Friday, March 16, 2018

Jottings - Slice of life - 200 ( Dr Stephen Hawking - an extraordinary life in science (1942 - 2018 and evermore)

Jottings - Slice of life - 200 ( Dr Stephen Hawking - an extraordinary life in science (1942 - 2018 and evermore)
Sir Isaac Newton said “ If I have looked further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. This statement stands completely vindicated in the frail, ill man - Dr Stephen Hawking, who occupied his professorial chair in Cambridge for 30 odd years from 1979. Dr Hawking certainly looked much, much further and deeper into the mysteries of the Universe than his venerated predecessor ever had a chance. In his death yesterday, it was not merely a glorious life in science that ended, but with him ended a personality who epitomized resilience, audaciousness, an indomitable sense of will, purpose and curiosity. After Albert Einstein’s path breaking view of time and space in early 20th century and his search for an unified theory, it was Stephen hawking who picked the gauntlet, and strode ahead . The work Einstein had left unfinished was advanced a great deal by this genius. What Einstein said of Gandhi “that generations to come will scarcely believe that such a man as this ever in flesh and blood walked on earth” will equally apply to Stephen Hawking not in a literal sense, but figuratively. it is an indisputable fact that there never has been one like him before in history, and in all likelihood we may not see another Stephen Hawking
So what do we make of Dr Hawking's life, and how would posterity wish to remember him. Do we remember him as the scientist who explained black holes, and as a cosmologist who attempted to decipher the mysterious roll of cosmic dice that Einstein vehemently argued against till the very end? Do we remember him as a man, who developed a terrible, crippling, life threatening illness at the age of 22 and went to live for 50 odd years against all medical predictions and prophesies? Or do we remember him as one of the greatest theoretical scientists to ever lay hands on the grand problem of why and how this Universe exists and behaves? Again, Do we remember him for his extraordinary personal life with two marriages ,three children and enough fun and frolic, all the while sitting upon a well equipped wheel chair, floating in anti gravity for fun, or ballooning up in the sky ? Or do we remember him as an author of that enigmatic and profound book “ The brief history of time" within whose pages he wrote with sparkling clarity on the nature of time and space in a language understood and appreciated by millions? Or do we simply remember him as professor whose classes were jam packed each time he wheeled in to speak in a computer synchronized voice, with a smile on a face and a joke on his lips? Perhaps, it is all of these memories and much more.
The raw details of Hawking’s extraordinary life is available through many sources. I wouldn’t wish to belabor that aspect. I would rather reflect on how his life affected and inspired mine. In it, my readers may find resonance. The important quality of Hawking’s life for me has been his capacity to defy the odds of medical science. ALS is sure death; doctors do not give more than ten years from the date of its onset. If numbers are anything to go by, and if Hawking had succumbed to its fearful lure; he wouldn’t have survived the ordeal. However, from some deep recesses of his being, he found courage not to allow his physical well being to be circumscribed and dictated by the disease. Like his fellow scientist in another field, Stephen Jay Gould, an evolutionary biologist, Hawking understood that human fatality numbers and age are only good as indicators; never a firm basis for reality. With all the medical aid he could get, Hawking was committed to remaining alive, not merely to fulfill the throbbing genius of his science, but to enjoy the pleasures of existence despite all the limitations imposed on him. Except for his mind, which was is in full flow, he was incapable of any physical act. He needed help, and he was never shy of demanding it , to the point of exasperating people around him. The haunting image of Hawking on a wheel chair, clothed in a suit, shriveled and loose limbed, with a perpetual grimace on his face ( caused more by the disease than anything else), staring with absent minded, vacant eyes into space - inspires me each time I remember him. For all those out there, who believe that life with pain is hopeless, his life stands as outstanding example. For all those who believe that Life has been unkind to them, the image of Dr Hawking should be the wake up call. For all those youngsters, who believe in excuses, Hawking's life will show how not to give one, and how to rise above circumstances no matter what.
