The Guide: A non-spiritual perspective

Last weekend, I read “The Guide” by R.K. Narayan on the recommendation of a friend and enjoyed it thoroughly. I wasn’t sure what Narayan wanted to convey however. Even as I thought about it, I looked up the wikipedia entry which links to two pieces which talk of symbolism, illusion, self-deception, maya, man being a tool of divine purpose and so on. I was quite bewildered because all those interpretations seemed entirely forced to me.

There is no explicit philosophy in the story. No moralizing. Just a simple dramatized narration. And that leaves the message open to interpretation. The following is my interpretation based on a simple reading of the story itself. (I am not familiar with any of Narayan’s other works so I cannot claim that this is what Narayan intended to convey). Spoilers ahead. Please read the original work before reading ahead.

Raju is a drifter. He does whatever amuses him, interests him, or arouses his passions. And he does not care what the world thinks of him. He inherits his father’s business – a shop on a railway station – and happens to become a travel guide. Quite by accident. He makes a career out of guiding tourists to places he has never seen himself and telling them history which he makes up on the spur of the moment. He is unscrupulous enough to not mind what he is doing and sharp enough to make a good business out of it.

When he meets Rosie – the neglected wife of an archaeologist, he immediately falls in love with her and gets involved in an affair. Against the advice of his friends. He doesn’t really think about the consequences, about the damage to his business, or anything else. He simply follows his heart. Rosie is from a caste of dancers – treated as public women by society. Raju tells her that he doesn’t believe in caste, and he is telling her the truth, but it is not as if he has consciously rejected the concept. It is just that he has never accepted it, never thought about it consciously, and he is too free-spirited to be bound by rules he does not understand.

When Rosie’s husband discovers the affair and dumps Rosie, she comes to him and he takes her into his home. And keeps her there braving the ire of his mother, uncle and society. Out of his passion for her. Not out of any deep conviction that he is right. But that is being unfair to him. More accurately, Raju is just incapable of deep convictions. He lives his life by the whim of the moment, not by a philosophy.

Being a smart man, Raju is soon able to help Rosie achieve her dreams of becoming a dancer. And he gets caught up in the trappings of wealth, power and influence. He begins to believe that he is the architect of Rosie’s success, not realizing that she is a strong woman who would eventually have found her dream with or without him. He is still insecure about Rosie’s husband and foolishly ends up committing a forgery. By this time, Rosie has grown tired of Raju, and although she does everything in her power to help him financially, she decides to go her own way.

Raju is sentenced to two years of prison. And he doesn’t really mind it! On the contrary, he begins enjoying it. Despite having been carried away by the trappings of wealth, he is still too free-spirited to be troubled by the censure of society.

When he comes out of prison, he has nowhere to go and settles in a village. The villagers mistake him for a holy man and he plays along, getting a sustenance for free out of the offerings the villagers make him. He is sharp enough to make the sort of grand-sounding but empty statements that fool the villagers. The railway guide becomes a spiritual guide. But the spiritual guide is just as fake as the railway guide. The railway guide played on the ignorance of the tourists, on their desires to feel that their holiday was worthwhile without knowing what would make it worthwhile, on their mindless acceptance of the fiction that he told them as fact. The spiritual guide plays on the insecurities of the villagers, on their desire to control what is outside the control of any man, on their mindless acceptance of his empty statements.

Finally, Raju gets trapped into a twelve day fast to bring rain. On the eleventh day, he collapses saying “Velan, it’s raining in the hills. I can feel it coming up under my feet, up my legs –“. And that is how the story ends. Ambiguously. Does he die? Does it rain? It does not matter.

Raju is a free spirited and intelligent man but he is not a thinker. He never plans ahead. He doesn’t reflect on what he is doing. He does not ponder moral questions. He does not live by the rules of society, and he does not make his own rules either. There is an oft-cited maxim for a good life “Follow your heart”. Raju symbolizes that maxim. And the story is a brilliantly dramatised account of how that maxim actually plays out. The free spirited man without a guiding principle becomes a tool for others – all through his life. First, as a railway guide, visiting places he is not interested in visiting, because others are interested in visiting them. Then, as a partner with Rosie, promoting art that he doesn’t really understand or appreciate, because the object of his love appreciates it. And finally as a holy man, proclaiming beliefs he does not hold, because others hold them. His entire life is shaped by other people’s decisions. There are two other important characters in the story – Rosie and Marco. Both know what they want, are passionate about it, and work tirelessly toward it without compromising. And both achieve their dreams. Marco publishes a book, Rosie becomes a dancer.

