Tuesday, March 27, 2007

When words fail

Alone on a train aimless in wonder
An outdated map crumpled in my pocket
But I didn't care where I was going
'Cause they're all different names for the same place.
The coast disappeared when the sea drowned the sun
And I knew no words to share with anyone
The boundaries of language I quietly cursed
And all the different names for the same thing.

How do you feel when you walk down a lonely beach? A sandy beach, filled with white, firm sand, palms swaying in the distance, just a hint of a breeze, littered with large rocks just on the point where water meets land, and that noise of waves crashing against sand, shattering into a million shards of glass time after time and yet continuing their relentless persecution against land. The distant horizon, where the ocean meets the sky; the bluish gray of one, meeting with the deep blue of the other, creating an illusion (or is that reality) of all pervading oneness. Have you ever tried to put your experience into words and failed?

The amateurish attempt at describing a lonely walk alongside a sea beach was meant to drive home a more fundamental premise. Is there more truth in the expression “words fail me” than we allow ourselves to believe? How often do words fail us? How adequate or otherwise are words as a medium for expressing our feelings? Not much it would seem. It is an utterly futile attempt to try to capture nature’s beauty in words. One can never hope to share with another her feeling when she beheld a particularly beautiful sunset, or a majestic snow capped mountain peak, or a gargantuan wave crashing against the shore and shattering into a zillion droplets. If one cannot adequately describe nature in words, what hope does one have, of describing God or religion or enlightenment?

It is a well known story that the Buddha, following his enlightenment, initially hesitated whether he should bother to share his discovery with anyone at all, reflecting that:
"This Dhamma, won by me, is deep, difficult to see, difficult to understand . . . But this is a generation delighting in sensual pleasure . . . And if I were to teach Dhamma and others were not to understand me, this would be a weariness to me, this would be a vexation to me."

Whereupon Brahma Sahampati (a deva [demigod] from the Brahmaloka) intervened, pointing out to the Buddha that there were some beings with little dust in their eyes who would profit from him teaching them.

The experience that the Buddha had undergone was beyond description, and for most humans, as he pointed out, beyond comprehension; for the boundaries of our language are so often the boundaries of our world. We immediately discard that which cannot be expressed in words, deeming such experiences to be unreal. We fail to realize that it is not the experience which is unreal; rather it is our language, bounded by words, which is inadequate for describing our experiences! The primary purpose of language was not to make ourselves understand our experiences; it was to communicate our experiences to the other. Yet in a curious travesty of the need for language, we have started using language to convince ourselves of our experiences, to translate our experiences in a manner which can be palatable to the world. What a waste!

It is this realization, which has led me to wonder about the plight of the poets, for it is poetry, and poetry alone which can attempt to say what prose dare not. Are poets ever properly understood? Are they ever able to put their point across? Do their readers always understand what it was that the poet was trying to convey? And last but not the least; is the poet’s interpretation of her poetry always the only correct and sensible one?

What did Robert Frost mean, when he said :

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

I picked up this particular poem to illustrate my point, when I might as well have picked up some mystical stuff from Blake or Coleridge, because Frost will resonate more with modern readers, and his evocative imagery of nature, and winter (the harbinger of death) is so beautiful and yet so simple that it can connect with the reader at several levels. Like any other Frost poem, this one can be interpreted at many levels, and yet you might want to discard all such interpretations, and enjoy the poem just at the surface level which is still wonderfully evocative for its description of a snow filled journey.

There is a delicious ambiguity in the words "Whose woods are these I think I know?” Now what could have Frost meant by that? That there is a human owner of the forest where the poet stops, and his name is what comes to Frost’s mind when he thinks of the owner of the forest? But can a human ever own a forest - or the mountains - or the oceans - or rivers - or other fellow creatures? Can anyone possibly own something she has not created? If so, by what right? If she owns a land, how did she come to acquire it? If it was sold by another human, how did that human come to acquire it, because sure as heaven, God never sold any of Her creations to a human being! The forest, just as everything else in the Universe belongs to God, but She out of love for us has leased it to us, to take care of, to sustain ourselves with and to share with the ones we love. Can we always claim to have done that? Perhaps not!

