Brahmagiri: An account

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Image Courtesy Team G Square blogpost on the same place

 

This is a guest post by my friend Srikara. He explores history of places with a particular interest in Vijayanagara Empire. In this post, he speaks of his visit to Brahmagiri Hills near Bellary, Karnataka.  From this visit he writes, “The sheer scale of devotion, prescience and benevolence that seemed to have gone into Ashoka’s vision of a just society over two millennia ago, when many other contemporary societies were busy tearing themselves apart with violence, amazed me.”  I find this continuing amazement with accounts of the past and the contrast with the present, as a key driver for our interest in history. 

 

It must have been just past eight in the morning. The bus destined for Bellary had dropped me off on the highway, at the juncture of the road leading to Siddapura. ‘There is no stop here, we will only slow down, and you can get off!’ the conductor had said. I was off and was walking towards the village of Siddapura, five kilometers away. The sun was already in action, filling the world with its yellow spread. It was a lonely road for the most part, through expansive paddy fields with imposing boulder strewn hills peppered across them. Some humongous giant must have crushed solitary rocks with his bare fist and sowed the pieces in these fields as piles of stone. The sun, the paddy, the hills, and the silence of being alone filled me with anticipation for the setting of my destination.

The road ended at the village that had been recently anointed Ashoka Siddapura. And all around, petty shopkeepers, skinny elders wearing shirts, towels, and panches that were once white, and other idlers greeted me with curious stares. I smiled and moved on through the village.

The heat was getting stronger as I continued to walk on a road lined by plots with mud houses with sloping red-tiled roofs. Typical of rural settings in India, chickens running across the road, dogs barking at my perceived trespass, famished oxen tied to their posts, ruminating solemnly, and women carrying cans of water, all met my eyes as I pushed myself through. Just as I stepped outside the village and away from the hum of its life, a large bare hill loomed ahead, to the right of the road. Walls of ruined fortifications straddled the sides of the hill. ‘Brahmagiri.’ I thought. I was near.

I passed by a stone temple in ruins and reached an unusual structure at the foot of the hill. ‘This is it.It was a rather horse-shoe shaped edifice built of stone blocks, the whitewash on whose walls had mostly faded. It served as a shelter to the upper surface of a large boulder and had a staircase leading up to it. I absorbed my surroundings for a minute. I was looking up at the shelter in the silent shadow of Brahmagiri. A necklace of ancient fortified walls stared at me from the heights. In front of the hill was a vast fallow land that was, again, lined by gigantic boulder hills afar. Taking a deep breath of the eerie stillness, I climbed up the steps.

Atop the boulder, a cage enclosed what I had come so far to see. As I peered through the steel bars, deeply engraved runes on the boulder made themselves visible over an area of a standard Persian Carpet. The script was vivid and each of its characters was inscribed with elegance. As I observed each line in awe, I tried to remember what it said from what I had read about it.

The Brahmagiri Inscription is the southern-most of all of Maurya Emperor Ashoka’s myriad Rock and Pillar Edicts proclaiming universal peace and an embrace of humanity. They were inscribed over two thousand years ago across the Subcontinent, from Kandahar to Siddapura, Gujarat to Bihar. They mark Ashoka’s righteous rule after his adoption of Buddhism.

The Brahmagiri inscription announces to the lost city of Ishila that once was in the vicinity, that ‘the men of Jambudvipa had (since Ashoka’s reign began) become mingled with the gods’ and urged its residents to embrace the Truth, treat their parents, elders, masters and relatives with respect and obedience, and be compassionate to animals.

Other edicts across the country are more radical in their call for humanity. They proclaimed religious equality and freedom to pursue one’s faith, right of prisoners to appeal against sentences that were ordered to be dispensed justly to begin with, protection of several animal species by royal decree, provisioning medication and treatment of illnesses, facilitating long-distance travelers with the planting of large banyan trees and digging wells, and much more.

I tried to fit the Brahmagiri edict into Ashoka’s vast philanthropic jigsaw puzzle, as I continued to observe the curvy letters. The sheer scale of devotion, prescience and benevolence that seemed to have gone into Ashoka’s vision of a just society over two millennia ago, when many other contemporary societies were busy tearing themselves apart with violence, amazed me. The presence of this gem of history in what was now a desolate place was mystifying.

Siddapura is like an all you can eat buffet for history-buffs. It has a preserved site of megaliths, written records on stone, forts atop hills, ancient temples in ruins, artfully carved veeragals, saffron-clad mendicants and, most importantly, a weight that keeps pressing on you, filling you with enigma and wonder, a weight of history, of the place having been there, and seen it, for thousands of years, a weight of ghosts that had dissolved in the air with time. I had only savored a starter, and was salivating for more. I walked down the stairs.

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Social History and the City: A guided tour of Avenue Road

Avenue Road, Bengaluru. This crossroad is said to the spot from where Kempegowda sent out four oxes to mark the frontiers of this city.

Heterodox is flavour of the season. This encourages me to make transgression into history, a discipline where I can only be described as a consumer of texts and accounts of places and events. Hobsbawm’s collection of essays Uncommon People and his endearing essay on jazz music remains a favourite reading in history. I have enjoyed Tony Judt’s Post War although I can’t seem to agree with his rather condescending views on social history that I discovered later. But this post is about a guided tour along one of the oldest roads in Bangalore. This walk was an opportunity to think about writing history and methods of this discipline. I walked down Avenue Road led by my friend Srikara, on whom I have relied on over the years to know Bangalore better. We walked a whole afternoon and evening, with him speaking of the settlements, monuments, events and major developments around this old and very busy part of the city. It is anything but forgotten. Avenue Road is like those Angkor temples, which are engulfed by massive growth of tree roots all around. Avenue Road, much the same is enmeshed into the everyday life of this city and people instead of just trees. The throng of people on Avenue Road is perhaps the same as in earlier centuries, only a bit more dense with an expansive variety of goods traded in its bylanes.