His Book “the brief history of time” was written when he had virtually lost all control over speech and movement. He wrote it because he wanted money to support his children. The book made him famous, and his ideas became household name . My hair stands on its end, when I try to imagine how he could have written this volume. I shudder to think how difficult it would have been for this genius caught in this debilitating body to write with the aid of a computerized alphabet board ( generously supported by software maverick Walter wolosz) which would allow him to form each word letter by letter by pointing an infrared ray on a screen filled with English alphabet and around 2500 common words. The 250 page book overflows with scientific insights and deep human wisdom. It was act of supreme physical and mental effort. His goal ( apart from the money) was to make the esoteric branch of astrophysics intelligible to common educated man. The task wasn't easy. The book is tough reading in its initial chapters, but once, we get through those , a pattern emerges and we begin to understand and appreciate the profundity of the mind at work. Along with Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos”, Charles Darwins “ origin of species” and Stephen Jay Gould’s “Mismeasure of man”, Hawking’s book occupies a prime spot in my library to be dipped into over and over again.
Hawking’s view of God has always fascinated me. He was a firm advocate of intelligent design without the need for divine creator. For a crippled man, who could have done with some free mercy, he never acknowledged the need for God either in his private life or for his scientific postulates. His boldest theories were about the place of God in an universe. He was not an atheist , but an agnostic bordering on disbelief. Hawking writes that God may be there, but he is not necessary to explain the laws of this universe. Throughout his active scientific life, he wished to propound a theory of everything without the need for extraneous intelligence, an enterprise which fascinated and perplexed Einstein too. Like Einstein, Hawking died working on it. Somewhere, in the deep immensity and rigor of his thinking, he was convinced that God - as being out there in the universe - watching over creation, is a redundant idea, and not particularly useful in explaining the laws of this enormous and expanding universe. These laws reveal themselves to reasoning , when right questions are asked and unbiased answers are accepted.
Dr Hawking never won a Nobel prize for his work. It didn’t bother him. He was pragmatic enough to understand his theories cannot be proved by observation - which is one of the critical requirements for any scientific achievement to be considered for Nobel award. Even powerful telescopes cannot peer into black holes. For a man, whose thoughts roamed the realms of infinity, awards and recognition did not matter. What remained with him was the firm intuition on having arrived at a sublime truth, beyond the ken of observation and objective verification. He was busy articulating and evangelizing his intuition. That was enough for him, more satisfying than anything else.
As I reach the end of this essay, I am reminded of Hawking’s dictum for thinking and reasoning. He often said “ The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge..”. In modern times, when so many opinions and theories pass for truth and knowledge, this little man who spent his life thinking, re-thinking and trying to grasp the meaning and purpose of this cosmos, had nothing but awe and respect for its sheer immensity, and his own humility as scientific thinker who had come as close as anybody has ever come to postulating a universal theory of life. Till the every end, he did not stop striving to achieve his grand theory which could fit everything. In his own estimation, he had not yet reached a conclusion. The work was ongoing, and he encouraged his students and colleagues to pursue the matter with more precision and experiments. To understand the mind of "God", as he used to say, is to understand the purpose of this universe. Anything short of it was ignorance to him
We will miss him..
God bless..
yours in mortality,

