Friday, August 29, 2014

Oiling Happiness

A couple of months back, I was having one of those sudden urges I occasionally get to read a book immedietely. Such urges have an uncanny ability to creep in exactly when there is not a single good book within reach. But they are also compulsive, and I couldn't give up. I scoured my uncle's place thoroughly, and located a few books that I had to do with. One of them was this interesting looking book that you see below. Since my work is related vaguely to the oil and gas industry, I decided to do something that I seldom do : mix business with pleasure.

Oil for the World by Stewart Schackne and D'Arcy Drake was published in 1955. The book seems to be extremely rare - Amazon has a used copy of it, but it is available neither on Wikipedia nor on Goodreads. The short book talks about the myriad benefits of oil and various oil products, gives a brief introduction on the history of discovery of oil, touches upon the common methods of oil extraction and exploration, and lays down a prediction of the usefulness of oil in the future. Considering the pace at which technology is advancing, it is amazing to think that a technical book written 60 years ago has a few things that are still relevant today. What interested me the most is the tone of the whole book. The authors, if one can take the privilege to judge a writer by his writing, seem to be from a right-leaning political ideology. The book is clearly meant for an American audience and might not have been expected to trot around the globe, but a conviction of the greatness of America emanates throughout the book. And the tone is infectiously enthusiastic, detailing about all the known uses of oil, and how new oil-rich regions were continuously being discovered. It also stresses the idea that the potential of oil was not yet realized, and that oil was not being used as much as it should have been. Obviously, it is impossible for the authors to have predicted a future where oil would be an extremely expensive product, apart from being exhaustible resource with harmful consequences to the environment. Today, we fight wars over oil. Children are killed for oil. Growing up in such an environment, it amused me to no-end to notice the optimistic tone this book repeatedly takes while talking about the oil reserve remaining in the Earth. It is as if the authors believed that there is an unlimited supply of oil. Or even more likely, they severely under-estimated the human capacity to consume oil.

Imagine this happening to us sixty years later. Visualize a bored guy with nothing better to do coming across our writings, and laughing at us taking for granted a thing that would become rare in his time; a thing that would cause wars, deaths, and destruction all around. What could such a thing be? Frankly, I have no idea. But let me engage my fantasies, and venture a wild guess : Happiness! Imagine us using up happiness as if it is an unlimited resource, only to find that it is formed by the fossilized remains of dead people, and we need to wait for more people to die and be processed before we could extract any more happiness. Imagine that us being recklessly happy is gradually boring a hole in the Ozone layer, letting in more harmful radiations. Picture a day when our children grow up to find that there is no more happiness left around. Do you really want such a bleak future for our children? Don't you want to be sustainable? Shouldn't we take more care that we don't waste happiness, and use it more optimally? Happiness is positive energy, as it is drilled often into us. And we all know that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can be only transferred from one (human) form to another. So, at any moment when you encountering exhilarating happiness, at whose cost is it? 

Fine, I will admit it. That is extremely stupid. My wild guess is too wild, and does not have a single shred of logic in it. It is ludicrous. But my preposterous theory is just a response to an equally ludicrous, if not more, news item that provoked me. As per the news item, Chief Happiness Officer is a new job description that is attaining prominence in silicon valley corporations. Following the lead of Google, supposed to be one of the best employers around, these companies are monitoring how happy their employees are, and  attempting to increase the happiness of their employees. In this quest, the employees are subject to constant surveillance. And why are they doing this? They are implementing ideas from "scientific studies" that show that happier employees are more productive that normal employees. I feel extremely unsettled by this. Think of what could happen when corporates start monitoring the happiness of their employees and potential employees. For instance, a potential employee who has just lost a family member would have unfair hurdles in getting a job, as he/she might "lower the productivity" of the company. The whole idea is Orwellian.

I wonder how such studies measure happiness, a term that is excessively vague. As as example of its vagueness, consider the entry for Happiness in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (a very useful website for people who want to understand Philosophy, and people like me who want to pretend that they do). The entry starts by mentioning that there are two different senses of using the word "Happiness", remarks that both of them are often confused with each other, and then goes on to use the term in both senses confusingly. Study or no study, happiness is ill-defined, and over-rated - at least in one sense of the word. Here is a comic that tries to explore the two facets of happiness.

