Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Closer and farther

As I was checking out one of my favorite places on the Internet today, I came across this piece by Anais Nin:
The secret of a full life is to live and relate to others as if they might not be there tomorrow, as if you might not be there tomorrow. It eliminates the vice of procrastination, the sin of postponement, failed communications, failed communions. This thought has made me more and more attentive to all encounters. meetings, introductions, which might contain the seed of depth that might be carelessly overlooked. This feeling has become a rarity, and rarer every day now that we have reached a hastier and more superficial rhythm, now that we believe we are in touch with a greater amount of people, more people, more countries. This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us. The dangerous time when mechanical voices, radios, telephones, take the place of human intimacies, and the concept of being in touch with millions brings a greater and greater poverty in intimacy and human vision.

Written in her diary in May 1946, she seems oddly prophetic to me. It resonates with something that I have been thinking off-late - that with the ability to communicate more, we actually end up communicating less. Recently, two of my very close friends, women who are very very dear to me, have moved away from Mumbai. One to Delhi and the other to the US. I consoled myself saying that they were not more than an email or chat away no matter what the physical distance. But the fact of it is that I haven't really written to them (or to anyone else over the years) or kept abreast with their news. Not in the way people did in letters (been reading some of that too!).

Maybe this is just me and then again maybe it isn't. I have written letters, and mightily long ones at that, when I had no other way of staying in touch. Just the sheer physical effort required, I think, makes one put in an equivalent amount of emotional effort as well. To make it count, in a way. Emails with their instantaneousness seem to lack some of that depth - at least for me, for now. I hope I can change some of that over a period of time.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012


You flash into my head
like a bolt of lightning.
Illuminate corners
long dark and dormant

You bring memories
of days warm and sunny;
memories of ease and comfort;
of walls broken down.

When you delved deep,
it always seemed natural.
Like water that flows

Radiant, innocent, joyous, beautiful.
You are all that this world
is meant to be

You brought that into our lives,
filled rooms with your tinkling laughter;
with your soft voice.

Your voice
still fills the spaces in my head.
And I talk to you
in my night's dreams

Images: A Series of Vases Inspired by Memories and Loss by Hadar Glick

Sunday, 16 September 2012

On Content Creation

When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastard! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth.

--  Steve Jobs, quoted in the Information Diet: A case for conscious Consumption by Clay Johnson

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance

India | International

"We have artists with no scientific knowledge and scientists with no artistic knowledge and both with no spiritual sense of gravity at all, and the results is not just bad, it is ghastly."

Writing the post on this book has been postponed multiple times. First because I didn’t really know where to begin and then due to Murphy developing a sudden liking for me and my gadgets (scowl scowl scowl!).

But the technical snag is also serendipitous in a way because this is exactly where Pirsig starts his enquiry into the nature of knowledge, its acquisition and how we relate to the world. Pirsig begins his self proclaimed Chautauqua by talking about his travel companions’ discomfort with the very technology that makes their bike trip across the US possible. The specific case of John and Sylvia not wanting to know just what makes a motorbike tick (a very important skill according to the author when one is on a cross country trip through deserted backroads… and I would tend to agree with that) soon becomes a more generic pondering on the nature of knowledge.

As long as the need for food, clothing and shelter is dominant they will continue to work. But now that huge masses of people these needs no longer overwhelm everything else, the whole structure of reason, handed down to us from ancient times, is no longer adequate. It begins to be seen for what it really is – emotionally hollow, esthetically meaningless and spiritually empty. That, today, is where it is at, and will continue to be for a long time to come… I see people like John and Sylvia living lost and alienated from the whole rational structure of civilized life, looking for solutions outside that structure, but finding none that are really satisfactory for long.

With each discovery, Pirsig steps back, trying to arrive at the root of the problem. From our every day relationship with the world around us and the alienation that technology has brought, he moves on to how the education system plays a role in dividing knowing into dualistic, mutually exclusive yins and yangs creating our discomfort with a holistic, non-dualistic view of knowledge and the world around us.

… is the branch of mathematics known as the calculus, which every engineer uses today. Newton invented a new form of reason. He expanded reason to handle infinitesimal changes and I think what is needed now is a similar expansion of reason to handle technological ugliness. The trouble is that the expansion has to be made at the roots, not at the branches, and that’s what makes it hard to see.

Of an experiment conducted with a course he was teaching:

… the brighter, more serious students were the least desirous of grades, possibly because they were more interested in the subject matter of the course, whereas the dull or lazy students were the most desirous of grades, possibly because grades told them if they were getting by.
Pirsig then relates the quest of his alter ego for a unifying concept that brings together the dualities of the subjective and the objective. He recounts vividly, the uphill climb of trying to escape the dualistic though process as well as mode of expression that one has been long conditioned to.

