Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Nostalghia of Photograph

The knowledge that makes us cherish innocence makes innocence unattainable. (Irwing Howe)

Nostalghia is a 1983 Russian film by Andrei Tarkovsky.

From Wikipedia:
The film depicts a Russian writer .... During his stay he is struck with nostalgia for his homeland, longing for an inner home, a sense of belonging, and a clash between his personal vision of the world, and the real conditions. ... profound form of nostalgia ..., comparing it to a disease, "an illness that drains away the strength of the soul, the capacity to work, the pleasure of living", but also, "a profound compassion that binds us not so much with our own privation, our longing, our separation, but rather with the suffering of others, a passionate empathy.
Photograph is a 2019 film by  Ritesh Batra, who previously directed the acclaimed film The Lunchbox.  The film follows a man from rural Uttar Pradesh making his living in Bombay clicking photographs of tourists, and a middle class woman student who he happens to meet.

Both of them are lost and alone in their lives, nostalgic for an earlier, simple way of living. The man lives with his friends, and the woman has a caring family, but their feelings and desires linger in silence.  The man is trying to find his footing in a world that has brutalized him in many ways, and the woman is silently waiting for whatever life might have in store for her.

The nostalgia is not just about an earlier way of living, in which joys were simple and the relationships more about love and the bonds of family.  It is also about the nostalgia of an adult for his childhood.  The innocence of being a child is hard to maintain as one tries to navigate a world in which pragmatism and planning take the place of spontaneity and freedom from care.

The film celebrates silences, showing instead of verbalizing.  Old songs, traditional street food, old taxis, old people, extinct drinks, out of fashion adornments and cosmetics, old cinema halls, ...

There is a certain lack of ambition and aspiration in children, as is probably there among people who have their homes in the hills or in a remote village.  They are content with the little pleasures of an occasional celebration, of an infrequent treat, and of a simple gift.

Of course, the film paints the poor people as carefree, innocent and caring and the rich and urbane as somewhat manipulative and stressed.  It is true to some extent.  The poor do not have much to lose, and they can thereby be more "in the moment" and heart-driven than the rich.

But poverty, the brutality of which is hinted at in the film when it describes the man's early years, is not entirely a romantic phenomenon.  There is immense suffering in it.  The daily grind and the daily humiliations of being at the lower end of society drain a man of his innocence as surely as the competition and upward mobility of the rich.

In a key scene, the woman innocently says to another man that she wishes to live in a village.  Earlier in the scene, the man has casually bragged that he can be happy "anywhere", but is taken aback when he hears her.

The woman idealizes the village life as being idyllic, not having actually lived it.

I used to think, when observing slums and the urban poor in the big cities in India: Why do these poor people come to the city and live in such inhuman conditions?  Do they not miss their village?  Yes, they might have a television now, but is their cramped and rotten living really better than what they had in their earlier life? 

It is a complex question.  But if we trust that these unfortunate people make their decisions not in foolishness but with regret and resolve, the answer must be that despite the open fields, the skies and the clouds, the simpler life, their earlier time in the village must be, in the final analysis, a romanticized nightmare of insecurity, scarcity and indignity.

They have a different kind of indignity in the city, but the city offers them at least a hope of making a life in which their children will have a place in the world, and not merely be blown around by the winds of the caste system, of oppressive landlords, of a capricious monsoon, of a criminal neglect and usurpation of their lands (if they have any) by those who can.


The wish of a human being that he will again be fragrant and innocent, once he traverses the hard and brutal terrain of a world that values only value, is a tragic one.  For that innocence will find itself deeply buried in the end, unless it is carefully renewed and nourished every day.

To keep one's inner child alive is not a mild undertaking, it is the very dream and the eventual hope of man: That one will again be free to be as one was.

Monday, May 06, 2019

An Essay by Teja Singh

Principal Teja Singh (born Tej Ram) was a Punjabi scholar who lived during the first half of the twentieth century.  He wrote many scholarly works on Punjabi language and Sikh scriptures, but is also famous for his simple, charming and heartfelt essays.

His most famous essay, one often found in school textbooks in Punjab, was titled "ਘਰ ਦਾ ਪਿਆਰ".  The title is difficult to translate.  It roughly means the love and affections one experiences at home and from one's family.  "Domestic Love" is too prosaic and uninspired a translation.

One finds this essay in his compilation "ਗੁਸਲਖਾਨਾ ਤੇ ਹੋਰ ਲੇਖ" (The Bathhouse and Other Essays).  It was likely published in the 1940s.  Fortunately, the book has been digitized and archived by Panjab Digital Library.

I vaguely remember reading this essay during my school years but had forgotten about it.  A dear friend had created an audio version of the Punjabi essay.  I read the essay in Punjabi and listened to her audio.

But I could not find any English translation of this book, or of any of the essays.

