Saturday, May 31, 2014

Did you miss your Eureka moment?

Vinita Dawra Nangia

All big things start small. Inspiration need not hit you on the head; it waits for you in everyday, mundane matters

All of us have our moments. But not everyone is observant or reflective enough to convert these into Eureka moments, as Archimedes did when he jumped out of his bath naked, to propound the Theory of Displacement.

Nor does everyone who gets knocked on the head by a falling apple, end up understanding the Law of Gravity like Newton. Most big things begin small; almost all major inspirations have been found in smaller things ­ everyday mundane matters, which may seem inconsequential, but upon reflection, form a meaningful picture.

What is critical is an observant eye and a mind that is constantly alert and ticking questioning, reflecting, discussing and understanding. It is important to be able to rise above the immediate and personal moment, and be able to look at it in a larger context, which helps us evolve as stronger, better human beings.

All of us find our personal triggers in innocuous everyday moments, which may have a deep emotional impact on us. The wish to repeat happy moments, or the desire to avoid repeating depressing, humiliating ones can be a powerful trigger. A child’s innocent smile and trusting eyes can be a huge motivator for parents to live up to the faith a child reposes in them. So can the adoring eyes of a lover.

Happiness experienced by a small generous act can motivate one towards consistent philanthropy. When a lady in Boston started leaving blankets anonymously on benches on cold nights for homeless people, it triggered a movement of random acts of kindness and generosity.

Sometimes your will to fight the big battles of life comes from small things.Take the instance of German Communist Alois Pfaller’s persistent struggle against the Nazis, recounted in Laurence Rees’ Their Darkest Hour ­ People tested to the extreme in WWII. When years later, Rees asked Alois what motivated him to stand up to the Nazis, despite merciless beatings and 11 years in concentration camps, he replied that all through childhood he had competed with his stepsister for his stepmother’s attention, but failed, since `a mother is a mother’. “And then I swore to myself, when you grow up, you have to fight against injustice, never mind against who, you always have to fight injustice… and with this, I had the ability to resist, and the ability to get through it ­ nothing else.“

And so out of a sense of jealousy and alienation came the determination to fight for justice. He converted his deeply ingrained sense of hurt into a positive when he decided to fight all injustice.

That is the sign of a great individual, one who is able to elevate himself above present and personal circumstances and rather than avenge personal slights in a narrow, vindictive manner, or allow them to stigmatise him, decides to lock horns with the evil itself.

Closer home, Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign against injustice and the momentous role he played in the history of India was triggered by a small incident, when he was thrown off a train in South Africa. Humiliated and smarting from the injustice and racial slur, Gandhi decided to fight injustice, later hailing this incident as his “moment of truth“. The trigger that led Kalidasa to becoming the greatest Sanskrit poet and dramatist was skrit poet and dramatist was the scorn of his wife, Princess Vidyottama, for his ignorance and passion for her. When in 1871, noted Indian industrialist Jamsetji Tata was denied entry into the all-whites Watson Hotel in Mumbai, he built the Taj Mahal Hotel down the same road.

The ability to take on negativity and turn it to a positive learning, to be able to look at little positives and use them to spur you on to greater goodness, and to observe everyday phenomena and find deeper, scientific or spiritual meanings in them ­ this is the stuff greatness is made of.

What are your everyday triggers? Are you noticing and reflecting upon how to turn these into your Eureka moments, or just sailing alongside, oblivious?

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Lessons from Auschwitz

Vinita Dawra Nangia

It is important to record the dark periods of history in order to understand all aspects of humanity, lest we forget and repeat mistakes

If you visit Poland, a trip to Auschwitz is a given. Warnings of an emotional onslaught did not bother me; I wanted to explore my own emotions in the face of one of the world’s deadliest mass killing pogroms.

And so it was an anticlimax when walking through Auschwitz felt more like a pilgrimage than a trail of horror, emotion or tears. A fellow tourist echoed my feelings when he said, “I expected Auschwitz to be much bigger, and I thought I would be affected far more than I was.“ He sounded disappointed, almost as if a little more emotional wrenching was in order! Indeed, Aushwitz has the look of a place that has exorcised all its ghosts.

Scrubbed clean and almost antiseptic, the barracks that saw the torture and extermination of more than a million prisoners by Nazis during World War II, 90 percent of them Jews, have been wiped clean of the scent of fear and pain. The super sanitised environ is in sharp contrast with the depraved inhumanity and breach of human rights this site witnessed. But then you come to the rooms that house within large glass cases tufts of hair from the heads of more than a lakh Jewish prisoners, shoes, suitcases marked with their names, baby clothes and baby shoes ­ and the reality of the tragedy hits across the decades. These are the images you carry away with you. Indeed it is important to be able to feel. We wish to feel because we care. We choose to remember this tragedy and be affected by it as part of an unspoken resolve to not let it recur.

This is Dark Tourism ­ the appeal of sites associated with tragedy and inhumanity. Warsaw, with its history of battering at the hands of Germans and Russians, also has museums dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising and the Uprising of the Jews, as do most Western countries to record their dark eras. New York attracts tourists to Ground Zero.

In India, with our culture of blaming it all on destiny, celebration of life and moving on, we have a singular lack of sites that record the dark aspects of our history. We sorely lack museums that record the track of misery and suffering we repeatedly went through at the hands of invaders ­ museums that could serve as a constant reminder for the need to be sensitised to the possibility of recurrences.

As Prof J Lennon, who coined the term `Dark Tourism’ says in an article in The Telegraph, visiting Dark Tourism sites is a crucial way for us to learn the lessons of the past. He warns that not to record may encourage future generations to forget terrible periods of human history. “Dark Tourism, like our dark history, occupies an important part of our understanding of what it is to be human.“

To not record does not obliterate the fact that the horror did exist and as time goes by, more than an emotional journey, Dark Tourism sites are a journey of intellectual curiosity and a horrific, but necessary, reminder of the cruelty we are capable of. We go there to remind ourselves that this happened, and to sensitise ourselves to the need for preventing such atrocities.

Though we may reject the possibility, can we be so sure history will not repeat itself? The fact is, as historian Laurence Rees says, people don’t change, circumstances do. After all, technology makes it so much easier today to be able to perpetrate atrocities on fellow humans without having to look them in the eye, as you kill. And, then what? It’s too scarily like a video game… Just requires one kinky mind at the helm.

And so, it becomes exceedingly important to remember and empathise ­ else we repeat our dark history. Again, and again! Don’t we, in India?