All’s well with the red pill

Am I happier as an atheist?

A recent conversation made me wonder. If I could go back, would I re-take the red pill? It’s a loaded question—it assumes that my happiness is measurable and that I used to believe. Let’s grant those assumptions. While I don’t remember when I turned towards atheism, or at least skepticism, I’m sure I had faith sometime. I hated religious rituals, but I did talk to god as a child—I don’t know why I spoke to god in English and not Tamil or Hindi—and made deals where my end of the bargain was to give up meat or watch less TV—If god kept records, I had a crappy credit score. I was sure that giving up pleasure was a way of pleasing god. I also remember refraining from some things for fear of divine punishment. So, call it nebulous if you want, I believed.

"You take the blue pill – the story ends,...

If you haven’t watched the Matrix, please do. Seriously, everything else can wait (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Growing up, my room doubled as the prayer room, an antithesis if there ever was one, and had pictures of many Hindu gods. I remember sitting cross-legged before them to pray. But I didn’t feel like the people in those pictures were there for me despite the super-anthropomorphism characteristic to Hindu deities. I would rather defer to abstract divinity than the mythological characters and their entertaining stories. Even when I did believe, I never crystallized in my mind a deity who protected me and cared for my betterment. Perhaps my self-esteem was so low that I was wary of the wrath of god more than I anticipated his bounty, or I naturally feared bad things more than I looked forward to good ones. Either way, the simplistic connection of unhappiness after an external driving force or safety net disappears didn’t apply to me. It probably applies to fewer people than we imagine, and a tinier fraction of them are permanently scared after leaving religion.

Becoming more or less happy after rejecting god might be just a coincidence. People who reject god after deep thought and analysis might turn that microscope inwards and, depending on how their life is going, experience mood changes. If we analyze the question temporally—am I happier now, and is being an atheist simply a coincidence?—I don’t know. It’s possible that my twenties have brought an introspection that is correlated with depression or mental malaise, and that the same introspection couldn’t let me remain an honest believer. I have no way to rule it out or even apply a realistic probability to it.

Why I am an atheist is answered by science. God as a hypothesis is untenable. But while that explains why I don’t believe, it leaves room for future belief—as all evaluations of scientific hypotheses do—and of my liking and respecting god if his existence is proven.

If god wasn’t a totalitarian megalomaniac, I might ignore the scientific evidence in my eagerness to praise and propitiate him. If god didn’t create so much pain, I fear I wouldn’t care that his existence is unlikely, because I’d be lost in all the beauty and the pleasure in the world. In truth, I sometimes wish god was real, so I can have an object for my contempt—because it is unsatisfying to hate abstract concepts like poverty, wretchedness, malice, and—ironic as it is—hatred.

But that doesn’t answer my original question—am I happier as an atheist? I think I am, in a Eudaimonic sense, because accepting that a lot of the world’s injustices are random is the first step to making one’s peace with them.

I’m not shaving until you accept that we came from monkeys

The opposite is true to a lot of people; many feel lonely and abandoned when their brains reject the god hypothesis. Happiness is irrelevant to truth, but not to the discovery of truth. We sometimes choose not to investigate matters where one of the answers might destroy the axioms upon which our lives are balanced. But if truths make you happy as absolutes, because you discovered or learned them, and not only when they confirmed your suspicions or disproved your theories, losing faith is a step out of the blues. It helps to realize that your successes and failings are a product of chance and effort and not divine planning.

As an atheist, am I no longer afraid of death? I fear dying—I don’t want to experience cancer or being crushed under a car or fading away as someone dials up my morphine—but the idea of not existing some day doesn’t steal much of my sleep. I’ve done it before. For most of time, I haven’t existed. In fact, my existence is but an aberration in the time continuum, which has done fine without me.

I won’t miss me when I’m gone.

