The importance of failing to write

Failure. That fear that makes all of us run, constantly hurrying in the rat race, getting less sleep, tossing and turning in bed at night, worried, worried that we might fail in making it to our dreams, our goals, fail our children and parents’ expectations or worse, our own expectations from ourselves. Failure is a dirty, filthy word in our world. There with shit, vomit and death. Which is perhaps why no one mentions it, no one wants to remembers it, no one repeats or talks about it.

When I first started to write, I had many no-writing days, many days when I would stare at a screen, panic building up in the dark, squishy pits of my stomach, wondering if I could write, if I was writing anything that made sense to me, would make sense to anyone, would be good enough. I was ashamed of it. I felt that if I failed to write one day, one week or one month, that was it. I was a fake, pretending to be a writer, when I couldn’t even frame one sensible word after another. It had to be me, right? For no one else seems to be going through this. No other author/artists/writer talks about this. I thought I was alone. And it did make it all the more miserable.

Now I am different. Or I hope I am. In not that I don’t fail to write anymore, or that I have won over failure because I have written complete works of novels and have been published. No. I am different because I have realised how failing to write is ESSENTIAL for my writing. Failure, or as I think of it, my blackhole day, is the lifebreath, or the vacuum that comes before a flow of creativity.

failure (1)I fail at writing every day. Every damn day. I sit in front of the computer, my hands spread like claws on my keyboard and I do not know what word to put after the first one and then the other. Failure is essential to my creative process. I have to constantly fall right into failed words and failed ideas to know that they’re not working. I stare everyday deep into failure’s eyes, say hello there and know that like the heroine I am writing about, I too will come out of the frozen phase into creativity, into light, into success of expressing the story. But not today.

You have to, and I repeat, have to, fail to write and get over the fear in order to begin.

You have to do it every day, when you ponder on what word comes next, what the character says next and have no clue as to what that might be. You have to fail to write more than write itself. When you are writing, and you know it’s all wrong and you have to delete it tomorrow and start afresh. You have to be wrong, you have to fail.

Tweet in point. For only when you fail, when you stare into the blackhole for a whole day, does your creative mind bless you with a few words to express the story that has been dancing in your head. It’s a blessing really and enjoy it, for tomorrow, in writing that fresh scene, you will start to fail again.

I write this not so much as a catharsis but also as a call out for those desperately looking for a sign of success while in the blackhole. Fail, it’s okay. It’s okay to drop a book unfinished, it’s okay to write a completely wrong or badly sentenced scene. It’s okay to fail. For you have to learn how to fail in order to succeed.

As a quote attributed to Thomas Edison says:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” 

And till now, with the grace of the muses who look after me for no apparent reason, I haven’t had a day when the blackhole of failure doesn’t dry up the next day when I am keying in words.

Keep failing, peeps!

 

 

The politics of Facebook

With the social media becoming an important political battleground, is Facebook affecting friendships and trying to influence our political leanings?

 

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When social activist Uthara Narayanan, 32, posted an innocuous article link on the Gujarat riots on Facebook in January, she was in for a surprise. An old friend from college fiercely defended Gujarat chief minister and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, getting abrasive and personal in the post. “I had known her for more than 14 years and yet hadn’t seen this side to her,” says Narayanan. “I didn’t realize when she had gone off and gotten such strong views on the debate.”

From then on Narayanan decided to stay away from her friend though they live in the same city. “It left a bad taste in my mouth and marred our friendship for me, though I am still Facebook friends with her.” Almost as if agreeing with her, Facebook’s wall automatically started keeping her friend’s posts away from her wall—thanks to the EdgeRank algorithm.

Like-like stick together

EdgeRank, the Facebook algorithm that decides which posts to show in your newsfeed, bases its decision on three factors: an affinity score between the user and the one who’s created the post, the type of post (comment, like, create or tag), and time lapsed since it was created. The first basically means that you will see posts from friends you have interacted with and like to interact with on the social network.

In January, Catherine Grevet, a PhD student at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US, studied this algorithm in the light of politics and concluded that people tend to get attracted to circles of friends who affirm to their own political leanings, all because of Facebook’s algorithms. “People are mainly friends with those who share similar values and interests,” Grevet wrote in the study. “As a result, they aren’t exposed to opposing viewpoints.” Grevet presented the study at the 17th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing in the US in February.

