Sunday, July 15, 2018

Back to Bristol

I got back to Bristol this evening. The past three months seem like a blur. Everything seemed to be happening at the same time--the summer school, ways of knowing, visa woes, the presentation, my progression report. Now, it is a return to business-as-usual, or so I hope. Which means that I will have to try to have a life outside uni. I can't keep working at breakneck pace.
And, I am looking forward to it. I think this is the freest I have ever been--both socially  and intellectually--and I am looking forward to settling down into this kind of life. Yes, I could do with more friends.  I am prepared to take efforts to be social without forcing myself into activities I am ambivalent about. At the risk of sounding pompous, I feel like I have a lot to contribute to the world and to the people I come across. And, I feel that I have become more secure in my solitude, which I was initially trying to run away from. I do, of course, feel lonely at times, but I also feel more open to new experiences and new people. I feel more confident of interacting on my own terms, with both kindness and self-assurance. 

Friday, July 13, 2018

The Colour of Grass

It hasn't rained in England for over four weeks and the grass has turned from lush green to the colour of hay. A lot like the grass of the Sahayadri hills back home in the non-monsoon months. During the monsoon months, the grass of the Sahayadris turns a bright incandescent-bordering-on-fluorescent green. I have never seen grass of that colour (or anything of that colour) anywhere else in that world. The lesson is simple. Lush green grass needs regular rain. While green grass and bright sunshine are considered idylls of nature, bright sunshine uninterrupted by rain causes grass to wilt. Rainy weather is the price to pay for green grass. And, if  you see lush green grass in a place where it doesn't rain through the year, it is likely that the grass is either artificial or it is watered by an expensive and ecologically damaging sprinkler system. I remember as a child playing with the sprinklers on the lawns of my residential complex. The sprinklers would rotate in steps, sending long arcs of water through the air, and the game was to let the streams of water chase you without getting wet. That was a simpler time, before India embraced capitalist excess.
Now, the unusually warm weather in England is being seen as evidence that even one of the wettest countries in the Western hemisphere cannot escape global warming. The globe is warming, capitalism is lurching from crisis to crisis and liberalism is dying a slow and agonizing death. What a time to be alive.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

England Exits

I had planned to see the England-Croatia World Cup semifinal match last evening, but when it went it to extra time I decided that I had had enough of football and went for a walk by the seaside. On my walk there, the roads were quite deserted and I felt a faint sense of solidarity with the few souls out and about who didn't care about England's football fortunes. 
The tide was up, so the jetty I usually hang out on was submerged. I had to settle for a bench looking out on the sea. I learned that England had lost when two teenage girls loitering on the  beach started cursing loudly (the English are extremely polite until they have a drink, after which they become extremely loud). 
I have no loyalty towards England and I don't see it as my adopted home. I have very few friends in England and given that English football fans are legendary for their terrible behaviour, I was not-so-secretly hoping that they would lose. Racism in England rests on nostalgia for empire and a fondness for the monarchy, but both these are far removed from everyday life. Football seems to confer a legitimacy on the expression of racist and nationalist sentiments. Sport often unleashes passionate sentiments and impassioned people feel emboldened to express latent sentiments that remain tucked away in periods of sobriety. Of course, football doesn't cause racism but it gives people what they see as a legitimate outlet for their racist sentiments. The anonymity of the mob provides excellent cover and encouragement for people's baser tendencies. In the heat of the moment, people forget that modern technology renders anonymity near-impossible. Passion for football is a socially sanctioned form of passion which often goes out of hand.  

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Personal Columns

I don't envy people who have to write regular columns for newspapers and suchlike, especially personal columns (as opposed to columns on specific topics such as financial markets or sports). Mining your everyday life for your column is a risky exercise as the people you write about might not appreciate being written about or what your write about them. The quality of your columns is likely to fluctuate wildly even if you have a talent for spinning mundane events into interesting stories. And, it is difficult to guard against sliding into self-indulgence and unabashed navel-gazing. The English media is full of such faffing and the fact that most columnists tend to be posh white men makes the columns even more tiresome. Even professional comedians are not that great at squeezing comedy or profundity out of everyday life. Only write in a public medium if you have something to say, is what I believe. If you really love navel-gazing, why not maintain a personal blog that almost no one reads?

