The slow and agonizing death of Common Sense

Did you know that Common Sense officially died two years ago? It’s true, they even published an obituary in the London Times. Although, I am not cynical enough to believe it to be dead, I do think it is on the critically endangered list. Common sense is fast becoming vestigial in the human species. Evolutionary pressures that made common sense an advantage have been lost with the advancement of science and technology. But I do believe its not fully gone. I think it survives in small pockets of society.

We go to school when we are young and learn that all things are not as we thought. We learn from history that humans as a species slowly learned that all that they believed is not true. No, the Sun does not revolve around the Earth. No, the Earth is most definitely not flat. Infectious diseases are not caused by noxious gases. You will not catch a cold if you go out in the cold. Ulcers are not caused by stress (check out Helicobacter pylori). Spontaneous generation is not a thing. Blood letting does not cure diseases. You cannot turn base metals into gold through alchemy. These were inherently held beliefs that were shown to be absolutely wrong. Some of them were probably believed to be common sense. Mark Twain even remarked, “Common sense is the sum total of all prejudices acquired by the age of 16.” I do not completely agree with Mark Twain. Many old-time beliefs that been proved otherwise start with a grain of truth. It maybe an occurrence that is later proved to be just a correlation and not a cause. But, the fact remains that many such beliefs arise from some ‘common’ observation or ‘common’ truth. A lot of times we forget this, even as we start to believe that all ‘old’ ideas are nonsense, irrelevant and not based in truth or science. For example, studies show that people do catch more colds in winter. There is some science behind that belief after all.

I have observed that after we go through schooling and college, we start to learn from experiencing instead of books.  Due to this many of us in middle-age rediscover the value of ‘good old common sense’. We realize that some of the things that people have believed for centuries does not necessarily have a basis in ignorance or prejudice. People might not have been able to explain the science behind some beliefs in the past, but there was science behind them all the same. At times science confirms some things considered to be common sense. Here is another example: In India, traditional mourning following a death lasts between 10-13 days. During this period, the family members of the deceased are not allowed to go to temples. On the outset, this sounds like a ridiculous superstition. What does someone dying have to do with a family member going to the temple? Now, cast your mind back to the past when this rule originated. It is likely that most of the deaths that were caused during those ancient times were from infectious diseases. If someone in your family died of an infectious disease, it is likely that you are either dying from it or a carrier to it. Temples are places where large numbers of people used to gather every day. It is therefore, common sense to know that if you were to visit a temple during the mourning period (which coincides nicely with the incubation/contagious periods of many diseases), you can start an epidemic! Now it doesn’t sound so ridiculous after all.

What I mean by the death of common sense, is the tendency of people to dismiss older beliefs as ignorance, prejudice or just old-fashioned without thinking about it critically. Experience is a good teacher. It is likely that if people have believed something for a long time, there was a good reason for it. This is the background in which I saw this article about people creating artwork with menstrual blood. A lot of young women today think that the taboo against menstruation and menstrual blood is just a product of patriarchy. I disagree. I think it has to do with some common sense about hygiene. Menstrual blood is shunned because it is body fluid that is considered to be a waste product by the body and eliminated as such.  Nobody (unless you were a toddler) would think its cool to make art with your poop or your boogers! but, art with menstrual blood supposedly wipes away the stigma of period blood! What stigma is this? you mean the same stigma that is rightly attached to human urine and feaces?  Saliva, non-menstrual blood, seminal fluid, mucus and even perspiration is considered disgusting due to personal hygiene reasons.  The knee-jerk reaction of disgust to this art with menstrual blood is because of the evolutionary human reaction to all body fluids (waste or otherwise). I cannot think of any body fluid that is revered, can you?  No, like all other body fluids, menstrual blood is also simply a bio-hazard once it is out of the body.

And while I am not the subject I would like to add another two cents on a couple of other Indian customs, specifically with regard to menstruation. Women in ancient India were not allowed to visit the temple during menstruation and were physically isolated during their period. Women in ancient times didn’t have tampons or pads or menstrual cups. It would have been very messy and unhygienic to go to a temple (again a place of large public gathering) while one was actively menstruating. That is why women were not allowed into temples at that time. In those days, all housework was done by women without the help of any electronic doodads like washing machines and dish washers. The reason menstruating women were isolated during their period was to give them a break during a time when they are weaker due to blood loss. Don’t you wish you could just chill all by yourself when you are on your period? I do not think that these customs were patriarchal ploys to subjugate women  (I do not rule out that they were maybe later made into tools of power by men as the real meaning behind them were forgotten). However, I do not think that was the original intention.

