In praise of procrastination

Perhaps I might be forgiven, being in the age group I am, for making a mountain of a molehill and then considering the same as insurmountable. Imagine, therefore, my surprise, a sense of magical exhilaration when the other day I decided and was actually able to solve a simple household problem with a reasonable effort, an action I held up for months. The tendency of delaying decisive actions, which I own up with some embarrassment in this particular case, is a common trait known as procrastination.

 

While in the above case the problem posed could be resolved to one’s satisfaction, I am not sure that all kinds of small problems we face both in our day to day lives and the ‘larger’ problems of life in the realms of technology, environment, health as well as in the broader social, political, economic and cultural contexts can always, in a general way, be shown to possess happy or fair solutions. These may often be justifiably considered intractable and those called upon to make decisions may sometimes deserve, if not indulgence, at least some understanding for appearing to sit over these, from all concerned.

 

Decision to act may not always be easy, choices clear-cut and comfortable. No matter whether it is a problem faced by an individual or by a collective, difficulties in problem solving, sometimes making it an open-ended process, are often associated with an inadequate or incomplete problem definition that may happen sometime, in a typical real life scenario, due to lack of input information required and/or uncertainty in the available data. The indecisiveness to act in a way so as to move towards a (if not ‘the’) solution may also occur when one has to make choices among multiple solution strategies resulting in an outcome which, even though includes a good technically consistent solution to the original problem, makes the solution less worthy either because of incurring too much expense or for generating a new problem (a worrisome byproduct or an unanticipated side reaction).

If the problem-solving scenario is inherently collaborative in nature (as in the cases of a big community, public organisation) the decision-making cannot be done purely on the basis of an individual judgment or a preference. This might even bring, though not necessarily always, into play the social and even political determinants quite apart from purely technical or scientific/technological considerations that probably would have decided the course of action for an individual or a private close-knit organisation.

 

However, there is a belief (especially among many action oriented people) that delaying decisive actions, even at the risk of failures or sub-optimal solutions, does not help in the long run and may actually compound the problem. This is often seen to be validated in the case of community wide problem-solving by way of huge cost overruns and/or coming up with an outdated solution designed for a certain assumed scale that may have seen an increase by an order of magnitude during the pendency of the problem solving process.

 

Is there anything at all that can be said in favour of procrastination ? Surprising though it may sound, a recently published research has shown that in an organisation, the more creative workers/employees are those given to some degree of procrastination.

 

Imagine sitting on one those black pitiless grouted chairs outside a doctor’s chamber in a hospital pondering over a decision you are called upon to make regarding a critical and risky surgery one of your closest relatives is advised by the doctor to undergo for a possible (but not necessarily guaranteed) recovery. Other relatives are of course around like shadows or across wire tentatively chirping inane suggestions that only distracts you.

 

You alone will have to make a decision to go ahead or seek a second opinion under a cruelly short time frame across which the spectre of mortality or permanent debility hovers like a fog. Should you be bullied by the hospital or the doctor, the anxious relatives (potentially holding you responsible for any adverse consequence) and speedily sign the consent form or just shut out all the noise and calmly go over all the pros and cons (dangerously coming close to being accused of procrastination) before choosing between actually signing and refusing to do so ?

 

A friend of mine once wryly commented on being a witness to my frenetic activities (and a few minor accidents) in a chemistry laboratory, perhaps the best way to speed up a process is to slow it down ! A rather rhetorical homily in praise of procrastination in an era where speed is fetishised.

 

[A slightly modified and abridged version of this article has appeared recently in

The Hindu, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/put-it-off-and-be creative/article8406249.ece?css=print]

Take Care

Recently, watching TV programmes on some Bengali (an Indian) language channels, I was struck by a particular expression repeatedly being used by several anchors signing off a programme by way of taking leave of the viewers (who were assumed to be diligently watching the programmes from afar). The expression is: ‘Bhalo Theko’ or ‘Bhalo Thakben’. The former invocation is used with people on relatively intimate terms with the anchor, like some of the participants, and the latter is reserved for the general viewer in a more formal and respectful manner.

