#9: I don’t know how to resolve the tension between the desire to enjoy the world, the curiosity to understand it and the rage to change it

I wrote this note in my journal on the morning of 16, February 2021, recalling the events of the previous day. A young environmental activist was arrested, and it triggered a series of thoughts laying bare the inner conflicts I often deal with. I don’t have any meaningful way to resolve them, but confronting them is perhaps a good starting point. This is a slightly edited version of the original note in my diary. 

Yesterday was weird.

I started the day with a run; went to work; posted an Instagram story about the cheap thrill of getting a free Blue Tokai coffee (thank you, WeWork!); wondered if my caffeine intake is beyond limits, and felt greatly relieved after learning that 400mg of caffeine per day is an acceptable amount—meaning four cups of coffee are not going to kill me; told my colleague we should order a croissant in the evening from the bakery he had introduced me to; wondered if I should unwind for a few days in Goa before heading back to home in Delhi; messaged a few journalist friends regarding an idea of a course I am thinking of teaching. Usual everyday stuff.

Cut to the evening. I was outraged: the Delhi police had arrested Disha Ravi, a 22-year old environmental activist for creating a toolkit intended to wage "economic, social, cultural and regional war against India"—just another bogus case to silence dissent. 

The absurd executive actions of the Indian state and its arbitrary exercise of power do not surprise me: it’s a feature, not a bug. But the form in which it manifests itself touches new lows every time. "How can they do this? This is insane!" are the words I routinely scream inside my head. 

Just days before I lost my cool after reading a story in the Washington Post that reported the findings of a new forensic report telling us how a "key evidence against a group of Indian activists accused of plotting to overthrow the [Indian] government" was maliciously planted by malware on the laptops seized by police. Again, it’s not that I am not aware about the hunger of the Indian state to spy and surveil its citizens—I write about that stuff—but the specific incidents reveal what's at stake. 

I don’t see each of these incidents in isolation. In aggregate, it feels like India is an illiberal democracy with a liberal constitution gradually backsliding to an authoritarian state. 

But I also have doubts about this assertion: what if my analysis is wrong? I have a really poor understanding of history—I am trying to fill that gap—and that makes me unsure if what I am seeing right now is a downfall or if the Indian state has been like this forever. Whether the incidents that trouble me in Modi’s India are directly related to this regime or if they are a constant feature of India's governing class? I wonder if all my ideas about the India I had imagined as a kid were actually wrong, and if the information I had been fed was riddled with propaganda? I worry if the majority of Indians don't align with fundamental liberal values that form the cornerstone of Indian constitution. And what if all of this is not about India at all: maybe the layers run deeper and hint to the relationship between those who exercise power and its subjects?

I really don’t know. I spend a lot of my time scratching my head and turning to books looking for answers. This is the part of me that is really curious to understand the world and build a model to make sense of it. 

When I think about these questions, I try to avoid daily news and social media chatter. They make it hard to isolate events from systemic processes. But I also realise that not looking at these discomforting incidents does not mean they will go away. This is the world we live in and these incidents are happening right now. The frustrating thing is the sense of not being able to do anything about it and witnessing the world as a mute spectator. 

Which raises more questions: What should I do? What can I do? How can I uses my skills and abilities to make a positive contribution? What is the philosophical frame in which I should think about my role as a citizen and separate it from that of a free individual?

I don't think I am going to get any meaningful answers to these questions anytime soon. In the interim, I want to figure out things that would satisfy my conscience, like donating a fixed proportion of my annual income to charity. It also includes exercising my inalienable right to raise voice against excesses of the Indian state every time I feel the urge to do so (I am carefully using these words). Especially so in the offline world, meaning participating in protests to show solidarity with causes I care about. 

So yesterday, at 3.45pm, when I saw on Twitter that people are gathering at Mysore Bank Circle calling for an immediate release of Disha Ravi, I instantly decided to go. 

The scheduled time was 4pm. The croissant we ordered had just arrived. I quickly ate it, booked an Uber and rushed to the protest spot. I reached around 4.40pm. At first, I was elated: there were real people out there, protesting against the illegitimate arrest of the young activist. I clicked photos, shot videos and tweeted a few. But just when I thought more people would arrive, the opposite happened: around 5.30pm, the crowd dispersed. It was over. Huh?

