Saturday, April 15, 2017

Matter

What happens on this planet, the immensity of all that transpires here, what is it for? Life, and its wondrous circle, a mystery to each one of us even though we live it every day, humans, technology, is it all for nothing?

Imagine the Wankhede, packed with thirty thousand fans, twenty thousand of them screaming the same name. Now imagine that this will just blow away, no more than a puff of sand to the lightest gust in the history of the universe. The iPhone, the internet, space travel, the automobile, colour TV, ice cream, all of it, reduced to nothing, and the event without significance or record. What is it for then, what’s all of it for? To open a momentary window of colour in the all consuming sterility of the universe, only to see it shut in a blink?

The elements exploded, then fused, and cooled down, and something as impossible as life happened, and then happened again, and kept happening. Then life took on a life of its own, and then feelings and thoughts and minds, and consciousness. Amazing, incredible, unbelievable almost. And then we walk around, thinking of things, making things, making a world. For what? And we’re happy, and we’re sad and we’re worried that maybe we left the geyser on this morning, and we’re ecstatic, and we’re depressed, and we haven’t the slightest idea if we really want to watch that movie or if we’re just test tubes inside an incredibly advanced chemical experiment called Life: Batch 2, Sample 3.

Does it make a difference what we do, or if we do anything at all? Does the course of the universe’s history shift by an inch from its original path by the cause of our being, our civilization? Can, in any scenario, even an incredibly improbable one, our efforts amount to anything but naught? Is life really the wonder we make it out to be, or is that only a measure of the limits of this human mind?

They say having a child really changes your perspective on things – its hard to be cynical when you hold your baby and look into its eyes for the first time, and it’s a little bit like looking into a mirror, but not quite. The wonder of that moment is alchemy, that’s the claim. I don’t doubt the truth of this. What happens when the child starts to grow, however? What happens when he asks his own questions? What do you say, what do you think, when he wonders if this is nothing more than a computer program? What do you do when the cynicism circles back to the very mirror it disappeared from?

Do you push and shove and try to break out of the program in the hope of being “truly” alive, or do you say “meh, this is fun enough in itself” and submit to the existence of a glorified data string? Or, do you cling on to the belief that this is real, this has meaning, that we’re doing something here, even if we don’t quite know what it is, and that maybe the only programs are the ones we write. The belief that this accidental planet, and this accidental species, will thrive and spread, and build, and connect, and that it will, over a time as measured only at the scale of the universe, survive, and become as eternal as the firmament itself. And if you do choose the path of this belief, then perhaps you try to answer this - this monumental achievement, this eternal civilisation of civilisations, what would that be for?

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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Postcard from Cambodia

The most beautiful things weren’t created by man. Sure, Angkor Wat looks, and I mean this in a very complimentary way, at times like an alien landscape and it’s unimaginable how a mere being as man created it, nine hundred years ago no less. But just 12 hours away by bus you realize that this giant of man’s work is dwarfed by the tiniest of God’s creations, thinks one of His creatures, as he sits gazing at the clearest of oceans on Long Beach, Koh Rong island. From the wind whistling out loud in the way it never does when there are more people listening, to the last grain of sand and the last tiny ant bothering my limited company on this heaven – all the inexplicable work of someone, something. All attributed to this Creator, Keeper, Giver. Fitting then that man’s finest creations, rendered by the God-Kings of Angkor themselves, are but a dedication to that real King.

Consider a shipwreck then, eras ago, and the sailor washed up on this beach, lucky to be alive, cursed to be nowhere scenario. What would his thoughts be, as he stumbled out of the surf? Relief, possibly disbelief that he was on land again. A resurgence of panic as he realizes he’s the only one here, and a frantic search for fresh water, which he would find not long after. Then the first night, with its fears and insecurities would play out its part in his drama. Food, sleep residence, all these would become a pattern before a fortnight was past, and then would begin the waiting. Not waiting as prisoners do, because they know there exists a time and date when it will all be over. And because prisoners don’t look out at the yard each morning and think, “Each time I look at this place I am filled anew with wonder. Each time I lay down and let the waves wash over me I am a new man, and each time I close my eyes and listen to the howling of the wind, I know that I will never, ever understand how such beauty can come to be.”