 

Afterwards, on listening carefully to conversations (including those using the phone) among relatives and friends (Bengalis again) I noticed the occurrence of this parting sentence more often than not. Though I have difficulties with this expression, let me state the one that is of immediate consequence here – the title of this post. I do not know how to exactly translate the expression to English in as compact and perhaps elegant manner as apparently possible in my native tongue of Bengali. ‘Be good’, ‘be happy’ or remain good or happy may be a literal translation but it is not a very happy one, at least to my mind. Of course, under the American cultural suzerainty that many Indians willfully accept nowadays you say ‘I am good’ in response to ‘How are you’. Perhaps ‘be good’ may be globally acceptable. But being an old-fashioned Indian, a Bengali from an earlier generation, I thought this was not quite appropriate.

 

Perhaps the person ending the conversation wants to leave the interlocutor in a happy and satisfied mood. Thus wishing her well or hoping for her wellbeing is the polite thing to do. But expressing a good wish in an imperative form currently fashionable (not just, it seems, in Bengali) as an idiom signalling parting is little awkward, isn’t it? As if it is a responsibility of the person(s) being wished to take care to be well, and more importantly remain well till the next meeting so that the wish so piously expressed is not belied. Whenever somebody asks me rather ceremoniously at the fag end of a rendezvous to ‘Take Care’ (in today’s standard English), I make it a point to respond ‘you too take care’, not just as a matter of form but with an impish delight from the knowledge that the guy too would become as burdened as a result of this polite skirmish.

 

‘Good luck’ or ‘all the best’ are common English expressions that come to mind in a similar (though not necessarily same) context, but these seem more specific and to the point than hoping for a more nebulous well-being in general that seems to be implied in the colloquial Bengali expression in question. Perhaps luck is after all not so far-fetched in the context of being or remaining well (in the sense of keeping the body and soul together) in many parts of India today, including Bengal. Thus, ‘all the best (of luck)’ may approximate, though not literally, the expression ‘Bhalo Theko’, never forgetting the luck in parenthesis.

 

This brings me to the issue of concern, which expressions such as ‘Bhalo Theko’ or ‘Take Care’ are designed to convey rather demonstratively. Perhaps this is a reflection of certain unspecified anxiety with regard to many aspects of our urban life – its quality and most certainly its sacrosanct nature. The quality is not only iniquitous and widely variable, but also unstable with no guarantee of a stated specification to which a state or a local self-government can be held accountable by a citizen, with a chance for quick and satisfactory redress in case of sub-standard delivery. More dangerously, nothing is inviolate, neither our corporeal existence nor our soul mapped into garrets in a soulless city of growing anonymity and unknown elements. Our exaggerated expression of mutual concern gives away our billowing sense of insecurity and trust deficit.

 

Time was when one used to take leave of a friend or an acquaintance with a simple wave of the hand, with a half-muttered ‘so long’ or an unselfconscious promise to meet again shortly (‘Phir Milenge’ in Hindi, ‘Abar Dekha Hobe’ in Bengali). That was a promise that never doubted the validity of a pastoral ordinariness of our lives, and its inherent peaceable and uninterruptible nature.

 

(This is a slightly modified version of a short article entitled ‘Those parting shots’ published in the newspaper ‘The Hindu’ [http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/those-parting-shots/article7418332.ece])

 

The tree

When I happened to step into the balcony of my flat in the morning after a night of torrential rain accompanied as it was with a vicious gale, the first thing I noticed was a bit of a void in the direction of my line of sight which normally did not intersect with a part of the balcony and a good part of the terrace of the two-story house in the neighbouring bungalow society right outside the boundary wall enclosing ours. By then I realised that a stout and big branch at the upper flights on the right side of the Krishnachura (‘Royal Poinciana’) tree I am used to seeing from my balcony was no more, being substantially broken down from the main stem and was precariously dangling above and across the boundary wall with a medley of sub-branches, leaves and flowers further threatening to go where gravity would pull them to. And that meant on top of a lot of spanking cars parked on either side of that wall.

