The gaudy-hued beast

When you wake up in the morning to news of four people who allegedly raped a woman having been shot to death by the police, it’s hard not to ask yourself what kind of country this is. It’s even harder when you see political leaders and celebrities publicly applauding this extra-judicial killing, sparing no thought for their passive rejection of the country’s justice system and endorsement of populist politics at its most abject.

As a journalist with a news organisation where impact is just as important as reach, if not more, and where conviction (rooted in facts and certain cultural sensibilities) is our coin, I also couldn’t help internalise a bit of failure for not having been able to effect change. After a team of two dozen people (on average), plus thousands of reporters and freelancers, spent nearly five years of labour and crores of rupees trying – among various things – to infuse more faith in democratic principles enshrined in the constitution, the breadth of episodes like the present one really highlight, in gaudy colours, the giant beast that confronts us.

Of course, this is somewhat self-aggrandising: some newspapers as well as numerous public and private institutions have been trying to improve the way people think for over a century. (I’m sure the idea that society simply awaits instructions on how to conduct itself is also very flawed, but I hope you know that’s not what I mean in this text.) Different people glimpse the true avatar of the challenges they face in different ways, and I glimpsed mine after starting at The Wire.

Anyway, as such disappointing episodes pile up, quickly surpassing the Ghaziabad landfill in volume as well as stench, the sensation of having failed is bound to become your best friend, and whose presence is easily compounded if your beat is not as eye-catching as politics or political economics. It affects your ability to think straight, encouraging you to accommodate misanthropic sentiments in your evaluation of other people and their words or actions, and interferes with the reward mechanisms that used to make you feel good every time you finished writing a story.

I don’t want to delineate how people deal with such emotions because, and after insisting that that there are ways to deal with such emotions, I think there is very little acknowledgment in the first place that such an issue even exists. Organisations (at least English-language newsrooms in India) that employ journalists don’t openly discuss the sort of mental make-up a person needs to remain resilient, confident and productive at once, to be able to retain enough of their conviction and strength in the face of repeated setbacks. As far as I know, there are no institutional mechanisms of redressal either.

The bit about confidence is particularly important if only because a journalism of pessimism, an endeavour utterly incapable of imagining a better future, can only be corrosive to society, and it bodes even worse for a journalist on the job to spiral into cynicism as a result of their work. So as I have no doubt that the gaudy-hued beast that looms in front of us is only going to get bigger and badder if India’s socio-political culture continues to stagnate in its current form, I also hope that people – especially, but not only, employers – recognise that not everyone can be a healthy journalist all the time. And when they’re not, it would be great, for starters, to talk about it.

Featured image credit: Donovan Reeves/Unsplash. Effects: PHOTOMOSH.

Two things

First

As a professional science journalist, I’ve accrued a long list of ‘contacts’ in India and abroad, so whenever I discuss my career prospects with friends, I’m often told that I’m well-setup to become a freelancer. However, I recently realised I might be a terrible freelancer, mostly because I am my own writer. By this, I mean that what I write is only partly under my conscious control. I can, for example, decide to write article X this way or that, but I can’t force myself to write article Y when my brain/mind complex wants to get article X out first. Second, I mean that I write only when I feel like writing. When I have to write but don’t feel like it, I write like shit. The words don’t flow, the thought-process is constipated, and there’s such an obvious lack of imagination that I become anxious in the course of writing as to how the article is going to turn out, and write worse as a result. I think I would prefer to have a full-time job where I won’t be penalised for dry patches.

Second

The political events of the last few months have affected me more than I’ve cared to admit. I have been looking since this morning for a line I read somewhere last week, written by someone I can’t remember. It’s about how we – the people of the world – are currently living through a time when we’re being forced to reckon with the fact that our public institutions, while being designed to protect democracy and our constitutional rights, are surprisingly (but also not surprisingly) ineffectual at keeping tyranny and/or fascism in check. The repeated assertions of the truth of this statement, most recently in Mumbai and then at the Supreme Court, have inspired a weariness that’s even resisted all attempts to work harder through it. I feel like the wheels of a train moving through a regenerative brake that the driver won’t stop applying.

Quitting the Thing

A year ago today, I quit the Thing. The Thing didn’t quit me until three months later, and spending those months not getting back to the Thing was the most difficult thing I ever did.

Earlier on the day I’d quit, I’d watched a GSLV Mk III rocket soar into the evening sky from the balcony. After that, I ordered a glass of lemonade and some snacks, watched a movie, then lied down for the day. As I waited for sleep to take over, I decided – for no reason at all – that I wouldn’t touch the Thing ever again.

