Remembering SPB and the Art of Playback Singing

Hosa Jeevana (New Life) is a 1990 Kannada movie (a remake of Tamil movie Pudhea Paadhai) starring the late Shankar Nag. It follows the story (and ultimate transformation) of an outcast who has been shunned and ignored by society all his life – including his parents who left him in a dumpster at birth. He grows up fostering a great contempt for everyone around him, actively rejecting the morals and values of the society that pushed him down through its cracks. A grown man now, he lives his life in a rundown ‘house’ and makes money by extorting people on the streets on a whim – in addition to the contract killings and kidnappings he carries out for the local politician (whom he only half-mockingly calls ‘Chairman’). Almost nihilistic in his outlook, his belief in his own world view is absolute: I care about myself, and the world can, and probably should, go to hell.

How do you introduce such a character – in a way that perfectly captures the rage, crass attitude, disregard for society, and absolute contempt for anyone other than himself?

When you have an actor of Shankar Nag’s caliber and a composer/lyricist such as Hamsalekha, you do so by opening the movie with a song consisting of some real in-your-face lyrics and music. I mean, the chorus of this opening song literally translates to this:

The knife, and the chain are

My left hand, my right hand

My bastard body

The blade, and the bottle are

My two younger brothers

Let the hooch flow

To die and to kill

I am ever ready

Needless to say, the translation does zero justice to the impact the words have when spoken in colloquial Kannada, but you get the idea.

So you have one of the best actors of the time playing the outcast, and the best music director composing the music and the lyrics. That combination in itself is quite potent. But you still need that one magical ingredient that makes the song transcend into the art form that conveys all one needs to know about the outcast.

Enter SP Balasubrahmanyam.

Playback singing is not an easy art form. The artist has to completely internalize the character and/or the circumstances of the movie he/she is singing for – to fully capture the soul of the song. And here, SPB practically becomes the outcast. His voice conveys everything you need to know about Shankar Nag’s character – the rage, contempt and his nihilistic world view.

The intimidating punch with which he delivers the first words of the song – “Ei! NinnaaLe Ei!”* – is equivalent to being slapped awake to take notice. In fact, Shankar Nag does as much to every other character around him – slapping or abusing them in various forms and demanding their undivided attention to his presence.

To me, perhaps, the moment in the song that perfectly encapsulates SPB’s talent and absolute commitment to playback singing is, in fact, not when he is singing at all. It comes towards the end of the song after Shankar Nag has made his statement to the world, and it takes the form of a wicked, wicked laugh (at 3:48 in the video) that should send chills down yours spine if you are ever at the receiving end of such a character. (Listen to the song once without the video – just focusing on his voice, and you will know what I am talking about).

Ultimately, SPB channels that rage, nihilism, and contempt so well in his singing, and Shankar Nag portrays the outcast with an uncharacteristic grace (that swagger in his walk!), that at the end of the song you will already be rooting for the outcast – without regard to his sins and vices.

And THAT, to me, is what SPB stood for – a true artist who made you feel emotions that you were likely never even aware of – just with his voice. There are hundreds of his songs that are probably infinitely more melodious and famous than this one with such crass lyrics. But no matter what the character, circumstances, story line or language, SPB took it all to a higher plane like only few others have. And the impressions he has left along the way on more than a billion people can never truly be characterized.

Fact is, I will never know exactly how big of an influence he was on my growing up. All I know is that he was the hook that carried so many of my cultural reference points during my childhood and adult life.

And he will be sorely missed.

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*I truly have no idea how to translate the crass slang of “NinnaaLe” into English. But just know that this song would have never made it to radio or TV back in the 90’s (and I would have likely been kicked out of my home if I was caught using that phrase). And the way SPB delivers those lines, he practically made sure of that.

An Introduction to Japanese Crime and Detective Novels

It was probably in early 2015, when I had just purchased my Kindle, that I learnt about the existence of Japanese crime and detective novels, or more specifically speaking, about the existence of English translations of Japanese crime and detective novels. Since then I have read more than 20 books by Japanese authors – most of them being crime or detective novels – with more lined up for the months ahead. That is about 6-7 Japanese crime novels a year. To put that in perspective, the years of 2012-2014 probably saw me read about 2-4 books a year total. So yes, I totally got hooked on to them from the beginning. But more importantly, it (and the Kindle) triggered my overall reading habit back into motion, and since 2015, I have read about 10-12 books each year, if not more. My wife, who barely had any reading habit at all, has now more or less caught up with me on these books in less than a year! And it has got HER reading other books as well!

(As a small aside, I drove to meet her in Kansas City earlier this month. We were meeting up after a few weeks so I was excited to see her. She was reading a Japanese crime novel when I surprised her at the hotel room by arriving earlier than I had said. I was all smiles and excitement. HER immediate reaction, however, was to yell at me, “They just discovered 9 bodies!!! Why did you have to come at this very moment?!!!??” You get the idea….) 

My wife and I have gained tremendous satisfaction and a sense of awe from these books and would definitely want more people to experience this for themselves. And hence this post to  introduce people to Japanese crime and detective fiction.

It should be noted that these books only began to get translated to English a few years ago. And following the overwhelming response from the English reading community, publishers are now falling head over heels to get more works translated. So, most of the authors already have a large collection of books published in Japanese, but are waiting for them to be translated to English. The publishers appear to be ‘releasing’ these books once every few months or so, so always keep an eye out for new ones. I am not sure about the extent of the availability of these books in ‘print’ form. (I have only read 2 of these in print). But all of these are definitely available on Kindle. And seriously, a Kindle would be a worthwhile investment JUST to read these books!

So this post is intended to be about where to start, what to expect, what not to expect, general recommendations, and tips for reading the books. But before we get to the actual content, I would strongly recommend adhering to the following general tips:

Do not read any blurbs, summaries or reviews: I cannot emphasize this enough. I am a very strong believer in letting the book surprise you right from the first page without any preset expectations or ideas. And with the mystery novels such as these, it takes an even bigger significance. So even in this post, I am not going to ‘rate’ or ‘review’ the books. I will only make a general recommendation. So please, just dive straight into the book!

Keep track of the names separately: All these books are made up of Japanese names (duh!) that may or may not be easy to remember. Some books have a relatively small number of characters while others will require a mandatory index of characters to be created if you want to keep track of who is who. So it might be worth your while to have a small note that lists all the characters in the books.

Keep track of the geography: This is not really a requirement, but would definitely help visualize a lot of the action and gives a useful spatial perspective. You will also understand what is the difference between a city, prefecture and a ward!

Not for Kids: No other way to put it. This is not something you want to give to your kids to read. This is for the most part 18+ material.

Movie versions: Many of the books below have been made into movies and/or TV shows. But, as always, read the book first. Then watch the movie.

By the time you have read through a dozen books or so, you will also learn a lot about Japanese culture in general – including (and especially) the widespread existence and a seemingly complete acceptance of shady ‘Love Hotels’! (They are exactly what you think they are!)

