A Writer’s Café, evolving tramlines of life
During a recent visit to Kolkata ending February 2, a journalism student asked, concerned, “We are told the print media is dying, sir.” I replied: “Not dying, evolving”. And I mentioned a notice I saw in January at the new Writer’s Cafe in Chennai: “Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.”
Yes, the digital days dominate, delight, deliver a happy livelihood for millions — including for those who began our writing careers clattering out thoughts on clunky typewriters under clouds of then unnoticed tobacco smoke. Yet newspapers and books could live as long as we use stairways alongside elevators and escalators — both users moving in the same direction. Despite a hundred new alternatives of news and entertainment, the radio sings on — with millions in cars tuning to FM.
A Time magazine article in late 1990s proposed that if the paper book had been invented after the computer, the book would have been hailed as one the greatest inventions ever! The book does not crash, needs no servicing, rebooting, anti-virus protection. And curling up on a sunny Sunday with an old paperback cannot be quite as cozily managed with a laptop. Kindle is good, but old is gold — and platinum is using best of both worlds.
So I was happy to see trams still trundling along in Kolkata — Asia’s oldest electric trams network, running since 1902 — their familiar rumbling like the comforting, welcoming greeting from an old friend. One day, that day will come, when the last of the trams will have jangled and clanged through Chowringhee Square. But I see no death in it, their commuting baton already passed onto the street trains we call metro rail?
Kolkata’s undying tramlines reflect deeper reality of evolution’s timelines. Velociraptor dinosaurs did not actually disappear from Jurassic Park, scientists tell us, but evolved as birds. Extinction has finality when we see only death, but not the continuity of life. When its paper edition died in that great definitive decade of the 199o’s, Asia Times in 1998 became the world’s first newspaper to continue living as an Internet-only publication.
The word ‘death’ brings dreaded finality which it does not have. Life continues through evolution; in reality, this mind-matter phenomenon we call ‘I’ arises and passes away trillions of times each moment. We remember that Nature’s laws of quantum physics at the subatomic level apply to us too, for we too are a sum-total of subatomic particles.
The same universal laws apply at micro and macro level, the arising, and passing away: a NASA Hubble Space Telescope image of NGC 604, one of the largest known seething cauldrons of star birth in a galaxy near our Milky Way. This huge star-birth region hosts over 200 brilliant blue stars — very young by astronomical standards, a mere 3 million years old. But they will too pass away, 10 billion years later, sometimes in spectacular galactic explosions called supernovas — their death becoming matter for birth of new stars.
“As you proceed further, the path will lead you to experiencing the dance of every tiny subatomic particle within the framework of your body, as well as outside in the universe; how the tiniest subatomic particle arises and passes away.”
— Sayagyi U S.N Goenka
The Law of Cause and Effect does not end at the funeral of what we call ‘death’ — of these subatomic particles. A freer life begins in understanding what happens at death, and stop fearing the passing away.
At subatomic reality, we take birth and die trillions of times each moment — this ‘I’ arising and passing with such great rapidity it creates the illusion of solidity. Quantum physics tells us there is no solidity of matter at the subatomic level. Practitioners of Vipassana directly experience this reality:
Burmese-born Principal Vipassana Teacher Sayagyi U Goenka (1924 -2013) said in his closing address of an international seminar in Dhamma Giri, 1989:
“Practicing Vipassana, the subtler, finer realities pertaining to mind and matter will be realized — the interaction between mind and matter and how one influences the other; that the whole process has nothing to do with this religion or that religion; that it has nothing to do with this belief or that belief.
“You have worked like scientists investigating the truth by dividing, dissecting, disintegrating, dissolving and analyzing it, not merely at the intellectual level, but at the experiential level, at the actual level. You have taken a tiny step (of taking a beginner’s 10-day Vipassana course) on the path to understand what this mind is; to understand what this matter is. As you proceed further, the path will lead you to the stage where you can experience the dance of every tiny subatomic particle which makes up the physical structure within the framework of your body, as well as outside in the universe; how the tiniest subatomic particle arises and passes. And as with matter, so with the mind. You keep dividing, dissecting and disintegrating, and the reality about the mind becomes clearer and clearer. A stage will come when you will be able to realize the ultimate truth pertaining to the mind; that it too arises and passes. And a time will come when you will be able to realize the ultimate truth pertaining to the mental contents which arise in the mind, the concomitants which arise along with the mind; that their nature is to also arise and pass away, arise and pass away.”