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy Unbridled blasphemy

The ruthless pardoner

I remember it as clear as day, which is a strange thing to say as the memory itself is of nighttime. It was raining heavily that night. Heavy was how it did: the rain in Mumbai. A bolt of lightning shot through the sky presenting the scene around me like a photographic flash not invented yet. The rumbling had become my background score. The sweet sound of raindrops hitting the surfaces of puddles somehow held its own against seemingly heavier opponents.

I loved watching the angles of the rain drops. Drops so large and forceful, they could dent cars if they tried hard enough all night. They came down in bullying rage, but with a decorum of obliqueness, parallel to each other, yet at odds with everything else: a law unto themselves.

The fourth floor apartment window I patronized overlooked the abandoned garden. Untamed shrubbery and grass amidst the trees were in tireless negotiations with the howling wind. I still remember that bench. The one bench that was close enough to a streetlight. I could see it so clearly. I’d be able to sculpt the mosaic from memory, textured like a face with years of wisdom and character. That bench was probably never cleaned, save for the all-forgiving showers. On rainy nights, it looked like it probably had the day it was created.

I still don’t understand why that mental picture means so much to me. I haven’t seen rain like that much in over four years, about the same time since I looked hard at that bench. I could make some half-baked joke about my crippling laziness, and how a bench would represent my ultimate life-goals, or I could make my readers gag by suggesting that this recurring image is some inspiration to stay firm in unfavorable circumstances, while using the adversity to develop and grow. That most certainly isn’t it.

I remember, as a teenager that my feelings of vulnerability rose whenever it rained. I supposed my subconscious had convinced me that worst case, I’d have to live on the streets, where I’d totally survive, as long as it didn’t rain. Somehow, rain represented adversity, a question to the answer of shelter. I always have enormous respect for my parents’ achievements, but none so clear as when it poured in Bombay.

The ‘feminine’ side?

I write this post for a tag I recently received from blabberblah. I believe IHM set this in motion with her post: My sins against gender stereotypes. We’ve all had stereotyping shoved down our throats. Getting pigeon-holed into whatever is becoming your sex isn’t uncommon. The assumption that certain jobs, skills and interests are meant for a particular gender stinks. As a response, many bloggers are outlining their transgressions of gender barriers.

Before I make my list public, I want to ponder something. A girl having boyish interests is called a tomboy. But people are less charitable to a guy who does something girly. I bet he hears sissy a lot. I don’t need to tell you which one is an acceptable insult. So, female bloggers don’t become the butt of jokes when they congregate to confess an interest in cricket, or declare the number of speeding tickets they’ve received, or know the difference between a carburetor and an accelerator (just an exaggeration!). On the other hand, a guy who confesses to liking chick-flicks or talks about the delicious sambhar he made last night or wears pink is not as well received. This  explains the negative responses from many male bloggers who were tagged. Most of them hid behind, “I can’t think of anything girly that I do.”

Here are some things I do or want to do that can be considered girly:

  1. I like a clean home. That includes a clean kitchen sink that should never be a storehouse for dirty dishes. I have gotten out of my bed at midnight just to vacuum more than once
  2. I like to cook. I like to try out new dishes now and then. (Somehow I have not been able to muster the confidence to invite friends over for a home-cooked meal)
  3. I can hem a pillow cover or the bottom of a trouser. I do take some pride in the fact that the stitches are of equal size and at an equal distance from each other
  4. I have enjoyed playing ‘teacher-teacher’ as a child. I was a bit of a tyrant though
  5. People say that I have very neat handwriting
  6. I don’t make much of an effort to remember roads and don’t have an impeccable sense of direction. I have never hesitated to ask for directions
  7. I almost never let my cellphone run out of power (more and more guys are getting on board with this concept)
  8. I can listen and give emotional counsel to friends. I might make inappropriate jokes as a defense mechanism
  9. In recent times, I have become more sensitive to clothes, sunglasses, spectacle frames and other parts of my appearance that might need enhancement.

Can’t think of any more now. My readers are free to add.

