Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Levels of Conversation

Infant: To talk about oneself. Ranting. Attention seeking.

Child: To talk about people. Stimulant. Speculative.

Adolescent: To talk about events. Emotional. Informative.

Adult: To talk and convince about ideas. Intellectual. Abstract.

Edifying: To uncover hidden biases and assumptions. Open. Exploratory.

Holistic: To observe with understanding and wisdom. Peaceful. Joyous.

Silent: To observe without labeling and evaluation. Transcendent. Expansive.

We converse at all levels. Less so at higher ones.

To deepen a conversation, we move from a lower level to a higher one.

If we remain stuck at a level, then there are certain knots which need to be undone. And some capacities need to be kindled. And the environment needs to be nourishing.

That is not always possible.

But we must try.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

"Non-violent" protests

Recently, Jadavpur University has been in the news. Details (which may be biased) are here.

I will refrain from commenting upon the incident or the inquiry committee's actions or findings.

The interesting part, for the purpose of this article is this:
On the evening of September 16, after the meeting of Executive Councils was finished, students gheraoed some university officials, including Vice-Chancellor Abhijit Chakrabarti, in their offices. Following several attempts to communicate and reach an understanding between the officials and the students, the situation reached an impasse, and the students continued their demonstration into the night. The Vice-Chancellor summoned police for protection. (emphasis mine)
The police broke up the gherao, which obviously necessitated some force and entailed dragging the students away:
Criticisms of the police brutality included that police used baton charge on a peaceful demonstration... (emphasis mine)
...

In India, "non-violent" protests usually include the following:
  • Dharna (a sit-down), which usually means blocking traffic on the road or on the railway tracks.
  • Gherao (an engulfing of a person with a chain of people so that he/she cannot leave).
  • Bandh (shut down of business establishments, and taxis etc.)
  • A fast unto death.
It is my contention that the above are all violent acts, and if there is a response involving force, the initiators are being disingenuous and hypocritical in considering themselves peaceful and the response violent.



Of course, the response has to be a measured one, just enough to dismantle the protest, and excessive force is obviously a grave crime.

A Dharna on the road or on the railway tracks aims at disrupting traffic and thereby gaining the attention of the authorities. There may be ambulances in the traffic, there may be someone who is rushing to an important meeting or a court hearing, and so on. But the protesters involved in the dharna consider their grievance to supersede all other concerns. They will not allow others to reach their destinations, howsoever important they might be.

Gheraos aim at the physical restriction of another's movement. I consider it indubitably as an act of force. The person who wants to leave is thereby prevented, by force. The power to detain an adult is only granted to the state in modern times. One hopes the state uses this power extremely judiciously. But if it does not, to allow a mob to hold anyone hostage is an invitation to the law of the jungle. Gherao is similar to detaining somebody, and is therefore a crime in most civil societies.

The argument that police in a corrupt state responds to crimes selectively is a valid one, and requires serious consideration and intervention, but that does not therefore mean that the mobs should start dispensing street justice.

A Bandh is usually "called" by a group or a political party. A business which wants to remain open is forcibly shut down by the goons of that group. By no stretch of imagination is it a non-violent form of protest.

A "fast unto death" is fine ... in the privacy of one's home. Gandhi famously called his fasts as acts of "penance". But even he did not just indulge in those penances silently or in private.

Because that defeats the purpose, so to speak. The aim of a hunger-strike is to make a spectacle of it. All such fasts are announced with much fanfare, happen at fairgrounds or other prominent places, and are extensively covered by media. The intention is to, bluntly speaking, threaten suicide with each passing day carrying a heightened risk.

In all civilized societies, to threaten somebody else is a crime. To threaten others, who care about oneself, of self-harm is a way of putting emotional pressure. Everybody understands that. It (the expression of such a threat) may be an act of desperation, or an act of depression, but the aim is to provoke a response of cave-in or of sympathy.

To threaten the state, or a public authority, of self-harm, is only slightly different. One threatens the state with violence in case the state allows the fast unto death to reach its logical conclusion. The fast itself is just a means to the threat-point. The real threat is the public response to the death of the fasting person.

A fast by an oppressed person (say the father of a murdered son, or a raped woman) can be a desperate measure when all appeals to reason or to due process have failed, and when one sees no other way of getting the public attention. But there should be no confusion that this is an act of violence.

I consider that most so-called non-violent protests violate others' well-being, liberty and peace.

When I was in college, I witnessed a "non-violent" protest in the parking lot of a government building during which the protesters pasted small black stickers on the windshields of all parked vehicles. It was merely an annoyance to the owner of the automobile, but I refused to consider that protest non-violent. It was a violation, even if in a small measure, of another person's property.

