The Fungal Journals

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Auf wiedersehen and Come Soon

All apologies for the extended hiatus. Reasons for my absence at my new blog here. Actually its a continuation of this very journal but on a different platform, namely WordPress. Love and Kisses to Blogger but I thought it was time to move on. I hope you will stick with me through this transition. See you at WordPress.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Diwali, Terrorism and Generalisations

It was not a very auspicious Diwali for Delhi. The Indian capital was rocked by three serial explosions. I heard about the blasts when I came back to the hotel in Bharatpur and turned on the television. Panic calls were made to check on my near and dear. I’m glad to say that everyone I know is OK. I hope the same is true for all of you out there. Some of us, however, were not so lucky. The explosions killed many people and left a large number of families shattered. At the risk of sounding cavalier, these occasional tragedies are reminders to us - the sheltered, the blissfully ignorant - about what an average day in terrorism-afflicted areas like Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast must be like. Criticism was quick to follow. Around the world leaders tripped over themselves to condemn the killing of innocents in the crowded streets of Delhi. But terrorism in Jammu and Srinagar is just as evil as terrorism in the Capital. Why, then, do church bells ring for them while the others die just as they live – incognito?

It hasn’t been long since PoK was hit by a devastating earthquake. In an act of commendable spirit Pakistan and India agreed to a “soft” Line of Control to allow relief efforts to reach the victims. India agreed to dole out $25 million as aid for the victims. The decision was natural, I thought. It came as quite a surprise to me, then, that a television news channel was interviewing people in the streets asking them if the Government’s decision was good or bad. A no-brainer - or so I thought. As it turns out, a shockingly large number of people condemned the decision. They labelled the inhabitants of the region as being “unworthy” of our support. When we reel under tragedy do they respond in a similar vein, others questioned. Respondent after respondent said that since they had chosen to forsake the Indian nation they had no right to any aid from us. That “Pakistan-lovers” should look elsewhere for support. My first reaction was to wave them all off as plain stupid. Later, I realised that I couldn’t deny that this was what the psyche of the masses in our country was. They couldn’t get past the “Pakistan” in “Pakistan occupied Kashmir”. I don’t know any Pakistanis very well but I’m sure if I did I wouldn’t dislike them just for hailing from Pakistan. Or rather, I wouldn’t dislike them any more than I dislike most people I know anyway. Which raises an interesting question: Do we hate Pakistanis or do we just hate? Period. Have we lost the naïve optimism I believe we are all born with? Have we lost our ability to trust people until proven wrong? I shudder to think I’m about as clued in as the Pointy Haired Boss.

My optimistic faith in the human psyche took a further beating the next day. I was in Delhi where I met with an aged relative. Said aged relative was understandably upset about the blasts in the capital. It was an interesting conversation with her that triggered this blog. She blamed, not terrorists, but Muslims en-masse, for the bombings. She pointed out how the timing of the blasts had been such that most Muslims would have been breaking their fasts – indoors, away from the explosions. If maximum collateral damage had, indeed, been the intention, she reasoned, the terrorists would have been well-advised to wait another hour or so till the markets were truly packed. Wish someone would bomb a mosque once, she muttered. You never see that happening. I understand the spirit behind what she said. Plus, she had shed all veils of political correctness so I didn’t expect any softly-worded statements. In a way they must be more indicative of what she truly feels. If only for that reason I respect those statements. But to accept them as proof of Muslim antagonism towards Hindus, or anyone else for that matter, would be to fall prey to the very spirit of terrorism; that of fostering hate between people. Evidence suggests the hand of Islamic militant groups in these acts. Does that mean Muslims, in general, hate Hindus, in general? Such generalisations are the reason we get sucked into India vs. Pakistan or US vs. Iraq, I kid you not.