Often called selfishness, individualism gets a bad rap in society. What people don’t understand is that unless one is sure of what one wants and takes steps to get that, one can never be secure enough to do good without it validating their own self-esteem. I have, time and again, championed the cause of individualism and asked people to step out of the molds of religion, caste, language and even nationality. So why not gender? While there are some characteristics found more in men than women, they cannot be used as a tool to pigeon-hole people into pre-styled societal roles.

I am me first. Then a man. Then my parents’ son. Then an Indian. Then a Tamilian…and so on. I urge my readers and fellow bloggers to do what they want to do (as long as they don’t infringe on another person’s exercise of his own rights) and only that. We have only one life. Preset rules of how we should behave belong right where they came from: the past. Sadly, in the past, the people did not have the foundation, the knowledge, the strength and the support to stand alone. We don’t have that excuse.

Here goes: I tag buddy, rambuna, chembelle, swatimala and gradwolf to give some examples of their breaches of the gender barrier.

Eulogy – Part II

(This is the concluding part of a two-part series. Please read Eulogy – Part 1 before you read this.)

He yawned loudly. Somehow he always remembered to cover his mouth when he yawned. Even in private. She had reformed his bohemian ways a long time ago: her eyes large as saucers and an admonishment of ‘be polite’, with her hand gently covering his mouth. He wryly wondered how she expected him to improve such behavior while she doled out such delicious punishments. Nothing like that now. He was still drawing a blank. There was nothing he could think of that was profound enough to be said at a podium, but impersonal enough that it could be shared without causing any embarrassment.

His family had been extremely cooperative and understanding. His wife had stopped scowling at him, and had interrupted him only once to announce that the Fedex package he’d made her track would arrive only on Monday. Damn! The stuff that R had left for him would probably have steam-rollered through his writers’ block.

When I need you, I just close my eyes and I’m with you, and all that I so wanna give you, is only a heartbeat away…

What a freakish Karan Joharesque coincidence that the radio would blare out this song while he was thinking about her! She had sung this song to him once in expression of her love. True romantic that he was he had pointed out how the tune of the song was exactly like tumse milke, aisa laga tumse milke…. Her reply, of course, was less than charitable.

“Idiot! That song is a copy of the English one.”

“Oh! I thought you had composed the lyrics of this one for me, and simply Anu Malik-ed the tune!”

Anyone else at any other time would have assumed that the song was merely being alluded to, but the sheer spontaneity of R coupled with her literary promise allowed no such conclusions. If anything, one was more inclined to believe that she had extemporaneously composed the whole thing.

Again, that moment was too trivial to be shared. Also, no one else would understand what he felt there. Without any warning, his writers’ block dissolved and thoughts words started flowing in his head. He started scribbling furiously like he did during history exams whenever he was afraid that the answer would simply evaporate from his head.

He read and re-read it to make sure it was just the way she would have wanted it, which was an irony in itself. From then on, it was like someone had pressed a fast-forward button; the next moment of coherence he experienced was at the podium, in front of her weeping family, the staid-expressioned extended family, and the various acquaintances to whom this was merely another social call. It was an out-of-body experience as though he could float over the happenings and actually observe the man in the blue suit giving a sweet eulogy.

“The fact that you’re all here in no way means that R meant equally to all of you. In fact, knowing R as I did, I’m sure some of you are here to make sure she’s really gone.” There were small knowing smiles among the family and friends, and looks of pure horror on the acquaintances’ faces.

“R and I were very intimate at one point of time and drifted apart rather cynically. We were never in touch and surprisingly her probate attorney contacted me with her wish that I give this eulogy. This surprised me in two ways. One: I did not think I meant so much to her after all this time, and two: she was an extremely private person who had opened up to me very slowly. The thought that she would want a speech inspired by one of her most intimate life-periods to be made in front of (quite frankly) pure strangers would have been ludicrous to me fifteen years ago. I suppose she changed a lot in these years, but then, you know her more than I do now. What I do know, is what she was then. I would like to talk about something from that space-time.”