There is no short-cut to happiness. Those who mindlessly abide by second-hand beliefs do not achieve it. Narayan doesn’t even bother with them. But those who mindlessly reject the second-hand beliefs do not achieve it either. And that, to me is the meaning of this story.

Thank you, Sachin

“Poetry,” wrote Aristotle, “is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.”

A similar argument may be made for sport. Sport reduces life to its essentials and expresses its fundamentals in their purest form. Just as poetry expresses the universal through particular characters, sport expresses fundamentals through the actions of individual sportsmen. But unlike the characters in poetry, who are after all, mere figments of the poet’s imagination, the sportsmen are real. Sport then, is likely to fall short of poetry in its power to inspire, to embody the values of life. Perfection and purity is easier to achieve in poetry than in the life of a sportsman.

But once in a while, a sportsman comes along to prove that the difficult is not impossible, that a single-minded dedication can be maintained, that ability can be turned into excellence, that consistency can triumph over uncertainty. And such a sportsman transcends the sport, lends it meaning, makes it real.

Sachin Tendulkar is such a sportsman, and I am fortunate to have grown up at a time when my values could be shaped and sustained by the example of his greatness.

Thank you, Sachin.

When a person becomes a statistic

I woke up today morning, picked up the newspaper and read the headline “Yet another Andhraite shot in US” or something like that. I browsed through the other headlines before reading the report itself. The face staring back at me was that of a former colleague – a person who worked for my company for over  an year.

After the initial shock, I turn to Times of India’s website for more details. There is a video on the page. Clicking it plays an advertisement before the actual content. I scroll down to the bottom of the page for other linked reports. There is a link saying “Do you like this story?”

Story. Yes. Story. That is what it is to us. That is the state of the world we live in and the extent to which we are de-sensitized. Everyday we see reports of crimes – murders, rapes, whatnot. We read them, sigh, and move on. These reports stay in our minds for not more than the few seconds it takes to read them. Not even enough time to think: “It won’t happen to me or to someone I know”. And then one day it does. And it is only then that the mind pauses to think.

After all the progress we have made over the centuries – and I don’t mean to belittle it, we have indeed made progress – a human life still does not mean to us what it should. A human life is sacred. It is the very source of the concept. And yet the loss of a human life is just a statistic, an abstract event that fails to move us unless the event hits home. As the headline goes “Yet another…”.

We have come a long way from the insane violence that used to be commonplace. But we still have a long way to go.

A poetic expression of a lack of purpose

Ye lamha filhaal jee lene de (Translation: Let me savour this moment for now)

This line came to my mind today at work (for a reason that I will leave unexplained) and I decided to look up the lyrics of the whole song after I got home. Here are a few lines. The lyricist is Gulzar.

maasoom si hasi bewaja hi kabhi
hoton pe khil jaati hai
(An innocent smile lights up my lips occasionally for no reason)

anjaan si khushi behti huvi kabhi
saahil pe mil jaati hai
(I find an unknown happiness, drifting away, occasionally stopping at the shore)

yeh anjaana sa darr ajnabee hai magar
khoobsurat hai ji lene de
(This unknown fear is a stranger, but it is beautiful, let me experience it)

yeh lamha filhaal ji lene de
(Let me savour this moment for now)
yeh lamha filhaal ji lene de

dil hi mein rehta hai aankhon mein behtha hai
kachcha sa ek khwaab hai
(It stays in my heart, flows in my eyes, this young dream of mine)

lagta sawal hai shayad jawab hai
dil phir bhi betaab hai
(It seems to be a question, it is perhaps an answer, but my heart is still eager)

yeh sukoon hai to hai
yeh junoon hai to hai
khoobsurat hai ji lene de
(This may be peace or it may be madness, it is beautiful, let me live it)

yeh lamha filhaal ji lene de
(Let me savour this moment for now)
yeh lamha filhaal ji lene de

The lyrics are deeply disturbing. They describe the mental state of a person, who does not know what he is doing, what he is experiencing, why he is experiencing it, but wants to savour it. The mental state of a person without purpose trying to find some meaning to life by “living in the present”. I was hoping to find a poetic expression of my state of mind but this is most definitely not it. Sigh.

