Monthly Archives: May 2016

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The Summer Hiatus

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While one works in a company, especially in emerging / emergent variety as in India, the word vacation is absent – what one says is “leave”. I had worked almost a decade in the world of leave where no one went for “vacation”.Children grew up, started going to school and I had combined their “summer vacation” with mine and this time, like last ten years, left a Calcutta of excruciating heat  to come to my ancestral home in Silchar, the climate of which was described by my 6 year old son as : “naturally air-conditioned”.

Reading Pascal at an early age and in the same house where I am writing this now, I felt a great attraction for reflection, solitude and that feeling of “immortality” when you lie down in a bed, look at the sky, read a book and feel that suffocating joy that there is no one (wife and children at in-laws) and the room expands – in space-time. Time appears to have stopped except when the shadows change or a bird chirps. The charm of a reflective and quiet life is something so valuable for someone with a certain temperament that this itself becomes an end rather than a means. “Ja labdha chaparang labdha manyate nadhikong tata” [ Having which one does not aspire for something higher”]

All seekers of spiritual perfection, mystical insights, yogic powers in some time or other retire from the din and bustle and go to an environment of solitude. The idea is either to examine one’s inner world closely or  shutting the inner chattering and concentrating on something else : a mantra, an image, some light at the center of the forehead and so on. The solitude and reflection I am referring here is not the latter type. There is nothing to aspire here, nothing to achieve but just making the best out of the best companion : solitude.

Being a resident alien of Calcutta for almost 10 years, I can attest to the fact that the most scarce thing is solitude. I have never slept in any house in Calcutta’s four corners which was completely silent in a sense that you feel that massed silence in your ears. Nor a room which was completely dark – street lamp, light from the neighbour, a car headlight, light from an under-construction multiplex. This may be the reason why all residents of a metropolitan are mad to escape to some “holiday destinations” as soon as some long weekend presents itself. They tell this change but it appears to me their soul’s push for its food – solitude and be with oneself but most are unconscious of it and they all return with tiredness, selfies and the change with tiredness “seem” refreshing and the wait starts for the next trip.

Tree-house / Chalet / Watchtower 

I was a guest at the long time wordsmith associate and contributor Mr. Arijit Sinha alias Vicky. He has built this Watchtower / Chalet / Tree-house at his backyard – 60 sqft. house in air overlooking Silchar Jail’s lush green compound. The watchtower sits at one of the most expensive real estates in the town ( USD 50 / sq ft) and it was a great delight to watch the sunset


The Chalet / Tree-house/ Watchtower 



The View from the Watchtower 







I and Vicky – the owner-designer-architect sat for sometime in the tower with an overcast sky and was relishing the green.


Mr. Arijit Sinha alias Vicky 



The Riverside Walk

The second largest river of North East – the Barak which is some 3 min walking distance from the Heritage House  is a sight in the rains. The river which was like a diet-restricted model now swelled into a fearsome but enticing voluptuousness and rains in the mountains gave her water a colour of coffee and speed of a gazelle.


The water level is above danger level – few feet below the feet of the photographer of Wordsmithz Buena Vista 

My skin has her taste since I was around ten years old. In the winter, the river becomes narrow and slim with a silver shine but now under an overcast sky and trees just kissing the water, she is sweeping past – not a single boat and in a single minded focus, the river runs past, ignoring me – the past suitor, now a balding old man.

A flowing river is the personification of Time flowing past. I remember reading Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s immortal work  where he describes the friendship between Indranath and the narrator Srikanta and there in one of their nocturnal adventures, they go for stealing fish while they descend into their small dinghy in a dark night by holding onto something he knew not. I had rowed and punted in the river and any tree touching the water reminded me of Indranath and the narrator and their adventures. There is a touch of poetry in that description when two teen age boys, under the dark skies of Bengal watch the majesty and the grave darkness of Mother Nature and as they jump into their dinghy in a full bodied Ganges in the rainy reasons, the dinghy : “নৌকা নক্ষত্রবেগে ভাসিয়া চলিল”। [ The small dinghy started moving like a shooting star]

Our lives are also like shooting stars in the vastness of space and immensity of time. Each one of us. In our youth, we feel this more and as we grow we become “busy”, we slowly harden and lose our shine and sooner or later we crash onto the ground.

A Life of reflection, a great companionship with oneself, enjoyment from one’s own inner self – আত্বরতি – this can always keep us like a shooting star – blazing the trails and if not in body, at least in spirit.

The Riverside walk gave me great wisdom – the wisdom of remaining like a shooting star in spirit – always.



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Wisdom in a Post : Blaise Pascal

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Pascal lived from 1623 to 1662 in France and is a singularly unique figure in science, mathematics, physics, theology and literature. We studied his triangle in high school and his law on pressure in college but he offers us much more, especially in our heavily distracted, secular, democratic and “scientific” world.

