Saturday, October 20, 2007

Founts of Wisdom

"And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing."

That is what the exiled forest-dwelling Duke Senior in Shakespeare's As You Like It, had to say, about lessons the most ordinary of natural surroundings have to offer, if only we turn our eyes and ears to them. The Duke calls this outlook of life that sees good in everything, one of the 'sweet uses of adversity'. Human nature demands either the thrill of novelty or the promise of reward to recognize the good in anything; and we are so often dismissive or plainly unaware of the good in what is familiar and commonplace. It is only in times of loneliness and lessened accomplishment; where all our experience is confined to the commonplace; that most of us manage to see the good in things which we would have commonly taken for granted. It is only with some training that we are able to overcome this limitation of human nature; and are able to see new lessons in not only the novel, but also the familiar; not only in the inviting, but also in the innocuous; not only in hard times when we are forced to make virtues out of necessities, but also during the few vacant moments in the busiest of times. A bustling university campus is not exactly exempt from public haunt as the Duke's wilderness, and a student on his toes does not usually stand gazing at the many fountains on campus the way the Duke's retinue would have at the brooks. Fountains in this day and age, to most people mean dispensers of soft drinks. Even so, while passing by the many fountains on the way to the campus at different times of the day, I somewhat fancifully see the fountains spouting philosophies of life, somewhat like how the Duke saw books in brooks.

The first fountain I see is one at Mount St Mary's College, en route to the USC campus. The fountain here is within a small well, and on it's inner wall are engraved the words, "Seek the good, the true and the beautiful from the Fountain of all Life". The sentence at first sight seems too much of a platitude even to merit mention. Most of us will stop mid-sentence and tell ourselves that it goes without saying, that we must seek good and avoid evil. When we ask whether 'any good will come out of this', we generally mean whether any pleasant outcome, mostly reward or recognition will come out of this activity. Most of us also have strong opinions about what activities and associations any good can come out of, and hence we have our own mental models of 'good people' and mental lists of 'good books'; and societies have an idea of what 'good professions' are. This way, in our mental landscape, there are some landmark sources of good, call them fountains of good if you will. Similarly we have also mapped out the 'roots of all evil'. Are good and evil so clearly separate and disparate in origin? How often have we found good and evil arising out of the same source? The best of role models have chinks in their armour, and no person among those we may hold in the greatest contempt can be so depraved that he lacks a single virtue however buried in vice. The most memorable of experiences might have a tinge of regret over a missed opportunity to have made it still better, and the bitterest of experiences might have hidden lessons that stood us in good stead later. Good and evil are intermingled in the stream of life experiences, and do not spout from two separate fountains. There is only one Fountain of All Life, as the engraving says. The wisdom of life, it says, is not in clinging onto something as good and dismissing something else as evil, but in straining and gleaning what is good in every single thing. The mythical Indian Swan, which can drink just the pure milk out of milk diluted with water, is a vivid Oriental motif of this view. The Swan does not fly far in search of its elixir, but finds the same in a seemingly impure source. Likewise, we too will be wise not by wandering to 'good places' or waiting for 'good times', but finding good from whatever we face here and now.

A more ornate fountain is the one facing the splendid Doheny Library building. This fountain has a pedestal set upon four figurines like the caryatids of Greek antiquity. A figurine bearing an infant represents Home, one making a gesture of giving represents Community, one with praying hands represents Church and one with an open book represents School. Atop the pedestal is a dancing nymph reaching for the sky. The fountain illustrates in sculpture all the foundations for raising human society to newer heights. Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Indian nation, presented his entire nation-building program through his Ashrams which were self-sufficient in the needs of the family, community, religion and education. In his writings, he describes how the boundaries between family and community vanish, how labour in the Ashram and the words of wise ones can themselves be an education in their own right and how adherents of different faiths can engage in collective worship. The kibbutz movement in Israel is perhaps the most well-known attempt in recent history to unite home, community, church and school into a single collective institution. However, it is now almost a thing of the past since any overarching institution that tends to subsume individual talent and aspiration has eventually yielded to change. We must remember that the central tenet of even Gandhiji's seemingly collectivistic social engineering experiments was the individual volunteer's inner resolve and devotion to truth. Likewise, even as the global community today experiences greater connectivity and more collaborative activity; order will be maintained only by individual responsibility and cannot be enforced by an institution. Progress will still be driven by individual genius, however much it may be facilitated by the right institutions. Like the figurines in the fountain which set the stage for the nymph to take flight, and do not nestle the nymph in a tight embrace; the truly beneficial social institutions are those that create conditions suitable for individual achievement, without binding enterprise and imagination by convention and tradition.

Outside the majestic Mudd Hall of Philosophy, stands another fountain bearing the inscription, "O stream of life run you slow or fast, all streams reach the sea at last.". This might sound like a defeatist message to some, who may think that it is pointless to take pains to be skilful and speedy when eventually the fruits of all efforts will count to nothing. To others, this very message infuses a sense of urgency, that we must when we still can , be our most sparkling and agile selves and infuse grace however fleeting into all our movements. The message, often forgotten, is to keep in mind even when things are streaming along smoothly and speedily, that any state of affairs however desirable, lasts only for a time. Likewise times of difficulty and stagnation also pass. The wisdom of life seems to be to pay utmost attention to the course of each stream of thought and action, while at the same thing acknowledging the uncertainty of the fate of each stream as it rushes into the sea of endless possibility. This inscription, in a way, both inspires action and tempers ambition, and has a message similar to the more oft-quoted "Do your best and leave to God the rest!".

