Sunday, March 12, 2006

Fly on the wall

A major fan of Asimov like me had to figure it out some time. Despite my obviously slow clump of clay in my head, I realised soon enough that Asimov is not a science fiction writer. He did write about the future as he foresaw it, but it was quiet apparent that Asimov was more an explorer of human psyche than the future. The future, robots, transmutation et. al were the right context, the right distraction for him to dwell deeper into the human mind. Two stories would remain in my mind for eternity. The Jokester and The billiard ball . Every tenth knowing smile, I smile is more because of the instant recall of these two amazing stories rathar than the inherant comedey in the context.

It was one such smile. An old uncle who came back from the USA and was regealling all the natives with stories of the promised land. He drawled on pausing stratigically to very very good effect.

"We Indians are extremely intelligent. You know when I was a student in caltech, I had a friend coming fom India for the first time. He joined Princeton to persue his doctorate in physics. Now as students we had to save a lot of money. What did this friend do ? He places a collect call to my number. The phone rang and I picked it up. A sweet voice anounced to me saying, 'A collect call from Ramesh Aagaya. Would you like to accept it ?'. No I replied and she went on to inform Ramesh Aagaya how his collect call had been denied. See without spending any money he informed me of his arrival".

The whole living room burst into laughter applauding the intelligence of Desi Americans and ridiculing the hole ridden system in America. The message was simple. Indians are too intelligent. Give them any system, they will work with it and even twist the system right on its head. That living room was thich with pride and I have to admit, I was the first one to roar with laughter allbeit an entirely different reason. Uncontrollable laughter. Everyone else took the cue and dint want to be left behind.

Why did I laugh ? Is it a unique joke ? Definitely not. Its not even original. I have personally heard ten different people tell me the same joke in ten different versions. Each one claiming with ferocity that he/she/, his/her friend was the original inventor of this great Desi discovery. I laughed that day of the wonderous beauty of Asimov and how mis-understood his stories were. I laughed at the joy of my own discovery of what Asimov really was. A writer of human psyche, letting us have a sneak peek as to why people do what they do. This post is about that.

Asimov's theme in Jokester was simple. Jokes are small little experiments performed by aliens on humans to understand their psyche. To find out why they do what they do. Its not quiet important weather the alien experiment theory is true or not. But for argument sake, lets say it is true. Then why did the old uncle repeat the sadofied (stale) joke ? Why did he expect a laugh ? Why did I laugh ? Why did all the others laugh ?

That uncle was returning back to India after dog years and like every Indian it is central to his life what people of his community think of himself. His sense of success is directly dependant on what his earstwhile peers think of it. His accomplishment is directly co-related to how accomplished he feels out here. In all this there is a fear too. The fear of retaining his Indian ness. Even the most outgoing and liberal person in India, when confronted with the stark reality of a western society steps back to his identity and wants to retain that at any cost. This protective nature is what makes him go to "Bridgewater temple", Learn vedas, look upon carnatic music as some holy grail to be preserved, become more of a hindu than he would ever be in his lifetime. This sense of who you are is so starkly visible in the general American landscape it turns the most outgoing person into a recluse.

If you happen to live in middle America, it is difficult to just become friends with anyone in town. The kind of culture and style an American society brings about is entirely alien to the sometimes intrusive and curiosity ridden Indian way of life.
This uncle, was trying to get back into his old setup at a higher rank than when he left. I was just helping him to ease back into the community as soon as possible and I couldnt help laughing with disbelief of how many different claimants are there for this joke. Each claimant using it for his own unique purpose displaying his own unique psyche. And for perhaps the first time, I wasnt too critical of the fakeness in tihs narration. It was just too funny and I was screaming to myself "I cant believe he was telling me this old sadofied (stale) joke". There was no condescention but it was purely amazing.

Very soon the others who saw this, realised that they all should laugh. Why did they laugh ? Two main reasons.

1) Epidemics
2) Tipping point.

Read Tipping point for a detailed analysis of this.

Anyways in brief we laugh because laughter is a huge social ice-breaker. Its a peek into informality and a certain bonhomie between people. Once you laugh at an other person's joke, you are accepting him into your inner circle and telling him he is accepted and vice-versa. Its a kind of low stakes approach. Instead of openly asking "I want to be friend's with you" (Not the amorous kind megha encounteres often), if you crack a joke and people laugh at it, its apparent that your company is liked and both of you do want to engage in that social interraction. The problem with openly asking that question "I want to be friends with you" or any other social interraction question like "Can we have a cup of coffee ?" (the oft used dating opener) is the fear of rejection.

