The black dot

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on January 12, 2018 Published on June 09, 2017

Illustration: Manjula Padmanabhan

Bins and I are talking on Skype. He’s in New Delhi, where it is midnight, while I’m in Elsewhere, mid-morning. The terrorist attacks in London have just happened. I ask what he thinks about the situation. Instead of answering he tells me he has a question for me. “Imagine you are standing in front of a white wall,” he says. “It’s a perfectly blank white wall. It can be of any size. The bigger the better. Can you see it in your mind?” I tell him I can. “Okay. So on this blank white wall, I paint a small black dot.” I nod, acknowledging his statement.

“So now,” he says, “I want to know: what d’you see when you look at the wall?” I pause. Of course I know it’s some kind of trick question. A bit warily, I say, “Well ... you’ve told me that you’ve painted a black dot. So I guess that’s what I see. A black dot.” Whereupon Bins grins triumphantly. “Ha! There you have it! The problem with the world today!” I click my tongue. “Meaning what? That we only see black dots?” “No!” says Bins. “That we don’t see the rest of the wall! We focus only on the dot!”

I make a face. “Oh come on,” I say. “You told me you painted a spot on the wall. So obviously it’s what you wanted me to see!” He’s shaking his head. “Uh-huh. You’re not seeing my point: I told you the spot is very small compared to the white wall. If the spot is not there, you will say ‘I see a white wall’. But one small spot — and the rest of the wall becomes invisible! Do you see?” I say, “I see what you’re saying but... how can I ignore the spot?” “You don’t have to ignore it,” says Bins. “You can say, ‘I see a white wall with a small black spot.’ That would be accurate.”

“Okay,” I say to him, “it’s accurate but so what? When I stub my toe, even though the pain affects only a tiny part of me, I can’t ignore it! It floods my attention!” Bins is grinning even wider. “Excellent example,” he says. “My point exactly. The toe is like the spot — you focus only on it, even though the rest of the body is pain-free. So long as one toe hurts, we cannot get comfort from all the other body parts that are NOT hurting. We can think only of that toe! Even though it represents only a small part of the body.”

“So are you saying we should just ignore pain? Or the spot?” I ask, feeling an obscure irritation. “No,” says Bins. “We should see them in perspective. We should say, that spot is there, but it doesn’t define the wall. Just like the terrorists. They’re there but they don’t define London.” “Oh!” I say, “Oh! Is THAT what this was about!” Whereupon Bins rolls his eyes and sighs heavily.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Published on June 09, 2017
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