Perhaps the most prominent fountain at the northern entrance of the USC campus is the one at Gavin Herbert Plaza. This one bears no inscription and does not proclaim any philosophical message, but in its own way is proof of the fact that a gesture may be worth a thousand words. The Plaza bears an unconventional sculpture: a juxtaposition of tall blocks that seems to be a cubist expression of a human hand with an upraised finger. The popular interpretation is that this is a well-known offensive gesture aimed at a rival institute. This somewhat profane interpretation, which might even have been the intent of the artist, is however not what strikes me most about this public artwork. What is impressive is that the artist operating with such minimalistic motifs as straight-edged stone blocks manages to convey an image as intricate and distinctive as a human hand. The evocations and associations caused by this assembly of stone blocks are illustrations of how the aesthetics and acceptability of any artwork are shaped as much by the intent of the perceiver, as by that of the artist. That such an artwork, carrying an irreverent meaning for most and an abstract meaning for others, lies on a university campus is proof of the fact that the sublime and the ridiculous often coexist in proximity in the most well-meaning of human endeavours. Again it is upto us to choose either, just as we are to choose the good from the intermingled Fountain of All Life. Even those plain fountains that bear neither inscriptions nor sculptures do have a message. That the planners decided to install those fountains at all, instead of leaving the parkways unadorned, speaks of an innate human urge to look beyond bare necessities, create things of beauty and offer some comfort however fleeting to travellers one might never see. In the mild gurgling and cool whiffs around the plainest of fountains, I find reassurance, that there have been men who valued art enough, to create these spaces that can calm weary minds and occasion contemplation.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Moral of the 'Story so far'
Part 3
-Probability and Providence-

We have heard it said so often that, "Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people". Introspection, the process of placing oneself on trial, is so much more difficult than judging others. Natural curiosity makes it easy for our minds to get interested in other people, even with the smallest effort. With more than average effort, our minds can shift from a passing curiosity in personality traits and quirks, to a keen observation of events in the lives of people, their behaviors and circumstances. Our minds are at their greatest when natural curiosity and persistent observation are both harnessed, by resisting the urge to stick to prejudices or jump into conclusions. It is now that the ideas that drive people and events become clear. A story, especially a true-life story, has something for all minds; small, average or great; because a story always has people, events and ideas: characters, plots and morals. A story harnesses our natural curiosity, sustains interest and keen observation and hence imperceptibly prepares us and makes us attentive to a lesson of life. A moral may find authoritative expression in a commandment or sermon, but the subtle suggestion of a moral by a good story is a more evocative and memorable expression. While a sermon demands obedience; all that a story demands is our natural curiosity and coaxes the mind into seeing something beyond. A moral may inspire through a story, but a moral is not the only way a story can inspire. This is the reason why more people find inspiration in 'The Fountainhead' than in the 'Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology', though both convey the same message and philosophy of life.

What has been written so far may sound like a chapter outline for a proposed book entitled, ' 'How to read biographies'. Even if such a book is written, it is unlikely to teach more than a single good story will; and is unlikely to add anything to the learning of those who have heard many good personal stories. Writing now about a thought-provoking life story I heard recently would not therefore, be out of place. It can bring a narrative concreteness and liveliness to this exercise of learning to examine lives. After all, any discussion between even the most seasoned book-lovers is not just about the history of literature, but is always replete with reviews of recently read books with mentions of interesting episodes or lines. This is about the first talk which I got to attend in person at USC's 'What Matters to Me and Why?' series, the one by Dr. Jeffrey Nugent, a renowned development economist.

Dr. Nugent warmly recounted experiences from his early years, whose unexpected lessons stood him in good stead through his illustrious academic career. He recalled with special fondness the spiritual quest of his mother, who would always explore any question of faith from the viewpoint of different faiths like Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism; and frequently ask him his views on such topics, eliciting from him frank admissions about their imponderability. His mother's unprejudiced quest continued well into her elderly years and even after she suffered visual impairment. Growing up in New York, Dr. Nugent was an ardent baseball fan as a boy; and according to him, his special interest in developing economies has its beginnings in his trait to root for the underdogs in baseball games. To this day, he says, he finds himself cheering with as much gusto as he would in a baseball match, when he sees a developing economy anywhere in the world make the right policies and flourish. During his college years, he was once required to escort an elderly classmate home after class, who inculcated in him a life-long love for English poetry during their conversations in the walk back. Years later when Dr. Nugent was performing compulsory military service without access to books and entertainment of any sort, this love for poetry helped him form a group of poetry-lovers in his camp who would meet often and each recite a poem from memory to maintain sanity and preserve the aesthetic self during troubled times. He spoke about how he decided on a whim to take an archaic course like the electoral history of 19th century America during his later college years, where he happened to read the classic speech 'Cross of Gold'. This speech would supply him later with inspiration and references for his first tenure-winning paper.

