What I wish I’d known at 13

When I was 13 there was no social media and no blogosphere and so obviously I couldn’t have written this at that time even if I had really known then what I now wish I had known then. But going by the dictum of better-late-than-never, and armed with about thirty years of experience, I am going to put finger to keyboard keys now and do-the-needful. I hope I don’t come across as a godawful preachy old doofus because then even slow death would be preferable to reading this. Of course, it all seems rather obvious now at 44 but hopefully there are some 13 year old know-it-alls today that may not know this already.

The first thing I wish I had known was this – homework is not that important and there’s no point stressing yourself about finishing it on a late Sunday evening after a long weekend of procrastination. At the same time, if you don’t want to face the teacher’s wrath on Monday maybe you should have thought about planning the weekend better and not watching TV for 28 hours straight. Or you should not care a damn about the punishment and take it like a human being (because saying “like  a man” may be construed as sexist today). On your deathbed you will neither remember the homework nor the punishment and certainly not the TV that you watched, unless it was the first time you watched Star Trek. That you will never forget. Still, if there’s one thing you can take from every homework-not-done episode I wish you take this – every one of your actions, without exception, has consequences. Some of these consequences may be immediate (a whack on the bum), some may be hidden, and some may come back much later to bite you in the ass, but whichever way they happen you better be prepared to take them because no one else can take them for you. Maybe your family, and in some cases your friends, will try but even they may sometimes be unable or simply unavailable. And then it will be all up to you. And the sooner you get this the better it is for your own sanity, whatever you have of it at 13.

The second thing I wish someone had told me was – older people are also human and can and certainly do make mistakes. This is clear from the mess the world is in today. Whether it is your parents or teachers, or random scientists, godmen, writers, thinkers, philosophers, sportspeople, moviestars, or in general anyone else who is supposedly intelligent, wise, important, rich, or powerful – don’t listen to everything they say and accept it as gospel. Yes, they are supposed to know better but they don’t always. Don’t also not listen to them out of some misguided sense of rebellion or freedom. It’s always good to listen to people but then to think for yourself, make your own judgement, and then trust your instincts. Unless your instincts are braindead. In which case you’re better off listening to your parents. But if you can somehow figure that out then maybe your instincts may not be so bad after all. In any case, some of your decisions or actions will invariably turn out to be idiotic and wrong. But that’s cool. Everyone makes mistakes. The trick is not to make the same ones repeatedly. There’s an infinite pool of mistakes to be made out there. Choose wisely. Do what you think is right at any given moment and if it turns out idiotic or wrong later, simply move on with a shrug and a smile, and maybe a beer or two. But only if you’re above the legal drinking age.

The third and last thing I wish someone had told me was – no matter what you do, there will always be something better you could have done or something you could have done better. You could have studied more, got better marks, gone to an IIT or IIM, found a better job, kissed (ahem) more (and/or prettier) girls, married someone better, made more money, travelled more, lived in super luxury, had more beer. Or whatever is your poison. The curse of life is that anything you do could have been done better. But it could also have been done worse and that’s the beauty of it. As long as you did your bloody best, had some amount of fun doing it, and were by and large happy (and kind to dogs), that’s good enough. And it’s perfectly ok to do nothing as well. Not always, but sometimes. You have maybe 70 years on this planet, if you’re lucky, and they just zip by so fast. Just try to live in the present and don’t worry about the future because you cannot see it or control it. And don’t worry about the past because you cannot change it.

This last bit of advice is what every spiritual guru worth their single malt will tell you, but only after extorting hefty sums from your pocket, so you may as well just read this blog. Or invent a time-machine and go back and write it yourself.

