Friendship, for

Of all my friendships, there is one that is the most precious to me. The one where we ignore each other, and only call when we need something. We take. We give. We are there for each other. We have each other’s backs. Even when we have no time for each other. 

I know, it is not what many call a relationship. Relationships take nurture. They take effort. You cannot take them for granted, or they wither away. Well, if it was such a poor sapling, let it dry up. It would not have sustained anyway, and if it did, it would have sapped energy. 

I like my friendships to be strong. To be independent. To be self sustaining. Needy friendships are greedy friendships, and we know what happens with greed. It sucks one in. Sometimes it is as if the only game we play is crisis ball. When I have a problem, I pick up the ball and toss it to them. They play, they are there for me. And when they have a problem, I am there to catch the ball they toss. We play other games too – sometimes it is timepass ball, oftentimes its the game of ‘it’s okay’. But also, oftentimes – no ball. 

Whatever we can handle, we play. We play for each other, without being demanding. There is nothing more exhausting than a high maintenance friendship. Chill, we love you dost. We don’t need to validate it again and again. I will be that friend too – there for you without needing pandering or attention when you have none to give. 

Needy friendships are like a club subscription. You are there as long as you keep paying the dues. Real friendships, in my book, seek no fees. We stand for each other, always. Our roots run deep, and when your branches falter, our rooted friendship will hold true. Sometimes we know it still exists only because we test it. Test or not, we trust it. 

I do. 

I trust my affection for you, and yours for mine. Even if we have not spoken for years. Even if we have been busy. Even if we don’t have time for each other in the quotidian sense, when it gets real, we are there. Our time will come, and if it does not, I will be happy for you my friend, that you lived your life to the fullest. As I hope you will be for me, filling my life with new things, trusting the old to remain. 

These are the friendships that are the most precious to me – the ones that live in trust, and trust in love. We remain. 

Will it be Safe

Will it be safe? A little voice inside me whispered its fears, not daring to be heard out loud.

“Are you sure it’s safe to visit them?”, he asked, speaking aloud the unspoken. It was out there now.

Before the pandemic, the question meant simpler things. Visiting each other was almost never about safety. (unless you were a woman using public transport). (Or visiting terrible people). We wondered if it would be interesting enough. Was it worth our time. Did we have the energy. Would it yield networking connects. Was there any advantage. We were simple selfish folk, visiting each other for comfort and connect. Times were good.

Now, as the third, or is it the fourth wave begins, we wonder. What is the risk level they encounter. Who has co-morbidities? Is their bubble a cautious bubble or do they take chances? Complex calculations to answer the real question: If we visit, what are the chances of death?

The difference is stark.

And the difference has changed us.

There is much that we have forgotten already. The simple give and take of banter. The shared laughter without edge. The breath without thought. The careless, callous mingling. The moment without doubt.

Even those of us who fight for the careless freedoms of times before will not find it. We see them, shouting against masks, claiming their ‘freedom’. But that freedom has gone anyway, for even they should be able to see that in having to claim it, they acknowledge its loss, and the need for our collective safety. Whether they mask up or not, their fight is an acknowledgement already, that things have changed. We need shields to save us from the monster that has taken over our very breaths. Till we are free of this monster, we are all slaves to it. By not masking, we promote its kingship over us.

And so, we have changed too in our notions of freedom. What we recognise as freedom is not the same any more. For some of us, freedom is the choice to do good, to save ourselves and each other. The fight for freedom needed weapons and shields, our weapons are vaccines, our shields are masks. Others, their freedom is the freedom from going to battle, no matter if we get taken over by the monsters, and dragged to our deaths. Who is to say what freedom is anymore – the will to live or the will to not – to not let others live. Who is to say whether freedom ever was for ourselves alone, or was it for ‘us’. Who is this us anyway?

We have changed in our notions of ‘us’. Our us-ness is divided by so many things – the colour of our fears, the shades of our snarky comments, the taste of the new foods we tried during lockdowns. We became both more, and less than we used to be. Limiting ourselves by our need to survive, yet rising to find ways to be fulfilled in constrained circumstances, we changed who we are. Some of us realised it, the rest of us are less self aware.

It is not just the world around us that has changed, the world has constantly been changing. Two years is a long time, and this is the third year of this pandemic. But as the world has changed, we forgot the art of copying and keeping up. Our new ways did not force us to align to the latest fashion. Our fear of missing out was enacted in different ways. Our time, our attention and our comforts, all changed in ways that did not have to align to our neighbours and colleagues. For the first time, our changes are out of alignment, and as we see the world drifting at a meaningless pace, we go back to ourselves, seeking introductions.

