Where has all the laughter gone?

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There was a time when limericks and humorous poetry made us laugh, when ‘Laughter is the Best Medicine!’ brought tears of merriment to multiple readers of Readers’ Digest, when PG Wodehouse was digested by youngsters by the dozen and when everyone loved a good laugh. There were no laughter clubs. There were no sleep clinics. There was spring and happiness and childhood…

That is how we grew up back in the 1970s and 1980s.

That was the time when bell bottoms were in fashion, people still listened to Beatles, Carpenters and Julio Iglesias; Agatha Christie and Perry Mason were mystery fare and people read only books with pages.

Then with internet revolution swinging into action, things changed. Things changed in a way that made living more challenging! On one hand communication was eased; on the other the tech savvy and the non-tech groups replaced simple divisions of caste and class. For some time, people could say what they liked across all borders drawn by mankind. And then power brokers made rules to regulate the flow of thought in the guise of curbing negative output online. Some of it was necessary, especially where people were inducing riots with Facebook exchanges, but some of it created borders in communicating ideas.

There were alternatives that crept up and people still found ways of communicating across borders with blogs and social media, though some governments banned even those. Voices were raised… but the tone had changed from one of happiness to one of darkness and challenge.

What was bad kept coming into focus over what was good. Laughter dissipated!

Limericks gave way to haikus reflecting the darkness of existence, which were rare earlier because people and ideas could not travel across borders easily long, long ago… fifty full years ago…

The span of time like our focus has shortened. Reading what others write has become a luxury. Writing what one has to say and publishing in social media has become the norm. Yet reading evidently creates an empathizing individual, an individual who can emote on behalf of others and spread kindness and smiles through the world. A research by Kingston University in London highlighted how readers make better and kinder friends. The report states: “Specifically, when broken down by genre, they (the researchers) saw that readers of comedy were the best at relating to people. Romance and drama lovers were the most empathetic and most skilled at seeing things through other’s eyes.”

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Sukumar Ray’s sketch

Perhaps, dwelling on the results of the research, we should look for not stand-up comics on you tube but for books that make us laugh, whether in English or some other language. I still cannot stop laughing at the nonsense verse of Sukumar Ray ( film-maker and writer Satyajit Ray’s father) and those are verses I have been reading for the last forty years or limericks or stories by Wodehouse. And yet, they seem to be rather out of fashion now. In today’s world, we are all writers and readers in the landscape of social media. Presidents ‘tweet’ as do Prime Ministers and Ministers! Social media has gone viral as did American Idol and a bunch of programs that cropped up around it in the early 2000s.

An article in The Atlantic explains: “Yet in many ways Idol … was ahead of the pop-culture game. It was one of the first shows that understood both the emotional nerve that connects people to music, and people’s innate desire to see others succeed despite enormous odds. It excelled at creating a personal link between artists and viewers, compelling the latter to take action by calling in and voting…In this sense, Idol foreshadowed today’s social media-driven society, where fans have the power to mobilize and impact the pop-culture landscape…”. Huff post came up with the heading “American Idol Made Us All Critics”.

And now, we dot the social media landscape with critiques and comments on everything possible from a pair of shoes to poetry (for those who still read or watch what has come up in a big way, Performance poetry in You Tube) or a new scientific development. Yet, are we all qualified to comment on everything? Is it right to give precedence to public outcry over expertise?

Looking at the current trends, democratization has taken over all oligarchic institutions. Democracy works but to what point? How democratic are we as individuals? Individuality is also an after all an important component of all art forms and now is much emphasised in the comments section of social media. How many of us flash our prettiest pictures on Facebook in imitation of models? Does everybody want to be a celebrity?

One of my friends, a simple soul told me that in FB everyone looked so happy and successful! Another told me he withdrew from FB due to all the flak he faced when he voiced his opinion. Perhaps, decency fell prey to democratization for some. And yet a third one suffered a stroke and a heart attack and was told by the doctor to keep off social media and internet as the content upset him!

While democratization helps masses come to the fore, inventions or creations are always that of an individual. When we traded privacy and dignity for equality, did we really think of the consequences?

IMG_0526I still recall the expressions of the statues in the Memorial of Early Red Army in Beijing. The statues looked angry and discontent. These people definitely did not enjoy limericks or Edward Lear’s funny poems, but they believed in what they were taught to believe. Was it right to have a revolution by people who had no vision but were influenced to have a vision by pressures of external forces and the thin booklet of communist manifesto which was a handbook for all believers?

