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Friday, September 25, 2015

The America Jon Stewart Forgot

The America Jon Stewart Forgot

Every day at work for the last three years, while I ate my lunch, I would watch Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. He’s what I want to be: a bridge between laughter and reflection, between awareness and action, between the wisdom of adulthood and youth’s naïve optimism. And yet because Jon Stewart holds America to such high standards (standards America should perhaps hold itself to more often), his brand of parody emphasises America’s shortcomings. Watching Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and other comedians has jaundiced my view of this great country.

I’ve been in America for exactly a month and my friends always ask me “so how is Yale?”

Yale is everything you’d imagine: unequivocally, unapologetically Ivy League. It is grand: the gym looks like a cathedral and the resources available are staggering. Do you want to bring in a guest speaker to augment with group work? Here’s $1,000. Do you want to spend the summer in Ukraine working on energy policy? Here’s a blank cheque. But that’s not what captivates me about this place. On 55 Hillhouse Avenue (that Hemingway and Dickens called the ‘most beautiful street in America’) sit a group of young people who fill me with more inspiration than all the regal courtyards we walk through every day. They are my classmates at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and the best thing about Yale (and my life right now) is that I get to sit with them.

They are the America Jon Stewart forgot. They are 30 men and women from around the world who have good in their hearts and steel in their veins. I am hesitant to say “we” because I am still figuring out my place within this tribe. My biggest goal and erstwhile challenge is to shut up. Shut up and listen. What I love about my class – and particularly the Americans who anchor it – is their will to go out into the world and improve things. It is something that as a journalist, you come to admire – as a writer I am at best an advocate, at worst an armchair activist. But my classmates left Ohio and New Jersey and Texas with that same naïve optimism (that Jon ought to recapture) and built things.

My classmates are the America you don’t see in the news: the America that wants to be an international force because it feels it has a duty to ameliorate. An America self-aware and confident enough in its virtues that it ventures back into Iraq and Afghanistan and Benin and Rwanda simply because it feels it has the capability to amend. They are army officers supremely cognizant of their misadventures and fearless enough to go back and fix things; fearless enough not to give up. They are the Peace Corps volunteers who build schools and hospitals and help young atheists become more tolerant of the religious. “Libya? I’ll go there. Kosovo? I’ll go there. You can stay in London and go to warehouse parties or continue working for your dad’s company in Bombay. Enjoy your weekend trip to Bangkok. I’m going to South Africa to work on an anti-AIDS project.”

The Americans I’ve met here have a profound, unerring will to learn about and improve the world. From my own limited experience, Europeans seem happy with enjoying their lives and finding the beauty in things (nothing wrong with that) while Asians want to secure prosperity for their families, their clans and their countries (in that order). But the Americans here, the ones that Jon pays scant credence to, are going to venture forth and do their best, armed with bags of money and hearts of gold. The international students in my class are no less impressive or loveable. The Russian, who has inserted himself into the lion’s star-spangled den, finds his proud nation repeatedly critiqued by the world’s most august historians and responds with a measured candour we should all aspire to. The Chinese approaches problems (and opinions) with the understated sincerity that has driven his economy’s logical resurgence.

You know when you see horrible news on TV? When you forfeit hope? These people stop you in your tracks. They will not stand for it. It is really quite incredible.

Everyone brings something unique to the table. You see someone struggling through economics lecture in the morning. But in the afternoon, he’s knee deep in Hannah Arendt while you’re still figuring out what “The Banality of Evil” actually means. It is sobering and intoxicating at the same time: we’ve all begun this journey together and we have no idea who or where we’ll be two years from now.

I’ve found myself changing too. Yale is a petri dish for studying one’s plunge into mediocrity. This is where learning to shut up comes in handy. As a result, I’ve had to push myself and challenge myself more than ever before; I naively thought that getting into grad school would be the toughest part (working full time while also studying for GREs and putting together solid applications) and then things would get easier. But grad school is harder. It’s a relentless avalanche of duties and here’s the problem: They are duties to yourself. If you slack, you lose. Not your parent, not your employer. The undergraduate zeal for finding the path of least resistance is quickly disappearing. Procrastination is the last vestibule of a crumbling empire. There are days when you do calculus for five hours and then come home to an hour of German homework and two hours of marking undergraduates’ homework. I find solace, on evenings of mental maelstrom, in America’s single greatest export bar none: Miles Davis. An hour of jazz and I’m ready to go again. Between Miles and Jon, I’m good.

