Friday, October 24, 2014

The Diwali 10K

Stuffed and puffed with a day full of sweets, I finally decided to go for my run, on the day of Diwali. It was after six and the skyscrapers, those thieves of views and marauder of landscapes, had made the winter sun set early. It was dusk and I formed a curiosity on the empty streets, making my way like an ant through a rice bowl. The park was dark – there were no lights. Maybe, this Diwali the watchman wanted to leave early for home and was dropping hints. He would need to drop stronger ones for me.

I ran on the familiar track – parts were faintly illuminated by streetlights on the road, while other parts were shining dim, with a ghostly iridescence, punctuated with the utter darkness of shadows of trees; shadows where you rely on instinct to put one step after another, in a soft regular thump, like navigating the body of a familiar woman, your hands knowing their way, eyes closed.

Some patches seemed muddy, pools of dark endless grime, to avoid in a game of hurdles as I dodge a silhouette ahead, a girl it seemed (good figure!) – a brave one to walk in utter darkness, my partner in watchman defiance. Distant Diwali lights of matchbox apartments blinked in a mass unison, make-believe fireflies in the fertility rites of a concrete jungle.

Mumbai was on the verge of self-combustion, October heat soaring, jealous of the stock markets, playing catch-up. Stray blasts of fire-crackers, assorted bombs, sprayed the air with a feel of battle. My legs cracked a gentle pain. The sulky air was sweetened, by rivulets of sweat streaming down my body, wicked away quietly and evaporated. My blood was filtering its salts out, cooling itself, like water in an earthen pot.

Then the lights came on. It was the first day of creation. The big bang. The primordial day the sun fired up. The brightness that welcomed Ram home to Ayodhya. The strip of memory was now burdened with reality. The pools of grime were actually tiles, with a weak patina of mud. The silhouette was a woman of around fifty, wrinkles decorating her face and hair streaking white. She still had a good figure.

My keeper, the smart phone, chimed six miles in my ear. My feet replied in rhythm. There was a faint cool breeze and those bursting noises, boisterous celebrations of triumph. Diwali had started.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Dancing in the Rain

ग़ालिब छुटी शराब, पर अब भी कभी कभी
पीता हूँ रोज़--अब्र--शब--माहताब में
-   मिर्जा गालिब
  
I like the rains too. Any of us, cannot not like the rains. They are freedom from the oppressive summers, freedom from being cooped up in ACs, freedom to enjoy a fresh drenched breeze from your window; freedom announced by black clouds on the horizon, playing hide and seek with the morning sun. If we refuse to pay attention in the evenings, when there’s no sun, they thunder away, flashing and roaring, invoking ancient alpha male gods.

Seeing the 'kale megha' on the horizon is something our cultural memory has forever demanded from god, starting from Vedic saints to miniaturists to poets to the movies to modern governments. In summers, the heat scorches, baking the earth and cracking it into pieces. Wild winds called the ‘loo’ run through the deserts burning all in their path. The forests go dry - cinders waiting for a fire, and animals and humans both travel farther and farther away every day to search for their everyday stores. In Mumbai, the BMC implements water cuts and in Rajasthan the government slows the supply to a trickle. Temperatures soar with pouring sweat, till everyone, like every year in the history of this land, looks heavenward in expectation. The country awaits the news of the first showers in Kerala, like a family preparing for the grand arrival of an ever wayward but important guest.

It is the rains which brought with them trade, life and commerce to the land. The prolific Indian ocean trade was driven by the monsoon winds. Traders arrived from western lands, first Rome and then Arabia and finally from Europe, flying their masts high, driven by the rush of winds called the Southwest monsoon, bringing prosperity to the ancient ports dotting the western coasts of India – Muzhir, Sopara, Chaul, Surat and so on. Cities flowered on the hinterland, watered by rain-fed rivers and fed through trade routes, which still mark the lay of the land. Here bloomed the culture and the religion that decorated the subcontinent.

Kalidasa wrote the ultimate book on the monsoons, the Meghadootam or 'cloud messenger', layering romance - forbidden, sanctioned and that in between with separation and nostalgia in the midst of the rains. Our classical music has a special set of ragas – the Malhars, celebrating the effervescence of the monsoons, invoking the moods of the season. When miniaturists describe the seasons of love, which is essentially all seasons, they cannot but reserve a special place for ‘Savan’ - the monsoons, with its wet rainy evenings delaying meetings and enhancing the fervour of the Nayak and the Nayika. Poets of urdu like Ghalib and Faiz celebrate it as the most perfect of weathers for wine-drinking. Any other land, with weaker cultural ties, could not have produced works of this magnificence on the clouds and the monsoon.

