Something very complicated happens when we speak. Vocal cord vibrations are modulated by the snaky movements of a little appendage called the tongue. Twisting around the mouth cavity, tapping on the roof or on teeth-backs up front, it shapes sounds before they exit the mouth’s mini echo chamber. The hewed-out sounds have travelled a long way from cords to eardrums and then brain. When these sounds at long last go through the brain’s transliteration engine other connotations are spliced in, en route to final meaning. The way we speak reveals a lot about us. Read the transcript or listen to Meghan Sumner, Associate Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University, speak in this Freakonomics podcast. The revelations that other people have about us can be biased. The accent of your speech may cause the person listening to reduce you to a stereotype.
Humans: we can be strange. Take for instance, how much we enjoy labelling ourselves then stage-managing our lives to adhere to chosen monikers. Clever, stupid, left-brained, right-brained, hindu, muslim, christian, brahmin, conservative, liberal. These labels like magical mantras possess subliminal powers of suggestion over us. But maintaining the personae suggested by said labeling is hard work, sometimes involving complex ritual and even violence. The reality is that we are a mix of so many changing characteristics it’s hard to adopt any one label at any given time.
When sentient beings search for meaning it often leads to gibberish. Markets and newspapers burgeon with spirituality columns, self-help books and religious cults that claim to tell you the meaning of life. Closer home, your own mainstream religious books claim to have an all-access pass to special meaning found nowhere else.
Extrapolating from religions, caste groups and race identities, individual humans will also find ways to explain whatever they do in the light of their own imagined virtue. Pattern-finding, an innate human faculty, can be employed in the cause of personal gain. We will extract seeming meaning from what appears to us as chaos. Ever watch a television show in a language you didn’t understand? Unable to translate as days pass you become familiar with the characters and a vague plot develops in your head. You find a way to understand what you really don’t mostly through inference. No proof is sought, most of any understanding arrived at is intuited. Literature has a kindred function with its allowance for interpretations, criticism and readings. Sometimes even a single line in a text of art can undergo myriad elucidations.
A particular plant becomes the object of our affection and takes over the garden. But this devotion can lead to monoculture, bringing with it an absence of variety that only pests love, jeopardising a garden’s eco-system. Monoculture imperils the organic method, even the semi-organic method that I follow.
A devastating Indian summer this year produced a terrible drought in the hinterlands around Pune where I live. The unseasonably high temperatures brought a plague of mealybugs to my sky-high garden. The cotton-covered, plump little voracious vampires never tired and they multiplied ceaselessly in the scalding summer heat and my garden’s hibiscus culture. On cooler Summer mornings, their winged forms would take to the air flying off to parasitise yet more plants. Despite many thorough once-overs, brushing them off all reachable plant parts, they would reappear a few hours later relentlessly polka-dotting all those just-cleaned plants, irrevocably mutilating the leaves on which they fed.
It’s like this. I am stuck to the face of the earth, like a tack on a noticeboard, gravitating together with its rocky bits, not being slingshot into space, as the terranean ball holding us down slowly wobbles, rotates and surfs the Goldilocks zone around its sun.
There’s a Goldilocks zone in everything. Not just out in space between Mercury and Mars, not too hot or too cold, just right for a distinct brand of life that the oceans gave birth to, after they themselves spewed out of comets or asteroids in the late heavy bombardment. An alien liquid was cradled around our inner rocky sphere, in a ribbon of space that would not allow it to freeze nor vaporously boil away into space, as it would have in the tail of an outer-comet boomeranging around the sun on a return trajectory to its Kuiperian home world.
Symbolism hidden in every day functions can be like ghosts haunting us, whispering in our ears as we go about our lives. We sleep, wake, eat and we cook. As I go about the last of these every day activities, I sense a disturbance in the force. I have an absurd love-hate relationship with cooking. The symbology bound to it masks a focal point that should be called the feminine hearth.
Resonance; I wait for it as I dive into a text. But it doesn’t always happen.
I had watched many of Shakespeare’s plays dramatised for television, but I was a child and to me they were all somewhat alien. Years later, looking into the reedy shade of coconut trees swaying outside my window, I learned to read and understand the language of William Shakespeare. When understanding came, something wondrous occurred. It could only be likened to the physical property of resonance, as you suddenly become one with a text, a human tuning fork.
Continue reading Heat, humidity and Shakespeare
It’s morning. In one hand, a chalice of china cradles caffeine. The other, a couple of chocolate cookies clutched, is poised to dunk. I am arrested before a steel kitchen sink, pondering the intricacies of friendship. While out the window, a Pipal tree burgeons in the summer heat outwards, skyward. Seven stories high, it’s a giant, a million heart-shaped leaves sussurate hypnotically to me standing still inside, armoured with coffee and biscuit. These leaves, connected to each other through near and distant branches, twist in the wind in all directions, turning toward one another, then away.
Continue reading A lapsed friend’s guide to friendship
Revenge is a dish best served cold. That old Klingon nugget comes to mind in reckoning Game of Thrones. In this mash up of medieval epics, folklore and English history, conceived by George R R Martin, we have been warned from Season 1 of the television adaptation of the book series A Song of Ice and Fire that “Winter is Coming”. It is going to be very, very cold, and with it will come all things bad. Many characters in the Game of Thrones universe are motivated by the frostiest feelings of revenge, feelings that eventually drain protagonists of the humanity they possessed at the start of their fictional journeys. Their motivations are pared down episode by episode to something glacial and inhuman, comparable only to the mythical nemesis from the series – the otherworldly White Walkers, who are preparing to rise against the living in the coming winter.
The desire for revenge consumes Arya Stark, played by Maisie Williams, by the end of Season 5. Revenge is also the motivating force in the life of Lena Headey’s Cersei Lannister. She is willing to plot against anyone who dares to usurp her powers, including her brother Tyrion. Her vengeful manipulation sets in motion a series of events that leads to the murder of her ruthless father Tywin at the hands of Tyrion. Tywin had knowingly sentenced an innocent Tyrion to death at Cersei’s behest. Revenge or the need for it seems to be the primary emotion bringing back audiences season after season.
Old patterns in our working brains could use rewiring from time to time. A decade ago, pop science asked if we were left brained or right brained. Now that question has been tweaked to: is your brain conservative or liberal? Conservative ideas are connected to strong emotions and spring from deep inside the brain from the region of the amygdala. While in liberal brains, parts of the anterior cingulate cortex light up, as these areas are involved in reasoning out conflicted issues. It could be that such partitioning will always be imperfect like everything else in life. We could be conservative about some things and liberal about others.
Often I come across readers and commenters indignant when newer analyses or younger readers find older, beloved works of literature or art to be racist or sexist. The year-end Christmas special of Sherlock Holmes: The Abominable Bride was trying to make up for the original, which had mostly minor submissive female characters dedicated to the male universe of Sherlock Holmes. As a young child, I would curl up with Conan Doyle’s stories with nary a consciousness that my gender was being excluded in some way. With dawning adulthood, I realised my existence had been circumscribed by way of gender, and that I could never be a Holmes or a Watson without upsetting or upending the world in which I lived. My society had chosen for me the limited role of Mrs Hudson.