Democratic Condescension

Recently, I came across an interesting term WEIRD- it is an acronym for western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. The term was used by the psychologist Joseph Heinrich and his associates. Their contention was that it is this small group of statistical outliers that provide us with both the producers and subjects of our contemporary psychological knowledge, which we then go on to happily generalise to the rest of humankind.

Heinrich’s proposition made intuitive sense to me but more importantly, I was struck by the incongruence inherent in the notion of WEIRD- on one hand, it suggests a kind of elitist exclusivity ( western, rich, educated) and on the other an egalitarian inclusivity of democracy. What would be the notion of democracy that such a group will have? A possible answer is suggested by the way election results are analysed by most political commentators, who presumably belong to the WEIRD group.

Elections come and go and each one brings its own set of surprises, but one thing which remains fairly consistent is the reaction of political commentators. If the results are aligned to their preference, then the electorate is commended for its wisdom, and if they are not, then the voter is regarded as a naive recipient of misinformation, false promises or other manipulations. One some times gets the impression that the voter is like a student who is being tested and the commentator is the teacher who is evaluating the performance of the student. If the student has given the right answer then he/she receives a pat on the back for having acted wisely, but if the student gives the wrong answer then the teacher admonishes him/her for having got misled and/or being guided by baser instincts.

For example, if the commentator is a Congress supporter then a congress victory will be interpreted as the intrinsic commitment of the electorate to secular,liberal, pluralistic values; but a congress critic will attribute it to the grip of the feudalistic mai-baap syndrome prevalent in the collectivity. Similarly a BJP supporter will interpret a BJP victory as the voter’s commitment to nationalism and development, but a BJP critic will reprimand the voters for having fallen prey to jingoism and divisive communal polarisation.

Thus the content of what the voter is praised or reprimanded for, will vary depending upon the analyst’s preferences, but the process is identical. Virtually all analysts will either praise the voters for their sagacity and wisdom or subtly reprimand them for allowing themselves to be misled. Needless to say, the praises are more direct and upfront, and the reprimands more subtle and indirect and sometimes even cloaked in the garb of understanding (e.g. people are so frustrated,uninformed and neglected that they become easy targets for false propaganda) Simply put, the WEIRD (in this case, the political analyst) puts him/herself on a platform from where he/she passes judgements on the commoner. The WEIRD is democratic but in a condescending sort of way.

This democratic condescension is visible in virtually all spheres of life. Whenever our personal preferences are at variance with the popular, majority trend, we are likely to feel disdainful towards the majority. In fact, the term populist has a definite derogatory association- as though popular appeal necessarily implies pandering to the baser instincts. This disdain for the majority is often expressed through statements like “you know how people are ..” or ” how can people be /do like this.. “If one were to do a simple experiment of collating all the statements one hears about “human nature” or “people in general”, chances are that the derogatory statements will beat the complimentary ones by a huge distance.

I do not have any substantive evidence to support my hypothesis, but I believe that WEIRDs are particularly susceptible to this condescension towards the majority. I say this, because I think WEIRDs are hyper conscious of their separateness and individualised identity. Consequently, it becomes extremely difficult for them to see themselves as a part of the collective. In contrast, the non-WEIRDs find it easier to see themselves as “one of the many” in a community. Not surprisingly, it is relatively easier to mobilise non-WEIRDS into a collective/political force than WEIRDS. The WEIRDS can voice the concerns of a community and even act on its behalf, but it is not easy for them to become a part of the community.

Given the historical split between the elite and the commoner in India, the issue becomes even more complex. However, the recent events suggest that even in the so called “developed” world, there is a huge disconnect between the WEIRD and the majority. I suspect that while the issue has a socio-economic dimension, it also has a psychological dimension. In case of WEIRDs, the “self-image” of the individual is so heavily governed by a certain idea of being progressive and liberal, that it does not allow any space for aspects which do not fit into it. For example, it is very difficult for a WEIRD to acknowledge any religious/racial paranoia,  gender stereotypes or interpersonal dependencies in him/herself. In contrast, the non-WEIRD has no such problem. He/she is often willing to be quite blasé about them, much to the discomfiture of the WEIRD. In fact, the more flak that he/she receives around these issues that more defiant he/she becomes.

In this scenario, it is easy for the WEIRD to take up the role of some sort of moral guardian of a progressive/liberal perspective and look at the majority as vulnerable children who must be protected from the potential regressive influences of vested interests. This only leads to further alienation of the WEIRDs from the majority. If this vicious circle is to be broken, then the WEIRDs will necessary have to step out of their present frozen notions, acknowledge their own vulnerabilities and anxieties and most importantly learn to grace their part hood and ordinariness.















