Safe Spaces

When I heard the term “safe spaces” for the first time, I immediately thought of my English Honours classroom or the never-ending Debsoc discussions that spilled over into Metro rides and dinners. Those were safe spaces – where you could say the most counter-intuitive, blasphemous, even racist arguments if you wanted to and you would be cut down only through words. And people would consider your point before they tore it down. They were “safe” because you would not be physically or sexually assaulted for your beliefs. They were safe because you didn’t have to fear for your life outside the classroom if you had offended someone. They were “safe” because teachers and peers protected you from ad hominem attacks and unthought stereotypes were taboo (it wasn’t a ground rule, it was taboo because you would be proved wrong through argumentation and everyone would hate you for derailing the discussion). They were safe because you could ENGAGE “safely”.

Here, in Oxford that I saw “safe spaces” as homogenous, self-congratulatory spaces where no one can contradict you or make you see a viewpoint hitherto not engaged with, however despicable. As someone who loved debating in college and believes everyone must learn to debate as a life skill, obviously I rebelled against the notion. But surprisingly, the self-righteousness of safe spaces doesn’t allow people to see that there may be a problem with safe spaces itself. In creating safe spaces, the central point of universities or thought in general has been forgotten – the single verb “ to engage”.

Moments of Self Awareness

“I’m glad you are having a great time. I miss you. Come back soon”, said my friend from Delhi. Grinning broadly at the statement, I cut the phone and happily joined my friends for an evening swim while vacationing in Matheran, just before dusk. It was the sealing of an unspoken bond of deep friendship, unlike any I had known before. To me, it was a revealing moment when I realized that Delhi was now like my paramour. Mumbai had always been my first love but now, Delhi would torment me every time I came away from it. I was on my yearly trip to Mumbai and was vacationing in Matheran with my closest childhood friends. However, I missed Delhi and my friends there. I missed them so much that it was almost like an ache. The ache made me happy. I felt tender and vulnerable. The vulnerability heightened my senses and emotions, so now I was more aware of a sense of peace at being amongst people I grew up with, who I am most comfortable with. I was aware of the happiness and a sense of deep contentment flooding through me. I was also acutely conscious of missing Delhi and my friends there and the resultant ache, which was a happy ache. It told me that I would finally, after years of crying over Mumbai, return happily to my paramour and let him engulf me and torment me as he always does. I reflected on this sudden awareness that I seemed to have while at Matheran but sadly allowed the noise of regular life to drown out this amazing feeling.
Powerful moments like these bring about self-awareness. Self awareness is the single most important realization in life. Every single leadership school, book or guru will stress on it, including Warren Bennis who wrote ‘On Becoming a Leader’. In his chapter on Knowing Yourself, he used this excellent quote, ‘I have often thought that the best way to define a man’s character would be to speak out the mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensively active and alive. At such moments, there is a voice inside which speaks and says, “This is the real me”’ (James, William; Letters of William James) Self-awareness makes a person more confident, self-assured and controlled. It makes people calmer and more at peace with things. It does all the practical things like better decisions and greater productivity but transcendentally it puts to rest the turbulence of the mind. It is a flickering moment when you will feel alive like you don’t usually do and it is that moment that has to be grasped. That time in Matheran, I was more aware of myself than I had ever been. That was my flickering moment to grasp, to voice my state so that I would know myself. I lost that moment. What my feelings were saying to me then was a deeply troublesome and uncomfortable realization of how a lot of things in life were spiraling out of my control and that I needed to check them. However, the sheer hedonism of surrender took over and I did not seek to hold that moment and learn more about myself and maybe, begin a process of self-awareness. I have never felt like that ever since and I do not know how to become aware anymore. Hopefully, life will give me a second chance.
