Of Toxins


2015-11-05 17.06.29It might take us some time to understand what’s toxic for us. It’s not usually common sense. But, when we know, staying away from the toxin is common sense.

Standing in front of the toxin, cursing it loudly, and waving your hands in despair and anger, doesn’t help. In fact, it harms. You are too close to the toxin.

Get away, as far as you can, as soon as you can.

The Elusive Truth of Photographs

Earlier, a short conversation ensued.

Something that I have struggled with for a while (and I continue to struggle). This post, is by no means an expression of any finality. Struggles are continuous. We take them with us to our pyre.

Ethics in Photography: Primarily related to manipulation through digital tools.

I first heard of Photoshop in the very-late 90s. I used to take photographs much before that. I never manipulated photos (I had no means to; didn’t have access to a darkroom). Then, with my introduction to Photoshop, I realised what was possible. It was still not easy. You had to get your photograph printed, scanned, and then manipulated.

Cut, to the last few years.

The ease with which we can now manipulate photos is a critical factor of how many photos we manipulate, and to what extent. When it was the darkroom, and the effort was huge, you’d be satisfied with the photograph you took. Most photo upload sites Instagram, for example, depend on manipulation. Notice how the app is created; the process calls for manipulation. As this became the norm, otherwise puritan sites like Flickr (yes kids, there’s something called Flickr, and yes, there’s an app for that) joined the bandwagon, and created a manipulate-first strategy. Like we have mobile-first strategy. The humble smartphone camera, humble, no more, now included built-in editing tools. It’s worth noticing, also, that the editing tools are primarily auto-fix or filters. Not Levels, or Curves, and such (I know some apps have them, so don’t kill me for saying it). Why bother users with complex scientific concepts like a Histogram? Why teach core concepts of amount of light and duration of light? Focus on publishing!

All of the above, only to establish our current environment. No judgement, at least not yet.

Let’s come back to the short conversation that ensued.

A participant in a photography competition withdrew his entry, after it was found that he had retouched a photo to remove undesirable artefacts from the photo — in this case, a straw-like-thingy.

The question that was posed: Ethical Violation or Technical Breach.

My instant response was: Technical Breach. And it was so, because the competition disallowed major manipulation:

The rules of the contest state that “No cloning, montaging or digital manipulation other than cropping, ‘digital spotting’, burning and dodging is permitted,” so the photographer alerted Walkey about the suspicious submission. [Link]

For those of us who think that digitally manipulated photos are an ethical violation, I ask: is cropping fine? Or Burning? Or Dodging? In my opinion, cropping is completely removing a context in a frame! By showing me a photograph that is devoid of some context (by cropping) the photographer is changing meaning. Pretty much like sensational headlines or context-bereft sound bites. Then, are you making the sky look more blue? The leaves more green? Are you, Mr. Photographer, deceiving me? Was the sky really a dull boring blue that was almost white, when you saw it? Were the leaves not as you had imagined?

I am not advocating an ultimate realism in photography. As a person who takes photographs, I know that reality changes every millisecond, and so does context.

Broadly, photography serves two realms: that of documentation and that of art.

If an artist painter, who uses a canvas and oil paints were to paint a sky that was true blue (as most of us imagine it to be) we would never question it. Yet, fact of the matter is, we rarely see a blue sky as blue as we imagine it to be. We applauded the orange-grey-green-blue abstract skies of JMW Turner. When a photographer HDR’ed a sky, we felt cheated. This is the first realm of photography, and that is art.

The ethical questions, essentially come in the second realm — documentary photography. This realm deals with reality, harsh reality. And I am not talking of gory photos of dead bodies and such that we see on social media these days. If a photo’s purpose is to show you reality, and if it is manipulated — to edit meaning or create a new meaning — it is, clearly an ethical violation.

Common to both these realms is how we take photos. Given the means and the ease that has been afforded to us, the line between art and documentary photography has blurred beyond recognition. Whereas, we should be seeing photos as either art or as documentary, we are looking at them as manipulated or not.

“Both those taking snaps and documentary photographers, however, have not understood ‘information.’ What they produce are camera memories, not information, and the better they do it, the more they prove the victory of the camera over the human being.” ~ Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography

This post wasn’t going to be complete without a quote from my guru.

Where do I stand?

In the simplest of terms, capturing a moment, for me, has always been about amount of light and duration of light. Primarily. That is what makes a good photograph. Now that the basics are covered, a photographer creates meaning. That is what makes an interesting photograph.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the manipulation of photographs; if presented as art. For, if you are photographer, you know that the real manipulation begins, before you click. When you set your aperture, when you compose, when you set your shutter speed. When you choose to include something or exclude something in the frame, that’s when manipulation has started. In a digital editing tool, you are only continuing the process. Even if you add a simple border, that’s manipulation.

