Roundup 2017

IMG_2596

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!

 

 

Advertisements

Roundup 2016

oslo_palace-1

At the end of 2015, I wrote about the unusual solitude I experienced that year. The Walden Pond spirit of that year dissipated in the activity of work, school, university and travel with 2016’s – the year soon filled with people, places and activities. It feels remarkable how one set of days can be very different from another even though not much might have changed in the immediate environment that one lives in. Obvious though, to some. But this obviousness isn’t quite the same to those arriving at it via a process of gradual discovery propelled by the course of life. The change it appears lay in mind and spirit helped a little with a good spell at work which pushes the worries of making a living off the table.

It has certainly been the best for running – finished four marathons and managed to complete my first 50 km ultra run. I hope to do at least one 100 kilometer ultra this year. Pushing it towards La Ultra 111 would be easier later. Cycling suffered tremendously, though. The only continuous bout of 40-45 kilometers cycling every evening was during the few weeks in Oslo. Back in Bangalore, I was clocking double this distance everyday on motorbike. The year almost had an even tenor with days spent equally at school, university and at work. And then the remaining outdoors which included over four weeks of time in Nepal. This year I also read more than the previous. If there was any semblance of balance (a balance that I’d like) in daily living, 2016 was it.

It has been an immensely instructive year. Of these, I think the following are to stay as a pursuit hereon,

  1. Being with people unlike myself: The trouble with earlier years has been that I spent time hanging out, meeting and working with people who were a lot like me. This grouping of likes happens in a natural way I suppose. I learnt to be conscious of it and move out of such groups which sometimes tend to become echo chambers. I am enriched a lot more from knowing people with different vocations and interests than mine. Associating with diverse range of people has helped immensely in my learning and outlook. Related to this is an insightful book that I read in December was Oliver Sacks’ autobiography On the Move. He lived an extraordinary life as a roadie, one time record holder in weightlifting, a neurologist by profession and an amazingly prolific writer.
  2. Realization that mental health is an extremely important aspect of life: State of mind has a tremendous bearing on day to day activities as well as one’s zeal for life. I wouldn’t have known this. It came to me in course of last year when I saw my own spirit fluctuating through weeks and later with a couple of individuals at Poorna. It was immensely revealing. A completely able body can be rendered useless with a mind that isn’t up to it. This year and further, it is a resolve to pay much greater attention to mental health of others (if I can help it) and to keep a good, vigorous and healthy state of mind myself. This reminds me of one of the most interesting books that I read last year – “Mind Readings” – a collection of essays about writers’ journeys through mental states. This realization was particularly stronger with a kid in school whom I taught for two years (and with whom I failed in my feeble abilities as a teacher) and couldn’t help with how he felt in school every day that he was being forced through the educational system and exams. And then watching Lars and the Real Girlan outstanding film on human condition and the lives that some live.
  3. Keep pushing myself: I feel more convinced about it than ever before. I reached the physical edge of it during CTM’s last eight kilometers of the fifty that I was running on that hot morning in Chennai. Never felt so exhausted yet not wanting to give it up. That experience has been subtly shaping me since then, I realized.

The thing with lists is that they develop fast and turn banal soon after the third point. Most of the other takeaways from the previous year are likely to fall in one of three above. So, I’d rather keep it at this.

The post is four days late. I had been in the practice of writing this on new year’s eve. But this is another break this year – impulsiveness over predictability. Took an impulsive bike ride to Madurai to visit friends from APU days and spend time chaffing around. As years get added to life I hope this impulsiveness maintains itself. Thurber wrote, “He (E B White) has steadfastly refused to learn to play bridge or take out life insurance.” I wish that such a spirit of adventurism and refusal to seek insurance against what life throws on the way stays with me too.

Bonne année everyone!

 

 

Roundup 2015

roadtrip_hyd_bike

In what appears to have become customary  here on Contested Realities, the annual roundup post follows. The new year’s eve post I realize is a good opportunity to take a moment and look back at the days spent in the rush of daily living. As I begin writing this one for 2015, I re-read the roundup posts I wrote at the end of 2012, 2013 and 2014. These posts are the trails that were made journeying through time.

