Mab – A Story

Some of my older friends will remember – I used to write stories and I will again. Here is “Mab” –  it has a lovely illustration by a Russian artist named Oooli, who has – I believe – given up illustration in favour of design

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The child Mab was loud, quick to understand, flighty in her opinions and moods and astonishingly clever. Under her feet a stage grew and as she got older, she learned how to move and dance across it.

There were forty-six rooms in her parents` house and Mab ran from room to room and every doorframe was a portal and a gateway, and upon crossing it, Mab shed one role in favour of another and acted out forty-six different Mabs for her audience – furnishings, stuffed animals and an occasional guest of her parents´. Mab liked doors and soon she found it impossible to walk through a door without changing her posture, carriage, voice, demeanour, opinions or interests. Often the change happened mid-sentence, leaving her listeners confounded and irritated.

Whenever her parents wanted to speak to one Mab in particular, they had to lead and drag her all around the house until they found the corresponding room, where they had to keep her until they got a satisfying answer.

Mab`s memory was fabulous, albeit split. Friends had to win her over a hundred times or be treated as strangers. Whenever she did not like herself or the world, she walked through as many doors as were necessary until she could bear it again. When sickness visited one Mab, the other Mabs were seldom infected. When she reached a certain age, Mab fell in love and all the Mabs turned a little sadder.

After her parents had died, Mab redecorated the forty-six rooms in forty-six different styles, some very lavish, some exuberant, some austere and dark. Her love life grew rampant. At one point she entertained twenty-eight different lovers of both sexes (which worked out perfectly well, because it happened to be February).

One Mab got pregnant and managed to stay inside one and the same room for seven months, but then she got up quietly, smoothed her bed and ran across seventeen other rooms, screaming. When she stopped again, the child was gone.

At the end of her life – which seemed strangely short to her, but that must have been because memories took up so much room and made her life seem a bit cramped – she calmly crossed all of her rooms and lost her fear of death forty-six times over again. At last she dug her own grave under the tiles of her last room and stamped her grave shut.

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Maya and Karma – Two Endless Sisters

The Indian mind, if someone can make such a blanket statement, is certainly a fascinating thing. While Indians do not possess the other-worldliness that one likes to ascribe to them, they do possess an immense strength of spirit and an incredible flexibility when it comes to dealing with personal problems. Amusingly described as a fail-safe mechanism, Hinduism has one aspect that it shares with Buddhism and that proves immensely practical.

The concept of maya, which is the fundamental unreality and illusion of the world.

This concept does not come to bear in the way one would expect it – Indians do not consider the world in front of them, filled with all the dirt and filth and the nose-tingling and stomach churning mixture of stenches and the shocking poverty to be fundamentally unreal. They simply do not notice it because their focus is internal and completely self-absorbed. It has a completely different application in Zen and Buddhist-influenced thought, but this is material for another time.

I think we all know the state of running around completely preoccupied with something, a state of absolute exclusion of the outside world – it’s a state that some mistake with meditation or transcendence, but it is instead single-mindedness. Whatever happens outside, it is discarded because we hold a burning image in our mind. In conversations with Indians one will often find that it is almost completely impossible to interest them for anything that is outside of their immediate sphere of necessity. They are completely oblivious to anything that does not immediately concern them – distraction could mean missing an opportunity and could mean a threat to survival. To be fair, to have a chance in the churning day to day reality of India, absolute focus is a necessity. Simply to cross the road without dying requires a certain amount of focus and daring. Apparently that feeling is still deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche, even if it sometimes comes across as utter callousness in those whose survival is already secured enough to open themselves up a little bit.

So, the prevailing sense of India is not absence of the self, but complete focus on the self.

How can these two things be mistaken for each other?

Or do the selfless doctrines of Mahavira and Buddha just stand out so much more in that context to be considered all-pervasive? This is where the concept of maya comes in.

