Tuesday, June 16, 2020

A Eulogy for a Friend

Sushant. “Last seen Sun at 9:15 AM.” His unchanging Whatsapp status still declares on my phone - an epitaph etched onto a binary stone - more tenacious than granite, as fragile as memory.

“Time is but a stubborn illusion, brother.” He would have invoked his relativist hero, part in jest, part in romance, just to inspire an argument from me. 

“You don’t actually buy into unprovable useless mumbo-jumbo like nth level simulation, do you?” I would have fallen for it. 

His smile would widen ear to ear and his eyes pierce through me as he would beam at me. “No.” Gotcha! “Par dil ko khush rakhne ko Ghalib yeh khayal acchha hai (But it’s a pleasant idea to cheer the heart.)”

Sushant was made of flesh, blood and ideas. He played with ideas just like a child plays with toys, and for the same reasons - to discover, to invent and to learn. 

The distinction between success and failure didn’t matter much to him, because both lead to the same outcomes - discovery, invention and learning. If it did, it was only to the extent of arriving at places nobody else before did, so roads can be paved for the next in line.

That’s what brought us together - our desire to create infrastructure and institution for those who sought them, but found no joy in the ones that already existed. That was where we aligned - in making our lives about more than just ourselves - in our invention of meaning. Seekers of meaning may not find the meaning, but they do find each other. 

Aye, there’s the rub! For arriving first, also means gestating. It means being lonely. He stayed graceful in highs, he survived the lows, it’s the in-betweens where he froze. It’s the slings and arrows of the ordinary that he opposed the most.

When he showed me his list of fifty things he wanted to achieve in a year, I asked him what was that one thing that he wants his co-seekers to learn from his experiment.

“I want them to know that it’s possible.” He packed in more lives in an hour than most people have hours in a lifetime. He performed, he wondered, he flew. He strived to bridge the gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what can be’. 

Like the photon in a double-slit that he obsessed over, he oscillated between the profane and the profound. The man who danced to a crowd of millions was shy, the man who raged against the system was tender and the man who inspired so many to thrive was suffering. 

So let me not perpetuate the error of generations. Allow me to celebrate my peer, but let me not romanticise his suffering. Sushant killed himself. What he concealed as duality was perhaps a polarity pulling him apart. The radiance all of us witnessed, perhaps came from all the burning inside. Forgive the inelegance of my metaphor as I am trying to map a territory beyond my perception.

What switch in us triggers a desire to bow out gently into the night, we are yet to understand, but this much can be said with certainty - a call for help is not intrusive and vulnerability is not vulgar. Though sometimes it may take a gentle prodding at the crust over the molten inside.

Sushant and I would talk about inclusive fitness for hours, but I failed to ask him if he felt sufficiently included. We’d spend evenings talking about zero gravity, but I never gathered that the ground below his feet may be slipping away. We would talk endlessly about what we thought because meaning mattered so much to us, but I wish I had asked him how he felt every once in a while, recognising that no matter how much meaning we invent, life may still feel empty sometimes.

Just like a child at his toys, he would deconstruct things and piece them back together to see how things worked, and he would jump and fall over and over again without paying much heed to his scratches. What I quietly worried over and never quite looked into was if he also, driven by his unquenchable curiosity, ever put pins into live electric sockets.

The silence before he arrived is different from the silence after he left - like the silence before the sitar’s string is plucked and the silence that follows. 

In this silence, I seek solace in a place where I usually go to - biological certainty. Lewis Thomas in The Lives of a Cell, reassures me that

“There are some creatures that do not seem to die at all; they simply vanish totally into their own progeny. Single cells do this. The cell becomes two, then four, and so on, and after a while the last trace is gone. It cannot be seen as death; barring mutation, the descendants are simply the first cell, living all over again.”

I believe Sushant sought to extend himself memetically and not genetically. While I struggle to accept the existence of realities beyond our own, I concede to the existence of a non-transient part of our lives - the meaning we leave behind.

What survives him is the pursuit he inspired in millions - the pursuit of, to quote him, “of unknown knowns and of known unknowns.” Here’s to his pursuit, here’s to the man I knew and here’s to the man I wish I knew.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Near Singularity

There’s only one thing left to do
When your seed has taken root
Draw a map for the passerby, 
Showing how to get to fruit.

