Steeped In Tradition

Reminiscences and Reflections

Seed for Thought

What tempts us to give unsolicited advice to others? Why don’t people listen to free advice? Well, nobody likes being told what to do. So stop giving free advice! But what if you care about that person and want to share a life’s lesson with them, or turn them towards the right path? How do you make them “really” listen?

I look around and I see parents telling their grown up kids what to do. Spouses telling their each other what to do and how to do it. Friends giving advice to other friends on how to deal with relationships. In all these cases, the “advisor” really does care about “advisee” and offers his/her wisdom with the best of intensions. But again, people never listen, why?

If our mind was an island, our beliefs and principles would be the trees on it. Our advice is like a tree that has grown on the terrain of our minds. When we offer it to others, we are often trying to plant it somewhere else. We barely scratch the surface of the terrain of the other mind. And we rarely have the time or the competence to see what stones(emotional issues) and hurdles lie underneath. Thus, I find it very pointless to tell people what to do. Or stop them them from going where they want to go. Fully grown trees can’t take root and thats why people don’t listen.

Seeds on the other hand, can take root. We can plant a “seed” of advice into peoples minds. A seed of advice has to be concise and in a language the listener understands. It can be a quote or a small story. It could be a joke, gibe or even an insult. It could be a promise they once made to you. Whatever it is, it should evoke questions in the listener’s mind. It should be incomplete like a puzzle or an unfinished poem. One that’s unsettling and leaves the listener wanting more, like movie with a sudden ending. It should force the listener to conjure possibilities and wonder: “what should happen next?”

If we plant a seed right, it will bear fruit. That’s the only certainty you can hope for. It will not look the same as the tree in your mind’s garden. Thats natural and you should be ok with that. If you try to dictate the possibilities, you are altering the natural growth. For a student, the fruit parents should hope for is “become knowledgeable and excellent in a trade of your choice”. You can’t dictate the outcome to be “become a PHd. in Chemistry/ admission to IITs/Berkeley” — thats not a seed, thats already a tree.

The weight of the choice must always rest with the listener. If you have planted the seed right, the persons mind with explode with possibilities and he or she might struggle to make the choice. It is critical you leave them alone even if they ask for your help. This is when you walk away and let thoughts take root in the persons mind. It’s easier for a people to accept outcomes if the choice was theirs. I think thats the hardest part in offering advice, we often try to make choices for people thinking it will speed their recovery.

Our minds have many thoughts and convictions, like trees in a forest. As we grow older, so do the trees in our mind. Our thoughts and principles develop stronger roots. They branch out and intertwine with other trees. An self-sustaining ecosystem forms that can weather all seasons. But the same forest also blocks out the sun. A new sampling will never take root in the midst of the tall trees. If some thoughts have stayed with people long enough, or if they are too old, it might just be too late to plant a new seed for thought in their minds.

To end on a more positive note, about two years ago I saw a touching Malayalam movie: Manjadikuru “Lucky Red Seeds”. The narrator takes the audience back to a time in his childhood in a small village in Kerala. Collecting so called “lucky red seeds” were a favorite pass-time among kids and references to these seeds occur throughout the movie. I would like share the closing words, which I thought were beautiful:

Everyone likes to pick the perfect glossy red seeds
No one picks the dirty dark ones
But they are really the lucky ones
Embraced by the earth
They grow into trees to bear thousands of Lucky Red Seeds
Grandma taught me.

lucky red seeds

We owe to our loved ones and friends effort to enrich their lives with our presence. It might be worthwhile to spread the seeds of our passion and enthusiasm into their minds. You never know which ones might take root and bear more lucky seeds.

Action packed! Thrilling! Fatiguing, Formulaic and Sloppy.

I just got back from watching Furious 7. After 140 minutes of furious driving and fast crashing, metal crashing on metal, bullets flying, I feel hungover. I feel like a 66 Shelby Cobra went right through my brain, leaving tire marks and smell of burning rubber in the head.

The camera-work on the movies today seem so amateur. A scene rarely lasts more than a few second. When the intensity increases, so will the camera shake. It is a like a cue to feel “excited”, like the “applause” sign on comedy TV shows. Although the movie signs off with a emotional scene of everyone looking at Paul Walker and a rather nice song playing in the background, I left the movie feeling nothing.