Happiness – Short term and long term

…A person has to be happy in two ways at the same time to really be happy. There must be happiness found in the everyday things you do, and there must be the happiness of achieving long term values. Happiness depends on finding a balance. If I truly hate the stuff I am doing now to achieve a long term value, then I haven’t chosen the right long term value. If a goal is really the right one, the path should be a happy one to walk….

From a comment on this post by Kelly Elmore. Very well said.

The essence of life

Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.
—Ayn Rand, “Atlas Shrugged” (End of Galt’s speech)

It is a sense of enormous expectation, the sense that one’s life is important, that great achievements are within one’s capacity, and that great things lie ahead.
—Ayn Rand, Introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of “The Fountainhead”

This view is the essence of life. It is what makes life worth living. It is a precondition of all values. As Rand writes “It is only the concept of life that makes the concept of value possible”.  This view of life is part of the ‘concept of life’ here. Retaining this view throughout life requires that one always examine and understand one’s desires as precisely as possible and act to achieve them. Having a desire and not acting to achieve it is the most damaging thing one can do.

Science and philosophy – 1

A couple of days back, in a comment on this video, I wrote

Unfortunately because of the philosophy of logical positivism, most scientists today are afraid or unwilling to accept the necessity of metaphysics at all.

Today, I started reading a book “dreams of a final theory” by Steven Weinberg. Early on in the book, he writes

Speaking of a final theory, a thousand questions and clarifications crowd into the mind. What do we mean by one scientific principle ‘explaining’ another? How do we know that there is a common starting point for all such explanations? Will we ever discover that point? How close are we now? What will the final theory be like? What will it say about life and consciousness? And, when we have our final theory, what will happen to science and to the human spirit?

A few pages later, explaining what the pursuit of a final theory means, he starts with “Chalk is white. Why?” Some answers (light, wavelengths etc.) and then another “why”. Some more answers (atomic structure, energy levels etc.) and then another “why” and so on until he comes to a point where he does not know the answers. Finally, he writes,

Even so, it is a tricky business to say exactly what one is doing when one answers such a question. Fortunately, it is not really necessary.

and then, a few paragraphs later,

Ludwig Wittgenstein, denying even the possibility of explaining any fact on the basis of any other fact, warned that ‘at the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.’ Such warnings leave me cold. To tell a physicist that the laws of nature are not explanations of natural phenomena is like telling a tiger stalking prey that all flesh is grass. The fact that we scientists do not know how to state in a way that philosophers would approve what it is that we are doing in searching for scientific explanations does not mean that we are not doing something worthwhile. We could use help from professional philosophers in understanding what it is that we are doing, but with or without their help we shall keep at it.

As an engineer, I can certainly sympathize with what Weinberg is saying. Philosophers such as Wittgenstein have betrayed science (and philosophy). But that is not a good enough reason for scientists to abandon philosophy. Proper science needs a solid base in philosophy. I dare say that without an explicit (philosophical) understanding of what “searching for scienific explanations” means, scientists will not discover a final theory. I think science has reached a level (based on some reading of quantum mechanics) from where it cannot proceed without answering some fundamental questions that are not just scientific.

Anyhow this is a fascinating subject, and I will return to it often. I have been fascinated by this subject for about an year now, and have been reading some books off and on when I find time. So far I have not written on this subject, because I do not like to write unless I have a clear idea of what I am writing. But it seems unlikely that I will find answers to questions like this without a lot of thinking. So I intend to think by putting my thoughts on this blog instead of doing it before going to sleep.

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