Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What tangled webs we weave!

"Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!"

The famous lines are from Sir Walter Scott's Marmion, Canto vi. Stanza 17 http://tinyurl.com/583udf.

There is, I'm told, a seldom quoted follow-up to this famous quote. I could not find it in the poem. I found it mentioned at http://tinyurl.com/5kz7tr:

"But my – how we improve the score,
as we practice more and more.

The Dorothy Parker take-off (also attributed to "J. R. Pope") http://tinyurl.com/5n3j7h reads:

"Oh what tangled webs we weave
When first we practice to deceive.
And when we've practiced for awhile,
How we do improve our style!"

Marmion is a story of treachery and deceit, greed and lust, an almost worthy parallel to the contemporary morality tale I have been following on the Internet with mixed feelings. Not that it personally concerns me. But a dear friend, a trusting and sincere acolyte of a "spiritual teacher", is one of the unsuspecting "flies" in the tangled web that has been woven.

If one were to employ the traditional Christian ecclesiastical terminology (with trepidation, no doubt, born out of diffidence due to unfamiliarity), one of the major trespasses in the story could be termed a sin akin to 'simony', i.e., "the deliberate intention and act of selling and/or buying spiritual goods or material things so connected with the spiritual that they cannot be separated from it. Simony is a violation of the virtue of religion, and a sacrilege, because it wrongfully puts a material price on spiritual things, which can be neither bought nor sold. The term is derived from the name Simon Magus who, in The Acts of the Apostles, tried to buy the power to confirm people in the Holy Spirit." http://tinyurl.com/5kz7tr.

In the late fifties or early sixties, I used to be quite an acolyte (or 'fan') of Leslie Charteris's The Saint (aka Simon Templar, so called most likely after the Knights Templar whose chief raison d’être was the protection of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem after the first Holy Crusade of 1096). Many of his adventures I then followed harked back to the twenties. He was a burglar par excellence who robbed, like Robin Hood, the "ungodly". The Saint's targets included corrupt politicians, warmongers, Nazi scientists, vanity publishers and similar consumer ripoff artists, greedy bosses exploiting workers, con men and similar scums of the earth. He used to often charge a "ten percent collection fee" to cover expenses when he extracted large sums of money from his victims, the remainder being returned to the rightful owners, given away to charity, shared amongst his business associates. I also fondly remember his habit of peppering his conversation with such irreverent asides as "As the actress said to the bishop".

I was reminded of The Saint because the story I have been following concerns a modern-day "Sage" (henceforth S for short). From all available indicators, he possesses business acumen of the highest order. In his career, he used it to build the business enterprise he ended up heading at the time of his retirement. In his later life, he seems to have been employing it to set himself in a lucrative "profession". Those in the know consider the spirituality business a very competitive and challenging field of endeavour worldwide. Our protagonist astutely decided to test the waters before plunging in. The late seventies or early eighties saw him serving as a translator/interpreter to an Advaita teacher with impeccable credentials and international repute who could not speak English. It was probably during his apprenticeship there, also S's golden opportunity to do in situ market research, that he might have stumbled on the ideal target audience for the new guru persona he was soon to let loose on the unsuspecting manifestation. He would formulate his teaching to appeal to the Western psyche impatiently looking for quick fixes.

According to the experts, what S cleverly did was to oversimplify the Advaita teaching into neo-Advaita or pseudo-Advaita malarkey (as detractors claim). He achieved this feat by blurring the distinction between three simultaneously existing levels of the one non-dual Reality and latching on to the absolute level ("Nothing is really happenng") as the only view. He also selectively presented absolute level concepts such as "Nobody is the doer", "Everything is a happening", "Everything happens by God's will" and so forth as the ultimate truth under the authority of such venerable sources as the Buddha and Wei Wu Wei (the Irishman Thomas Gray) rather than the guru whose mantle he claimed to wear.

By so doing, goes the argument, S offered what could be called "the lazy seeker's way to instant nirvana" with the "feel free to do anything without feeling guilt or shame" adjunct. Boys and girls, meet Kick-ass Advaita – just what you've been looking for! Canned wisdom you can store on your shelves as unconscionably high priced books, tapes, CDs, DVDs for instant referral. The daily talk at home is free but generous donations (guru dakshina) are always welcome. If you wanted to hear S at a luxury resort after paying a Western price for the priivilege, you were welcome to the annual retreat away from home.

