Archive for January, 2006|Monthly archive page

Making an honest start

I have for long wanted to take a break. Not the usual “break”, where the boss pretends to let me get away from work but gives me enough teasers about what’s in store for me on my return that I spend most of the nights away dreaming up new horrors, and my days doing most of the things I myself expect myself to do on vacations – read, watch movies, talk with friends, or think about doing one of these. Or go to the sort of places I am likely to go to – museums, movies, parks, walks, etc. All of these are very enjoyable, but also quite predictable. It doesn’t make too much difference even if I change the city or country, because this new city or country would still be something I’ve always wanted to visit…

Sometimes, I don’t want to take a DoZ holiday. I want to take a holiday from DoZ. And then go back to being DoZ, because my neuroses are dear to me, and I would miss them frightfully if I permanently exchanged them for someone else’s. (I assume everyone has them).

When Karthik asked me to be a guest on his blog, I thought, what a neat idea. (That sounds composed, but said composure after a considerable time: the head swelled, and the heart went a pitter-patter from the flattery, then from the nervousness). Writing a blog under a pseudonym is an escape of a sort from my true self. Writing for someone else’s blog under said assumed name is [escape]2, as it were. (Sorry to disappoint any who thought DoZ was my real name…I lied, but DoZ does reflect the essence of my true self. I doubt that I’ll get re-invited on the Oprah show for making this disclosure, but hey, you have to be invited first before you can be re-invited.)

From the SEC to Oprah Winfrey, everyone wants to be told the truth these days. So in my first post, I would like to give fair warning of some of the things I may not be entirely truthful about when writing for this blog, or my own.

– The degree of frustration I feel when watching a bad movie. No person involved in the making of a movie has, till date, entered my home and tried to hack me to pieces with a blunt knife. (I added the “till date” clause because one shouldn’t make rash statements. Movies and those involved in their making surprise me all the time)

– The degree of joy I feel when reading a book. I am known to get easily carried away by books, and start writing glowing reviews before I finish a book. I have noted that my sentiments are prone to change by the time I get to the end of the book. Sometimes, I do not update this change in sentiment on the post.

– The degree of pain I feel when considering work related matters. Here’s it’s a case of understating the true state of affairs. Am trying to cheer myself up when writing and I don’t want to encourage any more suicidal tendencies than the ones I already live with.

– Extent of reading I’ve done: After finishing no more than one half of a book by a novelist, I am known to consider myself an expert on said author. I will try to warn you if this is the case, but this is a blanket cop-out, in case I forget to.

– Memories, good and bad: If my memory about where my house keys are at this very moment is any indication of the general state of my memory, I wouldn’t rely too much upon the exact proportion of fact vs. fiction about some incident that happened when I was 8 (Note: I may claim I was 8. In truth, I may have been 26, or 17 or it may have happened only yesterday)

– Any other subject where I feel that fiction sounds better / more entertaining than the truth. This is just a blanket just-in-case.

When I go back and read what I’ve just written, I realize that I’ve successfully made myself sound like a pathological liar. But honestly, I’m not so bad. Really. Or may be I am. I just made sure that you’ll never trust me enough to know the actual truth, if there is such a thing. Now that is what I call an honest start to a few weeks of pretense.

Going major league – for a while

As much as it pains me to use a sporting terminology, I console myself with the fact that using the term does not mean I know any more about baseball (if the term is to do with baseball in the first place, and it may not…in which case I feel greatly reassured.)

Enough beating around the bush. I will be blogging for Stochastica for the next few weeks, or until Karthik’s regular readers bribe him into coming back sooner from Sepia Mutiny, which ever happens earlier. In the interests of efficiency, I will merely copy/paste my posts. Efficiency, ha! I just want to pretend that I have hordes of readers who shun all blogs other than this, and would go into a nasty withdrawal phase if I ignored them for a while. As for the regular readers of Stochastica – hang in there, for this too shall pass.

Why I read – the long version.

I thought all day to come up with a suitable metaphor about what it feels like to begin reading a new novel. I can’t really equate it with any one experience. I was going to say something really corny like ‘sinking into a new novel is like falling in love’. But I won’t say that. Unlike love, a novel is undiluted pleasure.

Early this week, I started reading A.S. Byatt’s Babel Tower. Personally, I think I get the most pleasure from a novel in the first four or so chapters. If it’s an author I am familiar with, the experience of reading the first couple of chapters is like walking back from the mail room with a letter I think is from a friend. I still don’t know the details, but I know enough to be positively inclined to continue investigating. More importantly, I still have a choice, to carry on or not. After about 100 or so pages, usually I no longer have a choice. I must read on.