Alok Sharma, a Mumbai-based creative writer who used to be a political cartoonist, says social media has led to Indians opening up. “We are taught to be a little politically correct, especially in face-to-face conversations. But when it comes to social networking sites, Indians express their views like fanatics,” he says. He blocked a couple of Facebook friends after a spate of personal comments on one of his posts. “My friends know me and get the crux of what I might be trying to say in a thread but there are others who are on my Friends list but don’t understand the context and take it all wrong.”

The misunderstanding arises because many of us post on the network as we would speak among friends and not as we would say things in public. “Facebook is not a community, a clique or a group of friends,” says Nishant Shah, director of research at Bangalore-based non-profit The Centre for Internet and Society. “It is just a network,” he says. That means that not all people on your Facebook list are friends—you are just connected to them on the network. You might have a professional relationship with them, be teammates or acquaintances or colleagues, but you don’t know them personally. Given that the average Facebook user has 229 Facebook friends—according to the numbers from US think tank Pew Research Center’s Internet Project which tracks statistics about the social network—that’s just too many people to even know personally.

“The audience on the social network is much larger than the friend list, including Facebook itself, which, if it finds your comment problematic, will censor even before a complaint is produced,” says Shah. A post on Facebook or a comment or a like, can get you in trouble not just with other individuals or communities who take offence but even the law, as happened to a girl in 2012 who put up a post criticizing the shutdown of Mumbai after the death of Shiv Sena patriarch Bal Thackeray.

“Though used like it, Facebook is not a conversation,” says Shah, “Because everything you write is archived and recorded. And can be used against you if need be.”

A medium to shout in

But would you shout at a stranger on the street as you do on Facebook? Basav Biradar, a programme manager based in Bangalore, actively posts on politics and comments on Facebook. He feels most people on Facebook give strong opinions that are not well-informed. “A lot of these opinions are dependent on propaganda and campaigns rather than facts. Why don’t people do some homework before forming an opinion?” With over 100 million Indians active on the social network, however, an uninformed opinion is hardly reason to stop anyone from posting, commenting, liking, offending and getting offended through posts on Facebook.

Shah calls this phenomenon cyber-bullying in politics. “Specific vocal and passionate groups and communities have emerged who silence any voice of dissent or critique by trolling the dissident,” says Shah. “They do not need anonymity. They don’t try to hide who they are. They feel so empowered by the backing of the politicos who are either hiring or supporting them, that they have risen in hordes and are stifling the space for dissent and questioning even more effectively than they have been able to do in real life.”

It’s almost like standing in a rally and hearing a swarm of slogans. Sashi Kumar, chairman of the trust Media Development Foundation that runs the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, gives a similar analogy. He believes that the language of communication on Facebook is not written but oral. “Writing implies a well thought through opinion, whereas speech is responsive and involved. Within the Internet, there’s a strange morphing of written form which is expressed in a way of oral communication. You speak to someone on Facebook, you respond, you hear, you react, you communicate, you talk.” He says that this morphing is leading society back to more oral forms of communication where written forms like newspapers will be a thing of the past.

Replacing traditional media

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With surprising events like the support for Jan Lokpal law, Pink Chaddi campaign and even the backlash against the December 2012 gang rape case in Delhi, social media seems to have somewhere, somehow made all of us more participative, more aware and more active in political and social spaces.

Most politicians have active Twitter and Facebook accounts. Most newspapers and even news channels quote their feed as statements when summing up news. Social networks have become almost mainstream. So much so that when earlier in March Modi attacked Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar at a political rally in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, Kumar’s response was detailed, and through a Facebook post.

 

Read the complete story on Livemint.com

The rape of Meghalaya

Eight hundred dumper trucks filled to the brim with coal and limestone stand on the Indian side, patiently waiting to cross the border into Bangladesh and dump their load. That’s all they do, day in and day out. Pick up limestone and coal, dug out from the mountains of Meghalaya, head to the border at Dawki, cross into Bangladesh and dump it there. To be exported to China or be made into cement. Who knows? Who cares? The politicians, the landowners, the people of Meghalaya are making money. They are beginning to buy bigger cars and other good things in life.

The mountains of Meghalaya, are old, more ancient and wiser, more mysterious but also kinder than Himalayas.  Perhaps that is why they do not protest to being drilled, cut, stripped of their soil and stone. Maybe because it’s all legal: as in each truckload is given a wadload of paper, stamped by the government. Papers, dead trees license the owners to cut and grab and gobble.