The alchemy of travel

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

– William Blake

I have quoted this twice already in the last week to try and explain why I don’t like traveling – i.e. at least in the usual sense of traveling, to do or see the usual tourist hot spots. I joke that it’s inertia and laziness because that’s easier to explain to people than the real reason, which is that I sincerely have no wish to see towers and museums and tall buildings and nightclubs and restaurants and malls and lit-up fountains and animals doing human-taught tricks and roller coasters and God alone knows what other monstrosities lurk in our modern urban landscape. Maybe if they all came and sat on my lap with a beer mug in one hand and salted peanuts in the other, I might consider tolerating them in the spirit of generosity.  However, if I have to grovel obsequiously before haughty visa agents and fight rush hour traffic to get to the airport in time and cram myself and family into seats seemingly designed for underage pygmies and pay a spare kidney and change for the privilege, then thank you but you can keep your fish. And I cannot understand people who can fly halfway across the world for the chance to eat pav-bhaji in some Indian restaurant at the base of Mt Titlis or deliberately seek out the company of other co-nationalists on managed holiday tours with just-like-home-cooked sheera for breakfast, when they can get as good pav-bhaji or sheera on every street corner of every neighborhood in every city that is also liberally populated with co-nationalists, all eager to get in your face with unsolicited advice about your unmarried daughter or failing business.

If the idea is to see and experience natural beauty, my personal opinion (and that of my grandfather’s) is that if you sit at the edge of the quarry on Vetal Tekdi at sunset you can get as much beauty as your eyes can hold at any one moment, like a saturated sponge. My grandfather used to go so far as to say that all mountains are alike, and that once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, but I am willing to admit that maybe watching the sunrise throw golden light on the Kanchenjunga can be a magical experience, but you can only have it once or twice in your lifetime unless you live in Darjeeling, while you can see the sun set behind the distant blue hills around Paud every day if you want. The verdant trees in the forested area just behind the quarry after the monsoons are as green and lush as any rainforest in Belize or Costa Rica, and with considerably less number of creepy crawlies that can suck out your blood. And anyway your brain can only see so far through the foliage before the view gets obstructed by the remaining woods. Yes, the cobbled streets in the Renaissance-era villages from Hungary or Bulgaria certainly seem beautiful, but only if you live there permanently can you possibly enjoy walking along them. Otherwise what’s the difference between seeing them in movies and actually seeing them live for that half-a-day that you can spare between herded bus-rides to the other must-see destinations in Europe, like Moulin Rouge or Mt Titlis or some of the more dubious clubs in Amsterdam?

The way I see it, the world is just too big to ever see and do everything in it and there are just too many people everywhere doing all the must-do things and seeing all the must-see things, and sometimes even vice-versa, for any of that to be a really meaningful experience. For me, at least. YMMV.

I do want to travel, of course, but not to see anything or do anything. I want to travel to simply be, and that, in a sense, I can really do anywhere. As Richard Bach says, if you are thinking of something, aren’t you already there (or something like that)? Because there need not necessarily be any better than here. So wherever I travel I would always want to be a local. I would want to be that fisherman in the Adriatic sea struggling to pull in the day’s catch. Or a lesser known tribal warrior in the jungles of Brazil wondering when the next monkey will be spotted for the family pot. Or an old farmer in Spain who has fought Franco’s troops and still dimly remembers those days in sepia tones. I would want to be that drunk bum in that small bar in Cuba dreaming of a better life under Castro. I would want to be an unsung Sherpa routinely climbing to unheard-of heights in silent support of the paid-up climbers, or even a sugarcane farmer on the rich and fertile Deccan plateau enjoying his tambda rassa on cold winter nights. Or maybe an old English vet in the dales of Yorkshire before the war, or an Earl worried about his prize pig’s prospects in the next Agricultural show.

And if any of that is not possible, then I would rather just be a not-so-young middle-class boy in the middle of a bustling mini-metropolis, happy with his Tekdi and his armchair and his Sunday beer with old movie songs on the radio. Just occasionally stepping out into other worlds and other lives through the magic of books and imagination.