Her eleven-year old or so daughter was staring at him at this point with those very eyes…

“Of all the moments we shared, and we shared some great ones as friends and many more as a couple, the unlikeliest choice for this occasion would be the time we parted ways. For some reason, as I thought about what epitomized her personality; this somehow allows me to convey the most while saying the least.

It was a warm night in Manhattan. (Those things come once in a while!) I remember her eyes burning a hole in mine. She had the ability to appear ice-cold while seething and fuming inside. She said, ‘I love you and a part of me always will. This is just not working out. No matter how much we are attracted to each other, and how much we miss each other when away, we can’t seem to allow the other to breathe freely when together. I am unhappy in a quiet desperate way without you, and I am kicking and screaming while crying myself to sleep when I’m with you. There just seems to be no solution here. I love you a lot and want more than anything else for you to be happy. Neither one of us is happy when we’re together, and no matter how much we pretend otherwise, we both know that our relationship is volcanic and tempestuous, sans stability. Now that we’re parting ways, I am going to feel like I made a ridiculous mistake, and that being without you is like slowly choking to death, but this is a feeling I can overcome, and I will move on. I am sure it will be even easier for you.’

She said that and walked away slowly. I knew she would not turn back to look at me even once. The amazing part of this woman was not that her resolve never weakened. It was that she anticipated those moments and took precautionary measures. I just kept watching her leave until she became a humanoid speck on the horizon and then nothingness. Her last words lingered like an eerie echo. ‘…I will move on. It will be even easier for you.’

Friends and well-wishers, as we say goodbye to a truly exceptional human being, all I can say is, ‘She was wrong.’

He climbed down the podium tearfully and walked straight into his wife’s embrace. It was a beautifully conducted funeral.

The next day Fedex brought over the package that should have arrived on Saturday. It contained an old love letter he had given her, and a neatly printed-out letter he had never seen before. Written above the heading, in that scrawl he had loved so much were the words, ‘This is the eulogy I want you to give. It is nice enough, and has nothing personal. I have loved you all these years.’

He laughed through his tears at the control-freak he now missed so much.

THE END

PS: Snafu celebrates its 100th post! I hope to keep writing, and writing more frequently. A warm thanks to all readers.

Eulogy – Part 1

“Sit up straight.” he still heard her voice in his head. R had had a booming voice—feminine, but strong. He chuckled at how she would have responded to this description. Come on, he scolded himself, you’re a writer; this should come naturally to you.

He had fought with his wife early that morning. Twelve years into a marriage, fights and quarrels were commonplace, but this one was weird off the bat. Unlike other fights, in this one, he knew she was right even though he kept fighting with her. The reason was obvious when you thought about it. Everything started the previous evening, around 6 pm.

He winced as soon as he heard someone knock on his door. He had warned his secretary, “No calls!” Well, if she had still let someone through, it had to be important. Damn it! He didn’t want anything important to disturb his Friday evening reverie. “Come in”, he said, hoping his unwelcoming tone would make things obvious to the intruder.

A wiry, bespectacled man entered wearing a hand tailored suit. It was exquisite. The man kept it short. He was a probate lawyer for R. Probate and R in the same sentence could mean only one thing. How did it happen, he asked. Automobile incident was the lawyerly reply. Why could these legal bozos never say simple words like road accident? So, why was this attorney here? Well, R had left him some special things and a dying request. “What things, and what request?” he asked and immediately regretted the order of his questions.

The lawyer responded that the items were in a box which would be Fedexed to him the next day. She requested that he give her eulogy. This Sunday? Yes. In two days. Shouldn’t be too hard for a writer. The lawyer left with as much discreetness as he had entered.

The sun came blazing through the open window and drenched his table in golden luminescence. He was doing that circling thing with his pen again. An observant friend in school had pointed out that he moved his pen in circles only when pondering something about rotation or uniform circular motion.

