Friday, 28 June 2013

Can we think of animals other than as food, pets or pests?

(A quick update on what has kept me occupied these past days.)

(In the photograph: Black-tailed prairie dogs looking out for predators, eating, interacting with pups and generally being the awesome animals that they are.)

If one wants to study animal cognition– animals as thinking, complex beings– then a study of prairie dogs is inevitable.

For the past couple of months I’ve had the opportunity to observe black-tailed prairie dogs regarded as a keystone species of the short-grass prairie as some 160 other species depend on them for their survival. Moreover their burrows provide underground tunnels for water to flow, thus harvesting rainwater in a dry land with little rain.

Highly social beings, the prairie dogs are ground squirrels that live in colonies consisting of complex social systems spread over several geographic units, known as wards. Each ward contains several kingship units called coteries with a dominant male, several subdominant males, adult females and their pups. Through play, mock fights, mutual grooming and food sharing the pups learn the ways of the colony’s complex social system (more on that later). A highly interesting and engaging pursuit for any student of social structure and organizations.

Throughout the colonies they use visual cues and vocalizations to communicate. They have distinctive “barks” to indicate the nature of threat, whether it’s aerial or terrestrial and at what speed it is approaching. The all clear is a wheezy call accompanied by paws thrown in the air, much like a Mexican wave during a football match.

Symbolic language is considered the one thing that separates humans from non-human animals. Professor Constantine Slobodchikoff has been studying Gunnison's prairie dog communication for  30 years. He notes that predator-specific calls appear to be referential in nature, describing objects and events external to the animal.  He has found that not only do prairie dogs have different words, or alarm calls, but also create new words to refer to new things in their environment and also can discuss things that are not present. Both these abilities were considered purely human. He has also found their language exhibits geographic variations, much like our dialects though prairie dogs from different regions can communicate with each other.

Persecuted as lowly rodents by ranchers and city planners because of their burrows, the prairie dog population has declined 95 percent since mid-19th century. Along with it other dependent species like the black-footed ferret, swift fox, and ferruginous hawk too have declined. Continued study of prairie dog language – its grammar and syntax– shows the limits and flaws of human understanding of other life forms.

I have just skimmed the surface of Professor
Slobodchikoff's study. Anyone interested in Animal Cognition should read 'Cognition and Communication among Prairie Dogs' by C. N. Slobodchikoff:

Here's a link about the BBC documentary "Prairie dogs, talk of the town,": 

Friday, 3 May 2013

The Hiatus

“Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

One fine day in 2008 I had an epiphany. In my diary I noted down the precise words– “You are not my audience.”* It was a liberating thought. It was as if I had broken some unseen barrier. Suddenly I was free and beyond the reach of any particular individual or social constraint. The only constraints that remained were the one’s that take birth and die almost daily within one’s conscious and subconscious being. I began posting online in 2008. It was to mark a pause: A pause to think, if you will. It has been five years since.

Did I succeed in making someone read beyond 140 characters? Did I open a tiny window to other ways of seeing, other ways of being– even if only for a moment? Did any of it matter, not on a cosmic scale but on a very thinly sliced sliver of time?

If I were to be honest, then the answer would plainly be, “It isn’t important.” Nor was it the intended purpose. The exercise like all physical and mental excursions was purely for personal benefit. However, regardless of the best-laid plans of mice and men, life keeps breaking in and randomly moving the chess pieces. Even if one refuses to play the game, by being a mere bystander (by doing nothing) one influences and is influenced by the proceedings. One doesn’t need to master sociology to understand that. But one needs good sense to recognize that there are no more moves left on the board. That it is time to fold the board, pack away the pieces and go home. Have a cup of tea, or eat an orange. And then reflect back on what one has experienced. But not for too long. For tomorrow lies ahead and with it will come new games played out on some other new arenas.

Or maybe upon reflection one will simply say, “To hell with all these games.” And go sit by the creek with the flowers and watch the clouds and the birds.

* “…We neither of us perform to strangers." –Mr. Darcy to Ms. Elizabeth Bennet, Ch. 31, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
After writing this post I recollected this dialogue from a book that I keep coming back to almost every year, ever since I first read it when I was around 15 years old. Which only reconfirms what Proust said about reading: Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself. The writer’s work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might have never seen in himself without the book. The reader’s recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book’s truth.