Scientific Temper Tempered : Had Pascal been a mathematician or a scientist, he would have been remembered in the domain ( like Euler – a brilliant mathematician) but fortunately for us, he was a tortured soul – immensely gifted – he was a child prodigy and a mathematical genius of first order but he was also a believer. This conflict and its candid and sober expression make him immediately someone with whom we can relate to. He was an architect of the scientific age but at the same time he was deeply contemplative to reconcile the world of science and the world deep inside us, shaped by many other non-science traditions. He did not provide a blanket solution but was a truly thinking reed. He concludes human situation without any iota of false hope or resigned fatalism : Man is a reed but a thinking reed. 

Wisdom in Reflection : Pascal asserts and in all seriousness : the greatest problem of man is that he cannot remain happy while in a room with a place to recline and reflect. In the restlessness of our time, we must hear from him about the beauty, grace and the charm of a life of reflection. Our contemporary professors and intellectuals who are busy, traveling, in that seminar or that, crossing half of the globe – they must listen to the calm voice and the deep anxiety washed in a sublime light of realized feeling in Le Pensees : “.the universe can kill a man effortlessly, a vapour, a drop of poison will do the job, the greatest consolation of man is that he feels and knows the pain but the Universe knows nothing of it.”

With this single sentence above, Pascal re-affirmed the nobility of Man without becoming either a sterile disbeliever or a obnoxious fanatic. This is an important pathway – a road for us who are in an increasingly secular world but lament the lack of beauty and direction.  A hundred years before Immanuel Kant, Pascal arrived at something more important for us – for all the beneficiaries and victim of the Age of Reason, Science and Un-reason : Great Thoughts come from the Heart. All this he arrives by reflection – in a room with a chair and perhaps something to recline upon and a window that opens to sky and a medieval town. Pascal redirects our thoughts to that room where we can sit with ourselves and he says this as if in a whisper, courteously in a conversational tone not because he needs to but he carried this anxiety and torture by being at the front-line of the  greatest event of last thousand years : Who is running the Cosmic Machine if GOD appears to be superfluous ? We do not find the import of this question so much today but in Pascal’s time, the greatest minds were busy with this chasm that was opening and Pascal was very few who suffered for all of us. You can observe this in all his portraits and even in his death mask – genius has the countenance tortured with anxiety and suffering and a balanced resignation – The heart has a reason which Reason will never comprehend. 

The Consolations of Intellectual Maturity :  Most of the scientific / mathematical geniuses radiate a deep masculine prowess – to extract the secret from Mother Nature by the power of the self in the form of reason, method, process, formula, model and so forth. In their youth, these geniuses announce their grand claims and objectives and this sentiment reached its peak by 1900s when to discover a fundamental law of Nature  was considered a life well lived ( Max Planck ) and before some time – revolutions ( Tom Paine was happy to have played part in two revolutions). But Nature or the physical Nature  itself started becoming something else – Heisenberg formally announced the demise of the certainty in the objective itself. We do not find this in Pascal. Instead, in his works and in his soft and almost feminine face, we find an persona of the Uncertainty Principle.

He teaches us – especially the intellectuals of post-industrial society something very important : Reflection is end and means of wisdom and this pure reflection includes scientific thinking in a wholesome manner. 

Every young man or woman who aspire to have a career in science must read and reflect on The Pensees. If he does not, he/she will remain immature.




Pascal in portrait – note the background and the star in heavens


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Wisdom in a post : GWF Hegel

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Hegel remains a towering figure in European philosophy and human thought. A very long career-philosopher, father of many key concepts in philosophy and immensely influential in his time and beyond. In this post, we shall see few key ideas from this philosopher.


Hegel on the year of his death. (Courtesy – Wikipedia)

Segment Problem : Hegel wrote his works as if everyone is a professional philosopher and is reading with the same or similar motivation. This is the reason why he is more regarded among professional philosophers and thinkers rather than among lay persons who need his wisdom. Hegel did not write or rather design products keeping market segmentation in view. This is the problem or rather a self-defeating purpose of a rigorous, intellectually honest and erudite idealist. If you want your ideas to be well circulated and remain in broader spectrum, keep two product portfolios : one for the professional class and one for lay readers. This choice will decide many things, including your ideas widely available for applicability in life  by people few centuries or even millennium apart.