While relating such instances of how things picked up casually along the way came in handy in the long run, Dr. Nugent spoke of two turning points in his career which were made possible by opportunities he almost missed by hair's breadth. The first of these was an offer to perform research in Nigeria, which he was apprehensive to undertake given his newly married status and a general unwillingness to relocate to an unfamiliar land. After mulling over it and even missing the deadline by a day, he decided in a flash to get back to those who made the offer. To his pleasant surprise, they were only too glad to let him come and he spent a very productive time in Nigeria. The second one was an opportunity to fulfil his longtime desire to perform research in Greece. Knowing that an eminent Greek researcher was in town, he had kept a research proposal ready. As luck would have it, he suffered a severe attack of diaorrhea throughout the visiting professor's stay in town, and had no means of reaching him. At the nick of time before the visiting researcher boarded his flight home, Dr. Nugent managed to track him down at the airport. As luck would have it again, a native speaker of Greek happened to be passing by and was promptly recruited by Dr. Nugent as an interpreter to get through his proposal to the visiting scholar and eventually got to spend several productive years in Greece as was his cherished desire. In Nigeria and Greece, he got to learn new languages, make friends for life and grow greatly in stature as an economist of international repute.

After the speech, I had the following question for Dr. Nugent, " You mentioned in your talk how you made a last-minute decision to go to Nigeria and how you could get your Greek proposal through at the very nick of time; both of which later proved to be life-changing decisions. Both of these are experiences where things could have gone wrong at the last moment.
What would you attribute your last-minute decisions that later proved to have unexpected benefits? Are they:
a) fortunate coincidences and a matter of chance
b) expressions of 'Providential harmony' as the more religiously inclined would say
c) a consequence of the fact that people who try out more things and take more chances than others eventually get it right once in a while!Is it true that 'The only way to get a good idea is to get lots of ideas'?"

Dr. Nugent's face lit up and he said that he found the question very interesting. He replied that his decisions were based on an inner conviction that an idea was good and seemed right. At the moment of reckoning this conviction eventually won over the indecision. Most interestingly, he was unwilling to rule out the possibility that some decisions may be 'divinely inspired'. In a later e-mail exchange, Rabbi Susan Laemmle, the Dean of the Office of Religious Life at USC also concurred with Dr. Nugent's views. In her own words, "I think that one of the most important things in creating a good and meaningful life is to listen to your own inner voice -- to learn to understand yourself and what matters to you, and to notice what makes your happy and sad and angry and depressed. And then to take actions that accord with your developing and solidifying inner nature. I do not see this process as primarily a spiritual matter, directed by God, but more of a psychological/emotional/cognitive matter. However, it is not all that cut and dried; since I do see God as connected to, even if separate from, our inner natures. In my view, sometimes things are a matter of sheer luck, and sometimes there is an element of luck -- as perhaps there was in the Greek speaker actually being at the Eastside terminal when Nugent arrived there."

In a way, my basic question was about the nature of luck. Is luck simply a series of flukes, part of a yet-to-be-revealed Plan of heaven, or is it the sum total of byproducts and unintended consequences of our own conscious decisions? Is it Providence or simply probability? Is it the play of the gods or simply of the odds? This question is one of the many variants of the perennial debate between free will and destiny. The economist and the Rabbi, both very learned and distinguished in their own fields, concur that our lives are mainly shaped by our decisions made when conviction wins over doubt. But they concede that our decisions and convictions may themselves be shaped by unknowns. While they readily acknowledge that there are unknowns, conventional wisdom often does not. There are two common metaphors that usually figure in any debate between free will and predestination. One is that fate deals us cards and it is upto us to play the cards we have got as well as we can. This is like a description of a system in which we have no control over the inputs, but freedom to change the process and hence alter the outputs. This view gives free will the last word. Another metaphor is that all our efforts are the grist of the 'mills of God'. This seems to suggest that we have control only over the inputs and then a larger process takes over. This approach gives destiny the last word. But irrespective of the worldview, we are expected to do our best: play our cards well and supply our best grain to the mills. In practice it really makes no difference if it is free-will or destiny that decides: for in any case all that we have to do is refine our own personal gameplan and avoid whatever goes against the grain.

Without expecting miracles and windfalls, and by taking upon themselves the onus of coming up with the best response to a situation; the two learned respondents to my question suggest that we can actively propose a course of life even if it is not entirely at our disposal. They have freed themselves from both fatalism and delusion, and give a balanced message that avoids both the complacency of expecting Providential guidance all the time, as well as the arrogance of being in full control. This is not to belittle the role of religion in our inner lives. Every great world religion offers its own set of answers to the perennial questions of philosophy, but these answers are not meant to spare us the effort of seeking our own answers. The purpose of religion is defeated if we rely on traditional assumptions instead of assessing each situation on its own merits; or begin to expect miraculous resolutions whenever we err, all in the name of faith. There really is no conflict between religious faith and faith in oneself. When truly practised; both require us to find our own true needs and fulfil them with our best efforts; to examine our own deeds and see if they are true to our values; and not to expect our needs to be fulfilled by fortuitous stars and our deeds to be forgiven by lenient gods.

At the very outset, we saw how seeking meaning in everyday mysteries is the first step to begin understanding our own lives. Then we saw how we can learn best from the lives of others by putting ourselves in their place and examining what stance we would take. Finally we have learnt to take a balanced view of our own role in shaping our lives, which many of us tend to assume is entirely our own, or entirely at the mercy of something beyond us. We started this exercise as an attempt to 'read our lives'. It is said that Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic are the 3 R's of education. We may say that the three R's we must undertake to be able to learn from life are:
1. Research into what we find most mysterious and meaningful
2. Roleplays placing ourselves in the experiences of others and observing our stance
3. Responsibility for decisions coupled with refraining from wishful thinking and unjustified expectations
We have seen how learning from life means not allowing ourself any self-pity, refraining from making condescending judgements or delusional comparisons, not resorting to any convenient beliefs we may grown up with, and dealing afresh with each situation. Giving up so much of what has been second nature to us, and untiringly exercising our intellect, imagination and patience to examine and redirect our own lives seems to be a tall order. However, sustained effort in this direction will allow us to stand tall in our own eyes, and bring more order and harmony into our life; to make it the stuff an inspirational biography is made of.

