A picture tells a thousand words, they say. The Greeks set sail on a thousand ships for Troy.
Why a thousand? Why not a hundred? Why not a million? Why did Homer want there to be a thousand ships sailing out of Greece, carrying Agamemnon, Menelaus, Ajax, Achilles, Odysseus, and Nestor? Why must a picture tell a thousand words? Why does the number “thousand” have such a deep impact on our imaginations? A popular song goes:
“But I would walk 500 miles
And I would walk 500 more
Just to be the man who walked a thousand miles
To fall down at your door.”
We’ve gone beyond a thousand these days. A start-up company is evaluated in millions, Bill Gates is worth billions, the US national debt is in trillions. A thousand dollars isn’t chump change, but it’s hardly a lot of money. You don’t even get a good macbook for one.
And yet, it remains romantic to a poet. “A thousand worries were etched across her brow as she turned to face him.” Try replacing thousand with million in that sentence. It breaks the metre. It breaks the style. It sounds plebian, as a friend of mine would say.
A thousand is a believable exaggerated number. Did the Greeks really sail to Troy in a thousand ships? All accounts of the port they sailed from tell us that it wasn’t big enough to hold that many. But for Homer, whose poetry manages to narrate a story more sublime than a thousand pictures, it had to be that many. The heroes of legend couldn’t go with anything less.
The hustle and bustle of the coffee house sounds in your ears. It’s a busy day. A girl sits across you completing an assignment. A boy sits next to you reading some book whose title you don’t understand. On any other day, you would have tried to start a conversation. With the boy, if not the girl.
But not today.
Today you sit, thinking about the days to come. You sip at your coffee and wince. It’s scalding. But the wince is absent minded; your thoughts are a thousand miles away. You idly remember Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s lines about Homer and a thousand ships sailing for Troy. All sailing to get back one queen from the King of Troy.
Another sip. Another wince. You curse your decision to get black coffee. “Cafe Americano”, the barista had said in heavily accented English. You damn him and his ancestors to hell as you idly contemplate getting a spoonful of sugar.
“Open up wide, open up deep.
A spoonful of sugar can make it sweet.”
The song filtering its way into your ears seems strangely apt as you absently stir your coffee. Your thoughts, already a thousand miles away tangle themselves up, trying to create some sort of pattern. A mental flick, and they unwind. One herculean effort later, and your eyes briefly focus on the coffee on your desk and the laptop lying open in front of you, the screen turned off due to inactivity. You let it be. Concentration eludes you as the events of the past few days finally choose that moment to catch up. Instead of lying down and fading into the background, however, they decide to dance a jig in your head, calling your attention to everything you’d subconsciously repressed.
And it makes you wonder what you’re doing. Do you know why you got into this? What was the purpose? Was it simply a way to pass the time?
You swig some coffee irritably, waving away a girl attempting to sidle up to you. Effing airheads. Catch a foreigner and they’re all over him. Don’t they have a purpose? Don’t they have something they need to do? Are they just wandering about aimlessly?
Are you just wandering about aimlessly? It’s a loaded question. And you ponder upon the answer. What is it that you want? Is it as simple as roti, kapda aur makaan? Or is it something more… meaningful?
You snort, startling the boy next to you into dropping his book. He picks it up, shooting you a reproachful look. You pay as much attention to him as you would to a particularly lazy fruit fly. You’d never thought you’d be asking yourself this question. Didn’t you already have it all figured out? Wasn’t it going to be oh so perfect and oh so easy?
“It never is.”
You acknowledge the truth in those words. But is it worth it? Well, hell yes it is. How do you know? The coffee pauses halfway to your mouth as you think about it. And it remains there. The particularly hypothetical lazy fruit fly you’d waved away then would have flown into your open mouth had it existed. Fortunately, though, instead of a fruit fly, an answer floats into your mouth.
You put the coffee down. And smile. The girl across you doesn’t care, she’s still working on her assignment. The boy next to you remains engrossed in his book; he’s no longer shooting you dirty looks. The girl you’d irritably made feel unwelcome in your lap is still pouting: you’re the only foreigner in that Starbucks.
But you care. You know why it’s worth it. What else did you need?
