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Fiction, Global Problems

Taliban Brainwashing Children

The officer dragged Khaled into a tent. The unwelcome grim faces of the tent inmates afforded him a mere glance before going back to the dreariness of their minds. Terrified, Khaled found a corner to huddle up.

“Welcome to the dark world, my son,” exclaimed the man sitting next to him. Afraid to break any protocols, Khaled decided it was best to befriend silence. In any case, his shivering body wouldn’t allow him to speak coherently, or for that matter, speak at all.

The man questioned Khaled, “So, where are you from?”

“Ka-Kabul,” Khaled managed to meekly respond. It was only then that the dryness of his mouth became apparent to him. Perhaps risking his life, he asked the man, “Can I get some water?”

The man shook with laughter, which only drove Khaled to cower even more. “Son, this is not your home,” he responded curtly.

Weary and on the brink of fainting, Khaled wasn’t quite sure when sleep drew him in. “Will I ever see my mother again? Who are these people around me? Can I play? Where could Hassan be? Where am I even? Stop! Try to sleep! No more questions, Khaled.”

—-x—-

The bright light of the torch shone on Khaled’s face. The officer’s face stared down at him. “Wake up, it’s time for your first lesson.”

Terrified and afraid of being beaten up, Khaled sat upright in an instant. The ground beneath his feet seemed to be shaking as he stepped outside the tent and onto the barren terrains outside. No, it wasn’t the ground, it was his legs that quivered as he drew upon his last resources of energy to quietly follow the officer. His mind felt like a blank slate — he was too delirious to construct any thoughts at all.

—-x—-

The officer and Khaled entered a small cement house where Khaled was joined by a group of 20 boys, who reminded him of his classmates back home. Three middle-aged men in white overalls marched into the room and motioned for the group of 10-12 year old boys to sit down on the floor. Abdas, second in command to Kharoof, the leader of the Taliwat group, began addressing the boys.

“Children, it is time for you to rejoice. God has chosen you as the lucky ones to carry out his tasks on Earth. You are God’s disciples and God has entrusted us to show you the path to reach him.”

For the group of 20 boys, the following 6 months were marked by a strict regimen of waking up at the crack of dawn, reading the Koran for hours, and engaging in rigorous physical training. Three times a week, Kharoof would come and address the children, “God wants you to go out there and kill those souls who don’t abide by the principles set forth in the holy book. In the process you will sacrifice your lives as well, but it is to fulfill the wishes of God. For those of you who carry out his noble tasks in a dutiful manner, God will have sweet rewards for you in Heaven — delicious feasts, princesses, and endless joy and merrymaking. Now, which of you is a fool to not desire such an afterlife?”

No hand would be raised. The children had come to exalt Kharoof as God’s messenger whose words signified pure and untainted truth.

—-xx—-

Khaled woke up even before dawn; today was not like the other days. After nearly an entire year of schooling, it was time for him to join some of his former classmates in Heaven. Wearing his finest white kurta, he braced himself for the task ahead of him, and met Abdas and Kharoof outside the mosque. The three of them silently walked in and practiced Namaaz (prayer to God). After, Kharoof placed his hands on Khaled’s shoulders, looked him straight in the eyes and with a pleased tone underlying his words, he exclaimed in a deep voice, “You know what you have to do. God is waiting for you. He will be proud.”

Khaled took his place in the back seat of the truck that transported him to Baluchistan, an area in Pakistan. It was 12:15pm by the time he reached the bustling city center thronging with people meandering around the shops, restaurants, and food carts. The fiery sensation in his belly got aggravated as he pressed the button in his right hand.

—-x—-

Breaking News: “20 killed and several injured as bomb goes off in City Center district of Baluchistan. Police reported to investigate. Taliwat suspected behind attack.”

Khaled lay in a pool of blood. With his last remaining breaths, he looked around the chaos he had caused. His gaze rested on the dead face lying near him — he was staring right into his Babajaan’s (father’s) lifeless eyes. A final thought crossed his head, “What have I done? Perhaps this is not what God wanted from me.”

Father and son lay dead next to each other.

