Meaning is a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved; perhaps it is because our sense of what is the case is constructed from such inadequate materials that we defend it so fiercely, even to the death.

From Rushdie’s collection of essays and criticism from 1981-91 titled Imaginary Homelands.

He has an infallible moral sense, but very little intellectual curiosity

In his essay on Charles Dickens published in A Collection of Essays and written in 1939, George Orwell points to the lack of any serious references to work in Dickens’ novels.

And here one comes upon something which really is an enormous deficiency in Dickens, something that really does make the nineteenth century seem remote from us – that he has no ideal of work

Dickens’ characters aspire to settle into a sort of radiant idleness, according to Orwell. Earlier in the essay, Orwell describes Dickens criticism of society as almost exclusively moral. Dickens abhors violence of any kind, and his books call on individual kindliness with the view that if men were to behave decently, the world would be decent. Orwell saves his most biting criticism of Dickens for what he refers to as Dickens happy Victorian endings:

The ideal to be striven after, then, appears to be something like this: a hundred thousand pounds, a quaint old house with plenty of ivy on it, a sweetly womanly wife, a horde of children, and no work. Everything is safe, soft, peaceful and, above all, domestic…The servants are comic and feudal, children prattle round your feet, the old friends sit at your fireside, talking of past days, there is the endless succession of enormous meals, the cold punch and sherry negus, the feather beds and warming-pans, the Christmas parties with charades and blindman’s buff; but nothing ever happens, except the yearly childbirth. The curious thing is that it is a genuinely happy picture, or so Dickens is able to make it appear. The thought of that kind of existence is satisfying to him. This alone would be enough to tell one that more than a hundred years have passed since Dickens’s first book was written. No modern man could combine such purposelessness with so much vitality

Later, a comparison with Tolstoy

Why is it that Tolstoy’s grasp seems to be so much larger than Dickens’s – why is it that he seems able to tell you so much more about yourself? It is not that he is more gifted, or even, in the last analysis, more intelligent. It is because he is writing about people who are growing. His characters are struggling to make their souls, whereas Dickens’s are already finished and perfect

Orwell acknowledges that Dickens was always on the side of the underdog, on the side of the weak against the strong.

He has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong

You can read the complete essay here

Reading Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy , and in one of the first chapters on the rise of the Greek civilization, is a wonderful exposition of prudence vs passion.

First, prudence, or forethought, a key aspect of civilization from the earliest civilized societies to our present day:

The civilized man is distinguished from the savage mainly by prudence, or, to use a slightly wider term, forethought. He is willing to endure present pains for the sake of future pleasures, even if the future pleasures are rather distant. This habit began to be important with the rise of agriculture; no animal and no savage would work in spring in order to have food next winter, except for a purely instinctive form of action, such as bees making honey or squirrels burying nuts. In these cases, there is no forethought; there is a direct impulse to an act which, to the human spectator, is obviously going to prove useful later on. True forethought only arises when a man does something towards which no impulse urges him, because his reason tells him that he will profit by it at some future date. Hunting requires no forethought, because it is pleasurable; but tilling the soil is labour, and cannot be done from a spontaneous impulse.

Civilization checks impulse not only through forethought, which is a self-administered check, but also through law, custom, and religion… On the one hand, the purposes of the community are enforced upon the individual, and, on the other hand the individual, having acquired the habit of viewing his life as a whole, increasingly sacrifices his present to his future.

The civilized Greek society had its detractors, and one of them was the cult of Bacchus – worshippers of the god of wine, intoxication and spiritual ecstasy. It is in the context of this group within civilized Greek life that Russell contrasts passion against prudence

The worshipper of Bacchus reacts against prudence. In intoxication, spiritual or spiritual, he recovers an intensity of feeling which prudence has destroyed; he finds the world full of delight and beauty, and his imagination is suddenly liberated from the prison of every-day preoccupations. The Bacchic ritual produced what was called “enthusiasm”, which means, etymologically, having a god enter into the worshipper, who believed he became one with the god.

