A walk in the woods

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The largest Redwood to fall in the park. Click to see the labels on the rings

The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.

-John Steinbeck (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

That’s how I felt as a friend and I walked on the trail at a state park we drove up to. It was a moment of peace with the cool air of the forest, air so fresh you can smell it, and a silence as comforting as a fuzzy blanket. Despite the mountain lion warnings, when you’re surrounded by 1,500 year old trees, you feel safe. Just as the city seems to magnify most problems, a walk with nature seems to shrink things into perspective.

The trees have seen it all. Seen us all. All of us human beings – tiny, impetuous, presumptuous, self-aggrandizing, afraid, lonely, and cynical. Surrounded by trees that are centuries old you finally whisper aloud some thoughts that you have been carrying around in your head long enough to be a burden. These thoughts have been festering, multiplying, feeding on each other. It’s ok, the trees will say. You are not the first to have these thoughts nor will you be the last. You are just another random point of chaos in a world that you have no control over. Do as we do, the trees say. Set down roots and fight your battles alone.

But suppose, just suppose, you are not alone. Just suppose you walk down the same path not in companionable silence but in conversation. Suppose you forget for a moment everything in the past that’s made you cynical and closed and you say say out loud what you’ve been carrying around in your head. Suppose, surrounded by the trees that have witnessed countless friendships over their millennia of existence you feel reassured?

We are not trees (or ents). Our lives are short and moments of happiness are shorter still. We sensitive folks who live in our heads tend to forget that. Each of us at some point has been so deeply hurt that we chose to cut ourselves off from reality and live in our own cocoon instead. It’s perfectly understandable*.

For most of my life I’ve been told that my sensitivity is a my weakness and that is partially the truth. Look how I’m hurt even when no hurt was intended! See how I sense what you want to say before you say it! Behold how I detect the minutest ripples in The Force! My sensitivity can even detect gravitational waves**! Sometimes it’s nice to meet a fellow gravitational wave detector***. We all just need to hang out with our own kind sometimes, don’t we?

It can be quite a party when two sensitive introverts spend a day together. We open our conversation with a discussion of Trump’s racism versus the popular media narrative of caste in India. He explains how self-driving cars are proven to be impossible. We talk about the carefully constructed class profiles in Business Schools. When we walk on the trail we look up at the redwoods and discuss the rainfall patterns in temperate and tropical forests and how it influences the size of the tree canopy. He talks about forest fires and the cycles of nature. I talk about Krishnamacharya’s school of yoga. This is our idea of small talk.

As we reach an incline, I am compelled to point out that he walks like a giant. I need to take three steps for every two he takes just to keep up. I make him stop and measure. Of course we measure. We are nothing if not precise. We have a brief discussion comparing his stride with The Hero’s. The Hero is taller than the friend. How am I able to keep up with The Hero but not with the friend? We conclude it’s because he’s never adjusted his stride for anyone else. This leads us deeper into the woods – both literally and metaphorically. Why is he still single? Why is he working insane hours? More importantly, is he happy?

It is left as an exercise to the reader to imagine the conversation that follows. I cannot give out any details without compromising on the privacy of a person who spoofs his IP address to keep Google from tracking him. There are brief moments of lightness – a girl on the trail compliments him on the sound his shoes make, he chases after the model steam train (his giant stride coming handy) to take pictures of it for Chotu. But for most part the tone has shifted.

We’re in borderline therapy territory now. Each of us playing Devil’s Advocate, therapist, sympathetic confidant, and rational analyst for the other. We can observe at the patterns in our own lives, talk about the people closest to us, reveal our darkest moments and yet be so detached and clinical. In the company of someone so similar, I will not shed the tears that come so easily otherwise (I might have cried watching Zootopia on my flight). They’re not needed because we are so methodical, so brutal, so thorough, and so analytical. Dissecting emotions is the only way we know of to deal with things that overwhelm us.

Then suddenly, we have enough. Dig deep enough anywhere, he says, and you will find water. I agree. We are both masters of the art of knowing just how far to dig and how deep to probe. We’ve learned well in our twenties. There’s an unspoken agreement then to veer back into the “real” world.

