Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Pigs Have Wings - and pens have legs

Pigs have wings. PG Wodehouse proved that. Pens, while mightier than the sword, are not quite as exalted as pigs. So they merely have legs. I speak from experience not from observation. It takes insight to see things that are not there. Writers have it – insight; aspiring writers have tons of insight. Less gifted people call insight by another name : delusion. Psychiatrists offer to cure it – delusion, I mean. No psychiatrist offers to cure insight. (Which is sad, because the world would be a much better place if some people – businessmen, presidents, presidential advisors, television anchors and opinion columnists – were cured of insight and forced to see the world with their regular eyes.)

Now think about this. A shrink says he can cure something he cant see – which is what he considers a problem in your case. And people will pay shrinks, and insurance companies will reimburse and businesses and governments will pay for your health insurance. Which is why economics is such a fascinating subject. Economics offers solutions to problems that don’t exist with money that hasn’t yet been printed. But neither psychiatrists not economists have insight – which is why their pens don’t walk away. And they don’t see the legs.

Now pens don’t walk away because they dislike you. Pens are like cats and electrons– their behaviour is unpredictable. This is what quantum theory is mostly about : electrons and cats. Actually, one specific cat, belonging to a guy called Schroedinger. Quantum theory says that the universe is made of matter and energy, and that matter is made of electrons and other particles, which sometimes exist and sometimes are just energy. So the universe is made of things that may or may not be there. It took insight to come up with this theory and delusion to accept it. Fortunately the scientific community is endowed with both, just like the universe is endowed with matter and energy. Albert Einstein said it neatly: Reality is just an illusion, but a persistent one. Hindu sages said the same thing in the Rg Veda, but Einstein wrote it down, where the Hindus merely yapped at each other in Sanskrit shlokas. Or maybe they were going to write it down, but their pens walked away.

Pens are ancient tools. Cavemen writers used things like burnt firewood, a multipurpose tool. Firewood can be used to cook, for warmth, to defend against predators and enemies etc. Writing and drawing come low down the order. Those pens walked away because people wanted them for their other uses. Frustrated writers then came up with styluses, but those were no doubt hijacked by illiterates who used them to crack nuts. Then came quills – you literally chased after birds which were selfishly refusing to give you their pens. It’s not like the birds were writing. Peacocks infact were so selfish, they’d drink up your inkpot and turn blue.

Hence the ink-filled pen. A tube first of wood, then of metal, later of plastic, full of ink, which would refuse to flow when your thoughts were flowing; but would barf and blot your paper if you were lucky enough to get something written. They jump into strangers pockets. They nest snugly on carpenters ears. They sneak off your desks onto that teeny crack in the floor, behind that pile of junk in the cupboard, onto other people’s desks where they rest luxuriantly, unused for writing. Their friends are : people who assume every pen belongs to them; children smelling a challenge that here is something almost indestructible; boors who prefer pens to chewing gum; conscientious noble souls who return your pen (which they had accidentally taken) as soon as it stops writing; people in queues at post offices who never bring their pens; autograph hunters; autograph givers, poor souls who cant always afford their own pens; and corporate gift buyers who buy maginificently designed and jewelled pens, which of course are too precious to be written with.

The first rival for the pen that I can think of is the typewriter. It is heavier, noisier and costlier than the pen, but it has the advantage of not having legs. We look askance at the man who tries to nonchalantly stuff your typewriter in his pocket and walk away with it. “Soapy,” we tell him, “this is not cricket.” For the pen pinching Soapies of this world, the typewriter is an unplayable googly.

The other advantage of the typewriter, from the perspective of writer, is that when the divine fire won’t kindle, one can take out one’s frustration on the keyboard. The true triumph of the clicketybox, though, lies in the presentation. Even Shakespeare looks mediocre in blot-plagued chicken sprawl. Whereas people can type absolute bilge and as long as they use the right fonts and typespacing, the gullible masses are seduced into reading. Witness the explosion of advertising, tabloids, self-help books and political manifestos. The Vedas were merely spoken; once they were written down, hardly anyone knows them. Aesop’s parables were narrated, Moses’ commandments were carved on clunky stone, the Magna Carta was a sheepskin long, even Jefferson’s Declaration is readably short. Das Kapital, on the other hand is a useful doorstop, Mao’s writings help fill up the gaps in the Great Wall, you can cause skull damage with the Constitution of any modern nation, or the writings of the IPCC, and print editions of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal continue deforestation more effectively than napalm. One can’t blame the typewriter for all this – the computer and laser printer take more credit. While computers don’t have wings, smartphones and tablets tend to merely wander : their great value nowadays is to make you look busier than you are and feel more important than you are, Sergey Brin says.


Pens nowadays are only seen to sign the occasional check and courier sheet. They don’t wander away from desks and pockets, much anymore – they will slowly walk out of the paraphernalia of your life.

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