Excerpt from Moby-Dick

February 16, 2013

Let me share one of western tradition’s starkest meditations on death. Maybe it’s because the deaths of three friends that I experienced recently were not “natural”, and more “tragic” and unfair, but I am of the paradoxical opinion that irrational fright is actually the most rational response to death.

I should shut up now and let Melville do the talking:

Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say—here, here lies my beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these. What bitter blanks in those black-bordered marbles which cover no ashes! What despair in those immovable inscriptions! What deadly voids and unbidden infidelities in the lines that seem to gnaw upon all Faith, and refuse resurrections to the beings who have placelessly perished without a grave. As well might those tablets stand in the cave of Elephanta as here.
In what census of living creatures, the dead of mankind are included; why it is that a universal proverb says of them, that they tell no tales, though containing more secrets than the Goodwin Sands! how it is that to his name who yesterday departed for the other world, we prefix so significant and infidel a word, and yet do not thus entitle him, if he but embarks for the remotest Indies of this living earth; why the Life Insurance Companies pay death-forfeitures upon immortals; in what eternal, unstirring paralysis, and deadly, hopeless trance, yet lies antique Adam who died sixty round centuries ago; how it is that we still refuse to be comforted for those who we nevertheless maintain are dwelling in unspeakable bliss; why all the living so strive to hush all the dead; wherefore but the rumor of a knocking in a tomb will terrify a whole city. All these things are not without their meanings.
But Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.


Identity and Software Piracy

February 15, 2013

For as long as he knew, he had been inventing himself. Maybe it was the spirit of the times – beta versions become final editions, and then there are all the updates, which mean bad news if you were using pirated software all along. In his world where reality seldom matched the end user experience assumed, nothing made more sense than bypassing the fair usage policies through cracks and key-generators. And of those you needed multiple simultaneous ones, because that’s the only way to beat the system when the rules keep changing.

Douglass C. North, an economist often studied by undergraduate students of “Institutional Economics”, introduces into economic theory the effects of “institutions”, which are ways of perceiving and behaving that result from “mental models” and socio-economic history (social customs and myths, contracts between organizations). North criticizes “neoclassical” theory that only talks about “scarcity and hence competition” as an “institution-free theory” and offers his theory as a corrective that describes the “imperfect markets” in the real world where “constraints” structure all economic exchange. In an economic system with institutions, agents may appear that manipulate the system to their own advantage, or which have a “stake in the existing conditions” of an inefficient status quo, thereby resulting in overall paths of less-than-ideal efficiency.

What North shows in his approach is how the social and political spheres are linked inevitably with the economic sphere. This gives us an interesting way to approach the gender relations governing a society. The attack on Malala Yousafzai in Swat Valley became an international media event, accompanied with the perfunctory condemnation of the Taliban social order. But, from the perspective of the local Taliban sympathizers, the Taliban movement in the northern areas of Pakistan is an “anti-imperialist” resistance against a system that marginalized and deprived them. In her social theory, the Moroccan feminist Mernissi has portrayed the traditional Muslim social order in terms of a public-private divide, where women are identified with the private sphere and their encroachment in the public sphere is seen as threatening to the social order, creating fitna, or “social disorder” (1987: 31). It is a forced observance of this social order that the Taliban adhere to. This enforcement can be seen as part of the Taliban’s attempt to create an anti-Western spirit that is embodied not just in the political struggle of the men but also in their society’s economic behavior.

At the intersection of these two spheres of the “political” and the “social” where public and private mingle, we find not only ideology, but also business interests.  Read the rest of this entry »

(part of a novel I’m working on)

“I want to stop letting a sense of purpose override everything else in life. I want to live a little, and love, without the deadline for this or that scholarship I need to apply to, or this or that brainwave I need to put my life on hold for to follow through to its intellectual end – a poem or a mathematical theorem. The world doesn’t owe me any glory – glory is for the gods. I’m a mortal, and I don’t owe an enduring work of art or an invention to a world that doesn’t acknowledge my mortality, and expects my sweat and blood for glories it will take away from me as soon as there’s someone else in the limelight, or when I’m not “game” anymore, glories it will, after I’m gone, take for granted and forget.

Life can be lived much more meaningfully if you love and respect the little things around you, and not chase after the things you don’t have. I will take whatever knowledge comes my way, but I will not let my pursuit of knowledge or glory blind me to the beauty around me that I need to celebrate right here, right now. The sound of my beloved’s breath in slumber, as if issuing from the depths of his dreams. The many emotions that play on his beautiful face. The way his glass frame pushed back over his head makes partings in his heavy heath-like hair. The way he struggles to love a life that’s always falling short of his expectations, the way he loves me and is kind to me and loyal to me in spite of… everything, and not the least, our mere mortal selves.”

With his enkindled spirit, he pulls his body away from his beloved and off the bed. His feet already cold, the floor they tread feels like another layer of cold. In the kitchen, he turns the stove on and puts the water on heat, and his body, stimulated by the heat, starts to shed the cold stupor that lay encrusted on it. He watches the water dance through the opening of the vessel, which presently clouds over with incipient vapors. The heat clears up the pathways of sensation, and he hears the water sing. The water has started turning to steam, and the sound of a half-remembered dhamaal echoes in his ears as he imagines a whirling dancer’s spirit hovering over the body like this vapor over the bubbling, boiling water. He imagines the spirit soaring in its ecstasy like the vapor, diffusing into oneness with the all-embracing divine, and he imagines the dancer who lingered on this phase equilibrium too long, draining his bubbling life into his spirit.

Intending to breathe it in, he lowers his head over the open kettle after it has lent its liquid heat to his cup. The steam heals his aching sinuses just by becoming a part of his breath, and clears his eyes of the remnants the night’s shadows.

Birthdays and Death-Dates

February 14, 2013

The idea of destiny has always interested me, so bear with me as I revisit it from time to time on this blog. It is a part of our cultural genome, manifested in the celebration of birthdays, independence days, anniversaries, etc. It is closely tied to the very basic human feeling that events are not random, or meaningless, but in some intrinsic way, interrelated. As such, we take pains to mark dates, not merely for the purpose of an objective, impersonal history, but for a deep-rooted sense of their personal significance, almost as if these dates have a claim on our lives, or what defines us,  our “essence”. Even in some objective discourse, there is a focus on events rather than the processes which they are a part of, as if these events constitute a break with history. Thomas Hardy, in a stream of thought representing his character Tess, muses in his book Tess of the d’urberVilles, how in our catalogue of important dates that we mark as we progress through each day of the calendar, we always leave out the one most important date, that of our death. One wonders how this date passes us by every year and we barely notice it, until one day, it sneaks up on us, and claims our life, literally and metaphorically.

Those who feel that certain dates contain some source of “power” (such as birth-dates of religious personalities) other than what they themselves invest them with, through remembrance, are thus easily contradicted by their lack of feeling around these end-dates which remain in the shadows and induce no “power” until they have come to be.  If there is a “power” associated with the night the Quran was revealed, or the day Muhammad or Christ was born, and people claim they can feel it, why does no-one feel the power of so many significant dates of human experience that preceded it, which have lapsed into oblivion, or of those dates which are yet to be claimed by future “breaks” with his history? Why are there no horoscopes around deaths? One wonders if anyone has ever done a reverse astrology, reading a person’s life in terms of the astrological significance of their date of death. Or is death, perhaps, considered less destined than birth?

Thus we can say that it is only their symbolic import that makes events and dates seem significant. And if destiny is causality, then it is rooted in processes combining various factors.