Saturday, October 15, 2005

First they took away our rockets...

I look at the world around us and I marvel at the artifacts of our thought, at the God-like powers of creation and destruction that have been harnessed and yoked to the chariot of industrialization. I pause to think of the men who brought us here, whose fantasies fired our imaginations - the campfire yarns spun by Homer, the tragic laments of the Arab poets, the satirical verses of Dante, the simplistic tales of Chaucer. Will our generation ever produce their equals? For ours is a choppier ocean of metaphor, and the ships of our intellect have yet to chart it fully. I fear, though, that the engines of our imagination have sputtered to a stop, never to start again. And I guess I know why...

First They Took Away Our Rockets...

...our spaceships, our glorious interstellar voyages. It's all been done now.
Then they snatched away our nuclear holocausts, the horrors of mutation. Thalidomide became a shared nightmare, a piercing scream of reality which one had hoped no one would hear.
Silently now, they sneaked up on us, clubbed us sore, and gleefully ran away with our advanced AI. We nurtured, then, in vain, our nightmarish visions of plastic realities, which again were cruelly taken away and morphed for prime-time entertainment. (Vanilla Sky, anyone?)
Our turn of phrase, our too-clever-by-half imagery, our vividly imagined psychotic turns and madnesses, are all gone. What, then, ye gods, of the bards and poets? What of the breathtaking flights of fantasy, of writers dominating the landscape of our thought with tales of heroism and nobility, of the conquest of the unknown? The entrails have been read, so have the tea leaves. A dark brooding bleakness dominates our mental landscape. The spectre of science has throttled our frenzied fantasies.
Now, robots are on the march, instant communication halfway across the globe is a reality, and men shall walk on Mars by 2018. Technology, the mischievous daughter of science, will cure our ills, rid our all-too frail society of its ailments, its social cancers. And man shall be free, finally, rid of its troublesome burdens of meaningless productivity and the metaphor of the worker ant. What shall we do then, casting our Olympian glances on a world where no one has to work for food, where ultimate leisure is the birth-right of every soul?
What shall we do when the very tools that make us human have been snatched away? When the fountain of our race's youth has run dry? When the very act of creation and imagination is an unnecessary drudgery, laboriously produced by the dregs of society?

There's a shuddering evil thought that continually gurgles inside my head, that we, as a race, have become too mature to indulge in such unseemly activities as dreaming and imagining. Our visions have become an embarassment, our myths viewed as an infantile attempt at clawing our way upwards into a stronger, more powerful, realm of intellect. We shall soon discard the crutches that supported our first baby-steps towards conquering the rest of the universe.

Because Man was not meant for Earth alone.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Philistine Manifesto

There are times in a man's life when the fight to preserve his intellect and sanity becomes imperative.
It was one of those times.
I had a chat with one of my friends from school the other day, a chat on the Net like no other. It was clear to both of us that our opinions about each other's tastes in books and music could only be plumbed by bathyscapes. He scorned Eco, mocked PKD, praised the heroic efforts of Sidney Sheldon in bringing literature to the masses.
Sufficiently incensed, I thought to myself, what if all the people like my friend here had a hidden agenda? And the feeling grew increasingly stronger within me, of an unknown heaving mass movement amongst the literate, but not educated, populace, a teeming movement of people ready to break down the boundaries erected by cultural education. How would these people motivate themselves, I thought, once the campfires are lit and the faces are aglow with the throbbing sensation of doing something worthwhile?
And so, with the purest of motives, I have decided to give to them a manifesto which they could call their own, one sure to warm the cockles of their hearts and ignite the fire in their (pot) bellies.
Here it is, in its pure, unalloyed form.

The Philistine Manifesto
by Anshuman Mishra

The written word is but a palimpsest for meaning, they say, a surface covered with the hieroglyphical daemon-children of our creativity. Our thoughts, like evil worms, slither across and burrow through the crevices, nooks and crannies of the text that we compose. It is from the honeycomb structure of our writings that men gather the supposed fresh and sweet experience of new ideas. Structure, in its multi-faceted forms, in its various cuts and angles, is what gives rise to meaning. Or so they claim.
But what, then, I ask, of translucence? What, then, of clarity, of the sinful nakedness of an idea yet to be experienced and comprehended? How do we gather unto ourselves the glass pebbles of truth that encompass the very way in which we define our lives, when all we have are tools made of sand? How do we rescue the dainty damsel that lies deep inside the castle, fiercely guarded by the twin dragons of Intelligence and Creativity? Carpe diem, I say! Let us peel off layer by layer the external trappings of erudition and circumlocution, let us unravel the tangled web of metaphor and similes, let us take a hammer and anvil to the chains that bind meaning! Let us free the original kernel of pure idea that lies at the pulsating heart of every statement that we compose, let us tear down the delicate strands of excessive verbiage that surround the jewel that we seek!
We care not for quantity and complexity --- a pithy remark would do in the place of a fable, a short story in the place of a long one, a 'Ha!' instead of a sarcasm-drenched comment. The beauty of direct experience is what we crave, the only one which ought to exist. So, let us raze to the ground the mighty citadels of the intelligentsia, for it is their duplicity and treachery alone which is to be blamed for letting matters come to such a pass! Let us all be modern-day Savonarolas --- let flames rise from books which need to be read twice, a just punishment for the long periods of struggle and torment that each of us had to undergo!
Let us cut down the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil! Let us slay Intelligence and Creativity, the twin dragons that have forced us to pray at the altar of Technology. And let us rejoice aforehand, since the battle between us, the strong armies of darkness, and them, the meek and effeminate bearers of the arms of Civilization, is one whose result is not hard to foresee. For we shall smite them with our clubs, pin them down with our poison-tipped barbs! We shall hunt them down one by one, and celebrate each kill with gusto, until the day arrives when we can look at the horizon and see no trace of evil, when the land will be unsullied and pure, cleansed of all sorrows once inflicted by Man. It is then, and then alone, that we shall rest, for our appointed task will be over, and we shall finally be free --- free of the power of Logos, of complex expression, free of thought itself.
It is towards that glorious future that our armies should march, for the day is not far when our grunts alone shall resound through the thick forests of Earth.