‘The people who own the mountains are selling them,’ a guide we meet on the way to Dawki informs us. We stand on a high road, for a chai break with the valley on one side and the lush green curvaceous mountains behind. His voice is one of acceptance. ‘They were the ones who made gold by buying when the government was selling the mountains. Now, they sublet it to the contractors and they sell the land.’

By selling the land, the guide means, mining it away, selling the raw materials that might be lying in the womb of the mountains, that had been created and took hundreds of years to be created. All to be gone, in twenty years of senseless human greed.DSC00200

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(Trucks and trucks some more. All off to Bangladesh with loads)

‘Ten years ago, there was less of this, but it’s been increasing. The government wants it and the people who own the lands want to do it. ’

‘Doesn’t any of you protest against this?’

‘It’s not ours. The landowners are selling their land. Who’s to stop them?’

After that, a few men from Maharashtra, whose guide we have been speaking to, mutter about politicians and rich people and their greedy hearts. Their tea is finished. They try to throw the plastic cup across into the valley, but we point to a dustbin. The mountains, standing infront, look at it all, at us with our meaningless conversations as tourists who are equally disruptive on their ecology, at the trucks that roll heavy over them filled with stolen chunks of them and remain silent, patient. How can someone own the mountains? But then, how can we own anything of the land? But we do, don’t we?

At the border, at Dawki, the roads are mere trails of mud covered with long lines of trucks filled to the brim, waiting to cross the border and an equally long line coming from Bangladesh emptied of their load. We walk through the slush, dust clinging to everything. There are no tourists here, only silent eyes of men, labourers, or truck drivers. On our side, a long series of huts, with chairs and tables and typewriters and printers. To make the stealing official. To give it a seal, the seal of India’s government. To show, to cry out, to the mountains perhaps, that it’s all legal. That they’re all good men.  We are hesitant, even afraid, not sure how far we can walk. after all, the tourist stays in similar spaces, with other tourists. This is not that space. This is business, this is industry, this is supposed to stay hidden in dusts.

The border ends in a valley. A gate at one side, welcoming people to Bangladesh. We stand at ‘our’ side. The policeman in the hut, looks up.

‘What you want?’

‘We want to see.’

‘Ok,’ he says, to our surprise asking the BSF fellow with a gleaming, polished gun to show us the ‘border’. The BSF jawan is helpful, from UP, and waiting for just such an opportunity to jabber. He tells us how people across the border wait, day in day out, young men to cross the border.

‘Illegal immigrants?’ I ask.

‘No, no. They want to get booze. You see Bangladesh is a Muslim country and drinking is not allowed. Poor fellows want to drink. Sometimes they beg us to look the other way so that they can cross the border, get a fix and return. But I do wish that there was a fence between the borders. Right now, all there is are marked stones. It makes manning these fields rather impossible. But who’s to say. The upper echelon bosses want it this way.’

Cows graze in the flatland between the two countries, moving seamlessly from one side to another. No passports required for them, unlike us. A family from Bangladesh with a suitcase approaches the Indian side. Tourists, we are informed. ‘You can also go to the other side. It’s visa on arrival for both the countries,’ says the BSF guard. We, the city people, crib about how the government is mining the mountains away and no one seems to care.

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(The border at Dawki)

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(Our helpful BSF jawan)

‘The government is too greedy. they can make cement here, in Meghalaya, give work to more people, but they dig and sell the motherland away in peanuts. From Bangladesh it goes to China, the raw material, the earth. Why don’t they make cement here? She’s our mother, but no one cares about the mother now,’ he says wisely. ‘They don’t understand that we will lose the vantage point, the height of the mountains. Then they will attack and enslave us all. You see, madam, in a generation, we will be desperate to enter their country like the Bangladeshis want to enter ours now.’ We nod, and see and click pictures refusing to shrug off the tourist in us. He poses for us, still proud of his country. Not the people, but the country—his mother. He’s been trained to be proud.

Back in Shillong, my heart is still somewhat heavy. Even the lovely cottage I stay in, doesn’t cut it. I chat with the owner of the cottage, a lady who lives in Shillong and Bangalore.

‘Is there any activism in Meghalaya at all? Is anyone protesting this mining away of hills like in Karnataka?’

