Saturday, 26 December 2015

Favourite food: Bitter gourd

“The self … is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature, to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented.”
–Erving Goffman, “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”
(How I love this book, let me count the ways…)

Favourite food: Bitter gourd (called karela in Hindi).

On moving from one class to the next, often classmates would ask you to fill a diary, especially in Convent schools in India, and answer generic questions regarding favourite things like book, food, movie, song before coming to the main point, ‘what do you think about me?’ Whereby a person duly wrote some pithy falsehood without a twinge on the conscience (despite all the teachings of the good nuns in the moral science classes). How to co-exist with other people is an early learning in India, given that we grow up with over a billion of them. Whether we learn our lessons well is another question altogether.

Needless to say, what I thought were honest answers weren’t always appreciated. Consider the answer above. My responses were seen as flippant, sometimes outright lies. But bitter gourd has been (and continues to be) my favourite food ever since I could tell apart taste. However, putting down chocolate would have made everyone comfortable and kept up appearances, I know.

“If we see perception as a form of contact and communion, then control over what is perceived is control over contact that is made, and the limitation and regulation of what is shown is a limitation and regulation of contact.”

For me it was an early learning: in any given situation what do you do? Maintain popular perception, or break the contract by acting out a whim and thereby altering other people’s perception regarding you, as well as, the situation being played out? (And not necessarily in your favour.)

Yes, it is as complicated as it reads, but in human interactions it plays out casually in the blink of an eye. For much of my growing years I was troubled by understanding the limits and regulations of contact, and communion. More so given the fact that my teen years for the most part “played out” literally in the public eye. After all, success in life depends on “reading” the situation and “acting accordingly”. (Case in point: Donald Trumps pitch perfect role in the US Presidential nomination race.)

Then I came upon Erving Goffman’s seminal book on social interaction, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959)– needs a revisit/update in this age of thinly sliced identity politics and carefully curated social media profiles. And soon after that followed Ingmar Bergman’s seminal film Persona. Both enriched and continue to enhance my understanding of the self (as one perceives it) and the socially interacting self (as one plays/the society perceives it).

Above all, since then I’ve found my place (and a comfortable one) in the social scene. 

Thursday, 17 December 2015

To See or Not to See

 “Jack can see he sees
       what he can see Jill can’t see
and he can see
       that Jill can’t see that she can’t see
but he can’t see why
       Jill can’t see that Jill can’t see.”
– R. D. Laing, ‘Knots’

‘Who are you going to believe, me or your eyes?’
– Grucho Marx, ‘Duck Soup’

It is spring. I am considering the Bigleaf Magnolia, quietly and as unobtrusively as I can. Or so I think. Yet, my being still and looking at a flower has caused an unintended ripple. For this is a much visited tourist spot. Many determined people solemnly, briskly walk the highline, only stopping to take photographs. As expected a few stop next to me, click a quick picture and move on, others shrug their shoulders (probably thinking ‘what’s she looking at’) and the more mindful people (concentrating on one thing at a time) quickly estimate a way to bypass me without slacking their pace.

An elderly woman asks, ‘what flower is that?’ I reply, ‘Magnolia, a bigleaf magnolia.’ She, ‘It looks nothing like the magnolia in my garden’ and shaking her head walks away.

(Bigleaf Magnolia has the largest simple leaf and single flower among all native North American plants.)
A season of birds in NYC. Some prominent ones missing because there was no camera on hand.
“Every person takes the limits of their own field of vision for the limits of the world.”
–Arthur Schopenhauer, ‘Psychological Observation (Studies in Pessimism)

It is summer. In Chelsea, a robin is singing (Cheer up; cheer-ee-o). The song can be discerned among the human noises, only if you listen very hard.

Yesterday at lunch someone said that the only birds you see in New York are pigeons. Perhaps she belonged to that category of Americans who according to a Cornell Lab poll thought that house sparrows grew up to become pigeons.

Meanwhile on this summer day, by listening very hard I heard more than a handful of birds call out to the morning. And all before lunchtime. (The birds were: White-throated Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, American Robin, House Sparrow, Starling and Northern Mockingbird.)

“Seeing is a neglected enterprise.”

–Saul Leiter (quote from his obituary in New York Times)

“The hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes.”
– Goethe

It is autumn. We are walking on 20 some street, right next to the public housing projects (that is low-cost housing for the working classes– nurses, policemen, teachers and such like) when she suddenly blurts out, “You don’t see any black people in New York, how surprising.” I am speechless for a split second. To start some of our neighbors are “black people”, the four concierges in our building are “black people” and right now we are walking besides towers that house mostly “people of color”. How blinkered has our vision become? What is the function of the human eye?

But then most people from India who visit us in New York are people of a certain educational and class background, who like people of their kind all around the globe throw around their biases and ignorance as unselfconsciously and as loudly as their voices (especially in public places)– they are unapologetic about flaunting their privilege because for the most part they have chosen to be willfully ignorant.

And no, just because you’ve watched Friends, it doesn’t mean you ‘know’ life in New York City.

(The part of Chelsea we were walking through is the subject of a new documentary on income inequality “Class Divide”: )
“Let every eye negotiate for itself,
And trust no agent”
– William Shakespeare, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’

“One hundred tellings are not as good as one seeing.”
–Chinese proverb

It is winter, a freakishly warm winter. I am contemplating the parable about a student in search of a renowned teacher. Every culture has some version of the story. A student seeks a great teacher. But to get to the sought after teacher, the student has to go through certain hardships– ford unruly rivers and climb steep mountains, or else, solve tricky puzzles– to prove to be worthy of the wisdom being desired. Often wisdom is found during the course of the search itself, even before the student sets sight on the teacher. Because knowledge though arguable free, does not come to those who wait passively.

And sometimes, even the best of teachers can’t help you. For as the German proverb goes, if the eye does not want to see it, neither light nor glasses will help.

And then there are those other times:
“(What do you see when you turn out the light?) I can’t tell you, but I know it is mine.”
– Lennon–McCartney, ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’