If that had been the end of the generalisations I would have been quite pleased. I know people are bigoted and it is often an exercise in futility to reason out their bigotries. But, and this is the scary bit, people are bigoted AND in denial. Add to that a communal superiority complex and you have a heady concoction just waiting to have a fuse lit under it. Aged relative was asked if she thought Hindus were bereft of blame. Of course, she replied. We’re a very peace-loving people. What, then, of the 1984 riots? Were they not exclusively orchestrated by Hindus? Of course, but there we had a very valid reason. In fact, she continued in defence of her kinsmen, if the situation had been reversed the Sikhs would have completely decimated the Hindus. Ah, realisation. So, essentially, we were extremely placid in our murder and loot of the Sikhs in ’84? Exactly! Isn’t that something to think about?

Above mentioned aged relative had not, till that point, reached the end of her complaints. She lamented the fact that the educated masses (read: middle class Hindus) had given up trying to have children. The Muslims, in turn, were as busy as rabbits. The day was not far, she complained, when we would be subjugated by Muslims, again.

If you take a step back now and let the whole thing sink in you will begin to get an idea of the abject fear I felt sitting there through this conversation. If I, who understood her context and reasoning, felt so claustrophobic I can’t imagine how someone who reads this must feel. What scares me more is the thought that she couldn’t, possibly, be the only one to feel this way. Was this, truly, how, at least, urban India felt?

I didn’t have to wait too long for an answer. We had a soiree at home later in the day. More aged relatives poured in and, eventually conversation came around to the bomb blasts. The aged relative mentioned earlier took centre-stage and there was much nodding and aye-ayeing as she put forth her views. This is where I started to panic. No longer were those comments an anomaly or a freak occurrence. Here was a group of educated, middle-to-high income individuals identifying with generalisations, feeling communal hostilities and espousing the values of communalism and terrorism. It was too late for peace. The terrorists had already won.

Friday, September 30, 2005

In Bush we trust

In keeping with Clinton's heritage
the scene is set on a White House stage
the President tied to a four-poster bed
National Security Advisor providing bread(sic)

Connie, crooned the President
this isn't what I meant
when I said I wanted action
I was talking about distraction

We've used up Iraq and Afghanistan
could we not now blame Iran?
and claim that its gone nuclear
would that not generate fear?

No one would believe you, Sir
That Iraq was wrong, they still aver
and to repeat the mistake so soon
would be suicidal, honourable loon

But Connie dear, I need a ruse
the people are on such short fuse
and Katrina did us no good
by roughing up the neighbourhood

So, could we not a new tale spin
to keep it from doing us in?
A new hurricane, perhaps, to keep 'em busy
All this thinking makes me dizzy

Please relax, Sir, Powell intervened
from what Intelligence has or has not gleaned
while North Korea is the immediate threat
hanging them both is our best bet

Then there's nuclear disarmament
and our best friend, the Subcontinent
and terrorism hasn't died
just left us a little tongue-tied

There are a million dead issues to flog
and spin-doctors to wag the dog
Qaddafi, Castro, bin Laden are still at large
and you, dear Sir, are the man in charge

The Devil controls the oil rate
and they still can't count in Florida state
The evidence does seem quite plain
you must run for Office again

The President smiled, its good to hear
such encouragement from near and dear
and till the God-fearing, gun-toting people hold sway
I shall be President of the USA

Friday, September 09, 2005

Free and Unbound - Addendum

My favourite moments on the LSD NB were exchanging poetic repartee with Aditi. I have a sizeable collection of "duels" that we've had or where we've built on each other's ideas. Aditi thought it'd be most appropriate if the addendum to the previous post was such an exchange. So here is what she's sent in. The first poem is mine (please ignore) and the reply is her's.

