Sunday, 19 February 2017

Ten Great Epiphanies Of My Life

I turned 54 today. I've been planning to write down all the things I've learnt in life so far. When musing on these, I realised that while some of them have been gradual learnings, others have burst upon my consciousness in a sudden flash. These latter epiphanies are the subject of this post, and that's why I have chosen to mark every one of them with an exclamation point. They represent the surprise with which I realised each truth when it made itself known to me.

An epiphany - a lightbulb that turns on suddenly inside your head

(In a later post, I hope to write about my more gradual learnings in life.)

Here are the most surprising things I learnt about myself and the world, in roughly the order in which I experienced them.

1. "They are the people!"

I was born in India, and my background is an upper-middle-class, upper-caste, academic one. My sister and I were brought up in relative comfort from our earliest days (although my mother says that when I was a baby, my parents had financial constraints because they had to contribute towards paying off some debts incurred by our extended family, and therefore had to make do with a curry with their rice only once in two days). I don't remember seeing any financial hardship during my childhood, though. My extended family and all my friends were from similarly privileged backgrounds. I was of course aware of the presence of people not of our class, because we always had domestic help, and all the people we encountered during our expeditions to the outside world, such as shopkeepers, bus conductors, autorickshaw drivers, watchmen and the like, were also of an obviously lower socio-economic stratum. However, it's one of the aspects of privilege that I never thought much of this class of people except as an adjunct to our own lives, which were of course the most important!

Many Indian middle-class families employ servants, but it's only in recent times that they have also begun to be viewed as fellow human beings

It was only in my teens, when I read about the Russian revolution and learnt new words like 'proletariat' and 'bourgeoisie', that I was able to make some connections between these abstract concepts and the reality of our own lives. One day, during a conversation with my father, I suddenly burst out with, "They are the people!"

In that moment, I had realised that we the privileged were not representative of the population of the country at all. We were the tiny elite crust of society, and the bulk of the country was made up of less educated, poorer, "lower caste" people. Socialism had leapt out of my textbooks and taken concrete form in my mind.

My outburst remained a family joke for many years, and whenever we had any trouble with a maid, gardener or other domestic help thereafter, my father would slyly remark, "What to do? They are the people."

This epiphany remained with me throughout my life. I know now that I have been greatly privileged, and that the majority of the people of the world are less fortunate than I am. They are the people.

2. I like strong women!

Growing up male in India can be somewhat toxic to one's attitudes, and I will not deny having imbibed attitudes of male chauvinism as I emerged into manhood. This was to some extent counteracted by a few examples of strong women that I grew up seeing. My mother herself was (and still is) a very strong woman. She had a formidable intellect and memory, two masters degrees, and was very well-informed. Her logic and wicked wit made her a formidable opponent in any debate, and I grew up with many scars from the verbal battles that I lost to her. My maternal aunt was even more formidable. She was a gynaecologist, and I was born in her nursing home. Her tongue was even sharper than my mother's, and both women were fearsome disciplinarians. While I chafed under their authority, I guess those experiences familiarised me with the idea of what a strong woman was like.

Male insecurity was not unknown to me, and I have had several experiences of feeling threatened by opinionated girls who argued with me, but one of the most exciting experiences of my life in this area came when I was in my late teens, walking along a road in Bangalore. A jeep came roaring up a side road, and paused briefly at the main road. The driver gave a quick glance in both directions, then the jeep turned swiftly into the main road and roared off.

I stood transfixed. The jeep had a solitary occupant, a young woman with shoulder-length hair, in a blue full-sleeved shirt and jeans. The confident, even contemptuous, look she had as she glanced up and down the road before accelerating off, made a powerful impression on me. I didn't know driving then, and I suppose I should have felt threatened by the sight of this confident young woman. Instead, a strange feeling came over me. I clearly remember thinking that it would be just wonderful if all the women in the world were like this. All I felt at that moment were strong feelings of attraction and admiration.

That experience put me in touch with a side to myself that I didn't know existed. Looking backwards from that point to my childhood then showed me how to join the dots to where I had got to. I had grown up with a lot of science fiction comics, and many of them featured female scientists, female astronauts, female pilots. In retrospect, strong women had featured throughout my impressionable years, and I had been duly impressed.

