In Response to the Empire Debate

I wrote this article in response to the above “Empire Debate”, and it originally appeared on

You may wish to watch the debate first, but it’s not essential. (In fact, it could be even more fun to read first and then watch the video.)

The motion they were debating was: “This house believes that the Indian Subcontinent benefited more than it lost from the experience of British Colonialism.”

After years of post-colonial theorizing, nostalgia, historiography and head shaking, it comes as at least a mild shock that the motion was phrased in the positive. It’s a “quaint” discussion, as William Dalrymple put it, because most of humanity hopes that we’ve left our colonial tendencies far behind. And yet, despite the resounding victory for the opposition speakers, I felt they failed to address the most pressing concerns.

The omission of partition – with the devastation that it has caused, economically, morally, socially, culturally – was certainly a huge mistake by the opposition team of Dalrymple, Nick Robins and Shashi Tharoor. Maybe they were trying to give lesser-known examples, but that is only an insufficient consolation.

Kwarteng Kwasi raised an interesting point – he argued that we couldn’t just stay focused on history alone to evaluate this motion. That India had a colonial past may have been bad for them, he argued, but it certainly has led to a competitive advantage over, say, China and will undoubtedly lead to more economic opportunities in the future. Although Robins easily dismissed Kwarteng’s question as being out of point because the motion is specifically phrased as pertaining to the past, I believe that it is still quite important.

Here’s his argument, phrased as a question: will having a colonised history turn out to be better for us in the future, compared to not have a colonised past?

There are two ways to tackle this question. First, we ask – what would India have looked like had we not been colonized? In this line of thinking, one might try to extrapolate from pre-colonial conditions, bringing them logically into the present. You might point out that Mughal, Hindu, Sikh, Sufi heritage was far beyond the modern narrow understanding of human rights; that while Britain advanced by fighting nature’s elements, Hindustan’s technology, architecture and science advanced to live with, appreciate and admire them; that Indian sub-continental culture, sophistication and social calibration operated on far more intimate human truths than the clunky “decision by consensus” governance and legal systems the British were evolving. Or, you could argue the exact opposite of all the above… All these are mere conjecture – we can’t possibly hope to predict such a complex society’s future accurately.

So then, let’s ask a slightly more explosive question, but one that is rather easier to answer. Would we have better future prospects had we colonized Britain instead? Statistically, this is easier to answer – look at any of the colonial powers. The argument from economics is elementary: Hindustan, with her natural richness, having vast hordes of Europeans to force feed her exemplary goods at exorbitant, monopolized prices? India’s share of global GDP would certainly have boomed. What’s more, the world would’ve been speaking Urdu, or Tamil, or Sanskrit, or Bengali, or all four. Children in Manchester’s schools would’ve been reciting Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi. We would’ve hosted a debate like this one in the Lal Qila Diwaan-i-Khas, talking about how the now grossly impoverished Londoners are way better off because they speak the global Indic languages, because they have wonderful economic prospects in the future. The debate would’ve been in Urdu.

The future argument is futile, and reeking of the same kind of twisted consequentialist ethics that led to colonialism in the first place: that eventually India seems to be bouncing back and making the most of our horrendous past is not a credit to Britain, but to India and her deep wells of post-traumatic courage. These consequences must have no bearing on our judgment of past wrongs.

Instead, what we can bring to the table is a softer, more delicate appreciation of what humanity lost as a whole due to the crimes committed by British imperialism. Dalrymple mentioned this in passing: we hurt the soul of India, and by extension, the soul of humanity.

As Britain was experimenting with democratic structures, India too was experimenting with what Rabindranath Tagore called social “calibrations”. There was a widespread recognition of the spiritual side of human life, that had little thirst for commercial gains, and that asked people to look inwards for its peace. There was precious little top-down intervention – social life was being regulated by the ebbs and flows of human interaction. The English, on the same question of how to live life in such a state of social and cultural flux, looked towards a machinery. In other words, they didn’t invent democracy – consensus and discussion are as old as language. They found a way to mass-produce it.

The colonial powers were run on these machines of great efficiency. But in the process of scaling up, solidifying, clarifying, and putting down rules, we’ve lost something crucial: that justice is after all personal and subjective, not systematic and objective.

