Making Sense of It


<Felt inspired to write this on August 15th 2015, the 69th Independence Day for India.>

Many people from various parts of the world over the years have visited India and tried to “make sense” of it. While many have written wonderful accounts of their trips and found many interesting angles of looking at it, I don’t think anyone has succeeded in “making sense” of it. And that includes those who went beyond just making sense of it – they actually wanted to do something with it.

By the way, this is not limited just to outsiders. People like me who grew up there and visit often; and many others who live there today; haven’t quite managed to do that either.

So what’s going on? Why can’t anyone make sense of it?

Ok, here let me give you an analogy. Think of a rain forest. (Or any deep forest for that matter.) You step into it and your initial reaction is that of wonder and amazement. It is beautiful and enchanting. The sights, the smells, the sounds, the sensations. It is definitely a feast for the senses. Something deep inside you is attracted to it, but you are not sure what it is.

Then, as you spend a bit more time, you start noticing some of the details. For example, you notice that within a few feet from you are some of the most unusual plants, insects, birds, and even animals you have ever seen. Just look at the forest floor for a few minutes. There is an amazing variety of creatures crawling in there. Look up at the trees. Notice the variety of leaves, flowers, and birds nesting in them. Notice the variety of animals.

You spend some more time taking all of this in. Then try to make sense of it all. What is going on here? How do you describe all this? How does it all work? Who is in charge? What are the rules? How is it all being run? Where is it all going?

Any luck making sense of it all? No, right?

On the other hand, at the end of the day, you give up trying to make sense of it and just try to relax. How do you feel? Confused? Amazed? But still somehow peaceful?

Well, let’s not get too romantic here. The initial wonderment starts to fade pretty quickly and then you start noticing other things. It is way too hot and damp, for example. You are sweating all over. All kinds of weird insects are buzzing around. Some are trying to suck your blood. Some of the smells are a bit too strong. Some of the sights are a bit too unsettling. Some of the sounds continue well into the night – some times all night – and it is hard to sleep. The intensity, the variety, the unfamiliarity, which was initially enchanting and energizing, is starting to become a bit tiring and disturbing.

You ask yourself. What’s going on here? How to make sense of it all? If  I can just make sense of it, and then control it, I  could be more at ease here.

Or, you just accept it as it is and stop caring. You stop thinking and start feeling. And you like how it feels. I am here only for a few days anyway. Why worry? Let me just enjoy the feeling.

Well, this may work for most people some people, but others have a more ambitious agenda. They don’t just want to visit and experience the rain forest, they want something from it. They want a picture of that unusual species that is rarely photographed. They want that special chemical that some plant produces that cures some disease. Or that special bean that makes the best coffee in the world. How to work through all this chaos and get that?

Some have even bigger ambitions. They actually want the whole forest. They want all the wood, all the water, all the land, all the minerals underground. They want total possession. They want complete control. They want to conquer it and shape it according to their desires.

In order to do that, they have to make sense of it. At any cost. But, how?

Then there is the Aha! moment. If they can’t make sense of it because it is too complex, why not simplify the thing itself and then make sense of it? That’s the clever idea, right? If you can’t make sense of it, change the thing itself so it becomes easier to understand. Make it simpler, and then claim that you have understood it. And once you understand it, you can control it. Aha!

So they try. Since they have not really managed to make sense of it, they try to restructure it,  organize it, tame it. Find something that will “unify” or “discipline” or “scale”, which are just other words for “control”. If you can find something that unifies it all, then you can make it scale. If you can make something associated with it scale, then you can control it. Aha!

Well, over the centuries, many have had that idea. Many have tried.

Did it work?

Well, so far, usually they have ended up with one of two outcomes. Either, somewhere during their efforts to make sense of it, they fell in love with it and forgot that they wanted to control it at all. They decided to just accept it as it is and let it control them. (Though, the clever ones managed to make the world think that they were “controlling” it.) They built monuments, had music written, sculptures made, paintings painted. Yes, some of them passed some bogus laws that made the lives of the people living there miserable. But that was just to make them feel like they were in control. They never were.

The second outcome is that they get frustrated, angry. They decide to cut their losses. Just loot as much as they can, scorch as much of the rest it as they can, and then leave.

<Ok, What does all of this have to do with India, and why I changed the tone of the essay towards the end and who were these two types of people – the victors who fell in love with it and the ones who left it, is left as an exercise to the reader. Sorry to make you work. 🙂 >