A Walk Through Mumbai

My (abbreviated) impressions of five trips to Mumbai.

“Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”

-Nick Carraway

To call it “muggy” would be an understatement. The Mumbai air felt like molasses, viscous, sugary, thick. We waded through it with our hands, ignoring the rising stench of overflowing gutters and sweaty backs, while a constant patter of warm rain fell upon our necks and arms. The entire city seemed to have entered a stupor, as laborers and servicemen sheltered near the fans of roadside hawkers, and men and women in suits crammed themselves into their BMWs, and bathed in their artificial cooling. The ground reeked, as mud, cow manure, and moisture congealed into an abhorrent syrup that squelched beneath our heavy, tired steps. A dense fog hung in the air, a remnant of the nearby valley of ashes, and expanded to envelope both the towering skyscrapers of the Bandra-Kurla Complex and the shanties of Dharavi.

And then the rain increased, and the gutters began to spew refuse anew across the sidewalks, making walking cleanly nearly impossible. Cars jammed into overcrowded intersections and created a chorus of honks, while motorcycles and mopeds zipped nimbly by. We stepped out of our taxi in the neighborhood of Parle, a western suburb of Mumbai, and walked into the chaos, greeted by the screeches and slight spray of a speeding rickshaw zipping by inches from us.

My mother was born and raised here, in this small apartment, off a particularly crowded street in downtown Vile Parle. It was quite the eclectic place, where men in expensive suits and Italian loafers walked alongside schoolchildren in their tidy uniforms, while street salesmen shoved plates of bhel and pani puri in their faces. Sweat dripped from everyone’s foreheads and collected in the bottom of our shoes, sticking to our socks and wetting our already sodden clothes.

I stayed up late playing cards, learning to love my cousins all over again, as we tried to make the most of our limited time. I spoke about my electronics, and (relatively) large house, and personal lawn, while they listened with muted amazement. This was years ago, of course: India’s very different now. But the comparison still holds. We were from two different worlds, my cousins and I. It was amazing we could still relate.

The next morning, I took a cab to the market. The house was empty, and my brain was rotting from the combination of heat, humidity and inactivity, and I figured I’d see a little of the world for myself. On the way, a little girl knocked on my window, offering to sell me a small plastic rose for 5 rupees. I was about to decline, but I rolled down the window, and fished through my wallet and gave her a 5 rupee note. She walked away in apparent happiness, her young callused feet bare on the muddy quicksand. As we drove away, I saw her hand the money to an older man, who hugged her, and offered her a bite to eat. She refused, though I could pick out her bones from her shirt, and picked up her roses again, and prepared for the next wave of jaded Mumbaikar.

I went home early that day. Mumbai’s new consumerism was a lot less appealing than I’d thought.

The suburb took quite a different shape at night. There, as the city cooled and its gutter-stench faded, the night walkers came out, most just a few blocks from my mother’s home, offering their services to passerby. Some barely appeared to have entered their second digit. Loud young men stood on street corners, chewing on succulent paans and whistling at all women, young and old, who had the misfortune to walk past. The hawkers packed up for the night, leaving the sidewalks empty and free, caked with only the dirt of the day.

When I awoke again, the next day, the city was bathed in light, and Mumbai’s heartbeat, the honks, the crowds, the bustle, had started again. But today was a business day, and I stepped into a taxi with my family and headed towards Dadar, to my father’s home, in downtown Mumbai, where India’s corporations hide from the realities of a divided city.

Dharavi lies directly between the suburbs that stretch to the northern end of Salsette Island, and proper Mumbai, which is delineated by Mahim in the north to Colaba in the south, where the vast blue plain of the Arabian S1ea beckons forth. Its squalor is unmatched in the world, as a million people inhabit one-story shanties that are prone to collapse in wind and flood during rain. Garbage coats the ground, and cows crowd out people in the narrow streets.

Dharavi was originally called Koliwadas, and inhabited by fishermen, as was most of Mumbai. But, in the mid-nineteenth century, under the British Raj, in an attempt to stop epidemics coursing through the overcrowded city, a number of people were removed from peninsular Mumbai and thrown into Koliwadas, which quickly turned from a small village to an overflowing slum. A number of polluting industries, like tanneries, were also expelled from the city and moved to Koliwadas, providing jobs for displaced citizens but also driving more people into a slum that already suffered from inadequate infrastructure and living space. By Indian independence, the slum was already the largest in world, and it still is growing today.

It’s heartbreaking to drive through and see what people consider home. Small, rickety and without insulation, these shanties even lack proper floors to guard against the seeping muck of monsoon, or the stifling heat of summer. In monsoon, the streets overflow, and many lose everything in the fetid floodwater, while in the summer, children’s bare feet burn on the steaming dirt as they walk to search for clean water, another rarity in the slum.

It was even more heartbreaking to watch children stare from the inside of their shanties into the windows of our taxi, their faces carrying struggles that we consider inhumane, their bodies bearing the scars of a life as the other half. They watched with wide, knowing eyes, and I paled in their gaze as we drove by, and eventually chose to stare blankly ahead, hoping that the unpleasant encounter with my own fortuity would end quickly.

But it seemed last for hours. We passed row after row of shanties, and the smell worsened as we went deeper and deeper. Just as I thought we’d entered the abyss, our small Fiat taxi emerged and stepped into the sun. We could see the city unfold beneath us, small shanties growing into towering silver skyscrapers, offering beautiful views of the relative calm of downtown Mumbai. Clean restaurants and dressy waiters replaced the street-hawkers, and luxury cars replaced the loud rickshaws. The city seen past Dharavi is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the beauty and mystery in the world.