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In any case, below is a list of books/authors that I would personally recommend to get started with Japanese crime and detective fiction. This is a list of the authors who are most popular and recommended. And in the end, I have also included a list of other books where the author may not have had multiple books in print/translation.

Keigo Higashino: There is literally no other place to start. If you are talking Japanese crime and detective fiction, Higashino is pretty much the default starting point and the bench mark. There are currently 7 of his works available in English translation with an 8th on its way in 2018. From my knowledge, everybody pretty much starts with Devotion of Suspect X. And it is probably where I would recommend starting as well. It introduces the extremely adorable ‘Detective Galileo’ who will also appear on Salvation of a Saint and A Midsummer’s Equation. Each of those books are highly recommended. Malice and The Name of the Game is Kidnapping are his other two strongly recommended books. The strength of Higashino’s books are the underlying premises and the steady development of the plot towards the revelation of these premises. Like most of the books listed in this post, Higashino’s books have a laser focus on the plot development, eschewing any and all distractions such as police bureaucracy, random female non-characters (I am looking at you Michael Connelly!), etc. All the above books are police procedurals and are probably the best introduction you can have to Japanese crime and detective fiction. The one outlier, of course, is Under the Midnight Sun. Coming in at more than twice the length of his other books, this book is more of a soap opera than a crime novel. (Its cast of characters went into several pages! And my wife had named two of them as ‘Fuckboy 1’ and ‘Fuckboy 2’ – implying exactly what they stand for!) It is extremely difficult to believe it is the same guy who wrote this book! So, even if you avoid Under the Midnight Sun, that is completely OK. It is by no means a bad book, just extremely un-Higashino like. But, as a fan of Higashino, I will put it like this: “Some Higashino is still better than no Higashino!”

Seicho Matsumoto: The first Japanese crime fiction book I read was Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates. To this day, it remains the absolute best I have read. It has a strong premise, police procedural work meticulously detailed, very steady build up, and a satisfying conclusion – the hallmarks of an excellent detective novel. I was blown away and it provided the motivation to explore more in this genre. In fact, this book was so good that my expectations from Matsumoto ended up being too high for all his other books: Pro Bono, A Quiet Place, and Points and Lines. They are not bad books by any means, but are nowhere near the level of Inspector Imanishi Investigates. Would still recommend them, but do not be surprised if you feel the same way I do.

Tetsuya Honda: Probably the only author to feature a female lead detective, Honda currently has 2 of his books in English translation. Silent Dead was the first book to feature Detective Reiko Himekawa, and this was recently followed up with Soul Cage (reading in progress). Silent Dead featured the same engrossing (but extra dark) premise and mystery as other ones I have mentioned above and also had a fairly steady plot development. But the book makes use of some rather common tropes such as bureaucracy in the police department, non-communication of evidence at crucial junctures, misogynistic colleagues, etc. But to Honda’s credit, these still somehow tie into the actual plot development. (It is nowhere as bad as anything you will see in a Michael Connelly book). But the tension between the competing detectives is so well articulated that, midway through the book, I bet you will be heavily rooting for Himekawa!

So those are authors who have at least 2 books in print and whom I have read. Below are some more books that are worth reading:

Confessions by Kanae Minato: This book is not a straightforward crime or detective novel, but it does involve several crimes and a rather unusual approach to solving them that leads to even more grotesque consequences. The book itself is a great read. So good, that it was made into a movie that got nominated for the Oscars (Best Foreign language film).

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada: This book officially has the most grotesque premise I have personally come across. Which is probably the only reason why I would strongly recommend it! The writing and the plot development are not the best, but making your way through the book just to uncover the dark premise is worth the effort!

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama: I have always strongly believed that the presence of bureaucratic situations in police/detective books are completely unnecessary and only work to hinder plot development. But what if the bureaucracy IS the plot itself? That is Six Four for you. Full marks for plot development and general premise, but the book lets you down big time in the ending. It is not that the ending runs counter to the plot development. It is not even an open ended conclusion. Instead, it actually looks like it is incomplete and kind of leaves you hanging. It is still a gripping read and there is definitely the bare necessary amount of resolution in the ending. But the real reason why I recommend this book is because, by the time you are done with it, you will know the structure and hierarchy of the entire Japanese Police force by heart! And you would have never thought you would care so much about the battle between Criminal Investigations and Administrative Affairs!

So there you have it. Enough book recommendations to keep you occupied and hooked on to Japanese crime novels for the next several months. Now please do yourself a favor and start reading Higashino!


A Short Collection of Intense Moments

In the entire history of mankind, the pursuit of the dark and depressing has never been actively encouraged or even accepted. Yet, the most beautiful art ever produced has been the product of artists expressing loss, pain, solitude, anger and a sense of longing. This apparent contradiction between the source of inspiration and the acceptance of its products by society has diminished steadily for me over the past few years. The dark arts have moved from the fringes of what mankind has to offer to being the very lens through which I now view society itself. I feel no attraction or emotion every time I see a Claude Monet painting, but my whole world came to a standstill when I first saw ‘Masks Confronting Death’ by James Ensor.

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Masks Confronting Death, by James Ensor

Art that convey themes of gloom, doom, mortality, depression and that explore the human condition permeate my inner consciousness to connect with me on a very fundamental platform. I could make a case that the dark arts would connect with all of us in the same way, with the end result depending on whether we choose to fight it or embrace it.

As a consequence of my active pursuit of the dark arts, I have been fortunate to discover and experience a few moments of extreme intensity and fulfillment. Most moved me to tears at that moment in time. And all have stayed with me till today (and very likely for good). These are moments I have to think twice about experiencing again – not because I don’t want to, but because I am not sure I am ready to experience that intensity all the time.

It is important to emphasize that a lack of anticipation of what was coming next was critical to these intense experiences moving me to tears. There were no expectations and all I made sure was to not offer any resistance. And I strongly believe that is why they generated such intensity.

So here goes:

1.ROUTINE (LIVE)by Steven Wilson: When I listened to Steven Wilson’s latest album Hand.Cannot.Erase, I already knew ROUTINE was the standout song. The story was perhaps the most depressing Steven Wilson has ever come up with (even comparing it to Drive Home or The Raven That Refused to Sing). The sadness and absolute despair in the voice of Ninet Tayeb is perhaps what pushed this song beyond the realms of normal consciousness. But that was until I watched the video. The CD/DVD that I had purchased did not have the video to the song and it was not released online either. The place I saw it first was when I saw the band Live in Madison. Steven Wilson introduced the song by stating that he had received feedback from numerous people that this was the most depressing song he had ever made (with his response being “As opposed to what?!”). He made no mention of the video on the screen that was to accompany the song. And then this is what I saw on the screen while Steven Wilson and his band played it live:

To say that I was moved by the video would be a gross understatement. I was very much in tears by the end of it. And so was the entire crowd at the show. I will even go to the extent of saying that my inability to completely break down and cry at that point (largely because I was very self conscious there) will remain as something of an unfulfilled void. The video, the live performance of the song and the entire crowd feeling the same emotions – it was the perfect combination of factors that led to this being one of the most intense moments I have ever felt. And this is what Steven Wilson has to say about the video and how he felt about playing it live:

Amongst the hundreds of songs I have written over the years, ‘Routine’ has a very special place. It’s a deeply sad story of loss and denial, but at its conclusion the clouds lift and there is acceptance at least. Having worked with her on 3 previous videos, I knew as soon as I wrote it that it was perfect for Jess to do something amazing with. Even then nothing prepared me for the organic beauty and power of the film she made, a painstaking labour of love that took her months to produce. When we play the song live I look out into the audience and see people swept away with emotion at the combination of music and animation. To find poetry and beauty in sadness is a wonderful thing I think.