As the whiskers begin to cover most of his face and his skin acquires the colour of teak, I wonder then, would this unwitting recipient of this infinite bounty want to go back at all? I suppose he likely would, for human company, if nothing else. To be able to say something to someone and get a response. To have someone tell him he’s crazy when he starts chatting up a tree, as he is wont to do here. Or perhaps not......maybe he’s done with humans for good. Maybe human depravity was what got him here in the first place. The greedy captain, overloading the cog with cargo and slave stock, and the vile sailors after the wreck, stabbing each other for a spot on the raft. Still, if they came looking for him, I suppose he wouldn’t turn them away, even if just out of respect. Respect for his mates, or countrymen, or whatever unwritten bond exists between one man of the sea and another. Yes, he’d go if they came looking, I’m certain of that. If they were just sailing by though, as he sat contemplating the sunset, would he run down the hill and yell himself hoarse, and swim towards them, and throw coconuts, and splash up a whirlpool, and do whatever he could to catch on to this one thread that could give him back what he once thought was life? Or would he simply watch as opportunity sailed into the sunset, and let inaction dictate the course of things?


That’s really my question.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Nothing Place



We found a nothing place. Pretty, but nothing, and no prettier than other nothing places. It had hills and trees and a bit of a river, but nothing much of note beyond that. There was no real reason to stop but we had none to continue either. There was weariness, however, so we decided to stay the night. Next morning, our reasons stood unchanged, but hunger had struck. The light of day showed that the Nothing Place trees were laden with fruit. Later in the day we found fish in the river. With nothing pressing us to move on we stayed another night, prepared to spend tomorrow like today.

With the passing of the moons came other travelers. They found us still at the Nothing Place. There was enough for everyone so they decided to stay. Knowing no better, we befriended them. We gave them our daughters and took theirs for our sons. Their children liked the fruit, and in time the fish as well. On these, they grew well and quickly and soon had children of their own, and they their own. We spread to corners of the Nothing Place we had never been to before, building our circular huts where we went.

As our numbers swelled, our elders’ warnings grew louder. “Move on,” they said, “find another home. For one day the fruit will run out and the fish will be dead.” None among us had any desire to leave. However, being unused to disregarding the word of the elders, we began looking for an answer to satisfy them. We had always seen fruit being born from trees but one day one among us turned back the time of a tree, making one from a fruit. We were wonder struck at first but before long we all knew how it was done. We each planted our own trees, surrounding our circular huts with saplings. Spring came and the trees did not disappoint, bearing fruit beyond our wildest imaginations. But it wasn’t just fruit. It was an answer to our elders’ needless warnings, the power to grow our own fruit. We could now live at the Nothing Place forever, never having to go looking for food again.

That year, we ate to our heart’s content, and we gifted the fruit of the Nothing Place to every traveler who happened by, and we ate some more, we even fed some to our pets, but there was still far too much fruit for us. In the end, we let go of the extra fruit, letting it lie in heaps under the trees, to rot away as it would. The elders, given to issuing one warning or the other, chastised us for such waste. We would invite the wrath of the Gods for so insulting their gifts, they said, and it would be our final undoing. The warnings were just as well, we ourselves believed the fruit could be put to better use.

Next year, at the break of spring, we heaped the fruit onto carts we had made over the winter for this very purpose. Losing not a moment, we set out with our fruit to all surrounding lands. Owing to the word of travelers, our fruit was already famous and there were few who had not heard lore of its tender deliciousness. As soon as we would reach the locals’ market places, they would gather around our carts, and before the crowd cleared, all the fruit would be gone. In return, we bartered what they had to offer. Wood, stone, grain, they would give us what they could. We would load it onto our carts and return to the Nothing Place.

None of the fruit was wasted in this year. If anything, we had less than enough to sell to everyone who wanted to buy some. We grew even more the next year, and we took our carts even further, but the story remained the same – they wanted more than we had to sell. Year after year, we grew ever increasing amounts of fruit and sold to an ever widening circle of lands. Anyone who ate any wanted more, till the day he died, such was the legend of our fruit. And of course, there were so many who we had yet get their first taste.

Even though all of us worked with the fruit, it was all we did, we were still short handed to meet the persistently overwhelming demand. We invited hands from adjoining lands to come work with us. We paid them in return for their labours, our vast earnings covering wages more than adequately. They would come just as the winter thawed, work on our fields all the way till spring, then help us carry the fruit far and wide over the summer, before returning to their homes, till they were needed again the following year. They came in large groups and they multiplied our ability to produce fruit. With no end in sight for how much fruit we could sell, how much we produced was now limited only by how many workers we had. So our doors were always open for industrious hands that needed work. If ever there were more workers than there was fruit to tend, and such a situation arose but rarely, we would simply lay down another patch, because too much fruit was never enough. Those who worked at the Nothing Place almost never sought work elsewhere. We knew how to hold on to our workers. Our unsaid motto, “Pay enough for them to work, but not enough to skip work the following day.”

