I recently moved to a new university – and while my stuff was in transit, a colleague stopped by my office and noticing the empty shelves, said, “No books and files – you’ve gone virtual!” While packing my old office, I was careful to weed out books and papers I no longer needed. But to carry those papers, books and documents that did not fill my bookshelves but sat in my computer hard drive or in a cloud somewhere, all I did was plug in the USB drives. I did not go through the ever-increasing and almost-unmanageable folders-and-subfolders, files-in-every-possible-format and downloaded- application- software, to see if I need all of that. No, I did what was technologically the fastest and easiest thing to do, I just did a dump. So, while the physical books and documents in my new office are sorted and rationalized, the virtual stuff sits in my new hard drive exactly how it was in the old one. Not re-organized, not re-evaluated, just re-plicated. Technology is meant to make our lives more organized and orderly. However, by using technology in only the easiest ways possible, are we using it to do what we set out not to do in the first place? Is “virtual” actually becoming “clutter” and “excess”?
One of the things a move does is to make you want to travel light. It forces you to take a good look at what you really need and don’t. It forces you to go into the garage and ask yourself if you need twenty different tool boxes – will five be enough? It makes you look at the kitchen shelves and ask if you need fifteen sets of dinnerware – you could make do with six perhaps? You are forced to go through your closets and confront clothes you have not touched in five, six, ten years, and ask if you are better off without them and if someone else might be better off with them. I recently moved and did all of these – I cleaned out the garage, the kitchen and the closets. What I did not need I gave to those who did. And then it dawned – this stuff that I had been sorting through was not the real thing, anyway. What mattered was the stuff I would carry (or not) in my mind and heart. It I could carry with me the lightness of love, inspirations, optimism and courage that have seeped into me from the places I have lived in and the people I have lived them with, and leave behind the dead-weights of fears, doubts, worries and mind-cloudiness that I have tended to collect along the way – I would, with every move, allow myself to soar and reach toward whatever it is that I am moving to in the first place. Now that would really be traveling light.
I started drinking tea when I got my first job, at 23.
For me it has always been Darjeeling leaf tea, brewed in scalding hot water for five minutes. In those days I took it with milk and sugar, one cup, twice a day. At the time we got married, my wife was not a tea drinker, so during the early days of our marriage I would drink tea and she would have biscuits, to keep me company. I thought the biscuits were a good idea and so I started having tea-dipped biscuits with my tea. We came to know one another over those cups of tea.
When our first child was born a few years later, we found it impossible to sit quietly together for even a few minutes, except for the time when we had tea in the morning. With the new responsibilities of head and heart that came with the little bundle of life, my wife found it energizing to sip the hot liquid. We both started having tea and tea-dipped biscuits. After thirty years of raising children, of learning about life and about each other, of many joys and difficulties, our little ones flew the coop and we became the two of us again. We spent happy and busy years together, visiting our children and generally bustling around. My wife developed an allergy for milk and both of us changed to tea with no milk.
Then one day, she was in the hospital, with pneumonia. It was serious and suddenly our ship became rudderless, adrift. She fought hard and pulled through. Before leaving home in the morning for the hospital everyday, I would make tea for one person and drink it alone. I could not remember the last time I had done that. When she came home, it was with a long list of food instructions, one of them being no sugar. We began a new routine for our tea – with sugar for me, without, for her. In spite of all the medicines, she got sicker. She could no longer come to the dining table to have tea, so I would take our tray up to the bedroom, until the day came when she no longer wanted to have it at all. I would make hers, take it to her, wanting her to have it, and take it away untouched and cold, an hour or so later, till the day she left home for the hospital and never returned.