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Jottings - slice of life - 199 ( A narrative on dying and death - Dr Sherwin Nuland’s classic)

Jottings - slice of life - 199 ( A narrative on dying and death - Dr Sherwin Nuland’s classic)
There are innumerable books on How to live, but very few on How to die. It is strange why not, considering our entire lives are spent relentlessly stalling death, insuring against it, working to leave a mark beyond it, trying not to think about it or building strong theories on surviving it. Yet, there is no proper literature which speaks about those last moments of life before the body becomes inanimate, shrunken, useless and - starkly lifeless. Though millions die each day; our near and dear ones slip away at a steady rate, and we consciously feel our own bodies losing their vitality each passing day - we still don’t wish to look at death straight on the face, understand and study its manifestations and accept it for what it is.
One of the brutally philosophic compositions in world religions - the Bhaja govindam - of Shankara, encapsulates the stupidity of not seeing death as a great revelation. he says in one arresting couplet
यावत्पवनो निवसति देहे
तावत्पृच्छति कुशलं गेहे ।
गतवति वायौ देहापाये
भार्या बिभ्यति तस्मिन्काये
Roughly translated and paraphrased:
“As long there is life pulsating though your vigorous and virile body, admirers and well wishers surround you;
The moment the breath of life oozes out of your pores in one decaying moment,
Even your wife who yearned, prayed and wished for your physical proximity,
Will hover around your lifeless body with trepidation, treat it as a piece of decrepit flesh with fear and nothing more.
Therefore, my friend, arise and learn to look at life and death with equal gaze, respect and introspection.”
This couplet has always haunted me in its directness. As a society, we expect our deaths to be peaceful. “To die peacefully, without any pain or suffering..” is our daily prayer, but the reality is never so. The best people to talk to us about those final moments of death are the Doctors and nurses around us. Unfortunately, not many of them are articulate enough to do so, or even if they are, they quickly become acclimatized to daily rigors of death. They dont find time or the interest to sufficiently reflect or contemplate on nature of death; much less write about it.
There are few exceptions. In 1992, Dr Sherwin Nuland, a surgeon , produced one of the greatest books of the century. It is titled “ How we die - reflections on life’s final chapter”. Its a book about death and the agents directly responsible it. After a life time battling critical cases in the ER, rising above his own depressions and failed marriage, Dr Nuland brings to focus in this short book the process of physical death and the onset of that final mile in human life. The heart, the blood vessels, the brain, oxygen and chemical levels, the blast of viral attacks, loss of immunity and myriad other causes that lead to death , can be traced down to to few important biological processes that stop; when that happens, life as we know it exists no more, and we are left with mere decaying flesh that barely resembles the living flame that existed moments ago. And rarely does death occur without pain, not only for the victim, but for others caring for them. In some cases such as heart attack, death is swift and incisive; in others like Parkinson’s, it is prolonged, traumatic and demeaning. The difference is only one of quality and quantity; pain remains constant.
Dr Nuland’s book, surprisingly, went on to become a bestseller. It won the national book award that year. Not only was his candid treatment of the subject appealing, but his language and style as well. Never before has anyone written so eloquently and sensitively about death in all its minute details. If books can transform, this definitely can. Since then, doctors such as Siddharta Mukherjee, Atul Gawande have written beautifully about disease, care and death; but when one reads Dr Nuland, there is a sense of reading a man who has distilled years of looking at death with care and loving eyes, and not as something alien, uninvited and always need to be fended of. Even a heart attack becomes a enjoyable, intricate process in the voluptuous language of Dr Nuland. The beauty of the human organism, the creative and astounding coordination of processes, its unwritten and unsolicited healing mechanisms, its holistic existence - gives us sense of dignity to live well, and less of unhappiness in watching it die. For good things cannot go on for ever. An organism of such intricate beauty has to disintegrate, give way and merge into its source; otherwise life becomes repetitive and artificial. The sheer beauty of life is that it is temporal - like a rainbow in the sky, which comes together due to a confluence of different attributes , and should disappear soon. A static rainbow will not be half as beautiful as a transient and evanescent one.. Similarly, each human body comes together and operates in an incredibly mysterious and miraculous process. To cherish this miracle, it is necessary to respect and understand its dissolution too.
One of the greatest moral dilemma’s of Man is to understand when to let someone we love die, and not subject them to medical treatment. Its a difficult decision; but the more we understand the processes of death itself, the less burdensome it becomes. Questions on ethics, morality, compassion are fine at one level, but the subjective experience of the patient, who lies in bed with tubes and needles sunk into them, and every bodily process yearning to stop, presents a different question altogether. How long do we prolong care? How much do we keep our loved ones medicated and artificially alive? And lastly, are we even doing them justice. Given a choice, is this what they would have wanted? These are deep questions, and answers dont come easily. When Ramana’s (mystic from India) mother was dying, he sat quietly near her looking into her face and stroking her head. Devotees and well-wishers advised more medical help. He quietly silenced them, and said “ Look at her. she is passing away peacefully, knowing I understand, and I am with her..” There was tear in his eye, and so was one in hers too. The end came gracefully.
In Dr Nuland's book, one find such deep sympathy clothed in stark medical terms.
God bless..
yours in mortality,

Sunday, March 4, 2018

( Jottings - Slice of life - 198, The passing away of Sri Jayendra Saraswati, social activist and a sage - in that order respectively)

