Thursday, April 30, 2020

Writing without pen and paper

My little world

When I was a little kid, I saw my elder brother using palm leaves for learning the Malayalam alphabet. That’s how the preschools in Kerala worked in the early 1960s. Those preschools were a far cry from their counterparts of today; they were terror centres. The teacher, known as äsän (guru) in Malayalam, was Kerala’s version of Dickens’s Gradgrind. The äsän didn’t teach, he ground the alphabet and numbers into the tender skins of the little kids. He used a cane when he thought all those pinches on arms, earlobes and thighs were not enough incentives for the little ones to master the bizarrely twisted letters of Malayalam.

The äsän was such a terror that I refused to go to the preschool. I was fortunate to have a father who accepted my stubbornness. He, my father, decided to teach me. He was a good teacher. I learnt the outlandish twists of Malayalam alphabet [have a look at the first few letters to understand how tough it was for a kid to reproduce them; and they always began with these first letters: , , , , ] without my arms, ears and thighs being subjected to perverse pedagogical pleasures.

The palm leaves were replaced with books and slates by the time my little fingers began to associate themselves with the agonies and ecstasies of learning. My fingers grew used to letters and words. They must have written a few million pages before I acquired a portable typewriter in 1989.

The typewriter was for typing out articles which I wrote for some local newspapers in Shillong those days. Actual writing was continued for years. Letters to friends and relatives were always handwritten. When was the last time I wrote someone a handwritten letter?

I don’t remember. When the telephone became common enough, I stopped writing letters. That was some time in the early 1990s. Shillong was still a backward little town with hardly a phone in private homes. People made use of kiosks called PCOs [Public Call Office]. The rates were exorbitant. I remember paying Rs 80 per minute for making a call from Shillong to Kerala during daytime. At night the rates would be half. Shillong was not a town that had much night life in those days. So your conversations on the phone were measured and weighed. Just the right words. Maximum info in minimum words. Laughter was out of question. Sighs were suppressed. Letters were better: they could carry the sighs between the lines.

But letters died a natural death as the phone became common and the rates were made comparatively more affordable. The inland letters and stamped envelopes disappeared from my table. With the arrival of the computer at what was called rather ominously as the cybercafé, even the greeting cards disappeared. Greetings went digital.

Do I miss writing/receiving letters? I don’t think I do. I don’t even use my phone nowadays except to connect to the social media and the blog and the omniscient Google. Virtual relationships that remain somewhere in the miasma beyond the clouds of physical reach are good enough for me.

The smiley in that virtual world is as hollow as the gif. Words are hollower. Truth has been appropriated by the bigot. The sterile thunder in a bleak sky has arrogated love to itself. There are too many slogans that sound nice and burst like bombs somewhere in the netherworld of your longings.

I have withdrawn myself from the marketplace of love. Let patriots and nationalists trade in love. And truth. Social distancing has been a blessing for me for years. Words are virtual reality that doesn’t require pen and paper. What a journey has it been from the palm leaves of my kid-days  to the 4G phone on which I'm poking in this...!

Zorba the Greek

Wisdom and knowledge are entirely different things. In fact, they need not have much in common. Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel, Zorba the Greek, is a kind of trailblazer for those who seek wisdom.

Zorba is a 65-year-old man whose heart is still in the twenties. He refuses to grow old by celebrating life to its fullest. Old age is scary, he says. “Death is nothing,” he says – “just pff! and the candle is snuffed out. But old age is disgrace.”

The narrator of the novel is a 35-year-old man who loves books and knowledge. Right now he is on a different quest, on an adventure undertaken in order to escape that bookworm tag which his friends have attached to him. He encounters Zorba on the way and takes him on as a staff. A friend, rather. Zorba is a kind of Buddha, quite a different kind though.

Life is a celebration for Zorba. He is always happy, come what may. What is his secret? “My joys here are great,” he says, “because they are very simple and spring from the everlasting elements: the pure air, the sun, the sea and the wheaten loaf.” Of course, those may not be enough for happiness. “This is true happiness,” he says elsewhere, “to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition. To live far from men, not to need them and yet to love them.”