Part 2:

Part 1:

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Moral of the 'Story so far'
Part 2
-Instances and stances-

Retrospection would have served its purpose even if we are unsuccessful in elegantly inking our past life. It is enough even if we are able to get some inkling of what the living present means to us. Even if retrospection does not yield the moral of the story so far, it might place in our hands in the thread of the story to come. However, 'looking back' is purposeful only if we also 'look within' at the same time. Retrospection unaccompanied by introspection serves no purpose. Retrospection only provides personal instances, incidents and illustrations to the introspective questions of what we find most mysterious and meaningful: "What matters to me and why?". "What matters to me and why?" is also the title of a monthly series of lectures by eminent professors at USC, sponsored by the Office of Religious Life, currently in its sixth year. In the words of the organizers, this exercise is meant to encourage "reflection about values, beliefs, and motivations". Listening to the lectures in this series is an excellent opportunity to hear leading luminaries in academia, who are otherwise known only by sketchy media reports of their research findings, present vivid first-hand accounts of their own results of retrospection and introspection.

Among the speakers are the great minds of a generation, minds that were drawn towards to the problems of mankind: scientific and spiritual, physiological and philosophical ; minds that were also indrawn to untiringly seek solutions, remedies, insights, outlooks and wisdom to better the lot of mankind. To hear such minds share their experiences of their inner life in relation with their obvious outward achievements, is perhaps one of the most edifying experiences one can have on campus. It is humbling to see that the process of self-inquiry challenges even mighty intellects such as those of the premier physical and social scientists who address these gatherings. In the audio talks of past speakers available online, I could hear pioneering psychologists and award-winning engineers, professors from the East and those from the West. It was surprising and in a way heartening to note that, notwithstanding the obvious differences in their origins and their callings, they describe their personal journeys in uncannily similar ways. One thing that they all have in common is that they do not describe their journeys in terms of milestones, but in terms of crossroads. Not one talk I heard from these speakers made much mention of their first graduation or first publication or first award. The 'firsts' they did mention were the first time experienced the dilemma of tough choices and the first time they came face to face with the reality of suffering, even in events that to an outsider may have seemed commonplace. Indeed, according to the organizers of the series " Presenters are encouraged to talk about choices made, difficulties encountered, and commitments solidified."

The animals in each of Aesop's fables are different, but they all speak in human voices and have human traits. Every adventure tale, Gulliver or Sindbad, is different, but they all have shipwrecks that throw the travellers off course along unexpected journeys. Each speaker in 'What Matters to Me and Why?" has a different story to tell, but they all are narrations of human nature at its best, and bettering its best in the face of unexpected occurrences and challenging circumstances. The outlines of the personal lives provided by the speakers were of different shapes and forms; but without exception, they all dwelt at length upon character-forming parental influences in early childhood, and personality-shaping experiences of overcoming human suffering. Recurring themes in each personal story are unforgettable times spent with dear ones, unlikely sources of inspiration, unasked for good turns, unexpected turns of fortune and unusual interests that led to unintended possibilities. The universality of the themes provides the backdrop for the uniqueness of each individual instance.

Which one of us can claim not to have had experiences that were unforgettable, unlikely, unusual or unintended? Then how is it that not all of our stories are the stuff inspirational biographies are made of? In a manner of everyday speaking, greatness has less to do with 'what' happened to a person and more to do with 'how' he or she faced it. The answer perhaps lies not in the outer details of the instance, but in the inner stance of the individual. The great ones find their childhood experiences unforgettable because they did not just seek comfort in their dear ones, but also sought within themselves the aspirations to do their dear ones proud. They may have received unexpected favours from fellowmen, but almost always did so by deserving it through their conduct and initiative. They did face unexpected twists of fate, but when they were at their greatest, they saw these as an instruction in patience and forbearance, and not as destruction of hope. They found inspiration in the unlikeliest of sources because of their willingness to be instructed, a lesson they never forgot from their earlier experiences. Greatness is not entirely governed by the uncertainty of instances, coincidences and happenstances; but is attained by taking a certain stance: to stand erect and not rigidly, to stand at ease but not submissively and most importantly to stand corrected when needed. Instead of excusing ourselves for own ordinariness and dismissing greatness as a matter of circumstance, or amusing ourselves with trivial similarities between instances in our lives and those of great ones, we can step closer to greatest within ourselves by learning from the stances they took.

NEXT: Part 3:

* Audio talks of previous speakers in the 'What Matters to Me and Why' series at USC are available in the USC website at :

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Moral of the 'Story so far'
Part 1
-Mystery and meaning-

Try to read your life so far. Try to see your life so far as an open book in your mind's eye. Do you see the book of your life as a single epic, or is it more like an assortment of short stories with some characters appearing in all of them? Does every story in your book have a moral? Are you the protagonist, a participant, simply a narrator or all of these? Most importantly are you the sole author? Are you the author at all, or are you simply turning new leaves in a book of mysterious origin happening to bear your name? Is the life that you are reading now, one that you yourself scripted, or is it an ongoing play happening to have you on the cast for a while?