Dadar was a major region in South Mumbai. It was still rather north, before the business districts, but it carried the unmistakable aura of a city; a living, breathing city. For one thing, it never slept. The many shops lining the sidewalks were open to obscene hours, and people could be find walking by at all times of the night. Young men and women packed themselves into trains throughout the twilight hours, returning from a foray into downtown’s sparkling nightlife, while the Mumbai harbor covered the vast expanse to the east, with Navi Mumbai on the other side.

My father’s home was recently renovated, so its newly tiled floors and shiny bathrooms hid the dirt and heat he spent his life in. We walked down his street and entered his building, a relatively short structure that, with its muck-stained walls and squat appearance, seemed out of place next to the towering Sena Bhavan. But entering our level, atop the building, was an entirely different experience. The floors were lined with marbled tile, and the walls were painted a clear white, while large windows illuminated each room. A cleaning lady took a dirty rag, soaked in soapy water, and dragged it across the smooth floor, and moved backwards until the balcony, at which point she turned and wiped the floor dry.

The balcony overlooked both the nearby squalor and the far-away wealth, as the dirt and crowds beneath gave way to shimmering silver buildings and black gilded automobiles. One could see all of Mumbai from this angle, each intricacy stacked upon the other, while casual observers staring into darkened windows peeled away the layers of human secrecy, and saw something true.

And me? As a man of relative affluence who was unacquainted with the misery of the poor, but also unaccustomed to the excesses of the wealthy, I felt alone, caught between two equally unfavorable extremes. I was either, and neither, within and without, both enthralled and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of the city.

My fellow middle-class men walked through the city with an air of enforced ignorance, enjoying some of the revelries of the south while remaining bound to their northern hideaways. They avoided Dharavi, and left their windows closed to the poor children selling flimsy toys and roses at crowded intersections, and averted their eyes when a deformed man tried to cajole them into giving money. They expressed outrage at governmental incompetence, but kept their memories short and malleable, immune to both disappointment and fervor. They went to temple each day, and spoke of the Lord’s grace, while at home they argued uselessly with their spouses and purposelessly attacked their children.

The government announced new policies, and elections appointed new officials, but these people remained the same, untouched by both the hands of God and democracy. Their lives were frozen in time, and they moved through the syrupy air with calm, colored, caution.

They were the middlemen, Mumbai’s silent majority, and theirs was the only way to live, in a city where a man could walk from rags to riches in less than 10 minutes.

***

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An Intern’s Life, Week 1

“It’s pretty different from Berkeley,” was my first thought when I stepped out of my Uber in Santa Clara, and lugged my bags out of the back of the car and brought them to my room. I walked into the stiflingly warm house, which smelled like roses and shitty vodka, and walked to my 120 square foot room, where the wood creaked on my each step. I entered my room, saw a queen-sized bunk-bed and an undersized dresser, and let out a deep breath.

It was a breath of resignation. “This will be my life for the next two months,” I’d thought, with hint of regret and a deep longing for my real home, in the suburban paradise in Long Island, or even my college life, in the vibrant town of Berkeley. This seemed rather…underwhelming, to say the least.

But I didn’t let myself dip too far into sorrow and self-pity, for I had come with a higher purpose: to intern for a technology startup in Redwood City, or as I held it in my mind, to change the world with a text editor and a little help from Stack Overflow.

That seemed representative of the general mindset of Silicon Valley. I, along with a bunch of other twenty-somethings, ventured forth from my ivory tower with a sense of destiny. We held ourselves as the purveyors of a new world, where lavishly educated young people could create socioeconomic change with minor conveniences and social networks.

And we knew that we were different. We weren’t another Wall Street, we assured ourselves, in conversations in Palo Alto cafés, sipping imported coffee, listening to yet another indie rock band screech in the background. We were different; we cared about social justice; we gave back to our communities. And above all, we made a positive impact. Our products were useful, and they were meaningful, not just empty money-generators. They were completely different from CDOs and LBOs and whatever other witchcraft Wall Street came up with.

We spoke in rhetoric we barely believed. (“Oh yeah, my product will revolutionize the way we interact and share ideas.”)  We reduced complex social issues to platitudes, pricing models, and bootstrapped (“hipster-fied”) web applications (Udacity, for one example). We knew we were in vogue; we, the young and restless, and we rode on our fame for all it was worth.

Armed with this ideology and driven by self-ordained egotism, I arrived to my first day of work at 9:12, stepping out of my Uber at 846 Main Street, Redwood City, and walked in with a hint of trepidation. The place was mainly empty; out my company’s nine employees, there was only one person, sitting in the far corner of our single room office. The place seemed to be a cross between an Amazon warehouse and the Pentagon, with black, seemingly flimsy, wooden tables, laid laterally throughout the floor, each carrying a multitude of gadgets that seemed to bend the tables with their value. The walls were adorned with televisions, each displaying constantly updating charts with column names like “API Calls” and “Registered Users,” and a few bean bag chairs were strewn across the floor, unused, seemingly there only to say “WE’RE COOL TOO.”

I was greeted warmly by the lone employee, Karla (name changed), and was immediately assigned a position in the table maze, complete with a monitor and a swivel chair. I set up my workstation, which basically plugging the thunderbolt port into my mac and installing a bunch of software, like RoboMongo, for database visualization (read: see the entries in a database), Redis for key-value storage, and node.js as our web framework. We also looked through their repository structure, so it’d be easier for us to navigate Git’s many intricacies and pitfalls.

The rest of the team arrived in short order, and the office was enveloped in banter, from soft discussions of each others’ weekends to louder conversations on bugs, clients, and the day’s tasks. And then, eerily, at 9:45, all sound seemed to vanish, as a hush settled over the room, with each person finally taking to their work. The only noise was the background of tapping keys.

