A.K. Ramanujan, Is there an Indian way of thinking?: An informal essay

A review of — and a response to — A.K. Ramanujan’s Is there an Indian way of thinking?: An informal essay.

What we like, what we talk about, and how we think are all factors of where we come from and what social position we occupy. There is no us outside of the social formations we inhabit. Ramanujan addresses this in his essay.

He talks about context-sensitive and context-free cultures. Indian thinking, which is a product of the former, is influenced by morals and ethics that are context-dependent, whereas the Western way of thinking is informed by morals and ethics that are more absolute in nature and unaffected by context.

He starts by asking the question “Is there an Indian way of thinking” in four different ways, emphasising a different word each time as well as giving two answers to every question. The first question places the emphasis on “is” and questions the very existence of such a thing as an Indian way of thinking. The answers: (a) there was such a thing but not any more, and (b) India never changes, so the Indian way of thinking still exists. The emphasis in the second question is on “an”, and so he asks if there is one unique way of Indian thinking or many such things. The answers, in this case: (a) each community in this country — and there are many, divided by language, caste and class — has a unique world view and, therefore, a distinct way of thinking, and (b) there exists “unity in diversity” here and so all Indian thought is the same. The third question shifts the focus to the word “Indian”, and Ramanujan says that (a) there is nothing inherently Indian about this way of thinking and that it’s also found in other societies that have reached a similar state of development, and (b) the Indian way influences everything that enters the country and makes it its own. The fourth question puts the emphasis on “thinking”, and Ramanujan doesn’t offer any arguments here.

Ramanujan then talks about his father, a man of both mathematics and astrology, and uses his example to explore the utter lack of cognitive dissonance that should have otherwise risen from pursuing two mutually antagonistic activities.

He goes on to talk about modernisation and says that even though it may seem like modernisation attempts to do away with context, borrowings from other cultures get converted before being assimilated into the host culture. Each culture comes with its own inherent bias.

Krishnendu Ray, The Migrant’s Table: Meals And Memories In Bengali-American Households

A summary of — and a response to — an excerpt from Krishnendu Ray’s Migrant’s Table: Meals And Memories In Bengali-American Households.

Summary

Ray examines the culinary habits of Bengalis living in India, of Bengalis who have immigrated to the US, and of Americans, to explore their ethnic identities. He talks about the concept of “ethnic food” and the regional and temporal variations in its meaning, and then goes on to question the way we look at ethnicity. Through anecdotes, he explores how a people’s culinary habits at once unite them — by creating in-groups or communities that have similar gustatory preferences — and separate them from other groups with different culinary histories. The anecdotes highlight the differences among these various groups by two processes: (a) by pointing out how little they know about what other people eat everyday, how they prepare their food, and their relationship with food, and (b) by talking about their own responses to foreign food.

He touches upon how the name of a food a group eats could confuse an outsider who might interpret it literally, unaware of said group’s cultural history. Miscommunications and stereotypes often emerge from such interactions. He then examines how immigrants have changed their own habits, handed down through the ages, and thereby forged a cultural identity for themselves that’s distinct from both that of their ancestors as well as that of the undisplaced people they’re surrounded with. He chooses to focus on Bengali migrants and talks about how they’ve responded to American culture: by either incorporating it into their own culinary heritage or rejecting it completely, and how that’s either an act of embracing everything American or an act of yearning for home. There are also personal accounts of American women married to Bengali men, and their reaction to Indian cuisine. Through that new cultural lens, Ray also looks at Bengal’s imitation of “Western” food, and what these Western women thought of it.

Response

Inside of a culture, culinary habits are pervasive and have restricting cultural myths built around them. Our cultural moorings define what we eat, how we eat it, and what eating means to us. Menus could be extremely elaborate, incorporating a wide variety of ingredients and flavours, or they could be simple and easy to prepare.

When people are exposed to a new culture, they may either reject its food or make it their own by tweaking it. Ray presents anecdotes from both a Western and an Indian perspective, and this makes the cultural differences more prominent.

In these times of globalisation, when we are exposed to other cultures and their foods, the text remains relevant to most of us. Being open to other people’s habits and experiencing their way of doing things can only add to our own knowledge, adding to it a breadth that only interacting with other groups can. Even if we ultimately end up rejecting someone else’s culinary habits completely, we would at least know what exactly it is that we are rejecting. On the other hand, incorporating parts of it into our own collective history would only enhance it, because history, by definition, only exists when it changes.

Jeremy Rifkin, Time Wars: The Primary Conflict in Human History

A summary of — and a response to — an excerpt from Jeremy Rifkin’s Time Wars: The Primary Conflict in Human History.

Summary

Rifkin talks about the two ways of timekeeping that have evolved in human society: “computime”, a digital means of keeping track of time that deals with infinitesimally small time intervals that humans can’t directly perceive, and an ecological time that remains intimately connected to the rhythms of nature. He talks about how we are increasingly moving away from a natural way of experiencing/perceiving time to one that hands over the control of our time perception to computers. He also talks about how our interaction with computers — and both our wide-eyed acceptance of them as well as their seamless integration into our lives — is changing the way we interact with our immediate surroundings. Evidently, “computer nerds” are increasingly growing uncomfortable with social skills and becoming impatient and abrupt in their interpersonal interactions. Growing children are exposed to the world through computer screens, divorcing these important and formative experiences from the wealth of sensory information that comes with interacting with nature directly. He presents a history of the way humans have interacted with — and perceived — time through the ages. He seems dissatisfied with the way things are turning out in the postmodern information age. He seems to believe that we are alienated from our own biological rhythms.

