Saturday, June 30, 2012

What an idea!

"There must be a way to secure my spontaneous ideas, some are too special to forget,” a friend tells me, as we discuss innovative conception that could help change the world. “Call it an ‘ideator’ or something kept in the pocket. It must be able to automatically record my verbalization of an idea and systematically store it for easy retrieval.”

Well, ideas, though interesting, sound funny or even far-fetched until we see them transforming into something concrete, and until they become ubiquitous.

Here’s another example, and this is related to me. I find it extremely awkward to scratch my back. Sure, it may not be that difficult to rub the detoid on the shoulders or the scapula, the shoulder blade, but as hard as I might try, I find it extremely difficult to reach the trapezius, a little farther, in the middle of the back, or the erector spinae near the sacrum.
When I was young, these muscles, located inconveniently as they are, readily offered me with an easy excuse for not cleaning my back thoroughly while taking a bath. Even my mother’s occasional efforts to help me did not work because my body was sensitive to kaukuti, the tickling sensation.

That was the reason I always wished there was something, some device or tool to comfortably scratch my back. Not knowing there were already such products in the market in some developed countries, I always wondered why nobody thought of inventing a scratcher specifically made for the human back. But that was when I was young. Things have changed dramatically since then; today I am the proud owner of a back-scratcher that I bought at one of our mushrooming convenience stores. This one is a wooden toy, almost like a flat spatula with a long handle and a rough edge.

Scratch, scratch—the work is easy now. Instead of the abrasive tickle, I get a delightful sting.

This reminds me of another idea which when it came to my mind, seemed to be at par with Newton’s falling apple. It can be cumbersome to stroll in the darkness. One night, as I was scrambling for something in the dark, I took off my pull-over and it rubbed against my hair. I saw a bunch of fiery sparks around my hair in the darkness. Putting on the sweater and taking it off a few more times, I successfully repeated the static incident. I thought to myself, I must never tell this to anyone until I grow up enough to announce my discovery to the world—there’s something magical about your hair; it can be used as a source of light.

Later, I also learnt of the static electricity that enables a comb to pull up pieces of paper, but to this day, I have not come across any battery operated torch that got illuminated because it was placed on your body’s crest and the hair charged the device.

There are many other little incidents that look important in the way we handle or organize our daily lives. Take, for example, the efforts we put in learning to tie up our shoe laces; yes, those stubborn laces. Mastering the ‘surkaune’ method or the looping of laces into ‘bunny ears’ was a major breakthrough for me as a young person, no less a feat than later managing to independently paddle a bicycle, which in turn was comparable almost to a child’s version of breaking the sound barrier.
It was equally fulfilling to know how to keep your socks together. This is one of the most vexing problems many people face. Collectively, we lose precious amount of time searching for the other misplaced odd sock. In the US, however, it was a relief for me to learn (at the age of 30!) the method of folding them inside each other so the pair remains together. The Americans have a way of finding ways to solve problems, from everyday, ordinary chores to repairing the Hubble Space Telescope via spacewalks.

If a society is in the pursuit of steady improvement, it does not matter much whether a problem is trifle or significant. The import thing is how they affect us, and how we approach them.

Imagine a world without a nail-cutter, a pair of scissors, a needle, a coin, a broom or even paper. The landscape of our hygiene, clothing, trade, or bureaucracy would have been vastly different, minus these little inventions. Every meal I have will turn into a punishment without the toothpick, because the little instrument serves to console my irksome cavities.

For an extended period of time, perhaps for years, try wearing clothes without any pockets. The pocket is a useful invention that we have so commonly embraced. Having to live without it is a grave punishment for any modern human being. A society without pockets or even wallets is unthinkable today. Their prohibition will surely upset our social equilibrium. And imagine, too, abstaining from or being deprived of sources of news like the radio, newspapers or television. That will seem even more unjust today in the eyes of many people who remain addicted to the sea of breaking news or current affairs.

Often, it appears that even simple devices have solved some of the most vexing problems of humanity. If the western world invented toilet paper or cotton bud swabs, we invented kankarno, the earwax remover made of brass or silver. This unique Nepali product, I think, is unmatched for the bodily satisfaction it offers its users (though we may wonder why it is taking so long for it to make a mark in the global ear sanitizer industry).
Undoubtedly, these devices or ideas serve as keys, helping to open doors to new arrangements in our lives, those little big elixirs. Almost all cultures, including Hinduism, sustain the myth of elixir, or amrit, a fabulous potion or drink that makes one eternally young, unscathed by all the worldly problems.

Traditionally, when time and space remained indomitable, everything—goods, ideas, or utterances—could serve as the mantras for issues small or big. Such keywords, zealously guarded by their socially privileged users in the manner we protect our passwords today for access in the virtual world, signified the verbal equivalent of the legendary potent drink.

We see these things being repeated in different dimensions today. The many issues we face in our society, state affairs, bureaucracy, politics and public life form a web of loops and knots, more intricate than our shoe laces. In these times when passwords are merely words and slogans devoid of energy or action, and when they are routinely hacked or mixed up with too many others, creative ways or formations are necessary to logon to the books of practical solutions, and to open doors.

Published in Republica, June 30, 2012.