While a lot of science fiction objectifies women, there are enough role models here too

Of course, the more regressive aspects of cultural conditioning are not that easy to shake off. It has been a long journey since then to accept my own vulnerabilities as a human being and to unlearn the idea that being male has anything at all to do with "superiority". The journey continues...

3. I like people!

My parents were socially very reserved. We hardly ever had guests over to our house for tea or dinner, and we rarely visited anyone else at home. The rare occasions when something like that happened were very exciting for us children. Even when my friends came home to call me out to play, my parents never encouraged them to come in. I have only ever played with my friends outdoors or in their homes, never in mine. We did have a room that was outside our living area, and I could take my friends there, but more relaxed socialisation indoors was out of the question.

I didn't think to question this level of interaction when I was living with my parents. It was just the way things were, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world. Social interaction was not encouraged very much, and that was that.

When I went to IIT after school to do my B.Tech. degree, it was in Madras (now Chennai). I stayed in a hostel along with about 150 other boys. I had a room of my own, and I could decide what to do with my time. I wasted most of it, but I don't regret it at all. I spent a lot of time socialising. I would spend hours in the rooms of other guys, usually in groups, and we had lots of fun in aimless discussions.

A typical scene from hostel life

It was when I was returning to my own room one night after a delightfully long conversation in a friend's room that it suddenly struck me that I was not like my parents at all. I liked people!

Realising this about myself has been a very pleasant epiphany. I'm naturally gregarious, and even though I'm introverted in other ways, these two sides of my nature balance each other out quite nicely. I'm very comfortable being by myself, and I also like company.

4. Religion is evil!

When I was a child, I was brought up to be quite "pious". My parents were believing Hindus, although not very ritualistic in their practice. I had attended a Catholic school for five years, and then a Hindu school for another seven. Religion was part of my education, and in my mind, religion and morality were one and the same. I didn't see much difference between one organised religion and another, and I believed that all of them led to the same destination, whatever that was. Most of all, I believed that religion was an absolutely essential good. In one of my previous posts, I have spoken about the fanatical lengths I was prepared to go to in order to defend faith from unbelief.

I distinctly remember when this comfortable belief changed. For a few years, I had been reading about communal riots in various Indian cities where people of two different religions (usually Hindu and Muslim) clashed with and killed one another, but it had been in the background of my mind. One day, when I was a student at IIT Madras, and I was reading the newspaper in my hostel, I came across a news item about yet another such inter-religious riot, and I remember thinking with a shock, "Religion is evil!"

Inter-religious riots have been a depressingly familiar part of Indian life for as long as I can remember

This epiphany shook me profoundly. I remember being thrilled by the shocking nature of this heretical idea. I, who had always looked upon religion as a necessity for goodness, had now seen something I could not unsee.

Although I did not realise it then, this epiphany set me on the path to my eventual atheism. At this point, all it did was cause me to denounce organised religion. I still believed in a God, but I no longer considered organised religion to have any claim on morality.

5. Porn is not sexist!

This is probably a risky area to write about, since watching pornography is still technically a crime in India, but this is important.

When I was living in the hostel at IIT Madras, the local TV station used to broadcast a Tamil movie every Sunday afternoon. On one such afternoon, I found myself sitting in the hostel's common room when the day's movie started playing on TV. It was a popular one called "Poovaa Talaiyaa" (loosely translated as "Heads or Tails?").

In the story, two brothers share a house along with a distant aunt or similar relative. The aunt is the villain of the piece, and she plots to set the brothers against each other. After she frames the younger brother in some situation, the elder brother decides he has to mete out justice. He takes a whip and delivers a few lashes to his younger sibling. The domestic violence represented by this scene didn't seem to bother anyone. Towards the end of the movie, the brothers realise the mischief wrought by their aunt. At that point, the elder brother grabs the whip again and begins to lash his aunt! Setting aside any misgivings we may have about the violence against women represented by that scene, just pay attention to what the aunt says. She not only confesses to her mischief, but also says that it's wrong for women to have positions of power, and that it's only men who should rule!

The melodramatic finale to the 1969 movie Poova Thalaiya
(The subtitles on this clip are atrocious too)

I was shocked by what I was seeing. It was such a blatantly regressive social message, and yet it was allowed to play on prime-time television with no warnings about its appropriateness or otherwise. On the contrary, it had a 'U' (for Universal) certificate from the board of film classification, which meant that it was appropriate for all audiences, including children!