This year was lived overwhelmingly solo. This is the first observation that comes to my mind as I think of 2015. Even as I write this the pressure cooker steams the rice for dinner and I type away before I get back to the kitchen to prepare the curry.  It has been exhilarating and frustrating in parts but certainly liberating. I would be lying if I said that those lonely evenings on some weekends didn’t get me occasionally. But besides those, it has been a time when the proverbial ‘self’ unraveled. It is a rather unusual Indian lifestyle to experience. I have been living single since 2008, the spells were interrupted with my co-founders joining in on and off. For almost two years I lived with a former partner of our company. This year tops all of the single-living years. I watched plays alone. I rode long distances on motorcycle alone. I went to movies alone and I cooked all my meals for one person only. I went to the late night movie shows where couples gave quizzing looks to the empty seat besides me, watch me sit through the film alone and walk down into the parking lot alone. In Bangalore, as I notice, one can always spot that lone ranger at the movies because there aren’t too may who hang out alone here.

The obvious consequence of living solo was long conversations with the self. I’d say, ain’t no hermitage on the mountain top needed for self-reflection! (Pico Iyer never ceases to write about such hermitages in his pieces). Try living solo in a city and one can get the same conditions sans the pervasive silence. Traffic is for real and machines of all kinds fill every passing minute of the day.

The year was very productive in the number of books I managed to read. A long lasting urge to read works of Marxist thinkers could start this year and I managed to read a fair number of them – Paulo Friere, Ivan Illich, Michael Watts, Gramsci, Heidegger, Habermas and very less of the great man Marx himself. Ideas of de-schooling and pedagogy of the oppressed made tremendous sense. These explorations have begun my lean to the left, I figure. Finding one’s own thought through an ideology laden world appears tedious.

The second observation is that this is  also the year in which technological pervasiveness climaxes in my personal life. Phone, computer and the internet took charge of my daily life, travel, education, profession and leisure such that it went out of my control even as I used more and more of it to exercise control on things in life.  In what I do, people I talk to and places I want to be were all being governed by devices.  Every evening’s run was mapped and recorded by a Nike app, a sight from the trail shared on Tumblr, activities and interaction shaped by Twitter and similar such things. The ultimate however, without me realizing it, was when personal relationships were formed, lived and driven by Whatsapp and Skype. It was me urging people I cared for and loved, to come over on Skype and let me see them. This, in a naive way, felt was making up for their physical absence. Early morning and frequent messages on Whatsapp throughout the day felt like creating an experience equivalent to shared living.  By the end of these twelve months, I went through the entire journey from urging family and friends for to be more connected through devices, thereby making up for their absence.  In the developed parts of the world, digital pundits and sociologists might remark that what I am experiencing is what the societies there have experienced half a dozen years back. I find it remarkable because this lifestyle wouldn’t possibly take roots in an Indian societal setting. The many festivals, the social obligations, parental pressures, the web of social relationships… all of these make it difficult, if not impossible, to live a solo life in India.

In a spirit of self-reflection at this new year’s eve, I think it is time to make a conscious and informed withdrawal from the overwhelming grip of digital devices. A very close friend with whom I have spent more time in a year chatting on Whatsapp and Skype than spend a handful of days together in real, remarked how different and profuse it felt to spend time together. The connect between us when in person was stirring. We experienced the joy of being together and spending time in each other’s real presence in an overwhelming manner. It wasn’t a pent-up affection over time spent in different cities bursting through when we met in person, it was merely what should have happened had I been really prioritizing people’s presence with all their heart and mind as much as mine, over digital connections.

I am reminded of Sherry Turkle’s remark that “the devices in our pockets are psychologically powerful. They don’t only change what we do, they change who we are.” I have been changing in the past year with digital devices enabling me to create a customized idea of self and project it than the spontaneous formation of the self that could have happened.

In the year ahead, I am intend to pursue a lifestyle which unfolds less in the digital world but rather gushes forth spontaneously, in a felt and real manner. Ironically, I commit to this idea on a blog! This is just the kind of situation that Contested Realities  was meant to capture – the contests. Of ideas and values and preferences in our lives.

2015 saw a lot happening in my personal life. As for the professional, this year I joined a university again. I started a graduate program in public policy at the National Law School in Bangalore. How or why of this decision is still vague in my mind. I could fit in a university program and gain a specialization along with teaching in school and the company, so went ahead and applied. This has had my leisure and travel taking a huge hit this year. No long trips to speak of!

