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If we found those days again, how would it be?

Nostalgia – its delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek nostalgia literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards… it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels – around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved.

Don Draper

At one point in time, my only sole worry before leaving for school was to catch up on my daily 20- minutes’ worth meeting with the famous cat and mouse duo – Tom and Jerry! Every morning, a regular prayer ritual and a quick news catchup via the papers left me exactly the time the Cartoon Network of the 90s and early 2000s telecasted the new episodes of the Tom and Jerry show for. Amma would get me a bowl of cereal, or idlis or sandwiches that I’d munch on without a second look at my plate, sitting on Appa’s lap and watching and laughing and choking over my food. Appa and I bonded greatly while watching this series. He’d mimic voices of the characters and with a perpetual running commentary from him, it would set the ‘happy tone’ for the rest of my day. I never had a lot of vices as a child, but a compulsive need to watch this show was probably one amongst the few. A simpler version of David and Goliath, Tom and Jerry series ruled the hearts of millions around the world, for kids our generation – it was a respite from the real world problems (which were limited to solving our mathematics assignments and getting through exams at the max). The dialogue-less series, filled with the chaos and commotion of the cat and mouse running around all over the place, setting not-so-subtle contraptions for each other and occasionally forming a team to avoid getting thrown out of their abodes, has brought up four consecutive generations’ kids and effectively imprinted on their minds at an early age. When the makers of the latest Tom and Jerry movie dropped its trailer, I had my heart in my mouth before I pressed the play button, the sheer joy of witnessing my best friends (from an age where it made sense to call them so) on the screen again, with a new twist to their cat and mouse game, I couldn’t have possibly been more delighted. Well, for a distantly objective person, one wouldn’t understand why a movie that was riding solely on pulling in audiences based on nostalgia, would evoke such an emotion. But nostalgia has no rationality to it. The instant I witness a clip from the old Tom and Jerry days, I become a six year old, sitting on my father’s lap in the living room of our two bedroom house, holding a cup of coffee or eating hot idlis, with my mother tying my shoe laces and fixing my skirt and tie, and with me wishing for nothing but for the episode to go on and on and on.

Recently, when I spent an evening watching the latest Tom and Jerry movie, it just hit me that (in my opinion) even though I thought the usual antics of Tom and Jerry were heart-warming and the movie also included some iconic scenes from the original television series, as a movie, across the board – it lacked in working with a core narrative, screenplay, cinematography, screenwriting and concept development. The feud between the two lead characters is admittedly forgettable and the director hasn’t spent enough time exploring this classic rivalry that created a timeless legacy for this duo. Inspite of the many faults of the movie, I was unable to move an inch away the screen. It represented to me a whole lot in terms of emotions, elements of my relationship with my father (we bonded greatly over board games and cartoons), and of a time – the feelings of which I’d give anything to relive.

One of the many iconic scenes from the original TV series, recreated in the movie. (Tom captures Jerry between his palms, and when he opens the same, Jerry mimics the action and when a curious Tom wants to know what Jerry is ‘secretively’ looking at, Jerry offers to share the ‘secret’ with him. Tom leans in and Jerry punches him in the eye to free himself.)

As humans, and one would only be foolish to not admit to it, we all have our days where we feel absolutely worthless, or days where we feel lonely despite being surrounded with friends and family, days where boredom reaches to an extent that even the process of thinking about things seems cumbersome, days where we introspect, retrospect and doubt our life choices, question our very many personal or professional options, when the past looms like a dark cloud over our head. Not one to live in the past, but I definitely have had days where I have been through the above mentioned cycle. Fond memories of objects like one’s teddy bears or snuggly pillows or blankets that one always carried around everywhere, stories that my mother would read to me, various competitions that I won over the years of school, the beautiful memories I built with my friends in the last couple of years, the many late-night parties and meet-ups we had at music-filled restaurants, the late night football matches I used to watch with my father – all fill me with an immense sense of gratification for all the wonderful things I have been able to experience in my life despite all the actual and self-perceived hurdles.

Now, this magic blanket of nostalgia that wraps itself about us, an intangible entity, like fragrance, is time and again chided as a virtue that is the least authentic, a seductive liar that pulls us into the folds of negativity, something that has no purpose other than serving as a vice for the aged.

Contrary to what one says or thinks about drowning oneself in the waves sweet memories of the past, I for one, am a staunch advocate of the right to wish to go back in time, in life, where some striking moments made you the person you are today, moments where you took life-altering decisions, perhaps a song that you heard for the first time at a place with which you now associate it with, a whiff of a fragrance, for me that’d be about twenty years’ worth memory of waking up to the smell of a fresh coffee decoction prepared by my mother, something that I imagine waking up to every now and then. No mater how it comes to you, the feeling of being at a place, of hearing a song, of looking at pictures of people from a time long gone-by, the bitter-sweet taste of moments never leave you. It’s your heart’s way of reminding you of things that you once loved. Yes, definitely this feeling, at least for me, is accompanied or is sometimes driven by the fear of uncertainty in the future, absence of non-materialistic purpose in life, inability to lay out coherent plans for the future. But it is always a healthy mix. If I don’t read a book for weeks together and come across titles lying around the house, I quickly recall some wonderful books that made me a part of the characters’ journeys, and will soon thereafter make an effort and proceed to pick up a book again and resume a streak of reading.

Of course this is an example of the simplest forms and I do realise and acknowledge that people have far more concerning aspects of life than choosing the next book to read. So, to cut short, my point is as long as you don’t lose yourself in memories where you completely overlook failures or negative experiences, or come out of the remembrance sphere with a constant gnawing dissatisfaction where fond memories lead you to believe that you can never experience that phase in your life ever again, nostalgia as a concept can be quite useful. One needs to use it as an intelligent tool, to rejuvenate oneself and to encourage oneself from falling into familiar traps from past mistakes. It is no doubt a double-edged sword, one that can either polish off the rough edges off your present or one that can lead you into depths of despair and a cycle of never-ending craving.

Here is an unbelievably good presentation on the theory of nostalgia and probably one of Johnny Harris’s finest piece published as a part of his YouTube portfolio.

Remembrance restores possibility to the past, making what happened incomplete and completing what never was. Remembrance is neither what happened nor what did not happen but, rather, their potentialization, their becoming possible once again.

Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy

The Bones on which I cut my Teeth

Parents rarely let go of their children, so children let go of them. They move on. They move away. The moments that used to define them – a mother’s approval, a father’s nod – are covered by moments of their own accomplishments. It is not until much later, as the skin sags and the heart weakens, that children understand; their stories, and all their accomplishments, sit atop the stories of their mothers and fathers, stones upon stones, beneath the waters of their lives.

-MITCH ALBOM, THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HEAVEN

Almost seven months into my newly married life and with the pandemic and the ‘stay at home’ mantra, I’ve been spending a lot of time at home, with my in-laws, grandparents and my husband. Surely, conversations about various aspects of life are bound to come up. The more I speak to my new family about my habits, my dreams, my aspirations, my interests, my life before marriage, the more I realise the gamut of my being that’s been built on top of my parents’. All of what I am, physically, emotionally, socially, intellectually, all of what I have achieved thus far, necessarily needs to be attributed to them. All my rights and wrongs, all my indulgences, all my moods – they have had a huge role to play in shaping my thought process, my reactions to situations, my tastes in food, clothes, people, books, media and the list has all other possible aspects of life.

While I learn how to cook in the kitchen, with the most patient mother-in-law for a teacher, I narrate stories of how my parents’ cooking styles differ, their regular routine of cooking alternatively, and the likes and dislikes I picked up from them. My incredible tolerance for sweet, inherited from my mother, my love for anything and everything with mushrooms and paneer, courtesy my father’s various experiments in the kitchen with the same. My expectations from marriage and from my relationship with my husband, my learnings on how to balance both family and work, my stance regarding the various household responsibilities, I realised just how much the way my parents were around me and the way they behave with each other, the way I’ve seen them manage their home, their work, their child and their own parents, had sub – consciously affected my expectations and desires from my various other relationships as well.