The movie directors today could learn a thing or two about making movie from the great master, Akira Kurosawa. This video draws parallel between Kurosawa’s work and reveals how bland todays films are

I still remember scenes from the movie Ran by Kurosawa, which also happens to be one of my all time favorite movies. I wonder if there is a market for movies like that? Judging by the claps and standing ovations action movies such as Fast & Furious receive, mediocre filmmaking is here to stay. The audience don’t have a taste or desire for real art. Only more and more violent action scenes can affect the already desensitized minds of movie goers today.

Trailers are half the reason I got for a movie! Before an action movie, naturally, there will be trailers for other action movies. After the great reception to the music scores of movies like Batman, Inception and Transformers, literally every trailer has the same base music score — that unmistakable drone you heard in the movie Inception. Terry Gross from NPR put this question to Mark Woollen, a celebrated name in Hollywood known for making the trailers that will compel people to goto movies. The guy pretty much shrugged saying it’s not his work. The twenty minute trailer set before the the movie start feels like a Nine Inch Nails or Depeche Mode concert.

And what can I say about the horror movies today. While action is reduced to shaky camera work, horror is conveyed through periods of silence followed by an excruciatingly loud noise and a zombie running straight at you. Sure it works. Gets my hair standing. But that like water-boarding someone just so they get feel for a tragic scene in the movie. If you are going to turn up the volume to eleven in a IMAX theatre sure I will jump in my seat. But credit does not go to your movie. Why can’t they do it like Kubrick did in The Shining:

Wendy Torrance: [Wendy has Jack locked in the storage closet] I’m gonna go now.

Jack Torrance: Uh… Wendy?

Wendy Torrance: I’m gonna try and get Danny down to Sidewinder in the Snow Cat. I’ll send back a doctor…

Jack Torrance: Wendy?

Wendy Torrance: Yes?

Jack Torrance: You got a *big* surprise coming to you. You’re not going anywhere! Go check out the Snow Cat and the radio and you’ll see what I mean. Go check it out. *Go!* Go check it out!

Sanctity of spaces

Do you feel tranquility and peace at places of religious worship? Do you feel awe and a sense of history when walking the streets of a city with several hundred years of history? Are there places or spaces where you always feel a certain way? When you visit your parents place, do you find yourself behaving in old ways which you never would in your own home? (Lazy, never showing up on-time at the dinner table)

An explanation to these could be that humans are creature of habit. We see a “cue”, our mind suggests a “routine” to get to a familiar “reward”. Religious places give peace, because our minds have been trained since childhood to feel that way. Historical places feel that way because of biases we have already entered in our mind from our research on these places. We are lazy at our parents home simply because we always have been lazy growing up.

Psychology says its our mind that induces these feelings. But what if there is more to it. What if every “space” has a memory? What if the walls remember how people felt when they were between them?

I think what people do and feel leaves invisible signatures in the space they were in. These signatures last across time and can only diminish by adding different signatures in place of them to dampen. When we visit temples which are hundreds of years old, we connect to the reservoir of faith and peace that has been enriched over centuries by visiting pilgrims. Households which have seen violence, grief might also leave behind negative imprints in the walls. I think its also for the same reason visitors often feel a sense of eeriness in places like Aushwitz or Jallianwala Bagh, which have seen great human tragedy.

If spaces have memory, it gives us a opportunity to add some certainty over how different corners of our home influence us. If we sit on a study table only if we have a clear intent to work on something productive, we will induce feelings of “focus”, “discipline” into that space. The easy chair for reading. The dinner table for friendly chats and sharing thoughts. If we “bank” enough of those feeling into those spaces, we could use them to regain our focus and purpose. If personal projects are lagging behind — sit on the study chair and get cracking. If the mind is troubled — sit on the easy chair. If it needs distraction — sit on the stool and pick up the guitar.

As a kid I was strictly forbidden from studying while on bed. The bed was for one purpose only — sleep. I would like to think because of that, to this day, I always fall asleep within minutes when I hit the bed. I always find myself aimlessly reading stuff on the web as soon as I sit on my chair. No matter what my initial goal was before turning on the laptop, my focus just drifts away and I end up reading a random article on my favorite sites like theatlantic, newyorker, facebook, artofmanliness or one of the news websites. I am working to cultivate my study table to be a space of learning and writing. I am very happy that my easy chair always calms me down and makes me think about family. The stool in the corner of the room puts me in a mood to play and improve my guitar playing skills.