Has this exercise in imagination now prepared you to write your autobiography? That is an unfair question, for choosing what is worthwhile to include in a daily diary itself is hard enough, let alone knowing after a brief reverie what was truly significant in an entire lifetime. Writing an autobiography is not merely an extended exercise of recalling and retelling personal events. It is not just the summary of the experience of one person, since you were a different person during each experience. The prattle of the child you were, the bluster of the youth you were and the assured convictions of the wise man you may now see yourself as; all compete uproariously to dictate the narrative. You must hear out the versions of all the different persons you have been over the years. It is almost as if you are a detective at a crime scene piecing together a version of the event from a dozen eyewitness accounts from the incidental kid, the casual youngster or the alert passer-by. Or you are like a general who must decide on a single course of action based on reports from a troop of scouts who vary in their training and daring. Or you are like the director of a research laboratory who must referee results from several young researchers differing widely in acumen and application, before you declare your conclusions. Your vision of yourself and the description of your life will depend on whether you view your life as an urgent mystery, an ongoing battle or as a quest for meaning.

Great autobiographies the world over seem to be products of such a line of inquiry. To Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Indian nation; life was a series of urgent mysteries of ethical choices, an ongoing battle against inner weaknesses and a quest for the Truth which to him is indistinguishable from God. To the Dalai Lama, a modern-day apostle of non-violence; life begins as a mystery of his own identity as living god or leader of men, an endless battle against tyranny and a quest for freedom in exile, peace in a troubled world. To Helen Keller, the classic example of triumph of the human spirit; the world itself was a shrouded silent mystery and life was a battle against deprivation, which stirred in her the quest for an 'understanding which bringeth peace'. To Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam, India's former scientist-president, intellectual life began by childlike wonder at the mysteries of flight in the sky, progressed through student and scientist life battling against financial, bureaucratic and institutional constraints; and inspired a quest for the development of India into a superpower - a vision that inspires a generation of young Indians today.

Longfellow says "Lives of great men all remind us, we can make our lives sublime, and, departing, leave behind us, footprints on the sands of time." While all the inspiration from the life histories of great men and women may not be enough to help us make history ourselves; it can in the least help us tell the sublime from the ridiculous in our own personal histories. Rather than asking self-pitying, self-defeating questions like "Why did this event have to happen at all?" or "Why me?" during retrospection; we may learn a lot more about our lives and ourselves by instead asking the questions, "What do I always find most mysterious?" and "What is it that gives the things I value the most their meaning?" Rather than mulling on our peculiarities and musing over our precariousness and predicaments, we will learn to read and write our lives better if we always remain aware of the mystery and eager for the meaning.

NEXT: Part 2: 

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Sketches on rainbow slate
-Grandeur...grit...and greed-

The road travel route from Southern California to Southern Utah's Golden Circle of national parks, traces a transect cutting across contours in physical maps and borders in political maps. It is a journey from America's fruit basket through its southwestern deserts, in a road passing through California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah. In fertile California, we see Nature's grandeur. In the arid Mojave desert with mile upon mile of stubborn shrubbery refusing to wither away, we see Nature's grit. The plant kingdom has established outposts in the rockiest of canyons and a toehold on the steepest of cliffs. The trees though, seem to be wary guests or harmless intruders in the impregnable sandstone canyons at Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park at Utah.

While seen as impenetrable overbearing cliffs when seen from below at Zion, or while seen as an impassable chasm from the vantage points at Bryce; the canyons establish an inescapable presence, proclaiming their permanence to mankind. The cliffs which to our eyes seem permanent, are merely the sands of geological time frozen in a momentary stillness of sandstone in a landscape that was once seafloor and then sand dunes. What now is seemingly an adamantine landscape is to the Forces of Nature the most yielding earth, gorged on and gouged out by the unyielding persistence of the Virgin River. Charles Lyell, one of the greatest geologists of all time and one of the first to suggest that the earth's surface is not 'set in stone' but is being endlessly recast, vividly describes in his 'Principles of Geology' the contest between subterranean Fire and flowing Water; Fire making mountains from the molten rock underneath and Water laying them low. We can witness the most dramatic shows of strength in the battle between the Forces of Nature, most grandly in a canyon. Astronomy is said to be a humbling science, a constant reminder of mankind's irrelevance to the cosmos. Even without looking skywards, the geology of the earth at the canyons is an inescapable and humbling vision of our own impermanence and insignificance.

In the noonday sun, the cliffs glisten with a myriad hues of sandstone, with streaks and swirls of white, black and red rock. In the setting sun, this play of colour makes way for a shadow play on the cliffs. The sandstone of the cliffs is a metamorphic rock, formed when sands of the primeval deserts were compressed by layer after layer of accumulating sand. The encrustation of minerals and oil within these layers has streaked the rocks with blackish and reddish hues, earning it the name 'rainbow slate.' The rainbow slate has been the palette as well as the canvas of the geological masterworks here, where one can see rock that is swirled like water, molded like clay and pleated like fabric by the elements that shape them. One of the notable sights at Zion is the Checkerboard Mesa, where the accumulating layers of rock form horizontal lines and vertical fissures complete an unbelievably perfect checkerboard on the cliff which creates disbelief in the fact that no human hand carved it. One can almost exclaim to the cliff in William Blake's words " What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry?". While Blake wrote about 'seeing the world in a grain of sand', here we can almost see a world in sandstone. We see worlds in red, white and black rock which are older than the histories of the exterminated Red Man, the exploring White Man and the enslaved Black Man and will outlive all of them.