To my parents’ credit, they created a perfect nurture balance while bringing me up. I was given responsibilities while still young, that helped me realise my own abilities and strengths to cultivate, and weak spots to work on. Being the only child and a daughter, my parents were also always fiercely protective of me. But in a way that never affected my freedom of choice or expression. While I would drive to and from the college, attend late night parties and sleepovers at my friends’, my parents would always be in the loop of things, they’d know who all would be attending the said party and would always have a couple of my friends’ numbers in their contact list. Even when I shifted to a new city and started living independently, my father would make sure he called me every morning, as soon as he woke up. I was required to share my cab details with him every time I boarded one, and he’d keep me company on the call while I’d be heading towards my office. One of the many eccentricities I have is that I usually prefer to eat alone, without company, both in the form of a human being and other forms of e-entertainment. And at times, after a stressful day at work, the only person I look forward to talking to is my father. The only company I so far have genuinely enjoyed and looked forward to. He captures my imagination and attention like no one. He knows what conversation suits my particular mood and how best to steer me away from negative spaces. No matter what time of the day I dial him, he’d always be available for me. He’d get up from meetings to take my calls and would happily keep me company for as long as I desired, never once complaining of all the other important work he’d have left behind, for me. Though admittedly, he has an urge to want to fix and come up with practical solutions for all my problems, which is maddening considering that when you are emotionally vulnerable, you sometimes don’t want to hear fixes but only a venting source or a shoulder to cry on.

Enter, mothers!

My mother is unlike any other. And this comes from observing her via an unbiased lens for the entirety of my life now. ‘The cult of perfect mother’ – people often paint a picture of a perfect mother, a life full of sacrifices and unconditional love is considered only natural and dare if someone points in another direction, society is always ready to tear them down. Amma has never been the one to stick to norms. An immensely intelligent, resourceful and the kindest soul, without talking much or ever tearing other people down, she taught me some of the most important lessons of life. At a time when most parents were busy pressurising their children to excel in all fields invented by human beings, my mother was busy trying to figure out and encourage the aspects of me that deserved to be nurtured. She took her time to understand my likes and dislikes and helped me first develop and later on polish, the various things she thought I was inherently good at. I was not the easiest daughter. While still a child, I was bitten by the mad rat-race, society’s perceptions of me and a raging, untamed competitive fire – a combination that never truly ends well for anyone who is born with natural skills in an area. She shielded me emotionally and helped me eventually realise that my self-worth was and would never be decided upon what people thought. I grew up with a very distinct shortcoming in my personality – wherein I would be quick to place blame on either her or my Appa for any failure I faced in the due course of my early growing up years. Children can be exceptionally mean, a lot of times, not realising how their words pierce the heart of their parents’. Like any average teenager, I’d get into regular fights with both Amma and Appa. While fathers, in fact most men, are the no-nonsense species and immediately try to cut down the conversations short when it doesn’t go their way, mothers are usually more patient, more absorbing, more hopeful of their child subsequently turning over a new leaf, more willing to see and believe in the goodness of their child, more willing to negate the less-pleasant qualities with a justification for such a behaviour – not necessarily to others but just to convince themselves, more willing to listen to incessant rants of how they could’ve done things differently as a parent, willing to shoulder blame for their child’s many deficits while attributing the positives wholly and solely to the child, more willing to keep the line of communication alive in the face of isolation or curt behaviour on the part of the child.

My mother was and continues to be all this and more.

Never once in my life has she verbally or action-wise, ever stated or made me feel that I owe my very existence to her, that all my high-flying vocabulary in the face of anger was her gift, that the food I consumed while we argued was provided for and prepared by her, that me coming on top of the class for the majority of my school life was all thanks to her innumerable hours of patience where I’d explain topics from various subjects to her to better my understanding, that all my quick analysis of books came from the umpteen hours she spent with me coaxing analysis of various authors and their works out of me, that all my confidence to stitch two words together in public was her doing – making me believe that while standing in a room full of bullies and other superior people, one’s intelligence and empathy is all that matters. She has always been the one calm, constant and forever present in the moment, entity for me.

A mother who listens and listens and pretends to listen even when one can't listen anymore. 

A mother who knew and made efforts to be acquainted with and nurture my relationships with various friends over the years. Some of my closest friends who date back to two decades, while I was still in early nursery classes, fondly remember my mother – either for her ever delicious idli-sambhar treats or her warm eyes or her very countenance. We have a standing joke between us where if I take out any of my fourteen year-end pictures and show it to my mother, she’ll quickly identify all of my classmates and teachers by names, while I’d be struggling to score half the percentage. Being heavily invested in all aspects of your child’s personal life while providing the space for the child to make his/her own relations, form habits, cultivate knowledge and opinions, allowing the child to fight its own battles – is a balance that is no way a mean feat to achieve. She knew when and where to draw the line as a mother and was remarkable in enabling me at the same time. The only person whose shadow I’m willing to be in for the entirety of my life.

Friends and family who regularly follow my work, have always had one common question to ask – how come your parents find a mention in the majority of the posts that you write? When I write about my love for stamps that originated with an on-the-spur-of-the-moment request that my father subsequently indulged and nurtured, the fact that that the love for stories is the single strong thread that connect my father and me, when I write about my super-computer type reading speed or the slow progress of self-esteem – from a highly dysfunctional introvert child to an emotionally high-functioning woman, that’s all my mother. So much of my personality and traits are drawn from these two people that I don’t think I can ever really isolate myself or my achievements or my faults or my likes or dislikes, from them. And I don’t think that I’d want it any other way.

Well, usually I laugh off the question of mentioning my parents every now and then in my write-ups, but off late and even in a sudden moment of epiphany while reading Mitch Albom’s ‘The Five people you meet in Heaven’, I have come to realise that all of my childhood and adulthood, I have looked up to only two people – they were and will forever will be my heroes, my gurus, my best friends and my most closest and trusted confidantes. The two people who can do no wrong in my eyes, and are the most calming presence to be near in times of adversities. The two people with a moral compass so strong that I can proudly claim of no amount of pettiness or greed or treachery or dishonesty ever having crossed their minds. The two people I have centred twenty-five years of my life around, basing all my life decisions on what would be the best for the three of us as a single unit. A sense of strong belonging, safety and security – all that I wanted as a child and as an adult, was provided only by these two people – Amma and Appa.

The best inheritance a parent can give their child, is a few hours or even a few minutes of their time each day, without fail.

Hear what is ‘not’ being said

An often familiar situation I find myself in while conversing with people is when you share pieces of traumatic pasts or not-so-good childhood experiences that have influenced your various thought processes, very few of them often understand the spectrum of the individual’s behaviour or where they are coming from with regards to a particular opinion or a fear they might have. I wouldn’t term this as lack of empathy but rather the absence of a difficult childhood or being naturally accustomed to be looked upon by your fellow mates or perpetually having experienced the state of authority wherein it becomes difficult to be a good listener and empathise with another person. 

An instance from a conversation, I had with someone a long time ago, that went southwards, was when I was elaborating some unfortunate circumstances from my school days centred around bullying – a group of girls beating me blue and black in my school bus, pushing me out from a running bus, cornering me into giving up my lunch box, certain acts of what can only be termed as viciousness, like pouring hot water over my head – the person immediately responded by brushing aside these activities terming it as a part of ‘growing up’. Indeed, I am quite thankful for all my collective experiences from school days and thereafter, but that doesn’t mean one simply outgrows the trauma that their eight or nine year old self had gone through at one point of time. The beginning few years of a child’s social life, where he/she interacts with fellow mates of their own age, literally shapes up majority of what the child perceives his self-worth to be, in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Born a south Indian and a Tamilian, my colour was often a matter of discussion amongst my street playmates. I had ‘friends’ who’d refuse to hold my hand while forming a play circle for the fear of ‘turning brown’. With all due modesty, I was better than most people in most games, and yet would always be the last to be picked up by any side. Numerous such interactions and experiences made me believe that I was in many ways, inferior to this lot that were my ‘friends’. 

