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Let Me Think

Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the legendary Pakistani Urdu poet, wrote some of his best poems during the four years he was imprisoned in the early 1950’s. During this period, he maintained close correspondence with his wife, Alys. Some of these letters were published after his death, and are of literary excellence in their own right. I attempted to translate an excerpt from one of his letters to Alys.

You say that our philosophy is flawed in that ill-intentioned people can twist it to suit their agenda, resulting in turmoil. You are quite right. If such people could see reason, they would not behave unreasonably in the first place. In that case, there would also be no point in trying to help them understand either. But if they are not ready to see reason, should we just give up on them? Should we just let them sleepwalk into hell? I agree that this is what a sensible person would do, for his sanity and comfort. But there is a tiny fraction of people who feel obliged to intervene and to help. For the most part, this turns out to be a futile effort.

So the question then is what’s the point in trying to help people who do not want to be helped? I can only speak for myself. I believe that there is hardly anyone who is intrinsically evil. (Remember, we are talking about individuals, not political parties!). We all carry in ourselves different proportions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. This proportion fluctuates in our younger years, but later becomes fixed and stable. I believe, however, that it is possible to alter this proportion, even if temporararily so. This is possible only through love and friendship—not by force and compulsion. But, again, does taking all these pains result in anything meaningful? Mostly not—but sometimes, yes sometimes!

There is a point to ponder,
Let me think for a bit!
In this garden (which is worse than a desert now),
Which branch was the first to get flowers?
Which one lost its colour even before sorrows struck?
And when was the last time this place was hit by the drought of blood,
when the flowers lost all their colour?

There is a point to ponder,
Let me think for a bit,
In this city full of life (which is worse than wilderness now),
When did the fire first break out?
Through which of its shut windows
did the sun rays use to shine?
Where did the candles use to burn?

Let me think,
You ask me about a land,
The history or geography of which I do not remember,
And what is there to remember,
I try to avoid, like an estranged love.
Even if I do indulge in those memories,
It is nothing more than a mindless love affair.

I am at a stage where,
I meet my own heart with such detachment,
Yet, you ask me about my heart,
There is a point to ponder,
Let me think!

The PhD Hunt

I am beginning to warm up to what I call the PhD Hunt.

There are two modes to approach the PhD research topic at the admission stage. (Note: This is a very broad and generalised classification, which varies across countries and universities.) In the first mode, you send your application material to a bunch of universities and figure out your research topic when/if you get admission. The second mode is when you already have some ideas about the research topics you want to work on during your PhD. This can be tricky, because the pool of potential PhD advisers shrinks proportionally with how well-defined your research interests are. Moreover, the ones you choose may not have time or interest to work with you.

PhD advisers need to gauge applicants for their research potential. Having prior research experience helps a great deal, especially in the second mode. Of course, good grades and reference letters also strengthen your case. However, before all of that you have to approach a potential adviser and express your interest in doing PhD under their supervision. Now this last part is where things get a bit interesting. Conferences present a great opportunity to facilitate the PhD hunt. During coffee and lunch breaks, start scanning for potential advisers like Barney with his predator vision. Once the target has been identified, humbly convince him/her of your awesomeness.

So this is the dilemma—and the clock is ticking, the PhD application deadline is approaching and my research proposal is still not ready! This motivated me to write two research proposals corresponding to the awesome and humble parts of me. Meanwhile, I will continue to search for a sweet spot.

The Awesome PhD Candidate

The Not-So-Awesome PhD Candidate

Arriving in Berkeley

I arrived in California a day before yesterday on the 29th of July. My first impression was: Everything is so bright and sunny! My second impression was: It’s not as warm here as I thought, I should buy a hoodie. Ali, Usman and Mobin came to pick me up at the airport, and we drove around San Francisco. I loved the Golden Gate Bridge—it is grand and beautiful! We took some pictures there. I don’t look very nice in the pictures, thanks to a combination of jet lag and the cold, harsh Bay Area wind.

Today was my first day at the International Computer Science Institution (ICSI), my new workplace where I will be doing an internship. ICSI is home to some of the brightest Network Security researchers. I have read their papers and watched their presentations with great interest in the past. I was really excited to meet them in person. I did not have much work to do today, so I just did an operation ‘computer tidy-up and organise’. I am now ready to start working on my new project!

On the fifteen minutes walk back home, I was thinking about the great researchers I met earlier and what it would be like to work with them. Frankly, it seems a bit intimidating. Carrying a heavy backpack over my tired shoulders, I kept walking, contemplating the situation at each block.