When you really think about it, I think it smacks of common sense. Don’t let poor old common sense die a slow and agonizing death at the hands of some twisted view of political correctness. Let’s learn, educate, and revive it instead.



The emotion that is Madras!

Try it! Do a Google search on “there is no place like Chennai” and then repeat it by replacing Chennai with Mumbai/New Delhi/Calcutta or Bangalore. You won’t find as many odes to other cities as you will about Chennai – or Madras as it was properly known.

I did the aforementioned Google search as part of a little research for this post and was surprised and not so surprised by the results. It is true. The love that people of this city have for it is much more than most folks have for their hometown. Chennai is a city that commands a feverish following much like New York City in the USA. In fact, a lot of my friends and family have told me that NYC has a “Madras-like” feel to it.

For those who do not know, Madras is a large metropolis, a port-city located on the south-eastern coast of India. It is my hometown. The city itself was founded almost 376 years ago and was the headquarters of the famous, nay notorious, East-India Company. “Madras” was derived from “Madrasapattinam”, one of the two villages – Madrasapattinam and Chennaipattinam that used to make up what is Chennai today. About 15 years ago, some political parties argued that Madras was an anglicized name and renamed my great city as “Chennai”.

I was born and brought up in Madras and I am true “Madrasi” who doesn’t like being referred to as a “Chennaite”. My love for this great city has only grown with every year that I have been away from it. I was part of the generation that would not accept the change from Madras to Chennai and one of the very last to ever call it so. I thought this irrational reluctance was just me until I saw the campaign slogan that celebrated Madras’s 375th birthday last year:

“Chennai is a city, but Madras is an emotion!”

This statement truly captures the love the Madrasis feel for the city.

So, what is so great about it? Well, what isn’t? Here is a list of pleasures unique to Madras:

1. The Marnia beach – the longest beach in India spanning a length of 13 Km, looking onto the Bay of Bengal. Its all sand and breeze and fresh hot bhajiis.

2. The wonderful mix of temples, churches and mosques. You can actually hear a Muslim call for prayer, a choir singing at Mass and a slokam blaring on speakers within a few kilometers of each other!

3. The idli, vada, pongal breakfast. Don’t forget to wash it down with the filter coffee.

4. The ubiquitous roadside tea shop (perhaps the one thing I miss most when I am in America; Starbucks just doesn’t compare!). Have tea, biscuits, vada, samosa or a paneer soda.

5. Street food – you name it, you can find it. From Chaat to Chinese noodles, bread omelets to brownies, pakoras to Pizza!

6. Shopping in T-nagar/Cotton street/Moore market/Aminjikarai/Parry’s corner

7. The Connemara library – it has a copy of every book published in India. The Anna Centenary library – one of the largest in Asia. Also try cheap roadside vendors selling Indian editions books!

8. Kollywood – the great Tamil cinema industry with Superstar Rajini and Ulaganayagn Kamal Hassan – enough said.

9. The amazing Chennai Auto! Transportation to any tricky location in the city.

10. Silk saris in a bazillion colors and patterns!

11. Fresh flower stalls outside every temple – no matter how big or how small

12. The radio stations – I stream on the net when I am in the US to listen to the musical genius of Madras’s Illayaraja and A.R.Rahman.

13. Chennai Super Kings – the Chennai cricket team is the best, or so I have been told… and I believe it.

14. It may be as hot as the sun in May but I look forward to the mangoes, sugarcane juice, watermelon, tender coconut water and palm fruit 🙂

15. Last but not the least – the amazing people!

These are just a few of the reasons why we love our city. Madras is also known for its safety, diversity and friendliness. Ask any Chennaite or Madrasi you know and they will agree with me. No wonder the British fell in love with India when they landed in Madras and just had to have it!

– Die-hard Madrasi AB

P.S. Someday I will write about the greatness of the suburb that I live in Madras – Annanagar! They say, Chennai is a city, Madras is an emotion, but Annanagar is another country!