Afterword: Is this the end? Or does a sequel lie beyond? I don’t have any answers yet.
If ever you are curious and find yourself wondering the same then you could stop by the facebook page and piece together something like a story.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Hare: A Memory

 “Don't you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a hare sitting up?”
― D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love 

Watercolour Pencils and Charcoal on Fabriano Accademia Drawing Paper

Watercolour Pencils and Charcoal on Fabriano Accademia Drawing Paper

Watercolour Pencils and Charcoal on Fabriano Accademia Drawing Paper

One had a lovely face,
And two or three had charm,
But charm and face were in vain
Because the mountain grass
Cannot but keep the form
Where the mountain hare has lain.

― W.B Yeats, "Memory"

Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Peacock

The Peacock we know (and don't know).
A peacock tries to impress a peahen.
The fabulous colours, the result of structural colouration.
Peacock feeding on seeds laid out for birds in a residential locality in India.
The Peacock (male peafowl) with its showy tail and iridescent colours is not just hard to miss but easy to dismiss, except when he spreads his tail and dances. That is the only time when we care for him. Other than that we only think about peacocks when someone says the words ‘National Bird’.

There is much about the peacock that we think we know. But I suspect there is much we don’t.

I could tell you that the iridescence plumage of the peacock isn’t due to colour pigments but is a result of structural colouration– that means the fibres in the tail feathers scatter light, in accordance with a complex optical interference phenomenon (Bragg reflections). And as optical interference depends upon the angle of light, the colours seem to shimmer as we view the peacock from different angles.

But I would rather talk about how the bird, which is a forest dweller, now comes looking for food to houses that are being built on what once was forests. Instead of roosting on trees, the peacocks now settle for the night on cell phone towers that have taken the place of trees.

Peacocks scavenging for food in open garbage dumps was one of the reasons why I started observing birds as a means to understand the impact of human consumption on other living beings. Before that I spent a large part of the day looking at garbage dumps– the other side of human consumption. But garbage dumps aren’t attractive enough to make people understand that their every action has a consequence. Or that there is no such thing as ‘free choice’.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Four Books: Afterthoughts

Afterthoughts on four books read in the past year (or so). As always, if you are looking for a review please look elsewhere. Posted below are some thoughts that these books brought to the fore.

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer

I read the American edition of the book: The one with the delightful cover featuring a Sumo wrestler and a dinosaur, among other things, placed on the different levels of a house (which makes perfect sense when one has read the book). It was lent by a friend who said, “You read it first. You’ll like it.” It was a gesture that is becoming obsolete– the one where friends lend you their brand new unopened books, not simply because they want you to read it first, but because they really like you and that is their way of expressing it.

If you haven’t heard about the book then it is clear that you and I don’t share the same planet (by which I simply mean the same perspective and worldview and interests and so on). So much has already been said about the book and Joshua Foer that I can’t think of anything new to add. That this book is/will become a classic is never in doubt. What is perhaps worth debating is whether being able to remember everything (and never forget anything) is a desirable mental state. In fact, the book dwells on this aspect too. We get to meet the most forgetful man in the world and also the man who could never forget anything.

But what the book most importantly demonstrates is the capacity of the human brain to learn things that we categorize as ‘difficult’. A source of inspiration, a self-help book, for all those who quiver in the presence of algebra or art.

The Facts of Winter by Paul Poissel translated by Paul La Farge

Paul Poissel was not born in 1848. As a young man, he did not set out to become the greatest Turkish architect in Paris. He did not fail to become the greatest Turkish architect in Paris. He never became a poet, or invented puzzles for an illustrated magazine. In 1904, he did not write this book, The Facts of Winter.*

Of course, Paul Poissel doesn’t exist. Just like the vivid, evocative dreams of Parisians living in 1881, recorded in this book that he never wrote. Without giving away the premise of the book, in case you haven’t read it, let me just say that this book will teach you how to write a dream and/or how a book is written. 

Which brings us to the question: Where does memory end and imagination begin?

For me oranges are a fact of winter. As the snow falls outside my window, even as I type these words, the imagined smell of oranges brings to mind memories of sunny winter afternoons. Which leads me to other winters, and other facts, and other dreams from those other times.

*From the back cover of the book.

Edgelands: Journey’s into England’s True Wilderness by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts

People planning trips to ‘wildlife sanctuaries and parks’ often forget that wild creatures co-exist with humans. And also that the sanctuaries aren’t truly wild but are intensively managed by humans (but that is the subject of another post).