Write, write, rewrite the memoir
Hack it, crack it, cheat the meat,
For, you can only go so far
When your software’s obsolete.

The first to wake in a house of
Sleep, the first to weed the cloud,
Accident of being the first to
Shroud all doubt and doubt each shroud.

Read the leaves, the tree’s yet to write
Now, can barely play the game
You jumped ahead into the light
And there’s only you to blame.

In these instructions written with
Ink of time and starry dust
A message carved in monolith
“Well, just bow out when you must.”

Sun was captured, drop by drop, by
The very hard working green
When released from its black cell walls
Did a number on the screen.

Was it all for nothing? Perhaps.
Or could we now reimburse
The star that's entangled in breath
And wake up the universe?

Friday, September 16, 2016

The breakout film of TIFF 16!

The buzz around An Insignificant Man is hitting the sky at TIFF. Here are some glimpses:

The breakout film of TIFF 16!

The buzz around An Insignificant Man is hitting the sky at TIFF. Here are some glimpses:

Monday, December 21, 2015

Google Cardboard

If you are experiencing ghosting / overlay / double image (a mismatch between the left and the right views) in your YouTube 360 and other VR videos (like VRSE), it may be because of wrong cardboard calibration. Go to the Google Cardboard settings on your phone, and switch your cardboard viewer. Point your QR code scanner to the following QR code, and it might work -

At Memesys Culture Lab, we have finished producing our first few VR pieces. We will put them out soon!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Read into the wisdom you are killing for.

न यः संपृच्छे न पुनर्हवीतवे न संवादाय रमते । 
तस्मान्नो अद्य समृतेरुरुष्यतं बाहुभ्यां न उरुष्यतम् ॥ 
ऋग्वेदः मण्डलं - ८.

He who has no pleasure in questioning, nor in debate, nor in dialogue, 
Defend us to-day from him and from his encounter, defend us from his arms.

Rigveda: Mandala - 8.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

An Examined Death

(This piece was written more than two weeks ago. There have been some developments recently. Also, I hope to find more time soon to reflect further on the last bit - the choice of death under coercion, duress, emotional arm twisting and mental instability).

Right to kill, but not to die

At the risk of reductionism, I am tempted to engage with an irony – we are now simultaneously a state that awards death to an individual who is very keen on living, and forces life upon an individual keen on dying. We are one of the few civilised states still practicing death penalty (which might change very soon after the Indian Law Commission recently concluded that "The death penalty does not serve the penological goal of deterrence any more than life imprisonment"), and one of the many still shirking the right to die.

We have been negotiating with decriminalisation of attempt to suicide since 2013. In Feb 2015, Ministry of Home Affairs decided to accept the recommendation of the Law Commission of India to delete Section 309 from the IPC, and drafted a proposal. I wonder if it's de facto non-punishable while we wait. We now remain, at least on paper, one of the last few countries in the world, where if you don’t die successfully, you’ll go to jail for attempting. My partner Kani tells me that can make for a good film.

Whose life is it anyway?

The fundamental function of the state is to guarantee sustenance, equality and complete civil liberty, while balancing it with checks to ensure one individual’s liberty does not violate another’s rights. It is to negotiate social contracts, warn against violation, and compensate for a breach. The state builds infrastructure and systems to fulfill its fundamental promises, and protects property, owned individually, commonly or collectively.

So how do we resolve a conflict between the state’s guarantee of the citizen’s well being and a citizen’s demand for self-annihilation? By establishing a simple inviolable boundary – the landscape of the individual. The individual (an informed, soundminded consenting adult) is the sole owner of the self, entirely responsible for the self, and not state property. The state’s duty is limited to protecting the citizen from external threats and vice versa. The state, in its traditional paternity, shall not forget, that it has limited powers and responsibilities in an individual’s choices affecting their own selves.

 “My reckless child”

The state must educate, inform and caution the citizen, but must not mistake pedagogy for paternity.

Case in example, smoking. The state directs cigarette companies to warn consumers, without ambiguity, against the risks smoking poses to their health. The state is even free to carry out educational campaigns enlightening citizens of such risks. Warned against eventual, potential fatality, the individual is still free to smoke. Not everywhere though – the state has to now step in to prevent the individual’s action from harming others, and may do so, by banning smoking in public spaces, even creating smoking booths, where smokers are welcome to injure and pleasure themselves and their compatriots.