I was immediately thrown into code, as they had a product that needed to be shipped (launched) in four days, and there were still numerous bugs interspersed. I was assigned to write code to take a set of data, in this case, the number of times people pressed a button, and the different actions each press was for, and create an intuitive way for clients to measure engagement through that data; namely, through a graph.

The initial steps weren’t very difficult: I read a quick tutorial on d3.js, a graphing library for JavaScript, and on the NoSQL database MongoDB (NoSQL: queries are made in a language other than SQL – Structured Query Language). I then quickly wrote a basic graph that pulled data from Mongo and displayed it as a bar graph. And then I ran it.

And of course, it didn’t work. Nothing ever works the first time around (or the twentieth). There was a bug somewhere, as there always is, and I opened up a browser, navigated to Google, and began the search: to debug.

Debugging is an exercise in persistence. Not just perseverance, but persistence. It requires one to examine the output of each block of code in isolation, and compare this to one’s assumptions about how each block should behave. The programmer also has to analyze the relationship this output has with other blocks of code (termed functions or methods), and when he finds an error (and errors are just outputs that contradict assumptions), he has to trace it back through the program to find its source. And then, it can be fixed.

Usually, the fix itself is quite simple. For me, many times, it’s been something trivial, like a misused command or an unassigned variable. But it’s that process of self-exploration, that patient, methodical analysis of both the program and oneself, that makes a programmer. Indeed, I’d venture to say that almost ninety percent of programming and software development is this process: checking assumptions, analyzing code.

And along with debugging, a working developer, especially at a small company, is usually learning new technologies while writing. You never have time to step back and understand; instead, most is done on the spot, reading tutorials and copy-pasting Stack Overflow code to make things work.

Most people are astounded when they hear about this: about how haphazardly vital programs are thrown together. I feel as if they expect programmers to all be bastions of knowledge, instantaneously grasping new frameworks and languages, and producing perfect code from only memory. In reality, programming is more about making things work than anything else, and that is more likely to come from a well-phrased Google search than a random burst of inspiration (Pro Tip: those random intuitive leaps tend to be wrong).

Eventually, my graphing program did work, after a lot of agonizing and even more frustration, and we were able to deploy it as part of our analytics dashboard. It went up, and of course it was buggy, and I fixed it, and then I worked on something else, and more bugs popped up, and the cycle goes on. But I enjoyed it. Even at its most frustrating moments, programming is intrinsically rewarding. The satisfaction of successful output is unmatched by any other hobby or profession.

And of course, I was (and still am) making about 1000 dollars a week (with most expenses already paid for), so I wasn’t about to complain about work. Being a programmer does have its benefits.

Lunch was always my favorite part of the day. The entire team would take off about 2 hours, and we’d walk to one of the many nearby restaurants, and just, for lack of a better word, chill. Everyone would be stressed from deadlines and bugs and conference calls, but for those two hours, such concerns wouldn’t encroach upon our laughter. We’d try a different type of food each day: over six days, I think we had Russian, Chinese, Persian, Italian, Japanese, and Thai. It was a great way to live.

And so the week ended, and I made my first $1000. It feels pretty damn good, to be honest. It’s also quite a lengthy meditation on a week of work, I know. But I take in quite a bit. I personally see myself as a Nick Carraway, one who observes the world, and just stores it away, without judgment. I capture all that I see, and catalogue it, and build impressions and ideas and theories in my mind, and then let them remain. Sometimes, I spill them onto paper, and end up with things like this. Most of the time, they get tucked away, resurfacing at large parties, small gatherings of old friends, and after bottles of liquor.

I’ll be back next week, hopefully with less rambling and more happenings.

 

 

 

True Revelations

“I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.”

-Revelation 21:6

This verse was taken from near the end of the Book of Revelation, where God extinguishes the vice of the world, removing the likes of the Whore of Babylon and the Beast of the Abyss, and makes a “new heaven,” a “new earth,” and a “new Jerusalem,” where the godly could congregate.

Many futurists take this chapter literally, where those like the Seventh Day Adventists endlessly prophesize about the Second Coming of Christ, where all sin is banished as the worthy bathe in the joys of two thousand years of chasteness. Personally, I believe such an interpretation is both simplistic and faulty, and indeed, an insult to the complex imagery and metaphor layered in Revelations. If God simply wanted to signal a second coming, would he not be explicit? Why shroud words in metaphor and ambiguity?

No, this book is just another expression of the essential human truth of evil, of good, and their constant fight and eventual balance. Revelations chronicles the rise of evil, and then its fall, with the Whore representing both a literal figure, and the vices that humankind internalizes, and the Beast being the end of our days, where humans forget that which ties them together, and disintegrate into rival factions (sounds familiar right?), each claiming a moral high ground.

Revelation is the writers’ way to warn humanity that history repeats itself; that humans do not change, and just as the Sith always rise to battle the Republic, so too will evil rise from the depths of the Abyss to challenge the virtuous, the worthy. But we, the good, can resist. We can embrace each other, instead of surrendering to factionalism and division. We can open our arms to the world, letting grudges, revenge proclamations, avarice, and fear all fall away as we humans finally realize our purpose.

There is no God that will come save us from ourselves. Humanity, for all intents and purposes, is alone, and we are the only ones that hold the power to change our world. The 21st chapter of Revelation, the chapter that many futurists believe signal Christ’s second coming, actually is just a message of hope to humans: that we hold the power in ourselves to be free of vice. We are harbingers of the new age; we, humans, are the true Gods. We may not be omnipotent, but are the only known creatures that can break the patterns of our past. We can learn.