I remember this quote by Jeff Dunham’s puppet Achmed the Dead Terrorist. Powder Blue Prius, Chihuahua, Prius, puppets, Jeff has everything required to be called “gay”, according to both Achmed and Walter, another puppet.
That was my introduction to the Toyota Prius. I’d never seen it in India, and I’d never seen it in Taiwan or Singapore either (though to be fair, I think I’d visited Singapore before the thing had been released). And since I was too lazy to google it up, well, my impression was that it was a tiny car with almost no leg space and room enough for only two people.
So I was jogging the other night. 1am, quiet Kyoto streets, you know. The works. No earphones, though, I like jogging without music. The streets were incredibly silent. Just me, the slight burning in my legs, and my thoughts.
Or so I thought.
The crunching of gravel was the only thing which alerted me to the fact that I was not alone. I stopped jogging. The gravel stopped getting crunched. And suddenly, the road was flooded with light. I turned around to see a glossy black sedan behind me.
A whole bloody car. Not a hatchback. A ruddy sedan, had crept up behind me without getting noticed.
I stepped aside, and the car silently rolled by. As it crossed me, my eyes caught the “Prius” branding momentarily illuminated by a streetlamp. I swallowed, my preconceptions breaking down.
It didn’t look very different from any other car, except the fat in its posterior. Looked as if someone had fed the car through the wrong end, and the car was still chewing.
Okay, it was more graceful than that, but I digress.
And I just stood there for a full minute, watching it roll away silently into the distance. It made no noise. None of the traditional car sounds of revving engines and acceleration were made. It accelerated silently, and it cruised even quieter.
Wow. If a Prius is that awesome, I wonder what a Model S would be like!
Note: By Right, I don’t mean to talk about the so called right-wing politicians. They have their own place and deserve a discussion, for sure, but this is not it.
Heaven, and hell. Hell and heaven. Two concepts taught to us at an early age in order to sensitize us to morality. Do good, and you get to go to heaven. You get to live with God, listen to choirs of angels serenade you to sleep, live for the rest of eternity with the greatest of the virtuous, and so on. It’s the prize every religion promises you (though the promises of 72 virgins still sound suspect to me) and a way for them to make you follow their tenets.
This is the carrot.
And if you do bad, it’s not heaven, but rather, hell, that you’ll land up in. Instead of God, you have the Devil (or a variation thereof), instead of choirs of angels, you have whip-wielding demons (not there if this turns you on, I hope) and instead of clouds and serenity, you have fire and brimstone. A bleak picture for any mere mortal.
This is the stick.
The logical fallacies surrounding the existence of God and various other reasons have lead to many people proclaiming themselves disgusted with religion and turning into atheists. Religion is for sheep, they say. God is for the weak-minded. Why does He not show himself? Is He afraid? And if He is, what is He afraid of, really? His own creations?
But almost no one declares themselves atheists because of this carrot and stick approach to morality. Even atheists have some semblance of morality within, and most of them live their lives according to this code. They might not believe in the traditional forms of heaven and hell, but they have consciences they listen to, and for the most part, the code of morality followed by theists and atheists is similar, if not the same.
“Thou shalt not kill”
But why is this so? Is morality really that absolute? Some philosophers philosophize that there is something known as an absolute truth. Would it be a stretch to say that there is something called absolute morality as well? The Bible certainly thinks so. There is a commandment given to Moses by God which says, “Thou shalt not kill.” Admirable, really. And by modern standards, it conforms perfectly with the concept of human rights. Taking the lives of fellow citizens is something frowned upon by the law of any country, as it perfectly well should be.
But take the case of a person fighting against a physically stronger person about to rape her. She manages to grab hold of a knife, and in the confusion that follows, instead of simply disabling his ability to ever rape anyone again, she manages to cut open his stomach and allows him to bleed to death.
Any competent lawyer will argue self-defence. But that commandment given to Moses had no exceptions. God did not say, “Thou shalt not kill (see footnote 1 for exceptions)”. God did not provide any appendix filled with legalese about situations in which murder was acceptable. Even if the person was exempted and cleared of all charges by the judge and jury on Earth, the court of the Lord would still find her guilty of breaking a sacred commandment. Since the commandment does not mention circumstances, a plea regarding circumstances would probably not amuse Him.