He strained his eyes to concentrate. He was sitting with a pen and paper for an hour now, with no words yet. The only words he had come up with were, “words cannot describe the impression she made on my life.” She was an ex, but more than that. He had been in three relationships before his marriage, each one with their own versions of pain. This one was strange. There was a didactic tone to this one. She taught him: something the others had not done. This was without doubt the most educational relationship he had been in. He could not say that: how was anyone to understand what that even meant? He could not even explain to his wife the importance that another woman held in his life. Understandably, she had pouted for about two hours before ‘allowing’ him to give the eulogy.

He remembered that evening in Manhattan. He hated walking in TriBeCa but she dragged him as always.  She had a keen eye, and spotted what looked like a presidential dollar coin on the sidewalk. As she tried to pick it up, there was a scream of April fool! as she realized that the coin was stuck to the ground. He laughed spontaneously and she did too, but as the joke grew on her, a tear started to roll down her eye. He realized that a reprimand was coming. She was the one person he knew who could combine maturity and  petulance into one mood. As he pacified her, he realized that this high-maintenance female was exactly what he wanted and she made him happy. He couldn’t write about this either. Too trivial an incident and no way someone else would see the meaning in it.

What to do then? He sipped his coffee and closed his eyes. Maybe a nap would do him good. The evening might be better. After all most of his best works were a product of a tearing hurry caused by an impending deadline, and the more desperation the better.

Eulogy Part 2

Deconstructing heroes

As a naïve schoolboy often doused & immersed in polar concepts like good and evil, black and white, day and night, I was used to viewing things in extremes. It is, of course, an easier way to teach people at the developmental stage, to show every concept or idea in terms of its upper and lower limits. Some would argue that some issues need to be examined at the extremes of their ambits in order to understand their impacts fully.

Once, during a Hindi movie, where the villain happened to be the father of the leading lady (big surprise), I failed to understand why he would care to save his daughter when he was, after all, a villain. My tiny brain thought, “As this man kills without compunction, he is evil and that’s that. After all, if he were to care about his daughter’s well-being, shouldn’t he empathize with the other people whose sons and daughters he indiscriminately harmed?”

People who are determined to like me read that as precocious empathy, while naysayers would chide me for my naiveté. I would agree with both. Mind you, I was six years old then.

As I am older, I often contemplate the role and structure of a true hero. Bill Maher says that heroes distinguish themselves by willfully putting themselves in harm’s way. I agree. So what exists in the fabric of a person that confers upon him such ultimate altruism and selfishness?

Panderers would be quick to say that these are the chosen ones and they are really gifted; and we must all emulate them.

When you stop to think about a society filled with heroes, the utopian desire to have a firmament of altruism disappears. When you really think about various motivators which help determine (or even predict) behavior, the one that beats all else is self-preservation and self-interest.

It is probably the lynchpin of the theory of evolution which is all about adaptation to various conditions. It is understandable, therefore, that people around us will act on their self-interest more than anything else.

Let us go back to the fundamental gene or elemental particle that makes a hero a hero.

It would be simplistic, and quite simply demeaning, to characterize such people as self-loathing or self-destructive. There is more to this.

Now, most people are not perennial heroes; there is more likelihood of an ordinary person stepping up and doing something heroic. So, most lives are characterized by long periods of self help and preservation peppered by moments of altruism.

Our eyes now move towards understanding the more elusive ‘small heroic moments’. News archives are replete with people trying to describe what went through them during that moment. There is hardly anything going on in the mind as to whether to do that heroic deed or not. That part is so much more instinctive. A person sees a situation, and does what he can to correct it, within reason. A hero almost discards reason to save another life or a cause.

All this rambling is leading nowhere. Perhaps this post serves only the purpose of making people reflect on those moments where they have seen or done something that can be agreed upon as heroic. I do salute heroic deeds, but I also know that while they are few and far between, there is something in the totality of evolution that has a spot for heroism and probably even explains it fully. We need to look hard enough; it is waiting to be found, patiently, like all other explanations.

