The Internet as a Saviour of the Absurd

We have had innumerable chances. We have lived through monarchies, oligarchies, communism and capitalism. We have built empires and watched them crumble, raised conquerers to the status of Gods and then stabbed them in the back, crucified our saviours and deified our tyrants. Every age has seen its follies reveal themselves just when the collective human hubris was at its peak. And yet, every age that followed would inevitably follow the same path, making the same errors, albeit under new guises. Our only consistent system of ruling has been hypocrisy.

It is hard, when reading history, to not see societies evolve and devolve in cycles. It is hard to ignore the inevitable feeling that all we read will come to pass again. Or at least, it used to be hard. What has changed my mind today? Just one Goliath of a phenomenon — The internet.

Never before has so varied a mass of populace been privy to such a vast treasure trove of information. Never before has the news of the world been at one’s fingertips, no longer discriminating against you based on your financial or social position. Of course, humans still being a flawed species, it does not prevent us from misusing this power: The internet is famous for being a cesspool of hate and vindictive bigotry. However, even from the fumes of this depravity, an unexpected solace arises.

Absurdism.

In earlier times, it was the unknown that gave us hope. We did not know enough about the flaws inherent in whatever system we chose to believe in, whether political or religious, and thus had no reason to douse the flames of our fervour. This fervent belief kept absurdism at bay and limited it to a fringe movement at best. We worked with gusto and lived with an eye to the future, because we believed in a future. We believed in our ability to build a wonderful world with inexhaustible resources and overall satiety. We birthed children by the dozen, hoping that their acumen would be of some use to this utopia-to-be. This was an age where one was taught that, with the right attitude and the right effort, anything was within reach. Many a kid set forth into this world with the fire of imagination burning bright. And, before the internet took over our world, many of those kids died without ever knowing what killed their dreams. Perhaps many blamed themselves for their shortcomings, perhaps some of them were right. But always there was an ever-present, malevolent force at work.

But now, you would be hard pressed to find idealism in such abundance. There are vestiges of it still, for sure. But these are mere fragments, mere spectres. Amongst the younger generation at least, absurdism rules. And the internet was the battering ram that broke through the fortress of our sheltered existence and introduced us to its invading horde.

The cardinal rule revealed to us in this age of free flow of information (somewhat), is that every endeavour, no matter how nobly undertaken, and no matter how pure the intentions, contains within itself its own bane. And its collapse is not probable, but inevitable. A system even now is judged by how long it sustained itself before self-destructing, which tells us that we already knew better than to expect an eternal solution. Perhaps it is fitting that everything has an expiry date. Perhaps it is an unwritten rule that our very universe follows, and therefore, everything in it as well.
But full acceptance of this fact had never been so wilfully embraced as it has by this generation.

Now, to switch things around, let us take a look at the world through the lens of the much- maligned millennial. As one grows, one learns both by observing and by means of access to events worldwide that, essentially, everything has gone to shit. There is no room for anyone, no food for most, no distribution of wealth. We have endangered our existence by totally destroying our environmental well-being, by running through resources way faster than they can replenish themselves and by a blatant disregard for any form of a pragmatist reigning in of our splurges. Children are expected to study much more than any previous generation ever did, but are also expected to start working much earlier, and compete for worse positions. We are the most over-qualified generation to be unemployed and no, it cannot all be put down to millennial incompetence.

We no longer live in a world where people believe that they can turn to the government for help. At best, they hope to survive what the government puts them through. Corporations are the only escape from abject poverty to most, but they are soul-sucking machines that turn people into grey-lifeless blobs.

So, a child growing up now has the choice between being a penniless individual, or a decently well-off slave. Not exactly salivating prospects, either of them.

And so, what can we expect of this child who, wherever he looks, sees only rivers of shit through which he must wade, without the solace of a reward on the other side? Why do we feign surprise at his unwillingness to break his back working for the future of our planet? Why do we shudder when he displays pride in his dark humour and cynicism? What else have we left him?
Nothing.