Most of the photographs that I take are from the urban areas– the birds, flowers and trees are always a short walk or bus/train ride away from my house. Most are found on my daily commute. Wildlife and wilderness isn't elsewhere. But to understand that you’ll need to re-examine the definition of the word ‘wilderness’. Two poets in a beautifully written book, part childhood memory, and part exploration present you a new perspective on it.

This book is about the oft-neglected spaces– the landfill sites, gravel pits, motorways, business parks, parking lots– the Edgelands, the spaces where the “veneer of civilization” peels away and reveals the true wilderness that is neither ‘city nor countryside’. It is also an exploration of our imagined and idealized notions of wilderness (that we pick up from the books we read) and the wilderness that is always there, close at hand. An issue close to my heart, you’ll probably call it my work– same thing, different definitions.

The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant by Mavis Gallant

I began this post by talking about books and friends. And book covers. I partly picked up this book for the haunting cover photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Also I consider Mavis Gallant’s stories friendly: they are welcoming at the end of a long day, but more importantly they always speak to me.

I have written about Mavis Gallant elsewhere on this blog. But I keep come back to Mavis Gallant because she writes about nomads and people in exile– not just people living away from the place where they were born but people who are disengaged and detached. People juggling memory, imagination and reality. At times homesick but the home they pine for doesn’t exist, neither here nor in the country that is considered their nationality (often a short form for their identity).

Thursday, 4 April 2013

How To Be a Poet

Even if you aren't able to come up with a poem, you'll still find poetry– of the best kind, the one that doesn't require any words.

(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.   
Sit down. Be quiet.   
You must depend upon   
affection, reading, knowledge,   
skill—more of each   
than you have—inspiration,   
work, growing older, patience,   
for patience joins time   
to eternity. Any readers   
who like your poems,   
doubt their judgment.   


Breathe with unconditional breath   
the unconditioned air.   
Shun electric wire.   
Communicate slowly. Live   
a three-dimensioned life;   
stay away from screens.   
Stay away from anything   
that obscures the place it is in.   
There are no unsacred places;   
there are only sacred places   
and desecrated places.   


Accept what comes from silence.   
Make the best you can of it.   
Of the little words that come   
out of the silence, like prayers   
prayed back to the one who prays,   
make a poem that does not disturb   
the silence from which it came.

– Wendell Berry, How to Be a Poet. Source: Poetry (January 2001).

Saturday, 23 March 2013

A Note

A message from Nature on a certain day in February
This is my letter to the World 
That never wrote to Me – 
The simple News that Nature told – 
With tender Majesty   

Her Message is committed 
To Hands I cannot see – 
For love of Her – Sweet – countrymen – 
Judge tenderly – of Me

– Emily Dickinson

Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Child Awakens

Acrylic on Cardboard
Panicking alone in chloroform,
The child awaking, when the fire is
Weak as a jelly and barely warm,
Calls, but sees in its parent’s iris
Equal alarm, and so begins to cry
For solider reassurance than a worried eye.

And finds, since sympathy only shelves
Skeletons into cupboards deeper
And comforters talk to cure themselves,
The waker must walk as alone as the sleeper;
Pains are not charmed by visitors in furs,
Nor devils conjured out by passionate amateurs.

– Nightmare by James Michie (1954). From the Times Literary Supplement archives.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

The Gift

Great Crested Grebe. Watercolour pencil on crumpled sheet of paper.
Great Crested Grebe mating display
(The photographs of great crested grebe mating display are posted on the Facebook page. I shall not be re-posting them on the blog becasue cross-posting the same photograph across plaforms is wasteful as explained in an earlier post.)

“Do not be afraid; our fate
Cannot be taken from us; it is a gift.”
― Dante Alighieri, Inferno

In the twilight of the previous century someone gifted me a box of 36 Staedtler watercolour pencils. He had spotted something that, quite frankly, had eluded me. But then he has a rare gift– he possesses impeccable creative judgment. That evening I surprised myself by drawing a great crested grebe on a crumpled sheet of paper. The rest of the story isn’t available for free. Moreover, it doesn’t serve the purpose of this post, I only refer to it to illustrate the fact that some gifts are fully appreciated only with the passage of time.

