Sunday, October 24, 2010

Lessons from Africa

I started writing this post sometime in August towards the end of my vacation in Tanzania. But somehow, I forgot about it and it was only a couple of days back I happened to open and read the half completed article on my computer. I seemed to be in a writing mood a few hours back and, here’s a new blog post.

I grew up in Tanzania, a country on the east coast of Africa. It was my home for most of my childhood; but I never bothered then, to know more about its political and economic history, let alone that of other countries in Africa. Maybe I was too young. Maybe I could hardly have been bothered by such weighty issues. But, more importantly, I had no easy access to the fourth estate to learn about the latest developments outside my own protected setting.

I was oblivious to every political and economic development or stagnation that happened around me. I missed the Rwandan genocide. I missed the Al-Qaeda bombings in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam. I hadn’t even heard of blood diamonds. I was too young to know about the significance of apartheid and of Nelson Mandela’s heroic role in its abolition. I hardly noticed the bad roads, the lack of water and the unrelenting power cuts. But I enjoyed cricket and soccer with my friends, the cartoons and of course the safaris. I was fascinated by the Masai Culture in East Africa and found their tribal dances mesmerizing to watch. I enjoyed my stay there with my friends and had lots of fun.

In hindsight, I guess that was a good thing. If that was the internet age and I had access to different articles on Africa, particularly in the western media, I too would have gained the impression that Africa is a failed continent that requires outsiders to save it, in spite of everything seeming so hunky-dory from my perch. After all, I was at a highly impressionable age then and any opinion that I formed would have stuck with me forever. So as I shifted back to India for my high school I only carried good memories about Africa in general.

Then, the world changed. Access to internet became more of a rule than an exception. I started, casually, reading about the political history of the continent, about Idi Amin and Mugabe, about the mass genocide in Rwanda and I was left wondering if my soft spot for the continent was misplaced. Then in early 2010 I found many articles about the up coming Rwandan elections and through the articles and the various comments following it, the general perception that one could gather was that Rwanda was a failed democracy, not very much unlike Idi Amin’s Uganda and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. It seemed that the incumbent President and his party were politically maneuvering to disbar candidates from opposition parties for the election. This was most disheartening considering that during my recent visit to the country I was most impressed by its development post-1994. That experience coupled with my soft spot for Africa had made me believe that African countries can develop by it’s own merit. Now, that belief was wavering.

Then, sometime in August 2010, a week or so after the Rwandan general elections (no surprises that Paul Kagame was re-elected by a huge margin), I happened to visit my relatives in the country for a few days and had reasonably lengthy conversations, albeit one sided, with my cousin about the ground realities in the country as opposed to the news doing rounds outside. That’s when an opinion started taking seed inside me, something that does not really hold the west in good stead in my mind and of course something that satiates my soft spot for Africa.

I am not going into the details of the conversation I had (to be honest I don’t really remember), but in essence it centered around how the ‘disbarred’ candidate that the western media was so ostentatiously flaunting was inherently playing ethnic politics in the pre-election campaign which in my opinion is detrimental to the interests of any country. (Just to clarify, the fact that this candidate could not contest the 2010 elections, supposedly, has nothing to do with the campaign; but the party just did not meet the deadline to submit election papers. Of course this can be interpreted in multiple ways and I am no expert about the politics of Africa and it would be pretentious on my part to delve into this further).

So, here is my only lesson from my latest visit to the continent during which unfortunately I could go on no safaris and could not enjoy the visual treat that Africa is.

Always take reports in the western media about Africa with a pinch of salt. The stereotype about the place is that of a failed continent that requires outsiders to save it. When any country breaks away from the norm and tries to grow by its own merit, the media prefers to crush it down, to find something to denigrate the success of Africa, whatever little it may have had.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Dreams, Parallel Universes and Alternate Realities - 4

... Contd. from “Dreams, Parallel Universes and Alternate Realities - 3” ... If you want to see a dream again but this time control it to your liking, then go to sleep thinking about the dream along with a rough alternate storyline based on what you wish to see.

Now, I wanted to try that out asap. I thought of shooting and killing the whale, as I slowly drifted into the subconscious...

A deep fear fills me as I stand over an edge and look down the steep slope. I can’t ski down that. Yes, It’s not that far down, but I can’t go further with the skis on. What if I hurt myself? I can hardly do a “Green” slope without falling over even once. Should I find another way down? I turn left to look at the map and I see Bharath (a friend from NITC) coming down the slope behind me.

He jumps over the steep section but lands awkwardly. He loses balance as he falls over. He tumbles over the slope and finally rests face down just a couple of feet away from the edge of the cliff. He’s not moving. I can’t go down there to see if he is ok. I panic. I need to get help.