Center Street: “I know C/C++, but I have never worked on C/C++ software this large.”
Addison Street: “The guy with whom I’ll be sharing office had some very impressive books on his shelf. I should have at least skimmed over Donald Knuth’s books on computer programming.”
University Avenue: “But that guy is close to finishing his PhD, and I am fresh out of grad school, this comparison makes no sense.”
Berkeley Way: With the kind of schedule PhD students have, there is little hope I will finish Knuth’s books in the next 5 years.”
Hearst Avenue: “Why did Donald Knuth have to write three volumes of the book?”
Delaware Street: “I type with two fingers, my typing speed is very slow.”
Picasso Street: “That’s just silly, this is not a typing competition.”

When I reached my house, I stopped at the footsteps and looked back. It was a rather long walk from office to home, especially with the heavy backpack (due to unnecssary items). Yesterday, I had a back pain, thanks to the backpack. Today, I struggled a bit but it did not feel as heavy. Tomorrow, it will be hardly noticeable. I did not enjoy coming to Berkeley when I first arrived, because this is the first time I am living alone. To my mind everyone on the street appeared a bit dodgy, and at night I recalled all the horror movies I had watched in my life. But last night I slept well, though I kept the light on. Tonight, there is a good chance that I will turn off the light.

The one thing I know for sure is that I do not give up. And therefore, I will get there eventually (even though I type with two fingers!).

نہ شود نصب دشمن، کہ شود ہلاک تیغت
سر دوستاں سلامت، کہ تو خنجر آزمائی

Why should my enemies be so fortunate to become your victims?
I am alive and ready,
So spin your sabres and sharpen your daggers, O Killer.

(by Fakhr al-dīn Ibrahīm ‘Irāqī)

Pretences

One of the perks of being ‘human’ is that one can lead a life of pretence, by manipulating and suppressing facts. In fact, it is possible for a single person to keep multiple pretences tailoured to different situations. Mostly, the pretence is an aspired version of oneself. Sometimes, the pretence is crafted so as to generate a desired behavior or perception in the target person. It is hard to see through pretences, especially in limited social interactions where we can only see what we are shown.

About ten years ago, I was caught in a curious case of ‘cross-pretences’. One fine morning at school, our teacher introduced us to a new student, Aisha, whose family had recently moved from Swat to Peshawar. Aisha joined my study group, and soon we became great friends. Aisha seemed to really enjoy talking about her family. This was initially endearing, but soon grew rather repetitive. The gist of all the family-talk was that Aisha was very special to her family, and they did everything they could to ensure her happiness and well-being.

One day, Aisha proudly said, “Do you know when I go back home from school, my mother asks me about my day and she listens to everything I have to share, no matter how long”. Annoyed, I replied, “When I go back home, no one notices because both my parents work and come home late from work”. Unexpectedly, this ‘revelation’ had a profound effect and elicited her sympathy. She wanted to know more about my family. Amused by her sympathy, I told her fabricated stories of my parents’ troubled relationship, portraying myself as a victim. Aisha was impressed by my ‘bravery’ and maintaining a good academic record despite a troubled family background. Frankly, I felt a bit like Superman when he first discovered his superhuman qualities. Of course, none of what I told Aisha about my family was true. I had a perfectly normal and happy family life. But the impact my little, casual lies had on Aisha was strangely entertaining to me, so I carried on with the pretence.

A few months later, Aisha suddenly left the school without any notice. I tried to call her several times but there was no answer. About a week after her ‘disappearance’, I requested my mother to drive me to Aisha’s house. I had never been to her house before, and we got her address from the school record after a lot of explanations and reassurances. As we approached her house, it became clear that everything she had said about her large house in a beautiful neighbourhood was false. The streets became narrower and narrower, until we decided to park the car and walk the remaining distance. Standing next to a row of tiny, dilapidated houses barely suitable or safe for human habitation, I began to wonder if the school might have handed us a wrong address by mistake. Just when I was mentally debating whether we should return, I caught a glance of Aisha through the thin piece of cloth that hung down one of the doors supposedly providing some form of privacy to those who inhabited the house. I almost walked in, but stopped when I heard the loud exchange of expletives between a man and a woman (probably Aisha’s parents) inside the house. As my mother and I stood in stunned silence, a passerby (possibly their neighbour) commented, “The usual show these two put on for their six children to watch and for the rest of the world to hear. What a circus!”.