Last week a pair of great crested grebes performed their mating ritual for an audience consisting of just me. They gifted me a moment of pure bliss. For a few minutes the world was infused with grace and beauty. Even though I was standing a stone’s throw away from the office towers of Barclays, BP, Morgan Stanley et. al. The gift that the great crested grebes bestowed on me was timeless and inviolate.

Some gifts get misplaced or are discarded over time – we seem to outgrow them. Of the many gifts humans may accumulate, a sense of wonder is the one that seems to be least missed when it is lost. That has perhaps sealed humanities fate.

And then there are those times when we simply are unable to realize that what we have is a gift – we refuse to accept it. This blog that you are reading now too is one such gift from me to you, regardless of its eventual fate.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Wingless Man*

Pigeon wandering aimlessly in snow.

(I absolutely love the poem posted below. Only humans are perplexed when they don't understand, or rather when all their efforts to arrive at 'a final answer' to life's (assumed) mysteries come to naught. Knowledge is conditional- bound by time, place, and that perplexing thing called 'understanding'. The more we seek to know, the less we will understand. No wonder looking at birds we wish we had their kind freedom– the freedom from doubt, the ability to just be.)

Anthropos apteros* for days
Walked whistling round and round the Maze,
Relying happily upon
His temperment for getting on.

The hundreth time he sighted, though,
A bush he left an hour ago,
He halted where four alleys crossed,
And recognized that he was lost.

"Where am I?" Metaphysics says
No question can be asked unless
It has an answer, so I can
Assume this maze has got a plan.

If theologians are correct,
A Plan implies an Architect:
A God-built maze would be, I'm sure,
The Universe in minature.

Are data from the world of Sense,
In that case, valid evidence?
What in the universe I know
Can give directions how to go?

All Mathematics would suggest
A steady straight line as the best,
But left and right alternately
Is consonant with History.

Aesthetics, though, believes all Art
Intends to gratify the heart:
Rejecting disciplines like these,
Must I, then, go which way I please?

Such reasoning is only true
If we accept the classic view,
Which we have no right to assert,
According to the Introvert.

His absolute pre-supposition
Is - Man creates his own condition:
This maze was not divinely built,
But is secreted by my guilt.

The centre that I cannot find
Is known to my unconscious Mind;
I have no reason to despair
Because I am already there.

My problem is how not to will;
They move most quickly who stand still;
I'm only lost until I see
I'm lost because I want to be.

If this should fail, perhaps I should,
As certain educators would,
Content myself with the conclusion;
In theory there is no solution.

All statements about what I feel,
Like I-am-lost, are quite unreal:
My knowledge ends where it began;
A hedge is taller than a man."

Anthropos apteros, perplexed
To know which turning to take next,
Looked up and wished he were a bird
To whom such doubts must seem absurd.

–W.H. Auden, The Labyrinth

Friday, 1 March 2013

To Read Yourself Stupid*

It is possible to read too many books. Or perhaps it isn’t. But it is possible to be totally consumed by the books and lose sight of the world. And it is entirely possible to read yourself stupid*.

All the people who read a lot in my acquaintance are prisoners of what they read. I haven’t, unfortunately, seen anyone of them come up with a single original thought. (My friends who earn their living by creating original work naturally don’t fall in this category; also they rarely have time to read ‘a lot’.) It seems most of these book readers are looking at someone else to think and feel and describe what life is like to them. They are incapable of doing so on their own.

I am sure you too are acquainted with people of this disposition. The kind who when we talk about art will bring up John Berger’s book, as if to say that if you haven’t read Berger you are incapable of truly appreciating art, which is strange, especially given the fact that most art that Berger talks about in his book was considered great by people who didn’t need a book to tell them what art is or how one must look at it.

Such ‘avid book readers’ see books as an escape– it is worth asking the question ‘from what?’ Most will say it is from the insipid conversation of others around them. Which is most amusing given the fact that they themselves are incapable of conversing about anything other than what they’ve read in a book, written by someone else.

Don’t for a moment consider that I don’t want people to read books. Please, read often and read a lot. But don’t become a prisoner to what you read, moaning the end of a book as if it is the end of existence itself. And most importantly please don’t be limited by what you read. Absorb it, love it, re-read it but never for once replace it for your own thinking. For aren’t books simply repository of other people’s ideas that may help you think of some ideas of your own? So, read but more importantly do take a break from reading to do some thinking of your own.