So far, we examined the destructive element of the internet. We had a glimpse at the crippling effect it had on an entire generation by giving them a too unadulterated view of the world they live in. A microscope powerful enough, pointed in any direction, will reveal only chaos.

But here, the internet comes into its own. When all is nonsensical, when all is absurd, then none may challenge the supremacy of the internet. A casual browse-through of even the most mainstream of social networking sites will reveal to anyone, no matter how ignorant, the identity of our prophet: Memes.

Originally, the word was, at least in appearance, much more profound in meaning. But, and fittingly so, the internet adopted it, corrupted it, deformed it, and created from it a phenomenon that cannot be controlled.

The internet offered anonymity, the meme offered ease of access and creation, and the collective frustration of the new generation did the rest.

When nothing makes sense, then there tend not to be too many subjects that are sacred. And nowhere has this rule been followed more religiously (oh, the irony) than on the internet. There have been incessant attempts to control the content on the internet, to ban certain words, sites, images or forms of jokes. But the internet blew every attempt at impeding it out of the water, and effortlessly at that. Its power is only now being recognised, but by now the seething, sprawling, flourishing underbelly that is the human network on the internet has grown so immense that it is all one can do to even partially regulate it.

And now this power lies in the hands of every man, woman or child, anywhere on earth. A meme allows one, from one’s basement, to poke fun at the institutions or people that were formerly irreproachable. Sarcasm and dark humour have revealed themselves as the primary weapons of internet humour, and they are terrifying weapons when aptly used. There is no comments section on any platform on the internet that does not, before long, deteriorate into a pun-fest, or a reference war or simply a concoction of absurd, layered, internet inside-jokes. It takes extraordinary strength of will for a regular user of the internet to still take things too seriously. And most of us do not bother to make that effort, we do not see the point. The meteoric rise of irreverence and the complete abandonment of ideals that were held aloft for millennia before us is the only logical consequence of this phenomenon.

On the internet, you cannot be too pedantic, but you also daren’t be inaccurate. And even if you, by some miracle, say something completely accurate, you must also be interesting and witty, or else you were better off having spent your time elsewhere. The same comment, whether true or false, could incite polar opposite reactions depending on whether you gauged the underlying mood of the conversation correctly or incorrectly.

Whole communities of strangers will band together with no prior planning, just to ridicule a person who trespassed any one of the countless unwritten internet rules. And once you have been handed over to the internet for purposes of ridicule, then there is no hope of escape. Some persons have become so adept at satirising artists or celebrities that they have outshone their victims and become celebrities in their own right.

It is a vicious, unforgiving and, above all, nonsensical alternate world that we live and flourish in.

Digging under the surface a bit, it may appear that the internet and its brand of humour is a coping mechanism, the only means of expression left to a generation that has been strangled before it had a chance to breathe. A futile show of resilience and resistance in the face of overwhelming woe.

We choose, however to see it another way.

If, through despair and hopelessness, despite itself, we can create this beautiful global culture, this magnificent middle finger to the world; this untamed, unbridled, unmanageable deluge that makes a mockery of any attempt at sensibility… If that is to be our legacy, then let us embrace it and ensure that, at least in destruction of meaning, none were ever our match.

Let the absurd be the only true modern art.

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I Fear the Light

I fear the light.

It is not a crippling fear. It is the kind of fear that has the tendency to spur one on to actions far greater than one’s potential. It is a fear that dictates one’s life, almost insidiously, and permeates its very essence, rather than a fear that restricts it. Moreover, it is not an irrational fear, one that crumbles under any form of examination. No, my fear is steeped in reason. It is a fear I cherish, for it bears the mark of verity. I fear the light, and whoever is forced to encounter it should be afraid of it as well.

“Why?” the reader thinks to himself.