On our way back, I thought about our pretences. Mine was a luxury, I did not need it. Aisha’s pretence was necessary, she needed to cling on to some sort of fantasy to keep her sanity. I did not meet Aisha that day. In fact, we did not meet ever again. I let her revel in the idea that she once had a friend who believed that she was very special to her family, and they did everything they could to ensure her happiness and well-being.

Keeping it Real

Conventionally, people’s ability to distinguish between reality and non-reality is strongly linked with their mental soundness.

When we are young, these boundaries are not so well-defined. Children often have imaginary playmates. Some of those playmates may even have fixed identities and features. It is also quite common for children to experience vivid dreams and nightmares. When we grow up, as a result of parental and social conditioning, we begin to partition the world into three main areas: Reality, Imagination, and Dreams. We still experience all the three areas, but maintain strict differentiation. For example, J.K. Rowling may be celebrated for her “Harry Potter” fantasy series, but if she suggests believing in any part of her imagination as real, society would label her as delusional. Imagination is easier to determine though, because imagined experiences are less vivid—one cannot feel physical pain just by imagining being run over by a truck. Dreams are more complicated, because all our senses of vision, hearing, smell, touch and taste might be involved. On what basis then do we draw a clear line between dreams and reality?

I think that our belief that an experience is ‘real’ is reinforced by consistency along two dimensions:

  • Feedback Consistency: If other people confirm what we experience.
  • Temporal Consistency: Repeated experiences over time with the same actors and objects.

When there is a conflict between the two, feedback consistency often takes precedence. If we draw circles around people’s heads representing their perceived realities, then we may get a ‘collective reality’ corresponding to the area with the highest overlap.

Now consider the possiblity that this collective reality might just be a figment of the imagination of an alien in another galaxy. Alternatively, it might just be a bubble in the head of someone committed to a mental institution for digressing from our established rules of ‘reality’.

Spring

‘Spring’ has been an inspiration for poets of all languages and backgrounds, but its treatment in Urdu poetry is quite peculiar and interesting.

Urdu poetry is highly metaphoric. Nightingale (bulbul) represents a lover (aashiq), while the beloved (mashooq) is a flower (gul). The heart (dil) encompasses tenderness and impatience, while the liver (jigar) stands for pain and perseverance. The collar of a shirt (garebaan) represents dignity, which sadly always ends up getting torn in the case of lovers (ushaaq). The lover and the beloved themselves are symbolic references, that extend to anyone who sincerely seeks a person or a purpose.

Spring is a very special time in Urdu poetry. While the rest of the world celebrates the arrival of color and fragrance, great melancholy descends over the Urdu lover. The beauty of Spring kindles a longing to be with the lost beloved. Red flowers are particularly notorious, because they cause the lover’s heart to bleed (literally!).

I created a collection of Urdu poetry on this theme, and made an attempt at translation. Translation of poetry from its original language is like looking at the shadow of fire, or the reflection of moon in water. But it’s still something, which is of course better than nothing.

Faiz Meets Meer

In the second semester of my undergrad degree, during a lecture the teacher, Mr. Alvi, recited a line from a poem by the legendary modern Urdu poet Faiz. Specifically, the line was: Hum aa gaye to garmi-e-bazaar dekhna. The situation that led Mr. Alvi to recite this line is very interesting. A group of students who always skipped Mr. Alvi’s lectures made a surprise entry one day towards the end of his lecture. I will always remember how he smiled at them, calmly read the line from Faiz’s poem, and continued his lecture. The line means: “See how the bazaar lights up when I enter”.

The lecture had been and gone, but the line recited by Mr. Alvi got stuck in my head. At his next lecture, I requested Mr. Alvi to share title of the poem with me. To my utter disappointment, he did not remember the poem or the poet! I searched up the poem online with no success. A few days later, the line was still with me like a puzzle, so I sifted through Kulliyat-e-Faiz (Complete works of Faiz). After about an hour, I found it. Joy!

Six years later, today I was reading poetry by the classical Urdu poet Meer, and came across a poem that took me back to Faiz’s poem recited by Mr. Alvi. Although separated by more than a century, the two poems perfectly match in rhythm and metre (in Urdu, bahr, qafia and radeef). I don’t know if it’s a case of inspiration or serendipity, but I’m exhilirated by the discovery!

Faiz

Meer

Birds, Fireflies and Liquefiable Creativity

Basking in the sun on a lazy autumn afternoon can do strange things. For example, it may wake up dormant aspirations—like birds, they flutter their wings, and soar up in the blue skies. It was on such an afternoon that my friend (and work colleague), Mustafa, decided to visit me for tea. I knew Mustafa from our boarding school days, where the seeds of our friendship were first planted ten years ago. It is said wine gets better with time, that holds for friendship too.