God, for all of his strength, can simply only watch as the world begins in purity, and then becomes exposed, as an Eve bites into an Apple, as a Whore rises and corrupts the worthy, as a Beast tears away the light, as Apep triumphs over Ma’at and swallows the sun. He watches the world tear itself apart, and then starts it anew. Thus is his power, and in such power, lies his weakness. But we, humans, in our ignorance, in our optimism, hold the ability to break this pattern. We can stop Apep. We can ensure Ra prevails.

We can drink from the fountain of the waters of life, and make this world anew.

Humanity’s Real Goddess

“For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

-Genesis 3:5

Everyone thinks they understand the story of Creation. “Oh, Adam was there first in Eden, and then God ripped off a rib and said “Abracadabra” and made him a fuckbuddy, Eve, and some serpent, Satan’s spawn, tricked the mentally feeble and innocent Eve into biting into the forbidden fruit and ending humanity’s stay in Paradise,” seems to be the story most people buy into.

I will slide on my Malcolm Gladwell hat for a moment, and tell you exactly why I believe that interpretation of the story is wrong. This version focuses far too much upon the folly as Eve’s and Eve’s alone, not as the expression of the most human of traits: curiosity. Eve bit the apple not because she was a woman and therefore incapable of self-restraint, but because she, like us, was tantalized by possibility. The Serpent was but the messenger, sowing a seed that would have fertilized itself alone anyway.

To Eve, then, the universe would have been so small, so confined. She lived in Paradise, yes, but for a place where humans were to spend much of their existence, the area was woefully small and unimaginative, filled only with trees with forbidden fruits and grass, which, while lush, was terribly boring. She, though born from a rib, was too a human, and must have very quickly grown tired of her husband’s overbearing presence and her “God’s” misogynistic views. She may have been docile, but she too felt the anger of an oppressed wife, the fire of a restrained soul.

And she had nothing to believe in. Her God had sentenced her to a life in a social and physical prison. Her husband only seemed alive to subjugate her. Her Paradise, in reality, was already lost. So she placed her faith, her hope, her greatest gift, in the outside world. She dreamed of freedom, with newer worlds, different creatures, and an open life.

So when the Serpent appeared, offering a chance at salvation, she had already imbued it with the power of her own belief. When she retrieved the Apple, and brought it to her lips, it was not just a forbidden fruit: it was the culmination of years of Eve’s hopes, condensed into one singular, concise truth. And its status as forbidden must have made it all the more attractive, because, again, she was human.

And when she bit into the fruit, she did not suddenly gain an influx of knowledge. She was not suddenly corrupted. Honestly, it would have felt as if nothing had changed, for the knowledge the tree bestows is self-earned (as in, if Adam ate from the Tree, he’d still remain ignorant), and Eve’s relentless belief, her singular desire to escape from her oppression, would have already shown her all she could see. The Apple was simply a validation of this truth.

God, indeed, did not understand the Trees of his own Garden. Why would he? He created Eden, but he was as ignorant as Adam was, because he had not faced oppression. He had no reason to turn to knowledge.

What the Biblical creation story tells us is not that woman is evil, and that misogyny is justified, but that the most human of traits is to dream, to run from one’s current problems through the power of the mind. Eve is the embodiment of all that we consider valuable and beautiful in this world: she, not Adam, escaped from oppression. She learned to escape to greener pastures. She took the initiative and bit the Apple, and in doing so, finally found self-actualization. Eve is what we should aspire to be.

God may be the beginning and the end, but we humans are the spark in between. The world began in ash, and it will soon return to that state; it is our duty to simply exist in between, sharing the time with a near infinite number of other species bound by Nature’s many laws.

“I will give to him who is athirst…” (Revelations 21:6) means not that God shall provide all with the necessities and pleasures of living; it means that we humans have been ingrained with the ability to find these for ourselves, in the vast world that we’ve been banished into. We fell from Paradise, but in doing so, we became ourselves. We forsook God’s protection to live freely, without bounds, effectively finding the fountain on our own, and drinking the waters of life not in Paradise but upon mortal Earth.

Biblical Creation, or “Eve’s Story,” as I like to call it, is also an important comment upon the conflict between the innate human proclivity, indeed, need, to believe and have faith, tempered by the newer, externally imposed obligation to rationalism: to prove, to explain. Because, when we look at Eve, we see not a God-loving woman, bound to her husband and his beliefs. Neither do we see a scientist, one firmly grounded in logical thought; as the Serpent proved, Eve was just as susceptible to wistful belief as anyone else.

No, Eve was a different breed. She was a fiercely independent trailblazer who was open to new ideas. Eve had neither the single-minded devotion of a monk nor the unwaveringly logical mental framework of the stereotypical scientist. And in that she was unique, and this uniqueness made her permanently change the nature of man.

Eve’s unique temperament was that of a Steve Jobs, a Socrates: an intelligent mind, yes, but one that was not bogged down in dogma, unafraid of consequences, and willing to commit to a hope, as wistful as it may be. She, like Jobs, chose to commit herself to a vision, where Paradise was not a surrounding but a state of being. She, like Socrates, did not fear for herself when she thrust her soul into the darkness.

Did she believe in God? No, not in the same sense that many do today. I personally find that the Biblical story, in it’s portrayal of God, is alluding not to the omniscient, omnipotent Jehovah, but of a god in the pagan sense: an elevated human, containing all of the flaws of man (like Indra or Zeus). And Eve must have seen this God in paradise. But she had no great faith in it.

No, she had faith in a larger belief, which served as her own God. See, we humans invent these beings of incorruptibility and unlimited power as a way to rationalize the callousness of our own existences, and Eve did just that: she believed in Earth, a world beyond her subjugation, to project away her own unhappiness, and create something more beautiful in herself.

