Sunday, 16 June 2013


Umwelt” is a German word for “living in an environment (welt)”. It is a jargon that relates an organism’s cognitive engagement with the world immediately surrounding itself. A professor at the University of Hamburg, Uexkull defines the ‘umwelt’ as the perceptual world in which an organism exists and acts as a subject. Even a small organism like amoeba or a jellyfish experiences the world by its sensory organs.

Well, talking of today, we have an electronic umwelt, where history is replaced with movies, education is replaced with entertainment and nature is replaced with technology. This peculiar wedding of low kitsch and high tech has generated a world quite difficult to fathom. Umwelt is usually translated as "self-centered world". Nowadays we are so busy with our ‘smart’phones that we hardly have time for the environment in which we live. How many people in a day give their opinions about God or factual issues like global warming, etc? How much do we think about animals who share same ecosystem as ours, what they feel, why they behave in the ways they do, how they understand their environment, how and what they communicate?

Similarly, the people we most heartily disagree with, the ones who seem stupid and almost perversely narrow, live in a different micro-reality. Their worlds, and ours, are limited by what we don’t know, not by facts we refuse to see, but by elements we are not able to see. Extending the idea of umwelt to different cognitive or social realities like: When I’m in the water, I perceive and sense quite a different set of impressions than does a fish. Every kind of ignorance in the world results from not realizing that our perceptions are gambles. We believe what we see and then we believe our interpretation of the human tendency to notice and assign significance to observations that confirm existing beliefs, while filtering out or rationalizing away observations that do not fit with prior beliefs and expectations it, we don't even know we are making an interpretation most of the time. We think this is reality. We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are.

You can experience the world of a homeless person by being dropped off in another town with nothing but clothes, no wallet, no cell phone. You can even perceive the world of an off-the-grid villager by turning off the gas, electricity and water at your house for 24 hours. Each person’s brain perceives and analyses the world differently than others. I can look right at something, even study it, and still miss important details that others see on a casual glance, or vice versa.

When I think of our cognitive engagement with the world, two major incidences confuse me. The resilience and the indomitable spirit of the Mumbaikars after 26/11 and how they continued to work right from the day after to rebuild the restless city. We are all proud as Indians. But what right did I have to feel proud? Between the terrifying blasts, what had I done to contribute to the much acclaimed “Mumbai Spirit”? Is simply resuming our lives assuming as if nothing happened, a true measure of our “spirit”? How many of us have felt the same momentary angst and came up with nothing but helplessness after such incidences? Some people of your city have been killed because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time and you still get up early in the morning and behave as nothing has happened. Another example can be 26th July, 2005 when life in Mumbai came to a standstill because of heavy rains. But Mumbaikars helped each other out by distributing food and mineral water to passers-by at street junctions. Is this enough to demonstrate our concern for the wellbeing of our fellow citizens and the environment?

Which is the real Mumbai? Is it what we get to see everyday? With people who are too hard-pressed for time to help themselves let alone help others; or people who go out of the way to help even strangers when disaster strikes? They may seem to ignore you, but in a crisis, they invariably extend a helping hand. It is not that Mumbaikars are unconcerned but they have other equally important matters to attend to and when the situation demands their very human aspects come to the fore. Such hectic is the pace of the place I live in!

The reality of life today is that we are a busy society. We pack our schedules with long work hours, and then try to have a life somewhere in between! It can take a toll, especially when it comes to relationships. Being too busy for friends can mean you aren't getting the benefits and support that come with close relationships. It can also mean losing a few friends, if no efforts are taken. Amidst our fragmented and frenzied lives, do we have at least one moment to sit back and relax when we don’t have to do anything or be anywhere in particular, but mostly in that moment to realize what a gift your life is, not just to you but to everyone who knows you? The problem of our generation seems to be that the majority of us feel lost, confused and are without a sense of purpose and seem to be floating about aimlessly hoping that lady fortuna will send something good our way. This is the main reason of unhappiness and depression today. Going from relationship to relationship, job to job, day to day, seeking happiness and satisfaction in material possessions.

To find balance between family, friends and everything else in your life, take a mental step back and view your life as if you were a stranger. If there is one area that stands out from the rest as being "too full," you may need to adjust some of your attention.

P.S: This was my entry for 1 Hundred Works. (

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