What was more important was the moment I lost. A moment when I should have told my friend that I missed him too. A moment when I should have strengthened a bond. This is more general than self-awareness and something people do very often. It is a rare moment to be struck by unexplainable emotions and people feel the intensity of their emotions in those moments but let them slide away. Those moments never return and are only regretted later in life. Such moments are powerful. They give you a glimpse of what it is like to be truly alive and happy, how exhilarating emotions can feel and the kind of pure joy which can only be aspired to. Pure happiness and joy is an aspiration, the highest one since everything we do in life is finally building up to that one moment itself. Like Ayn Rand says in The Fountainhead, “Love is reverence, and worship, and glory, and the upward glance. Not a bandage for dirty sores. But they don’t know it. Those who speak of love most promiscuously are the ones who’ve never felt it. They make some sort of feeble stew out of sympathy, compassion, contempt and general indifference, and they call it love. Once you’ve felt what it means to love as you and I know it – total passion for the total height – you’re incapable of anything less.” (Rand, Ayn; The Fountainhead) People don’t realize that emotions are to be achieved and that is why, moments when a heightened emotion is felt is a lucky moment indeed. In this journey, a moment lost is many years lost. Every moment that affects you in a powerful way should be pinned down, written about and pondered over. It will not necessarily mean something then, but will build up to a person’s knowledge of themselves later.
I realized this when I saw the most colorful, beautiful tent I have ever seen. I went to the Jaipur Literature Festival in January and this tent was one of the venues for the various sessions. The ‘Baithak’ tent was a riot of bold, inundated colors amidst a mass of winter colors in the cold January morning at Jaipur. It stood out boldly and proudly, letting the sun make it look transparent and delicate. I was overjoyed at seeing this tent. The clean simplicity of a splash of bold, uninhibited color aroused an indescribable feeling in me. It made me feel happy. It made me feel stronger yet tenderer. It made me remember emotions I had felt at bitter-sweet times in my life. It was a mix of exhilaration and a heightened sense of pain. The emotion was all positive. Unlike the single, unadulterated color that caused it, the emotion was a crazy tumult of many emotions coming together to make a happier me. It was like many bright colors coming together to make the white of the rainbow. These single colors came together not only to create a powerful image but also a powerful emotion. I loved seeing a power play between two entities that complement each other. Here, the objects and the people were against the color of the tent.
This moment I captured in words and my friend captured it for me in a beautiful photograph. The tent was on object of art for me and I wished I could take some of the color back home with me. This moment told me what colors can do to me and I have recorded this moment, to come back to later in life, when it will all make sense. It was one of the most powerful emotions I have felt and remember. In low moments, this brings back a smile on my face as I remember what I felt then and re-live it.
All said and done, moments are the strong building blocks for life and its experiences. Sadly, people lose some of the most important moments in life by not paying enough attention to them. They enjoy them and let them fade away without realizing that if they only stopped to think about why they felt how they did or even articulated what they felt, the moment would become a memory and comfort them at other times. It would become a building block, a dot that could be connected with others to make sense of what life has been. As Steve Jobs said in his famous Stanford Commencement Speech,

“You can’t connect the dots going forward.”

All that people can make sure is that they mark that dot and all else will fall into place.
Next time you feel different, stop and think what is it, why is it and let the moment become a part of your memory. It will only help you create a clear picture out of a haze of ideas and opinions. The knowledge of what people felt at these moments can be the most empowering bit of knowledge ever. Take a little time to get it from yourself.

Read some philosophy…

Read philosophy. Dance. Read some Kafka. And then some more. Read some more philosophy. Read Plato. Then Kant. Then Nietzche. Then read Kafka. Disturbed? Dance. Then read some more. Wonder. What sits at the back of our minds? What is in those dark crevices we never shake? Why do we lead such superficial lives? Why don’t we shake those crevices? Show them some light? Let that question come ahead. You won’t. Why don’t you? It disturbs you without being articulated. Think about it. Try to articulate it. Let it enlighten you. You won’t. You’ll drink coffee, talk to an acquaintance, sleep. It’ll stay hanging, unarticulated and unresolved. It will go back to those dark crevices. Why are you afraid? Read some more philosophy. Write your term paper. Read some more. Articulate. You won’t. Sleep. Go to class the next day.

