Thursday, September 14, 2017

Why Babas Flourish in India

When human institutions fail, people turn to God.  Or to Godmen.

The proliferation of deras, babas, astrologers, quacks in India is a direct consequence of failed governance and dysfunctional public institutions.  When someone has no hope from rationality, it is not irrational to turn to irrationality.  It might be considered futile in a material sense, but psychologically, irrationality does offer certain advantages.

It helps people cope.

If people were told that not only that legal institutions have failed, but there is no divine plan or justice as well, what would keep them going?  More than food and water, our desires and hopes keep us alive, and looking forward to some future joy.

Religion and superstition flourish when people are afraid and insecure about their future.  When all rational avenues seem blocked, what are they to do?  Remain depressed?

This is not a defense of charlatans.  But to dissuade people from turning to them, we must understand why they do so in the first place.  They are rational agents and are just responding to their environment.

The only long-term solution is to re-establish their faith and confidence in rational institutions.  To provide them with an assurance that if they follow the rules, work hard, and are law-abding, they will see the natural rewards for it.  And similarly, the dishonest and those who bend the rules will be punished.  Currently, it is the opposite.

No wonder they, pessimistic about the worldly realm, prostrate before someone who claims otherworldly access.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Art, Films and Togetherness

Is art properly enjoyed and appreciated in a solitary manner?

Let us see.  A book is read alone.  Most music these days is listened to using headphones.  Museums often have solitary individuals looking at a sculpture or a painting.  Photographers usually work alone.

But when it comes to films, quite a few people find it odd to go see a movie by themselves.

It is not hard to see why.  Cinema is more like theater than a painting.  Going to a movie theater is usually less about the movie and more about spending time together with someone.  Two or more people go through an experience, a roller-coaster of emotions, together.  They munch popcorn together.  They go for dinner after the film.  It is a shared experience.

But cinema is without a doubt an art form as well.

A movie therefore can be understood to serve two distinct purposes: it is a work of art, and it is a way to spend time together.  It goes without saying that not all films are art-works, just like not all books are literature.

Now of course, these two can overlap to some extent.  It is possible that two friends or lovers find that they enjoy similar books and similar films.  That their appreciation of a work of art is a shared feeling.  Unlike a book, a film can be enjoyed together in front of a large screen, so why not experience it together!

Many people, women especially, are loath to go watch a movie by themselves.  They have no problem watching a TV episode on their own at home.  But to go to a movie is more about socializing, and it is as "weird" to them as planning a dinner outing, going out to a good restaurant and eating by themselves.  Women, moreover, may find it is a an admission of social failure that they weren't able to find a man, or a girlfriend, to spend time with them.

But, and but, I do hold that a great film or a serious work of art is properly enjoyed in solitude, or on one's own.  To go a bit further, even stars and the moon and an awe-inspiring vista in nature is capable of piercing the soul more intensely when experienced alone.

The experience of an intense work of art, or of great beauty in nature, is diminished by distraction.  And it is impossible to not be aware of another, known, human presence when you are with someone.  When you watch a film with someone, a part of you is aware of and is attending to the other person.  How he or she is responding, if they have to go take a break, if they are asking you a question or making a comment.  Full immersion in the film is not easy in such circumstances.

Would you find it easy to be immersed in a book, and do justice to the imagination and intensity it demands, if you and your friend were reading it together?  If, heart pounding to know what happens next, or to finish an exquisite detail in a paragraph, you wanted to turn the page but your friend asked you to wait till he/she finished reading?

Similarly, when in nature, I have found that I experience inward silence and an existential intensity when nature and I are, so to speak, in undivided communion.  It is a different kind of experience, not less joyous, to interact with nature together with someone.  Say, to bathe together in a lake or to climb a mountain together.  But when it comes to a deep appreciation and cognitive immersion in nature, it seems obvious to me that that can happen only in solitude.

Reinhold Messner, one of the great modern alpine-style mountaineers, once said: "I climb higher to go deeper into myself."

To even have one's own mind verbalize and whisper "How beautiful" is a pebble thrown in the lake of stillness of that experience.

This also perhaps illustrates the difference between entertainment and an existential reflection.  Entertainment is heightened by togetherness, while reflection is enhanced with solitude.  Entertainment is more about "fun" or flowing in similar feelings, while reflection is more about a sense of wonder, insight, a meditative stillness, a contemplative dive into oneself.  When alone with an experience, one can cry without self-consciousness, or lose a sense of time, or go far and deep within oneself.