The presence of the migrants allowed us original residents of the Nothing Place something we’d never had before; leisure. While these simple souls worked our fields at their meager price, we had little need to toil ourselves. We now supervised and instructed, only making sure our army of workers was doing as directed while we watched the gold roll in, which by now was the only thing we accepted in return for our fruit.

We put our newfound time and money to good use. We travel the world, going further from our homeland than anyone ever has from theirs. We bring back wonders from the far reaches and put them up in our squares, symbols of our shining glory. We build and rebuild the Nothing Place, till our city is almost as famous as our fruit, its spires visible from ten leagues away. Our fruit now travels on rails, our carts now move on their own, our children speak only in music. We lay roads for travel and wires for communication. Our river is littered with the finest vessels known to man, as many for pleasure as for industry. None for fishing, for the fish ran out long ago. Our circular homes grow larger and more luxurious, made from precious marbles and rare chalks.

Even so, it is still called the Nothing Place. We don’t change the name, the irony of it amuses us. 

As always, there are those who don’t approve of the celebration of our glory. In particular, those who spent their prime without such pleasures ward against them. “Work is worship”, they say, “this God-less-ness will let our devils loose.” We pause only a moment to ignore such doomsday wailings before returning to the task of meeting our glorious destiny.

All this while, we still rely on migrants to lay the bricks in our grand plans. We need them all year now. When they aren’t tending fruit, they’re building our mansions, manning our boats, cleaning our streets. They still occupy the eastern ‘corner’, though it is now the largest part of the city, and also its most crowded. The migrants’ conical huts now number too many to be counted. It is an infinite swarm of humanity and looks much like it did when the migrants first came in, while much larger and dirtier. Those among the migrants who’ve done well for themselves want to improve how they live. They want to build permanent homes, sanitation, parks and streets. No matter where they come from, sooner or later they think of the Nothing Place as home, its eastern corner anyway. Their visits to their ‘homelands’ are now short annual affairs, to keep from forgetting them altogether. While we’re the locals and they the migrants, they outnumber us easily, and each year their numbers swell even more.

A few councilmen think we should let the migrants have what they want, let them build permanent homes and start becoming a part of the legend of the Nothing Place. “They’ve been our brothers in these fruitful fortunes,” the councilmen argue, “there’s no justification for our step motherly treatment of them. Let them become real citizens of the Nothing Place, they deserve better.”

Such voices are but a small minority and the rest of us will have nothing of it. We’ve worked hard to make the Nothing Place what it is and we have no intention of gifting away what is rightfully ours. This greatness is the product of the industry, acumen, and ingenuity of our people. What have the migrants done to be heirs to this splendor? For centuries, they’ve done our bidding like mindless automatons, plucking and tending fruit. Unimaginative tasks for which they’ve been compensated well. Our wages have always been better than they could get elsewhere, which explains why they’ve flocked here year after year. If there was anything that was unfair, it was them laying claim to the Nothing Place as though we owed them more than the wages they’d happily taken from us over the centuries. The mason doesn’t own the architect’s house.

There is no time for such nonsense, especially in the light of what currently has our attention. For the first time in memory, perhaps the first time ever, our fruit has come back unsold. What could possibly be the reason, we wonder. The migrants, whose homelands are our markets, give us the answer. Other places aren’t doing so well, they tell us. With most of their able bodied workers working at the Nothing Place, they have little output of their own. They have scarce enough to buy grain, let alone fruit. We flirt with the idea of dropping prices to enable sales but soon we decide to drop the idea, not our prices. We can’t be shortsighted in our dealings. Lower prices today and we may never be able to raise them again. Our fruit is only the best and the finest, to sell it like grain would be blasphemy. We hold on to our fruit, refusing to sell till we can get our price again.

We are only as concerned by the situation as we are amused. Generations of gold ensure that one bad year can pass by unnoticed. In the absence of the trade, we occupy ourselves with sport, music, theatre, everything we may have been too busy for otherwise. Everything to do with fruit is put on hold for the moment. Picking, sorting, packing, shipping, all of it is at a standstill. The unsold fruit lies in silos, waiting for its time. It can stay there for months without rotting, but even if it does spoil, that is preferable to selling it cheaply.

For the migrants, where there is no work there are no wages. Hordes of displaced workers are soon seen looking for work all over the city. There is none to be had, the way things are. “Go home to your native lands while things tide over,” we tell them, “no time like now.” Turns out the migrants have barely enough to feed themselves, vacations are out of question. Within weeks their requests for work turn to demands. They gather in large groups asking to be re-employed. They will soon start dying of hunger, they claim. “Where are your savings?” we ask them, “Have you been foolish enough to keep nothing for a rainy day? None of us are drawing salaries either.”