These days I have tea with our only grandchild, all of 18 months old. He wakes up early and we begin our day together. When the kettle sings he looks at me with a smile that leaves me speechless with wonder and joy. He helps me spoon out the leaves and watchfully keeps a safe distance in my arms as I pour out the hot water. He sits on the table while I sit on my chair and we both stir the sugar in. And yes, he loves the biscuits. My tea time is much longer now. We eat biscuits, he plays with his spoons and an empty cup and teapot, and I sip my tea. We learn how to rattle spoons together and laugh at the big noise. We learn how to measure out tea and sugar with a spoon without spilling. We watch the school bus and wave to the children, we watch the dogs out for morning walks, we watch the sun peek through the trees and all the while we talk about what fun all of it is. His grandmother watches and smiles from the picture behind. Tea time togetherness has come back, morphed, and yet, priceless.
In spite of all the years that flow into it, life distills its essence into but a few moments, of immeasurable joys and vast sorrows, and unrelenting in their unexpectedness. I brew those moments every day, in my cup of tea.
Life comes to you in a thousand different ways
There are many things you can do, many parts you can play
Take good care when you choose, for these will guide your way
To yourself be true and it must follow as the night the day
There will be mountains to climb, rivers to cross
There could be hurdles aplenty you might need to toss
Keep going keep walking no matter what they say
To your faith be true and it must follow as the night the day
There will be memories of the sad and happy part
There will be joy pure and shining stirring through the heart
Take the joy and the sadness – together they will make your day
To your heart be true and it must follow as the night the day
There will be love to give, dreams to follow
There will be roses and thorns to the end of the rainbow
When you cannot see the road, forge it your own way
To your dreams be true and it must follow as the night the day
[Inspired the by following, from Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 3:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man]
You were the one in charge of the altar and the Pooja room at home. We have so many deities, some which you and I got from our days before we got married. Some we picked up along the way together, and others, the children brought from various places when they were old enough to travel by themselves. Every day it would take you half an hour to do your pooja after which we would have our lunch. On the occasions when you did the special pooja’s, you would give me a list of things you needed which I’d get from the pooja shop. The children would come home, we would light up the house, you would cook khichuri and arrange the pooja thaali with fruits, nuts, batasha and grains of rice. The pooja room and the altar, and the house itself, would be awash in light and joy. I do the pooja at the altar and light the lamp every day in the morning and evening. And I put a picture of you in there. But the light and joy are gone.
I go for our evening walks. You always said I walked much faster, and I used to walk ahead. Now I imagine you walking behind me and I slow down.
Our girls wear a lot of your clothes. It is easy to make a mistake, they look so much like you, in them. Sometimes while emptying the washing machine, I see your housecoat, and for a moment I think it is you wore it before putting it in. They wear the sweaters and scarves and mufflers you made for them. There is a lot of wool left over from last year, which probably no one will ever knit into anything.
Very soon it will be time for our grandson to go to pre-kindergarden school. We went to see the place yesterday. The little ones were playing and learning. Learning happens best when children have fun, you said. There were toys there we did not have those days when our girls were growing up, much better toys that the children find easy to have fun with and learn at the same time. You would have liked those toys, had you been there, you would have taught him everything and he would never have known that he was “learning” because he would have had so much fun.
And then there is tea time, morning and evening. I am the only one at home who has tea now. I make it myself because I don’t think anyone else can make it the way you and I used to have it. Once the water boils and I have put the leaves in, I take out the teapot and the biscuit tin. When the leaves have soaked in I pour out the tea in the teapot. On days that I remember, I take out one tea cup and make the pot for one person, on days I don’t, I drink two cups of tea from one cup.
I was going to the airport at 5.30 am to catch an early morning flight on a cold December morning a few days ago, the first leg of my journey to Calcutta. I was going home to see dad, after almost 5 months, and for the first time since mum’s passing and the subsequent immediate period. Driving to the airport, dropping the car off, checking in and going to the gate – routine things I have done countless times without a thought, seemed heavy and difficult, and I did not want to do them by myself. A friend said she would drop me off and I was glad. As we were leaving, I gave her a cup and said, “Your tea is here, for the road”. She said, “Yours is in the car”. Knowing one another’s habits, and unknown to each other, we each had made two cups of tea that morning, one for the other person. She drove us, I checked in, she parked her car and came inside, we sipped tea, we talked, and hugged a bit, and then it was time for me to go in for security.