“This city is so disappointing,” I texted two friends. “Just 100 people show up? Really?”

A fellow protester said that 100 people turning up for a protest in Bengaluru on a Monday evening was actually quite good. It is possible that many were not aware of the gathering, or a short notice meant they could not leave the workplace, or they were generally avoiding crowded places due to the pandemic. Made sense. But my disappointment stayed. 

I booked an Uber to get back. On the way, I played The Trial of the Chicago 7—a movie that had a deep and profound impact on my thinking. People around me seem to have lost a sense of civics—of being a citizen—and the movie was a powerful reminder of what that means. 

Ten minutes later, a friend who has gone abroad to study public policy texted me and said he wanted to chat. He was struggling with similar questions. We got on a Zoom call in an hour and discussed the state of the world and where we see ourselves positioned in the larger scheme of things.

We discussed what we always do: about the deep privilege both of us hold that ensures there is zero impact on our daily lives with actions of the Indian state; the discomfort we feel for being in that position and not knowing how to act on those feelings. Both of us realise that we must do something but we believe we should not rush: the quest to make the world better is not a sprint. We should learn, listen to people, go to the ground, fill gaps in our shallow understanding, eliminate myths—all that. While we feel unsure what that "do something" should be, the tension is what if it gets too late? 

We spoke about our common friends who treat political discussions as nothing more than evening gossip. “Yeah man, it’s terrible” is all they say—it doesn’t trigger any thoughts or change in actions. We reminded ourselves that we are asking these questions because we care. These incidents trigger us: we feel more determined to level up our efforts every time the government does something non-sensical. We must sensibly process this outrage.

All the forces around us would tell us that we are over-thinkers, idealistic, misguided privileged liberals ranting but doing nothing, that we should stop bothering because nothing can really change. We have to actively resist those voices. Deep inside our hearts, we know it would be hard for us to live a fulfilled life if we give up on our deepest convictions about the possibilities of a better world — for everyone. Opting this path is not easy and we knew that when we chose careers that overlap with civic life. 

But giving up hope for change means surrendering to cynicism—which is quite different from being skeptical, an acquired trait of good journalists—and that's not a version of myself I would like to see anytime in the future. 

The call ended. I packed my bag and started walking towards a beautiful cafe I had decided to spend my evening at. 

The events of the day really confused me: how do I go from getting excited about free coffee in the morning to being concerned about the state of the country in a matter of a few hours? What explains this duality? What gives me this superpower to switch between these two widely different modes of thinking about my place in the world? 

It’s like the difference between my Twitter and Instagram feed. On Instagram—which I started using only in the last few months—I follow five types of accounts: friends, celebrities, bookstagrammers, dancers and fitness instructors. The Instagram version of me wants to enjoy life: dive deep into a great book, spend quality time with family and friends, travel to the mountains, explore new things, pursue my hobbies, and do all the small things that make life worth living. Then there is the Twitter version of myself which gets angry looking at the unjust, unfair and unequal world. A fire rages inside me to do something to change the status quo.

How can I move between these modes as if I am just alternating between browser tabs? I struggle to make sense of this. At the core of it is The Big Question: How do I balance my desire to enjoy the world, the curiosity to understand it and the rage to change it?

I was thinking all this while sitting at the corner table of that lovely European-style cafe with an outdoor seating. Then and there I decided to cancel the Goa trip I was contemplating in the morning. I could not do it. Not that I would do anything radically meaningful by skipping a 3-day holiday—it would make zero difference to myself or anyone else. It’s just that I did not have the courage to make those bookings and unwind at the beach while I struggled with these internal contradictions.

I walked back home, took a shower, laid down on my bed, still conflicted, wondering if and how the thoughts of the day should trigger any action or changes in what I do on a daily basis. Unable to process it, I turned off the music playing in my headphones and jumped to a 17-minute audio clip I had recorded for myself in October 2020: a monologue of me talking to myself, reminding myself of my privilege, and the various high-tension points in my life where I made some hard calls, where I followed the path my principles directed me towards, recounting how that made me feel, why I should not leave that path and stick to my values. Those reminders are important. 

My mind was probably exhausted by then: I fell asleep within minutes, and most of that dialogue remained unheard. I realised this morning how comfortably I had slept—despite all those anxious questions occupying my mind! How? I don't know. It was just another contradiction, a perfect illustration of what the previous day was all about.

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