Something better

We live amongst the ruins of economic philosophies. Socialism has been too slow. Communism lies in ruins. Marxism is beyond the pale. Collectivism never really took off. Capitalism is evil. You go on, add to this, for nothing has stood tall and proud, both economically and ethically. 

As we walk through the ruins of these economic philosophies, we pause to pick up some artefacts along the way. Oh look, social housing – what a good idea it was, we exclaim. We put it down again, remembering the gun ghettoes and the highrises that led to things like Grenfell and worse. It wasn’t all bad, but we did not make it work, as it should. We stroll along, crunching over bits past and forgotten, unaware of the good ideas we are cruising past, crushing them to dust. Magpie like, we look for the shiny ones that fell, but only recently. There are so many to find. I even found a public library in that trash pile recently, and a part of me died as I threw it back, knowing how much good it did while it lasted.

Capitalism and it’s trickle down was the hope we were sold, but then, I realised, the only thing that trickles down in real life is slime along walls that leak. Those on the floor tend to slip on it, and we blame the slime, not the building. Capitalism, as they call it, has failed they say. The grand building is all facade, for it is top heavy. All the money has risen to the top, there is not enough for those down below. Look, no healthcare, terrible housing, failing schools and barely any savings. These are the wages of capitalism, they say. I wonder. I wonder if they mean Capitalism, or corporatism.

Because capitalism had barely time to find its foundations when the corporate ganged up to play, and play it did, creating bigger and bigger leagues to win. Soon it became all about big, and leagues and winning. We’ve even forgotten how it started, have we not? I remember sitting at my mother’s knee, and sitting outside my father’s classes, his booming voice ringing out as they taught me about perfect markets. Perfect markets were not about corporate gangs, they were about people buying and selling. About fighting to look after your interests, with equal rights, and equal weight. Ceterus Paribus, they started. We were fooled by assumptions, we took them for granted.

Corporations, they ignored them. Their businesses were built on finance and products and profits. What did they know or care about utility, that delicate fragrant flower that gave out beauty, and fragrance, and wellness and happiness and then could be sold at the market in exchange for a meal, and a safe roof and a warm fire. The flower sellers could sing, as could the farmers, and the cobblers. For they were building more than spreadsheets.

The lies we told ourselves were quite incredible. Bigger is better, we learnt. Sure, bigger begets more, but is that better? Did you remember to count in the songs we sang, not to cover up the hollow in our conscience as we pushed our vendors for cheaper materials, but the songs that came from happy lips that loved the work they did. Did we remember to count in the little bits of good that we did for our communities, because we cared about people, not just because CSR was good PR and more.

There were more lies. We taught ourselves double entry accounting, accrual, valuations and internal rates of return, discounting everything and screaming now, now, now. Now and forever, for all accounting survives on the going concern concept. We thought we were forever, we were infinite. We forgot that when we puff ourselves up so much, the bubble bursts. Our hubris was our own, and it was hungry, eating up the earth and the air and all above and below.

When we looked around, we found holes in the ozone layer, dust where grass should be, smoke where fog could be, and our lights were dimmed. So we turned it up, chopping even harder and faster. We were the wood and the axe, and we chopped up what made us. We mocked the fool who sat on the branch he was chopping, not realising that he was us, and we were doomed for the fall.

We fall, and as we fall, we see the debris around us. The pieces that fell with us, some just before. Some, ready to fall upon our heads. We know this cannot last, and as we walk amongst the ruins, we know we have much here that is worth saving. The sun is still shining upon us. So much of what we have built is good, and deserves to go on. Capitalism may be dying, but not all of us are convinced that we can use its parts to build something better.

In all the civilisations that we built with our flaws and our genius, we also founded some beacons. I remember memorising history at school, and all good kings were remembered for the wells they dug, the roads they built and the grains they distributed. They were not remembered for their grand statues, for even Ozymandias must fall, nor for their grand palaces, for each grand palace or temple will be built upon by the next generation. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and our glory must perish. What remains is the institutions we build for others.

