Wednesday, October 31, 2007

He stands on the terrace, stripped to the waist, hands on his hip, looking up at the sky with eyes closed.

A cloud covers the noon sun, lumbering from east to west. He can feel its shadow sliding across his face, as if someone was conducting a slideshow up there. Evaporating detergent from the clothes hanging nearby tickles his nose. Wet tiles underneath remind his soles of the storm yesterday.

He waits, counts the seconds, his lips mouthing the numbers, eagerly anticipating that energy bursting through from the sun, imagining the heat on his face.

The city revives itself all around him after the rains. Like a gaint clearing his lungs after a cold. Dry streets, noisy schools, scrubbed docks, pavement stalls back in business, packed buses purposefully commuting from suburb to suburb ... he senses all this around him as he waits expectantly.

The shadow leave his cheeks. And then, light. Warm uninhibited proud clean light.

He feels it on his forehead, on his freshly shaved chin, on the curve of his stretched neck, on his chest, on his back, on his feet ... on his soul, on his mind ... feels it everywhere. Sacrifices begin to make meaning.

He opens his eyes and squints.

Sunshine never felt this good.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Two stories



... while I was at a Girl Scout meeting and my father was at work, she had gone through the house, gathering up all the safety pins that lurked in drawers and tins, and adding them to the few fastened to her bracelets. When she’d found enough, she pinned them to her sari one by one, attaching the front piece to the layer of material underneath, so that no one would be able to pull the garment off her body. Then she took a can of lighter fluid and a box of kitchen matches and stepped outside, into our chilly back yard, which was full of leaves needing to be raked. Over her sari she was wearing a knee-length lilac trenchcoat, and to any neighbor she must have looked as though she’d simply stepped out for some fresh air. She opened up the coat and removed the tip from the can of lighter fluid and doused herself, then buttoned and belted the coat. She walked over to the garbage barrel behind our house and disposed of the fluid, then returned to the middle of the yard with the box of matches in her coat pocket. For nearly an hour she stood there, looking at our house, trying to work up the courage to strike a match. It was not I who saved her, or my father, but our next-door neighbor, Mrs. Holcomb, with whom my mother had never been particularly friendly. She came out to rake the leaves in her yard, calling out to my mother and remarking how beautiful the sunset was. “I see you’ve been admiring it for a while now,” she said. My mother agreed, and then she went back into the house. By the time my father and I came home in the early evening, she was in the kitchen boiling rice for our dinner, as if it were any other day.

My mother told Deborah none of this. It was to me that she confessed, after my own heart was broken by a man I’d hoped to marry.

