Friday, January 23, 2009

India - III

My room was sparse, but it had a rickety ceiling fan. The fan was old, and the years hadn't been kind. Its blades had curved downwards over time, and the plaster where it met the ceiling had broken off revealing concrete and iron rods. As the night grew still, the heat settled on me like a fever. I couldn't crank the fan up higher than a slow spin, lest its ties to the ceiling gave. I sweated just lying on the hot bed and couldn't see how I'd manage to sleep that night. I had absorbed every last patch of coolness from either side of the pillow, and now there was just me and the sweat. My sleep that night was more a departure from a state of awakened alertness than a night of rest.

I was up and about as soon as the sun broke. I made my way to the reception downstairs where I found a familiar face. A thin, reedy character, face all pimples, moustache all mousy was busy stacking ledgers into a drawer. It was Ranjit Rulez. Perhaps it was just me, but Ranjit always struck me as the name of a brawny, truck-like character. That and the fact that this Ranjit claimed sovereignty over some unspecified kingdom had led me to believe he'd be more than he was, despite the grainy webcam capture I'd seen on the net when I booked a room here.

He turned to face me and gave me the widest grin I'd seen in a long time. He looked like he was in his late teens. He wore gold chains around his neck and had a flashy mobile clipped onto the front of his shirt. The shades were flipped onto the top of his head. I'm not sure he wasn't simply compensating.

"Aaiye, aaiye, thik thak soye aap? I hope everything was to your liking?"
I replied that it was way too hot and that the fan just didn't cut it.
"Ah..well, anyways, I'm sure you haven't come here to sleep. What can I get you?"

Well...a wife really...but I couldn't tell him that just yet. There was still so much to do before all of that was allowed to happen.

Monday, January 19, 2009

India - II

Mumbai
Even though I've just gotten off a flight from Toronto, I don't qualify as a 'Saab' for several reasons. One, I look no different from the teeming crowds, Two, there's an age factor intertwined with the concept of Saab. You need to look 35+ before the epithet is accorded. Three, I didn't feel the part. I wasn't going to play tourist here. I was here on a gritty, nose-to-the-ground mission. Saabs beget obsequence, the non-saabs do not. So the taxi drivers did not fawn, and in the wet steam-heat of the mumbai afternoon, I turned to the rickshaws.

I'd made reservations at a guest-house in Andheri before I left Canada. I'd found them earlier while googling for places to stay in Mumbai. The guesthouse's website had a link - "Reserve online now!". I was duly impressed. I clicked the link and was shown a picture of a man with a mousy moustache looking away from the webcam that clicked it. Below the capture was a piece of badly aligned text that said "For room booking, send email letter to ranjitrulez@....com". The short of it is that I received a reply within minutes, and a room had been reserved for me simply on good faith. There was no talk of credit cards.

The auto ride was eventful, but not a new experience. I was used to the concept of stop lights being treated as driving suggestions rather than law. I was accustomed to policemen flagging down my auto to 'urgently' get to a chai stall. And lastly, I had mastered the art of small talk with autowalas. You want to shoot the breeze for the most part, but every once in a while, garnish the conversation with a common frustration and round it off with a small, personal vulnerability.
The conversations go like this - "Nahin, bas gharwalon se milne. Bangalore ka train pakadna hai kal. Aap kahan rehte ho? Oh Borivli?....Haan, India ko cricket chhoDni chahiye. Hockey mein toh kuchh hona nahi, ab cricket mein bhi zero. Sirf shatranj raha.....Nahin, shaadi toot gayi, usey meri tankhwa kam lagti thhi."
This one-two-three strategy ensures that the autowala empathises with you and doesn't take you for too much of a ride. Has worked well for me.

I found the guesthouse desk empty. It was dusk, and there was no sign of ranjitrulez. I was about to ring a bell placed on the desk when I spotted an envelope beside it. There was a letter in it, enclosing a key. It asked for me to head upstairs to Room 202, and that money matters would be handled in the morning.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Portraits IV

March 4, 2019

At 5:00am this morning, I woke up to find my pillow damp.

It's been over a decade since I saw her last, but she's imprinted herself onto me, perhaps at a cellular level, or somewhere in my bloodstream, or maybe she's gone so far as to dissolve some of herself into my spirituality. It's certainly somewhere further than the rational me can get at.

We went to school together. She didn't know it then, but I was crazy about her from way earlier than is comfortable to admit. I met her for the first time four days into March when I got off a rickety stage at a student function. I had just croaked my way through a song, and was putting my guitar away when she came up and introduced herself. I must've stood there five minutes, mouth open just wide enough to signal challenges. She pretended not to notice.