People are not a source of happiness. Love is. Love is an attitude of openness and acceptance to the whole cosmos. But you should learn to keep people at a safe distance. They are stupid and wicked. Let them be, that is Zorba’s advice. Don’t even dare to open their eyes. “Suppose you did, what’d they see? Their misery! Leave their eyes closed, boss, and let them go on dreaming!”

Even their gods let them do that. “God makes them deaf or blind, and they say: ‘God be praised.’ They feel at home in their misery.” In the “chequered, incoherent, indifferent, perverse (and) pitiless” affair called life, illusions and delusions have their roles to play. Zorba has a brother, he says, who is a sensible person who goes to church regularly and lends money at cutthroat rates for a job. He is a hypocrite, but “a real pillar of society”. Most people are like that brother: hypocrites and real pillars of society. Let them be.

Let their religion be too. It won’t make sense to people like Zorba and probably the narrator too. Religion teaches them wrong things like opposition between the spirit and the flesh. Zorba gives the example of Father Lavrentio, a monk whom he met on Mount Athos. This monk believed that there was a devil inside him and he gave him the name Hodja. “Hodja wants to eat meat on Good Friday!” The monk would lament. “Hodja wants to sleep with a woman. Hodja wants to kill the Abbot. It’s Hodja, Hodja, it isn’t me!” Having narrated the story of Father Lavrentio, Zorba says, “I’ve a kind of devil inside me too, boss, and I call him Zorba!”

Accepting the good and the bad, the spirit and the flesh, is necessary if you want to be happy, if you want enlightenment. You are not your flesh, you are not your spirit, you are both of them. Zorba goes to the extent of saying: “God and the devil are one and the same thing?” It all depends on you, on your perception. Zeus, says Zorba, loved women. Whenever he saw a woman in distress because she wanted a man, Zeus came down to her in whatever form the woman had imagined her man and made love to her. And there were too many women in distress. Zeus overworked himself. Finally the women emptied him. He started vomiting, became paralysed and died. That’s when his heir, Christ, arrived. He understood the misery and said, “Beware of women!” And women who were good for Zeus became evil for Christ.

“God be praised!” That’s all what the people know to say, be it God Zeus or God Christ. If you want real wisdom, you’d as well make a heap of all your books and set fire to them. All your knowledge won’t help, Zorba tells the narrator. “You understand, and that’s why you’ll never have any peace. If you didn’t understand, you’d be happy!” Life is a mystery that has to be lived, be experienced, not be understood. One of the biggest ironies of life is that “All those who actually live the mysteries of life haven’t the time to write (about them), and all those who have the time don’t live them!” The highest point you can reach in life is not knowledge, virtue, goodness… but “Sacred Awe”.

Zorba is a personification of that Awe. The novel shows how.

PS. This is the last part of the BlogchatterA2Z series for which I have been writing in the whole of April. The other parts are listed below. I take this opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude to the Blogchatter Team that went out of its way to make this challenge an interesting and engaging one.  My heart goes out in gratitude to my fellow bloggers who helped me make this Challenge a celebration.

The previous posts in this series can be accessed below:
14. No Exit
18. The Rebel

24. X, Malcolm      

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Yuval Noah Harari

[Note: Since I couldn’t find an appropriate book whose title starts with the letter Y for this A2Z series, I have chosen an author for this chapter. Harari’s name is more popular than the names of his books anyway.]

Today there is only one species of humans left on the earth: homo sapiens. The sapiens are a deadly species, according to Yuval Noah Harari’s acclaimed book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It is a book of consequential reflections rather than academic history. It can jolt us out of our complacencies. And we need all those jolts.

Humans evolved in East Africa some 2.5 million years ago. That is a rather short period of time compared to the lifespan of the universe: 13.5 billion years. There were many species of human beings up to about 10,000 years ago. But the one species of homo sapiens exterminated all the others slowly over many centuries. We, the homo sapiens, are a terrible breed. We have caused the extinction of thousands and thousands of species of animals and plants. We have now brought the planet itself to a terrible condition. Harari’s book tells the tale of how we managed to do that in just a few thousand years.

Whenever the homo sapiens arrived at a new location the native population of humans became extinct, says Harari. This process of extermination started around 70,000 years ago from today, when the cognitive revolution took place. Earlier the human beings did not differ much from the other animals. With the cognitive revolution, the sapiens acquired language and with language came a whole range of imagined things like myths and gods.