Damn you.

Baithak – Jaipur Literature Festival 2012

[this is a writing assignment that asked me to describe my experience of an object of art that I encountered. The art object in question is the Baithak Tent at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2012, as clicked by Ritambhara Agrawal]

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I was going to enjoy literature. I was not going to be dazzled by the tent or fall in love with a photograph that caught the ceiling of the tent in a beautiful way. I was going to have fun with my friends and listen to authors speak. I was not going to resist going to the Baithak and sitting with the crowd there. My trip to the Jaipur Literature Festival was all that it should not have been and the Baithak was at the centre of it all.

I was tired and hazy and all I wanted was a strong cup of coffee and my bed. It had been an all-night journey, no sleep, serious conversations and a feeling of dread followed by no breakfast and generally weary feeling. Nothing could cheer me up. Or so I thought. I had forgotten the effect colour has on me. I saw the Baithak tent from a distance, as I was hurrying to get a cup of coffee before the next session. It looked straight out of a carnival that we read about in books. It made me smile. The designer was playing with literature by putting something so obviously out of a book there in the festival as a venue. I also appreciated the idea of a riot of strong colors amidst the colorful crowd. The colors did not blend; they stood out, lending a solid base to the rest of the carnival. The next session started and the Baithak was forgotten.

The next day I had to attend a session. But strangely, I did not want to go. I did not want to sit amidst the crowds; I did not want to sit with my friends. But I wanted to hear the authors and poets speak. I decided to walk into the session late and sit at a corner, from where I could leave when I so desired. However, I was spotted by my rather enthusiastic friend who for some unfathomable reason had been saving me a seat and I had to go and sit with them all. I looked around and marveled at the tent again. The thick strips of bold and powerful colors stitched together for a regal feel and the low couches and beds made me feel like a guest of the royalty. It had the charm of the old, royal tents and I was struck once again, by the effect color can have on me. The clean simplicity of a splash of bold, uninhibited color arouses an indescribable feeling in me. It makes me feel happy. It makes me feel stronger yet tenderer. It makes me remember emotions I felt at bitter-sweet times in my life. It’s a mix of exhilaration and a heightened sense of pain. The emotion is all positive. Unlike the single, unadulterated color that causes it, the emotion is a crazy tumult of many emotions coming together to make a happier me. It is like many bright colors come together to make the white of the rainbow. These single colors come together not only to create a powerful image but also a powerful emotion. I love seeing a power play between two entities that complement each other. Here, the objects and the people were against the color of the tent.

There was another complicating element here. The sunlight streaming through the tent, complementing the general warmth felt while listening to people who make the literature we read today. The sunlight paled the colors of the tent, making the cloth of the tent look transparent and delicate. It did not weaken the colors though. It seemed to refine them and make them look more delicate and sophisticated while retaining their power and solidity. I saw this photo much later and fell in love with it. I was amazed by what a camera angle can do and how beautiful leaves silhouetted against a tent ceiling can look. It had color and the sun, two beautifully uplifting images. It made me smile broadly and forget all my irritation. I was alive, I was litening to lietartore and I could feel an emotion as powerful as I did when I came into the tent. That is all that matters, really. Jaipur, I shall come again. We have a score to settle. I have things to do. To re-live that I which I lived and live that which I was not able to.

Debating As An Academic Tool

A fondly remembered part of many students’ lives is the time they spent debating. Arguing vociferously for one side, picking out logical loopholes and eventually, convincing the other side of the universality and fundamentality of the principle that one side defended. It has always been an unstructured, extra-curricular activity which ‘develops your all-round personality.’ However, it does more. As a debater, I have seen how debating is a crucial tool to any academic learning. Structured training in the art of debating is essential for academic development. Debating shapes a debater’s thought-flow, making it sharper, more analytical and more efficient.