Another commandment mentions, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.” Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine you were sitting across a man who gives you an ultimatum. He says that your missing wife, who you love from the bottom of your heart and are sick with worry for, is with him. Before you can let all your tension out with your breath, he tells you that she will be returned unharmed on one condition. You must testify against the character of your neighbour in court tomorrow, else she may not be returned. If you decide to trick him, then your wife will be returned, but she might be “damaged goods”. His tone sends a chill up your spine. You have 12 hours in which to decide your next move, oh, and don’t worry about the coffee. It’s on him.
Your hands tremble as you make the decision of getting your wife back. The next day, you bear false witness to your neighbour. The man who accosted you yesterday wins the case. You cannot meet the eyes of your neighbour, who stares at you accusingly, screaming profanities at your retreating back as he is hauled off to Gitmo. And as soon as you reach back home, your wife flies into your open arms. You feel as if a weight has been lifted off your shoulders, it’s such a relief to hold her in your arms again. For that one moment, you can forget that you committed the capital crime of selfishness simply to send someone to hell on Earth and fulfil someone else’s agenda.
Or did you? Rewind a bit. The situation was such that someone was going to be killed/imprisoned no matter what. If you decided to be a good neighbour, then your wife would die, and the man who made you the deal would be imprisoned. Your neighbour’s agenda would be given a leg up. If you decided that you would get your wife back (as we just explored right now), your neighbour is going to be carted off to Guantanamo Bay and he might die there (the probability is pretty good that he will) or even if he doesn’t die, he’ll wish he had. Your neighbour’s opponent is the one whose agenda will be boosted, and in the end, you end up with one fewer person losing their life or freedom.
So did you sin?
According to God, you did. You bore false witness against your neighbour. But in doing so, you made sure that a fewer number of people were exposed to the kind of suffering that haunts most men in their nightmares. Is that not a good thing? Not according to the Bible. Just as in the previous “Thou shalt not kill” example, there are no exceptions to this rule. God will prosecute you all the same, even if you managed to save one of his treasured creations from certain death and/or worse.
So where does that leave us? Does this mean that all morality is subjective? Am I moral if my conscience is clear, like most atheists believe? It does seem a convenient way out of this situation. I’m moral if I kill my rapist. I’m moral if I manage to make sure that one less person is killed in this rigged trial. I did save a life here, after all!
And let’s say that this argument is accepted in heaven. All heaven looks at is the clarity of your conscience once you reach up there. If it’s clear as glass, you get to pass St. Peter. If it isn’t, you got an appointment with ol’ Lucy down in Hell. You can catch up on all the bad deeds you’ve done over a glass of frothing sulphuric acid and boiling mercury. That leads to another catch.
Let’s invoke Godwin’s law here, it’s high time. Adolf Hitler is the epitome of evil in the minds of most people. He should be too. Anyone who can order something as heinous as the holocaust has a few screws loose somewhere, and deserves to be vilified by the world.
Let’s do another thought experiment. Hitler has just killed himself, and is standing for judgement. God asks him, “Is your conscience clear? Do you think you did the right thing back on Earth?” Adolf thinks about it. He remembers the screams of the Jews who died in front of him, he remembers the political opponents he had murdered, he remembers the troops he had sent to Stalingrad. He remembers the battle of Britain. He remembers the choice he gave the Desert Fox. He remembers the Volkswagen Beetle which led to thousands of people getting access to cars in Germany. He remembers the other things accomplished by the Nazis which led to some sort of rise in living standards of ordinary Germans. And he answers, “Yes, my conscience is clear. What I did to the Jews was necessary, and the rest of the world is mad for not believing in it. And the other things I did, well, it was for the good of the world. Those idiots Churchill and Roosevelt have no brains. If they did, they would have joined me.”
God sees that Adolf Hitler believes in what he’s saying, and lets him into heaven, where he joins everyone else who feel they did the right thing back on Earth. That list will soon include Gandhi and Mandela, but because of the way we defined morality, it also includes Cardinal Richelieu, Genghiz Khan and Emperor Nero. It’ll also include Saddam Hussein.
