Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


The End of Beggar at Ghazi Chowk

20 Aug 2014

I haven’t written much this past year. More specifically, I haven’t written much that has made it to this blog. I have been writing messages to friends, emailing & drafting working documents at the office; but there has been little in the way of writing about how I see the world.

Over this time period I have largely been a sponge to the situation. More of this past year has been about absorbing the world, in the hope that I will begin to make sense of it. There has been little thought about how I could change things beyond the systems that I was obviously part of: my workplace and my friends, although largely the former.

It has been strange to learn to live in new systems, and even more so to grapple with the knowledge that I am now supposed to create systems, or that the choice of which systems I am part of is now completely open and in my hands. The latter has always been true, more or less, but there has been very little need to make any big choices.

I took the approach of trying to wade through everything that came my way, trying to absorb things and assume personal growth in the process. There were interesting phases along the way, learning to be a single ex-pat, learning to be a participate in a large team. But as the stereotypical grind becomes a more looming part of the everyday conscience, the need to dream up a new vision of the world has become more apparent to me.

I am convinced that dreaming up movement and progress requires creative output. There is some unconscious creative output I produce every day, as we all do: coming up with a run on the soccer field, cracking a snarky comment, formatting a status report for a work project in a new fashion. But there are two problems with letting this be the only form of creativity in my life. The first problem is that I don’t really see this as a creative process. I don’t start to think about making a run on the soccer field by saying right, I’m going to make something awesome. As a result this form of creative output drowns with the rest of life, just another thing that happened in my day, just another thing that I will forget. The second problem is that no one else sees this as creative output, which means they too, will forget it. I have my best ideas as I get feedback from other people, and a by-the-by creative process does not generate this conversation.

So the time has come for more conscious creative work.

Part of this will be to form ideas and write them down. A friend once told me that writing is the only way to become immortal; my writing is partly a means to this end. But it is also an act in gratitude to two groups of people to whom I am most indebted: my parents, and the donors who paid my way through college. Both sets of people wanted to raise someone who wanted to write. They have their reasons for why my writing might add to the world; their generosity is one of mine.

This stage of the argument begs the question of what it is that I will write about. I have no semblance of a clue.

I’m still trying to find a beat. My inability to settle on a theme so far has convinced me that it is probably best not to wait before I start writing again. Acknowledging that I often think best when I have some feedback from other minds means that I will likely have a better time of this decision if I start writing and gauge people’s feedback. So I plan to start writing things down as a means to find a new voice.

Part of what I think has made it hard to figure out what to say has been the baggage of what I have written in the past, and perhaps also of who has read it. My changed circumstances mean that there is less that I obviously share with my past audiences, in terms of interest and common experience. As a result, I have often found myself at a loss as to what to say to them.

This blog does not have a regular audience, as it did at least for small periods in the past few years. But the idea of who I was writing to has in some ways been defined by what it was four years ago when I first started writing Beggar at Ghazi Chowk. This blog was/is about music. Largely it was about presenting the story of Pakistani music to the people I met in America, and also to the people I knew were interested in Pakistan. I wrote about other things too, and I often posted articles I had written for other publications that weren’t about music (most notably the Prince). But the character of this blog was made by music.

My interest in Pakistani music as a beat to think and write about has dwindled somewhat in the past few months, in part due a change in my own interests and in part due to the lack of interesting things to write about in the Pakistani music scene, at least from far away as I have been.

I imagine I will write about music still. I can’t imagine a life without music, and I can’t imagine not having something to say about it at some point in the future. But there are other things I want to think about, other things I have been thinking about. Beggar at Ghazi Chowk was a great adventure, but I think a clean break would help get the rush of starting something new again.

You’ll continue to find Beggar At Ghazi Chowk at
I plan on redirecting to my new writing.

Here’s to great times, and to new works. Thank you very much for reading.

Why Coke Studio Matters

6 Apr 2014

I started writing this piece a few months ago when Season 6 of Coke Studio had just aired its first episode. The first single, Jogi, blew my mind. What they had done to make it happen was just crazy. First, they got rid of the house band; then got a classically trained pop singer to sing a qawwali that a renowned qawwal had already sung on Coke Studio, except this time make it kind of boppy; asked some Serbians to jam on it; requested the qawwal who had originally sung it in Season 3 to do backing vocals; and put in some dhols for good measure. Read these last few phrases again. This is crazy. Afridi crazy. But it’s brilliant.

Since I first heard that song, the season has completed and Rohail Hyatt has since announced his retirement from his role as Producer of Coke Studio. His six-year run as captain at that Karachi warehouse has changed the way I think about music. It’s not hard to argue that it has changed Pakistani music. Looking back at Coke Studio allows me to think about how I think about music, and how I think about creative production in general. I believe Coke Studio has a timeless quality to it because of the thoughtfulness that accompanies its production, which allows you to find something interesting every time you listen to it. It is important to see why Coke Studio matters because there is enough thoughtlessness in our world. It’s easy to write things off, but it’s sad and dangerous to put down a piece of great work without giving it a second thought.