Out of the blue, my brother, on a snowboard, comes down over my left shoulder, negotiates the slope with ease and stops near Bharath like a pro. I shout out to him, “Call the paramedics. I will see if I can get help from up here.” (Apologies Bharath, if you are reading this. I don’t know if my subconscious wanted to hurt you or help you. No offense, please.)

I run off towards a hole in the wall on my left. As I go through, I hear the paramedics saying something. I only catch the words, “vision”, “problem”, “ glasses” and “power 2.5”. I reach the other side of the wall. I am on a corridor. It looks like the one in C-Hostel, NITC, the one near my old room (C-124). I reach the new section of the hostel and go towards the first open room. There are people inside. I shout out for help. Many people come out. I recognize Johnu and Dileep. I am trying to say something but it seems like they can’t hear me, or is it that they don’t care? I am surrounded now. I am frantically waving my hands in the air, trying to direct their attention to the wall I crossed to get here and also to find someone with power-2.5 glasses. (Actually, I have glasses of power 2.5). I recognize Pai in the crowd. He has a disinterested look on his face or rather he looks like he is pissed off at something I did. I look away from him as I black out ...

... I am standing on the snow capped slope. This time I am facing away from the steep section that earlier scared me. I have a machine gun in my hand and I am shooting up the slope. I am wearing military uniform and I seem to be in some kind of war. “I need to get away from here”, I think, as I run towards the wall with a hole. I go through the hole, hide on the other side of the wall and throw a bomb towards the slope. I think of “Napalm” while doing this. A group of 4-5 people also in military uniform, but those who felt like the enemy, run through the hole trying to escape the impending explosion.

The bomb goes off and I run back towards the slope. “I need to escape before they call the bluff and get back”, I think as I run on snow, covered with turmeric, towards the steep section. This time I just jump down, take a U-turn and start climbing a slope that runs parallel to the one I just came down from. I am halfway up when I meet 3 more people in uniform. I can’t recognize their faces but they are holding a map of India. One of them shows me where we currently are and that’s somewhere near Goa. We make a plan to keep running up the slope till we reach Gujarat. We start up the slope ...

... I am walking towards my lab. I think, “If you want to see a dream again but this time control it to your liking, then go to sleep thinking about the dream.” Ya, right! Only the shooting part came right. I stop at the photo-board outside the Rensselaer Nanotechnology center. My photo is not on it and one of the girls in my research group is wrongly listed as an undergrad. “That’s not possible. I am still in a dream.” I look around, make sure there’s no one and slap myself twice ...

Dreams, Parallel Universes and Alternate Realities - 3

It felt like home. There was the television on the far left corner and the dvd player below it. There was the blue colored divan on my right and the door to my grandmother’s room in front. My grandma was standing on my left and behind me was my uncle. At the same time something felt out of place.

I looked down and I was standing on a motorboat with a gun in my hand. Over to my left a giraffe’s head bobbed out of the water. My uncle started shooting at it with a shotgun but to no avail. Amidst all the gunfire, my grandma was talking to me. I couldn’t hear her completely but was able to make out the words “evil”, “giraffe”, “whale” and “terrorizing”.

Then I spot something moving fast under the boat. It was huge, a whale I presume. My uncle also seemed to have noticed it as he started shooting into the water. As soon as the boat reached the entrance to my grandma’s room, I jumped out onto solid ground and started shooting at the whale. 6 shots! Empty! I noticed I had another gun in my left hand. “ I have to conserve this. We have a long night ahead of us”, I thought as the boat sped away into the open sea.

I open my eyes. I am lying face down on a mattress on the floor of my grandma’s room. When did I fall asleep? Was I dreaming about the whale? No way, it has to be real. I look up and turn left. Ammoomma, a lady who has been helping out my grandma with the household chores since around the time I was born, is squatting on the floor next to the divan. She is saying something and gesturing with her hands but I can’t hear her. There is a loud noise in the background. “It’s something about the whale, I am sure. I must turn the noise off so that I can hear her”, I think as I crawl over into the living room. The noise is from the television set. There’s something in the dvd player. I press the pause button but before I could ask her about the whale, I black out.

I open my eyes and I am again on the mattress. It’s morning now. I can hear my grandma in the kitchen. I walk through the living room into the kitchen.I ask my grandma , “Athine kittiyo?” (Did we catch it?). She replies in the negative, “Evidennu!”. I walk back to the mattress. I see a bed beside it and my uncle is sleeping on it. I fall onto the mattress below and close my eyes.