The last sentence ties everything together for me. And I urge everyone to listen to the song, read the lyrics and then watch the video. It will give you a sense of fulfillment that is unavailable in the day to day life that we all lead. (On a side note, the video was not released online till late last year, which preserved the significance of the whole experience for me. And I have still not watched it. In fact, my 2nd viewing of the video will likely be when I see Steven Wilson again this March).

2. Roger Waters The Wall (Movie): Roger Waters did The Wall tour between 2010 and 2013 and took the larger than life production all over the world. It is the closest a Pink Floyd fan today will get to experience the tour from how it was in the 70’s. Of course I can always make an argument that it is even better – what with all the new technology available now. I was fortunate enough to watch it Live at Wrigley Field in Chicago in 2012. To this day, it remains the gold standard in terms of a show production. And I highly doubt anyone will ever surpass that.

Roger Waters The Wall movie was part concert footage, and part road trip of the artist driving from his home in England to the beaches of Italy where his father was killed in World War 2. They show the entire concert from The Wall tour with scenes from the ‘road trip’ portion being embedded every few songs. Since I had been to the show myself, I knew what to expect out of the concert portion of the movie. However, I was not aware of what to expect from the road trip portion. I will not spoil a whole lot of the movie here. But will just recall that one specific sequence of scenes that led to me being moved to tears.

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In the beginning of the movie, Roger Waters is seen reading a letter (probably for the 1000th time) that his mother received during the war. It is the letter communicating the presumed death of his father in battle. The place of death is specified to be the beaches of Anzio, Italy. He embarks on a road trip to visit the beach and the nearby memorial. Once he reaches the beach, there is a quiet, melancholic moment when Roger Waters just stands on the beach and stares at the sea, the same letter in hand, and with tears flowing down his eyes. The peacefulness of the moment is punctuated with the sounds of the waves washing up on to the shores, and of the birds calling in the sky. One can sense a feeling of acceptance and closure wash over him as he stands there and tries to imagine what happened 70 odd years ago, how he never knew his father, and how that has come to define who he is today. A very moving scene about loss, the futility of war, and a contemplation of all that could have been, but never was.

And then the scene faded into the start of Comfortably Numb.

What can I say? That moment when the scene showing Roger Waters at the beach faded out and Comfortably Numb started playing – that is what I live for. That is the kind of fulfillment that keeps me looking forward to the next day in my life. That transition could not have been planned better. I have listened to that song thousands of time in my life. I know every note, every pause and every word of that song. And I also know exactly where it comes on the album. And I am so glad that the previous scene swept me away so much that I forgot that this song was coming up next. Needless to say, I was moved to tears right at that moment and through the song. I remember that night in Chicago when Roger Waters played that song Live. Everybody just shut the fuck up and just watched in awe. Nobody sang along. And Dave Kilimister played the guitar lead to perfection – without improvising. I suppose there are some songs you don’t sing along to and some guitar leads you do not improvise. Comfortably Numb is one of them.

And sitting in that theater, I felt an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction – of having experienced something truly wonderful and fulfilling.

3. The Line of The Horizon (poem) by Maria Petrovykh: Poems have never been my go-to medium to explore art. Largely because of my aversion to popular poetry themes of nature, beauty, love and social/historical commentary. This aversion unfortunately shielded me from the poems that did deal with themes that I connect with. And it was last winter – in the middle of working outside in the fields of rural Iowa – that I found this poem about old age and death. Mortality is a theme that has led me to numerous bouts of contemplation. And this poem touched a chord in me that I still feel every time I read it.

The Line of the Horizon

Maria Sergeyevna Petrovykh

It’s just how it is, it’s the way of the ages;
years pass away, and friends pass away
and you suddenly realise the world is changing
and the fire of your heart is fading away.

Once the horizon was sharp as a knife,
a clear frontier between different states,
but now low mist hangs over the earth
—and this gentle cloud is the mercy of fate.

Age, I suppose, with its losses and fears,
age that silently saps our strength,
has blurred with the mist of unspilt tears
that clear divide between life and death.

So many you loved are no longer with you,
yet you chat to them as you always did.
You forget they’re no longer among the living;
that clear frontier is now shrouded in mist.

The same sort of woodland, same sort of field—
You probably won’t even notice the day
you chance to wander across the border,
chatting to someone long passed away.

I still vividly recollect my reaction to reading it the first time. Everything around me came to a halt. I forgot where I was and what I was doing there. And all my attention was focused on the words of the poem. And it felt like the last four lines took me across the horizon to give me a glimpse of what lay beyond, before gently bringing me back – wiser and in awe. It was then that I truly understood what Ian McEwan had written about poetry in his book Saturday. 

But to do its noticing and judging, poetry balances itself on the pinprick of the moment. Slowing down, stopping yourself completely, to read and understand a poem is like trying to acquire an old-fashioned skill….

Reading a poem that gave me a glimpse of the world beyond, and being able to truly appreciate Ian McEwan’s words in the process, generated an experience that felt like a piece of jigsaw falling into its place. It was like a new perspective gained, or reaching a vantage point that offers a bird’s eye view of the vagaries of life – and watching the horizon get increasingly blurry with the passing of time.

I do not recollect how long I was in that state of mind. But I have gone back to this poem a few times over the past year every time I wanted to get a glimpse of the world beyond. And every time, I have come back wiser and with a newer perspective. But as time passes, I know that some day my trip beyond that horizon will not include a return journey.

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I can only hope that in the months and years to come, I have the opportunity to discover and experience an intensity and fulfillment such as the ones I have outlined here. I do believe that as long as I continue to seek, I shall be rewarded. And as this world progresses to an uncertain future, I do hope that society works to break down the perception of the dark arts, and that more and more people gain a sense of wonder and awe that is unavailable in their otherwise routine lives.