What does light do? What is its most basic functionality? It illumines.
It brings forth from oblivion and nothingness the entire universe so that our eyes, those menial, insignificant organs of observations, can behold it. It allows no secrets. The only way light could ever conceal anything is if it shone with such exuberance that it blinded the observer. But this bedazzling variety of concealment has more to do with the weakness of the optic organ that is the recipient, rather than with an innate characteristic of light itself.

And so, what light does, essentially, is reveal.

“Fantastic,” says the reader, “All the better to see the world with.”

That is true, and therein lies the problem.

If we were residents of a perfect world, a beautiful world with beautiful people and beautiful monuments to beautiful deeds, then light would be our deity. If we found that the more we learnt of ourselves, the deeper we fell in love with ourselves, then light would be our religion, our tool that constantly reminded us to love. If delving into the labyrinthine, chimerical treasure chests of knowledge yielded pride and gave rise to feelings of harmony and unity, then light would be our identity, our source of self-respect.

Alas, it is not so.

What it is, is the perfect weapon. A weapon that lays bare every imperfection, retardation, aborted attempt, botched idea and failed endeavor that our species, or even life in general has ever had the misfortune of inflicting upon itself and this world.

There is a biological reason for humans sleeping better in the dark. That reason is well known. But for me, there is an addendum. When my senses are not inundated with images of futility, of the malformed fetuses of once noble ideas that populated our world, of the false equanimity that we project onto ourselves to hide the crumbling facade of society underneath, when I am free of this deluge of filth, only then can my mind know rest. While there is light, there is only disgust.

Primitive man feared the dark, because he did not know what it concealed. Fear of the unknown makes sense, it is a good, healthy fear. But if once revealed, the revelation turns out to be even worse than our fear of the unknown, then perhaps we were not so badly off when we hid in our caves trembling at the prospect of imagined monsters and ghouls hidden by the dark.

Light has always held a privileged place in human history. Our language and mythology reflects that almost ceaselessly. But once again, this makes sense only when seen in its historical context. If one were to objectively study this phenomenon now, there would be no justification for this reverence. But we, as a species, have always been lazy to correct our linguistic errors. We categorize or name things erroneously, and then obstinately stick by our error until habit and dreaded tradition takes over and then it is far too late to do anything about it. And so we still refer to a pleasant conversation as “a light-hearted” one and to embarrassments as “the black sheep” of a given family.

The only justification I can find for this continued infatuation with light is masochism. That same, morbid pleasure we feel when slowing down to ogle at a motorcyclist’s brains strewn across the road probably also derives its pleasure from delving into the bilge that is our existence. We enjoy seeing ourselves falter, stumble and ultimately fail, all the while aspiring to the noblest ideals. Oh, we may cloak it in many garbs. We point fun at others, not ourselves. We find the same faults unforgivable in strangers that we ignore or accept in loved ones. We are very careful that this window through which we peek when we masturbate does not turn into a mirror. But that is merely a lie that we have kept up so that our kinks are not revealed in all their perverse glory.

Nature provided us with eyes that work best at medium distances and at medium sizes. We were not meant to look at things that were too far away or too nearby, too large or too small. We are smack bang in the Goldilocks zone of eyesight, and we should take the hint. Close examination of anything, even with an intellect as botched and insufficient as our own, will still reveal to us far too much of the absurdism of the world we inhabit and far too little to arouse our reverence for existence. If anything, the entire universe exists to tell us we don’t matter, and the closer we look, the more bluntly it is put to us. Nature tells us to remain at an arm’s distance, but we hold forth with lust in our eyes, blindly groping, fondling, accosting whatever we can, wallowing in pleasurable humiliation.

And so, light is a weapon. It enables and encourages your masochism, it drains life of meaning and sophistication. It is garish, crude, brash, vulgar, libidinal. It is a device of shaming, of exposure and scandal, of mob mentality. Nothing remains sacred, nothing remains private, nothing retains value.

It is good to fear the light.
Light is nihilism incarnate.