I found we had a couple of classes in common that semester and I ensured that I plonked myself beside her at every opportunity. As I got to know her better (and as my babbling regained its coherence), I found that she could be the picture of composure one moment, and the next, laugh so loud that it'd ring through the street. Her smile could be so soft, and yet so warm, that I'd have to hide my popsicles away. More than that though, she could be so giving of herself to all those around her that it turned my world. This was the girl for me.

It took me long enough, but I eventually asked her if she was seeing anyone. She said she had a long list of boyfriends. In all earnestness, I asked to be added to the list. Turned out she had a sense of humour too. No list, is what I'm saying.

There are relationships where, over years of living with someone, you begin to read their physicality, and then their minds, such that there's none that can know this other person better than you. And then there are those of us that are luckier. I'd been seeing her for a handful of days when I realised she knew my ins and outs, my fears and joys better than any one before or since. Cue a hindi film clip here, something about how there's a singular someone out there for each of us, or how when the gods play matchmaker, they do it to perfection.

When we fought (and we did a lot of that), it was over the most trivial things. Perhaps I'd kept her waiting five minutes.Or she, me. And these fights were explosions. We'd need to keep away from each other for days at a time, so that we didn't get at each other's throats. I guess I handled it better than her. And not because I was detached. It was because I knew what bound us together was stronger than any fight we could manufacture.

I didn't attend her wedding when it happened all those years ago. I saw her last some months before the day, and haven't seen her since. There was no tragedy, no crisis between us. It was just how it needed to be because we weren't the only players involved. There were other happinesses at stake, some so important that a mere love lost just didn't compare.

The consolation back then was that we were young, and our love, a first blush. There would be more mature loves to come later. Best of all, we were always going to have the memories of our time together. Surely those would see us through till other anchors entered our lives.

The other anchors, the loves in times more mature, they've filled up my head over the years. They've made the winters seem easy and the summers breezy. But we never fight. Nothing they do upsets me.

I've learnt she has two kids. They're going to enter their teens soon. Ordinarily, I'd feel for her. The kids' adolescence will bring tantrums and demands, insecurities and rebellion, discovery and selfishness. There will likely be crazy love too.

My story remains incomplete until I tell you about how I still see her. On the street and in the subway, I run into so many people that look nothing like her, but my imagination (or possibly an unfettered longing) fills in familiar colours, sounds, perceptions into the empty frames that these people present. I know it isn't her I just saw window shopping, or getting off the streetcar, but I can't keep from smiling, because I'm never *entirely* certain it wasn't her.

It's been many many years since I spoke to her, and you'd think that natural forces would've corroded the memories by now, but these forces compete against an unnatural love. Others that I've lost touch with have floated away into the ether. Their statistics are archived in my head, but they remain cloudy, hazy constructs. She, on the other hand, lives and breathes inside me. I take her to shows and dinners. She offers advice when I'm taking decisions, and she still laughs at my jokes. That warmth is so pronounced that I sometimes turn around expecting to see her. It's so pronounced that sometimes my pillow is dampened by the tears.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Salt where it bleeds

'Satyam' derives from the Sanskrit for truth, doesn't it?

Friday, January 02, 2009

Me - 2.0

My first expendable $1B will be spent outwitting mortality.

When I go, the usual sacraments are welcome - ashes urned (or set afloat on a holy river), garlands around an uncomfortable portrait, my organs donated in equal parts to science and the needy. All of this is acceptable, because I hope to have set grander schemes in motion by the time my ghost is called up.

The idea of living on after medical death isn't new. Certain religions make death less painful by introducing concepts of re-incarnation or of the soul simply shedding its clothes, or of how heaven's a better place. Amateur science toyed with cryogenics - freezing our bodies till a pre-agreed point in time, so we can get out in 2050 and see the flying cars. And then there's the romantic notion - a person lives on through the memories they shared with others.

For the serious death0phobic (or life-o-phile) though, there's cloning, but even that leaves behind a vacuoid, a kink in the continuum of self-identity.

The discussion of what constitutes identity is a large one. At the least, it comprises dna and nurture, as also memory and emotion. The thing is, even if I were to replicate each of these as they applied to me into a clone, and let myself die off, I still wouldn't have transitioned the uniqueness of me. This uniqueness problem arises given that for some non-insignificant duration, there would exist two of me (my clone and I), and also, if I'd indeed transitioned successfully into this clone, then what does it mean to let "myself die off"? What is it that's died if I'm still alive as the clone?

Even if the clone functions exactly as I would have (had I lived longer), I'd still remain detached from it, because I wouldn't have perpetuated myself.