Was her hope real? In essence, this question is the same asked by the scores of gnostic atheists today, and the same one unsatisfyingly answered by the Christian conservatives. The better question is, does it matter? Eve’s hopes of a better future, the ordinary man’s conception of God, do not have to be based in reality because they are simply hopes. Aspirational virtues. They serve as ways to reform the soul, provide strength to flagging resolve: to create happiness where there should only be sorrow. Who are we to ask whether this God of theirs is real or not?

And it is real. It’s real because we choose it to be. It’s real because the very fact that it exists changes us, because what exists within the mind is just as tangible as that which rests in the hand. Each of us has our own different God, but neither is less “real” than the other, and we alone hold the power to its existence.

This idea is expressed throughout religion and literature. Sarvasya Chauhan Hriddhisannihvisto, in the Gita: that because humanity makes its own deities through the indefatigable power of hope and collective belief, God is essentially within us. Fitzgerald’s revered Jay Gatsby placed so much faith into Daisy that she lost her flaws, transcending mortality, in his mind, to become his own personal God that he revered and lusted for, like the Cybele of the 1920’s. And this is Christianity’s way of expressing the same, through a female hero who surrendered her name, her reputation, and her legacy to bring an ignorant man into the light.

And she never shed a tear. 

Empathy and Arrogance

Today, when I was walking down Telegraph (Ave in Berkeley), I overheard the conversation of the people in front of me. It went something like this:

Random Girl: I feel so bad for the homeless people.

Random Thirsty Guy: I know, I do too!

Random Girl: But I never give money to them because I know they’re always going to spend it all on drugs.

I’m sorry, but since was it our place to judge? We have no background of these people: we don’t know their lives, their struggles, or their many travails. Most of us can barely empathize with those being homeless, for it is a situation so far from our regular lifestyles of waste and hedonism.

Being homeless entails more than simply being without a place to live. The inability to support oneself is an incredibly dehumanizing experience.  It means that one has no ability to provide for oneself, and has to submit one’s own subsistence to the good will of others. It’s the surrender of one’s dignity and self-esteem to a society that cannot care less.

And on top of that, there is the purely physical trauma of being trapped outdoors, without warmth, or a steady source of food and water. Imagine the coldest, most miserable day you’ve been through. And now, imagine a homeless person standing outside during that, freezing, shivering, without even a shelter to guard against the elements.

Imagine going through that traumatic experience each second of your life, while being ignored by the many, surviving on the scraps and refuse of those who stand above you. It’s no wonder so many of the homeless turn to drugs to tranquilize themselves: how else could anyone bear such a burden without a little courage?

And even then, it is not our place nor right to pass judgment. It is his/her life: their money can be spent however they choose. I, we, are not placed on some pedestal because our fortunate position in this life: it was an accident of birth that we are where we are, and we are who we are, and it is our obligation to give back, to those who’s circumstances are not so fortunate.

We can only do what we can, but we must always make sure we do all we can. There is so much suffering in this world, so much misery, sadness, and hatred, that it may never recede: it may be everlasting. But that is irrelevant, as our the results of our actions, the fruits of our labors: we must simply make an effort, and work together to chip away at the immense block of darkness plaguing our planet.

How dare someone say that these people “deserve” their predicament, that they are “incompetent” and “lazy,” and are not worthy of our assistance, that our good luck is somehow indicative of virtue rather than the chaos of chance. The idea of the individual pulling himself up by his bootstraps is quite romantic, but entirely false: we are the no more the owners of our destinies than is the child born into death in Africa, or the woman raised in social and physical subjugation in Afghanistan, and we are equally responsible for their conditions.

It’s reprehensible to me that one can simply dismiss the struggles of others behind a veil of ignorance and false worthiness; that entire lives can be wasted in the satisfaction of human avarice and personal ambition. Empathy is not simply a proclivity or privilege: it is a social responsibility that we must remember in every moment we spend on Mother Earth. It is all that makes us human; indeed, if we can turn our backs to that, then what do we have left?

Infinity and Oblivion

The strangest things can make you happy.

Yesterday may have been the low point of my short time at Berkeley. I was inundated with work, pressured by my mediocre performance on my earlier midterms, and without anyone to share my miseries. That day, I’d realized that the friendships I’d created lacked meaning, and weren’t anything beyond a shared interest of avoiding social awkwardness.

It was absolutely overwhelming, coming from a school where everything came easily, without effort even, to be faced with a plethora of intractable challenges that had no solutions beyond “work harder.” Berkeley is a very interesting place, but at times, it can be incredibly depressing and lonely, when you look across the otherwise picturesque campus and realize that you are alone.

But, looking back now, I don’t think that I am alone in feeling this. There are 35,000 people in this school, each consumed by their own demons and lost in their own sadness. Everyone feels as if they are falling behind, as if they are losing themselves, working endlessly towards a green light that constantly eludes them.

The Campanile is the highest structure in the city of Berkeley. At ten stories, to a New Yorker like me, the tower is quite pudgy compared to the skyline I’m accustomed to gazing upon. But here, on the opposite coast, nothing seems as if it could be taller.

That tower, to me, always stood as a monument to the insurmountable insecurities and sorrows of one and half centuries of students at Berkeley. It’s a reminder of the predicament we are subjecting ourselves to when we send in our SIRs.

It’s no wonder Stanford doesn’t have one.

It always confounded me that Berkeley is a hotbed for political and social idealism. I couldn’t have imagined a worse place for nurturing idealists. This place seems much more suited to producing those resembling the cynical East.

The fact that we don’t produce darkness is a testament to the resilience that Berkeley inspires; indeed, that it expects. It requires a great deal of self-esteem, mental fortitude, and emotional stability for one to retain belief in the human race after experiencing the travails of a Berkeley education. I’m impressed each day by those who believe in the green light: those who take the pebbles of every day interaction and paint a picture of white rather than red.