It is the parks, the libraries, the hospitals, the roads – it is the public good that sustains us. And this is what we must learnt to sustain. Capitalism is not corporatism, capitalism is about personal transactions building institutions of exchange.

From the debris of the past, let us find ways to build public institutions, this is how we will survive. We have some great examples even in dismal times – a National Health Service in the UK that saves lives regardless of whether you are rich or poor, a public broadcasting service in America that is funded by donations and grants that tells stories that matter, a railway network in India that holds prices so that people can find better opportunities for work in distant towns, and still go home for love and renewal.

We will survive this only on the strength of public institutions that serve the larger good. Our measly accounting and financial toolkits forgot the world of good, and brought us close to our doom. We share this world, the sun, the water, the air. Even the air that contains the virus, and that shows us again, that we are either saved together, or we all perish together.

This is us then, at the crossroads again. The path to growth lies crumbling to dust, but the path to good is steep. Our choice now, whether we go, dust to dust, or have the muscle to make the climb. For we shall be saved by the institutions we build. 

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Still Here

I do not know the names of the little blue flowers that lean out of the mountain out towards the fast flowing river far down below. I know the ones that line the balcony and separate me from the river. They are little now, but will have thorns when they grow up. They are here to protect me, lest I lean out too, looking upon the river rushing below. I cannot be trusted, you see, I am human, as are the others on this balcony with me. 

I soak in the beauty of the mountains around me. These are the foothills of the Himalayas. They are made of mud. My grandmother would tell me that humans were made of mud, just like these majesties that soar above me today. Fragile, as the floods showed us not many years ago. Standing because they pack themselves tight, intensely holding on to the next piece of earth, as if it was themselves. A few tree roots more would have helped them, would bing them together in the communion of trees, but those have been chopped and logged away. May that remain are weak, so many washed downstream by the monsoon each year. The mud mountains look old, but their fragility is not due to their age. It is their nature to stand so, fragile, proud, and still there.

Much like us, fragile, and still here. 

Pan-Normal

The room I sit in to work does not have a work table, but it does have loads of books. I call it my library. It has many tables, I have collected them over the years. The french table too delicate to be used as an everyday dining table could be it, but the chairs scare me with their fine legs and straight backs. The rent table that I pounced on at an antique shop is too low to be called a work table, but it works perfectly with my lounge chairs. This is where I sit. The brown leather barrel sofa seat has a lamp, and a lovely tuck in table, just the right height for my laptop, but I have not started working there yet. One must have something to look forward too, I think. And while the pandemic rages, my old furniture meeting my not so old furniture in different combinations must suffice. 

Since I cannot travel, I do not meet new rooms. I transform old rooms to new. The drawing room that used to host visitors now our cozy room, we retire to it when we read books that will slowly lull us to sleep on the long sofas. I change it around every fortnight. I need to see it renewed. Also, this is how I keep it clean or why would anyone bother, but we must not speak of such mundane things. We live to rise above the mundane, this is why we keep moving. Or keep it moving, as we can. 

The upstairs neighbour is a restless soul too. He has just replaced a window. He had replaced a wardrobe before that, and before that a bathroom. I have seen none of these, I have heard all of them. These houses are built of concrete. Every drill bit reverberates through the walls and through our skulls. We stay patient. The lockdown cannot affect us, it is the neighbour who is cracking under the stress. We can hear him.

Poor chap, we think, all alone on that floor. We do not say it. One assumes the other has thought the same thing, that’s the thing with marriage. Sometimes you do not have to exchange that glance across a room. Or suppress a giggle at a moment you know has been noticed. Time stretches in the pandemic. I remember a weird moment a week later, a month later, retell it and we twinkle our eyes to it, as if raising a glass to the moment.

We would have shared it there and then, but all the theres are right here now, we do not step out. All the thens have become irrelevant, they are so similar. Days of the week do not matter anymore, except when pretending to remember for work calls, when we quickly scramble to do the math in our head and work it out. Sometimes you hear the other person doing it too, and wonder – will they get there first? Do we even care? Those who don’t, become friends of the moment. 