Yale is a bigger catalyst for self-improvement than any “90-day weight loss program” or stupidly titled paperback. Every junction pushes you to dig deeper and find something within yourself you didn’t know you had. I wrote a book review the other day that, I think, is some of my best writing. Why? I had spent a week reading the most compelling memoir I’ve come across: William J Shirer’s “Nightmare Years”. For me, reading a 600 page novel used to be a once-a-year event; my first month at Yale requires that I fill my mind with the words of genii every week. 600 pages worth. I can feel myself getting smarter, I just hope I don’t try to act smarter too.

Today I attended a classical music recital out of my own volition – something I’d never have done a few years (or months) ago.

As the pipes of the grand organ tower above you in Woolsey Hall, you suddenly understand the immortal power of a symphony orchestra. The double basses rumble in the deep, like clouds of war gathering ominously in the horizon, tempered only by the playful violins chirping feminine messages of defiant happiness. And when the brass section bellows into earshot, you feel the energy in the room suddenly pick up. It’s a gravity that wasn’t there before – a gravity that only live music can emote out of thin air. It’s the ultimate team sport. It is raw, ethereal compulsion, summoned at the fingertips of musicians who have mastered their craft. Yale had opened my mind to experiencing the beauty of this sonic drama. I was happy I went. The tickets were free (because of course they were free) but I had overcome the inertia that had stymied my intellectual curiosity in the past. In one month, Yale has changed me.

If I were to leave you with one message it would be this: try to find your tribe. My parents, in the last ten years, seem to have found theirs and they are happier for it. I think I have found a community where I can just shut up and absorb the ideas that optimism and rigour churn out. I hope you are, at whatever level, able to find yours. I hope you’re able to find a group of people who have similar ideas about finding (and creating) and happiness. It is like being part of a team. It is comforting and motivating in equal measure: you know your peers will keep you honest and vault you to creativity when need be.

Look at me: the temerity to lecture Jon Stewart on America! Take a plunge into naïveté with me and you may also find a better version of yourself. “How is Yale?” Yale is good man, Yale is good.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Not yet a Buddhist

About two years ago, I wrote a silly blog about why I didn’t have a girlfriend and why I probably never would. It was an essay in self-pity because I’ve dated two wonderful girls since. But it got me thinking: I realize that I was linking my own happiness to my external environment. First, I was linking my happiness to another person (being a relationship is something I craved). And secondly, to a lesser extent, I was linking my happiness to the fact that I was living in India. Clearly, I would never be happy as long as I was in India, because for some reason I wouldn’t be able to find a companion there. Oh how the tables have turned. Now I feel dissatisfied for exactly the opposite reasons: I will soon have to end a relationship because I will be moving to the USA for university. It has left me with one lesson: I need to learn to be happy with myself.

How do you reach a state where you are happy with yourself, your life and what you have? I’ve always sought to steer clear of abstract topics like ‘happiness’. But I now realize that I’ve spent a large chunk of my life looking forward to the next stage of my life - looking forward to the next chunk of my education/career. Growing up, I was used to moving countries every few years, whether it was because of my dad’s job or my own studies. At first, the major turmoil came from leaving friends. When I left the UK to move back to India after I finished my undergraduate studies, I lamented being on a different continent to my best friends in Europe. The loneliness culminated in that infamously silly blog. But shortly after writing that piece, I dated P for a year and all was well in the world. I was suddenly happy with living in India. In fact, I wasn’t even thinking about living in India or leaving India. I was just happy. By the time we broke up, I was in the throes of US college admissions and I was focused on the future. Again. I also applied for a three month summer fellowship in Germany, further reducing my time in India. I was going to get over the break-up by conveniently leaving the country. I was focused on pulling an Assange.