Admittedly, it can be argued that momentary happiness is just caused by enzymes such as Serotonin. Studies have shown that running makes people happy. Drugs can make one happy, at least temporarily. Thinking that one is happy makes one happy. In fact, a casual glance at any social networks makes it seem like everyone everywhere is happy. "I enjoyed my weekend with curd rice and pickle at Muniyandi Vilas. The pickle was a bit salty, but the curd rice was delicious.  Had a wonderful time with my best-friends" [attach all-smiles selfie with incompatible roommates, and then fight over whose turn it is to pay the bill]. But again, happiness caused in such an unnatural way does not last for long. Are such momentary pleasures what we desire? While the previous generation was burdened by conservative and close-knitted societies that hated novelty, we are burdened by a desire to show the World that we love our lives. Those who don't become social outcasts by an unspoken code of modern society.

Happy birthday, happy new year, happy holidays, happy weekend, happy married life, happy-second-anniversary-of-the-day-you-came-third-in-lemon-and-spoon-race, happy 14/14/2014, happy pets day, happy this and happy that. We are always expected to be happy, and we constantly feel the need to be happy, or at least project that we are happy. The French revolution changed all existing ideals in life. Until then, religion was the highest virtue. People were more worried about happiness after death than happiness in life. While the revolution brought in a welcome change, it seems that we are gradually moving towards another extreme; of valuing ourselves, our passions, our abilities, and our pleasures too highly.

What we need is an acceptance of the fact that happiness is just a part of life, and there a myriad other emotions we need to learn to deal with. We need to realize that it is okay to be sad. Like Seneca famously quipped "What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears". It might seem as if I am an advocate of pessimism, and I probably am. But I don't think so, for all I want is a little bit of moderation. And the only way to deal with ludicrous excesses of optimism is with some excessive pessimism. Which is why, my (current) favorite living Philosopher is Alain De Botton. After watching a few of his talks, I have finally managed to start reading his boook : The Consolations of Philosophy. Google him, check out his talks, and read his articles. "We are not only unhappy, but also— believing calm and happiness to be the norm—unhappy that we’re unhappy", he says in an article, and I completely agree with him. No wonder we have people who seem to possess every reason to be happy, and are still depressed. Happiness is probably a limited resource, after all.

On that note, my most favorite piece of writing on Happiness is by a blogger I was introduced to by a friend. What great economy of words and an amazing ability to create metaphors! Here is this blogger's take on The Poetry of Happiness :

The poetry of happiness depends on an element of surprise. It is lithe and built like a jungle cat. Adept in the art of camouflage, capable of consummate stillness and able to traverse large distances with great velocity. In ill-advised moments you find yourself stalking it through the jungle of the day with your too-loud feet and bad-timing (your species was not built for stalking). Later, in an unguarded moment, happiness will pounce on you. Roll you to the floor with soft paws and sit on your stomach gleefully. Joy will swallow you whole. Because you are prey to happiness. And always have been. Not the other way around. It. Has. Never. Been. The other way around.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Comprehensive (but clumsy) Career Flowchart

Ever since the overwhelmingly positive response by all of my one and half readers for The Depression Flowchart that I created a little more than a year ago (oh, how time flies!), I have been wanting to replicate my modest success by designing yet another flowchart. For the longest of time, it looked as if my flow-chart designing career would be similar to Arundathi Roy's fiction writing career. Come to think of it, even Arundathi Roy continues to write fiction, though she chooses to publish them in news magazines and Editorials for some indiscernible reasons. Inspiration strikes when least expected, and I was struck and struck hard (cue, Ravi Shastri) when I was contemplating on the career of, err, a friend of a friend of mine. So, here it is : a comprehensive career flow chart. Check out where you stand right now, and get a fair idea of how your career will proceed. Try not to get lost. In life, and in this unnecessarily complex flowchart.

A few quick notes
  1. For each question in a diamond shaped decision point, follow the green arrow if your answer is "Yes", and the red (ish) arrow if your answer is "No".
  2. This chart is only for people with jobs. And for the most part, it assumes that once you are caught in the vicious circle of career, you will continue to be in it until the end of your career
  3. All data has been obtained through scientifically proven and tested sources such as unaccountable whims. 
  4. If you are wondering about the diamond shaped "Decision R"s that seem to have the irritating habit of popping up everywhere, those are what I call as God's Roulette. Occasionally, these decisions depend on factors such as intelligence, an ability to work hard, diplomacy, body odour, skin colour, race, religion, sex, communication skills and place of birth (not in any specific order). But most often, these crucial decisions are made by a God person, who spins a roulette and lets you take one way if he gets an even number and the other if he gets an odd number. If you are an atheist, you may want to call this as Randomness. After all, who is to say that intelligence and an ability to work hard are not just genetic accidents?
  5. For those who are curious, the flowchart was created by a wonderful and free software called Dia (Hattip : Reddit forums)
All the best for your career! Not that it matters.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Money Where the Mouth Is