After writing this I came upon an essay by Arthur Schopenhauer titled ‘On Books and Reading’. Here is an excerpt:

“When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process. In learning to write, the pupil goes over with his pen what the teacher has outlined in pencil: so in reading; the greater part of the work of thought is already done for us. This is why it relieves us to take up a book after being occupied with our own thoughts. And in reading, the mind is, in fact, only the playground of another’s thoughts. So it comes about that if anyone spends almost the whole day in reading, and by way of relaxation devotes the intervals to some thoughtless pastime, he gradually loses the capacity for thinking; just as the man who always rides, at last forgets how to walk. This is the case with many learned persons: they have read themselves stupid*. For to occupy every spare moment in reading, and to do nothing but read, is even more paralyzing to the mind than constant manual labor, which at least allows those engaged in it to follow their own thoughts. A spring never free from the pressure of some foreign body at last loses its elasticity; and so does the mind if other people’s thoughts are constantly forced upon it. Just as you can ruin the stomach and impair the whole body by taking too much nourishment, so you can overfill and choke the mind by feeding it too much. The more you read, the fewer are the traces left by what you have read: the mind becomes like a tablet crossed over and over with writing. There is no time for ruminating, and in no other way can you assimilate what you have read. If you read on and on without setting your own thoughts to work, what you have read can not strike root, and is generally lost.” 


Sunday, 24 February 2013

New Learnings: Round 3

Or quick takes on the social media, each worthy of a separate, longer post that shall not be written.

Prologue: For those unfortunate enough to hear the words 'social media strategy' on a daily basis.
In an interview in The Guardian: Thom Yorke on Radiohead's experience of releasing In Rainbows online.
Having thought they were subverting the corporate music industry with In Rainbows, he now fears they were inadvertently playing into the hands of Apple and Google and the rest. "They have to keep commodifying things to keep the share price up, but in doing so they have made all content, including music and newspapers, worthless, in order to make their billions. And this is what we want? I still think it will be undermined in some way. It doesn't make sense to me. Anyway, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. The commodification of human relationships through social networks. Amazing!"
Click to watch OnionTalks on Using Social Media to Cover For Lack of Original Thought. For those gaga over QR codes, here is a Tumblr that says it all – Pictures of People Scanning QR Codes

1. When content is valued over and above the individuals creating the content, then aggregators of all hues and sizes (Google, The Huffington Post, Brainpicker etc.) get the cream while the content creators are left scrapping the bottom of the barrel. The aggregators also act as gatekeepers to what kind of information we can access and in what form.

2. Information by itself is meaningless. It doesn't exist in a vacuum. For example, sharing every mundane life activity or everything you read is nothing, but of self-serving interest, especially if it is shared only to be 'liked', which in itself is a (sad) attempt at seeking social validation. It is in no way meaningful even to the people you know. More so, if by sharing you in are in no way furthering any kind of discourse whatsoever. It is just spam and like spam it has a much neglected environmental impact.**

3. The social media makes it easier for people to team up with others who share similar interests and exclude anyone who disagrees with them. That leads to what is known as enclave extremism– hardening of extremists viewpoints, aided by a sense of being part of a group, a mob. Internet Trolls and astroturfing (often corporately funded, read about attacks on climate science and climate scientists)  successfully and often viciously drown the individual voice of reason. The social media is anything, but democratic. And also not a very polite place.

4. Social media, as Evgeny Morozov wrote in 'The Net Delusion' creates an illusion of freedom. Instead of aiding democracy it is helping secret police and censors of autocratic governments (and corporations). It makes dissent manageable. (And yes, the revolution will not be tweeted, as Malcolm Gladwell wrote in 2010, and his central premise is hard to counter. Something that urban Indians also found out in December 2012.)

5. Another off-shoot is that we are becoming dumber and less analytical. Often when searching for something people click on the first link that Google search puts up and it is Wikipedia. There is also a tendency to dismiss people who frequently ask the question why or add a dissenting note to any popular argument as cynics.

