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.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Working Class

It is a curious phrase, the "working class".  It means "the social group consisting of people who are employed for wages, especially in manual or industrial work."

If they are the working class, what are the knowledge workers?  And what about the Dilbert-esque managers of the knowledge workers?

Being one of the latter, I often wonder that despite the appearance of work, what we do merely re-arranges bits inside of a computer.  We manipulate information.  That information then eventually impacts something in the "real world" and transforms matter.

A programmer working for AirBnB helps create an app.  That app enables people to search for guest-rooms.  They use that app to book a particular room.  The app notifies the host.  The payment is made electronically.  The bank balance of the host increases while that of the guest decreases.  Eventually the guest travels and stays in that room.  In this way there is still some material "happening" in the end.

Consider a project manager for the Times of India website.  The reporter talks to real people, uses various online data resources, investigates, and writes a news report on a computer.  Say the report is about a government department's nepotistic hiring practices. The end result of the reporter's work is new forms of "information".  The project manager directs his staff to post the new information on the ToI website.  Once posted, it is available to read for anyone anywhere in the world with internet access.  After having ingested that new information, the reader talks about it to his friends, who then decide to picket the local government office.

A real "event" leading to another real event, mediated by information and information workers.

...

Information or Knowledge workers procure, manipulate or disseminate information.  In some cases their counter-party is a human being, but in many cases it is a machine.  For example, software programmers or systems administrators inform a computer on what it should do. 

The "working class" manipulates tangible matter.  They cook food, they drive trains, they make roads and build buildings, they repair machinery, they carry loads, ...

The social interaction between so-called working class and the knowledge workers is becoming rare.  Of course there is functional interaction.  You give your order to the waiter, and the waiter might be using the bank's call center to inquire about his recent paycheck.  But socially, these two categories of people rarely mix with each other.

I think that is a shame.

Charles Murray, in his marvelous, landmark book "Coming Apart", discusses just this phenomenon.  How the tastes, preferences, cultural pillars and much else between these two classes has become segregated and disjoint.

The cover page shows a glass full of champagne at the top, and a crumpled empty can of beer at the bottom.

An excerpt:
Many of the members of the new upper class are balkanized. Furthermore, their ignorance about other Americans is more problematic than the ignorance of other Americans about them. It is not a problem if truck drivers cannot empathize with the priorities of Yale professors. It is a problem if Yale professors, or producers of network news programs, or CEOs of great corporations, or presidential advisers cannot empathize with the priorities of truck drivers. It is inevitable that people have large areas of ignorance about how others live, but that makes it all the more important that the members of the new upper class be aware of the breadth and depth of their ignorance.

I highly recommend that you not just "empathize" or warmly smile at the next working class individual that you come across, but develop a deeper bond with some of them.

Invite your maid to dinner at your table, go have a drink with your driver, go and take your daughter to the birthday party of your mechanic's son, not as an act of condescending generosity, but something born out of genuine interest and affection for those individuals. 

You will find, as I often find, that their lives have much to teach you.  And that sharing in their experiencing of life will give you an unimaginably different perspective on your own life, and on the world in general.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Pleasure of the Tangible

No matter how smart we are, there are certain perceptual biases which affect us.  Something not being "real" makes us treat it in a more casual, flippant manner.

Casinos know this.  So they give you plastic chips to gamble with.  It has long been known that people gamble more recklessly with plastic chips than with real currency or coins.

It is also generally accepted that people are apt to spend more if they use plastic money: debit or credit cards.  Despite the convenience of these cards, many prefer to use cash.  They are, perhaps by experience, apprehensive that they will overspend with a card.

Taking a leap of thought, it occurred to me that I do not enjoy downloaded music or virtual books as much as I enjoyed playing a cassette tape or reading the musty, browned pages of a printed book.  My local library offers an almost unlimited selection of all the magazines delivered to my e-book-reader, but I have no interest.  I have more books than I can count in electronic form on my Kindle or on my computer, but they sit there, in their digital form, unread.