*Aside: 'cloning' is an ambiguous term. I'd simply download my brain onto a hard-drive, the size of which is a finite number of terabytes. The brain download would capture my memories and experiences, separated into stimuli from the outside world and my own reactions to these stimuli. Through some careful analysis, an A.I. algorithm could be charted to say - if the stimulus is x, then from his past reactions, we predict his reaction will be y.

The other step would be to monitor my brain for the last few years of my life, and see which areas of this brain turn on/off during scenarios that trigger emotion. These too can then be uploaded into a table, and the magnitude of the emotion felt is plotted against the gravity of the scenario using a complex points system. These will help predict what I will feel in a future situation.

At this point, this hard-drive copy of my brain has perpetuated the notion of me. If housed in a basic shell, it would take decisions (career, family, etc) like I would. My creativity, since a function of experience, and random synapse firing, could be replicated by introducing wanton shocks to the system. The creativity would be kept in check ("this brain is insane".."no, it's just creative") by running its output against a list of all experiences that my sanitized brain accepted as sane or insane during my life. If the absolute insanity quotient of my digital creativity was outside my sanity spectrum, the digital brain would supress it.*

All of this perpetuates what I could have been had I lived, but none of this perpetuates me. As a result, my imaginary $1B then won't go towards more cloning research. I'll have to spend it on somehow blurring that marker called identity. Once we've managed to block that ceaseless stream of inner body perceptions that anchor the conscious self to the physical body, we can simply exist virtually or become one with a machine (bhatakti aatma). Woohoo.

Why aren't you popping the bubbly yet?

War Reboot

India and Pakistan are on the verge of a war, or so the media and unnamed sources from the Foreign offices will have us believe. This teetering system, nuclear precipice and all, gets much attention the world over. A top Chinese diplomat is flown in to de-escalate the tension. No, the regular Chinese diplomats won't do, it has to be a top one.

India is carrying out troop movements that look ominous. Satellites see this and then do a tell-all to the world. India denounces this as a routine winter exercise. Presumably to keep the blood pumping through the jawans' legs.

Pakistan wants peace not war, but if pressed, they will relocate their troops from the Northwest to the Southeast. The US and the UK like having the Pakistani troops in the Northwest, alongside their own. Twiddlethumbs is a popular game there, and they need three to play. So the U(S+K) will shell out many moneys and the Pakistanis will stay.

This won't sit well with India. She'll raise the hourly rates of her call-centre agents if things continue this way. That will pinch the U(S+K). So the west peremptorily sends their best talkers to sort out the situation - Brown, Rice (apologies, but it's good for you). A month passes and the posturing continues. The Indians waterboard Kasab, and he talks of Faridkot and his father, of his training and his cell-phone. He writes letters to the Pakistani Government pleading for legal aid. Pakistan rejects all of this and demands concrete evidence from India. Nothing is provided for more than a month. This is understandable because India has
(a) little else to go on or
(b) is busy manufacturing said evidence or
(c) is worried that the evidence, which may be circumstantial once presented, will be dismantled by Pakistan before an independent body agrees that Pakistan is culpable.

In the meantime, Zardari, who is grieving for his wife ("she was killed by the same terrorists that blew up Mumbai") more now than ever before, even more than when he was Pallin' around with the U.S. has denounced these non-state actors (NSA) that carried out the heinous attacks in Mumbai. One supposes that he has no clue why the NSA chose his virgin country to incubate the cancer. In any case, he'd resolved to take swift action and so promised to send the chief of the ISI over to India. In keeping with the resolution to remain swift, this promise was recanted within hours.

Pakistan then placed various citizens rumoured to have been involved in the planning of the attacks under house-arrest. This form of punishment, extreme to say the least, was later degraded to non-strict house arrest.

Thankfully though, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the charitable organisation that planned the attacks was banned by Pakistan. Banning, as we know, is almost as horrific a punishment as house-arrest. However, using chicanery of the highest order, the organisation has moved back to the unbanned list by using an alias, 'Tehreek-e-Hurmat-e-Rasool'. Clever as ever.

As unjust as the Mumbai attacks (or other terrorist attacks, in India or in Pakistan) were, we know war isn't the answer. I'm glad, for all their posturing, the two governments also seem to have realised the fact. The enemies are elsewhere - in the minds of people, in biased accounts of history, in the policies of 4 year eat-and-leave governments. So really, the eradication process shouldn't involve soldiers dying, fighting each other, while the real puppeteers kick back in their caves or drug mansions and watch. We're coming full-circle again. We need to be the change.