While in adulthood, I can claim to have recognised my value and worth, rediscovered what I actually am – for the good or bad, and have managed to close most doors of the past, even until a few years ago, helplessness completely dominated my personality resulting in viewing myself as a perpetual victim in any situation. But for all the negative side of this experience., I also found an amazing support system in the form of my mother and some beautiful friends that stood by me no matter what. When I had my school bag flung outside a moving bus, a friend stood up to those bullies with the scene almost leading to a fight. They were too many of them to argue with, but nevertheless my friend was ready to take up on them all by herself. My mother for her part worked her way in and out of my mind, trying to figure all the mis-aligned circuit wires while helping me rebuild my self-esteem and helping me detach from negativity in various ways. 

Positive interactions of these kind helped me realise that the bad things happening to me were not in my control and certainly not something that I deserved owing to my less-assertive nature. I spent most of my teen years right through early adulthood, dismissing the pain of my experiences as something that happened to everybody and was just another part of ‘growing up’. And that was because I was told time and again that my negative experiences did not matter in the scheme of larger things. I would probably agree with a more refined statement wherein one says the pain and experience matters but one needs to always get past that to live your life to the fullest. And also where traumatic experiences are not dis-credited with having anything to do with your present psychology. No matter how much ever one grows, one always carries the baggage of the past with them. While sensitive adults are mature enough to not focus all their energy on their past pain, many fall into the trap of becoming obsessed with ways of never having to live through that pain again. Although a deeper insight on this issue might need altogether a separate column where I could try and find arguments to justify both sides of this story. 

While I digressed a bit from the initial aim of this write-up, the more I think of all the zillion conversations I’ve had in a personal capacity with people, the more I feel that most people I’ve met tend to make conversations all about themselves. Bad listening skills coupled with wanting to probably show someone the extent of your success in the face of whatever adversities one may have faced, leads to declined sensitivity to another person’s perspective. Withholding judgment and possibly reflecting on where other person’s coming from, respecting their background and the numerous ways they may have overcome challenges in their life, being secure of one’s own achievements and experiences are some possible high level traits I feel one requires to have a sane conversation with another person about their life and circumstances. One is not expected to imbibe these traits over night. But as a creature of evolution one needs to make a start somewhere. You can begin practicing empathetic listening by indulging in personal conversations with known people, like your own parents or spouse. More often than not parents don’t talk about all their struggles – be it financial, emotional, inter personal or otherwise to their children. Even today when I speak to my mother or father, I get to know hidden facts from their past that helps me justify their present personality, their present thought process which consequently also helps me understand why they react the way they do to certain situations. 

If one multiplies poor listening skills with the number of one’s friends or colleagues or people of importance in one’s life, I believe it adds up to a staggering cost to one’s inter and intra personal relationships. Growing up, I found it immensely difficult to express what I was feeling about a particular situation. Sadness, anger, happiness, anxiety – no matter the emotion, I’d crawl into my shell and consequently become a puzzle for my parents to figure out. It took years of patient training on their part and constant learning from my behaviour, to help me identify and react to situations more openly. This was not some outwardly training process for which activities, rules or guidelines were designed. It happened as and when we were faced with different situations. In the backend, they slowly figured out the workings of my brain. This was done in a way that also helped me realise my own reactions and made me a more empathetic listener. I could automatically figure out what people were feeling, observing their body language, their pattern of speech, their eye movements, etc. Over the years, I learnt to let go of my personal agenda while speaking and listening to people from various walks of life, focusing entirely on the unspoken message behind their words. 

Next time, when you have a friend who talks to you about family problems, or relationship with his/her partner, or career stress or someone who is simply in an emotionally vulnerable position, do not take your toolkit out to start fixing their problems. Do not start throwing a bunch of practical-sounding solutions, without cushioning with comforting words. Do not hijack the conversation citing similar experiences you may have faced. If a person feels comfortable enough to open up to you about personal issues, respect that and be the passively absorbent and an actively supporting party. Not everything needs to be about you. You are also not required to be the all-knowing person with solutions to your friend’s many problems. You need only be confident of who you are, where you come from and be a person of thorough integrity. Practice good listening, it is the single most underrated skills amongst the majority of the population today. One that is not stressed enough to be improved on, in B-schools and corporate places. But also the one skill that can single-handedly propel you from being a boss to a born leader, one who learns and grows from what they hear. When one gives up the thought that they have control, they can better adapt, anticipate, sense the environment and respond.

Summarising my two cents,

To survive and even thrive in a changing world, nature offers another great lesson: the survivors are those who at the least adapt to change, or even better learn to benefit from change and grow intellectually and personally. That means careful listening and constant learning.

‘Anonymous’

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself. The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.

And that’s how a tale of sin and art began. 

Before I elaborate more on the ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, a little context about the place I come from when it comes to Oscar Wilde’s writing style. His short stories and plays have been an integral part of my childhood. ‘The Canterville Ghost’, ‘The Happy Prince, ‘The Selfish Giant, ‘The Importance of being Earnest’ – permanently readable classics that are etched in my memory. But barring a few of his works, Wilde’s biting-wit style has never been a favourite of mine. In fact, to an extent that I sometimes wonder what is it about him or any of his works (which, in my opinion, are less superior to any of his contemporaries of the time) that justify the sort of reputation Wilde retains till date. True that each one of his stories and plays are sharp and observational, depict his versatility as a writer but a gaping imperfection that stares at me every time I read any of his works is that no matter the theme, Wilde, in what maybe an unintentional attempt to follow the Russian writing style, ends a lot of his stories contrary to what a reader would expect and most often in misery. While not essentially criticising the plots of his many stories, I always found missing, a smooth, satisfying storyline transition. 

A couple of days ago, while rummaging through my bookshelf, I came across one of his works ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, his only novel. A hardbound edition of the work had been gifted to my grandmother in 1953 for one her many achievements during her school days. I looked up the plot over the internet and it seemed promising. Being his only novel, and possibly his highest rated work, I decided to give this book a shot. And the right decision did I make! 

Wilde’s novel made me take notice, for the first time, his conversational style of writing. A rather peculiar, interesting piece of exchange between a Duchess and one of the protagonists Lord Henry, on whether he liked his country (England), runs as follows: 

“They (Englishmen) are more cunning than practical. When they make up their ledger, they balance stupidity by wealth, and vice by hypocrisy.”

“Still, we have done great things.”

“Great things have been thrust on us, Gladys.”

“We have carried their burden.”

“Only as far as the Stock Exchange.”

“I believe the race.”

“It represents the survival of the ousting.”
“It has development.”

“Decay fascinates me more.”

“What of Art?”

“It is a malady.”

“Love?”

“An illusion”

“Religion?”

“The fashionable substitute for Belief?”

“You are a sceptic.”

“Never! Scepticism is the beginning of Faith.”

“What are you?”

“To define is to limit.”

“Give me a clue.”

“Threads snap. You would lose your way in the labyrinth.”

“Threads snap. You would lose your way in the labyrinth.” The novel is filled with little gems in a Q and A form like this. In fact it is like a mini desktop calendar, so quotable and so relatable that it’d be impossible for the reader to pick one favourite line. Readers familiar only with Wilde’s plays and other forms of write ups will be surprised by this novel, which demonstrates a superior expertise in classical literature, both in the form of a narrative as well as little threads of moral advices, observations and dilemmas sprinkled over the two hundred and fifty odd pages, of the book. 

A bit of a research into Wilde’s personality and one finds that at his peak, Wilde was famously known as a conversationalist. The men who knew Wilde personally, thought highly of his abilities as a raconteur. George Moore, a famous contemporary of Wilde’s and who was also known to hate him with an unusual intensity, is supposed to have agreed after a dinner, where Wilde presented some fun anecdotes, that a conversation with the latter was one of the most delightful moments of his life. Yeats, who thought little of Wilde as a writer, was equally enthralled by his company and had the following to say 

I had never before heard a man talking in perfect sentences, as if he had written them all overnight with labour and yet all spontaneous.

Revisiting Wilde’s world, I noticed that while his may have been (in my opinion), a pursuit of personal fulfilment through many of his works, but his ideas at that time were mostly original and daring. And if we consider the Victorian world he lived in, he more often than not challenged the strange and sometimes absurd notions that was required of the society members to adhere to. 

