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Category Archives: History

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”
~ W. C. Fields

Persistence.

The final frontier.

Throughout life I’ve been good at analyzing situations. Dispassionately judging them. Making the reward / risk calculation in the blink of an eye. Deciding ruthlessly whether continuing with a path is worthwhile.

I’ve not the persistent type.

Too good at revaluating and second guessing. Too attuned too new information; too prone to giving it credence. Letting it tip my initial resolution into a new direction.

A quitter.

In friendships, in work, in projects, in hobbies.

Because I don’t appreciate the value of commitments or sunk costs. The first is theoretically economic suicide. The second is theoretically divine economics.

Neither is a good way of dealing with people.

People are intrinsically valuable. You don’t value people for ends. A friend is not valuable for helping you cope with stress or because they trust you with their problems. A mentor is not valuable because they teach. We ascribe value to what they do, but that is not the source of their value.

The value in any relationship is in the now. Conditioned by those past experiences. Guided by them. But transcendent of them. A relationship exists in the present moment. In the will of the participants. These people, here and now.

Now, today, I understand there are no sunk costs with people. Relationships however formed, however twisted, endure. A man and his worst enemy have a relationship – albeit adversarial. The best friend from primary school and me have a relationship that exists now. No matter how faint.

These relationships function through persistence. Time spent in contact, messages past, emails sent and the odd phone conversation is communication and persistence. They both need to be there.

It’s time I practiced some persistence.

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“It’s very easy to have slogans and rhetoric that people will follow, but eventually the slogans fall away.”
– Saad Hariri

Playing like a repeating sound track, transfigured words spinning around my head. Words echoing between my ears, slogans that won’t fade.

That won’t fall away.

I am impressionable these last few months.

Words said as inspirational slogans, words meant to be exhortative are having a lasting effect. They are becoming embedded in my psyche. Playing in a loop, conditioning my responses, long after they dropped  from the lips which gave birth to them.

It’s surreal because it’s meant to be that way. We’re meant to hear them, feel inspired and then forget these wild words, dangerous when they are entrenched in the mind.

One of them has proven to be  useful.

I have playing on a loop in my head, constantly affirming :

 “Everything that I have been through, every experience I have had, every person I have met, has prepared me for today“.

A powerful idea that has helped conquer the challenges of the last few months.

The strangeness of the business world at Pinsent Masons was one instance. I had spent enough time working through my summer internships and  watching my dad. I could handle this world; handle it well. Things learned before were stretched and adapted to a new world.

This success bought another challenge, facing an interview for the first time. I’d never done an interview before I walked through the doors at Pinsent Masons for my formal interview. I’d done my research; Google  and a sustained interrogation of James  gave  me a good idea of what would be asked and what responses to deploy against the standard interview questions. Skills I’d acquired before; pressed into service .

More recently the sustained pressure of the Advocacy program here on the PCLL has been a challenge. Coupled with the expectations and pressure of Ramadan, I’ve felt as close as I have to the breaking point in a long time.

The advocacy, scheduled on Saturday mornings, is the most demanding part of this course.It requires the most work to perform well. All advocacy in the end is preparation. The more you know the material, the more you have considered the arguments, the easier it is.

The challenge is the volume of material that they give us,

The public speaking I can do. My MUN experience has given me enough practice in being relaxed and measured in my tone for that not to be a strain. I’ve spent enough time performing during religious functions to be free of most performance anxiety. A little bit of nervousness you need to keep you sharp.

I knew how to deal with volumes of papers. I’d spent a summer watching Andrew White QC deal with over 75 box files of material. My time spent in barristers’ chambers, watching those whose jobs are the skill that I am being taught is being put to use. I remember their methods, their suggestions and their tricks. I am fortunate enough to have observed some of the best practitioners at work, and they had shown me their methods.

I already possessed everything I needed. All there was for me to do was to synthesize the attributes I already had.

A much easier task.

