Humour: In search of balance
I’ve been expressly asked by friends not to give them pep talks when they’re going through a low phase. They begin invariably with some version of the inalienable fact: everything’s meaningless and we’re all going to die, so it doesn’t really matter what you do. Not so comforting, I’ve been told. Give me an unfortunate scenario and the inner nihilist comes gushing out, like deadly smoke from a violent volcano. (See what I did there?) I’m trying to develop a somewhat less apocalyptic bedside manner. But I’m also told my cheerful and optimistic streak can be equally terrifying. This balance business is a tough one.
The hungry seeker
One warm April, about a decade ago, I decided to attain enlightenment. I tried the local bar and classic literature, but they didn’t really make a mark, unless you count the water rings left on books. Then a voice within me said: when seeking balance, contact the Buddha. So off I went to the global headquarters of the much-touted Vipassana meditation in Igatpuri. But unlike Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love, I hadn’t accounted for the meditation part of the meditation camp. In addition, the atheist in me questioned the idea of remaining equanimous in the face of provocation, or even stimulus: I don’t buy into the idea of coming back as another being, so why not gorge on butter chicken or think bad thoughts about a deserving person while I’m here?
I left the silent, residential camp with a glib formulation about the township: a rustic Bigg Boss on mute. But what I was really annoyed about was that instead of shedding emotional baggage, I lost two kilos of body weight. How to remain equanimous in the face of such food deprivation?
Putting the art in heartbreak
There are a few exceptions to the rule of silence in a Vipassana camp. You can, for example, address a question to the teacher assigned to your meditation group, if absolutely necessary. And so I asked my British instructor, “Isn’t intense feeling a key source of good art? What happens to art in a system where you’re required to temper emotion, water it down, or even deny it?” She replied indifferently, “Make it.” Since that bewilderingly inadequate response, I’ve thought long and deep about the subject of balance and creativity. About the untamed imagination of the artist and its many rewards. Imagine a Virginia Woolf with ‘balanced’ emotions. Or Van Gogh with a ‘balanced’ personality. Ghalib with a ‘balanced’ lifestyle. It’s true. Excess has its uses, not least in the case of artists and visionaries.
Which can lead the argument into murky territory. I still can’t get over the absurdity of Ranbir Kapoor in Rockstar being prescribed heartbreak as a means to attain creative brilliance. That anguish (in itself) brings depth to creative work is an astoundingly juvenile assumption. Eliot’s famous quote about the separation between the “man that suffers and the mind which creates” is useful here. (On a related note, I would spend every evening haunting Nizamuddin dargah if there was ever a possibility of finding a soulful Mr Kapoor there, rapt in a Rahman qawwali.)
A false balance
Then there is the balance argument as it plays out in public discourse. If you adopt a side in a political argument, you run the risk of being termed biased. This reminds me of a section of Hillary Clinton’s memoir, What Happened. The book presents her experience of, and explanation for, her loss in the presidential election of 2016. In one chapter, she talks about the media’s role in Donald Trump’s rise. Her argument was that in their misdirected attempts at appearing balanced, they heaped unfair blame on her. To put it simply, there was so much dirt on Trump that they needed to balance out the sides by smearing her image too. Moral of the story: while seeking balance, avoid its evil twin, ‘false balance’.
Walking down the seaside promenade the other night, I was confronted by a sign that, as if reading my thoughts, said ‘Eat a balanced diet’. Art, emotions and politics can upend you at any time, but surely one can aspire to dietary equanimity. Steamed palak has so much to make up for.
From HT Brunch, January 26, 2020
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