To a geologist, a place like Zion or Bryce canyon is a holy ground where wonders never cease. To an artistic observer, the patterns on the rocks seem to give shape to the most fanciful visions and uncannily resemble strange animals and people. Artists and sculptors can find innumerable shapes and forms to stimulate their creativity. Psychologists will find in the rocks patterns which stimulate as much thought and association as any inkblot test. These are rockfaces where one can actually see faces in the rock. To the Native Americans who were the first human inhabitants here, and who too must have wondered what immortal hand framed these symmetries, the rocks are sacred. The cliffs are to the Navajos what Olympus was to the classical Greeks and what Kailasha is to the Hindus. Mountains the world over are shrines older than the religions built around them. In India, the lush tree-bearing lands reveal nature in a nurturing motherly aspect; while in the land of the Navajo Indians, the cliffs reveal nature in a more forbidding overlordly aspect. Whatever the manifestation, the grandeur of nature has shaped the life of men in both matter and mind. The diversity of the flora in India made the ancient Indians at the same time deeply reverent and curious of the life-giving properties of plants, and thus was born an ethos respecting natural cures and environmental protection, which offers valuable lessons to the world community today. The rocks and deserts in North America challenged explorers to a conquest of the tyranny of geography; and the history of America would not have taken the course it has, but for those intrepid explorers who braved it beyond the impassable cliffs and claimed the wilderness for civilization and the enterprising engineers who built roads through the seemingly impenetrable barriers and found hidden treasures of mineral wealth.

Las Vegas occurs on the route via Nevada from Southern Utah to Southern California. After the sights of the natural wonders, Las Vegas is an assault on the senses and sensibilities, a rude return to current civilization in its most decadent aspect. After sights affording contemplation of Nature's bounty, Las Vegas is the very picture of human greed. Greed is only presence here and there is neither grandeur nor grit; for all the grandeur is make-believe and all the grit is foolhardy. Overlooking the casino-lined tout-infested streets are garish replicas of world wonders like the Great Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty; seeming to proclaim that here's the world and it's all yours if you are greedy enough. The blinding pyschedelic neon lights on the casinos and clubs are lights that lead to darkness; which the unscrupulous and unwary are condemned to. If the American Dream is to stretch the limits of human possibility, then Las Vegas reduces it to just pushing one's luck. If American cities and corporations are built to make the most of human strengths, Las Vegas has been built to exploit every human weakness. If America is the world's greatest marketplace for goods and services, Las Vegas is a fair of evils and vices.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Physicians and musicians

This weekend, I got to hear two piano concerts: one by a physician and another by a musician, one by a celebrity and another by a debutant. That I was able to attend two concerts within the space of two days, speaks a lot about the opportunities for cross-cultural experiences which university life in this country offers an interested visitor. The first concert was a lecture demonstration by Dr. Richard Kogan entitled 'Music and Medicine: George Gershwin' on Friday, 10th August 2007 at the Mayer Auditorium in USC Health Sciences Campus. I learnt from the online USC Arts and Events Calendar that Dr. Kogan " has a distinguished career both as a concert pianist and as a psychiatrist...and The Boston Globe wrote that 'Kogan has somehow managed to excel at the world's two most demanding professions.' " At the outset of the lecture demonstration, Dr. Kogan outlined his mission as promoting 'music as a healing modality' and cited some examples from antiquity to show that the view that music and medicine are totally disparate disciplines is a fairly recent one. In the Greek pantheon, Appollo was the god of both medicine and music. The shamans of old were both physicians and musicians.

The theme of the lecture was a biographical presentation on George Gershwin, who in the opinion of the speaker is the greatest American composer of all time. In all of 38 years tormented by childhood conduct disorders, hyperactivity, almost pathological narcissism and cut short by an untimely death due to a brain tumour, Gershwin has left behind a life's work that still captivates audiences and offers valuable insights into the masterly creations of the so-called 'idiot savants.' As part of the demonstration, Dr. Kogan played 'Rhapsody in Blue', one of Gershwin's best-known works. It was a piece as astonishing and as full of surprises as promised by the speaker's introduction. I found it compelling, but far too capricious to be good music, though I quickly warned myself that this may simply be because of my almost total ignorance of this form of music. When Dr. Kogan himself said many of that those who first heard 'Rhapsody in Blue' lambasted it for its total lack of any form or structure, I felt a little relieved! Dr. Kogan repeated some of the more pulse-quickening parts of the rhapsody with some light-hearted, though not entirely unfounded, comments on how such music could be composed only by someone with chronic hyperactivity. The lecture was generously sprinkled with a series of anecdotes offering vivid illustrations of the 'idiot savant', notably one in which Gershwin took home from Paris some Parisian taxi horns to be included in his concerts, since he found their honking irresistibly musical! I've read of the irresistible Song of the Sirens in Greek myths, and chuckled to myself that this was the Song of the Horns.