A walk down Avenue Road is to take a break from the stiffness of history that holds structuralism and determinism with an unquestioning faith and from historians of that ilk. This road and the space around it, affirms the relevance of social history. To understand the transformation of this city social history presents a method that yields a nuanced picture of the city and its historical transformation. From this walk with Srikara, I return with a firm intent to venture into history as discipline because of dissatisfaction with political history based narratives of the city and its spaces. They are plainly inadequate in identifying the cultural and social richness of the past of a city. It is a transgression because I am neither a historian nor an architect. These are the two varieties of professionals that one comes across when it comes to writing, speaking and researching history of cities in India. Chronology is important. But with that chronological movement there is often a story told through lives and work of well-known personalities or story that is hero-led (think of the Dewan of Mysore, or Chief Engineer of the Presidency etc). This is the kind of history that is insular to everyday life. On heritage walks, one is likely to hear this variety of historical narratives. I am tired of them. The everydayness of life and spaces, which is situated at a distance from the day’s politics, holds as much potential in revealing a past that, if not better, can illuminate the present just the same as other methods. I was on this tour to know about this everydayness of life and people on Avenue Road.

Srikara explaining a beautiful series of motifs depicting Parvati and Shiva’s wedding ceremony, on the walls of sanctorum of Kote Venkateshwara Temple. It is located next to Tipu’s Palace in Bengaluru.

We walk along one of the roads that was once the center of the city. Bangalore expanded much beyond this old center, not forgetting, but shifting out into adjacent areas. The sprawl wasn’t expanding due to political reasons or changes in production relationships. This is where deterministic historical analysis is likely to run out of steam. Here is a city expanding, less due to politics or economic drivers but out of other reasons, one of them being poor hygiene and sanitary conditions in the old quarters. This could be a one-off event. These reasons don’t lend themselves well to the determinism that one would want to read in the expansion. Moreover, it isn’t that the settlements of artisans, textile workers (in Cottonpet), salt workers (in Upparapet) and others shifted out once new housing locations developed. Many preferred the congested and tight spaces of this old center then and in future. In fact, embedded deep in the bylanes running perpendicular to Avenue Road one finds the city’s oldest mosque, from a time the area was called ‘Taramandal’ during Tipu Sultan’s reign, one of the oldest chapel and several Hindu temples that are centuries old. All of these continue to be visited. It turns out spatial re-arrangements and civic engineering are not sufficient reasons for people to move out to where the engineered intent of the administrators might wish them to go. Instead, they stay. Their reasons often slip out of the grasp of a political historian.

The imposing wall is of Bangalore Fort and the space next to it, of scores of hawkers. This contrast and interaction with historical monuments has been fascinating to see in cities and towns across India. It is interesting to compare this with the sterilization that monuments undergo with conservation projects.

This is why I love guided walks. In all these years that I have ridden past the flyover in front of this shrine, I failed to notice this. This shrine, Dargah Hazrath Meer Bahadur Shah, is built over the grave of Bahadur Shah a fallen military commandant during the siege of Bangalore Fort in 1791.

In Social History and Its Critics published (1980) Louise Tilly provides a back-to-the-basics kind of explanation of the project of social history to its detractors and its utility,

One of the key impulses of social history’s development is (was) a populist vision that aims (aimed) to seek out how ordinary people lived and acted in the past. That these people seldom appear by name in the political narrative of events is another way of saying it is hard to discern their individual or collective consciousness in the narrow political sense, or that discernable collective consciousness is expressed episodically.

Avenue Road should be of interest to those seeking lives of ordinary people and a sense of what the collective lives of various social groups was like, over the centuries. It offers an enriching experience, with possibilities of finding narratives beyond the predictable ones of politics, architecture and urban design. For instance, in the motifs of temples, old stables for horses and elephants, cavalries and hubs of goods trading one finds glimpses of continuities to present day.
From this walk emerged glimpses of a city’s social past. I am intrigued and fascinated at the same time. Avenue Road is also rich in a kind of aesthetics which needs some time to sink in. Beyond the chaos of pedestrians, pushcarts and scores of hawkers, this aesthetics emerges in the temple motifs, in the shrines for fallen heroes and in dozens of minor ways that people go about tending to their trade or craft. Or one can just find a corner to imagine the visuals of stories that are told today, of events in the city. Either way, it appears a great way to explore the city, especially, for those interested in history. I could make a laundry list of observations, but I’d rather let Avenue Road work on the visitor in its own way. And for the rest, I am thankful to Srikara for the tour.

Roundup 2017

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In a way all the years have the same course, from hopeful beginning, onto slow middle and tapering off with tiresome but content or at times relieving sense of having lived through another year. Yet, one reflects. Sometimes it is a list of things done or accomplished. Sometimes it is a list of experiences and their effect. And sometimes it is about the acute realization of progressing through life. I give in to this process, only after fighting the cynicism and seeming futility of doing these roundups. Every year! May be, it is worth reflecting in the interest of knowing the good, the bad and the ugly of the passing year to make the year ahead better. On that note, it feels that 2017 demonstrated how months can be consistently downhill, each passing week, when one dispenses with all the nice things reflected upon during the previous year’s end and at times resolved for. This year, in short, has been the most difficult to endure, both, personally and professionally. It is marked by a mix of personal achievement and failure. Work and education got better even as personal life got worse. This is in contrast to the ‘balance’ that 2016 was about.

I graduated with MPP degree in July. This was a personal achievement, with its import striking only after it all finished. This was a full-time masters done alongside teaching at a school and working in our consulting business. It was hard to imagine that I’d survive this. I was riding on the city’s outer ring road at speeds of 100 kmph+ on most weekdays. I don’t think I’ll be that reckless again. The degree gives an edge to our work as my business partner’s and my profile improved with this additional qualification.

On teaching front, I had to leave Poorna because work related travel made it difficult to commit to a teaching job. In February, I took my last few classes and we ended with a series of presentations by student groups in school assembly. The brief was simple – to choose topics from sociology course that appealed the most to students and share their views on it with all the kids in school during assembly. Some of the students also included a quick introduction to that topic for junior students. That form of shared learning was heartening to see. I miss school from my daily life now.