"How would it be, if I am rejected ?". Well instantly any human would feel bad being rejected because everyone genuinely wants to be liked. A joke is a face saving way of testing that acceptance/rejection theory.

Jokes are also an amazing way to alter the stakes in a relationship. I was told by an old school friend Neetha "that one of the reasons you are funny or try to be funny is because you want to alter the stakes in your relationship and bring it to the zone where you can handle. You can entertain people and often you think that all people want is entertainment. So if someone wants something deep and meaningfull and you cant give it to them, you lighten up the conversation, make them laugh, entertain them and even hope that this can distract them from their real need." I dont really believe this sweaping statement by Neetha, but there is a little truth to it. When can one actually think beyond the rut one is in ? When can you get creative and innovative ? When can those amazing brainwave solutions to your problems appear ? When will you go to your happy place ?

Only when you laugh and lighten up isnt it ? Laughter is nothing but an externally induced natural mood elevator. When your mood changes and your brain processes some puzzles and enjoys the victory of figuring something out, it gets creative and you would find easy ways to untie some really difficult knots. I am built that way actually trying to figure out how knots are opened. Jokes and laughter actually alters many of the assumptions in our brain without us having to be confronted by our set positions in an open way. If someone tells me "Vasu you have to change". Hell there is no way I will change. But if the environment is non-threatening and easy, I will change even without being let know of the fact that I need to change.

Jokes and humour help to generate that non-threatening environment where we all have face savers to not injure our pride.

Whats the connection between the title and the post ? Through and through this whole experience of mine, talking to the old uncle, seeing through the smokes and mirrors of human behaviour, sifting through the tons of crap Neetha told just to find out the odd precious stone, I was a fly on the wall. Non-participative, alert, overworked in my mind and figuring out new relationships between evensts and elements in my environment. If I had involved myself I would never have understood many things. Never would have recalled Asimov and certainly wouldnt have laughed so hard at the "Rames Aagaya" joke.

I was just a fly on the wall.


At 11:21 AM, Blogger CyberRowdy(Q8TechDrive) said...

no doubt we are intelligent

At 10:32 PM, Blogger mutRupuLLi said...

Good article, but i have a point to add..esp about this question of yours and your answer for it,
"When can you get creative and innovative ? "

DH Lawerence once claimed that he gets most creative when he hates something..... Now being a writer and philospher myself i agree with him 100%. My creativity quotient is high and brainwaves and theories occur to me easily when i am hating something immensly. So i think a non threatening environment is not necessarily the only reason for creativity and brainwaves. One can even argue that a 'moderately' threatening or irritating environment is what causes one to increase one's creativty and brings in the innovative solutions in dozens, because the very act of creating an idea or the stricking of a brainwave is not necessarily and fully a logical process. Only a logical action might be actually deterred because of a threatening environment.

About Asimov....I liked his "The Child Of Time", the best...that showed what good an observer of humans he was.

At 10:39 PM, Blogger Vasu the terrible said...

@sridhar - Very true, creative process is not something that is logical and it is futile an argument that creativity is spawned by only one set of environment. We may never know when creative urges would strike and where they have their roots.

Each one inherits a mental state/situation he or she actually finds himself. I think you will end up being creative at the end of the road. That said, it sometimes pays to explore what environment works best for oneself.

Asimov's insight into human behaviour and psyche was beautifully masked by his reputation of being a sci-fi writer.. All the things that he said would never have been bought if they were just simple treatise like aristotle's, Engel's or even plato's.

The key message hear is he downed all people's defenses about notions of human behaviour by telling futuristic and fictitious stories all the while talking about his ideas of human behaviour through the back door.

Incredible strategy isnt it ?


At 5:37 PM, Blogger Enemy of the Republic said...

I have a copy of Asimov's History of the World and it is awesome. The guy was a walking brain. And sci-fi gets a bad rap; I've read stories that dealt with obscure historical issues, race, abortion, gender themes--all under the guise of science fiction. I grant you that there are some ever loving dogs out there, but the best science fiction is like an exquisite wine.

I appreciate your visits to my blog.

At 12:13 PM, Blogger Pradeep Nair said...

A good point about Asimov. No doubt humour or jokes make the environment informal, and a good device to break ice.

Just going a little off-topic... and taking this point a little further, haven't you noticed how jokes get misdirected or make unexpected and unintended impacts on the recipient. When someone is hurt, immediately there is an apology: "O, i was just joking."

So, what is the limit for jokes? How many jokes are actually "sugar-coated bitter truths"? When you can't tell something straight twist it in the form of a joke!

Everyone enjoys it until someone objects. Of course, he is branded as having no sense of humour or a spoilsport.