Once in a lifetime.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Long personal post ahead. Read at your own risk.
I had a brief but interesting feedback session with my manager and my VP the other day. It was part of a performance assessment ritual that happens now and then. More to the point, it was my first such session at the new place having joined the company in February this year.
Among other things, they told me that I had a lucid structured thought process, that I communicate well and report early, that I seem to lead my team by example, that they are happy with the rapport I share with my superiors, my peers and my juniors, and that, in their opinion, I've gone beyond the call of duty when it came to maintaining good customer relations (the customer being our collaborators in Hannover). They didn't have any negative feedback and wound up the session asking me to raise the bar a notch.
I somehow downplay achievements and tend to obsess over my failures to the point of losing sleep. I think it's a throwback to a middle-class upbringing where one was told not to 'think too much of oneself' and that failure was always around the corner. To be fair to my parents, I think it probably was their way of instilling humility in their children (and God knows my brother and I needed to learn that quality!). And there have been times when I've regretted not feeling good about things I've done. So I left the cabin with a grin plastered on my face and a warm feeling climbing up my back (no, it wasn't the difference in the AC).
I guess what made me happy is that a few months after I started working three-and-a-half years ago, I came to the painful conclusion that my thinking wasn't as good as it needed to be, and that despite being good at my job, I sucked when it came to communicating (not just talking and arguing, you know). More importantly, I could never fit snugly into a team. I guess it was due to my inability to take sides, my commitment towards being unbiased and a strange principle that personal relationships at work could only hinder professional output. My team-mates tended to look at me as this humourless guy they could turn to for help but not someone they could feel comfortable with.
Introspection and self-improvement are something I'm big on. Looking back, I think my interest in philosophy seems to have paid off in other areas of my life as well. Being an engineer, in my opinion, asks you to play the devil with yourself on a daily basis (which is not to say other professions don't; I'm just talking from my experiences and from a purely personal viewpoint). It somehow is never enough to solve a problem. You need to solve it in the right way. And at times, the most beautiful way possible, even if 'most beautiful' is synonymous with 'cheap' (or 'cost effective' to use jargon). One somehow needs to cultivate the dual ability to tirelessly generate solutions (De Bono anybody?) and choose between them without being sentimental. Philosophy, to me, seems to ask of you the same. To look at various truths, see if there are any others that have been left out in the bargain and evaluate them objectively purely from a need-to-use basis. This is where people get it wrong when they say philosophy is such an arm-chair science (or art, if you want) and that poetry is for the jobless. If poetry is about acknowledging human frailty, philosophy is about the human ability to gather the courage to find ways to live with that vulnerability. Philosophy is all about practical usage.
This blog seems to have affected me in ways I can't quantify. If anything, I've learnt to communicate, to write for an audience logically and clearly, to listen and argue patiently, despite the few occasions when I've lost my cool (For a SWOT analysis at my first job, I wrote 'Weakness - inability to tolerate fools'; I think I've improved on that too :)). I can't overstate the importance of keeping an open mind, to acknowledge that you were wrong (and stick to your guns when you're right) and to understand that the point of a debate are the perspectives that one comes away with. But then again, I've learnt to be ruthless when dismissing trite, poorly reasoned arguments. It's a tricky balance and one I struggle to achieve on a lot of occasions. I've learnt that when communicating, it's not enough to be professionally blunt but that with every word you speak and with every line you type, you are building a relationship that will help you do your work better (I know that's a very capitalistic way of looking at it but let's not give in to romanticism here). That, in many ways, is the single most important lesson I've learnt. Anything that will help you work better without sacrificing your integrity needs to be worked upon.
Leading is something that comes naturally to me only under certain situations -- either on a playing field or where there is an established hierarchy of authority. Whenever I find myself outside these "set-piece" situations, a social outing for example, I'm a very reluctant leader. I think I like it when people don't have a choice but to obey. But if it comes to coaxing or cajoling people or using one's charm, I shy away (too egoistic you see). It's not something that comes naturally to me. But then like everything, it's something I've worked upon. You see people like Ganguly and Dravid and you learn that charm and man-management are as important as leading by example. One without the other is useless. Grovel when you need to grovel; yell when you need to yell. Like I said, anything that helps you to work better without sacrificing your integrity. Earlier, in my first job, my boss used to like me because I would "call a spade a spade" and that I would not think twice about "challenging people outright". While I still think those are qualities one must have, I've realized that the "packaging" matters. That you need to take people along with you. Iniya ulavaaga innaadha kooral / Kani iruppa kaai kavarndhatru.
While I'm glad that I've been able to break out of a 'personality-shell', I can't help but think if I've lost a little bit of myself in the process. Like I was telling a friend the other day, I seem to have lost the ability to write poetry spontaneously (not that those poems were any good but still ...). Whenever I write a poem these days, it's with a lot of effort and exertion of every nuance of the craft that I've learnt. I used to be able to sit back, not let pressure get to me and generally be lax. But now I'm running all day to meet some deadline or the other, professional or personal. I don't know if that's a good thing or not. I think the trick with self-improvement is to indulge in it only as long as the marginal utility of improvement remains high and let go once the law of diminishing returns sets in. That is something I still need to figure out. But in the meantime, there's a bar I need to keep pushing higher.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A poem discovered recently.

No Matter Where We Go - Henrik Nordbrandt
No matter where we go
we always arrive too late
to experience what we left to find.
And in whatever cities we stay
it is the houses where it is too late to return
the gardens where it's too late to spend a moonlit night
and the women whom it's too late to love
that disturb us with their intangible presence.
And whatever streets we think we know
take us past the gardens we are searching for
whose heavy fragance spreads throughout the neighborhood.
And whatever houses we return to
we arrive too late at night to be recognized
And in whatever rivers we look for our reflections
we see ourselves only when we have turned our backs.
Translated by Alexander taylor
Found this poem in "The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry". The reason this poem appeals to me is the quiet sense of existential anguish that it's dowsed in, the realization that life lies tantalizingly close but perenially beyond one's fingertips and that it's always too late.
What is more important, I think, is the realization that -- for some of us at least -- the possibility of something -- dreams, an alternate world, love -- will always appeal more than the reality around us. This conflict, this emotional tug-of-war between yearning for a distant possibility and settling for an immediate secure reality, this confrontation of the abstract with the concrete is a theme of many lives*.
What I like is the way Nordbrandt brings about the insufficiency of this mortal life, how meagre it is compared to the substantial human appetite for experience, how there is never enough time to know anything completely -- even yourself (And in whatever rivers we look for our reflections /
we see ourselves only when we have turned our backs), how one cannot love as much as one wants to (the women whom it's too late to love), how no search will find what it set out to find and how knowledge as we know it is completely useless because it can never ever be complete. I like the way he does not over-dramatize but instead chooses to just simply say, "disturb us with their intangible presence". Intangible indeed.
Oh and the loneliness that runs through this poem like a quiet stream gurgling through a forest -- one cannot but quote Bertrand Russell, " individual facing the terror of cosmic loneliness". It is rather discomforting to come home and realize that nobody recognizes the real you. But then the lives we lead don't afford us the luxury of such truths and before we know it we've plunged headlong into the delusions that sustain us. Because, at the end of the day, one somehow has to find a way to remain content, to continue with life and believe in the possibility of happiness.
Another poem by Henrik Nordbrandt - Sailing.
* - Including my twenties thus far.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The honesty argument