Much of what is greatest in human achievement involves some element of intoxication (mental intoxication, and not intoxication by alcohol), some sweeping away of prudence by passion.

Which one is better then – A prudent life? or the passionate life?

Without the Bacchic element, life would be uninteresting; with it, it is dangerous. Prudence vs passion is a conflict that runs through history. It is not a conflict in which we ought to side wholly with either party

Simon Singh makes geek as delightful as watching a gripping television series- one can binge read through entire chapters one after the other. The topics of his books are fascinating, and they are explained with such lucidity that when you are done reading you might feel like a quasi-expert on a subject that you knew little about prior to the reading. In Fermat’s Enigma (1997) he leads you on a quest to solve a 350+ year old conjecture by the mathematician Pierre de Fermat that was proved by Andrew Wiles in 1995. In Big Bang (2004), he tracks the evolution of the Big Bang Theory and how it became the dominant theory of the origin of the universe, and the numerous discoveries along the way. In The Code Book (1999), he deciphers the fascinating world of cryptography and cryptanalysis.

The Code Book begins with the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1586 where she is accused of conspiring in a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth. The case rests on the ability to decipher encrypted letter exchanges between Mary and the plotters. Subsequent chapters cover the Vigenère cipher, the Enigma machine used in WWII by the Germans, and how these were cracked. The last three chapters cover RSA, PGP, and quantum cryptography. One of my favorite chapters was the deciphering of ancient scripts such as the Egyptian hieroglyphics by Jean-François Champollion in 1824, and the Cretan script known as Linear B by Michael Ventris – an architect, and John Chadwick.

Simon Singh touches on the debate on whether good encryption tools should be available for everyone to use, or whether government should limit their usage lest it falls in the wrong hands and gives them a means to communicate their nefarious plans. The book highlights well the passion of the people involved, their struggle with finding a solution, often within short timelines as in the case of the Enigma, and often their unheralded success. Each of these successes in cryptography (safe encryption) and cryptanalysis (deciphering encrypted messages) is built on the partial successes of those that have attempted the solution before. Simon Singh explains each of the methods going from the monoalphabetic ciphers, to quantum cryptography in a simple style that is easy to understand, and engaging to read to the very end.

The Kabir Project is, among others, a series of 4 documentary films by Shabnam Virmani in quest of Kabir, the 15th century mystic and poet whose lifetime is shrouded in mystery, but whose dohas (couplets) survive in different forms and places, from the folk singers in Madhya Pradesh to the qawwals in Pakistan, transcending caste, religion, and borders. Each of the films can be watched independently, and bear titles from dohas of Kabir.

In Had Anhad, we meet Prahlad Tipaniya, the ‘rural rockstar’ as Virmani calls him, a popular folk singer from Malwa in Madhya Pradesh who, like other artistes covered in the film, not only sings these dohas but also demonstrates a deep understanding of the couplets. From there, the film travels to Pugal in Rajasthan to the house of Mukhtiyar Ali where we hear a different rendition of Kabir. We are then taken across the border to Pakistan where we meet Farid Ayaz and hear his wonderful rendition of Kabir’s doha Bhala hua, a part of which is reproduced below:

bhala hua mori gagri phooti, mein paniya bharan se chooti re
bhala hua mori maala tooti, mein raam bhajan se chooti re.

Glad that my (earthen) pot broke, I am now relieved of the task of filling water.
Glad that my prayer beads snapped, I am now relieved of the task of praying.