Jonathan Swift – A Masterclass in Satire

Jonathan Swift, with A Modest Proposal, unleashes a scathing attack on the state of affairs in Ireland, at society’s inaction to improve the deplorable state and at the Government for what he perceived to be willful inaction.

Ireland was suffering, at this point, from a host of problems including overpopulation, unemployment, severe poverty, disease, and starvation. Swift saw this all too clearly, and his keen insight brought him only frustration as he recognized both the severity of the issues that faced society and their unwillingness to do anything about it.

Wielding his sharp, morbid satire to bring the farce into the limelight, Jonathan Swift plays the part of a good Samaritan trying to find a solution to the most pressing issues that plagued Ireland at his time. A Modest Proposal starts out seriously enough and transitions far too comfortably into its satirical tone. The transition is so seamless that the reader is left fidgeting at the introduction of Swift’s solutions because he is not entirely sure how much is spoken in jest.

Swift’s reasoning runs thus: Ireland, being a Christian country, frowned upon abortion or foeticide. A woman, once pregnant, was expected to go through with the pregnancy and rear the baby no matter what the consequences. This often led to women of the lower classes being encumbered with unwanted pregnancies and then slogging the rest of their lives to provide for a child who was surplus to their requirements or wishes. This had the knock-on effect of miring them even further in the depths of poverty, resulting in the child being brought up amongst squalor and meagreness.

Swift, using faultless logic, shows how there are no positive outcomes to this scenario. The mother’s adult life is consumed in trying to keep up with the additional expenses. The unwanted pregnancy, usually out of wedlock, results in ostracization of the family from society. The child, out of desperation or poverty, often turns to a life of crime. There are no winners. Moreover, all the while the populace stares on, disenchanted and unperturbed, as family after family is dragged into the mud.

But here, Swift steps in. Surely, says he, there is a better way of going about this. Surely a nation as enterprising as Ireland must not bow in subjection to a problem as small as this. Swift’s pride and patriotism shine through and cannot be concealed even by the heavy sarcasm that liberally coats the text. And so he sets the platform for his proposed solution.

A child was suckled for close to a year before it is weaned off the mother’s milk and fed solid food. The provision of solid food to a growing child is what proves to be the greatest drain on a parent’s finances. Swift reasons that it is at this point that the mothers need to make a change.

His “Modest Proposal” is that when the child has reached the age of one, he/she should be sold to the aristocracy as a delicacy to be consumed. A simple solution, the positive repercussions of which affect every segment of society.

The parent, being paid more for the child than its upbringing would have cost in a year’s time, would make a profit and avoid all the required expenses, hence alleviating their poverty to some extent. The measure will discourage abortions, which would be seen as a positive in a Christian society. And the aristocrats will have a new delicacy to fawn over. Swift suggests marketing the new dish to the upper classes as an exclusive experience that is reserved for only those residing on the uppermost rungs of the societal ladder. The aura that accompanies such exclusivity will result in the prices always being comfortably high so as to guarantee the parents of the child do not get the raw end of the deal. And, as Swift so succinctly puts it, the aristocrats have made a habit of feeding off the lifeblood of the masses in any case, and so a chance to literally feed on them will not be taken amiss.

And finally, as if we needed any more convincing, Swift brings to our notice the amount of attention, and as a result, the tourism, that will be attracted to Ireland by this practice. People all over the world will flock to Ireland to witness this never-seen-before industrialized consumption of infant meat. Swift even conjectures that this may be the beginning of a worldwide phenomenon, of which Irish pioneering thought would be the fountainhead.

This, then, was Swift’s modest proposal to solve Ireland’s various issues. It may be seen as a classic of the genre of satire, from one of its best ever writers. But more importantly, it is a reminder that bears much relevance even today. This book was Jonathan Swift’s way of telling us that if we continue turning a blind eye to societal evils, and let the status quo dig us deeper into our grave, then it is only through drastic and disturbing measures that we will be able to salvage anything as a species. The eating of the infants is a delicious use of symbolism by Swift, signifying the depraved world that we are leaving our children in. The world where dog-eat-dog is considered pragmatic and wise, and altruism holds no place in reality.