Any song or piece of music or film that we can think of is instantly available to us via the internet.  But I can't remember too many films, available via streaming, that I have enjoyed re-watching.  The streaming providers encourage you to "binge watch" instead of "depth watch": To watch something and to reflect on it and to discuss it.  No sir, just move on to the next episode.  Whereas I distinctly remember almost running to ruin the VHS tapes that we possessed during the non-internet years.

Of course one might be tempted to think that even books and recorded music must have felt "virtual" to those who were used to scrolls, hand-written texts, and only live music.  Is it just nostalgia, or is there something to the fact that the more easily accessible and "portable" something becomes, its artistic value becomes less in some far depth of our consciousness?  I don't think just calling someone Luddite settles it.

Can ease of access lead to a perceived diminution in value, and thereby a lowering of enjoyment?  I do think so.

Imagine you have been looking for a book.  It is out of print.  You find a used-books-store and are delighted at finding a 1967 print of that very book.  You snuggle in bed and lovingly turn each page, smelling the decades-old pages, enjoying the dated type of the letters, and taking care not to damage the binding as you turn the pages.

Compare that experience with the book being instantly delivered to your kindle.  You have it, and you will be mighty pleased to have it, but you have spent almost no effort in getting it into your hands.  If in future the books can be streamed directly to your brain, it will be even more convenient, and the actual content even less valued.

There are people who collect vinyl records to this day.  They say that the fidelity is better, but I think a deeper reason is the tangibility of it.  You show the large cover to your friends, you take out the big black disc and see and hear the pin of the player scratch its outer diameter as the music begins.

It is also true that in the age of CDs and cassettes, one listened to all the songs in an album, and not just a chart topper.  Not any more.  This is the age of the "single".  Who even knows the names of recently released albums anymore?  Everybody only knows the names of individual songs.

Consider a "digital" magazine or newspaper versus its print counterpart.  Can you not honestly say that no matter how nice the resolution of your tablet, there is a distinct pleasure of reading the broadsheet or turning the pages of the magazine and reading every little word on the page?

As more and more of our world gets mediated by the black mirrored devices, is it not true that the depth of engagement is lessening?  Of course there are other factors too.  Distraction, for example.  But that is also a consequence of the easy access.  There is too much available too easily for us to remain focused on something for a while.

As an experiment, browse to a web page or a news article and turn off the internet on your phone or computer.  Even though there are links on that page, you cannot navigate to them.  There is no choice - and in quite a few cases this lack of choice is a good thing - but for you to pay more attention to the content at hand.

This is even more true with a book or a cassette or vinyl record.  There is no easy way to "skip" to a different track when you are temporarily bored.  And so you listen to all the songs, turn by turn.

A core insight is: Depth of one's relationship with anything or anyone is contingent on there being periods of non-stimulation.  Or in other words, on Patience.  Convenience makes patience unnecessary, and that can also be a curse.

Subscribe to the 5G service soon to be available on your cellular network at your peril.

Monday, April 08, 2019

The Decline and Fall of India

India, my motherland, is a country in terminal decline.

The pollution levels are reaching record levels, with absolutely no sign of there being any concerted effort at controlling or reversing it.  Indian's soil, water, air, its rivers, its beaches, its cities and towns, are all polluted to an absolutely alarming degree.  The non-profit NGOs and the courts are fighting a losing battle trying to clean the country up - a losing battle because the sources of the pollution are unchecked.  India generates most of its electricity from coal/thermal power.  Its industries are under little regulation for their effluent discharge.  The cities have no garbage or sewerage treatment systems to speak of.  Most of India's commercial vehicles are rickety diesel-powered fume monsters.  Of the top ten most polluted cities of the world, seven are in India.

India is the world's most densely populated country, and soon to be the most populous country.

India's governments are dysfunctional to a large degree.  Public services for education, healthcare and law enforcement are now mostly employment schemes for people working there, and offer little benefit to their customers.  Especially the police and the courts are clogged to their gills with pending disputes.  The police routinely tortures suspects, and human rights abuses by it are legion.

