Pain, Pleasure And The New Culture Of Small Bits

The year was 2004, and we used to wait for someone to write in our Orkut scrapbooks. Broadband connections were nowhere nearly as fast as it is today, but we refreshed our scrapbooks every few minutes.  The arrival of each scrapbook entry made us happy. It’s easy to call us losers, but social networking websites met a fundamental human need. There was a time when I used to wake up at 6 to log into my Yahoo mail account. My internet connection was too slow that I couldn’t read mails before 8.  But when I could, I felt happy.

I spent many hours every day in Yahoo chat rooms. The boys in my hostel found this a waste of time. But I was instantly a hit with chicks. I metamorphosed into an online Casanova. Jocks in my college were worried. They said I was cheating. The plain truth is that I wrote well. Always on the lookout for great genes, teen girls didn’t miss this. Nerd is the new man. I felt pleasure when I was flooded with offline messages when I logged into Yahoo Messenger after many days. When I did not see enough of them, I was sad. Such pleasures and disappointments are what the internet and social media are all about. It is easy to call all this trivial. But this is big deal, because social media is our culture. For a nerd, the cost of sending out an instant message isn’t much, when compared to walking up to someone. Through small chunks of text I sent out and took in, I was creating a whole world inside my mind. My understanding of human nature became deeper over a long time.  Continue reading “Pain, Pleasure And The New Culture Of Small Bits”

Steve Jobs And The Nature-Nurture Debate

a-young-steve-jobs-smelled-so-bad-he-had-to-be-put-on-the-night-shift-at-atariMany years ago, I dropped out of college. People have often asked me whether I felt fear when I dropped out of engineering college. But, people are cowards. They do not understand college dropouts. The night I decided to drop out, I paced on the terrace of the college hostel, throwing stones, watching their trajectories. I felt exhilaration and a great sense of relief. Then onward, I had all the time in the world to read whatever I wanted to read.  Everything I did since then—and before—was rooted in my absolute confidence in creating a world of sublime beauty and tenderness by pressing my fingers on the keyboard.  

In the years I spent there, I cut myself off from the outside world to read the tall pile of books in my otherwise Spartan wooden room. My hostel mates called it “The Eiffel Tower”. All they could hear was me shutting the door loudly behind their backs. So, they often loosened the screws of my room to see what went on inside my room. Each time they did, I filled those holes with my large collection of ancient pens and pencils. Once, they did not allow me to sleep till 2 past midnight because they wanted to know what was in my briefcase. It was a battle I won.

In one of those days, I read a speech by Steve Jobs on dropping out of college. It was beautifully written. If Steve Jobs were not a visionary leader, he would have been one of the greatest writers of our times and of all times. The impulse that drives men like Steve Jobs to lose everything for their beliefs is the same that drives me to burn inhuman energy to create a work of unparalleled beauty. Over years, I read his speech many times because what kept me going was that I loved to write. Nothing else mattered much to me. Years later, when I was working in a run-down building in Safdarjung, I wept reading a beautifully written eulogy. It was the most beautiful tribute written when Steve Jobs died. It was written by Steve Jobs’ sister Mona Simpson, a successful novelist who was unaware of his existence for the first 25 years of her life. Mona Simpson’s husband is a writer for The Simpsons.

Similarities do not end there. Steve Jobs’ biological father ran a popular Mediterranean restaurant in Silicon Valley. Once Steve Jobs’ biological father told Mona Simpson without knowing that Steve Jobs was his own son: “Even Steve Jobs used to eat there. Yeah, he was a great tipper.” Steve Jobs called his biological parents his egg and sperm bank. But, it was his egg and sperm bank that shaped him, and not the working class parents who raised him.

When Steve Jobs’ high school sweetheart visited his home for the first time, she wondered “how these hardworking, blue-collar parents, these people with common sense but so few books, gave him the space to be completely otherworldly. To be extraordinary, in fact.” But, Steve Jobs’ biological father was a PhD in Economics and Political Science. He was his mother’s teaching assistant when she was a doctoral candidate. Steve Jobs was born when his father was 23. When Steve Jobs was young, his girl friend gave birth to a child he was not willing to raise. He was then 23 years old. Jobs’ biological parents wanted him to be adopted by a wealthier couple that rejected him at the final moment because they wanted a baby girl, and not a baby boy. So much for the belief that parents prefer baby boys. Anyone who has read enough about gender knows that parents prefer to adopt baby girls.