Fungus: ups n downs

they say life has its ups
and they say it has its downs
well the downs I have met aplenty
did anyone see the ups anywhere around?

they must be here somewhere
they couldn't have gotten far
have the police issue an APB
have them chase them in their car

and when you find them do let me know
I'll be with the downs, drinking
hoping that the drink fortifies me
and keeps my heart from sinking

these downs they are such ugly brutes
uncouth, rude, unkind
but they are all I have, now and forever
my company they don't seem to mind

for all their faults, these downs
they are loyal friends, you bet
not like those turncoat ups
bolting at every chance they get

So when you find those ungrateful ups
tell them to go away and never return
my doors are shut to them forever
I no longer for their presence yearn

Aditi:

They say a lily of the day, though withers and dies that night,
Its beauty is forever, as the plant and flower of light..
The one ray of hope, the promise of dawn, each cloud's silver lining..
Ephemeral, ethereal, more my imagination conniving..

But I give in, cling to that hope, for a ray banishes the shroud of darkness,
I still seek the strength, to push from me, those downs, my soul that harness..
I befriend them, but in helplessness, trying in vain myself to convince,
The ups they are fickle, I do not need them.. a promise I try to evince..

Why do I chase what I cannot attain, what never will stay mine?
Why can't I make peace with those downs, and destiny's design?
But then that lily blooms again, the brilliance of epiphany,
Enough to dispel the darkness of doom, lift the shroud that had fallen over me..

For life I realise is meant to be lived.. those transient ups to cherish,
Its the strength of a dream that will come true, the hope of an unmade wish..
The downs I make peace with, but not surrender my spirit, I will not let them own me..
And the ups I will chase not, nor shun, but treasure the surprise when they meet me..

Friday, September 02, 2005

Free and Unbound - Once More

Its a first for this blog but I want to dedicate this post to an individual. Not everything can be about me. Mommy says I'm growing up. Anyway, to more serious matters. Let me tell you about this person. Why I want to dedicate this post will become clear in time.

I met her a little over a year ago. As a fresher she was bound to run into the bad man on campus soon enough but I had actually heard about her a little earlier. One of my friends had spotted her at an informal interaction and had set off the rumour mills. The first time I saw her the two of them were together. Someone whispered her name over my shoulder. That's the day I came to know someone who has, since, had a profound influence on me.

She seemed pretty from that distance. Closer up, I'd say she was incredibly cute. The two mean very different things to me. I got what he saw in her. What I didn't get, however, was the shirt, or blouse, as it applies to women. Dark, with a pattern resembling a garden in full bloom, it reminded me of something, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Later, I realized that it reminded me of an aunt who lives in Pune. She's Anglo-Indian and she wears the most scandalous blouses, usually paired with the most scandalous skirts. In this case, however, the blouse was tempered with a very sober pair of ladies jeans. There, in that moment, I defined my image for this lady. Floral patterned shirts and light denim. We, as humans, define our lives by associations. Her shirts reminded me so much of my aunt that I realised many of my prejudices towards my aged relative were coming into play almost immediately. I did not make any attempt to get to know Miss Aditi Vadnagare.

Not getting to know her wasn't hard. She wasn't like some women in her batch whose conversations you could hear across the hallways and whose cackles pierced the the walls, the doors, the curtains, the earplugs and, eventually, any decent chance you had of sleep. No, she was extraordinarily quiet, this one. She usually kept her eyes on the floor and her thoughts in her head. When she spoke she did so with the most electric sparkle in her eyes. She spoke well and she spoke sense. But, most of all, she spoke little. In all of the time she and I were at the institute together I don't think I heard her speak a sum total of two minutes. She was in some committee under one of my best friends and he was given to hoping she'd talk more because she had so much to offer. Exactly how much, I found out later.

Some context for those who know nought about the institute. We use a chat software that also has a lot of cyber-NBs. My favourite is the LSD or the Literary and Symposium Desk. It is where most of my work has gained recognition and its where I met the "other" Aditi. It was during a thread of poems that I was a part of that I ran into a reply by Aditi. I clicked on it, not knowing what to expect. The closest anyone has gotten to describing the feeling that followed was Mario Puzo when he describes Michael getting his first look at Appolonia. "The Thunderbolt" is what it is called. Very apt, I'd say, considering I sat there staring at those few lines for, what seemed like, an eternity, open-mouthed and all. In a very self-centred moment I lost all my desire to reply right there. This woman, in her perfectly well-intentioned way, had ruined any chance I had of posting a befitting reply, simply because you couldn't match what she had just put up. I did get around to posting a reply, eventually - I am only human, after all - following which she quickly posted another, and another and another till all I could do was sit and stare at the screen in complete awe and bewilderment. How could someone who never spoke be so lucid and "in control" when putting thoughts on paper? How could someone - anyone - churn out poetry that made you feel like ordering in and staying in front of the screen in anticipation of more mesmerising magic to flow forth?

