To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child , a garden patch, or a redeemed condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday, January 31, 2011

A cry!

A high pitched cry!  I froze in my tracks.

It was a busy morning.  After getting my 10-year old ready for school, I'd just opened our front door to unlock the gate (and to get the newspapers, to browse at least the headlines before rushing to get ready for office) when I heard my son's cry.  The first thought that came to mind (like any parent): he may have hurt himself.  A moment later, however, he came bounding up to the door and pointed outside, where a thick fog was billowing.  Oh, so that was the reason for the excited cry.  Quite a relief.  He went on to tell his mom how everything outside was "invisible" (not the first time this season he had seen fog, but not this late in the season).

After the initial reaction, it got me thinking.  When was the last time I myself had such a 'hoopla' moment, or even wonder?  Even simple things like excitement watching (and feeling) first drops of rain...  excitement (fueled by anticipation) at fruits being plucked from a tree using a long twine...  excitement (tinged with apprehension) reading down the school/college results list...  Can't even remember the feeling, the last time it happened.  Slowly, it seems, as we settle down into humdrum everyday life and the years advance, almost all excitement goes out of the life for many of us.  Those who're fond of sport, for instance cricket in India, are blessed in the sense that at least they can get momentary excitement when they watch matches.  For those who're not too fond of cricket et al, like yours truly (though watching World Cup Soccer remains an abiding interest, but alas, a four-yearly affair), even that is not there.

Is excitement good or bad?  For some of course, like those suffering from heart or brain ailments, it may be bad.  I still remember when we were watching the World Cup Cricket '83 finals, and India were on the verge of winning, the TV commentators were advising heart patients to stop watching!  Also, there's something on the waxing and waning levels of adrenaline in blood not being good for heart/blood vessels.  But even medically, I'd guess (and I could be totally wrong) that occasional excitement may not be a very bad thing (at the least, it could 'keep the machine running' i.e. hone our 'fight or flight' instincts!).

But leaving aside the medical aspects, most people may agree that at least a bit of excitement now and then, whether in relations or at work, may help to bring the best out in people.  Sadly, it seems, the daily grind of rushing about, dealing with traffic, grappling with a (usually) tense & competitive work environment, and then housework (and this applies quite a lot, if not equally, to men too) tends to leave our senses totally dull and hardly receptive to any source of 'real' excitement.  On the other hand, the constant stress may be sending misleading 'fight or flight' signals to our body (sometimes keeping it under a constant state of 'excitement'), with adrenaline rushing about and sometimes doing irreparable damage to our body and mind.  So what's the way out?  'Create' some real excitement in daily life?  Easier said than done, contrary to what the self-improvement guides may teach (too much work!).

The least we can do is not to stifle but nurture the sense of wonder and excitement in our children, mostly at things we ourselves now find mundane or everyday.  Who know, if we allow our taut senses the leeway to empathize with the children's feelings in a true manner, we may also be on the way to recapturing some of that wonder and excitement.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Calamities all over!

I was watching BBC & CNN news last evening.  Not something I do every day, admittedly, since most times one TV of ours is monopolized by my pre-teener in the evenings, and the other by the better half once she's home.  Instead of the rushed, breathless soundbites from reporters, I much prefer to get my news the old fashioned way, through newspapers (and mostly hard copy, though sometimes online as well), where I can get news (free of 'first to the post syndrome') as well as considered views.  Though I do admit that "A picture is worth a thousand words" (read on...), I feel the cacophony of pictures sometimes muddles the mind more than it is informative.

Anyway, so I was watching news, rare as it may be.  What struck me is the multiplicity of natural disasters striking our beloved earth, seemingly all at the same time.
US: snowed over - heaviest snowing since 1925 at NY Central Park, reportedly.
Southern Africa - heavy rains leading to waterlogging/light floods (courtesy La Nina).
Jeddah in Saudi Arabia - in a desert country of all places, and God knows they're just not equipped to handle rain, let alone flood.
South East Asia: Heavy rains (though mercifully no floods).
Australia: The tragic floods continue, with the losses now expected to cross US$ 4 billion.
Japan: A volcano erupts.

Whassup, guys?!  I'm sure the reporters logging in from different parts of the World don't see any patterns here.  But don't the people who bring all of this together discern any pattern either.  All the way from the West to the East, from the North to the South, a wide swathe, rolling in agony cause by natural disasters.  And most of them caused by water in different forms (even the Japanese volcano, if you consider the steam columns rising up from the crater).