In a sense this world view is a simplification. I take tasks and break them down into their components. I find where I’ve done them before. I apply the skills that I took on board that time and apply them to this problem. The worry naturally is that I’m stuck slightly in the past. I’m not facing the problem as it is now, but as I faced it in the past.

I appreciate that this is part of learning, this is what it means to possess a human memory, learning from our previous experience to ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes again. I’m happy with that part.

What I’m worried about is what I’ll do when this mantra fails. What happens when I encounter something of which I have no prior experience. When none of the things that I have done before can be twisted into application.

I know everything has to be done for the first time once. There will always be a first time that we take a  risk or venture beyond our limits.

That is how we grow.

This mantra of mine emphasizes preparation. It focuses on knowing what’s going to happen. It doesn’t teach dealing with the unexpected. Reacting on the fly to a situation that flattens you and knocks the wind from your sails. That’s a significant problem.

I suspect, that in time, I’ll pick up enough experience not be too worried. The unexpected will be sprung on me  enough that I’ll learn to cope with it better. Each improvement, will become an experience. An experience that I’ll learn from to prepare for the next time.

So I won’t worry.

There’s no need to get ahead of myself.

Most conversations are simply monologues delivered in the presence of a witness.  ~Margaret Millar

Have you ever had a conversation so dull, so insipid, so blatantly one sided that you had to resort to amusing yourself anyway that you could?

The scenario is you’re stuck in a conversation you cannot avoid. You can’t avoid talking to the person  because the circumstances require it. At some level you need to stay on that persons good side, or you can’t risk offending them because of the consequences.

You have to talk to them.

At the same time you know that when you do talk to this person, you’re going to be so bored that your brain will crawl out of your nose. The conversation will be so uninspiring that you’ll crave to find excitement in any way that you can find it. Just to sustain your will to live, you will hunt out anything to amuse you.

The default way people do this, at least as far as I understand how people behave, is by changing the topic or by keeping their involvement in a conversation to a superficial level. Now that works when you’re dealing with reasonable and basically decent people. There are a lot of people out there who are not reasonable or basically decent.

They’re so wrapped up in their own world, own views, own perspectives and own way of looking at issues, that you will not get them to talk about anything else. They’re so engaged with their own neurosis that they can’t bear to not talk about themselves or their cause.

Changing the topic is right out.

On the other hand you don’t have it in you, the heart or the will, to keep playing the passive role in the conversation. You know that playing the passive appreciative role will be misinterpreted for interest. You know that these people, what they need is the slightest indication of interest and they’ll talk your head off.

Playing the passive appreciative listener is right out.

You could do it anyway but it wouldn’t solve the ‘being bored’ part of the conundrum.

I’ve found a solution that solves this. It is a highly personal solution; I don’t even pretend that it’ll work for you. Its sole purpose is keeping me sane. Which for understandable reasons, I feel is a important goal.

If you know anything about me, you’ll know that I have a predilection for clever word play. I also have a really love for those of us who are culturally literate, and able to keep up with the allusions that I pepper my conversation with. Now I don’t expect people to get them but I do enjoy it when they do, and I enjoy people who possess the nuance and ability to keep up.

I combine these attributes together and take them to the boring conversation. Instead of giving negative replies, or dull encouraging ones, I start essentially engaging in one-sided repartee. I start dropping in allusions. I change the tense of words or the context. What might have started as a monologue on holidays is transformed by changing the tense into a sex joke. What starts as a political conversation might become a reference to horror movies. Or the Mona Lisa.

I observe that these diversions have a pretty uniform reaction from the chatterbox. For a second, for a split second they stop. They visibly think “what the hell has he just said” and then they ignore it. They pretend it didn’t happen, that I said the right things, the things they wanted to hear. They keep going on full steam, trusting that I meant to give the response that would validate their insecure rambling. If needed, they’ve shown a considerable ability to fill in the blanks in my response themselves, interpreting it as great and positive words.

A few more seconds go by and their confidence is fully restored. It’s fully restored because they didn’t listen to a word you said in the first place, they didn’t pay it any attention and now that it’s their turn to talk they’ll not take the risk of losing their momentum.