A victorious Napoleon entering Jena where Hegel was a nonsalaried professor. Courtesy – Wikipedia

World Spirit (geist) : Hegel approached  the subject of philosophy of history in a novel way. He had asked, for example, how does history work and why should we study history ? In a prose, filled with too much jargon and too much verbosity, he provides with some very important tools and pathways into these fundamental questions. Briefly, he considers an abstract concept called geist  – a kind of ghost that possesses a man and an ordinary individual suddenly reflects and radiates the dominant spirit of the age. No one knows how this process works but its effects are everywhere in history. In Hegel’s time, it was Napoleon – a lowly Corsican soldier, pointing his finger towards a future, while supported at the blood-soaked sword of the French Revolution that was the “national razor”. In Art also, we find such figures who appear to have captured the spirit of the Age in a certain age. The greatest insight from this is that : we, a private individual runs the great risk or fortune to be possessed by the spirit of the age and hence there will always remain a realm of history completely inaccessible to the standard and developing tools of historical analysis. The greatest of Roman historian in first century AD could not have comprehended that a lowly Jew would become the central cultural figure of Europe in next four hundred years. Or an imaginative and thoughtful youth, a failure in becoming a scholar, barrister, business man will grow to become the greatest poet and wordsmith of Bengali language : Tagore.

The Triad : Hegel systematized the concept of Action-Reaction- Solution or Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis. This is a crucial concept not only to understand how history works but how our  minds function. This is used pervasively everywhere. Here is one for Indian TV watchers

“Does your toothpaste contain salt ?” [ Action / Thesis] 

Now the reaction can be varied but a segment will think : “My god ! there must be some salt. What a great lack. Thank God, I know now. How do I correct this omission ? “

“Take this toothpaste” [Solution] 

Or in more serious way of modifying behaviour :

“Terrorists are carrying bombs inside their shoes”.

“My God ! The fellow in front of me having a beard and wearing a strange shoe”

“A law is enacted to have every passenger to remove shoes before boarding.”

This provides us with a very important tool of analysis, not only how events take place but how we respond to an event and both are connected and is a dialectic. The equilibrium is always at a different point and in this way, what we call change is nothing but continuous change of equilibrium points.  

Learning from Opposition: Hegel teaches us to learn from opposite viewpoints because the opposition has dialectic-ally  consistent view of Reality. Since our thesis is incomplete without an antithesis, those who oppose us provide us with an important aspect of view. Our opposition is not our enemy but compliment. This aspect becomes strikingly pre-sentinel when we find the enemies of Rome (the Barbarians) hammering the marbles at Roman Forum built by Augustus but the concept of dialectics teaches us to see the germ of a  Pieta in every Frank, Goth, Visigoth and Vandal hammer that was chiseling at the map and achievements of modern Europe.

Learning from every Age : Though we find some practices and concepts of antiquity or ages before us weird or reprehensible or both : slavery, human sacrifice, public execution, burning at the stake, burning widows (Sati), burning of witches, torture, we must remember that every age has something very particular and specific to teach us. Being old or being dated does not necessarily mean that we do not have anything to learn from it. This is a grand justification for study of history and a direct answer to a schoolboy’s attractive argument : What is the benefit of learning who was the father of Akbar ? 

In his works, especially related to history, Hegel has provided us with some key concepts which allow us to grapple the momentous thing called History and our relation with it.





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Wisdom in a post : Dr. Carl Sagan

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Dr. Carl Sagan would not have featured in this series, had he been only a brilliant scientist. There are many brilliant scientists who have undoubtedly enriched and extended their subjects but they belong more to their profession / area of specialization rather than to collective conscious or unconscious and to the pulsations of their historical time.

Science is Fun : He was able to communicate the fact that science is and can be fun. A generation of young men and women would not have taken in a career in science, had there been no COSMOS TV series. He influenced careers.

Communication is as important as content : He was one of the shining examples of the maxim : it is not only important what you say but how you say it. Before him, billions and billions was a word, a term. He infused it with a human feeling of vastness. His deep, loud and humane voice continues to remain valid in its warning in regulating the impulses of our “limbic” or “reptilian” brain although the immediate context of nuclear war during the era of Cold War is no longer there.

Science as a tool of practicing Virtue : Dr. Sagan in a certain sense was not a narrow specialist. Thank God, he wasn’t ; although some critics attacked him for watering down science for the amusement of lay public. His works have a refreshing, a kind of Keatsian sense of wonder in ambivalence and being uncertain. In his work, he quotes a verse from the Upanishads and celebrates the uncertainty expressed there in terms of contemplating the Cosmic Creation. In answer to his critics in the Mount Olympus, he reminded us of the fact that the attack on Hypatia – one of the leading scientific figures – a woman, was a barometer that the organic connection between the buildings of scientific work and public spaces were severed. Science for Dr. Sagan was a tool of practicing virtue – with and for the common public. For this noble objective, even if he has “watered down”, we thank him for it and successive generations will. Most of these attacks were prompted less by love of rigour than from an envy of lacking the gift of masterly communication.