Three things bothered me, in no particular order. Both my neighbours in the opposite two-story house and I would forego a part of the privacy (without having to pay any premium for this privilege) naturally provided by the leafy branches of the tree. The latter, which had a symmetrical expanse as it diverged upwards, well nigh lost it, much like a human shorn of an arm from the shoulder. A cuckoo that used to station itself on some branches and from the leafy incognito issued its unrelenting calls since early morning fell silent, probably confused by the mayhem had gone to a safer abode.

By mid morning there was a flurry of activities on both sides of the wall involving responsible men and a few concerned women, watchmen, safaiwallahs and later one or two babus in grey safari suits from the municipal corporation in-charge of the garden department. They paced up and down the sidewalk, looked up the tree and estimated its broken segments, furiously argued among themselves. An hour later, a thin agile young man armed with a chopper climbed up the tree and bracing himself at a convenient junction on the stem, methodically chipped at the sides of the broken branch before chopping it off close to the corresponding Y-joint, the huge panoply of branches and leaves and flowers being caught hold of and drawn safely down by two more workers from the department standing below. Some further pruning later those workers pulled the remains of the tree, much like an animal carcass, across and out of the colony on to the main road en route to its designated transit area of the municipal ward awaiting further denudation and decapitation towards an appropriate utilitarian end.

Presently, the reasonable and the practical men and women from our colonies, having successfully resolved the fall out of an act of god went their ways. Safaiwallahs got busy with their daily chores. Babus sped away on their two wheelers. Then the tree was left alone to reflect on its bruises and cuts. The places where the chopper had amputated the branches were looking white in the rising sun, bright and raw.

Perhaps in time the injured stem will be washed by rain of any memory of a presence and tanned by sun, collect grime and look like the others. Hopefully, its fecundity would serve the tree well and it might shoot out new arms thereabouts or elsewhere and grow leaves on them and again aspire for the sky, no less, and fill the void in the direction of my line of vision. When the air will rise, the tree will slowly allow its bruised hope to flow up and down the sinews of the branches for them to be swayed, with leaves aflutter and flowers aflame. In time the pint-sized birds will think nothing of their busy flitting across the branches and resume their preferential perch on the lightest among these dangerously tempting gravity. And the cuckoo will be back to pull me out of my slumber with amazing persistence. May be the tree will survive. And so will all those that animate nature.

Perhaps there would be no need to be despondent about this act of god or its human follow up. But I am not sure if nature would be always so resilient or forgiving.

(This is a slightly modified version of a post published in another blog of mine sometime back)

 

Meek’s inheritance

It is said that God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Gospel of Matthew 5:5, New Testament).

In a simplistic though fairly prevalent view, the world is often seen to be naturally dominated by those species, groups that are more intelligent and resourceful, powerful, especially ones who are conscious about their dominant status and are ruthless in perpetuating the same. The directions and the dynamics of the world affairs are assumed to be decided by the duel between the extraordinary and the powerful adversaries who, though, share their vaunted ambitions to dominate these proceedings. The meek, by definition, do not figure in these power equations. They are too ordinary, small in stature and low in the scale of their ambitions. Like the grass falling in the path traversed by the horses carrying the marauding armies or under the jackboots of their equally intrepid enemies, many among the meek will be trampled, charred and decimated. But like the grass they will survive being multitudinous, even grow from the ashes, from the unlikely shelter under the boulder and cover the slopes and the ridges, plateaus and the valleys, soak the sun and the rain and continue to thrive long after the gory and destructive competition has stopped. In that sense, the meek may have a greater chance of escaping complete and systematic erasure which their more powerful and assertive brethren are likely to suffer, and therefore have, as a class, a better prospect of survival (though individuals may be mauled) and might inherit the earth after all, however scorched it is rendered by the big players, and grow life out of the waste land.