** The internet does consume less energy, for most part. However, it comes with certain caveats. The internet doesn't run on magic. Every important and nonsensical thing shared online is stored on servers that you can access anytime with a click. These servers run on electricity derived from non-renewable energy sources. So, while you maybe growing an organic garden or not using  plastic bags it all comes to not if you are an over-sharer. Consider the last 5 things you shared online. Really, was it necessary to cross post those photos on various platforms. Or those links to breaking news and badly art-directed quotes. Consider your mail inbox. You won't believe how much server space all those mails in your inbox take up.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Red Fox

“…because he had no place he could stay in without getting tired of it and because there was nowhere to go but everywhere, keep rolling under the stars...” ― Jack Kerouac, On the Road

In a small island in the Pacific Ocean the foxes (including the one in the photograph) are found standing next to the road, looking to hitch a ride perhaps, in an attempt to escape the borders of their lives.

There are an estimated 10,000 red foxes in London. They have been to 10 Downing Street and even sought shelter in the choir stalls of St Paul’s Cathedral. Unfortunately, I’ve always come upon them at night and so haven’t managed to get a photograph.

The most fascinating thing about foxes in London is that they have been spotted even on the Underground; riding down the escalators (standing on the left side), they have learnt to mind the gap between the train and the platform and stand clear of the closing doors.

What causes this wanderlust among foxes? What urge makes them take the Central Line to Ealing Broadway? If not here, then where is it that they would rather be?

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Tube

The tube celebrated 150 years in January 2013. And much has been and will be said about it. Andrew Martin has a lovely book– Underground, Overground: A Passenger's History of the Tube. And here's one person's personal tribute to the Underground: 150 great things about the Underground (from design to objects to sights and sounds; it is pretty much all in there). (Edit: John Lanchester Rides the Underground– the comments are worth reading too.)
It's impossible to imagine London without the Underground. In fact, the trains make the city accessible, not just by making it possible to travel anywhere without dealing with traffic jams, but also because a train carriage is a microcosm of London itself. The city comes together on the trains; people of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and nationalities share the same carriage. And if one travels long enough one can see much of London life played out between the stations.* Or come upon something as fragile and rare as "a smile's costless revelry".**

For me personally, the Tube is about more than getting from point A to B. Mostly about simple pleasures like noting what people are reading, though due to most reading being done on e-readers now, this will soon become a lost pleasure– however, it was a moment to remember when nearly half the people in the carriage were reading the last Harry Potter book. The 'public' signage and the station announcements can sometimes say more about the 'Tube experience' than any article or book.

And the unexpected pleasure of being greeted by a new Poem on the Underground. Yesterday, I had that pleasure twice.

*Stations by Connie Bensley
**Barter by Nii Ayikwei Parkes
(Both are among the new poems added to celebrate 150 years of the Underground and I came upon them on the Jubilee Line.)

Friday, 8 February 2013

In Silence

Baya Weaver Male. Watercolour pencils on acid free cartridge paper.

Goldfinch on Coneflower. Watercolour pencils on acid free cartridge paper.

Juvenile Indian Silverbill. Watercolour pencils on acid free cartridge paper.

Barn Swallow. Charcoal on acid free cartridge paper. Messy and fun.

The emotions are sometimes so strong that I work without knowing it. The strokes come like speech. –Vincent van Gogh

The art of drawing which is of more real importance to the human race than that of writing...should be taught to every child just as writing is.
    – John Ruskin
Perhaps if people were encouraged to draw something everyday, they'd talk a lot less. They'd begin to appreciate the importance of silence, of observation, of not getting entangled in the outward appearance of things. By watching a pencil slowly follow the contours of the subject, they would learn to edit out the superfluous and the unnecessary; they'd perhaps learn to not just see things but also comprehend them.

It would make the world a more peaceful place, even if all our problems wouldn't get solved (I am certain half of them would) at least there would be a lot more of silence. And when we say we seek peace, we often mean we are looking for silence– an absence of man-made sounds.

That's the limitation as well as the limitlessness of words– their meanings are not locked in some dictionary. We give them meaning. Words by themselves neither hurt us, nor make us happy. It is the intention behind them that does. Humans often confuse the medium for the message. By giving words such absolute power we are neglecting all the other human senses that make us sentient beings.

By making words, and the noise they bring along, the favoured method of expressing ourselves we have lost all other forms of communication. The first being the ability to communicate in silence.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Hold Firm

(First posted here.)

In the foothills of the Himalayas I came upon a party of Bushtits and Babblers so merry and affable that I had to pause and consider. As a Black-throated Bushtit swung upside down on a branch I almost asked, “How do you manage to keep your wits when the blood rushes up to your head? Don’t you ever get disoriented and lose your grip?” But I did not need a reply. The grip was steady and as easily as it had swung upside down it swung back, and was upright on its feet again.

