Saturday, January 16, 2010

Con job

It's too easy to pan all religions as wool being pulled over people's eyes for thousands of years. The idea that an old, old guy sitting atop a mountain or up in the heavens directs our fates is almost hilarious today, in the age of flourishing science and technology. All we need is that men be rational in their actions. That itself should be sufficient to serve the purpose of ensuring justice, equality and social order, the eventual aim of all religions. All very true, but yesterday's solar eclipse made me do a little rethink.

The moon made a pass past the sun's blazing face sometime in the late morning and continued its journey through to the afternoon. My office is located at the heart of the IT sector in Calcutta, packed with glass towers and thousands upon thousands of IT employees. If there was ever an industry that literally grew out of the dust over the past 20 years, this was it. We were essentially working jobs which had existed only for the past 2 decades thanks to the exponential growth in communication tech, compared to the thousands of years humans had spent on this planet doing a whole lot of other things in isolated pockets.

The attention that a perfectly explainable natural event like a solar eclipse drew even at our workplace is what needs mention. We all knew that it was only the moon blocking the sun's path as it crossed across its face, but all of us did take some time out to sneak a peek at nature's version of turning the auditorium lights down low. Some of course proceeded to devote the entire afternoon to this activity but that is a different disease popularly known as the IT syndrome. For the most part, inside the modern buildings and air-conditioned buildings, there may have been a vague feeling of uneasiness. The heavenly body that was the sustaining source for all life on earth was playing a very very brief game of hide and seek, and alarm bells were set ringing inside our animal selves. We all knew that the sun would come back and continue to toast us when summertime came, but seeing it back in its wincing glory was still reassuring.

Transpose this situation back by just a couple of centuries, and it's hard to miss the tremendous contribution of religion. The world must have been a bewildering place for a time when scientific basics were not being drilled into primary school kids. Every thunderstorm, every drought, every earthquake and every bitter winter were scary possibilities and beyond explanation. If not for religion, man would have had to spend most of his time cowering in fear inside caves which would mean that his demise was sealed as tiger prey given his infinitely inferior physical strength compared to the predators of the natural world. Worshipping nature or celestial beings who control it may seem like a foolish thing to do today when every quirk of nature can be explained with the help of physics, chemistry, maths and biology, but back then it was an essential survival tool. It gave a reason for human beings to stop behaving like animals confident in the belief that someone up there was taking care of them and making a note of all their actions. All these are just the practical benefits of having faith in a higher power, leaving aside the emotional support that belief in the "Every twist and turn of life is part of a divine plan for ultimate happiness" philosophy offers.

Some people say that religion and God are inventions by man himself, and I the eternal cynic am inclined to believe them. If so, religion should rank right up there, next to fire and the wheel, no lower, among the greatest achievements of humans as a species. On the other hand, there is that beautiful reply by a scientist/sci fi author when he was asked about his opinion on the existence of God. He quoted William Cowper, an English poet stating "Absence of proof is not proof of absence!"

Friday, January 15, 2010


I had imagined that the three weeks that I'd planned to spend at home after returning to India would be the quickest three weeks I would know. I was wrong; totally, surprisingly and horrifyingly wrong. The first week back was definitely an action packed one as it was my cousin's wedding but soon after the wedding, I had nothing to do. This is when I was fully conscious that something somewhere had quietly gone wrong with me.

In my glory days, that would have been my dream come true and I'd blissfully engage myself in the business of achieving a state of zero energy. You know that you are over the hill when you cannot seem to enjoy what you had always craved the most. Sleep was no longer attractive as there was no critical unfinished job that would have been missed out on by succumbing to its charms. Blogging or writing was an unbearable drag as the constraints of the clock were irrelevant. The same spare time that was once so fleeting and memorable was now a chewing gum stuck to the bottom of of my sole, persistent and unwanted.

So to my utter dismay, there was no option for me but to join office a whole week and a half before I had intended to. Catching up with the team I had left behind, formatting & printing my name out to plug on the wall of my cubicle, getting my system up to speed and making note of the sour faces that must necessarily be displayed at the beginning of every workday - all of this and more of such mundane unglamorous activities made me feel better somehow. At the end of it all, man needs work and work needs man. The relationship has all the hallmarks of a cranky marriage - charming in its soothing familiarity and jarring in its strangling repetitiveness. Killing time, the only thing I could claim to be a professional at was turning out to be not so easy any longer.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Closing chapter

The time that I spent in America was such a whirlwind of extraordinary experiences that I'd be a fool to try and summarize them. One incident/experience at a time is all I can handle. Back in Calcutta now, working from the same sofa that I had bounced around on as a kid when it was at my grandparent's place, it is hard to think that a month or so ago, I was in such a radically different environment 12500 kilometres away and yet it had ceased to be a surprise despite the glaring dissimilarities. This imperviousness to wonder is not a feeling to be encouraged but it does help a lot when it comes to focusing on the daily chores which are a nagging reality whether the country be India or the USA.

The last few days went by in a flash, almost a faintly remembered dream with my parents coming over and me the wide-eyed visitor to that country from a year ago now the experienced (I'd like to think) guide helping my folks negotiate the streets of New York and the hallowed streets of Cambridge. The final 4 days saw a flurry of activity with 3 cars playing the lead roles in this hallucinogenic phase of time - the fortuitous sale of my dear Toyota Corolla when I had given up all hope of getting a fair price for it; the Chrysler 300, a car which I had lusted after for long rented out to me as an unexpected but not undeserved customer loyalty reward from the Enterprise guys in my hometown of Taunton and then the luxurious behemoth of an SUV, the Lincoln Enclave which was to be the rental to take me to the airport from where I'd take the flight back home. Driving an SUV was a fair conclusion to the multitude of typical "American" experiences that I had had as I drove an unnecessarily powerful and obscenely equipped vehicle (Video cameras at the rear end for reversing the goddamn thing) which occupies pride of place in the ridiculed with a lot more than a tinge of jealousy American lifestyle.

Greenpeace can hate me for it but when tons of snow came down pouring down on that Saturday evening (Our flight was on Sunday), I was glad I was in the comfy confines of the SUV. In fact, I was thrilled. The headlights of my petrol guzzling elephant caught the snow as the flakes rushed down to smother the land and all that lay on it in their spotless sheet of white. But the big boy's toy in my hands made sure that I needn't be confined inside the four walls of my home. The roads were empty and pristine, as were the barren winter-time trees now sprouting flowers of snow. I was doing my closing bit of intrepid exploration on this, my first trip across the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. Adventure does not end where the weather goes grey and the crowds thin out. In fact, that is where adventure might just begin.