Park that thought for a moment.

In the early 80s, VCR technology had just started coming into the country, and some of the students decided to smuggle in a few porn movies and watch them in the dead of night when everyone else was asleep. It was my batch that hatched the plot, and we stealthily carried the TV from the common room to the roof of the hostel, ran the electrical wires down to someone's room on the floor below, and began excitedly watching the first of three hardcore porn movies.

It was sometime during the second movie that I had a shocking epiphany. Porn was not sexist! Scene after explicit scene depicted men and women enjoying sex - as equals. In no scene was there even a suggestion that the women were inferior, or that they existed only for the pleasure of the men. All the characters were shown to be enjoying themselves and giving one another pleasure. It was one of the most egalitarian examples of interaction between men and women that I had seen up to that point. Besides, both the men and the women were well-built and had figures that were pleasurable to look at. I could see how a woman might be turned on watching the same scenes I was watching. There was nothing to demean the experience of being a woman. It was designed to be universally exciting. Anyone could be a sex object to anyone else, and therefore the status of being a sex object lost its sexist sting.

Porn's revolutionary idea - Women can demand pleasure on an equal basis

This experience, especially coming so close upon the heels of the mainstream Tamil movie that was so regressively sexist, made a powerful impression on me. It provided such a contrast, and raised basic questions of morality. On the one hand, we had a movie that had no sexual content in it, but propagated an unhealthy message about the fundamental inequality of the sexes. On the other, we had a movie that showed explicit sex, but with men and women depicted as perfect equals. Which represented the healthier message for children to imbibe?

To this day, I remain an unabashed advocate for pornography, to be precise, the category called "non-violent erotica". I believe that sex is not just harmless but emphatically good. Sexual pleasure is the birthright of all, both men and women. This is also why I refuse to use the word 'slut' in any context. The word is meaningless, because the desire for sexual pleasure is not a negative feeling to be condemned. It is entirely positive and should be encouraged. The only thing that should constrain sexual intercourse is consent. No one should be subject to a sexual experience without their consent, and by the same token, any sexual activity between consenting adults should be above criticism. This includes (voluntary) prostitution, pornography, stripteases, homosexuality, orgies, etc. None of these should carry any kind of social stigma, either for men or for women. Society must accept human sexuality as a normal and natural thing.

What I'm particularly happy about is that I arrived at this philosophy independently, long before I realised it had a name - Sex-Positive Feminism.

6. I like Hindustani classical music!

I grew up with two kinds of music in Bangalore. Kannada film songs would always be on the radio, and I grew to love them without being consciously aware of them. My family had a set schedule every morning so we could leave for school on time. The radio would be on, and when the program changed, that would be our marker to start or complete an activity, for example, finish breakfast by the time the English news started. Kannada film songs would be on for about half an hour every morning, I think, so I got to know them over many years. I didn't know who the singers were or which movies they were from. I just liked them passively. I only started to miss them after leaving Bangalore. Today, thanks to Youtube and other websites, I can listen to my favourite ones once more.

I guess if I had grown up in Bombay or in North India, I would have heard a lot more Bollywood (Hindi) film music. As it happened, although I was familiar with the most popular Hindi film songs, they weren't a big part of my life at all.

The other kind of music I grew to like in the late seventies was Western pop. I very quickly got hooked onto groups like ABBA and Boney M, and my favourite was The Carpenters.

My parents knew Indian classical music (the South Indian, or Carnatic, variety), but were not so strongly into it as to play pieces at home. There was a phase when my mother used to learn the veena, and that was when I got to hear some Carnatic music. It was OK, but I never warmed to it.