I woke up the next morning feeling like a dose of the Thing but before I could get myself some, I got tired doing something else I had to do and just put it off. From that day until three months later, that’s all I did. I put it off.

Sometimes it was excruciating. Sometimes it made enough sense for me to stay away. Sometimes it floated into my day-dreams and whispered strange voices in my ear, nudging me to take another step closer. I did succumb twice but I couldn’t go all the way on either of those occasions; I felt so guilty that I’d squandered so many days of abstinence.

Maybe today isn’t the anniversary of the Quitting. Then again, I honestly think that’s harsh because the succumbing didn’t matter to me, rather it mattered just enough to deliver pain. It seemed like the pleasure was gone forever. In that moment, it was an important message to receive.

It’s about beating the law of diminishing returns by finding a suitable corner where you can turn around, instead of going on and on, and spit in the demon’s face. It’s about developing the courage to do that, and the courage to believe – even in moments of abject distress – that you don’t need the Thing to feel better, or good.

It’s ultimately a process of remaking yourself. I, for example, had to begin to believe – among other changes I underwent – that I could make good things happen for myself by exercising my own agency instead of having good or bad things done to me. When it worked, as it eventually did, I felt uninhibitedly triumphant.

In this moment, when you’ve consummated your self-faith, the Thing will quit you. Its shadow will shrink, its voice will dwindle, its presence will crumble. This is the best thing about quitting. It’s why I’m writing all this down: to remember that even when you think there’s no reason to believe something will happen, it will happen if it can, if you let it.

You’ve probably read this in well-wishing emails and heard it said in Chuck Lorre sitcoms but it’s one of those things where there’s a big difference between knowing about it and experiencing it.

And once you’ve experienced it, the difference becomes accentuated by the fact that you now have this deep pool of hard-earned confidence to draw from in future, a conviction about the inherent virtue of hardship that feels truer than before. Theory is almost never this gratifying.

The invitations

First, I was invited to speak at a science communication meeting in X in November. Next, I was invited to host an event at Y around the same date. Then I was invited to speak at Z on the same date. Since I’d already been to a few science communication meetings similar to the one in X, I figured Y was more important, so I declined to come. But when the Z invitation arrived, I found it was more important since it was a national event, so I declined Y. Finally, the Z event’s organisers put me on a manel; when I refused to participate, they rescinded their invitation. Now I was available again but I couldn’t go to X or Y because when I turned them down, I had nominated others in my stead and they had confirmed their participation.

The virtues of local travel

Here’s something I wish I’d read before overtourism and flygskam removed the pristine gloss of desirability from the selfies, 360º panoramas and videos the second-generation elites posted every summer on the social media:

It’s ok to prioritize friendships, community, and your mental health over travelling.

Amir Salihefendic, the head of a tech company, writes this after having moved from Denmark to Taiwan for a year, and reflects on the elements of working remotely, the toll it inevitably takes, and how the companies (and the people) that champion this mode of work often neglect to mention its unglamorous side.

Remote work works only if the company’s management culture is cognisant of it. It doesn’t work if one employee of a company that ‘extracts’ work by seating its people in physical proximity, such as in offices or even co-working spaces, chooses to work from another location. This is because, setting aside the traditional reasons for which people work in the presence of other people,  offices are also designed to institute conditions that maximise productivity and, ideally, minimise stress or mental turbulence.

But what Salihefendic wrote is also true for travelling, which he undertook by going from Denmark to Taiwan. Travelling here is an act that – in the form practiced by those who sustain the distinction between a place to work, or experience pain, and a place in which to experience pleasure – renders long-distance travel a class aspiration, and the ‘opposing’ short-distance travel a ‘lesser’ thing for not maintaining the same social isolation that our masculine cities do.

This is practically the Protestant ethic that Max Weber described in his analysis of the origins of capitalism, and which Silicon Valley dudebros dichotomised as ‘word hard, party harder’. And for once, it’s a good thing that this kind of living is out of reach of nearly 99% of humankind.

Exploring neighbourhood sites is more socio-economically and socio-culturally (and not just economically and just culturally) productive. Instead of creating distinct centres of pain and pleasure, of value creation and value dispensation, local travel can reduce the extent and perception of urban sprawl, contribute to hyperlocal economic development, birth social knowledge networks that enhance civilian engagement, and generally defend against the toll of extractive capitalism.

For example, in Bengaluru, I would like to travel from Malleshwaram to Yelahanka, or – in Chennai – from T Nagar to Kottivakkam, or – in Delhi – from Jor Bagh to Vasant Kunj, for a week or two at a time, and in each case exploring a different part of the city that might as well be a different city, characterised by a unique demographic distribution, public spaces, cuisine and civic issues. And when I do, I will still have my friends and access to my community and to the social support I need to maintain my mental health.