The online alarm went off at 7, as usual. I woke up in my room in Troy, NY, logged in to my computer and shut the alarm. I didn’t feel like going back to sleep. I browsed Facebook for a while and checked the latest cricket scores. I remembered what I had read about dreams a couple of days back. If you want to see a dream again but this time control it to your liking, then go to sleep thinking about the dream along with a rough alternate storyline based on what you wish to see.

Now, I wanted to try that out asap. I thought of shooting and killing the whale, as I slowly drifted into the subconscious...

Monday, July 26, 2010

Dreams, Parallel Universes and Alternate Realities - 2

Read “Dreams, Parallel Universes and Alternate Realities - 1” for a background on my 1st experience with a lucid dream.

I had just got back from a strenuous hike to Algonquin and Wright on the Adirondacks High peaks. These are definitely not the toughest of the High Peaks, but I still found them strenuous because the terrain of the trail was almost entirely rocky and in some stretches slippery as well. Slip, I did, plenty of times, but fortunately was always able to regain control before hurting myself.

In any case, I get back, watch a couple of movies including Shawshank Redemption, set the alarm on my phone for 7 a.m Sunday Morning, and drift off to sleep. The alarm goes off at 7 and as usual I switch it off and go back to sleep.

I am climbing a rocky face of a peak. It’s quite steep and I have to strain all the muscles in my body to pull myself up. There are two others with me. I can’t see their faces but just as in the previous dream, I don’t feel that they are strangers. I am trying to get to a building on top of the peak. I have this strange sense of impending danger and I seem to be on a mission to save someone who has been forcefully detained in the building. I don’t know who that someone is, but it must be someone I care for since I have this strong feeling of loss.

I am pulling myself up holding onto a protruding rock. One of my co-climbers is on the others side of the rock and I can see a waterfall beyond him. The second of my co-climbers is a little ahead of us and almost at the top of the peak. That’s when I slip. I hold onto the rock with just one hand, but I feel like my grip is loosening.

I suddenly find myself transported into the body of the climber who is almost at the top. I feel no sense of remorse for my friend who had just slipped. It was like the “new me” did not even know that two other climbers existed. (I would like to think of the three climbers to be the same person along different timelines in the same universe, each following a path based on the different decisions I could have made while climbing up the cliff. Just as I realized that my first timeline would result in my death, I had jumped into a different one. Of course, this may sound like a pile of bull but cut me some slack, this is after all, my dream and my journal).

In any case, I jump, hold onto a wooden fence, and pull myself onto the top of the peak and into the building. There I see my youngest cousin on my Mother’s side (Hari). I am not sure if it was him that I was trying to save, but I had no time to ponder about that. I had just seen the villain in the dream, someone I was feeling a great sense of revulsion to. (Strangely though, the “villain”, resembled the Malayalam movie star, Jayaram). I reach out and grab his throat. He doesn’t resist, but he mutters something I found very strange. “There is this old saying. A meow is always a meow, but an eliyah can be an eliyah or a puliyah.”

(What was that? Meow is easy to understand, but by eliyah and puliyah, if he meant eli(mouse in malayalam) and puli(tiger in malayalam), then where does the “-yah” come in? I must be becoming crazier by the day.)

I have this strange sense of deja vu as soon as I hear him say those words but I can’t recollect why. I suddenly feel something on my back and I find myself shirtless. I look over my shoulders I and see a rat clinging onto my back. It’s small claws were clamped onto my back and I was finding it difficult to pull it off. I start to panic. I call out “Hari, help me.”, only to find him transformed into a mouse. I was still gesturing towards it to fight off the “evil” rat on my back. Hari cringes and runs off to the corner of the room.

I somehow manage to pull the rat off my back. I am holding it in my hands as I ponder over what to do with it. (In the dream, I seem to go over three possibilities, one after the other.) First, I instinctively throw it away to a corner of the room and watch the rat scamper away. Then in an instance I am holding the rat again. This time I throw it over the cliff that I just climbed. It was still not done. This time, I walk to a corner of the room and throw the rat into the Falls. I think, “This time I have got rid of it permanently”, as I wake up.

Dreams, Parallel Universes and Alternate Realities - 1

It’s been almost a year since I last posted an article on this blog. Maybe I was too lazy to pen my thoughts or possibly I had no clue about what I should write on. In either case, I would like to think I kept myself busy over the last one year gaining new experiences so that one day something would strike that would rekindle the fire to write again.

Until it finally did after a small conversation with one of my room mates about dreams (actually part of a very long conversation about our mind and the universe) and my subsequent exposure to Inception, Donnie Darko, Being John Malkovich and Identity in one stretch. Maybe watching and later thinking about these movies have driven me crazy but on the plus side of things I finally get to write again. For the first time ever, over the last few days, I have started lucid dreaming.