Science as a Great Romance : I think he had the unique and rare combination of being a scientist, poet, communicator, public speaker, organizer, explorer and romantic. In Shadows of the Forgotten Ancestors, we find the germs of all the later manifestations : Search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, the impact on civilization, the grand (but uncertain) outcome of such an exploration and a childlike curiosity filled with the certainty of wonder and the vastness of space and immensity of time.

On a personal note, after COSMOS TV series, I could never look at a dark night sky in some rural area without hearing Dr. Sagan’s voice of the vastness and immensity. Except a poet of high caliber, no one can drill one’s memory and cortex in such a manner.

In 1995-96, while a graduate student, I translated COSMOS into Bengali for the sheer pleasure of re-reading the book. Although the manuscript was not published but I had read this to my young boys in Bengali and English.

As men belong more and more to their profession, specialization or fetish of benign, trivial or dangerous kind, there are less and less man who belong to a vaster and broader arena of Existence.

Dr. Sagan was one among them and shines all the more brightly in our times when practitioners of science, 2500 years after the Ionian Awakening which Dr. Sagan was so excited and delighted to tell, have turned to be very narrow specialists or silent recluses and the human, meaningful and inclusive communication  between them and the larger public is either faint or unintelligible.

The greatest danger of  scientific thinking – a higher order function of cerebral cortex is not from there being a legacy of reptilian brain  but an unhealthy fixation towards rigour and specialization – a fetish of purity and an unscientific fear.

We need courage like Dr. Sagan from the practitioners of science and a poetic sensibility to express and communicate it.


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Wisdom in a post : Plato

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Plato is an important figure in human thought but he has something very important to offer to us. More that 2500 years ago, he wrote down issues and themes that remain extremely relevant for us. Plato lived in an age which was markedly different yet it had many ingredients of our times, in seed form.

Think More : Plato transmitted a revolutionary idea and it remains always revolutionary. This he learnt from his Master Socrates who did not write anything. He advised us to think critically.  He tells us to examine everything – the habit of mind becomes such that a profound sentence in whole human history was uttered and codified : An un-examined life is not worth living. This is literally true. How many times in our lives, in our career, in our relationships we have observed that how we have been deceived just because we have allowed to live un-examined lives – peer pressure, parental pressure, celebrity advice, fear of boss, advertisement’s lure, our own judgement, politician-priest-high achiever – academicians or very hallowed personality, spiritual gurus. In our times, if you read some of the accounts of disillusioned cult-members, you can see the price we pay for living un-examined lives. Or scientists who sound like medieval preachers when you ask them to question the basic premises. This is the wisdom that only the wisest can dare to give. Because of this idea in Plato, any history of science cannot overlook Plato.

Beauty is Balance : Plato wrote extensively on Beauty and he was one of the intrepid thinkers who had asked : “What is Beauty and where does it sit in our Life ?”. He came with some very pragmatic and surprising answers. A thing of Beauty evokes something perfect and deeply gratifying inside us.  The objects of Beauty evoke this and take us into a deeper realm and we become more virtuous. It also balances something inside us. Beauty teaches us in an unconscious manner of essentials of our Existence – death, joy, mortality, virtue, grace, poise, balance, elegance, striving for excellence. In Renaissance Art,  many artists used the motif of skull, bones, grave -diggers (Hamlet’s soliloquy with human skull and presence of gravediggers) in their composition within beautiful objects. This was teaching or rather always keeping the truth of human mortality in front of all. Art was education on the themes of existence for all. Imagine such feelings were there when modern corporation announces their bonuses and the terrible soul searching, fear, guilt and anxiety. Beauty has a miraculous effect on us to make us more virtuous. 

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What is this skull in such a serene pictures with human angel and real angel ?

Organization is Prison (The Parable of the Cave) : In this famous parable, Plato has compressed ideas and thoughts enough to keep us busy for two thousand years. Plato predicts that all pioneers and true thinkers will be considered enemies by the majority and will be persecuted. But there will be always some people in an organization who will try to see beyond their cubicles and they will not be understood and they will either leave or will live a half-dead life. It tells us to understand why people watch pornography in office – in the absence of Beauty, the innate hunger of human mind for Beauty and noble purpose will like to escape and the screen swap will allow him to escape into a devilishly alluring world where Beauty will take its most degenerate, direct, hard-wired form. As Beauty and training to communicate with Beauty diminishes in our lives, sex (or the grossest aspect of it) will be the last resort of communication. 

Choosing our Rulers : Plato asked  difficult questions : who should rule us ? What should be the qualification of our rulers ? By analyzing available data on this theme of his time, he did not say that the most-glamorous, the most technically trained, the  richest, the most-powerful or the most physically attractive or the someone who was son of a king. He said : (good life for citizens) will not be there until philosophers are kings. Note the plural. Note that in Plato’s time, philosophy did not mean tenured professors, it meant – someone, any citizen who was conversant with the wisdom (sophy) of living a good (philo) or happy life. Citizens with greatest wisdom can only be trusted with the responsibility of ruling. In our times, we have outsourced ruling to a professional class who are elected through a process, mastery of which does not need wisdom but money, tact, glamour, propaganda and this  has amply proved why neither the rulers nor the ruled are happy. Plato forewarned all future democracies of the pitfalls they have unless they are eternally vigilant about it.