In those first four chapters, I’m still testing the waters, getting a feel for the texture and colors of the universe the novel offers. This is why I love long novels, because I can give this process of discovery the due diligence it demands. I read partly in order to escape my world, and the greater the details I have about the world I am escaping to, the more real the flight feels. I love authors like Ishiguro and Amit Choudhary for this reason. No floor, no room, no garden, no setting is too trivial for them. Everything is described in loving detail. This is the same reason why I love a book like The Blind Assassin. Before you get to the messy details of what someone did, it’s vital to know who they are, so you understand just why they ultimately do what they do.

In the beginning, a novel is just a novel. I vaguely remember some law from bio-instrumentation – that the very act of measuring a natural phenomenon alters the phenomenon being measured. I don’t suppose a novel ever is just a novel, except in those first few pages. Perhaps novels are created in order to be measured, to be viewed through the eyes and the individual experiences of every reader. But in the beginning, I haven’t yet begun relating to the characters and the situations, to see them through the eyes of who I am, who I think I am, or who I wish I was. All that comes later.

Mind you, it is not that I dislike novels that hurtle you into the action in the second sentence. That is a thrill of a different kind. If you’re listing the merits of different escape mechanisms, the epic is like a 10 course meal with your best friend, in a place very far away from the reality of the present lives of you and you friend, where you have all the time in the world. Pleasures from the past are remembered, and even as you enjoy that meal and that conversation about remembered joys, you know this experience will forever be a part of you, to be recalled at future feasts. The thriller that begins with ‘There was blood everywhere’ or something similar is like doing something immensely pleasurable after you’ve gotten very drunk. Afterwards, you will remember that there probably was pleasure, but the details will be vague. The ten course meal, and getting drunk – both are pleasurable. And both have their own times and places.

Having said that, I really do prefer works like the omnibus edition of the Lord of the Rings where initial perseverance is demanded. Perhaps my love for thick tomes is also a tad motivated by the wonderful feeling I get from adding that imagined regal tilt to my actually rather stubby nose, as I look pityingly at friends who gave up too early.

The pleasure does not go away after the first few chapters. If you think of those chapters like the road to a self-contained world in a castle, the next few chapters (you still haven’t reached the mid-point yet) are like crossing the moat. Some things start making sense, but there is much that is yet to be discovered. I crossed the moat into Babel Tower two nights ago. I now know that the narrative deals not with three parallel story lines, but two. Perhaps the remaining ones will merge, too. I don’t know, and am prepared to find out in my own sweet time. (Update from last night: the story has unexpectedly diverged, with a couple of additional parallel story lines)

Having crossed that moat, I will be in the thick of things. This is when the fever to find out “what happens next?” catches on. From this point on, I’m a lost cause. I only turn off the lights when it’s 3:00 AM or even later, after I realize I absolutely MUST get out of bed in roughly 3-4 hours time. The next day, caffeine from several cups of hot Darjeeling tea is the only thing preventing my head from crashing into my keyboard. Finally the work day ends, dinner is a hurried affair, and I can’t wait to get into my bed and into my book.

By this time, there’s pressure to finish the book. I don’t have the patience to linger on, savoring each line. Sometimes, I purposely call off the chase, when I feel I’m completely missing the point. I have done this repeatedly with Golden Gate. Time and again, there comes a point when I stop relishing the poetry and care only about the story. I have yet to finish that book. Perhaps the only solution is to read it through, and come back for a second, slower reading.

Not all novels get me this worked up, thank goodness. I’d never get any sleep otherwise. The average Woodhouse is an example. I re-read three Jeeves novels over a three week period, rarely reading more than a chapter a day. There’s no hurry to finish. I knew that Jeeves will rescue everyone, which cheered me up. I knew that poor Bertie will end up with egg on his face, which depressed me more than it usually does. I prefer Blandings Castle books, where there’s never even a suggestion of evil. Lady Constance at her most livid and the worst pig stealer are benign creatures compared to the menace that Jeeves is. Lord Emsworth is NEVER hurt, unlike poor Bertie. And Gally Threepwood is infinitely superior to Jeeves, when it comes to spreading lightness and joy in this world. But I continue to read Jeeves books in the blind hope that someday, one day, Bertie will get to keep his purple socks or his eye-sore of a mess jacket or his moustache… It hasn’t happened so far – but there are many Jeeves books. Am sure there are a few I haven’t read yet, there just may be one where Bertie will finally be recognized by one and by all for the genuinely nice chap he is, instead of being labeled ‘well-meaning ass’ / ‘of negligible intellect’ or whatever other insults he collects by the end of a book.