And today it happened for the second time, and in both cases I was in the first stage of Dream Induced Lucid Dreaming, where I have no control over what is happening but still conscious that I am dreaming. That was when I started reading more about it and thought about making a dream journal. And so with that aim in mind, this post is the first part in a series of entries.

I am in a shower. The bathroom resembles the one in my current house in Troy. I remember that I have to hurry. I have a class at 8 in the morning. But wait, there are three others in the shower. I can’t see their faces but I don’t feel that they are strangers. I can see them,yes, but none of them seem to realize the existence of the others. All of them seem to be in their own unique universe.

I start thinking, did I suddenly get the power to view parallel universes? Or, are they characters from within my own subconscious, are they my own alternate identities? I had just watched Identity the previous night. Am I in some kind of medical treatment where my own identities are pitted against each other? I keep hoping it is the first of those options as I close my eyes in the shower.

I open them to find myself walking on a corridor towards a room. The corridor and the location of the room reminded me of my 5th Standard classroom in Indian School, Dar-es-Salaam. I open the door and I walk in. I see two people in the room. Their faces remind me of Abhijith and Sebastian (two people I knew in CVK and NITC respectively). They are already in the ISD uniform. I look at my watch. It is already a little past 8. They were waiting for me. I pack my bags and walk out again.

I find myself inside a cafe, which seems to a blend of two cafes in the RPI campus. I ask the lady at the counter for a coffee. I bend forward a little bit to take a look at all the goodies inside the shelf. I see a bagel and point at it while asking the lady to pack that too. She comes forward, opens a “door” to the shelf and mutters, “Do you really want me to do this?”, as she walks into a deep freeze that seems to have magically appeared in place of the shelf. I was a little disoriented by now and close my eyes again.

As I open my eyes, I am back in the room with Abhijith and Sebastian. They were still waiting for me but neither said a word. I take a look at my watch. It is 8.45 a.m. I think, we could, well, manage to slip into the classroom during the 9 a.m break in between the two hour class, and we walk out. We were walking through the ISD grounds when I suddenly start searching the pockets of my jeans. (Why am I not in uniform? I have no clue. I was wearing the blue jeans that I wear to lab and class in RPI almost every single day).

Wallet - check, keys - check , handkerchief - check, phone --- I feel a sudden sense of panic. I had left it on the table in the room. Wanting to confirm, I ask my friends to place a call to my cellphone. One of them does and replies that someone actually answered the call.

I turn back and run towards the room. I see a few younger ISD students in uniform running out of that room. Two of them I saw had cellphones in their hands. I look closely and see that one of them, a scrawny lad with a turban, had a phone that had a greenish fluorescent base. I run towards him. I call out the name Harjinder (To be honest, I have no idea why. The only Harjinder I know is a post doc in RPI. Though I did know one Harbinder in ISD, the boy I was chasing didn’t look like him). He doesn’t stop but I manage to catch up with him, land a nice solid punch on his face, take the phone from his hands and walk back.

Almost instantly I am confronted by a lad with thick black glasses. I have never seen that face before. But he wanted to take me to the Principal’s office. I heard him muttering words like fair and trial. As soon as I heard the word fair, I started mocking him and laughing hysterically till we found ourselves inside the staff-room. (It resembled the one in ISD but the Principal sitting in the desk in front looked like my school Principal from CVK). She starts talking, “Based on your history...”. I interrupt, with a weird smile on my face and a strange satisfaction inside me. “I am a Science Student. I don’t take History as a Course”. Then she says again with a serious, angry and disappointed look, “Based on the history of your grades, you rank in the bottom eight of the class”. I started laughing again. “ That’s not possible. I am surely in a dream”. Those were my last words as I continued laughing, thinking that since I am in a dream, I could do anything I wanted and get away with it.

I find myself on the corridor outside the staff-room. In front of me I can see the Principal and the spectacled boy discussing something. I continue laughing, mocking the two of them. I hear a rumble of footsteps from behind. I turn back to see students running out of classrooms into the corridor. I lose balance and fall as I finally wake up.

It’s a Friday morning in July. I am disoriented, yes, who wouldn’t be after jumping in and out of characters and locations spanning 15 years of his life, but I am also strangely happy. Maybe, the after effect of laughing for so long.

I had set the alarm on my phone for 6.30 a.m as always, and as usual I had gone back to sleep after switching it off. It’s summer break now and all I have to do is research. So I tend to sleep till 10 in the morning before getting up and going to the lab. Of late I had started cursing myself for wasting my time sleeping, but as I later read more about lucid dreaming, I realized it wouldn’t be too bad at all as long as I got something to write about. Studies strongly suggest that a nap a few hours after waking in the morning is the most common time to have a lucid dream. If that’s true, then I have 5 more weeks to experiment with dreams.