Jayary Newsletter # 47

Absence

You're probably a discerning reader so I don't need to tell you that what's left out is often as important as what you include. If you term an event the world series of bungee jumping but all the athletes are paid up members of the bungee jumping club of lower Manhattan, I can only conclude one of two things: you're adopting the ever popular startup mantra of "today Manhattan, tomorrow the world" or that you simply don't care about anyone who lives across the East river and beyond.

The problem is that absence makes for terrible evidence. While enjoying the elastic acrobatics of the denizens of lower Manhattan, we don't know why the bungee circle of Greater Boston and the All Karnataka Bungee Jumping Association weren't invited to the world series. Absentees are often incapable of voicing their displeasure; that's why thugs intimidate and kill witnesses before the boss's trial.

So when does an absence count more than another absence? Especially an absence within a story?

It's a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Every story has to omit an infinitely greater number of details than it can include, so it's not surprising that most things are absent from it. We don't expect a story about robots on Mars to include details about the battle of Plassey.

Expect. That's the key word here. Absences are tailormade for Bayesian (or more generally, subjective) explanations. Consider a school photograph with forty nine children in uniform, smiling as if they were threatened with caning if they didn't. The photo is missing one person. Let me offer two choices as to who that person can be:

  1. The President of the United States

  2. The fiftieth child on the roster.

Who do you think is the more likely absence? If you guessed the President, you would be right. Duh!

I have fun hunting for absences in a long story like the Jaya; it's like a negative detective story, where we go looking for something that we know we can't find. One absence that I have talked about a lot is that of Yudhisthira. Except for the game of dice where he overplays his hand, Yudhisthira lets his brothers conquer, seduce and wrestle a kingdom for the missing king.

How can an absence be so powerful?

Difference

When Uttanka descended into the Naga kingdom, he saw entire cities made of gold. Flowering trees and murmuring streams sweetened the air. Everywhere he looked, Uttanka saw Naga men and women enjoying themselves on their bejewelled parapets.

Looking at all the wealth on display, Uttanka wondered why Taksaka had to steal his earrings? What monumental greed made the Naga king add another bauble to his vast horde? The Soviet soldiers who entered Germany in 1945 had the same question; even after enduring several years of relentless bombing, wartime Germany was a land of plenty in comparison to the grinding poverty of the Ukrainian and Russian countryside. Why did they have to invade us, wondered the invading soldiers.

Difference is always a source of tension, for even when we tolerate the presence of others, we find ways of making them lesser than us. Identities are easily wounded and slights, both real and imagined, can easily trigger murderous violence. Then there's the even bigger problem of certain identities being defined through their exploitation of others - think of southern white culture and its relationship to slavery and plantations, or closer home, caste culture and its relationship to dalits and adivasis.

Worse (yes, worse), consider the possibility that "human" is defined in contrast with "animal" and the "natural." The Jaya hints at that forming human identity as it bookends the violence between the Kauravas and the Pandavas between two genocides of non-humanity - the burning of the Khandava forest and the sacrifice of snakes.

In-Between

The past is rich and deep, revealing its wisdom to the genuine seeker. It's also hopelessly conservative, celebrating tradition even when it's oppressive and demanding respect even when it's ignorant. The future is shallow, half-formed with hope and speculation and sometimes revolutionary in the worse possible way. Only in the future can we imagine a fascist death star orbiting a dead planet.

Those of who reflect upon time are stuck between these two poles, often rushing headlong into an idyllic future, only to retreat back into a mythic past. Then there are those who set aside time altogether, preferring to meditate upon eternal truths. As far as I can tell, we are either imprisoned in time, constrained by history and our limited imagination or we are frozen in a timeless desert. Both death and deathlessness are terrible in their own way.

So where does the Jaya live? Does it live in the past or does it live in the future? Is it timeless? The default interpretation places the Jaya in the past, except that we also want it peering over our shoulder and whisper maxims in our ear as we meander. When we say that the Bhagavad Gita speaks to us or that we absorb life lessons from reading the Mahabharata, we imagine it placed on a mat by one of the grieving wives on the nineteenth day and then rolled up and sent via priority mail to our doorstep. If Amazon can deliver packages via drone today, it's only a matter of time that Amazon 2.0 sends ancient texts via time machine.

Then there's the science fiction Mahabharata of swords replaced by light sabers, which is only good for hollywood blockbusters funded by the Ambani brothers. One shouldn't forget the timeless lessons of the Gita as propounded by management theorists, cricketers, retired scientists and ex-presidents of the nation.

Is there any other choice? Is there a middle path between death and deathlessness, between being a good boy learning my lessons and a radical book burner?