Maya is eminently useful in situations of failure. Something that would seem a soul-crushing defeat in other spiritual circumstances is simply shrugged off and the fundamental unreality of the world is evoked as suffrage. This creates an immense reservoir of strength and spirit and makes it possible for people to live in difficult or even dreadful circumstances without giving in to despair. It is the universal panacea of Buddhism and is equally valid in Hinduism.

The other concepts of Hindu faith that are applied in day-to-day life are karma and the accountability of the gods and the possibility of their personal intervention. Just like maya, karma has the potential for healing. No matter how badly one fails in one’s endeavours, the wheel of karma is unpredictable and fortune might come, unpremeditated, at any moment. If not in this life, then in the next or the one after that.

Maya comes to bear in moments of utter despair – your whole life might be in shambles and all your plans may have failed or were broken up. Don’t worry. It’s all unreal, a painted veil drawn and spun by the senses as they dance. Pick yourself up, move on. There’s still life in you.

That helps to explain the psychological resilience of people who have little to no possessions and little to no chance of succeeding in the material world and occasionally manage to succeed against those monumental odds.

Religion, in its original sense, is there to take people’s fear of death and the unknown.

For us, Westerners, this is hard to understand because Christianity works with heavy assumptions of power and guilt and is often little more than empty pomp. Hinduism and Buddhism both offer flexible and useful answers that allow a person to accept them without signing their souls away, so to speak. There is no personal contract or covenant with god as it exists in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There is no way to displease the crores upon crores of gods and if they mete out punishment it is because they follow a cosmic law not because they want to avenge personal displeasure. Guilt is not woven into the fabric of life.

Hinduism, however, offers a different concept of communality and social help. For a staunch Hindu one’s immediate and ultimate goal is always to save oneself. Another’s fate is not their concern. Various religious movements stress the ultimate acceptance of everyone, others have a strict concept of dharma or social duty, some are militant and fundamentalist, bristling with fury against everything that is not Bharat, not Hindu, not India.

It may come as no surprise that in a country where almost half the population lives in poverty many charitable organizations have sprung up. Some operate out of greed for influence or power (not unlike messianic institutions in Europe or America), but in almost all the cases the services provided far outweigh the hidden or overt intentions. If a party like the BJP, the largest right wing party, organizes meals out of political calculations, they will still have fed people for a day. This is an ill-suited point for any ideological lever.

Charity is certainly not a completely unknown concept in India, but as in any society the people who would willingly give up material rewards in order to help are few. And often, if they do, they expect spiritual rewards in turn. Christian missionaries who help with a sense of intellectual and social condescension or Buddhists who assume that the repetition of a ritual will raise their spiritual account balance. But this is another blanket statement – the history of Christian missionaries is, no doubt, as colorful and diverse as any history where, sadly, a few rotten ones stand out and for people who have no way of increasing their money, increasing spiritual currency gives them at least a sense of self-worth.

Those concepts, maya and karma aren’t considered to be particularly spiritual. They would be comparable to what we call conscience – it’s a religious concept that has found hold in day to day life in Christian areas of the world and is so much part of our lives that most would probably object to calling it a religious concept. Perhaps we are just as pragmatic when it comes to ordering day-to-day society, only we usually call the decisive factor our reason and common sense, which are results of an intellectual revolution almost religious in scope.

It’s common to assume that Asia or Africa are backward because they have never had an Age of Reason, no great revolution of thought that overthrew old structures and paved the way for industrialism and free economy. But perhaps their age of reason has come and gone long ago. Perhaps their age of reason never came because we enlightened Europeans stomped on it and cut it down with swords and shot it with Enfield rifles, so we could keep calling ourselves enlightened or industrious or advanced.

I do not believe that either East or West holds an advantage as far as the sheer volume of philosophy is concerned or that, viewed over a span of several centuries, the armies of one side have proven to be indisputably stronger. Different geological circumstances have created different social structures. Different social structures have created different psychological necessities. It is ridiculous to debate about something that boils down to the question if living near a river or near a mountain is better. Eastern thought is more flexible while Western thought has found strength in rigidity and linear progression. Those are well known commonplaces.

