Tag Archives: good

Why Do I Find It So Difficult To Understand Sarcasm?

When I was in college, a 16 year old girl promised to marry me. She wanted to name our baby “Sachin”. I believed her.

When a policeman once asked me whether I’d like to get my passport on time, I smiled with gratitude and slammed the door on his face.

When I once read, “Ron Paul is a gynecologist, and he is self-taught.”, I did not understand why this evoked laughter in an audience. I still do not.

I’ve always had a tenuous understanding of sarcasm and double-speak. I take words literally. When I was a child, it took me many years to understand hidden insults. 

I’ve never had it any other way. I was not sarcastic as a child. I was too innocent to understand the art of insinuation. When a teacher was sarcastic to me at 9, I understood her only a year later. When I fully understood her, I felt numb, as if I were struck by lightning. I stood still, staring at my coconut tree. It was too late, because I’d left that city and moved into another school. There was nothing much I could do about this. This was deeply unsettling. Continue reading

The World Is What It Is: We Are What We Are

My favorite Naipaul story has sexist undertones. My mother doesn’t like me arguing when my father is driving. This is not because that’d distract him. She just doesn’t like it. She usually changes the subject or turn silent when I argue. Or she looks here and there. When I ask why, she wouldn’t answer, or say that she knows I’m wrong. Women hate arguments. Usually, when their husbands debate me on some abstract topic, women ask them to stop. They won’t say this, but they see debates as a sign of conflict. It took me so many years to see this. Continue reading

You Still Think I Do Not Have Empathy

I am an Aspie. I have a near-photographic memory, a razor-sharp mind, and the ability to focus on a problem for an unbelievably long period of time. If you know me, you know that I tell you exactly what I think—on your face. You feel bad. But, I don’t see why you should. I think you shouldn’t. In nine out of ten cases, if you had gone along with me, you would have done a lot better. A lot, lot better. Now, I am being modest. Deep down, you know this. You have even told me this, not always in so many words. But, you still betray yourself—and me—for the momentary pleasure of being petty.

You made a torture rack for me, and yourself, with your poor self-esteem. But, you still think I do not have empathy.

Now, you are probably thinking that this is about you. I know that this is exactly how you think. Common people—They always think that it is about them. Now, you are mad that I called you a “common person”. If you are so convinced, this is probably the truth you do not want to admit about yourself. But, this doesn’t occur to you.

That’s how common people are.

Tell them that Facebook is good for kids, and they will say, “Don’t ever tell me how to raise my child.” Tell them intelligence is genetic, and they will think you just called them stupid. Tell them that there is no trade-off between inflation and growth, and they will think that you don’t like them. If you write that half the people in Mumbai live in one-room houses, they will remove you from their friend lists. Tell them that their parents are “bad”, and they will faint. But, they will still admit, “I know that you are right, but this makes me so weary….so weary…”

But, I believe in Eugene Gendlin’s words, “What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse. Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away. And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with. Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived. People can stand what is true, for they are already enduring it.” This doesn’t mean that I am honest. All this means is that I tend to do this. If people were not so weak and pathetic, I would have been happy to do this all the time. Now, that doesn’t seem to be a tempting prospect to you, does it?

Reading me so far, what you have noticed is the arrogance, the self-righteousness, the condescension, the many “I’s”. You would not have noticed that all this is so true. But, that is exactly how you think. I know it.

Should Writers Read?

When I was in college, one of my prized possessions was a biography of Sachin with its margins filled by a school girl. Her email password was “Sachin”. The letters she wrote to me were beautiful, though she did not read. In her letters, there was not a single word that would send the reader to the dictionary. I rarely see such purity in literature. The truth is that there are eight year olds who write more clearly than virtually all editors in this city. Writers are born, not made. What separates a eight year old who writes clearly from a literary giant? Plenty of talent. Tens of thousands of hours of hard work. 

I read Jai Arjun Singh‘s article on young tycoons of mass market fiction a few weeks ago. He is surprised that many popular Indian writers are convinced that reading isn’t their thing. I don’t know what they are smoking. People have many misconceptions about writing, because they have never really gone through the process of being a writer. I know people who believe that you write from your “heart”. But, writing is an intellectual process. Great writing stems from a great mind. To think deeply, you should feel intensely. But, this does not change the issue.