Kahaan maikhaane ka darwaaza Ghalib, aur kahaan waaiz,
Par itna jaante hain kal woh jaata tha ke hum nikle.

Translation: The door of the bar and the Preacher are very far apart from each other. But, all I know is that when I left the bar yesterday, the Preacher was on his way there.

Humanity today is suffering from it. Vast communities in India, from Kashmir, to the Naxals, to the Zomia – those who disagree with the Constitutional, with the Mainstream, or National, are marginalized, brow beaten and subjugated by nationalists, patriots… zealots. And as India will inevitably master this machinery, and outwit other nationalist machineries around the world, you can expect the imperialism of Indians to dominate the coming century.

So when Dalrymple says colonialism hurt India’s soul, this is what he means. He is referring to the premature, violent termination of an experiment in humanity that was ongoing at the time – cast aside for another, more menacing ‘national’ machinery, supplanted with fears of racist. Who knows what we could’ve discovered, and how profoundly humanity could have benefitted.

We’ve spent too long discussing it already. We have become so jaded with the horrors of our British past that we choose levity over seriousness – not as a means to reconfigure the past, but to cope with it better. We fall back on economic analyses, leveraging their ability to anaesthetize the most horrendous of acts. One can understand, from the point of view of the British government, how this must be an essential PR exercise to mollify India’s painful memories. I can see why they did it, but that doesn’t make it any better.

Beyond all the words (the never ending words) are simple truths that we can feel in our gut, that make the gut itself contort in morbid disbelief. I feel that truth in my heart. It permeates in the communal paranoia that is bursting India’s veins, it explodes to the surface in our distrust with our neighbours, it makes its ugly head visible whenever we battle our own inherited racial inferiority complexes. This is our truth now, our heritage.

And so – I’m unnerved by the speakers’ levity. The whole exercise was an insult to the baggage that a million families now carry. No, the audience wasn’t ‘convinced’ that our colonial past was a gross injustice to humanity, and a blot that will forever mar the fabric of human history. Far from it. The British among them would perhaps go home and say, over a cup of tea – “Well, doesn’t look like India enjoyed our company then. Too bad.”


Patterns: Smallness

Hey friends, those who actually read my blog (thanks!) – I’m starting this new post type to more…accurately represent how I think. But I need your help.

I think I’m not alone in this tendency – my mind naturally frantically tries to find echoes of a new idea in all its various corners. It’s as if I don’t know how to compartmentalize; when I hear something in sport, I think – what does that mean for politics? For economics? For history? How can I understand everything from every perspective?

So, patterns emerge. I start to see some uniting factor, some commonality across disciplines, domains, parts of my brain.

But most times, this energetic rewiring of the brain happens within minutes, sometimes seconds. And it disappears soon after, and if I try to explain to myself how a particular idea from Medicine has ramifications in Marketing, I can’t anymore.

So, to capture those few moments of discovery and revelation, I’ve started to write these…poems? I don’t think they are poems. But my attempt is, in that moment, to capture what is going on in my mind succintly, trying to make my fingers keep up with my own mind’s furious pace.

After the fact, I will go back into the text and hyperlink the various ideas to sites/pages/videos/images that I’m referring to, or explain what I’m talking about. What I hope to do is to have links to a diverse set of pages, thereby, hopefully, to create real links among a diverse set of ideas.

So – can you have a look at this first draft? Tell me what you think, if it needs more explanation, or less, or if you have any ideas about how I can better communicate/capture this? I was thinking diagrams, but how do you make diagrams in wordpress?

Have fun reading, clicking! I think it’ll be pretty entertaining.

Patterns #1: Smallness

Small communities have typically been easier to manage,

Morality and health flourish,
When people know each other,
They police themselves, guide the whole
They don’t need an external … –
Well, CCTV is a symptom not of increasing crime,
But of a weakening social structure,
Because cities have expanded beyond what
Police can handle,
Technology (as always, hmph)
Has a great panoptical solution:
Put cameras where you can’t be.
It is just like in the classroom.
Teachers shout themselves hoarse
In huge classrooms of 40,
When Sugata tells us how a group of 4,
Can teach itself so much better,

Otherwise how would a huge flock of birds
Fly in sync? In a pattern?