Now, when the law fines a citizen for not wearing a seatbelt or a helmet, the only ethical explanation for such punishment is that it’s a deterrent created to lessen the burden of medical infrastructure on the exchequer, caused by the incidence of accident related fatality. (There have been arguments about smokers having to register themselves, which will limit their healthcare rights in the eventuality of developing lung cancer, but such recommendation is bound to conflict with other fundamental rights of the citizen).

Religion, morality, law

I am an atheist and I am assertively irreligious – to the extent that I am convinced that most religious and ancient philosophical systems of the world are well intended, but under-updated and stagnant, often vestigial and flawed, at times inspired, yet misinformed. I am not an advocate of freedom of religious expression, if it violates the fundamental rights of another individual (including those of non-human persons.)

In furtive didacticism, the character of Maitreya in my film Ship of Theseus often mouths my personal beliefs. One such is, “All ethics should be arrived at, in isolation of religious beliefs.” It was important for me that a monk would say this. I wanted to make sure that the central philosophical debate about identity, self and violence doesn’t get embroiled in religious politics, social practice and contemporary law. So, I hypothesized the situation within the framework of a fictitious religion, the basic principles of which were, inspired by the two Śramaṇa traditions – Jaina and Buddha. Similarly, I suggest we step away from religion for a moment, to examine the discourse around Sallekhana.

In times when we have decoded the human genome, plunged deep into the brain, deconstructed every emotion and instinct to its original evolutionary function, we have little need to fall back on ancient institutions for finding moral solutions – we can do that completely using contemporary tools of enlightenment and inquiry. (We might however, in some cases, want to dust over usable parts of intuitions and ideas from ancient wisdom.) In building a case for the right to die, I recommend that we do not let the defense get overpowered by a singular conversation around religious freedom. There is something bigger at stake here.

Bodily integrity and individual sovereignty are inalienable rights of the modern citizen. These rights are even more fundamental than the right to religious expression, and it is primarily these rights that are being challenged by the ban on Sallekhana. We have to accept and establish that the law has no moral right, whatsoever, to legally interfere with lifestyle, sexual, reproductive and death choices of informed, consenting adults, even if they are beyond fathoming of the presumably well-intended representatives of the state.

The right to religious expression follows soon after, and can be rephrased as the right to define and manifest the self, as an extension of the worldview guiding an individual’s life. How the individual sees the self – as a sum total of all the past causes, as an evolving bio-chemical cumulative with an accumulated meaning and free will, as a wave in an ocean, as a meaningful creation of a hyper intelligent entity, as a meaningless accident, as a notion, as a machine hosting a ghost, as a step towards ascension, as transient, as permanent or as an atom carrying the universe – will have to be allowed, however unacceptable it may seem to the rest of us. The individual has the right to construct their own meaning of life, and interpret their life and death in the light of that meaning. This worldview can be negotiated with, argued with, transformed, informed – but cannot be legally regulated. Not for a while, at least.

Rules of infringement – lines in sand

However, it will be puerile to brush the nuance of the dilemma under the carpet. While there is greater unanimity over a terminally ill patient’s right to die, the debate is really within the space of a physically healthy individual’s choice to terminate their life, as it raises questions of mental well being and informed consent.

Is it a stable choice, achieved after due deliberation, and profound consideration of the consequences, or is it an impulsive decision, an avoidable one, a decision made out of mental instability or a falsely perceived absence of choices? Can we establish coercion or emotional arm twisting, conclusively? (Coercion, or just a gently aggressive egging on from the family could be enough for a dependent elderly member of the family to want to die. The possibility of coercion and mental instability form the crux of the argument calling for a legal ban on death practices like Sallekhana and euthanasia). Is it the concerned individual making the choice, or is it a guardian or a caretaker ? These questions will need more inquiry and deliberation.

Meanwhile, as far as informed, sound minded, consenting adults are concerned, it’s high time the state stops criminalising their sexual choices, their aesthetic choices, their media consumption, their personal expression, how they live and how they die.