There is a certain level till which the inhabitants of a region want to improve their lot and seek to fix their environment.  That level is based on perceptions of lawlessness, the effort required to effect any change, and the anecdotal risks of going against a corrupt and powerful mafia.  Beyond that certain level, people just give up.  It is beyond dispute that most of India's educated and elite are either seeking a safe, privileged cocoon within India or are desperate to immigrate to a foreign country.  The cost of being safe in India is becoming prohibitive.  Everybody cannot afford private guards all the time.  As soon as you venture out on the chaotic roads, use public transport, or need to work with public servants, the chaos, danger and dysfunction hits you hard.

Each day on an average, ten people die on Mumbai's suburban train system.  I read The Tribune, a newspaper of my region (the North-West India).  Every day there are at least a dozen deaths in Punjab and Haryana on their roads, with likely hundreds suffering non-fatal injuries.

The problems have reached a scale that is probably too massive for remediation.

I believe the decline in hope, if not the decline itself, started during the regime of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.  Civil liberties were clamped down, the media became a lackey of the state, and people lost whatever little faith they had in democracy and the courts.  Since then, the situation has remained more or less the same.  There are still draconian laws comparable to the Emergency.  Numerous acts allowing the state to imprison people without a trial, harsh powers given to the police, a lack of accountability for the government, the paralyzed courts, and the corrupt industry-politician nexus continue unabated.

The wealth boom during the last decade or two has been primarily driven by multinationals using Indian middle class as their outsourced labor.  If you discount people employed, directly or indirectly, by foreign multinational corporations, and the flow of wealth from NRIs, there is not much to speak about India's increasing GDP.  The services sector is now almost two thirds of India's GDP.  Either this sector is serving foreign organizations (which I call the primary services sector), or it is serving the many layers of India's populace who are richer because of the primary services sector.  I am only too happy to be proved wrong.

Despite my best efforts, I cannot but be pessimistic about India.  Yes, there will be success stories of a few individuals, but the stories of suffering will far, far outnumber them for the foreseeable future.

And as India loses its best and its brightest, who migrate to foreign lands, there is no way it will become better managed or better planned.

The advice is often given to grumpy non-resident-Indians like me that we should come back and fix India.  The reason many don't come back, despite there being in them a sadness at this state of affairs, is because the personal cost to them is going to be too huge.  They have achieved some measure of dignity, prosperity and self-reliance for themselves and their families, and they are unwilling to be thrust again into a war-zone-like situation.  Is it still permissible for them to talk about the suffering of their motherland?  Of course.  They did not create that suffering, and they are not responsible for fixing it.  The pollution of our lands and rivers was not our doing.  We paid taxes to a government who was supposed to take care of it for us.  But in the absence of any accountability, we were looted, our homes razed to the ground.  Is it fair to ask the victims to band together and rebuild their house, while the looters are only too ready to loot them again?

If you are a reader of this blog, you are most likely privilged enough to be all right for their rest of your lives, even if you live in India.  But you are the .1%.

I am afraid for the country of my birth.  Much suffering ails it, and far more, I fear, is imminent in the next few decades.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

The Man before God-man

Spiritual teachers are human beings before they are gods or god-men.

Their journey from birth to becoming revered teachers should be of great interest to anyone interested in their teachings.  A spiritual seeker has to frequently answer this question: “How come you became interested in all this?  Didn’t you want to be rich, have a family, or have a pleasant life?”  In case of spiritual teachers, however, we are not very curious.  We perhaps assume that they were somehow born different and were chosen by a “higher power” to become spiritual teachers.

If they were indeed born different, then an account of their early lives must have enough incidents to arouse interest.  And if their journey was somehow directed by their early lives towards spirituality, then we must examine those factors and make sense of their later lives.

There is universal agreement among psychologists that what we experience during infancy, childhood and young adulthood has a great bearing on our adult lives.  The way our parents related to us, how we approached education and socializing, our friends and relatives, the cultural norms in our home and in our community, all shape our attitudes, philosophy and values later in life.

If we consider spiritual teachers to be subject to the same processes of psychological development as any other human being (which I believe we should), then their early lives have a great deal to tell us.  It might be that we are able to understand their teachings with greater insight.  We might be able to see where they are “coming from”.  We might be able to make sense of their apparent strangeness.