I felt this year that media opinions of Coke Studio had basically become equivalent to whether or not they like the songs. This is a dangerously close-minded view of why Coke Studio should matter to anyone.

Forget whether you like the song

Take a step back for a second and try to look at Coke Studio holistically. I am personally fascinated by the working of teams: software companies, cricket teams, rock bands. It is incredible how a group of people can find a synergy that makes them worth more than each of them individually. Every time I fight with a friend, or feel that nobody gets it, I think about how people get together with other people and change the world. It boggles my mind.

Coke Studio releases about twenty-five songs a year, and has done so consistently for six years. The Beatles released about two albums a year for about seven years. Most of today’s greatest artists, Pakistani and otherwise, release one album every few years. On sheer immensity of musical output, what Coke Studio accomplishes is near-legendary. In fact Coke Studio records many more songs than it releases every year. Farhad Humayun, house band drummer in Season 5, said in an interview last year that he played on forty songs, and some performances (such as Rabbi Shergil’s and Ali Kazim’s) have been known to be cut before airing. Musical output alone makes Coke Studio matter as an exhibition of human perseverance and creative excellence.

For six years straight the country’s best musicians have flocked to perform on the show. Over the years it has become the stage where a rock band went spiritual, where the country’s most popular of popular singers went experimental, where a folk legend became a heavy metal singer. This is where today’s Pakistan finds out what music is relevant. In other countries local music plays on radio stations, it is written and read about in local papers, it is talked about on television. This does not happen in Pakistan. Instead, Coke Studio finds and showcases Pakistan’s best musicians; it matters both as an eye to see Pakistan’s rich musical culture and as a mirror to reflect this image to the rest of the world.

Coca-Cola funds Coke Studio as a major ad campaign every year, to what can only be mammoth costs. All over Pakistan, billboards exhibition the country’s singers. Soda cans get a harmonic twist. A social media infrastructure is created to push the music out and support a national and international audience. When the songs are released, over three dozen of the country’s television channels are paid to showcase music that audiences would traditionally be the ones paying to see.

Here’s just a small glimpse into the cost of running Coke Studio: according to one estimate, TV channels in Pakistan charge about three-and-a-half million rupees (about thirty-three thousand US dollars) an hour for paid programming. For a season that lasts five episodes, each about an hour long, that’s aired on forty channels simultaneously that totals to about seven hundred million rupees (over six and a half million dollars). This is aside of the cost of building and managing a world-class studio and staff.

That a musical endeavor in Pakistan runs on that kind of budget is quite incredible, that it is an ad campaign is fairly astounding. Coke Studio matters simply as one of Pakistan’s most intersting economic case studies.

For six years Pakistan’s most talented artists and one of Pakistan’s largest corporations have pumped resources into a TV show. They must be doing this for a reason, and the sheer weight of their contribution deserves a second thought from all commentators. Yet, it seems that to many journalists, and many members of the general audience, the point of Coke Studio is no longer obvious.

Why do we do things?

The central question is why does Coke Studio exist? To answer that, it is important to identify why we believe anything should exist. When is human productive capacity put to good use?

The simple way to think about it is this: some human production makes the world better, and the rest does not. Of the latter category, some are easy to identify as harmful to the world (hate crimes or wasted resources). With most other things it’s harder to tell — often they seem a little ambivalent to the world (Why is that packaging that way? Why is the beeping on this machine so incredibly annoying?). All of this human production, at times ignorant and at times ambivalent, exemplifies the sheer amount of thoughtlessness in our world. Because anything that is not clear about how it adds to the world speaks of a process where the creator did not care to think about how their work affects everyone their product will touch.

Thoughtlessness is scary because it implies that we are failing to progress in any way — we are stagnant, still as time passes before us. Accompanied by a productive process though, thoughtlessness is corrupting. A thoughtless creation adds clutter to our world, adding more disorder and in general making it harder to get on with the rest of what we want to do. Notice how the traffic jam in the morning makes it hard to focus at work all day? That’s the effect of disorder in our lives.

An ambivalent creation hence makes it harder for people to live their lives in the fullest way possible. And whatever your belief system, whatever you hold your faith in, it seems right that at least in some part, the point of our existence must be to allow others to live their lives fully. A world where all people are trying to help others live better lives is perhaps as perfect a world as we can live in.

Ibn Arabi, the great 12th Century Sufi philosopher, argued that the common characteristic between all of God’s creation was that it went from a point of non-existence to a point of existence. That is, at some point all of God’s creation must not have existed, until the point that God willed that it exist. God is the only entity to have always existed, to have never been in a point of non-existence. He hinted that God may, in some way, be thought of as the process of existence itself. And the working of the cosmos is merely the exhibition of the greatness of God, and of the playing out of existence. As the subjects and creation of God, our purpose must be to play a role in this great exhibition of existence — to further the life of all creation.