Except, if you are documenting. Documentation is essentially boring. There is no need to manipulate that. Just file it, and be done. And when (and if) you manipulate a documentary photo, you are crossing really thick lines.

Here is a case study:

2015-11-03 12.03.06

This is a photograph I took of an AC fan, outside my office, with my mobile phone camera. After a few minutes, this is what I posted, on Instagram.

#fan #circle #circular #concentric #grill #yellow #blades #web #airconditioning #aircon

A photo posted by Atul Sabnis (@atulsabnis) on

Do you feel cheated? Or did you just not care, and enjoyed the Instagram? Now that you know the raw truth, what do you feel?

November Schizo: The m-dash

No post in November — at least seventy thoughts went unexpressed — @ the rate of an average of 10 per day — it should be more — but — I am conservative — I am also OCD — someone said.

Since all the thoughts of the last seven days are dead — I have nothing much to say — yet November has been good, so far — new friends — great dinners — coffee-laced brownies — and wonderful conversations.

All the guys reading this post — if you are celebrating Movember — say hello — you can say hello — even if you are not celebrating Movember.

Finished a book in a single sitting after a long time — my love for history grows — it makes me a better person after every experience — it challenges my common notions — after every read — it makes me want to read more — know more — not because I want to say something to you — though I want to — but — because I want to fine-tune my attitude and perspective — and that’s enough for me — we don’t need to change people — to change the world — we only need to change ourselves.

I fell in love with love again — if you saw it — it would look like an empty chair — for me — it was more, much more than that — in the circle of life — I watched myself crossing some lines — I smiled — I said — It’s alright — it matters less what I think what others think — it matters more what I think — I smiled again — It was an intriguing smile.

I think — I have encountered my second enemy — Clarity

(The Teachings of Don Juan, Four Enemies Of A Man Of Knowledge, Carlos Castaneda)

PS: The m-dash is one of my favourite grammatical symbols. I have not, yet, mastered its use. As is obvious.



Welcome, Ghosts

Unless I am making a sandwich, I cannot cook for the exact number of people who will be eating at a particular meal. It’s always a little more. When my best friend cooks, she cooks more than a little more.


Years ago, once, like the many times, I remember; my grandmother and I were eating dinner, together. I think I was fussing over the veggies and she was fussing over me. Everybody else had finished their dinner. It was just the two of us. I was trying my best to distract her from making me eat; she was doing exactly the opposite. Just when I was running out of options to distract her, I thought of a brilliant one: I looked at the food that was still unserved. I asked here, why she cooked for almost two more people. There was less curiosity in the question, and more of an agenda, as you, my dear reader, have already gathered.

“Ghosts,” she said.

I looked at here, only half-bewildered. No, I wasn’t scared. (Why would you even think of that? I was not that young.)

“There are always ghosts around, our ancestors, dead neighbours, long dead people who inhabited this place before us,” she explained, with some nonchalance. (Which, did scare me, a bit, just a bit, and mostly because she was trying to scare me.)


Few years later, when this topic surfaced in another context, I asked my father, about these ghosts. By now, we had a telephone in our house (fixed, landline; not yet mobile, and nowhere close to Internet). He smiled.

Years ago, when people used to travel, they had little or no means of informing the host of their arrival. They would just land up. Imagine, if a guest arrived late, weary and hungry from travel, and there was nothing to feed this guest. Of course, if a guest did not arrive in the dead of the night, the family would finish the leftover food the next day. And the cycle would continue.

I was satisfied with his answer, yet my father understood, it didn’t answer my curiosity about ghosts.

“As far as the ghosts are concerned, decide for yourself, if they would eat food that we humans eat,” he said.

My scientific education led me to believe that ghosts wouldn’t eat human food. Which, as you can imagine, led to couple of other terrifying questions.


Not Penne Pasta. Food, that uses the Primary Ingredients of a Pasta.

Not Penne Pasta. Food, that uses the Primary Ingredients of a Pasta.

More years have passed. My grandmother is long gone, and so is my father. Every time I think of ghosts, I remember these conversations. In recent times, the concept of cooking a bit of extra food for ghosts (or unexpected weary guests) has been replaced with the generous hand. In other words, the generous nature of a cook shows up in the quantity of the food cooked. My problem, of course, is none of the above. I just don’t use scientific measures. It’s a very abstract calculation, which is perfect, when I do it in my head. Which means, you also have an idea, what I have for breakfast!


Yet, there’s always food for one more person, when I cook.

You are welcome.

A Different Kind of Post

I wrote a real letter, after a long time.

