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July 30, 2015

Harmony in contrast

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Vishnu Valsan

Are we entering the age of powering off, asks Madhu Jain, citing two recent advertisements with mobile phones facing downwards. Or, have we entered an age where we can reconcile tradition and spirituality with modern vanities?

Eyes, they say, are windows to the soul. Or, whatever comes close to it — the heart perhaps. If smiles don’t light up the eyes; or, the warmth quotient in them remains dormant, the effusive words being mouthed are obviously put-on, false. Advertisements on the other hand can be, if you parse them diligently, windows to our aspirations and desires. Can give us hints about what makes us tick and tell us what we need. The ad guys are geniuses at discovering what we really want, often before we do so ourselves. It is their job, of course, and enables them to slyly figure out how to make us buy what they have been hired to sell.

Real smiles
Take a recent television advertisement for McDonald’s. The scene: a group of boys sitting in a restaurant. Each one has his shiny smartphone: these have become appendages to the body and quasi-impossible to disengage from. Sitting near them is a group of young girls, a couple of them obviously interested in the boys; one  plays with her hair, invitingly. The boys then put their mobiles face down and head towards the girls. The message: they will share burgers, fries and exchanges in the real world — not the virtual one — for at least a while. The smileys here are real smiles, as is the food.

Scene in another advertisement: another restaurant, another table. Once again the eponymous mobile phones lying within the reach of each one of the group of young women and men — a bit like Linus’ security blanket in the comic strip Peanuts. But here, too, they have been placed face down, as in the previous commercial. There is a very different reason for doing so in this advertisement: the person who first picks up his or her phone has to pay the bill. The two ads that I happened to see within the space of 24 hours had me wondering whether the collective placing of the mobile phones with their backs sunny side up on the table — out of sight, out of mind — was also a sign of an imminent turning point. Perhaps, ‘tripping point’ is more apt.

Could this be an indication that some of us are beginning to loosen the yoke of technology? Are we entering the age of powering off? Well, at least for a bit and to a limited extent. Power has myriad definitions. But in the age we live in, one in which the instantly new and happening becomes equally instantly old and passé, I believe power is also about hanging on to one’s instincts, preferences and tastes, and not being eddied about like a leaf in a dust storm, going the way the wind blows instead of steering one’s course, away from the promptings of social media and the ubiquitous advice pouring out from the Internet.

It is also about making machines subservient to us — showing them who the real boss is. And even more so, power is about being self-reliant, in the larger sense of the word. It entails no longer being needy and connected: leaning in, on the self that is, and on no other prop or person. Several people I know seem to be heading this summer for places where there is little or no Internet connectivity; where mobiles don’t work; where they will not run into those they know, or even covet. Most importantly, places where solitude is a perk. Think dak bungalows in out-of-the-way hill stations, forest guest houses and outposts spared from the buzz — of bespoke ‘happening’ places.

Silent conversations
Solitude can be a lonely place for most of us. But not for those who like their own company and don’t feel powerless in it: for me a sign of power is the absence of the fear of loneliness. Many long years ago, psychoanalyst-author Sudhir Kakar explained the difference between being alone and loneliness, for an article I was at the time writing about the latter for India Today. Being alone was a boon for him because in solitude he could carry on conversations with all the greats he admired: writers, philosophers, scholars and other kinds of pundits far away, or no longer in this world. These were conversations silently going on in his head. I suppose you could take this further to say that real power is also about enjoying your own company and not desperately seeking that of others.

The power of one can, of course, be quite potent. Yet, one can take it too far. You also have to possess the power to stop short of entering narcissism territory. The poet John Keats advocated the need to ‘Know Thyself’. But it can be a short misstep from there to just plain self-absorption. It is getting to be exponentially all about loving the self, forget family, lovers, friends and humanity — as you can see in the proliferation of selfies. To paraphrase Descartes: I take selfies; therefore I am. In simple words: no selfie, no you.

Just the other day, on a flight to Mumbai from Delhi, I was intrigued by the middle-aged lady sitting next to me. She kept looking at the in-flight magazine, focussing on the few pages advertising what they were selling on board. Finally, as the stewardesses were about to stop the service, she ordered a selfie stick and a Ganesh murti: the head and trunk was gold-plated, the torso silver-plated. She looked at the latter adoringly, walking off the plane pleased with both her purchases.

Incongruous? Tradition and most religions tell us to be self-effacing, warning against vanity. Selfies signal just the opposite. But here was this woman of our times perfectly able to reconcile the two. Perhaps, the ability to harmonise apparent contradictions, to be two things simultaneously, to be traditional and what we used to call ‘modern’ at the same time, involves some kind of power.

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