The listing in the newspaper sounded innocent enough:
If you wish to get rid of your spectacles, attending Sampoorna Eye Yoga Camp can do it the natural way. The camp will teach you eye exercises, Vedic in origin, that will help in relieving you of eye disorders. Register for a free lecture in South Mumbai. On January 17. (Tel: 98xxxxxxxx)
My vision is quite normal and I don’t wear spectacles, but my brother and father do, and so this was of interest. We decided to go, and I went along for moral support, and for remembering any useful details as the member of the clan officially interested in this sort of thing.
The “registration” over the phone was done and after plenty of research on the net about the directions given to the venue, we showed up. My hopes for true new knowledge were dashed as soon as I neared the class room in the old school where the lecture was being held. There was a man in “professional” attire, who seemed to be waiting to control the proceedings, and there were women at the door keeping a record of those who showed up. And then there were the attendees sitting on the undersized desks: concerned parents and curious consumers. Now when did those ever show up to serious events of information dissemination? Down the corridor, a classroom was filled with little children dressed in bright yellow and red clothing. They seemed to be gearing up to do whatever extra-curricular activity they were being forced into this evening for the “well roundedness” of their development. At that moment I had a feeling I would be better off with them, but it was too late for a reprieve. I stepped into the nest of buyers, picked up the badly printed brochure lying on the table, and took a seat.
Needless to say I didn’t find myself mentally enriched by the hour long “scientific” sales pitch that followed. Oh, I’m pretty sure this camp is serious, because it is based on well regarded sources and uses methods which I was, in fact, already familiar with. The Chakshushopanishad was mentioned and also the Bates Method which I was introduced to after picking up and old edition of Better Eyesight Without Glasses many years ago. Can’t say I internalised everything it had to say, but I learned and put into practice enough of the simple exercises to make sure my eyes aren’t completely fried by my copious staring at CRTs in the line of duty and curiosity. [BTW, the curious can also read an online edition of Better Eyesight Without Glasses in addition to the printed version]
This stuff works, if done with seriousness, but somehow that was not enough of a selling point for me. Not when the information is freely available for the dedicated seeker and I was being asked to fork out a good chunk of cash more cash than I would spend on a completely extravagant book shopping spree. Yes, THAT much cash ! This might make me sound like a spoilt brat of the internet age, but I’ve always believed knowledge should be free, as far as possible. And I believed this even before the internet existed. The idealist in me likes to think that a perfectly sustainable world can be built around the free sharing of information and learning rather than on the suppression and censorship of it. That is what draws me to Open Source software and content, because here at last is an entire movement of people and organisations trying to live by that ideal. But the fact remains that most of the world is geared towards, suppression, repackaging and selling old lamps as new, so who am I to argue. All we can do is follow the dictum, caveat emptor while the lazier ones rush off for that new special offer on the complete set of multiplication tables from 1 to 10, available only today for a special low low price with a free bonus gift! A congratulate them on their newly acquired mathematical brilliance.
While I sat in this average looking school class room, trying very hard not to doze off, and formulating movie posters in my head for “My teacher was eaten by killer salesmen from outer space”, a came to the realisation that this really is how the average classroom looks. Smooth grey floor tiles, cream coloured walls that had been subjugated by the elements into a dull beige, slightly non-existent windows, various mismatched notice boards, and a general neutrality only fit for movie sets of forgotten mental wards of creepy hospitals where you assume the boring sameness is meant to keep the inmates calm and to prevent them from getting into fits. How is anyone supposed to learn and be inspired in this place?
To clarify, the reason this situation came as a revelation to me was not because I never spent any time in school, but because almost all of my schooling years were spent in one school: The Indian School, Muscat. It wasn’t drastically different, mind you. In fact the entire building (or complex of buildings) was painted grey. Most of the insides were painted grey, and the environment was generally neutral looking to the untrained eye. But the magic was in the details, like the fact that a quick peep through almost any window in the campus would reveal that the entire place lay at the bottom of a dry rocky valley that was surrounded by a range of towering peaks I’m not talking Everest here but impressive enough. Then there was the fact that the school had grown organically over the decades from one small original building to an entire complex housing 10,000 students. The sheer variety of building styles, and more importantly the sudden juxtapositions where two sections met made it an adventurous place with ups and downs and what seemed like a million secret nooks which no student might have ever discovered. That place was inspiring. I can’t say any students there would agree to this during their studies there, and it certainly didn’t encourage me into higher levels of book-wormness, but I can safely state that in hind sight that school played a large part in moulding my mind into the convoluted maze with many hidden nooks that it turned out to be, rather than the plain and uniform set of dull beige compartments that most children are left with as they grow into adulthood. For that I am eternally grateful.