Why do we need a government,
When humans, like birds, are in pursuit
Of some basic needs: food, shelter,
Migration during winter –
We keep trying to grow larger and larger systems
That are clunkier and stupider,
Need more and more checks and balances,
When all of it can be captured,
In the small, interpersonal,
In simple interaction rules that self-organize
Self-govern, always work,
And have continuous,
Like those learning organizations that preach,
Lesser top-down control, and more autonomous work groups,
Flatter hierarchies,
Knowledge sharing but never centralization,

Like programmers now use Java
So it’s platform-independent,
So they create value in their own groups,
Which is transferable on any platform,
Without the need for a central control.

Is it control we seek?
Are we growing this web of systems,
So we have better control?
Or is this inflation of bulk
Just an indication of our ever-loosening grip
On our own destiny?
And instead of making smaller and simpler principles of living,
We seek bigger, more efficient enforcement systems.
It’s an evolutionary arms race equivalent, but in personal life
People : nations :: police : army,
We are forgetting the basics,
And solidifying the huge.

And more and more,
We will feel,
That in this gross unnecessary web,
We will keep outsourcing our tactile experience,
Of humanity,
Which perhaps has always existed
In the everyday expression:
In the kind gesture, the MRT seat gladly given up,
In the love for God or another human being.
In the smallness, where we still guide our own ships,
For ourselves and our communities,
And we depend on our own understanding,
Of ourselves and each other
To govern us.
Governments by the people for the people of the people –
Should’ve meant we don’t need any.
We ourselves are it.
Because while Constitutions can be amended after
Tedious (rigorous) bureaucratic process
They cannot be evolved,
Like the human mind, and heart, and soul,
Which change with each new experience,
Forever more mature than they were in the previous instant.

Then why do we let –
Archaic, static, elephantine, Byzantine,
Systems, processes, machines, organizations,
Run us?
They’re too big,
And “growth” by it’s very nature is a negative value,
Especially if it’s just outward growth,
While the inner life remains stagnant.

How do we create a world,
Of simple truths and laws,
A world that would look a lot like physics,
Which perhaps is the only community
That still seeks unity,
That rewards the combining of ideas,
Or even better, the disproving of ideas,
The elimination of the superfluous,
Because they, still, know,
That the smaller, simpler version
Is the more beautiful one.

That’s what she said.

Song, and lyrics translation:

Happy New Year was So Bad, I Wrote A Review For It

OK! Ok, stop screaming! I know it’s my fault – I shouldn’t even have watched it! And I actually paid for that – I actually paid hard earned money to the people who made that movie.

Is it my fault then? Oh no! I’m… I wasn’t…trying to encourage… Oh no.

Ok very quickly, I’ll try to tell you what the story was. Spoiler alert: your appetite will be spoilt. There is not much story, therefore not much to spoil.

So – there is the inevitable daddy issue. Same thing yaar, Manohar Sharma (Anupam Kher in a cameo) is Charlie’s (SRK) dad. Manohar makes an epic, unbreakable safe for Grover the diamond guy to keep his diamonds safely. Grover steals said diamonds and frames Manohar, who is jailed. Charlie is a Boston University topper (lol), but traumatically only spends his time boxing and betting. He stalks Grover for 8 years (Aaath saal. Aaath saal. He said it eighty times. Aatth saaaaallllll. Itna time script likhne mein lagaa dete toh – never mind.)

Then, finally, opportunity comes. Grover has some expensive diamonds housed in this big Dubai hotel. The night the diamonds will be there coincides with the World Dance Competition. So, instead of using the incredibly easy cover of the melee of a dance competition and stealing the diamonds, Charlie decides to participate in the dance competition and steal the diamonds. No, it doesn’t make sense. You’re right. It doesn’t.

Also, they rig the whole selection process with sex-tape-blackmailing and hacking. But still, they get a dance teacher, because Deepika Padukone had already been signed and needed to be given a role. So she plays Mohini, who coaches the team for a competition they were anyway going to win. Good time pass, plus free romance angle. Plus, I mean she’s beautiful, so why not.

Anyway, baaki is history. They steal it, lots of really bad jokes along the way. Then Grover goes to jail and blablabla. Happy New Year to you too.

The most entertaining thing in the whole movie was the credits sequence. The crew seemed like they had a lot of fun! Accha ok guys, you had fun na? Then it’s ok. I don’t feel so bad anymore.