Punctual as always, Mustafa arrived at 3:00 pm as promised. We exhausted all the usual topics (current affairs, politics, health, relationships etc.). A few hours and three cups of tea later, there wasn’t much left to talk about. We just sat there in comfortable silence, sipping the almost cold tea. Suddenly, Mustafa brought up the subject of dreams which led to an interesting conversation.


Mustafa: “Remember our ‘chase-the-fireflies’ game from summer evenings at the boarding school? I feel we never stopped playing that game.”

Me: “I could see it coming, the poignant mood.”

Mustafa: “It’s true though, think about it. We have already spent half our lives, and intend to spend the remaining, trying to achieve something that seems charming and luminous like those fireflies. We catch it and tuck it under our pillows, only to find out the next morning that it was nothing but an ordinary insect. Each morning, we make a resolution that this time we will find the real firefly, but it’s the ordinary insect that sleeps under our pillows night after night. This futile pursuit stretches over our entire lives, and eventually we die with the image of the luminous firefly engraved in our lifeless eyes. Tell me honestly, why do we do our dull jobs at this dreary bank?”

Me: “Of course because they compensate us handsomely, if anyone makes us a better offer I’m sure we’d give it a serious consideration.”

Mustafa: “That is not the point, what I really wanted to ask is that what does this job do for us that other jobs don’t?”

Me: “Well, as far as I know we are both good at numbers.”

Mustafa: “If someone is good at painting walls, this does not mean they want to pursue it professionally.”

Me: “It’s a balance between what you’re good at and how much you get paid for offering your services.”

Mustafa: “Being good at something does not imply that you like it too. So the question then is what’s the tipping point where people trade their ‘love-to-dos’ for ‘good-ats’?”

Me: “But that’s the irony of creativity, isn’t it? Look at all the painters, poets, writers, musicians. Only few of them with some combination of exceptional talent and good luck see financial abundance, most of them don’t do very well despite great talent.”

Mustafa: “I think it boils down to what I call Liquefiable Creativity: The potential of a creative output to be commercialized. This of course depends on what society considers as valuable. For example, in our times being creative in ‘productizable’ technology translates very well financially—they call it being an entrepreneur. In comparison, being highly creative in writing poetry in an extinct language can only get you so far financially.”

Me: “Well, money is important. It’s not fun writing poems in a cave with one’s children crying for food.”

Mustafa: “That’s greatly exaggerated, try to improve it a bit.”

Me: “How about being a poet and living in a smaller house in the less expensive suburbs, living a modest and happier life doing what you love?”

Mustafa: “Interesting, but I want to keep all the nice things that the dull job at the dreary bank lets me have, so I guess I’ll just carry on. The bank made a good investment for sure, they quoted an excellent price for my services and my dreams.”


It was getting late and cold. It had been half an hour since Mustafa left, but I continued to sit in my garden reflecting on our earlier conversation. It was near dusk. The sky was crowded by birds returning to their nests after a hard day at work, against a backdrop of orange and red sunset. Just when I was about to go inside the house, I noticed a lonely firefly in the hedge. With one swift movement, I caught the firefly in my hand and marveled at its glow. After a few fleeting moments, I let go of the firefly. My mind had caught a glimpse of true light, and there was no way I could be fooled by an ordinary insect pretending to be a firefly—at least not that evening.

Present

You sit by the sea all day long
Sifting heaps of sand,
Through a broken sieve.

You shuffle through the heavens,
And dig down to the earth’s heart,
Searching for your own shadow.

You look for what is not,
And that which is,
To you means naught.

Year after year,
Your barren pursuit continues
As I look on with detached amusement.

I am your present;
The future that would never be,
The past that died before it was born.

– by Shehar Bano (Islamabad, Pakistan. January 2012)

Between Black and White

Rigid notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ deny other humans their right to commit ‘mistakes’, overlooking the possibility that we ourselves might have been mistaken in defining what constitutes a mistake.

Belittling contradictory views is essentially a defense-by-offense mechanism to self-validate. However, it is possible to honour and uphold one’s values without feeling threatened by opposing views. The courage to face and accept incongruent opinions can open our eyes to the thousands of colors that occupy the space between black and white, between labels and judgements.

To quote Rumi (from “The Essential Rumi”, a compilation of his poems translated by Coleman Barks):

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.”