Places and spaces affect us in ways that can be apparent only if we really sit down and meditate. We are surrounded by so much noise and distraction that we rarely can connect with ourselves, let alone with whats around us and where we are. I think with a little bit of discipline we can cultivate spaces that help our minds. The living room can be a place for communication, settling differences, adventure. The bedroom — a place for love and relaxation. I think all forms of negativity and debauchery should be banished from the household. We will be richly rewarded for preserving the sanctity of our spaces.

Preventing violence against women

It’s always distressing to hear news of violence against women specially when they are from India, my home country. Prominent women celebrities and associations demand for death-penalty for perpetrators after broadcast of every new rape or crime story that caught the national attention. Emotions run high, politicians make statements (some very stupid), people protest and social media goes abuzz with people expressing their disgust. Sadly there is very little discussion about identifying the root cause and meaningfully solving this issue.

Here is what UN organization for Women has to say about solving this problem:

Violence against women and girls is rooted in gender-based discrimination and social norms and gender stereotypes that perpetuate such violence. Given the devastating effect violence has on women, efforts have mainly focused on responses and services for survivors. However, the best way to end violence against women and girls is to prevent it from happening in the first place by addressing its root and structural causes.

Prevention should start early in life, by educating and working with young boys and girls promoting respectful relationships and gender equality. Working with youth is a “best bet” for faster, sustained progress on preventing and eradicating gender-based violence. While public policies and interventions often overlook this stage of life, it is a critical time when values and norms around gender equality are forged.

– Source: http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/prevention

Is there any mention of “Death-penalty” as a means to solve the problem? In 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women a document was drafted with “agreed conclusions” on how to tackle the issue. The commission proposes “appropriate punishment”. Again, there are no demands for “Death-penalty”.

The UN Commission has got it right. The issue can only be meaningfully solved by changing the mindset of people, specially the young. This can be achieved by education and encouraging respectful relationships between men and women. Instead, we get pretty much everything wrong in our attempt to solve the issue:

Why is there such a high value set to virginity and sex? Does a rape victim lose something so precious that all meaning in life is lost? As sensitive of a subject this is, the closer we get to considering rape as just another form of physical violence, the easier it will be for victims to bear the social sting of it. Sex is an intimate act meant for mutual pleasure between two people. Without the “mutual pleasure” aspect, it should be seen as physical violence. In truth, even in the most liberal cultures, it may never be considered just as a “physical violence”, not it should. But if victims, instead of speaking out are killing themselves because of self-loathing or fear of society, we have a problem. The violation of personal space and emotional trauma leaves an indelible scar on a victim. We can at least reduce the weight a victim experiences because of society.

I found the harrowing experience of a young man who asked a woman out very troubling. It reminded of an instance from my childhood when an instance of me being bratty was given a sexist spin by a girl and many of her friends(almost all girls in class) rallied to get me punished for misbehavior(I never got punished though). I know several instances of parents and relatives of girls crossing the line for minor misdemeanors on the boys part.

A lady friend shared a story about how a guy once misbehaved with her sister on the street. She ran after him and eventually he was caught and taken to the police station. The pursuit had left both sisters very shaken and her father soon showed up. How do you think the situation would have turned out? The father goes up and knocks a tooth out of the guy? Police stand by, watching as the boy gets hammered. Maybe join in to deliver a few additional kicks before throwing him behind bars?

No. Here is what the father did. He walked up to the guy and says:

These are my girls.
You can look at them.
You can smile at them.
You can even whistle at them.
But you can not touch them.

He walks out with his daughters and the police let the guy go. What do you make of this father? Must be someone from a very liberal country? Wrong. The father is Iranian. This incident happened in a town in the turkish part of Iran, which is actually more conservative than big cities like Tehran.

Men inflict violence on women not because it is inherent to male personality and its not something our gender needs to be cured off. The problem is men aren’t being real Men. Instead of demonizing and neutering the male instincts, society needs to expect manly virtues from all men. The youth must be shown a way to express themselves. They must be taught the appropriate way of flirting, courting and winning the love of a woman. They should learn how much rewarding a consensual relationship really is. They must be taught the value of empathy and honor. How can someone with empathy commit violence against another fellow human being? Specially someone from the physically weaker and fairer sex?

Its not the responsibility of men alone. Women need to realize they are part of the solution. For god sake, you gave birth and raised these men. When you buy into the culture of objectification of your own gender, watch crappy movies that feature caucasian women wearing skimpy clothes, hide and remain silent or on the other extreme subscribe to militant feminist ideology — you are being part of the problem.