Relationship : Plato was a bachelor but he has a great advice for young people of our times on relationships, even conjugal relationship. He is refreshingly modern. He reminded us that to be happy in a relationship, thinking of prepackaged soulmate is foolishness. Many lives were wasted or destroyed while pursuing a chimera – not understanding one’s own mysterious, flawed, unique self and looking for a panacea in the form of soul-mate. Plato violently and quite derisively disagreed. This ‘soul-mate’ concept was the invention of later Romantic period and from literature it gripped public consciousness (just like public consciousness is gripped by some products, innovations, ideas, gadgets in our time). Plato rather advised to look for learning-mate – someone from whom  we can learn something – to practice virtue better. Marriage then becomes not a solution or perceived solution but a learning process to balance our capabilities to practice virtue. Schopenhauer, another bachelor in actual sense, argued two hundred years back that when  we fall in love or search for our mates, soul-mate or not, Will (Wille zum Leben) pushes us to balance and our choice, although we are unconscious about it.  As all married men (and women) will testify that to have a happy, productive and sane married life, one needs to be a philosopher. But, alas, philosophers seldom marry ! 

High shelf-life writing : Plato was a poet in temperament and whatever he touched, how prosaic, the subject dazzled by some poetic dust. His writing, style and a stand on an existential theme (the immortality of soul) secured for him something which all writers should consider shrewdly. Since it is not possible to know what happens after death, all evidences are hearsay or indirect. It is impossible to have a decision on this. Now, a materialistic explanation may be very sound and quite convincing (but never conclusive) but there remains in human heart a great desire or if you wish, consolation, to have some modicum of immortality of soul. Of all men who lived in the planet, most wished for some form of “future” of the soul. Since this feeling is general, pervasive and enduring, those who write about this always gather readership and a validation. This validation cannot come from the other world nor can come from those who are dead but only from those living who have reflected upon it intensely and wrote in a way that captured some deep cord inside us. 

Plato remains a very towering figure in the history of philosophy and a blessings of God for all tenured and salaried philosophers – theistic or atheistic of our modern universities for allowing them to have plenty to take classes and write papers. But that is the specialist and technical side of Plato.

For us, citizens of a larger, broader, more-equal but less free, no slavery but more crushing slavery of mental anxiety and the fight against failure, of distracted and burnt-out, Plato is a kind, compassionate and dear friend.

Unlike many Eastern or Western Gurus of our times, who demand worship and uncritical allegiance, Plato does not. The light of thought he radiates is so powerful yet so humble that even Time cannot dim its radiance.



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How to make our cities beautiful ?

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It needed the whole industrial revolution to gather the insight that  the beauty of our cities and the system of governance are intimately related and influence each other. I shall deal with this in a broader way in another post and will present 10 pre-conditions that seem to be generally applicable for all beautiful cities :

First, two images :



Pont-du-Gard (Roman Aqueduct)

This is not built for beauty or for some work of Art. It is actually a piping system to carry water. Built some 200 years ago. Many people pay money and spend time to watch this utility item in France.




A railway bridge built in North East India somewhere in 2015


This is built for a purpose – an utility – to carry a train safely and securely.






There is the new paradigm in India now – called building “smart cities” but my question is whether these cities will be beautiful ? Is there a fundamental conflict between being useful and beautiful ?

The Roman Aqueduct as above is a 2000 year old protest and answer that there is no conflict between being useful and beautiful at the same time.

When Europe was waking up from the slumber of Middle Age, politicians and artists of Florence, Italy went far back to Rome and Greece for the inspiration to build their cities. When Venice was built replacing the marshland of Nature, human creation did something better than Nature


Venice waterfront – mentally remove everything of human creation in the image and ask : what is more beautiful ?

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Contemporary Smart City – mentally remove the building and ask your self – “Did I remove something beautiful ?”

After this visual tests, I go straight to few concepts that are fundamental to make a city beautiful. Our architects of smart city will do them a favour and will not be considered un-smart if they do so :

I. The Beauty Test :  A city will need room and will displace Nature. One must ask whether the city adds something more beautiful than what it replaced.

2. The Boredom Test : Is the city boring ? It is like a geometrical pattern repeated regularly without any chance of being surprised ?

3. The Order Test : Is the city chaotic ? Does it feel like navigating in a chaotic universe with no order and symmetry ? Does it feel like being lost completely ?