Which gives me a golden opportunity to do the same thing again. And again. And Again. And again.

Eventually, finally, thankfully, subhanallah, the person finally shuts up. Sometimes I hope this is because I’ve disorientated them enough to throw off their balance and forced to really think about what they’re saying. I think I give myself too much credit too. More usually what saves me is the realization that I’ve done my duties towards politeness and decency, and  can request to be excused and depart post haste.

Secure in the knowledge that it’ll start again soon enough. 

History was over. The Great Ideological Battle was finished. The Victor was triumphant for Eternity.

A simplification as old as Ahura Mazda, the great Persian creator god.

Liberalism and Capitalism had triumphed. The priority of the right over the good had been assured. Now we would live peacefully in the Joy this would bring. The forces arrayed by chaos/evil against those of order/good had been decisively won by the forces of good. 

Of course now we know this was a fantasy, wishful thinking not unforgivable in the afterglow of the fall of the Berlin War. In that moment perhaps the panorama of history was truly open to such a radical interpretation of victory. If an axis disappeared in a bipolar world, then there could only be one person left, who must be default take as his own the prize.

Instead we formulated another vision of reality. We saw the world as it was again, free of distorting ideological lenses forced on us by competing superpowers. Free of a compression that reduced all world views to left and right. Communist and capitalist. Free and unfree. Good and Evil.

This was a localized view, a world where cultures and religions mattered. Where regionality and geography mattered. A world of eternal conflict based on the clash of civilizations. Ahura Mazda indeed; the unending battle against Evil.

Redefining Evil so that we could find it to fight again. How would we know who was good if there was no Evil to contrast it with?

Returning back where we started, fighting amongst differing conceptions of the good, seeking to impose our own views on others and to remake the world in our own image.

Amidst all of this I never questioned the central role of liberalism as a political philosophy. I saw the rise of civilizations, of empires, based on culture or religious beliefs but never considered that western liberalism might be a civilization, based on religious and cultural roots. 

Yet now it seems so obvious.

Of course it is.

It’s just a subtly different one.

Shared political roots are what ties this civilization together. Share. Interlocked with certain perspectives about religion, intertwined with a religion that stressed thinking rather than doing and when attached to a polity necessarily more free then feudal.

This was our most vibrant and powerful Civilization. So powerful that it claimed to be universal. As Xerxes before had claimed that the Creed of Ahura Mazda was, for the necessary and incidental glory of the Persian Empire. So powerful in fact that in its age of empire it stretched from sunrise to sunrise. So dominant that it maintained this great reach for nearly 300 years.

Even today, arguing the non-universal nature of liberalism is something that hasn’t found its way into the heart of the political debate. The Communitarian critics may have made their arguments, but they have not pervaded the popular conscious in the way that the arguments of icons such as Bentham, Mill, Rousseau and Rawls have. We have embedded ourselves firmly into the State, made legitimate by the contract it forms with its inhabitants. We have clothed ourselves in the assumptions of the liberal impulse.

Its becoming clear to me that the assumptions of Liberalism are stark and . Reading Sandel makes the Rawlsian ones shine out. But at a intuitive level for me, I find myself unable to accept the priority of right over good, preferring to invert the mechanism personally or at least to balance them out. I’m also not a keen fan of the social contract, the hypotheticals it requires to exist (which Sandel is quick to point out) and that leaves no from of liberalism as viable. On the other hand the radical libertarian twist of Nozick is equally unappealing.

Some via media would perhaps command respect but a liberal theory not found in some original position, either a state of nature or social contract, seems to be non – existent.

What we talk about instead is the legitimacy of democracy – of participation not the end result.  We sanctify the process. But the process is just a means, it cannot assure us of an ends, and what we must sanctify are the ends. The plurality and tolerance that we seek to enshrine as values do not occur naturally to people. Which is why the western world is so often disappointed when it comes to the outcome of foreign elections such as that of Hamas in Palestine.