We are a little community of sorts, those of us who have found the moment. Where the other stuff has it’s place, but is just not here. We perform, like we always have. We pretend that calendars and times and schedules matter, as they always have. But we secretly know that if they disappeared, we would still be here, and we would be okay. We would still do what we needed to do, we just would not be rushing and dashing around like we used to before the pandemic. 

It has changed us. Some now crave to go back to their old selves because they think they know it. At least they know what do do with it. Or used to, in the old world. I wonder if they will fit in the new. I wonder if our new selves will fit in the new world, one that is here, but has not been fused by our presence yet. It was built in our absence, in the times when our screens stood in our stead. From where we sit, the new world is a giant screen, full of little boxes. Each of us is one little box, a tiny pixel. And when we zoom out, we will be able to see the picture we made. Our world, made in our likeness. Our new normal. 

Building arguments – part 1

Flattered to be asked how I build an argument, I’m here to write up some of it. Humbled, is the word, because I know that I am not the best out there – though I do play to win. This is why part 1, because I want there to be more thinking and writing on this.

There are a zillion types of arguments, and often confused with fights. My first rule is to never enter into an argument that will inevitably degenerate into a fight. (It’s about chess moves, one plays 3-5 moves ahead, and takes a call). Walk away, because binaries are boring.

Also, do not wrestle with a pig, they are right when they say that. You get dirty and the pig has fun. That means, quickly identify toxic people, narcissistic people, people who enjoy collecting wounds and scars for their own games. Don’t engage with them. Don’t even sit at the table where their game is laid out. Walk away.

Walk away again, when you know you cannot win this game. A draw is better than a loss. Even better is the timing of walking away – walk away when you appear to be winning. Every card player – and stock market player knows this. Walk away when you are still ahead.

Enter into an argument only when you know it is going to help you – either reach a stronger position, or help you learn something. Control the argument, and this is not always a level playing field. But why engage if you don’t want to win? Play transparently, but then we can talk about fair or ethical arguments in part 2 or 7, eventually. For now, let’s talk about the goals of an argument. Argue, to learn. This is my goal. What is yours?

So here are my rules for an argument – one, leave your ego behind. Two, ignore your priors. Three state the case/hypothesis clearly. Four, Prepare well. Five, understand the context. Six, understand the forcefields. Seven, understand the audience for your argument. Eight, Remember your own goals for the argument – if you are playing to learn, leave the edges ambiguous, if you are playing to win, then pack a few punches, if you are engaging to make a friend, then leave sparring space, if you are arguing to gain supremacy, then keep raising the level of the game (and make sure you are on top). If you are arguing to practice, as I do often, have your tools to the ready, and be prepared to build more tools mid battle. (there are more, but then it’ll be a whole chapter). Nine, don’t over-invest in any argument. Ten, win or lose, find satisfaction in a part of it that made you a better person, and work on the flaws you found in yourself. Else, what’s the point of those minutes spent in the argument.

I then remembered that I was an evangelist for the case study method, and twitter is a river rich with arguments to be picked and played. Outrage of the Day, we used to call it in the old days, and many of us frolicked in its waters, just for fun. And to make friends. Now, there are bots, and trolls, and other unfriendly creatures, so we choose with more care. It took me a minute to find one to join. History, as it is weaponised, taught, and propagated to form narratives is always a rich seam, and there’s always an argument on about it. I talk education, so that delineated the scope already. I joined an argument about history and how it is taught.

And this is what I learnt about one style of winning an argument:

One, do not escalate. Especially if you do not know how far your opponent is willing to take it. The principle of never underestimating your opponent implies that you do not know how far they will go to win. So do not raise the stakes.

Two, it is always easier to take the low road, so leave that to your opponent. The high road is going to move more distant, and the bigger wins are on the high road. Do not stop them when they take the low road, till they are well begun on it, and then call them out. Count the points – now.

