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This Is Water

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.

By way of example, lets take my average college day. I get up in the morning and go to college and I work hard for seven to eight hours, and by evening I am tired and stressed out and all I want is to have a cup of hot tea at the street shop in the slum opposite my college. As I approach the shop the smell of human extrement overwhelms me. When I finally get there the shop is very crowded because of course its the time of the day when all the other people also desire their evening tea. Unable to stand them chatter in their cellphones and shouting at the shopkeeper I decide to just pay for some bottled beverage at the side stand and quickly get away. As I shift through the crowd I trip due to an outstretched limb and bump into another person. Moreover there are these slum kids who block the aisle and I have to grit my teeth and try to be polite as I ask them to let me by and eventually, finally, I get my coke.

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to visit that shop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones.

If I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do — except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn’t have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities. The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations. Its not impossible that the slum dwellings facing my college was a result of beverage companies drying out their wells and forcing them out of their farmlands.

David Foster Wallace best explains this:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

Back home I used to pay for bottled water that dried wells and destroyed marine habitat. I used to ride my bike all the way just to get a box of matches. The plastic bags and bottles I used probably filled a couple of landfills. The brands(like Unilever) I supported poisoned whole communities. So before Ladakh working for and communicating projects that promoted renewable energy and sustainable development felt just like the predicament of the old fish in the story. But living in Ladakh has brought my life in line with my work.

Unlike us, long ago the people of Ladakh lived in an alternate reality. They lived like ants among the huge mounds of mud. Having a currency did not make sense to them as the most important resource at the time were humans themselves. So they treasured the people they lived with and worked together exchanging food and labour to make this great desert hospitable. Things changed though when the army and eventually the tourists showcased our lifestyle and made all the pent up technologies of civilisation accessible to them. Many abandoned their communities to acquire the comfort and luxuries these products promised and thus Ladakhi lost their most precious resource in the name of development.

The Ladakhi lifestyle is eroding as many abandon their communities to acquire the comfort and luxuries these products promised. Once whole villages used to build houses and harvest the crops for each other but now Nepali workers are paid to do the same. If I was born in Ladakh at such times I would have definitely left it too. Its better to leave than see my village Kumik disappear with the glacier that fed it or watch my village Neyrag washed away in a flash flood. But here I am with the people left behind to learn about this simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”

Reference: This is Water by David Foster Wallace

Suryanarayanan Balasubramanian

2015 fellow, worked with Sudent's Ecological and Cultural Moverment of Ladakh, J&K - in the domain of water conservation and clean energy.

11 thoughts on “This Is Water

  1. RIP David Foster Wallace. You are missed. 🙁 Anyway, awesome post, dude! However, we had a debate on this issue while we were in Ladakh – one involving local Ladakhi students themselves. Perhaps the Ladakhis were happier before. But that would be because they were unaware of this different lifestyle. ‘Ignorance is bliss’ hardly seems like a good position to argue for. And, with said ignorance now taken away, they’re making a choice. And yes, they’re slowly seeing the downsides of modern life and still making that choice. These are the exact words of one of those students during the debate – “We want to be just like you!” And this was with many of us on the other side saying that they should keep their culture. If this is the honest desire of many of them, then who are we to deny them? Or, as Rahul suggested afterwards, are we merely wishing to keep them as some sort of monument to the old ways – a cute reminder of a different way of life much as a zoo or a nature reserve does with wildlife? Or are we so unhappy with our own lives that we wish to vicariously project onto them an aura of purity for lives that we ourselves are unwilling to switch to for various excuses? Objectively, while I’m sure alcoholism, drug use and a host of other ills have increased thanks to modern living, I’m also sure that basic life expectancy and nutrition levels have also increased. I don’t know if I would have chosen to cling to my ways had I been born a Ladakhi. It’s hard to put oneself in that position – to know a completely different lifestyle that would have made you into a completely different person – and imagine what your choices are. Because it wouldn’t be the same person as you are now who’d be making those choices. All I know is that for various reasons, they are making those choices. We can spread awareness among them about the ailments and downsides of modern living, but in the end, if they continue marching one way, then who are we to lament that? I look forward to more of your posts. 🙂

  2. Awesome awesome awesome read. When we went to Ladakh with the last cohort for the travel workshop, there was a debate between our fellows and SECMOL students on migration. I will never forget his expression when Chamba looked at us and said – you want us to wear horns and stand at a corner while you tour.

    1. Epic that was 🙂
      We thought we were getting an upper hand on the debate, but that one moment changed it all for us, we lost to the debate and even to our thinking. It changed a lot how I look to a new place now. It teached me that to know a place, I have to live and may be work in that place for a brief amount of time. It shackled my prejudices.

  3. Hey nice post… 🙂

    Just one doubt, the past in Ladakh may have been resourceful, but were they happy? Were there hospitals to go to when one was sick, were there schools to learn, were there opportunities to know about and explore the outer world? I do not know, but maybe the past wasn’t all hunky dory. Just a thought that crossed my mind as I read your well written article.

  4. Hey nice post… 🙂

    Just one doubt. Was Ladakh a very happy place in the past? Were there hospitals to go to when one was sick? Were there schools to learn? Were there opportunities to know about the world and explore? I do not know but I don’t think the past may have been all hunky dory. The modernisation happening now may leave much to be desired, but it may still provide a better life to many Ladakhis. Just a thought that crossed my mind as I read your well-written article. I maybe wrong 🙂

    1. Well put. Modernisation has its boons and banes. I don’t know whether Ladakh was a happy place in the past all I know is that it was a very different one. The values they held to sustained them for centuries in such a difficult landscape while our society grew at the expense of those same principles just because we felt we had the luxury to do so.

  5. Nice post. I was touched by the water story. Perhaps your stay in Ladakh can throw some light on what is happiness and is it dependent on where we live and what culture we come from or is it something deep within that we are born with only to experience.

    I feel change is also inevitable. We can’t escape it. Ladakh cannot escape or manage it.

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