And so we enter our futures, knowing that we survive as a collective, but evolve as individuals. We watch ourselves transform again, in response, and whisper to ourselves, “Will it be safe?”

Next Wave Us

Here we go again, say the public health people. It’s back to life versus earning a living debates all over again. About lockdowns and debates about circuit breakers. About politics and it’s pressures, about policies and their narratives and somehow, health is the third wheel in this vehicle. Essential, but not leading the decisions, as it should. 

A few new truths are emerging from this wave: 

One, we realise that we are scraping the bottom of the barrel of the old normal. The hope of going back to the way it was seems less and less likely. It never was going to happen, but more and more of us are beginning to realise it. The old is gone. We have changed, circumstances have changed. Even if the pandemic were to magically evaporate tomorrow, our world would not be the same. 

Two, there will always be very vocal voices shouting out their truths, which may be horribly mistaken, or even dangerous. Take the anti maskers. Or the jingoists. And so many more who we thought were fringe elements. The fear and danger of the pandemic have made them more shrill and strident, even as they stand up to deny, refuse, push back on any change. As they grow more shrill, we recognise the power of their fear of change. Some because they have too much power, and so are dangerous. Others, because they do not have enough power, and so our dangerous. This has the making of dark forces ready to clash, and makes the world more insecure. (Fringe is the Front) 

Third, we realise that even a pandemic does not make us mask up. A real and imminent danger is not enough to change our behaviours. This has terrible implications for other grave dangers we face, but are not visible to us – such as climate change. We cannot see what does not kill us right now, and so we forget to shield or fight. We have forgotten to fight for the collective, in freedom. This has become a choice between freedom and security. The limitations of our brains are now our limits – we have come up against a wall and may not be able to save ourselves if we do not breach these barriers. Either we train ourselves to see better, to be able to include the subtle, the slow and the small in our vision of danger, or we are precipitating ourselves into crisis. This is a challenge of evolve or perish, and our brains are the bottleneck. (shall I give this a name to make it easier? Right, let’s call it Imminency) 

Fourth, One for all, all for one. The collective is the community. Whether it comes to aerosols in a room, vaccinations across countries, or our very climate, we are all in this together. This is not what we trained ourselves for, with our individual boundaries, our country barriers and all the other lines we constantly draw between them and us. Our lines are going to kill us, and when we go, our lines will remain but we would have disappeared as a species. Even dinosaurs left fossils, but they themselves did not survive. Till we learn to include all in our sense of self for survival, we will all go the way of the dinosaurs. 

Five, and this is probably the toughest one we learn from this wave: We, will inevitably turn to our own well being first, in order to survive. We will find ourselves changing, often without self awareness. We find ourselves emotionally abraded, and our sense of self care, while essential, will make us callous of what we think we cannot handle. This will diminish us. It is in these times that we are brought to the test, and our test is this: Did we diminish ourselves, or did we grow outwards,  spreading our goodness as far as we could? We have entered into the pandemic as a larva enters a chrysalis. Do we emerge as a butterfly? We shall transform, there is no doubt about that. It is happening even in this moment. The shape of the transformation is the self expression we seek. 

The Self Indulgent Philosopher

We are all philosophers. 

Most of us are not trained in philosophy, many of us have not studied the major discussions amongst the great philosophers across the generations of ideas, and some of us are not even aware of philosophers beyond our school backyard. And yet, we each seek meaning in the madness with the same yearning as that of those who perform and create philosophies for a living. 

For some of us, it is about the questions. We seek questions, probing, seeking an aesthetic alignment of universes that collide in a moment. Or in an incident. Or a sentence. Look at that last one in the first paragraph above. It is very unsettling to us who want our worlds to be aligned in ideas. This one hangs askew, like a painting that troubles a person with an OCD. Philosophers who perform and create philosophies for a living? Professional philosophers? One can either be a professional, or be a philosopher. To be both is to be an acrobat, balancing two sides of a coin so that one can see both at the same time. I believe that is the domain of economists, who of course are the pragmatic scions of philosophical dynasties. 

Rabbit holes, such as this, are the domain of itinerant  philosophers like me, in our lighter moments. Others have pretensions of profoundness – a soundbyte to cast the moment in syntax that resonates for a bit. There is great joy in creating that resonance. Do real philosophers seek this thing, resonance? Or do they seek an aesthetic, when all the parts of the idea line up just so? Or do they seek to solve the very human questions of why, almost like a three year old but with more relentless rigour, not giving up till they are overtaken. For after all, there is no answer to the why of things, but we know we must try. 