So to rope it all back in, human productive capacity is arguably put to good use when it allows other humans to live better lives. And this is usually accomplished through compassion, insight and thoughtfulness.

Which brings us back to Coke Studio.

Art furthers the cause of existence – it is a celebration of thought, a celebration of common emotion, of humanity. It is humanity that binds us together; abstract thought that separates us as humans from everything else on the planet. Art is the manifestation of that. It allows us to be human, it allows us to make existence richer by creating things that never existed, and by reminding us to continue thinking and continue moving forward.

Coke Studio decided not just to give us music, but to remind us of the tradition of music we had long forgotten about. It did this by stitching it together with a new Western tradition to which we were just opening our eyes. It simultaneously created something new and revived something old.

Which leads me to argue that Coke Studio furthers the cause of existence: it moves the human race forward. Sure, it may have its flaws. It is after all, a human creation. Coke Studio teaches us more about those with whom we share this planet. It forces us to rethink the essentials of our culture, forces us to ask why we forgot it in the first place, forces us to ask why it is important to preserve it.

And the great thing about all of it is that all the choices Coke Studio makes are anything but arbitrary; it’s not ambivalent at all. And the beauty really lies outside of the final artifact of production and more in the process of production.

It’s the process

The song is cultural artifact. It is a tune, with some ornamentation, that we enjoy. It may lighten the mood, it may accentuate a heavy one. At different points in life, different people will associate with a cultural artifact. At times artifacts are fashionable, at times they are not. The strongest artifacts endure the test of time; at times their popularity makes it fashionable for people to make sure they stand the test of time.

Imagine a historian looking back at 21st century Pakistan. Cultural artifacts will be important to their study because they speak of the means, the moods and the minds of the time. The more artifacts we can produce, the stronger the portrait of our lives, the further we allow this study to further the understanding of the human race.

Artifacts are important because of the meaning inherent in them. They are valuable because of what they represent, because of how they make us feel. Meaning is generated by the process in which the artifact is created. What interests me most in the study of the great works of our time is not just the legacy of how they changed the world, but of how they came to be in the first place. Because a study of the process allows us to find ways to build skills ourselves, to find hope that we too can change the world.

And what’s interesting about Coke Studio is more than just the songs. For Season Six in particular, I have found the Behind the Scenes videos more interesting than the songs themselves. That’s where the real meaning is, that is why all of this is relevant. It pains me that many reviewers have seemed to ignore this treasure trove of information when passing comments on Coke Studio.

The Shakeup

The way Coke Studio had worked before Season 6 was quite interesting. Take the making of Bilal Khan’s To Kia Hua. (I wrote this bit a few years ago but am shamelessly recycling it). Here are the major steps that I see happening:

  • Bilal Khan takes emotional sentiment from college-aged fellows around him and writes a song of lost love and discovering your way.
  • The original underground aesthetic of the song is presented in a bootleg video of trademark Khan on acoustic guitar.
  • Rohail Hyatt listens to presumably a slightly more semi-professional recording of the song, and his head starts whirring with ideas.
  • Khan plays it live for Hyatt, Hyatt brings in Babar Khanna.
  • Babar Khanna formulates a dhol groove to accompany the song, this becomes it’s new centre. So the process thus far has changed the focus from Khan’s guitar to Khanna’s percussions, orchestrated by Hyatt.
  • The House Band builds off of Khanna’s dhol groove. The more I listen to it the more I realize what Rohail Hyatt said in an interview. The entire song is based not on a reworking of Khan’s underground recording, but on Khanna’s improvised dhol groove. Sure, Khan’s song remains, but it is Khanna that runs it now.
  • Hyatt then reinterprets the whole process in his own vision, mastering and producing to a final version, emphasizing the dhol groove, creating strong emotional starts and stops. It is the flamingly progressive look to Khan’s original which was deep but stationary.

Like To Kia Hua, every song goes through multiple re-interpretations. Every person in the interpretive chain adds their own little twist, building until the final piece is complete.

Ali Azmat says that Coke Studio will remain relevant only as long as it remains about collaboration. That explains it. Coke Studio is not about how one person thinks of a song – it is not about the singer (and it is not about Rohail Hyatt). The singer is the front-person of every song: the singer sells the song to the audience. It is the singer’s name that is attached to the performance, so the singer is often given the chance to bring the first seed of the idea to the table. From then on everyone, in a loosely defined collaborative process, adds their bit, as Hyatt stiches it all together. As Azmat portrays, people continue to add their two cents, and then the producer can bring some order to everything. (Azmat uses the Urdu word سمیٹنا to describe this last step, I struggle to find an English translation that says it quite as beautifully)

But this process had happened for five years, and people had begun to think it had gotten boring. “All Coke Studio songs sound the same” is a criticism I often heard. Reminded me very much of the same line of criticism applied to Coldplay, U2 & the Beatles. You could argue that making music that shares some similarity with past work doesn’t make an artist irrelevant, but Coldplay, U2, the Beatles & countless other artists are considered great because of their ability to reinvent themselves, to find something new. Bono famously described the great Achtung Baby album “as the sound of four men chopping down the Joshua Tree (their other great album).