4. The Intimacy Factor : Does any building in the city make us feel dwarfed, little, insignificant ? Most of the cities make us feel like insects because of their size, arrogance and unmasked power. Does the city feel intimate ? Imagine walking in Wall Street and in a Roman forum – what is the difference ?

5. The Height factor : Any building of residence, business or in other words without any aspiration (see below) above four stores will make us feel psychologically distant and aloof.  Greatest architectures understood this fundamental fact. Observe Parthenon.

6. The Width Factor : If you sit in a park and cannot be heard at the far end or being seen while waved, it will create distance. Hence very large parks are fine but this must be designed with meadows, walk-ways, artificial hillocks, ponds. Trees must be placed in precision within our cognitive tolerance.

7. The Mystery factor : We sometimes like to be lost in a city. It is a great delight to get into a small alley and then finding something strange vista starting like after a lone and narrow alley, suddenly it opens into a colourful bazar or a public square. Rome is a perfect example of this. There are certain areas in Old Delhi where this effect can be seen.

8. The Activity Factor : If you observe our business districts while walking in the sidewalk, you most often have no idea what people are doing inside those office spaces. Cars hoosh and huush and you find copies of the same door-entrance-glass-steel enclosures. Now imagine lanes of a small town where you can see what is happening inside : someone getting a shave, a girl checking a book , a customer having a coffee, a beauty saloon working with those strange chairs and so on… You feel surrounded by human activities within the reach of your senses.

9. The Trap Factor : It has been rightly told by historian Toynbee that if you cannot cover a city on foot, it is a trap. The size is important. Most of our metropolitan cities are traps – trapped by distance, traffic, security concerns, tiredness. Most of the great cities know this and that is the reason why tourists like to spend time in some cities and some cities, however useful they are or powerful they are, remain a piece, rather an oversized piece of utility.

10. The Highest Tower Reflects Highest Aspiration :  Refer to 5. The beautiful cities know how to reflect our highest aspiration with the tallest buildings. Our most magnificent buildings, the highest, the most powerful must reflect what we consider to be our highest aspirations, the way value things most : God, Knowledge, Law, Order, Beauty, Love, Art, Science, Creative Impulse, Life, Death.

In a subsequent post, we shall discuss practical issues to implement them in our time.





















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5 Lessons from a seminal book : Democracy in America

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Democracy in America (written in 1831 and published in 1836) has been a seminal book in understanding not only democracy and America or democracy in America but a penetrating gaze into human situation with the precision of a surgeon and grace of a beautiful woman of late 18th century.

Collected and paraphrased few below that helps explain some key themes of our times :

