Saturday, March 24, 2007

There's something wrong with the world today

Ahem. Excuse me, there’s something wrong with the world. For the past week, I have been meeting an unusually large number of people who feel this way. Either I’m hanging out with the wrong people, or we’re all going nuts in a synchronised sort of way … or there really is something wrong with the world.
I think it’s a bit of all three. The first shouldn’t worry anyone except me, and the folks I hang out with. The last is cause for concern for everyone who’s not from outer space.
My colleague Narendra, despite appearances to the contrary, is not from outer space. The other day he spent the better part of three hours telling me how we are really in the middle of the Third World War, and how the entire social and political structure that currently exists must make way for ‘something better’. In his calculation, this can only happen by the spontaneous appearance of a messianic character called The Maverick.
The Maverick will really have a tough miracle to perform: not only must he transform the planet; he should do so without really doing anything – by ‘just being’. Narendra himself will do nothing to assist the Maverick in his labours. He had some very convoluted excuse which I can’t recall but I think it’s actually because he’s a Bengali bhadralok.
This is all very funny of course. The funnier thing is, I broadly agree with Narendra. He may be wrong about the details but for all we know he may actually be right – there’s no predicting the future. And his basic idea, that there’s something wrong with the way the world runs at present, finds resonance with me. I’ve long felt the same way myself. If the world is being run right then why is almost everyone dissatisfied more often than not? Why do we have so many wars and insurgencies? Why is there crime? Why is all this increasing rather than diminishing?
It’s not as if only the poor are dissatisfied with their lot and unhappy. Some of the richest, most successful people on earth have died unhappy deaths. Howard Hughes was the richest man on earth when he gave up business, cut himself off from the world and began to self-destruct. He died after destroying large parts of his own empire.
Nor is it about recognition: who would say Marilyn Monroe or Kurt Cobain lacked fame? They killed themselves. I don’t suppose it can even be about self-expression or ‘doing what I like’. Earnest Hemingway expressed himself in great works of literature, but he also shot himself dead. And, in a very different way, Casanova (the original one) who led a famously full life doing what he wanted (and who he wanted) was an extremely unhappy person in his later years, and is said to have died of grief.
The World Values Survey last year found Nigeria to be the happiest country on earth. Mexico was second; the US was fifteenth and India twenty-first. In case it makes you happier, Pakistan was 23rd. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious correlation between standard of living and happiness, at least from this survey.
So what is it then that brings happiness? Can it be ‘true love’? For a long time I thought it was. By simple Sherlock Holmes style deduction, when you rule out the other possibilities, this seems the one that’s left, but I find myself increasingly doubtful about it. That’s because of all the possibilities we’ve considered this is the most abstract and depends almost entirely on chance.

Which is why the world needs to change. Narendra, with an air of Newton watching the apple fall, pointed out something that many wise men have said – that people mistake pleasure for happiness.
The problem as I see it is that the entire structure of society is geared towards getting and spending. If tomorrow people everywhere were to declare that they are happy with what they have, the global economy – and civilisation as we know it - would collapse. If the tribes living in the world’s last forests were to say they don’t want the joys of development and globalisation, they’d have to be ‘educated’. If a country were to say it did not want to sell oil, it would have to be conquered.
I can’t do without electricity or my car or phone. Therefore it’s not for me to knock development. But I do hope that human ingenuity continues to stay a step ahead of human wants, as both capitalists and communists wager it will, because the earth has finite resources, and the danger that we may lose even the bittersweet ‘fruits of development’ is very real.
And somewhere along the way, I hope we find a way of life that’s not built on forever wanting more. We need a new direction; our rudder is set wrong.

(This first appeared in my column in HT Next in 2004)

Monday, March 19, 2007

Quitting drink

It’s a mad, bad world, as any man who’s ever tried to quit drinking or smoking will tell you. Everyone looks at you differently the day you announce your intention to turn over a good, new leaf. Friends check your temperature, ask you if you’re having a hangover, and offer you cigarettes and coffee with worried looks on their faces. Some enquire whether you plan to become a monk. Your sex life will run dry, they tell you, so you just as well might.
An air of gloom pervades your entire social life.
Your descent into solitary confinement begins soon after. “Hi, we’re going out for a drink”, colleagues will tell you. So maybe you go and sip orange juice while everyone else has a great time. The only satisfaction you can get out of that is by telling everyone the next day how hilariously silly they drank themselves. It’ll go like this: “Ha, ha you were so piss drunk you thought the pot was your ex-boyfriend – and you, you wanted to go up the wall because you thought you’re Spiderman!” And then they’ll never call you again unless they need a driver.
The professional losses are no less than the personal. Try inviting business contacts over for a tea party. They’ll thank you profusely, say how good tea is for health, and erase your number from their phones. There might be a few discreet enquiries about your religious beliefs and sexual orientation, for purely professional reasons of course.
The trauma of all this social rejection can seriously damage the psyche. As a consequence, you could become a drug addict.
Even those of ultra-strong mental construction, who escape such a fate, must come to terms with their newly found free time. Since evenings will always be free, they will have to take up something healthier than television to kill time. Joining some strange cargo cult and spending the evenings prostrating before pictures of the only superhero currently more powerful than Spiderman might be a good idea. I refer to the friendly hood, Taxman, who is reportedly slinging webs even Spidey can’t escape.
Women who quit smoke and drink somehow seem to get a better deal. They still get invited everywhere, and get free orange juice and sympathy because they’re such good girls. Men, those hypocritical ding-a-lings, suddenly want to take them home to mama after years of trying to just take them home.
There might be some common fringe benefits for born-again teetotalers of both sexes. Lower credit card bills are guaranteed. The money previously spent in bars can now be spent in salad bars. The beer belly could well recede, especially after the distinction between morning and night becomes clear.
Days and nights would obviously seem to stretch longer as well. If, after all the sacrifice and heartache, you still don’t live any longer, you’ll at least feel like you did.
Having considered all the pros and cons, my plan is to quit drink, but to leave a loophole in the law (Safety valve feature to prevent drug addiction). Even teetotalers are allowed to drink fruit juices. And wine is but a special sort of grape juice, after all, isn’t it?