This is why Season 6 was important. Rohail Hyatt has mentioned multiple times that it felt like Season 1 again, that this was the beginning of something new. He’s referring to the reinvention.

The house band was replaced with bands in Serbia and Italy, and musicians from Turkey, Morocco, Bangladesh & Nepal. Pakistani songs were taken abroad, influenced by the rest of the world and stitched back together by Hyatt. Hyatt took the Coke Studio process from being a conversation about Pakistani music to making Pakistan the center of the conversation in World Music. Suddenly, the whole thing is bigger than whether or not we like the song, it is about how the world makes music, and that Pakistan gets to mediate.

The medium (especially as it evolved in season six), does not lend itself to meticulously composed tracks. In some sense, the new Coke Studio is less like pop and more like jazz. The standard song structure of the former has been replaced by the freedom of the latter. It is no longer as simple as a verse and a chorus, it is a pulsating collaborative structure where each individual takes the collective musical feel in a new direction. It is harder to learn to like jazz than it is to learn to like pop. At times it feels completely random, almost form-less. But other times it is tuned to perfection, it just connects.

Take Laila O Laila, a song where I believe this happens. A Balochi folk song is taken abroad: an Irani Baloch who now lives in Sweden is the front man (whose idol is Nusrat), a Norwegian folk musician adds another European twist with a hardanger fiddle, and a Balochi backing troupe brings Pakistan back into the equation. Meanwhile a Serbian House Band & String Orchestra accompanies the rest of the Pakistani musicians. And the beauty is that Laila, the symbol that brings them all together, is the global symbol of love. Nobody knows Laila, but everybody knows who Laila is.


Cultural artifacts are images of a time, windows into the past. Structures that produce cultural artifacts are works of magic. They are how we continue to produce an image of ourselves, how we form a history, how we know ourselves. Coke Studio matters because this music will be known for years, and the process behind it enlightens us to write history ourselves.

Living in America for the past five years I’ve felt that the American narrative becomes the global narrative faster than America or the world gather enough awareness to stop this from happening. Very soon the narrative that was developing elsewhere in the world gets quashed by a steamrolling global cultural juggernaut. Coke Studio gives us back our voice. It teaches me how to raise my voice again, how to make what I do matter. This is why Coke Studio matters to me.

10 Aug 2013

Atul Gawande writes about spreading better childbirth practices in India, and tries to understand why some ideas spread faster than others by comparing the successful spread of anesthesia to the much slower progress of antiseptics:

A similar explanation could be used to explain the difficulties in getting people to backup their computer, or wear seat belts.

The important subtext here also is that it is not enough to hold people responsible for their ignorance to seemingly obvious remedies to big problems. When problems are invisible – such as the spread of infection from surgery after the patient goes home, the possibility of hard drive failure, or the damage an accident can cause to a driver not wearing a seat belt – people can tend to ignore the common remedy. This stresses the incredible importance of making these solutions more convenient. Easier backup/syncing technologies are valuable because they get people who would otherwise have been inertial to save their data to do so because it now requires less effort. Of course with many other fields, making solutions more convenient is not just a matter of an interface change but more a culture change – which is much slower and much more difficult but perhaps much more powerful.

2 Jul 2013

Babar Sattar:

We’ll have to acknowledge that our national security apparatus still doesn’t see non-state actors as the single largest threat to Pakistani citizens; that our national security mindset has still not rid itself of the illogical belief that religion-inspired hatemongering non-state actors can be harnessed and used in pursuit of national security goals; that what it perceives as an implementation issue is a design fault.1

There’s a lot of point blank common sense in there that needs to be a more prominent part of Pakistan’s national discourse. I disagree with minor things, such as if the US’s waging two wars was either unpopular or praiseworthy (at least in the manner in which they were waged and whether they achieved what in Babar Sattar’s portrayal is the primary objective of protecting their citizens).2 But the general point is very true and very pertinent, the Pakistani state needs to clearly identify its goals, which should be to further the well being of its citizens and needs honest leaders to do so.

  1. This last sentence appeals very much to me as a geek. 
  2. My problem here is not necessarily that I disagree that the wars’ primary goal was to protect American citizens, but that this portrayal seems to mask other prominent goals of the war, such as maintaining American hegemony. 

