the migrant brings superior technology and Inter-marriage (surprisingly high numbers)
c. Religion

The above dimensions contribute to creating an identity. Identities are consciously constructed and are multiple.

1. Harappa- There's a new argument now if Aryan speakers were migrants or indigenous people
Data to consider- Structure of linguistics of Indo-Aryan language, DNA and Genetics etc.
Rig Veda- It was familiar to only North-western parts of India. The later Vedas speak of regions in the East.
Shatapatha Brahmana
Language of Rig Veda similar to language of Old Iranian
Awastha- Apta Hindu/ Saptha Sindhu
The mlechchas (who couldn't speak the Indo-Aryan language) confused the r and l sound.
Dravidian languages do not have the retroflexive sound- Ta, Tha, Da, Dha, Na
Aryavarna vs Dasavarna- The dasas are culturally differentiated (amanusha, adeva) and are said to be phallic worshippers.
Aryas were associated with the horse. People consigned to more servile work started to be addressed as dasas/ dasis.

Wealth- Cattle, dasis etc.
Satyakama Jabala- Brahmin father, dasi mother

One of the things genetic analyses are teaching us is that there is no absolute purity of descent. "We are all hopelessly mixed".

Symbiosis- Peasants let pastoralists after crop is harvested for the animal to eat the stubble and improve the soil by animal droppings

2. Same area but a millennium later- Type migration here is different from the first. These are pastoralists who later became traders.

--Abandoned at this point in the lecture because I was bored