  •  The industrial insight that with extensive credit and large operation, prices of each unit of item becomes less and less and production becomes more and more. This insight / theory can be applied in wider scope and in other areas. This explains why in the online world, most of the things are free but founders are extremely wealthy. This also explains the modern hypes related to entrepreneurship, venture capitalists, Gross Customer Value, “No user to be left behind.”
  • When social conditions becomes more and more equal and democratic, slightest inequality becomes intolerable. Or in other words,  more equality creates a more acute sense of any real or potential inequality. Among managers today, no manager even thinks of some 10,000 times difference between the income of his and that of the CEO / owners but becomes agitated, tense, depressed and sometimes suicidal/murderous when he finds that his colleague has a raise / bonus marginally higher than him. Investment bankers, during their yearly bonus time can be considered a proof of this. 
  • In an aristocracy, a man is known first by his birth, lineage, coat of arms, ancestral home and the wealth enjoyed is not amassed by them and neither are they insecure of losing it.  Hence when a man of such climate joins army, becomes a politician, becomes a public servant, he considers this as a part of his career and life. In democracy, the rank and the social status from the “job” one does is the all and in all of life. Contemporary men and women of any social status, in general, do not retire on their own unless kicked out or hammered by disease or silenced by death. We should not consider this the fault of our particular age but manifestation of the eternal human attribute. Many white collar crimes happen because once the person loses the rank (or thinking of losing or retiring), his anxiety manifests into behaviour which the courts and juries pronounce to be criminal.
  • In an aristocracy, money or wealth is one of the portfolio items in a man’s search for recognition and status. In a democracy where everyone is equal, money or wealth becomes the only instrument of social demarcation and this demarcation being highly volatile, there emerges a class of men whose insecurity of losing wealth / money make them behave like thoughtless brutes. In an equal society, people are fiendish about money not because of the money per se but they are convinced of the omnipotence of money in the time they live. In an aristocracy, a man’s motivation to get a public office is not primarily motivated by money but in a democracy, this tends to become the primary objective. Since the position of a man in democracy is finally and constantly decided by his fellow citizens, any man in a democracy, however great or wealthy or successful or powerful has a deep sense of insecurity. Many of world’s richest men and women take immense efforts to look and present themselves like a fellow citizen (note how Mr. Zuckerberg with T-shirt – a 30+ billion worth man and the impact it has on an average fellow citizen who also wears T-shirt. )
  • Democracy gives rise to an aristocracy which is fundamentally different from the aristocracy we have encountered earlier in human history. In the older version of the aristocracy, servants were having little freedom but there was an obligation on the part of the aristocracy to take care of them. Contemporary post-industrial aristocracy is highly restrained in interfering with the individual freedom of the people they employ but do not relate in any way.  This is more harsher form of exploitation where one class disowns all obligations or abrogates to the state with this classic democratic argument that every man is free to make his destiny. In aristocratic climate, this freedom being absent also relieved men from one of the incessant miseries of our times : How not to fail and grow and to succeed, to have that minute edge over the fellow men ? This freedom puts tremendous pressure on everyone with the horror of failure. Hence we have this great doctrine being propagated which was never heard in human history – There is no shame in failing. 
  • In aristocracy, private lives of the leadership class is colourful and varied. This is because of two resources available to that class : leisure and the privilege of secured wealth. Both these were acquired not through serious specialization work. A man of aristocracy could become a specialist if he chooses to but in democracy, any chance of social mobility for a man demands specialization. Such specialist men do not belong to themselves but to their profession. Highly successful doctors, technical men, engineers, consultants, analysts belong more to their profession than to themselves. They do acquire wealth but has no leisure as they always fear some completion, some jealousy, some honours not yet achieved, in other words – they are in a flux and pass from less and less leisure with more and more money.  Merciless competition to join elite technical and managerial schools of specialization is a sign of increasing democratic age. 
  • War is viewed completely differently in aristocracy and in democracy. War in an aristocratic society starts and stops quickly.  In democracy, it is extremely difficult to start a war and almost impossible to end it. In aristocracy, a military leader is known first by his family name and then by his rank in the army. He joins war, among other motivation is to have military glory. The greatest problem to mobilize a democratic nation to war is naturally impossible because of love of comfort of the citizens. Since army in a democratic nation reflects more of the nation as a whole than that in an aristocratic nation, the only way to get promotion is when seniors leave. This rarely happens in a democracy (because rank is everything – there is no other difference ) and it is war that most warms the heart of ambitious young men. However, once war destroys comfort, the same citizenry now becomes ferocious in defending the same comfort and army now fuels the ambition of young men and war kills and removes the up and downside ranks. Hence it becomes very difficult to stop a war in democracy. If there is no foreign war to fight, there remains strong incentive for the military men to stoke, foment, continue any internal dissension or conflict. 
  • The greatest paradox of democracy is this : there is very little faith in the elected leaders for long period but increasingly powerful faith in centralized power. In a democracy, a voting citizen will abhor and laugh aloud if he is told that the elected leader is a divine manifestation but the same citizen will, in a docile manner accept the demands of a clerk in fulfilling a particular form that more and more interferes with his lives. If a middle manager of a modern corporation is told that his CEO is a divine figure, the dullest one will denounce this assertion but the the best manager will fill-up all the HR forms and assessment details very diligently and with high sincerity. 
  • In a democratic set up where equality is less perceived but sensitivity about this is paramount and everywhere, very great writers seldom rise. The readership, in their psychological set up cannot reconcile the fact that one of their fellow citizens may be infinitely more wise than them. Hence they patronize mediocre thinkers and writers whom they treat more like a buffoon : they admire their antics and skill but use them for temporary distraction. Hence, writers bear a great responsibility to hold in front of their audience something which they need so desperately but which they will most likely conditioned to ignore. 
