Thursday, February 27

The Man at the Mall*

It was old-fashioned ‘give and take’ (a phrase of common parlance around here) that had brought me to the mall; as i was looking to buy a birthday gift for my neighbour’s nine years old daughter, to whose party i had been invited but didn’t want to go. Even less did i want to buy the gift and think of the whole thing as an extravagance. But about the ethics of civilized gift exchange (along with my own lack of courage in not doing the right thing) some other time. Right now — about this man i met at the mall. He was a customer there just like me — a dapper looking chap with an unopened soda bottle in one hand and a chip on the shoulder. What had him riled up, apparently, was the fact that there was no bottle opener (the tool. For, i am guessing they did have one of those soda vending machines that come with built-in opener installed in the ‘back’ — a small partitioned-off area inside the shop that served both as an office and a storeroom — as i remember seeing it there once during my previous visits.) The man was adamant: he didn’t want the bottle opened for him, he wanted the bottle opener. Period. In his own words: “How do i know you are not trying to kill me?... Why, if you should open the bottle with the help of scissors? or bite the top off? Who would be responsible if shards of broken glass should fall in the drink?... Such a big establishment and you don’t keep a bottle opener — such a small item, too! — the whole thing is incredible! A scandal!... Unless somebody says something (and he was doing just that), nothing will ever change.... (Finally.) Dare i hope that amends will have been made by the time i visit you next?” The man left shortly afterwards. To see him raise the devil, that, too, over a bottle opener — “such a small item, too!” — it had indeed been strange. Not the least because of the sense of entitlement he had exhibited. It was something quite new (in the context of the small-town middle-class India to which he obviously belonged. Only once have i seen anything like this before, that, too, only recently.) The man obviously felt that he owned the place and was not afraid to speak and to demand things, and to ask for his money’s worth, so to say. When i followed him out a little later (after i had made my own purchase), he was nowhere to be seen, even though i did briefly scan the road for him. Then a strange thing happened. I began to remember the following lines (from a poem by Faiz):

bol ki lab aazaad hai.n tere
bol zabaa.N ab tak terii hai
teraa sutawaa.N jism hai teraa
bol ki jaa.N ab tak terii hai

(Speak, for your lips are yet free;
Speak, for your tongue is still your own;
Your lissom body yours alone;
Speak, your life is still your own.) —Compared with the cool, air-conditioned air inside the mall, outside it felt like a blazing furnace; the mid-day sun was beating down so hard. But i didn’t mind it at all. A group of street children was playing in the dust in the empty plot that abuts our street where it joins the road. A rickshaw was pulled up not far away waiting for fare. It was business as usual.

*It’s really just a supermarket but men call it a mall.

Wednesday, February 5

Contemporaneity (An Excerpt)

From the food we eat to how we dress up to the way we do things, run our governments, our businesses, to our notions of hygiene, of good health, and of healthy, everything is subject to trends. And for some people knowing and following these trends is the essence of true wisdom. They do little else. So some days they recommend a raw diet, the next they grow their own food; some days they tell you running is good for you, the next they swear by the Art of Living; some days they grow all their bodily hair, the next they are as smooth as a new-born babe. It is questionable if all this swimming along with the tide makes them at all smarter or healthier or more virtuous, but it certainly gives them conceit of knowledge. They think they know when they dont (a disgraceful sort of ignorance, as Plato claims.) What is more, the many regard them as worthy of emulation. And so being deluded themselves, they delude others as well...

Tuesday, February 4

In Praise of "Idleness"

Anything that takes me away from myself, that makes me forget myself, it cannot be good. So when recently somebody asked me, How is it that you are not doing anything (i had been sitting quietly in my chair for a long time), i told her:

You are wrong and i am not not doing anything; in fact, i know exactly what i am not doing. I am not smoking (and if you knew what concentrations of will are required for the purpose, you would not marvel at my being “idle”); i am not watching the television or surfing the Internet or reading the newspaper (among other things, they as a rule inspire in me emotions i no longer care for); i am not speaking when i should shut up; i am not picking up a book to read, out of habit and because i have nothing better to do, acquiring a lot of useless knowledge, which i soon forget, anyway; above all, i am not doing something just for the sake of doing it and because the world is of the opinion — verily it’s called a disease — that anyone with plenty of time on his hands is somehow less than him who has none (i.e. who is always busy.)

Struggle for Life (Or Life of Struggle, Or Both...What Is It?)

So this is what it looks like, then  the so-called struggle. I was meant to go to my cousin’s house and, as luck would have it, i started during the peak evening hours, just when most of the offices close down for the day. The rush had to be seen! At one of the Underground stations, where i had temporarily broken my journey in order to meet with my cousin — he was coming straight from his office, and then we were going to travel together for the rest of the journey — things got so out of hand, in fact, that i even began to fear an accident (thankfully, the only “casualty” was a broken door panel) ... And to think that people go through this every day — and not just this: for this is but a trailer. The struggle is constant. It is manifold. And it is all in the name of staying alive and of putting bread on the table. It must be a pretty big table, indeed! the bread really expensive! ... Or maybe the struggle is its own justification, there being a certain virtue to staying put, much like a soldier never quitting his post out of fear — only the weak and cowards do that, whereas the strong and courageous stick around and fight the fight. They are also the ones to come out victorious ... the first among men! A sort of nature’s winnowing-machine, so to say, for separating the chaff from the grain, the victor from the loser — what absurdity! As though there could ever be any virtue to leading the life of a slave, which is what it is, the struggle is: slaves, not men, competing for the prize of god knows what (for, it isn’t just bread; or, for that matter, anything else that is worthwhile.) And the victorious: not over men but only over slaves ... the best among slaves!

Even at that hour when the grey sky of St. Petersburg is shrouded in total darkness and all its race of officials have dined and sated the...