The rains are liberating, and also acutely, life giving. The fragility of life on this planet, the cycle of water and its unending foreverness are imprinted in the drops of water falling from the sky. As droplets fly off still water's surface, come together wandering in the skies and then decide to find their way on land again, sometimes falling on your face, you cannot but wonder, if this is magical. I received a lot of flak in high school for calling it so, but I still do. Sometimes, when you see that one drop, you can only wonder which oceans was it last a part of, which winds carried it this way, where is it going to go and how.

Sometimes when the rains do not fall, to the cracked parched earth is added the picture of skeletons. Animals die by the hundreds as flies falling off after a pesticide spray. Famine threatens, hissing with a raised hood, tongue flickering, teeth ready. Starvation is still heard of in the remote corners, though to city ears – working the treadmills, the movies would perhaps sound more real.   

Sometimes when the rains do fall, they try to make up in one place for what they could not do elsewhere. Water flowing down the mountains does not have the time or inclination to make it’s way into the caked earth and it overflows taking with it entire villages, towns, cities, wiping them off existence. Human and animal carcasses flow on the raging waters like straws on a stream, mountains slide in obeisance and even the gods sometimes, are not spared.

Drought and floods come together, every year, as good neighbours. Rivers are linked in the books of a government department, every year, unconcerned by reality. Little affected by modern irrigation, we still predict our inflation and food produce to the actual rains. The image of a forlorn farmer standing on a piece of parched cracked land calculating his sowing time, repenting the arrival of the rains too early or too late seems destined to be etched in our consciousness.

More immediately, inside of Mumbai, in this season, it is happy brown slush rolling around on the streets with cars competing to splash it on anyone in striking distance. A splurge of colourful umbrellas sprout on the streets, converging together and blooming near the railway stations, every instant, as the masses come and go. Trains slow down to languorous snaking speeds, paying homage to thunder gods and the mini lakes that appear on tracks. Traffic crawls, roads turn moon-like and wipers move faster than wheels.

Sometimes, from my office, when the view of the sea-link is drenched out of view by hordes of obstructing raindrops and streams of water slithering down the glass panes, I know it's raining. On other days, it is the glaring misty white that brings with it drizzling and foreshadows a shower. I can see the seas getting restless, changing colours on the horizon, splashed by the drops. The change in colour moves closer and closer till it reaches the shore and drops splash window panes. Some days when we go out on the balcony, the city seems to be watered by a garden hose, with the steady streams being sculpted into an ever evolving harmony by the gusts of winds. Drops dance to the movement of an orchestra, speaking to one another and to us, whispering their secrets.

At home, the showers pitter and patter, relentlessly knocking to let them in unlike the old Mumbai of yore, where they would just enter, wetting the doorstep, claiming rights to guesthood or 'atithi satkar', bringing with them, the pervasive smell of wet earth and creating outside the perfect streams for paper boat races. When we were out of paper, matchsticks would also do.

In the Maharashtra of fogless winters, it is only in the rains of the Sahyadris, that you can find bliss. Swathes of grass covered mountain turn dark green from brown. Streams rush forward from the top, flooding old foot roads and stone steps that may be hundreds of years old, making their way down, gushing and roaring in the numerous waterfalls that translate the once desolate landscape to an unruly primal garden. The winds rush, guiding the direction of the fall of water and sometimes, the water falls down, loses determination and rides up with the wind again. If you stand on the top of mountains, you can get wet in this instant 'horizontal' rain. 

The streams also take with them mud, uncovering the mountain ever so slightly and working on the landscape, sculpting it, every year. Sometimes, they uncover debris which our ancestors from the unremembered, unspoken, uncultured past left behind. This is the debris of mini stone tools and other paraphernalia fashioned by the hands of man tens of thousands of years ago, that collect where the streams are obstructed and if you decide to explore the lesser traveled routes, you may still find them lying around, waiting to be picked up. 

They are waiting to remind you and connect you to the ties that bind you to earliest man on this land: the ties of wonder at the magic of the rains.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Tryst with the Taj

It was that evening in 2009, when I was sitting in Bharatpur, at a house extension converted to temporary hostel.