1 Jul 2013

The theme resounding through my last two weeks has been that I know so little. I know so little Arabic, and I know so little about Oman, and I know so little about God and humanity and the world and who we are in it, what we are doing and why. But I am learning. I am thankful and happy to learn. I am learning SO MUCH, and it helps to be humble and quiet and recognize that I am not here to teach anything, to tell anyone what to do, to judge or preach or even report (my aspiring-journalist self thought for a second of pitching stories to several publications. Then I realized, wait, I don’t even understand Oman at all. I’ve barely scratched the surface. How presumptuous it would be to write about what’s going on here. It’d be like that time when some Columbia kid wrote a column in the Daily Prince about eating clubs, and everyone was like WHAT DO YOU EVEN KNOW… SERIOUSLY… hahaha sigh), but to be a sister and student and friend.

I felt this way at a bookstore a few days ago. Simultaneously enthralled by all the ideas and terrified at my ignorance of them. Was hoping to write something about this feeling but that now seems redundant.

Reasonable Circumstance

19 Jun 2013

Have you ever had the experience of listening to someone talk, or reading the words of a sage and feeling in the moment utterly convinced and in awe of the majesty of the idea that has engulfed you, only to wait for a few hours and realize you are unable to recount why you felt convinced, or what the person addressing you did to make you feel so? i.e. You are unable to recount what the person said, what it did to you such that it made you feel convinced.

The common explanation for an experience such as this is to resign the momentary clarity to the faculties of emotion, as opposed to reason. To argue that the argument you received appealed to the weaker of your two sensibilities, and made you feel something in the moment but was unsustainable – indicating that it did not stick in your mind and hence must have been unreasonable.

Reason trains us to unpack arguments to be able to judge the constituents that make up the arguments – premises, derived premises and the links between them. Through this deconstruction we are able not just to evaluate the argument but also to find the individual components to be able to reconstruct it again in the future. Reason gives us the ability to understand, record, and convey an argument. It is the fundamental modum of the transmission of human thought (where it is used both to filter out argument unworthy of transmission and then to propagate further that which passes the test).

Therefore, when we feel we are unable to explain why an argument convinced us (such in a political speech, or in a powerful religious experience), or what the argument was in the first place, we deduce that it must not have appealed to our faculty of reason.

But when an experience of the inability to recall and reevaluate and argument occurs in the case of reading certified argument (i.e. when you read the works of great philosophy that societal convention has certified for you as great example of the use of reason), one explains the inability to recall and explain initial conviction by virtue of the improper understanding i.e. a weak faculty of reason on the part of the student or addressee.

The fact is that society does not certify religion or politics or belief of any kind in a manner that it certifies science. And so while we are often comfortable finding solace in knowing that faculty of reason is weak when in the domain of science, it is the reputation of the argument that suffers (not of the student) when in the domain of belief.

But in the faculty of belief also, men have experiences which allow them to rekindle their faith in certain thought. They are able to find ways to understand the intuitive connection first felt, but never reproduced through action to augment or strengthen the faculties of man.

The idea being that whenever the experience occurs where any argument creates intuitive conviction, followed by failure of reason, it implies weakness in the faculty of reason of the adressee and not of the adresser. Thsi implies further that the Intuition is a human ability that surpasses Reason, for it is able to signal the presence of great thought before the presence of Reason. Reason is a technical skill, it is a fundamentally procedural, human faculty consisting of the deconstruction and reconstruction of the thought. Intuition, is an act of cognition of Divine quality, in a way that it is able to see through objects without actually having the procedural circumstances of ordinary, reasoned cognition.

When men are able to see through the thicket of signs around them and find profound truth (such as when a political pundit analyzes a situation and correctly predicts the outcome), we say that the man in question has great Vision. Whereby, even though this man cannot see with his senses the occurence of events he predicts, he sees through some other faculty beyond the human experience of judging events through the senses (which require specific worldy events to happen to trigger them: vibration to hear something, light to see something and so on.). Men of great vision rely not just on their senses but on an ability to see through a faculty that does not rely on incidence of suitable technical circumstance.

Similarly, Intuition is able to see things Reason cannot. For successful reasoning requires the skill of language and logic which define the technical, procedural circumstance needed. Intuition does not, it is a something we seem to be born with, and happens outside our control of worldly action. Therefore Intuition holds sway over Reason i.e it is a superior faculty as compared to Reason in some sense (especially in the realm of belief as opposed to science because society understands reason in science better that it understands reason in belief).


I used parts of these ideas in this little speech at a Friday sermon, which is based in being able to doubt yourself and your technical ability to reason.

An Imagined Community

18 Jun 2013

Published in the Daily Princetonian on April 25, 2013 as ‘An imagined community called Princeton’.