Social psychologists often consider religious belief as a provider of emotional and communal strength.  In modern times, while religion is increasingly seen as pedantic, conservative and mythological, people still need a way to pacify themselves and feel at peace.  As the force of religious teachings decreases or becomes more distant, spiritual teachers and their teachings often provide a more intimate and individual belief system that can comfort an individual.  It should be interesting to dig deep into the circumstances that led the spiritual teachers to develop an individual and superficially unique philosophy.

A spiritual teacher usually has uncommon charisma or a novel way of expressing spiritual beliefs.  Usually both.  An examination of their lives might uncover at what age and how that charisma or novelty became apparent.  It therefore might demystify the origins of the teacher’s spirituality.

A demystification obviously has the danger of diminishing reverence towards a belief or an individual.  But I consider the heightened understanding and insight to be far more important than reverence.  Of course, devotees will disagree.  But such is the nature of devotion, and one should accept the risk of one's writings being trashed by the acolytes.

In many cases, only scant detail might be available about the spiritual teacher’s early life.  But still, something is better than nothing.

Thursday, April 04, 2019

A Nazm by Zahid

फिर से मौसम बहारों का आने को है
फिर से रंगे ज़माना बदल जायेगा

The season of blossoming is again at hand
Again the world will be of a different color

अबकी बज़्मे चराग़ाँ सजा लेंगे हम
ये भी अरमान दिल का निकल जायेगा
(बज़्मे चराग़ाँ = lamps during the rendezvous)

Again I shall light lamps for the rendezvous
And again my heart's desire will find its way

आप करदें जो मुझ पे निगाहें करम
मेरी उल्फत का रह जायेगा कुछ भरम
(उल्फत = love)

If only you could glance at me
The illusion of my passion might remain

यूं फ़साना तो मेरा रहेगा यही
सिर्फ़ उनवान उसका बदल जायेगा
(फ़साना = story, उनवान = title, of the story)

My story though might remain the same
But its title at least shall be rewritten

फीकी फीकी सी क्यूँ शाम-ऐ-मएखाना है
लुत्फ़े साकी भी कम खाली पैमाना है
(शाम-ऐ-मएखाना = evening at the tavern, लुत्फ़े साकी = the joy of seeing the bartender)

This evening at the tavern is so listless
The joy of seeing the bartender is as empty as my cup of wine

अपनी नज़रों से ही कुछ पिला दी जिए
रंग महफिल का ख़ुद ही बदल जायेगा

If you can but quench me with your look
The whole evening will be transformed

मेरे मिटने का उनको ज़रा गम नहीं,
जुल्फ भी उनकी ऐ दोस्त बरहम नहीं
(बरहम = messy)

She is not at all moved by my destruction
Even her hair has stayed in form, my friend

अपने होने न होने से होता है क्या
काम दुनिया का यु ही तो चल जायेगा

What does it matter if I exist or not
The world shall continue as it is

आपने दिल जो ज़ाहिद का तोडा तो क्या
आपने उसकी दुनिया को छोड़ा तो क्या

You did break Zahid's heart, but so what
You did leave his world, but so what

आप इतने तो आख़िर परेशान न हों
वो संभलते संभलते संभल जायेगा

There is no need to be vexed
Stumbling, he will find his way again

Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Journey

I grew up on a small street in a small town in Punjab.  The town of Patiala, known for its heritage of kings and darbaars and its classical music gharaana.  My darji (as we used to call our grandfather), was a simple man who sold vegetables in the market, sitting next to the ancient wall of the old fort.  Our home was tiny, barely ninety square yards.  The street was often flooded with drain-water when it rained heavily.  I played on the street with other kids, and went to the local temple to ring their bells in the evening.  My world was small but full of warmth and affection.  It was dinners in December, sitting on the floor in a cozy kitchen, it was the three siblings and our mother sleeping on a double bed, it was our school bicycles leaning on each other in the verandah.  My street and my home may not have been known to anyone outside Patiala, but it was the capital of my world.