 

lives unlived

When I was young I often dreamed of a life of adventure, of swashbuckling battles fought and won, of enormous fortunes easily made and just as easily lost on the roll of a pair of dice, of fearlessly sailing into unknown waters on a whim, of facing raging storms with nothing but a grin and a song, of slaying metaphorical dragons to save beautiful damsels from fates worse than advance-tax, of staying just one jump ahead of death each time, and when it eventually did catch up, as it must for us all, of riding into the sunset with not a boson of regret in my bosom.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t always pan out as we imagine it would. I will freely admit that I did get an opportunity to help a damsel or two with stalled two-wheelers on the roads of Pune, but somehow kick-starting a Scooty doesn’t have the same kind of romantic glamour associated with it as the more noble occupation of dragon-slaying. There have not been too many unknown waters either unless you count as water all those ice cubes in the somewhat dubious, ahem, watering establishments we used to patronize when we had limited means, and the only swashbuckling battles I have had to fight have been with the various incomprehensible ways in which Fluids conspire to keep their Mechanics a secret from first year engineering students. I suppose the fact that I managed to pass that ghastly subject after only two or three tries could possibly be termed a miracle but that is hardly any consolation.

I understand that life is only finite and that we cannot possibly take all the paths we come across. In mathematical terms, for every path we take we end up discarding infinite other possible paths, most of them unseen. Others are seen but of necessity have to be ignored or abandoned (like my brief summer foray into cricket when I was 10 or so) both of which eventualities come with some form of regret sooner or later. And because we cannot yet see parallel multiverses with the human senses we currently possess we tend to romanticize all these untaken paths, making each one out to be some sort of super-path that if only we’d taken we could have reached where we wanted to go much faster, possibly even before we really knew where it was that we really wanted to go. For example, it’s not that I have ever actually had to choose between fixing a particularly vexing memory leak in my code and crossing swords on a junk with opium-crazed pirates in the South China sea, but I have to say that there are times when I feel like the latter would be the better choice. And yet maybe if I found myself stuck with my hands tied behind my back facing the prospect of walking the plank into shark infested waters, I would have gladly welcomed a client yelling at me for an outage in their production system instead.

So don’t get me wrong. I do love my life as it stands right now. What’s not to love? There’s a loving family, there’s beer, there are dogs, there’s the armchair in the backyard, there’s old music, there’s social media to rant and rave, there are friends to meet and distant relatives to avoid, and there is always the possibility of making a fortune, although not as easily as I would have wished. And so what if the person from my imaginary life is so drastically different from the person in my real life, because for all my imaginary swordplay the best I can do is swat mosquitoes by the dozen and even that because those electric rackets are so easy to operate.  And life is by no means over, of course (touch wood), and there is still a chance to live the lives I had imagined. But then I think that raging storms are so much easier to face from the comfort of one’s dry and cozy living room sofa than from the upper decks of a Merchantman caught in the treacherous Agulhas, and being (literally) head-hunted in the jungles of Borneo could become quite annoying as compared to the broadband service breaking down once in a while.

Yes, there are still moments when I can hear a distant drumbeat calling the tribes to war or smell the salty ocean breeze or feel the rumble of an avalanche in the high Himalayan ranges, but I am soon brought back to reality by the necessity of reconciling the expense account. And there are times that I feel an unexplained longing for roads untraveled, for places unexplored, for wonders unseen, for fates unchallenged, for lives unlived. Especially for all those lives unlived.

Until the next invoice has to be sent, that is.

This day that year

It was a cold day in May. Actually, the day was not cold so much as the space where his stomach should have been. And his feet. They were freezing. He had woken up a couple of hours before the alarm that morning and found that he just couldn’t fall back asleep, no matter how many times he chanted the Gayatri mantra. There was a crackle of nervous excitement around him and he was surprised that no one else seemed to feel it. Also fear. It bothered him to see the world still fast asleep on what was going to be such a momentous day. He pitied their ignorance, but then he supposed that they would anyway come to know sooner or later.

His mind went back to that fateful winter day when he’d seen her for the first time. It was not love at first sight by any means but he couldn’t deny that there was certainly something about her that pulled him in. It was dark in the car so that he could just about see her face and the vague outline of her white sweater. When she smiled for the first time, he remembered being suddenly a little self-conscious about his overgrown stubble and torn clothes, but that feeling did not last too long as they got talking and it seemed like they had known each other far more than the thirty or so minutes it took to reach the restaurant. It would be somewhat far-fetched to say that they immediately became the best of friends but it would also be trifling with the truth to not admit that there was certainly an instant germination of camaraderie.