As always, I get distracted. Apologies. To go back to before I veered off at a tangent, not all books have me sleep deprived. Whether or not they make me lose sleep, most of them (at least the good ones) leave their mark. Before I am even conscious of it, another pearl of wisdom or inane remark becomes part of my own make up (the latest addition – “What [people]’re really thinking about isn’t the one they are marrying but the one they aren’t.” From the Byatt I am reading). Sometimes I wonder if my life completely vicarious lived only through the lives of the people I read about… But the fact is I am not Helen Graham or Colonel Fawcett. Just as I am not Shanti Seth or Jack Aubrey. Books teach me lessons I will never have a chance to learn otherwise.

I think I will stop here. There literally is no end to the reasons why I read, and the pleasures I get from it. Despite rambling on for all this time, I am positive that the minute I click the Publish button, at least five other things will occur to me, as they will keep occurring to me through out today and later tonight. What brought on the rambling? This morning, after taking one look at my blood shot eyes, a colleague innocently asked why I read… Ha.

My heart’s desire

What are the big things one sets one’s heart on? Why do we choose them? When it comes to the qualities I think define me as a person or my greatest ambitions – the reasons I selected them are often so trivial that it’s frequently embarrassing, and occasionally frightening.

Let us take 2 examples: How did I get this book-crazy? My parents. When I was around 6 or 7, mom and dad grew bone weary of meeting my ‘tell me a story’ demands and handed over a book. I still remember my first book. It was a story about a kingdom famed for its sweets and which was overrun with rats. The king tries all sorts of schemes to rid his kingdom of these creatures, and finally as the very first illustration of the ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ philosophy, agrees to let the rats stay on, provided they stick to the official quota of sweets set aside for them by the citizens.

To think I actually resented my parents for weaning me away from the half-hourly ‘story-time’ ritual… Gad, I can’t imagine how life would have been if I’d simply given up in a huff (yes, we used to huff quite a bit then, as we are still wont to on occasion), and decided to play with toys instead (Egad! Thank you, the powers that be, for saving me from that fate worse than death!)…

Moving on to example #2 – travel. Someday, I plan to visit Norway. Reason: Marco, the linguistically-challenged Italian from my high school French text book (Le Mauger Rouge). The poor man spouted some line about the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’, the idea, in all probability, was to teach us those vital words (land, midnight, sun) that we will no doubt need if we ever found ourselves in Paris and had to quickly find out where the rest rooms were. But I found myself enamored at once. The minute talk of fjords started, I was lost forever. And mind you, this was before any mention was made of aurora borealis. Of course, over the years, I have found numerous other reasons for visiting Norway, similar to the original reason only in the extent of their triviality –SlartiBartfast’s fondness for fjords, Bill Bryson & ‘Neither Here Nor There’, Stefan Edberg (under the handy, if misguided rule of thumb that to see one Scandinavian country is to see them all) and God knows what else.

Now, everybody expects me to have a clear idea of what I want to do with my life. I am expected to have short term goals and long term goals, and short-term and long-term plans to achieve those goals. Having those goals isn’t sufficient. I must somehow explain why those goals are my goals. And sound sufficiently important and earnest when I do the explaining. When I dig into the roots of my single greatest passion in life, and discover neither initiative nor a burning desire to accomplish some inspiring goal, but only my parents’ weariness and my own annoying behavior, the less I explore the true reasons behind my other ‘interests’ and ‘goals’ the better it probably is.

So much for the reasons behind my fondest dreams. What is the likelihood of my achieving these goals? Apparently not much. For, there doesn’t appear to be any such thing as a sure thing. Please remember that this is not about knowing that the sun will rise tomorrow from the east. It’s about finding my one true love, getting that dream job, buying that perfect car, winning the Pulitzer, finding a cure for cancer, or whatever crazy seemingly impossible things which for whatever crazy reasons I have my heart set on. As you can clearly see, these are complex goals, influenced by hundreds of thousands of factors, any of which could go wrong, and are therefore inherently unsure bets.

This is growing into a long post – so we’ll do a quick recap. Even the most important goals are set for random and utterly trivial reasons. The likelihood of achieving those goals is any one’s guess.

Let us move on to the rewards. For whatever silly reason, fact remains that I want to visit the Land of the Midnight Sun. Let us suppose for a minute that I do actually make enough money to afford the trip and have enough vacation time. What is the expected reward? A sense of untold happiness, which I believe I will experience once I accomplish that goal. With some other goals, the reward is not pleasure, but the absence of pain. For instance, my mother managed to keep me studious through my school and college years with one very effective threat – how I would starve slowly to death if I didn’t study well enough to get a job. So, for 20+ years, I toiled on, with the aim of avoiding hunger pangs.

Rewards – combination of begetting pleasure and avoiding pain. So be it. Even if I assumed that I will achieve all that I want to achieve, and get the rewards that motivated me to achieve them, the next question is how much will these rewards be worth, after I’ve earned them?