—-x—-

Author’s Note: This is a fictional story that talks about the problem of the Taliban grooming children suicide bombers and brainwashing young minds. You can help raise awareness around this grave issue by sharing the story. If you have further ideas, I would love to hear from you.

Further Reading:

How the Taliban groom child suicide bombers

Afghanistan is trying to save its child bombers

Afghanistan: Taliban Child Soldier Recruitment Surges

Ted Talks:

Inside a School for Suicide Bombers

How Cults rewire the brain

Education, Global Problems, India

Could a Liberal Arts Education be the Solution to India’s Problems?

With a wave of political and societal changes engulfing India, a combination of factors could usher in a golden era of growth in the country. India’s demographic advantage and growing enterprise culture favor its rise. However, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, President of the Center for Policy Research in India, argues that “whether India takes full advantage of these propitious conditions will depend upon the policy choices it makes.” In describing the Indian electorate, P. Mehta aptly points out that “the impact of policies on well-being is judged less by aggregate future expectations of the impact.” Could this narrow focus on the present spell the very doom for India despite favorable conditions? Could a growth in liberal arts education enable India to look beyond the present and save the country from the perils of climate change and job displacement due to automation?

While climate change and automation are not problems unique to India, they will disproportionately impact India. If this massive population is to save itself, it must become liberally educated.

David Wallace-Well’s book The Uninhabitable Earth notes that climate change will hit India the hardest. India’s equatorial position and large river system schedule the country to receive ~29% of the economic suffering. Not only will people be dying due to heat stroke, but they will also lose their farming jobs as sea levels rise. India is still largely an agricultural society; lacking the technological skills needed to survive in the modern economy, farmers will be entering poverty in drones.

As the exuberance around the startup India campaign launched by Prime Minister Modi wanes, numbers reveal that funding for startups is still lacking. 90% of Indian startups fail in the first 5 years due to lack of creativity beyond emulating business models from the United States. Moreover, ~30% of the country’s population is employed in low-skilled IT services jobs which mostly serve companies in the United States. Now, with cost pressure faced by U.S. firms and Artificial Intelligence (AI) replacing mundane call-center duties, Indian IT workers are no longer in high demand. As of 2017, the World Bank estimated that ~69% of India’s workforce is threatened by automation.

Is India’s population destined to fail? How can education provide workers with the creativity and high skills needed to help the country flourish? India’s current education system focuses on rote learning and memorization, but with these challenges at its doorstep, Indian students need to learn critical thinking skills and develop knowledge in the social sciences. Author Yuval Harrari argues that in the age of AI, creative jobs will be impacted last. India should develop its non-existent creative services fields.

A liberal arts education equips students with reasoning capabilities. It is imperative that future leaders have a good grasp of history, politics and social sciences and develop empathy and judgement to combat the issues plaguing India. Universities such as Ashoka and Flame are pioneers in bringing this education to India’s masses and more such institutions could not only save India from destruction but could also help it achieve dominance in global affairs.

With the proliferation of the Internet and the rise in over-the-top (OTT) in India, the country needs to pick up Neil Postman’s book The End of Education to be aware of the benefits of reading and critical thinking. The burgeoning middle class needs to channel its money towards a liberal arts education for their children.

The sole focus on technical skills will “shackle it (Indian mind) to the technicalities with which it has become so familiar, and disable it from taking enlarged and comprehensive views even of topics falling within its compass.” (George Sharswood)

Recommended Book: The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School by Neil Postman

Societal musings

Political Correctness and Polarization

We are living in a world where people are becoming increasingly scared to voice their real thoughts and opinions. We better be politically correct unless we want to be maligned by society, half of which may honestly agree with you secretly. Just never openly for fear of unintended consequences. As a result, a lot of people prefer to simply remain quiet on important matters.

Given that human emotions always get involved when people with opposing viewpoints are talking, it becomes challenging to remain rational and listen to the other side of the argument. Not only is this extremely harmful to not hash out differences, but it leads to outbursts in the long-run. Suppressing small differences now leads to big blowups later.