The Blind Merchant

How does it feel when circumstances force you to transact your glorious, meticulously crafted vision with people who don’t have the capacity to appreciate what’s essentially priceless?

The frustration of a lonely dreamer have been captured beautifully in the Urdu poem Andha Kabari by the Pakistani modern Urdu poet Noon Meem Rashid. Here is my attempt at translation:

In the dark recesses of this city,
dwell dreams, tired and stranded;
I walk through these streets
to collect dreams,
Dreams, that I bake in the furnace of my heart,
till the dust of time crumbles down their rusty form
and they are rekindled like the passion in lovers’ hearts.

With the first rays of dawn,
I set up a stall of dreams, and chant:
“Dreams for sale, dreams for sale”!
“Real or fake?”, Like seasoned appraisers,
customers ask.
Not that I created these dreams,
I merely revive them, and trade in them.

Dusk sets in;
Exhausted, I chant one last time:
“Dreams of gold, for free”;
Customers stop, dazed;
Among themselves they whisper,
“Must be a scheme, and the dreams he sells, all flawed,
Down with the dreams of a blind merchant”!

A day of futile bargaining draws to an end;
Lugging a heavy heart and a load of dreams,
I return to my abode,
Muttering through the night:
“Dreams for sale,
Dreams along with their worth,
My dreams,
D-r-eam-ssssssssssss”.

Inflation and The Moon

Islamabad, Pakistan.
January, 2012.
(Written during a period of frequent nationwide fuel shortages.)

When the alarm clock beeped for the fifth time, to my absolute dismay, I realized that I was running terribly late for a meeting at work! I sprang up, got myself in a more presentable shape and made a dash for the car. It wasn’t long before I remembered that it was Wednesday and the CNG (the popular, less expensive fuel alternative to petrol and diesel) stations would be closing for three days starting Thursday. I went through the day’s schedule in my head to see if I could somehow squeeze in the CNG-filling ritual. The answer was sadly negative, but the prospect of ending up having to use the more expensive petrol or diesel outweighed all counter-arguments, and I headed for the CNG station.

I could see a painfully long queue of cars even from afar. While waiting for my turn, I could hear people discussing the tidal wave of inflation that had rocked the country. I learnt that petrol price was speculated to be raised by 10% the next week, while CNG cost would rise by 8%. Things proceeded at a gingerly pace and by the time I reached my office, I was positively 20 minutes late. Going up the stairs to the office, my mind leaved through a compilation of exquisite, hand-picked excuses that I save for such occasions. After an expected embarassing exchange of excuses and a mild telling-off from my boss, the meeting carried on with its pointless agenda made to seem important.

The meeting was followed by an hour of work, followed by the lunch break. When I handed 85 rupees to the cafeteria boy for my favourite burger, he announced with a wide grin that the burger’s new price was 100 rupees. Surprised, I protested: “But its price already rose by 15 rupees only two weeks ago!”. He replied: “Sorry, but we can’t help it, there is just too much inflation”. I cosidered the situation for a bit, and decided against getting the burger. I ordered the cheaper option of daal with naan, and congratulated myself for saving 50 rupees. Over lunch, I heard my colleagues chat about the expected increase in energy price next month. None of this ‘news’ stirred any strong reaction in me any more, as it followed a predictable pattern. Commodity bills swelled on monthly basis, followed by media outlash, followed by the indifferent inaction, Repeat.

Lunch was followed by more uninspiring work. By the time it was time to leave for home, I was completely drained of my energy. Exhausted, I approached my car in the parking area eager to reach home, force down some food in the name of dinner and get some much needed sleep. On my way out, I saw a new notice announcing that the monthly charges for the parking area would increase by 100 rupees next month. I wanted to engage in a furious argument with the management of the parking area about how unreasonable and unfair it was to do so when the charges had already been raised by 50 rupees just a month ago. However, common sense and a general lack of energy advised against picking up a battle that I had very slim chances of winning.

On my way back home, I had a vision: Invisible dollar signs falling from the sky, followed by a downpour of question mark signs. Just when I took the turn towards my street, I saw a sight so beautiful I had to pull up the car by the roadside to fully appreciate it. The pale, crescent moon was perched quietly on top of tall pine trees. On that late winter evening, there was no sign of life whatsoever on the quiet street. And yet, the surroundings seemed to have come alive to celebrate the splendour of the magnificent moon. I feasted my eyes on this perfect picture of serenity for a while, before I moved on. As I drifted off to sleep that night, I wondered: What would be the price of moon if it were in the discretionary power of us humans to put a price tag on it?