 

 

 

 

 

How I Learnt to Embrace the Amazon Kindle

Works of art and the method of their consumption had been two sides of the same coin all the way up to the 90’s, and perhaps even later. Music meant sitting in front of a music system, picking up a cassette/CD/Vinyl and inserting it into the device, hitting play, and observing the artwork and/or lyrics while the music played on the speakers. Movies meant dressing up and going to the theaters, or playing it on the VCR/DVD players. Books meant hardbound or paperback copies that came with the characteristic smell that made romantics of everyone who ever got the pages close to their faces and took a deep breath. The ability to exercise this sense of touch (and sometimes the sense of smell) in the consumption process appeared to validate and complete the experience. It generated a sense of fulfillment for the consumer that reinforced its legitimacy. As a result, the attachment between the consumer and the work of art was always identified with the mode of consumption.

This was the kind of world I grew up in. And needless to say, I had a strong opinion on these issues once the seemingly disruptive forces of technology came knocking on everyone’s doors. These opinions became even more pronounced after I started earning, as the money allowed me to purchase more music and books. (I currently boast of a sizable vinyl and CD collection as well as a half decent sized bookshelf stocked with books of all types.) Now though I did embrace the mp3 player simply because it made music portable, I had a hard time accepting the idea of an e-reader for a book.

The idea of reading a book on an electronic device was just completely unacceptable to me. I had always denounced the act of reading books on the computer. E-readers was never going to be any better. Convenience could not and should not trump quality of experience, I had propositioned. When someone asked me my opinion on the e-readers, I used to tell them something along the lines of the following:

If I pay for a book, I want to be able to own it. If I want to own it, I need to be able to see it and hold it. I also need to be able to put it on display in a shelf as a form of a statement of my taste in literature. In addition to this, I love just the act of holding a book in my hand and turning the pages and being able to physically connect with the work of art through the sense of touch. I will never get that fulfillment with an e-reader.

I held on to that point of view for the longest time – even, admittedly, after being fascinated with the Amazon Kindle’s features and clarity. Then last summer around Labor Day, I took a solo vacation to Colorado. I carried with me two books: Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans and GGM’s Love in the Time of Cholera. However, two things came in the way of me reading those books. Firstly, I soon realized that I didn’t want to read something that was very demanding of my focus and attention – definitely not after a long day of hiking and/or driving. I just wanted something that would take me away for an hour or so without me having to put in too much of an effort to appreciate the niceties of the book. Secondly, it really was an inconvenience to carry both the books around everywhere I had to go. Even when I did want to read them, it was under circumstances when I did not have them on me. And that quickly became frustrating.

The Amazon Kindle Paperwhite is highly recommended

The frustration was not primarily borne out of my wrong choice of books to carry, or the inconvenience it caused me to carry them around wherever I went. I was frustrated simply because I had missed out on the act of reading. That was it. It was not that I ended up being too busy or tired to read. It was just that I did not have access to the right books and a more suitable mode of reading them.

That vacation made me strongly reconsider my position on the idea of an e-reader. I quickly realized that, when it came to reading books, my main objective should be to simply read more. As trivial as it may sound, it is the plain and simple truth. I realized that the mode of consumption does not change the actual content  that was consumed, or equally significantly, its quality. Unlike the Mp3, whose quality is discernibly lower than what you would get from a CD or a vinyl, the words in a book remain the same regardless of what format you read it in. I even visited the sub-reddit for Amazon Kindle to see if people had brought forward any negative impacts on their reading habits after its purchase. On the contrary, what I found was unanimous positive feedback on the impact of the Amazon Kindle on the user’s reading habits. Every one of them specified that they had simply begun to read more frequently and longer – or in other words, they had simply begun to read more. 

And that, tipped the scales in favor of me getting my own Kindle Paperwhite. I got it as my parents’ gift for me on my 29th birthday. And since then, there has been absolutely no looking back. I have finished more books in the few months since then than I had in the previous year or more. I have discovered  new genres of fiction I very likely would have never made the effort to purchase a physical copy of. The prices are at least 30-40% cheaper than at a retail bookstore, if not practically free of cost. The convenience of being able to purchase a book during a moment of inspiration did wonders to my reading habit. And the device itself performs its function in an impeccable manner. It is very easy to hold and operate (most common being the act of navigating to the next page) when compared to holding a physical book in my hands at an awkward angle. The best feature of the Kindle may perhaps be its lack of too many. The focus is completely on the reading experience. Even the features it does have do not impose themselves on the reader, thereby minimizing any potential distractions.

So yes, I have done a full 180 degree turn with regards to my opinion on the idea of e-readers. Once you realize that it’s the act of consumption that matters, not the mode of consumption, you will be able to appreciate what the Kindle (or any other e-reader) can do to your reading habit. In fact, I was so excited with my Kindle that I got one for my parents and one for my 13 year old cousin when I went back home to India earlier this year. I will leave it to you to guess what the impact has been on their reading habits.

The simple fact is this: I bought a Kindle and my reading habit has grown exponentially. I am able to procure books for far lesser prices and I have explored new genres which I otherwise would never have. Equally importantly, I have not stopped reading or buying physical copies. I still do have a book shelf with dozens of books on them, and I will continue to buy hard copies in the future. But the way I read it no longer dictates if or what I read.

So if you are one of those who is of the opinion that physical copies are the only ‘authentic’ way to read a book, I would urge you to reconsider. If you are someone who has been considering getting an e-book reader but has not been sure, I strongly recommend you to take that next step and get it. You will be extremely satisfied with your decision. And if you are someone with a Kindle already, you will know what I have been talking about till now.

As far as recommendations go, I would personally recommend the Kindle Paperwhite ($119) over the Kindle Basic ($69). The primary (and maybe only) differentiator is the backlight in the Paperwhite version which makes the reading experience significantly better generally, while also allowing you to read in the dark. I also find that there is absolutely nothing of extra value in the Kindle Discovery ($199). The next generation of Kindle that will have any real value addition would be the one where they introduce color. But till then, the Kindle Paperwhite is more than a satisfying product. (I do not have any experience reading on the B&N Nook, so I offer no opinion on it.)

So please, go ahead and build your reading habit. This world needs a lot more book readers to prevent the mass lowering of IQ. Regardless of whether it is teenage vampire fiction or a William Gibson novel, or a book on the art of making craft, please go ahead and read. And if getting a Kindle is going to help it (well, duh!), then please go and get one. It will be a great investment for you and all your family members.

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PS: As an FYI, I still do not find the act of reading books on the computer/laptop a satisfying experience. It still strains my eyes and, though the latest formats (.epub etc.) have done a good job of replicating the physical book look, my reading habit would have taken a negative hit if I had to go down this path.

Discovering New Music: A Fan’s Perspective

When I visited home last month after a gap of 3 years, I found out that my 13 year old cousin had suddenly become very interested in listening to music. She now owned an iPod and was quite enthusiastic about the whole idea of listening to music. So I asked her what she was listening to. The ensuing conversation went something like below (keep in mind she is only 13).

Me: So what are you listening to?

She: One Direction! I love that band!

Me: OK. Sounds like about the kind of music a 13 year old would listen to nowadays. Come to think of it, I was very much into Backstreet Boys and Boyzone back when I was your age.