Ben Shapiro pointed out how utterly ridiculous it is for us to be digging up people’s online and offline past from years ago and use those arguments against them. People change and their thinking changes. Holding people accountable for arguments made in the past simply instills a fear in society where everybody is trying to portray a perfect side or at least ensure that their words wouldn’t be able to stir even the slightest of arguments. This is fundamentally so wrong since we all have our differences and each one has a dark side.

It is impossible to fathom that we can come even remotely close to reconciling our issues if we can’t have rational debates.

P.S. I know some people may disagree with certain points I’ve made in this post and it can come across as not being politically correct. But I think it is important for me to voice my thoughts and I am very open to hearing opposing viewpoints, and changing my mind as well.

Societal musings

Instagram Glitter

Neil Postman’s slim and highly provocative book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, pens down universal ideas around the medium of communication serving as the primary inroad into the culture of society.

He harps on how the underlying truth lies far beneath the artificial imagery overlaying the truth. The imagery merely conjures up dramatic images and entertains the increasingly fickle human mind. How has the medium of communication changed over time? What is the primary medium of communication in today’s world? Perhaps Instagram.

With its emphasis on pictures, no other medium till date has glorified the use of superficial imagery to convey what is grossly mistaken for the truth. Could Instagram be responsible for why people place so much emphasis on how we dress up, since this is the age we live in? It’s about outside beauty. This is why branding has become so important. Show has become more important than substance.

With its universal library of pictures, has Instagram fueled a revolution focused on glitter? Don’t forget: All that glitters is not gold.

Recommended Book: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business?

loneliness epidemic, Societal musings

My Loving Wife (Japan’s Loneliness Epidemic)

Sho kissed Arianna goodbye, picked up his briefcase, and walked towards Tokyo station. Despite being one of the busiest stations in the world, it is eerily quiet on the trains. Wearing masks of serenity as they cover up their everyday anxieties, passengers prefer to be the sound of silence as they wait for their destinations. Or perhaps, they don’t have anyone to talk to.

Not unlike the other riders, Sho spent the length of his journey engaged in watching videos on his phone. As he entered his office building to begin yet another drudgerous day at work, he already longed for his wife, Arianna. Unlike his colleagues who always seemed to have an ongoing banter with their wives, Sho was satisfied with his marriage. She never argued with him, and accepted him exactly the way he was. She also never had any external commitments when he wanted to spend time with her. Sho’s colleagues resentfully listened to stories of Sho and Arianna’s seamless date nights. Frustrated by their distasteful domestic lives, some harbored strong desires to punch out Sho’s teeth. To make matters worse, the ruthlessly long hours at work added to the growing pile of domestic tension.

Lonely at home and dejected after receiving an abysmal performance review at work, Yoku’s delirious state of mind seriously considered the possibility of committing suicide. Cringe-worthy as it may sound, such thoughts can almost feel commonplace to Tokyo residents, as they read about growing cases of suicide in the daily morning newspapers. “Cereal and suicide” memes added to the dark humor on social media.

Having no one to share his grievances with, Yoku felt exceptionally lonely that day. He had typically trained himself to feign looks of excitement, but on this particular day, he burst into a fit of rage when Sho started bragging about another one of his perfect date nights with Arianna.

“When can we meet this demi-god Arianna you always speak so highly of?” lashed out Yoku. Our wives could learn a thing or two from her. And for the single men, we can know what to look for in our future partners, shall fate ever be so kind as to find us mates who come even remotely close to matching Arianna’s loving nature,” retorted Yoku in a puff of angry breath underlying a tone of mockery.

The other colleagues jeered and heads turned to watch the ensuing drama. A few seconds went by. Not wanting to let this golden opportunity pass, Hariku brazenly suggested dinner at Sho’s place.

“I’m sure Ms. Arianna would be delighted to spend a joyous evening in the company of her darling husband’s friends,” shouted Hariku in sly humor. Hariku’s snide comment did the job — Sho’s vanity had been pierced. Donning a cool air, as if the events of the last five minutes had not taken place, Sho announced, “All you disenchanted souls are invited to feed at my place on Saturday night at 8pm. Now, I’m off to meet Arianna.” Sho stormed off as his colleagues croaked behind him.