Directly experiencing this ‘I’ as bio-chemical sensations arising and passing away, this mind-matter as combustion, in flux and changing flow, in the river of impermanence called ‘existence’. This is the life-changing realization of subtler truths of nature that drives out fear and worry. We understand life and death as a continuum — until your journey ends with that final moment of liberating truth, and there is no more becoming.
Yet the journey — however long, across eons, across birth and death of universes — is this moment. The past gone, the future yet to be, the present moment is reality. Now is life, this special moment when the past can be corrected, seeds of happiness sown. Penetrating this moment with insight is to penetrate life’s secrets.
This precisely the universal Vipassana practice of insight trains the mind to do, to go beyond apparent realities to the actual reality — and more usefully so for us professionals whose profession is the truth.
So during lunch in Kolkata with Mr. Ravindra Kumar, award-winning investigative reporter and Editor of The Statesman — one of India’s oldest, most credible publications — I suggested The Statesman Print Journalism School includes voluntarily taking a 10-day Vipassana course, as part of the students’ training program. Business management schools do so, as does the Maharashtra state government for senior administrative officers. Courses in Dhamma Pattana Vipassana Centre, Mumbai, for corporate executives, government officials, professionals are fully booked two months in advance.
Mere sermons, ethical codes and punitive laws are not enough to change poisonous habit patterns buried deep in dangerous dungeons of the mind. Vipassana enables turning integrity principles into practice, strengthens, trains the mind to be with reality, each moment — valuing each of life’s moments like the great diamonds of Golconda.
Forgetting the truth of this moment, no point searching around the world, knocking on misleading, exploitative doors saying “I am looking for the truth”. The truth is within. A compassionate guide shows the way, to take the self-dependent journey within: to develop the surgical insight to pierce, penetrate apparent realities to experience actual reality, at progressively subtler and finally the subtlest level.
This Vipassana journey of inner truth I discussed with an old Don Bosco school friend Raj Dharmaraj, the adventure of self-realization I hope he would soon take — for good people become conduits to benefit many. At the Writer’s Café in Chennai, we had our first one-on-one conversation after nearly 27 years.
The Writer’s Café, a cafeteria-bookshop-creative club — and a compassionate renewal of life for burn victims whom it employs — is evolution of India’s oldest bookstore Higginbotham’s. Established in 1844, Higginbotham’s continues in Mount Road where it started — thirteen years before Rani of Jhansi and India’s First War of Independence, five years before Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield, a year before the USA annexed Texas. The world around changed, but Higginbotham’s connected across time — now through its new Writer’s Café.
The Alexandria Library too lives on. Inauguration of the new Alexandria Library in Alexandria, Egypt, on 16 October 2002 — a rebirth of the famed ancient ‘Bibliotheca Alexandrina’ which burned to the ground 1,600 years ago.
A connection links all changing patterns, threads we weave in the evolving designs of life. Another old school friend Vivish George, for instance, has resided all his 48 years within a km radius of the Don Bosco School we studied in Casa Major Road! For us school friends scattered around the world, through all of life’s changes, a connecting link is Vivish, his wife Maria and their home of hospitable warmth I call ‘Heaven in Halls Road’.
Heaven is now this moment, a Sunday night in Mumbai, hearing haunting melodies, words flowing from fingers of ghostly thoughts. These last sentences appear, not knowing if I will see another dawn, another February — for who can give such a guarantee … but I am happy to be alive this moment. Knowing this of life, I care not for this thing called ‘death’. I then travel light without the baggage called ‘fear’, in this journey within, in destiny’s calling and happy sharing with all beings.