Fear and delight

Earlier this week, I published my 1,100th blog post on this site. It hasn’t been a long and great journey because it hasn’t been a journey, per se, at least I haven’t seen it as one. After publishing each blog post, I don’t know if there will be another one in future, nor do I plan in advance. All I know is that when I think of something to write about, I write about it. In fact, each blog post has been a journey – from conceptualisation to publishing – and so 1,100 such journeys together is… what? A meta-journey, perhaps.

Many of my readers expressed their best wishes and hoped that I would continue writing. In this post, I would like to express gratitude to myself in acknowledgment of a truth that not many know and even fewer understand. The reason I have never been able to plan any of my blog posts ahead is not because I am careless but because I have never been able to fully control my writing habit.

When an idea strikes, a usually dormant inner self awakens and begins to unpack my bolt from the blue; unlike the conscious self that I (claim to) control and its cluttered internal mind, this inner self draws upon the prowess of an external mind and its own memories, experiences, morals and agency – a mind that manifests almost exclusively when I write, letting me come into a clarity of thought and conviction of purpose that I don’t otherwise possess. Indeed, this ‘super-mind’ vanishes almost as soon as I stop writing (i.e. after clicking ‘Publish’; being in deep thought about how best to articulate an idea between two drafts is also part of the writing process).

And I fear that one day, this inner self – like all good things – will come to an end for no reason other than to further glorify its own lifetime, and its own mortality. Until then, I must get as much writing done as possible if only because the outer self may never be able to glorify itself for anything other than having harboured the inner one. As The Correspondents sang,

You’re an addiction pulling me to a grave end
You’re an enemy who I’m keen to defend
Down the black hole of my lust I descend
It’s wrong but I want you tonight

A part of a castle under a deep blue sky as seen through a small window on a black wall.

Fortitude

What’s the point of sweating to compose a good argument when the reader doesn’t exist who will rebut it instead of nosing around to figure out who penned it and going after them instead?

This is a question worth asking but the answer is even more important. When faced with an audience addicted to ad hominem and whatboutery, you rage against them, you surrender and lay down your weapons, you keep hammering your arguments out in the hope that one day you will be understood or you simply walk away, never to lift your finger over a keyboard again – at least not to compose anything that will eventually end up as some mouth-breather’s toilet paper.

Rage, it is commonly acknowledged, and the desire to exert control over things that cannot be controlled that underlies such passion is not tenable. Surrender and submission are equally misguided, not to mention privileged, positions. So what is left is your commitment to your intellect and your industry and the implication is that you must keep going on and on.

I think it’s hard to define some things that don’t simply embody a fixed definition as much as encompass a set of circumstances that together carry a certain quality. Fortitude is one such, and I don’t know what fortitude itself is considering what it represents can vary drastically depending on the circumstances.

But here, now, fortitude would seem to be this radioactive mix of persistence, a willingness to skirt the edge of insanity (according to Einstein’s definition), the constant belief that one is right at the risk of being wrong every now and then, and of course the mental clarity and determination to enter this fortress of conviction at the right moments and leave at others without inadvertently leaving parts of yourself behind on either side.

If only it were a drug.

A metallic sculpture of a set of large orbs connected by slender rods, resembling a cube.

Good writing is an atom

The act of writing well is like an atom, or the universe. There is matter but it is thinly distributed, with lots of empty space in between. Removing this seeming nothingness won’t help, however. Its presence is necessary for things to remain the way they are and work just as well. Similarly, writing is not simply the deployment of words. There is often the need to stop mid-word and take stock of what you have composed thus far and what the best way to proceed could be, even as you remain mindful of the elegance of the sentence you are currently constructing and its appropriate situation in the overarching narrative. In the end, there will be lots of words to show for your effort but you will have spent even more time thinking about what you were doing and how you were doing it. Good writing, like the internal configuration of a set of protons, neutrons and electrons, is – physically speaking – very little about the labels attached to describe them. And good writing, like the vacuum energy of empty space, acquires its breadth and timelessness because it encompasses a lot of things that one cannot directly see.

One-track mind on a flight

The air hostess I just paid 300 rupees to mistook the 100-rupee note for a 50, and realised her mistake only when I asked her for the change. She said she’d give it to me later because she didn’t have a 50 on her. Okay, I said tentatively, expecting her to give me an ‘I owe you’ slip as well so she wouldn’t forget. She didn’t, and moved on to serve the next row of passengers.