Apart from the facile imagery conjured up by the biblical quote this seems to have an empirical authenticity for many. Especially those that are religiously inclined implicitly believe in the core idea by mixing it up with the familiar good and evil conundrum. In a more modern context of pacifist activism (like Gandhism or in Tolstoyan thought), this might have been a good slogan to be used as a strategic tool for ‘political’ mobilisation through faith (ultimate triumph of the good, even if weak, over the powerful evil). It is possible that behind this there has been an astute appreciation of the cultural predisposition of a particular milieu, making a virtue of one’s weakness and deriving a political programme out of it.

Empirical evidence (for instance, from the stories upon stories of underdevelopment in the Indian subcontinent) suggests, however, that often what the meek and the docile (and they also mostly happen to be from the subaltern classes) eventually manage to inherit are the losses, the shards of shattered grandiose dreams of a better life and attainment spun and propagated by powerful rulers (including the ‘potential’ rulers) and those, under their command, who try to give a realistic shape to these aspirations. Being weak and not having the ambition and an independent initiative, they latch on to the bandwagon of ‘progress’ to move out of the morass of backwardness because of their implicit trust and touching faith in those who take upon themselves the ‘onerous’ task of driving the chariot. And many a time when the consequences of the historically wrong choices made by the latter become apparent the meek more often than not lack the wherewithal and the reserves to withstand any negative fall out over long periods or get away from them.

Whether or not the meek would ever inherit the earth is hard to tell, their suffering the consequences of the cumulative depredations on the earth and its immediate environment leaving a veritable Waste Land, is guaranteed. The insatiable consumption of the physical resources (the pattern of which is invariably skewed towards the strong and the resourceful !) is likely to make our planet more and more inhospitable for those left living. And not just the physical world, what about the tattered moral fabric, which the human kind would like to wrap around its soul in its advanced state of degeneration? So that the meek could be persuaded over the next millennium (if we do last till then !) that our primeval urges and our capacity for mean deeds, perpetrating utter cruelty and injustice are well under control and not about to display a characteristic runaway behaviour defeating all the civilisational attempts to tame them. One is reminded of the memorable line in a song from a popular Hindi film from the 1950s, Pyaasa (‘the thirst’), where a failed, destituted poet (on suddenly being discovered to be a commercially exploitable prospect and offered a potential celebrity turn in return) expresses his subaltern angst and disgust about the futility of this windfall gain:

‘Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaye, Toh Kya Hai?’
(Even if this world were to be bestowed on me, what of it?)

[Note: This is a modified and extended version of a post published in another blog of mine elsewhere]

Work as an identity (Part I)

Many young people now a days engaged in busy professions like finance, business management, information technology etc., or those working as scientists in research laboratories or as technologists in large scale process and engineering industries have very little time to spare, in the course of a normal working day, either for themselves or their families. Their time frame is usually packed mostly with business, but sometimes also accommodates structured leisure elements or packages considered ‘cool’ or ‘in vogue’. All of these do not leave many windows allowing them to just look out watching the fading colour of the sky in the evening and wish they could become like a kite gliding into the distant horizon or do something, anything, that does not necessarily have any use value and call for approbation or sanctions of their peers.

Quite a few of these professions have become increasingly important in recent years and captured public imagination as pivotal for the progress and prosperity of societies under modern democracies, not just in the advanced western countries but also in the so-called third world countries with emerging economies. With an emphasis on the high level of specialised information and/or scientific knowledge as well as analytical and technical competencies we have at hand issues related to a growing army of ‘knowledge workers’ in a burgeoning knowledge society.

There is a positive impetus for such workers to buy into an identity based on such knowledge-oriented work and the consequential hubris. There is an aura of superiority, novelty, modernity and exclusivity due to their technical and managerial expertise in specialised domains such as, commerce, finance, science, technology, etc. By allowing them to play a key role in the innovation and management of the industry and businesses and, increasingly (more recently) in sprucing and speeding up governance, the kind of work they do defines their relevance to those at the helm of the business and the government, in the process providing them not only their financial security but prosperity and social standing.