This was my last piece for the Prince, a publication I loved writing for. Really this isn’t meant to be about Princeton alone. It is what I feel someone might think when leaving any place of common experience, especially an institution of learning. Alas, Princeton is the experience I have known and loved.

Princeton is a strange place. For decades, thousands of people — graduates and undergraduates, staff and faculty, American and foreign — have descended upon this patch of land to learn and teach about themselves and the world. Princeton is a community of immigrants. Even as we are here, we are constantly moving offices, dorms, classrooms; and sometimes we just move on.

But all of us immigrate in some form to Princeton knowing that our time here is limited. Despite this seemingly predefined end to our experience, we find common purpose with a mass of people we’ve never met and perhaps may never meet in the future. We are here to move the world forward and to try and catch up as it does so. Somehow we form bonds that make us part of this congregation.

Princeton is an imagined community, to use author Benedict Anderson’s term. It is not about the buildings, and it is not built around face-to-face contact. It is a community built around something we believe in. Something we believe in strongly enough to leave our homes, leave the families that have raised us in the hope of understanding or fulfilling some higher cause. It’s all in our heads.

But being part of this intellectual, imagined community requires that you experience it in person first. Only when you see and live it can you believe in the spirit of the Princeton imagination. To get the real thing requires that you have lived in the rooms that many before you have occupied, to work with others who choose to also establish abode on this ground. This is akin to understanding gravity through a falling stone — what is intangible becomes clear through a lived event. We have to animalistically, physically experience this community to really get what it entails. Even if you feel unhappy or disillusioned, you decided to take the plunge with the rest of us. There must be something to that collective leap of faith; something to explain our shared delusion. Maybe we’re all mad.

The great thing about an imagined community is that it can be what we want it to be. We see Princeton as we want to see it, and it becomes a part of us the way we want it to be. No one may truly understand what Princeton means to us, or what we mean to Princeton. But this also means Princeton will form part of us in a way that it forms part of no one else. Princeton, in some ways, is a reflection of ourselves.

This also means that we may graduate, we may move somewhere else, but we never really leave. Princeton will continue to accompany us as long as we continue to imagine — continue to imagine that we are out to work for a higher cause, that we had the honor to meet great people who taught us how to do this in the first place and that it is our job to try and do the same. Implied in the constitution of this belief in moving the world forward is that we must move forward to make it happen — make our personal worlds bigger and contribute to humanity in some meaningful way. For all we know, that may bring us back to Princeton, as it has brought back many others. For the moment, however, this premise requires that “we have to go away and dream it all up again.“

I don’t like saying goodbye. There seems to be a finality attached to the act of saying goodbye that scares me. This presumed termination of common experience has a way to spark both sadness and existential crises that I like to avoid. As a kid I didn’t have the words to describe this feeling, so I would cry at airports instead. At some point I decided that I would protest to visiting family members returning to their homes by not dropping them off at the airport at all. I’ve gotten better at dealing with seeing people leave but conveniently still don’t drop people off at the airport.

It used to be different flying away myself — airports were places of wonder. I used to collect model airplanes, and airports were marvels of engineering and depots of exploration. There was an adventure waiting somewhere, and I got to fly there. But for the past few years airports have taken on a more grim existence. The memories now are of turning your head that one last time with tears in the ducts, to say goodbye.

To avoid this, I have almost convinced myself that there is no such thing as a final end to common experience. I like to believe that somewhere, someday we shall meet when our roads again connect. The experience continues in our imagination, till we see each other again, perhaps in Princeton, or maybe perhaps, in my Pakistan.

Anthropomorphized mediocrity

4 Apr 2013

UPDATE: Published in the Daily Princetonian April 2, 2013.
(Originally uploaded here while the Prince website was down, so the original comments are here.)

Mediocrity is an old, bitter foe. For years my greatest fear has been to take mediocrity as my companion, one that would forever hold me back from the longed-for Land of Greatness.

All this time I have fantasized about drawing out my sword and defeating Mediocrity in one swift, fatal battle. That is the battle I must face, the challenge that separates me from greatness. Perhaps going to college will do it, or joining a big company or going to grad school is the answer — something, anything.

But whatever I do, however hard I try, no matter how fast I run, Mediocrity always seems to be around. At every point of success I look around, convinced that the final battle has occurred. But Mediocrity reappears to remind me that it has not. The fight continues.

Over this long struggle, Mediocrity and I have shared some heartfelt moments. At the turn of an apex, in the glow of a little success or in the face of a grand challenge, I embrace Mediocrity as a partner. I’m done with it all, I say. Done with the tiring day and the sleepless nights, the constant struggle, the will to continue fighting. Today, Mediocrity, I embrace you as one. We shall settle together in a life of ease.