Isn’t it funny…

  1. Having a conversation with someone that neither of you wanna have but are continuing for the sake of politeness
  2. Anyone who knows more than you is a bookworm, and anyone who knows less than you is a fool
  3. You have a conversation with a pretty girl for over ten minutes before you discover the spinach stuck to your teeth
  4. As my friend ‘buddy’ says…your bladder will overfill except when you need a urine sample
  5. We complain that we cannot keep in touch because we are busy, and we spend most of our time complaining that we are bored
  6. There are some programs on tv that are so bad that they make you beg for commercials
  7. Just when you describe someone as an excellent player of the short ball, he makes a gangulyesque mistake
  8. You look at your watch, and then need to look again one second later!
  9. The day you actually wake up to your alarm is the day you had an amazing dream involving a celluloid beauty

What goes around…

He could not help but smile. Eight years of marriage had not worn out her body even a bit. She was as beautiful and heavenly as she was on the day he saw her. Lying on the bed in her favorite fetal position, sleeping peacefully, she looked like the angel who could deliver him from the depths of hell. He stared at her as he always did. Everything in the world could be put on hold for the moments during which he looked at her. He was grateful for this mesmerizing quality of her visage that gave him some respite from harsh realities. He always thought he kept his secrets from her to protect her, and to an extent it was right, but the truth was that it was ultimately to protect his sanity. He wanted a part of his life sequestered from the horror that captured most of his life. Just so he could have this fleeting moments of peace, of innocence when he stared at her, sleeping away a tired day with a contented smile on her lips.

It had been years since he slept like that. Now, insomnia gripped him tightly every night, and the only sleep he got was collapse due to complete exhaustion. The very few moments of unconscious relaxation that were bequeathed to him were also plagued with nightmares of his deeds. The double-entry system, he recalled his accounting professor mentioning. The system where every event had checks and balances, and that nothing could go without cross-checking. Every phenomenon had an effect which in turn became a cause for another effect. Nothing went without being recorded and re-recorded.

He had thought it was going to be fine. After all, he had graduated from the Academy with honors in both academic and physical tests. He was trained in eighteen languages where he could be fluent along with some accents which he could apply or not based on his proclivities. He was proficient with almost any vehicle, and could handle any weapon as though he was born to. The one thing that most people struggled with the most, was looking into a person’s eyes and killing him without provocation. Not for self-defense, not to protect others, but simply because it was needed, either to maintain the smooth flow of an operation, or to prevent his cover from being blown.

Somehow, he could isolate the graphic horror of what he was doing from the gentle person he was. When he looked at his wife, whether across the candles on a dinner table at an expensive restaurant, or at her peaceful best lying on the bed, he could feel nothing but love and tenderness. She would never know what he was capable of. He was an electronics salesman as far as she knew.

He could remember shades of his fifteen year service as large blurs. Panama city, Marseilles, Unter den Linden, Trivandrum, St. Petersburg, Bogota…so many people, so much trouble. They were all the same no matter what nationality or race they were. They all screamed when he was about to pull the trigger albeit in different languages. They all bled the same way. He was supposedly a soldier for his country, a spy, a covert operative who was given orders and knew better than to question them.

He thought of himself as a patriot, but he knew the short term implications of what he was doing. It was all being recorded somewhere waiting to be balanced. The double entry system never fails. It had come back to hurt him now. Agents were being dispatched at the behest of someone high up. He had deployed agents like these many times. He knew that this was standard procedure when an agent turned rogue. All he had done was refuse to murder a four year old child out of a sympathy that he no longer thought himself capable of. That child had lived to identify him out of a set of pictures, and now he was not only expendable, but expediently so. They were coming for him.

He looked at his wife one more time, whispered his ‘I love you’ in her ear, and then stepped back. He turned away from her as he pulled the trigger. By the time she woke up she would find him on the floor. He hoped she would not scream too loudly.