She: Yes, One Direction is really good!

Me: So what other music do you listen to?

She: I really like One Direction! I have all their albums!

Me: That is good that you really like One Direction. What other bands do you listen to?

She: I just listen to ALL their songs on repeat! I really like them!

Me: For how long have you been listening to One Direction?

She: About 5 to 6 months now.

Me: Have you listened to any other English music in this time?

She: No. I really like One Direction!

Clearly, this conversation was going nowhere. I could have asked her how she did in her exams, and her response would have been, “I really like One Direction!”. So I gave up on the subject. Instead, we decided to play some kind of a passive card game along with her classmate – another 13 year old girl (who incidentally introduced my cousin to One Direction).

And before we started our game, I told them I was going to play some music from my phone. I told them it will be playing in the background and we can start playing the game. I put on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and on came “Give Life Back to Music”.

It must have taken about all of two minutes before both my cousin and her friend remarked, “What band is this? This is really good music!” I just smiled and told them who it was. And last I heard, they was listening to ‘Random Access Memories’ on a loop.

There are two very significant lessons to be learned just from this one seemingly trivial (and admittedly hilarious) incident. But before I go into that, an important thing to understand is this: What was seen with my 13 year old cousin is also highly representative of the mindset of a large fraction of the population when it comes to listening to and discovering new music.

The first of the two lessons is about the act of getting stuck in some kind of a comfort zone. For my 13 year old cousin, it was with the music of One Direction. For a lot of other people at different stages in their life (age-wise or exploration of music), it is something else. One of the simplest ways this phenomenon manifests itself is perhaps also the most common: A person who has spent a few years of their life listening to (and coming to like) a specific genre typically finds it very difficult to put in the effort to actively explore other genres by themselves. (As an extension, there are even some people who tend to stick to the few bands that they know of and rarely put in the effort to explore other bands – even within the same genre). A little thought into this and into our own habits can reveal the different manifestations of this particular aspect in the way we ourselves listen to music (past and present).

Essentially, it is the sense of comfort that familiarity brings with it that can make a listener continue to seek out what they already know. As a corollary, the perception of the effort that one has to put in to actively and consciously go out of this comfort zone and explore new genres of music is sufficiently big, such that few actually cross that barrier. This phenomenon is more significant than what we are willing to acknowledge.

The second of the two lessons is to do with those instances when a person actually crosses that barrier and discovers new music. By default, any person who has become really obsessed with a particular band or genre of music has had to have gone through the process of actually discovering the said (at the time) new genre. So, if we go by the previous proposition that it is very difficult to get a listener to actively explore new music, how then have most people discovered new music and genres so far?

The answer is simple. Most people discover music passively. 

It is typically a moment of inspiration that drives people into exploring a new band or a new genre of music. Perhaps you heard it over the radio on your way to work and it struck a chord with you; maybe you heard it being played at your friend’s place and you wanted to borrow his CD; it came up on one of your Pandora stations and you instantly liked it; or you heard this song on a movie soundtrack and you just had to know which band it was; or a band/playlist that your favorite artist (or anyone you respect) recommended.

All the above examples of listening to music and discovering something new that you like has a common thread running through it. In none of the cases were you actively, consciously, proactively seeking out to explore new bands or genres. Instead, in all the cases above, you just happened to be listening to music when you had absolutely nothing at stake. There was no pressure on you from those sources of music to ‘like’ that band. Nor were there any expectations of what would come out from the act of listening to music under those circumstances. Ultimately, there was no real ‘investment’ or ‘effort’ required by you in order for you to experience that moment of inspiration.

This is essentially the act of listening to music ‘passively’. And it is this process that leads people to discover new music and explore new bands. The strongest connection between a fan and an artist is made when there is absolutely nothing at stake. And it is only after such a connection is made that the fan begins to invest their time and money on the artist. They buy their albums, go to concerts, buy merchandise, etc. And what’s more? They even recommend the band to their friends thus starting a positive feedback chain. All banking on a moment of inspiration that mostly happens when there is nothing at stake.

And this is exactly what happened with my 13 year old cousin and Daft Punk. She formed a connection with the band in a situation where there was no pressure of any kind whatsoever. ( I proceeded to give her a playlist of what I thought she should explore and after a couple of days she came back and said, “I really like this band. I think it is called Led Zeppelin.” Mission accomplished).

This post would be incomplete without pointing out the fact that there is a small fraction of people who do not fall under the category mentioned above. These are people who do not necessarily need a ‘nothing at stake’ situation in order to experience a moment of inspiration. These are people who actively go in search of new music and looking for new recommendations – being fully aware that there are many yet-to-be-explored bands out there that are creating music that you would love. These are also usually the highest spenders on music. And if you are one of them, chances are you have friends around you who are like that as well. But this should not imply that a majority of the population is like that.

Music may appear to be everywhere. But the true gift of music is yet to be given to most of the population, and that moment of inspiration should reach out to as many people as possible. It is a win/win situation.

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As the title indicates, this post is about the fan’s perspective of discovering new music. But what about the music industry? And the artists themselves? This I intend to explore in the next post – hopefully in a week’s time.

Are You Replaceable?

It’s a simple question, but one that is perhaps the hardest to ask of yourself. 

“Am I Replaceable?”

Well, maybe not everyone, but most of us.

A few years ago, a friend of mine working for a company that provided background checking services decided to quit the place as she found a new job elsewhere. When she quit, nobody in her company expressed even the least bit of concern that someone who had a lot of experience and who was good at their job was leaving. The way they looked at it was that once she left, someone else would be in line to take over her position. Simply put, she was ‘replaceable’. 

That was, like I mentioned, a few years ago. But over the past couple of days, for reasons unknown to me, I have revisited the idea of being replaceable very deeply. So I am wondering:

Are We Replaceable?

All of us like to think of ourselves as unique, as one of a kind. There is something different in us that separates us from everybody else. It must be in our character. So on and so forth. Right? Right? 

Just take a look at where you are, what you have done in your life, what you have achieved in your life, who you are married to, who your friends are, what kind of life they are leading, what kind of a life you envision for the future, and what kind of a life the other people you know in your life have envisioned for their future? Fact is that every one of us have done something or the other with our lives. We have gone to school, perhaps gone to college, got a bachelor’s degree, perhaps even a Master’s degree, (and for an immigrant like me, made the trip to the USA for my Master’s), some of us are now married to someone, maybe we even have kids or are planning to in the near future, have a steady job that promises good career growth, helping out a lot of people at the job, working on new products, etc. etc. 

Which is all good – as long as people agree that all these things that they have done could have/would have been done by any one of a lot of other people as well had they been in the same position as they were. That is to say, we haven’t done anything that someone else (among a lot of people) in our position would not have done. Or in other words: “We are replaceable.” 