I studied in an institution of prestige in the capital of India.  The chaotic capital city of Delhi, with its VIP mansions, roads named after Kings and Generals and Prime Ministers, the wide boulevards lined by embassies, and the glittering, elite environs of South Extension and Vasant Vihar.  I stayed in the institute hostel named simply Jwalamukhi (the volcano), and during the day studied the foremost contributions of the human mind of the twentieth century: Quantum Mechanics, the theory of Computation, the Calculus of limits and fields.  At times world-renowned men and women came to our campus to talk to us: the Dalai Lama, the Prime Minister of India, the founder of the Bose Corporation... We worked on computers built in Great Britain, and were taught by professors who had studied in Berkeley and Stanford.

I work near Washington DC, the center of world power.  I work for global airlines who reach all corners of this planet.  I sometimes trade in financial instruments which derive their value from the GDP projections and the future of oil supply.  Premiers and Presidents and Generals whisk past me on the road or fly above me in a helicopter.  Decisions which impact billions of people throughout the world are taken in buildings that I see in front of me.  Global trade deals are made and talked about in a hotel lobby while I sip on my coffee.  I am surrounded by people of almost all the nations of this world, speaking strange languages and dialects...  When we walk and chatter on Constitution Avenue, it fills many of us, I hope, with immense respect for that short document whose Bill of Rights has become the bedrock of human freedom.

The journey from that small street in Patiala to the power center of the free world has not changed my heart much, but it has exploded the frontiers of my mind.  I enjoyed the fairy tales of kings and princes and phantoms back then, and I perhaps understand the complexity of the human condition now.  As the train travels further and more distant from my birthplace, I long for the simple joys of my past, but am enthralled at the experiences which I could not have imagined as a child.

A journey that would have been unthinkable just a century ago is a living reality for me.  The journey has made me grateful, and humble.  I can only dream of giving back to the world a paltry extent of what it has given me.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

A Comment on Epictetus

It is the act of an ill-instructed man to blame others for his own bad condition; it is the act of one who has begun to be instructed, to lay the blame on himself; and of one whose instruction is completed, neither to blame another, nor himself. (Epictetus)

This is a superb quote, and deserves some elucidation.

Imagine someone in a concentration camp, or imprisoned due to a false accusation.

Is it true, and useful, that he should blame himself for his condition?

Is it true, and useful, that he should blame others for his condition?

Any aphorism is only a means to reflection, and it is a mistake to try and understand life through a formula.

The first part of the quote, that others might be responsible for one's pain and suffering, can indeed be true, but that frame does not help the situation if one has no means of changing them.  An inmate in a concentration camp, or a wrongly imprisoned person, can continue to justifiably blame others, to little effect.

The second part of the quote, that I myself am responsible for my suffering is often vigorously stated in self-help and spiritual literature, but this too is only partly true.  One can perhaps be considered "responsible" for one's response to an unwholesome state of affairs, but that too assumes an infinite fluidity and scope for inward change.  One's responses are not infinitely flexible.  One cannot help but react.  To react (emotionally and cognitively) is to be alive.  Spiritual literature often talks about "responding" instead of "reacting".  But we are emotional as well as rational creatures, and we will first react to a lesser or greater extent, and then hopefully respond when the emotions have cooled down.  Stoicism only works to an extent.  It is useful to only focus on one's responses if the situation is indeed firmly beyond one's control.

Imagine yourself having been in a car accident and losing a limb thereby.  And suppose it was indeed someone else's fault that the accident happened.  It is indeed true that the other is to blame, but it does not help you much if you are to reconcile with your current state.  You can claim compensation, but the fact is that your limb is gone.  The compensation may never be enough.

Imagine yourself being in a relationship with a foul-mannered person.  You can learn to be more patient, but only up to a point.  If that person continues to add friction and conflict to your life, is it useful to continue to blame oneself?  Imagine further that for the sake of your children, it is impractical for you to separate from your partner.  In that state, how useful it is give up on improving the manners of your partner, and only focus on how you and your children respond to the unhealthy environment?

Imagine yourself living in a very cold climate which frequently makes you suffer from fever and pneumonia.  How useful is it to continue to blame one's lack of immunity and not seek to perhaps move to a warmer clime?

So, blaming only oneself is only somewhat helpful in accepting the unchangeable.  Most situations are somewhat changeable, and it is solipsistic to only focus on oneself.