Things at Weaver Technologies, our company, are so much better this year, with a new product in the pipeline and improved prospects. This year, I learnt that raising a fledgling business first and foremost needs individuals who feel mentally and emotionally secure. It rides on their spirit and sense of optimism before it even comes to skills. All the partners went through tough personal life situations at various points in the last two years. What we now have is a tempered, empathetic and committed team, which has the mental space to think about ideas and ways to take the business ahead. It is amazing how little is spoken of this (personal, emotional & mental aspects) in startup stories compared to the hyper-brilliance of the founders and the team. Going forward, I’d want to first ensure that the people we team up with feel safe and secure personally above everything else.

Personally, the course of this year has been disastrous on emotional well-being. This isn’t hard to figure from the perspective on work. I failed in relationships. The after-effects have been hard to make peace with. It felt vulnerable. Moreover, there was this seething frustration and meaninglessness that overtook for a while. To overcome these, I feel, has been the greatest battle this year. In those months that I was going through a break-up, everything was on a slide. It was tough to get out for a run on most days. House was in disarray. I read less. I got reluctant to meet people. Work suffered too. On most occasions I was barely punching time and got done with the tasks. All of these emotions that people talk of, loneliness, despair, agony, frustration, anger, futility… ran their course on me. What more, I couldn’t even find enough will to finish the marathon at Ladakh. Looking back, I feel too sure that it wasn’t a physical failure. It was mental. I stopped at 34th kilometer. Who does that? Even with a hobble one can walk to the finish line from there. I knew it from earlier runs. But this time, it was this fuck-all state of mind. I had spent an utterly lonely week in Leh, holed up in a room sitting by the window.

In January, at Mumbai marathon I ran my personal best. I returned with an intent to do a sub-3:30 marathon. In February, I ran a 55 km mountain trail outside Kathmandu. I returned confident about attempting a 130 km ultra in Coorg later in the year. From March, I couldn’t get myself to do the regular 10 km run even for two continuous days. It got to August and I cycled from Manali to Ladakh alone, wanting to re-claim that spirit for outdoors and for a good workout. I wanted to finish with Ladakh marathon. I DNFed! It threatened to take all that I loved and worked on in the past years. In November, I ran a marathon in Kochi. It was startling to see how personal difficulties had chipped away all the confidence. I showed up at the start line desperately wishing to complete it. That is all! This run was necessary for me to feel confident again. It was November, by the time I came to terms with the situation.

If 2017 is to be thought of in terms of a keyword, antifragility would be it. It wasn’t about resilience or becoming robust through experiences. Rather, the experiences seem to be making it better to thrive in uncertainty while at the same time be able to chart a better course than the previous trajectory, through these experiences. I was fascinated by Taleb’s conception of antifragile and now find a semblance of it in the way things have been this year. It seems identifiable and reasonable when Taleb writes in his book about the nature of antifragility as ‘beyond resilience or robustness: the resilient resists shocks and stays the same’ and that ‘the antifragile gets better.’ On the last day of a tempestuous year, I agree with this. Things have indeed gotten better, which was hard to see when it was happening.

The spin-off effect of a personal crisis has been interesting.  It feels ‘unafraid to feel’ as E E Cummings once wrote. And in that moment one feels, ‘you’re nobody-but-yourself.’ This quality was not experienced before. In December, I began horse-riding lessons at EIRS. The mornings over the last couple of weeks have been beautiful in company of horses. Riding horses is the highlight of this year. From faltering trot to a smooth canter, the learning experience has stoked old memories of living close to a Cavalry Regiment and to be able to ride those fine studs one day. Only that it took a little too long from those schooldays to the morning when I could do the canter on my own.

On a different note, I observed the staggering amount of time spent looking inwards and immersed in personal issues. The sense of living in the world was lost. I was less bothered about global or national issues. Domesticity clouded all of it. Not engaging with the world around doesn’t appear an appealing way of life.

My friend Joe (of roughghosts) spoke of having made meaningful friendships through his blog and via twitter. I have had a similar experience. For this, I am glad to live a digital life, partially at that. The year leaves me with some great friends – supportive and helpful. Joe, Sonia, Osh, Ambika, Sana, Satish and so many more. I am thankful to all of them for their generosity and admire them for the what they do.

There is an apocryphal story about the legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman. Barely into the concert one of the strings of his violin snapped. This was considered as an end to his performance even before it began. However, Perlman took a pause and began playing with the three remaining strings. The music that day is said to have been one of Perlman’s finest. In the end, he is reported to have said, ‘You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.’ Tonight, it appears as though a string broke this year, in life. The next is about trying to make music with what is left and what can be created.

So here again, the year ran its typical course – a hopeful beginning, slow middle and tiresome but content end. Saddling-up for the year ahead, towards a more fulfilling time, one moves on.

Happy New Year to the readers!

 

 

Economics, Development & Policy Takeaways, 2017

It has been an extraordinary year in academic realm, especially in public policy and economics. This is the year when economics got realistic, if one regards the annual Nobel Prize in Economics as a defining moment in economics research. Richard Thaler won it for for showing how the human traits of ‘limited rationality, social preferences, and lack of self-control’ systemically affect individual decisions as well as market outcomes. This has been a clear break from the past. When have economists bothered about psychology before?

Besides being my areas of interest and training, public policy and economics, in my reading went through a rather significant transition led by eroding away of the traditional orthodoxy. The heterodox economics movement has now acquired the necessary critical mass which makes me hopeful about the discipline’s future.  May be, the Nobel prize recognition to behavioural economics also helps the cause.  The kind of change required was articulated well by Jean Tirole trying to push for economics for common good – ‘we urgently need economists to engage with the many challenges facing society, helping to identify our key objectives and tools needed to meet them.’ It is further affirming when the most influential thinkers contribute to a book titled Economic Ideas You Should Forget, edited by Bruno Frey and David Iselin. Some of the ideas to forget about, included in this book are “capitalism”, “rational expectations” and the efficiency-equity tradeoff”.