This is why farmyard philosophers, and my favourite kind, kitchen table philosophers are such a delight. They offer us a series of answers to ‘why’, like little toffees given out to children. We seek them for their earthy wisdom, hoping to dip into that sack of sweets, sucking on the juices as we wander back to our homes and more everyday tastes. Even as the gatherings of everyday philosophers do the same – explain the modal quotidian, explaining people to themselves. Or other people to us, who find ourselves a shift away from the norm. People are strange, we need the daily philosophers to decode them. They get the warmth of our appreciation, even adulation for some. And we get to figure out the world around us. It’s a fair trade. 

Real philosophy though is all about ladders, and steep falls. Snakes, too some might agree. Not my terrain, even as I watch it in wonder. The giant ladders, structures created to these high diving boards, and then the necessary swoop down, as we all gaze in wonder at the skill, hoping that the waters that they find are deep enough to keep them safe, and return them to us. Some of them will bring pearls back from their dive, others share the wonders they have seen, and still others would taste the cool of the waters, and come back refreshed, ready for more. We do not speak of those who find no meaning in these waters, their dives are of no use to us. 

What of fringe philosophers like me? Those who work in other areas, but suspect that it is the philosophy that lies beneath that is more important to understand than the mechanics of the sector? Are we real philosophers, seeking, questing even, for meaning that explains it all. Hoping to decode that most human of scripts, and seeing how it works. Watching the clash of philosophies that do not seek names to be set in play, each seeking dominance – a cabal or a cult even. Fascinating stuff that, turning into power play at a moment’s notice, or, at another moment, a comforting dive into another’s world. 

Self indulgence is one of the joys of the fringe philosopher, one often taken more than given. The dive this time into the self, but not too close please, we abstract here. Do we see a pattern, a glimmer of a mapping, a road even that traverses the messy swathes of experience? Did we walk those paths like every other, or no other.

To be self indulgent, only our selves are sufficient. To seek to be a self indulgent philosopher, takes a village with known pathways. To be a philosopher of the emergent, it takes honest travellers and their tales.

So we seek, as ever, storytellers, for the moment. And also for the quest of the soul. Come then, tell me your stories…what makes your how, and why…

Wait, this was too dense, was it not? Let’s start again. Just start, no more.

We are all philosophers.

Which is why when Nandu chacha spoke of layers within layers as he sold onions from his vegetable trolley, we nodded seriously, knowing that he had spent hours selecting the best ones for us. Kamala, whose job it was to buy vegetables would often answer in kind, reminding Nandu chacha that onions may have layers, but had no seeds. And so, was not of much use to her father in the village who was a farmer. For him, it was the seed that mattered. Seeds grow, she said, seriously. What will you do with the layers of the onion if they go and rot alone?

Kamala had clearly not learnt anything from her father, Ganesh thought, as he watered the plants nearby. Does she not know that onions do have seeds. And that all onions do not need seeds to regrow? Was she not a cook? He shook his head, and paused his humming to lock eyes with Nandu chacha across the gate.

Nandu chacha replied with a deep sigh, that carried the burdens of the world and his resignation to its stupidities. Did Kamala not know that it was the layers of the onion that gave it its juicy goodness? Clearly she knew nothing about vegetables. Was she not a cook? He locked eyes with Ganesh, the gardner, both united in their agreement on Kamala’s stupidity. One defending the layers, the other seeds, but united in this moment of silent superiority.

Kamala saw this, and bit her lip. She had little time for these smirks. Men never had much sense anyway, she thought. One spoke of layers, the other planted seeds that never bore any fruit. What did she care for the layers when the onion was to be crushed to a pulp for the gravy she was planning to make today. Did they not know she was a cook?

Turn

The turning of the year reminds us of our own turns. 

We look back, and look at the turn in the road. We Occupy this turn. Where shall we head next? 

To some of us the road ahead is visible, 

to some others, it is just out of view, but right there.

Uphill, we wonder? Will it be tough? Will we be able to carry the load? 

Downhill, we fear. Is it all downhill from here? 

Or will we just stand hear, frozen between the uphill and the downhill,

never knowing whether we have peaked or plateaued? 

At this moment, in this place, all it takes is a step forward to where we can see ourselves and our world better. And as we go along, all we need to attempt is to make this next moment better. 

This is how we negotiate a turn, 

and keep turning, turning everything better. 

#MakeItBetter 

Happy New Year, here’s wishing us all health and happiness

Feed the Corporate Cult (f of z)

As the days draw in, and the fires burn low and deep, we turn to reflection. Of the mess that the world is in, having burnt through earth, forest and sky, of having dried out the water, of bringing pestilence and plague – and then not sharing out the vaccines. 