The third part of the quote, to neither blame oneself nor the others, is the understanding that things, including oneself, are limited in their ability to be transformed and changed.  That we live in a continuum of interaction.  That often things happen just "because"; without much rhyme or reason.

That the driver-at-fault who got distracted by his child sitting in the backseat of his car and hit you was perhaps not to "blame" but a factor in what transpired.  Was he to blame for not being a perfect driver?  Should he be jailed for his negligence?  Was the child too precocious?

That your ill-mannered spouse is limited in his self-awareness and in realizing the effect of his acts on others, or is perhaps suffering from a need to seek attention.  That the toxicity in your home is definitely his doing, but to blame "him", as in wanting him to fix this "issue" in him, is to not understand the entire background of "him".  Perhaps he can behave better, but perhaps he is like a blind man not able to see what is in front of him.

The third part of the quote, I believe, indicates that others are also limited.  That often blaming is to find reasons when there weren't any concrete ones.  That causation is complex.  That oneself is also a mix of influences and interactions of others.  That to improve either oneself or the situation may only lead to a limited success.  That there is no fully individualized "self", either Me or You, that one can blame or improve as one would repair a car.  To improve, one improves one's own responses (as far as possible) as well as the situation (as far as possible) but perfection may forever elude one.

"Blame" is often just a rant without useful, constructive action.  That of course is just the beginning of change.  If one ends there, it may have some therapeutic effect (just as it is relieving to cry due to a severe emotional trauma), but is Epictetus saying that it is not wise to only blame and then sit back and suffer?  Is it a call to action?  Is it to begin with blame, as in find factors which can be impacted, and then act?

Blaming is not in itself unwise.  But blaming narrowly, either just others, or just oneself, or a too wide rant at the whole realm of existence, is often an expression of helplessness.  Still not wrong, but not optimal.  One can do better, I hope.

The wise man blames correctly, and then seeks to improve oneself and change one's state of affairs.

Similar to Epictetus' quote is the Buddhist (?) adage:

"If you have a problem that can be fixed, there is no use in worrying. If you have a problem that cannot be fixed, there is no use in worrying."

But worry is the emotional energy to want to improve a state of affairs.  No problem is either fully fixable or fully un-fixable.  The worry is the effort to determine to what extent one can change the situation, and how.

And that kind of worry is eminently worthwhile.

The Serenity Prayer has more wisdom than either of these quotes:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

An earlier essay on a related theme: The Inner and the Outer.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Seeking What Again?

When someone states: "I am a seeker of truth."  Your response must be: "What do you mean?"

To seek the truth of a matter is sensible enough.  What is the meaning of seeking "the truth"?

Of course, in the spiritual circles, "the truth" is the "supreme truth".  That truth, which is already written about in various scriptures.  And to experience or realize it on one's own is the quest.

But that is a misguided journey.  A seeker must start his quest not by first fixing an esoteric destination, but by discovering answers to very normal questions about the world.  Is it not strange that those who have little grounding in history, logic or science claim to know about the deepest mysteries of the brain, consciousness and the origins of life.

If you must seek, seek.  But seek the truths about what is all around you.

To seek the truth about how criminal trials work.

To seek the truth about how crony capitalism operates.

To seek the truth about climate change.

To seek the truth about large corporations and their aims.

To seek the truth about history.

To seek the truth about gender dynamics.

To seek the "supreme truth" is a narcissistic journey of feeling a psychological high.  A better truth to seek might be: what is driving me to this spiritual goal and how valid is this goal?

If you know your conclusion at the start of your quest, you are not really a student.  You are trying to confirm something whose validity you have taken on faith.

By all means be a seeker, but if you are seeking "the truth", a better label might be "a sucker".


Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Games People Play

In a modern casino, you are offered a choice of ways to lose money.  Each way has slightly different odds, all favoring the casino.  The various games provide you with an illusion of control.  You think that your playing that game somehow tilts the odds.  Your entire history, your life and circumstances, your perspective on your fate and destiny, all compel you into thinking that the next card dealt to you is going to be a face card.