There is a Donald Trump in all of us

This post is not about Donald Trump the person, but about Donald Trump the symbol. Human beings are complex and multi-faceted, but symbols are stereotypical, monochromatic and uni-dimensional. When an individual becomes a symbol, this monolithic picture becomes so overpowering that even the individual concerned becomes its captive. His/her own multiplicity gets lost in this all embracing picture. In such a situation, it is reasonable to assume that the individual is carrying this picture “on behalf of” the collective. In other words, it is the collective’s difficulty in engaging with a certain part of its own psyche which is carried by the person who gets symbolised.

Let us first look at the nature of this symbol in case of Donald Trump and then examine why it is becoming problematic in the present day world. For many people, Donald Trump has come to symbolise all that is antithetical to our notions of civilised decent behaviour. He is seen as a crude, domineering, intolerant, opinionated, self-centred creature with insatiable appetites and one who  generates considerable repulsion and disgust in us. However, there must be something attractive about his raw energy and indomitable spirit which has propelled so many people to place him in arguably the most powerful position in the world. In fact,It has often been suggested that it is his “bull in the china shop” image which has made the electorate prefer him over the more sober, suave, articulate and reasonable Clinton, who would merely preserve the status-quo. In many ways, one can see the presidential election as a contest between our primal and civilised selves.

There is a part in each of us which neither listens to the voice of reason, nor easily submits to social and moral conventions. It carries the seeds of both our heroic potential and our destructive villainy. Through the process of socialisation we learn to tame and control this part, but rarely do we learn how to integrate it with the rest of us and how to actualise its heroic potential. In my book, Child Man, I had speculated that the prevalent conditions of human existence are such that this part of ourselves is being simultaneously awakened and suppressed. The end result is that we encounter only its negative side and hence push it  into our psycho-social underbelly.

Through Donald Trump, our primal and primitive side seems to have moved out of the dungeons and occupied the centre stage. Sadly, what we are seeing is only the negative and ugly side of this primal self. I believe this is so because we have never graced our primal self and only scoffed at it in the name of being mature and civilised. Take for example, our notion of being a “global citizen”. It is primarily based on the notion of a liberal, inclusive, broad minded, secular individual who is primarily governed by what Ayn Rand would call “enlightened self interest”. Any thing which does not fit into this is dismissed as narrow, communal, parochial, reactionary and host of such invectives.

The question which needs to be asked is, what are we doing with those parts of ourselves which do not fit into this pretty but sanitised picture? Where does the anxiety of living in a world with increasingly fluid boundaries go? What happens to our need to feel protected in a safe haven? What happens to our need to belong to a community of familiar people who are not just faceless/nameless entities? It is sometimes assumed that these needs belong only to the relatively backward and lower/middle strata of the society. It is further assumed that people like Donald Trump are able to manipulate the “masses” by pandering to these sentiments. Perhaps the reality is more complex than that. Perhaps the elite are able to take care of their “clannish” needs as also anxieties  in a more subtle manner and are hence able to maintain the facade of being open and liberal. It is for this reason that people like Clinton come through as pretty but fake, which in turn leaves the space open for likes of Donald Trump to take the counter location of being ugly but real.

Perhaps both  Clinton and Trump are products of this split between “pretty but fake” and “ugly but real”. It is not that Trump is any more real and authentic than Clinton, but it is the certainty of Clinton’s falsity that enables Trump to claim authenticity for himself. Similarly it is the certainty of Trump’s ugliness which entitles Clinton to claim the tag of being nice and pretty.

If this split is to be healed, we will need to revisit some of our notions around being backward and progressive. So long as we hold certain aspects of being human (e.g. need for community) with disdain, we will continue to awaken and simultaneously suppress Donald Trump within us both individually and collectively. Sometimes he will break free from the chains which shackle  him and ruthlessly destroy everything which comes in his way and leave us wondering as to how could we have let this happen.

The healing of this split will also entail rediscovering the virtues of  the “householder” whose reach is bounded, whose vision is limited, whose concerns are petty and who is content in his small world pursuing his small wishes, desires and dreams. The more we look down upon the ordinary and the mundane, the more we will be engulfed by the megalomania of the grandiose . Not knowing what to do with the energy which has got unleashed within us, we will then look for an external symbol like Donald Trump to act on our behalf.