As for public policy, traditional policy thinking has been about what ought to be done, imagined in isolation from political factors like incentives for politicians. Thinking about policies that help institutions align social and private interests has only begun, as I figure. However, I’d still wish there was more concern shown to issues of work in digital era and workers’ welfare in these times of cheap goods and services. The year’s readings to the least makes me sure of pursing labour welfare research in the future. At the moment it looks somewhat ignored, in contrast to its consequences for development outcomes in an economy.

In terms of reading preference this year, it was India focused. I picked up Sumantra Ghoshal’s World Class in India and began looking at the case studies on Indian corporations again. This is a fine collection of innovative, risk taking and forward thinking Indian corporations detailing their paths to growth and transformation. I am particularly struck by Dr Parvinder Singh’s remark on the theme of building a world class company in India – ‘Ranbaxy cannot change India. Instead what it can do is create a pocket of excellence. Ranbaxy must be an island within India.’ As a philosophy for change, this is simple and compelling.

In development, I was led to Bad Samaritans: The guilty secrets of rich nations and the threat to global prosperity by Ha-Joon Chang. Earlier this year, I also read his Kicking Away the Ladder: Development strategy in historical perspective. Both these books are a seminal read in thinking about development from a mix of economic and historical perspective. The intersection of these perspectives makes Chang’s works insightful. Bad Samaritans alerts the reader to ‘the historical double standards involved in recommending free trade and free market to developing countries’. Whereas, the developed countries grew by practicing exactly the opposite. What follows is a careful, evidence-based and tempered argument for the same. I have learnt the art of constructing a clear and forceful argument from Chang’s writings.

In July, 2017, I graduated from MPP course. The quantum of reading in public policy almost dipped after that, except occasional academic papers. I intend to now begin a policy-thinker series which gives me an opportunity to discuss interesting ideas as well as develop a set of policy thinkers who are shaping the discipline. In all of these readings, I am struck by how few Indians I come across. May be, it says much about my exposure. While we do have scores of economists, those in public policy research seem few. I hope to discover them in the year ahead.

Overall, the year’s readings leaves me feeling positive about these disciplines’ focus and concern. I didn’t feel this way last year or before that. In fact, the state of disciplines made me reconsider if I ever want to pursue a Ph.D. But this year is different. I am considering research again, over abandoning it for business and work.

Among others, I was fascinated by Dror’s critical examination of public policy making which reviews the state of discipline in the early 1980s, and goes on to propose a shift (away from the idea of ‘muddling through’ of Lindblom) towards theoretical frameworks. Perhaps, there is a characteristic policy approach in the developing world and countries of the tropics, as opposed to others. It could be seen as ‘policy-making in the tropics’. I hope to build this idea further, in the months ahead. For one, policy-making in tropics is intricately linked to an institutional working culture which is somewhere between formalism and non-procedural, incidence-based functioning.

When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi’s book When Breath Becomes Air is an unsettling read which at the same time leaves the reader with a compelling sense of optimism.  It is a stirring experience of knowing a man’s mind from the frighteningly close distance of his own words, as he prepares himself to meet his end. It certainly doesn’t seem like death. To use that word would be to demean all that Paul strives for since the time his terminal illness is confirmed by medical examinations. It isn’t death. It is a man trying to re-size a life time’s plan into the shortened time that he is given. The book is an account of the short span when every day is lived as a conviction to finish all that one can, instead of a surrender to the inevitable. It is not a fight as the popular versions of experiences with terminal illness go. Paul’s is a preparation and finding satisfaction in what is.

Paul is diagnosed with state IV lung cancer at the age of thirty-six and at a time in his career when he is about to reap the fruits of his long training as a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist. What does a man think in those moments after he is told that he doesn’t have much time to live? When instead, he has lived with a belief that there is a lifetime ahead to work and achieve his dreams? Does he pass away in dejection or makes the best of what he has? If he makes the best possible use of his time, then I wanted to know what does it take to be that hopeful against the hard and cold ceiling of the inevitability of fast approaching death. Paul’s writing answers much of it. In the face of mortality, Paul manages to show remarkable thoughtfulness and compose. From insights into a surgeon’s work to a young man’s quest and aspirations in life and on to a couple’s heartbreaking journey through the illness, the book is an insight into lived experience in situations of life that one tends to not imagine upon oneself.

Here is an intelligent young man who isn’t succumbing to despair but rather manages to see things objectively. From one of his early meeting with his Oncologist, he writes –

I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both noting and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.

Personally, to not despair in the wake of difficult situations has been hard. Perhaps, this makes the book even more important for me at this time in my life.

Again, the following conversation between Paul and his wife is extraordinary, in the face of what they face ahead and the clarity about suffering.

“What are you most afraid or sad about?” she asked me one night as we were lying in bed.

“Leaving you,” I told her.

(…)

“Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?” she asked. “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”

“Wouldn’t that be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.

In face of daily life situations one tends to feel pushed against the wall. Coping with them feels daunting. Reading this book is to know what the extremes can be and that there are people who have responded to such situations in a constructive manner. As the last moments of Paul’s life are described in the epilogue by Paul’s wife, Lucy, one sees a family united in sorrow yet cherishing a life that left behind a certain kind of completeness and contentment that is felt typically when people die in their nineties.

For the importance of this book, I find the reason in Paul’s remark “Words have a longevity I do not.” The final words of the book are for his daughter Cady, who is eight months old when Paul died. He leaves this passage for her and I believe this to be indicative of his attitude towards his illness and mortality. This shall remain a very fine piece on human spirit in the face of insurmountable odds, for me –

There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

That message is simple.

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

As this year draws to a close, I realize that I have spent several months grieving over matters that can never be as soul destroying and hopeless as Paul’s illness. In his writing I find an attitude to work and life that was unknown to me. If I were on as short time as Paul’s, these months I lost doing very little would have been a colossal waste. The book then brings back the importance of time and making the most of it, while has the good fortune of having that time.

