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I have vague memories of watching Star Trek (both the original series and the next generation or TNG) as a kid, mostly dominated by the quirky personas of Spock and Data. Watching Star Trek TNG on Netflix is, in a way, a walk down a memory lane where the memories have sadly not withstood the test of time. It is like re-discovering something that one had not quite discovered properly in the first place. And yet, even if I had watched it back then with the full force of my attention, I would have still missed the profound philosophical undertones of this wonderful series.

The year is 2364. The Enterprise, a Starfleet ship of a United Federation of Planets, is on its mission of deep space exploration, commandeered by Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his team that, notably, includes Data (an android), Deanna Troi (a betazoid who has telepathic abilities), and Worf (a Klingon). In the course of their voyages, one gets glimpses of different species inhabiting distant planets – each with their peculiar customs and beliefs, varying levels of technological advancement, and with names like the Ligonians, the Edo, and the Ferengi. Through the physical and moral challenges that Jean-Luc and his team face, one gets a sense of their ethos. There are references to the troubled history of war and violence as also capitalism out of which humans had evolved, to having stopped enslaving and killing animals for consumption, to the Prime Directive of not interfering with alien civilizations. The technological advances – of warp speed that allows travel faster than the speed of light, of teleportation, AI (as portrayed by the persona of Data), and space travel to distant galaxies  – are likely to be the stuff of fantasy for many years to come until we realize it, if we do. The portrayal of this distant future fills the gap in one’s imagination of what the world might look like 300 years from now. What separates the world of Star Trek from us is not merely time or the technological advancement, but also the ideology that looks back at the time we now inhabit for all that it is not. There is no nostalgia for the past, merely a sense of relief at having evolved out of it.

Fictional futures of the kind portrayed in Star Trek provide us with an idealized view of the future – one of space explorers that, much like the seafarers during the Age of Discovery, explore the far reaches of the galaxy but with a reformed ethos – to learn and understand and not interfere. An alternate view of the future may have humanity snuff itself out of existence or atrophy away on a desolate planet. It is the burden of every age to determine where this trajectory is headed, for the path to the future goes through us.

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“What’s on your mind?”, the FB status update box asks me. Before I can get away with posting another triviality, I am hopelessly mired in a thought spiral. How did I end up staring at a blue-and-white screen with a question like this?

We are a social species. We once hunted in groups. It was an important survival instinct – this need to be a part of a group. Those that did not have the instinct, perhaps kept alone and ended up as lion feed. The genes for more social interaction survived. Being in groups led to a need to communicate, which may have led to language, and we could no longer not talk. Farming happened; no more did we have to head out to gang up on unsuspecting animals. We had more time to chit-chat. And scribble.

We were thinking then, just as we are now. We wanted others to know what we were thinking. Since others cared about what we were thinking, if we cared about what they were thinking, we had to ask others about their thoughts. Now, as most people will acknowledge, it is hard to think great thoughts all the time. We have our moments of sporadic genius and we have our moments of, shall we say, mental flaccidity, and that’s completely normal in case you had your doubts. Yet responding to talk with silence makes it somewhat suspect, even embarrassing; akin to refusing to shake an outstretched hand. You cannot not respond even when you cannot think; your social genes won’t let you. Since our mental up-times and down-times are not synced up perfectly, we have to come up with something – the weather, the neighbor’s dog, the most recent meal, nasal hair – anything to fill in the void, vocalized observations that completely bypass the grey matter between your ears.

Despite these social compulsions, there was hope. You could on occasions avoid interaction; make up a head-ache, or better still, a cold, where your refusal to show-up could be justified by a desire to avoid spreading the virus, earning social brownie points in the process. (If you have friends that report sick every time you call them, that’s a sign that you need to make new ones, or change yourself whichever is easier). Social equilibrium was possible.

Until FB-ing, blogging, tweeting, and other forms of me-meing came about. By the time one grasped what was happening, the levees had collapsed, and prosaic waters of daily ordinariness filled up our feed-list from every which way.There was no escape. We had to be in the loop; we were driven by the social need of our fore-bearers, coded up in our genes. Unless you abandoned the network, suffocated your desire to keep up with others, and yanked yourself free from those virtual bonds that attach you to your online friend list. It was a tough choice; some made it, and survived to tell the tale. But no one was there to listen, for now you had no followers. Most calls go to voice mail anyway. Doors remained unanswered, for your friends are out on vacation or at the local restaurant enjoying delicious Eritrean fare, or playing Farmville – if only there were a news feed to inform you, even a tweet. That there are multiple mediums of communication is a farce. There is only the online one, and it has spell-check.

‘What’s on your mind?’, asks the FB status update box. More often than not I find myself logged in to FB precisely when there is nothing on my mind. Except today. Or maybe even today.