Reclaiming My Family Name

A few years ago, I sent my passport in for renewal. I filled in all the forms, checked and double-checked all the details, using my trained editors’ eyes to their fullest capacity. I can, with utmost confidence, claim to have submitted a perfect form. However, things like that rarely ever matter when it comes to dealing with the Government. Some underpaid, overworked employee somewhere managed to omit my surname from the new passport, and just like that, I was transformed. From Haji Mohammed Usman, I became Mohammed Usman. I could, as the reader will point out, have applied for a correction, but the red tape I had to navigate to get my passport at all had been such a dreadful ordeal, I decided my surname was the lesser sacrifice to make.

At that moment, it was a simple decision, borne out of laziness and a reluctance to deal with bureaucracy. However, as often happens with these things, the true significance of my actions (or lack of) came to me quite some time later. How was it, I wondered to myself, that an irritable, nitpicky guy like myself had no qualms giving up something that was so integral to my identity? How was I lounging nonchalantly in my bedroom, knowing full well that the incompetence of a nameless employee had robbed me of my familial name? Did it mean that I did not value my family? Did it mean I had already severed ties with them mentally, and this accident was only a happy coincidence?

On reflection, the case appeared to me to be the very opposite. It did not bother me to lose my surname on paper, because to me, a Haji was not a title, or a surname, or an identity, but a way of living. A way of being. A weltanschauung.

I was never one for identity labels. I never found the solace of communal harmony in being called a Muslim or a Kashmiri or an Indian or even a human being. I never tried to hide my origins, I am not ashamed of them in the least, but I never wore them as badges either. They were circumstances, not defining traits. My surname was another title, a label, one that mattered only as far as official records go. What mattered to me was how I felt, and no passport would change that. That was the reason behind my equanimity. It did not matter whether my name officially contained the word “Haji”. What mattered was that I felt like one. As a person, I live as Hajis live.

This train of thought naturally led me to consider what Haji-ness actually means in my book. I have tried to capture it as faithfully as I can. It is never easy to describe what is felt innately. And I have never felt anything more naturally and unconsciously than my own Haji-ness.

As a rule, our over-riding trait is stubbornness. As is usually the case, extremes of any trait usually cause as many problems as they bring benefits, and this case is no different. If a Haji is convinced that it is right that he try and get a boulder to the top of the mountain, then the eternal nature of the Sisyphean task is no longer an absurdity, but simply the logical outcome of his stubbornness. The image of Andy Dufresne chipping away at the prison wall for nineteen years is one a Haji will feel quite at home with, provided he have the conviction in the worth of the endeavor.

There are the usual cons to this behavior. A Haji can seem pig-headed, obdurate, obstinate and all the usual adjectives that apply. It is easier to convince a lioness to give up her cubs than to convince a Haji to concede a point. But this stubbornness does not exist as an anomaly, all by itself. It is carefully fostered, from the very beginning of our lives, in tandem with our other over-riding trait: Confidence.

When I think back to my earliest memories, it is clear to me that even then, as a bumbling, clumsy, forgetful, stupid little child, there were not too many feats that I considered to be beyond my capability. And this was not something I was born with, but something that permeated the very essence of the way I was brought up. And the living examples of my paternal grandfather, my father, and my sisters waltzing through achievement after achievement without a fuss only served to reinforce that self-belief. However, I do not use the term “self-belief” in the manner that it is commonly understood. The construct of my self-confidence has a bit of a military feel to it. Individually speaking, at core, I was and still am more prone to self-doubt than self-confidence. However, there is an external wall, a shield of confidence, not in myself, but in my breeding, so to speak.