For instance, this novel’s underlying theme, of what I understated was a person’s descent into madness and ultimate loss to his self-constructed societal image. 

The opening passages of the book have one of the three lead protagonists Basil Hallward, a painter, remark

Your rank and wealth, Harry (Lord Henry) ; my brains, such as they are – my art, whatever it may be worth; Dorian Gray’s good looks – we shall all suffer for what the gods have given us, suffer terribly.

And suffer terribly did the characters in the book. 

When I entered the world of Basil, Henry and Gray, little did I expect the underlying themes of the book to deal with homosexuality (albeit, in the most subtle way possible, with all overtly hinting dialogues and expressions of passion either removed or revised by subsequent publishers), hedonism and superficiality, to the given extent it did. The main plot deals with Lord Henry introducing and making Dorian realise that his only claim to societal relationships, fame, name and other bounties is his beautiful young face. Dorian’s appearance was his singular quality. When there’s the one thing in the world that is a sure-shot way to propel you to multiple stages above your existing level, one does everything in his/her capacity to protect and nurture that thing, in the same state, for as long as possible (and in this case ‘forever’)

And therefore, Gray too went to desperate lengths to retain his only “worthy” quality from the scars that various life experiences tend to leave on our faces. 

When Lord Henry initially enlightens and hints for Dorian Gray to possible become a new symbol for ‘Hedonism’, a perfect way of life in his opinion, Dorian is still an unspotted, untouched, pure soul with all the candour and youth’s passion filled within him. He is portrayed as the poster-boy with all qualities that the Victorian society held dear at the time. Under the terrible influence of Lord Henry, Dorian slowly loses his individualism and his ability to establish his own moral code in life, to live by. In influencing and driving Dorian to do the things he did, a more careful reader would also realise that Henry too is the same person that he creates out of Dorian (albeit, again a devil more in words than action). One of the more pertinent statements from Henry justifies this observation. 

All kind of influence is immoral. To influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He doesn’t not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed.

When Basil first shows Gray his completed portrait, Gray comes to realise the sense of his own beauty. But Henry’s word-play on the charms of youth and warnings of its brevity played on Gray’s mind and he exclaims

How sad it is!  I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful.  But this picture will remain always young.  It will never be older than this particular day in June…If it were only the other way!  If it were I who was to always young, and the picture that was to grow old!  For that—for that—I would give everything!  Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give!  I would give my soul for that! 

Dorian thereby delves into depravity and into the world of sins, that he never actually recovers from. His wish comes true, in the sense that for every sin or every crime committed, his portrait begins to show changes accordingly. When he first drives the girl he loves, to suicide, his portrait develops cruel lines surrounding his scarlet lips. And once Dorian realises this, he begins attributing every wrong thing he does, to the painting. All his malices, evils and sins are projected on to the canvas. His soul essentially is captured in that portrait. And with the soul gone, there is no longer a human being, just a being – bent on satisfying all of his/her needs and vanities. In this case, with nothing greater to lose, Dorian occupied himself with art, music and every beautiful luxury known to man. In the name of intellectual development and uncovering of spiritual mysteries, he studied perfumes and their sercrets of manufacture, devoted himself to music and collecting of various instruments from across the world, he took up the study of jewels, and embroideries and tapestries, and all he lived was for perfect moments in life. 

He also ends up ruining lives of “friends” he associates with and is quite oblivious to the effect of his influence on them. As Basil tells Dorian, 

One has a right to judge of a man by the effect he has over his friends. Yours seem to lose all sense of honour, of goodness, of purity. You have filled them with a madness for pleasure. They have gone down into the depths. You led them there.

If one has to imagine a set-up with these three characters, Lord Henry could be the devil, the very embodiment of temptation, sitting on one side of Dorian’s shoulder, and Basil, the level-headed counterweight on the other side. Henry is easily able to overpower and corrupt Dorian’s thought process, ultimately leading him down the dark side. Amongst the many strange, and at times offensive theories (particularly to the women category) he holds, Henry somehow is able to make the most skeptical of the readers (me, in this case) to ponder upon his many statements. To be fair, he also does come across as a wise man, with accurate representations of people’s inner desires, fears, societal expectations and pressures, value systems, etc. 

For as long as their association lasts, Basil tries to function as Dorian’s consciousness, to remind him of the person he once was. 

”He won’t like you the better for keeping your promises. He always breaks his own. I beg you not to go.” Dorian Gray laughed and shook his head.

“I entreat you.”

The lad hesitated, and looked over at Lord Henry, who was watching them from the tea-table with an amused smile.

“I must go, Basil,” he answered.

In one of the key moments in this book, a keen reader can experience Oscar Wilde’s stroke of brilliance here. Without any signs of physical or verbal confrontation or agitation, without any overtly suggestive dialogues about Henry’s apparent immoral influence, Wilde beautifully depicts Dorian’s standing at a cross-road, from where he ends up choosing a wrong path, and Basil’s love for Dorian that wants him to be the same uncorrupted soul he was then. With the flow of conversation, one may not find this scene extra ordinary but this is the very first time Dorian is faced with a choice between the good and the temptation, into which he eventually gives in. Quite a powerful scene in my humble opinion! 

Wilde’s writing, for this particular work of his, is akin to honey flowing down a wooden table. Smooth transitions, premonition of fate of every character bought to a conclusive and satisfactory end and morals and theories to take away and debate upon. The book, much like the plot, is a perfect amalgamation of art, life and representation. The artist’s work has become obsolete, when it is remarked that his painting had gone quite off. It seemed to me to have lost something. It had lost an ideal

With the artist out of the picture, the representation cannot hold on much longer and gets corrupted in the process. The sitter is no longer captured the way the artist meant to and instead the soul of the sitter splits.

A wish for eternal beauty seals the pact and the canvas grabs the final prize – the soul of the sitter. 

Phantoms in the Brain: A Review

At this stage you must admit that whatever is seen to be sentient is nevertheless composed of atoms that are insentient. The phenomena open to our observation do not contradict this conclusion or conflict with it. Rather they lead us by the hand and compel us to believe that the animate is born, as I maintain, of the insentient.

– Lucretius

A complete opposite of a dry, technical writing, V.S. Ramachandran has run with Lucretius and his idea that universe depends on the study of our brain, in ways no other writer ever has.

‘Phantoms in the Brain’ is probably the first book on neuropsychology I’ve read, and it’s been a completely new experience. It is probably one of the few books that made me take notes while reading. Such a shame I did not get to know about V.S. Ramachandran and his works much earlier. As a writer he prides himself, and rightfully so, on being able to explain the most technical of the concepts to a layperson.


The book’s most intriguing aspect is not necessarily its encyclopedic selection of strange cases. I would give that prize to the philosophical undertones that accompany each examination. These musings range from discussions on free will (the brain seems to do a lot of thinking and acting on its own), to pondering the nature of self (questioning the idea of the “ghost in the machine” and whether we should even be talking about souls anymore).

The author has steered clear from presenting his findings from various experiments, as an overly serious thesis. His work has culled some of the most intriguing cases available across medical literature. One of the most peculiar cases I read about, was the woman who ‘thought she was pregnant’. She spent nine months believing she was pregnant and when she finally started experiencing contractions, she went to a doctor for delivery. An experienced man, he sensed something was wrong, gave the lady an anaesthetic and examined her. As he suspected from her down tuned belly button, the lady was experiencing a case of ‘Phantom pregnancy’. Pseudocyesis – a condition where women who desperately want to be pregnant, experience all signs and symptoms of a true pregnancy. They stop menstruating, lactate, have morning sickness and have even been reported to sense fetal movements. In this case, the doctor informed the lady of a miscarriage once she woke up. Couple of days later, the lady turned up at the hospital, again, with a pregnant belly gain and told the doctor he forgot to deliver the twin!