Tonight, I came up to our floor’s lounge, and was immediately greeted by the sound of laughter. I saw people enjoying the fruits of soul, whose faces weren’t etched with the misery mine seemed to be, and in that second, I realized that maybe, just maybe, I could get through this place. Maybe I could find happiness here.

It doesn’t seem so bad, from this perspective. I have friends, and I actually met people who I genuinely value. I don’t have the same level of social comfort that I did in high school, but that is quite understandable: those relationships had been incubating for four years, while these barely have formed, and have been extant for less than six weeks.

I’m not doing as badly in school as I’d thought. I have at least a B in all of my classes thus far. It’s not a 4.0, but I don’t expect one here: I came here first and foremost with a mission to learn, and I plan on following through with that. The GPA is just a side effect. Maybe I’ll walk out of here with a 3.0. Maybe I’ll do worse. But if I leave as a more worldly, more experienced person, who’s seen more of life than when I entered, than I’ll be happy.

For in the end, I guess money, wealth, and the rest of our exalted materialism hold very little meaning. A life cannot be judged upon its material productivity: as a matter of fact, I’d argue that a life cannot be objectively judged at all. We all are just tasked with completing our various, self-defined purposes, and we strive to achieve to the best of our means. The rest, the tangibles, hold no weight.

That’s not to say that the physical world should be neglect. Indeed, it should be pursued with whatever vigor one chooses. But it should not be the sole end of life.

What else should one strive for? Maybe for the improvement of the life of another. Maybe to spread love as far as it can reach. Maybe to push the human race forward into a new age of “progress.” Or maybe just to be happy.

It’s quite sad: the only some people possess that’s almost worth having is money. And then, they call themselves wealthy and privileged. It’s amazing how much people have sacrificed for a concept that’s only imbued with meaning by the human mind, and it’s every more amazing how much we all envy them.

We envy those that have sacrificed the world for a cheap thrill and a sense of narcissism. How then do we dare to say that we as a species have somehow progressed?

In the end, I guess, it doesn’t matter what we choose, for we only have ourselves to answer to. When are laying in our figurative deathbeds, looking upon the many flaws and glories of our collective lives, will it matter then how much money we made? Will it matter than how much we gambled for wealth?

What will matter is the time we spent with our families, letting know and understand us, and gain a realization of what we were and wanted to be. We’ll be filled with regrets of the times we wasted pursuing the receding light, instead of spending it with our friends, our beloved, enjoying the fruits of the most human of all constructs: the family. We’ll look back, and see the times we sacrificed joy and elation for pain and stress, all for a goal we never truly adopted.

Human life is quite a conundrum: we have such limited time, but so much to fill it with. The time slips through our fingers like grains in an ever falling hourglass, and soon, we’ll be left with only a handful of grains, while we search fruitlessly for the many that have faded away into sorrow.

For what is life if not just an amalgamation of suffering? No matter what we choose, we will always face the inevitability of sadness and heartbreak, the darkness of the oblivion that will eventually consume us. It is only our choice to decide to lessen this suffering by choosing to focus upon the things that truly matter, rather than those that are fleeting and wistful.

Money comes and goes. So do people, possessions, and indeed, this body. All that stays with us is our ability to love, to learn, and to live. In Hindu philosophy they say that one who does not learn in life, who focuses solely upon that which does not matter, will forever be trapped in an endless cycle and despair and misery.

For as Krishna said, we are not entitled to the fruits of our labor, but merely the labor itself: we are only granted by the forces of the universe that be the power to make effort, to initiate endeavors. We were never given the ability to decide their outcomes: we owe that to chance, or luck, or a combination of the two, and we are not entitled to the products of chance.

We never were. It’s why John Rawls declared that libertarianism was false: it grants advantage to others based upon an accident of birth. It was why Atticus Finch had to place his faith into America’s courts: because he knew he could never place it into the people who were so drunk off of their own tradition and excrement.

I am not a Hindu, nor a Christian, nor a Moslem, or a member of any religion that I cite or speak about. I’m actually a believer in everything: I’m a believer in faith itself. I believe that faith, not necessarily in a God, but in man, in an idea, in a thought, can transform and give meaning to a life otherwise controlled by sorrow. Faith is not blind belief but intense dedication to the pursuit or revival of a certain idea.

We all need it, in something or the other. Atheists believe in worldly things, like the belief in human goodness, or a conviction in one’s ability to create and improve. Theists and Deists believe in some beyond our understanding (which they paradoxically claim to understand).

I can empathize with the religious now because I know what it means to be alone, without anything to hold but my beliefs. Atheism on its own is a very immature belief because it holds that humans are entirely self-contained creatures, when exactly the opposite is true: we are uniquely gifted with an ability for social interaction that is unparalleled, and thus, we have evolved to accommodate this form of existence. The very fact that civilization exists is proof that we are interdependent, non-singular creatures that need others as much as we need ourselves.

Orthodoxy is also immature, for exactly the opposite reason: it claims knowledge where there can be none. It attributes the mystery of the world, the universe, the reality that we live in to the most human of all Gods, and claims this God beyond human reason, effectively ending all paths of human questioning and precluding all maturation of the human intellect and understanding.

God is not needed, but faith is. We cannot be alone in this world, and if we hold our minds in the right way, we never will be. It’s all a choice, and it’s one we should savor, for it’s the only decision in life we are get to make. The rest is all decided for us by some combination of our pasts and futures, but this one; this we choose for ourselves. It’s the nature of free will.

I find it quite amazing that life can be so fleeting, and pass away so quickly, but hold so much impact in the grand scheme of things. Of course, it is just human arrogance that makes us believe that we are important: in reality, we are entirely dismissible, specks on the universal spectrum.