Capitalism, they say, is to blame. Greed and the need for more and more profits is why we are here. Everything fell to the capitalist. The capitalist dug into the earth, the capitalist traded in things that make a hole in the sky (ozone layer). Into people, turning them in resources to be squeezed, into families, taking away all sense of balance and little time for live and living well. Capitalism, they said was responsible for the inequality in the world. 

Look at the big corporations, they are bigger than countries. Surely the big warehouses and shops with billions going in profits to their owners and founders could afford to treat their workers better. Could they not give better healthcare for their workers, create less toxic workplaces. 

Speak to their managers, and the managers of those managers, and it was utterly simple for them – this is work. It is not supposed to be a place where you come for comfort and camraderie. You come here to work, and to take money in exchange. Sure, all of them had employee welfare programs, and large Human Resource departments working so hard to appraise, promote and better the progress of the employees,. Right? 

Give us your all, your purpose and passion, and we shall give you another corner of the giant steel towers we inhabit. We joined in the music, for the hymn sheet gave us a sense of belonging, of order, and it fed our families. We gave, till we could give no more, and then they asked another, and then another. We fed the mills, and sold the soap, and kept the registers a-chinging. 

But was it capitalism that messed it up…or something specific within capitalism? A way of doing capitalism? 

Was it that we were too good at some parts of capitalism that we did them incredibly well to the cost of the other parts? Did we get too fixated on things like efficiency, forgetting that there were other things to life and product? Did we organise too well? 

Because when we were doing capitalism badly, it was just pockets of good, and pockets of terrible circumstances – indeed, it wasn’t even really capitalism – it was feudalism for the longest time. Where everybody knew their place. Capitalism came with the rearrangement of resources, and with it also came some social and economic mobility. For many thinkers that was the dream. For many countries that was the dream. America grew on rags to riches stories passionately following capitalism, almost vilifying other ways of arranging the economy. Small business was not so much a problem, it did not have the capacity to destroy the entirety of forests. Or if it did, we did not know it, because before they could do much damage in the aggregate, we had found a new beast. 

We had found a way to organise ourselves for scale and efficiency, and we called it the corporate. Corporates, very conveniently were impersonal. Legally a separate entity, so you could not accuse them of being unkind, or of lacking empathy. They were not human, so how could they be expected to demonstrate human attributes? These un-humans were fed by money, the money converted to machines, machines run by people, themselves part of the long line as mass production extruded its wares upon the world. It went on and on, becoming bigger and bigger. 

We grew from a store to a conglomerate, thence to a multinational, and then even transnational. The glamour of the transnational was shiny. We flew hither and thither, making magic, we felt, as masters of the universe. The stakes were high, as were we. We strived, and we asked everyone to join in. Till we felt the hollow in our heart, and paused.

The beast was big, and on a roll, and now it needed to be fed. This was the world of mega corporations, and they had ‘organisational cultures’. Cultures that were designed to maximise value from staff. It was – and continues to be – a culture that is more cult than our. (sorry, not sorry). And this culture was fed by sophisticated research. 

Because, you see, with the rise of the large corporation came the rise of management. A social science that learnt strategy from the language of war, and learnt value from the language of economics, and manipulation from the world of psychology. It had the best tools, and all the tools were geared to maximising quarterly profit and shareholder value. Why, you may ask. You will never receive a good enough answer, I promise you. It will be so brainwashed into all of us that growth, valuation, and profit are the only things to fight for – yes fight – that we will find ourselves blind to anything else. 

“What else is there?”, I was asked. I had too many answers – there is equity, there is co-operation, there is sustainability, there is purpose. Each of them is a better goal than mere profit. Each of these has been co-opted for profit. And profit, it has become, like a torture tool of the Inquisition, an efficiency seeking screw machine. That was not bad language, it is literally a twisting machine that drains us out, and drains out resources from the earth at a disastrous pace. Corporates need to be fed on a diet of faster, better, bigger. If they do not do at least one of these three, they fear they will fall and collapse. Many do, reinforcing their fear. And so they continue to ask for more. 

To be fair to them, they try to give more too – smarter televisions, better windows, bigger fridges and so on all come from grand corporations. Of course, they always take a little more than they give, else how would profits grow? And they’ve got smart tools to decide that. Those of us in management were taught these tools, heck some of us created better tools for stronger profits. We know so much about the consumer’s footsteps towards and away from the cake, the eyeball movements slipping towards the chocolate, the placement of the baby toys at toddler height, the intense aspiration of detergents, the glamour of washing up gloves. We know the returns and profits to expect decades before they actually show up. We know whether to make or buy, to cultivate vendors and let them take on the uncomfortable decisions. We are smart, we manage. 