In response to this post, a few comments talked about how honesty is a virtue. That it can't be a vice. My opinion is that "a virtue is simply a form of systematized behaviour that helps one to live life in the way one wants to", a means to an end. A vice is simply something which doesn't help the cause.
So let's suss this out.
Claim - Virtues can't be vices.
Counterclaim - Virtues are relative. Or, they can be vices depending on the "climate"[1].
One of the first interesting puzzles that one comes across in logical reasoning[2] is the "door-puzzle". A popular version of it goes like this - you're a prisoner awaiting execution. In front of you are two doors, a sentry guarding each door. One door leads to freedom, the other leads to death. The guards know which door leads where. You also know that one of the guards lies. But you neither know which door will keep you alive or which guard speaks the truth. You are allowed to ask only one question to one guard. What question will you ask? And which door will you choose based on the answer?
The key to solving the problem is consistency[3]; that the guards won't deviate from their behaviour; that both the guards are capable of virtuous behaviour based on their own moral code; that you can use your understanding of their moral code to your advantage.
What if the guard who speaks the truth speaks a different kind of truth? A truth which believes that the prisoner (who is actually guilty of theft) should be punished, that the guilty should not escape. According to that truth, he would actually lie (so that the prisoner chooses the wrong door and dies) but still speak the truth. What if the guard who lies believes in a different kind of truth? A truth which believes that theft is a demonstration of superior physical and mental ability. According to that truth, he would actually speak the truth (in terms of the doors) but still lie (if lying meant any act that helped the guilty escape).
I hope you are thoroughly confused now.
The point is, in the problem -
1. Dishonesty is a virtue as much as honesty is. That is if one looked upon a virtue as defined in the counterclaim.
2. Dishonesty is the opposite of honesty.
3. So what we are essentially looking at is something like -
Let's assume that, as per the claim, A is a virtue and A' is a vice.
A' = (!A) {inverse of A}
But as per the problem,
A' = A {the argument that lying/dishonesty is a form of truth in itself}
=> A = (!A) [4]
Or, if A can be a virtue, A can be a vice as well.
The problem with terms such as virtue, vice, truth, lies etc is that these are all dependent on the prevailing moral climate. The virtue (pun intended) of reading Nietzsche is that he awakens you to questioning the basic premise of society as it exists today -- why should the weakest survive? Why should the strong have to relinquish their strengths just to fit in with society? Protecting the weakest is the basic rallying call of society today. And honesty -- as a virtue -- is based around defending the weak. Defending the weak then becomes the way society wants to "live its life", and honesty is a form of "systematized behaviour" to achieve that. If society were to focus its efforts towards ensuring the survival of the fittest (fittest in any form), then the form of honesty required in such a society would be different. Why did the SS thrive during the Nazi regime? Why was betraying the Jews seen as honesty? Were they all so brainwashed? I don't think so. Just that almost all of them believed in the moral code which Hitler espoused.
To conclude, 'honesty' is just a term to denote a form of behaviour which helps society achieve its goals. What is important to note -- and think about -- is that there is no intrinsic value difference between protecting the weakest and ensuring the survival of the fittest[5]. They are simply two different ways of organizing society, each with its own arguments.
1 Climate being moral, social and political
2 A certain three-lettered exam should come to mind right now
3 Now is consistency a "universal" virtue? ;-) Answer to the problem somewhere on this page
4 "A is A" anybody?
5 Which is why I will always consider Pudhupettai a fabulous movie.