You see – stupid films are ok. Those I can handle. There are so many, and such funny ones too. You can watch Welcome and laugh like crazy because no one is asking you to take anything seriously. And a lot of Happy New Year was just that – gags, physical comedy, just ainvayi stuff which Boman Irani, Sonu Sood, Deepika Padukone and to a tiny extent Vivaan Shah really lapped up and had fun with.

But – yaar I was trying to get laughing when suddenly they showed Anupam Kher dead with a slit wrist in a jail cell. Then there was a really bloody boxing bout. Also a love story in which Mohini is practically harassed, several times, and she actually cries. And it’s so real until – there’ll be a spoofy line and it’ll all be forgotten. Arrey if you as filmmakers are schizophrenic, it’s ok! But don’t make the audience also lose their mind! It’s like every two weeks into the production they changed their minds. “It should be a comedy, yaar!” “Arrey but masala also is needed na baba.” “Fight scene, yes, fighting man! Boxing, punching, you know?” “But romance? Romance ka kya?”

Best part was – there was randomly a Modi duplicate in the middle of the movie, hailing Team India’s wonderful dance performance. “Acche din aa gaye.” Oh, the possibilities. The possibilities for interpretation just in that one scene. Oh man. I will leave that to the political commentators.

I will end with a sad, pained metaphor. If this was an Indian food buffet at a big five star hotel, I would ask to see the manager, point out that most of their food was recycled and stale, in fact there was a bit of a stench emanating from the Story Pulao. Every single dish had namak mirch kam. I would praise him wholeheartedly for the excellent presentation, because wow, those metal canisters were glittering and the name tags had great typography. Really made me want to eat something. But, what should I eat? The box?

Zero stars for an all-round waste of brilliant VFX, SFX, music, camera, editing and acting talent. Point five stars for please, please, please, make something good next time.

We Live In An Extremist World, and We Too Are Extremists


In the face of great strife and calamity, I have the tendency to look deep within me and find something basic, something elementary, something deep in my fibre that is wrong. And that wrong within me is what I blame for what is wrong with the world – because that simple assumption, logically universally applied, must be leading to the strife and calamity.

So even though I feel impossibly outnumbered, cornered and small – I cling to this as my only hope: perhaps, if I can change, so can the world.

The Problem

The dictionary’s definition of extremism –  “the holding of extreme political or religious views; fanaticism” – leaves me quite dissatisfied. By limiting the idea of ‘fanaticism’ to just political or religious fervour is at best limiting the scope of impact the term could have had, and at worst, is creating a safe space for all sorts of other dangerous forms of extremism.

The trouble is, we’re extremist in many more ways today than can be categorized as just political or religious. In our personal, professional, familial, and economic lives too, we have managed to constrain ourselves to the extreme ends of the spectrum. There seem to be no moderates in our lives. How many of these sound familiar?

– You are either a ruthless capitalist, or a Stalinist communist.

– You are either a helicopter mom, or a complete hippy.

– You are either pro-BJP, or pro-Congress.

– (getting personal) You are either a filmmaker, or an industrial engineer.

… because how can you be both?

The Spirit

[This section is from Wikipedia]

The term “Middle Way” was used in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the first teaching that the Buddha delivered after his awakening. In this sutta the Buddha describes the middle way as a path of moderation, between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. This, according to him, was the path of wisdom.

Monks, these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. (What are the two?) There is addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of ordinary people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.

Avoiding both these extremes, the Tathagata (the Perfect One) has realized the Middle Path; it gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment and to Nibbana. And what is that Middle Path realized by the Tathagata…? It is the Noble Eightfold path, and nothing else, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

According to the scriptural account, when the Buddha delivered the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, he was addressing five ascetics with whom he had previously practiced severe austerities. Thus, it is this personal context as well as the broader context of Indian shramanic practices that gives particular relevancy to the caveat against the extreme (Pali: antā) of self-mortification (Pali:atta-kilamatha).

The Opportunity

Recently, cross-border innovations have begun to take centre stage. We are now trying to perforate traditional disciplinary boundaries to focus instead on the Right Action, or Right Effort. Significantly, this Right Action may or may not be from the most obvious discipline of study.