And in our smartness, we forgot, did we not, that our masters the corporations, were totally fine when our tools did not count the ground water contamination from our factories. Or the displacement of entire villages for our industries. Or the smoke that we were sure would be shared by all, so much so that we laid no claim to its costs in our books. We were generous with our costs, handing out to be shared by all publics, and greedy with our revenues, pulling them ever closer. 

We do this with people, we do this to our climate, we are doing this now with our vaccines. Because the corporate must be fed, till our last breath. 

(I just needed to get it out of my system. This is a solid argument in waiting – but not today. I’ll write a formal note on it one day building on my work on the Future of Education) 

Learning Loss is a Feature

Learning Loss: You cannot Tinker and expect to Close the Gap, you have to reboot

The grand conversations in year two of the pandemic are about closing the gap of the learning lag. I wonder who they are talking about, for the rich and privileged will make the leap anyway, because they are trained in leaping to goals. They do not wait for systems, they create systems because they have the purchase

For the others, patchwork is not going to work. It has not worked in the past decades, which is precisely why you are facing the ‘digital divide’ right now. Which is why the learning loss happened in the first place. And facing the fact that most of the students in the world are not even supposed to be building for self efficacy. We are burdened with an education system that is built to create codependency. It is a narcissistic education system that needs to be at the centre of things,  setting all the rules, needing to be right all the time. No wonder our examinations are based on right vs wrong. 

And much of teaching is bullying and cajoling in place of teaching. (The best of educators rise above this, eliminating their own selves, their ego and prejudices before they engage with students, but these are few and far between. This is about the system, not about individuals). Teachers know that they will be able to help their students with learning, the loss is not in the working relationship between teachers and students. It is a loss only because students and teachers are being held to a timetable. To saying x needs to be done this year, because y learning has been lined up for next year. You bring in the pressure of time, and of course teachers will have to perform under pressure and bully and cajole their students – not for learning – but to make it in time. They are boxed in by time. And why? 

In trying to create a patchwork for catch up learning, one is inherently recognising that the concept of catch up learning is expected to be effective. Then why is it being designed only for the lag due to time? And not being used for the other lags that have always existed in reading, math and other learning levels? There are lags because of malnutrition. There are lags because of compounded previous lags. There are lags because of parental education. There are lags because of resource differentials. There are lags because some school cultures build self belief while others don’t believe enough in themselves. Fix these lags too – why just fixate on time based boxes and call them all out.  Year after year ASER and other surveys have reported the lag. We know most school systems cater to the average student – which means the other half, which includes both fast and slow learners – face some sort of a lag. The education system is designed for lags – it is a feature not a bug. 

We cannot ‘catch up’ just because new lags in learning, or learning losses were a bit more than the old learning losses. At best we will reduce the lag at the margins, but we’ll always have lags unless we completely redesign the system to have no lags. Or to make the concept of lags completely irrelevant because each student is wholly enabled to learn at their own pace and level. 

This does not mean that we remove standards for levels but it does mean that we stop measuring students in a batch against a middle of the batch totem pole. They are not lagging, they are just at a specific level on the standard totem pole and must be enabled to progress. 

If there is a learning loss, or a learning lag, it was always there. And we must design our way out of this structural hole that we have dug ourselves into. 

This conversation about learning loss is meaningless if we do not recognise this truth – learning lag and learning loss are mitigated when you care enough to progress each student, and measure their progress against their past performance, not against an artificial timetable or how far they could jump in the boxes you put them in. Learning is not about the boxes, it is about the leap. There is no loss, there is just the bigger, better, stronger leap. 

Our education systems are designed around boxes. And learners will always be lost navigating the boxes, and teachers will always be trapped into becoming navigators when all they want to do is share the love of learning. This is our real learning loss. 

But then, our system, as I said, is narcissistic. It is too much in love with itself to demolish the boxes that give it shape. 

End of first pass at rant.

If you don’t like the idea of learning loss, then look again at the system you designed, and break it’s boxy approach. Or everything you do, thinking you are doing good, you are just feeding a learning lag based system.

To even associate the idea of learning loss with just the pandemic lockdowns is the most elite, self centred, privileged idea ever! Learning losses are part of the very design of the education system! It operates on winners and losers, and catch-up!

If only this pandemic learning loss is bothering us, then we are just slaves to the system. We don’t really care about learning, or lags and losses.

Racism and Trading Poverty Proxies

Bigotry is nothing but Trading Poverties

“I cannot believe that she thought I’d have time for her on the same day”, she spluttered. 