This also lends them a chance and a reason to celebrate their lifestyle somewhat as suggested visually on the pages of glossy coffee table books showing walls coming alive in exquisite colour and lustre, huge antique furniture pieces, plush upholstery, ethnic décor, soft lighting, sumptuous food and expensive wine laid out on a scale befitting royalty. And of course the celebration would be incomplete without an assemblage of chic crowd with similar or higher pedigree and clout enveloped in the hubbub of good-natured banter and a sweetly nagging flavour of good and gated living.

It is as if not only are their professional life governed by parameters set by the businesses they work for, and hence ultimately, by the market, their individual life, their choices about consumption to keep their body satiated and the mind tamed, are increasingly dictated and manipulated by the omnipresent and omniscient market. Everything that they do or choose not to do must make sense in terms of a generally accepted paradigm about how to conduct life along a materially secure and prosperous path. There is this subtle subservience to a ‘factory’-produced uniformity of products and customs, a fetish for efficiency and a distaste for redundancy, apprehension about asymmetry and cultural diversity that run counter to the fundamentalism of the power elite in modern democracies, especially its neo-liberal globalising variant. They exist in a social ambience – in the family, within the community and wider cultural mileu, valuing and aspiring such a trajectory of life.

For them the work they do is probably their only identity and their lifestyle the only acceptable one. If you take out the work, and consequently the attendant assured wherewithal and the status along with it, the emptiness of a life of ordinariness starts staring at them. A sort of life they have not been accustomed to looking at except occasionally through the windows of their cocoon and ignoring it. One they are certainly not prepared to live. Work thus becomes an escape from a life which otherwise does not make much sense to them.

(This is a slightly reworked version of a post published recently in another blog of mine. A further exploration of this theme will follow)

Life is

Life is about these intense bodily pleasures and unbearable pain, sense of exhilaration and dejection, agonizing endlessly, suffering anxiety and feeling ecstatic and thankful, being merciless and showing infinite forbearance. It is about a creeping hint of futility amidst the growing mounds of what the insatiable acquisitiveness of mankind is geared to accumulate days in and days out.

Life consists of these quicksilver moments of brilliance and joyous exuberance strewn insouciantly on a seemingly endless landscape of unrelieved inertia of the drab and the mundane. It is about impermanence, random discontinuities, break with a foil what one had assumed one could not live without. It is of surprises, heartbreaks and also of unremitting hopes and nagging hopelessness.

Life is nothing without the tools and techniques one has acquired and learnt over the years by practising them almost daily to help make survival easier. It is about maximising one’s advantages, looking for opportunities for favourable outcome of an action. This does not imply opportunism as a value intrinsic to life.

Life is built on our perceptions, right or wrong, about the objective reality that lie outside and irrespective of us, including the inanimate objects one comes to acquire and other human beings one is associated with. It is about being conscious of the significance of their presence in the larger environment around us. And, at least occasionally, aspiring to be conscientious in relating to, interacting with and using them.

In the ancient Indian philosophical literature, five key elements (‘Pancha Bhuta’) in our surroundings have been held to be critical to our being – ‘Khsiti (earth/soil)’, ‘Ap (water)’, ‘Tej (fire/energy)’, ‘Marut (air)’ and ‘Byom (sky/atmospheric envelop of the earth)’. One can only be amazed at the perspicacity of those early thinkers in identifying exactly the same elements in our immediate universe that are acknowledged to be severely strained, if not endangered, which many reckon, if unmitigated, may lead to eventual extinction of our species.

Sustenance of life (and the growth of its prosperity in terms of metrics which are at least debatable) as an end does not justify any means, blind, brutal, self-seeking, opportunistic despoiling of those five elements. Because this will, surely, lead us to the opposite end.

And of course life derives its form and meaning in the reflection and the record on a shared pool of memory of our thoughts and actions as individuals and community and as the humanity over time. Any attempt to monitor, manipulate or mould the memory according to a pre-defined plan or a paradigm, in bouts of super-human overreach, invariably denudes life of its meaning till it sprouts once again like the frayed and yellowed grass from around and under the heavy designer templates and acquire its natural vitality and colour.

