Weekly writings on media, culture, and creativity by Vijayendra Mohanty.

The passing of a friend

A few weeks ago, I came to the conclusion that I had cracked that little domestic mystery that haunts only very few of us — why did Twitter change? Why was old Twitter (of around 2008-2010) a pleasant place full of everyday people and why is present-day Twitter a cesspool of neurotic behaviour and vile hate?

The conclusion I came to was that the internet is no longer a place of “friends”. You don’t go online for relationships. You do so for news and information. Sure, there is much talk of connection and conversation, but it is just advertising. The networks don’t care about connection. They want your attention, yes. Any friendship that might happen despite it is just incidental these days. If friendship survives, it is not as a result of the kind of place the internet is anymore. It’s despite it.

This morning, I woke up to the sad news that my Twitter friend of 10 years — @roshnimo — had passed away. News of death always hits hard. Perhaps a little harder when that someone has been a more-or-less regular presence in your life through the coming and going of Bloglines and Desipundit and Friendfeed and a dozen other platforms.

Turns out, it was an invite from me that got @roshnimo on Twitter. I am not sure how — some comment thread somewhere I guess. A bunch of us were on a dozen different platforms back in the day. This was 2008 and you could count on one hand the number of Indians on the platform. In fact, it was a medium-sized deal to find people with Indian names on Twitter. Naturally, the community that grew out of this was tight. There are literally thousands of little interactions between @roshnimo and me spread out over this last decade and because I never met her in the flesh, these little bits and pieces of conversation are all that I have to remember her by.

I understand a lot of these seem like fragments to those reading them for the first time and that’s understandable. But this was a friendship — more than the sum of these parts. I am glad to have had it. I am sad to no longer have this friend. I am sad that in the coming days and months and years, I will no longer be greeted by her username in my DMs and replies and emails (she used to be the first to ask “what’s wrong?”, often even on email, whenever I tweeted a frustration). I hate the finality of this and the fact that there is no way out of it.

This is goodbye then @roshnimo — I will miss your presence. I wish you were still here. You were a friend and you always will be. And even though my sadness at your passing is small in comparison to that which people in your family must be going through right now, it is by no means insignificant.

Secrets of the Universe, anyone?

Here's something that has been cooking for a long time. Over on the Patreon page, I have released the first chapter of Narayan Ojha and the Secrets of the Universe.

When a time traveller from a devastated 25th century comes back to the present day to save Narayan Ojha and the future, he finds that Narayan Ojha has seen things way stranger than him. Gods for example, and the beginning of the universe, and Death, and auto rickshaws that stop when you need them to. Join the duo as they unravel paradoxes, outwit mythical creatures, and travel to the very edges of reality to outrun arranged marriage, pay mobile bills on time, and deal with unrequited love.

Narayan Ojha and the Secrets of the Universe is a serialised web novel that will go out to tier 3 patrons every Saturday, one chapter at a time. Find out more on how that works below.


Tiers? What are tiers? Patreon is confusing

I know. Which is why I have prepared a brief explainer to… umm… explain how you can support my work and get rewards for less than the price of a slightly expensive coffee every month.

Okay so Patreon has something called tiers. They're like subscription schemes. You can choose tiers to pledge different amounts and each tier comes with its own benefits.

So if you choose the $1 tier, you get access to all the patron-only short stories I put out. These usually come once a month. Each time I publish one, your credit card is charged one dollar.

If you subscribe to the $2 tier, in addition to the stories, you also get access to my private podcast in which I answer questions from readers and talk about ongoing and upcoming stories.

The $4 tier gives you access to all of the above, and it also subscribes you to the Narayan Ojha series. You are not charged for the chapters alag se as the series is a free gift subscription for those who have pledged $4 per short story. You still only pay for that one short story per month.

This is the key bit: EVERYONE gets one short story every month. But depending on how much you pay, you ALSO get something extra — $2 gets you my podcast, $4 gets you the NOSU series.

Your pledges are not recurring monthly payments. You get charged only when I put a new story out. The amount of money you are charged is directly proportional to my output. If on a particular month, I don’t publish a short story, you don’t get charged anything.


Click here to visit the Patreon page and choose a subscription scheme. The $4 tier is called reader (see right sidebar).

The Edge of Understanding

There is a line somewhere out there. It is the edge of understanding. On this side of it is things we can observe and come to unanimous conclusions about. These constitute science. These create the framework that keep science going.

On the other side of this line is speculation. It uses the imaginative functions of the human mind to go to places where observation can’t take us. On this side are conclusions that have been reached neither unanimously nor with the help of methods that we consider scientific.

The scientific mind stands on this line, looking this way and that. The scientific mind knows the difference between the known and the unknown. The scientific mind does not let the observant function get in the way of the imaginative one, but it cherishes them both because at the end of the day, the scientist is human as well.

More than one brilliant mind has tried to define science. More than one genius has raised questions regarding what is understood to be the scientific method. But science, after all is said and done, is a bubble inside which we work. It is a lens through which we view the world and try to understand it.