S also gathered around him, goes the story, a coterie of cronies to help him package and market his products for a cut from the pie in the sky. He even authorised one of them, a wily Westerner, as his spiritual successor. When a few years back, there was a scandal at an annual retreat with charges of financial impropriety and serial adultery, the cronies rushed in to do instant damage control. The stigma continues to exist, though.

But, then, as the actress said to the bishop: "Who cares?"

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The tongue cleaner.

I was born with a pure silver tongue cleaner in my mouth. http://tinyurl.com/5pctle. I could say this with utmost confidence and nary a hint of irony or hype. Yes, the very first tongue cleaner I remember using as a child at 233 Khetwadi Main Road http://tinyurl.com/48tnw4 was a baby-sized, horse shoe-shaped implement wrought in pure silver. Its tongue scraping surface was quite blunt. Both the handles had a cute ball-shaped knob. I think it was bought from Mhaskar and Company on Girgaum Road where my mother used to do a lot of shopping for clothes and silverware. The shop is no more like a lot of places from my childhood. A Central Bank of India branch has taken its place. (I have a Savings Bank account there.) Later on, as I grew up, I graduated in my high school days to strips of cheerful colour-spangled flexible plastic sold for 10 or 20 paise each. The wonderful thing about these flimsy little objects was that they had just enough sharpness to leave your tongue feeling properly scraped and clean without hurting it. Also, they broke ever so often so that you could treat yourself to a fresh new one every so often without feeling the pinch. Much later in life came the tongue cleaners made of stainless steel and copper. They seem to do their job okay as far as they go. As a child, I had heard from my mother that it was only hygiene-conscious folks like us who used tongue cleaners daily. If one went by the noisy and gurgling morning ablutions that one sometimes overhears in a public place, I guess they seem to be doing well for themselves without tongue cleaners. It was therefore quite an eye opener for me to read the pack copy of The Pureline Oralcare TONGUE CLEANER. http://tinyurl.com/6ekguk. Ujwal got it in a WalMart store in the US. Made from clear greem plastic, it looks like a dimunitive tennis racket with the guts missing. On the front of the pack where the tongue cleaner is embedded under a see-through plastic wrap, I read such wondrous stuff as:

Enjoy Fresh Breath (Thank you, Pureline Oralcare, for not using an exclamation mark. [!])



Promotes Fresh Breath

Improves Your Oral Hygiene

Removes Odor Causing Bacteria

Helps Prevent Periodontal Disease

From the back of the pack came further eye-popping revelations. Such as: "Scientific studies confirm that the primary cause of bad breath is odor-causing bacteria on the tongue. Primarily during sleep, the tongue accumulates this unpleasant plaque film, which is why fresh breath in difficult to maintain even after brushing your teeth. This bacteria can also lead to periodontal disease and other health problems."

The Directions for Use are equally clear and no-nonsense. "After brushing and flossing, rinse The Tongue Cleaner with fresh water. Extend your tongue fully. Place The Tongue Cleaner at the back of your tongue and pull forward while phsing doen GENTLY. Repeat if necessary. When finished, rinse thouroughly with warm water and keep clean for optimum oral hygiene."

If only instructions for software downloads and installation and digital devices were so crystal clear and easy to follow!

P.S.: Nary a mention of halitosis (a Listerine property since 1921), though. http://tinyurl.com/5ja46u.

Friday, July 18, 2008


Subtext = hidden meaning. Things left unsaid.

Are human beings suspicious by nature? I'm clueless. Nonetheless, every time I watch the television commercial for one of the two leading brands of women's high-end cosmetics, a warning bell starts sounding in my head as the final words are uttered by the actor. They are: "Take care" and "Because you're worth it" respectively. So, innocuous and innocent-sounding on the surface. In fact, the former makes you wonder if the marketer is not overly concerned and caring about the consumer, cloyingly so. The latter seems to be a ploy in the best of the contemporary tradition of boosting the consumer's self-worth or self-esteem. So far, so good. Take a moment or two to calmly contemplate both the messages though and you'll begin to wonder if there's not another layer of meaning being conveyed. When the actor tells the viewer in almost a conspiratorial whisper to take care, is she implying (not saying it in so many words) "because you're about to be fleeced considering the high price we are going to ask you to pay for our product"? Likewise, when the actor reassures the viewer that she is worth it in the other commericial, is she leaving unsaid the unpleasant "our price tag will convince you how high we estimate your worth" part? Maybe it's the cynic in me but I have a strong suspicion both are hidden warnings. Like the "Conditions apply" insert elsewhere (in most offer ads) = "Caveat emptor. [Let the buyer beware.] Please read the small print." After all, fair is fair. And, everything fair in love and marketing warfare. And, so forth. P.S.: This is also the case when a long warning is hurriedly read at the fag end of an ad for a financial ad to warn you that here money and market fluctuations are involved. So, better watch your butt, buddy. http://tinyurl.com/62lgkh.