There’s a context to real. It means that it was handwritten on paper, put in an envelope, was addresses by hand, postage stamps were applied, and it was dropped in a proper post-box.

India Post - Post Box "Indian Post Box". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

India Post – Post Box “Indian Post Box“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve recently written a few letters. Some are incomplete. Some complete, but not posted. Some completed, and sent — but as scans, some nearly perfect, but sent via courier.

There were two challenges with this letter; one that it was being written to someone who was less than a third my age, second that it was (in all probability) the first letter for my young recipient ever. After all was done, I had to go to the post office. I had no postage stamps. And though my mother had some old ones, I had no idea how much postage would be required for my letter’s destination.

So off I went.

It’s five rupees now. For less than the cost of a cutting-chai two pages of a letter can travel anywhere in this country. For those of you who may not have cutting-chai as a benchmark, it costs US$0.08. Less than a dime. The Indian postal system is an institution that I have always respected, and nothing has changed in that department. No pun intended. The post office is much cleaner, spacious, and instead of letters being bang-stamped there is a whirr of a dot-matrix printer. The post office looks brighter and happier.

I owe a bit to my recipient, else this was an experience I would not have had.


Writing the letter was a very interesting experience. Especially with the spellings, because another friend had pointed out, that I should be careful with the spellings. I discovered, the speed with which I can write, has reduced considerably. I wrote the letter as I would have written when I was prolific with letter writing. I do not know if the style will make sense to my young reader. Well, in the least, my reader will know how we used to write letters 20-25 years ago. Yet, I did not feel like making any changes in the style. In the end, I was very happy with what came out.

Postal Envelopes and Stamps

Postal Envelopes and Stamps

I knew I’d write more letters than before. And I want to write letters now. Let me know if you’d like to receive one. So, while I was dropping this letter, in the post office, I bought some prepaid envelopes and a few stamps.  The prepaid envelopes look very different now. But I’ve changed too. So has my handwriting. So has my paper. So has my pen. So have my thoughts. So have the people I’d write to.

In this ever-changing world, the sense of writing a letter has stayed the same.

My Sword; My Rules

What, if it was 1686 and it was about your sword?


I utterly dislike when people tap on their (non-touch-screen) screens of their laptops when describing things. Some, I’ve seen go to the extent of using their ball point pens and tap, tap, tap on their computer screens. Maybe it was acceptable when we had CRT monitors. The material allowed us that act to go by. Not in these times. Colleague, customer, or boss. I’ve stopped everyone from tapping on the screen, at least on the laptop that belongs to me (even when it was the property of the company). It matters not, if it has to be at the cost of losing your comradeship, your business, or my job, respectively, you don’t tap my computer’s screen.


2015-10-30 00.45.12

It’s 1686. Take a minute, go back in time. Your sword is in your sash. A comrade comes along. Hey, nice sword, he says; draws it out of your scabbard, scratches it on the ground, bangs it on a pillar and such. For a soldier who lives by the sword, what would it do to you?


A sword or a laptop are the tools that we live by. They are personal. I cringe when I see how people use their laptop. I keep quiet. But if they behave the same with my machine; no sir!

Taking care of the tools we live by is not about OCD, nor is it about being a control freak. It is, in a simple word, about: RESPECT.

~ ~ ~

For most infections, we have some medicine that will protect us. What will protect us from carelessness?

I Do It For Your Love

What makes a lover say no to the love that stands, with open arms, asking only, that he take one step towards love?

What purpose or gain, if you love me
Other than being scattered in the whirlwind of my milieu.

What makes a love think so much of the life he has lived and the life that he sees in front of him, that he does not take that step?

I am the denizen of the hovel of grief and pain
It’s only me, who can stay alive in this haunt.
Why would I dream a dream whose reality is remorse
For, in my remorse, you may rue it too.

What makes a lover not see a better life and drives away the love to a better future?

Pray, what purpose, that anyone share this anxious weariness
Let my world remain dreary and dismal
Let the steps in your life be easier, in the least
In traveling with me, nothing but regret awaits you

What makes a lover hope for a good life for his lover, away from him?

What of me; there are many admirers to come
Many tunes that will echo of love, for you
Many tales of love that life is yet to tell you
You have no reason to believe you will not forget me.



I’ve taken serious liberties in translating the song, but have stayed true to the sense this song causes, within. There is an inherent beauty in sad songs, like I mentioned earlier. Even in your happiest moments, these songs remain beautiful, because of the weave of the words and the purity of the emotion that they convey.

It’s love.


“Pyar Mujh Se Jo Kiya Tumne”, from Saath Saath (1982), sung by Jagjit Singh