We leave the cafe where we have spent half an hour eating eating and three hours talking. On the way back to his car I stop to look at some shoes on sale. Dr Giant Steps takes a while to notice I’m not keeping up. He looks back in disapproval. “Those shoes are $15, they’re not even worth stopping to look at”, he says. I jog behind him and meekly agree.

We ease back into light banter, or our version of it anyway. I figure he’s had enough of me. I’m an introvert, I know we both need some down time to recharge. But a true gentleman, he sees things through to their logical conclusion. He takes me on the promised drive around Silicon Valley (something we planned to do when he picked me up in the morning). I expect him to take me back after we’ve seen the highlights but he takes me shopping for food. He remembers my complaint about how hard it is to find good food without a car. We first go to an Indian store and then, sensing my reluctance to eat Indian food here, he drives me to his favorite bakery where he selects some very nice things for me to take back. He’s still not done. As he drops be back off at my hotel. he offers to take me out to dinner any time I need to go out.

That defines the way sensitives approach a human connection. We see everything through to the very end. Down to the last shred of energy we have to give – even to someone we don’t really need to. Dr Giant Steps is actually The Hero’s friend but I couldn’t help but get involved in his problems and he in mine (albeit his being more serious and mine mostly revolving around boredom and food). Given he’s so much more introverted than I am, he’s probably exceeded his weekly or even monthly quota  for socializing. But he’s still willing to take me out to dinner if I need it. Why? No real reason except that’s who he is.

If I did not have a similar temperament, I would not know that he needs his week of peace and solitude to recharge. An extrovert would feel sorry for the workaholic who lives all alone and ask him out to dinner every night. “My treat!”, the extrovert would exclaim. An extrovert would feel sorry for me, all alone in my hotel room, and try to keep me occupied every single evening. It just wouldn’t occur to either him or me to refuse. We wouldn’t want to do it, but we would go anyway. At least I would. The extroverts mean well, they don’t intend to hurt us but we get hurt anyway.

This is the reason sensitive people try to stay guarded with their emotions. We don’t know how to do things half way emotionally. We’re either all in or all out. You give us a little, we give you back a hundred times more. We see someone who needs help, we go all in. We’re the kind of people who obsess over other people’s problems. We are, in short, perfect suckers. We attract people who love to take advantage of us. As a result, we can either be detached, cold, and cynical and go against every instinct we possess. Or we can learn to deal with the constant heartache that comes with being a sensitive. Either a redwood or a banyan. With all the sensitive people I’ve encountered in my life, there’s rarely been an in-between.

As Dr GIant Steps perfectly puts it – you live by the sword, you die by the sword. Your biggest strength is also your greatest weakness.


* Let me throw in some numbers for perspective. Introverts account for about 30% of the population although estimates range between 16-50% with the Myers Briggs scale evenly dividing people into E’s and I’s. The population of sensitives (Highly Sensitive Persons or High Reactives) is estimated to be about 20%. About 70% of all sensitives are introverts but that still makes highly sensitive introverts quite a minority in the overall population. This is one of the reasons sensitivity, as I prefer it reactivity, is not well understood.

** That is a lie.

*** He cannot detect gravitational waves either

Why marital rape isn’t rape in India

Disclaimer: The angrier I get, the more sarcastic I become. Also, my husband-master has read and sanctioned this post.


We have a fine tradition of honouring women in India. It all started the day Lord Bramha decided to marry Saraswati against her wishes and set the precedent of not bothering to find out what a woman really wants. As time passed, the Vedas gave way to the Upanishads, the Upanishads to the Puranas, and the Puranas to the Epics. The Sanskrit originals gave way to Victorian adaptations and these adaptations are, in fact, the basis of our current understanding of our fine traditions. They teach us, as M L Sharma so wisely and succinctly summarizes, that there is no room for women in Indian Culture.

Sharmaji is hardly the voice of moderate India, though. He just represents an animal rapist and gets featured in documentaries made by foreigners out to defame our country because they’re obviously threatened by our emerging superpower status. No, to understand the value of women in India, we need to look to our seminal work of law – The Manusmriti:

Day and night woman must be kept in dependence by the males (of) their (families), and, if they attach themselves to sensual enjoyments, they must be kept under one’s control.

