My take on Pankaj Mishra’s take on Enlightenment in 484 words


Illustration by MC

It has always been clear to me since childhood, or at any rate from the time I entered the age of intellectual clarity, that I do not fully comprehend human dynamics. In recent years my incomprehension of human affairs has become even more acute. If there was any doubt in my mind that I just don’t get existence, it was removed while and after reading Pankaj Mishra’s nearly 5000-word essay in The Guardian headlined ‘After the Paris attacks: It’s time for a new Enlightenment.’

As is his wont, Mishra brings his natural scholarship to bear while making a case for a new Enlightenment even as Europe struggles to square the consequences of its first Enlightenment with its new modern demographic realities. It is an impressive piece of writing that invokes names that most people who are directly affected by these frictions and those who go out and kill would never have heard of. Names such as Joseph Roth or Jacques Derrida or Michel Houellebecq or Jürgen Habermas or André Glucksmann who by their very mention lend any essay gravitas laden with a peculiar kind of abstruseness that only thrives in rarefied academia.

My problem is not that I do not comprehend what is being said in essays like this for what it is. My problem is that human existence operates at far grimier, cruder and more elemental levels than scholarship such as Mishra’s might suggest. I think it is futile to try and explain behaviors stemming from such baser impulses by cloaking them inside such intellectual and scholarly fineries.

Somewhere along the essay Mishra writes, “It seems imperative that these diverse societies redefine their principles in ways that explicitly acknowledge different visions, religious and metaphysical, of the world.” That is a valid argument in so much as it presumes that the kind of primal conflict we have been witnessing lately can been significantly mitigated through accommodation of contradictory visions of our world and beyond.

I think conflict of this nature between competing visions of our world and beyond is intrinsically irresolvable and peculiarly prone to violence. This is not a pessimistic view but one that treats things as they are rather than the way they should be in accordance with one’s personal preference. It is not as if I have lost hope for humanity. It is just that I never had any other than what comes in dribbles.

As always, Mishra’s is a cogent and finely contextualized piece. However, I am looking at it from the standpoint of eventual futility about human existence. It is way less deserving of the kind of sanctity and sacredness that many among us run to accord it. It is what it is and no more.

That I managed to say my piece, such as it is, in less than 500 words speaks to my obvious intellectual inadequacies. By the way it is 484 words, including Mishra’s 27-word quote.


The fragrance that makes you want to eat earth

Aerosol generation after drop impingement on porous media is a three-step process, consisting of bubble formation, bubble growth, and bubble bursting.

Aerosol generation after drop impingement on porous media is a three-step process, consisting of bubble formation, bubble growth, and bubble bursting. (Image courtesy of Youngsoo Joung/MIT)

I don’t know about you but I have eaten sand/soil moistened by early rain after a harrowingly dry and hot Indian summer. Growing up in Ahmedabad and living through temperatures often touching between 112 to 114 degrees Fahrenheit the first monsoon rains always caused Earth to emit that irresistible fragrance. Now thanks to scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) we know what releases that fragrance.

In a story reported for MIT News by Jennifer Chu, it is revealed that a light rainfall in the aftermath of a hot dry summer releases aerosols trapped in the earth’s surface through a mechanism that the scientists have identified.

Cullen R. Buie, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, and Youngsoo Joung, a post doctoralstudent in Buie’s lab, conducted some 600 experiments on 28 types of surfaces: 12 engineered materials and 16 soil samples, according to the story. “As a raindrop hits a surface, it starts to flatten; simultaneously, tiny bubbles rise up from the surface, and through the droplet, before bursting out into the air. Depending on the speed of the droplet, and the properties of the surface, a cloud of “frenzied aerosols” may be dispersed.",” the report says.

The story does not quite say it but from firsthand experience I can tell you that this fragrant emissions happen only after the first spell of rains. It does not continue to happen as the monsoon/rainy season progresses. I think a prolonged dry spell is necessary for this effect to happen.

Apart from making you want to eat the top soil the earthy smell that people experience is also known to whet an unusual appetite for certain kinds of food. In the context of where I grew up the preferred food combination soon after the first wet spell was “uni uni rotli aney karela nu shakh”, fresh, hot tortilla-like thin Gujarati bread (rotli) made from wheat flour and curried bitter gourd. I am fairly sure other regions have their own combinations.

That earthy fragrance is one of those enduring ones that never really leave your olfactories. On reading the MIT story I could smell it this morning. Although snow is also essentially water, snowfall does not cause that smell because I presume it requires that the surface is hit with some force in order that aerosols are unlocked and released.

Ida’s brilliantly minimalist visual flair

ida1 ida2 ida3 ida4

I began watching Pawel Pawlikowski’s ‘Ida’ on Netflix last night and have continued early this morning. It is a brilliantly minimalist visual feast served by cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal.