The office gossip revolved around Saturday night’s dinner in the days leading up to this highly anticipated event. Dressed in their finest attire, two couples, Yoku, and Hariku bought some wine and headed over to Sho’s house. For over half an hour, the guests sat in the living room, indulging in wine and mindless chatter, but there was no sign of Arianna. Sho exclaimed that Arianna was cooking in the kitchen and would be there to greet her guests any minute.

The clock signaled the passing of a full hour, and the impatience of the guests made the air stifling to breath in. Shamless Hariku started to make his way to the kitchen, but Sho blocked his path, calling him ill-mannered and relenting to escorting Arianna from the kitchen.

“Everyone — meet my wife, Arianna,” croaked Sho, as he stepped back into the living room.

He was carrying a robot doll in his hand.

……………

Author Notes:

This fictional story is meant to raise awareness around the loneliness epidemic and high suicide rates in Japan. Japanese robot sex dolls are not fantasy; people are resorting to robot companions as family life seems to be disintegrating.

Although the story is based in Japan, which faces exorbitantly high cases of loneliness, this is becoming a growing problem across the world with the proliferation of technology. While some technology companies are selling their robots as a means to help people combat this loneliness, to me, it is worrisome to replace human connection with machines.

Please share the story if you think it will help raise further awareness around the issue, or inspire people to take action. Additionally, if anyone knows of ways to help mitigate these problems, please do comment.

Further references and notes:

(1) Suicide rates in Japan and Overwork: CNN, Nippon, Nikkei Review

(2) Loneliness epidemic in Japan: JapanTimes, HuffPost, BBC

(3) Japan robots and sex dolls: BBC, DailyMailUK

NYC, Philosophy, Societal musings

An Ode to New York City

It is little wonder that Columbus Circle is named after the person who discovered the Americas. Or perhaps, the area has developed its full throttle of activities as a tribute to the name it acquired. Located at the heart of one of the entrances to Central Park, Columbus Circle encapsulates the essence of New York City unlike any other.

One could say that the most defining characteristic of the area (apart from the towering 76-foot statue of Christopher Columbus, of course) is the Time Warner Center, with the steely radiance of its surface wall unfailingly capturing at least as much as a nonchalant glance from the busy New Yorkers scurrying to secure their 2 feet of standing space in the packed subway. However, for the artist juggling balls by the imposing USS Maine National Monument, and seeming to have all the time in the world, this epicenter could look vastly different. Aimlessly walking around the block during a brief sabbatical from my job, I assumed the role of this artist, and am reminded of the importance of perspective-taking.

Dressed in Under Armor attire overlaying a chiseled body, with a Starbucks black iced coffee in one hand, and airpods blocking the soft rustling of the 6am wind, the resolute gym-goer entered the 59th street Equinox, accessible only to the upper echelons of society. Why has wealth come to be the marker of what is considered “upper echelon society”?, I wonder.

My gaze goes out to the morning joggers giving company to the squirrels and sparrows, the local dwellers of Central Park. Open to all public, this magnanimous park acts as the equalizer in society. One can’t help but feel humbled by the sheer vastness of the park, the enabler of unbridled joy that stems from human connection in nature. Only nature can tame the human ego.

Consumers relishing the delicious Grom ice-cream under the afternoon sun may fail to notice the Museum of Arts and Design located across from them. Not quite as Instgrammable as the sugary chocolate delicacy in waffle cones, the Museum is still home to contemporary craftsmanship by old and emerging artists.

I walk by a homeless lady asleep near the pavement sidelines – just another common occurrence in the life of a New Yorker. Our dulled senses have become accustomed to such imagery as we march on fidgeting with our phones. Mockingly, 432 Park Avenue, the world’s tallest residential building towers above the commoners below. The 1,396 foot building is too tall to even cast a shadow off the sleeping homeless lady. It stands above all means of contact outside of its enclosed world.

Tourists take pictures outside the Trump International Hotel and Tower, which is ironically situated right next to the giant steel globe. Time to replace the world globe with the American globe, Mr. Trump?