But this is a dejected, fleeting partnership; the specter of ambition kicks in soon enough. Lo and behold, I declare the battle with Mediocrity open once again. Like bitter lovers, we start it all anew — I run away toward the Land of Greatness but somehow run back into Mediocrity. I must be running in circles, and the only answer must be to get rid of Mediocrity once and for all, to do something so unquestionably great that it must certainly take me to the Land of Greatness. But I fail.

After many nights of panic and anger, I have realized that I give Mediocrity (and myself) too little credit. I haven’t been simply walking in circles after all. I have been walking toward the Land of Greatness, but Mediocrity has slyly been following me. As I have grown, Mediocrity, too, has learned and taken on new forms.

I look back on my dreams from four years ago. I was so stupid. Not that I’m not stupid now, just less so. I used to want to be an entrepreneur — to one day come up with a great idea, make it, sell it and change the world. It doesn’t seem that simple now. The complexity of the world seems to fit my growing mental capacity. There’s a strange, unlikable entropy at work: The same points in life now seem farther away, the path to get to them more complicated.

As I have met greater, smarter, more accomplished folks, I have begun to see myself as unassuming and static while the world around me keeps moving to better things. But I am not static. I’m just moving more slowly than I thought I would as a kid because I underestimated how far away the Land of Greatness was. It just appears that I am static in relation to the new heroes I now aspire to be. And it’s even easier to forget that Mediocrity is on my tail, moving just as I am.

As time goes by, my relationship with Mediocrity grows too. I have learned to see Mediocrity not as a monstrous enemy but as a competitive rival, a friend who eggs me on to move faster, to see if I can do what I once thought. I haven’t failed by befriending Mediocrity — it has just grown with me.

I used to have very simple dreams. They were easy to follow, easy to play up. Today I feel that those dreams are gone; it’s not as easy to convince myself of a direction. But while the dreams appear less real, the world appears more so. I see the problems more clearly — the solutions less so. It’s easy to stereotype this as stagnation, but that’s just a lazy way of understanding ourselves. We now know more clearly that the dreams are harder to achieve. But to convince ourselves that they are now unattainable, that we must have stagnated in the process, is just an easy way to divest ourselves of the responsibility to keep fighting. I am not out to defeat Mediocrity in one epic duel. We will slowly struggle together toward the Land of Greatness.

People used to tell you and me to go change the world. We used to tell ourselves to go change the world. But nobody seems to say that anymore. The hope has dried up, the dream has faded; we seem to have failed. But we haven’t. We’ve just gotten a little smarter, a little less naive, a little more aware. Today I stand with you, and I will watch you go change the world. It won’t be one swift battle, but I will watch you change the world, one step at a time. I may be far away, but your friend Mediocrity will keep you on your toes, will keep you fighting and will be there for a cup of tea when the chips are down.

Poorer by concentration

6 Mar 2013

Published in the Daily Princetonian March 6, 2013.

An interviewer asked me a few days ago what the relationship was between my academic interests in policy, music and computer science. He preceded this with a comment that he had no idea what I was interested in after reading my resume. I was cool with that because I felt like I, too, have no idea what I’m doing with my life. At least we were on the same page.

I told him my interests in all of those fields didn’t really intersect. That didn’t help my job prospects, so I went into recovery mode.

Many of the skills learned doing various sorts of academic work are transferable to the work at a tech company, I said. An ethnography of musicians and audiences involves similar interviewing and analysis skills as a user test for software, for example. Learning to generate buy-in for policy involves as much of a critical high-level understanding of people’s preferences as any market research job.

But I think this point was leading to something more fundamental. I see the skills across all disciplines as transferable to most forms of work. I believe this is because most academic study can be generalized to understanding the mechanisms behind the processes of the world.

History is about looking at facts of how humans and states (as organizations of some humans representing other humans) chose to act and about understanding the reasons that they did so, and then spotting patterns between similar actions to formulate an underlying mechanism of how humans and groups act in different scenarios. Abstracted to this level, one begins to see similarities with sociology and psychology. The natural sciences are about understanding the mechanisms of organisms and substances behind their phenomenal appearance. It is about identifying and mapping the patterns of movement and change in the natural world. Much of engineering relies on being able to use these patterns to aid human action.

Behind every field of study there is the logic of causation. X causes Y which leads to Z which implies something else. The primary structure of an argument remains the same. Each field of study involves a combination of finding evidence and reasoning to explain a process that entails the evidence. And as we learn more we become more adept at understanding more complex processes and more complex reasoning. We learn both to abstract so that we can build on each other’s work and to dissect so that we can build our own understanding. Theoretically, given enough background knowledge, some abstraction (and belief that abstracted parts of processes work as expected) and the skills of logic, most fields of study should be within the grasp of a diligent student.

The point here being that education is really similar across the board. We may be ignorant about many parts of many fields, but that does not imply that we are stupid and will be unable to understand the field at all.