I was suddenly disappointed and anxious and nervous. Questions fired in my head. Would she remember? How would she remember? When was later? There was no record of the transaction that I could access, so what if she simply blows me off later? Would she and the other hostesses judge me for being so particular about a 50? An hour passed and I did remind her, mouthing ‘50’ when our eyes met with a half dozen rows between us. I will give it to you later, she repeated, and looked away.

I had been reading a book before lunch; now I couldn’t concentrate and began to play a game on my phone to distract myself. Over time, I wondered if ‘I owe you’ slips were devised for those who owe money to remember that they did, and to whom, or if they were also meant to reassure those who were owed money that they had a record of the transaction as proof that they were, in fact, owed money.

Actions that are repeated often set up expectations; if they were originally instituted to ensure the party that provided a service did so consistently and reliably, it is inevitable that those who receive the service understand that things are going according to plan, so to speak. In my case, receiving an ‘I owe you’ slip would have implied that I would be able to collect the money later with no further effort on my part. When the slip wasn’t forthcoming, I no longer knew what I would have to do to get the money back.

I am an anxious and fussy traveller and, usually, a fan of IndiGo’s services because of their rhythm-like consistency. But on this occasion, though the hostess or anyone else may not have realised, an apparently trivial deviation broke the routine.

The matter was resolved only shortly before the flight began its descent. The hostess came up to me and handed me my 50. I smiled in acknowledgment but she quickly walked away. It seemed like I was the only passenger owed change among the rows she had served. Repetitive processes are double edged; to illustrate, was I owed an ‘I owe you’ slip less or more for being the only passenger who needed it?

(One thing I have started to find annoying about travelling on an IndiGo flight is that the number of minutes for which there are announcements over the speakers seems to be increasing. I haven’t undertaken a count yet — I will on the next occasion — but from what I could discern, IndiGo has increased the amount of self-advertising. It doesn’t just do well, it also talks about doing well, like an airborne self-help guru.

Many flight service providers do this these days. But if I remember correctly, IndiGo started the practice, as if in keeping with our times where actions are meaningless without pictographic and/or videographic proofs published on social media platforms. Funnily, this also extends to the pilot telling us today that he and his copilot took a slightly circuitous route to our destination to avoid a stormy patch “only for the sake of the safety of our precious passengers”. How kind of you.)

Fog of war

August 2019 was a crappy month. I’m just emerging from nasty fevers of the body and mind and haven’t fully recovered yet. I’ve become more cynical in the last few weeks – which I didn’t think was possible – and the level of baseline depression has increased; simply contemplating the monotony of daily life has started giving me anxiety attacks. But even under this pall of gloom, I have found some reasons to cheer:

  • I bought a new Kindle. I was running out of space to keep my books, and since a friend tipped me off to the existence of a service called Libgen, I have decided to move my entire library to this little device. So far, so good. I’m currently reading Kellanved’s Reach, the third book in Ian C. Esslemont’s riveting Path to Ascendancy trilogy. Before this, I read Trick Mirror, a new collection of essays about the sense of self in the Age of the Internet by Jia Tolentino. I found the essays well-written though not particularly enlightening, but others could easily disagree.
  • I discovered community stackscripts on Linode in an embarrassing moment considering I’ve been using Linode for a couple years now. Stackscripts make life so much easier; I don’t have to bank on Runcloud or Serverpilot to install WordPress on a VPS anymore. The script by OpenLiteSpeed also bundles a Let’s Encrypt certificate and launches WordPress with LiteSpeed. I simply have to route the domain through CloudFlare and install Heatshield on the server, which is cache, SSL, CDN, WAF, all under five minutes and for $5/mo.
  • Tool released its new album on August 30. I’ve been listening to it in bits and pieces – travesty, I know – but just this morning, I listened to the whole thing in one go. Thirteen years is a terribly long time between albums but it would seem Fear Inoculum was worth the wait. August 30 was also a good day to release the album; I was in terrible shape that day. I particularly enjoyed the track called ‘Descending’, which I thought was a little strange because a song of the same name by Lamb of God is one of my favourites and I’m wondering if this is simply an affinity to the word itself.
  • I utterly detested one of the few epiphanies I had last month (which precipitated the first wave of depression) because it caused me to stop blogging. But I started writing again late last week, about unexpected things collected under the page ‘Definitions’ (link in the menu and here). Nothing clears the fog in my head like writing has for nearly two decades now, so not being able to do it for whatever reason can become quickly maddening. The ability to produce words is where I locate the ultimate potency of my being.