Her poetry is her own and I will not post any of it here, even though I have almost everything she has put into the public domain. I will, however, request her to post some of it as a reply to this blog so that, not only can everyone get an idea of what I'm talking about here but, once on the reply page, they can also give vent to their feelings. It is a cheap substitute but let me tell you how her poetry makes me feel. Reading her work makes me feel that although all is not right with this world we're still in with a hell of chance of putting it straight. If only everyone could partake some of the beauty her words had to offer there'd be a lot less people fighting in the streets. Of all the poets I've read only Wordsworth and Keats consistently make me feel what Miss Vadnagare's poetry makes me feel. I'm not likening her to either of them but, nonetheless, that comparison works well for me.

I got to interact a lot with her on the LSD NB after that. She had earned herself a fan who dogged her every virtual step. I expected her to have changed in real life following her revelation in the virtual one but she remained the same. We did acknowledge each other by and by and became friends eventually. We promised each other a cup of coffee a year ago but that hasn't happened yet. We did talk, albeit in concordance with her propensity to keep silent most of the time, and I understood a little more of the enigma that is Aditi Vadnagare. She mentioned once that her mother used to sing her to sleep and that her repertoire of "lullabies" included "Que Sera Sera". Now come on, how many of our folks have ever sung us "Que Sera Sera"? Certainly not mine. That moment I understood that she and I were two completely different poets. I culled my poetry from all around me. Her's was inside her. And for that simple reason I was never going to be as inspirational a poet as she always was - and will be.

Time passed. I left the institute. To paraphrase an old proverb: You can take Fungus out of IIM Ahmedabad but you can never take IIM Ahmedabad out of Fungus. I kept in touch. My friends list on the messenger grew longer. I kept regular tabs on the NBs. Despite our great fears, life hadn't completely lost meaning outside those brick walls. But suddenly, I realized, that something was amiss. It was only after checking the LSD NB after a week's hiatus that I realized that Aditi wasn't writing any more. The campus has always had its share of good poets. There was Mangu. Our junior batch has Bulco. To his credit, he is as good as anyone I've ever read and, possibly, more tormented. But without Aditi LSD simply wasn't worth coming back to. And this left a big, gaping hole where there once lay the fountain of my poetry. I was too used to the high her poetry gave me. In it there lay the foundations of world peace. In there lay inspiration and love and beauty. And, all of sudden, someone had just turned off the faucet. It was a bad case of withdrawal that, eventually, drove me back to the campus. It hasn't been that long since I left. I wasn't expecting dramatic changes in anyone I met and yet, the entire second year batch seemed to be collectively weighed down. It wasn't just my imagination; too many people I talked to admitted the same thing. I'm not claiming the Great Depression was because Aditi Vadnagare had stopped posting - I still retain most of my faculties - but it did seem like it was bad time for her to not be writing.

We talked. In between classes and play practices she never did get around to the coffee. But we talked. We snatched a few snippets of conversation over breakfast. I told her then and I'm telling her now. She is too good to be not writing. At the sake of being laughed at, let me bring forth a quote from "Spiderman": With great power comes great responsibility. And Aditi Vadnagare has a power so great that the responsibility of it weighs down heavily on her shoulders. She has a responsibility to the world at large to keep writing; to keep churning out rhyme after delightful rhyme; to take the world along with her on a ride of the entire gamut of human emotions and then some. Consider this a dedication, consider it an appeal.

