Posted August 20, 2011on:
In the bus yesterday, I saw a man who was talking to himself on and on, totally oblivious of people around him. Quite evidently he was mentally sick, but the contents of what he was saying were not disjointed blabber, or very far removed from reality. It was to an extent the same things one may talk about to oneself when one is alone, or inside the confines of ones head. And yet, the more he spoke, the more agitated he became – almost like an engine which couldn’t stop itself from running, and which became more and more overheated as it ran.
I, quite romantically evidently, mused that he was not mentally sick, but a lonely person. Someone, who in the lack of human company, had descended into their own self, into a world with it’s own logic, more and more disconnected from reality in the absence of the correcting, reality-checking presence of other people. Although it might be inaccurate in the case of this person, one can well envision this happening to someone who is subject to extreme deprivation of human company, say, a prisoner.
The strange thing to me is that solitude is the more natural state of man, or at least the path of less resistance, in that interaction with other humans and society always involves a certain pressure, and requires effort. But following this path of less resistance seems to lead to dissipation, as opposed to a state of well being. Or in other words, if a human is suddenly freed of all the obligations and pressures of social life, will not go towards a state of well being, but a state of dissipation. Making a further leap, it seems to me that there is a band of normal behavior in society, and there is always a temptation to, and possibility of stepping out of this band. For example, when one sees a mad person babbling at the top of their voice in a mall, one is tempted to think – wont it be liberating to do that yourself? But ironically, this sudden liberation from constraints would seem to me to lead to inner suffering as opposed to a greater sense of wellness that one may expect to result from letting the self express itself unhindered. If this is true, it underlines the oddness of human life, and the importance of living life in “balance” – always keep between extremes.
This is a purely negative conclusion, and has some evident contradictions. There are some obvious examples of people consciously pursuing solitude, or a life totally outside normal “bands” and experience a state of extreme inner well being. These are ascetics who enter caves for years, or don’t talk to anyone for years and are able to experience a heightened and pleasurable “altered perception”.
We all want to be part of something larger than ourselves, to dedicate ourselves to a cause, and work towards it together with others, hand in hand and find meaning in our lives. That is why we are so attached to our companies. As long as we are there.
I just finished reading a biography of Gandhi and it is quite impossible to make up one’s mind about him. He comes across as a saint, a moral force, perverted, neurotic, uncompromising, manipulative, disingenuous, or power hungry at different times. All in all however, my positive assessment of him remains. I think he was fundamentally driven by humanistic principles, and remained true to those principles for the most part.
One thing one can learn from Gandhi is the power of the unflinching will. To dedicate ones entire life, every moment, to principles which one has unbudging faith in, at the cost of family and comfort. It is quite unlike a normal everyday existence where we make compromises at every juncture, or the normal state of life, which is ambiguity. There really is no reason to believe that one way of life is better than other. So why not lead a life well within the parameters of normalcy, and loosely hold on to some principles, which may always be shed when ones skin or comfort are threatened.
Going by Gandhi’s case, one is tempted to believe that one can achieve anything imaginable if one is driven by a will and faith in ones principles like that. What greater source of self belief. Maybe that is why prominent leaders in Gandhi’s era fell in line with him, in spite of his bohemian persona. They half believed like the rest of us, while Gandhi had with him certainty. It is ironical that men like Christopher Hitchens should nit pick at his life, while they would never apply the same standards to their own life.
I was watching a documentary on China the other day on an American channel. I can’t help but notice the not-so-subtle discourse in American coverage of China, no matter the channel. The story of economic success always has some subtle catches – the human toll of the success, an autocratic government. Even the economic success is qualified with statements like “artificially deflated currency” or “indiscriminate construction to maintain GDP growth rates”. A totally unbiased alien watching the program would immediately recognize China as the “other” – mysterious, impenetrable, incomprehensible even in its prosperity, as opposed to the west – noble, well intentioned even in its violence.
Ironically, one part of the program was about China’s occupation of Tibet, and its strategies to suppress discontent – flooding the country with the fruits of commerce – brands, consumerism. One doesn’t really have to be a conspiracy theorist to notice that consumerism is the most effective tool of population control any government can ever find. If China uses it, how can it be incidental elsewhere? The relentless images of happiness associated with brands and consumption are so deeply embedded in our psyche by now, that even our own constructions of happiness borrow from these images. Even our ideas of freedom are that of a society which has malls, mcdonalds, benetton, reality shows bright lights, discos. This is what Chris Hedges has called the “Empire of illusion”. As long as you can escape into the pseudo-reality of the screen – happy faces, dreams made, millions won – u would care a hoot even if the world crumbles around you. You don’t care for the appalling poverty around you – but you are desperate to get on that popular reality show. It says something about human nature. This is maybe really what people want – to be entertained all the time.
Another impression I had on the general subject was in the middle of the movie “Battle Los Angeles” whose crux was “marines never quit”. Although the theme was quite silly, I think that the intense belief Americans have in the nobility of their causes comes from Hollywood – its hundreds of thousands of movies which portray them as well intentioned, compassionate, vulnerable, courageous. The same applies to other countries as well, certainly to Bollywood and India. What better way to get support from the population for foreign policy.
My very first couple of weeks in the US were a confusing mix of emotions. On the one hand, there was no evidence of a “culture shock”, or disorientation of arriving at a totally new place. Before coming, I was fed on stories of “the first month is the hardest”, and “even years of living alone hadn’t prepared me for it”, and “my colleague was fired because he smelled” by experienced campaigners. I could conjure images of myself in a empty dark room, a bleak cold landscape outside the window, weeping for family. Or scrubbing myself hard every morning lest a vagrant whiff from my person offend someone. But none of that happened. I was surprisingly emotionally comfortable almost as soon as I came. Maybe it was because I had already steeled myself, or simply because it is not all that different – roads maybe wider and cleaner; houses maybe somewhat prettier; people different, but not different enough to be incomprehensible. Importantly, people smelled (even more than me). It also had something to do with the fact that I made a good friend almost as soon as I came, an Iranian.
This sense of reasonable comfort was coupled at a sometimes overwhelming frustration at simply not knowing how things worked. Most things here work differently and involve a degree of automation I am not used to – electronic bus conductors; self check out at Malls; self service at petrol stations; “checking” and “savings” accounts in banks; a bewildering TV remote control; telephone contracts; international calling; a peculiar style of queuing; most fast food sold stand alone or as a “meal” (meaning with coke and chips/bread); serve your own fountain coke and so on. This was added to by the fact that I was simply hesitant to ask someone because I somehow had a general impression that it was considered rude around here to ask strangers (this turned out to be largely wrong). Most things were not self evident from the instructions, and seemed to me to be over-organized. I got into the habit of standing back and observing other people, or simply mumbling yes to the question I was asked by the cash clerk. This didn’t work in most cases, as I got on a bus without a ticket, got a “meal” when I wanted a burger, ordered “to go” when i wanted it “for here” and wondered why I had been handed an empty glass. I gradually learnt by hit and trial, and it is still early days. Some of the frustration remains.
My empty room,
my friend of many years,
i am sorry, but i will not miss you,
because no shared laughter rings from your corners,
nor do your wall murmur with comforting voices,
the only vision i see, is my own shadows,
sitting on the wooden chair,
or lying on the bed in reflection,
or cooking my evening meal,
yes, i leave with you a part of me,
but i will not miss you