-> The Great Ormond Street Hospital team learnt from how the F1 pitstop team was running it’s operations, and applied the same logic and precision to it’s operation theatre, halving the error rate and saving lives.

-> Janine Benyus’s bio is a great example:
                 A self-proclaimed nature nerd, Janine Benyus’ concept of
biomimicry has galvanized scientists, architects, designers and
engineers into exploring new ways in which nature’s successes can
inspire humanity.

-> New higher education models have begun to explore cross-faculty courses as ‘enrichment’ for students, as they deem it necessary for say, an engineering student to also understand the historical or economic implications of her work. The next trend in this direction is multidisciplinary courses that join faculties together.

-> Satyamev Jayate’s new season kicked off with a showcase of how sport can be the vehicle for social and economic upliftment. When Aamir Khan says exuberantly – “Wasn’t this an incredible solution?” – he wasn’t referring to merely it’s effectiveness. He was referring to it’s improbability; for how many administrators today would look to football as an answer to anything at all?

We’ve spent the past 200 years or more, as a society, specializing and superspecializing in specific areas of work. Doctors have become surgeons have become cardiac surgeons. Writers have become journalists have become economic journalists. Inventors have become engineers have become optimization specialists. And with the extreme narrowing of scope,  more and more people are developing human knowledge to be more and more niche and specific, leading to a great expansion in our knowledge circle.

But they all hang out only with each other. The life science PhDs; the liberal journalists; the theatre people; the politicians; the economists. They all meet up, work on things, and their knowledge and sphere of influence is ever narrower, made possible partly by the new, personalized social networking experiences. These fields have become exclusive, jargon and all, and cross over is harder and harder.

But because they are all human endeavours, and they all relate to human needs and wants, they must be joined together in some essential, fundamental way. There cannot be a system of learning and advancing in society that ascribes to one or the other extreme, because at every stage, there is much to be learnt from somewhere else. It is in this space that the next wave of opportunity lies. We’ve specialized quite a bit, and there is significant value to be had from even further specialization; but I believe the great leaps will come from interfaith dialogue.

The Tabula Rasa

When John Locke famously made his tabula rasa case for the nurture side of the debate, he was making the case that the new born baby’s mind is a ‘blank slate’ that will then, as it grows, acquire values, religions, opinions and knowledge as it grows. The baby does not bring anything with it at the time of birth – it is a clean white space, which the world will fill with colour.

But what if the mind was truly that – white?  White, as physics will tell us, isn’t nothingness… That is the misfortune of the colour black. White, on the other hand, is by definition a beautiful coming together of every other colour.

So the baby then comes to world not with nothing, but with everything. In a beautifully balanced form, in a mesmerizing combination, such that every value exists seamlessly with its antithesis; every idea lives comfortably with it’s contradiction.

Throughout life, we donot endow the baby with values. Instead, we take away from the white, forever further restricting the child’s mind to a smaller and smaller range of colour. And we reward the child for being as pure a colour as she can: think of the celebrated bright red of Marx, or the verdant Green of Chico Mendes. It makes sense then that the flags of those who reject all values – the anarchists – are black.

Success in our world must be rethought: we must as a civilization, find ways towards not ever-brighter colours, but towards the balanced, serene whiteness that blissfully contains within itself the brightest of each colour.

The Doomsday Theory

But if there aren’t any trenches or anything, how are people to know? I mean, where’s the difference then? And if there’s no difference both sides will be the same; it’ll be just like it used to be before, when we used to catch a train in Dhaka and get off in Calcutta the next day . . .

[Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh, p155]

Even if you don’t agree with the great potential of osmosis or facilitated diffusion, it should be obvious that the current trend of ever worsening myopia is having catastrophic results.

By definition, specialization requires the language of separation, segmentation and focus. Therefore, the potent forces of discrimination and essentializing of identities come as inevitable baggage.