A brief aside here. I sincerely hope the intended audience recognizes the mirror that I have held up to their intelligence.
And to you, anonymous friend-from-school, muse of my demented little mind, I dedicate the manifesto written above.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

A Tryst With Amitav Ghosh

Yesterday I had the privilege of meeting and interacting with Amitav Ghosh, renowned writer of English literature (he hates being labelled a 'Commonwealth' or 'Indo-Anglian' writer).

For quite some time now, IIT Kharagpur has been organising, under the aegis of the Humanities and Social Sciences Department, an annual Tagore Memorial Lecture in the month of January. This lecture has been delivered by many eminent personalities culled from the fields of science, art and politics. This year it was the turn of the famous author of The Calcutta Chromosome to speak on The Embattled Mind: Surviving A Fractured Society.

The programme started on time in the Netaji Auditorium, though the crowd that had gathered was spread pretty thinly. There were quite a few professors in attendance, though some questions were raised in the minds of the audience as to how many came to listen to the talk and how many turned up just to ogle at the writer. Some local Bengali scholars started the proceedings with a song rendered in the style of traditional Rabindrasangeet, after which there was a brief introduction by some "dignitaries". The Director spoke at length about Prof Ghosh's depth of intellect and wide range of interests in the field of literature, all the while reading out from a prepared text. (As we shall see later, he wasn't the only one to do so.)

Amitav Ghosh, who is a Visiting Professor at Harvard, took to the stage and started the talk with a foray into the world of information technology and how it has changed modern India. He reminded us that the future that we are creating has an "implacable gatekeeper", "computer literacy". Warning us of how we are willingly participating in the disenfranchisement of millions of our fellow Indians, he steered the talk towards the direction of parallel economies. Prof Ghosh pointed out that the Abu Ghraib prison tortures were symptomatic of how the jailers (soldiers in this case) were basically encouraging prisoners to emulate the American prison system of peer humiliation and assault. Moving on to slavery and disenfranchisement in a broader sense, he talked about the Anglo-American slave trade and how, if a slave managed to escape to England, he would be free, since "the smell of English soil is the smell of freedom".

Prof Ghosh was extremely critical about the nature of imperial peace, remarking that India was one of the very few nations which actually managed to grasp the tiny window of opportunity in the last century. This window, lasting for about 30 years from the 1940s to the 1970s, was the only period of any consequence in which the Pax Anglo-Americana was in retreat, and it was only during this period that such large-scale decolonisation and establishment of independent institutions of science and arts could be performed. An interesting idea. Quoting extensively from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, he urged us to figure out how far we must go for the pursuit of liberty and freedom - is it acceptable to destroy an entire people just for the sake of an idea?

Finally, Prof Ghosh talked about the recent tsunami and the massive humanitarian crisis it has engendered. He sketched for us a brief look at the life of a tsunami survivor who has lost his wife and one of his children. Especially interesting was the way in which the survivor managed to cope with his losses. Prof Ghosh ended his talk by pointing out the parallels of each scenario - how an embattled intelligence will survive in a hostile environment.

After the talk, Mangal, Sash and I managed to stake out some space around Prof Ghosh. I had prepared some questions, some ideas which we wanted to discuss with him. The questions were as follows:
  • Prof Ghosh, up till the advent of the Gutenberg Printing Press, the illuminated manuscript was the major form of expression in Western thought. Now, however, it is just another artifact of the Middle Ages. My question is - will the book, as an object, suffer the same fate? Or, alternately, where do we draw the line between the physical and literary natures of a book? What defines the "book-iness" of a book?
  • Prof Ghosh, we have had till now two revolutions in the realm of the expression of ideas:
  1. The transition from the spoken form to the written form (invention of writing), and
  2. the transition from the written form to the printed form (the printing press);
Each such revolution has brought with it tremendous social upheaval.

My question is - what do you think will be the next such revolution and what will be its attendant impact on human society? What, in such a case, will be the job of a writer?

Sadly enough, the answers were not what I had expected. Pat answers are traditionally associated with journalists, socialists and brain-addled teenagers. I was unpleasantly surprised to discover the same trait in Mr. Ghosh.

The answer to my first question was - "No. I do not believe there is anything sacrosanct about a book. You must be knowing that I recently won the Frankfurt E-book Award." Great. That's all the philosophy I get.

The answer to my second question was - "I sincerely believe we are entering a period of great chaos and a collapse of civilization seems imminent." Ehh?

I hung up my boxing gloves, smiled at him and turned back. Sash was next in line - she asked a pretty interesting question in her own right. Her question was:

Sir, there exists no word to describe the hatred of men, though there is a corresponding word for women. Do you think women have consistently been prejudiced against and denied a voice, and is this prejudice built in to the structure and semantics of the languages that we use?

Before Mr. Ghosh could reply, however, out jumps a lady from the woodwork, delivers a smart quote from Shakespeare, and gets a pat on her head from Chromosome-guy. Sash and I stare at each other, grimace in unison and back off.

To conclude, Mr. Ghosh spoke well, reading from an already prepared speech, with minimal audience interaction. I guess we can't have our cake and eat it too. Maybe sometime later, when we have achieved stable positions in life, the time shall come when we can interact in a more positive layered sense. Till then, Mr. Ghosh, here's to your walloping of the Commonwealth!