When the ‘Me-too’ controversies flared on FB, one friend told me that though she did not agree with the movement, she had not the freedom to voice her difference of opinion. If she did, external forces of FB would perhaps reduce her to pulp or jelly for daring to oppose popular opinion. A friend of mine speaking in favor of social media said it prevented bar room brawls. A good point. But it did not stop from inciting people to riot as result of which FB decided to take down posts inciting rage, hate and violence.

But has it been effective? A million-dollar question which yet remains to be answered with posts that threaten to unfriend friends if they do not paste the post the posters (not paper but people who publish on FB) have on their wall on their own (the friends’) FB page. Rather a complicated process to explain but you all are probably familiar with it. Perhaps people who avoid reposting prefer privacy and can continue without giving opinions. Should their hand be forced in the same way as my friend who was forced to write a post in favor of the ‘Me-too’ because otherwise, she would face social ostracization?

While ground rules keep evolving to mediate social media, one wonders if this has an impact on the dark overtones that have been coloring the literary world? Why is it writers feel that darkness needs to engulf readers before they change their way of thinking and become more positive in their output? Why has the world of literature been infected by dystopian literature that highlights the negative in the hope of a better outcome?

Haruki Murakami, a popular seventy-year-old Japanese novelist, whose books are often surrealistic and dark, says: “Only novels can make people feel through words that they went through actual experiences. Depending on whether or not people experience those stories, their thoughts and ways of seeing the world should change. I want to write stories that will penetrate the heart. I have a lot of hope in the power that novels hold.” Murakami’s books introduce “jarring elements to alter his characters’ lives, skewing reality and upending their worlds, to illustrate his recurrent themes of alienation and loneliness.” Murakami himself said: “Obsessions can help people survive this intense loneliness.” Is this loneliness what makes writers sense darkness all around?  Is this feeling essentially a negative one?

“His (Murakami’s) writing process requires ‘stepping into the darkness’, where he observes, remembers, and writes down what he sees. His early books, he said, originated in an individual darkness, while his later works tap into the darkness found in society and history.” Is that why dystopian fiction, which in itself is not the happiest read, came into being?

For an ordinary reader like me, happiness makes me feel fulfilled. I fall back on literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth century often. The pre-world war literature. Though time moves fast and waits for nobody, why is it we are not able to move on? Why are we still allowing the past, the holocausts that dot twentieth century history, to bind us into an everlasting aura of darkness?  Though the wars left us scalded and scarred as a race, why do we not realize that we need to move on to create a happier and more wholesome world for the next generation? That will be a world where sunshine is uninterrupted and children interact, laugh and reach out to each other as friends with the innocence of lambs. With a passion for such a future, I lose myself in the pages of a book and listen to the 1980s song from Karen Carpenter, Yesterday once more…

“Those were such happy times and not so long ago

How I wondered where they’d gone

But they’re back again just like a long lost friend”

 

— Carpenters

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Parenting…freedom

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How much freedom does a child need?

This one is always a tough one to answer. Perhaps, Matt Munro says it all in the lyrics of the song, Born Free

Born free, as free as the wind blows

As free as the grass grows

Born free to follow your heart

While I love to see my children free of all shackles to grow and bloom as their dreams dictate, to fly free as the wind blows, we still need to understand the breeze is created by the laws of physics, by rules laid out by a greater power than us.

My sons always talk of freedom in the sense of space to do what they like, make robots, create animations, play the piano, read a Harry Potter for the one thousandth time without being reprimanded! They like to stay at home and do things. They say they need freedom of mind and thought. So, when I told them, turn by turn, they were too young to read an Asimov at thirteen, they both rebelled. They read the books by borrowing from the library. I have learnt to let them read and explore what they like as long as it is within the bounds of decency. Luckily, for me, my sons are like grand dads when it comes to rules and decency. They lay the laws for themselves and the rest of the world. They do not like to wander into the darker zones of internet or play gory games or go out late at night to party, drink and drug. Perhaps, I am plain lucky! Or, did they become my great grand dads because they grew up within certain frameworks of rules and ideals?

Most children, like grown ups, have different concepts of freedom. My elder son’s best friend in the eighth grade needed the freedom to drink as much coke as possible and eat as many chocolates as he could lay his hands on behind his mother’s back. Some need freedom of movement, some of thought and some for things that parents frown on or fear. So, how do parents define how much freedom and what kind of freedom?

I remember, when my son’s school started using internet extensively, caregivers were called in to be educated about parental controls, rules were suggested for internet surfing and how to monitor the child while he explored the internet. While we agreed on the need for filters, a friend of mine and I felt the school was creating an atmosphere of mistrust between the child and his parents. Whereas the school felt they were creating awareness among parents. The bottom-line was all of us wanted the best for the children.

