Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Mirrored Selves

An elegant lady recently raised an oft cited point that there is a mind & a heart & they are neighbours in the colony of the individual's personality. I have viscerally failed to understand what I believe is an imposed dichotomy of convenience & I shall elaborate over this post.

When one instinctively picks winning stocks, we compliment the mind.
When a mother instinctively rushes to the kids' room, we cheer the mother's heart.

When one is tricked by an illusion, we chide the mind's eye.
When one is fooled into believing an illusion of love, we bemoan the heart's naiveté.

When one party tricks, we call his mind cunning.
When a party is tricked we call his a trusting heart.

When an individual admires the night sky & proceeds to understand the stars, we admire his mind.
When an individual admires the night sky & describes it in a poem, we sigh at his heart

When a man devises ways to make money, we call his mind shrewd.
When a man seeks ways to distribute his money, we call his heart generous.

Recalling a face, a memory, that night, the kindness - all of it is in the brain. Yet, we oust it from the podium where gentleness is celebrated. The minute the brain devises clever stratagems we declare it to be a work of the mind. The minute it recalls ardour & sobs we embrace the kind heart & proclaim that all that is good is not yet dead. Well, the heart that built the Taj Mahal also chopped off hands (a tale with no basis).

Kahneman in his seminal work on how the brain seems to work (primarily around decision theory) seems to indicate that what we popularly call of the heart is often in the realm of System 1 thinking of the mind. Nowhere does he call them out as mind & heart. Not that you must agree with him, but do give the poor scholar some credit.

I could well rush to call it all yin & yang & how a little of each stains the other & satisfy all our needs to be vague & placatory, but I am unable to draw a line where the mind ends & the heart begins, or vice versa. Sometimes kindness & sensitivity is a cultured response. An ignorant soul when exposed to the suffering of others, develops the requisite sensitivity & heart-felt, nay, mind-nurtured response. All our heart remains unaware of the predicament of cotton mill workers in Uzbekistan until we are exposed to their plight. Plenty of human sensitivity finds origin in education. Where a man is blamed for his uncouth behaviour, he is slighted for being poorly educated, a matter largely of the mind.

Where the mind is often pinned is in the vicinity of what Mr. Hofstadter calls "certain kinds of gooey lumps encased in hard protective shells mounted atop mobile pedestals that roam the world on pairs of slightly fuzzy, jointed stilts". The heart, safely, is bookmarked near the eponymous sanguine pump. While the mind is rational, cold, blood-thirsty & exacting in its measured persona, the heart is throbbing, warm, gentle, loving & so vaguely absent-minded in any measure & in every measure. One evokes sympathy & a billion dollar romance industry. The other evokes hushed objurgation & a multi-billion dollar industry of commerce & financial transactions. Where one lulls a babe to sleep, the other rings the young to rush to work.

It is difficult to exclude a scientific enquiry into this matter but I shall abstain to the fullest of my ability.

All our perceptions & observations are through our senses, rooted in the brain (I'd say the central nervous system as well, but let's call all that the "brain"). What the brain receives as stimuli the brain processes to distill as insight, learning and/or method. All exposure to this world is through the senses & most of our responses are our interpretive volley to those stimuli. If we leave hormonal responses of hunger, fear & sexual needs aside, we would not have a response had we not had a fermentation of our sensory loot. A babe cannot sigh till she has accumulated sufficient sense of irony or the ability to gather intensity till the point of climax. A babe has no concept of connect as she would connect to anyone who would feed. It is thus that adoption & surrogacy thrive as options.

Try this experiment with the most sensitive person you meet: In a monotone, explain the movie clip they are about to see. Tell them how everything ends well & the father saves his daughter. Make your friend aware that kids when asked how much they miss someone will more often than not throw their little arms wide open & that is cute & expected. They probably learnt it from their parents & recognised that it is considered cute (rewarded gestures). Explain each scene & dialogue & tear & smile throughout. Tell them how it was supposed to end well else there wouldn't be a movie to make of it. Then show them the movie interspersing it with "This is what I was referring to". The chances that this sensitive person will respond with all heart is fairly lower than when s/he was not made aware of the build up of emotions & climax. We are capable of that. We can want to stay under water to see how long we can hold our breath & emerge with a burst for fresh air. We love the rush of a culminating moment of emotion. We also love chocolate cake. And if you noticed, the child was just pleased, not emotional & all heart.