In Singapore, commentators have identified the almost fanatical pursuit of economic prowess as being detrimental to a ‘cosmopilitan’ ethos: one that includes rather than excludes, and one that allows difference to exist in political and cultural harmony. The obvious confounding example are Singapore’s “CMIO” racial categorizations, which were paradoxically deemed important to facilitate peaceful interracial living. “Singapore’s approach to the management of ethnic relations assumes and requires individuals to have a declared, un-ambiguous and unchanging ethnic identity.” . Thus, rather than find and construct more fluid, complex taxonomies for an ever-diversifying individual identity, Singapore decided to go with the obvious, extreme cases. “The fluidity of the cosmopolitan ethnoscape provides compelling reasons for recognizing and allowing for complex forms of identifications and ascriptions beyond the straightjacket of disciplinary ethnic categorizations.” (from here)

For it is indeed a straightjacket. Extreme forms of identification and allegiance, whether ethnic, political, religious, personal or academic, are necessarily restrictive and oppressive, and people ascribing to these crazed forms of dogma find themselves in ever more difficult moral positions to justify themselves.

This is most obvious in the case of market triumphalists. In India, economic logic of “fast, new, cheap” took aggressive, almost pathological dimensions, and as the middle class in the big cities have flourished (I’m implicated in this, and my family too has benefitted from this), the vast majority of people in central and rural India have been literally starved, overworked, murdered and looted. These people do not understand, nor speak the language of capital. They understand only that for profit maximization, their lives were destroyed. So they take up arms – and we label them Maoists. The Maoists call the oppressors capitalists, and the capitalists wear it like a badge of moral superiority.

Yet neither is truly Maoist or capitalist. The Maoist is not violent and insurgent by default – he has been forced into that life be an extreme application of capitalism. And the ruthless businessman isn’t a murderer. He is just seduced by an all-consuming philosophy that he cannot shake or look beyond. So the two sides are sitting on their extreme ends, and will continue to fight till the death. “The system we are part of feeds on desperation. And any system that demands such levels of desperation will produce more and more disorder, and the only way to keep everything in check will be the increasing militarisation of the world.” (Capital, by Rana Dasgupta, p 268)

The labels are not only damning, they are much, much easier to live by. Complex understandings of the world require more sophisticated minds, and more open hearts – and the devil is always in the temptation. Economics in that regard is a master of deception. It is always startlingly incredible to me how much the GDP growth number can hide behind itself. It’s like the best magic trick the world has ever seen – Powerpoint presentations around the world will have just one percentage number on them – 8%! they will proclaim, what else do you need to know! – and NRIs will be stirred, moved, shaken to tears; they will stand up and give standing ovations with a renewed sense of pride in their much-ridiculed homeland.

I fear for our future, for if we continue to hold dear only one or the other thought, if we continue to eschew those who disagree with us violently, vehemently, we will never create new meaning, never create a better world.  Instead, we will fight, as we already are, to the death.

The Poets

More than anyone else, I think the poets, and the Sufis got it. They understood the transcience of life, the fluidity of nature, the interconnectedness of everything in the realm – and they sought beauty in the patterns. They saw the moon and reflected on spirituality; they saw religion and reflected on romantic love. They saw state policy as a vehicle to salvation; they found identity in others’ strife.

Had gayi, anahad gaya, raha kabeera hoy.
Behaddi maidan me, raha kabeera soy.

Crossing the regions of limited and unlimited, Kabir has become. In the land of infinite lies Kabir asleep. (from here).

You’ve heard this song, I’m sure. From Bulleh Shah, who knew more than most of us ever will.

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 4.36.40 PM

The Epilogue

So what do I change? What has this larger, human issue created within me that I can identify and change?

The answer is difficult. I’ve spent my life chasing more concrete labels: I’m a DiPSite, I’m from NUS, I’m an Engineering grad, I’m a Director, I’m a Writer, I’m Indian, I’m a Foreign Worker in Singapore, I’m an Entrepreneur, I’m a Hindu, I’m an Atheist… And not one of these have served me well, because no combination of those terms truly captures who I am… Infact, I’ve used these labels to great disaffect: I’ve used these labels to set up conversations and directions that have only led me to dead ends, personal confusion, and often, despair.

I note that this is a realization of inward extremism – a form of self-censorship, a morbid ‘coming of age’ story in which finding myself has become an exercise in pigeonholing myself.

Outwardly, similarly, I’m sure I’ve been judging people based on the labels they proffer to me; when I meet new people, it becomes very tempting to essentialize. When I ask “What do you do?”, what I’m hoping is I will be given a neat set of identifiable labels. Because it’s easier. I only have ten minutes with this person. I can’t – I won’t be able to get to know them at all in that time, so – it’s convenient. It’s efficient. It’s the only option.