The fountain at the center of the Circle, and the Amazon books store in the background remind me of Ayn Rand (reference to The Fountainhead), a cultish figure in Silicon Valley. What do New Yorkers think of her philosophy?

“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” — Ayn Rand

As the evening slowly descends into night, the hungry bikers return their bikes to one of the several “Bike Rental NYC” stores and make their way to the Halal food trucks. The dog-walkers traverse towards their homes, while dressed-up couples sit with locked arms in the yellow cabs taking them to the Jazz Performance at the Rose Hall, Lincoln Center. 

I can’t help but feel a sense of deep love for the city as I stand by the park watching this plethora of activity unfold before me. Undoubtedly the city has its flaws, but that’s what truly defines the place. To an outsider, this may sound hysterical and even perplexing, but New Yorkers secretly love the city for its inadequacies and not despite them.

“The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” — John Updike

The juxtapositions, the contrasts, the energy, and the vibrancy will leave you asking for more of Billy Joel’s New York State of MindThe below quote aptly sums up New York:

“New York is an ugly city, a dirty city. Its climate is a scandal, its politics are used to frighten children, its traffic is madness, its competition is murderous. But there is one thing about it — once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no place else in good enough.” — John Steinback

 

Fiction, Nietzsche, Philosophy, Societal musings

The Prison: Nietzsche Philosophy on How to Be Yourself

This is the first in a series of short stories that I’m working on. Through my stories, I intend to introduce people to philosophy, literature, global problems the world faces, and more. As always, I would love to hear your thoughts, and if you like the content, please do share!

…………

I stole a glance at Daniel’s papers. It was study time, which meant only hushed whispering for the next hour, and pin drop silence if Mr. Dey was the supervisor. Daniel intrigued me; he was certainly an outlier among us jail inmates. No one quite knew the true story behind what landed him in prison, but here we were, about to spend the next two months together.

Daniel was reading about concave and convex mirrors. The images on his page took me back to Mrs. D. Roy’s Physics class in 8th grade. I felt stupid ruminating on my life prior to jail time and I picked up my pen to at least pretend to write. I had always wanted to write more but my corporate job wouldn’t spare me enough time. It wasn’t just the job though; every weekend in New York City came with birthday celebrations, parties at the Hamptons, and “catching-up” with friends.

“Albert, you have 2 months off, aren’t you excited?” Daniel beamed at me while we waited in line to step outside for exercise time. Convinced that he was one of those sociopaths who wanted to be in prison till death found him, I uncomfortably feigned a smile but chose to not respond.

As I jogged around the field and felt the wind lightly brushing against my face, Daniel’s question popped its way into my head. How would I spend my time if I had 2 months to myself, unperturbed by the work and social pressures of city life? Albert had devoted the last 7 years of his life after Law School to high-profile corporate cases in the “elite” world of Private Equity and Mergers & Acquisitions. His popularity and reputation soared after he became one of the youngest lawyers to spearhead one of the largest corporate mergers till date – that of ChemicalDow and PuDont. This fame resulted in bigger cases being brought his way, and his ego most certainly enjoyed the attention and the money. He worked with a maniacal drive, determined to win every battle, no matter how trivial. On one particular night, exhausted from working incessantly for the last 40 hours with only 2 thirty-minute naps in between, he passed out at his desk among a sea of papers, with the sharp pencil in his hand poking a hole through his shirt. He kept that shirt as a symbol of his work ethic.

Jogging along in the fresh air, he suddenly shook his head vigorously in an attempt to clear off those memories. He now wondered: what was the point of those long hours and days without seeing my family, only to end up in prison?

The sound of the bell interrupted his thoughts. Involuntarily, his hand slid into his pocket to reach for his phone. Feeling his empty pocket, it struck him for the first time as to how conditioned some of his responses were. His life was a chain of reactions. Carrying a sense of disgust and remorse, he quietly followed the others into the food hall.

The hollow sense in his heart found its way to the gut, leaving him with no appetite. Grabbing a very small portion of chicken and rice, he found his way to nearest chair on one of the corner tables. The attention he had craved and come to rejoice in all his life was what he detested the most now.

Daniel happened to be sitting at his table. His positive radiance exuded a light-hearted air to the table and everyone joked about their fantasies on life after prison.