While all perceiving is through the window of the senses, how we assimilate all that flies in & how we synthesise it is individual & often not predictable. But repeatability is not the point here. Our innate sensitivity grooms & smudges what we receive into a notion & understanding of life creating a bouquet of responses which go by the name of "I". If the "I" cannot be located at a precise point two inches north-west of the navel, how did we ever get to decide whether "I" feel it in my heart or mind? You must have noted that I do not use the word brain save in the need to identify the collector of sensations. It is not the heart but a mix of how we hold perceived incidents & memory, allowing the same to curdle in the earthen pot of our soul (something that acts as a substrate as it doesn't govern what we receive as experience/events), that makes us who we are, both in demonstrations of intellectual ability as well as emotional capability.

If it is our brain's (and associated minions') window that gathers, if it is the soul, time & chance that brews what was gathered, if it is purely the assembly of life's events viewed through the entirety of being that creates a unique perspective, then where did we create the dichotomy between mind & heart? If we are comfortable saying that the heart thinks & vivisects, then let us simply address our varyingly dual personas as heart. If we cannot imagine the heart as inventing a new device, then let us say the mind feels & the mind thinks. Or pick another word! Just one!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

An Infinity Unknown

Take a minute & answer these question before proceeding to read: How was your time in school? What are the top 3 things you recall of your time there?

A dear friend asked me how I recall my days in school. I would have imagined a response like "It was fun" or "So much fun & play" or at least "It was so depressing" or "I met my husband/wife there" or something like that escape my lips but none of that sorts did. To my very surprise, I realised & muttered that my days in school were a string of shining & achieving. While I did enjoy myself thoroughly & had my own share of spats & mud-fights & puppy-love & infatuation for some teachers (some I am still in touch with), I don't seem to recall my school days as a span of learning & shock. What I mean by shock is what an old villager feels when he is shown how email works. The excitement with which he claps his hands when he gets a smiley on the chat screen from thousands of miles away is missing from my memory of school. To think that that is where I learnt nearly everything of life's fundamentals. It is poor solace that most people around me too recognise their school as something other than where they were surprised at what life had in store for them. It should not be immediately deemed an issue with the school system. Let us not view it as a problem.

Perhaps what surprises me is my mental romantic want that school would be remembered as an excursion where we discovered so many new things. Math, for instance, opened the doors to the world of numbers. Geometry & mensuration made the world of shapes so amazingly beautiful. Literature & the world of words which I play in was woven tale by tale throughout my schooling days. The human body & photosynthesis is still a magical realm to me. Refraction & how we would all tilt our head to view the pencil under water was brought to my eyes then. While I do not deny that I learnt all of this in school, I do not recall the awe or the surprise in discovering how echoes were produced. It was a fact that we were exposed to & then provided with the formula to compute various aspects of a problem using the time taken to hear an echo.

I remember a simple boyish conversation amongst a few of us who were exposed to the speed of light. We proposed that if I was 20 feet away from a candle (which was covered) and moved at the speed of light, then would I ever see the candlelight if I began moving away from the candle as soon as it was uncovered. The point was, since the light from the candle & I would move at the same speed, there will always be a difference of 20 feet between me and light. To think of light being held back like a stream of molten silver was amazing in conception & even today makes me nearly want to move that fast. That is the awe I refer to. The sheer amazement of using & studying a boomerang (yes, I went to YouTube to see how a boomerang is thrown).

I am not sure if the younger days in school are meant to provide the necessary tools so that those who are sensitive might explore & be amazed & those who aren't will make a living anyway. I would think that the initial years are when the child is likely to be stunned & amazed. To utilise the natural inclination for wonder is what I would think all of education should be about. Even if we eliminated tests & grades, our current approach to introducing a child to the wonders of this world would not focus on stunning the child.

It is not entirely clear to me whether wonder & amazement is best in retrospect. Do children merely see & get used, like a child using a smart-phone and thereafter finding nothing amazing about long distance communication or mobile apps or processor technologies? Adults who see a smart-phone for the first time are indeed amused & amazed at "how much technology has advanced" and hearken back to days when "all we had was a rotary phone & long distance trunk calls". Is amazement always in contrast? I recall the first time I saw a bike in a cage/steel sphere, I was amazed & also thoroughly interested in the notion of centripetal forces. I had nothing to compare it to - sheer adrenaline racing act! But a growing plant is hardly an awe-inspiring thing to a child until she sows the seeds & watches it grow, understanding all that it goes through.

I think schools denature knowing. Whether they do it consciously or not is secondary to this exploration. By capturing the flight of a bird into paragraphs of text about hollow bones & air currents we seem to steal away the opportunity from a child to watch birds & ask questions & seek to understand. By insisting that one be provided all possible knowledge even before curiosity or need arises, we are in essence removing the wonder of first encounter. I might never see a polar bear but I have studied so much about it that perhaps if I saw it in real life, I might be less amazed than if I knew nothing about it.