Religion Vs. Religiosity

Some time back, a friend had asked me whether I considered myself a religious person. In my younger days I would have responded with a clear and emphatic No. Today, I am not so sure.  In a conventional sense, I still don’t regard myself as religious. However, it is equally true that places of worship (gurudwaras, temples, dargahs, churches mosques etc.) fill me with a sense of serenity and some of my most favourite songs have a distinct devotional flavour. This apparent contradiction in myself, forced me to think about what it means to be religious?

As a theological construct, religion deals with issues of cosmology /metaphysics such as existence of God, life after death, relationship between body and soul etc. I have no definite opinion on any of these and nor do these questions hold much interest for me. In this sense, I can regard myself as non-religious.

Religion is also a moral/social construct. It lays down ethical values, social obligations, codes of conducts, rituals and ceremonies etc. While I recognise the need for all these, I am extremely uncomfortable when they are made “absolute” through references to “sacred texts” and “religious diktats”. The sociological/ethical sides of human existence have to be governed by prevalent life conditions and hence must be dynamic. The less they are linked to theology (which tends to be absolutistic) the better. In this sense also I have to regard myself as non- religious.

Finally, there is an emotive and psychological side to religion which corresponds to certain imperatives of being human. In order to distinguish it from the theological/sociological side, I will call it Religiosity. Religiosity is a medium (and by no means, the only medium) through which certain imperatives of being human (for example, the need to find meaning  for one’s life, the need to merge and become a part of a larger entity etc.) find expression. The most significant of these imperatives is the need to have faith.

Faith is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misused concepts. It is often confused with dogma, irrational belief and even confidence. In fact, in many ways it is the exact opposite . Notions such as dogma and confidence rest on the plank of “certainty” whereas, faith rests on the plank of “uncertainty”. A dogmatic person “knows for sure” that his/her beliefs are absolutely true. A person with faith accepts the limitations of his/her knowledge and does not feel destabilised by this lack of knowledge. Similarly, a confident person believes that through competence and effort one can gain mastery over one’s destiny. In contrast the person with faith does not feel a compelling need to control his/her destiny. The person is quite content to give his/her best shot and simultaneously accept that the ultimate outcome will be determined by a host of factors, most of which are beyond his/her control. Competence and effort are necessary prerequisites for success but by no means sufficient. What matters is one’s willingness to embrace the outcome with humility and grace.

For me, Faith is essentially an antidote to Anxiety which is an inevitable consequence of  human limitations. There is no way that human beings can have complete knowledge/control over their own lives. Thus living with the anxiety of having to deal with the unknown and uncontrollable is an integral part of human existence. However, there is a marked difference between Religion and Religiosity in how this anxiety is dealt with.  Religions  deal with this anxiety through providing certainty, either through positing an omniscient and omnipotent God figure or through a definite and absolute theology/unquestionable sacred text. Religiosity on the other hand accepts and graces the uncertainty and limitations of knowledge/control inherent in human existence.Each  religion has its own brand of   theology, morality, social norms etc. but as mediums for expression of emotive/ existential imperatives ,their essence remains the same. Consequently, religions tend to be divisive whereas Religiosity can be inclusive and has the potential of being a unifying force. The beauty of religiosity is that it is so inclusive that it does not even require you to believe in any god or divine order.

It is for this reason that I regard inclusive religiosity as a much more meaningful and potent concept than secularism. In secularism, there is very little space for the emotive imperatives which find expression through religion. The end result is a huge vacuum which is often exploited by the fundamentalist forces to propagate their own theological and sociological certainties. This is particularly applicable in the Indian context.

For various reasons, the Indian psyche is more religiosity centric than religion centric. Further, it has a huge appetite for religiosity. It is not uncommon to find people  in this country flock around a god man irrespective of religious affiliations. It does not matter whether it is a christian saint or  a muslim pir or a budhist monk or a hindu gurumata or a jain muni or a sikh guru, they all act as magnets for virtually all people. In fact so insatiable is our appetite for religiosity that we can make gods out of anything-trees, animals, rivers, planets or anything else that one can think of. There are very few objects/creatures that one can think of, which are not worshipped in some form or another in some part of India.

This almost insatiable appetite for religiosity accompanied by its “open-ended” nature is a huge potential resource which unfortunately is becoming more of a liability. While it is important to be watchful against the divisive forces which are unleashed by religion, it is equally important to ensure that in the process we don’t end up saying good bye to religiosity. In fact, the more we turn away from religiosity, the more divisive religions will become. I suspect, no one understood this better than Gandhi and hence he always emphasised inclusive religiosity rather than secularism. I believe this was also a significant factor which enabled him to mobilise people across the length and breadth of this huge country.