But what does that matter? We are here. I am me, and I am here, outside, in front of my computer screen, lost in both thought and fear, but typing to make them both go away.

There are an infinite number of numbers between 0 and 1. There is an infinite divisions of time between 1 and 2 seconds. There are an infinite number of oscillations in every object we deform.

We humans face infinity, oblivion, the void, each day, and stare it down, and watch it fall in front of us. We triumph over infinity every second. But eventually, we will fall. We will die, and lose ourselves to the end. And for that moment, I thank you. Thanks for keeping me sane, alive, and thought-inducing. Thanks for making me the object of someone’s desire. Thanks for giving me the power to love and to learn.

But above all, thank you for giving me infinity in my numbered days. It was nice.

Creating Beauty

I don’t know if I can feel anything, anymore. Emotion is something that has always eluded me, driving me to confusion, frustration, and regret. But at least then, I felt something. Now, I just feel so overgrown, so distant, that I can’t remember what it was like to impulsively surrender to emotion.

I’ve lost the ability to cry, to even feel sadness. Two years ago, I saw my grandmother die, and I couldn’t bring myself to shed even a tear. I couldn’t even feel sorrow; all I felt was a dull numbness in my heart where my love should have been. Then, when my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, I simply stared, emotionless, without reaction or thought. I know in myself that I didn’t feel sorrow, even as much as I tried.

And yesterday, when I left my friends, my family—basically, my entire world—I felt nothing but consternation over the details of my departure. Sorrow, thoughts, emotion; they are all gone in me, taken by some force that sees it fit for me to live without feeling, driven by the colder impulses of logic and intuition.

Something in me has died, and that thing shall be no more. You know, I wasn’t always like this. I used to have an excess of feeling that was all illusory, extant one second and gone another. It was fleeting, like a glance from destiny, entering and leaving being only to push me forth or away. I felt so similar to others then. I felt like I was with them, and that I needed them as much as they needed me.

But that passed as I aged. I began to devote myself to more solitary pursuits, and in doing so, I began to exercise my capability for feeling less and less. Instead of interacting with people, I learned how to share my soul with particularly poignant video game characters, songs, novels and authors, all who seemed to share my self-isolation. I lost my ability to feel in the same illusory way that most others seem to.

Now, each emotion I have lasts, carrying weight and importance. I dwell upon them now, and they become lasting tropes governing my thoughts and driving my actions. It could be something as simple as a glance, pushing my mind into overdrive in analyzing, predicting, and deriving judgment.

After a lifetime of solitary pursuits, my mind has become excessively utilitarian. I’ve spent too much time interpreting characters in art, where every detail is taken to have significance even if it eludes the conscious mind of the maker (makers, in the case of video games), and I carry that vision forward into the “real” world (what is real, honestly?), where people are still living with those illusory emotions that do not carry weight.

I take glances for much more than they are. I take misspoken words as revelations of underlying prejudice, when they are usually just that: misspoken. I’ve lost much of my ability to relate to the regular person who does not have the same inclinations and proclivities that I do, for I find much of actions extraneous and illogical and most of their feelings nonsensical and idiotic. As I’ve lost myself further and further in literature and liberty, I’ve forgotten the skills needed to live with the constrained; the bound.

That is the real struggle of the artist; of the scientist, the dreamer, the thinker, the creative, the provoker: to be the only free man in a world that is so tightly bound that it cannot see its own manacles. Other people do not seem to understand what it means to create beauty, whether it is a miracle of science or a masterpiece of canvas. They are all under the delusion that some people are just naturally gifted with some ability to craft words or strokes into something resembling eloquence, and thus, they pay them no heed and give them no reward.

But how very wrong they are, for the artist’s talent is but a curse, built upon hours and hours of painstaking sorrow and mindless isolation. Why else would so many artists and writers and scientists be manic-depressives, alcoholics, or otherwise afflicted? It is the sight, damn it. The sight damns us all to misery in a world of the deluded and blind.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his masterpiece while running from town to town searching for some sustenance. Vincent Van Gogh grew so tired of the patronizing views of society that he went mad, and cut off his ear in some form of symbolic protest. Socrates grew so tired of the broken “democracy” he lived in that he preferred to die for others’ ignorance than accept a life of shackled nonchalance.

Being an artist, living as if life itself is an art; that is no gift. It drives us to nothing but inevitable sorrow and defeat, because only the blind can succeed in this broken world of ours. No one else seems to care.

Don’t people want more from their lives than to eat, drink, and marry? Doesn’t anyone care about changing something on this broken planet? I don’t understand how others can be so apathetic, so willing to not care about anything other than the most banal worries. Children, adults alike are all so caught up in themselves that they lose the ability to imagine that the world could be any different than it is now. Let alone that; they don’t even realize that there is something wrong with the world as it is now.

And that is the worst problem with the world for all of human history: apathy, the fact that the masses are always so content with their misery that they are unable to organize and unwilling to change. Hitler cannot be blamed for his genocide because he was simply a product of the society that lifted him to power and voluntarily chose to end its own liberty; it would be like blaming a lion for the murdering all the sheep. In the same way, no dictator, no king, can be blamed for his own tyranny. The only thing that can be blamed is the idiocy of the humans who are so willing to forsake their own humanity.

The people are always sheep. One day, they’ll start out chanting “four legs good, two legs bad,” and then as the power changes, switch to “four legs good, two legs better,” and eventually, die under the very oppression that they sought to prevent. They all just follow, blindly, mob-like; the only job for any dictator is the rally them into emotional orgasm through scapegoats and false promises (sometimes appeals to some long broken religious text), and power is assured.