Among other gems from this divine code of conduct we have:

Men may be lacking virtue, be sexual perverts, immoral and devoid of any good qualities, and yet women must constantly worship and serve their husbands.

As we know, the Manusmriti is the word of God. Who are we to argue with the word of God? Have you ever noticed that no matter where God chooses to manifest himself, the God who lays down the law and the follower who faithfully records are always male. If this is not irrefutable proof that these teachings are correct then what is?

Unfortunately, many do not give due respect to the word of God. In such a case, one of our earliest compilations of human-made laws, the Arthashastra makes sure to include women in its list of property right along with cattle. Women do have some rights, to be sure, but only a woman who has borne her husband sons has the right to refuse intercourse. She may not conceal her fertile period from him and he is obliged to approach her during this time.

For those who learn through example, the Mahabharata is full of role models:

  1. Bhishma abducts the three sisters of Kashi to make them marry his brother. Their consent does not matter.
  2. Amba, who loves another, is forsaken by her love as well as by her abductor. She cannot find peace and so commits suicide.
  3. Vyasa rapes Vichitravirya’s wives with his mother’s (their mother-in-law’s) blessing to father Dhritarashtra and Pandu. Dhritarashtra is born blind because his mother closed her eyes out of fear. Pandu is born pale because his mother turned pale with fright.
  4. Vidura was born not exactly out of rape, but from a lower caste woman for Ambika sent her maid to Vyasa instead of giving herself to him again. The maid was supposedly fearless thereby showing that the woman is solely responsible for birth defects
  5. The Pandavas themselves are not biological sons of their father but they are considered the Pandavas because Pandu was the master of Kunti
  6. Draupadi is married to five men against her will because it was willed so

The examples above prove that rape is not a matter of a woman’s consent. Rape is actually the act of sex happening without the woman’s owner’s consent (father/brother/husband). To test your understanding, take this little quiz and find out where you stand. No cheating!

Scenario:

Imagine a man just had sex with a woman and the woman kept screaming her refusal (the b*tch!). As a self-appointed guardian of Indian Culture, what is the appropriate response if…

Questions:

  1. The man is married to the woman
  2. The man is not her husband but the woman did not display her mangalsutra
  3. The woman was not wearing salwar-full sleeved kameez-dupatta
  4. The woman was working in a night shift
  5. The man is the woman’s boyfriend and has promised to marry her
  6. This man his not her boyfriend but the woman once had a boyfriend
  7. The woman is single, never had a boyfriend and lives alone
  8. The woman refused the man’s advanced despite him repeatedly stalking her and proposing marriage
  9. The woman is a four year old who was playing outside her house
  10. The woman is a prostitute and the man attempted something she did not agree to/he did not specify up front

Bonus question unrelated to the scenario: The woman is not married to the man but agreed to have sex and enjoyed it.

Answers:

  1. Not rape. Woman needs to be taught her duties as a wife
  2. Not rape. Women who are married should not be brazen. Her husband has suffered a loss
  3. Not rape. Women who dress provocatively must know that they will be taught a lesson
  4. Not rape. Women should know their limits
  5. Not rape. That is why you should not have a boyfriend
  6. Not rape if it’s a dented and painted woman
  7. Not rape. Leave valuables unguarded and expect no thieves to come in?
  8. Not rape. What does she think of herself? Does she think she’s too good for him?
  9. Yes but it’s the mother’s fault.
  10. Huh? Had ho gayee…

Bonus answer: This is rape.

Your Score:

0-3: Victim of Evil Western Influence. You don’t understand that rapes happen only in India, never in Bharat.
4-6: Read learn more Indian Values but don’t lose heart. You’ll surely improve!
7-11: Any Uncleji will proudly give you 1 crore cash, a lambi car, flat-screen tv, ten cows, and his daughter in marriage. You’re a woman? Well done! You truly understand your roles and responsibilities.

Now that you have been duly educated about what is and isn’t rape, please stop petitioning for ridiculous things that undermine the sacrosanct institution of marriage. Leave your MP’s alone!


* The origins of this story are obviously controversial to Hindu apologists today as is the aspect of incest. Some even go as far as to argue that it’s evil propaganda against Hinduism but one version of the story certainly exists where Bramha overpowered Saraswati in order to marry her.

