Archive for » January, 2013 «

Feeling fish

A wonderful gift I got some years ago was a book entitled, ‘The Fresh and Salt Water Fishes of the World’. Species broadly referred to as ‘catfish’ are illustrated and described in it within ‘Order Siluriformes’. The book describes some features of these fish, including that they are ‘fine sport fishes’ and tenacious enough to stay alive out of water for a considerable time. Nowhere does it say anything about the peculiar personalities and emotional lives of catfish, or of other fish for that matter.

Catfish are big enough to recognize easily one from the other and to get to know personally. Some six of them have chosen to interact with me – for some years now. I know them well enough individually to be able to predict with confidence that Neelika will immediately approach my hand when I dip it in their pond while Upali will initially swim away. When Romesh was alive, he’d not turn away after the initial approach, uninterested, as Neelika does when she finds there is no food forthcoming. Romesh generally swam around and came back to nudge or receive a tickle beneath his snout. None of the others do and Romesh, alas, is now dead. So we have, within this Order Siluriformes, species containing individuals of incredibly different personalities. Their varied characters undoubtedly lead to quite a different quality of (fishy) life for one from the other. I was tempted to add, in my arrogant human way – little do they know. More circumspect of late, I desist.

I have this month confirmed something else. The youngest catfish, Manel, will do a quick round ‘informing’ the others before she partakes, when food is thrown in where she happens to be alone. I know not whether she informs the others by gesture or by sound but she does come right back, accompanied by friends. Upali, on the other hand, feeds at once – unconcerned that hungry others are left out or possibly intent on gorging before competition arrives. My first guess was that this was the juvenile Manel’s insecurity, leading her to summon company. But the older Neelika too tends to do the circuit, bringing in friends and family to join the feed, though not as consistently as does young Manel. Nor does the other ‘young one’ Madhava feel coy about eating alone. So again we have different personalities evident, I believe. (Granting myself generous room to over-interpret.) But the results are consistent enough for me to predict to a new (human) visitor to the locale what each individual fish will do and then demonstrate the accuracy of my prediction – never fails to impress.

Underlying these different traits is what in a human we’d boldly label feelings, or possibly morality. One finds joy eating alone and another sharing. A recent report of experimental demonstration of a possible sense of fairness among chimpanzees (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20973753) was no surprise to me. Had they repeated the experiment enough they may have found that chimpanzee individuals too harbour dissimilar degrees of commitment to fairness – just as different fish may choose more to share or gobble alone.

What we grandly believe to be innate higher capacities such as feeling for others, the desire to share or commitment to fairness probably aren’t uniquely human. Nor the tendency for these qualities to be present at remarkably different levels from one individual to another.

 

 

Impeachment weather

Parliament is taking up for debate the report of its committee on the Chief Justice’s impeachment process. Some are celebrating and others are protesting. And the sky is overcast and there is a slight drizzle. If the weather follows the pattern of the last few days, there should be a light shower or drizzle until noon and clearer skies later.

Driven by mischievous intent, I phoned a few people of opposing political outlook to ask what they thought of possible divine intent behind today’s weather. Answers demonstrated clearly that the current weather was a sign that God or The Gods too were supportive of whatever that person’s stance happened to be.

Depending on standpoint, the light shower right now is a sign that God is (or The Gods are) blessing the impeachment process (with ‘mal warusa’) or blessing the lawyers’ protest march (with ‘mal warusa’) and ensuring they don’t have to suffer (the unfamiliar?) hot sun.

Had we been subject to a heavy downpour, I guess that one party could have said that this indicated divine displeasure or weeping on behalf of the Chief Justice while the other claimed it to be a sign that the gods were rightly intent on squelching the protest. Bright sunshine could have been interpreted as a sign that the gods were smiling on the parliamentary event or providing fine weather for protestors, again depending on one’s own position.

God or The Gods are not faulted for spoiling things and never suspected of favouring our opponents – even when they win the champion’s cup resoundingly.  It’s our fault when we get out at 99 and God’s providence when we score that century – in recognition of which we gaze ostentatiously skywards. I’ve often wondered why sports stars assume that the divine abode always hovers over their head, moving in synchrony with the earth’s rotation and indeed with their travels on it. Does an Englishman have to look at his feet, to direct gratitude accurately at the heavenly residence, when he scores a century in Australia?

The privileges of absolute power are visible wherever you choose to look. A ‘natural disaster’, for instance, always evokes paeans from the survivors, in praise of the divine intermediary who saved them (from nature?) in answer to their prayers, while the dead aren’t around to complain too loudly about divine deafness to their equally sincere supplication.

Pity that daft devil eternally challenging this invulnerable rival. If you are God, it’s always, ‘Heads I win, tails you lose’. You are never up for re-election either – and constitutionally barred from being impeached, to boot. We should be careful before ever again we say, ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

 

STEPHEN SACKUR MELANCHOLY

Long title: “Depression and alcohol use, homosexuality, Ian Thorpe, mass media, sports excellence and vulnerability”.

BBC airs a programme called ‘Hard talk’, with Stephen Sackur often cast in the role of villifier. Sackur is generally sick enough, deep down, to meet BBC’s needs. I was fortunate that chance arranged for me to hear a different Sackur performance today. This interview, with swimming star Ian Thorpe, was almost in the class of those by the impeccable Owen Bennett Jones.

The interviewer was able to stroll hand in hand with the subject – through puddles and over peaks. And as result, I developed new insights into the ‘condition’ we call depression. Listeners weren’t told whether Ian, the Thorpedo, went to psychiatrists and had them clarify for him the real causes of low moods and the remedies required. But the clutch of potentially potent reasons that emerged in this 20 minute plus conversation makes me wonder how much the ‘biological’ causes that we treat contribute to the ‘disease’ we call depression.

We heard that Thorpe had to respond, at a very young age, to rumours that he ‘was gay’ and claims that he used performance enhancing drugs. Sackur asked him, in uncharacteristically unaggressive mode, why he felt the need to announce publicly that his sexual activities were with women. This was the only question to which Thorpe did not provide a bright answer. I would have liked to ask Thorpe also why he felt it necessary to deny repeatedly that he had taken banned medications. I’d have liked as well to ask him which rumour – taking banned drugs to break records or ‘being gay’ – was more upsetting and why. But there is nothing I can think of that I could have left out of this interview, to find time for those questions. An interviewer’s mastery shows in how well she or he chooses matters to dwell on and things to speed past.

Thorpe reported discovering that alcohol failed to relieve the distress of the varied pressures associated with his particular circumstances. Let a million others simultaneously proclaim this experience and it will not make the slightest dent in the belief that alcohol magically improves mood or helps us more easily sail over life’s troubles. The reality is that the only trouble alcohol helps us handle is boredom. And that too only if we know nothing better to do with our time than sit still wondering what to do with it.

Thorpe had achieved the status of celebrity by age fifteen. The global spotlight was upon him. Think of what an hour’s public spotlight likely does to fifty thousand of the hours spent getting it and, say, the five thousand that follow.  Now consider as well how it applies to a fifteen year old versus fifty year old. We may then want to contemplate what guidelines we should develop for future public-spotlight-holding, especially when directed at children and at the child in the rest of us. And, while we are about it, we may want to reflect on alternative pursuits for the trillions of hours unsuccessfully spent seeking fame, daily around the globe. Thorpe and Sackur provoke such thoughts and hundreds more.  Truly worth a listen.