Debating has been wrongly perceived as quotations, facts, statistics and verbose language and grandiose gesticulations which are expected to, somehow, make an argument for itself. That is ‘elocution’. Facts and statistics are just facts and statistics. They strengthen arguments; they do not become the argument. The statistic says so-and-so, hence it proves this. That is the content of a debate. Academically, it teaches you to use different references and examples and make connections. It teaches you to connect abstract philosophy to reality and use historical precedence to strengthen an argument. Debating teaches you to use different strands of information and weave them together to create the bigger picture; thus teaching students to view an issue from different subject angles.

Analysis of a stated assumption is crucial to good debating. It is impossible to win a debate unless one gives an analysis of their argument and explains it in detail. Given that each speaker has a limited time to speak, prioritization of arguments and a clear analysis in a short but good explanation is essential.

Debating, by its very nature, lays great stress on structured arguments and logical flow. It requires constant engagement and referral to the opposition’s argument in a sequenced manner. While preparing before speaking, a debater automatically jots down arguments in a structured manner, clubbing examples and presenting them one after the other, each argument picking up from the last and connecting to the original burden of proof. A good debate speech can be succinctly represented by a flow-chart on paper. All connections made, the bigger picture is never too difficult to see.

Many dismiss debating as a superficial activity where one isn’t really passionate about his side, since one has to debate whatever side one is asked to. Yes, a hijab wearing debater will defend the ban on the headscarf in France. Being forced to take the other side of an issue they feel strongly about and being forced to counter-argue your own reasons for believing in something is the best learning a school or college student can receive. Through debating, they learn to question and challenge their own beliefs. Surprise at their own passionate opposition to their previously-held belief makes every debater question themselves and analyze the flaws in what they believed. Such critical questioning serves a person and consequently, an organization or a nation well. This exercise also makes a person see both sides of an argument, allowing for holistic thinking and the knowledge of the bigger picture.

To able to recognize a weak argument and counter it, it is essential to be able to cut through the rhetoric surrounding it and get to the crux of what is being said. A seasoned debater is never carried away by his emotion, yet knows how to make highly rhetorical speeches to confuse the opposition. He can spot that weak link in the flow of arguments. Such skill comes with training and can be learnt over time. It refines judgment and the ability to sift through rhetoric and get to the point. It only improves quality of written work, research papers and flow of class discussions.

Philosophical debates, scientific debates and other generalized use of the term shows how intrinsic debate is to academia and learning and all-round development of a personality. Great academics, parliamentarians and rulers have debating in common. It is unfortunate that the importance of debating as an academic tool is not recognized. It is a serious pedagogical tool as well as it makes students use facts to make arguments, not just learn them by rote. It constantly tests their awareness and attention in class. The categorization of debating as an extra-curricular activity precludes it from becoming an essential skill that must be acquired by all students.

What is required is a rigorous training in debating from school level, where students are not taught to declaim in a grandiose style but focus on how they arrive at the content they are presenting. The demands of debating must be kept in mind by the teachers while training. Colleges do train students in this manner by teaching them the Parliamentary Style of Debating but there is scope for a lot more.

Continuous debating, training and feedback make all the above stated qualities automatic and natural in a person. The demands made by debating on the thought-flow of a debater become the way a debater’s mind functions effortlessly, all the time. Such a thought-flow ensures that students can make proper use of the knowledge that they possess. In today’s age of rote-learning for exams and unemployable graduates, debaters are a breath of fresh air. They possess the necessary communication skills, are confident and can speak in a clean, crisp manner. Many may argue that introverts or shy people may not take to it well. Debating, like every other subject or activity, comes naturally to some and not to others. However, it can be learnt. Thinking like a debater is important. The public speaking bit will help confidence and personality but the crux is shaping the thought flow. That needs to be taught in schools and colleges as a serious academic skill. It not only helps students academically but also makes them sharper, more aware and generally knowledgeable. Who would say that the world doesn’t need many more such people?