Unlike the audiences of the few Carnatic concerts I got to visit back home in India, the audience here seemed less pedantically erudite and parts of the audience consisted of incidental and even indifferent participants. Biographical presentations of the lives of composers are a staple in the Harikatha performances in Carnatic music, and they are more suffused with religious sentiment and devotional fervour. By contrast, this concert seemed to be a less emotional exercise almost like a documentary. But I was not disappointed and got an opportunity to quickly correct myself. Dr. Kogan introduced his audience to 'Porgy and Bess', a folk opera considered by many to be Gershwin's magnum opus. The devotional fervour that I had missed was made up for by the human interest in the story of the opera, a grim tale of the hardships of penury, racial abuse, physical handicaps and bereavement. The pieces Dr. Kogan played from Porgy and Bess were especially moving, and would have been more so had I a little more grounding in music. But he played the piano with a very visible angst that would touch a chord even in someone merely watching. In an active audience questioning session, Dr Kogan agreed with a questioner that most of history's greatest music is born out of deep sorrow and spoke as if it was almost intuitively obvious, and borne out repeatedly by his studies of the lives of Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Tchaikovsky among others.

I had a tryst with some of the greatest composers in the Western world the very next day at the United University Church on the 11th of August 2007. The pianist here was Abraham Currameng from USC's Thornton School of Music performing as part of the requirement of his Masters of Music programme. The programme included pieces by Rachmaninoff, Mozart, Debussy, Prokofiev, Chopin, Granados and Liszt. After the unorthodox pieces of Gershwin, this was as classical an introduction to European music as I could get. The pieces sounded melodious and showed beauty of form and structure even to uninitiates like me, and the performance was undoubtedly first-rate given the responses of the more discerning audience in the church. The piece I found especially memorable was Reflets dans l'eau (Reflections in the Water) of Claude Debussy. I don't know if I allowed myself to simply be guided by the name of the piece, but it did have a languid, pellucid, tremulous feeling. Fancifully enough, the gentle movements of the pianist during this piece, made me think almost that his fingers were the feet of angels walking on water. The genius of the composers seemed to find adequate expression in the skill of the debutant. Some years ago I remember reading a heated conversation between two estranged bickering pianist parents of the protagonist of the book 'Eat Cake' by Jeanne Ray, where the runaway father scorns at his prim and proper wife, 'you play as if you never set foot outside a Methodist church!'. Here I was in a real Methodist church at a classical piano concert and am beginning to see sense in the choices of those hear and play nothing but classical. The beamed wooden roof, the stained glass windows and the Corinthian colonnades of the Methodist church, completed the classical experience. Perhaps, the 'music of the spheres' is simply a philosopher's metaphor, but my experience of the 'music of the spires' was most memorable.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Roots and Riches

During my flight to LA, the book which kept me company was an anthology, 'The Best of Ruskin Bond'. It is well-known that frequent and familiar references to flora and fauna is the hallmark of this author's writings. However, I think that apart from their charm and evocativeness, these descriptions of nature are motifs illustrating a world-view of harmonious and joyous acceptance of one's natural circumstances without struggling against ones own nature and the workings of nature. Bond quotes this Japanese proverb in the book, "In the marketplace, there is money to be made, but under the cherry tree, there is rest!" This proverb is not a dictum, but a question in disguise.The hustle of the marketplace is the din of busy activity and ambition. The shade of the cherry tree is the very picture of contentment and passive acceptance. It is choice we must all make. If man must indeed live according to his natural yearnings, then what comes naturally to man: acceptance of what is or ambition of what will be?

Elsewhere in the book, Bond writes about his restless stay away from India in the United Kingdom, and how staying away from his home country troubled him, even though he was not a territorialist. In keeping with his life's message to live in harmony with one's natural circumstances, he appears to suggest that living abroad places you in surroundings which are unnatural to you and hence undesirable to your inner well-being. It was a coincidence that I read this on my flight to the USA where I must come to further my academic ambitions and must stay away from home;for a couple of years certainly, but possibly indefinitely. What makes so many of my compatriots forsake the cherry-tree of comforts and familiarity back home and rush almost penniless to the marketplace here with nothing but the hope of making a fortune? How do they so readily make the tradeoff between five-star comfort in their third-world setting, and survival with minimal amenities in what is outwardly the first world? Has ambition won over acceptance and they are willing to undergo hardship to follow their dreams? Or has acceptance won over ambition with the resignation that they cannot have their riches where their roots are, and must necessarily uproot themselves?

Staying rooted safely and taking wing adventurously are both natural yearnings though at any given time, one or the other does seem unnatural. Swami Parthasarathy says often in his lectures that people at Malabar Hill in Mumbai are extremely prosperous, but they are not happy. People in the village of Malavali are always happy, but they are not prosperous. I have observed that several people in the so-called creative professions of media and entertainment are extremely adventurous, but somewhat lacking in discipline. On the other hand, several people in the mainstream software industry are extremely disciplined and committed, but sometimes thoroughly lacking in creativity and adventure.

How can we have both prosperity and peace, both the thrill of adventure and the security of discipline? How can we have closeness to our roots and also have the riches within reach? Why go to the marketplace? I could have cheerfully spread out basketfuls my wares in the shade of the cherry tree and sold them singing. Even now at the edge of the marketplace where my stall will be, I will plant my cherry trees who will in time put their roots down as the riches bloom in their shade.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

On seasons and landscapes

The weather is the first thing and often the only thing we find to start routine conversation and smalltalk. The climate at Los Angeles is the one thing both family and friends keep talking about (and finding some degree of relief in!) whenever the subject of my graduate studies in the University of Southern California comes up.