Is Steve Jobs’ case exceptional? No. As Bryan Caplan points out:

“In early 1979, a pair of identical twin brothers who had been separated at four weeks were reunited after 39 years. Both named Jim, they discovered that they smoked the same brand of cigarettes, vacationed in the same town and both called their dog “Toy.” Struck by the story, psychologists at the University of Minnesota started studying separated twins that same year. Their efforts blossomed into the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart, which ran for a quarter century, attracting world-wide fascination and antipathy.  The Minnesota researchers tracked down every pair they could find—and measured traits related to almost every aspect of life: health, cognition, personality, happiness, career, creativity, politics, religion, sex and much more. The Minnesota study reveals genetic effects on virtually every trait. The breakdown between nature, nurture and everything else varies from trait to trait. But Ms. Segal emphasizes the uniformity of the results—the consistent power of genes, the limited influence of parenting. Some findings go down easy: As most would expect, identical twins raised apart have virtually identical heights as adults. Some findings seem obvious after the fact: Genes, but not upbringing, have a pretty big effect on personality traits like ambition, optimism, aggression and traditionalism. Other findings perennially cause outrage: The IQs of separated identical twins are almost as similar as their heights. Critics of intelligence research often hail the importance of practice rather than inborn talent, but a three-day test of the Minnesota twins’ motor skills showed that how much you benefit from practice is itself partly an inborn talent.”

My God Died Young

Do you like coffee?

“Do you like coffee?” she asked me. When I said, “Yes”, she said, “I’ll make some coffee for you.” When I waited for her to make coffee for me, she asked, “But, we are in school now. How do I make coffee for you, here?” I turned silent, without knowing what to tell her. I did not know that I was being conned by her. I have always taken words literally. I was ten. She was 13. Once she laid her palms on the table and asked our mathematics teacher why she was supposed to study geometry when she will probably never use in her life. The teacher said that she was rationalizing, but I knew that she knew something that others did not. When she often stood near the door of our classroom, bending her right leg, I stared at her calf.

After she left the school, I once saw her in a temple with my mother-in-law. She was praying with her eyes closed, wearing a long skirt which was not too unlike the one you can see in old Malayalam movies. I looked at her folded palms and bare feet. While I stood there watching her through my eyes that were half-open, my mother held me by my arm and said that it was time for us to go. I felt vaguely uncomfortable. She did not see me. Continue reading “My God Died Young”

On My First Days In College

Those were my first days in this college. I managed to get a wooden single room which failed to give me the privacy I yearned for and I spent rest of my time filling each hole in that room with my huge collection of old pens and pencils. My hostel mates-they kept me busy loosening screws of that room. I couldn’t blame them for all they could hear was the huge voice of me closing the door behind their backs. Each time they loosened one screw my collection of pens got one less. I still can’t forget that one day they kept me awake till 2 past midnight insisting they wanted to know what I kept hidden in my briefcase. Needless to say, I won sitting on the briefcase with all my might for long four hours .Even if they had won it wouldn’t have made any difference for it wasn’t a porn book or anything as they suspected.