Is this fair? Can someone like Hitler potentially share the same moral high ground as Gandhi? Of course not. It sounds wrong to almost everyone who reads this. Then how can we define morality such that obvious cases like this are handled properly? Can morality be defined properly at all?
Warning: What follows is hardcore philosophy coming out of a melancholy brain. Read at your own risk.
I don’t know why this song always triggers my feelings about perspective. Maybe it’s the haunting harmonies. Maybe it’s the subject matter. Or maybe it’s the bone-deep weariness settling into me as I think about God’s game of dies which he plays with every man and woman on this planet. I dunno. It’s a depressing topic, I’m sure. But an important one.
In Hindu mythology, dies have played a central role in conflicts. One conflict, in particular. The Mahabharata, the parent poem of the Bhagvad Gita. The whole fight happened because of a rigged game of dies. History is written by the victors. So maybe the whole epic is an opinion. Maybe Hinduism would be different if the Kauravas had won. Maybe we would have idealised different values. Maybe the Bhagvad Gita would have been different. Who knows?
But why am I talking about these what-ifs? I think it’s just how I look at history. It’s a story. A story of how the world worked out to be. Maybe something like Aesop’s fables, from which one could glean a moral at the end. Maybe something like Lord of the Rings, which was all about the journey. Or maybe a bit of both, where the journey really led to the moral. Means and ends. Both are important.
There are people who think differently, though. Some think of history as the footsteps of giants. Of great men who made a mark on the world and left it changed irrevocably. Whose impact on this planet was so great that it led to a complete change in the path of what was to come. They focus on the deeds of these great men, their fights, their struggles, their triumphs and ultimately, their downfalls. They focus on how these great men became heroes, and how some of them actually did live long enough to see themselves turn into villains.
Then there are those who think of history as an eternal struggle between different philosophies. Different “isms”. Different ways of organising ourselves. Different views on human rights. Different views on right and wrong. Different codes of ethics. Such people think of progress in terms of how their codes of ethics evolved into its current form. And how far it may still have to go. Some of these people don’t even think of there being any progress or reversal. Rather, there’s just a bunch of different philosophies and one of them becomes dominant at a particular time in a particular place.
Then there’s people who like to think of history as the struggle of various interest groups. The struggle of a religion, the struggle of women’s rights and the struggle for the abolition of slavery, all of them are struggles of various interest groups. These people think that history is about groups of people acting towards a certain goal. It is these people who help their goal come one step closer to realisation.
And then there’s people who think of history as a power play between different ethnicities, countries and religions. For them it comprises of wars and treaties, of the formation of kingdoms and republics, of the times of peace and those of war and maybe other things which define how power struggles play out.
And what do we learn from all of this? Is any of this wrong? Are any of these views, these perspectives wrong? No. All of them simply lead to different conclusions using the same data. And none of these conclusions are wrong either. They’re just different. However, their combination leads to the whole truth. Yes, history is a story. However, it is a story shaped by great men who followed different philosophies intent on trying to reach a goal shared by many people. People developed different codes of ethics, religions and interests which led to wars and treaties between nations and various interest groups. There are various factors which changed the way in which all the people involved interacted with each other.
And that brings us to probably the most important point the world seems to keep forgetting from time to time. That this world is not just a sum of its philosophies and viewpoints. It’s an entity much greater than the sum of its parts. Maybe exponentially so.
And that’s why perspective matters. You can try to stare into the individual faces of a diamond and appreciate the beauty they present to the world. But if you take a step back and look at the diamond in its entirety, you’ll find a beauty which outshines the sum of the beauties of each face.
A friend recently shared an article with me. The writer is a hotshot professor whose speciality is behavioural psychology. He’s taught in many places including the University of London, LSE and NYU, so he probably knows exactly what he’s saying.
However, when I read the article (and I strongly suggest you do, a link to the article is right here), I had a strange feeling within me. The writer suggests the trio of self-branding, entrepreneurship and hyperconnectivity are the holy trinity of success. He’s probably got a lot of studies, experience and gut-instinct backing him up. Else Harvard Business Review would surely decline to publish him. But somehow, deep within myself, I felt that there was something missing from his formula. Something very essential. Formative to the idea of success.