The Other Side Of Power

(An assignment for a writing class has made me explore different essays and ideas and here is a small result of what I’ve been reading)

The gangster’s ‘moll’ is a fascinating subject. The intensity and passion in her love for somebody who doesn’t follow conventional standards of morality, for somebody who is a bad guy has intrigued me ever since I can remember. She loves him. She hates him. She is consumed by her own turbulent emotions, poignantly caught in the last scene from Kurbaan (2009), where Avantika is complicit in her terrorist husband, Ehsaan’s death. Clinging lovingly to him as he lives his last moments, she asks him his real name. The reply frustrates her and she pushes him in hatred. He had lied to her about his name along with other things. The gangster’s moll is not envied by anyone. She is detested by most. Her thoughts are taken for granted and she lives alone in her own tumult, hating most the man she loves the most. The seemingly ‘arrogant’ newcomer who settles down immediately and begins impressing all teachers and acing all exams is an object of envy and at times, hatred. However, he is scared and trying to look confident. He overdoes the acting and begins to look arrogant. An ordinary British officer in the colonial Raj suffered due to his position. He was disturbed and aghast at the workings of the colonial rule but hated by the natives because he was a representation of the same. It is that feeling of power that has been an object of fantasy for many. We desire it, we love it, we envy it, we hate it. Of course, we acknowledge that with power comes responsibility and theirs is a tough job, but we don’t know or read about their moments of loneliness, moments of frustration, moments when they rue the day they ever took up the job, moments when they want to quit, to escape.

Power can be exuded everywhere. We give someone we hate power over ourselves. We give them power to affect our thoughts and consequently our judgment and actions. What we seldom see is the other side of power. Like George Orwell writes in his famous essay ‘Shooting an Elephant’(Orwell, George), he was hated by the natives when he was posted in Myanmar. He notes, it was the only time in his life that he was “important enough”(Orwell, George; Shooting An Elephant) to be hated. However, “I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked my job and got out of it, the better.” (Orwell, George; Shooting An Elephant).  Quite contrary to the popular notion that the colonialists enjoyed ruling over us. Many of them probably did not like being away from their homes or families, forced to administer a ‘bunch of natives’ who hated them. Their life was one big irony. They were repelled by the workings of the Raj that they served but they were hated as representations of it. It is an interesting insight into the mind of the ordinary British officer, the ordinary administrator who did not get the advantages and pleasures of being a colonizer and was very like the natives he ruled over. He hated the atrocities and the punishments and wanted no part in it. However, it was the only source that afforded him some power. We would like to believe that they power of ruling over the natives would have compensated for all the other problems. However, such lowly officers were small cogs in the colonial wheel. They did not get the privileges of being the real rulers. They were mere employees. Their position was in one important sense worse than the people they were ruling over. At least the natives had the freedom to be honest.

The natives could openly hate the empire. They could revolt and rebel. The natives had no pretences to keep up. However, these inconspicuous rulers did. They were actually helpless in the face of a mob. When George Orwell saw the elephant that had run amok, his rational judgment told him that shooting is not necessary and therefore, wrong. However, he still shot the elephant. As he says, “They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer performing a magic trick” (Orwell, George; Shooting An Elephant). He did it because the natives were following him in a crowd, wanting to enjoy themselves seeing their ‘sahib’ shoot the elephant. He was afraid of looking foolish in front of them if he desisted from shooting. He would never be able to earn their respect or have any authority over them if he didn’t shoot. The need to ‘look’ powerful and decisive; the need to ‘impress the native’(Orwell, George; Shooting An Elephant) overpowered any other rational thought. He was afraid of the sneers, the laughing eyes of the natives, the contemptuous looks. All this when he was the one ruling over them! “And it was at this moment, as I stood there with a rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East” (Orwell, George; Shooting An Elephant). He realized why Governments acted in a tyrannical manner, often unreasonably. It was not restricted to the petty employees. Even the big rulers were constantly worried about pleasing their people. Given that the Raj tried to pacify and please the colonized people, generally powerful people would definitely work to please those they controlled. They were fulfilling an obligation. They were not free to act by their own judgment. The symbolic figure of power became the standard that had to be adhered to.