Faith and reason

In an article entitled ‘Faith, not just creed’ (reprinted from New York Times News Service by The Hindu, January 29, 2014) columnist David Brooks brought up several issues that might be of interest to anyone who would like to think and argue, both positively and negatively, about the form and the content of the religious spiritualism that is proposed and propagated by the faithful for the benefit of those who find it difficult to become one.

Brooks broadly makes three points in his article.

(a) The first, a relatively straightforward observation that the way the practice of faith appears in the public space is far from satisfactory. He talks of a “dull, oppressive and insipid” form of “religiosity in which faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendour of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion.” There seems to be a suggestion here that the organised religion and the practices (including some of the rituals) derived from it may have distorted the very spirit of religion. A position which many, irrespective of whether they are believers or not, would by and large agree with.
(b) It is an empirical fact that many common believers find themselves a little circumscribed by the usual trappings of the religion due to an uncritical respect for the tradition, the need to feel secure in the numerical preponderance of a communal assertion of an identity or simply because of the inertia of habit. According to Brooks, despite this their faith could be a more dynamic experience that is “marked by combinations of fervour and doubt, clarity and confusion, empathy and moral demand”. Again, this seems to be heuristically true. Though religion for many ordinary people, like it is in India, a way of life, something imbibed from the cultural milieu as naturally as one takes in air from the environment, it is possible that the subterranean strata of belief in their mind space come to be frequently challenged by percolation of the residues of doubt created by their own reason working on the empirical observations and experiences in course of the daily life.
(c) The third element in Brook’s presentation tries to highlight extraordinary and transcendental ways in which some savants (like the saint Augustine) with specially cultivated and spiritually motivated mind might have perceived and articulated their relationship with and experience of God, which relate to this world but at the same time “mysteriously surpasses the world”. For Augustine, in his love of God there is “a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace …”, not what is conventionally denoted by these words but “a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part“. Clearly, this is an ideal state of mind, a utopia, that many people, religiously inclined or not, may aspire, but very few attain, if at all, in the present state of the world where mankind is assailed by more gloom and doubts about the conduct of their own fellow brethren than that could be dispelled by just fervent faith.

Among the three points above, the one about the orthodoxy and the dogmatism (often bordering on fundamentalism) in the religious preaching and practice is, I find, a realistic observation. However, like in most areas of culture, this is a typical instance of an ongoing fight between a few good virtuous truly enlightened men and much more preponderant forces of evil whose main aim is not merely subverting the true idea of any religion as originally revealed but executing a more sinister project of perpetuation of their domination and hegemony over a silent majority, and persuading them to sink their gnawing doubts in the fetishes of creed paraded as faith.

Arresting as the articulation of Augustine’s love of God is, I am not sure that it is at all an arguable proposition, something amenable to reason. As far as one understands, people who would like to put forward the remarkable experience of Augustine and such saintly people in support of their argument that religion, apart from its importance (some will even claim about its primacy) in our life, is also unique, capable of spawning beautiful and many splendoured sense of God, do not anticipate an alternative point of view or premise. You either accept this, surrender to it, get submerged in it or you don’t get it. One has even come across suggestions that to arrive at this privileged view and making it one’s own, one has to surrender one’s ego about one’s being knowledgeable and reasonable, in other words, one’s alternative, distinguishing point of view. Either ego, or God !

I would venture to say that if reason can be thought of as the basic bonding among disparate empirical facts of the material world facing mankind that goes to make the complex and evolving architecture of the human mindscape, faith works by destroying most of these bonds, dissolving the existing structure, replacing it by an entirely different paradigm.

A more interesting point for me is about the inescapable, undiluted and unrefined attachment of ordinary men and women in many countries (as one commonly finds in India) for religious culture, including the rituals and many other crude practices, despite being uncannily aware that one does not automatically become a good human being just because of one’s allegiance to some form of religion. Can they be sure if religious morality can always help one conduct oneself in an ethically correct way and make choices that stand the scrutiny of reason? The fact that the answer to this question is not easy to find does not mean we stop asking this or that it is a trivial one.

(This is a follow up on my earlier post ‘About faith’ published in this blog as a reaction to the article by Brooks referred above)