Back To England

The first and major leg of my mini-summer break is over. I wasn’t able to get away from my PhD as much as I wanted, and spent the first few days of my holiday moping over my PhD progression viva. I suppose a PhD is so all-consuming that there is no way to completely disconnect from it, especially if you don’t have a partner and family or other responsibilities. But, I saw my sister and her family and got my share of hugs to sustain me until the end of the year.
Saying goodbye to my sister is never easy but there are two occasions I remember in particular when it was particularly difficult. One was the day she got married and was leaving with her bridegroom after the ceremony. We both tore up while hugging, both (or me at least) struggling to grasp the momentousness of the occasion. The second time was when I visited her in Mexico in February 2013. She had come to drop me off at the airport at the end of my visit. Mexico is the other end of the earth from India and my U.S.-Mexico had filled me with a strange restlessness. I would spend the next year-and-a-half doing my best to move out of India. My possible work destinations would include London, Hong Kong and Qatar before I would decide to take a break from working and move to Holland to do a Master’s in August 2014. She and her family would spend a few months in India before I moved to Holland and then they would move to Brussels in the following year, which practically would practically make us neighbours. But, I knew none of that when I was saying goodbye to her at the airport that morning.
I suppose the difficulty off goodbyes also depends on what you are going back to. When saying goodbye to my sister after her wedding, I was going back to an engineering course that didn’t excite me and a hostel where I struggled to find people I could connect with. The first signs of my alienation with engineering had started to show, although I would only feel its full force over the following years.
From that Mexico trip, I was going back to a well-paying job that left me feeling unfulfilled and a deep desire to move out of the city that I had grown up in but had never managed to grow fond of. It was, of course, nice to be living with my parents but I always knew that my destiny wasn’t in Thane/Mumbai. The question was when, not if, I would move out.
To be honest, I have nothing to go back to in England except my PhD. But that is a good enough reason. At no other point in my life have I felt more satisfied with what I am doing. And my inward journey, of  which blogging is a big part, continues.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

On Art

I have never been much of an art person. I find myself scrutinizing paintings till my eyes water to find something of significance. My appreciation seldom moves beyond the aesthetics of a painting and the fact that I usually have something to say about a painting is down to verbal dexterity rather than artistic temperament. I wonder what it feels like to be transfixed by a painting or sculpture, or even moved to tears.
But since it is obligatory to visit the most famous museum of the city you are visiting, I found myself in the Prado museum in Madrid. The museum is a labyrinth of caverns and we never held hope of covering even most of it. We decided to stick to just one of its three wings.
Even with such low expectations, we felt overwhelmed by the amount of art that was on display. It didn't help that my nephews made no secret of their wish to leave as soon as possible. But, today, I felt like I was able to appreciate art more than ever before. Some paintings, especially Goya's Black Paintings, stirred something in me, although I can't find the words to express those stirrings. While looking at some paintings, I felt for a few seconds like I had almost entered the painting. I also found myself drawn to the backgrounds of paintings, particularly the skies. Questions such as how does an artist decide about the lighting in her paintings and keep that consistent throughout the  painting kept popping up. Also, which vantage point to use and can there be multiple vantage points in a single painting? I found myself transfixed with the sculpted folds of cloth and the calves of the sculptures. I feel calves are the most difficult to sculpt as they are featureless, yet have a distinctive form.
But, despite my newfound artistic sensibility, I had had enough after about two hours of browsing. I will stick to being moved to tears by prose and poetry, and the rare song.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Smart and Funny People

I think it was Jay Leno who said that to find a comedienne or comedian funny, you need to like her or him first. It is neigh impossible to find a person you dislike funny. Yes, comic timing and delivery matter--how you say it (and the personality of the speaker) matters as much or even more than what you say. But, likability matters even more.
I wonder if that is also true for judgments of intellectual output, especially in the social sciences and humanities where brilliance is in the eye of the beholder. Where the questions you ask are often more important than the solutions you propose. It is  very  difficult to keep aside your perception of the author from your judgement of their work.
Of course, in an ideal world, you judge a piece of work on its own merit. Authorship is a trivial question. But, in economics, especially, invisible epistemic boundaries abound and one finds oneself crossing them frequently. How do you judge a piece of work that is built on different epistemic or ontological foundations than yours?
I suppose that is why judging a piece of work is often an act of faith. One often says to oneself "This seems like a pretty ordinary piece of work but what do I know? People who I think are smart think this work is great, so it must at least be good". 
Whether someone is smart or not is a question I wrestle with frequently. Maybe it is a peculiarly male habit to make judgments about a person and use that as a lens to view their work or actions. At the risk of sounding essentialist, maybe women are less prone to snap judgments. Judging someone as smart puts them on a higher plane of existence and makes you more tolerant of their shortcomings. Of course, there is a theatrical aspect to it and some people are just better at sounding smart. 
But, a heterodox argument from an established "smart" author is much more likely to find a receptive audience while the same argument from a newbie might be dismissed as flaky bullshit. 
I have more to  say on this subject and shall come back to it again.