Perhaps the problem isn’t that the apple cart gets overturned every now and then. Or that what once was infallible no longer holds true. Or that morality gets periodically outdated. Or that ethics follow some (as yet) undefined evolutionary principles. The problem arises when one is so immersed in watching the pendulum swing to this end and then the other and then back again that one loses track of the moment when it is required to be steadfast– to survive and absorb and endure and still be steadfast.*

Though I am sure the Bushtit would have liked to add that a grasp of geomagnetism and the physical laws, is more beneficial than one could ever imagine.

* William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Snow Day

“The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.”
― Robert Frost, Dust of Snow

The complete album and post is here.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The World is Amazing

“The world, whatever we might think about it terrified by its vastness and by our helplessness in the face of it, embittered by its indifference to individual suffering—of people, animals, and perhaps also plants, for how can we be sure that plants are free of suffering; whatever we might think about its spaces pierced by the radiation of stars, stars around which we now have begun to discover planets, already dead? still dead?—we don’t know; whatever we might think about this immense theater, to which we may have a ticket, but it is valid for a ridiculously brief time, limited by two decisive dates; whatever else we might think about this world—it is amazing.”
― WisÅ‚awa Szymborska

My most recent cause of amazement was the Red-breasted Flycatcher, which once I spotted it seemed as common as the House Sparrows (making a valiant comeback), reminding me of another red-breasted bird moving through the bare trees in another winter, on another continent. 

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Essay on the Personal

The personal over the ages has changed definitions and come to signify many things, for example the personal is political – the rallying cry of 1960's-70's feminism. In fact, the Twentieth Century is widely referred to as 'The Century of the Self'. 

With the advent of social media we are now the product and the consumer all rolled into one. Quite like the snake eating its own tail. With every change in online privacy laws what once was marked personal is now increasingly becoming the property of a domain much wider than our insignificant circle of influence. 

By the time we are able to separate the snake from its tail what would have become of the personal? What would be its definition? And significance? Sociologists, psychoanalysts and neuroscientists among others have been discussing this issue. As have writers and poets. Here's a poetic look at the personal and its inherent limitations.

Because finally the personal
is all that matters,
we spend years describing stones,
chairs, abandoned farmhouses—
until we’re ready. Always
it’s a matter of precision,
what it feels like
to kiss someone or to walk
out the door. How good it was
to practice on stones
which were things we could love
without weeping over. How good
someone else abandoned the farmhouse,
bankrupt and desperate.
Now we can bring a fine edge
to our parents. We can hold hurt
up to the sun for examination.
But just when we think we have it,
the personal goes the way of
belief. What seemed so deep
begins to seem naive, something
that could be trusted
because we hadn’t read Plato
or held two contradictory ideas
or women in the same day.
Love, then, becomes an old movie.
Loss seems so common
it belongs to the air,
to breath itself, anyone’s.
We’re left with style, a particular
way of standing and saying,
the idiosyncratic look
at the frown which means nothing
until we say it does. Years later,
long after we believed it peculiar
to ourselves, we return to love.
We return to everything
strange, inchoate, like living
with someone, like living alone,
settling for the partial, the almost
satisfactory sense of it.

– Essay on the Personal by Stephen Dunn, New and Selected Poems, 1974-1994

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

With every mistake we must surely be learning

New Year dusk by Sonam Chhoki displayed along the Southbank, was part of Poetry Parnassus, an event that accompanied the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
It is said that it is imagination that distinguishes humans from other forms of life. Human imagination is the basis of all our understanding and also all that we seek to understand. No two humans share the same imagination. Imagination is subjective, limited by our particular experiences and perceptions. Often imagination is far removed from reality. That is why imagination is necessary for growth. And mistakes are an indicator that we are doing something different.

Imagination is also the basis of all our desires, all that we seek and all that we feel we are devoid of. It is the single largest source of misconceptions and misapprehensions. Fear the root cause of all evil and sadness in the world is often a result of our highly developed and complex imagination.

But imagination begins with our ability to 'see'. What we see and what we do not see determines the limits of our imagination. And the nature and extent of our mistakes.

With Infinite Truths lies the Eternal Truth
Who sees it all?
Varuna has but a thousand eyes
Indra, a hundred
And I, only two*

*Hymn from the Rig Veda, one of the four canonical texts of Hinduism.