Art of Monstrous Men

The Paris Review ran a thought-provoking piece last month by Claire Dederer, who reflects upon What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?  set against the backdrop of series of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct by several famous men, who have also been exceptionally good at what they do for a profession. As Dederer lays out in the beginning, ‘They are monster geniuses, and I don’t know what to do about them.’ She ends with, ‘What is to be done about monsters? Can and should we love their work? Are all ambitious artists monsters?’. I am fascinated by the journey of the author in-between these points.

Beyond that clarity of question, the impressions, views and observations in the piece are often mixed. It is a difficult subject understandably. The point of me writing this post is to note that I wish she meant people when she wrote men because it is art and a certain monstrosity of human behaviour that she discusses and not just predatory sexual behaviour. In their monstrosity men are not alone. It can be said as much about women, although it happens that the gender balance (and some would obviously add power balance) across professions in the world is skewed with men outnumbering women everywhere. This is likely to rile the feminists.

Without a doubt this is a brilliant piece and I love it for the analytical yet personal tone. By the end, Dederer comes close to looking at monstrosity that in the beginning verged on sexual conduct of men to a certain selfish behaviour. This softening of view is worth taking note of because when reasoned, people undergo this kind of softening, not out of fatigue of reasoning, but perhaps out of an understanding that human failures and moreover, perspectives, beliefs, convictions and values among people has tremendous variation. Your morality isn’t your neighbour’s. If it was, law wouldn’t have had such a hard time in societies across the world!

Oddly, when Dederer does get to writing about ‘female monster’ she ends up portraying them as victims with Doris Lessing and Sylvia Plath. These are monstrous women just because they placed their writing before family, children and others, she seems to argue. There is sympathy for women and relentlessness for men, which, as a view is okay. But it seems to be an epidemic now. This needn’t be. And this is my contention with opinion pieces and commentaries being published every week since the Weinstein scandal, that hatred for men and assertion of women as weak is back with a greater force. The propensity to hurt, violate and perhaps force others to do things towards one’s own interest is perhaps the same in men and women. Men do it and get noticed (or caught, if you will) for their acts far more than women. Maybe? It is naive to imagine violence only as physical. Both men and women can be violent in same or different ways. Each of these have consequences. In these times we are only willing to speak of consequences of actions of men. I do not even for the slightest part mean to say that men should not be pulled up for what they do. They must pay for it. Retribution after all is a part of justice. The problem is with generality of it and the sweeping generality that takes over later too – that men are the problem. It is them, always them.

The argument is not in defense of men. I am merely trying to figure out if we are helping anything by bring in gender in almost every issue that occupies humanity’s attention today. Or is it complicating matters needlessly. I have a feeling we are complicating and adding to the noise much more than trying to get any helpful reason or solution across.

The gender divide is affecting all of us, in varying degrees and for sure, negatively. It doesn’t help to infuse ‘feminist perspective’ in every aspect of life. As I write this, I recollect that while teaching sociological perspectives to A level students at Poorna, not every girl student had that revelatory moment when they figured what feminist perspective meant in a broader sense. In fact, some remarked if there was a need to have such an exclusive perspective and if it wasn’t already implied in views on society and social processes that are discussed in contemporary sociology.

Reading Biographies

Reading biographies can be an unsettling feeling. Since school, I have read several biographies – first being Gandhi’s My Experiments With Truth. It has become one of my favourite genre of reading for its deliverance and reflexivity that it comes along with. However, it has taken several years to understand the nature of discomfort, or that unsettling feeling which dawn upon after having read the book. Last evening, as I completed Ruskin Bond’s autobiography Lone Fox Dancing, the discomfort revealed itself. I realized that it is about the sense of time – a fear rather. A life of several decades gets compressed into a few hundred pages which can be read in a matter of hours. This has made me feel uneasy, as though time itself is a blink and biographies demonstrate it to the reader, right there, in his room! Ruskin Bond’s eighty-three years of life glimpsed through in a few hours alters the sense of ‘life’. The pages turns into a ticker tape and one can examine through decades worth of experiences in a fast-forward manner. It drives home the idea of brevity of life, which is where I feel my discomfort lies – that if one isn’t conscious of passing time, it ends all too soon. And consequently, my life until now feels like a blip! Missed in that blink, when I did.

Three years back when I read biographies it was about the events and particulars. I remember writing this after reading Salim Ali’s. It was a fascination for experiences of a  person I admired. I sense a slightly different concern and insight developing in my reading of biographies in later years. Oliver Sacks’ autobiography On the Move was another fascinating life story I read this year. I am glad that he could write this before his death. And equally glad that Ruskin Bond could share his endearing and admirable life story before it got too late.

Recollecting the time he met Billy, which was shortly after his seventy-fifth birthday in 2008, Sacks writes –

It has sometimes seemed to me that I have lived at a certain distance from life. This changed when Billy and I fell in love. As a twenty-year-old, I had fallen in love with Richard Selig; as a twenty-seven-year-old, tantalizingly, with Mel; as a thirty-two-year-old, ambiguously, with Karl; and now (for God’s sake!) I was in my seventy-seventh year.

Over half a century of life distilled in one paragraph. This is a mild shock for someone who hasn’t yet found his own sense of time or view about it.

In his book, Bond too, folds up time – a good fifty years, into a few short sentences which are lovely to read, but tends to leave the reader with ‘Is that all what it is about?’ kind of feeling –

Fifty years in the hills has made a great change for all those comings and goings during my boyhood and youth. It’s good to be in one place for a certain length of time, in order to savour the passing seasons, the changes in the foliage of the hillside, the comings and goings of people, and above all, to watch children grow up.

And here are the most pensive lines from Bond –

As for my writing life, it is a running stream, for there is no limit to the field of my remembrance. Even as this book comes to an end, I am conscious of not having written about important people, important events; but it is a personal history, and it is the ‘unimportant’ people who have made my life worthwhile, as an individual and as a writer.

And both as individual and writer, I have known my limitations, and I think I have done my best with the talents I possess. Sometimes it is good to fail; to lose what you most desire; to come second. And the future is too unpredictable for anxiety.