Ramachandran meditates, 

If the human mind can conjure up something as complex as pregnancy, what else can the brain do to or for the body? What are the limits to mind−body interactions and what pathways mediate these strange phenomena? And assures us that, contrary to what many of my colleagues believe, the message preached by physicians like Deepak Chopra and Andrew Weil is not just New Age psychobabble. It contains important insights into the human organism— ones that deserve serious scientific scrutiny.

The chapter on Capgras Syndrome ( where the patients see familiar and loved figures as impostors ) was one of my favorites in the book. Below is an extended excerpt from the chapter:

I’ll never forget the frustration and despair in the voice at the other end of the telephone. The call came early one afternoon as I stood over my desk, riffling through papers looking for a misplaced letter, and it took me a few seconds to register what this man was saying. He introduced himself as a former diplomat from Venezuela whose son was suffering from a terrible, cruel delusion. Could I help?

“What sort of delusion?” I asked.

His reply and the emotional strain in his voice caught me by surprise. “My thirty−year−old son thinks that I am not his father, that I am an impostor. He says the same thing about his mother, that we are not his real parents.” He paused to let this sink in. “We just don’t know what to do or where to go for help. Your name was given to us by a psychiatrist in Boston. So far no one has been able to help us, to find a way to make

Arthur better.” He was almost in tears. “Dr. Ramachandran, we love our son and would go to the ends of the earth to help him. Is there any way you could see him?”

“Of course, I’ll see him,” I said. “When can you bring him in?”

Two days later, Arthur came to our laboratory for the first time in what would turn into a yearlong study of his condition. He was a good−looking fellow, dressed in jeans, a white T−shirt and moccasins. In his mannerisms, he was shy and almost childlike, often whispering his answers to questions or looking wide−eyed at us.

The parents explained that Arthur had been in a near−fatal automobile accident while he was attending school in Santa Barbara. His head hit the windshield with such crushing force that he lay in a coma for three weeks, his survival by no means assured. But when he finally awoke and began intensive rehabilitative therapy, everyone’s hopes soared. Arthur gradually learned to talk and walk, recalled the past and seemed, to all outward appearances, to be back to normal. He just had this one incredible delusion about his parents—that they were impostors—and nothing could convince him otherwise.

After a brief conversation to warm things up and put Arthur at ease, I asked, “Arthur, who brought you to the hospital?”

“That guy in the waiting room,” Arthur replied. “He’s the old gentleman who’s been taking care of me.”

“You mean your father?”

“No, no, doctor. That guy isn’t my father. He just looks like him. He’s—what do you call it?—an impostor, I guess. But I don’t think he means any harm.”

“Arthur, why do you think he’s an impostor? What gives you that impression?”

He gave me a patient look—as if to say, how could I not see the obvious—and said, “Yes, he looks exactly like my father but he really isn’t. He’s a nice guy, doctor, but he certainly isn’t my father!”

“But, Arthur, why is this man pretending to be your father?”

Arthur seemed sad and resigned when he said, “That is what is so surprising, doctor. Why should anyone want to pretend to be my father?” He looked confused as he searched for a plausible explanation.

Maybe my real father employed him to take care of me, paid him some money so that he could pay my bills.”

Later, in my office, Arthur’s parents added another twist to the mystery. Apparently, their son did not treat either of them as impostors when they spoke to him over the telephone. He only claimed they were impostors when they met and spoke face−to−face. This implied that Arthur did not have amnesia with regard to his parents and that he was not simply “crazy.” For, if that were true, why would he be normal when listening to them on the telephone and delusional regarding his parents’ identities only when he looked at them?

“It’s so upsetting,” Arthur’s father said. “He recognizes all sorts of people he knew in the past, including his college roommates, his best friend from childhood and his former girlfriends. He doesn’t say that any of them is an impostor. He seems to have some gripe against his mother and me.”

Arthur was suffering from Capgras’ delusion, one of the rarest and most colorful syndromes in neurology.1 The patient, who is often mentally quite lucid, comes to regard close acquaintances—usually his parents, children, spouse or siblings—as impostors. As Arthur said over and over, “That man looks identical to my father but he really isn’t my father. That woman who claims to be my mother? She’s lying. She looks just like my mom but it isn’t her.” Although such bizarre delusions can crop up in psychotic states, over a third of the documented cases of Capgras’ syndrome have occurred in conjunction with traumatic brain lesions, like the head injury that Arthur suffered in his automobile accident. This suggests to me that the syndrome has an organic basis. But because a majority of Capgras’ patients appear to develop this delusion “spontaneously,” they are usually dispatched to psychiatrists, who tend to favor a Freudian explanation of the disorder.

Anyone out there interested in the least bit in knowing about the strange workings of human brain, I’d highly recommend this book! And if not for anything else, the author’s findings on the Capgras syndrome and phantom limb experiments amongst others (the results of which have been conclusively proven by various research groups, over the years) are worth reading.


This TED talk will give you a good impression of what this book is all about.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

While poets of the previous century had wandered lonely as a cloud through the countryside (Wordsworth, in 1802) or repaired in solitude to Walden Pond (Thoreau, 1845), Eliot’s Prufrock mostly worries about being looked at by eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase and pin you, wriggling, to a wall

– Susan Cain, Quiet

Quiet is, in my opinion, one of the most important literary works of recent times. For people who revel in solitude, are fundamental loners, are reflective & sensitive, measure the number of words coming out of their mouth to avoid contributing inconsequential information to a conversation, the ones who wake up early in the morning to enjoy that ‘alone time’ with a steaming mug of coffee – there is a place for you in God’s world, a place by no means easy to claim, but there is.

I have never been too big a follower of poetry as a genre. When I began reading ‘Quiet’, which quotes numerous examples and stanzas from famous works of poets, I could not resist going through the listed works in their entirety. Over the last couple of weeks, I read a dozen odd poems by Wordsworth, Whitman, Eliot, Keats until I stumbled upon what probably is one of T.S. Eliot’s best work – The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Admittedly, I regularly took help from online sources to understand the hidden meanings behind some of the deeper, more complicated works I came across. The Love Song was one of them. The poem and the speaker in it, constantly float between the themes of anxiety, indecision, desire, communication, modernity, and alienation. The first six lines of the poem are, in fact, an epigraph – written in Italian and derived from Canto 27 of Dante’s ‘Inferno’.

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
     A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
     Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
     Ma percioche giammai di questo fondo
     Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
     Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.

The ‘Inferno’ tells the story of a pilgrim, who seeks God’s help to avoid committing sins, and God sends a person to walk the pilgrim through the nine circles of horrors in hell. Here he meets various sinners who narrate their stories of suffering and is quickly drawn towards a man called Guido da Montefeltro, who is stuck in the eighth circle of hell. On being asked the reason for his punishment, he says:

“If I thought that my reply would be to someone who would ever return to earth, this flame would remain without further movement; but as no one has ever returned alive from this gulf, if what I hear is true, I can answer you with no fear of infamy.”

On a completely unrelated topic, Dante’s most popular works including Inferno and The Divine Comedy have been on top my reading wish list ever since I explored portions of his world in Dan Brown’s books. Dan Brown fans would know the amount of inspiration he draws from Dante’s work to set plotlines around historical artifacts or otherwise.

Buy why would Eliot use Guido and this conversation as his opening setting?

That is because, like Guido, the protagonist of this poem Prufrock is stuck in an imaginary hell, from which he cannot escape. At least that is the explanation I took away from it.

Not wanting to take up a whole lot of space in this post, am not including the entire poem with a line by line explanation. That is not the aim of this write-up as well.

Eliot basically presents us with a character who is so pre-occupied with doing things the right way – eating, sitting, deciding what to speak, forming relationships with other beings, everything is governed by a sense of procrastination deeply rooted in social anxiety. One of the more relatable aspects of my personality, and most of my close friends would attest to it, is that I am continuously paralyzed by the fear of making wrong choices. This also makes me come off as apologetic in a more-than-normal way.

Consider this,

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

Time to turn back and descend the stair,

With a bald spot in the middle of my hair —

(They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”)

My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,

My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin —

(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)

Do I dare

How often have you had imaginary conversations in your head? How often have you had to rehearse what you say over a call even with a friend you might hold dear? How often have you given up on wearing that dress or getting that haircut that did not seem to have the approval of the society? How often have you felt inadequate while speaking and then resorted to an only-blink-and-smile routine for the remaining portion of a conversation, of a meeting, of an evening?