The only two other residents were - a polish immigrant to the UK and a french graduate, both out to explore the world. Prompted by a baaraat procession below, we started discussing Indian weddings going on to the necessity of work, why people desire money, how you could work part time and still travel the world on UK salaries, capitalism, common wealth games, corruption, security in India, bird watching, Solzhenitsyn, travel tips and then my boss called for some urgent night long grueling work. They seemed visibly relieved. It seemed they wanted to drink their limited stash and were finding it socially awkward to ask and not offer.

It was as interesting a conversation as one between strangers from foreign lands is but one bit still stands out for me:

"You want to know how it feels like to be a celebrity ?", the French fellow said.

I could only reply with a quizzical look.

"Ha! It's the Taj. Go there first thing in the morning and when you are coming out, there will be this barrage of photographers clicking at you for a mile. Paparazzi all."

I could not help smiling. The Taj was next on my itinerary. For over a quarter century of being in this country, I had yet not looked at it's most exotic, touristy monument and this was about to change.

The one from France really loved it, the one from Poland called it pretty overrated, though what he chafed about most were the exorbitant charges for foreign tourists, Rs. 500 per person. Every white guy is not rich, was the plaintive comment.

After a night spent on powerpoints, a morning of the bird sanctuary missed, a journey to Agra through a car, a railway station and then a rickshaw that can only be called interesting, I finally reached the counters of the Taj. The ticket for Indians was thankfully Rs. 20, higher priced than most other historical monuments, but still a pittance compared to what the rich and not-so-rich white guys paid.

At the Taj, when you enter the first gates, you still don't see anything, what you experience is just anticipation. As you enter the inner gates, rising through the darkness of the corridors, behind the silhouettes of the crowds entering and leaving, shimmer the hints of white. A sublime shining that soon fills your entire viewscape and promises not to fade away fast.

People had told me the Taj is magnificent and I had seen lots of pictures myself but nothing prepared me for the immense size. It was huge. Now I knew why you never saw people in front of all those glossy pictures. The people were very much there, they were just the small black line you saw at the bottom. Yes, that small black line which was blurred by your vision as decoration.

I could remember the innumerable cliched sobriquets, 'a teardrop on the face of time', ' a monument to love' but what suited it most was the name itself. Taj Mahal - the best of palaces. It was not a mausoleum but a palace and a shining white one. In spite of what they say of the Taj in moonlight, I enjoyed it in the day with the marble shining against a stark blue sky, and at the risk of being repetitive, the immense whiteness glistening, multiplied by the reflecting pools, its size ensuring that the bulging multitudes do not interfere with your pleasure.

The walk from the inner gate to the mausoleum was also through the densest crowd of photo clickers I have been too, contributing to the numbers myself. The closest you can come to meeting people of different nationalities and from different parts of India at one place is I think the Taj Mahal gardens. All walk it's paths and click pictures or get theirs clicked plucking the dome, reflecting in the pool or pretending to be a love lorn couple.

There was the trademark and pretty galling lack of respect for heritage inside the building, people going trigger and flash happy, pushing and shoving and me dying slowly. But, there was also happiness. On the right side, between the monument and towering red sandstone mosque, where the marble floor is suspiciously ignored by the rushing crowds and you have the whole monument to yourself to breathe in its gigantic structure, there was happiness.

There was happiness in the gardens, viewing the structure through leafy shades, away from the ant-lines around the reflecting pools. As you move ahead and read some descriptions, you could not help but wonder if the original garden was more woody, more green compared to the open English feel the environs have today and if the white would look as mesmerizing in it.

Carried in these thoughts, as I stepped out, I could not help but take a look back and was again for a moment transported, above the din around me, back into time when kings could order heaven built here, on earth, in their favourite overawing white.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The buzz in the markets

If markets are to be believed, Modi will win 1000 seats of 543, sweep away the fiscal deficit, turn current account deficit into savings account surplus, inject the Rupee with steroids and turn foreign investors Indian. He will bell the Chinese CAT, deny Obama a Visa and solve Kashmir once and for all by making Pakistan the 30th state of India. He will build autobahns from Arunachal to the Gulf of Cambay, turn Sri Lanka into a captive port and dig money out of the hole called Air India. He will discover the cure for AIDS, reverse global warming, prove Goldbach's conjecture, write the unified theory of everything, seed life on mars, find water on the moon and while at it export them some electricity. (overheard at the office today)

(Written on late May 15, before election results started coming in... stored here for the record)

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Ab Ki Baar...