There are indeed forms of non-violent protests. But they might be less effective than a gherao.

Some examples:
  • Holding a placard with a message in front of a building.  
  • Distributing flyers.
  • Wearing black bands.
  • Passive civil disobedience to a law (refusing to pay taxes or to honor a summons from a court, for example).  And then to peacefully accept the consequences.
  • Expressing oneself in an "opt-in" manner, i.e. where you do not force others to participate: writing or speaking in media, writing a book, making a film, etc.  (Causing a commotion by using a loudspeaker in an otherwise silent area denies others the option to not be part of the protest.  What if there are ill people or little children in an area?)
Since these genuinely non-violent protests might not be very effective, it is possible that the protesters might eventually decide to use force. And perhaps they should. And they should then call themselves fighters. There is no shame in using force. On the contrary, a warrior who is willing to fight and die for justice is a hero.

A protest against injustice must have integrity. A "non-violent" protest which is actually violent fails that test.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

True Love

It was wintertime again, and he was achingly lonely.  Beautiful women were all around him, but their beauty was to him like that of decorated, ornately dressed carcasses.  They smelled nice, having bathed in French perfumes.  Their skin was like the moon reflected in a still lake at night.  Their dresses were made of the finest silk and gold.

But he did not want to touch them.  He was repelled by their laborious glamour.  He wanted to experience something which was not crafted.

He had stayed on that island for many years now.  Slowly but surely he had concluded that true love was not to be found there.  That he was going to have to travel far if he wanted to have a glimpse of it.

After a night of revelry and drunkenness, when all were in oblivion, he packed a few garments and some food, walked to the ocean, silently released the sailboat from the harbor, and set sail.

Many days went by till he saw another soul.  He was now on an island hundreds of miles away from his home.  And it was here that he met the hermit.

The hermit patiently listened to his quest for true love, and asked him to contemplate on what he meant by "love", and how would he know when he had found it.

The man told the hermit that "love" could not be explained, that he would know when he found it.  But the hermit was stubborn and insisted on an answer.

The seeker was perplexed.  Love for him was a matter of the heart, and how could he capture it in words?

A few things became clear to him as he wondered about his quest.  Why, if he was seeking "true love", was he seeking it from a woman?  Why was the womanhood so important?  And why the desire for physical closeness?  And what was the nature of the love emanating from his beloved?

He concluded that "true love" was love without any involvement of the mind.  When two people just reveled in each other's closeness without knowing or understanding why.

And he realized that "true love" directed at someone specific was possible only for a man who was ignorant about the evolution and the machinery of life.

Crestfallen, he went back to the hermit and told him "Love is no more a mystery to me.  I no longer wish to live."

The hermit pointed at a fire in the forest in the far distance.  Nobody understood how it had come about.  It had been raging for many years now.  Some speculated it was lightning.  Some thought it came from the bowels of the earth.

The hermit then gathered some dry wood and twigs, and tried to light them by rubbing together two small sticks.  There were sparks, and quickly there was a small fire.  Heat, light, the sound of wood crackling.  It was fascinating.  There were endless variations to the flame.

The man from the island was getting almost transfixed by the blaze.  The hermit looked at his eyes, and amused, suddenly stood up and urinated over the burning wood.  There was a hissing sound and the fire was extinguished.  Some embers still remained.

The man was angry at the hermit and wanted an explanation.

The hermit said: "It is only when you look at your knowledge with disdain that you are distressed by it.  I know how that fire was lit.  But I did not have to therefore put it out."

The man stayed awake the whole night pondering over what the hermit had said.

The next morning, he touched the hermit's feet and said, "I have but one last question.  What is beauty if it is all shallow?"

The hermit looked at him somberly and said, "Those little sticks that started the fire, are they not to be treasured?"

The man bade the hermit farewell and went back to his island.  And on the way he bought a resplendent robe for himself.

The Well-Oiled Cogs

It is widely understood that politeness, manners and gestures of courtesy help in social cohesion and safety.

Today morning in the gym, I witnessed something strange.  A woman "smiled" at me out of recognition.  We work out at the same time early morning.  But the smile was so blatantly artificial and momentary that instead of generating well-being, it generated distrust and woe.

It used to be that when a person greeted me with "Hey Good morning.  How are you doing?" I used to contemplate, considering it an expression of genuine interest, and think of an authentic response.  Not that I was going to really talk about a mid-life crisis, but "Great" seemed to be an exaggeration most of the time.  It felt fake.  It would have been more precise for me to say "I'm doing fine, thanks."  Now-a-days, I just respond mechanically: "Great, how are you?" And the answer is always: "Good, thanks!"  And I heave a sigh of relief at the successful end of this three-way-handshake.