From Gandhi to Modi- India sans Indian-ness

Some time back, I had requested Google da to educate me on “Indian character”. Promptly, I was led to several writings from which I learnt many despicable things about ourselves. For example, I was told that we are hypocritical, corrupt, spineless, status-conscious, crude, insensitive, superstitious and many such things which would make us a tough competitor for the coveted prize of the worst creatures on the face of this earth. This was no surprise as  over the years, I have got accustomed to listening to stories about Indian Standard Time, Indian crab-mentality, Indian duplicity, and the like.Needless to say, these attributes applied only to an “unidentifiable Indian” and people telling these stories were  exempted from them.

What did come as a surprise was a recent encounter with a group of young college students. I found a distinct shift in their perception of Indian character. While some of the stereotypes persisted, there was much more emphasis on other attributes like our intellectual acumen, resilience, diligence, adaptability etc. Also, I was pleasantly surprised to find a degree of patriotic fervour and pride, which had got eroded in the earlier generations.

All this was music to my ears and yet it left me with some unease. I could not resonate with what I sensed as their brand of nationalism. We did not discuss specific political figures, but the impression that I got was that Modi was much more likely to be their hero and role model than Gandhi. I mention these two people because both of them are inspirational figures and have come to symbolise two different kinds of nationalism. Normally, this difference is seen in terms of inclusivity vs. divisiveness;but I suspect it is much deeper than that.

Inclusivity and divisiveness represent only the tip of the iceberg. Even if Modi wished to be inclusive, chances are that he will end up being divisive. This was best illustrated by his “kutte ka pilla”(puppy dog) comment.Some time back, in responding to a question about communal violence, Modi had made a statement that one feels anguished even when a puppy dog meets with an accident. Giving him the benefit of doubt, he was perhaps trying to express universal compassion. However, it was such an insensitive way of doing it, that it created more backlash and divisive feelings than harmony and a sense of togetherness.

I suspect, divisiveness is a consequence of the hyper-masculine flavour of Modi’s brand of nationalism whereas inclusivity has something to do with Gandhi’s leaning towards an androgynous/ feminine variety. With Gandhi, you do not associate a broad chested muscular individual ready to take on and conquer the world. Instead what you associate is inner resilience, conviction and a quality of strength which is not in your face. With Gandhi, the emphasis is more on wholesomeness rather than on advancement- a wish for self-contained, self-governing, harmonious communities rather than smart cities and aspirations of becoming a monolithic super-power.

This shift from androgynous Gandhi to distinctly masculine Modi, is perhaps in keeping with the imperatives of the times that we live in. We can see it happening in virtually all spheres of our lives. Even women-centric cinema today is more likely to be of the “Gulab Gang” or “Mardani” variety. Thus it is no surprise that Gandhi is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the hectic and hyper-masculine world of today. While, it leaves me with some discomfort, I can also see its positive side.; particularly in view of the uneasy relationship between masculinity and Indian cultural identity.

The Indian cultural ideal is androgynous- the concept of Ardhnarishwar. Perhaps this is one of the major factors behind Gandhi’s strong emotive pull in Indian psyche. Many of our cherished values like peaceful co-existence, primacy of family/belonging system, looking at nature as a living entity, faith in cosmic benevolence etc. have a distinct feminine flavour. While attributes like valour, courage, youthful virility are valued, so are wisdom, innocence, sensitivity and compassion.

However, while the cultural ideal is androgynous, the ground reality has been quite different. Rather than pursuing and cherishing both the masculine and the feminine, we have ended up neglecting both. The end result is a fragile sense of masculinity and a disdain towards the feminine. The average Indian male is more likely to gloat over the fact he is born a “man” and hence entitled to certain privileges ,rather than actively invest in acquiring masculine qualities. Consequently, one often comes across a sense of smallness, insecurity and fragility amongst many Indian men, and a propensity to take offence in face of any perceived affront to their masculinity.  Some of the consequences of this uneasy relationship are a propensity to avoid direct confrontation, servility towards the powerful and oppression of the powerless. This is most evident in man-woman relationships where large part of violence against women stems from a fragile/insecure sense of masculinity rather than hyper-masculinity.