It seemed worthwhile to me to translate at least this essay from the book.  The friend who had created the audio version reviewed my translation and offered valuable and helpful feedback, which I happily incorporated.

You can read the essay here.  A PDF version is here.

Many years ago, I had the pleasure of digitizing (by simply typing) a similarly themed short book by a Russian writer.

That book was "The Family and Society" by Leonid Zhukhovistky.  I found it a breezy, and quite a fascinating and at times touching read.  You can read the book here.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Judicial Pace and Violence

A cumbersome judicial process, as is there in India, leads to horrific crimes by ordinary people when they see no way out to resolve a civil dispute.

Every other day I read about "a woman and her paramour" killing "her husband" because divorce was not a possibility.  Similarly, there are husbands who want to separate from their wives but there being no way to do so legally (and also due to the gender-biased laws which are sympathetic to women),  remain married and are cruel to her.

One often reads of people resorting to stone-pelting, self-immolation and lynchings because they have no faith in the judiciary to deliver justice.  Even the police, the guardians of law, resort to torture, confessions and killings because they know the criminal will likely never be convicted.

There are millions of property disputes lingering in Indian courts.  Quite a few murders in India are because of dubious claims to being a heir, unsettled property disputes or ambiguities in someone's will.

Many of the lynchings are a form of "instant justice" by the mob because the mob, somewhat justifiably, has no faith in the police and the judiciary.

Millions of under-trials languish in jails because their cases are stuck, and they are not literate enough to know their rights to bail or to a speedy trial.  The latter right, of a speedy trial, is probably just a fiction and I have never seen a criminal case thrown out because it took too long.

Judicial fairness and agility is of fundamental importance in any civil society.  If the disputes and crimes are not fairly and promptly adjudicated, feelings of helplessness, frustration, anger, despondence, hysteria, are almost a certainty.

The despots of society are fearless of consequences, and the ordinary law-abiding citizen remains cowed in fear and frustration.  And often, very normal people are driven to criminality because they have run out of patience.

As I have written elsewhere, India suffers from not just judicial dysfunction, but dysfunction at all levels of jurisprudence:

1. The laws are horribly drafted, are ambiguous, and in many cases, archaic.
2. The law-enforcement machinery (the police) is over-worked, corrupt, and openly influenced by politicians and bureaucrats.
3. The public prosecutors are apathetic and either too lax on real criminals or too pedantic (grant-custody-your-honor, deny-the-bail-your-honor) and hence draconian on the innocents.
4. The judiciary is unprofessional, unpredictable and temperamental, glacially slow, unwilling to punish judges whose decisions are reversed in higher courts, and encouraging of the lawyer mafia, uncaring of the endless petitions and appeals process, and soft on the state.

There is no easy or quick solution, but each of these rotting pillars need to be fixed, and they can be fixed.  There are vested interests which want the state of affairs to continue, despite the fact or perhaps because of the fact, that this state of affairs is brutal

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Essays on Modernity

Some years ago, as I came out of the thralldom of spirituality and the self-centered pursuit of transcending one's humanity in order to be "free from suffering", I wrote a series of polemics on the vacuum of meaning in the modern human being.

Spirituality is an an individual attempt to form a personal superego (a grand Self instead of one's puny "self"), while rejecting the superego of tradition, religion and social mores.

Some of those series of essays are listed below:

Superego and Morality

On Non-Attachment: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6.

Nature and Man

Notes on Modernity.

Notes on Suffering: part 1part 2.

Notes on Intellect: part 1part 2part 3.

A note on Morality.

Notes on Meaning: part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5part 6part 7part 8part 9part 10part 11part 12part 13.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Spiritual Wisdom is Anything But

Came across the following quote:
If you are willing to look at another person's behavior toward you as a reflection of the state of their relationship with themselves rather than a statement about your value as a person, then you will, over a period of time cease to react at all (Yogi Bhajan)
You can of course look up Yogi Bhajan and the controversies about him, but let us just focus on the quote.

There is so much wrong in this quote that it is hard to know where to begin, but I'll try.  What is wrong with the quote is all quite basic, but it is bewildering that such truthy quotes still float around.

1. Others' behavior toward you might indeed be about you.  If you are an ill-mannered person, then of course others will avoid you.  If you are lazy at your job, of course your colleagues will criticize you.  If you are an abusive spouse, of course your partner will be resentful of you.  To respond to others' acts and words about you in the manner of "it's not me, it's them" is to believe that you are beyond judgment and there is nothing about you which might be unwholesome.  It is therapeutic and comforting to think this way, but I recommend narcissism to no one.

2. The quote is suggesting that if you are pained by others' opinion or behavior toward you, then they have "issues" and once you understand that, you will not react but will "understand" them and be beatifically compassionate toward their inner suffering.