Aditi, I can tell not just by the beauty of the words you put to paper, not just by the sheer contrast there is between the Aditi who goes to class and the Aditi who shines through each beautiful word on the LSD NB and not just by the testimonials of those who love you. I can tell that you are more alive in a minute of poetry than in an hour without it. And just for your sake, if not anybody else's, don't stop writing. Please.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The finitude of numbers and the safety therein

I am sitting in my resort in Bharatpur with absolutely nothing to do today. On my way here I had inquired about the level or urbanism in this little watering-hole. I asked if there was a McDonald’s. I knew the answer before I asked the question. What surprised me, however, was when someone told me they had a Café Coffee Day here. I’m exhausted and frustrated beyond measure walking around all afternoon. Let me tell you they don’t know what a CCD is in this town, let alone have one in their midst. I’m parked right outside India’s largest bird sanctuary. Just my luck it doesn’t open for another two months, huh?

I travel a lot in this job. I discovered there are subtle ways I use to make myself a wee bit more comfortable in unfamiliar environs. Tracing the nearest coffee shop or McD’s is one. These places are, obviously, made to a cookie-cutter template – identical no matter what city you’re in. I could be in a McDonald’s in Timbuktu and it’d feel like I was at home. Another little method I use to get my bearing is to, as soon as I can, determine distances to the nearest cosmopolitan areas. Knowing that Delhi is 170 kilometres or that Agra is 55 kilometres is of little practical use but it just lets me tell myself that I’m somewhere on a map I know and that, if push came to shove, I could find my own little corner of the globe.

I started wondering about this little quirk of mine. I mean, you could tell me Delhi was a million miles from where I was. But as long as it was exactly a million miles I’d be OK with that. The number, in itself, means nothing; just that there should be a number. I realise that it isn’t just me. Look at scientists; presumably, the most rational people in the world. Tell me that the Universe is infinite and they’ll smile indulgently. But tell them that there are approximately 1011 galaxies and each has, approximately, 1011 stars and they’ll smile smugly. “We told you”, they’d say. Not that all of them put together could begin to imagine what those numbers represent. Or tell them that an electron is infinitesimally small and they’d huff and puff till they blew themselves over. Infinitesimal is not something they can work with. They need a number to give them peace of mind. It’s the same with all of us. I was passed by a cycle-rickshaw the other day who wanted to know how far a particular landmark was. I told him it was a kilometre and a half away and he immediately redoubled his effort at pedalling. That it was almost 5 kilometres away is irrelevant. All he needed was a number. That number told him that he was on the right track and he’d be there soon enough. The string theory suggests there are 8 dimensions. I have enough trouble figuring out 3. You think anyone of us will ever actually understand 8?

There are little more than 6 billion people on this Earth. Anyone who has any idea of what that means please raise your hand. Our heads couldn’t begin to comprehend what that means. Teachers use little illustrations to make you understand. Stuff like, “If everyone stood in a line the line would go around the Earth so many times”. Did that ever make anyone realise that, put simply, there’s just too many of us to take in. Like you’re ever going to be able to put people in a line around the globe. Or that you even knew just how huge the globe is and what it’d take to go around it once. Tell us there’re too many and we’ll accept it.

A statement I’ve often come across in textbooks of basic science: “If a table-tennis ball were to represent a single RBC (red blood corpuscle) then the number of RBCs in a single drop of blood, in terms of table-tennis balls, would fill up a football field 20 feet high.” I’m not saying the statement is correct in measure – I don’t remember enough of my science. What I’m asking is what point there is in such an illustration. Of what consequence is it to compare RBCs with table-tennis balls? Why do we need to know their magnitude? We need to know what the normal medical counts are. That’s all. And if my doctor knows it I don’t need to know either.

Tell a hiker that the next stop is 20 km. further and he’ll happily trudge it. Tell him, however, that it is just a “little further” and he’d snap you in two with a look. When people ask me distances I’ve learned to lie. I have no idea how to tell distances. But I invent a number for their sake. They’re just so happy that it is only so much further.