Trust develops with the ability of the child to work within a framework. Children need structures and rules. It gives them a sense of security and helps them develop their capacity to think. The school was trying to create a framework. We as mothers felt the framework was taking on the dimensions of a jail where the parents were warders and the children the prisoners. On the other hand, there are children who wander into the negative side of freedom. They will not study, keep going out and wander into areas of Internet and social media that can get them into trouble. They might even try alcohol, drugs and violate their own or others’ bodies out of curiosity and boredom. So, how do we make sure our kids do not wander into these dark forbidden areas that can wreck their lives?

I had a neighbor whose son got involved with people who were into drug trafficking, though he himself was innocent. This happened in China. The parents had to leave the country with their son who was thrown out of school. Some other expat kids were deported along with parents for abusing the social media to spread false stories about a teacher in another country. They were doing it in fun but it was distressing for the staff. The children were not educated to be within limits. Again the families were deported after the school expelled the children. Why does this happen to only some kids and not to others?

Is it that the children were born evil or is it that the parents missed out on something? Perhaps, the children needed a little less freedom than what the parents gave them. Perhaps, they needed parents who prioritized their children’s needs over their desires. Perhaps the youngsters could have done with a little more guidance. Perhaps, they needed rules. Sometimes we think giving financial support is the most important thing for  kids. While money does pay the bills, keeps the child in school, well clothed, well fed, it does not teach the youngster manners or values. However, a clear set of dos and don’ts practiced by parents themselves can do the trick along with plenty of love.

A child has to learn to distinguish right from wrong.

Sometimes, one needs to be firm and stick to the rules. I often see parents buy their children toys or gifts to avoid conflict. One mother told me that every time she bought a birthday present for another child, she had to buy one for hers! It reminded me of an incident where my four year son howled for a toy in a mall and refused to move. People turned and looked. It was embarrassing but I was meaner than my friend. I ignored his demand and waited till he calmed down and walked home with me. I had been embarrassed but I won a battle. My child learnt that everything could not be had for asking.

An early access to excess wealth and over indulgence can be as bad for the development of a child as the inability of the parent to foot bills to meet basic needs of a child. However, there is an age for everything. If you force rules on a baby who does not understand, the disciplining will be pointless and abusive. Recently, I was visiting some relatives in India. They had a young toddler — all of two and a half or three years old. He had just started play school. Everyday when his mother dropped him to school, he cried. The staff asked her to wait for him whereas her friends told her to leave and let him be. She asked me what would be the right thing to do.

I told her two stories. The first one was about my younger one. When he started his playgroup in China, he would start crying minutes after I left him in class. I was told to hide in the school office for a month. To me the answer was obvious. The child’s sense of security was tied to my presence and he needed the reassurance that he would be safe in the school. Eventually, he adjusted and I could just drop him off. And he survived his days with happiness and friendships.

The second story was about my elder son. The first day I took him to the Tumble Tots play school when he was two years and four months, he reiterated, “Mama outside, I inside.” I was allowed to sit in for a week but my son did not need me to be with him. I had been waiting outside for a couple of hours, when an exhausted looking assistant opened the door to let the kids out. She called me aside to tell me my son had been to the toilet seven times… We were both concerned!

On the way back home, I asked my son why he went so frequently to the toilet.

He perked up, “Mamma, they have blue water coming out of the flush. At home why don’t we have blue water?” So, I bought toilet blues and we had blue water in the flush. I showed and explained the process to him and he stopped visiting the bathroom seven times in two and a half hours. I was happy that my son was confident and independent enough to be in school on his own. But he had known the trainers from eighteen months of age as he had been attending their playgroup from that age and really enjoyed it. So, play school became just an extension of the playgroup.

For my younger son, it was a brand new environment in China and a new school. Each child faced different circumstances and each child reacted differently. It does not do to compare their reactions and ignore their needs.

A child needs emotional grounding to be given freedom. And this emotional grounding is created by responsible parenting. If a child feels reassured that his parents care for him and will be there, he will himself start giving a framework to his sense of freedom. He will not react in rebellion by doing or exploring the negatives of social interactions, media, drugs or alcohol. If you can spare the time to be there for your child and listen to him, chances are he will listen to you and grow up to be a man devoid of chains and yet living within a framework.