The November night is almost pitch dark, and it suits me. I carry my closest friend as noiselessly as I can into the desolation. Sigh! He is heavy. I lumber and pant for a few minutes, retracing the path I took a while back, and reach the spot I had marked earlier with a spade. I place him on the ground gently, but his head hits the ground harder then I expected it to. Damn! I don't want to hurt him. Not that he would feel any pain. Muttering a silent apology, I lift the spade off the ground, and start digging. I don't have enough time. Soon, early morning travelers will pass by on their way to Lonavala. I finish digging a hole. It looks pretty shabby, but it will have to do. I pause silently for a few minutes to see if there is any noise that does not belong in the night and glance around quickly. Nothing. I try to avoid looking at the eyes of the person I admired the most, eyes that had been alluring and all-knowing, eyes that are just dead now. I lift him with care, and lay him softly inside the pit, making sure that his head touches the ground softly this time. I stand back to take a look at my handiwork. His shirt is creased near the chest, and I flatten the crease with my hands.

He didn't like creased shirts. He had been fastidious about clothes for as long as I could remember. He joined us at Gladden Orphanage when I was thirteen. He had been eleven. For me, life had become a routine, and I tried to be as happy as I could under the circumstances. Like all the boys around me, I lived in the present. He had been different though, always looking towards the future. With the cruelty of children, we did everything in our power to make him like us; languorous and laid-back. Fatty Farook had been the most ardent among us. I had been the least. We could sense that he wanted to get out of the hellhole. We laughed at his ambition, at his optimism, at his belief that he would one day beat the skewed system. He showed us didn't he? He reached the top of the very system, albeit briefly. He would have risen higher, if I had not intervened. I shuddered at the thought of what I have done.

By the time he left Gladden's, I was seventeen, and the closest thing he had to a friend in that whole bleak place. With all due modesty, his need for me then had been more than my need for him. Throughout his short stay, he had made enemies due to his ambition, and I had to stand up for him. In return, he valiantly tried teaching me to read English. He did not belong with us, and I was glad that he left; for his own good. A scholarship at a leading private school awaited him. His parting gift for me was a book, his favorite : Robinson Crusoe. Ironically, it was twenty eight years before we met again.

He barely needed me when I was forty five. I was one of those billions of people just trudging along life with a bare minimum of education.  I was still around the orphanage, doing a motley of jobs, running all sorts of errands. Some called it allegiance, but it was probably a simple lack of opportunities elsewhere. I was, of course, unmarried, what with the male-female ratio and all that. Driving a pick-up loaded with some half-broken furniture for the children, I was surprised to see an expensive car standing in the driveway of Gladden's. We rarely had adoptions. Even the charitable expect some standards before they could be generous. I didn't recognize him when I spotted him chatting with the caretaker. It was only after he noticed me, exclaimed gladly, came forward to shake my hands amicably, and introduced himself did I recollect the eyes, and then his face. It was probably an indication of how little I had changed, and how much he had changed. Knowing him, I shouldn't have been; but I was surprised that this rich man in branded garb had once grown up with me, and needed me. He had become a Features Editor of a popular magazine based in Mumbai. I was a nobody. We talked for a few hours. We went around the village in his brand-new car, a nostalgic cruise for him, yet another trip through nauseatingly familiar terrain for me. He wanted to offer me some money, but I was too proud to accept it. He was too persistent. It had to be a job then. "What can you do?", he asked. Everything. And nothing.

I packed my sparse belongings, including the copy of Robinson Crusoe, and moved with him to Bombay. I was to be his personal driver, however my job description had not changed much. I still had to do a variety of errands. But I loved it. Once again, I was content too soon with what life was offering me. That's how I have always been. Him, on the other hand; he kept growing in popularity and reputation. His ambition was matched only by his tirelessness. He was constantly busy. Though he made it a point to inquire on my well-being every morning, there were no conversations as such. Not yet. I didn't mind it. I had too much respect for what he had become and how he conducted himself to worry about such petty things. I still have much respect for him.

Apart from his Editorial work, he was working on a novel. It was while working on this book, about a writer not completely sure of his own abilities, that madame killed herself. The doctors concluded that it had been due to depression. She had been weird even as a child. There was a police inquiry, but they realized soon that no one was to blame. Asha madam, his daughter, didn't seem to agree though. She blamed her father, and accused him of being negligent. She forbade herself from talking to him.