This uneasy relationship with masculinity is not very conducive to the notion of Ardhnarishwar. Pursuit of the androgynous ideal requires a recalibration of our relatedness with masculinity. To that extent if we are investing in developing a more secure and mature sense of masculinity, then it is good news. However, if in this process  we jettison the androgynous cultural ideal then we may end up having an India in which there is no place for Indian-ness. That will be great loss not just for us but for humanity at large. Personally, I can’t think of Indian-ness without the androgynous ideal. Also, I believe that  it is the greatest gift that India can give to a world which is fast becoming a captive of the hyper-masculine frenzy.







Beyond Peaceful Co-existence

In early 60’s Sahir Ludhianvi wrote one of my  favourite songs “tu hindu banega na musalmaan banega, insaan ki aulad hai insaan banega ( you will neither become a hindu nor a moslem, being a human offspring, you will become a human being). I loved it then and I love it now, but there is a difference. Somewhere along the line, the word “banega” (will become) got reconfigured as “rahega” (will remain). Let me explain- as an adolescent, I believed that sectoral identities based on region, religion, race etc. are an impediment to embracing humanness.Today, I think that embracing my hindu-ness or moslem-ness is a necessary first step to embracing  my human-ness. The problem arises when the hindu-ness or moslem-ness becomes a prison and I remain its captive. The emphasis has therefore shifted from denial/rejection of sectoral identity to  accepting it,valuing it  and transcending it in order to embrace a larger identity.

I often  come across people who are more comfortable being a “person” rather than being a “man” or a “woman”. Similarly I find many people who find it easier to identify with the notion of “global citizenship” rather than with their national, linguistic, racial, religious identity. There seems to be some anxiety/discomfort with acknowledging differences of any kind lest they become a source of discord and discrimination.  I recall several years back, I came across a hoarding which had been put up either by UNICEF or by some NGO working in the area of social harmony. It showed 5 or 6 infants of different ethnic backgrounds with their eyes closed. The caption read “Don’t open their eyes to the differences that they can not see”. It left me wondering as to how could negation or denial be seen as an effective way of dealing with difference.

The fear of combat and violence between different sectoral identities is very real  and hence “closing one’s eyes to the difference” becomes a tempting choice.However just because we choose to close our eyes,  the differences(and associated feelings)   do not disappear, in fact like all repressed phenomenon, they become even more virulent. The rise in religious fundamentalism and racial sensitivities, across the world, is a clear evidence that sectoral identities can not be denied or repressed.

The traditional Indian way of dealing with differences between sectoral identities has been through “segregation”.  The basic assumption being that if different identity groups can be kept separated from each other and their interaction regulated ,then they can co-exist peacefully.This is the basic rationale behind the rigid caste-system and the strong prohibitions in inter-community relations. Some time back Mani Ratnam had made a film called Bombay about communal tensions and violence. The film starts with life in a village where Hindus and Moslems live in harmony, amiability and good-will, but maintain the requisite prohibitions particularly in respect of inter-dinning and inter-marriage. However all hell breaks loose when a hindu boy and a moslem girl fall in love with each other. I think this was an excellent portrayal of peaceful co-existence through segregation and controlled interaction.

Dealing with differences through segregation can be witnessed in virtually all facets of life in India including corporate world. Fragmentation into silos(based on function, department, region, ethnicity etc.) has been a wide spread phenomenon in Indian organisations. By and large, these fragmented groups follow the policy of “non-interference” and “peaceful co-existence”. Thus difficulties in collaboration in India, are less due to “in-fighting” and more due to “indifference”. This is not to suggest that inter-group conflicts and rivalries are not present, but only that they are generally expressed through subtle sabotage and undercutting than a direct combat. At the manifest level, the relationships are marked by the principle of “live and let live”, and compromise/collusion play a huge role in conflict resolution.

The complex design of modern day organisations is more like an intertwined web in which neat segregations are a virtual impossibility. In this design, the individual does not have the choice of belonging to a stable well bounded fragment. On the other hand, the individual has to belong to multiple groups and forge many relationships. It is therefore not surprising that most Indian organisation today are struggling to make the transition from a simple pyramid to a complex matrix structure.

Even at the macro social level, It is becoming increasingly clear that the choice of keeping the other at “an arm’s length” and hoping for peaceful co-existence is no longer feasible. Whether we like it or not, in an interdependent world, we are in each other’s  way. Add to this the factor of discrimination which is an inevitable fall out of segregation (as in the case of caste-system) and the conclusion is inescapable viz. the traditional Indian ways of dealing with differences through segregation have serious limitations in the present day world. Simultaneously, we can not eliminate differences through combat and violence. Closing our eyes to them and pretending that they do not exist is equally problematic, as argued earlier.