Teaching in the school however, has been an exhilarating journey. Among other things, this has made me come close and appreciate how amazingly capable human mind is. How children progressively make use of or lose the ability of using their creativity as they go along the years in school. I am not sure of my students, but I have felt enormously privileged to be with them and helping them along the high school journey that they have been making. I once ridiculed a professor in my former university of being too idealistic in his outlook during his lectures in development studies. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I stand changed now and realize the absolute necessity of such a worldview. Otherwise what have we got to share with the young men and women who come after us, in this world and to those whom we are charged with teaching?

I hope the year ahead is as satisfying as this one and those before this have been. Good health and good spirits is all I would wish for. For me and for those reading this.

 

Taking Stock – 2012

Image

Graduate life (this year’s highlight) as I saw one late noon sitting in the lecture hall- is that green tree line in the frame, against a vast blue sky

This month as every year I do the mental thumbing through of the twelve ’30 day sets’ which I always feel have zipped past. The same “wait! wtf!” and “hold on… I don’t even remember” ensues. This too has become ritualistic. And after a little more wallowing in the waters coloured with events, memories and experiences, I trace what was good, what was worth and what shouldn’t ever be lived again (like that time when I felt pushed over the edge – human relationships they call it). These worthies are then listed (at times quite literally on paper) and carried on over to the next ‘365 day set’. New Year isn’t quite a special event, just a convenient moment logistically and time wise to pause and take stock.

So, here is what went right this year:

  1. Rides: A good number of motorcycle rides over long distances. This year was a great experience  in travelling the numerous highways and  living-the-history-geography-textbooks project that I undertook this year. It just meant that all the historical places that I have read in my high school textbooks, I will visit all of them and put a colour picture besides the names that I read in black and white NCERT textbooks. A high point – standing by Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur with a crescent moon in a dark night sky. That was a sight to behold. Loved it! Second, breaking bread at the Gurudwara Sachkhand Sahib  in Nanded. I was that typical unwashed, hungry, travel worn pilgrim who reached the doorstep of this great sikh temple. And I was fed. I was sheltered. It was a stirring moment.
  2. Wilderness: A major trek this year was ascending Kumara Parvatha in the Western Ghats of India. This because of the unsettling quiet night in a tent camped on a ridge overlooking the other ranges. Cold, dark and foggy. And we read Kerouac and slept with thoughts of Muir, Jack London and Indian explorers like Salim Ali. This one trip did much to make me research colonial forestry in India and the tension between development and wilderness.
  3. Graduate Degree: I did what I thought I would never quite do – get back to university. July this year, I joined a Master of Arts program in Development. Graduate life and that decision is stuff for another post. This blog and its straight serious content is a part of some efforts during the first term at the university. Earlier, I held this one from Kerouac close:  Colleges being nothing but grooming schools for the middleclass non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets is each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness to hear the voice crying in the wilderness, to find the ecstasy of the stars, to find the dark mysterious secret of the origin of faceless wonderless crapulous civilization.
  4. Reading: Aritotle and his Nichomachean Ethics remains my favorite accomplishment this year. A sure stuff to impress people by mouthing the high tension ideas from this. And his Eudaimonia (a Greek word often translated as well-being or happiness)! Other than this I furthered my understanding in Indology with Romila Thapar (Ya. I know… how much other historians abuse her for the “Aryan” theory) , Subaltern Studies collective (Ranajit Guha, Arjun Appadurai and others), history (Gandhian works, Ramachandra Guha), Indian Economic History and Rawls, Sen, Hume and J.S. Mills. A high moment: Reading out Whitman’s Leaves of Grass loud on a road late in the evening. Another one: Reading Sadat Hasan Manto’s collection of short stories. Profound!
  5. Language & Culture: I started learning Persian from a beautiful Iranian lady – Shahin and exploring Central Asian culture with her.
  6. Running and Cycling: November, I begin running 5 kilometers daily. 2012 is a milestone in helping me get back to all the sports and activities that I had put behind me along with high school. How much I loved running all those years and cycling out exploring the neighbourhood. I am back to all of it this year. And the latest edition to the fleet is a new Hercules bike. I run, ride, read and explore this year!

My current read is Persig’s classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In chapter 1 he writes:

We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it’s all gone.

This year’s resolution: stay away from such shallowness, monotony and feeling sorry for whatever!

Happy New Year folks!