His daughter's silence affected him more than his wife's loss. His way of battling sadness was through working hard. He finished his first novel, which won him much praise all over. I bought a copy for myself as soon as it was published, but gave up on it. His writing was too tough to follow. It was not until recently, after patient efforts to improve my vocabulary all through my spare time, was I able to read the book completely. Needless to say, I think the book is wonderfully written. He also quit his job and founded his own magazine. In five years, he had recruited tough, no-nonsense journalists; conducted various sting operations; exposed numerous corrupt bureaucrats and ministers; and become a reputed name throughout the nation. His wife's death made him magnanimous. He was generous to anyone who wanted assistance. I would be sent to Gladden's twice every year to personally ensure that they had everything they needed. It was around this time that he started conversing with me. He would confess his insecurities, and offer his observations. I was an attentive student, always amazed by his knowledge of the ways of the World, and filled with an ostentatious display of admiration.  His one vice -- he insisted on calling it a vice -- was his charm. He would always be able to get people to do what he wanted, without even letting them realize it. Women always fell for his eyes, and his ready wit. At Gladden's, these traits had been of no use; but in his social circle, these were the very traits that won him adulation.

Through all these, he also managed to finish his second book, a contemplative book on the state of women in the country - "What Turns Men into Beasts". Once again, I brought myself a copy as soon as it was published, and this time, I was able to finish reading it quickly. The book had modern ideas on how women need to be treated. I initially found it tough to digest. But as I thought about it, along with the fact that he was seldom wrong, I did see sense in it. I read it a second time, and fell in love with it. I marked the most lucid of lines with a pencil, and copied them to a notebook. He was proud of the book too. When I mentioned about my notebook in the passing, he smiled. "Never trust people, people change, but words don't", he would tell me. "The best way to respect a person is to respect their words".  The book was raved about by the critics, and won an award -- a statuette with his name engraved in it -- from the Goa literary festival. The statuette had been his most prized possession.


It is getting late. I can't stand here reminiscing all day. Not that I mind getting caught, but I owe myself a chance at the least. Lifting the statuette from my back pocket, I place it beside him. His hands are covered with rashes. Rashes that had not been there yesterday, when I had offered him his last cup of coffee. Strong, with extra sugar. And some arsenic. Picking up the spade to fill the gaping and conspicuous hole, I look for the last time at the man who had trusted me with his life. He looks at peace with himself.


I had been with him for six years when he met Rituji. By now, Asha madam had partly reconciled with her father. As he confessed to me later, "time and love healed what it could". Asha madam introduced her friend, a budding journalist, to her father. He quickly anticipated her request, and offered Rituji a job. Rituji turned out to be an enthusiastic apprentice, quickly learning the tricks of her trade. Like me, she revered him. Her talent, and probably his personal attention towards her, enabled her to sidestep many and climb up the corporate ladder quickly, all within a couple of years. For this year's Idea Festival -- organized by his magazine as India's most eclectic, thought-provoking and egalitarian platform for ideas from across the globe -- she was assigned as the personal escort for the most important guests. The festival was held in Goa. I stayed back at Mumbai, as I was supposed to drive Asha madam to the Idea Festival a couple of days after the festival begun.

It was on our way to Goa that Asha madam received the phone call. The call seemed to have come from Rituji, and Asha madam sounded quite upset after the call. I was asked to directly drive to Grand Hyatt hotel. It took me a little more that forty minutes to reach the driveway of the Grand Hyatt. Rituji was waiting outside, looking agitated. We picked her up, and I was asked to drive to the Crown. Strangely, as I picked her up and reversed out of the driveway, I spotted him in the rear-view mirror. For the first time ever, he looked remorseful.  I could hear snatches of the conversation from the backseat as we drove away. The word "molested" was repeated several times, along with "second time" and "elevator". "I saw him doing this to a woman when I was thirteen, so it doesn't surprise me anymore", said Asha madam. A couple of days later, in Mumbai, he confessed to me. He regretted his "lapse of judgement", but it seemed that his daughter's awareness caused him to repent more than the incident itself.


My watch shows 03:43 as I finish covering the hole with mud. I take a step back to take in my work. Again, It looks pretty shabby, but it will have to do. I don't have much time now. Where will I go next? I will have to abandon the car here. Of course, it will lead them to him. But he deserves to be found before he decays. I owe him that. I will walk towards Lonavala, there is a bus stand a few kilometers down. And take a bus somewhere. A final visit to Gladden's perhaps. Gladden's will miss his generous donations. But he had been a principled man, and he would have understood why I did it. He might have approved too. I will miss him, and his wisdom. I look at his grave for one last time. A line from What Turns Men into Beasts comes back to my mind : "A man who treats a woman badly does not deserve to live". I respect you Taran. There is no better way to show that than respecting your words. Goodbye.

My 2022 in books

We are already into the new year, but I did not want to give up on what has now become my little routine - a summary of all the books I rea...