The sapiens were hunter-gatherers then. They moved from place to place in search of food. Their arrival in any new place was like the landing of a meteor. For example, the human arrival in Australia made 90% of the megafauna there extinct. The same happened in New Zealand when the Maoris landed there 800 years ago: in a couple of centuries majority of megafauna there and 60% of all bird species there were driven to extinction. The mammoths of Wrangel Island disappeared 4000 years ago when the sapiens colonised the island.

The sapiens were ruthless marauders, in other words. From their place of origin in Africa, they roamed far and wide, even to highly inhospitable terrains such as Siberia and Alaska. By around 10,000 BCE they inhabited the entire Americas, leaving behind a long trail of victims. The Americas had greater variety of fauna than Africa before the arrival of the sapiens. Many of these animals became man’s food, clothes and footwear. The others which were really enormous in size just couldn’t rival the gigantic human ego.

After the cognitive revolution, the next big thing that happened was the agricultural revolution. It happened around 10,000 BCE. Harari calls it the biggest fraud in human history. Instead of man domesticating the grains, the grains domesticated man. Cultivation of anything made enormous demands on man: irrigation, weeding, pests, birds and animals, and natural calamities such as droughts and floods. Moreover, the early cultivators just burned acres and acres of forests killing of the flora and fauna there.

In the end, just about 2% of the earth’s surface is used for agriculture, the rest being unsuitable. Obviously there would be fights for those lands. The farmers needed security. That is how “rulers and elites sprang up, living off peasants’ surplus food and leaving them with only a bare subsistence.”

Perhaps the most interesting observation of Harari is that the governments and the religious leaders were clever parasites right from the early days of human civilisation. 90% worked and 10% ate, that is how Harari summarises it. “History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.”

The elites who constituted the governments and religious hierarchy forged myths and gods in order to wield power over the majority. Even today the majority of human beings are subordinated by the tiny minority who know how to forge appropriate myths like gods, motherland, racial purity, and so on. Even our concepts such as justice, equality, human rights and a lot many others are nothing more than myths. Even currency is a myth, argues Harari.

The third revolution (the first two being cognitive and agricultural) took place some 500 years ago: scientific. The industrial revolution made big changes to the human world. The information revolution that started about 50 years ago has taken us to the present biotechnology revolution which may signal the end of the species of sapiens. The future seems to belong to bio-engineered post-humans, according to Harari.

In the last section of the book, there is a lot of philosophical discussion and some conjectures too. One of the intriguing discussions is on happiness. What makes people happy? In the year 2000, the number of people killed in wars was 310,000 while crimes killed 520,000. In that same year, a whopping number of 815,000 people committed suicide! Harari mentions the corresponding figures for 2002 too: 172,000 in war, 569,000 in crimes, and 873,000 by suicide. Was Neil Armstrong happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who left her handprint on a wall in the Chauvet Cave 30,000 years ago? Harari raises a lot of other stimulating questions like: Did Islam make the Egyptians happier? Has globalisation made a happier world today?

Will Hindu Rashtra make India a happier place? Well, Harari doesn’t ask that, of course. Not directly, I mean.

Originally published in 2011, the book has got a lot of attention so far. Harari wrote a sequel too: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. He deserves to be read: he pokes us to think deeply and differently. That depth and difference are much needed today.
A page from the book: all these periods and more are covered in the book

PS. This is part of a series being written for the #BlogchatterA2Z Challenge. The previous parts are:
14. No Exit
18. The Rebel
24. X, Malcolm             
Tomorrow and the last: Zorba, the Greek

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

X, Malcolm

X is the surname that Malcolm gave himself when he shed his old self in order to be a dignified human being. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is the story of that conversion and what happened eventually.

Malcolm Little was an African American born in 1925 in Nebraska. His father, a Baptist preacher, was killed by the Ku Klux Klan and his mother was sent unjustly to a mental hospital when he was still a boy. Malcolm grew up in a detention home till eighth grade after which he moved to Boston to live with a foster family. Discrimination and ridicule from the white majority drive him out of school to the streets of Boston where he learns more evil things than good such as gambling, drinking, and doing drugs. He becomes a go-between for black pimps and their white clients and begins to date Sophia, a white woman older than him. He abandons his girlfriend Laura for the sake of Sophia and Laura is driven to prostitution.