I think the question that remains is, can we essentially remain ignorant till need arises? What is the price we have to pay for that? Why can we not spend the early years in wonder & then grow organically & apprentice?

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Hazaaro'n Kwaishe'n Aisi - Mirza Ghalib

What began as a volley of tweets between @soHbet_ & me led to some interesting ideas & finally a culmination on a plan to translate 81 (my idea) or 5 (hers) of Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan's (Mirza Ghalib) remarkable ghazals. While his stature is nearly set in stone & should need least effort to acknowledge, much more than we imagined was demanded of the industry in choosing, and then translating his words. Much of the difficulty I shall hastily assign to the incongruence of tapping one language's spine & hoping it would cough in another tongue. English is best suited for poets who think & feel in the Anglic tongue. Urdu is best when one seeks to build a flight of stairs for the Gods to descend & delight in poetry.

We picked this particular ghazal of Ghalib's, called Hazaaro'n Kwaishe'n Aisi. If you must read the ghazal in the Devanagari script (although there are couplets which Ghalib never wrote), click here. If you wish to read the Arabic version of it, click here. If we wish to download the entire Deewan-e-Ghalib (no translation, only Devanagari & Arabic scripts in there), click here.

No poetic interpretation is wrong. They are at worst a poor dagger (as poetic daggers come) to cleave your heart. We shan't ever know what the poet originally meant. Here is what I think he might have felt. Please note: I do not translate "nikale" as "take". I have merely chosen "take" to help me weakly adhere to the rules of ghazals. "Nikale" has many connotations as each line below reveals. It can mean any of the following: to lose, to arise, to depart, to emerge, to remove, to turn out, etc.

Hazaaro'n khwaishe'n aisi ke har khwaish pe dum nikale,
Bahot nikale mere armaan, lekin phir bhi kam nikale

Many are those wishes such that each, my breath did take
Many dreams have I lost (to Time), yet not much did it take

Darey kyun mera qaatil, kya rahega uski gardan par
Woh khoon, jo chashm-e-tar se umr bhar yoon dam-ba-dam nikale

Why must my tormentor fear that her neck shall have to bear
The blood, which in my tears this life's breath already did take

Nikalna khuld se aadam ka sunte aaye the lekin,
Bahot be-aabroo ho kar tere kuche se hum nikale

The expulsion of Adam from Eden is certainly much fabled, but
From your streets, my removal was with all the disgrace I could take

Bharam khul jaaye, zaalim, tere qaamat ki daraazi ka
Agar is turah-e-pur pech-o-kham ka pech-o-kham nikale

Should the illusion dissolve, vile one, on your stately mien
Uncoiling your tresses, revealing the truth, is all it would take

Magar likhvaye koi usko khath, to humse likhvaye
Hui subah, aur ghar se kaan par rakh kar kalam nikale

But must someone write to her, allow me to be scribe
Every dawn I left home & a pen, behind my ear, I did take

Hui is daur mein ma'nsoob mujhse baadah aashaamee
Phir aaya woh zaamanah jo jahaa'n mein jaam-e-jam nikale

Since then I've indulged & earned disrepute as a drunkard
Then came that time when the cup of revelations in my hand I did take

Hui jin se tavakko'h khastagee ki daad paane ki
Woh hum se bhi zyaada khastaa-e-teg-e-sitam nikale

In many I held the hope that they heal my wounded soul
But much worse were they in the jabs that Fate's sword did take

Muhabbat mein nahin hai farq jeene aur marne ka,
Usi ko dekh kar jeete hain, jis kaafir pe dam nikale

There is no schism in love, separating life from death
I live, gazing at the lover who, my every breath, does take

Kahaan maikhaane ka darwaaza Ghalib, aur kahaan vaaiz?
Par itna jaante hain kal woh jaata tha ke hum nikale