Then when I went to IIM Ahmedabad to do an MBA after my B.Tech., I heard another genre of music for the very first time. There was a "DJ Club" in the campus, with wall-to-wall mattresses. There was a music system that could play audiocassettes and vinyl LPs (this was 1985). I liked going to the DJ Club and lying down on the soft floor with closed eyes, just listening to whatever other people played. Most of the time, the music was Western pop, with the occasional Hindi film song. One day, when I was lying there, someone came in and played an LP with something very different. It was an instrumental piece, and I found it haunting. I got up and went over to look at the LP cover. It was an album of the sitar player Nikhil Banerjee. The description had strange words that made no sense to me: "Raag Malkauns" and "Raag Hemlalit". I had no clue about any of this, except that I liked it, so the next time I went to the DJ Club, I played this LP myself. And I liked it even more the second time. And the third time. And the fourth. Then I got adventurous and decided to play other LPs from the same genre. There were about 20 LPs in the "Hindustani Classical Music" genre. The next one I tried was not instrumental. It was an album featuring a singer called "Pandit Jasraj", and again the description at the back had strange words that made no sense to me: "Raag Shuddh Sarang" and "Raag Bhimpalasi". The vocal LP had an even more powerful impact on me than the instrumental. I found myself going, "Wow! Why have I never heard this music before in my life?"

The very first Hindustani Music LP I ever heard - Nikhil Banerjee's Malkauns and Hemlalit

Today, if I had to name one genre of music that I love, it would have to be Hindustani Classical music. It transports me. When the music starts, I relax and smile almost reflexively. And to think that I missed hearing any of this for the first 22 years of my life!

7. Hindus can hate!

I had grown up in a benign home atmosphere where my parents never spoke in harsh generalities about other communities. There were light-hearted generalisations of course, but nothing that could be remotely considered "hard thoughts". On the contrary, there was plenty of self-disparagement about our own community. My mother even advised me when I left for hostel at the age of 18, "Only Christians and Malayalees will help you if you are in trouble. Tam-brahms will never help you." Perhaps this was based on her own hostel experiences.

In any case, I had never heard my parents, or even any member of my extended family, say harsh things about people belonging to other communities. To be sure, Christianity as a religion was spoken about with more acceptance than Islam, because it was considered more benign, but Muslims as people were never spoken about with hatred. Indeed, I would have proudly told anyone who asked that Hindus were the most tolerant people because we never thought ill of people of other religions. We were fine with them following their own faiths and never wanted to convert them to ours.

My first rude awakening came when I was at IIM. I met another Hindu student who had worked for a year or two at one of the South Indian manufacturers of two-wheelers. In those days in India, customers couldn't just walk into a showroom and drive off in a car or two-wheeler. They had to register for them and wait months until they got their allotment. This particular manufacturer had a monthly draw in which one lucky person from their waiting list would be selected for a free allotment, or something of that sort. This student told a group of us that he used to work in the IT department of this manufacturer, and that his team was responsible for running the software program that randomly selected a name from the waiting list each month. "If a Muslim name came up, we'd simply run it again," he laughed.

I was horrified at more than one level. The sheer unfairness of the act was the first thing that struck me, then I thought about other disquieting implications. Can a person hate another community so much that they would knowingly be unfair to them or do them harm?

The VHP's Pravid Togadia making one of his hate speeches - In the years since my IIM days, things have only become worse

In the years that followed, the answer to the latter question was reinforced again and again. In the last few years, especially since the explosion of social media, and the willingness of people to reveal some of their innermost thoughts, I wonder how I could ever have been so naive as to imagine that Hindus were incapable of hate. This has been one of my most depressing learnings about the world.

8. I'm a Bombayite!

After my graduation in 1987, I went to Bombay (Mumbai) for my first job at CMC Ltd. I had lived all my life in South India (mostly Bangalore, with some experience of Chennai and Madurai), and had just spent two years in Ahmedabad, the closest thing to a "North Indian" city. I had also briefly stayed in Delhi for 2 months during a summer project. However, my experiences in Bombay changed me in many fundamental ways.

For example, in my very first month in the city, I was waiting at VT station (now called CST) to catch a train. I saw a train leaving the platform, and a man running beside it, trying to get in. The train was already chock full, and people were hanging out of the open doors. I stared in disbelief, thinking there was no way this guy was going to be able to jump into such an overflowing train. But as I watched in astonishment, four arms reached out from the human mass in the compartment's doorway and grabbed the running man. He was pulled into that mass of humanity as the train disappeared from the station. I stood there in wonderment for a long time, trying to process what I had just seen. Instead of pushing the man away saying "No room!", the people in the overcrowded carriage had made space for him too.

I realised intuitively that this was a peculiar aspect of the culture of this particular city. No other city I knew had this level of civic camaraderie. There was this sense of "We're all in this together. Let's help each other get by as much as we can."

You may not think it's possible to get into this train, but these guys could make it possible

Bombay was a place so egalitarian that a restaurant patron and a waiter could both call each other "boss".