I guess, eventually, I need to find a better language, a better vocabulary to bring ideas together. A vocabulary that enables me to live confortably in the middle, ray areas rather than constantly looking for a pathway out of the maze to one extreme or the other.

I suppose – I will stop judging people based on their occupations/religions/colour of their skin/nationalities… Reject stereotypes, have an open mind in conversation.

But that’s the easy part. I will also need to read widely – out of my comfort zone. Read engineering manual after a book of history; an ethical treatise followed by an economics text; a poem from India and then a novel from Burundi. Learn perhaps new languages, and read from them as well.

[Although, as Kabir says, it could be that simple empathy is the solution:

Pothi padhi-padhi jag mua, pandit bhaya na koy.
Dhaai aakhar prem ka, padhe so pandit hoy.
The whole world is tired to death by reading books and scriptures, but none could become wise and knowledgeable by reading them. By reading two and half sacred letters of Love(prem word consists of two and half letter in Devanagari script), one becomes real knower.]
And at last, I need a new question. What do I ask the stranger, who I meet for a few minutes at a party? What do I ask him, if now “What do you do?” What is a better question, what is a better conversation starter that will eliminate the need for extremism?

Saala Idealist Kahin Ka [What a Bloody Idealist]

I inhabit the same, shitty world. I live here, shoulder to shoulder with you, watching terrible things happen on television. I watch gruesome videos play automatically on my Facebook feed just like you, helpless in morbid curiosity. I live in the fears, the terrors, the struggles of the everyday just like you. I too look in the mirror and see the potbelly screaming back at me to do something, do something, do something about it. I walk the same streets, worried to death about dying in a freak accident of road rage; I sit through discussions on the fragile economy wondering whether my pay check will be enough. I make sacrifices too. I want checks and balances. I love safety, security and a sense of certainty about my future just as much as the next person. Risk analysis is second nature to me; probabilities are so ingrained in the way I think that when a disaster strikes I crunch mental numbers to ensure I’m better prepared next time. I prepare. I salivate, but I save. I do all this. Just like you do.

I understand how it all works. I know how the world we live in is so irreparably broken that we can only depend on ourselves. So don’t talk down to me. Don’t condescend, dismiss, laugh me off like I’m living in a fantasy. I’m not.

The difference between you and me, dear realist, is that I still give a fuck. I don’t just measure the cough syrup and drink it up every day. I still sometimes sit back and think about how it would be not to ever have a sore throat again. I still think about clean roads. I still worry about morality; about the ethics of our times; about the transcendental, ugly, unnerving truths that perpetuate everyday misdemeanors. I still think about the rude neighbour and wonder what constant frustrations could have led to his behaviour – and then, I think about how that could be avoided, in general. I do. I live through the same damn shit as you, and yet, I hold on to the grain of hope, a little sanity that might one day blast through the narrow, dank corridors of your vision for the future. I still dream. I still think big picture. I still think grand narratives. I still think about perfection. I still think about the road to it.

And I know you do too. I know in some dark corner of your soul, there’s a little isolation chamber, 2 feet by 2 feet, where the idealist in you has been sentenced to solitary confinement. And once in a while, when all the numbers align and the worst happens to you – I hear him scream. He screams in protracted agony; he sends the ghosts of his murdered hopes over your calculating conscious mind in a tsunami of regret; inconsolable, you let the words “I wish” slip from your lips like the last, lingering drops of a devastating oil spill. I know he’s still alive, but only just. And you know it too.

But just because you’re meting out torture to your inner bright-eyed child does not justify the way you treat me. You have no right to put me down. Back off.

Next time I hear you look sadly at me and say “arrey but ye toh bahut idealistic hai na” [“yeah but that’s too idealistic”], I may not take it standing down. You’ve been warned.

Being an idealist is impractical, it’s childish, it’s far fetched, and it will never lead to anything real. I know. I KNOW. Just like being practical will never lead to improvement, innovation, betterment, rejuvenation, replenishment – revolution. I dare say your shortcomings are far more damning to humanity’s future. And yet, I don’t stoop to your level. I don’t use the words ‘practical’, or ‘realistic’, as cuss words.

Do you know why?

Because that’s not how the ideal me talks.