I always had a political opinion but never one this strong. So this time, I articulated it on social media and got into fleshing it out ever more slightly, discussing with the already converted. Recording it here - in my own little diary, a time capsule. To come back to after 5 years for a reality check.

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When you vote tomorrow remember this: 

We live in a country, blighted with an overflowing industry of poverty-wallahs, selling the same snake oil for the last 60 years. They, who can squabble on who gets how much from the pie but not focus on it's size. They, who have wracked the free-market consensus with glib talk of inclusion.

Now, for the first time in Indian history, we have a leader who has the political will to say - 'Pay for power and you will get it 24x7'. The first time, a leader who can say don't accept alms from the government, earn your money and your self-confidence.

For the first time a leader who has the political mileage to say, 'Pehle shauchalaya, phir devalaya'. In a country that primarily shits in the open, that takes some courage. In the politics of perception, there's only one campaign that's risen above cynical segmentation.

Remember that the only alternative is Rahul. Yes, I would prefer a Nehru, a Shastri, a Vajpayee, heck even a Narsimha Rao but they are not on offer. The only alternative is a Rahul or a Mulayam, or a Mayawati led front.

Remember that what sustains riots is poverty. The same poverty which brings starvation, malnourishment and kills many more.

When you press that button tomorrow, remember 2G, coal, the tax terrorism, the TV blackout for passing the Telangana bill, the thousand prime ministers hooting their horns and the one ineffectual rubber stamp on them. Remember that secularism is but a fig-leaf covering all this.

Remember, ab ki baar...


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Nehru ? Really ?

Socialism was all the rage in Nehru's days. He did make some major policy blunders but he also built strong institutions in a fledgling nation, you have to hand him that. It is interesting that we have three contenders - each claiming the legacy of one the original Indian triumvirate. The claimants to Nehru's legacy, seem beyond even an empty caricature. His pride in foreign relations led to permanent ulcers on the body of India, but none of the current leaders seem to be doing any better. So yes, Nehru, reluctantly, hoping for a new and improved post-Soviet, post 1962 version.

Modi does come with a magic wand. (Said with rolling eyes). And 'Devalaya before shauchalaya' is a matter-of-fact statement.

Modi is not a cure-all. In fact, his personality cult is worrying to most on the Indian right. No leader, not Hedgewar, not Golwalkar, not Vajpayee commanded such support beyond the party. But he is the best option amongst the current lot. Compared to current anarchy - this is definitely a move towards the solution. Again, sanitation is something no leader in India can speak about - it's too downmarket. I have seen 'educated' people sniggering when the topic is raised. To keep it before 'the temple', for starters even in speech, is plain amazing.

No Messiah definitely. But such is the poverty of ideas in our political class, that even words sound enticing. No one else, repeat, no one else, is even saying the right things, forget doing those. We will never get Arun Shourie for prime minister, so we make do with what we have. In my brief touchpoints with Gujarat, I have experienced efficiency - hoping for some of that to reflect nationally.

BJP is fascist. We can compromise on growth and money instead of rioting, fear mongering and murder.

If life would be that simple. We are at least as poor as sub-saharan Africa (by number of people). Each percentage point of growth you see lacking, cost lives, costs aspirations. The only way to save these lives is development. The only way to prevent riots is development. When were the last riots in Mumbai or Gujarat for that matter ? I honestly don't know if a section in Gujarat is cowering in fear, but a section in UP and another one in Assam surely is. That's where the snake oil vendors live. They make a mockery of every institution, including this time the IB and the passing of a bill in the LS. Then, they shout the wolf-word of secularism. If we cannot learn, then we deserve what we get !

Modi is a dictator

He may have dictatorial tendencies. Let's hope if he does occupy the top seat, the messiness in Delhi, in political India, will contain it. For now, this won't change my view. No other candidate is better, remember how the Telangana bill was passed or how the CBI is used. There are simply no other options !

The most interesting comment was this is more an anti-Congress wave than a pro-Modi one. In fact, many people (outside the influence of the primarily urban propaganda machinery) do not know his first name. 

Left me speechless !!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Blind Faith

"What worries me about religion is that it teaches people to be satisfied with not understanding." - Richard Dawkins

When talking of faith, I would go a step further than Dawkins - it gives people an empty sense of having understood. This sense when seen in others, seems alternately ridicule worthy 
"How could anyone even think of this? Did God miss giving them brains?", or leads to patronization "If only they were educated..."