The challenge is – as always – to be open enough to begin to understand. Maya – illusion – and karma – consequence. The two sisters are a good enough place to begin this attempt to understand.

Tenzin und der Wunsch nach Europa

Dieser Eintrag setzt die Geschichte fort, die ich mit “Der tibetische Bettler” begonnen habe. Unerwarteterweise (wie eigentlich alles in Indien) komme ich meiner Absicht mehr über die tibetische Exilkultur zu erfahren näher.

Ich wunderte mich mehrere Tage darüber, wie ich so etwas am Besten angehen könnte. In der Zwischenzeit besuchte ich ein paar der Mughal Ruinen, recherchierte die Geschichte der Stadt so weit mir das möglich war und machte ein paar Fotos. Ich war in einer der schlimmsten Hitzeperioden der vergangenen dreißig Jahre in die Stadt gekommen. Das machte jegliche Erkundung schwierig. Für zwei Tage kletterte der Thermometer sogar bis an die fünfzig Grad Celsius Grenze. An solche Tagen konnte man nur im Bett liegen und mehr oder weniger sanft vor sich hin schmelzen. Am Nachmittag, meistens hungergetrieben, erhob ich mich trotzdem und nahm die Metro in die Stadt. Dort fotografierte ich für ein paar Stunden, wanderte in der relativen Ruhe der alten Monumente herum oder setze mich in ein dunkles, gekühltes Restaurant und aß ein paar Bissen.

Es war sehr interessant die Mogulenvergangenheit der Stadt näher zu erkunden und die verblüffende Speichelleckerei des Gandhi Museum zu erfahren, das mehr dem Schrein eines Heiligen glich als einem Museum. Delhi besitzt auch ein vernachlässigtes, aber trotzdem fabelhaftes Nationalmuseum. Das alles half mir meine Tage sinnvoll zu machen, aber ich hatte immer noch keine Ahnung, wie ich meinen Plan mehr über Majnu-ka-tillas Bewohner herauszufinden, verwirklichen sollte.

Eines Abends aber war mir das Schicksal hold. Ich saß in einem Internetcafe und las gerade vom Absturz der Maschine des polnischen Präsidenten Kasczinsky und schrieb einigen polnischen Freunden, die von der Tragödie ziemlich getroffen waren, als mich ein junger Tibeter ansprach. Es tut ihm leid mich zu stören, aber er suche nach jemanden, der ihm helfen könnte Formulare für einen Visa-antrag korrekt auszufüllen. Die Formulare waren auf Englisch und weder er noch seine Freunde waren sich ganz sicher und einen Fehler zu machen würde heißen, das Ganze noch einmal machen zu müssen und viel Zeit zu verlieren. Ich zahlte schnell und war sofort draußen. So lernte ich Tenzin kennen.

Tenzin war kaum so lange in Indien wie ich selbst. Einige Tage davor war er aus Nepal, wo er als Englischlehrer in einer Schule in der Nähe von Kathmandu gearbeitet hatte, nach Delhi geflogen. Befreundete lamas, tibetische Mönche, hatte ihn gerufen. Sie waren auf eine buddhistische Konferenz in die Slowakei eingeladen worden und brauchten einen Übersetzer. Tenzin hatte Erfahrung darin. Drei Jahre zuvor hatte er eine ähnliche Gruppe nach Ungarn begleitet und für sie übersetzt. Jetzt stand ich mit ihm und zweien der Mönche vor dem Internet Cafe und sie beschrieben mir die Lage. Die beiden hatten noch nie um ein Visum angesucht, waren selbst kaum zwei Tage hier, waren noch nie in Europa. Alles was sie an Nervosität zeigten, war ein gelegentliches unsicheres Lachen. Sie warteten auf den Head Lama, ihren spirituellen Vorgesetzten, der wohl mehr über die Organisation wusste. Aber bis der hier war brauchten sie ihre Visas.