The set up and thought process have become too familiar an arena for me. Often during conversations when I have intelligent questions to ask, thoughtful comments to contribute, a subtle joke to make, probably an objection to raise – I end up not doing any of it. Thoughts running in my head, in a familiar loop: I am too quiet for this. I do not belong here. There is no way I would be taken seriously here.

The gift of gab and the gift of good ideas have zero co-relation and yet the formidable world of extroverts and social beings make you feel otherwise. A lot of my hesitation in putting thoughts to words rises from the popular bias against the ‘quiet-type’ I have faced since childhood. For no fault of theirs, my parents or my close friends have more often than not, in social settings, ended up apologizing for my shyness. My parents did understand what I lacked in social skills, I more than made up for it with my various other pursuits. As much as they propagated my academic and co-curricular interests, I am sure they did wish for me to be able to open up more for my own sake. The world after all has long passed the ‘Culture of Character’ and has been worshipping the ‘Culture of Personality’ for several decades now. Their apologies always came more from a sense of protection than embarrassment. But you do not expect children to realize these things at that age.

Susan highlights a client’s expression of a similar situation, in her book:

“By the time I was old enough to figure out that I was simply introverted, it was a part of my being, the assumption that there is something inherently wrong with me. I wish I could find that little vestige of doubt and remove it.”

It comes eerily close to how I would define my twenty-five years’ worth of life and relationship with the society.

And then one of the most poignant moments that I identify with, in this poem are when the poet says of his muse:

Would it have been worthwhile,

To have bitten off the matter with a smile,

To have squeezed the universe into a ball

To roll it towards some overwhelming question,

To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—

If one, settling a pillow by her head

             Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.

          That is not it, at all.”

His sense of communication is so thwarted that he manages to dissolve even his imaginary conversations with his muse in the most unsatisfactory or with a heart-breaking end. Again, a closed path that I have been circling for the past many years. A straight up communication is not one of my greater strengths, as has already been established previously. Even before I get into meetings in professional spaces, or gear up for that uncomfortable talk with parents, or plan to decline friends’ various party invitations, I always conjure up the worst possible scenarios in my head – managers upset with work, parents disappointed with my actions or friends deciding they could do just fine without me by their side. The course of conversation and what I assume would be the opposing party’s expectations, often decide my actions. Seldom my verbal opinions are based on what I actually feel. Simple queries become a hurdle in my mind. No matter how long and from how far you jump, you always end up falling right before crossing the obstacle.

A lot of what the society around me as characterized as pillars of success has got to do with how I and the world of introverts or shy people (both are not the same thing necessarily) around me feel. Being constantly told of the charming, exuberant, outspoken personalities that apparently make-or-break the world, boldness, assertiveness (even in the face of ignorance) – sometimes make me question if respect for individual human personalities has reached an all time low?

No longer are you expected to do what you do best, but you’re also expected to know how to sell it. Nothing could be further from truth than this.

An important question Susan asks in her book is ‘How did we go from character to personality, discrediting an entire section of the population, without realizing we had sacrificed something meaningful along the way?’

It has been a long, tiresome journey for me personally to be able to finally appreciate and approve of myself. There may never be a point in the spectrum of my life where I might be able to say that I am a hundred percent my own person now. But I do believe I have crossed some of the bigger mental blocks along the way.

If you are a child reading this column, know that your personality is not a drawback, not something to be ashamed of or get treated for. And if you are a parent or a socially dexterous friend, consider the lifetime implications of your actions and words on your little one, or on your friend whom you love so dearly.

Leaving you with a beautiful thought from Charles Darwin, who was famously solitary for many years of his life.

‘A shy man no doubt dreads the notice of strangers but can hardly be said to be afraid of them. He may be as bold as a hero in battle, and yet have no self-confidence about trifles in the presence of strangers.’

An Affair with Stamps

It was probably sometime in March 2006. Another issue of my favorite magazine at the time, ‘Gokulam’ had just arrived. I thanked the postman as he handed me the issue, ran back into home, packed some snacks in a box, laid out a chair and a table in the garden area and sat down to an uninterrupted reading marathon of stories, personal anecdotes from famous personalities, comic strips, puzzles, science experiments, current affairs – all of which lasted for half a day.

The magazine was the very reason I took up writing in the first place. I used to scan the length and breadth of the magazine to find new spaces to contribute to and would take down notes based on the pattern of write-ups appearing in a particular column. I would then go out of my way to not conform to the same. In my head, I assumed that’d make an editor sit up and take notice. Alas, a lot of what I sent never made it to the magazine. One reason, as my mother pointed out, and rightly so, could be the fact that in an effort to consciously stir away from a pattern, I was not allowing any room for my natural flow of thought to be put to paper.

Most good readers have a knack of making a fair distinction between what portion of a write up is authentic and what is not. And when the scales are tilted heavily in the favor of the latter, it does not help your case much. Some obsessive-compulsive readers might make it to the end of your semi made-up sparkly work, but you can be dead sure of very few returning to read or review your future pieces. I for one, am a reader who holds grudges against magazines and authors that go way back to pre-school. I remember this one time I was reading an issue of DC’s ‘Scooby Doo’ series, where they separate Scooby and Shaggy towards the end of the comic, over the most unsatisfactory plot line. It left me scarred and I spent the better half of the following decade avoiding Scooby comics and changing cartoon channels playing episodes or advertisements of Scooby Doo.

The set up and the screenplay is still so vivid in my mind that I could go on and on about it. I do plan to cover this episode in a detailed write-up one day, but let me not digress from the very reason, I began writing this particular piece. So, while I was on my usual scanning spree across the magazine, I landed on a page that regularly featured snippets of quick food recipes (a page and an activity that I have successfully been able to avoid to this date). A small humble box highlighted in black sat in the bottom right of that page. It was an advertisement by a stamp collector looking to give away a set of ‘100 stamps’ to collectors, philatelists or any other interested party. The advertisement also offered more ambitious readers to choose from an assortment of numerous other stamp categories as an add-on to the existing set of 100. All of ten, my eyes were instantly drawn towards the ‘Walt Disney Cartoons’ catalog. It featured all of the cartoons I held dear at that age. It did not seem like a whole lot of money either and even if it did, I had to absolutely have it.

Without wasting a second, I ran back into home, asked for my mother’s cellphone, and called up my father. I told him about the advertisement and what I wanted. One of the more special qualities of my father is not to deny me access right away to any material. More so when he sees an aspect of education associated with it. He asked me if I knew anything about stamps and the hobby of collecting it as such. I did not but the ego in the child-me hated admitting to it, and so I told him I knew stuff about it. And then I spent the next five minutes giving the most dismal explanations in the history of philately. Dad laughed it off and agreed to get me the set. He wrote a letter, placed an order with the seller and in two weeks’ time I was in possession of my first set of stamps. It was 12th April 2006.

That was also the day I officially became a stamp collector. My father sat me down and gave an exhaustive explanation about the activity. Since its inception in 1840 with the ‘Penny Black’ stamp, how the science of philately became an integral portion of history itself, documenting, preserving, and remembering every significant event of the time since gone by. Over the years, he registered me as a member in various philatelic groups and societies and taught me how to exchange quantity for quality and enlarge my collection. Value of first day covers. How to detach stamps from envelopes by carefully rinsing and drying them. All that I know about this art and its methods is all what my father has taught me.

Australia and Equatorial Guinea were the first countries I built an extensive collection for.

When I started out, I just collected what I liked – stamps that were visually appealing and had a direct story to tell. The first collection I ever built was that of ‘Indian Railways and Locomotives’. More recently, I have been transitioning from merely collecting stamps, to analyzing the more technical aspects, documenting history of the stamps, the denominations they were originally available in, etc. It also helps that most philatelic associations these days, put out brochures with long lost data about old stamps.

These brochures are also issued with first day covers and come with a detailed explanation in both English and Hindi about the cover stamps.