In this post, I will tell you about a slightly different collection of games people play.


If a few people have a business idea, they try to sell that idea to lenders who can then lend them some money to invest for their business.  In the old times, getting a loan from a wealthy institution or individual was pretty much the only way to raise capital.

Many centuries ago, smart people came up with the idea of raising money from the general public.  So, they sold "bonds" to the public promising to pay them back.  The general public bought these bonds in the hope of a good return on their investment.

A few centuries later, smarter people came up with the idea of issuing "stock" to the general public.  While the bonds promised a fixed rate of return, the "stocks" offered a variable rate, depending on the profits of the business.  Such variable payouts were called dividends.  In effect, stocks were a ownership-sharing and profit-sharing mechanism.

A few decades later, dividends were thought to be a dated idea and many companies issued stock with no expectation of dividend payouts.  The stockholders, despite having a so-called "vote" in the company affairs, had no way to force the company to share its profits with them.  But oddly, they still continued to buy the company stock in the hope that they could sell them to someone else for a higher price.

An example of such a stock is GOOG, the stock ticker symbol for Alphabet, the company which runs Google.

So, GOOG is the symbol of a stock traded on the various "stock exchanges" in the US.  A single GOOG stock, or share, currently trades for around a thousand dollars.

GOOG is a certificate promising you some kind of ownership in the Alphabet company, though if you ask a Google shareholder what his ownership entails, you might not get any real answer.

Now a series of Matryoshka doll-like financial instruments was created from this notion of a hazy ownership of a public company.

Some even more smart people thought that instead of offering single stocks, maybe they should offer a basket of stocks.  They created stock indexes, which comprised tens or hundreds of stocks and the price of the index was a weighted sum of its constituents.

One such index is the S&P 500 Index, owned by the Standard and Poor Global Corporation, which has, interestingly though, 505 individual stocks from the United States in its composition.

You can't just buy or sell this index, but you can buy or sell a mutual fund which "tracks" this index.  Such mutual funds are called "passive", because they just mirror the index portfolio and don't do any stock picking or decision-making.  One such mutual fund is VOO, the Vanguard S&P 500 Index fund.

You can buy or sell a mutual fund share, but you can't "trade" it.  You can buy it from Vanguard, or sell it back to Vanguard but people somehow wanted to buy and sell from/to each other.

So, exchange traded funds, or ETFs were created.  One of the flagship ETFs is SPY, the State Street Global Advisors run S&P 500 Index ETF.  The ETF mirrors the value of the S&P 500 Index throughout the trading day, and you can buy or sell it on a stock exchange without involving the State Street folks.

But people don't just want to trade, they want to speculate.  And they want to speculate big.  Buying or short-selling the SPY ETF is a bet about the future, but it requires a lot of money and offers only linear returns.  People want to bet with "leverage".  A share of the SPY ETF is around $250.  So if you buy 100 shares, you have to put up $25k.  And if there is a 1% change in the S&P 500 Index in one week, you make $250.

That is clearly not exciting enough.  You want to bet on the 1% upward move and maybe make $5k on an initial investment of $25k.  And likewise, risk losing $5k if the move is in the other direction.

So, there exists the "Futures" market.  You can buy or sell an S&P 500 Index Future contract which is a bet that the index will rise or fall by a certain amount during a certain time-frame.

Also available is the buying or selling of Options, which is similar, but is available for individual stocks instead of just indices.

But obviously that's not enough for a good casino.  We need more games.

People came up with a new index, called VIX, which tracks the "implied volatility", or the ups and downs of the S&P 500 Index.  This volatility number is what is used to price the options.

You can't trade VIX, but you can trade VIX futures.  That is, you can bet on whether the implied volatility itself will rise or fall during a certain time frame.

We are just getting started.

Trading VIX futures is cumbersome.  So ETNs (Exchange Traded Notes) were created for speculators to trade in VIX futures.  One such ETN is called UVXY, run by the ProShares company, which supposedly mirrors 1.5 times the changes in near-term VIX futures.  Just mirroring the index is so boring, so it "levers" up the funds and tries to offer an amplified movement based on movement in the VIX futures.