  • It is easy to say whether a nation is democratic or aristocratic by simply looking at the public buildings and architecture. In aristocracy, the class that commissions major architectural projects never has any incentive to earn something out of these projects. In a democracy, every architectural project presents itself with the opportunity to make money for a chain. This chain is a representation of the nation and imitation and mechanical reproduction always reduce cost and hence architecture in democracy in always of poor quality. An example : look at our modern buildings in our most democratic cities and look at some of the buildings in Paris, Florence, Victorian Bombay and Calcutta. This is a tremendous insight : Architectural Beauty is directly interlinked with the political environment. In other words, the more democratic a society becomes, the uglier its cities become. 
  • Equality of all citizens and love of comfort an a trivial private life are part and parcel of democratic environment. The attention span and range of thought are so narrow that the talent to contemplate long term project or to nurture long term ambitions wane. This means that in course of time, the factors that keep a comfortable life running become weaker and after a certain time, the whole nation lapses into material decay. Hence, single minded focus, disinterested work on long term projects, contemplation on something beyond this life in days and week are most needed by democracies to keep their material comfort intact but all these smell of religion and negation of the present material world and is an anathema. Democracy has the habit of rejecting exactly those things most-vehemently and confidently  that has the most powerful impact in nurturing it. Post-Buddhist India was the most world-renounced variety but it offered a material life and comfort and architecture that next 1500 years did not equal in the fullest sense.
  • Nothing, not even war startles a democratic citizen more than facing the fact that his neighbour, his cubicle mate, his boss, his municipal leader, his friend, his colleague, his facebook friend may be in effect much better than him. This collective horror makes them always looking for the opportunity to have these upstarts and towering men “cut to size.”. But as long as something called ambition is there in the hearts of few men, they will devise their own schemes and one of the surest ways is to capture public imagination. Now public imagination, collectively speaking , in a democracy is that of a five year child (who will happily and easily barter a rare and high quality diamond with a glittering toy without having any inkling that a high quality rare diamond can get him millions of such $ 1 toy) and ambitious men first become their playmates and let them be used. They “customize” everything for this five year old and with immaculate finesse simplify and distort and after a time, the public discovers them to be like them, with all the common frailties. Observe the rise of many gurus and god-men (and women) in India and then their subsequent downfall. 
  • When a society enters from aristocracy to democracy, one must bear in mind that the men who destroyed the aristocracy were themselves breathed the air and some of the grandness, manner, world-view rubbed onto them. This tends to make the pioneers of democratic revolution more moderate in their zeal and as the revolution evolves, the next waves vilify the pioneers for having the same propensities which they were fighting against. This will stabilize after some time as general security and stability take the society to the next equilibrium. From this equilibrium of mediocrity, no genius can pull the society back. It’s natural course will be towards totalitarianism. On the other hand, a totalitarian society embarked on the democratic  path will initially complain of the discomfort and the previous ruling class will voluntarily join to hasten the democratic revolution. The reason is amply clear : a ruling aristocratic class, while in its peak strength and glory remain quite secure and any democratic idea will be crushed at the inception. It is the self-doubt in the aristocratic class that sows the seed of democracy and equality. Calcutta in 1960s and 1970s was undergoing a transition and it witnessed something strange : stone statutes of many great men of previous era were found to have been decapitated by the young revolutionaries. 
  • An aristocrat in a democratic time has two options : either to retire in anonymity or to welcome the democratic revolution and ride the tide. This class of men provide each democratic revolution with something invaluable : visible ensign of victory. Since perception is everything in democracy, this capitulation of the aristocracy is the most powerful symbol for the masses and they love it so much and believe its authenticity so much that the greatest worshipers of equality see nothing strange while being led by an aristocrat, whose forefathers had severely exploited their forefathers barely a generation ago. In India, many great democratic leaders were from the aristocratic class after British Empire collapsed. The retired class here were most of the princes and kings who were too aristocrat to have found the democracy incompatible. 
  • A grand insight of our age is that although democracy makes the society more equal in a collective manner, it does not necessarily make it happier. Democracy and its attendant freedom of choice which starting at  political level trickles to all the levels pose something dreadful to each individual ; it asks something like a magistrate : “Now, all the highs in the field are being leveled and you have the freedom to play well. How well shall you play ? “. In absence of any goalpost set (by others), a man in a matured democracy gets bewildered, as if frozen and only thing he knows are players like him, only goal he has is to search for a goal-post and the only satisfaction he gets in finding that there is no one who appears better than him although he knows they are different. This is the greatest threat for democracy. A man can reconcile prison if he has committed a crime, a man can reconcile, with more efforts when he has not committed any crime but it is impossible for a man to reconcile the fact although he is told to be free but this freedom quite often appears to be a prison where he is consigned even without knowing whether he is free ot un-free. In 1960s and 70s counter culture, many young men and women – quite educated voluntarily  joined cults and spiritual organizations which to outsiders seemed (and seems) like a prison with super rigid hierarchy and they wondered after many years, many after leaving the groups at the paradox of making such choice. Choice in a democratic set up is not really choice – it is manufactured rigidity but sweetened with candies appropriate of the age.  

The book was written by an aristocrat – one of the oldest of France, but he captured the essence of the coming age (i.e. our own) and although he spoke softly, this was again an aristocratic subterfuge  and tutored understatement owing to the ancient Greeks – we hear in many pages the momentous march of history and its trumpet this time is an idea that again owes its name (definitely not the form we understand today) to the ancient Greeks.

Alex de Tocqueville can make lasting impression in aristocrat and democrats alike and since both can learn from him, he remains a world teacher. Because, human beings, while we distill the essences of their political organization, it provides us with two immutable configuration : aristocracy and democracy.

Both need each other and Alex de Tocqueville, very subtly and using many devices of art and rhetoric bring us to a point where we have wisdom : We are not guilty or failure. Our age is like a father of us and we have genetically inherited many of his traits, gifts and frailties.