In the Fall of 1989 while on a trip to the US, the yet-to-be-president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, visited a supermarket in Houston. He was amazed, or so we are told, by the impressive variety of goods available to the American consumer, an observation that stood in stark contrast to the limited choices and long waits in his home country. Yeltsin’s experience in the supermarket has been described as a watershed moment in his political thinking, and may have influenced Russia’s move towards free market policies when he became President of the Russian federation in 1991. It was in 1991 as well that India moved towards a free market economy, primarily in response to running out of foreign currency reserves and currency overvaluation and perhaps in some measure supported by the forementioned move by Russia, some of whose economic principles India had mimicked until that point. Such was the butterfly effect, if one can use that term, of Yeltsin’s visit to a supermarket in Houston.

My visits to the supermarket have, in comparison, been of little consequence to the world at large, except mine. Ironically, it has to do with choice – a word that has come to be synonymous with freedom as gurgling with babies. And I am not talking of days-in-a-week number of choices – those can be handled without a headache. However, there is something unsettling about being confronted by an aisle stacked with more varieties of cornflakes breakfast cereals than there are letters in the English alphabet. For even in that hurriedly disappearing habit of the weekday that we call a breakfast, it is important to emphatically exercise the right to choose.

Like the guard of honor accorded to visiting dignitaries, the cereal boxes stand in quiet unwavering discipline as I walk by for the cursory first inspection. As the visual information is absorbed and processed – contents, nutrition charts, colors, images, claims – a running tape in my head plays out incoherencies that, if one could slow them down as in time lapse photography, would translate to something like this: “….almost choked on that lethally tasteless calorie-saver; not the one high fructose corn syrup – might as well smoke my lungs out; the boxes in pink or those with smiling kids are not targeted at you; raisins love to cling to molars- don’t want to be reminded of them in subsequent meals; that one doesn’t soak up the milk well; that discounted price is much higher than the non-discounted prices for the boxes stacked about half a mile away and closer to the floor; what are those colored things – m&ms in breakfast cereals? really? thats like exploiting child psychology …..”

From what I have seen in those long moments by the aisle, breakfast cereal buyers range from those that march with singular determination towards the desired box, grab, and go, to those whose cognitive indecisions outlive mine. The former I admire for their monastic disregard of distractions, the latter make me feel like a reality show contestant that has just been told that he has moved on to the next round while the others wait morbidly with the hope that theirs will be one of the remaining names announced. If you thought that your grocery-shopping routine is a boring activity, you probably fall in the first category of those that are in-and-out so quickly they might catch themselves coming in when they exit.

On one occasion, my cogitations was interrupted by a sense of being watched. There was a lady besides me observing me intermittently. But before I made any further attempts at interpretation, I realized that she was observing my shopping cart as well. Her attempts at subterfuge demonstrated an evident lack of practice for I spotted her making quick notes in a notepad. Aha! I had almost come to believe that shopping behavior surveyors was another myth perpetrated on a consumer that couldn’t care less. I contemplated on what she may have been noting in her pad. Perhaps something on the lines of:

‘Name: (lets call him) Y
Age-Grp xx-xx,
Ethnicity: xxx,
Shopping Cart: xx1,xx2, xx3 (subject will suffer *evil laughter*), xx4 (hmm..now why would the subject need that?).
Observations: spotted subject in cereals aisle looking at cereal boxes; subject reading contents; subject momentarily distracted by another shopper; subject trying to assess which one is the heavier of brand x and brand y ; subject shaking the contents of a brand x2; subject cleaning glasses; subject knocks off a few boxes; subject is checking the contents of brand x3 again for the nth time; subject goes to brand x1, places his left hand on the box, and with his right hand tosses a coin; subject repeats this with brand x2, repeats with brand x3.. repeats with brand x229.. repeats with brand x512…subject has disappeared.

Conclusion: subject is (such a loony time-waster and needs to get a life!) not a good representative sample of the population.’

********

The news bits about the visit of the late Russian president to the Houston supermarket do not mention if he made a purchase. If indeed he had ventured to do so, certain histories may have panned out without their watershed moments.

The word tawaif is often too easily associated with a prostitute. Hindi movies of the 60s-80s may have partly been responsible for this degradation of usage, through their representation of jilted lovers and men alike seeking solace in the kothas, legendary houses of ill-repute, to be entertained by the erotic mujras of tawaifs. That these courtesans of the Mughal age and after were the living repositories of the art and literature of that time and trained in etiquette, is largely unmentioned. That the entertainment they provided in these mehfils may have been the equivalents of modern-day classical music concerts or a poetry recital is as easily overlooked.