What we need are the assumptions of Liberalism to be universally accepted to even begin spreading democracy to other countries. If we can’t get them to accept the tolerance then spreading democracy is a futile exercise. We end up with the donkey democracy. The Democratic Republic of Congo – a ruthless dictatorship the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – the ultimate in loony dictatorships. The staged elections that happen in Egypt, the parody of the process that was the Nigerian Presidential Election.

Yet amongst all the cultural exports of the West, the most tenuous has been the small “L” liberal. Because what they’re exporting is the whole. A whole set of assumptions, values, behaviors, perspectives and beliefs. And nothing so wholesale can ever be exported. People do not adopt the culture fully of foreign people in their own lands. They modify it. They take selectively what they wish. They adapt it. They pick the attributes that maybe grant them the fastest results. Or the most easily identifiable ones.

There can be no uptake of Liberalism, because Liberalism is a culture that is complete internally and entirely extrinsic externally. And people don’t adopt foreign customs in their native land.

I have no nationality – the best possible status for an intellectual.
Emile M. Cioran

In a recent discussion my dad and brother both made a similar point. We as a family and as Bohras lived Indian as well as Islamic values. This is to differentiate us from the obvious ‘other’ – Western and Secular values.

Not being short of the odd brain cell, I didn’t think that was the opportune moment to disagree.

I don’t deny that the vast majority of Bohras,  living in India and Pakistan, living in the homogeneity of northwestern Indian culture share a collective cultural tradition.

I deny that I share it. And I deny that this is something I should feel bad about. I deny that this is an aberration in any sense, shape or form. They didn’t say that. But they implied it.

I have self identified myself as a third culture kid. I live in the heart of cosmopolitan Hong Kong, the glitzy world of soaring apartment blocks and 80 storey office complexes.  I don’t share the expatriate, transient culture that my friends have all adopted. I’m clearly no white boy, and I don’t intend to act like one to fit in.

I don’t have any connection with local culture, that thrives in say Mong Kok or Ma On Shan. Its so obvious that I don’t belong there that even faking it would be pointless.

Which in my parents mind leaves India.

India as home.

It isn’t. Not for me.

India is your home. You were the ones who were born and grew up there. You’re the ones with the friends there. You know the streets. You know the shops. You are the ones who feel at home in the mobs of Bombay, who thrill, even if you will not admit it, in the sheer mass of humanity, in the sights and the smells and the sounds.

Mum is smarter then that. She intuits what I think when we land in India. She’s mentioned it before: “You’d never come here if we didn’t bring you”, “Back to being bored in Surat again”. Countless variations on a similar theme. And she’s right. There’s no resonance.

I’d never go if I didn’t have to.

All India is to me is a place that I go to.  Go to and leave on the first possible day that I can.  Religious events and functions, family events and functions. Stuff you have to attend. I don’t like being there. Not the smells, not the sounds, not the mob. Not the dirt, not the ignorance nor the poverty. This is what I see when I go to India. And there’s no person for whom that could be appealing.

My physical dislike of the place is highlighted because of the cultural alienation. I feel most un – Indian when I’m in India. It highlights how definitely I don’t fit in.

I don’t speak the language. Oh sure enough to get by, be understood by the rank and file and make my way around. But that’s not really understanding the language. My language skills are functional, and there’s no incentive to make them any better.

I don’t watch the movies. Frankly I despise them. For 15 years I’ve been saying that I’ll watch Bollywood when they finally make a grown up movie, and I’m still waiting. Not one person has recommended a movie as technically a good movie. Something other then a romance story that is so generic that script writing is more like coloring by number.

I don’t like the music, which is intimately tied to the movies and equally uninviting. As I’ve said so often before I like my music to be interesting, different sounds, and with  meaning –  not just spectacular choreography which is what all Indian music that I’ve ever seen, is.

I couldn’t care less about KBC or the mountains of soap opera drivel that so many people seem to revolve their lives around.

I can’t go on listing all the things Indian that I don’t care about. It’s politics, its history, its geography, its sports, they’re all there. My point has come out. I can’t identify with being Indian because I’m not Indian. Not in a sense that actually matters. Emotionally, culturally Indian. I don’t care about India: the country or the culture.