In a grand gesture of such paternalistic thought, the Government of Maharashtra has even passed an Act outlawing promotion of blind faith. It seems politicians shall have exclusive rights on taking people for a ride in the name of faith. 

Of Gods and Godmen - An Archaeological Trip

Faith, and I am not talking of religion here, has only one criteria to be rational - it should be your own. This was especially rubbed into me the other day, surprisingly, by a pretty diverse group in age, education, vocation, gender - all united only by a love of archaeology and architecture. We were on a long bus ride towards Kolhapur where we planned to visit the temple of Mahalakshmi and also Khidrapur nearby. Our aim was to understand the development of the Goddess, her link to the utterly dynamic world of early medieval India and also, because we were there, to worship her in private for some wealth. No harm in that.

In the 8 hours long journey, we slept, we photographed, we ate and we discussed, with a sprightly enthusiasm, all the irrelevant topics on this planet. Then someone spoke about the gurus and godmen of India which led to a collective lament on the commercialization of religion: on how five star meditation rooms are run, money is measured, devotees are counted for the dough and how people make a fool of themselves, not just the ordinary trusting lay masses, always eager to be taken on a ride but even the educated, professional and successful elite. I was a willing listener and participant. (I also started thinking of the per user valuation of these enterprises, but that's beside the point).

Finally, these I felt were people with a scientific temper, not ready to believe just because they are told. After all, if Satya Sai Baba gets Vibhuti from the air as a cure, equally good would be getting a Justin Bieber haircut or just listening to Himesh Reshammiya crooning. There's no relation between cause and effect here. Godmen just speak in vague generalities and that makes people fell satisfied. Deepities, to use the words of Dan Dennet, give them the false feeling of insight where all they have heard are a couple of homespun metaphors, without even literary merit. The universe is too big to care about you, grow up. God if she exists, would be busy listening to my long list of prayers at Mahalakshmi anyway, so no use trying to bribe Godmen for a way in. 

I was wallowing in the bubble of these self-congratulatory thoughts, when someone asked another to try Homeopathy. Trust me, I could hear the bubble burst. Munching sugar pills is not going to cure any ills, unless it's an issue of low carb. As soon as I said this, it was one against all. They came in from all directions, starting with the traditional defence of anecdotal evidence, the magic (you cannot call it science) of provings, it being very person dependent, very practitioner dependent, the storied history of over a century, the british royal family and many others believing in it, going all the way to a pharmacologist explaining why lack of homeopathic research is a big pharma conspiracy. All these arguments, except admittedly the big pharma conspiracy, could be used in the favour of Godmen - but I didn't tell them that.

In Homeopathy We Trust

This again, is the wrong set of people I thought and so, tarried forth, taking a survey of all types of folk who were professionals, businessmen, colleagues, friends, reasonable, opinionated, modern, ancient, conservative, liberal and I found for myself a trenchant view in support of homeopathy. The most liberating reply that I could get was from some that they had no view on it. Almost, no one though, knew what homeopathy is and why is it supposed to work. To a middle class urban Indian, homeopathy is one of the many falsely equalized '-pathies', with medical science being called 'allopathy'.

This trust on homeopathy is a bit like believing in astrology without knowing what are stars and planets or like trusting your normal medicines without knowing a whit about biology or pharmacology. So let's get into the background. (You can watch or read Ben Goldacre - I would really recommend the read for basics of evidence based medicine. If you do, skip this and the next section.)

Homeopathy was the brainchild of one Samuel Hanheman from Germany. He woke up one fine day to an epiphany that something which gives you symptoms similar to a disease, when taken in diluted amounts would treat the disease. So 'like cures like' and 'dilution increases potency' of a medicine. 

'Like cures like' : How do you decide what works or the 'remedy' ? It's a process called 'proving'. A bunch of people come together and note the effect of a 'remedy' on them for a couple of days. A homeopath then records this rambling array of 'symptoms'. Your disease is then matched with the list of these symptoms to decided which 'remedy' suits.

'Dilution increases potency': Dilution in homeopathy is repeated to the extent that there are no molecules left of the original 'remedy' in the water solution. A 30C dilution means there is one molecule in a sphere of water with a diameter as large as the distance between the earth and the sun. Again, the process of dilution is not without it's idiosyncrasies. Each dilution needs to be done after striking the vessel against a hard elastic surface 10 times. One can just imagine a vast factory of robots in a homeopathic factory doing this voodoo, striking beakers against wooden boards for 'potency'. To top it all what you are given is not the dilution, which is in effect water, but the dilution coated on sugar pills. 