( Jottings - Slice of life - 198, The passing of a social activist and a sage - in that order respectively)
In the emotion charged atmosphere of Sridevi’s unexpected death last week, one more death happened quietly, without as such fanfare as hers. Of course, the man who died was not an actor, or politician or public icon in the sense Sri was, but in his own way, he did create a bit of drama and excitement - enough to rock a spiritual establishment ,which traces its way back to Adi Shankaracharya , the reviver and resuscitator of Hinduism centuries ago. Swami Jayendra saraswati, the 69th Pontiff of the Kanchi Kamakoti math, died peacefully this Tuesday at a hospital at a good age of 83. His tenure as head of one of the most popular and revered spiritual hubs, consecrated by Shankara himself, was strange in many ways. To understand his position and place, one needs to trace the origins of Shankara’s maths across the country, and what they stood for.
The date of Adi Shankara has always been under dispute and debate. Scholars are equally divided between 8th Century AD and 4th century BC. Yes, the chasm is too wide, but that is the nature of any historic truth, especially when it is about a man who strode like a colossus amidst the ruins of hinduism and its mystical tradition. In his brief life of 32 years, historical documents testify to his miraculous spiritual transformation as a kid; his journey in search of his master; his eventual redemption at the feet of Gaudapada, and then the tremendous outpouring of commentaries, ecstatic poems, fiery lectures tours that took him to the length and breadth of Indian sub continent reinstating the ancient faith contained in upanishads - the most esoteric and cryptic spiritual texts found anywhere in the world. At a time, when Europe was entering its dark ages, and lost in spiritual poverty and meaningless, India was awakening to old truths cast and refined by Shankara for new age and culture. His appeal was to universality, and the dignity of man at his deepest level. To him, the peripheral differences of the body, color, caste, and professions were secondary, and his message touched the deepest chord in Man, as an organism destined to realize within himself the purpose and destiny of the cosmos he inhabits, and in which, he now feels insignificant, burdened and choked. His message is one liberation, not from the world, but of it.
To revitalize a continent as big as India is no simple task for a single man, and Shankara was pragmatic enough to realize he needed to establish centers of contemplation, headed by men who understood and realized his deep message and keep the wave of spiritual emancipation rolling. In four corners of Indian peninsula, he created conclaves of learning - Jyothirmath in North, Sringeri in the south, Puri in the East and Dwaraka in the West. The mandate to his apostles was clear. They were stay put wherever they were, and channelize energies and aspirations of people living there towards a loftier goal of spiritual ascendancy, and revitalize a flailing brahmanic culture. The men he appointed were men of great stature and spiritual maturity. Mostly, the first generation of leaders were from the original group of his disciples , who had traveled with him across the country and learnt sitting at his feet. Like a good manager, Shankara knew whom to place where. By 32, Shankara was done with his work - Centers were running well, his commentaries had become sacred texts themselves, people were flocking and revival of hinduism was happening with renewed vigor for all to see. It is extraordinary for us at this distance, to even contemplate the singular achievement of Shankara, breadth of his travel and the depth of his intellectual outpourings during an age when travel was difficult and communication sparse. But that was Shankara - a spiritual giant among men.
What is interesting in the above discussion is there is no concrete evidence Shankara ever established Kanchi Kamakoti math in Kanchipooram. It is certain he visited the area; prayed and mediated in temples and courtyards there, but did he actually create a center there is questionable? Though, over the years, decades and perhaps for few centuries now, scholars have dug out evidence to claim Shankara definitely wanted an additional center in the south to venerate Saraswati, Goddess of learning, and that he had great affinity to Mookambikai, in whose name he wrote beautiful poetry, does not really prove conclusively he personally established kanchi math, as surely as he did the other Maths across India. All this is, of course, highly debatable and evidence can be presented both sides. Whatever the claim may be, the indisputable fact is that the Kanchi math has remained one of the more famous and respected centers, despite doubts about it origins or authenticity. What then made the center at Kanchi so popular?
