Monday, June 25, 2018

Paying attention to the two roles we play: listener and story-teller

The 13-minute film “Listener” (2018, directed by Tarun Dudeja) highlights the two roles we play all the time – listener and story-teller. Both roles have a place in our day-to-day life. Unless we listen, we won’t know what others are saying, and unless we tell, we can’t communicate our views. However, the story-teller role dominates our life most of the time. And that puts us off-balance. That’s what the short film Listener shows. How does one balance between these two roles? Let’s explore in this article.

In “Listener”, the protagonist (Kumud Mishra) gets paid to lend an ear in a restaurant. Hire a “listener for Rs. 1495 per hour” is how one of the entries in the menu card reads. “First time?” asks the listener to the stranger who has hired him to listen for the next hour, “You can speak your heart out, whatever is bothering in your mind. Trust me, you will walk out of here as a much lighter person.” And the other person starts to tell the story.

The listener listens to an old man complain about how nobody at home listens to him, a young lady talks about her successful driving experience through crazy roads, a boy cries over the breakup with his girlfriend and how her status change on the social network got 56 likes. Through this process, we see that the listener is just listening, not judging or commenting. At the end, we see that the listener is also a good storyteller, especially to his daughter.

We have a need to be listened to and in a hyperactive world, listening has become an expensive currency. On the face of it, a large friend circle on Facebook and WhatsApp creates a feeling of connectedness. However, sooner or later we realize how superficial it is. How does one balance between these two roles?

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak” This quote supposed have come from the first-century Stoic philosopher Epictetus. It is suggesting us to follow a 70-30 rule – Listen more than 70% of the time, talk less than 30% of the time. Perhaps that’s a good start. However, there is more to it than just the time spent on listening vs talking.

As one begins to experiment with listening, one realizes that the act of listening itself might involve deception. As we are listening, we might be simultaneously generating a story – a kind of running commentary in the head – on what is being listened to. And the internal storytelling is hampering the quality of listening. Thus storytelling might be a major part of listening itself.

How does one curtail the internal storytelling? Perhaps there is no formula. However, a good place to start could be to start paying attention to the story in our head. And ask, “Is this serving any useful purpose right now?” Perhaps one may realize that the continuous judgments may not serve any useful purpose. And the recognition itself may subside the commentary.

Try and see if it works for you.

Note: There is a twist at the end of the film "Listener". I feel that the twist is not relevant to the essence of this article. However, happy to hear your views.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Electromagnetism: My favourite metaphor from Salman Rushdie’s “The golden house”

I decided to read Salman Rushdie’s “The golden house” (2017) after reading one of his interviews. He was asked to explain what he meant by the line in the novel – dirt is freedom. That sentence jumped out at me and I added the novel to the to-read list last year.

In “The golden house” the story is being narrated by Rene’ who is attempting to write a movie script based on the life of a family staying in the neighbouring house called the “Golden House” in Lower Manhattan. The family – father and three sons – have migrated to the US from Mumbai after 26/11 terror attacks and they are behaving as though they didn’t have a past. The novel is choke-full of metaphors, a large portion of them from Greek mythology. Here I would like to focus on the metaphor which appealed to me the most: Electromagnetism. I felt that this metaphor runs through all the major characters of the novel including the narrator.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, electricity and magnetism were two totally unrelated concepts. Later, Faraday, Maxwell, and others showed that it is one thing, not two different things – electromagnetism. “Can a man be a good man when he is a bad man?” Nero Golden, the father of the neighbouring family asks the narrator. He is saying that he is goodandbad – similar to electromagnetism.

Petronius alias Petya, the eldest son of Nero is on the extreme side in the autism spectrum. He is making millions of dollars from the computer games he builds. He has agoraphobia which results in him carrying a fear of outdoors, manic depression, inability to socialize and heavy drinking. In short, Petya is saneandinsane.

Lucius Apuleius (Apu) is the middle son. He is a successful artist holding solo exhibitions. In contrast to his elder brother Petya who lives in the virtual world of computer games sitting in his room, Apu mingles with ease in the real world of undergrounds, clubs, prisons, subcultures, gamblers, dying factories, dancing queens. He has a vision problem on the left eye and he sees everything distorted and deformed. In fact, Apu sees ghosts. Thus Apu lives in a world that is realandimaginary.

Dionysus (D) Golden, the youngest son, is androgynous. He is “miserable in men’s clothes and too scared to go public in a dress, painted mouth, and pink hat”. Thus D is manandwoman.

When Nero Golden asks Rene’ the goodandbad question, he further adds, “If you believe Spinoza and agree that everything is determined by necessity, can the necessities that drive a man drive him to wrongdoing as well as right? What is a good man in this deterministic world? Does the adjective mean anything?”  

Today, we don’t differentiate between electricity and magnetism. We call it electromagnetism. Can something similar happen to the polarities of good-bad, san-insane, man-woman, real-imaginary? Is this the core question Rushdie is asking? And when we begin to see the logic of necessity behind every action, goodandbad, isn’t it also called – empathy?

Perhaps dirtandpurity belongs to the same category. In explaining his love of dirt, Rushdie mentions in the interview: “The moment people start talking about purity, other people start dying, you know? The moment Nazi Germany started talking about racial purity there followed a great massacre.” Hence to see that dirt is, in fact, dirtandpurity is freedom.

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