Much of the jokes we get to hear are derisive, insensitive and often personal remarks about other people.

At 1:30 AM, Blogger Deepti Ravi said...

hello!!! I am temporarily back in circuit ~~!!! :) Asimov is fantastic! Jokester was an awesome short story.. I remember sitting for hours after reading that short story ..and thinking about all the jokes I have heard ...and to be honest couldn't help wondering whether the fiction in the book was already fact!! I mean other than circumstantial humour.. nearly all else are nothing but recycled and spruced up with modern settings.. take for eg. that joke of 4 ppl in a train and the tunnel of darkness~!!! Anyways, yeah.. humour is just our way of trying to make conversation out of nothingness... or in trying to appear as someone intelligent.. somehow .. humour in a person.. is always seen as an attribute of intelligence.. don't know how far applicable it can be !! Its like the constant wishy-washy abt the weather/ tea which the Brits tend to take to!!!

At 7:06 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Found your blog frm comments you had made elsewhere which I found from comments they had left which ... well you get the idea.

Branching off into (un)related areas...
I am always wary of comments like "indians are..." "americans are..." , "chinese are..." etc. Does the nation of birth determine so much? Nations are just lines on a map most nations including our own India had different borders at different times.

At 9:19 PM, Blogger Deepti Ravi said...

SJ, A nation is more than just a border.. The border is created because of the walls that are constructed segregating the way we look , our attitudes... everything.. on an average.. if you look at it in a global perspectives.. we do tend to have attitude lineated by our nationalities...!

At 8:10 AM, Blogger vevck said...

Hey Vasu!

I loved the title of the post 'Fly of the Wall', but then I couldn't figure out how did it correlate with you were saying untill I had reached the end of the post. Sometimes you need to stand by & notice what is happening to get the complete picture and I totally agree with what you have saidy "If I had involved myself I would never have understood many things". At times we need to participate & involve ourselves to get the real picture. Don't u think so?

Somehow I had never come across Asimov & thanks for introducing him on this post.

BTW an hour ago I started reading 'The Tipping Point' by Malcolm Gladwell, is it the same book you are refering to? He too does speak about Epidemics & Tipping Point:)

I liked the observation you have made on how jokes play the role in a social cirlces & they truly alter the stakes in relationships.

Good one mate!


At 11:30 PM, Blogger vevck said...

I finsihed Chapter 1 from 'The Tipping Point' & was bored by his statistical proof. I guess he cld have cut down on some occasions, sometimes he repeats them over & over.

At 8:09 AM, Blogger twip said...

I love your title.....the fly on the wall. Very very profound.....

I have always wondered why people in America are more 'desi'(crude way of saying it I know, but you get the point)....than people in India.

My cousin and her family, regularly go to temples, poojas, more poojas in friends houses and she celebrates EVERY single festival......even festivals which I havent heard of while living in India. And I remember, while she was in India, she wouldnt even pray at home....let alone go to a temple!

And your post illustrates that beautifully...this desperate sense of identity which Indians hold on to....
Me likey this post veryveryvery much:D

And question: was the Megha in your post referring to me(if it isnt, ignore this question while I run away and cover my face in embarassment:P)

At 11:49 PM, Blogger Vasu the terrible said...

@Deepti - Welcome back and hope to see more of your posts...
Asimov's rest of the robots is another favourite of mine. I am now a collector and am looking for some of his older works. Have to make a trip to alwar kadai in Luz and scavenge...

@SJ - I agree with you to some extent. But the usage itself depends on the context. If I were to say "Chinese are dumb" or "Americans are stupid", I would fall into your wary category. I am not judging anyone here based on nationality. I am just explaining a phenomena which I myself personally went through and I have analysed from close quarters in many others.

NAtionality is not just origin. ITs identity. Someone like MArk Tully (of BBC) who has made Delhi his home or Romulus Whitaker, the American Zoologist who founded Chennai's crocodile park may identify themselfs differently. The fact is expat Indians identify themselves much starkly with respect to nationality than other Americans. Either they became vedic and relegious or they hate India. Its always the extremes. Its not their fault or a way of deriding them but just to explain a funny phenomena.

@megha - That reference was to you... "Lets make friendship" Isnt that a wierd the statement ? I mean gramtically. It closely rhymes "Lets make babies ?".. neways, The starkness of American social landscape makes people go to the extremes. Extremely ious or extremely irreverant. Somehow the middle ground thats there in India seems to have fallen through as soon as you touch the American soil.

Dont know if its the same with 2nd gen Indians, but definitely so with many of the fresh on board Indians.

All in jest

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