Kann so schwer nicht sein, denkt man, irrt sich dabei aber gehörig. Zuallererst einmal haben Tibeter strikt gesehen keine Pässe. Offiziell existiert Tibet nicht mehr. Die Tibeter haben entweder, wie die beiden Mönche, Registrierungskarten des Staates Indien, die sie als Flüchtlinge mit temporären Staatsrechten ausweisen oder sie haben, wie Tenzin, einen nepalesischen Pass, den manche auch unter falschem Namen führen. Um jetzt ein Schengen Visum zu bekommen brauchen sie diesen Pass, eine Einladung von einer Person aus dem Zielland, Kontake im Zielland, ein gültiges Hin- und Rückflugticket und Nachweis darüber das alle ihre Kosten während des Aufenthaltes in diesem Land gedeckt sind.

So weit, so gut. Tenzin und ich trafen uns mehrere Male in Restaurants und Hotels um alle Formalitäten zu klären und die Formulare so korrekt wie möglich auszufüllen. Sie hatten offizielle Einladungen, alle Rechnungen waren gedeckt. Es schien alles zu stimmen. Ich war jetzt selbst auch nicht sofort überzeugt, dass alles was mir Tenzin erzählte absolut wahr wäre. In Indien, so habe ich während meiner Aufenthalte gelernt, ist es gut jedem und allem mit einer Initialdosis Misstrauen zu begegnen. So lange man sich davon nicht überwältigen und blenden lässt…eine Wissenschaft an sich. Ich unterhielt mich viel mit Tenzin, zum einen weil ich ihn kennenlernen wollte, zum anderen weil ich auch genug Vertrauen aufbauen wollte, dass er mir bei meinem Vorhaben helfen würde. Er war ein sympathischer und offener Mann, zwei Jahre jünger als ich. Sehr impulsiv und oft auch unverantwortlich, für meine Begriffe, aber ich durfte bald lernen, dass das was wir als Verantwortlichkeit bezeichnen im tibetischen Rahmen nicht wirklich existiert. Er hatte seine Arbeit in Kathmandu aufgegeben und sein ganzes Geld für den Flug nach Delhi ausgegeben. Kein Nachdenken darüber, wie und wo er leben sollte, wie er essen würde. Er lebte sehr spontan – wenn Geld da war, wurde es ausgegeben. Wenn kein Geld da war, dann wurde nach Möglichkeiten gesucht Geld zu machen.

Bekanntschaften waren natürlich eine Art zu Geld zu kommen. Vor allem westliche Bekanntschaften. Die meisten Freundschaften und Bekanntschaften mit Indern oder Tibetern kommen irgendwann zu dem Punkt an dem man nach Geld gefragt wird. Man kann das jetzt sehen wie man will. Wird man aufs Widerlichste ausgenutzt? Wir man nur als wandernde Brieftasche gesehen? Oder ist man eben der reiche Freund, den man um Geld fragen kann weil er es hat? Es passiert genauso bei Tibetern untereinander…wenn einer Geld hat, ist das das Schlimmste was ihm passieren kann. Alle bitten ihn ununterbrochen um Unterstützung und es wird erwartet, dass er beim Essen einlädt. Persönlich will ich, das solche Freundschaften über Geld hinausgehen und habe im Laufe der Zeit einen etwas asiatischeren Zugang zum Geld entwickelt. Wenn ich habe, gebe ich. Wenn nicht, muss ich genauso arbeiten oder bitten.

Das Geld ist ein Knackpunkt für viele. Ich habe unzählige Konversationen darüber geführt und ebenso unzählige Beschwerden gehört. Die Inder betrügen, die sehen einen nur als wandelnde Geldbörse. Vor allem von Menschen, die mit hohen spirituellen Idealen nach Indien kommen oder humanitäre Arbeit mit Tibetern leisten wollen – viele werden enttäuscht, desillusioniert und kommen mit der Überzeugung zurück, dass sie dort nur ausgenutzt werden.