In the first 15 minutes of the film, I was spoilt for choice while deciding which frame to highlight because the film up to that point has been an unending stream of visual gifts. One watches movies as much for their stories/performance as for their visual content and editing. It is cinema after all and not a radio play.

The moment the movie opened the first visual reference that popped up in my mind was Satyajit Ray’s 1958 masterpiece ‘Jalsaghar’ (The Music Room). The elegant decrepitude of the once opulent palatial mansion’s music room is extraordinary in ‘Jalsaghar’ just as the novitiate nun’s journey into her family’s dark past during the Nazi era Poland from her time in 1960 is captivating. I have given three frames from ‘Jalsaghar’ below for your edification.

The purpose today is not to write about the whole of ‘Ida’ because I am still in the midst of it but point out its stunning cinematography. I have a weakness for visuals while watching movies as much as memorable lines.

jalsaghar jalsaghar1 jalsaghar2

Litharge Dawn


Litharge Dawn

Litharge Dawn by MC

Litharge as a yellow-red-rust color has always been etched in my mind’s eye. A lot of my digital paintings have a preponderance of litharge. Incidentally, litharge is not a color but a naturally occurring mineral formed when lead is oxidized. It is essentially plumbum oxide or lead oxide (PbO). After painting the two pieces above, both jointly titled Litharge Dawn, the following passage of writing just materialized.

A litharge dawn mounted a determined assault on the defiant dark night which showed no hurry to retreat.

The night knew it would have to eventually yield as did the morning that it would scratch away the ink black splotches still holding out across the horizon.

It was a perpetual war that the two great realms fought.

Gold White triptych

gold white



Gold-White triptych by MC

Watching a documentary about the Angkor Wat I realized how striking the combination of gold and white can be. That prompted me to produce this triptych.

Absolute free speech in a relative universe

Not being a possessor of opinions that matter and a perch that is of consequence I spend all of my time way under the radar. One writes a lot but all of what one writes almost instantly becomes submerged in the digital hubbub. That is not my choice but that is the way it is. Unless you have done something of relevance and consequence or said something which is beyond the pale controversial, it is impossible to get noticed.

This somewhat strange opening paragraph has a purpose. The purpose is to illustrate that free speech comes into the play, into the public discourse, almost always in its breach or abuse or contravention. Of course, there are many examples of free expression, as in the form of a book or a painting or a performed piece of work, which have led to severe consequences for those practicing it. By and large though, it is only when free expression runs seriously counter to a set of widely-held cultural and religious beliefs that things become viciously intolerant and murderously critical.

It is in this context that I was reading comments by Salman Rushdie who says the right of free speech is absolute because otherwise it is not free. I come to the idea of the right of absolute free speech from the standpoint of a learner of physics. To the extent that we do not live in an absolute universe—and I mean the universe in the sense of the one actually governed by the laws of physics no matter how bizarre and not in a philosophical sense—it is an unscientific assertion to make. Absolute does not preclude reaction in any part of the massive and quantum universe. In fact, the universe as we know and observe it is necessarily continually seeking to stay in equilibrium which in turn means it has to balance all the complex forces and processes that are always going on. It is not an absolute system.

That being the case why would the right of absolute free speech be devoid of consequence? One may debate the kind of consequence that a civilized society should allow but it is impossible to separate the right of absolute free speech from its consequence. The moment it has consequence, like all things in the universe do, it is no longer free. It is relative. There is relative free speech. Only those dunderheads who do not understand physics and what relativity means in that context would interpret this to mean that I am for free speech with reasonable restrictions. I am not even remotely saying it. I am saying absolute free speech is purely unachievable within a universe that is so demonstrably relative.

Rushdie has been quoted as saying, "And so artists who go to that edge and push outwards often find very powerful forces pushing back. They find the forces of silence opposing the forces of speech. The forces of censorship against the forces of utterance. At that boundary is that push-and-pull between more and less. And that push and pull can be very dangerous to the artist. And many artists have suffered terribly for that."

That he talks in terms of an edge means there is an edge beyond which we do not know what might happen. A genuinely absolute free speech would not have that edge. There is an edge simply because in the universe everything has an edge beyond which there is consequence. In fact, I would argue that that edge is not that far because it is right within us. We are the edge. The universe is such a mind-numbingly bizarre soup of forces at the massive and quantum levels that there is no predicting what might happen at any given moment but for the constant balancing of those forces to retain a measure of equilibrium.

All this debate reminds me of my own Urdu verse that says:

खुश्क पत्तों के जंगल मे

दबे पाओं चलते हो

यह क्या करते हो?