From then on it had been a whirlwind journey, like being on a runaway roller-coaster. It was not so much about the ups and downs as about the breakneck speed with which events seemed to have unfolded. And now this today. The sky was still dark outside and he was not sure what to do. The entire household was still asleep, little understanding the ongoing tumult in his heart. If he could have seen the future he would possibly have been a little more reassured. But ours is not to live moments until the moments are actually lived, and he was no exception. It was not that he was scared of what would happen. He had committed and he knew his word was his bond. He had no doubt that he would go through with it, come hell or high water. He knew that even afterwards he would do the best he could but what if it was just not good enough? What if it was just not meant to be? What if there was someone else? What if … ? How … ? There were so many questions in his mind and no answers as far as he could figure. It was like he was driving through a dense fog and he had no clue about the lay of the road. No idea where it curved or dipped or where the potholes were.

He opened the door and stepped out into the garden, absently fending off the dog who came bounding up and slobbered all over him. There was a strange silence at that time of the morning that he had never noticed before, mostly because he was normally asleep at this time. It was that period just after night has finally fallen asleep but before the day awakens to a new glory. Birds were just starting to stir in their nightly perches. Some would soon venture forth to get their early worm. Worms were pushing each other out through their wormholes so they were not the first ones out. Bats were winging it home to enjoy their well earned daily repose. Somewhere on the horizon a faint lightness was beginning to show. He could imagine it being exactly like this just before the Big Bang, when there was a nothingness which contained within it everything there ever was or could be.

As he wiggled his toes in the mud, he could imagine standing at this very spot a few million years back when it was still a swamp or a desert or a mountain or something else that he couldn’t quite imagine but felt inexplicably connected with. Like time was a mirage. And everything else was real. He knew in that instant that what he was going to do was right. Had to be. Why else would it have happened the way it did? Was there not a message there surely? Some sign that everything was going to be fine? He could see himself getting in his dilapidated car and driving down by himself, wearing a ceremonial dhoti even though he was totally against standing on ceremony of any kind. He imagined himself climbing the steps to the door that would open to change his life forever. He saw himself reaching out to ring the doorbell, his hand hovering just a little longer than required. And standing there on the doorstep just before that door opened, he could imagine himself hurtling uncontrollably through the vast emptiness of space on the back of this blue planet just like a few billion others of his kind. And he imagined himself still standing at the same spot where he had always stood even after the last of mankind had been wiped off the face of this planet by their own brilliance. Give or take a few million years.

And then he smiled and went in to get ready for the big day.

Marathmoli’ness

Yes, we get that it’s Maharashtra Day – the day that Maharashtra was officially born to the modern Republic of India. We get that Marathi is its language and that it is certainly a beautiful language. We get that it has produced some stupendous music and lyrics. We get that we have a glorious past here – that the region now known as Maharashtra has produced iconic warriors, saints, scholars, freedom-fighters, and philosophers. We’ve even produced great cricketers, actors, writers, singers, and other kinds of artistes in the not so distant past. We get that the saffron swallow-tailed flag was once flying proudly over Attok. We get all that and more.

But what we don’t get is the incessant need for obsequious fawning. What we don’t get is the crude jingoism, the over-the-top arrogance about things over which we personally have had no control or influence whatsoever. Being born in a certain region or having a certain mother tongue is simply an accident of fate, isn’t it? And yes, one can certainly respect one’s roots, even be proud of them, but really, isn’t it a bit too much to carpet-bomb someone else with our greatness like this? And I swear this day seems to bring out the worst of our ever-simmering parochialism.

We seem to forget that respect cannot be demanded, that it must be commanded. That it doesn’t come from hooliganism or jingoism. That hyperbolic platitudes don’t fill stomachs or cure illnesses. That just naming someone Shivaji doesn’t make him a Maharaj. A language or a culture will not thrive (or even survive) by making it mandatory or by banning others. Just like someone cannot be forced to convert from their religion or faith by fear or coercion. They may even say they have converted, in order to survive or benefit, but who is to say that they don’t actually loathe it in their minds?