I think it all has something to do with the finitude of numbers. The human brain isn’t designed to grasp infinites and infinitesimals. We’re a species of limited means. We need to be able to define every measure in our own ways. Give me a number in miles and I’ll immediately convert it to kilometres because that’s what I am comfortable with. Tell me the size of an atom and I’ll figure out how many, stacked up, would make the thickness of a human hair. Tell me the distance to the moon and I’ll figure how many years my bike would take to get their or how much fuel that’s take me. These are all meaningless conversions. If I’m getting somewhere it matters little how many miles I need to go, except that I just need to. Atoms to a hair or bike rides to the moon are all pointless but they illustrate the lengths we’re willing to go to define the world around us in terms we’re familiar with. I don’t doubt that being able to define the seemingly infinite or infinitesimal in standard terms is useful at times. We would have never made it to the moon if we were content to consider the distance as “too much”. We would have never spilt the atom if we thought of it as simply “too little”. I think it was Mark Twain who said, “The reasonable man seeks to adapt himself to his environment. The unreasonable man seeks to adapt his environment to himself. All progress is, thus, the result of the efforts of the unreasonable man.” I agree.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Stuck in a rut?

OK. Here’s a thought that’s been troubling me for a while now. It was in an issue of the Reader’s Digest (methinks) that I read about this conservationist who was a Ph.D. professor and had chucked an extremely honourable job and salary to walk through the jungles of the world collecting data about the various small cats that survive in the wild. While there are many things that could bother one about this little nugget of information, like, what was he thinking doing a Ph.D.? aren’t all Ph.D.s losers? and such similar questions that is not what disturbs me. What disturbs me is a trend I have noticed. In a world of alleged high-stress lives and high-stress jobs and the need to maintain a work-life balance the need for distinction has gone out the window. Let me explain myself. How many conservationists or other environmentalists or round-the-world racers or extreme sportspersons do you know who would put their tools down at 6 in the evening or refuse to work on Sundays? How many would worry about comfort at the office or stress levels or the amount of caffeine they consumed? How many of them would, do you think, be attending yoga classes to help them de-stress? Don’t for a minute assume that their lives are stress-free. Puh-leez! These are the people who make our lives look like walks through extremely lavish parks. And yet, you don’t see them complaining half as much as we do. Or at all, for that matter. Which raises two important issues. One: What is it that makes us moan and grumble about nothing at all while these “heroes”, as I, most certainly, see them, grin through hardships we couldn’t begin to imagine? The obvious answer is that they enjoy what they do. So, in reverse, that implies that we don’t enjoy what we do. Now that’s a scary thought. If 6 Billion people across the world are doing things they don’t enjoy there’s a lot of angst and discontent building up on this lovely planet. I could go on about this but I have a second point I’d like to return to. I have heard of lots on instances where people pushed to the brink in their daily existence have upped and left humdrum jobs to follow their passions. Allow your mind to wander back to the Ph.D. professor mentioned at the start of this passage. These are people who have never embraced a work-life balance, as we know it. 6 O’ clock on the watch means nothing to them. My theory is that the need to let one loose exists in all of us. But the ones who siphon off their stress in tiny bits every day, the ones who totter home at 6, the ones who take vacations with their families every 3 months or the ones who attend seminars by Deepak Chopra and the like never build up their “force” in enough magnitude to propel them to higher things. And the ones who find their true calling – I believe none of us were, in essence, made to trade shares or sell soap – are the ones who push themselves too hard for too long. Eventually the levee breaks and they see what is truly important: the need to do something important, something exhilarating, and something distinctive. Does this mean I’m going to stop going home at 6 or stop trying to perfect my Tai-chi? Afraid not. What it does mean, however, is that I am going to have to resign myself to the fact that, in all probability, I am never going to dedicate my life to anything more important than the pursuit of money and superficial happiness. That I am not alone does not make me feel a whole lot better.