Three, ignore the sabotage of your argument. The opponent will try to pull it in directions where they can win. Don’t go there. Sometimes it is by doing things indicated in two above – making it personal, bringing past incidents into the discussion, whataboutery and the rest of that pantheon. Don’t engage on that, stay on message with yourself.

Four, having circled the arena and established that you are actually in an argument, start looking for common ground. Do not let an argument degenerate into animosity. Agree, and flip them. Slowly increase the range of agreements. This is a master tactic and takes some practice. Done too soon, or too obviously, the opponent will get to aggressive. Done gently, this brings the opponent into your emotional range and the situation does not overwhelm you. Now you are ready to win.

Five, give wriggle room to your opponent if you value the relationship. A win must be obvious, not necessarily stated. Sometimes tactical silence is a win. (Often it is not, and even if it is – you may fester for years with a sense of “I should have said it straight out then”) Deal with it, you make a choice and you live with it. Remember rule 1 – unless you are the pig that enjoys wrestling in the mud, you want to put the argument to rest sooner rather than later, preferably on the winning side.

Six, Slamdunk when the opponent uses the wriggle room to enter the shared space you found earlier. The shared space is your win.

Seven, do, take a moment, and declare a win. It’s satisfying.

Finally, of course, a word of caution. This is not the only way, but it is a safe way to argue. And in the process, if one keeps listening, one learns a lot more than if alone. An argument is useful only if it improves your position, either including the opponents’ arguments, or working them to find stronger responses. It’s okay to change one’s view, and to evolve – and an argument just adds muscle each time you exercise it.

Pandemic 2020

How many things should I worry about today? 

The Pandemic, the lockdown, the virus – they have eaten away our calm, if we ever had any. In our angst, we are ready to bite.

Pre- Pandemic, frenetic was glamorous, yet some of us learnt to slow down. It was cool to be unavailable, for how could we not be too busy, too engaged, too involved in our own passion, too driven by purpose – building the next big thing for the world. We were ready for the big fight.

Let’s not kid ourselves, world dominance was still our goal, even if we wanted to dominate it as the best holiday maker ever. Witness the emergence of Instagram, the grandest self advertising platform. Witness YouTubing as a commercially viable option for those who did dominate. Attention was the currency, domination over your mind was still the goal. We were running, even if the rat race was not just down the lab maze. We were primed for winning, we made our own wars.

Till we were felled, stopped in our tracks, by a tiny virus that traveled on minuscule droplets. We learnt to worry more, now about the smallest things. Scrubbing our hands, our doors, our floors, our connects. 

All our frenzy, now wound up – into a tight ball waiting to be unrolled – but not quite yet. The world was spinning out of control and it was time to hunker down. We could not go out and solve the big problems of the world. All field research was on hold, our charities could only work locally, commercial supply chains broke down. It was too big to handle, so we turned inwards.

Let us solve ourselves, let us keep it small, and work on what we can control. Our own locus, oh so small, and so insignificant in the big fast world we used to stride through, now suddenly came into focus. A bit like Alice in Wonderland, we looked around at everything with new eyes. 

We cooked, oh how we cooked. No bread was left unbaked, least of all the one made with rotting bananas. We cleaned. We did up our homes. Some of us got our hands dirty with soil – and gardened our balconies to profusion – or not, depending upon our skills. We discovered hobbies – music, dance, painting.

We went deep within, to ask ourselves the big questions that we did not have the time for before. We went without – to see what livelihoods still existed. We danced between these poles, spinning, lost and afraid, for all it would take is one droplet to fell us forever. We lived in the shadow of death, denying it, not giving in to it, for that would be paranoia, would it not? We had plenty of issues popping up unexpectedly to handle this one too. Surely not. 

Slowly we grew used to it. The routines of the self, and work, and even housework for the pampered came back to heel. We looked to ourselves and left the others to reel with the shocks they were being dealt. We settled down into this smaller world. And then, we looked around to see what had happened while we were away.