Over the next 8 years that I lived in Bombay, I experienced many more examples of the city's no-nonsense can-do attitude. People didn't waste time complaining. They just rolled up their sleeves and got things done. And the characteristic sense of humour was something else. I remember telling myself, "I like this city. This is the kind of person I want to be. I want to be a Bombayite." The city moulds your attitudes into something much more positive.

In a literal sense, I grew up in Bangalore. But I really only grew up in Bombay.

9. No community should have a majority!

Over the months that I worked in CMC Bombay, I began to realise something about the culture of the various regional offices in the same company. I had been to CMC Madras, and also met people from other offices (CMC Delhi and CMC Calcutta (now Kolkata)). What I learnt was that CMC Delhi was dominated by North Indians, mostly Punjabis. CMC Calcutta was dominated by Bengalis, and CMC Madras by Tamils. Being a Tamil myself, I should have felt most at home in the CMC Madras office, but I didn't! I felt most at home in the CMC Bombay office, and I asked myself why I felt that way.

One of my project teams at CMC Bombay (That's me at the bottom right in the brown jacket)

I realised it was the sense of being left alone and not judged. The strange thing about CMC Bombay when compared to the other CMC offices was that it was not dominated by members of any one community, not even Maharashtrians, even though Bombay is the capital of Maharashtra. I actually sat down one day with the office phone book and marked the community of every single person in the office against their name, then tallied them up. I found that no community in my office accounted for more than 30% of the total (that was the Maharashtrians). No matter who you were, you were in a minority! It created a unique kind of culture where people were left alone and not judged. That's when I realised two things:

1. If one community forms a dominating majority, it makes members of the minority communities feel somewhat marginalised.

2. Even for members of the majority community, there is an oppressive pressure to conform. This is what I felt in CMC Madras. There was a set of "Tamil values" that I was expected to conform to, whether I approved of them or not. For example, managers felt entitled enough to upbraid younger staff if they socialised too much with members of the opposite sex!

That's when I distilled my learning into a general principle for the world. The best societies are those where no cultural group is in a majority.

10. I want to live abroad!

When I was younger, I never had the slightest interest in leaving India. My classmates at IIT, almost to a man, wanted to go to the US for higher studies, and most of them wanted to settle down there. I hadn't the slightest interest in going to the US. Besides, I had always been politically aware from my early teens, and US foreign policy had always infuriated me. I couldn't see myself living in that country or even going there to study. My parents often tried convincing me that a foreign degree might help me in my later career even if I chose not to settle abroad, but all those words fell on deaf ears.

When I started working in a software company, I found myself surrounded by people whose only aim was to acquire enough IT skills to be hired by a consultancy that supplied manpower to an American company. Like with my former IIT classmates, most of my CMC colleagues also ended up settling in the US. I still didn't care.

Then, four years after I started working at CMC, I was sent on a 5 week consultancy assignment to Mauritius. CMC was accommodating enough to book my return flight via Singapore, since that was only marginally more expensive than the direct return flight. I took 3 days out of my annual vacation to see Singapore.

To say my mind was blown would be an understatement. The place seemed too good to be true. Not only was everything amazingly clean, but the very systems seemed so well designed. I experienced this when I was walking out of the airport. I thought to myself at one point, "I need to get some local currency", and I saw a sign that said "Currency Exchange". Then I thought, "I need to get out of the airport and catch a taxi", and right there was a sign that said "Exit, Taxis". And people were so honest! I had to pay an airport surcharge to the cabbie when I arrived, and when I was leaving, I tested the second cabbie by asking if I needed to pay an airport surcharge. He said, "No, only when coming out." I was amazed at the pervasive honesty.

This country changed my mind in three days

When I was in the plane leaving Singapore, I swore to myself that I'd be back. I had realised one thing during those three days. I wanted to leave India and live abroad. My eyes had been opened to a different plane of existence. I had often thought about whether I wanted to leave India and live abroad, but had always contemptuously dismissed the idea. Now that I saw what that life was really like, my mind changed so fast and so emphatically it surprised me. As I joked to my friends later, "CMC made a mistake by sending me abroad."

A few years later, I had migrated permanently to Australia and never regretted it. It was a struggle to get to that point, as I've written about here, but it was worth it.

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