As I was waiting at the gate, I thought how it would have been had I done it the usual way. I would have driven in, parked, picked my suitcase and gone in. And of course, I would have made my cup of tea for the road. Even given the state of my mind, none of it would have been a big deal and the end result would have been the same.
However, there was involved here, a switch of view point. In the second case, the individual is self-organized and capable and functional, and things are efficient. In the first, each person, while being self sufficient, looks out for the other, and things have heart. The cup of tea we had that morning was not something we made for ourselves as a matter of function and habit, but because another person was thinking about us. That made all the difference. Whether with a cup of tea or with life, it is what you bring to it from the other person’s view point that forms the center and its heart, not necessarily what you can do for yourself efficiently. An important switch of point of view indeed.
I went to the bank with Baba. The purpose of the visit was to inform the manager that the joint account he had with Ma was to be converted to a joint account for him and my sister. He and Ma had opened that account over forty years ago, perhaps it was their first joint account. I walked behind him as we approached the first of the two flights of stairs that led to the bank. At the foot, he stopped, so that I almost bumped into him. Then he stumbled and paused. And looked up blankly up the steps toward the landing. I had never seen my father pause or stumble before. He walks carefully, steadily and with purpose. Never haltingly. What was he thinking when he stopped and stumbled? Was he wondering how he would climb all of the steps that he would face henceforth, without Ma? Was he remembering all of the steps they had climbed together?
And then a few days later, I sat beside Baba as he drove to the market. We were going to buy the weekly stuff – vegetables, fish, chicken and all of that. He, used to driving almost every day, was driving after almost three weeks. He said to me, “You need not have come, I could have driven by myself.” He was looking at the road, but it seemed he was looking much farther into the road than there was too look. What was he seeing? The countless times he and Ma had driven to the shops, to one of our houses, to see us off when we traveled, to just about everywhere? The drives in the future when he would not have her next to him? The market was a noisy and smelly bustle, as only markets in Calcutta can be. Vegetables, poultry, grains, groceries, all sharing the same spaces, separated by narrow alleys. And of course the fish – big, small, shining, slippery, black, silver, some still moving. Buying the weekly stuff, that is something my father always did by himself. When he got back home he would tell Ma about all of the stuff he had bought, especially if there was something that he didn’t usually buy, like Ileesh fish. Over the years, Baba had his chosen shops and shopkeepers. On that day, he swiftly and efficiently navigated the alleys, goods and prices, habit stealthily taking over. I followed hurriedly through the squawking chickens and squirming fish, trying not be left too far behind. When he had finished most of the buying he turned around and said, “Now we just need to get the Tangra fish for your Ma and then we’ll be done.” And then he stood still. Rock still. And looked far into the distance, farther than the shops, farther than the smell of fish would carry, far into a place that he did not want to see. Could he see those mornings where buying Tangra fish would be unbearable because Ma was not there to take them home to?
Another day I went with him to the medicine shop where we get our medicines from. We went to return a month’s worth of Ma’s medicines. “Have you changed the doctor?” they asked us. My father nodded. Was it a nod of relief that there would be no more pain, or one of disbelief that there would be no need for the medicines any more?
Several days later, after all the bank accounts and fixed deposits had been changed to different joint account holders, after a number of trips to the market that one of us invariably went with him on, my father said one morning, “I am going to buy vegetables. I’ll go by myself”. No fish, only vegetables. And not to the usual market where he drove to, but to a nearby place that he would walk to. While putting away the stuff he got in the fridge, I came across green mangoes. Not something he would usually buy, but something he got when he wanted to have green mango chutney. When he wanted to have something special, he never told Ma about it, he would simply bring the stuff and say, “Here, I got this”. When we sat down to eat, he saw the chutney and then looked at us. His eyes were wet, but after a long time, they were less bleak, less weary. What was he seeing? A life where it was perhaps possible to eat chutney without Ma? He said, “There is chutney”. I said “Yes, Baba. Again”.