Anytime we live our lives by putting in the effort to do mostly what we really ‘have’ to do in order to be considered successful in the eyes of society and family, we are replaceable. This is because there is always someone else who, with similar upbringing and societal influences, will achieve the same things with the same opportunities that we have had. 

But what about our relationships, you might ask? Surely each person is loved for his unique character and personality, right? Else, relationships could not possibly work at all, correct? 

No, wrong. 

Both my parents have shown me unconditional love all my life and I am extremely grateful for it. If, for instance, my character and personality was instead more like one of the dozens of friends I know, my parents would still love me just the same. I could have been like any one of the many different people I know and my parents would have loved me just the same. What about a husband and wife? Surely there is a higher demand of a specific character requirement there, right? 

Again, wrong.

Think of your partner right now. Now, also think of some of the other people of the opposite sex of about the same age that you know fairly well and you respect. Now think about what would have happened if you had met one of these other people at the right time and under the right conditions. You would perhaps be sharing your life with this other person instead of your current partner. It just so happened that you ended up meeting your current partner under the right conditions and so you ended up with him/her. 

So essentially, anyone (of the many many people in this world) fulfilling your set of basic criteria, who happens to be at a particular place at a particular time and under the right set of circumstances will very likely end up as your partner. Whatever may be your partner’s quirks or character flaws, you will just learn to adjust, adapt and not complain about it in the long run. And the sense of ‘irreplaceability’ that you may feel towards a person after being with them for a long time comes not from a sense of individual uniqueness, but more from a sense of security, familiarity and an inherent fear of change. 

So yes, your partner is replaceable. And since that applies reciprocally as well, it means that you are replaceable  too. 

If this sounds very depressing, that is because it is. Nobody wants their sense of self worth to take a beating. It is one of the worst feelings in the world. The objective here is not to belittle who we are or what we have achieved. Instead, the crux of this aspect of the human condition is to be brave enough to ask ourselves a very tough question:

“What have I done in my life that anyone else in my position with similar upbringing and influences would not have done?”

Another way to frame it would be:

“What have I done in my life that is beyond my basic duties as an employee/student, husband, son, father, friend, etc?” 

Or:

“What have I created in this life that nobody else in my position as an employee/student, family man, friend, etc. would have?”

If you are struggling to find answers to these questions, then you – like most of the earth’s population – are replaceable. You could be leading the life of any one of a million other people just like you – and any one of the million other people just like you would have done pretty much the same things as you have in your life. They would offer the same things as you do. And so, you are replaceable by any one of them.

Questioning your own sense of self worth is easily one of the hardest things to do – which is why nobody does it. Instead, we all want to feel good about ourselves and think of ourselves as unique and remarkable in our own way. But the truth is that most of us are neither remarkable nor unique. 

Because most of us are just REPLACEABLE. 

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PS: At some point in time in the future, I intend to write about the one exception to this rule: ART. 

 

 

 

 

The Unattainable Goal

I recently watched the movie ‘Neighbors’ starring Seth Rogen and Zach Efron. It is a typical summer comedy with a fair amount of its laughs. There is one sequence right at the end when Zach Efron (having been thrown out of college) is plying his trade in front of a Levi’s store as some kind of a live model encouraging passersby to visit the store – all the time when he is shirtless and sporting his muscular body. Seth Rogen stops by and decides to join him just because he always wanted to be one of those guys. So he takes off his own shirt and the two of them are outside the store striking poses and showing off their looks. The contrast is unmistakable – Zach Efron with his well toned slim muscular body and Seth Rogen with his pot bellied, fat oozing body – right next to each other. Seth Rogen is also aware of this contrast. But to his surprise, he sees a fair amount of people going into the store after he gets in on the act. After he sees that, the following short conversation ensues:

Teddy Sanders (Zach) : You make the store more approachable.
Mac Radner (Seth): Like, I’m more of an attainable goal?
Teddy Sanders (Zach): Yeah, you’re like Relaxed Fit.

The punchline for the humor is supposed to be Zach’s ‘Relaxed fit’ line. But before that, what Seth Rogen says about him being more of an attainable goal made me pause and contemplate it for a bit. Not about that line’s humor content, but more about just the idea of an attainable goal. And following that, I got into the idea of the ‘Unattainable Goal’. 

We all have goals and desires. We have been programmed to believe that goals and dreams can be achieved with sufficient dedication, hard work and perseverance – no matter what the obstacles. That there is always a way through. We hear and read about all the success stories – further fueling the notion that all we need to do is just keep working hard and put ourselves in more favorable positions that might lead to better opportunities. 

But what we don’t ever hear are about those goals that are out of our reach. Not because we are too lazy to work hard or stay disciplined and dedicated – but because we are just not capable of it. The reasons could be many and varied – insufficient funds, no family support, being handicapped, living in an oppressive/tyrannical society, legal obligations, health concerns, etc. But in every single of these cases, there is a common element running through it all – the helplessness of a constraint. 

You see, constraints are different than obstacles. Obstacles can be overcome with sufficient effort, practice and perseverance. Constraints, on the other hand, are like the carrot and the stick – no matter how hard you try, that carrot is always a stick’s length away. It’s always going to be just out of reach. You can always do something about obstacles and tests, but there is nothing – NOTHING – you can do about a constraint. 

And once you identify your own constraints, you also identify all those goals and dreams it impacts. Those are your unattainable goals. And you will never ever fulfill them. No matter how much you call on your dear friend HOPE to fill your life and convince yourself that everything is possible and will work out just fine, they will always remain your unfulfilled, incomplete desires, dreams and wishes. Sounds depressing doesn’t it?

During one of my darkest times, I had written about how the redundancy of hope has us all in a bind. And I suppose that is what is celebrated as the human condition. As far as my own condition goes, I have always considered myself to have been in a state of being ‘almost happy’. And a few months ago, I realized what my own unattainable goals were. Needless to say, it was hard to accept and deal with it. I still don’t think I am fully on board with that – maybe in the near future. But I suppose it is still better to know beforehand than to keep trying at something and never succeeding. 

It can be a useful thing to know your own unattainable goals. It will be a hard pill to swallow once you figure out what they are. But after you come to terms with it, it will be that much easier to deal with the circumstances that remind you of what you don’t have. 

Just remember that every one of us has our own unattainable goals. Whether we are willing to admit them to ourselves, however, is a different thing. We can choose to understand our own limitations in life and try to make the most of what we do have, or we can continue to live a life of frustration, incompleteness and unfulfilled dreams. It’s like in that beautiful song:

Encumbered forever by desire and ambition
There’s a hunger still unsatisfied
Our weary eyes still stray to the horizon
Though down this road we’ve been so many times

 

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PS: It was only after I finished writing this post did I realize that I actually ended up putting a positive spin on it. Just for the record, I had NO intention of putting any kind of positive spin on this post. I had fully intended it to be an extremely depressing piece of writing. But, in the end, this is how my thoughts flowed. And I am OK with it. 