Loud and louder.

Indians are loud and devoid of good taste, by and large, and I'm not being snooty. We speak loudly. We play gratingly loud music at home as well as in our cars and our discos and other gatherings. We install loudspeakers at the slightest pretext without a thought to the inconvenience they may cause the neighbours. We shout at the top of our voices to call attention to ourselves. We converse without caring to listen to the person we are supposed to be talking to. Our conversations are seldom dialogues, mostly monologues. We interrupt others all the while. Even our Parliamentarians who, in the Nehruvian era, were a well-behaved and well-spoken lot, have turned into hooligans who hurl abuse and shoes at their adversaries on camera. Our preference for loud noise is making us more and more prone to overstatement (look at most of our mainstream movies). Subtlety, suggestiveness, wit and irony are increasingly becoming alien to us. On our music-related reality television shows the participants make a loud show of humility by touching the feet of their mentors and judges. They in their turn make loud comments about the performances, good, bad or indifferent. Our clothes are becoming ridiculously loud and garish. So is our sense of design and décor. Even our commercial breaks are louder than the ambient show from which the break is being taken. If my anti-loudness lamentation does not please you, let me leave you the legacy of this advice on 'Rhetoric' in pulpit oration on page 308 of The Port folio, a US-based literary magazine in the times of Thomas Jefferson defunct since 1827: "For the same reasons that harshness of tone is to be guarded against, laboured loudness is to be avoided. This is not speaking, but bawling; it is not elocution, but vociferation, which some preachers aim at this painful and unnatural exertion of the lungs; they mistake loudness for force, and noise for oratory." http://tinyurl.com/5rnxut. A good preach, all told, methinks.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Dumb and dumber.

Does not knowing or remembering in which month Columbus Day (October) falls mark you as dumber than a 5th grader? Or, the first US President to be impeached (Andrew Jackson), for that matter? Or, the name of the ship on which the Pilgrims sailed from Southhampton in England to Plymouth, Massachusetts in the US (Mayflower), if it comes to that? http://tinyurl.com/64aqkg. Certainly not, in my humble opinion. All it means most likely is you're not up to scratch on trivia. In BAD or The Dumbing of America (Simon & Schuster-Touchstone, New York, 1991), Paul Fussell writes about a different and special strain of dumb: anything "phony, clumsy, witless. untalented, vacant, or boring that many Americans can be persuaded is genuine, graceful, bright, or fascinating" (p.13). He cites Lawrence Welk and George Bush as examples of BAD at the low and high end respectively. Advertising hype is one of the main targets of Fussell's ire. Another of his targets, viz., the Bride's Wishlist which "Miss Manners" (Judith Martin-Perlman), an arbiter of good form and etiquette via her syndicated advice column, thoroughly disapproved of in 1990 or thereabouts as being "in appalling taste" has become an accepted form of social behaviour thanks to the changing times and the influence of the Internet. http://tinyurl.com/68uvta. Some of the windmills in the US mainstream Fussell tilts at are the higher education focusing on athletics at the expense of academics, the pretentious sham of gourmet restaurants, the low IQ of blockbuster movies, the incoherent babble of modern language comprising euphemisms, corporate jargon and overly complex signs and so forth. (Please also see http://tinyurl.com/47jmjl.) This debunker of most things modern and post-modern doesn't approve of – surprise, surprise! – Wagner, Leonard Bernstein, Andrew Lloyd Webber, all reggae music, Beethoven and Brahms as also religious fundamentalism and materialism. What's wrong with contemporary culture? Fussell's answer would be, I reckon, the ubiquity of mindless pop culture, sports and advertising and the all-pervading anti-intellectual climate. Makes good sense, if you ask me. By the way, I find BAD making inroads into Middle India in a big way.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Smarter than a 5th grader?