The art of letter writing is an endangered one and with that the world of philately has also taken a nosedive. The very thought of the hobby dying, people seeming to care less and less about the world of stamps, breaks the heart of the child in me that was introduced to this very fulfilling world years ago.

From what I have seen of personal experiences, this hobby has no age. My mother took an active interest in this only a couple of years ago and ever since she has been doing her part to introduce school children to this dying art form. The last one-millionth of the population pursuing this art are the ones on whose shoulder the responsibility to propagate it also rests.

In my efforts to educate the younger section of the population, I have been working on building a blog and a digital library of my personal stamp collection. Given all this and how far, with the help of my parents, I have been able to bring this hobby along, I have been trying actively to track down the person who was the original point of initiation in this chain reaction, the seller who advertised the Walt Disney stamps in the magazine. The only time we communicated with him was in 2006 when he sent us the 100 odd stamps. The letterhead had his address on it and I had it saved. My friends living in the same part of the city as the seller, tried tracking down the address and the person over the last year or two, but to no avail. It would have made me happy to have been able to personally narrate my experience to him and the part he played in my learning.

The detailed catalog of stamps with the seller’s address (blurred) on the top left corner.

In many ways, stamp collecting is like the barroom scene from the original 1977 Star Wars movie — filled with all sorts of exotic creatures from distant reaches. No matter your collecting proclivities, you can always find something odd or unusual in the philatelic universe to peak your particular interest.

– Anonymous

Uncomfortable Yet?

Over the years, I have developed this habit of not surrounding myself with an utter and complete silence for more than five conscious minutes. While working out, I always have music or a podcast session playing in the background. I blast the music to max volume while stepping into shower. Any office work is done with a pair of headsets jammed across my head. Cleaning out my cupboards, my room, doing laundry, carrying out daily errands to the grocery shop, basically ninety five percent of all the activities I carry out on a daily basis are accompanied by some sort of a background noise or music, as you may like to call it. Hell, even bone-chilling winters cannot stop me from having that ceiling fan turned on to a max!

I am a person who defines the very brackets of introversion, covering a whole lot of territory and all possible traits. And therefore, I should be comfortable with silence, right?

Turns out, no.

A quick note here, this whole phenomenon of ‘awkward silence’ particularly during conversations with strangers or lesser known acquaintances has never really bothered me. I have never felt a need to step into a room and advertise my presence and fill up all the silence spots with unnecessary chatter. In fact, some of the best, most insightful conversations I’ve had, are with people who understand how to navigate around the gaps in a conversation while collecting thoughts on how best to respond to a question and get your companion to react to it.

Awkward silence in a social setting is not what I am talking about here though. When I am alone, I cannot bear stillness around me. I find it extremely unsettling. And from what I gather reading various books and research papers on this topic, the fear of silence if more of a learnt behavior, something that cannot be blamed on the recent surge of social media.

When I say learnt behavior I mean your circumstances.  Say, for instance, while growing up it was only Mom, Dad, and myself in the house. We had our noses in books for hours together and never really felt the need to make constant conversations. We also carried out all the household chores with little to no background noise to distract us. So, how I was raised as a child could after all not be a contributing factor in me being uncomfortable with silence.

Another popularly suggested reason, and I agree that this maybe it, is the fact that silence forces us to notice our most innate and immediate thoughts. You are suddenly faced with parts of your personality that are unstructured. I, for one, am not very fond of this side and like to keep in under wraps even from myself. And I am certain this is true for most of the people out there. The fact of the matter is that it is always very difficult to embrace all of your own parts and come to terms with what is it or how is it that you want to lead your ideal life.

So while I am in the shower throwing my own little in-house concerts and singing to literally everything, it’s not because I am paranoid of someone popping out from behind the mirror and attacking me but because silence makes me feel detached from the reality. I don’t feel like a real person when confronted with silence. And you know, you do want to unlearn this, teach yourself to be more comfortable with the quiet.

In a world plagued with Muzak, how do you find a quiet yet assertive way to make a statement? Not necessarily to anyone else but to your own self.

And while we are discussing silence it would be a grave disservice not to mention John Cage, an irreverent experimenter who composed nearly 300 pieces in his 60-year long career. Unchartered sounds were his trademark. Like most artists, Cage had conformed himself to the common definition of music the point of which was to share emotions. He made a life changing encounter with two artists at a time when he himself was in somewhat of a spiritual crisis while going through a divorce with his wife of 10 years.

America’s most unapologetic cerebral artist and the undisputed king of Dada, Marcel Duchamp had a deep impact on Cage. He bought the ‘art is subjective’ ideology to life through his scandalous 1917 sculpture of a urinal. Gita Sarabhai, an Indian heiress studying music in New York connected with Cage and gave him lessons on philosophy and Indian music. She changed the way music was defined, in Cage’s mind. Whereas westerners saw it as a way to share emotions, in India, music had a different purpose.

“To sober and quiet the mind,” she said, “thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences.”

The infamous summer of ’69 saw the most famous and one of the most controversial events in the musical world. Debuting in Woodstock, John Cage performed his most infamous piece 4’33’’. The ‘musical piece’ had three silent movements totaling four minutes and 33 seconds.

The initial public reaction was that of an outrage. The piece did find admirers though, amongst the likes of the greats like Frank Zappa and John Lenon, who termed it as the work of a genius. John Cage’s point here being, we need to embrace surroundings and not severe art from life.

It is about listening to everything while listening to nothing.

This pretty much makes up for the world of silence as well. Forced, intentional sounds of your TV, iPods can only do so much to put you at ease. When you get accustomed to listening and treating and finding beauty in even the vaguest of things, hum of the traffic, ticking of your watch, rustling of leaves, you become truly focused. You can take in the environment in its raw form, become comfortable with your innermost thoughts, let incidental sounds froth to the foreground and finally quiet your mind.

A Hound From Hell? No Longer.

You see that small scary thing in the distance in that picture? That is it. This whole picture had been my view across the street for well over a year, while I was still in college.

I’ll never get over the first encounter we had. There I was, walking back home after a good morning run and then I see this squeaky little monster in the middle of the road where I will have to cross him to get to home. I step back for a minute and think of possible alternative routes, which were none by the way, and so I decide to bravely march on! I could sense the little doggie sizing me up and deciding on its next course of action.

You know that strange wiggling-jelly feeling you get in your legs when you are nervous? I was no longer walking but just wobbling inch by inch while begging God for mercy and offering bribe in the form of coconuts and sweets, just to safely get past the little monster. To any onlooker, I could have been the very embodiment of ‘Mr. Wobbly Man’.

Anyway, back to the monster. So, while I am wobbling across the road, the little guy waits patiently, like a crocodile letting its prey enjoy some final moments on the planet before tearing it to pieces. Now I am about 15 centimetres away from the monster and suddenly my brain starts calculating the distance and height of walls of nearby houses and the speed with which I need to run to get to the nearest wall, in case the monster arrives at a negative decision on my existence.

Ten centimetres away and I lose it all. I take a couple of steps that almost look like I am running and then the horror! The monster decides earth can do without me after all and automatically latches itself onto my leg. It keeps going round and round around my legs while I have an 8 by 10 glossies of my whole life flashing before my eyes. My brilliant mind then decides that now is the right time to pat the monster’s head, probably hoping the affection might make it re-think its opinion of me. Ultimate ‘Thor’ mistake!

Marvel fans, you know what happens next.

The monster goes crazy. And I panic and do the one thing you are advised against when getting chased by a dog. I run. I run like a maniac and quickly jump over one of the walls of a nearby house. The crazy monster scales that wall too! I have absolutely no idea whose house is that, who lives there, nothing at all. I see the monster jumping effortlessly over the wall, like a cat. And to its credit, the wall was of a considerable height. Anyway, realizing the wall was no protection from it, I bang on the front door of the house and meanwhile see my end approaching closer every second. By the time the woman answers the door, the monster has reached me but in an almost reflex action, the woman comes out and kicks the monster gently in the stomach.

It let out a squeal that sounded so much like a baby and then it sat down wagging its tail so hard, could have knocked down a building with it.