What I have are a set of values that are derived from Indian  culture. The strong sense of family, the integrated living, the strong reliance on family support are all part of my upbringing and ethos, deference to authority, deference to seniority, strict social politeness and so on. But I don’t think they are particularly Indian values. I know people of all casts colors and creed who abide by very similar values. Some of them are my best friends, and exemplify it better then many Indians who think they are living and breathing the values. And I know Indians who don’t abide by anything close to the Indian values creed.

India to me is the nation who issues my passport. That’s the sum impact of India for me. They let me go to places more interesting by providing the proper travel documents. Not that I’m not grateful for their contribution, but well, it doesn’t really deserve delirious patriotic accolades does it. And I’m trying to ditch that as soon as I can reasonably be sure of getting a trade up. The HKSAR passport looks quite tempting, but I don’t trust the Mainland government or our local policy hacks.

Which leads me to my conclusion. I’m not Indian. Just Brown.

 

 

 

 

walking home

in the rain

soaking wet

smiling

laughing

so alive.

Function: noun
Etymology: google.com

The ability to quickly answer any given question using internet resources, such as a search engine, specifically Google.

I’m pretty damn fed up of answering stupid questions. Inane annoying questions that ask whether I can find X for someone. Or do I know of any Y. Or where could they find Z.

Stupid questions that no one should be answering in the age of Wikipedia, Google and the Interweb. Especially not from fucking twenty-somethings or teens who should know how this shit works.

When I ask what research they’ve done themselves, I get the answer I expected – none. They can’t be arsed to find their own information. Just pass it on to me. And they know that I’ll usually get them an answer within a few minutes.

How do I do that? Cause I have a minor bit of Google-Fu. I know how to use a fucking search engine. Its a public search engine. Which means that if you were arsed you could learn it too. They don’t hide the information. There’s no secret fucking handshake. Its pretty damn intuitive if you’ve got more then two ounces of spare logic. And if you practice it a couple of times, keep that link somewhere handy, slowly you’ll remember what operators do what. I know, fucking learning – who would have thought you could do that.

So what am I going to do about it? I’m going to stop  enabling. You can answer your little queries. I’m going to be an unhelpful jackass like most other people are. I’m going to say inane useless comments like “Have you tried Google?” or “maybe Wikipedia has something”. Or best of all “hmm..dunno”.

What I’m not going to do is look for it myself. If you can’t find it – well I don’t give two shits. Your inability to find basic information on the vastest trove of collective knowledge humanity has ever generated is a problem. Specifically, its your problem. And you need to solve it. Yourself.

I’ve been reading Mao: The Unknown Story by the husband and wife team, historian Jon Halliday and writer Jung Chang. She of Wild Swans fame. The book is a revisionist history of Mao Tse Tung, the great Chairman Mao who is popularly lauded as the founder of modern China.

The eleven years of research for the book included interviews with hundreds of people who were close to Mao, revealing the contents of newly opened archives. Additional knowledge comes from Chang’s personal experience of living through the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. The book appears to be meticulously researched, with wide ranging series of interviews that are combined with archives to put together what actually happened.

It is a penetrating insight into the difference between what the official story is according to the Chinese government and how different reality can be. Events that have passed into the propaganda mythos of the CCP such as the Long March, the Battle at the Luding Bridge and many other minor events that populate the official history of modern China are revealed to be the propaganda they are. They are all event spun after the fact to make Mao a hero and to make the CCP look more benevolent then it ever was.

The underlying theme is Mao as Monster. There is consistent focus on his brutal purges, his constant scheming, his manipulation of both the CCP command structure and of the USSR to support him personally instead of the hierarchy of the CCP. His personal incompetence shines out. Mao comes across as a bumbler, unable, but ruthless who knew what his goals were and sacrificed all other people to achieve them. Including his wives (3 of them) and his children (lots of them), friends (when he had any) and any other person that was useful as a mere pawn.