He tries many jobs such as washing dishes on a train and selling sandwiches before taking up a waiter’s job in a Harlem bar. This bar job puts him in touch with the underworld for which Harlem was famous. He soon became a hustler and a drug addict. It didn’t take long for him to be arrested for a burglary, something that he had been doing frequently with the help of Sophia and others. The autobiography says that his arrest was more because of his association with a white woman than the burglary cases.

The Massachusetts state prison provided opportunities for Malcolm’s intellectual and spiritual growth. He was kept in solitary confinement because of his fierce temper and the depression caused by drug withdrawal which had earned him the nickname of Satan. A black prisoner called Bimbi becomes his counsellor. Malcolm begins to make use of the prison library and soon takes interest in the organisation called Nation of Islam and its spiritual leader Elijah Muhammad.

Nation of Islam taught its followers that the blacks were the first humans on earth and they lived in peace under Allah’s care. Then some mad scientist unleashed the evil race of white men who imposed their wicked ways on everyone. The ancient Pharaohs who built the pyramids and Aesop the fabulist were all black men. Soon Malcolm X rose as a powerful orator and debater in the prison commanding much respect.

In 1952 when he was released on parole, he met Elijah and became a preacher of Nation of Islam. He changed his surname to X, the indeterminate letter which was to represent his original but lost African family name. Elijah appointed him a minister at the Detroit temple. Eventually he married Betty.

Malcolm became famous as a preacher and was invited to speak even by universities. Elijah was not quite pleased with this popularity. Soon allegations began to emerge that Malcolm was trying to take over Nation of Islam. In the meanwhile, Elijah’s popularity was facing significant threat from two paternity suits filed by his secretaries. Elijah was said to have had many children with his secretaries apart from those with his own wife.

Malcolm’s comments on John F Kennedy following his assassination became an excuse for Elijah to impose a 90-day silence on him. Nation of Islam also issued death threats on Malcolm. He left for Florida accepting the invitation of Cassius Clay, the world-famous boxing champion. Clay had already developed Islamic leanings and soon he declared his Muslim affiliation and took the name Muhammad Ali.

His relationships with Elijah having gone sour, Malcolm abandoned Nation of Islam and founded Muslim Mosque, Inc. He went on Haj to Mecca which gave him the title of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and he used that title in all his subsequent communications though he continued to be known in America as Malcolm X.

The autobiography ends there. All autobiographies are lies, as Bernard Shaw said. The lies are not meant to be lies, however. Autobiographies are written in order to give shape to lives which are otherwise chaotic. An autobiography presents a person not as he is but as how he wants to be seen by the world. Moreover, human memory is not a highly reliable source of information. The present changes the past inevitably because we reinterpret the past to soothe our present. We accommodate the pains of the past into the joys of the present so that they become more bearable.

Betty Shabazz, Malcolm’s wife, was not quite happy with her married life. She complained frequently about her dissatisfaction with their sexual life. Malcolm was a misogynist and a neglectful husband. We don’t see all these in the autobiography, however. Malcolm got Betty pregnant repeatedly just to keep her home, away from her potential extramarital affairs. We don’t see that either in the autobiography.

Nevertheless, the autobiography is good. We shouldn’t expect autobiographies to be ruthlessly honest especially when written by someone like Malcolm who was trying to soothe his personal wounds with the palliative of words. The book does provide a lot of insights into human life and nature. For instance, it shows us how certain events in life leave deep scars in our psyches so much so that even God (Allah or whatever you call that) can’t heal certain behavioural impacts of those wounds. The painful childhood and youth of Malcolm gave him certain basic rules of life which not even Allah could change later. They were the hustler’s street rules: (1) Be suspicious of everyone; (2) Know your enemy; and (3) Your public image is everything.

Even when Malcolm taught Islam as America’s ultimate panacea, the religion failed to erase the hustler’s street rules from his psyche. That’s how life is. That’s one of the many things we learn from this autobiography.

For those who are interested, my memoir, Autumn Shadows, is available at Amazon as eBook. Click here for a copy.

PS. This is part of a series being written for the #BlogchatterA2Z Challenge. The previous parts are:
14. No Exit
18. The Rebel