2013 in Review: All the Concerts

Hopefully I get to do this every year. 2012 was awesome. 2013 started off awesome but kinda tapered down towards the end. But it still had some phenomenal highlights. Here is a quick recap:

1. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals at Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines: So this officially made Grace Potter the band I had seen the most number of times Live at 3. And I will watch her live again and again and again. I still maintain that there is nobody else I have seen who can match her stage presence. Having said that, her concert at the Nitefall on the River series in 2012 had set the bar so high that it was never going to be matched again. Memorable experience for sure and I will donate my money without a blink of my eye to see her perform Live again. She really means it when she says that she performs every concert like it is her last.

2. Bosnian Rainbows at Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis: After my good friend introduced me to the universe of Omar-Rodriguez Lopez, I was always going to go watch Bosnian Rainbows – his latest venture – in Minneapolis. Dude looks like he just got out of high school and he really gets into his music.

Bosnian Rainbows at Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis

Terri Gender Bender knows how to put on a show and I loved the sound. Best part of the show was when – at the end – Omar thanked the crowd at the bar for coming out and supporting the band. He did that by speaking directly to the crowd instead of talking into the mic. Respect.  Full Review here. 

3. Sigur Ros at Starlight Theater in Kansas City: What can I say? I think the correct terminology is ‘a religious experience’ or ‘a spiritual experience’. I was going through a very gloomy stage of my life largely due to the never ending winter. It had taken a toll on me and I was barely surviving. And then when I watched them Live, it was close to being a life altering experience. It is one of those experiences when you reach a higher state of consciousness and you have an epiphany about your life. No need for any drugs, just the sadness in his voice is sufficient. As I wrote in my detailed recollection, “I do not know if I found the answer I was looking for. But I definitely found the answer I needed to know.”

4. Steven Wilson at Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis: Having missed his previous two visits to the US (Blackfield and first solo tour), I had to make sure that I saw him Live this time around. Conveniently playing at Minneapolis over the weekend too. So pretty much a no brainer and everything else had to just wait. His latest album ‘The Raven…” is his best piece of work since Deadwing. Drive Home and The Watchmaker along with The Raven moved me close to tears. But the song I really was looking forward to and one that had grown on me was ‘Deform to form a Star’ from his earlier album.

Steven Wilson at Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis

Not disappointed. I ended up buying The Raven T-Shirt (the one with the spooky moon) and it has been one shirt that has attracted a lot of attention everywhere I went. No seriously, I have had a whole bunch of people come to me and talk to me about it everywhere I went.

5. Opeth with Katatonia at Wooly’s in Des Moines: Opeth was in Des Moines! Do you believe it?!?? It had been like ages since I had listened to Opeth. I had seen them Live at IITM a long ass time ago. But this time I was watching them in a significantly smaller venue – like all of 10 ft away and with a glass of Jameson in my hands. Always better with Jameson in my hands. He played Hessian Peel. That made my day. I will freely admit I had stopped listening to metal for a while by then. But Opeth with Katatonia in Des Moines?? Well, I just had to see them Live as a matter of general principle. Fully satisfied.

6. Fleetwood Mac at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines: This is a band I had wanted to see Live since high school. One of the few bands whose music connected to me at a very fundamental level. Stevie Nicks’ live voice is different than what it sounds on the albums. But then if I wanted to listen to her sound like she does on the album, I would just play the album. And that is what made the concert really good. The band just sounded different – with more of a live music feel. I think it is important that I fully attest to the fact that Lindsay Buckingham has an awesome awesome voice – and he is an extremely underrated guitar player. Mick Fleetwood is OLD. But I don’t think he knows that. Dude was drumming the shit out of every song – and THEN he decided to do a drum solo. Talk about passion. The only thing disappointing about the sound was John’s bass. It was barely audible. Extremely disappointing considering how much I grew up inspired by those basslines.

They played every single song I wanted them to. Of course there was no Christine, so they only played those that had Stevie/Lindsay on the vocals. Best surprise was when they played ‘Sisters on the moon’ and ‘Gold Dust Woman’! Did not see those coming at all! 

Apart from the songs themselves, one aspect of the concert I truly admired was the genuine acknowledgement and appreciation the band members showed to the crowd for their continued support. It was the appreciation of a band that has been around for decades together, who have seen it all, who have everything they ever wanted, who have absolutely nothing left to prove to anybody, and who realize that after all these years they are only around because their fans want them to be around. Stevie Nicks spoke at length to the crowd before the last song actually explaining how she felt about all the support she has received from the band’s fans all through her career. Truly remarkable gesture from the band and the crowd knew it. 

All in all, very very satisfying concert – more so because it was something I had pretty much given up on ever witnessing. Could have been even better if it wasn’t for that annoying 40 something woman in front of me who kept dancing like she had the entire place to herself – hitting people around her without as much as a sense of space. I get it – people enjoy music differently. But then, still, f*** you.

7. 80-35 Music Festival in Des Moines: This was 2 days of awesome fun. This was the first time that I truly experienced a music festival – everything it has to offer. I realized that music festivals are not about watching a lot of your favorite bands play in one place. It is more about just wandering around and finding a band that you had no idea about playing some wonderful music and being drawn to it. The festival was skewed more towards alternative and indie rock bands, but also included a few folk, acoustic bands and a bunch of DJs. Biggest discovery for me was Deerhunter, Yeasayers and Umphrey’s McGee. Deerhunter especially. Who knew I would just walk into some noise  influenced band at a music festival in Des Moines? Always loved the summer atmosphere on display during the festival. Reminds me of why it is OK to live through the god forsaken winter.

8. Telescopes with LSD and the Search for God: This was right after the 8035 festival and it was all noise and shoegaze. As I wrote in my detailed recollection, as far as the sound goes, well, FUCK! I felt that I had finally got what I was unknowingly looking for all my life. That one sound that would just ‘hit the spot’. The Telescope’s noise and shoegaze hit the spot alright. And more importantly, it opened me up to a whole new set of bands and sounds. Perfect Noise and mindblowing Shoegaze. Special shout out to LSD and the Search for God. Awesome Stoner music.

9. Blue Oyster Cult at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines: Free show at the State Fair! WoW! I didn’t know these guys were still even playing. The only day I was able to go the fair, I caught these guys playing all their hits – every one of them. Fuckin’ A!

10. Tame Impala and The National at Starlight Theater in Kansas City: The best album of 2013 as far as I have explored music is Tame Impala’s Lonerism. Finally a band that knows how to use the bass guitar. Tame Impala is the biggest discovery I have made in all of 2013 and I got to see them live. It was a short setlist – a little more than an hour – but they played most of their new album. You just got to check out their latest album.

The National was the main act but I had personally gone there to see Tame Impala. But clearly The National is awesome. The vocalist dude could sing one song in a haunting melancholic voice and the next he would be screaming like he was in a hardcore punk rock band. Great songs too.

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So that was it. All the concerts I went to in 2013. 2014 has so far started off slow, but am looking forward to seeing Mogwai in Des Moines. I am also going to make an additional effort to visit the local smaller venues more frequently. After all, music is music. Where I discover it doesn’t make any difference.