In case that was not clear, allow me to elaborate. When faced with the prospect of a task I am not accustomed to, I face two thoughts, one internal and personal, and the second almost imposed upon me, as if by a disembodied superego.

My first and personal thought would be along the lines of, “I don’t think I can do this.”

And almost immediately, the external thought follows, “You’re a Haji, you’ll manage just fine.”

It is this confidence, often bordering on arrogance, that propels me daily to do things I would shrink from, had I been born to different parents. And this confidence extends to the entire clan. The expectation of excellence prevails whenever any member of my paternal side of the family is in the equation. It is almost an assumption.

Another offshoot of this confidence, one that has since been pointed out to me, is the need to strive for extremes. The application of this dictum is felt in the littlest things. If it is considered normal to eat half a pizza, a Haji will try to eat two or abstain completely (Hades forbid). If a task is assumed to take two days, a Haji will try to finish it in half, or not do it at all. If a man normally sleeps for eight hours, a Haji will sleep for either two, or sixteen. There is an aversion to the golden mean. It is always all or nothing. This is viewed sometimes as a need for attention, however, personally, it has more to do with a constant fight to find my limits. To push and push till I have reached the edge. One could almost call it a result of morbid curiosity.

And, naturally progressing from the above two traits, the third trait is pride. Every Haji has a supreme sense of self-worth, which allows them the ability to stare down the entire world if need be, without batting an eyelid. Our family is diverse; my immediate family is almost unbelievably so. No two people are even remotely alike, and yet there exists a mutual respect and confidence that each has the capability to forge their path with the customary Haji flamboyance. We may disagree on the very fundamentals of what we are as people, but I cannot recall a single instance where I felt afraid that a particular situation was too much for a member of my family to take.  That elementary fear of their basic survival somehow being threatened is completely absent. Even against the most incredible odds, I am always upheld by this feeling that they will pull through, and with style, at that.

Of the other traits, less pronounced and more prone to variations, Hajis tend to be reactionaries. Every generation, there is not just an evolution, but a right obliteration of the principles and values set forth by the previous generation. This makes for great drama, but also guarantees exceptional individualism. Because their stances tend to be reactionary, they are constantly challenged in their choices, and forced to justify it and defend it over and over again, which has no other effect than to steep it ever more firmly into their psyche. Ideological trench warfare is a constant battle. It has no victors, but both parties become hardened veterans in the art of justification.

The forming of judgements and opinions is a deeply rooted tradition, and one that has seen no decline in favor, despite public trends making it almost criminal to judge anyone on anything. A Haji will, with an absolutely clear conscience, judge people on any criteria whatsoever. They will later gladly admit they were wrong if they happened to be mistaken in any case, but this never deters them from making the original judgement. You’d be hard pressed to find a topic a Haji doesn’t have an opinion on.

And lastly, a trait shared by Hajis the world over is a sense of detached harmony with one another. There is a marked absence of emotional intimacy between Hajis. There is mutual respect, general affection and silent support, but none of the expressiveness of other, more emotionally evolved families. Our language of love is sarcasm, our encouragement takes the form of banter, and our constructive criticism can only be viewed as constructive by people whose skins are as thick as ours.
This often makes an outsider, or an initiate into our family, think that we are cold-hearted or emotionless. I, personally think it is just a difference in modes of expression. When you are reared with the inability to crumble, then superficial niceties do not need to be observed in expression of feelings anymore. Hajis can be, and usually are, scathing. But threaten one, and you have a formidable host staring you down.

Personally, when my exposure to the non-Haji world was limited, I never quite realized how much I valued it. Adulthood and separation from the family home brought to light the easy brilliance of Haji wit and its relative scarcity in others. I had often wondered where my need for a crowd that most would consider “brutal” came from. I wondered why I could never gel with the “nice” crowd. It took me a while to make the connection. In essence, I am a Haji looking for home away from home.

And so, though my passport may tell you otherwise, I reclaim for myself Haji-ness.

I am a Haji.