When I read that line of Frost’s poem, I think of the divine ownership of everything, but was that what Frost had in mind when he composed the poem? If not, was his interpretation more correct than my interpretation? Does a piece of art belong forever to the artiste who has created it, or does it go into the public domain once the artiste has completed it, to be done with as the hoi polloi feel like? Does Shakespeare have sole right over his plays, or does humanity own it, to interpret as it thinks fit? Baz Luhrmann had set his Romeo and Juliet in modern day crime infested Miami, moving away from the original setting of medieval Rome for the play. Who knows Shakespeare might have chosen Rome due to the paucity of options available to him. He might have considered New York underworld and its warring mafia families to be a more apt setting for this epic love story had he been acquainted with NY when he wrote!

But we digress. To come back to the topic at hand, a very generous allowance can be given to the assumption that a description, if accurate, should somehow convey the thing itself; if I accurately describe 'water', the reader would then be wet. Similarly, it can be assumed that a person who has had an experience, should be able to describe the experience, in such a way as to convey the actual experience itself, to the reader. Failing that a verbal description is of no avail, for the listener has no means of independently verifying the accuracy of the description. What good will it do to describe snow to a Saharan dweller, when she in all possibility will never have seen and never will see snow in all her life? Even after snow has been described to her, and she perchance goes to a foreign land and encounters snow there, remote is the possibility that she can recognize it as the same object which had earlier been described to her as snow.

To extend the analogy further, is it possible that an experience can be shared by the narrator only with them who have undergone a similar experience, while those who have not, may have no inkling as to what is going on? To put it conversely, can it be possible to teach someone to think? Can someone be made to experience an experience by mere dint of describing that experience in words? And if not, aren’t all words futile, mere placeholders for reality, placeholders for what could have been?

Have I been able to convey anything in this essay apart from my inability to convey what I want to convey? And if not, why make the attempt to say anything at all? Why not learn from the mistake of the Buddha and keep quiet? Because silence speaks to the heart, when words fail.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The pitfalls of democracy, and the challenges facing modern governance

Democracies worldwide suffer from some endemic problems. Democracies thrive on majority support and as such only those issues get raised and stand a chance of being addressed, which affect the interests of a sizeable section of the population. What about those issues which cannot be traced to a sizeable constituency, but are important nonetheless – environmental issues for instance, or issues pertaining to wildlife conservation? Addressing such issues ostensibly has to be left to the mercies of the government which often shows up as remarkably ham handed in such situations. The recent bickering of governments over an issue as important for our survival as reducing carbon emissions is a case in point. Richard Bach had observed in a Bridge Across Forever that it was surprising how governments all over the world, even democratic ones, almost always managed to perpetrate so much evil and harm on their respective nation states. A quarter of a century later, nothing much has changed.

Even in issues such as education, or healthcare, or urban infrastructure which would be considered to be of general interest and where we can expect the government to provide useful solutions, an inexplicable ineptitude is on view, which can hardly be explained rationally, the only explanation being extreme cynicism on part of the government which leads its constituents to believe that good governance does not matter; what fetches votes is pandering to reactionary and obscurantist sections of society. Make no mistake about it, our democracy is in crisis and our democratic institutions are not equipped to deal with the crises that we face. These crises are becoming more familiar with each passing day, many of them having arisen because of decades of irresponsible and inept governance. And now these crises will not be wished away. They are looming large, staring us in the face, daring us to act decisively or get engulfed by them. Some such crises, when we think about them include, but are not limited to
  • Widening gap between the haves and the have-nots
  • Speedy environmental degradation and climate change which is evident to anyone who would care to look
  • Technological dangers (including but not limited to increasingly available weapons of mass destruction)
  • Terrorism, religious bigotry and extremism of all sorts
  • The rising threat of global epidemics, the mobility of people making it easier for diseases to spread far and wide
  • Unsustainable and destructive economic activities in the name of development
  • And the corruption of democracy, itself

Many of these crises are interdependent, not isolated from each other. They feed on each other, like a hundred brooks and streams, until they are able to gather critical mass, whence they will swallow us and our children, nay the whole of humanity. It won’t be unfair to say that we are standing at the brink of disaster, brought about by inept governance.

In spite of this, our democratic institutions continue to promote:

(a) the relentless concentration of power,
(b) the materialistic culture orchestrated by that power and
(c) an ad-hocism in taking important decisions, and then forcing those decisions down the throat of the public using brute force and employing the full might of the repressive state machinery.