What could be behind it:
God's wrath? (Um, no - He'd be too busy managing so many Worlds, and he's already bequeathed the power of free choice to us humans, remember.)
A rare confluence of World weather patterns? (Maybe)
The nature striking back? (Hmmm... there may be something, with all the environmental degradation going on...)
Take your pick.

Meanwhile, to add to the natural disasters, (well, almost) a man made one.  Reportedly, there was an explosion at Davos, near the hotel where all the World's leaders are gathered for a pow-wow on the World economy (no less).

And then a (double) disaster on the sports field: Nadal and (now) Federer are out of the Australian open (does this have anything to do with their eagerness to flee the flooded country? Hope not.).  The commentators are calling it a 'change of guards'.  Let's see...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The real role of politicians (the 'ritual of politics')

While commuting to office this morning, heard on news that a certain national office bearer of a political party (incidentally, the one everyone looks at as almost the messiah, mostly courtesy the lineage) had said while addressing his party workers in a state (again incidentally, one going for polls in the not too long future) that they should keep an eye on the implementation of Central development programs in their respective areas. Taking a cue, the head of the party in that state (perhaps again incidentally, daughter of a party stalwart, long gone) announced that she'd form district monitoring committees for the purpose.

Set me thinking. Why do these hallowed people have to emphasize this simple need to their workers? What is the basic purpose for which grassroots (again a much abused term, now even part of the name of another political party which grew out of this mother party) politics was 'invented'?

To a simple mind, the very basis of representational politics was the 'upward' communication of the aspirations and needs of people living in far flung places to powers that be, and the reverse 'downward' communication of the response (by way of development programs or whatever) to those same people through the channel of their representatives. And that would've been the basic driver for the whole movement across centuries to gain universal franchise (right to vote), something which people across nations fought for and won after a long & hard struggle.

But has this right really empowered the people, especially in an under-developed/developing country like India? It seems the only time that people get to exercise their right & leverage over the political system is during elections. And here too, the process gets vitiated to a large extent by factors like strong-arm tactics, identity politics, and sometimes downright fraud. Even where these factors are not at play, the constituents hardly get any real opportunity to get to know the candidates and understand their outlook and approach, within the short time that the candidates visit the constituencies before the elections. So people who vote (and many don't!) do so either on the basis of identify politics (including for 'dynasties', political or otherwise) or in support of a specific political party. And the manifestos of most election parties are such elaborate documents (making almost identical promises!) that a lay voter is hardly in a position to assess the party's ideology or program directions, and s/he has instead to go by heresay (including those propagated through press and electronic media - and not all independently, as the recent cases of 'sponsored' coverage revealed).

So what happens once elections are over? An eerie calm descends! Having extracted their moolah (that is, votes), the politicians go back to their high abodes, some to state/country capital as elected 'representatives', and most don't look back on the constituencies for another five years (or till when the next elections happen). The elected 'representatives' continue to draw their remunerations (mostly for disrupting the proceedings at the assembly/parliament), and also their (ironically named) 'constituency allowance', travel allowances (ostensibly for visiting the constituencies - which many don't spend as they travel gratis while the railway officials look the other way out of fear or favour) and sundry other moneys, but those who actually visit their constituencies and listen to the people can perhaps be counted on fingers.

Only once in a while, the voice of a politician is heard on matters concerning his/her constituency. This is usually when some calamity has struck or some gross injustice is revealed, for instance people dying of hunger in some districts of a state like Orissa (a regular happening). Then the elected 'representatives' are heard telling the media that this or that thing should have been done for the welfare of the people, but was never done. Begs the question: then what the hell were you doing all these years? Did you take up the issue with those who could do something about it, all through the chain, from the local administrators all the way up (that is, beyond slapping around a bureaucrat or currying personal favours)? And if you really raised the issue and it was still not addressed, did you consider this as an utter lack of your effectiveness (to 'serve people', something you promised during the elections) and consider resigning your post of elected 'representative' on moral grounds? But this is being naive - why should s/he let go of his/her fat salary, allowance and sundry perks (legal and illegal) just to benefit some wretched souls, who would have died anyway!

The problem (or the symptom thereof) is that the 'ritual of politicking' seems to have supplanted actual politics at all levels, which is why 'politics' ('invented' ostensibly for benefit of people) has gained such a bad name [this is akin to the rituals of religions, where something which was supposed to bring people closer to God or their spiritual core has degenerated to just an observance of certain rituals mostly]. So when some people join 'politics', perhaps as grassroots workers, all they think about is what they can do during elections to help their then leader win, and thus curry favours and move up the 'value chain' of political aspirations, all the way up. The basic purpose of politics, that is understanding and communicating local needs upwards and ensuring those needs get fulfilled by appropriately designed and implemented development programs, doesn't enter their equations at any stage. So till such time that a culture evolves where it is ingrained in a political worker (at whatever level) from day one what the basic purpose of 'politics' is, things would continue to run in the same way.