So separated the tavern door & the priest, Ghalib
Yet I recall, as I left the inn, the first step in he did take
Here is a reading of the ghazal: https://soundcloud.com/eroteme/hazaaron-kwaishen-aisi  
Hazaaron Kwaishen Aisi by Eroteme
As with all good poetry, mere translation is unsatisfying to the translator. What follows is my exploration into the possible meaning of it all. Please note, ghazals in their very design do not demand that the shers (couplets) be connected or related. Each sher can be about an unrelated theme as long as the rules are followed. You can find more about ghazals, here.
Is it merely my ability to extrapolate or is the ghazal genuinely pregnant with meaning? We might never know.
Ghalib uses the image of a lover, tormentor, assassin of the heart in different effects throughout this poem. While the lover could well be another human being, it might as well be one's notion of God or a state of being where none of these travails assail one. However, one wishes to shake interpretation out of that image, Ghalib wonders what frailty of the human soul spurs us to wish for more. One is well aware of the toll that hope takes on our soul, yet we succumb to its promise at the slightest ray of possibility. Some of us are such to not make much of all those wishes made & denied as if we can never have enough of being denied. The very fabric of wishing, cloaks us from what we have experienced & lays us bare to the thrashings of a new hope denied. Such is this desire to want, that stripped & clothed at once, we are in its throes.
Then what fear does any God or lover need to have? So powerful is this desire that I willingly walk into death, absolving all tormentors of the guilt of having driven me to there. In Urdu, "blood on one's neck" as translated from "uski gardan par woh khoon" is equivalent to the English "blood on one's hands" i.e. blame of misdeeds. A dagger's plunge does splatter the killer's body with blood. Ghalib asks - what does my slayer have to worry about? None shall blame the murderer who stands above a soul drained of all blood (life force) shed over a lifetime of tears (in wishes unfulfilled & hopes dashed). The utter helplessness of the soul is captured in this sher. Not only must he be a living dead, he cannot even hope for justice meted out to the tormentor but he must also reassure that murderer that s/he has nothing to worry about. Such is this soul's love for the granter of all wishes!
Often the celebrated one's trauma becomes more vital & renowned than what a common man walking the street goes through, but Ghalib avers, that his heart's implosion is perhaps more deafening if only we would cease to chant the tales of yore, of Biblical/Quranic/Tanakhic import which makes supreme suffering (in the common man's heart) petty by exalting the travails of Adam & other historic/mythological figures & thereby denying the sufferer even the right to feel comfort in that realisation that his wounds are indeed excessive & grand. Ghalib lends the heartbroken, belief-shaken soul an ear declaring that the dishonour was none less than the fabled disgrace of Adam.
Bharam is perhaps a corruption/variation of the word bhram (Sanskrit/Hindi, with the meaning of illusion/confusion). In Urdu it carries a possible connotation of "character or credit or worthiness". So at once, Ghalib cautions & praises the lover/God that either the illusion (of the God/lover's greatness) or the supreme fabric (of the same) would be revealed was he to tug at that twist of all understanding of the true stature of the God/lover. For a human lover, what he'll tug at would be the piled up tresses thus revealing the beauty or banality of the lover (the hair coming undone being the dramatic first suggestion to the following torrid love-making scene). For God that tassel to be tugged at would be to reveal the source of all Godliness & divinity, thereby either debunking the "God" as is popularly held or in the rapture of re-recognising what was the "original God". Either way, there are some who will be offended in the revelation & some delight in confronting truth in all its splendour. The unveiling, Ghalib says, will be convoluted & sinuous like the lover's tresses or God's "reality". Ghalib insists it is like the knot to which each generation has only added a twist & turn & wind but he knows of this one loose end which just needs a tug to find all knots & curls undone.
Ghalib, the ever-curious, insists on acting as scribe to all lovers/believers so he may understand the working of hearts & minds held in the hold of this magnificent beauty. Somehow he believes that by being the one to pen the letters to the God/lover, he would find the root of all suffering as well as the finest expressions of love which he may adopt in his personal letters. In being the scribe, he is laying bare the love of others for love, when described to another, making its innards known in words, is revelatory. By laying it bare he hopes either the lover sees the illusion of it all or Ghalib gains insight into the beauty of it. Either way, he always becomes the lover as he is the one writing what they wish to say. By being proxy to their gushing, he becomes the only lover that the God/lover will ever see. He becomes the essence of all lovers. And if nothing were to come of this, ever, he at least benefits by fuelling the writer in him. Thus Ghalib, in offering his services, stands to gain no matter what the outcome.
In pondering over love & being in the midst of lovers & pining for that one vision, Ghalib confesses to being drunk in the want for a clear sign. Such constant drunkenness earns the lover a reputation of a "madman" or "drunkard". Many will sober up re-earning societal accolades & good repute, but it is he who remains in that inebriated state who will find the portal to the worlds revealed promised in the mythological Cup of Jamshed's. Ghalib, being a poet, cannot discard the possibility that the madly intoxicating state a possessed writer lives in can very well be the gateway to all union with his lover/God.