I know, I know. Sounds obvious, does it not? Well, in this age of short-cuts, I’d say what’s obvious and what’s not is very debatable and common sense is a privilege of the few. So forgive me if I lash out at the author for omitting the most essential of ingredients from the recipe of success. I’ll repeat it for those still in denial or those lacking this so-called common sense.
In other words, a body of work. In this age, it’s seen as important for us to have worked in many places, accumulated experience and landed recommendations from those at the very top. I don’t deny being guilty of it myself. But while I was considering joining an organisation (Which accepted me after an interview, I may add. Wasn’t one of those start-ups run by a friend who takes you in as a favour), I realised that the only reason I was joining it was to show people that I’d done some work in some organisation. Granted, the organisation was doing work I was interested in, but as someone asked me after my request for advice, “Will you gain anything useful from this job?”
“Experience and contacts,” was my quick and prompt response.
“Are those all you’re working for?” came the reply, pat. “Contacts are almost never an incentive for joining somewhere unless you’re getting linked to someone like Bill Clinton or Al Gore. So is the experience worth it?”
“Surely! After all, what experience isn’t?”
A pause followed this latest statement of mine. My advisor looked at me, as if sizing me up. “Any experience,” came the slow reply, “which does not contribute to your intellectual advancement.”
My blank expression prompted a sigh. “Any experience,” the reply continued, “which does not leave you with something meaningful. So you organised a conference. So what? How many people in the world do that? Many. Instead, what if you helped an author write a book on the rise of Babur and the Mughals in India. How many people do that? Not many. How many students do that? Very few. How many engineering students do that?”
“None,” I replied lamely, getting the point.
And yet, some people still aren’t aware of the point just explained. While helping write such a book isn’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea, people will simply point out that I’m reiterating a point the author of the HBR blog already made, namely self-branding. No. It’s not about uniqueness. At the end of the day, what someone has to understand is that no matter what you do, no matter what you think of yourself, the naked ambition to be seen as the most connected, the most well-known and the most enterprising student among your peers simply isn’t enough. Doing something simply for the sake of becoming this person I just described is stupid, because people can see through it.
I agree with one thing the author says. And that is that in this age it’s better to market yourself as an indispensable product. It’s a very old adage in the game of power that as long as you don’t make yourself indispensable to the ruler, you’re nothing but a pawn in the chess game played in his court. But rather than focussing on entrepreneurship, connections and branding yourself, one should be focussed on providing substance to that shiny outer covering.
Many people will point out the very famous case of Edison and Tesla. The two titans of their age were at war over something very fundamental in their time, namely the case of AC power vs. DC power. AC power was clearly superior (hence our usage of it now), but Edison won at that time. Why? Because he could brand himself better than the opposition, because he could outsmart Tesla, the reclusive scientist, in the realm of advertising and contacts, despite Tesla being the bigger genius.
But Tesla is as different from the modern student entrepreneur as Roosevelt was from Stalin. Tesla was all substance, no branding. The modern student entrepreneur is teetering dangerously towards losing all substance. A wide generalisation and exaggeration to be sure, but true in its essentials.
Competence outscores every other point you may have in your favour. You could know the prime minister for all someone cares, but as long as the PM doesn’t strong-arm him into accepting you, he won’t take you into that company as his VP.
Hence, don’t take that famous Nike motto to heart, “Just Do It!” Stop. Think. Look around. Think again. And when you finally decide to take the plunge, be satisfied that what you’re about to do is the best choice you can make at the moment you’re making it.
2012 ends. The end of yet another year. And first and foremost, I must make the year resolution about the subject I feel the most guilty about. The neglect of this blog. I need to update more often. Not simply because I should, but also because I need to shake off my laziness. Maybe, just maybe announcing this to the world will make me a more punctual blogger.
Now that I have that off my chest, on to the meat of the matter! 2012 has been a glorious year, a wonderful year, a mixed year, really. Not just for me, but also for a good section of the world. While individuals might suffer across the world, the societies which house them have steadily begun maturing, all the way from the newly democratised Egypt to the normalising Japanese society. Closer home in India, Narendra Modi has won another term in office and looks all set to continue the growth trajectory of Gujrat while the UPA government at the centre is trying to make changes to some parts of the law which urgently need changing. Maybe it’s not doing enough, but that’s hardly for me to say.