Through these seemingly playful verses, Kabir calls for giving up blind practice and seeking a deeper understanding of one’s self, or the God within. In another couplet, he observes:

chalti chaaki dekh kar, so diya kabira roye
do paatan ke beech mein, saabath bacha na koi

seeing a millstone, Kabir laments,
between the two grinding stones, nothing remains intact

Life wears one out. Nothing can be expected to remain the same. To this, someone (presumably his son, Kamaal) responds:

chaki chaki sab kahe aur keeli kahe na koi
jo keeli ke paas me, baal na baaka hoye

all speak of the grinding stones, no one speaks of the center (the eye of a millstone where the grains are dropped for grinding)
one that stays close to the eye remains untouched

Staying close to one’s core – beliefs/values/personal faith – is the way out. Kabir’s dohas convey a message that resembles Sufi and Buddhist thought – one of searching within, of breaking away from ritual, idol worship, and religious institutions and norms and instead following a personal and direct approach to divinity. Consider, for example the poetry of Bulleh Shah, a Sufi poet in the 17th century rendered wonderfully by Abida Parveen.

je rab milda nahateya dhoteya
te rab milda dadua machiya nu
je rab milda jungle phireya
te rab milda gayian vachiyan nu
ve miyan bulleya rab unhanu milda
athe diliyan sachiyan achiyan nu

if God were to be found by bathing and washing
then he would have been found by frogs and fishes
if God were to be found by wandering in forests
then he would have been found by cows and beasts
O Bulleh Shah, God is to be found by those
whose hearts are true and sincere

Consider now the following passage from the Dhammapada

They make holy wherever they dwell, in village or forest, on land or at sea. With their senses at peace, and minds full of joy, they make the forest holy

Here was an effort at the democratization of divinity from the confines of temples, the purvey of priests or the dogma of caste, religion and ritual; an effort at change reinvented with every passing age by free and discerning minds. And what better medium to pass this message other than through music that is easily accessible to one and all, passed down from one generation to another, moving across boundaries, and morphing into the local dialect.

The part titled Koi Sunta Hain (someone hears us) in this 4-part series features Kumar Gandharva, renowned Hindustani classical singer responsible for introducing Kabir to the Hindustani classical stage. Kumar Gandharva is known to have discovered Kabir while recovering from tuberculosis after being told by his doctors at 23 after a stellar rise to fame, that he may never be able to sing again. In addition to Kumar Gandharva’s beautiful renditions of Kabir, we hear from his student, Madhup Mudgal, a sublimely sung Murshid nainon beech nabi hain (the master resides between the eyes).

In one of his performances, Farid Ayaz suggests that one should not view Kabir as a person but as a perspective. The 4 films can be thought of as a perspective of profound depth and a journey through space and time. The films can be viewed here.

Flowers, yellow,
sprawled over the
grass, green
grooving to the
whims of the breeze

to the battle line
of automobiles –
parked, silent

or the solitary man
who slumbers
on this floral bed
the sun on his back
a bicycle by his side

so many days of
sunrises, unseen
sunsets, unmet

and followed
by a time
light nor dark
dawn nor dusk –

purple and
orange hues

softly remind us,

the world is not
all black and white

deadlines (and dead lines) have, sadly, come in the way of my month long poetic ambition.

on a word spelled well,
on crossing the t’s
and dotting the i’s
(if you are thorough),
on the progression
of thought
in words struck out
and replaced,
in words added
above carets

at the distinctiveness
that is your writing,
with all its flaws –
smudges, and
where your pen
while your mind sought
the right
or sentiment

sadly denied
by a word processor

the pleasure of writing, in the nearly archaic sense of the term, is likely to be lost on future generations. References to writing an email or a word document, far from being an oxymoron, have come to represent our resigned acceptance of writing as synonymous with typing.

from the sea
of endless memories
arise waves
of nostalgia,
the outline
where the past
meets the present,
then receding
whence they came,

till forgotten winds,
now recalled
set them in motion again

are there ones
for chapped lips,
missed buses,
forgotten keys,
wrongly paired socks,
bad hair days,
unquiet phones,

whose invocation
such minor breaches
of our immaculate days?

Patron saints and deities across beliefs have most of the troubles we share with antiquity covered. We come up with new ones.

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