This is the evening of a long and fairly fulfilling life.

Except this feeling about time, I find biographies to be an important medium of sharing and understanding lives, experiences, possibilities and alternatives that exist in the phenomenal diversity of people around us. Only that I shouldn’t be keeping down every biography feeling that life, after all, is so short.

Is travel writing dead?

Granta Magazine pursued this question with a clutch of writers in Issue 138 on JourneysIn the bookstore last week, I took to a corner and began pouring down the responses. It wasn’t driven by curiosity. Instead, it was to figure out if there is a general perception among the authors (many of whom are noted travel writers) that travel writing is saturated with banality and overdone representations of places which no longer remain far flung in these times.

Travel writing has meant making sense of events for me (as I wrote here earlier). It is to draw and distill an understanding out of the experiences that I have when I leave home. This understanding tends to be about the place as well as the self in the place, as I felt in a post on Paris.  At other points I tried dealing with coloniality and places in post-colonial times, as in Luang Prabang and Tranquebar. It is for these reasons that Granta’s question stood out for me.

Travel pieces have become dry and try hard to sound interesting, often exotic, in my experience. Whereas, unknown and exotic is no longer the position one can afford to write from in these times of cheap air travel and with a flood of medium through which pictures, videos and news from around the world reach us, all the time.

Two views on travel writing are widely held – that its emergence lies in colonial times with the proverbial white man going out into the vast unknown to bring the exotic and ‘other’ back to the readers in the West. The other, that much of the world today has been discovered, seen and hyper-connected for such writing to now find a place among readers interest. What then is the state of travel writing and its future? Pico Iyer maintains his extraordinary equilibrium of views and gets to the future of writing than waste time on critical analysis of the present. The ‘inward’ journey ‘into the realm of silence’ is where a writer should be venturing, he suggests. He makes a case for nuance and personal enquiry. Ending on a philosophical plane which he invariably climbs up from the real, in the course of his writing, he settles the question with this delightful sentence –

‘But that doesn’t mean that travel writing is dead; only that we sometimes are.’

One can see that the old, seasoned hands of travel writing are tempered in their views. Macfarlane reflects that travel writing ceased being a matter of originality. It is about form instead.

The best writers rose to the challenge by seeking not originality of destination, but originality of form.

On the other hand, there are two angry and critical responses to this question from Hoa Nguyen and Rana Dasgupta. And I am with them! They make a compelling case for a shift in the concerns of travel writing as a genre. Nguyen’s piece reminds me of my impressions of modern day Luang Prabang, which align with her sentiment about travelers from the West visiting places in the East –

Do we need more Westerners consuming their way across Vietnam, commenting on local dress, smiles, food and sharing tips on where to get the best deal on bespoke silk skirts?

There is a sense of frustration and anger in Nguyen’s response, and it is compelling. I am again with her when she lands a few punches to that irrelevant and disrespectful narrative of Western gaze, in these questions –

Instead of more consumerism – the buying of experiences, the accumulation og things, of eating the ‘other’ – perhaps writers should name their own environment. What is the shape of your watershed? How is your electricity produced? Where is your water treated?… Homing as a way to place oneself in a constellation of process and being.

It is a compelling argument, which gets to the heart of politics in travel writing which many choose to pretend ignorance too.

Travel writing of the known variety is certainly dead, in my opinion. A writer can no longer be ignorant of his own immediate environment and get to places thousands of miles away to report critically on life, people and societies as they exist in distant places. It only makes for vacuous writing.

Ian Jack’s writing as a foreign correspondent in India has held good example for me to learn from. I have often gone back to his anthology Mofussil Junction for his style and empathetic tone. In response to Granta’s question, I think his thought is laden with wit and insight –

It could be enlightening, for example, to read modern accounts of travels in the Western world by writers from the East; if nothing else, we might then know how it feels to be ironised, condescended to and found morally wanting. Several such books may be in the offing. Some of our own medicine is surely coming our way.

And I completely agree!

It has been an insightful read – these responses to a question as commonplace as state of a genre of writing.

How To: not finish a marathon

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Ladakh Marathon, 2017, Leh.

Wilson Kipsang dropped out of Berlin Marathon today.  He fell out of leading pack’s pace and at 30th km he stopped, as reported. Kipsang’s reasons are best known to him. One can only guess what might have been going on in this ace runner’s mind as he saw himself falling out of the pack. While that is the world of elite runners, the dispiriting effect of not finishing is identifiable. Reading about him makes me revisit my state of mind two Sundays back from today. Failure was write large on my face as I hobbled back to room.

At Ladakh Marathon 2017, I did not finish the course. At 34th kilometer the deepest of reserves within me felt depleted beyond measure.  In the two kilometers from 32nd to 34th, I was stripped of all the physical and mental drive to take on the last 8 kilometers to finish line. Even as I try to recollect, I do not know what gave up first -mind or body. It felt impossible to gather myself at 34th.

Perhaps, the little changes before and during this run took it away from me. I am trying to list down all that shouldn’t have been done. First, I was trying out new shoes, which I thought I have broken-in into, with one week in Nepal and three weeks on the cycle ride to Leh. May be that wasn’t enough. Right shoe of the pair pressed hard on the toe nail and by the 30th right toe swelled up. A month old pair of shoes to run a marathon – big mistake!

I was confident of finishing the run (in my mind, finishing was never a concern) and perhaps with a decent time as I walked up to the start line. September morning in Leh seemed less cold to have a good run in just shorts and t-shirt. Things went well until the 20th kilometer. I tend to not drink or eat anything in the first half of a marathon. I stuck to it. May be, I should have eaten something, considering my nutrition was completely off-tune in the previous week when I cycled up to Leh from Manali.

Second mistake: knowing my physical limits. My legs were fatigued from the ride, which was felt only when I got into the thick of the marathon and pushed harder. Thighs cramped unusually. In all these years of running, I have never had this situation. Past 22nd kilometer I started slowing down. However, it still felt good to go.