Not much had changed, only it was worse. Education had suffered, the learning loss even worse than ever. Inequity was made worse, because we had designed the world to feed the rich. Sexism was still doing quite well. Fascism had progressed, as had extremism. We were still over sensitive to any perceived slights to our tribes, and our insecurities over income, reach, self and our loved ones had made us more fragile – we were ready to fight to the death to protect our own now – some of us seemed to need a fight to survive. Politics was dire, and the pandemic had only brought forth ugly truths.

Raising our heads above the parapet did not bring sunshine into our world any more, because we were forced to realise that the sun did not shine for us. We did not matter, and indeed, the world was so much better if humans just shut up, shut themselves up and stayed away. 

But then, what of us and our existential angst. Our societies and our structures. Grand Infrastructure, lying waste. Grand Technology, either not usable, or not good enough yet. We matter, we cry! We are smart, and primed to win, we whine. As more little bits of the old world crumbles around us. We look at the pieces of freedom that fall on to our laps, and brush it away, carelessly, not knowing that it was ours to save.

We sit in our little boxes, and worry, because we know it is going to come and get us sooner or later. If not violence, it will be inequity. If not that, then some form of tribalism – religion, region or race, or caste. Something will trigger the next thing, and one day it will be our turn.

We will raise ourselves, climb relentlessly, try to run to safety – but what safety can one find in a world where any human can hurt another one, and then declare that they have won? 

Three Edu Discussions

The three discussions were so diverse, so different in audience and range – that I had to put them together. The juxtaposition is really interesting – because reality is all of these perspectives together.

The first of these – a thoughtful conversation curated by Supriya Panchangam between Vishal Talreja (Dream a Dream) and Me(eta Sengupta) on how do we get back to school from the pandemic… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngaPEnSnT88

The second, also charting the near future of education – for teenagers. The New Education Policy brings choice and freedom to our teens, but then, does it guide? Mentor? The discussion in this avant magazine – here https://online.flippingbook.com/view/109203/6-7/

The third sounds more conventional – but is possibly the most radical – A discussion on the Sustainable Development Goal 4 – Education and whether we will make it. I seek more, as ever – and … you might as well listen in for yourself – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHbifDPIZD0&feature=youtu.be

The summer meadow

In a meadow high upon a hill, a thousand flowers bloomed. They had one summer, and each burst forth with all its little might, as colourful as it could. The yellow ones came first, and amidst the tall green grass, they glowed like little lights. The white ones were a bit shorter, often hidden in the tall grass. But when the wind blew, they sparkled, like little stars. Blue and pink ones came next, some violet and purple. Red poppies had fields of their own, but a few rebels had joined the riot of colours. Together, they were magical. 

You could not see them from too far, they looked like any other meadow. Too near was no good either, for they gave each other enough space. Stand next to them, and they would wave gently to you. Do you have a story, you’d ask. Nay, they’d sway. We have no story, we just are. Will you be here tomorrow, you’d wonder. They would smile gently, in time to the music of the land, and the breeze, neither knowing, nor caring for the morrow. The moment, it was theirs. They were there for you now, and if only you knew it, in that moment you belonged to them and no other. Not even to yourself. 

The summer flowers did not come to stay, but they came each summer. Filling the valley with their glorious colours. Neither vain, nor self conscious, the flowers of the meadow filled the heart so gently, that you barely knew they were there. Not for them the brazen glory of the red rose, that etched itself upon your soul, leaving it empty when it was no more. Not for them the fragrance of the Lily that grew richer till you could stand it no more, and had to part. 

The flowers of the summer meadow must have faded, or would you not have remembered them in the dark of winter nights? They came with no memories, other than the ones forgotten, like a wisp upon the wind, gone, just as you spotted it. But now, just as you stood amidst them, they were yours, and you, theirs. For this one moment, you were all their colours. And the sun shone on your face. 

Pretentious, Unending Gab