And here is why allowing speculation into the framework that is science can be dangerous. It is a simple matter of setting precedents. For example, we know almost everything there is to be known about chemicals. This knowledge helps us come to other conclusions about the world. We know a certain chemical would behave in a certain way under certain circumstances. We use this knowledge to make measurements that we otherwise would not have been able to make.

If we entertain the possibility that Sodium Carbonate has feelings that can be hurt by the scientist’s state of mind, we do away with the advantage that our understanding had given us so far. By allowing unverified speculation into the realm of hard science, we poke a hole in the fabric of the bubble that is science. We risk blowing up the edifice of science as we know it.

Speculation draws from science. Science often follows in the general direction of speculation. But if we do not keep the two separate from each other, we risk arriving at a place where neither means much.

Witness the true face of...

Has anyone ever shown you the “true face” of a celebrity, or an organisation, or a government, or a political party? Have you noticed something peculiar about such “true” faces?

They’re always horrific, aren’t they? Like really bad realities or damning facts or an unpleasant truth. Every single time. The “true face” of something is never anything pleasant. Nobody says “look at the true face of” something and you are blown away by the niceness of it. It’s almost always something bad.

I am not saying that things that are bad need to be considered good. I am wondering why we refer to bad things as true. Or rather, why is truth considered bad? Or rather, where does this association — that the truth of something is always negative — come from?

I think it comes from a place we have all been to — the awareness of death. We all know we are going to die and that no matter how much beauty we create or accumulate, it is all going to end up meaning nothing in the end. And this awareness bothers us in a very real way. It keeps us from acknowledging beauty even when it’s staring us in the face. It makes us suspect kindness and question loyalty. Death stands at every corner and behind every bush we walk past, poisoning our view of life.

So what might a poison-free view of life look like? Unfortunately, there is no such thing because death is an inescapable reality. The only way to deny death is by redefining life itself.

An individual dies, an organism perishes. However, life itself — the continuity of species and civilisations can be considered a kind of immortality. One life may be happy or tragic and no matter how we look at it, we will find things to justify our view that the “true face of” it is sad and bad. But when we look at the lifetime of an entire culture, we find happiness and hope.

Because the totality of culture does not die. And single cultures live really long. Even dead cultures are remembered with fondness. And even if a culture you belong to is (according to you) on the threshold of doom, its existence is celebrated with hope. There is talk of revival and rejuvenation and glorious tomorrows.

Of course, in the long run, even civilisations end. But because their lifespans are long enough to be confused with agelessness, their “true face” always manages to be something less than horrible.

When god gets all the credit

You think people are being humble when they say god deserves all credit for their success. They're actually doing the exact opposite.

I recently came across a talk by a well-known author who has met with a lot of success. He was speaking about the great reception his books have received and how grateful he was for it all.

And then, predictably enough, he said that it was all due to the blessings of Shiva — his favourite deity. He said that though he cannot prove it (red flag!), it was something he really believed.

On the face of it, this is nothing unheard of. People credit their god or gods with their personal successes so regularly that we don’t think of it as anything other than what it is intended to be — an expression of humbleness.

Humbleness is an extremely attractive quality. I think the reason behind it is possibly evolutionary — an individual who is willing to forgo rewards in favour of an ideal shared by her tribe is a real asset to the collective. Such a person is seemingly without a personal ego and therefore, is a role model that all other members of the tribe can look up to.

So effective is this method that we actually have people pretending to credit god or gods in order to gain favour and support from the people. Our planet’s history is full of leaders who rose to power by prostrating themselves before their tribe’s gods and deities. I am not saying all religiously-motivated leaders fake it, but a good enough number of them do it for it to become a thing worth writing about. Incidentally, crediting god is also something that works when things don't work out. How many times have you heard someone say he couldn't be held guilty for his actions because he was just fulfilling god's plan?

But here’s the thing. Giving credit to god for your success is not really an expression of humbleness. It is actually the exact opposite.

When an author says that he is only successful because of god, what he is essentially saying is that he is special. He is saying that of all the people out there trying to make it as big as he has, he is the one that god chose. Even if you do believe in a higher power that looks over the affairs of human beings, you have to admit that sounds rather presumptuous.

What about all the other writers out there? Why did god not favour them? What can they do to earn such supernatural favour? What are the criteria god uses to determine who is deserving of success and who is not? And most importantly, how does this favourite of god know any of these things? How does he know the difference between a genuine answer and an answer he himself made up because he doesn’t want to be seen taking credit for his achievement?

When next you hear someone claim that the reason they are successful is because of god, ask them why god chose them. The answer you get will probably be something on the lines of “that is for god only to know” or “who am I to say why god decides and why”. When this happens, point out politely that perhaps they made it because they are talented and/or lucky, that perhaps success has nothing to do with god, and that perhaps there is no god.

Human beings are pattern-seeking organisms who have evolved to process meaning. We communicate using metaphors, we have built our cultures on the foundation of perceived meanings. I have written before about how our thirst for meaning has given rise to entire mythologies where we are the centre of the universe. It is not surprising therefore that we seek to explain our personal good and bad fortunes by appealing to the existence of deities who care about us.

But it is, at the end of the day, an infantile way of processing reality. We should be able to do better.

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