The next 10 rolled by, in my intent to make it a sub-4 hour finish. Here comes the third mistake – trying to push hard recklessly, all for a finish time. This pursuit from the vantage of my desk tonight looks foolish. I exhausted myself in the next 8 kilometers to 30. I can see it clearly. This exhaustion led to injuring my foot on the other side of 30. At 32nd, I was hanging down from the shoulders, earth bound. The state was unlike any I have ever experienced during a run. Dejection, disorientation and a body shorn of its vigour and vitality. Fourth mistake came soon enough in the form of an ‘energy drink’. While I do not recall the brand, it sure was not meant for me. I shouldn’t have tried it. I could feel it inside me all along and carried an extremely disagreeable feel.

Lastly, a messed up state of mind. The previous two mornings had been very grim due to personal reasons. That flowed on to the marathon morning. All is not lost when a person is physically drained. It is when the mind checks out. I firmly believe it now. Years back, I was probably in a more painful situation in Auroville marathon, physically. Yet, I was mentally strong and willed hard to see the finish line. Leh’s morning was different. My spirit, as I see now, was too low. And this was invisible, unfelt and lurking, only to get me when I needed it to fill my sails up and carry me along. It hasn’t helped me any bit to run a marathon with personal troubles raging hard in life.

I do not know how to process my failure to complete this marathon. To be honest, it got me. I hailed a support vehicle at 34th and go to the other side of finish line. I saw people smiling and cheering runners. There were friends cheering each other, congratulating each other, shaking hands, hugging and taking photos, feeling happy with their effort and finish. I steered through all of that indifferently, to find a cab back to room. Time turned into a tunnel from the time I got on to the support vehicle and until I stood under the shower. I felt miserable and defeated. This was for another, perhaps harder realization – that I lacked the ability to take a failure well! I realize now that even the most terrible of failures in school, college or in career wouldn’t have taught me to take a failure well, which running has.

Rest of the day went in silence. Other mates at the guesthouse asked me to join them in playing cards. I learnt playing a new card game – ‘carbo’ that evening. Later, we had dinner together, seven of us. In the silence of Leh’s night, I readied my cycle again and packed the bags for a very early start to the bus station and three days of drive down to Delhi.

Ladakh marathon has sent me back with a tempered confidence. The predictability and comfortable surety of runs (that I always participated in) has been torn apart. As though, it is sending me away to know myself better and if willing to take unpredictability of life well, then to return again.

 

 

Outside familiar & routine: A cycle ride

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This is about a week spent cycling to Leh from Manali, alone. This distance of 480 kilometers has sent me home with a few lessons. Some obvious – about physical capability, perseverance and comfort with uncertain weather, and some less obvious that I hope to probe with this act of writing. Besides, every journey works on the traveler at many levels. Two for me are at the inner (about the self) and for the want of a better word, outer (the worldview). The cycle ride was a chisel, working slowly on both these parts of me as the journey progressed. The process has been pleasure and pain in parts, just as the terrain itself.

The closest one comes to ‘living in the moment’ is perhaps when the immediate environment poses itself as a challenge to one’s physical ability to negotiate it. The more diminished the physical state is, more sharply focused is the person in trying to get past that moment, without thinking  about anything else. The days spent cycling have been my experience trying to live in the moment – completely occupied with the present and nothing else. In urban life, I see no other way, wherein, I can pull the plug on all the thoughts (and concerns?) about people, events, plans and pursuits that occupy daily life. And do this, without sitting in a dark room or a leafy retreat, eyes shut in meditation. Cycling in the Himalayas was an experience in being in the moment. It was about days lived discrete. No carry over and no drawing from either. Each day squared off as it ended on the highway from Manali to Leh. The ride was about a couple of days lived in solitude, trying to get closer to the sense of being alone that has often been an uncomfortable though in our regular lives. It was a conscious thought to ride alone, self-supported for the requirements of the seven day journey that I was about to make over high mountains and into the Leh.

Dinesen meant to say this about writing – (write a little everyday) ‘without hope and without despair’ and I took that to cycling. On this ride I wanted to ride a little everyday, without hope and without despair.  Although, it turned out to be quite different in the following days of the ride. The weather left a lot to despair. My own thoughts about life and its ongoing affairs, day after day, on those mountain passes, blew like cold headwinds of the passes. Thoughts troubled me. The act of thinking as well. The attempt was to get past the day’s climbs and the distance, to the next shelter on this highway.

First three days were constant rain and wind. As one got higher up from Manali towards Rohtang Pass, the rain increased. First night I slept with a resolve to roll back down to Manali and abandon the ride if it continues to rain. Following morning, I hung out with boys who worked in the clutch of dhabas at Marhi, from Bihar and Jharkhand, waiting for rain to stop and sun to show up. Neither happened. Instead, their repeated questions about whether I head up or down, made me try the first few kilometers towards the pass. Thirty minutes into the ride, the rain picked-up further, and so did the spirit to face it. With that began the uncertain second day of the ride, riding in rain up to Rohtang and beyond it, riding for six hours. Where did that will to continue on that morning come from? I do not know!

Second day ended in Sissu, a small village in Lahaul valley. I am given a room in a homestay as I stood knocking on a door, soaked in rain with a cycle. I change into the only other spare set of clothes and stand by the window looking at the mountain range I pedaled out from all day and to the sound of a high waterfall. Both intimidated me. Slept that night again with a decision to head back, if the rain doesn’t stop. By late night, that decision seemed to be weakening as I sat writing in my notebook in comfort of the house, warm with people of the house and kids completing their homework by the hearth. It continued to rain the next morning, affirming what I heard at Sissu’s tea shop and grocery store, with people discussing the unusual weather this year.  I have believed that no two days are same on the road. Sure enough I thought, as I got out in the rain again and road descended to valley’s floor and followed along the river until Tandi, a village by the confluence of Chandra and Bhaga river. Chandra and Bhaga – lovers, who as the story goes, take a walk around the holy mountains of Lahaul valley, fall in love and embrace where the river meets. The river further down the course gets a new name, Chenab.