There is a lot of claptrap about how homeopathic medicine depends on the memory of water, but if you did study through high school, you can see from the potential implications as to why it can't be true. To the extent of those dilutions, all water has been impacted by me, you and everyone else that ever lived, or did not.

Evidence Based Medicine

The only true way you can recognize any medicine to have curative powers, is if it can pass what are called 'Double Blind Randomized Control Trials' or DBRCT. This essentially means you collect, say 200 people with a disease, randomly give them sugar pills or homeopathic pills and then compare the effects on both groups. If your medicine works, it will be more effective than sugar pills. Let's see the importance of each of the terms in DBRCT:

Double Blind: This implies that both the person dispensing medicines (or the doctor) and the patient do not know who gets the medicine and who gets the sugar pill. If they do, then a bias can be introduced - say by giving more homeopathic medicines to the healthy patients. This would defeat the aim of the trial.

Randomized: Randomization again ensures no bias and should be effective, by using a computerized pseudo - random generator. It cannot go, say, by prescribing alternately sugar pills and medicine, because again, there may be a bias introduced in choosing the alternate patients. Good randomization also ensures patients are not being chosen by other factors like age, sex etc.

Control: Control is to primarily establish all other factors, except the medicine, are the same in both groups. Through randomization and a large enough group, we ensure the only factor which could result in the different effects on disease in both groups is the medicine. The biggest reason for having the control group and giving them actual sugar pills though is the 'placebo' effect, one of the mysteries of the natural world. We get cured partly because we think we are taking medicines. If a medicine can work better than sugar pills, it's not just placebo action.

Homeopathy has not passed any DBRCT trials till date, the few it has are ill-designed ones. This is not to say that all DBRCT trials are well - designed. The big and bad things done by big pharma usually involve manipulating these trials. 

Many times, this also involves a positive publication bias. Do an experiment a 100 times, and you are bound to come out with false positives, those flukes where it shows a good result just one time. But what if you don't publish the 99 negative outcomes and publish the one positive outcome. The net published results show a 100% positive impact of the medicine. To counter this, a trial needs to be replicable - something at which homeopathy fails again. 

Faith Based Medicine

I have tried discussing this with friends, family and with those in the bus on the archaeological trip, but what I got in return were responses which are increasingly hardened. All of us like to believe we are open-minded and ready to change our views with slightest of evidence, but in reality for most, nay all of us, the narrative of life is largely fixed, and a reaction to contrary evidence, more often that not is to ignore it or attack it. We form our beliefs first and our reasons later. Look at any investment banker justifying a deal, and you will understand what I am saying.

Science at it's core is falsifiable and to be intellectually honest, it's proclamations are ever-wavering afraid of a better explanation or more evidence. Homeopathy is nothing of these and so it is faith based medicine. The same faith which is reposed in Godmen.

But wait a minute, you say, you were ill. You tried all medicines and what cured you in the end was homeopathy. How can someone say it does not work ? Well it may work in two ways - one is chance and the other is placebo.

Chance is when homeopathy and your cure were not related. I was down with an allergic cold for a month which no doctor's medicine could cure. End of the month, my mother insisted on taking me to a homeopath. I refused to go but was cured anyway in a couple of days. If I had gone to a homeopath, I would have been cured in two days by 'homeopathic treatment'. This is why you should not rely on anecdotes but on DBRCT trials. Anecdotes have the special ability of choosing exceptional stories and making them seem more relevant. (To digress, anecdotes are what drive the anti-vaccine movement in the US, another disaster in the making.)

The second reason is this mystery called the placebo effect. It seems if we think we are taking a drug, our body actually responds as if it is. No one really understands this, though it has been dissected threadbare in terms of its visual appearance. So, in a way, what really cures you is your mind. If we could classify placebos as working medicine, shamans and other magic cures would be medically certified.

What we really do not know about faith based medicine, is the quantum of impact through the entire ritualistic rigmarole of going to a doctor, getting yourself examined and getting sugar pills versus just taking some sugar pills. Homeopathic practitioners, anecdotal evidence says, are famous for giving time, showing empathy and drilling their patients for the last traces of symptoms. This entire 'ritual' may serve to strengthen the placebo and needs serious study. Why only 'homeopathy', in bits and pieces this may help in deciphering everything that goes by the name of 'alternative medicine'. Heck, for all we know, modern anti-depressants may all be placebo !