Weeks turn to months and their demands soon turn to protests, “Sell the fruit! Put us to work!” their hoardings read, “Serve our needs, not your greeds.” We hold out against these demands till the protests turn violent. Public buildings near the eastern corner are set to fire, a dock we use for our boats is destroyed.

An emergency meeting of the council is called. Those in the meeting who have seen the eastern corner recently say matters there are truly dire. People are hungry, and diseases of malnourishment are running amok. “We may not want them as citizens, but are we cruel enough to let them starve to death?” asks one. “They are now hungry animals with nothing to lose,” says another, “if we do nothing, they will burn us all.” Begrudgingly, we agree to do what we can to help the migrants. It is decided to sell the fruit at the price available. The silos will be opened the following morning itself.

The unrest stops once the decision is public. Before daybreak the following morning, workers have returned to their stations. Sorting, packing, loading, unloading, the boats, are all staffed with more hands than could possibly be needed, each eager to earn a day’s wage. The silos are finally opened a little after sunrise.

It is too late, the fruit has rotted away, all of it. There’s nothing left to be sold. With their hopes dashed anew, the workers’ break out into a spontaneous riot. The councilman overseeing the opening of the silos is lynched by the angry mob, buildings all around are razed to the ground. The law and order force comes down heavily on the rioters to clear the area. The rioters disperse and a vigil in enforced around the city. No one is allowed on the streets. The law and order force patrols in full strength.

An uneasy calm lasts through the day. We are terrified by the events of the morning. Despite the vigil, we all know if the migrants do decide to run riot, they will far outnumber everyone else. Evening comes, and there have been no further incidents. We breathe a sigh of relief. Perhaps the worst is behind us.

The dead of night changes everything, and our worst fears are confirmed. The migrants enter the city bearing torches. And they are not alone. Thousands from their native lands have poured into the city. Their purpose has a singular clarity. They want the city, and the blood of their masters. Our blood. They storm in, torches aflame. They overrun the vigil in a heartbeat, by the sheer strength of numbers. Then they begin their pogrom. Street by street, building by building, they loot, destroy and murder. They take our houses, offices, public buildings, schools, theatres. What they cannot take, they burn. Soon the banks are broken into, and they get their hands on the gold. They also capture what they most want, the fields of fruit, more valuable than any gold.

They round up hundreds of citizens in the squares, and set them ablaze. There is no line they will not cross, no atrocity they won’t commit. We flee from the city as fast as we can, heading for the hills. Thousands upon thousands don’t make it, either killed in the streets, or burnt in their homes. While we die, the migrants cheer. “Death to the oppressors,” they shriek, “death, death, death!”

The carnage continues for days before it is over. We watch from the hills onto the city below, as the fires first blaze, then die out. We watch as the migrants settle into the city, making it their home. They live in our mansions, reveling in the luxury they have usurped. Unused to a life a plenty, their extravagance exceeds what ours had ever been. Their celebrations are only majestic, and their finery only the finest. Jewels, yachts, rare art, they take to them like only the nouveau rich can. Centuries of gold lies in the Nothing Place, and its new citizens spend it with elan.

In a few months, however, it is planting season again. The migrants, eager for a fruit that will for the first time be their very own, put their energy and resources behind it. They plant aggressively and tend it carefully, waiting for spring, when their newfound wealth will multiply manifold.

Spring comes and goes, but the migrants’ wait never ends. There is no fruit, none at all. In a year of historic turns, this is but another. The land has provided us for millennia, but we still wanted more. Whatever it held that spawned season after season of our famous fruit has now run out. We’ve sucked it dry, it has nothing more to offer.

With heavy hearts the migrants realize that there will be no fruit, no multiplication of wealth. They realize that the gold that remains in the city is all there is, that there won’t be enough and more for everyone. These people had scarcely enough to eat till the previous year but now they start to fight with each other over jewels and gold. Once again, they kill and they murder, they burn and they steal. Migrants round up migrants, loot them of their possessions, they slaughter them and their families. Then the slaughterers meet those who do the same to them.

We watch from our circular huts on the hills as every part of the city starts to slowly burn. Seeing the fortunes of the migrants slipping, the time is opportune for our revenge, for us to win our city back. Arms have started gathering in our huts, plans for the attack are being drawn. Soon we will descend upon our city, though we have little idea how much of it still remains.


When we found this once, it was a nothing place. Long ago, it ceased to be nothing. It is the Nothing Place, and it is far worse. The land is barren, and the fish is over. What the earth won’t give, the men will snatch from each other, even till every last one is dead. Our efforts were true, our intentions good. How this came to be, I have not a clue.