Those who might come to aid to such a drunkard are dearly sought after, but most "wise" men are either feel-good godmen or priests blinded by words that were long dead. Thus, these men, cut by the sword of their respective Fate which brought them close to divinity & beauty but left them mere storytellers of a glory they have no clue about, these men, earn Ghalib's sympathy as a wounded soldier feels when he enters a hospital of a plague-inflicted town. These people who claim to right all wrongs, provide guidance to the passionately possessed or protect the ones madly in love are cripples themselves finding sanctuary behind their cloaks & social propriety.
For in love, absolute complete transforming love, there is no dichotomy of life & death, says Ghalib. Once in love, there is only loving. Once consumed by love, there is only that infinite existence gazing at the lover/God whose beauty takes away one's breath. Ghalib in one sweeping stroke dispels all cowardly love that treats love as an option, a practical consideration, a convenient avenue or a customary facet of life. None of that is love, says Ghalib, as the separation between living (and the practical choices) continues to thrive in opposition to death while that is impossible to be held thus, in opposition, in love. Ghalib's clarity in this matter of the heart is so simply stated but infinitely important & decisive. How can one be in love if there is a state of being that excludes the lover? Isn't love a complete immersion?
And everyone, every wise man, is aware of this though in fear turns his face away from this truth. The sheer intoxication of such love is beyond all rationality & plotting. One cannot to behave this way or that when in love as much as a convulsing epileptic cannot plan for his next seizure. This state of mindlessness unknown is frightening to the godly & ignorant alike. Were he not aware, why would he call me a madman, hiding his fear, his cowardice in invectives? He creates societal veils, moral walls to keep these who know the secret lest his cowardice be challenged, lest he be prodded to desert all sanity for the sake of a lover, it is easier to worship than to love. Thus, he pretends to keep his distance from the watering hole of such madmen & everyone chides Ghalib for even suggesting that the godmen must have an interest in the spirits. But, says Ghalib, he does recall many a day in his infinite past, when some godly men have risked entering the tavern of lovers, when they thought no one was watching.
With such ease, Ghalib moves from attacking desires & their multitude, to declaring how he too has been victim of human hope & want, bleeding dry, walking through all disgrace till he discovered that one key to all clarity. He jests while hiding his true intent of being completely immersed in the love of others as well as his. He then moves to describe the intoxication & why that is preferred to all sobriety. Such is this state that he realises that those who we are in the role to help are incapable to do so. He then summarises this state of love & its primary trait closing with the invitation & reassurance that all are welcome to this state of being as occasionally availed by the high priest himself.
While perhaps Ghalib might not have intended this, this ghazal is brilliant study in human psychology & even runs parallel to the Bhagavad Gita. In there, a confused Arjuna, besotted by desire to please, to conform, to gain the heavens, to be respected, approaches Krishna who assures him that the individual is neither killer nor killed, especially when the life is completely devoted to the Parabrahman. Krishna then reveal the one key to unlock all confusion, which he assures Arjuna is all truth. Arjuna then beholds Krishna in all splendour before being made aware of the complete immersion that bhakti brings about. The worth of mere word-content of the scriptures, & all purported aides (priests, et al) for the seeker is dashed to the floor by Krishna in later chapters. The oneness of the God in which life & death merge, where all dichotomy ceases is beautifully mirrored here in the ghazal as well. I am sure one can draw parallels to other works exploring the confusion of the spiritual soul.
Ghalib ensures that this ghazal is accessible to a common man who is in love as well as one who grows in love to seek the union with the Divine. Thus, in fairly simple words, Ghalib weaves a tapestry of remarkable import. Hope you enjoyed the work of this poetic genius.
There are 2 shers which are commonly inserted in this ghazal and passed around as Ghalib's work. They do not belong there. Their worth is not in question & is left to the reader, but their lack of authenticity has been ascertained beyond doubt. I will refrain from translating them.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Aaron Swartz is dead

Aaron Swartz is dead. He was pushed to the edge to take his life or face an unfair sentence in jail for 35 years. The US government, the FBI, MIT & JSTOR have contributed varyingly to his death. This is the price one must pay to be a citizen of a dictatorial regime like in the USA.

Whenever you subscribe to a feed (most likely RSS) or ever raise your voice against unfairness, please spare a minute to think of Aaron Swartz. He was a brilliant & good man who was killed for no reason other than the power the American government holds to victimise anyone they choose to. Few people out there are suspecting/concluding that it is due to depression. Frankly, if I were pushed against a wall with the threat of everything being taken away from me in the most painful manner, then that suicide, if I ever committed it, would not be a result of depression!

If you wish to know more about the case which pushed him over the ledge, read this: http://inagardencalledlife.blogspot.com/2012/12/barbaric-american-judicial-system.html

Cory Doctorow's personal account of Aaron is very moving. Do read it here: http://boingboing.net/2013/01/12/rip-aaron-swartz.html

Quinn's personal account with him is captured in all tenderness here: http://www.quinnnorton.com/said/?p=644