That leaves us with only one choice- learning to cherish differences rather than treating them as a threat. This is easier said than done. It is fashionable to extol the virtues of diversity, but the fears, anxieties and discomfort of dealing with “differences” are rarely acknowledged and addressed. Mostly they are denied by pretending that they do not exist OR the other is kept at an arm’s length in the spirit of “live and let live”. This approach is no longer feasible,but more importantly it does not allow the different fragmented groups to interact with each other, learn from each other, and enrich each other .If this is to happen then segregation and peaceful co-existence is not enough. It will require a more pro-active engagement- a greater willingness to experience each other, dialogue with each other and assimilation of each other.

A more proactive and intense engagement with the “other” will necessary be a bumpy ride. To expect it to be hassle free and smooth is to deny its very essence. It will necessarily be accompanied by some tension, chaos and conflict. Thus it can only regard peaceful co-existence as a basic value and not as an absolute operative principle. Peaceful co-existence can help in living with diversity, but cherishing diversity also requires valuing conflict and chaos.




Paradox of Frameworks

I have a very ambivalent relationship with frameworks- I love them because they help me to think cogently but simultaneously, I hate them because they restrict the free-flow of my thoughts and feelings.Feeling/ Thinking is a fluid process on which structure can be imposed only “post-facto” Undoubtedly, there is some connection between the “chain of thoughts” but the possibilities are so many that no one can predict as to the direction in which this river of thoughts and feelings will flow. The experience of a “falling apple”, made Newton ask a certain question which led him to the path of discovering the principle of gravity. There is no particular reason for him to have traversed that path, instead he could well have speculated about the taste of the apple or its nutritional value or the different colours,shapes and sizes in which they come or even what would have happened if the apple had fallen on his head and injured him etc. etc. The possibilities are endless and the connections between any two thoughts can only be in hindsight.

It is here that frameworks play an important role. They channelise the thought process, put them into a pre-fixed structure and enable us to make some sense out of them. However, this structuring extracts a heavy price. It requires us to ignore (or at least put aside) all such feelings and thoughts which do not fit into the pre-fixed structure. For example, if one is thinking about the issue of “gender relations” using the binary framework of Men and Women, then it becomes necessary to exclude all thoughts about people who do not fit into this binary.This is most evident when people use simplistic frames like good-bad, beautiful-ugly, success-failure, right-left, liberal-conservative, selfish-altruistic, introverted-extroverted etc. The more rigidly a person holds the framework, the more he/she is forced to “exclude”. For example  a person who has very rigid ideas about “good” and “bad” will end up excluding everything which is “grey” as compared to the person whose framework is more nuanced.

However, no matter how complex and nuanced a framework may be, it will necessary exclude something and whenever we engage with the excluded phenomenon ,we will be confronted with a paradox. To understand this, we need to understand the nature of paradox.

Paradox is one of the most misunderstood and misused  terms in general discourse. Often we mistake it as any contrary/contradictory pull. For example if I say that I want to be at home and at work at the same time, then this phenomenon is NOT a paradox, it is merely a presence of two conflicting desires. Paradox arises when a logically drawn conclusion from a premise, contradicts the premise itself. A simple example of a paradox is the assertion “I always tell lies”. The difficulty with this assertion is that if it is true, then the person is telling a lie and hence it is necessarily untrue. In other words, a paradoxical assertion has to be “false” in order to be “true” and vice versa.Similarly, a paradoxical injunction can only be followed by disregarding it. When a parent tells a child “don’t listen to me”, then a parent is giving a paradoxical injunction to the child. The child is being asked to “listen” to the parent in order to “not listen”.

Normally, such paradoxes do not create much difficulty for us because we take it for granted that the assertion or injunction is not to be applied to itself. In the examples given above the statement “I always tell lies”  – if not applied to itself ,becomes a simple confession of a compulsive lier. Similarly the parental injunction for “not listening” is simply asking the child to develop his/her own thinking. The difficulty  arises when the  assertion/injunction is applied to itself.  In paradox theory, this  is called  “self-referrence” i.e. when an assertion or injunction is applied to itself. For those who are interested in this subject may like to see my paper   “Beyond The Law Of Contradictions” available here. For the limited purpose of this piece, it is enough to note that the paradox arises  from this phenomenon of “self-referrence”

The paradox becomes apparent whenever a framework (i.e. structure of ideas) is applied to itself. Can an insane person see his own insanity?  In order to do this, the person will necessary have to step out of his/her insanity. The same is applicable in virtually all spheres. An introverted person must be able to step out of his/her introversion in order to recognise it and similarly an extroverted person can see his/her extraversion only by turning the gaze inwards. Take the example of Defence Mechanisms- a very powerful and useful framework for understanding human behaviour. So long as the person is caught in a defence mechanism, it can not become visible to the individual. The moment a memory or an impulse is repressed, it becomes inaccessible to the individual and hence an assertion like “I have repressed something” is self-contradictory or paradoxical.