In the same vein, Godmen too work, by chance and by helping your psychology. If Satya Sai Baba conjures vibhuti and you believe it can cure you, maybe it does sometimes. If an astrologer predicts you winning and boosts your willpower, so be it. If the 'inspirational speakers', the neo-Godmen of the materialist world, speak of how your confidence can earn you money, then they too may help your mind. 

Faith, even if it cannot move the proverbial mountains, can definitely move minds and the impact physical reality surrounding them. Given your context, vibhuti from Satya Sai Baba may be more useful as a cure, if it has no medicinal value, compared to getting a Justin Bieber haircut or listening to Himesh Reshammiya crooning. 

What is Faith ?

The responses I received from people around me on homeopathy led me to thinking on faith. The term blind faith may mean faith in what you cannot see or faith which is blind to all the counter arguments - which are present, in howsoever a flawed form, for all arguments. When you move beyond the evidence of what you immediately see and experience (called प्रत्यक्ष प्रमाण in Hindi), you enter the arena of faith. You may know a little bit about physics and may believe in an atomic bomb, but it is at the end of the day, a construct of your faith or your belief for you have never yet seen or experienced one yourself (or you would not be reading this post). It is based on hearsay and to the extent you understand the science, on your capability for inference.

So, to take a logical leap of faith here (pun intended), all of our knowledge is essentially a belief. I know this is a big jump but bear with me. With so much of belief all around, we need a framework to test and bring together these beliefs in our mind. To me the framework of the ultimate belief system of all, religion, can work as a framework for all our diverse set of beliefs - from alternate medicine to science. This is the framework of 'philosophy (or theology for want of a better word), mythology and ritual'. 

Philosophy (or theology for want of a better word) represents a deeper insight, something which you may seek to understand but which is not really necessary to understand or practice. For Islam, this would mean the Shahada, for Vedic Hinduism the Shruti, for Buddhism the four essential truths, each with all the associated dense theology. 

'Like cures like', 'dilution increases potency' and the 'memory of water' may be called the philosophy of homeopathy. 

Position of planets in the astronomical sign of your birth impacts your life is the philosophy driving astrology. 

Many don't know the philosophy behind their beliefs, which leaves them so much the poor for it, but also ironically, more pliable to arguments for the beliefs are yet not rooted. If they don't know the philosophy, though difficult, they can still change their mind.

Mythology is what connects in a very coffee - shop argument way, the dense philosophy to everyday life. It's not an accurate mapping exercise, but it captures the essence. The Mahabharata and the Puranic tales bring the Shruti directly to us. This is where anecdotal evidence comes together in a homespun fashion through lively tales and riveting stories which tie our own personal narrative with the narrative of the larger philosophy. 

While we may or may not visit the philosophy of our beliefs, we interact with it daily through our mythology. The anecdotes of people being cured by homeopathy are part of this mythology. The tales of Godmen bringing relief, of Christian saints performing miracles (a compulsory requirement for sainthood) is all a mythology that buttresses our particular belief. Mythology is the vicarious experience that fills the voids of our stories, by the collective experiences of the beliefs we associate with. It provides our minds with enough dots to make a picture. This makes our belief an important part of our identity.

Ritual is when we put our money behind our mouth, practice what we preach and so on. This is the holy grail of practice. Of praying in temples, reciting the namaz five times a day, going on pilgrimages and visiting doctors for medicines when ill. Ritual is what brings our belief alive for us. Where mythology reminds and reinforces, rituals in their myriad form lead us to do what we say.

It is the core repeatable essential of any belief system. Without this a system cannot exist. This is not the dreamy world of philosophy or the semi-real engagement of mythology. This is the touchstone of practice nurtured by mythology. What you keep doing becomes a habit and the essence of your belief, reinforced every time you repeat it.

Science as a Belief System

It is in this context of belief systems, that we can begin to empathize with the thinking of others. Science and rationality are but other variations of a belief system which can be viewed through the lens of philosophy, mythology and ritual.

In the paradigm of science - god is replaced by evidence.

'Everything is to be examined by the touchstones of peer review and proof' is the philosophy of science. We dig into its arcane roots with textbooks and papers to the extent we understand them.

When we hear of the inspiration of Einstein, Raman or Hawking or the story the relative who was cured of cancer or of new communication gadgets, we hear the mythology of science.