To hark back to an Indian example, the massacre of Singur, carried out by the government of the proletariat is only the latest in a series of examples stretching back to independence, which illustrate the truth of the last point above. Governments often behave as if they are the ultimate repository of all land, natural wealth, resources, minerals, oceans and the environment. It is this illusory thinking that leads to forced land grabbing attempts, which are then justified in the name of “common good”. Come to think of it, there is an increasing attempt by the governments even in democratic setups to equate themselves with the nation state at large, so that any dissent against the government is portrayed as anti national and unpatriotic and is liable to be suppressed with brute force.

It is apparent that governance is too important to be left to professional politicians. Douglas Adams says on the issue “Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. “ Talking about India in particular, something is very rotten about the state of politics in the country, which looks for a cure worse than the disease afflicting society. Perhaps the darkest irony is that democracy, itself, has been transformed from the crown jewel of empowerment of the ordinary citizen, into one of the most effective and insidious tools used by the ruling elite to manipulate us, the citizenry, the electorate, The People. Democracy is no longer government of the people, by the people, for the people. Rather it has evolved to become a system whence the citizenry becomes irrelevant after casting votes at the polls, and this state of affairs continues till the next round of polls. One cannot question the decisions made by the government, one cannot protest against blatant misuse of power, and one cannot make ones views heard without risking life and limb in the process.

Still, growing millions of us -- each in our own way – are coming to the realization that something is fundamentally wrong with the direction our society is taking. Most of us, though, cannot quite give it the attention it seems to deserve, to sort it out and take effective action. It is so complex, and our daily lives take up so much of our energy and attention, that we are left with only a haunting wish that something could be done about it. This testifies to the awesome power of our culture to distract so many of us from the ultimate essentials of life, even the survival of our own children and the natural world upon which the children of all species depend and force us to direct our energies towards the mundane activities of daily life. Apparently the question whether Naturals Ice Cream would make a better dessert than Baskin Robbins deserves more thought than the possible melting of Gangotri glacier and the prospect of the whole of Northern India turning into a desert by 2030!

We need to change the character of our democracy, and we need to do it soon. If we are to meet the challenges of the 21st century, we need to make democracy not only more functional, but truly wise. In another era, this would have been an almost impossible task (and I say “almost” because human will is stronger than the toughest of challenges, and sheer willpower has been known to triumph against the greatest of odds, but chances would have been against it). However, the single greatest invention of the past several decades - the Internet, gives us the opportunity to collaborate and come together in hitherto unimagined ways. No, revolutions of the French revolution and Russian Revolution variety will not occur in the foreseeable future! Rather, we will have a quiet dissemination of information, and sharing of knowledge, which will make it possible for everyone to participate in a bloodless coup. Internet has made distances and time zones irrelevant, the genie has been let out of the bag.

Now is the time -- while the worst of the coming catastrophes are still over the horizon (though visible to the far sighted) -- to create a system of governance that is wise enough to survive and thrive in the Era of Consequences we are entering. We have the resources right now to do it, if we choose to channel them into activities that will serve us in this historic effort. Now, more than at any other point of time in history we have a surfeit of volunteers who have the time and the wherewithal to channel their efforts into driving the country and the world towards a better future.

There may be political space to work in, as well. As existing systems become bloated and more unmanageable, those involved with them, including their leaders, are increasingly searching for alternatives. Wherever that happens, evolutionary opportunities open up. Breakthroughs can happen when such opportunities are taken before the clamor for oversimplified, strong leadership overwhelms our yearning to direct our collective fate with our own collective common sense.

Increase in population and the complex nature of the modern nation state makes it next to impossible for any central governing mechanism to hold sway over an entire population. The future of democracy has to be participatory governance, wherein informal but powerful roles would have to be given to communities of citizens and governments will be more inclusive than exclusive. It is here that the collaborative and interactive nature of Internet and online communities would revolutionize governance. All is not yet lost, not while there are still people around who can be inspired by Rang De Basanti to hold protest marches over the letting off, of the murderers of Jessica Lall. These are interesting times, interesting not only in the opportunities they afford us, but interesting also because our continued survival depends on the actions we take in this period.