Then, there are people who believe that you can learn how to write by reading style manuals. It is true that if you grow up reading a lot, you will acquire very valuable skills. If you write for many years, you will acquire skills that writers so need. But, this does not mean that the process can be reversed. It is not possible to become a great writer by acquiring verbal skills—or by learning where to place commas. As the great H.L. Mencken once said, They write badly simply because they cannot think clearly.

I don’t know where all these assumptions come from. To begin with, English grammar is too complex to be learned as a set of rules. Any good psycholinguist will tell you that a 3 year old’s understanding of English grammar will be far more sophisticated than any grammar text in the world—if she grew up in the US or the UK. Now, imagine the complexity of the mind of a Nabokov or a Faulkner. Language is mindbogglingly complex. It cannot be taught as a set of a finite number of rules. This is why “schoolma’ms, bucolic college professors, and other such pseudo-literates” fail so miserably at writing, despite their attempts to learn how to write and edit (!) from style manuals. This is also why such beliefs are often found at the lowest rungs of the society—and never in great writers.

As I said, great writers are born, not made. But, this does not mean that great writers were born with skills in English composition. They were born with an innate fluency with language. They were born with certain attitudes of mind. But, they acquired the skill to write beautiful, fully formed sentences. How? As Steven Pinker points out:

“No one is born with skills in English composition per se. Those skills may not have come from stylebooks, but they must have come from somewhere. That somewhere is the writing of other writers. Good writers are avid readers. They have absorbed a vast inventory of words, idioms, constructions, tropes, and rhetorical tricks, and with them a sensitivity to how they mesh and how they clash. This is the elusive “ear” of a skilled writer—the tacit sense of style which every honest stylebook, echoing Wilde, confesses cannot be explicitly taught. Biographers of great authors always try to track down the books their subjects read when they were young, because they know these sources hold the key to their development as writers.”

This cannot be explicitly taught because such skills are too complex to be explicitly taught. World class performers in many fields spend roughly 10,000 hours to acquire competence of the highest order. In writing and science, you need far more hours of practice. I am not even counting the tens of thousands of hours we spend reading. Of course, this is an oversimplification. The amount of practice you need varies from person to person. But, even the best writers work excruciatingly hard. Again, this does not mean you will become a great writer by working as hard as Naipaul, though it is true that Naipaul works really, really hard. You most probably will not. Not one in many millions is born with such enormous talent.

Talent is rare—rarer than people think. A few years ago, I read an article economist Jagdish Bhagwati wrote for Mint. It was badly written. This is not because Jagdish Bhagwati is abysmally read. This is not because Jagdish Bhagwati is lazy, stupid or inexperienced. He was 80 years old when he wrote this. Many believe that he is Nobel Prize material. There could be many reasons. He was not born with an innate fluency with language. English is not his mother tongue. Perhaps he did not read much in his formative years. He grew up in the 1930s when people did not read much. Most Indians were illiterate then. Asians generally have low verbal IQs. Academia does not punish bad writing. Academic journals place too many constraints on writers. They do not write because they are genuinely curious, or because they have a strong desire to speak their mind. They are forced to write. That is how the academia works. There are, of course, other reasons why academic writing stinks. Academics are not able to get outside their own heads. It doesn’t occur to them that what they write is beyond common folk. But, I doubt whether this is why Bhagwati writes so badly. 

Again, don’t be too quick to assume that all academics are lousy writers.Almost all my favorite economists and social scientists write well—-or at least, decently enough. Why? Like good writers, they are avid readers too. The best economists, for example, know other social sciences fairly well—at times, extraordinarily well. Some of them read more fiction than most literary critics do. 

But, Jagdish Bhagwati is not an exception. Most experienced academics and journalists write badly. The sad truth is that this is a very difficult skill to acquire. Somerset Maugham once said that there were only six writers in human history who knew how to write flawless English. I agree with him. All of us fail ourselves, to some degree, because it is such a difficult task. It is not at all surprising that many obscure Babbits fail miserably.