Of research(ers)

We all agree that we want better gadgets, more money all around, supercomputers that can decipher the meaning of 42, missiles that can target hostile neighbours, a cure for cancer, quick reversal of hair loss*, and cold fusion.  Do we, however, ever wonder how these things will actually happen? “Duh! Companies should fund research!”, some say. “Our educational system is failing us”, others say. “Our IITs are useless”, we all agree**. Setting aside for a moment the question of what enables research, have we even spared a moment for who is actually doing the research?

Research is, essentially, a very vague and thankless job.

Source: Phd Comics 1724
Source: Phd Comics 1724

A researcher needs to be really passionate about their field in order to stay motivated. The actual subject itself doesn’t matter. It could be the nature of reality, the importance of blank verse in 18th century poetry, the very building blocks of life, the speed at which porn travels over the internet – what drives progress is the drive (sometimes bordering on obsession, if we are to be honest) to discover something new.

Source: Phd Comics 1195
Source: Phd Comics 1195

Since it’s never clear whether the question itself is valid, let alone whether it’s possible to find an answer, research can only happen an environment specifically designed to encourage risk and pursue knowledge without the need for immediate returns. Do we enable this in our country?

A typical aspiring researcher in our country first fights to enter the field of his/her choice. For example, for a woman anything that involves climbing a stool is out because she might get pregnant one day and be a hazard to herself and everyone else in the lab and she will be excluded in interviews even if she ever makes it out of her house. For a man, anything that doesn’t involve making instant money is out because he needs to support a family one day. That leaves the arts for women and everything but the arts for men, right? Something like that***.

Once a person does find the field they’re passionate about, they need to find the support to make their way through about 10 years of specialized education. So a woman tries to find an advisor who will take her on as a student despite the perceived risk of her getting married halfway through and getting more interested in popping out babies than in her research. A man tries to convince his family that choosing research instead of making oodles of money in the financial/consulting sector is not proof of insanity.

Source: Phd Comics 995
Source: Phd Comics 995

Having fought their battles, these men and women get degrees from the IITs and the MITs of the world and decide to pursue a career in their home country. What do they find? They find their options are:

  1. Work for the Indian branches of the large MNC’s for lower pay than they would get in the headquarters.
  2. Work in a university in India, hopefully an IIT

I have no statistics to back me up but I’m willing to bet that the number of potential researchers from our pool of bright and passionate people who actually end up even considering teaching in an IIT each year is countable by a toddler. What do we do with these people when they stray into our path? We:

  1. Pay them a pittance
  2. Make them jump through hoops to travel to one international conference a year where even graduate students abroad travel several times a year on grant money
  3. Either provide crumbling housing in the middle of expensive cities and a tiny HRA (anyone looked up rents in Powai/Hiranandani area recently? I thought not) or locate our IITs in the middle of nowhere where spouses cannot find jobs (all in favour of moving to Kharagpur****?)
  4. Have frequent news hour debates about what the IITs are doing in the first place let alone what they’re doing wrong
  5. Share idiotic memes that question what IITans do for the country and how many have ever joined the army (maybe none but how many design the missiles and satellites that the army uses?)
  6. Support budgets that cut funds for Science and Technology and provide tax breaks to MNC’s who do nothing to fund research
Source: Phd COmics 1559
Source: Phd COmics 1559

Net result? Innovation happens despite our best efforts not because of it. I thought we were supposed to be a culture that values education. We pride ourselves on being a society where the studious ones are role models not social outcasts. We like to boast that we revere our institutes of learning as we do our temples. Well, at least that part’s true. We do with our institutes exactly what we do with our temples – worship from afar and let the gopurams collapse. No wonder we feel the need to make absurd claims about the past instead of looking to the future. Flying chariots, anyone?


* And a way to immediately get rid of belly fat

** Of course, we are all agreed that our sons absolutely must get B.Techs from there

*** More subtle distinctions do exist: Anthropology and field work are unsuited for women. Men should avoid those weird fields where industry doesn’t offer consulting assignments

**** A fine town of course, but not exactly a major employment hub for those not employed by the Indian Railways or IIT Kharagpur