Man muss sich hier die Realität der Menschen vor Augen halten. Sicherheiten gibt es in Indien keine, außer man besitzt Geld. Von den vielen Menschen in den Tempeln betet ein Großteil sicher immer wofür? Für Geld. Indien hat nicht eine, sondern zwei Gottheiten, die für Geld und finanziellen Wohlstand zuständig sind. Lakshmi und Ganesha.

In Zahlen: Mehr als neunzig Prozent der Inder haben keinerlei finanzielle Versicherung. Sie leben von ihrer Hände Arbeit, oft von Tag zu Tag. Jemand, der in diesem Umfeld eine Gelegenheit mehr Geld zu machen verstreichen lässt, dem ist nach dem allgemeinen Urteil nicht zu helfen.

You are advertisement – the West’s Art of the Scam

You are advertisement.

Something that most facebook users have long since accepted becomes routine in most internet ventures. Clicks and views are virtual currency and, above a certain volume, actual currency. The user is the viral carrier of advertisements.

It seems like the drug dream of an advertising executive. Everyone can be stickered with ads now. Everyone can be persistently chased by intelligent advertisement. It is less stylish but just as devious as the scene from Minority Report where everyone entering a store is immediately beset by a holographic hostess. Some ads even speak or blare music at you until you find the (often viciously displaced) X to make it – temporarily – disappear.

But, make no mistake, you are advertisement. And you are entirely complicit in it. You helped create the virus that you carry.

Using social media one no longer transfers information, but becomes, both actively and passively, a transmitter of advertisements. You might passively advertise your life-style or your work or your taste in movies, restaurants or video games. You might actively advertise, sending out interesting links or actually advertise your work. In the language of many bloggers “content” actually “masks” the intent: garnering precious page views.

I was briefly writing for an online article platform that will remain unnamed (no free advertisement here). In order to achieve page views one had to study the market and pick a topic that would generate a high number of clicks, aka something that everyone is interested in. In the long run this led to a slew of articles designed only to generate page views – one began to write not thinking of how to satisfy the audience but how to adhere to the limitations of search engines. One literally became a trained monkey hitting away on the typewriter, hoping but not really caring to churn out something worthwhile. One was asked to write a lot, not to get better as a writer but to create “content”. If one publishes a large number of articles it becomes more likely for the search engines to pick one up – casting those strange mindless algorhythms in the roles of highly undiscerning editors. What the content was didn’t really matter. There were people checking it for errors and typography, but they were badly paid editors who, if one was lucky, were dutiful or, if one was unlucky, internet cholerics. It was up to the user to create something worthwhile or something filled with “content”. One also had to pick one’s field, niche or genre, in a communistic version of a newspaper office. If one picked an “uninteresting” niche there was little to no chance of ever achieving a high number of page views. An interesting niche equaled the front page news of an actual newspaper, but since it was created “democratically” it ended up entirely middle class without exciting or offbeat points of view. The intent was to create something between a newsfeed and Wikipedia, but most of the articles were culled from either various newsfeeds or badly digested Wikipedia articles, offering the depth of a puddle after gentle spring rains.

The most perfidious thing about it, though, was that it was in the best interest of every user to advertise their articles by themselves to create more page views. Of course by doing so they were advertising the site. The site had thereby created a host of people who were both unpaid writers and advertisers, since only those who wrote thirty articles and more a month actually stood any chance of gaining any money from it.

The process, of course, mimics the rise of an intern to a full-time journalist with all the hurdles inherent to it. But it is mimicry, because the message boards were full with messages of people who like exhausted workers kept asking each other if any of them had ever been paid and if yes, if it was more than 10 Euro.

I’ve been in Asia long enough to know a scam when I see it and you, sir, have just been made advertisement. It might be a high class scam and probably one that many people would argue is a legit business venture, but we seem to live in a post-Orwellian world anyway where machines and the moods of numbers determine our own rise and fall. “Content” can be safely ignored in favour of numbers and masks. It’s a high class scam, all the more perfidious because everyone is implicit in it.

As long as I am advertisement, I’ve decided to advertise the things that I do because I love doing them. Who can read something without content?