“I’m racing to the ice-cream shop as soon as I step outside. Goodbye to rice and chicken!” exclaimed Rob

“Oh, I’m going for a run in Central Park. I’ll be free as a bird!” beamed Henry.

“You fool, you sit around here when it’s time to run on the fields. My foot you’re running in Central Park!” Peter responded in harmless jest.

Everyone crackled. With flushed acceptance, Henry threw a piece of bread at Peter, and joined the others in laughter. In an attempt to redirect the conversation, Peter asked Daniel, “How about you, Daniel? What would you do with your freedom days?”

“Well, I am free now as well. But to put it succinctly, I am striving to be Schopenhauerean man,” came the response from Daniel. Some looked at him quizzically while others sneered as they thought that this Schopenhauerean man was a historic fictional character and surely poor Daniel must be suffering from disillusionment.

Daniel proceeded to draw out some papers from his bag and started reading aloud:

A traveler who had seen many countries, peoples and several of the earth’s continents was asked what attribute he had found in men everywhere. He said: “They have a propensity for laziness.” To others, it seems that he should have said: “They are all fearful. They hide themselves behind customs and opinions.” In his heart every man knows quite well that, being unique, he will be in the world only once and that there will be no second chance for his oneness to coalesce from the strangely variegated assortment that he is: he knows it but hides it like a bad conscience—why? From fear of his neighbor, who demands conformity and cloaks himself with it. But what is it that forces the individual to fear his neighbor, to think and act like a member of a herd, and to have no joy in himself? Modesty, perhaps, in a few rare cases. For the majority it is idleness, inertia, in short that propensity for laziness of which the traveler spoke. He is right: men are even lazier than they are fearful, and fear most of all the burdensome nuisance of absolute honesty and nakedness.

Noticing the look of deep engagement on the faces of his listeners, Daniel continued:

Human beings who do not want to belong to the mass need only to stop being comfortable; follow their conscience, which cries out: “Be yourself! All that you are now doing, thinking, and desiring is not really yourself.”

The Schopenhauerean man voluntarily takes upon himself the suffering involved in being truthful, and this suffering serves to destroy his own willfulness and to prepare that complete overturning and conversion of his being, which it is the real meaning of life to lead up to. The utterance or truth seems to other men a discharge of malice, for they regard the conservation of their inadequacies and humbug as a human duty and think that anyone who disrupts their child’s play in this way must be wicked.

The bell signaling the end of dinner time interrupted Daniel’s oration. Contemplatively, the table residents rose from their chairs and prepared for bedtime. Albert couldn’t shirk off Daniel’s words from his head as he robotically brushed his teeth. Who had he become? Were his legal pursuits influenced by societal expectations? He adored all that attention in those “golden days” but was he happy? Was he being true to himself? A sharp sting seemed to permeate his entire body as it occurred to him that he was no hero; rather he was a coward to have not resisted the temptations and trappings of the path laden by others. He soon restored his composure and was filled with a sense of fire as he recalled Meister Eckhart’s quote from one of his classes.

“The beast that bears you fastest to perfection is suffering.”

The following 2 months were the happiest that Albert had felt in years. It seemed as if he was transported back to his childhood days. He at last returned to his dream of writing profusely and thrived in the joy he felt when playing Basketball. Daniel, Peter, Rob and Henry became some of his closest friends as they held each other accountable to be their own versions of the Schopenhauerean man. 

As Albert was discharged from prison and stepped out onto the streets of New York, he reflected, “It is ironical how I’ve learned what true freedom means in prison. In reality, the world outside with its societal confinements can feel like prison.”

………..

Notes and Citations:

The quotes in large text come from Nietzsche’s writing Untimely Meditations (Third Part 1874) on Schopenhauer as Educator. Friedrich Nietzsche was a 19th century German philosopher whose work continues to inspire modern-day society. For more on him, read this NYT piece.

Nietzsche was heavily influenced by 18th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Hence, the term Schopenhauerean man. 

If you want an introduction to Nietzsche’s philosophy, pick up Professor John Kaag’s book: Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are.