So, do not be self-pitying about watching a film alone, even if in a theater.  You are not there to prove your social desirability, but to undertake a journey into yourself.  If you feel an awkward shame to tell someone the next day that you went to the theater on your own, ask yourself if you would feel ashamed to tell someone that you read a book alone.  This shame is due to the conflation between cinema as an act of togetherness and social proof, versus as a medium of art.  If someone tells you that they "never go to the movie theater alone", tell them they are missing something.  Perhaps they are more fragile to social perception and convention than to an intense experiencing of life.

A great work of art, or a great experience in nature, gets you deeper in touch with yourself and existence.  It is a form of meditation.  Meditation has always been a act in solitude.  And for good reason.  Films are the modern world's most accessible and easily immersive art form.  And a serious, thought-provoking, artistic film deserves to be experienced without distraction, with full immersion, and alone.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Who is a Fake Baba?

In recent news, an organization in India has listed about a dozen godmen in India as "fake", indirectly asserting that all others are genuine.

To selflessly help advance the cause, here is my set of ten guidelines if you wish to consider becoming the follower of a saint or his teachings.  If any one of these is answered in the affirmative, you can move on to the next saintly candidate.

Do note that I am not going to question the basis of spirituality or a belief in God, because if we go there, all godmen are, at the very least, delusional.
  1. Has the saint changed his original name or added an honorific (Maharaj, Satguru, Swami, Sri) to his name?
  2. Does the saint live a life, based on donations, which is much more comfortable than that of his average follower?
  3. Does the saint try to hide or be vague about the details of his early life, his romantic or marital relationships, and how he came to consider himself a saint?
  4. Has the saint accepted an award, or a grant of land or money, from any government?
  5. Does the saint offer opinions about something other than spirituality, say about politics, the economy, or science?
  6. Does the saint dress in a distinctive manner, does the saint have a long-flowing beard, or does the saint dye his grey hair or beard?
  7. Does the saint advertise to gain new followers?
  8. Do any of the books authored by the saint, or attributed to him, have his photo on the front cover?
  9. Has the saint ever written or spoken against "western science" or "western medicine"?
  10. (Unlike the above nine questions, this question must resolve to a "Yes" for you to follow the saint).  When asked a question, has the saint ever said something to the effect of: "I don't know enough about this subject."
If a saint clears all these ten queries successfully, then he is certainly remarkable and is not fake.  At least, not on the face of it.

On Police Interrogation in India

Many months ago, I found this question on Quora:

"Why does the Indian system remand arrestees (sic) to 'police custody' vs 'judicial custody'?"

It is an important question.  In most developed countries, coercive interrogation is illegal.  That is not just because it usually involves torture, but also because it is a fundamental right to remain silent when confronted by police.

In India, torture by police is almost never prosecuted, nor is there a real right to remain silent.  Courts do not take suo-moto cognizance of a report of police atrocity, for reasons best known to the courts.  And India has steadfastly refused to ratify the international treaty outlawing torture.

When people talk about the inhumanity of police in India, we must understand that the inhumanity is a result of specific, systemic reasons and structures.  There are laws and provisions in place, and there are laws and provisions which are conspicuous by their absence, that make it almost impossible to hold the police accountable.

For a common citizen, this is the expected behavior of police:

1. They will not entertain your complaint unless it involves rape or murder or kidnapping.
2. If a complaint is registered, they thereby have license to harass the accused (who is not yet a proven criminal) and to arrest and torture him/her.
3. They will not, in any manner, move forward with investigation and collecting evidence unless pressured by a higher-ranking officer.
4. If there is media spotlight on a case, the police will act quickly but in a slipshod manner and the accused would eventually be acquitted by the courts.
5. The police has vastly different standards in its handling of high-profile celebrities and the unwashed masses.  The high-profile will not be arrested till ordered by the court.  The police will go to their residence to ask questions instead of detaining them.  If due to media pressure, the high-profile arrest is made, the police will respectfully allow the accused all manners of facilities, comforts and interaction with the outside world.

This flagrantly unjust behavior of the police, and the system which enables it, is the fundamental reason why Indian citizens are afraid of it, want to avoid interacting with it, and feel that law is not their protector but their enemy.  And therefore, they do not respect and follow the law.  In their eyes, the law is equivalent to the enforcement of the law.  If the enforcement is unfair and selective and unjust, then the law is a tool of injustice, not justice.

Here is my published answer to the question:

This is an interesting question and the other responses fail to answer the crux of your question.

In India, the right to remain silent is not constitutionally granted.

In fact, an individual can be punished for refusing to answer questions, and that is the legal basis of police intimidation in India.