A question that often bothers researchers is whether the knowledge they seek is free of their personal values and preferences. Is the sky blue to everyone? Does the apple fall at the same speed from the tree irrespective of who is measuring its speed? Yes and Yes. Is knowledge of how to use the iPod same for everyone? Maybe – a group of teens, say, that hang out together probably use the same apps. Are love, loyalty and friendship the same for everyone? No, no and no. The difference between the three sets of questions is the interpretive flexibility of their answers as understood by the person who is examining them.
For the first set, the essential phenomenon that makes the sky appear the color it does, or makes the apple fall as fast as it does, does not change, no matter who is observing it. In other words, the observer is outside the situation that he or she is observing. This is largely true of the physical sciences such as chemistry, biology and physics – where one can set up experiments to observe the phenomenon one wants to study and can repeatedly observe the same sorts of results. In the second case, groups of similar demographics understand a device such as the iPod in different ways. Older people might see it as a phone, business executives might see it as an email device and phone book and college students may see it as some thing that can do “everything”. How so? Because each group is involved in the process of understanding how to use the iPod through actually using it, not through watching someone else or reading about how to use it. True, that their peer groups tends to direct them towards certain uses more than others, but that understanding is combined with their own interpretation of what they want the iPod to do for them, to shape what it actually does. In this case then the observer is partly inside the observed phenomenon. For the third set of questions, each person will have a different answer. That is because a useful or meaningful understanding of love, loyalty or friendship can happen only through enacting them. There is not much that we can measure about them in hard terms that is independent of the person who is observing them.
How do these ideas shape the methods and tools that we use, to understand the world around us? As we go from the first set of questions to the third, the answers become less material and more subtle. At the material end of the scale, we apply methods that are generally known as “positivist”, that is, we frame experiments and based on them express the answers as formulae or axioms that are independent of those who conducted the experiments. We do this for instance, in engineering and physics. At the subtle end of the scale, our research methods become “interpretive”. That is, the researcher embeds himself or herself in the phenomenon, experiences it and then expresses the results in the form of descriptions or ideas that are influenced by his or her values and preferences. The researcher’s subjective experience of the phenomenon sculpts its description. Therefore the methods that we use to understand what goes on around us depend on the particular phenomenon examined. For studying material phenomenon the researcher is situated more on the outside, for subtle phenomenon, more on the inside.
Information and communication technologies have begun to catch us in unexpected places and moments. Earlier this month, I traveled through Japan, and had occasion to go from Kyoto to Nara by local train, a leisurely journey of about 40 minutes, meandering through sleepy towns and small stations. The Japanese woman next to me looked to be in her twenties, had a friendly face and a bright smile, and did not speak English. Whenever possible, I usually talk with fellow travelers – I find it fun and so far I have not landed in any serious sort of trouble because of it. Given that I don’t know Japanese however, that wasn’t going to happen this time.
As the train started moving, I felt a gentle nudge at my elbow and looked at her, and then to where she was pointing – her cell phone. There on the screen were two boxes, one beneath the other. The top box had a sentence written in Japanese, and the bottom one, presumably its English translation – Are you a tourist? She had pulled up an app that translated between Japanese and English. I looked at her smile that said – Now we can talk! And I typed in the English box – Yes. And she wrote in the Japanese box – Where are you from? My reply – I live in America. And then – You like Japan? I said – Beautiful. She smiled at me, the barrier of language between us now gone. She told me she lived in Kyoto and worked in a small town between Kyoto and Nara and this was her commute to work. She worked for a clothes boutique and that she lived with her parents and older brother. My parents want me to get married soon, but I don’t want to. How many times had I seen that sort of determined and wistful look on the faces of young girls who wanted to see places and do things and didn’t want to get married just yet? In India, certainly, in the US also. In China, where a 19-year university student told me she wanted to become an “engineer who makes cars, before I get married, I hope my father lets me”. And we talked about these and other sorts of things that were country independent, and were human sentiments, really. She told me she had been to Tokyo once or twice, and wanted to see other cities in Japan, maybe even travel outside. Before the train reached her station she pulled up a train timetable on another phone app and wrote that since I could not read or understand Japanese, it would be useful for me to know that Nara was fifteen minutes away and what the preceding station was – I cannot recollect now the name of the town she mentioned.