‘No one, dear,’ she says, kindly. ‘They don’t seem to see beyond the riches. What you saw was legal. The Jaintia hills have illegal mining of the forests and mountains by terrorists and we have no idea how much, since there’s no tracking, no paperwork.’

Me, with my privileged outlook, do not understand why. Why do those with trees and mountains and fresh air want to sell it off? Not hoard it, make love to it, cherish it. A college-dropout from Manipur, who meets me in the airplane back home, gives me the answer.

‘We want development,’ he says.

‘What kind of development? Jobs? What else?’

‘Jobs, yes. But development. More.’

He cannot express it but when he talks about Bangalore, a city of malls, traffic, people, energy, colour, human bustling, his eyes shine. For him, from Manipur, from Imphal, from the quiet mountains, the city life is the lure. He craves for that, just like me. I have lived in cities all my life and I love it. Can I live in Dawki? I don’t think I can. But I do dream of mountains and greenery and forests and trees. And a part of me wonders if we, the human race, with our greedy cravings, are going terribly wrong, somewhere.

So here’s a poem to perhaps express what my sentences could not. Perhaps not.

Dirty are the fingernails

Filthy

Not with the earth

But with jaded greed

Dead and dried

Of all emotion

Of everything

But the desire to own.

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Shovelling, cutting, whirring away

They claw the mountain side

Screaming in their destruction

Unbinding that which binds

Destroying that which gives life

For something that cannot be eaten,

Cannot be shat out

Cannot sustain life

 

For the coin, for the note

For the greedy eye.

 

I do hope this blog, somehow, somewhere, shows me or someone else a way to somehow stop it. With some hope.

Rituals of death and dead cultures

Being pissed off at something makes me write. I am pissed off at many things right now. Mostly, I can direct all my anger, frustration and irritation at one word: RITUALS.

Rituals are like flies in India. They are everywhere, they survive, they hop around your food, your mouth, your eyes, sitting, peeing, pooping on your face. They are mostly irritating and sometimes make you feel like you might want to swat your own face to get rid of them. But you can’t really. You might swat, stand up, shrug, dance, frit, fly, run, walk all you want, the flies will come back and sit on you everywhere to poop and pee.

If you have lived in India long enough (and I have since I was born) chances are you have met Mr Ritual. Indians love him (and I am using gender-specific pronoun here). That is why, everytime there is a festival, someone is born (is it a boy! oh, no it’s a girl), someone reaches a certain age (puberty, let’s celebrate blood), someone gets married, someone gets kids, someone celebrates, someone conducts a pooja (5gm cloves, 3 pieces of beetle nuts and two tilaks please), on vrats, on days you eat, on days you fast, on special days, or on when you die. There’s a ritual for everything. There are rules you have to follow to appease gods, ancestors, deities, families, husband’s families, and innumerable other people (and some gods) who you don’t really want to even know.

Since these rituals have been made by prissy, patriarchally-oriented granddaddies of our culture (Manu, some of the rishis and oodles of other brahmins, dads and granddads after them) and are delicately conserved by the female part of the family, they are usually regressive in nature, especially for the women of the family. They want to keep women of the family in purdah, busy in either making food or cleaning, or making food, or bathing themselves, or did I mention making food? These rituals also demand that the daughters-in-law and wives in a household of traditional loving Indian family, demand money/gifts/stuff from their own families of before marriage. And these rituals demand from the men of the family to do vague things like mantra, poojas—actions which are robotic and laid down in the holy books – through which they can appease gods, ancestors and family members and make their stand in society.

In other words, all these little rituals keep everyone busy and safely away from questioning. Safely away to ask why is everyone so busy in rituals? Why are these fly-like rituals everywhere, surrounding us in a flurry of things-to-do lists? Why don’t people in India look behind these rituals and see what they are trying to tell their gods through them? Why does no one see the suffering, the stuffiness, the prissiness of it all?

So I reached a conclusion. And I learnt it from flies. Flies who are wiser than us, and everywhere. They don’t change their lifestyle. You can swat them all you want, hunt them down with spears, guns, bombs or even hatchets. There will be simply more in number than you can attack. India’s too hot (and too stuck up) a country to not have flies and rituals.

The question is, have flies become so much a part of you that you would not even notice their existence? Have you become immune to the fact that they are nothing but flies?

I always thought that emotions cannot be told in mere prose. Here’s a poem I wrote for the occasion.

 

 

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