On the Back of a Bar Receipt in Chicago

Last year I was on vacation in Chicago with my parents. I had spent a good 60 hours with them at a stretch. On the 3rd evening, I reached a point when I just needed some alone time. The sun was just about to set and so I put my parents on one of the awesome double decker buses that would just take them around downtown showing the night view of the city’s skyline. And within 100 seconds of them boarding the bus, I was seated at a bar, drinking Oberon.

Sitting alone there and drinking my beer, I got into a fairly introspective state of mind – having an existential conversation with myself in my head. Continued consumption of alcohol clearly helped sustain it. I must have spent a good two hours there, because by the time I was about to leave I had a good buzz going in my head. I remembered that I had asked my parents to meet me at the Hancock tower by 9. So I closed my tab and the bartender gave me my copy of the receipt and wished me a good evening. I was just about to leave in that buzzing state of mind when all of a sudden I found myself IN THE ZONE. It came calling out of nowhere – like it always does. And I had to answer. The Zone is where my inspiration comes from – for anything and everything – and when I am in it, I need to explore it in full.

At that moment, sitting at that bar in Chicago, what came to me was a set of words and lines. Not too many, but something that I just had to write down immediately, lest I forget it the next minute. So I quickly asked the bartender for a pen and started writing on the first piece of paper I could find – on the back of my copy of the receipt.

And I was able to write down everything that came to me at that moment. And once I knew there was nothing more to write, I felt truly content. I stored that receipt in my wallet and went searching for the Hancock Tower.

Today, I decided to clean out my wallet to see all the hidden treasures it housed. And it was then that I found the receipt still in there – still containing all the words I wrote. And that made me smile – and write this post.

So here it is – the words that came to me at a bar in Chicago last summer.

It is truly phenomenal what contrast can accomplish. Just being subjected to the ideas and circumstances that you so desperately crave for can make you truly see what you don’t have. That’s all it takes. A true acknowledgement of what you don’t have. And you will get into that beautiful introspective state of melancholy. It is so intimate – just the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. It is something you can always count on – the intimacy of helplessness and hopelessness. In a world filled with such uncertainty, when something like this provides an enormous sense of certainty, it is hard not to fall in love with it. Think about it – the intimacy of helplessness and hopelessness. It is just so beautiful!

 

Making the Case Against Happiness: Societal and Religious Expectations

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts dealing with society’s incomplete, unfair and misplaced perception of happiness. 

The Happiness Industry is everywhere. It exists because we all want to be happy all the time. From the self help books, to the ‘Lead your life’ seminars, to the daily inspirational quotes, to all the websites and blogs giving you their own unique tips, to the religion sponsored salvation guarantees, to the different schools of thought offering that elusive ‘inner peace’, to the innumerable God Men who claim to know the path to enlightenment, to the beauty products that guarantee your confidence, to the prescription pills promising to alleviate your stress, to the never ending advertisements that promise you happiness in exchange for some of your money. 

The Happiness Industry’s Product is now for sale: EVERYWHERE

IT IS EVERYWHERE.

It is also completely missing the point.

It starts off with parents telling their kids that everyone should be happy in life. That is then upgraded to be a requirement. Subsequently, it becomes an order. Then there is talk of REAL HAPPINESS and that it comes from within. Materialistic objects are then perceived to be providing only temporary pleasure and are apparently never fully satisfying. Then there is the sudden realization that maybe REAL HAPPINESS lies in religion and God. Then there is an alternative school of thought that promises that elusive ‘inner peace’. How about living in the present? Or how about that really charismatic person who apparently performs miracles and who seems to want to help everybody be happy? He can surely make people happy? Perhaps falling in love is the key to fulfillment. Having children and starting a family is maybe what is missing. That promotion should help things get better. No? Then perhaps go back to religion and God. That is always a safe bet, right?

How hard people try….. All the places they look…. All the things they believe in…..

All searching for HAPPINESS. All the time.

I have only one question: WHY?

The answer to that is not a WHY NOT? The answer to the question ‘Why are people always looking to be happy?’ is  that wanting to be happy is simply a consequence of societal and religious expectations. Same as getting an education, getting a job, starting a family, etc. This expectation of being happy is so deeply ingrained in us that it is extremely hard to justify to somebody that being happy should never be considered a necessity. The idea that, as a human being, the objective in life is to  be happy is an extremely fundamental and fixed frame of reference. Everything everybody ever sees is through this frame of reference.

Just one question: WHY?
Just one question: WHY?

A few instances: when we are not feeling good, we are encouraged to talk to people to feel better – nobody says it is OK to feel down; when a friend has lost someone, we tell them everything is going to be OK – nobody reminds them of what a big loss they have just had; when someone is feeling down, we make it our responsibility to make them feel better – we don’t suggest that they try to express it through a form of art; a therapist is always expected to solve other people’s problems so that they feel better; counselling is always encouraged for people to get out of traumatic situations; when we are angry we are told to calm down because being calm makes it easier to be happy – nobody encourages us to listen to heavy metal music in that state of mind.

Ultimately, every state of mind that is not directly linked to being ‘happy’ is always judged to be something inferior – and people are expected to rise above it, whatever it takes. If we are unable to rise above it, we are then considered weak. If we are not considered weak, we are shown a lot of sympathy and/or pity. Being treated with sympathy or being considered weak – fact is that both these are still going to consider us to be inferior and as somebody who needs help. Note that both society and religion has already decided that every individual personally desires to be happy all the time. If there is an exception, then, well, there is apparently something wrong with that person. Right?

And this is where I have a problem. I realize everyone likes being happy – if happy things happened to them. I only question the deeply ingrained dogma of a society to judge a person who is not ‘happy’ as someone inferior to the rest. I also question the even more fundamental idea that everyone in this world should actively strive for happiness all the time and that everything else is a bad idea.

Being a human being is not just about being happy. We have evolved to be able to experience an unbelievable spectrum of emotions. Happiness is only one small part of it. Being happy makes you experience a certain specific sensation or feeling. If the sum total of all the feelings that we have experienced in our life is restricted to this one specific feeling, then can we even claim to have fully lived like a human being?

Happiness is good. But this should never imply the converse – that anything apart from happiness is miserable and unacceptable. And it should never make it acceptable for the society to simply demand and expect people to be happy all the time and consider them inferior if they are not. And so I personally reject all schools of thought that make happiness/salvation/enlightenment as the fundamental objective of a human being during his or her lifetime.

Come to think of it, if everyone from the beginning of time was happy all the time, how do you think our history would read? It would perhaps comprise of one sentence: “And then Mankind lived happily ever after”. That would be such a boring and one dimensional history and I would not want to be any part of it – even if it had made me happy.

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In the next post, I will explore the role of ART in explaining why the societal and religious perception of happiness is incomplete and completely misplaced. 

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