Then I met M and magically, life was great again. The future was irrelevant. The thought of leaving India loomed, but I was too busy living each day to worry. Weeks turned into months and we got closer and closer. When I left for Germany, we agreed that we would end things on a positive note and “see what happens” in the future. There was no point doing long-distance because, well, what was the end game? I would soon be leaving for good anyway and we are both way too young to be planning life around other people. I think it must have been a week into my German sojourn when we both realized that we didn’t really want to see other people and we have been de-facto long distancing ever since. My initial thought was to do an Assange; in fact I’ve pulled a Snowden. I’m abroad and I did the right thing but I’m not as happy as I should be. The thesis was that I would have an unmitigated blast in Germany but while I’ve had a great time, I’m missing the person I want to share it all with. I will be with M for a month when I’m back in India (inshallah) and then we will go our separate ways for the next few years at least.

It’s got me thinking: I am fairly certain that my future will involve as much geographical change as my past. I used to be scared of leaving friends. While it was hard, I made new friends, stayed increasingly in touch with old ones and this summer in Germany, I will have reunited with many of those I didn’t think I’d see any time soon. It’s been three years, but our meetings have been wonderful and memorable. I think I’m over missing my friends. But now I have to reconcile with missing my girlfriend and I’m not quite sure how to do it. She keeps telling me that I will meet amazing people at Yale and I know that’s true. But at the moment, that is meagre consolation because it points to something deeper I need to deal with. I need to learn to be happy with my life as it stands and not as I want it to be. And hey, it’s not like that has been mankind’s eternal struggle or anything.

While I love companionship, I guess I will have to reach a point where I am having such a good time or doing such meaningful work that I have different pillars to prop up my contentment. Perhaps it is healthiest for us, the confused space-mammal, to not need to be dependent on our environment or our company to be happy. Am I sounding abstract? Sorry. I think you should be able to go to a gig with friends and party the night away without thinking of ending it with someone else. I think you should be able to wake up on a Saturday morning in Mumbai or Munich and have a great day regardless of who you will meet. Now, all this is easier said than done. Especially when you know there is someone (a friend, family member or partner) who totally gets you – someone who acts as a catalyst to turn a good experience into a great one, just by being around.

What is the answer? Yoga? Meditation? Steak? Are they distractions from the human contact you crave or are they the ends in and of themselves? If I’m missing my friends, family or girlfriend, I try to work out, watch a movie, make new friends, eat great food, etc… but when you go to bed at night, there’s nothing left to distract you. Apparently Buddhists, at their spiritual healthiest, can live without want and flit about life without the burden of craving. I am not a Buddhist. I am a journalist.

I hope that someday I look back at this silly blog with the same pity for myself as I do towards the other silly blog.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Kit’s Dubstep Playlist

I realised reading some of my earlier writing that 2013 was a bad year. A lot of my blogs from 2013 were dark. Darker than the person most of you know me as. I was feeling immense loneliness in a new city and within my home. I often like to use music as mirror to reflect; when I’m feeling happy or ready to party I put on my House music playlist, when I want to psyche myself up I put on my rock and so on. But I had no “sad” music. Or even any “introspective” music. That’s when I discovered a long-forgotten playlist: my friend Kit’s dubstep playlist, which he had picked for me with such precision.

Kit is one of my best friends from university and he loves his music. His iTunes is the most meticulous database this side of the NSA. He particularly loves his thoughtful, soulful dubstep. It is the kind of music you play when you want to think long and hard about something. Good dubstep doesn’t force you to listen and it doesn’t flit around in the background either. Instead it’s sort of takes your deepest thoughts and amplifies them and gives clarity to your emotions, which otherwise would have been blunt and primitive. Good dubstep helps you reflect. Kit is someone who thinks about things a lot (more than, perhaps, he talks about them) and maybe that’s why the music resonates so much with him. Before Kit, my exposure to dubstep was horrific stuff from Skrillex and his ilk; pure cacophony.