In other words, it is saying: others need to fix themselves, not you.  That of course might be true in certain cases.  If you are learning to drive and another driver, frustrated at your rookie mistakes on the road, gives you the middle finger or honks at you, of course they are frustrated and it will do you no good to get into a mutual road-raging fight.  You just mutter to yourself "oh well, i'm still learning" and move on.

But in many cases, as partly in the case of the rookie driver, you are to blame as well.  Another's reaction might be an overreaction, but it is oftentimes indeed a reaction to something that you did.  No, not all reactions of others are due to their "issues".  You might have done something to trigger that reaction as well.

This is not to say that you need to make everyone happy.  There will be people who are offended at your telling the truth about, say, their favorite leader.  That does not mean you need to shut yourself up.

3. The phrase "relationship with themselves" is a curious one.  It probably means the soul's relationship to the mind, or it may mean a mind's inner conflict.

Somebody gossiping about you may indeed have "insecurity" or a complex, somebody envious of your happy marriage may have an unhappy one of their own, somebody calling you anorexic because you believe in fitness may have an unhealthy relationship to food, and so on.  Indeed all this can be true.  But it is the height of egotism to believe that everybody else is crazy but you.  What if you too have a bad relationship with yourself?  What if you have unhealthy eating habits and your spouse tells you that you are overweight and need to watch it?  What if your marriage is an unhappy one and a happily married individual tells you that oftentimes you speak with contempt toward your spouse and that is not a good thing?  What if you indeed are trying to date someone with criminal tendencies and your friend tries to warn you about it?

4. If somebody's behavior toward you is because of their inner issues, then logically, so should one consider their behavior toward others.  If we go by Yogi Bhaja's advice, there need not be any reaction.

So, there is no need to stop a cruel dictator, a murderer, a pickpocket, an embezzler, a drunk lout, an ill-behaved adolescent, in fact, anyone whose behavior is not appropriate.  But if you would intervene when somebody is being inappropriate to others, why not also respond if they are being inappropriate toward you?

Now of course, the spiritualist will, ahem, respond, and say that you should not react but respond.  As in, not immediately, impulsively respond but respond "mindfully" or after due reflection, or after ensuring that you are free from any impulse of anger or irritation.

In my opinion, if I am stopping a violent thug from beating somebody up on the street, my primary consideration would be to stop him, and a much, much more feeble consideration would be to navel-gaze and determine if my own state of mind is completely wholesome.  Unwholesome emotions are rough and ready responses to unwholesome situations, and they serve us well in cases of danger.  Often, unwholesome emotions lead us to react less than optimally to a situation, but sometimes there is no time.  Most of the time, we react appropriately, with a mix of emotions and cogitation.

If you are short-tempered, easily annoyed, paranoid, or otherwise suffer from an exaggerated impulse or emotionally fragile nature, by all means moderate those impulses.  But to not react at all is to be an inhuman robot which only evaluates a situation and after a proper computation, decides the best course of action and executes it.

5. To react (or to respond) to change circumstances, which circumstances can obviously include other individuals, is the very stuff of life.  Only a stone is unperturbed.  To be perturbed is to be alive.  To see injustice and be moved by it, to have moist eyes after having witnessed a heroic gesture, to feel a sense of outrage at a mob heckling a philosopher during his speech, are all entirely wholesome "reactions".  To seek to rid oneself of reactions is likely a spiritual quest to reach a state of "stillness".

As I have often asked, what will then be your motivation to act?  What will be the desire that will make you get up and do anything, anything at all?  Absolute stillness is a death.  There is a total lack of perturbation in that state.  Spiritualists will tell you that you can experience that state while alive, but then again, something happens to them in that state that makes them not just remain sitting in silence.  They eventually get up and talk, or go out of the room.  Why?  Why don't they just stay there?

The answer is, of course, that a sense of peace and contentment that one feels during spiritual practices is a temporary respite from the stresses of life.  That state is sought by those in whom the stresses of life have become overwhelming.  They will be helped by a calming practice, but the aim of life is not to be calm, it is to live and achieve whatever is important to you.  To seek to only be calm as one's goal is to misunderstand life massively.

And even the nirvana-dwelling gurus do things which are of course driven by circumstances and their desires.  They build ashrams, build followings, teach others, advertise about their workshops on social media, etc.  For a normal enough individual, meditation or a calming practice offers a way to recuperate from those stresses.  At least for that hour of meditation, those stresses seem non-existent.  But those stresses still exist, and have to be handled with intelligence.  If you are responsible for a surgical operation on your next patient, by all means do so in a calm and collected manner, but that calm is a means, not an end.  The end is the success of the surgical operation.

For spiritualists, the calm is the end, and all experiencing of life is the means.

But it is actually quite simple to be eternally calm. If you ever wish for that, the national suicide hotline number, at least in USA, is 1-800-273-8255.