Standing alongside Mao’s ruthlessness is his single mindedness. He wanted power above all things. Even, perhaps especially, given that he had no wider reason for power, no goals or hopes that he hoped to bring to fruition through power. Power was the means and the ends for Mao, and it had to be achieved at all costs. And the costs were terrible and the human costs unbelievable.

On a personal level, reading the book has been an eye opener because as part of the GCSE History syllabus you do a module on the rise of Modern China. And that module it is now clear to me is entirely based on the propaganda – that it lacks any of the depth, nuance or reality on the subject that would have really made it enjoyable and appreciable or even accurate.

We got that kind of contextualisation in the more modern scholarship of the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution which admittedly were A-Level subjects, but I think that we would have been better off studying the Chinese Revolution in the same way. It’s a rich rich topic with so much underlying the spin and so much concealed facts that sometimes it seems to me ridiculous what we believed in hind sight as to be the true history. Stuff about how well the CCP treated its peasants, and how the leadership suffered equally with the solders during the Long March, or how Mao was an instrumental leader of early Chinese communism now seem ridiculous in the light of Jung Chang’s book.

What I can’t get over though, on the personal level is that my teachers lied to me. The scholarship was there before the book, albeit in different sources and not collated together as well. I hope that if they’ve had a chance to read the book that they won’t be teaching the same lies to a new generation of people. Not everyone is going to find out some parts of the truth by themselves.

What is becoming is honest, and whatever is honest must always be becoming.

Cicero

A Blooming FlowerWhen people first met me I tend to be an unknown commodity. Very quiet and restrained. I didn’t take an active role in conversations and I certainly won’t be sharing much information about myself. You are a stranger, and in my framework, my personal blinkers, strangers were people to be cautious around.

What you certainly couldn’t do was to trust them; they would burn you further down the line. More importantly they didn’t need to know, and all information about me was on a strictly need to know basis. Perhaps over time when we built up a rapport, you might be initiated into the mysteries of Mohammed, but absolutely not without this essential precondition.

This was my mindset for much of high school. Craig and Mubaraka could testify how difficult it was to get any information from me on personal matters. And they were my friends!! I would consistently albeit unconsciously downplay my life. If asked, I was doing nothing, going to chill, relax, not doing anything this weekend, not planning on anything for the holidays and so on. For all intents and purposes I was doing nothing all the time, no matter how much was actually going on.

Like so much else, this was something that was purged from me in the Great University Experience. For the first time in my life I was cut off from the safety net of old friends and old habits. The environment was alien; I knew so few people and there were so many new people about that I had no choice but to learn how to make new friends.

Being the stubborn, ignorant, prideful person that I am, I paid no heed to these demands. I always have a choice. I was not going to remake myself to accommodate a foreign world, they would do business on my terms or not at all. And in the end, I didn’t need to. I found the few people that I liked who did business on my terms and built myself a comfortable life. The truest of pyrrhic victories.

At the same time, I discovered a deep seated admiration for people such as James and Gareth, people who for all my inherent reserve had befriended me. I have no delusions that our friendship was in anyway a bilateral process. They befriended me. And I understand how they did it. They were honest, frank, caring and they invited me into their lives, they showed their human side and their ups and downs in a way that I don’t think I’d experienced before.

It really is the most fundamental of human reactions that when others open up to you, you reciprocate that trust. You open up to them. We understand what a gift it is when someone shares their life with you. Maybe because we know how hard it is to do, we understand how precious it truly is. And most people take that responsibility seriously.

Here, back in Hong Kong, in very much the same situation, I’ve tried and put that mantra into action. I’ve opened up to the new people that I’m meeting. I’m being frank, and sharing my daily life, my moments and my ups and downs with them. For me. Because I want to. Because I know it works. And I’ll be damned if I’ll turn away from what works because it scares me.

And I hope that if I keep doing it, someday it will become natural. That I don’t have to live with this insular over protective isolationism that is my natural mode. Crazy thoughts, I know. But that’s what hope is.