I read somewhere that men and women tend to overestimate future happiness as well as disappointments. I suppose that’s true. Indeed, I know this to be true from experience. At 8, my big goal in life was to become a scientist (the word was always uttered breathlessly, think Marilyn Monroe in Seven Year Itch). I was going to wear a white lab coat, work in a lab, and be surrounded by multihued test tubes. And oh yeah, wear glasses. A nice specific, tangible goal if there was ever one, wouldn’t you say? In my third year of undergrad, I was doing precisely that. The moment I realized that I was living my childhood dream, what do you think resulted? Tears of joy and smugness? If you ask my classmates, they will tell you a different story, one closer to the truth. The peal of my hysterical laughter still lives on in their memories, triggering the occasional nightmare. Did I mention men and women overestimate future happiness? Amen to that.

Another recap. Goals are random and trivial, set for equally random, trivial reasons. The likelihood of achieving those goals is slim. Once you’ve achieved even complicated, seemingly impossible goals, there is a real possibility that you’ll feel no different from say a week before you achieved these complicated & seemingly impossible goals.

I performed a highly unscientific poll around the lunch table today to verify these conclusions. Out of 5 including self, these were some of the disclosures:

a) X: My uncle talked me into majoring in electrical engineering because he saw a bright future for me in Tamil Nadu Electricity Board.

b) Y: I was specialized in high voltage engineering. Am still not sure how I ended up as a software engineer.

c) DoZ: Once upon a time, I wanted to be a scientist. Boy, am I glad, I am not.

d) X: Amen to that. Before I wanted to be an electrical engineer, I wanted to be a doctor.

e) A: I wanted to make movies, but parents wouldn’t let me apply to film school. I almost became a civil engineer. But boy, am I glad I am an electrical engineer.

f) X: I was positive I did not want to move to the US. That’s why I married a desi from India (as opposed to Jersey). Did not plan on said desi moving to the US.

All 5 agreed that their presence in said lunch room / current job was no cause for either great happiness or utter despair.

(Note from pollster: There is no double counting – we just have a surfeit of lost electrical engineers).

So, it would appear my conclusion stands. Life happens.

And now, the clincher: when you’ve acknowledged the above, what does it do for your sense of commitment? How can you put in the sort of blood, sweat and tears that anything worth having seems to demand? Will as many poems get written or movies made about love after one knows that love most probably isn’t as great you imagined it would be? Will Devdas or Romeo or Juliet have made the crazy decisions they did if they knew that a few weeks or a few months after they broke up, they’d have picked up the pieces and simply carried on? Aren’t Parvati and Joan Didion the characters / personalities we should truly celebrate? After all, they not only moved on, but married rich men or wrote best sellers from their passing phase of despondence.

Moral of this overlong and winding post: The heart desires. But in life, there may be rich men & bestsellers even the heart doesn’t know about.

Ignorance is bliss

What a promising start to the New Year – asserting that, I mean. I get sentimental about a lot of things, and I really wanted to start the New Year with a post with a whopping dose of goodness and confidence and what not. As always things that move me enough to write aren’t usually brimming with goodness and confidence and all that. What started this post? Last week’s episode of CSI. Shudder! Yes, I watch Jerry Bruckheimer shows. But after that night, I think that the statement will soon be amended to “I used to watch popular television.”

A lifelong bibliophile, I’ve never questioned the inherent superiority of knowledge over ignorance. There may some matters that are guaranteed to bore you into an unrecoverable coma, if you ever took the trouble to find out about – like the intricacies of American Football, or most sports. But there wasn’t much on this planet or beyond which I felt was better to never inquire into, or pay attention to if someone else happened to mention them in the passing. Knowledge, till recently, was divided into boring and interesting, and varying degrees of boring and interesting. There was no “good” or “evil” cubby-hole, just as there was no “NOT to EVER find out about” compartment.

I shan’t go into the plot of the CSI episode – I’ve already lost one night’s sleep over the silly thing, and I really don’t want to waste any more time on it. And after all, who am I to judge? Perhaps the idea of reading is as nauseating to some folks as that plot felt to me.

No the point of this post is something else. I have come to the realization, perhaps too late, that omniscience is no longer desirable. I really don’t want to know about everything about everything any more.

Maybe that will be the theme I will focus on this year. Not bother with the things I see are starting to bother me. I don’t want to lead a life in the constant lap of comfort (yeah right!), but then again, if there is something am losing sleep over, I only ask that it be worth losing sleep over. This afternoon, for instance, I finally got around to watching Million Dollar Baby. The last few days have been really stressful, and I pretty much cried my way through this movie – giving vent to all the misery and doubt walled up in me over the last couple of months. Yes, this movie’s probably going to keep me up tonight, wondering about life and death, but at least this was worth it.

I sound disjointed, I know. I have a ton of things to take care of. I will finish those, and come back with a more coherent post. For now, no more CSI. Boy, that feels good.