Speaking for myself as I near my mid-forties, the one regret I have is that I have not really ever tried to read Marathi literature. I’ve never felt this need before. Of course I can read and write the language, and many times also appreciate its beauty when I hear a particular gem, but I cannot pattern-read it like I do English. As a kid I read British authors and American comics. As a youngster I watched British and American shows on TV. I think in English and probably can express myself better in English. And yet very often these days I feel the need to connect with my roots. To go back to a childhood full of stories – of Shivaji Maharaj, of Ram and Krishna, of Arjun and Abhimanyu, and so many others – narrated countless times with infinite patience by my grandmom without ever losing the dramatization or voice modulation that made them so much fun.

I’m not going to rave and rant here about modern western liberalism vs traditional Indian culture. There are many who do that, and I’ve made my views fairly clear in an earlier post, so there’s no point repeating them here. Over the years, however, I’ve come to realize that I myself may be an uneasy amalgam of the two. Because if I find myself tripping on 70s classic rock while sipping chilled beer with skimpily clad women in a nightclub (not that I do this often, mind you), I also find myself soothed by the reverberating mantras of a Satya-Narayan puja (this also not so often). And my inborn Libran’ness makes it worse by compelling me to defend either one or the other against accusations from the opposite one. Sometimes I wish it would have been better, and certainly easier, to have simply been rabidly on one side or the other.

As I’m writing this, I can almost hear the private FM channels blasting Marathi music in between jingoistic copy like the ink of the entire ocean writing on the paper of the entire sky not being enough to enumerate the virtues of Marathi (this is true, I heard this in the morning). I say “almost” because I’m actually listening to AIR, which is steadfastly playing old Hindi songs based on their regular programming schedule, without worrying about special regional interests. And I find myself nodding contentedly.

Because I can always play the Geet Ramayan on my phone whenever I feel like it.

Our own biases

With respect to the various opinions on the beef ban and the Marathi movie prime-time issue, I am reminded of a dialog from the West Wing. The President says (paraphrased) –

“We’re not a democracy and the people don’t get to decide. We’re a republic and the people just get to choose the people who get to decide.”

In general, I don’t like bans of any kind because they don’t really work – we already have a ban on various kinds of crime and that doesn’t seem to have stopped crime in any way I can see. However, the way I see it, the government is there to enact (and hopefully enforce) laws that they think are in the interest of the citizens. Now it is obvious that not everyone will like all laws equally and there are bound to be disagreements about the priorities, but that shouldn’t stop the government from doing what it thinks is right for a majority of its people.

For example, people eat dogs in Korea and if I lived in Korea I would probably want a ban on that even if I ate other animals (because we all have our own priorities, right?), and would welcome that ban if the Korean government passed it. The argument that those who don’t want to eat dogs shouldn’t eat them would not hold much water in my mind, because I love dogs so much and I wouldn’t want them killed under any circumstances. And if there were a majority of people feeling like that in Korea, or at least they had elected a government that had promised to ban dog-slaughter, wouldn’t that govt be betraying its constituents’ interests if they didn’t in fact ban it? Now substitute cow for dog and Maharashtra (or India) for Korea. I may not agree with or like the ban, but I can understand why they would want to do it.

About the Marathi movies thing, from what I understand, the previous government had offered sops in 2013 to the multiplexes and single-screen theaters (tax-breaks, entertainment tax waivers etc.) in return for screening Marathi movies in its bid to promote the Marathi movie industry. Now if the multiplex owners can (presumably) try to wriggle out from under that by keeping only to the letter of the sops by scheduling Marathi movies at odd timings, then this govt seems within its rights to mandate they also keep to the spirit of the sops by showing the movies at prime-time. The argument that Marathi movies must be made better so they draw audiences purely on merit may be valid, but it is similar to the argument that other sports (than cricket) and sportspersons in India must start winning internationally first before they can expect support from the paying public. That is also a valid argument, but should that stop the government from trying to promote those sports by possibly mandating that the BCCI keep aside some of its grounds and facilities for the use of these other sports and sportspersons so they can also improve and try to compete for spectator eyeballs on a level playing field against cricket? And if the government did that for football or badminton or basketball or any other non-cricket sport, no one will complain about that, I assume?

However, just because this is a supposedly right-wing government, their ban on cow-slaughter and support for Marathi starts seeming fascist/dictatorial?