Watching the original US game show yesterday night got me thinking about the contrast between how Indians and Americans look at people. The Indian version is SRK-centric, over-hyped, loud and garish. A preening Shah Rukh Khan is the hub of the show. The American version, debuted in February 2007 and replicated in several other countries, rightly focuses on the participants. It seems lighter, more fun and natural. The Emcee, Jeff Foxworthy, a stand-up comedian, doesn't behave like God's gift to mankind. Everyone else appears to be acting as natural as they can under a camera's gaze. They cheer and laugh but not overmuch. The atmosphere says "Let's have fun", and not "Let's worship God's gift to mankind, fawn on him and kowtow to him". There are no superfluous visiting celebrities cluttering up the action. In spite of all this extra baggage, the TRP score of Kya Aap Panchavi Pass Se Tej Hai is nothing to write home about. So, what's the problem? I haven't a clue. Maybe, the Indian idiot box viewer is no idiot. Maybe, he instinctively feels a screen star belongs to the big movie screen, not in his living room. Anyway, better ask the fifth grader. She or he is smarter than me, I concede. Remember The Beliot College Mindset? http://tinyurl.com/4w8xsk. P.S.: The Cultural Learnings blog http://tinyurl.com/5jmnkp hints at the "school kids" on Are you Smarter than a 5th Grader? being Screen Actors Guild cardholders and coached in advance. Also that their school chums peer-pressure-and-wisecracks act is a sham. A reiteraton of the same "scandal" theme is found here: http://tinyurl.com/6s6le7. If there is even a grain of truth in this, who comes out the smartest in the final analysis? P.S.2: Can you think of a smarter gift than the new digital camera that recognizes faces and waits for the subject to smile before it clicks? http://tinyurl.com/6f6z8t.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Faux pas.

Faux pas = (fashion) an error in style judgement; (social) gaffe, blunder, false step, embarrassing behaviour.

The Fake Steve Jobs ("Dude, I invented the friggin iPod. Have you heard of it?") http://tinyurl.com/2bockl reminds me for no reason at all of the fake Sachin Tendulkar, the fake Shah Rukh Khan, the fake Dev Anand and many other fakes scampering around close to home. They make a living and a career out of being someone else's faux avatar. To me, this tribe seems as nauseating and irritating as Austin Powers. FSJ is witty and funny, on the other hand. Unfortunately, on 5 August 2007, he was unmasked after surviving several attempts to find his real identity. New York Times Tech Correspondent Brad Stone must have left no stone unturned (pardon the pun, I just couldn't resist the temptation) to find who was behind the mask. http://tinyurl.com/yvcqlb. It turned out to be Daniel Lyons, Senior Editor, Forbes Magazine. Long before his FSJ incarnation, on 14 November 2005, Lyons wrote in his Forbes article (The Attack of the Blogs): "Blogs are the prized platform of an online lynch mob spouting liberty but spewing lies, libel and invective. Their potent allies in this pursuit include Google and Yahoo." http://tinyurl.com/68j5ry. Then why did he decide to join the mob? Maybe, he found the idea of writing anonymously too, too liberating and exhilarating. He indeed confessed that it was addictive. He even tried to relinquish it, according to his own admission, but just couldn't. His boss and Forbes publisher Richard Larlgaard saw his blog as "the most brilliant caricature of an important part of American culture that I’ve seen". In contrast, Joe Klein, the author of Primary Colours (1992), a roman à clef about US politics, was sacked by his the then employers, Newsweek, for not telling them he did it before telling the rest of the world. According to some, Klein is a serial liar. http://tinyurl.com/59m6ox. Be that as it may, even after the unmasking, Lyons continues to write under the FSJ id. In other words, he persists with a lie that, for all practical purposes, has now ceased to be anything but. Seems to me akin to a theodicean situation. This is a theological-philosophical polemic where the theologian-philosopher tries to reconcile the existence of evil and suffering in the world with the belief in an omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. In short, the problem or conundrum of evil. http://www.problemofevil.org/. P.S.: By the way, last month, FSJ featured a Prabhu Deva video clip on his website, asking someone from India to explain what was going on. He thanked the person who offered a detailed annotated explanation including the cultural context. http://tinyurl.com/5oqzg3. Very decent of the bloke, must admit.