The law in question is section 179 of IPC:

“Refusing to answer public servant authorised to question.—Whoever, being legally bound to state the truth on any subject to any public servant, refuses to answer any question demanded of him touching that subject by such public servant in the exercise of the legal powers of such public servant, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine which may extend to one thousand rupees, or with both.”

But what about right against self-incrimination, you may ask? This is where India is messed up. It recognizes the right against self-incrimination in principle (section 20(3) of the constitution) but in practice has never come to the defense of the accused to remain silent.

For example, observe what this judge states when an accused rebelled against the need of police custody (from “No absolute right to remain silent”)

“Justice S. Nagamuthu held that the right of the accused to maintain silence was restricted to questions which might expose him to a criminal charge or penalty or forfeiture. The accused are bound to answer all other questions related to the case and refusal to do so would amount to an offence under Section 179 of the Indian Penal Code.”

Hence, the answer to your question is that Indian institutions are OK with coercive interrogation and torture, despite any claim to the contrary. There is a colonial-era law (sec 179 of IPC) which provides a legal basis for police coercing an individual to answer questions, and everybody in judiciary and police knows this.

You might also want to ask how does police in India, without a subpoena or warrant, have free and unrestricted access to mobile call records and cellphone locations which they use in almost every investigation these days? Isn’t that a flagrant violation of privacy?

Saturday, September 09, 2017

How to write a bleeding heart subaltern poem

Social justice warriors love to write poems depicting the suffering and martyrdom of their favorite oppressed groups.  Writing a poem is of course the most authentic act to actually do something about the oppressed.  Lighting candles and marching with similarly perfumed gentry is another authentic act.  Such poetry and candle-lit marches go a long way in ensuring that the oppressors will start shaking in their knees at the revolution happening right before their eyes.

Such poems are usually too intense to pay much bourgeois attention to things like metre and rhyme.  They are more about the suffering of the oppressed than about any claim to artistic value.  It is a mystery to critics why the writer warriors don't simply write in prose.  Most such poetry is prose, only arranged as to have just a few words on each line.

Perhaps brevity and simile is a way to shortcut the laborious and no-doubt useless analysis required to understand a complex situation.  Perhaps it is easier, and infinitely more effective, to just go ahead and pour one's heart out to one's echo chamber.  Anyone who critiques the poetic quality of the poem is a heartless sociopath who cannot look beyond the words into the feeling.  And anyone who critiques the content of the poem is a fascist anyway.

All rhetoric in the favor of the oppressed is a priori true.  Whether that rhetoric changes the economic situation is another matter.  But the wheels of history grind slowly, and any drop of oil is welcome.  Or so we should assume.

To assist writers of such poems, I hereby offer my humble guidance.  By following these hints, you can come up with a poem quickly and effectively, and then get back to angling for doles from the government and from the Rockefeller Foundation.  Follow these five rules, and you shall be successful in your revolutionary intent.

1. You have to use at least one of these elements in your poem: soil, moon, clouds, raindrops, fire, some birds.
2. You have to willy-nilly introduce one of these: a lantern, a torn blanket, a dark corner, a dirty window.
3. One of these characters is a must: a hungry infant girl, a suffering pregnant woman, a debt-ridden farmer, a lower-caste student, and if in America, a non-slim-non-white non-man.
4. Mention some archaic and romantic detail about rural/country lifestyle where life was idyllic and capitalism was at bay.
5. The poem won't feel sentimental enough without at least a few overt uses of these words: heart, dream, pulse, truth, curse, cancer, and so on.

I will of course take my own instruction, and offer you two splendid new poems for the annals of revolutionary literature.

The moon
Though it shone shyly through the broken roof
Could not light the path to his dreams.

When I could taste
The blood of that farmer in my bread tonight
I froze.
Was I one of his murderers too?

The birds
Of that farmer's dreams have long since flown away
What is left
Is nothing but the cage.

His still pregnant wife
Who looks everyday at the barren soil of her fields
If her tears will be enough to water them.

His lantern was almost burnt out
But the light in his eyes was fierce as ever.

He would not be like his father, he murmured,
He would rise through the gutters
And be a man of power and influence

He would then help his brothers
Who continued to dwell in darkness.
And continued to wash away, with futility,
The dirt that was stubbornly under their nails.

But while his mind shone with knowledge,
His heart was heavy with lament.
And his back, bruised by the lathis of the police.

He would not be like his father, he murmured,
Who had been beaten to death by the landlord's army.
Was his father a martyr?
Or merely a lesson he refused to learn.


I am sure by now your heart is bleeding as much as mine as I wrote these poems.  You must be feeling motivated to actually do something about these farmers and these poor students.

Well, at least, that's the idea.