Vivek Haldar


At the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, we had a special name for the humanities classes we were required to take to fulfill our non-technical course credits. We called them hookah. A hookah is a traditional smoking instrument. Its name shared a first syllable with the word “humanities.” More importantly, it symbolized that all these humanities classes were nothing but blowing smoke. Why the hell were we forced to suffer through them?

The students at the Institute believed in the religion of science and reason. The entire modern world around them was built on it. And they were learning the incantations that would one day allow them to be part of the priesthood that creates it and cares for it and carries it forward. The baton of progress and civilization would be passed on to them, and they would run with it. Every (technical) class and textbook that they went through reinforced this belief. Once they learned about the Fourier transform in their signals and systems class, they looked around and were astounded by how much of the modern world rested on that concept. The feeling was repeated with nearly every class they took. They could’t help but feel awe, quickly followed by a tingly sense of power.

And then they had to go to some hookah, where a professor talked about art, or sociology. There were no hard definitions. In fact, the biggest debates were about definitions. E.g. “What is art?” The complexity was like quicksand, all-envoloping, yet not something one could solidly stand on. In fact, the goal was not to arrive at an “answer” but to find out how complex an issue could be.

It was only years (decades?) later that they realized that reason is not everything, that people, not technology, are usually the bottleneck, and that only by knowing the full range of the complexity of an issue can one hope to understand what they’re giving up when the time comes to collapse that complexity down to a single choice.