Today, the appeal is “national security;” yesterday, it was “God’s will;” even before, it was “for the Senate and People of Rome.” But essentially, nothing has changed. We all just follow blindly, stupidly, to anything that offers a promise of order, no matter what the cost. Look at France: in 1789, they began a revolution that had high promises to ensure “democracy” and “republicanism” to their gleaming nation. But as the uprising began, and disorder began to ensue, people immediately forgot all about principle and justice and instead simply devoted themselves to anyone that could offer organization. Thus, they supported the Jacobins, the radical group that murdered thousands upon the guillotine, all in the name of the revolution and liberty. After that, the people threw their support to the oppressive Napoleon, who, under the promise of “order,” sacrificed millions of lives in the pursuit of some elusive “French hegemony” over Europe. And with that, it was complete: the French had returned themselves to the very tyranny they sought to prevent. They were like the sheep of Animal Farm, doomed to only repeat history.

Napoleon, for all of his faults, was an astute observer of human nature. He alone in France understood that people strive not for lofty concepts like liberty, justice and happiness; they simply want stability, and by promising this to them, one could take whatever he liked. After Napoleon’s demise, France tried again for democracy, rising up in 1830 and 1848, and failed, returning once more to the tyranny of the past, all in the name of order. It was only in 1870, in the midst of a humiliating defeat to Prussia, that France was finally able to establish a Republic, albeit one with very authoritarian tendencies and still committed not to freedom, nor equality, but order.

What is it with stability that everyone chases? To me, stability is boredom, even oppressive, fighting both the baser and nobler instincts of mankind. It is almost like a living sleep, somnolently floating one’s way through life, without ever leaving an impression or mark upon the world.

But I suppose the world is simpler when viewed through the eyes of man who wants only security, popularity, and regularity, without any of the stresses of rebellion or revolution. It is only we artists that are damned to a life of misery, but that is the price we pay for being able to see. And even with all the travails that are associated with the sight, it is a fair price.

For art can only be created from misery. No person that is content with their world can produce art, or indeed, ever has the motivation to produce art. It’s always the misfits, the mishaps, the square pegs in the round holes that can engage in an artistic endeavor. The rest; the content, the blind, the happy; they will always remain too engrossed in the world’s bounties to understand what they are missing; what they must create.

Artists spend their lives in search of something greater than the bleak conformism of the modern world. They, many times, are in poverty, struggling but never giving into humanity’s “formula.” They consign themselves for a life of misery simply to experience the pleasure of knowing, being, and seeing. Artists, not the rich, not the plutocrats, not the politicians, are the guides of human history, for even in their sacrifice, they can rejoice in the fact that they alone are free.

What is money and wealth to a man that has bitten from the tree of knowledge, asked Krishna? What do material goods mean to a man that has forgotten all desire, asked Siddhartha Gautama? And the answer is “nothing.” Material life in itself is illusory, a wasted effort that is born from the insecurity of humans that are unable to accept the differences in others. It all just is a circle, ruled by dualities: living and dying, truths and mistruths, loves and regrets, thoughts and actions. The only sustainable purpose we can ever discern is to simply follow ones heart to its furthest extent, until one can follow no more. As long as one follows one’s one perceived dharma, the world will always progress forward. If your dharma is to do evil, then one day, you will be defeated by the good, and have to start once more until you find the correct path. If your dharma is to be great, than you will continue forward unobstructed until you find peace, at which point you will finally meet yourself. Morality itself is irrelevant when all of life is a circle, repeating itself into the oblivion of time.

We all have to follow our dharma. And we do, most of the time. Only when we neglect our dharma, and become adharmic, is when we commit sin. Only when we choose to consciously neglect our own self-imposed purpose do we become sinful. Sin is not a question of morality. Jesus did not imply such a simplistic meaning of sin, nor did Krishna, the Buddha, or Abraham. Sin means to neglect one’s duty, but beyond that, it means to neglect one’s own life purpose in favor of another’s. Choosing to sacrifice one’s talents to the pursuit of wealth instead of the beautification of the world through art is a sin for one is not following one’s known and self-imposed purpose, and instead is subscribing to the broken ideals of society.

The seven “deathly sins” are bullshit, as are the many rituals of Hinduism, or the jihad concept of Islam. No prophet means to consign others to misery. It is simply a perversion of their ideas by power-seeking men, who choose to lord their knowledge over others instead of sharing it, and making the world a little more beautiful. Krishna never intended for wives to burn themselves over the pyres of their husbands; neither did Jesus intend his thoughts to be perverted by the hedonistic Popes and Kings of the Crusades and the Inquisition and the Witch burnings (Malleus Malificarum). Prophets too are consigned to the same struggles that artists are: to live a life of misery for a sight that can never be appreciated.

Creating beauty is the most moral goal there is in living. For else, what is there in life? We are born; we die. We are given this short allotment of time on this Earth with only the dictum of “do your dharma (duty);” nothing more, nothing less. We can vanish in any instant, in Siberia, in Kepler’s heavenly ether, without anything more than a glance and a mumbled apology. The only thing we can do is leave some meaningful parts of ourselves behind, through art, or lose our connection with this world as soon as we leave it.

Krishna, do you hear that? It’s the sound of ten thousand souls crying out, begging not for forgiveness, but for direction. It’s the sound of an oppressed Earth screaming for release from the bondage of living. It’s the sound of your humans dying into the sorrow of their self-imposed tyranny.

And Krishna said, “I hear it all. But there is nothing I can do because life is a necessary evil. You all must be born for their to ever be progress. Life is, well, meant to be lived. So live! That is all that I’ve ever asked.

Quit the bullshit. Stop the wars, the ignominious arguments and the idiotic disputes. End all of that, and let each human live as he wishes.

And remember: “Sarvasya Chauhan Hriddhisannihvishto.” (I am within you).