The woman bent down and patted the monster and it went crazy. It kept going round and round the woman’s legs and was jumping around happily. I was amazed. When it did the same thing to me few moments ago, I viewed it as aggression and looking at the pair now, I could see the monster was really just being affectionate and was happy if you rubbed its belly, just like your average pet. The woman then looked at me and then the gate that was bolted from the inside. She figured out my desperation that led me to scale the wall and quickly checked me for bruises.

Apparently, the squeaky little monster had moved into the neighborhood, a couple of days back, out of nowhere. And most of the people around were not very nice to it. They kept chasing it away with stones and sticks. In fact, a dog catcher had also been summoned to carry this monster and a couple more street dogs away from the “civilized locality”. The little monster somehow escaped notice. And now five years later, it is a thriving part of our street’s ecosystem. I see children and adults feeding it and playing around with it.

It also has an access to an ‘Assured three-times a day meal’ plan.

The episode did not make me like the monster instantaneously though. No matter how happy it seemed, I always felt like something sinister was going on in its brain. I kept my distance and had a severe case of cynophobia following this incident. My legs would give out at the very sight of a dog. Every time I had to step out of the home to carry out an errand, I would drag my mother along. Over the years, fear slowly gave way to a strange attachment and now every time I step out of the home, I look for the little monster.

I'd like to think I have made my peace with the canine population now.
The doggie is also allowed to take shelter in our compound now.

P.S – For all you non – Noddy watchers out there, this is your time for redemption. Refer to the below link for a hearty episode featuring Mr. Wobbly Man. And then binge-watch the entire series. That should make your weekend, and in general your existence, worthwhile!

A Page from the Plague Episode

Afraid of making a mistake? There are no mistakes in the tango, not like life. It’s simple. That’s what makes the tango so great. If you make a mistake, get all tangled up, just tango on.

– Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman (1992)

This quote is from one of my all-time favorite movies  – ‘Scent of a Woman’. Besides holding a special significance in personal life, this is also in my opinion one of the most inspirational scenes in cinematic history. The message here is as simple as it gets – ‘No matter what happens in life, dust yourself and carry on’.

I am as introvert as a person can get and therefore can endure isolation almost painlessly. Admittedly the last few months have caught up to me though. There have been periods where I have just felt super wiped out and the possibility of this work-from-home cum quarantine routine holding up until the mid of next year or so, has only done its part of bogging me down further.

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly caused its share of psychological ramifications for most people. Even with a fairly regular routine of getting up early, exercising, reading, working and indulging creative aspects during free time, I have had a massive case of procrastination going on for the past couple of days. I have been waking up feeling like “Aah shoot! I’m just going to eat junk and stay in bed and Netflix.” And I realize a whole day has just passed by without me doing any real productive work and the self-loathing cycle starts.

I am not necessarily lazy. In fact, for lack of modesty, I’d say I’m far from being lazy on usual days. I am used to carrying out various activities in a day for my personal and professional gratification. Something has been off though, lately. Say, I woke up today morning and had to literally drag myself from my bedroom to the study, in a feeble attempt to shake myself up and get into a productive mindset. I had loads to do – drafts of blog posts that I had begun but got struck on, a couple of office emails to write, complete an assignment for an online course, a book to finish taking notes from and so on.

I reminded myself of the long list of work to be done for the day and went back to dwelling in sorrow. Sorrow of not being able to get anything done past the basic office work. But after mulling over things for a while, I decided to tackle this the right way. Obviously with previous occurrences of such episodes, I am quite aware by now of what triggers my productivity.

Barring people who work night shifts or have a genuine reason for staying up late into the night, I’d definitely recommend waking up early in the morning to the remaining population. It really does set the tone for the rest of the day.

Let me share some pointers with you on how an average day in my life looks like. This is a routine that I’ve been sticking to for the past say, three years or so, ever since I moved out of my parents’ home to a new city.

And people who know me intimately, are well aware of the fact that once asleep it usually takes a town drill with drums to wake me up. As difficult as it has been to stick to it, I can vouch for the improvements these activities have brought to my life in the form of health and knowledge.

  1. Sleep Hacking

Three-four years ago, while still pursuing my undergraduate degree, I used to hate waking up unless absolutely required. I’d sleep late into the day on weekends and mum had to literally kick me out of the bed to get going to the college. Infinite number of snoozed alarms, numerous cups of coffee and one commute later, I’d reach the college feeling all groggy and struggling to keep pace with the day’s activities. Solution: Wake up for yourself and not for your day at work or college. I started waking up early – to hit the gym, finish that last piece of assignment, catch up on some books or to simply have a meaningful conversation with parents. Make your mornings all about yourself and you’d soon be counting yourself in the ‘morning person camp’.

2. Social Media

I usually take an objective stance towards most issues, but social media is a sore point for me. Over the years I have found certain personality traits of mine that do not qualify me for holding a social media account of any sorts. I can’t maintain an air of indifference to the happenings in my friends’ lives – good or bad. Insecurities regarding my own capabilities or self-worth, and most of all and I can’t stress this enough –  

People struggling with a hyper-productivity syndrome should refrain from being on social platforms – probably not absolutely relieving yourself of it but a controlled usage of relevant media is a thing that is mastered over a period of time.

I was probably on social media for around a year and a half and then went on to disable all my accounts as I was fortunate enough to assess the amount of harm vs the good it was doing to me. And the results weren’t that great. I do maintain a strong presence through LinkedIn though, as the community there has brought me a lot of positivity in terms of career and aspirations. Choose a media of relevance, one that matches your personality and life aspirations and then set a way to going about leveraging it.

I’ve seen my friends and family members spend insane amount of time on social media accounts all through the night and then look for notifications the first thing in the morning. The checking and browsing part quickly spirals into hours and before you know you’ve lost out on the most crucial part of your day. Giving up on social media or at least the amount of time spent on it, might seem like a clip from a horror movie at first. But the results are gratifying and worth replicating.

3. Reading and Listening

I have been a bibliophile all my life so its easy for me to single out this activity as one of my topmost priority before going head on into starting my day. Pick out books that resonate with your life goals and qualities that you seek to imbibe. Read out blogs, listen to podcasts and try writing down your own opinions on matters. Maintain a repository of your thoughts. You’ll be amazed at the new perspectives and outlook you’ll gain as a result of this. You might be a painter, singer, writer, corporate worker – it does not matter. Reading truly does expand the realm of possibilities. So dig into a book the first thing after you wake up.

4. The people you spend the most time with shape who you are

I have learned this the hard way in my life. I have associated myself with friends that have thrown me under the bus when it seemed suitable and I have had friends and mentors, that no matter what have stood by me and set the course of my life.

As Darren Hardy writes in The Compound Effect:

According to research by social psychologist Dr. David McClelland of Harvard, [the people you habitually associate with] determine as much as 95 percent of your success or failure in life.

Actively construct your own social environment. I am not asking for you to forge a fantasy bubble where you lose touch with reality and are only surrounded by yes people. On the contrary, I advocate the presence and necessity of both opposing and pro views in life. You can have a major difference of opinion on issues ranging from twitter wars to politics. But morals cannot be compromised with. I for one, keep tabs on the kind of life-philosophies that I wish to expose myself to and associate with similar people.

Having said all of this, you need to know that hitting the wall once in a while is not bad. You might want to self-isolate, introspect life choices or you’re simply too exhausted carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders.

Embrace this feeling and always be ready with a combat plan if the phase threatens to run into a longer duration.

My one suggestion would be to follow leads that naturally intrigue you, without them having to mean anything in your life.

I am as far from a painter as you can get, but I was always fascinated by art and the methods used to create it. While on the sorrowful spree, I bought a couple of paints, brushes and sheets and started painting. Just for the heck of it! For once, it helped me take a break from getting sucked into the vortex of creating something meaningful.

On a side note, I love making my friends and family watch this scene. Something about Al Pacino’s blind character and the beautiful dance he shares with Gabrielle Anwar’s character is as pure and innocent as it gets.

Including a link to the famous scene, below. Hope it brings as much positivity to your life as it has done to mine on numerous occasions!

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