I nodded along. There was a time when I would have agreed wholeheartedly with her. I did not any more but I wanted to be the good friend who does not judge, so I nodded and listened. 

“This is what happens to them when they come from the home country. They have no value of time. No wonder the country does not progress!” 

I had heard all of this before. Indeed, I had even run support services for businesses trying to get a foothold in the west by explaining this difference to them.

“One does not just land up in the English speaking world (proxy phrase here) and try to seek appointments for this week or the next”, I would say.

“Your presence does not get you priority. Your planning does. The values here are different, and you are the outsider here – so they will keep you waiting”.

They fumed, but they listened.  

“They respect their diaries more than they respect you”, I’d explain to them as they tried to not look hurt.

After all they had made the effort to travel half way across the world. They had brought their presence, the weight of their wonderful product and organisation with them to the actual place where things could happen. This was far more respectful than sending a dry email as a proxy for an ambassador, and should be valued more. Not so. This was twenty years ago, and everyone learnt to play the diary game. In the end, the diary was the winner. 

My outraged friend too adopted the ways of the winner, she adopted the diary. After all, she too wanted to look like a winner. 

And a winner is time poor, is she not? 

Not. 

 A person who has control over their own time is far richer than someone who is time poor. The time poor person is beholden, and not an owner. A time poor person is sliced up into slivers of the clock. A time poor person is often overloaded, and so has to be hyper organised. A time poor person has fewer resources, and so has to do so much on their own, without support, and so has to give time to these jobs, and have nothing left over for choice, or change. A time poor person is one who does not have the power to say no, and consequently is unable to say yes to impulse. A time poor person is dependent, not independent. And so vested in this poverty, that they cannot see any other way. 

To be rich is to be able to own your own time. The grandest people in the world will always have time for you within minutes if they so choose. It is their minions whose time they command who will not be able to offer such grace. It is those who have been colonised by the diary, and what it stands for who cannot offer the freedom of ‘now’, because they have none. 

It is, now that one thinks of it, one of the artefacts of colonisation. And one of the binds of the gods of efficiency.

Once I was asked to explain this difference to an investor from the west. When explaining ‘our’ ways, for my skin is brown, I realised two things. That for some of them, I will always be the exotic orient, or some form of that, on the other side of the ‘us’ and ‘them’. Not just because of the colour of my skin. But because, and this was the second realisation – that I understood both. Both sides were ‘us’ to me. And they could only understand one story. They only understood their own ways and could not see beyond. This, I wondered, was racist maybe, (They were lovely people), I wondered for a moment. But then I realised, they merely poor. They had a poverty of cultural inclusion, even of cultural imagination. Those who understood only one story, stood on one side of the divide. “Our people of our ways”. Those who could understood multiple stories stood as alien. 

Their poverty of stories was all they had, and in order to hold on to their self esteem and confidence, they had to hold on to their poverty and glorify it. The ‘one story’ people needed to feel strong, and I could see them trying to tell me how right they were in their ways. Just like my friend, their poverty of time, made them feel superior. Now they had two poverties they tried to use as currency – poverty of time, and poverty of stories. 

(The corporate world continues to suffer these two poverties, and so it finds itself toxic, since one is fighting to be poorer. Oh, a poverty of choice and agency too. )

Since I was asked to explain these bizarre, illogical ways of the alien ‘other’ – see how they traded me down right there- I tried to explain. 

“In the city I come from”, I said patiently, “we do things in sequence. When one is done, we move on to the next. We are flexible, and each of us carries on with our main thing as we wait for each other. We find ways to offer grace, respect and hospitality – and to build communities in the overlap of meetings. It’s a segue, an inclusion. Not a slice and exclusion. We do not stop mid way through a negotiation, or a conversation, just because the clock is our master. We do not make the process our master, we respect the person in front of us, and the purpose is the master.”

This confused them. It confused most of the others who had been colonised into the supremacy of the clock. Clock, and time, both human constructs that now ruled us. It seemed. 

“Does this not mess up your diary?”, they asked, puzzled

“True, it does”, I replied as I added –  “It’s lucky that the diary does not have feelings. It does not mind being messed up”, I joked.  

I decided to land this plane. “People work in sequence. They protect their ‘me’ time in the mornings, start late. And then build for agility, flexibility and fungibility with social time. We often invite our colleagues and business associates home to continue work. They are friends and extended family too. ” 

This much was enough and more, I decided. 

I was in danger of trying to defend one culture and place it in opposition to another. I decided to back off. Simply because to engage would be to waste my time, and if I wasted it, I would lose it. And then, not have enough of it. Why would I do something that made me time poor? Why would I want to join their poverty lines? 