But people want to bet on the change in volatility itself.  There are indexes which track the volatility of volatility.  An example is VVIX: the volatility of volatility index.  That tracks the implied volatility in VIX futures options.

You can bet on VVIX by buying or selling options on a VIX ETN like UVXY.

So, for someone who is trading options in UVXY, here is what is going on:

He is trading in options on a levered ETN tracking futures on an index of volatility of a large ETF which comprises of public-traded stocks of major corporations in the United States.

That's it.  Simple.  Ha.

There were such speculators in February 2018, who had bought into or had bullish options on the reverse VIX ETN called XIV.  That month, unfortunately for them, VIX jumped from 10 to 50 in the matter of a week.  The spike was so sudden and massive that from that day on, XIV became a verb rather than a noun.  XIV blew up and turned almost to zero.  People speculate (!) that the spike in VIX was actually caused by the ETN liquidation itself.  When a fund blows up now-a-days, it is said to be XIV'ed.

But you might think that investing in stocks is for chumps.  You are a smart one, and want to trade in commodities.

Okay.

In the olden times, people used to buy gold.  It was, and probably is, a precious metal which you hope will preserve its value, unlike fiat money or a stock certificate.  You might want to challenge this assumption, though.

But fine. You want to buy gold.  That's not easy.  You have to go to a goldsmith, and figure out ways to store the gold.

That's indeed cumbersome.  Instead, you can buy shares of a company or an ETF which buys and stores gold for you.  One such big ETF is GLD, run again by the State Street company.

But buying gold, or a gold ETF, is for investors.  Traders want to trade, and trade big.  They want to speculate on the price of gold, which somehow is correlated with the USDJPY exchange rate, and with inflation, and the Fed funds rate and the dot plot which is somehow supposed to an indicator of inflation, and with a "risk-off" sentiment.  I won't explain these terms, but the curious will be able to find out on their own.

Okay, so the speculators can choose to buy Gold futures or GLD options.

That's probably only mildly exciting for a daring speculator, as we can guess.

Gangsta speculators in gold trade in gold mining companies.  One such company is NEM, the Newmont Gold company.

But gangsters want to raid many gold mines at one go.  So gold miner indices are created.  The big ones are GDX, and its cousin, GDX Junior (GDXJ).  GDX has major gold miners, GDXJ has the minor ones.

If you ask me whether one can trade options in GLD, GDX or GDXJ, but Of Course My Man!

Or you can trade in levered ETFs like NUGT or DUST (very appropriately named, in my opinion).  NUGT offers 3 times the return on GDX, and DUST offers negative 3 times the return on GDX.

People think the gold miner index itself mirrors three times the return on gold.  So NUGT probably moves 9 times the movement in gold.

But that's STILL not exciting enough for a go-big-or-go-home speculator.

A Niederhoffer trades in options on NUGT.  Which offer a 100x leverage on NUGT, which offers a 3x leverage on GDX, which probably offers a 3x return on gold, which itself depends on some hazy factors for its pricing.

Those who've channeled Dostoevsky's Alexei Ivanovich won't be feeling exposed enough unless their leverage is at least 900x.

To give you an idea of the stress such speculators go through: a 1% move in gold can wipe out a 900x gold speculator, or make him a millionaire.  And gold moves 1% every other day.

There are others who think gold is too boring, and they invest in "energy": oil or natural gas.

Here is what happened a month or so back in natural gas.

One day, as many speculators were asleep, a weather bureau issued a note asserting that the 2018 winter was going to be very severe.

Natural gas is used for heating indoor spaces, so its price shot up around 20% in a single day.  Almost unprecedented in its history.  A what's called a six-sigma event.

The natural gas bears went bankrupt and worse.  A hedge fund called "Optionsellers.com" went belly-up and issued an advisory that its clients not only had gone bankrupt, they may actually owe money at this point.


The bulls were very happy.  More bulls piled into this move, thinking that such a move will proceed in the same direction and that natural gas will become even more expensive.

Overnight, for an inexplicable reason, natural gas prices crashed 20%.  Another six-sigma event.

The bulls went bankrupt.

Such are the games people play.