We spend way too much time talking about retribution to crime already committed and far less little time wondering how such crimes can be prevented. Over 2/3rd of the female victims knew their attackers, often someone from the same family. The greatest danger women face is not from some stranger on the street but their own acquaintances. Agreed, harsh punishments can “deter” crimes both inside and outside of home. Strict policing can help “prevent” crimes outside of home. But how do you “prevent” crimes inside the home or neighborhood? How do you protect yourself from people you trust? Deterrence alone is not the solution.

Perfect Practice

There is a quote by Vince Lombardi, a famous American Football figure, that I think about from time to time:

“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect. “

These words are a call to put in our best in whatever we do, every time, over and over again. Practice makes permanent. And perfect practice makes the perfect permanent. The “permanent” aspect is important because we all know it takes more time to unlearn a bad habit than to form a good one.

But wise words can be incorporate in our day to day activities only if we have discipline. The problem with them is that they just don’t stick in the mind. I think that is why our forefathers created fables and stories. A story captures the attention of the listener and leaves a lasting impression.

Metaphors are also powerful tools to convey a message. When you cant express something in words, its sometimes easier to use a metaphor. Not only does it tickle the brain to actually think about the message. In certain situations, metaphors might be the most polite way to get the message across.

My guitar instructor shared a metaphor which I thought went very well with the quote by Vince Lombardi. He said that every time you practice a piece of music on the guitar, it goes into a magic hat. When you are performing on stage, you can only pull from that magic hat. If you want only good things to come out of your hat, you need to make sure you put only the best notes and chords in it.

Only a Rocketman

There is a song that has been haunting me last few days.

“Rocketman” was originally performed by Elton John in 1972. Many artists have covered the song since then. I like the version covered by James Maynard(Puscifer/Tool) the best. It has a feel of Pink Floyd and gives me the chills every time I play it.

This song is set in the future. It’s in a time when space travel has become common.

She packed my bags last night pre-flight
Zero hour nine a.m.
And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then
I miss the earth so much, I miss my wife
It’s lonely out in space
On such a timeless flight

You can tell from the first two lines how the astronauts flight has become something trivial, just like you would pack your bags to take a bus to the next city. There is a deep sadness and fear in the lines that follow.

And I think it’s gonna be a long long time
Till touch down brings me round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home
Oh no no no I’m a rocket man
Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone

Its going to be a long, long time before the astronaut returns back to earth. His greatest fear is that when he returns back home, he will no longer be seen as a brave hero – the astronaut who put his life at risk to travel to the edge of space.

The song was written over forty years ago and yet it is relevant for all times and ages. Professions once seen as noble lose their awe and respect over time. In India, there was a time when a Postman was one of the most respected and educated person in the village. Being a Policeman or Firefighter was something a child aspired to be. A time when soldiers returning to America from the fields of battle in Japan and Europe during the world wars were seen as the finest men. Being a freedom fighter or laying down your life for other people was considered heroic. Being a Teacher and imparting knowledge was a job of great responsibility. Do these people still enjoy the respect they once did?

I wonder if there is any value in trying to preserving old perceptions? I think perceptions in society are like glaciers which inch slowly, constantly changing the landscape. A few well-intentioned people will grieve about the Glacier heading toward their beautiful meadow, they might even dig in with shovels hoping to change the course of it. They should realize the futility of their efforts and accept the change. The only way they will find joy in this change is if they can find beauty in the deep valley that the Glacier has carved behind.

But is there something fundamentally wrong with desire to be seen as hero. In a time when space travel becomes common, how different is being an astronaut from being a truck driver really. I think the struggle in everybody’s life is equally worthy of respect. There are countless heroes who life remains unsung and their courage uncelebrated.

Albert Einstein once said:

If you want to live a happy life,
tie it to a goal. Not to people or things
.

Our actions cant be guided by the prospects of getting adulation from others.

Being Gentle

I started buying music recently! I felt it was about time and I had the resource to support my favourite artists. My first purchase was an album from a band name “Soulmate” from Shillong, India. They are the torch bearers of the blues movement in India. The lead guitarist and vocalist are phenomenal! Followed by Hugh Laurie’s(House MD?) debut album. Yes Hugh Laurie!

But this post is not about my new found virtue. I needed CDs for my car stereo. And like always, opportunity presented itself as an email from a guy at office who wanted to sell his CD collection.