After all the wind flows and the grass grows because of rules laid by the laws of nature… and even animals need frameworks laid by their kind to survive…

 

To tweet or not to tweet…

Earlier, when one spoke of tweets, one thought of colorful little birds frolicking on trees, gardens, flowers and nature. One visualized flowing rivers and meadows and picnics and walks…

Now when one talks of tweets, one thinks of Donald Trump, blue eye shadow and “ A Merry Christmas but a Happy New Year”. Social media has reduced the twittering of birds to twittering of words across electronic devices to connect or disconnect minds, great or small across the oceans and into the jungle of cities, wherever Internet has cast its intricate web.

I have never taken to tweeting because, one, I am not a bird and with my enormous weight cannot be mistaken for one. Also, I have a passion for words… many words not a few. I believe tweet was earlier limited to 140 characters. Last year, it was doubled to 280! Such succinct conversations leave the wordy speechless!

Talking of speechlessness, Instagram has altogether done away with words… unless it is the speech in videos. It was started to share photographs by what I have understood less than a decade ago. Last year, it stretched its limits to a ten-minute video. Again despite appreciating good photography, I have not had the pleasure of experimenting with this mode of social media. Many, I believe, cannot live without these… I still breath, eat and live happily.

And then there is of course the grandparent of all social media, Mark Zuckerburg’s baby, Facebook, which started in 2004 as a way to connect Harvard students. Fourteen years down the line, as of January 2018, it had 2.2 billion active users! The world population is 7.5 billion, of these some may not be able to read and some may have eluded the web woven by social media altogether as they might be living in areas beyond the reaches of internet transmission and hence have become non users of social media. Of course, there are certain adamant non-users who refuse to use social media despite having access to the internet. Some of my closest friends belong to this category, I discovered.

However, I joined the cadres of Facebook users to keep in touch with old schoolmates. That happened and more. Facebook keeps updating itself! There are some updates, which came as unwelcome surprises. One day, as one scrolled through the Facebook on ones mobiles, videos sprung to life. Imagine, how embarrassing it would have been if in the middle of a speech to keep oneself awake, one scrolled on the Facebook and it voiced out a puppy barking or a person singing or an advertisement for slimming pills or green coffee! People would turn around and stare. Of course one could have the alternative of turning your phone to silent and reducing the voice level to zero… but these are things that one thinks of in afterthought. Now, I know you can change settings so that the video does not start singing in the middle of a speech.

Then, there are those who regard the Facebook as a substitute for newspapers of the juicier kind… sometimes a new thing called ‘ fake news’ (a triumphing Trumpian term popularized by the current media) finds it’s way to the heart of Zuckerberg’s baby. Sometimes, people post content that one would rather not see… political rallies, violence, pictures of diseases, partisan information, hate videos… one can report them but why would you want to see them in the first place? A disconnect from negativity does help one’s peace of mind. Why would people share pictures of a diseased body or a malnourished child or a dog crushed by a car or a prejudiced, partisan banner or poster or video?

To maintain my peace of mind, I prefer taking a walk, reading, talking, playing a game of Sudoku or Scrabble now to surfing the Facebook. I have become vary of posts that create a sense of disharmony.

Then there are posts by women whose posed pictures on Facebook could put Elizabeth Taylor or Meena Kumari, two most beautiful actresses, to shame. That makes me wonder… how beautiful are we on the outside and inside? Is it enough to look beautiful in a picture? Some Facebook users have taken to sharing their children’s outstanding results in exams… perhaps for blessings from their friends but what about those whose kids or who themselves have not aced in exams? Perhaps, the FB posts by now would have desensitized them and helped them reconcile to a more philosophical approach.

Of late, Facebook seems to be evolving a life of it’s own! Not only has it opted to choose to turn on videos if you do not change your settings or suggest posts and FB friendship birthday videos (a concept that did not exist back in the good old Facebookless days), it also has taken to deciding firmly what photographs it will publish with your post. A blog with pictures linked to FB does not have the option of choosing which visual can go with the post. Facebook with it’s own mind decides on the picture. Even if the blogger wants to highlight another visual, Facebook in it’s unique style, decides what is good for the blog! This does sometimes cause distress among bloggers… but they are fewer in number than the majority and therefore not important.

While social media has taken over socializing across a coffee table, people in a metro, a party or a bus no longer chat. They sit with eyes glued to their devices, chatting only on social media or scrolling the Facebook and distributing their emotions online with emojis( which some fear will affect the use of language), likes, loves and hates!

Are we moving towards an impending reality of isolated existence? Will Asimov’s Solaris become a reality where there is no human interaction but only interaction through screens under robotic supervision and tweeting in dictionaries will first highlight social media and somewhere down the line, an archaic usage for bird calls…?