Lord Rama’s banishment of Sita was on the same principle (Maharishi Valmiki; Ramayana). As King, he could not afford to set a wrong moral example. Sita had lived in another man’s house for many days. So, Sita had to take the test of fire to prove her purity. Morality was decided by the common mass intelligence, not Rama’s own education, judgment and faith. A washerman’s sensibilities made him banish Sita. He could not act out of his own rational judgment. He was powerless in front of the general sensibility that demanded Sita’s banishment. He would lose all respect and hence, a moral authority that a King must necessarily have if he did not act in this manner. He lost his wife as he became a puppet of his own position.

Being distinctly better than those around you gives a kind you a kind of influence and power. Then, it attracts a vicious circle of being hated for being good and becoming better in retaliation. A young fourth grader hated school. However, the teachers spoke glowingly of the confident, polite, helpful and happy child. The academic and extra-curricular results were brilliant. She was kind and generous to everyone. However, the constant comparisons with her achievements were probably more than her classmates appreciated. She was punished by her peers for being good, for having an original point, for being her natural self. She withdrew into her shell and spoke to no one. She found refuge in her work. She raised better arguments, read voraciously and drew references in all her essays, stories and projects. The circle was never ending. She was detested for being good and her retaliation was being better. However, she was deeply unhappy as her success was out of spite. However, she had no right to be, as people said. Just like Sherman Alexie who was an Indian living in Spokane. Indians who acted dumb in class were accepted by other Indians and pitied by the non-Indians. That was the norm. However Alexie thought differently, “I refused to fail. I was smart. I was arrogant. I was lucky.”(Alexie, Sherman; The Joys of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me) He sought refuge in books to ‘save his life’. He read all the time because he loved reading. That brought him ridicule. Then he read to escape the same ridicule. His arrogance came from being smart and it later came from being defensive. Alexie was caught up in a circle of doing things that he would be hated for, then doing them to escape the world in which he was hated. It is a great peril of being in power or simply standing out. Alexie and the young fourth grade had no choice because as Alexie says, “I am smart. I am arrogant. I am lucky. I’m trying to save our lives.” (Alexie, Sherman; The Joys of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me)

It is true that being in power or being better than the rest have their definite advantages. They do bring with them enough resources to be able to battle or at least tolerate and handle unpleasant people and their reactions. However, power makes one very lonely. Also, it is to sustain this power, to keep these perks and resources close to oneself that one becomes a puppet in the hands of those he rules. One lives amongst those who may or may not like him and adjusts his intelligence and judgement to that of crowd. The crowd has to be pleased and thus, a powerful man becomes less free than the people he supposedly rules over. So eventually whether in a democracy or an authoritarian state – who is the final ruler? Who is actually free?

Mr. Toohey

an excerpt from the fictional diary of Mr.Toohey. A diary I would love to get my hands on..

“……but I can whet and I can be the nice guy. A feeble attempt won’t hurt. It won’t change the course of things. I can still claim to have tried. But he doesn’t agree with me. He always contradicts. Even his silence reflects disagreement. Disagreement. How? That is dangerous. And there’s something about him that disconcerts. Something similar to her. Now she has to be kept mollified. She has to be respected because there’s a lot I can get done through her. But I don’t like the influence he has. The way he manages to get her point across and considered. Even though I’m considered smarter, better, more talented and knowledgeable…..

Who the hell is he anyways!?? Where has he come from? And how dare he prove a challenge to my authority? I need my slaves to be mine. An influence of someone who does not follow me is unthinkable. He must go… But how? How do I get my slave out from his orbit?…