It was a new world to me. I was shy and, isolated. All I could think of was getting out of this hell as soon as possible. Though I kept away from my hostel mates, slowly I got familiar with most of them. There were obsessives of every description. In the left end corner there was this soft-spoken and studious boy who never missed a class, and after his classes were over in the evening, he went through his books when all others were playing and having fun .But the day just before exams when we all were banging our heads, he watched movies, read magazines, went to sleep early and woke up late in the morning laughing at us, inferior creatures. He showered me with advice. Next to him was a C programmer, a nice fellow who never troubled anyone other than that he stole most of the computer time and played four of his favorite songs all the time. Then there was one who got on everyone’s nerves (especially mine) with his arrogance and loud mouth. His arrogance knew no reason other than that he had a loud mouth and was good at calling names. He made fun of all other muggers, but secretly woke up at 3 in the morning to mug up. Next to him lived this poor soul who was made to believe he resembled a South Indian movie star. Next to him was one who always had one of his eyes fixed on his mirror and its said the Cosmetic Industry reaped millions out of him. The last thing he wanted was others well-being. One was a studious insomniac, a hopelessly insecure man who had a calm voice, but would chew you alive if you wanted to know when he slept. Another One bored me to death with his gospel knowledge on spirituality and life after death. His spirituality was just a mask which stemmed out of his disappointments and complexes. Pornographic sites kept him awake till 3 in the morning and he had a huge collection of wallpapers from porn sites. He too was good at calling names though those were easier to endure than his spiritual lectures which weren’t as long as his abuses. Next to my room was a short crooked fellow who would make you cry with his cynical view of this world and next to him was one who looked like a clown and seemed to have preserved his innocence and childhood spirit even in this harsh world. Then there was this game addict with his huge eyes fixed on the screen and hands on the keyboard which moved as if he controlled the whole world. They all had only one thing in common that the sole aim of their life was to get placed in an MNC.

2 years is a pretty long time and there should be more to write maybe, but there isn’t. It all comes back to the very first day our Graphics Lecturer bored me to death.

PS: I wrote this account of my hostel life in 2004 April and was later published. It was among the three stories chosen in a Sulekha-DNA contest in 2005.

Musings Of An Emotional Zombie

I stared down and reflected. From the top of the College roof I could see the whole village. I could see kids having fun on the hostel roof. I could hear voices of shops shutting down around him. Staring at the stars in the sky, I smiled. Four years later we all are on still on the top of that hill trying to finish it off as soon as possible. I haven’t figured out this Engineering stuff yet, but I do understand there are things such as ‘Supplementaries’. Life gets more complicated when I realize I have more papers to clear than Pi has digits to get hold of that almighty piece of paper in time. No, I don’t have a snowballs chance in hell to get hold of it in time. All these drive me into hysterics of anxiety, fear and insecurity. But, do I really care? .Albert Camus once famously wrote “There was no fate on earth insurmountable by scorn”. I do try to manage this fate by the same philosophy.
My days at Model Engineering College…… I spent 4 unhappy years there reading voraciously, flunking most of the courses and skipping the rest of them. I was depressed, wondering what I would do with my life. Sometimes I would walk up to the examination hall, and then come back to my room as if I had a revelation that I haven’t even opened the prescribed text book and spent 3 of those hours (I got them bonus) reading books on a wide range of subjects from Economics and Cognitive psychology to Game theory and Pure Math. I bunked close to 90% of the classes, though now I wonder how it was possible for me to do as much. At the end of every semester I spend few of my valuable minutes counting the number of hours I attended which usually amounted up to 8 or 10.
I lied on the roof, planning what he would do with his life. I had no idea what to do with it. I never had it. All I had were some lame excuses for not knowing what I wanted to do.Excuses,Excuses,Excuses.From the college authorities to the system, from my parents to the government policies. I would blame anyone, but myself. I wanted to say Goodbye to this place. Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye. Goodbye to the College where Anjanadevi cuts out assignments after assignments & Dilip bores you to death with his soporific spiritual lectures.
I wanted to lie there for ever, but didn’t feel like doing that. I wanted to get up and get to work, I didn’t feel like doing that either. I woke up and walked down. Lights suddenly went off and I heard the noise of chairs falling down. I couldn’t see anyone. It was so dark in there. Students were still having fun on the hostel roof. There was someone whispering in the office. I rushed down, turned back and looked at that building. Model Engineering College stood on the top of that hill in a two acre campus. I walked down the road. Stray dogs ran after me, but I outsmarted them taking the other path. I ran as fast as possible towards my room. I had forgotten to lock his room when I went out, as usual. I stared lazily at my huge pile of books shattered all over the floor. I used to make castles with them. It was fun, until they fell down, but then I had to do it all again which wasn’t that fun. I lied on the bed and slept even before I realized it.