Response

The excerpt seemed very outdated and, even though I agree that we need to be skeptical of new technology, this kind of Luddite rejection of it seems nonsensical. Any intelligent species, as it develops, will move away from crude/”natural” ways of doing/perceiving things to those that might seem very artificial. This evolution in itself seems very natural to me, and not as harmful to either the development of our instincts or the way we interact as he makes it out to be. Our biological processes themselves, at a fundamental level, operate on the microsecond scale. Besides, our biological limitations will forever keep us from truly “living” in the nanosecond realm. Rifkin’s predictions seem to have turned out to be incorrect. We do have less time now, but I’d attribute it to an industrial way of thinking — to an urge to be productive/efficient — rather than computers in and of themselves. As humans evolve, our time will become more valuable economically, and it’s only logical that we should maintain more control over what we spend it on. I would contradict Rifkin by citing the example of “Pokemon Go” — which gives us a fair idea of how augmented reality would change or lives — and how it has drawn many out in the open. These users are still interacting with the “natural” world, with only an “artificial” layer added to it. Interpersonal interactions would have changed over the years anyway, regardless of technological development. It’s foolish to assume that things would always remain unchanged, or that any sort of change would be unnatural.

Ocean Vuong, Surrendering

A summary of — and a response to — Ocean Vuong’s Surrendering.

Summary

Vuong describes how he became a writer, and how he started drawing on his own life experiences to churn out stories. He came from a family of illiterate Vietnamese farmers, and immigrated to the US when he was two. There he remained largely unexposed to the English language for about 5 years. Going to kindergarten was like immigrating again, only this time into a language instead of a country. He managed to speak English fluently, but the craft of writing fluently eluded him.

In school, he managed to avoid writing by copying passages from books instead. This continued till one afternoon in grade 4, when he turned in a poem that he had written in honour of the National Poetry Month. His teacher assumed — wrongfully — that he had plagiarised the poem, and demanded to know where it had been copied from. The teacher went so far as to tip Vuong’s desk to empty the contents of the attached cubby. There Vuong stood — alone, a poemless island in the middle of the emptied rubble — as his teacher and classmates looked on, unconvinced.

He was bullied at school, which is why he used to hide in the library during recess. There he found a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he mistook for a medical practitioner, and was immediately hooked and impressed. Vuong could hear the recorded sound of a huge crowd applauding MLK, and felt insignificant in front of the great man. He wondered if words could cure people. He realised he had been narrating his grandmother’s stories all his life and, in that moment, also realised that we don’t only stumble into stories when we read.

So he wrote a poem about spring, using exotic names for flowers that he had picked up from the gardening shows his grandmother watched. Using a dictionary and a piece of white paper, which he describes as a white flag, he brought his poem into existence. He calls it an act of surrender, adding that he plagiarised his own life to offer his audience the best of himself.

Response

I find the idea of writing as surrender very interesting. Frantz Fanon said, “[…] to speak is to exist absolutely for the other” and one could, by extension, say the same thing for writing. What Fanon means is that language is a social fact, not a faculty of the individual. So when one speaks one inevitably assumes the presence of an Other to perceive it. So writing is a form of interaction with the world outside the Self, a very specific form of interaction with its own history and social implications.

When we don’t have a community’s language, we’re alienated from them in a profound way. That was a major site of alienation for Vuong. I think he wrote both to make sense of his personal and collective history, as well as to connect with the community he felt alienated from. In many ways, our lives are structured by the social formations we’re interpellated into. Vuong’s class position meant that he did not always have access to proper education. He immigrated to a new country and a new language, and perhaps writing for an Other (who spoke the new language and belonged to the new country) was his way of trying to bring his own history — both personal and collective — closer to his new surroundings: an act of surrender, then, and of raising the white flag, instead of fighting the alien environment he found himself in.

On the Representation of Human Relationships in Literature

Problem

Most of the books I’ve read in the past few years placed a heavy focus on romance and love. Even the ones that didn’t deal with these themes explicitly had subtexts that had to do with them. Now this isn’t to say they weren’t tolerable, — some of these books happen to be my favourites — but I wish so many books (even films and songs, for that matter) weren’t so obsessed with love. There are many other kinds of human relationships that we could explore instead.

One problem I have with a lot of books about romance and love is that they seldom scratch past the surface of a certain experience to talk about something bigger, or at least signal such a move. Few even care to wonder about the possibility of such transcendence. They’re mostly content with appealing to a reader’s sympathy/desire/joy and, in doing so, rely wholly on the process of self-identification of the reader with the narrative. As readers we, too, have come to internalise that.

And love sells, of course, — even I know that — but I’m thinking about this purely from an ideological/principled point of view; the economics of it is largely immaterial to me. Moreover, it’s never a one-way traffic when it comes to art: the concept of “what sells” is shaped as much by the (expectation of the) audience as by the creators/distributors of artistic production.

Solution

The most obvious solution is to pick the books I read more carefully. but, as an aspiring writer, I must also try to do what little I can to correct this imbalance.

So, for months I’d been looking for a more interesting dynamic to examine, — something that doesn’t have such a huge, pervasive, constricting cultural myth built around it as romantic love does — and now a brief conversation on Facebook has presented me with an answer. I am going to spend the next few years of my life exploring our relationships with things (esp. technology), animals, ideas, and places instead — in short, our relationship with the inanimate/abstract/nonhuman.

This isn’t just about rejecting trends but also about trying to understand the underlying assumptions/principles that inform them. To reject these trends properly, I will have to first understand what it is I’m rejecting. Familiarising myself with these assumptions/principles can also inform my perspective in a different way, — intent does matter, after all — and that’s what I need to start working on.