But I found myself in a rickshaw on a sweltering Mumbai morning, a year after having left the Birmingham house Kit and I shared, listening to that same dubstep. And it felt so apt. It allowed me to delve into my heart and step outside my body and look at myself and my surroundings. You know when you’re listening to music in a moving train and you feel like you’re in a movie? Well this was that. Except this music was powerful and yet so modern. As far as reflective music goes, I love opera. But that can get quite dramatic. Sometimes, you just want clever drums and humbling melodies as you ride the train to work to figure out if today is going to be a good or a bad day; you have the power to choose.

I didn’t like every song on the playlist. But as I listened, I fell in love with more and more. And for different reasons. Soon I started finding parts of Bombay that I loved: early mornings train rides towards Churchgate, for those 12 seconds between Marine Lines and Charni Road, where the vista opens out and you can see the greens of the cricket clubs and the blues of the ocean behind it. And there was music for that calm too. You hurtle along through the brown and grey of the Western Line but for those 12 seconds, every passenger in the compartment escapes and becomes one of those boys playing carefree cricket by the sea. Then the wall starts again and you’re swallowed back into the brown-grey whirlpool. But if you time your music with that sliver of freedom, those 12 seconds last for the entire day.

Some songs are night songs. Some music is just better heard when the sky is dim and the city lights are growling silently at each other. Every evening from our old office in Matunga, I would take the train towards Elphinstone Road to my gym. It used to be largely empty since commuters were heading in the opposite direction. Again, I had the freedom of the open compartment door to muse. The oblivious sparkling glass skyscrapers look truly beautiful from the train. You slink past their ankles, unnoticed. They actually make me proud of my city. Most of Lower Parel lives beneath the flyovers that criss-cross it. Every now and then you emerge into a skyscape dominated by the IndiaBulls Centres and their smaller luminous cousins. With Kit’s dubstep to insulate me from the noise of the train, you are able to appreciate their boldness. They’re so big, but they belong to you too.

By the end of 2013, I had found a really great group of friends. The 4 of us used to cruise around town looking for new places to eat. We even took a road-trip to a music festival in Pune. Now Kit’s dubstep has become an elixir of excitement. It was upbeat. There was no reason to feel downbeat – or at least, none that struck me at the time. The music was groovy and in the car we each felt the sense of anticipation grow as we got nearer the festival venue. The synth and the vocals flirted playfully with each other as if to remind you of the romance in the night ahead. It need not be the romance that requires a significant girl - just the romance that opens your eyes to the privilege of spending an evening with friends and the freedom to do whatever you want. It’s the romance of youth. It’s the romance of the weekend and adventure. It’s the romance of possibly, maybe, hopefully, finding actual romance.

Now I listen to Kit’s dubstep more to remember than to reflect. I listen to it on sunny Saturday mornings when I want to remember good times or lonely Sunday nights when I want to feel alone. Am I overplaying the impact of music? I don’t think so. Those of us who love music, I’m sure, feel emotion to similar degrees brought on by songs or artists or genres that speak to a certain time in our lives. Kit’s dubstep was one of the many things that got me through 2013. It hummed in and out of my life when I needed to escape. Kit is the kind of guy who will go on holiday alone and have an absolute ball. He’s not a loner but I think he has understood how cool it is to hang out by yourself and take the world in as you want it. Sometimes being alone with yourself is wonderful.

You’re amazing – do you know that? You and yourself have the same taste in food, music and almost everything else. You have a bank of memories that you don’t need to explain to anyone else. You can just sit somewhere and let them swirl around in your head and smile and cry and swoon. I love Kit’s dubstep because it reminds me of the power of and happiness in self-reflection. You can put your earphones in and get on a train and think about things and you don’t need anyone else to have a great time. You don’t need to be ashamed of it. In fact, you need to be fully aware if you really want to take the plunge into your own sea of emotions and recollections. If you’re in a dark spot (or year), look to your friends and family for help. But don’t forget you have a great bubbling sea of ideas and love within you. You just need the right playlist to breathe down there.

So thank you Kit, for the dubstep.