But I'm again being naive. Evolution of a culture, or for that matter anything to do with human endeavour, seems to depend much less on noble thoughts and much more on the alignment of incentives (taking cue from a different plane, the current economic crisis, where the subprime crisis in US is supposed to have been caused due to a misalignment of incentives all through the chain of housing mortgage management, from originators to aggregators to investment bankers and beyond). Till the time people know that they are accountable (that they would be held responsible) for acting in a certain undesirable manner, and conversely they would be rewarded for acting in a manner which is likely to lead to greater public good, they'll continue to act in a way they are accustomed to act since time immemorial. This needs a system of appropriate rewards (incentives) and punishment (disincentives).

But can we really even hope for such a system to evolve, in an environment where even the existing system is regularly bent and broken by people who have the power, either physical or money?

Aphorisms of Dalai Lama

Just came back from our corporate annual day event, addressed by His Holiness Dalai Lama. With some previous indication that Dalai Lama was very down to earth & humble (and humorous!), got a first hand glimpse of the personality.

The theme of Dalai Lama's talk was the traditional harmony between various religious groups in India, since thousands of years. He said that this was true not only of home grown religions like Buddhism, but also those coming from outside like Islam, Parsis, Zoroastrians and Christianity, the influence of all of which India had absorbed in itself. Dalai Lama made a reference to his visit to New York on the first anniversay of 9/11, when he had made the point that the WTC bombings could only be attributed to some 'mischievous' characters in the Islamic commnity, and that the whole community could not be branded as terrorists.

A second theme of the address was how India was inherently democratic, as it had through ages promoted and protected the 'debate' culture and not tried to put down any thought. So even while the ideas of people adhering to Nihilism (those who don't subscribe to any religion or god) were vehemently debated, the adherents themselves were still regarded as 'Rishis' (ascetics). This tolerance for different ideas had, in turn, nurtured the spirit of democracy in the country, as contrasted with many surrounding countries. In this context, Dalai Lama made a reference to the various contrasting ideas propounded by Buddha himself, which (far from arising from any 'confusion' in Buddha's mind, as Dalai Lama humorously remarked) was designed to kickstart the spirit of inquiry among people.

Then came the questions from participants. One question was about how to calm the mind and get over anger and frustrations. Dalai Lama's reply to this was that since frustrations and anger mostly arise due to some problem, it's advisable to think about the problem deeply and try to look for a solution and other opportunities, rather than manifesting the frustration outwardly through anger which doesn't solve the problem. Such meditative inquiry, while it may not directly lead to a solution of the problem, can calm the mind and prepare it better to find a solution. In this context, Dalai Lama made a reference to how he had lost his country, but how this had in turn opened other avenues and how he had been able to learn so much by interacting with people from different backgrounds, religions,etc.

Another question was as to whether there was any one blessing that Dalai Lama would want everyone to receive. To this, first Dalai Lama replied humourously that he didn't have any response. Later, he went on to explain that just asking for blessings didn't solve any problems. He made a reference to his participation at the opening of a Budhist Vihara (monument) at Patna, the capital city of the Bihar state in India. Apparently, at the function, the Chief Minister of the state had remarked that now the blessings of Budha will lead to exemplary development of the state. To which Dalai Lama had (humourously) responded that since Budha's blessings had already been there for the state since hundreds of years (it is said that Budha had attained enlightenment at a place in Bihar), the state should have been very highly developed, instead of being one of the poorest in India! To wit, just blessings are not very useful, and what was required was action. Even Buddha went from house to house explaining the meaning of Buddhism (something the Dalai Lama said he had advised the monks of Ladakh to do, when he had perceived a 'gap' between the monks and the people of the surrounding communities). Same was done and emphasised by Jesus. So instead of just praying for blessings (while that may be something you do anyway), focus on action, was the message.

An 'out of the box' question was raised regarding the 'violence' supposedly involved in the medical profession. To this, Dalai Lama (after referring humorously to two incidents - one where a person had accidentally closed his mouth to speak while a doctor was examining his tooth, and another where Dalai Lama's cook had 'boxed' a dentist who tried to pull out a bad teeth!) said that violence depends on the intentions. A person saying good things and giving gifts may not mean well, which would be mental violence. On the other hand, since a doctor performs a surgery with the intention to cure a person, this cannot be called 'violence'.