All good things must come to an end, and eventually the arresting oration on the defects of the eye came to a sort of close as the costs involved were tabled. The room broke into a cacophony of hyper parents worrying about how their children could possibly sacrifice 5 days of their precious
brainwashing schooling to attend this camp and save their eyesight. People’s priorities never fail to surprise me. We made a quiet exit from the front, and walked out into a lovely dusk surrounded by ancient trees lining ancient streets, far from the ongoing discussions about cheque payments vs. cash. Like any other red-blooded human beings, all that talk of vitreous humours and celery muscles had made us all a little hungry, so we set out in search of sustenance. Easier said then done in an area where “restaurant and bar” seemed to be the norm and when you’re more of a street food person. A mini-quest later we came across a waft of chai which lead us to Cozy Snacks.
Cozy Snacks is a Mumbai eatery. That’s really the only way to describe it because I doubt this strange mix of slightly run-down restaurant that also sells chocolate bars, ice cream, aerated beverages, and supplies long-life milk to the locality, exists anywhere else. And then there is that unique menu of the Mumbai eatery, and I’m not talking about the physical object, we’ll come to that later. I’m talking about the food available: South Indian breakfast snacks, plus strange Indianised sandwich variations, plus local Maharashtrian dishes, plus North Indian savouries, plus fresh juices and and fruit-based milk shakes, equals standard Mumbai eatery. Our meal consisted of the ubiquitous South Indian wada-sambhar, some sort of a grilled potato sandwich and chai. And at this point I would like to return to the menu. Some other dishes on those plastic coated pages included the very Long John Silverish “Vegetable cutlace” (I’m assuming they meant cutlet) and “Fresh Lame Sota” (I’m not sure what to assume since “Fresh Lime Soda” also appeared as a separate item on the list). And that’s just another facet of a Mumbai eatery. If youre the kind of person who picks up on these things, even a casual reading of the menu can be an extremely entertaining experience. Of course, it goes without saying that the chai was nothing short of sinful.
The Crossword bookshop at Kemps Corner is a favourite browsing place, and we had, in fact, dropped in to kill some time before the great ocular oration of the day. Now, our thirst for knowledge not quite quenched by the sales pitch and the chai, we stepped back into the bookshop. Unlike earlier in the evening, this time we were greeted by floodlights and bored camera crews. We had noticed the buzz of activity earlier, and the posters, but it was still a bit surreal to see the entire magazine section cleared out o make room for a make-shift press room.
Hutch-Crossword Book Award 2006
…shouted the placards and the flyers, and the literati, the news crews, and the journalists waited patiently well past the appointed time in hopes of wrapping this up and probably heading home. I doubt stuff like this is reported in a hurry or as “breaking news”. Someone needs to break something for that to happen. We went about our browsing business and eventually as I navigated the displaced magazine shelves haphazardly placed around the check-out I could hear the official event getting under way in the background. The usual state-of-the-nation stuff normally mouthed by management and then Suketu Mehta (author of Maximum City I found out later) took over to get to what all the lights and cameras were here for. Before that of course, there needed to be the usual artistic stuff writers seem to be compelled to talk about when forced into a public corner. As I was browsing through the ever shrinking design and architecture section I could hear deep questions about why writers write. “We don’t do it for the money”, he said, and I thought aloud in utter indignation “Yes we do!”. Then he went on to say how writer’s actually write to (I quote as accurately as I can remember) “hear the distant echoes in kindred souls” or something like that. There was no applause during the momentary pause that followed. Flipping through novel compilations by unfamiliar authors I realised that I knew what he was trying to say but the problem with literature and any other communication that is too self aware is trying too hard to communicate. I’ve always found that the message is usually clearer when it is less costumed. The nuder the better.
We soon left behind the lights and headed for home picking up a bus across the street. As much as I would have loved to browse forever, eventually you have to realise that there are only so many hours during the day, and you must decide carefully how many of those hours will be spent in absorptive activities and how many in productive pursuits. I absorbed as much as I could on the way home as I always do when I am on the road. And the roads of Mumbai are so much richer.
Why do writers write, besides the money, in case you’re wondering? I don’t remember who came up with this answer, but I always found it to be the truest one: because writing is so much easier than not writing.