In his excellent albeit unreferenced essay, The Tawaif, the anti-Nautch movement, and the development of North Indian Classical Music”, David Courtney summarizes the chapter on tawaifs with the following words:

The tawaifs were often poets and authors, in a period when the majority of women were illiterate. When everything was considered, the tawaifs had, education, independence, money, power, and self-determination, in a period when many women were little more than cattle.

The essay then explains the situations that led to the eventual stigma associated with this profession leading to their disappearance. These causes are entwined with the history of the country – the failure of the 1857 revolution (the kothas were centers of political debate, some of which led to the uprising), the puritanical wave in Britain around that time that came to India through the teachings of missionaries, and the emergence of an Indian bourgeoise educated in western ideals of society and their social reform movements that came to associate tawaifs with prostitution – a social evil to be done away with. As the tawaifs began to disappear, the art forms that they had sustained and excelled in – kathak, ghazal, thumri, were passed on to a growing literate middle-class in search of a national self-identity, a unifying cultural history that would be a motivator for the freedom movement. It is truly a sad irony that the very champion of women’s rights in India, overlooked the tawaifs’ significance when he rebuked their offer to partake in the freedom movement. This is mentioned in a review of Saba Dewan’s 2009 documentary, The Other Song, that highlights the largely unknown history of the tawaifs.

During the first non-cooperation movement in the early 1920s, a group of tawaifs responded to his call for Hindu-Muslim unity and support for the Independence movement. They resolved to sing only patriotic songs on all occasions. An outraged Gandhi lashed out at their “obscene manifesto”. He wouldn’t accept them as Congress workers or accept their donation unless they gave up their “unworthy profession that made them worse than thieves”.

My own notion of a tawaif was no different from what I wrote in the first line of this post. Delving into the history of this profession has changed this view. Stereotypes, it appears, are best dispelled by making an effort to understand those that we stereotype.

In the prologue of Guns, Germs, and Steel (GGS), Jared Diamond explains the different factors that led to certain societies dominating over certain others. The motivation for the book is a question posed by Yali, a local politician in New Guinea that Diamond had met:
“Why is it that you white people brought so much cargo to New Guinea, and we black people had little cargo of our own?”. As someone that hails from a nation that had once been colonized by another, I was eager to find out what the book had to offer as an answer.

Diamond begins with the migration of our human ancestors outside of Africa about 1 million years ago. By 11,000 BC, most of the modern continents were inhabited, marking the beginning of the ‘Recent Era’. The rest of the book following the first chapter focuses on events since 11,000 BC. The book explains that different regions of the world had different number of potentially domesticable plant and animal species. With a greater number of such plant and animal species in areas such as the Fertile Crescent, agriculture had a headstart there, relative to most parts of North and South America, and Australia, where the scarcity of such plants and animals led to a continuation of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Agriculture consequently helped support denser populations, and freed up some of the individuals for governance, military, and other occupations. Eurasia’s east-west spread meant that most countries had similar climates, and allowed for an easy spread of domesticable plant and animal varieties, language, and other innovations. The north-south spread of the Americas and Africa meant a greater barrier to the spread of such developments. Societies that had a headstart in agriculture consequently enjoyed a headstart in development in technology, and that explains the ‘guns’ and ‘steel’ in the title as being responsible for the dominance of these societies. As for the ‘germs’, denser populations and proximity to animal species meant a greater exposure and consequently a better resistance to germs in the farming societies. When these societies confronted the predominantly hunter-gatherer societies that had no prior exposure to such germs, the germs transferred from the former wiped out large numbers within the latter.

The above is, at the risk of over-simplification and omission, a very brief summary of the book. One of the discussions within the book that I found particularly fascinating concerns the selection by the first human farmers of gene-mutant peas and wheat varieties that we consume today. In wild pea plants, the pods explode shooting out the peas into the ground for germination. In mutant pea pods that did not explode, the peas died within the pods preventing the mutant genes from passing on to future generations. However, the pea plants of interest to humans for harvesting were the non-exploding mutants, and so these non-exploding mutant varieties were selectively chosen and harvested. Similarly, wheat and barley grow atop stalks that, in the wild varieties, shattered spreading the seeds for germination. The non-shattering mutants were selectively chosen by the early harvesters for crop production. In this manner, the human farmers reversed the direction of natural selection through selection of mutants, whose genes had no chance of surviving on their own, and non-selection of the genetically favorable varieties.

GGS is divided into four parts – the first three explain the reasons for different paces of development in different parts of the world. The last part discusses the histories of specific countries and in doing so repeats the concepts discussed earlier, which I found to be tedious. Interestingly, all of the three people that have told me that they have read the book added that they never got around to completing it. This may well be a matter of personal preference than something to do with the book.

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