When we perform lab experiments, use our mobile phones, or read this blog, we enact the ritual of science.

The Roots of Faith - Mythology and Ritual

We often know our answers and frame our questions accordingly. So it is with belief systems. If there is one thing that shines through, say in political debates, it is that the participants believe firmly in their ideology - there is no search for the truth. We know the answers and all questions shall be twisted to fit our answers. No whys, hows or patient thoughts. While the leadership core may be spinning the philosophies, adopting their mythology and enacting the ritual of the party is the grass route membership. This is where we see the everyday power of mythology and ritual. They, and not the obscure and arcane reasoning, link our roots and our identity with the larger faith.

While we may not know the philosophy or the driving reasons, we are acquainted with and trust the narrative and the practice. We may not know much about the common cold and it's particular medical reasons, but we do believe in going to a doctor and taking a medicine which will cure us. We face a problem however, when another belief system tries to adopt this particular mythology and ritual.

While the core philosophy of homeopathy and medical science is poles apart, their mythology and ritual are the same. You just need to add a few words like quantum, nano, meta, energy fields and such extended faff to guide someone following the 'scientific' mythology into following the 'homeopathic' or 'alternative medicine' mythology. People really do not care about the underlying philosophy. It looks scientific and ties with the scientific narrative or mythology they identify with. The ritual is also almost the same. So in their minds, the '-pathies' of allopathy and homeopathy are comparable.

That this happens so regularly with all kinds of people and in all kinds of situations, makes me a bit aware that I may have beliefs, say political, which would not easily budge. They are pre-decided, not necessarily on evidence. As everywhere, what fits my personal narrative, my mythology and reinforces my ritual would be my truth. It would be very difficult to shake that belief system. This stands true for religion, for Godmen, for homeopathy and I like to think, for rational science.

So be careful, be very careful when you lampoon another's faith. Many a times, you will use the same argument as being perfectly reasonable for your belief. Much like the missionaries teaching the civilizing virgin birth to a tribe following magic. One set of beliefs traded for another.

Disclaimer:
All of this, is of course, coloured by my vision and beliefs.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Reading Updike

I could feel the skin on the back of my hands wrinkle. My breath slowed down and I felt tired - fatigued all over. As I read, my knees turned rheumatoid, memory wobbly and the air seemed thick with the pallor of sickness. I was reading John Updike writing about age.

I had heard about Updike many times. Between book reviews, amazon links, the Best Short Stories of America and other such discriminators of literary virtue, I finally chanced upon a book of his short stories five years ago at a quaint second hand bookstore (incidentally the first book I ever bought abroad), and painfully left it behind, unread, in the aircraft. Hope the book made someone else's day.

Then, in 2012 at a Strand Sale, I came across his last book 'My Fathers' Tears', about age and death, published posthumously. From hard hearted reviews that I read, this book did not impress the literati. It was seen, as a tiring master's last attempt. A master Updike certainly was, with virtuoso skills in constructing his prose.

Like all great literature, Updike's stories convey much more than what he actually wrote. The words are lyrical, roll off your mental tongue easily and build an atmosphere quietly which crawls under your skin while you least notice it. Only when you end a story does the impact punch in, especially in the story I liked best 'The Walk with Elizanne'. It speaks of a 50th high school reunion, where Dave meets Elizanne (his girlfriend of 50 years ago) and with her prompting recalls when they walked home and first kissed. It ends with the most poignant note a story could ever end with.

The book speaks of age which we do not notice passing. One day, you are 18 with a whole range of possibilities ahead of you, 50 years later seems to be a philosophical intangible truth, everyone says it will come but will it really is what you are thinking, till you realize another day, when you find yourself 70, that life has just passed by. What days and moments could not tell you, a collection of years has laid bare. Updike weaves through this realization in his stories - of relationships, imagination, fears and favors and while doing this connects the right points.

The hallmark of every unremarkable life is its recap in indignantly sorrowful misery. What had to happen has already happened. A once fluid future has transformed into a now un-mutating past.  If only time rolls back, if only I have another chance, if only I would have done that what would have been, what could have been.

Your beliefs, ideals, actions mostly do not matter for the stage to which you have reached - success, social status, disease and misfortune are determined by chance and choice.  The chance gets to your guts, almost hurting for it never is and never was just. The choices haunt you forever, for those are where the could-have-beens of life are consigned to the Neverlands of imagination.