Over a small bridge, I continued in the warm morning’s sunlight towards Keylong. An easy ride along the gently rising and sloping valley floor. Third day of the ride and the plan to abandon it was still lurking in the head. Keylong could offer an easier exit with the cycle, on the following day’s bus to Manali, I thought. By late afternoon, I rode into Keylong, having eaten two small snickers bars and nothing else. It wasn’t the ride’s physical demand. I felt it then as I see it now. It was the state of mind. The confusion, the pointlessness of it and the dissatisfaction of the familiar and routine life back in Bangalore. Before I can even think of changing something, I wanted to know whats going on. Keylong passed by in these thoughts. Jispa was up ahead on the road and it didn’t look like much effort to break the journey there. A lone man in one of the restaurants plainly explains that he can’t serve food as it isn’t convenient for him to cook for one person. He suggested that I ride down four kilometers further to Darcha.

The slow chisel of journey worked – I was pushed to Darcha, when instead I wanted to end the day much before that. Darcha was six kilometers ahead. A busy stretch of restaurant-dhabas, and a preferred stop on the highway for lunch by every passing vehicle on this highway, except the bikers who are cared for and served by Jispa’s luxury tents by the riverside. After patiently watching me finish lunch, the dhaba owner insists that I take the climb above and ride twenty kilometers more to Patseo or beyond, which might be closer to the next mountain pass of Baralach La. I didn’t want to. He was happy offering a bed in the dhaba for the night, but insisted that I do, after describing the road and conditions until next stop. Darcha’s settlement sat by the river which flowed through the valley floor. The way to north of Darcha is by negotiating the shadowing mountain with a climb of over 600 meters. What I lacked by the way of team, people along the way filled it. They insisted and I got out. Who are these peple? And why do they do this? Every time! Soon enough it began raining as I got on the ascent to Patseo. However, I needed to keep the kind man’s expectations and live up to his words ‘you are riding strong’. These were the first four days of the ride, which took me by surprise. I wasn’t sure of riding in such a weather. All the nights I nursed the intent to abandon. All of the following mornings, I got back on the saddle, pedaling further away from point of start.

Reading about wayfarers and their beliefs, Tibetans say that obstacles in a hard journey, such as hailstones, wind, and unrelenting rains, are the work of demons, anxious to test the sincerity of the pilgrims and eliminate the faint hearted among them. Matthissen wrote about it in The Snow Leopard. In retrospect, days of rain, wind and cold didn’t seem much of a test. Being with oneself was. The silence of long distance, isolation of landscapes and being in one’s own mind were greater tests. Slowest thing in the landscape was the bicycle, making one take only small bits of the distance each day. The patience that it brings along feels transformational after getting to the other side of this journey.

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At Pang, the morning felt as though I was home. The landscape was changing fast. Changthang plateau lay ahead. A five kilometer climb and one would get a straight, ramp of a road on this high altitude space – Moreh Plains. On this morning, there was no one to be seen for several kilometers, except the oil tankers and the herders – yaks and goats. The landscape was dotted with hundreds of yaks and goats making their way in the spaces between the mountains, foraging in the silence of this space. Grim mood of the past days dissolved, much like the snow cover on mountain tops that turned water after the sun came up in Sarchu, on an earlier morning.

A slow ride, at the pace of a bicycle makes for a strikingly different experience on this highway. For one, the rider comes close enough to hundreds of those faces that toil away in this cold, inhospitable region, constructing roads. Under the hoods of the jackets are faces of teenage boys and men in early twenties, with skin cracked in cold wind. Some of them appeared strikingly young to undertake this hard labour. In the many accounts of rides and travel on this road, I do not recall reading about these workers, almost clawing away the hill sides, as far as the requirement of the road takes them. From working on very high passes to dark and cold gorges, these workers from Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa and other poverty stricken states, contribute an unimaginable amount of hard labour. On broken stretches of the road, we look at each other, as though a video tape set on slow-motion, as they take a moment to look up. The hammers continue to pound the hill sides, day after day, as long as the weather allows them to and India’s strategic interests requires them to.

The highest pass on the route – Tanglang La, lay ahead the sixth day. I can now affirm that in a good spirit and mental state no pass is high enough to scale. The defeatist spirit of first few days no longer prevailed. I was beyond the point of no return. Although, the delirium experienced in cycling up to this pass felt like I was a full two steps beyond my physical ability. Not sure of my control on the cycle, I rode closer to the right side to avoid rolling off the road into the valley unconsciously. Three hours of inching closer to the pass, the pass appeared plainly in sight and soon enough under the feet. I stood there in the cold wind, snow flakes falling on the jacket, trying to soak it in – the arrival at this place. However, it felt plain. Only a small realization about time and effort. Make the effort, however small and given enough time, one is over the highest of the passes.

From there on to Leh was a massive incline that I was thrilled to experience. One barrels down the road as though a darting falcon. I remembered with a wide grin, what a tour guide at Sissu said on the rainy evening when I stood dejected looking at the map. He mentioned that Tanglang La is as far as I need to make an effort and that after that it is no longer a man. It is a bullet shot from the pass to Leh. Almost 50 kilometers of blissful downhill ride awaits a cyclist from Tanglang La pass. It reminded me of the thrill coming down from Nandi Hill long years back, in Bangalore.

As I try to figure how to close this piece, I flip through my notebook for entries from every day of the ride. I notice that the pages only speak about terrain, weather, landscapes, people, hosts at several places and the sense of loneliness, solitude, intimidation experienced as well as the occasions when I sat eyes brimming over, trying to figure the road ahead through those teary eyes. None of these have been familiar and routine for me.

Arriving in Leh, the following day I shopped for books. I was hungry for words. Matthissen’s The Snow Leopard is perhaps what life wanted to throw at me. It is an account of his journey into Nepal’s Dolpo region with biologist George Shaller. What are the odds that he speaks of his inner journey to me, as soon as I finish mine. In a story written by a traveler in medieval era that he mentions, the concluding line is the following and which fits my little journey too –

‘One plods along in a state of amazement, sometimes smiling, sometimes weeping.’