Underlying my interviewer’s question may be the assumption that the lack of domain-specific knowledge may render someone useless for a given set of tasks. I find this assertion problematic because I see all aspects of the educational process as a struggle to build competency with understanding the mechanisms that underlie our world in one form or another. Intelligent minds should be able to switch domains and learn to paddle around them given good experience in the core art of following an argument.

The implication here is that to me, learning domain-specific knowledge is like moving to a new house. You must relearn the little things such as how long it now takes to get from home to work, but you don’t forget the core art of transporting yourself from one place to another.

For this reason, anytime I see the argument that my educational background (i.e. what major I am) dictates what sort of work I can succeed at and add to, I find it problematic. I see this when courses are reserved only for members of certain departments, when I witness the possible difficulty of changing fields between undergraduate and graduate study and every time someone stereotypes my major.

There’s a part of Sufi thought that argues that divine inspiration and realization can only be witnessed by a select, blessed few. Many see this as an elitist aspect of Sufism. I think that our prohibitive attitudes to diversity of study as mentioned above are also elitist because they assume that a concentration may limit one’s scope of thought — by extension implying that certain forms of thought can only be accessible to certain kinds of people. Be it in school or at the workplace, an inclination to educational diversity should be welcomed, not rejected.

I think the struggle to understand the mechanisms of the world is a process in which we all take part in order to obtain a better conception of the Truth about our world. Given the universality of this objective and of thought itself, knowledge should be available to anyone to understand and build on.

Letter to my freshman self

5 Mar 2013

Published in the Daily Princetonian February 13, 2013.

To my freshman self, here is a list of some things that I would like to have known three years ago:

Brown is an awesome place to live.

Don’t buy textbooks unless you’re sure you actually need them.

Talk to professors. Do it again. Keep going. This will inevitably be fodder for the stories you tell everyone about Princeton. Since you will also run out of stories to tell, you will need these conversations. Some of the happiest moments at Princeton are about discovering new ideas, ideas that explain something you’d always wondered about or something you hadn’t even thought about at all. That light-bulb moment makes it all worth it. There will be a few; look for more.

Don’t spend the night at Penn Station because you want to catch an 8 a.m. train and the Dinky doesn’t run early on Sunday mornings. Take the cab to Princeton Junction.

Need a book on reserve for more than three hours? Go to Firestone Library within three hours of closing, and keep it for the entire night. One more reason not to buy textbooks.

Don’t be tense about the D you got on that first French exam. The others will be OK, and it won’t suck overall.

Don’t be tense about anything — not worth it.

Being independent is awesome.

Go with the flow in room draw. You’ll hear about horror stories, but the less you worry the better it seems to work out. Your roommates will be some of your best friends.

Take more econ.

Take some philosophy.

Studying abroad is a good decision.

Start your thesis early. You will hear this often from seniors. And you’ll think, “That sounds obvious enough. I don’t know why people don’t just start early.” You won’t start early. And you won’t be able to explain why. So plan to start early. Does it seem too early? It’s not. In fact, it might be a good idea to start even earlier.

You will be rejected by a lot of things. So will everybody else. Don’t let it get to you. If it does, get over it. Dwelling on things that didn’t happen will often take you nowhere. Choose to go somewhere, and look forward. Many things that don’t work out won’t have been good ideas in retrospect, anyway.

Look at the sodium content of the ramen.

Always sign up for frequent flyer miles before the flight.

Apply to everything that interests you. Some things work out almost by accident and lead to other, great things. Those will take life into directions you hadn’t even imagined. Let that happen.

Maybe consider joining Terrace before it’s too late. Go to Terrace more, regardless.

There will be times when you see the world and the people in it as motivated only by self-interest. These will be the times when you are most bewildered, because the only sustainable personal reward seems to come from work that creates relationships with other people in some way or another. But as you navigate this, you will understand the need to strike a balance between preparing for self-interested actions and being motivated by the will to help other people. Want to help other people; keep that alive.

Don’t take a class just to get a recommendation. Hollow motivation can’t lead to good work.

Thinking of buying an electric guitar because you already have a bass and will need an amp anyway? You’ll be indecisive and never buy an amp, so just buy an acoustic guitar. Make it semi-acoustic if you want to make yourself feel better.

With inspiration as with job searches, if you don’t find anything, buckle down and keep going. Don’t stop.

Yes, your ears can feel pain. Buy a hat in January.

Wondering how long it would take you to be caught for copyright violation if you torrent? Not long at all.

There will be times when you feel uninspired and you want inspiration to provide some spirit for creative output. But you will remember a time when you most lacked inspiration as one of the happiest times at college. Even in retrospect, it can be a little hard to explain why. Much of the work you will produce in this time will be good. There will be inspired moments and many more of soul-searching. But there will be happiness in forming great friendships that will be inspiration in itself.

These are some things the benefit of hindsight has taught me. It has also taught me the futility of telling myself to do things the right way. Some things never change.