India’s civil society has also had a wakeup call in the form of the Delhi Gang Rape case. While the evolution of civil society has been long in the making, it’s high time that the country find its conscience and moral compass and orient both in the right direction. Change is what’s being desired, and change is what is seeping in through the pores and cracks the political establishment has failed to seal properly. It’s up to the people to ensure that the change remains positive.
However, not all has been roses. In fact, I’d say that the most prosperous sections of the word are still undergoing corrections in their paths. The first one which comes to mind is the US. At the time of this writing, United States senators and representatives are still hammering out a deal which will allow them to avoid the fiscal cliff which now looms large in front of them. Without such a deal, there will be automatic spending cuts across the board and many other effects I have no clue about. The long and short of it is that if the US does not orient its policy correctly, the world economy might suffer a catastrophic downturn.
Any mention of the world economy, of course, brings to mind the ongoing EU crisis. With the very idea of the EU threatened by the current economic slowdown, many pundits talk about too much being done too soon with regards to the EU. Of course, you also have people talking about too little being done. There’s no real consensus on what can be done, and that gives the impression that no one really knows what to do. Which, as it turns out, is pretty true. You have people whose guesses are far more educated than the rest of us, but at the end of the day, that’s all they are. Educated guesses.
With the Libor scandal and its associated outcomes, the following year doesn’t look good for the reputation of banks either. They’ll need something utterly magical if the world’s confidence in the financial sector is to be restored.
The two regions in the world most poised for conflict will have a difficult year in front of them. The Middle East and the Far East are experiencing posturing among countries, some of which is making old regional tensions flare up. China and Japan will be worth watching. With Noda out and Abe in, Japanese policy is expected to take a turn towards the right. Ishihara could also become a player in the near future. China will be watching these developments with a hawkish gaze, keeping a wary eye out for any normalcy in Japan’s military. WWII might have ended sixty seven years ago, but Japan’s (supposed) military prowess is still feared throughout the region. What with the antagonistic relationship Japan had with every country in the region in the Second World War, Japan-India ties are predicted to become stronger. While India is hardly in the same league as China, it is seen as a potential counter-weight to the emerging regional super-power.
The Middle East, on the other hand, manages to defy every prediction ever made about it. No one could have predicted the Arab Spring when it happened, and its consequences managed to change the geopolitics of the entire region. Israel is about to have its polls, and these will be one of the only polls in the country’s history without an Israeli presidential candidate boasting of his close ties to the American establishment. The Palestinian Authority has the status of an observer in the UN, and it may go to the ICC charging Israel with war crimes or something similar. Syria is in a state of turmoil right now, and no one has any idea what might happen there. However, one can predict with reasonable accuracy that Assad’s days in office are numbered, and once the Russians begin seeing eye-to-eye with everyone else, which should not take the whole of next year, hopefully, there will be no corner for him to back into. Turkey’s internal status is also one which will be looked at very closely. Erdogan’s policy of making the secular state more and more autocratic and Islamic seems to be taking Turkey away from the moral high ground it has enjoyed so far, and it is very likely that Turkey will continue down the path it has taken in the next year as well. About Iran, well, the less said the better. With the regime feeling the pinch of sanctions deeply, there is every possibility that Iran will be led to the negotiating table kicking and screaming, whether it likes it or not. However, a lot depends on whether its nuclear program manages to go far enough to make others quake in their boots or not.
Finally, coming to India. My own country has quite a hill to climb. Forget battling poverty and illiteracy. It’s time to look beyond education, government and infrastructure. As the Delhi Rape Case shows, it’s time for the country to do some soul searching and finally discover itself. The next year should be marked by a middle class waking up to find itself, the youth understanding that rebelliousness is not just being belligerent on the streets, but actually doing something about it and women demanding the empowerment consciously being denied to them. The next year should be a year of change, a year of revolution, a year of a country cutting itself and discovering the colour of its blood.