I replied back with the names of artists I was interested in and also mentioned my general taste of music. We setup an appointment to meet in the office cafeteria. I walked into the cafe at the designated time and saw a guy sitting with a bag on his lap. He greeted me immediately and I took a seat right infront of him. He stared right at me with his deep blue eyes and we spoke about music. We had several common interests: The Beatles, Radiohead, Simon & Garfunkel. He had great interest in indian fusion, tabla, sitar and followed works by some Indian artists.

After a very enjoyable conversation for almost 20 minutes, he smiled and said he was very pleased to meet me and that hes happy to sell his part of his collection to me. I was genuinely impressed by him and asked him how he knew about Indian music. He replied back saying that he is a Jazz musician himself and plays the guitar and keyboard. And as he said that he pulled two big stacks of CDs from his black bag with such precision and placed them on the desk infront of me. The CDs looked almost brand new except for a white label on each one of them. It was Braille! I looked up and noticed those deep set blue eyes were not real. I handed him the money and graciously accepted the CDs. I had just concluded business with someone who is full time employee in my (a software) company,  a jazz musician and blind from both eyes.

As I walked back to my cube holding the stack, I was slightly dazed by the whole experience. A part of me was thrilled to own, among other things, an original collection of 12 Beatles CDs. The other part, was still in the cafeteria sitting front of that blind musician – watching him pull out CDs from his bag, reading the CD labels with his fingertips and stacking them neatly on the table.

The Covers of the CDs were old and showed signs of age and use but the CDs themselves were pristine. It made me think about that blind man’s gentle touch. If someone in his situation could preserve something that is so easy to get scratched all this while, what does it say about the rest of us? It reminded me of my younger days when my grandfather would be furious when I carelessly dropped my schoolbag on the floor, or placed the glass on the wooden dinner table too hard, spoke too loud, or flung myself onto the chair too hard. Being gentle was a virtue which had to be practiced and reflected in every aspect of ones conduct. Being gentle would preserve the shine on everything you touch. It will enhance the shine one certain things that you can never touch and often times, cant never even see. Like the self esteem of someone in need of help, the spirit of someone who lost to you, the admiration people have for you, the honest curiosity of the young ones, the genuine concern of friends, or the unconditional love of your parents.

This blog post has been in my draft for a while and I was waiting for my thoughts to settle down. Unfortunately, for me and many others in my company, today was his last day at work. In his final message he urged fellow engineers who build products, to always have in mind those, who were not blessed with all five senses.

I think I have found a new dimension that will shape my vision when engineering new products in the future. I hope he can show the way to many more people who have eyes, but are still blind.

The Pinnacle of an Art

I saw the 4th installment of the Step-up movie a couple of weeks back. In this movie, the free-spirited dancers no longer danced for a contest. They use their art to express protest against big money corporation who were out to forcefully buy their cherished “hangout” places. I have to say I liked the dance sequences in Step-up 3 better though.

In the movie, the lead actor helps the actress rehearse a dance sequence on the beach. Things get sour between the two and she is at the audition, struggling with her dance routine and emotions. Every time she lost balance the scene would shift to when both of them danced in warm embrace at the beach in the setting sun. Her struggle to maintain form evoked a few thoughts in my mind

Art is like a language. A medium to express yourself, either to your dance partner, an audience or probably even just yourself. This is more apparent in forms of latin dance like Tango, where the exchange of emotion is very visible. An expert of an art, say in piano, should be able to express joy, sorrow or anger playing the same composition. A master should not only be able to express an even greater range of emotions, but also express it with simplicity to a degree that overwhelms even a casual observer. I think that would be the pinnacle of an art.

In any art, its perhaps easy to make the presence of something felt. Is it possible to show the absence? The actress in the movie Step-up tried, it was an Ok effort. I want to see a deeper expression of longing or loss through dance. Perhaps a similar western contemporary dance, where the female performer still in the shock of her partners absence, attempts the duet performance. She goes flying in the air and lands on the hard ground with no arms to break her fall. This sentiment would be ingrained in her routine i.e. she wouldn’t actually crash and hurt herself. The key would be to make you believe that she is counting on someone to be there until the very last moment of a step. And that she will continue to perform with the invisible person until every member of the audience gets it. If I ever meet an accomplished master of dance, I will ask that person to create such a dance sequence.

I am sure there are already attempts to express this emotion in various arts. I hope that I am able to recognize what the artist is trying to say when I see or hear their work. Just like I did when I heard this Cello composition by Joe Hisaishi in the Japanese movie Okuribito “Departures”