Mountains like these and travellers in the mountains and events that happen to them here are found not only in Zen literature but in the tales of every major religion. The allegory of a physical mountain for the spiritual one that stands between each soul and its goal is an easy and natural one to make

As Pirsig and his son journey through the mountains and valleys together, the reader knows from the pace of their journey, the pace of the upcoming portion of the Chautauqua. Pirsig also gives encouragement to the reader to chug along with him, advices to go slow but steady to avoid burning out through the advice that he gives Chris on pacing himself through the climb to the top of the mountain. Advice that the reader would do well to take at this part of the book.

Pirsig's argument for the fundamental unity of knowledge (defined dualistically as subjective and objective or classical and romantic or art and science) draws extensively from the oriental – Zen, Hinduism, Khayyam’s Rubaiyat – and the Occidental – Plato, Socrates, the Sophists, Aristotle, Kant, Hume. There is a particular section that reminded me directly of the cornerstone of the Hindu notion of detachment and the Bhagvad Gita:

This inner peace of mind occurs on three levels of understanding. Physical quietness seems the easiest to achieve, although there are levels and levels of this too… Mental quietness, in which one has no wandering thoughts at all, seems more difficult, but can be achieved. But value quietness, in which one has no wandering desires at all but simply performs the acts of his life without desire, that seems the hardest.
He argues that quality, or a sense of value, is the central unifying theme and that while this quality cannot be defined, each of us is equipped to recognize it. That it is because of this underlying quality that science and art essentiallyfeed off each other (In the first part of this video, visual artist Kelli Anderson talks about her two loves - Physics and music).  visual news

Pirsig’s Schizophrenia (Pirsig and Phaedrus) to me was also essential to understanding the difficulty, the near impossibility of stepping out of established ways of thinking (especially for a mind conditioned to think dualistically) and near insanity that it could drive one to. I love the fact that the story of the road trip is almost an analogue, an allegory to the philosophical Chautauqua that is the main purpose of the book.

This is a book that is worth a slow thoughtful read and then many multiple reads thereafter. My biggest take away from this first reading is to not be restrained in my thinking by the formal processes and ways in which we acquire knowledge and to know that there are deep relations even between things that my seem un-related.

My copy of the book also looks much thumbed after this single reading and I must add that I am glad I bought this book and did not borrow it. Reading this book, I've discovered the joy in marking and post-it-ing books!

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Changing forms

I was reading a piece in the Paris Review this morning and this sentence took me back to my own antagonism towards e-books – An antagonism not even a year old in its demise.

True, I frequently condemned e-books as yet another symptom of a world unable to sit quietly with itself.
In a discussion harking back to 2008 with a dear friend, I remember dismissing e-books as something that would never quite have the charm of paper books, something that could not compete with the musty smell of a library, with scribbled notes and underlinings in second hand books.  Re pointed out then that a part of my discomfort lay perhaps with the fact that I was attempting to read books on a laptop with tools (software) that did nothing to enhance the reading experience and that my experience with an e-book reading device such as the kindle might change my mind. I shrugged off the argument then. I see some truth in it now.

I started seriously considering e-books at the beginning of this year as I was hit by the finiteness of space and the ensuing clutter (something else that this piece talks about). Books began to spill out at me from a reasonably spacious cupboard at home and I am not one of those who like to keep books out on the nightstand or piled up on the floor. I like them stacked neatly, in some sort of order and in a way that gives me access to most of them. I hate having to wade through two rows of books to get at something I want to read or re-read – something that was becoming common. There simply wasn’t space enough to stack them in single rows!

I began the process of wrapping my head around the idea of an ebook, a process made easier by an impending move back to Mumbai and a decision to take only those books that I’d not read yet (a formidable stack in itself) and my Food and Photography books (even then, I did manage to sneak in one much thumbed, comfort book). Flats in Mumbai being matchbox sized, I wanted to keep the new pad spare and not overflowing with things.

My Kindle Library
I finally got myself an iPad about a month ago and since then have been reading voraciously on the Kindle app. Yes, having a handheld device has made reading in the electronic format much easier. Another plus point has been the free access to a ton of books that are out of copyright restrictions – Books that I would have thought twice before buying in print. I have also fallen in love with the ability to switch between books seamlessly, with being able to make notes as I read.

The one thing that I can’t make up mind about though, is whether I like being able to check out related stuff online as I read. At times it seems like a needless distraction, at others like a definite boon in being able to piece things together. I miss the dedicated act of reading… of being immersed in a book and nothing else.

I also miss the feel of paper, connected so intimately in my mind with the art of storytelling. While I don’t intend ridding myself of physical books entirely, in time that nostalgia might fade. For now, I am happy balancing the two, basking in the breathing space that gadgets give me.