This is why I am surprised when I hear that it ain’t necessary that writers read. I even see people who believe that editing is very different from writing—and that it ain’t necessary that editors read.  Jai Arjun Singh is quite perceptive in such matters:

Being a reader is inseparable from the question of a writer’s abilities. When you start reading from an early age, not only do you develop certain standards, you also realise how much good work has already been done. And it makes you humble – it might even make you diffident about your own work, which can be a problem. But at least it prevents you from being cocky and overconfident and thinking “I think I have a great story to tell, and the world is just waiting for my book; literature begins with me.” During our session, I asked Singh the obvious question: if you don’t read yourself, on what basis do you expect others to read your books? I didn’t get a coherent response.

I’m not a literary snob: my favorite authors include many genre writers like Stephen King, Agatha Christie and Thomas Harris, all of whom have reached very large readerships; as a film critic too, I constantly defend the value of good mainstream films, and my latest book is dedicated to viewers “who are smart enough to take popular cinema seriously”. But at the same time I’m also uncomfortable about some of the narratives that have grown around mass-market writing in India – such as the inverse snobbery on view when bestselling writers scoff at “pretentious” literary types and wonder why anyone would waste six or seven years writing a “heavy” book full of “complicated” words.

This is a view I completely agree with. I do not believe that popular cinema is less artistic. I never believed that popular literature is less artistic. I read many popular writers, and I am convinced that some of them are better than most great names in literature. It is obvious to me that people look down on popular literature because they have such poor judgment. They have such narrow minds. They do not know that Shakespeare was once considered a popular writer. Many great painters and musicians who are considered great today were profit-minded. Sales were very important to Ayn Rand, though she did not place money above the integrity of her work. 

I do not look down on popular Indian writers. One of the best things that happened to Indian literature is that there is a now a larger market for popular fiction. This does not mean that the Indian reader is reading more trash. This means that the Indian audience is now more mature. At last, there is a market for literature.  One of the greatest tributes you can pay a society is that people are now consuming literature like potato chips. Indian writers do not comprehend Chetan Bhagat because they do not have the brains to see marketing as an art. But, the anti-intellectualism in these self-styled writers is worse than annoying. They are immature, but they think they have the whole world figured out.

Why do people believe in such nonsense? My best guess is that people are mad. They have no sense of reality. They do not know where they stand. This makes me melancholy, because they are unskilled and unaware of it. Cognitive psychologists call this the Dunning-Kruger effect. They are not able to see this. If you are not fluent as a writer, it is hard to say how fluent you are. Nabokov once said that you can’t even give your phone number without giving something of yourself. They are probably fooling themselves, and their readers who are semi-literates. But, they are not fooling their betters. Now, it is obvious why hardly anyone outside India read the many young Indian writers who are tycoons of mass market fiction. The more sophisticated audience in the west is less tolerant.

In Search Of The True Indian

I met him three years ago, somewhere near North Block. As a rule, I refuse to meet people in the three-dimensional world. I made an exception for him because he once tweeted that I am the most beautifully idiosyncratic Indian writer. “Now, this is somebody who has good judgment. He understands my work, unlike the half-brained slobs I see every day.” I told myself.  We shall call him “Indian”. I do not want to name him and shame him. But, when I think about the “nature-nurture debate”, it is hard to get this fellow off my mind.

When I met him, he said that he “loved” a quote on my wall:

“We all talk about clarity and sanity all the time, but the truth is it’s very dangerous. True clarity and sanity won’t allow you to do anything — it will just make you jump off the building.

I have my doubts. I am the happiest person I have ever known. My hypothesis is that most people find it difficult to get out of their beds in the morning because they are sad. It is sadness which doesn’t allow them to do anything. They are sad, but they do not see the world half as clearly as I do. This was red flag enough.

He was unbearably depressed. I found this bizarre. When I said that I found this hard to believe, he said, “I know that it is strange for a very young man to be so depressed, but this is how I feel now.” I asked him whether he was a victim of “office politics”. He said that “office politics” is not the only source of misery. There are many other. This was news to me.