Khushk patton ke jungle mein

Dabey paon chalte ho

Yeh kya karte ho?

(You walk tiptoed

In a forest full of dry leaves,

What’s the point?)

Wow! I can spin some serious shit. This is called saying a lot without really  saying anything. It all sounds rather important and full of sense but it is anything but. Hence my original point about flying under the radar all the time and therefore not getting counted.

Revisiting the kite fliers of Ahmedabad

Kites 15

Kites by MC

It is January 14 and it is time to re-revisit the kite fliers of Ahmedabad. But before I do that, an observation or two about those who cannot fly kites if their life depended on it. Their hand movements are limp, their posture is as if fearing that other kites might kill them and their facial expressions look as if they are going through various stages of weeping. My advice to them? Please just hold the firki (the string spool) and let professionals such as yours truly do their thing.

Now here is a piece I wrote on January 13, 2011:

I don’t do nostalgia that well. Coming from me, it sounds bogus. But I am going to indulge myself anyway considering that today happens to be Uttarayan, the D-Day for the kite fliers of Gujarat in general and Ahmedabad in particular.

While residents of many other cities wannabe kite fliers in the league of those in Ahmedabad, there is really no comparison. Kite flying in Ahmedabad is an experience of near nirvanic bliss. When I was growing up learning to fly kites was a defining rite of passage. I got defined when I was nine.

In my extended family the ultimate test of one’s kite flying skills was to be able to fly a kite even while holding a firki (a string spool) and finally cutting a rival’s kite. I did all that without much fuss. So yes, I have been a bloody good kite flier. But then Ahmedabad is teeming with bloody good kite fliers.

Kite flying in Ahmedabad was and remains today an aerial war where victims are almost invariably anonymous. You never really know whose kites you are cutting because there are hundreds of thousands in the sky. There are two broad ways to wage this war. One is to attack your adversary from below and the other is to swoop down from top. Once your kite gains a certain altitude because of the Uttarayan wind, the taut string becomes a potentially lethal weapon. It is laced with what is called the manjo or manja. In fact, making the manja is quite a process and there are manja makers who have become legends because of the sheer abrasiveness of their product. When I was growing up some of them in the walled city guarded their formula as zealously as the makers of Coca Cola.

The manja is a mixture of flour, industrial adhesive, aluminum oxide, zirconia alumina, powdered glass and various types of colors. The raw string is laced with the manja and allowed to dry for several hours, sometimes overnight. My mamas, maternal uncles, who grew up in the walled city had “undisclosed” sources of specially made string spools which would be delivered in the dark of the nigh away from the prying eyes of neighboring spies. A dozen or so firkis would be brought wrapped in newspapers as if they were some rare contraband.

Coming back to the two main ways to cut your rival’s kite, one of my uncles specialized in attacking from below. What it meant was that he would circle his kite around the rival’s, and at a precise point start pulling the string back with considerable hand coordination. That would rapidly raise his kite’s height again and the resultant contact of his string with the rival’s string would create a cutting edge. That’s where the quality of the manja would come into play. I do not remember a single occasion when this particular kite flier lost his. There were times when after cutting a dozen or so kites, he would cut his own string and let his kite go. Mahesh Mama, that was his name, was a kite flier whose prowess was discussed by us boys in whispered tones.

The other strategy is to swoop down and rapidly release the string as one makes contact with the rival. That rapid release causes friction and eventually cuts either your string or the rival’s. The second way of attacking was preferred by those not blessed with swift arms.

Kite flying began as early as 4 a.m. and went on till 1 p.m. when we would break for lunch. Even though we had protection on (that does not sound right), our fingers would have been slashed at several spots in the first ten minutes. That made eating an excruciatingly painful affair. It was literally rubbing salt and other spices in one’s wounds. At one point my throat was virtually slit because I came in the middle of Mahesh Mama’s ambush of a kite being flown by someone several streets away.

Mahesh Mama’s signature gig was to cut kites rising from nearby terraces even before they had gone up ten feet. That’s how good he was. Let’s just say he was a top gun among kite fliers. For some men in the neighborhood that was nothing short of public emasculation. And we would rub it in by banging on steel platters in a tribal ritual proclaiming triumph.

It was only fitting that such triumphs were celebrated with deliciously rich food. It was a tradition in my maternal grandparents’ family to hide money, coins really, in food. So one had to watch out for a pawali (a quarter) in the daal or 50 paise in the pooris. There was no FDA to enforce rules about choking hazards. Since it was expected that money would be hidden as an Uttarayan gift, we would eat carefully. It never exceeded 50 paise.

At its core flying kite is as much about liberation, as signified by a soaring kite, as it is about being tethered, as signified by the string. It is a great thrill.