Thus, the meaningfulness of any framework rests on our ability to stand apart from it. However, the framework by its very nature prevents us from this side-stepping. The framework becomes a sentry of sorts which screens our thoughts and feelings and views their admissibility from its own unique lens. Thus, if an individual is using a framework which looks at organisations as purposive instruments then he/she can only engage with thoughts which pertain to efficiency, productivity, output, skills, competencies etc. All feelings and thoughts about human sensitivity,ambience,  ecology, etc. must be blocked as potential distractions and irrelevant to the matter at hand. The only way in which these thoughts and feelings can find an entry is through questioning the assumption on which the framework is built, which in the case cited above would be – Is organisation only a purposive instrument of performance? If this question is not asked then all endeavours  of humanising the organisation will paradoxically become instruments of further dehumanising as can be seen in expressions like human resources, human inventory, human assets etc. whereby the human being is reduced to being a “commodity”.

Similarly if one tries to fit the phenomenon of “intimacy” in a framework of introversion-extraversion, one will  constantly be running in circles. In intimacy there is a deep connect both with the Self and the Other- it can neither be regarded as introverted nor extraverted. Even if one regards introversion and extraversion as two poles of a continuum, with a large middle ground, it still can not explain intimacy. Intimacy does not happen in any middle ground- it is a state wherein both introversion and extraversion are intense and mutually dependent upon each other. In a sense one is deeply connecting with oneself through connecting with the other and vice versa. Hence in order to engage with intimacy, one has to go to a higher/deeper level wherein introversion and extraversion can be held in simultaneity rather than as two poles of a continuum. This is not to suggest that the framework of introversion and extraversion is of any less value, but only that like all frameworks it stands on some basic foundations (in this case, a clear separation between “inside” and “outside”) and any attempt to engage with phenomenon which go beyond the limits set by its foundations will necessarily create a paradox.

This is in line with the theory of paradox which stipulates that no paradox can be resolved/dissolved at the level in which it arises. In order to address a paradox meaningfully, one needs to move to a higher/deeper level of enquiry. In case of Frameworks, this deeper level refers to the philosophical underpinnings of the framework.

Interestingly, we are living in times when our reliance on frameworks in virtually all spheres of life is increasing exponentially. Be it our personal lives or professional, we are inundated by frameworks like diet charts, exercise regimes, child-rearing practices, competency mapping, bench marking, balanced score cards etc. etc. Simultaneously  our patience and  willingness to understand  the underlying assumptions of these frameworks is coming down. Consequently the only criteria by which we can assess any framework is its relative popularity and acceptance in the market place and the only understanding that we have of any framework is what can be quickly gathered through Google and Wikipedia. The motto of our life seems to be “Why waste time in thinking? Just Google it and act”It is therefore not surprising that today in the name of frameworks what we have are mere fads- which come and possess us for a little while and are then replaced by another set of fads. This is an inevitable consequence of the all too prevalent aversion towards philosophy in our times. Nearly a century ago, Aldous Huxley had painted the picture of a “Brave New World” which will only be driven by technology and in which Philosophy will have no place. It seems we are proving him right.

Frameworks are extremely useful provided they are used for stimulating our thinking and organising our thought process. Paradoxically, if we become their captives they can also become the biggest stumbling block to our thinking and hence defeat their own purpose. Perhaps instead of looking at frameworks as “providers of answers”,  if we engage with them as  stimuli for questioning and deeper understanding, we can forge a more meaningful relationship with them.



Door Ka Rahi

Tension between the Captive and the Wanderer has always fascinated me. Both are an integral part of my identity and I suspect reside in all human beings at least to some extent. They come in various shapes, forms and sizes. A few common embodiments of the captive are-  bird in the golden cage, Atlas, Shravan Kumar etc. Similarly Wanderer can be easily seen in the explorer, vagabond, , roving minstrel and many other similar forms.