He said, “I don’t think you are trying to make a point on your blog. It is always along these lines, ‘I said this to her, and then she said this to him.’ But, what comes through is the absolute pettiness that emerges from the interactions between half-anglicized Indians.” The depressed are refreshingly frank.

I tried to cheer him up saying that a Masters from UChicago will take him very far in this third-world city where people are quickly impressed. But, he said that he studied something pointless. I reassured him. He will tower over everybody like an Albert Einstein in newsrooms in Delhi where journalists have IQs in the range of hockey scores. But, he did not budge. He is useless. Pedagogues had as much as said so, in that almighty piece of paper.

It was then his grandfather called him on the phone to ask whether he took the bananas in the fridge. He said, thinking long and hard, “Strictly speaking, that is not true.” He lived with his grandparents. His grandparents and mother were doctors. But, when she was young, his topper-type mother married a never-do-well from the hills. Before his mother jilted this Pahadi idiot who never did an honest day’s job, he was crawling.

On the first day of every academic year, his teachers at Modern School asked him what his father did. He couldn’t stand this diabolic torture. When he was a child, he said, “My mother (Softly) is a doctor (Emphasis added).” Soon, it dawned on him that he could not get away with it. He learned to say that his father was in “import-export business”. But, one day a girl walked to him and said cheerfully that her father was in “import-export business” too. He did not know what to tell her. When he was twelve, he decided that enough was enough. He walked toward the teacher, leaped and whispered in her ears, “My parents are divorced, and my father doesn’t do anything.” That did it for her.

My girlfriend once told me that her schoolmates asked three questions whenever she joined a new school, “In which part of Delhi do you live? What does your father do? Which car does he drive?” In all the cosmos, nothing mattered more to them.

He was bright, but he barely graduated high school. His mother (presumably an enterprising woman) decided to ship out and live in a ghetto in the UK where his grades did not bother anyone. I asked him how he managed to get into a school in the UK. He laughed and asked me whether I was living under a rock for long. “This is the age of decadence. Educational standards have been declining throughout the world.” When he was ejected from University of Chicago at the age of 25, he resembled his father. He had no desire to work.

He said, “Your prose is very ‘westernized’. But, if you like western thinkers so much, why don’t you live in the west? Without living in the west for a few years, you will never understand the west.”

I said that there was no conscious attempt to “deracinate” myself. I do not see things this way at all. The best books are ‘western’. I haven’t really bothered to read Indian writers for the same reason I have never been on a social networking website created by an Indian. This did not convince him. He sighed saying that he did not know that colonialism spawned people who have such dichotomous lives.

He attributed much of his depression to being compelled to live in the west. He loved Nirad Chaudhuri—who loved the west—and Pankaj Mishra, who, for all ranting, still prefers to live there. When I said that we have such fucked up lives, he sighed, “But, Pankaj Mishra is having a swell time, with his British wife and everything.”

Tired hearing that a passage of Nirad Chaudhuri is enough to take libertarianism out of me, I bought Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. I read the first few dozen pages before throwing it away. It was written in the sort of pedantic prose a school headmaster turned out of a public school hundred years ago would have written.  

The west was a nameless, faceless enemy. But, after a decade in the west, Indian streets had become unbearable. “I hate walking the streets because I do not like seeing these lower class people. I never go out, but when I go to the super market, the guy at the counter talks to me. I find that really oppressive”, he once said. He did not like his grandparents either. “My grandmother is so primitive. She is not westernized. I pray for her to die so that I can live in this house with my grandfather.” he said. The feeling was mutual, because he looked like his father.

His preoccupation with the west colored his perception of everything around him. Whenever he spoke, it was along these lines:

“My grandfather does not know why I lock my door when I am alone in my room. Indians do not understand the concept of privacy.”

“Theory is a western concept.”

“Morality is a western concept. Indians do not even know what “morality” means.”

“Did they understand you? I am sure that they did not. Indians do not know how to reason with each other.”

“Why do these people stare at me? Is it because I am westernized? I smile and make eye contact. I haven’t seen Indians doing that.”

But, despite everything, he loved the idea of India. Everywhere, he searched frantically for true Indianness.