On some of my more reflective days, when I am not feeling very communicative, I have to gather my energies for an outward expression, and then effort-fully mutter something positive.   And it can't be just a monotonic "gud" or the other person might feel insulted.  It has to be a stretched out waveform: "Goood!"

When I enter the gym, I have to hear "Have a good workout."  I have to say: "Thanks", even though I really like to stay silent for a few hours every morning.  Then when I leave the gym, I cannot escape being told: "Have a great day!"  And I have to again muster a smile and say: "Thanks, you too!"

It's not that I am a depressed person.  I am not even an introvert.  I am interested in other people.  I wish nobody any ill.  In fact, I genuinely wish these buggers well.  They keep the gym so clean and organized.  But please don't ask me to express it in trite phrases.  That's just not me.  I would much rather, as I once did, express my appreciation for a particularly helpful gym worker to the gym's manager.  The manager was quite surprised at my gratitude.

One of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace, writes about this fake bonhomie in his "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again":
You know this smile, the strenuous contraction of circumoral fascia w/ incomplete zygomatic involvement – the smile that doesn’t quite reach the smiler’s eyes and that signifies nothing more than a calculated attempt to advance the smiler’s own interests by pretending to like the smilee….Am I the only consumer in whom high doses of such a smile produce despair? ...
And yet, the Professional Smile’s absence now also causes despair. Anybody who’s ever bought a pack of gum in a Mahattan cigar store, or asked for something to be stamped FRAGILE at a Chicago post office or tried to obtain a glass of water from a South Boston waitress knows full well the soul-crushing effect of a service workers’ scowl, i.e. the humiliation and resentment of being denied the Professional Smile. And the Professional Smile has by now skewed even my resentment at the dreaded Professional Scowl. I walk away from the Manhattan tobacconist resenting not the countermans’s character or absence of goodwill but his lack of professionalism in denying me the Smile. What a fucking mess.
After the gym "incident" today morning, I wondered why that woman had to smile that fake smile at me.  Why couldn't she just nod or say "hi" with an upward flick of her eyebrows?

I concluded that she was entirely unaware of her smile.  It was an almost autonomic gesture.  Realizing the extent of her zombieness, I felt sorry for her.  She wasn't in the service industry.  She didn't have to smile.  But she did, and it was an excruciatingly fake smile.

In the office, on every Monday, there is another interesting question: "Hey, how was your weekend?"  I have learnt to not proffer details and make others envious about my off-beat pursuits, and have learnt that the polite answer is: "It was nice.  I/We went to random-but-not-out-of-the-way-place-x for a random-but-regular-act-y.  (e.g. "I went to Dana Point and spent a few hours oceanside.")  How about you?"

One of my friends once ranted that he wanted to shout at his co-workers when asked about his weekend: "None of your effing business mate.  I have given you folks fifty waking hours of my week which will never come back.  Please don't intrude on the ones left.  For the love of God, let me have a life which I don't have to tell you about."

I think he was overreacting, but I could also empathize.  Being a "professional" can at times demand in-authenticity, an appearance of being institutionalized, and a fake enthusiasm and cheerfulness.  It can get to people.  Some people would just like to do their work and go home.  This added obligation of yoo-hoo cheerfulness and of feigned curiosity about others at one's workplace feels like a malignant form of overtime.  Fake interest requires effort.  We get exhausted after entertaining guests with whom we cannot be ourselves, or who we are afraid of offending.

Social lubrication can be taken too far.  When there is too much oil, the cogs don't really mesh.  They just slide over each other, and never really interact.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

To travel in stillness

I consider that life rich which is not lazy, but which is also not bound by the logistics of life.  Which has some wealth but also leisure, and space, and silence within.  Which has a ticking watch on its wrist but is also aware of the stillness of time, of the changing colors of the sky, of others' voices.  Which can commune with nature.

By that measure, a sleepless diplomat in Brussels, a caffeinated day trader on Wall Street, and an impoverished laborer in Dubai are equally poor.  They are all trapped by the need to sustain themselves.

That man is to be admired who, while lacking in means, ventures into the subtler dimensions of life.  That man is to be pitied who, while rich, doesn't.

When a man realizes he is wasting his years in the mere pursuit of means, the solution is not to suddenly start reading travel guides.  The remedy is not to start consuming experiences.  The cure is not to substitute one kind of noise for the other... but to be silent.  In that silence, when the destination is in the here and now, there can be simultaneously full awareness and a total contentment.

There is, in life, both the joy of achievement, and the peace of contentment.  Neither is the full expression of living.  A life lived bound by ceaseless achievement is as unbalanced as a life bound by endless complacence.