I backed off, not in fight or flight, but in the interest of being richer, in time. 

I would not trade in time. I would not join their games just because they pretended that their games were fun and better. I would not get trapped into their little boxes that limited my agency over myself. I would not exchange my ways for theirs. 

(Sure, I would reach every meeting on time, and start and end every class to the minute. But those were chunks of my choosing, those that I decided to trade. I would not put all of myself in their baskets) 

They were trading their notions of arranging work against the ones that were my heritage. I did not mind that. But it bothered me that they were placing their ways as superior. As winning ways. Not realising that they had to set them up only because they were time poor. 

They were trading their poverty against my riches, and calling me inferior. I do not call this a game. I call this bullying. 

It is not the first time that poverty trading has been used to create divides between ‘us’ and ‘them’. All supremacy rests on this divide, and on making their own poverty look like a virtue. Think of the grand battles between countries without warm and pleasant water – and the dignity of the wash. People with plenty cannot find themselves respecting others who use toilet paper. Peoples who are water poor find themselves building constructs such as toilet paper and lauding its superiority. Poverty Proxies are traded. 

So the entire supremacy game rests on Poverty proxies. 

One creates the myth of value around these proxies to make up for the lack one finds. And then, pushes these proxies onto unsuspecting cultures who were utterly unaware of the poverty. This is the curse of privilege – if you do not know what that poverty is, you will not even realise what proxies were brought in to cover it up. 

You are lulled into thinking that this is a shiny new wonderful thing. I am reminded of the shiny pieces of glass that were traded by the Settlers. Worthless baubles to compensate for the lack of true value. For the settlers brought nothing but disease and their own greed and need. To claim what was not theirs, they had to create a proxy to trade. They created these pieces of glass as shiny proxies, pretended they were of value, and traded them for real value, accreting real value for gain. 

Money too, incidentally, was created this way. It started off as a lack, a poverty of cash or anything of exchange to value. A proxy was created – an IOU, a promissory note. As it gained currency, it began to be called currency, or money. It was merely a promise, a piece of paper, a proxy far more than its real worth. As long as promises are met, or backed up with real value, it is not fraud.

These poverty proxies were also used for supremacy where there was none. Neither value, nor fair exchange, nor supremacy. Racism began so, with the fraudulent glorification of colour, or the poverty, the lack of colour. The lack of colour was wrapped up, and presented as a pretty bauble. A proxy compensation for a lack. These compensations that are mere cover ups then pretend to be ‘better’, and ‘superior’ and then try to establish that ‘our’ ways are better than ‘yours’. To strip out these poverty proxies is the job of decolonisation. 

I am reminded of how unimpressed both the Chinese and Indian Mughal emperors were with the gifts brought to them by the travellers from the west. They had seen it all – travellers, ships, maps, baubles, mechanical instruments, and more. Each set of gifts from the settlers to the Emperors proved to be too poor. So poor that mere portraits were accepted but not to the glory of the outsiders, but as a gesture of compassion to the islanders with little to give. 

The trade in poverty proxies played out here too – the lack of gifts was translated into the notion of corruption and bribery. The same people who had taken gifts to the courts of Spain, they called those gifts and called these bribery. (True corruption is a whole other culture and system, here we talk about established ambassadorial practices, and how these failed – of poverty proxied as a good). This was another poverty proxy game at play. Their own lack of valuable gifts was renamed, and the cultural customs of the other side assigned a negative value of bribery and corruption. The equation asserted was clear – what we lack is their bribery. We are better. Ugh, no, you were ignorant and rude.

Poverty of cultural sensitivity, poverty of good taste, of having access to fine stuffs, of gems and other riches of value – all these poverties were covered up rapidly. First by desperately writing home to ask for more funds to make up for the poverties made visible and then, by creating other myths of greatness by looking for things that could set them apart.

They found colour, and assigned fraudulent value to it here. Just as they had called baubles valuable, they called white skin valuable. In no sense was it valuable in that climate – it burned too soon, it was uncomfortable and it showed emotions rather rapidly (and had to be covered up in moustaches, stiff upper lips and a lot of brustle – gruff, often violent hustle). Colour, or the lack of it, they pretended, was superior. A poverty proxy that they traded. Another racism begun with the fraud of a poverty proxy. 

No one can deny, nor do they, that slave trade in America began with a lack of honest, hard working labour for the cotton and corn they wanted to grow. The poverty of honest and willing labour started so much suffering inflicted on others. By othering them, and riding on the poverty proxy of colour supremacy. 