Have a nice time in Japan, she told me, before getting off the train and waving herself off with a smile. And I thought – the cell phone (and the tablet and Facebook and all of these sorts of devices and applications) is just like putty. You give it the shape you want and use it to whatever end it is that makes sense to you. To check email or read stuff or connect with people or simply and unexpectedly to talk with the next person in the train who doesn’t speak your language. How you use it tells the story of who you are and what you find worthwhile doing. The Management Information Systems literature has a theory to explain it – adaptive structuration. You structure the functions, properties and uses of the device and applications to match your preferences. In other words, different stories, same putty!
I went there after quite a while, actually. I had a fixed objective – I wanted to buy the Dr. Spock book for my sister, who was pregnant. I was passing by anyway. Oh well, lets buy it from here. I knew exactly which bookshelf I wanted to go to and counted on spending no more than ten minutes in the store. On entering, among the first things I saw, as always – the bargain shelves. Meandering for five minutes cannot hurt, locating Dr. Spock will take no more than three minutes. And so it started. There was a book on the plays of Shakespeare and I suddenly smiled as I remembered Portia and Shylock and English classes in school and, ah yes, friends. Then one on yoga , and suddenly I saw my dad teaching me yoga poses when I was little, and mum helping me with homework, and I saw home. I serendipitously spotted a little book on various herbs and how to grow them, just the book I needed and had not been looking for. And I found it without the help of “customers who viewed this also viewed……”! I looked around – did I have fellow browsers? Were they also doing similar cartwheels in their mind? A young man and woman were standing close together, talking softly and looking at what seemed like a book of weddings. And I saw weddings, ceremonies, festivals, new clothes, food, gossip, fun, people.
The coffee shop was, surprisingly, quite crowded. People were talking, working on laptops, or just sitting and reading. Soft lamps. A piece of unhurried tranquility, to recharge and perhaps to recoup. To share and create stories. It looked so familiarly comfortable and inviting. I turned around to go toward the children’s section. A woman was reading to her two toddler children, the three of them embedded in the tale and its pictures. Frequent squeals of high-pitched delight and frantic gestures interspersed with soft grown up laughter, all of it cocooned safely away from the world. Love. A member of the staff asked me what I was looking for. He showed me similar books, and told me about his daughter who had just had a baby and what books he had given her. He spoke fondly, because she was his daughter of course, but I suspect as much so, because he liked to help people find the books they wanted as part of their lives, and in doing so, to become a little bit of their lives as well. Not a piece of data-mining and recommender-system code, but a human being. Through him, I too sort of felt connected to those people.
I chose a few books, stood in the checkout line, picked out a bookmark from one of the nearby racks for good measure, a physical bookmark, paid, and left. I had spent many more than ten minutes. And had witnessed and felt a not insignificant sweep of the everyday sagas that come our way, and which will never change, no matter where or how we buy our books. For, our books will always chronicle the yarns most precious and beloved to us. www.amazon.com, anyone?
Disclaimer: I love all sorts of bookstores – in airports, on cobbled streets, in the vast depths of the Internet, on the pavements of Calcutta and Ann Arbor. This piece is in no way a criticism of either bookstore mentioned, but a reflection on how we humans have so swiftly adapted to, and found traction with, the compelling power of electrons.