There is obvious contrary pull between these two identities. My first cognitive encounter with this tension was in my adolescence when I read Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage”.I have forgotten most of it, but I recall  that the protagonist wants to be an artist but becomes a doctor, wants to travel around the world but decides to settle down to a conventional domestic life. The other thing that I recall is that the protagonist was an orphan and had a club-foot.At that time, I did not recognise the significance of this and saw the whole drama only in terms of the conflict between need for anchorage and call of adventure. Much later, I realised that the injured/handicapped orphan was an important part of this drama.

Kishore Kumar’s film Door Gagan Ki Chaon Mein is a good example of the relationship between the  Orphan and the Wanderer. The image which is stuck in my mind of this film is that of a mature adult who is carrying a handicapped child on his back. The film is about a soldier who on his return from the battle-field discovers that his house had been ravaged by fire in which his wife had also perished. The only survivors was his son who also lost his voice because of the trauma. Essentially the film is about the father’s quest to restore “wholeness” for his son. This quest is captured by the lyricist Shailendra in two of the songs of the film which  to date,linger in our collective memory. The two sides of this quest are – nostalgia for the lost paradise ( Koi laute de mere beete hue din) and  search for the promised land (Aa chal ke tujhe mein leke chaloon, ik aise gagan ke tale)

Door Ka Rahi, another Kishore Kumar film, breaks out of this lost paradise/promised land paradigm. The theme song of the protagonist here is “Panthi hun mien us path ka, ant nahi jiska”(I am traversing a path which has no destination) In a sense, the film brings into play all three identities- The Orphan, The Captive and The Wanderer. The protagonist Prashant is a wanderer who has dedicated his life to service of humanity at large. During his several encounters, he keeps meeting orphans and captives, alleviates their suffering and moves on. His last encounter is with  the duo of an old man (in a “wheel-chair”) and his “widowed” daughter-in law whose husband looked exactly like Prashant. A bond develops between the three and the old man wants Prashant to marry his daughter in law and settle down with them. In wrestling with his confusion, Prashant recalls his own orphanhood and how he had been brought up by a kind holy-man (Swamiji) . Prashant also recalls the pledge that he had taken, at the time of Swamiji’s death that he will stay clear of personal attachments and dedicate his life to the service of mankind. Needless to say, Prashant decides to move on in his never ending journey.

One can look at Prashant both as a Captive (to his pledge) and as a  Wanderer in search of his own wholeness. Interestingly, both perspectives are linked to the Orphan who neither feels whole in himself nor a meaningful and integral part of a larger whole. This psychodrama between the Orphan, the Captive and the Wanderer has often played out in my life several times. The Orhan in his search of  a “home” finds himself in a prison from which he wants to break free. But once the Captive breaks the shackles and turns into a Wanderer, he is haunted by another song written by Shailendra-

“kabhi yeh bhi socha ki manzil kahan hai; bade se jahan mein tera ghar kahan hai

Jo bandhe they bandana who kyun toed dale; kahan ja raha hai tu ai jane-wale”

( Where is your destination” where is your home? Why have you snapped all your ties? What is the purpose of this wandering?)

And then begins another search for home and consequent experience of captivity. The oscillation between the Captive and the Wanderer seems endless but reinforces the recognition that all nostalgia of the “lost paradise” is imaginary and all conceptions of a “promised land” are a futile attempt to escape the “dukha” which is an inevitable part of being human and existential aloneness . In such moments, I am reminded of Ghalib’s verse “Rahiye ab aisee jagah chal kar jahan koi na ho”. An approximate translation of which is-

I wish to live in a place where there is no one else;

no one to relate to or communicate with,

I wish to build a house which has no walls or boundaries

When I fall sick, let there be no one to take care,and

When I die, let there be no one to mourn


Thus it is in fitness of things, that Door Ka Rahi begins with an old Prashant, all alone in a glacier, remembering the events from his life. The film ends with Prashant breathing his last in that cold yet serene solitude. As though life has come back a full circle and one is reminded of yet another Ghalib verse-

“Ghame hasti ka Asad, kis se ho juz marg ilaj

Shama har rang me jalti hai sehar hone tak ”

( There is no ultimate answer to human suffering, the candle must burn till the dawn comes)

Simply put, what Prashant tells us is that there was no “lost paradise”, there is no “promised land”. The only reality is “living” and this endless journey.At least that is how I make some peace between the Orphan, the Captive and the Wanderer in me. Would love to know how these identities play out in you.