The method is simple. Poverty is outed, a proxy created, the proxy asserted to have value, the trade of the proxy in exchange for real value. A few exchanges later, the fraudsters have real value in their banks. Now they really have power. Voila, and it is begun.

Time and again we have traded with fraud valuations pitched to us, not realising that these were proxies for lack, for sheer poverty. With time, with water, with skin colour and so much more, we were fooled into mistaking the lack for value. Because of the misdirection to a proxy. What was a natural difference, now became a difference in race, class, culture. Lines were drawn so battles could be fought. Us and Them are created, fighting for supremacy, fooled by Poverty proxies. For that is all that all racism is – a trade based on poverty proxies. 

From Linear to Liminal

Linearise

Box

Linearise 

Distill

Linearise

Reduce

It is a bit like patting bread down  – except instead of letting it rise, one reduces 

Till there is nothing left that is worthy of consumption

Meeta Sengupta  – this is a thought note from me, to me. Sharing, for collegiality.

If there was a recipe for knowledge processing, it would look like this. This is what we have been doing to bring the complexity of the world to heel. 

All of knowledge in the world is said to be ‘organised’ and therefore learnable when it becomes linearised. A classic example of that is Darwin’s understanding of evolution. Evolution is a fairly complex process, but it becomes teachable when it has been linearised, and reduced into soundbytes. Had it not been reduced, it would not have been taught in schools across the world and would not have enhanced our understanding of the world. 

This was wonderful. And not. 

In doing this yeoman service of making the complex knowledge accessible, what we have also done is to oversimplify it so much that we are rendering it liable to truly dumb denials such as – ‘our grandfathers were were/were not monkeys. Of course, no one said your grandparents were monkeys, that is not how selection works. But that is often what it sounds like to us when we are first taught this as children, and it stays with us. There is a case to be made here for teaching complexity to the very young, to finding the language and visuals to teach better. Reducing knowledge to straight lines is doing harm too. 

(All of knowledge is formed by distilling a large amount of data and then abstracting it into a simple sounding theory or axiom (yaaay when that happens). This is the way specialists work in their domains. But that is a whole other discussion, a bit longer than this one)

Another fantastic example is that of the understanding the world through its elements. The types of things that make up the world, at the atomic level. We then have a nice, neat, linear grid called the Periodic Table. It would be absurd to say that understanding the periodic table gives us a clear and comprehensive understanding of the world. Indeed, this is the point – linearising things makes it easier for us to see the vastness of what must be understood, but it does not make for understanding. 

Our world is made up of complex, interlinked and non linear bits. For everything in the world we have intersections, influences, forces, and even emotions that impact the phenomenon, and our observation and understanding. This does get too much for our brains, so we try to simplify it. We chop, and slice, and rearrange – till our brains say, ah I get it. I can handle this. 

This would not be too much trouble if we realised that we are looking at a reduction, and not the whole. As long as we remain humble, and continue to quest for more and better understanding of what we think we ‘know’, we will continue to progress. It is our certainty that leads us to trouble. Because the map is not the territory, and when we progress as if the map is the territory, we find different things that were never presaged by the reductionist pill that we swallowed. 

(meaning: we are confused, angry, lost and make mistakes. It’s horrible out there in the real world, and none of our teaching prepared us for it). 

See, as an illustration, how we organise our workplaces. Have you seen an organisation chart? It is a linear representation of relationships and roles. Have you ever had a linear set of relationships in real life? But our work lives are organised in boxes and lines. This is an artificial construct, and the rich lives of us humans are supposed to fit ourselves into those boxes, and reach out only along those lines. This is a cage made by us for ourselves. It is an unnatural application of the very simple idea – that linearisation is organisation. 

No, linearisation is not organisation. It is merely a simplification, a shadow of reality – something that we use as a tool as a first step to understanding how things work. We would be extremely naive to stay on the first step. All leaders who have run organisations well learn that and this is the secret of their success. They go beyond the linear to the liminal. It is in the spaces between these boxes that real value lies. 

The linear, the distilled and the reduced has its place in the world, but it is only a tool for kickstarting the brain, no more. It is not an engine for understanding, it is not a representation of reality. It is merely a signal to the brain to expand, and make room to start learning, experiencing, experimenting, exploring and then, steadily begin to figure out things. To build on the grid would be harmful, find the real world in between and around the grid. From the linear to the liminal. 

(c) MeetaSengupta

(This is a thought note for something I am writing. I will reuse large parts of this and anyone who calls it self plagiarising will get a virtual eyeroll from me. Thank you for listening/reading, I will hopefully be building on this further. There is a model, and I’m happy to run a workshop on this, from linear to liminal) 

Pretentious, Unending Gab