The cycle of the seasons is not just a conversational staple, but has also been a perennially favourite literary setting for Sanskrit poets, most famously in Kalidasa's Ritu Samhara. Six seasons are masterfully used to lend vivid colours of life and nuanced hues of human nature into the poems. Haiku, the well-known Japanese poetic form has a reference to the prevailing season as a distinguishing feature. Even in modern-day language, idioms related to the seasons are in common usage. We speak of cloudy skies and clear skies; speak of our life's spring and our autumn years; and counsel ourselves to savour the sunshine as well as save for the rainy day.

Tamil Sangam literature uses the setting of five landscapes instead: the woodlands, the highlands, farmlands, the coastlands and wastelands. It is not just the flora and fauna of these sceneries that are used to supply imagery and set the stage, but the landscape is seen as a living reality shaping and being shaped by human activity; and representing the human condition in its variegated forms. Again in modern day usage, landscape-related idioms abound. We may plough lonely furrows, face uphill climbs or be lost in the woods, be totally at sea or chase mirages.

Along with the weather and the surrounding sceneries, the modern day air-traveller must also suit himself to the time of the day in a distant land which overrides his bodily rhythms. Submission to nature's cycles is involuntary, for in the words of the Taoist masters ' Human beings adapt themselves to the Earth and Earth adapts itself to the Heaven above.' Jet-lag is nature's way of asserting its own reality over individual custom. Speaking of my first real flight across space and time (well, continents and timezones), the title I have picked up for reading on board is 'The Best of Ruskin Bond'. Incidentally, the themes this acclaimed author is best known for, are sceneries and seasons.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Tale of Two Scientists

These are the stories of two of the greatest Indians of our times who currently reside in Southern California, what will be the place of my stay in the medium term during graduate studies. Dr.Mani Lal Bhaumik is a world-renowned physicist whose invention of the excimer laser made the now-famous LASIK eye surgery possible. Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran is one of the best-known neuroscientists of our time, whose ingenious experiments with patients with abnormal neural conditions have yielded hitherto unknown(and unexpected) information on the way normal brains work. It was only long after they secured their positions in science's halls of fame that they became household names in the land of their birth. The first acquaintance most of their Indian compatriots back home have had of their work is through popular bestsellers they have authored in recent years.

Dr. Bhaumik's book, "Code Name God : The Spiritual Odyssey of a Man of Science" is an autobiographical account of his childhood in a disadvantaged social setting in cyclone-ravaged, famine-stricken Bengal, his first-hand experience of the Indian freedom movement; and most importantly about the achievements of his intrinsic talent unstunted by these unpromising conditions, nurtured by selfless benefactors who believed in his intellectual promise and leading to a profound discoveries culminating in an understanding of the nature of Providence. The parallels between science and spirituality which abound in the book are not mere products of thought but summaries of intense personal experience. This book therefore does not merely inform the reader; it could transform him.

Dr. Ramachandran's books "Phantoms in the Brain" and "The Emerging Mind" do nothing less than introducing us to ourselves. While most of us will agree that our 'personalities' reside in our brains in a way, surprisingly little is known about how the behaviour of neurons leads to the emergence of a human personality. Attempts to know this have been the central theme of Dr. Ramachandran's pioneering research as well as popular books. From seemingly outlandish encounters with patients reporting bizarre symptoms, Dr. Ramachandran uses his expertise in neural pathways, staunch adherence to evolutionism, a holistic bent of mind and long-forgotten common sense to suggest very plausible theories for, among other things, the evolution of human language, the neural basis for the appreciation of art; and the nature of religious experience.

The works of these scientists are not simply confined to retaining sight or restoring sanity in the manner that their discoveries undoubtedly make possible. In their writings, boundaries between the sciences and the humanities vanish and the unitary nature of mankind's quest for meaning is emphasized. God figures prominently in the writings of both: but not as any deity in either. For Dr Bhaumik it is a heightened individual experience born out of a deep understanding of oneself and the world. For Dr Ramachandran, the religious experience is intensely subjective not lending itself to communication, but nevertheless hasthe status of a true mental state allowing possibly a neurological explanation. They are not just men of science, but Renaissance Men in every sense.

On a more immediate and somewhat sobering note, we can remind ourselves that both Dr. Bhaumik and Dr. Ramachandran had already proven their prowess as prodigies in India and earned their doctorates before moving to their adopted country; the USA. This is in stark contrast with the legions of Indian students who throng to American universities with our only qualification most often being our ambition (often instead of aptitude). Their qualification was that they were 'gifted' and not that they were 'privileged'.While we rush to get that all-important Master of Science degree, it would be advisable to pause and reflect if we have anything at all in common with these Men of Science and how we can inch closer. Let us make men of ourselves before labelling ourselves masters...and this means growing up into men of action from being children of privilege.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The name of this blog may seem to be at once innocuous and presumptuous. Innocuous because a pencil is hardly ever credited with might over the sword, and its work remains but a fleeting foreshadow of even history's greatest brushwork or chiseling. Presumptuous because claiming belonging to God seems to imply a claim of being a 'chosen one'. The name though is intended to emphasize the relation between our humblest possessions and our Highest Purpose; our smallest belongings and our Greatest Longings.

Like the strokes of a pencil, my life and message have no suggestion of finality about them, and their characteristic is tentativeness...and possibility. Like a pencil that is used to put parentheses and omission marks on print and create borders and outlines on sketchpads, the writings to come will attempt to define my context in Creation and also attempt to experience creation in my context. Read on. In a way, you can never use the same pencil twice!