The argument that government should not meddle in private choices of citizens also doesn’t hold water, because the very purpose of government seems to be to meddle in the choices of private citizens through the various laws they make, especially when those choices affect someone else. How about traffic laws then? Why shouldn’t you be free to drive and park anywhere you like, on any side of the road? Why must you wear a helmet? Why must you require a license from the government? How about if you want to choose to marry your mother or father? Is that legal? Of course, there are people protesting against these laws as well (esp the helmet one), but that just proves my point. Not everyone will like all the laws that any particular government passes or tries to enforce, and the question is not whether you like or dislike a law but whether you can obey or disobey it. Freedom of choice can also be extended to include relocating to places where you like the laws.

Of course, in general, all of us are free to criticize or disagree with anything and also free to voice our criticism or disagreement on social media (esp in the wake of the judgment on 66A), but we also need to (if we want to be fair) maybe stop and examine our own motives and biases before accusing someone else of the same or worse.

The quality of time

Modern wisdom tells us we must try to spend quality time in life – with our kids, with our significant others, at work, at play, at just about everything. That just time is simply not enough, it must also be quality. Date night. Playtime. Honeymoon. Spring break. Vacation. All constructs designed to help you spend quality time.

But I must ask this – if all the time that you spend on this planet is not quality then what is the point really? Like time can be divided into quality and non-quality parts. And you can use the non-quality parts for the mundane business of living, while reserving the quality parts for happiness. And that then becomes the reason for unhappiness because the non-quality parts seem to quickly and vastly outweigh the quality parts.

But how about if we don’t classify and segregate time into these kind of different parts? How about if we just think of every moment as a moment of quality? As much as is possible? Even the most mundane of moments? Even when you’re fixing tedious bugs, or listening to a litany of client complaints, or driving in rush hour traffic, or simply going about doing the million and one things you need to do to just stay alive? Even when you think the world has wronged you and you’re stuck at work on a Saturday night when everyone else and their auntyjis seem to be whooping it up and posting instant evidence on social media like the world is going to end at midnight?

When G and I got married I didn’t want to have a honeymoon because I imagined that all of life ideally should be a honeymoon, without having to set some specific chunk of time aside in order to be happy before getting back to serious and potentially unhappy everyday business. My idea was that the business of everyday should be happy by itself without requiring any more qualifications or preconditions. Accordingly, we spent the couple of weeks after our wedding in cleaning a bachelor room full of junk. But it was still a happy time, I imagine, because we were spending that time together. At least I hope it was happy for G as much as it was for me. But then I’d miraculously survived a serious accident just a few years before that. So every moment after that seemed like a bonus to me.

The way I figure it actually, if you have even a moment when you’re not happy that’s a moment totally wasted. And that happiness must come from within – maybe simply by being alive, because that’s all you know. And you must not confuse happiness with pleasure. If your happiness depends on some external implement of pleasure, then I suppose deep in your heart you must also know that this is only finite and must invariably fall short at some point. That vacation must end. That date-night must end. Spring break must end. The kid must grow up. Beer must get over. You can only eat so much butter chicken before your stomach bursts. And then where will you be? Back to dreaming or worrying about where your next moment of happiness is going to come from while possibly wallowing in the opposite?

If you cannot be as happy about a butterfly fluttering around a tiny flower growing by the wayside as you can being pampered silly at a seven-star resort in some exotic location, then the butterfly is not the poorer for it. Someone once asked my grandfather why he didn’t take any vacations, maybe to the mountains? He said that to him all mountains were alike and that if he could see Parvati from his window then for what would be want to see the Himalayas? Ancient wisdom calls it PindaaT Brahmanda (loosely translated as “the entire universe is within us”).

This is obviously harder said than done, and I am not pompous (or delusional) enough to think that I’m saying anything new or that I’m the first one saying this, and I know I will certainly not be the last. Tons of thinkers and philosophers and gurus have said this before, and possibly much better than I have been able to articulate above.

The Buddha says – the trouble is, you think you have time – and to me it’s not about the quantum of quality time you have as much as it is about the quality of whatever quantum of time you have.