Kanchi math has by stroke of fortune or grace ( whatever is appropriate) had some extraordinary saints at its helm. In the last three centuries, one after another, very saintly and inward looking Men have been nominated and held the role of a Guru at kanchi. It is not so much the place that attracted people from all walks of life, but the guru who held fort there. ironically, the charisma, erudition and inward spiritual resonance of Kanchi Gurus far eclipsed those from formally acclaimed maths in other parts of India. For a long time, Kanchi held its place in people’s hearts because of the person who resided there; not for anything else. The spiritual eminence of Kanchi math reached its apogee during the tenure of Sri Chandrasekhara saraswati, the guru of the Jayendra saraswati ( subject of this essay). From 1894 to 1994, exactly hundred years, Chandrasekhar saraswati lived and breathed the philosophy he preached, spoke and wrote. A man of few words, who preferred silence to eloquence, who lived by the strictest tenets of brahmanic faith, exuded a spiritual fragrance that attracted seekers from all over the globe. There was something in his frail squatting figure, wrinkled face and austere demeanor that made questions unnecessary. Like Ramana, he taught and spoke in silence. Continuing the ancient practice of nominating successors , Sri Chandrasekhara saraswati handpicked Jayendra to succeed him for what he saw in the young man as characteristics of a saint. But what followed thereafter was something different. Jayendra was unlike his guru in all respects. While Chandrasekhara saraswati was inward looking, Jayendra was extroverted; while one shunned fame and glory, the other seems to court it with pleasure; while one stayed behind closed doors and shared spiritual comfort by a mere glance; Jayendra found solace in cutting ribbons and establishing public institutions for material welfare, education and growth; while one wrote and spoke with clarity, jayendra had trouble articulating basic spiritual tenets. In all ways, there couldn’t have been two more diametrically opposite seers. Its not to say the Jayendra was wrong choice; but it definitely wasn’t something Kanchi math was used to. in 1987, in an act of rebel, defiance or time-out for meditation, Jayendra disappeared from the math leaving behind symbols of stewardship of the math. It was an act of sacrilege in conventional terms, but Chandrasekhar saraswati saw beyond the veil of conventions and brushed the event aside as a necessary step in Jayendra’s spiritual evolution. In his brief absence, however, he consecrated the young Vijayendra as his next successor, thereby breaking centuries long tradition of having two seers operating at the same time.
After Chandrasekhara saraswati passed away, Jayendra continued to move his base away from the spiritual center of math. He believed his role was social, and from the esoteric heights of vedanta, he plunged into social upliftment. He began to associate himself and his followers with politicians, industrialists and others who could financially support his ventures, all of which were, no doubt, initiated with good intentions. But when base metal touches gold, purity is corrupted, and very soon the Math, and Jayendra himself was caught in political and monetary controversies, including murder of a former employee. For a brief period he courted arrested as well. In due course things settled down, and Jayendra himself reconciled to a mellowed role within the math. Over the last 15 years, he had led more or less a quiet life, interspersed with bouts of illness. His death last week, marks an end of a turbulent era in an institution known for its stability and constancy.
Spiritual institutions of any kind have a precarious existence. When spirituality as such becomes organized and subject to whim and fancies of its “leader” - its nominated head, there is always the distinct possibility it will lose its meaning, relevance and context. This is vindicated throughout history, right to the present day. It is hard, however, not to form institutions. However much a saint shies away from creating one, it follows. When J krishnamurti dissolved the order of the star in 1929 , one of the richest and influential spiritual organizations, he believed the truth is a pathless land, and no one can lay claim to it. But very soon, mere twenty years later, Krishnamurti foundation (KFI) was established, which claimed it wasn’t a propaganda machinery. But it quickly became one. The purity of innermost spiritual experience cannot be captured within the walls of any sect or institution. At most, it can help regulate good, decent social adaptation and behavior; nothing more. If one needs to glimpse and learn the beauty of advaita, the depth of ancient Hindu wisdom, it can done through the genius of Adi shankara scattered in his innumerable texts, and need not be sought in institutions, unless the place is fortunate to give seat to someone of the caliber of Sri Chandrasekhara saraswati of Kanchi, or Abhinava teerta of Sringeri - whose very presence lent a radiance to the walls within they lived and taught.
Yet in all fairness, in his own way Sri jayendra saraswati forged a path for himself. He broke conventions, which is always a difficult thing to do. In the process, did he do irrecoverable damage to the sanctity of Kanchi math, or did he leave it a better place than before - none can tell. But his was life full of action and vigor. His beaming smile and fast life belied every expectation of an established Guru. If only he had the eloquence of a Chinmayananda, things would have probably been different. He could have explained his reasons better. In the absence of such talent, today and forevermore, we will remember him as a sage who lived in the garb of a social activist. That is definitely not an improper place in ones heart.
God bless…
yours in mortality,

Sunday, February 25, 2018

ottings - slice of life - 197 ( An icon passes away . Sridevi (1963 - 2018))

Jottings - slice of life - 197 ( An icon passes away . Sridevi (1963 - 2018))
Sometimes it is better for a great artist to die relatively young. It is divinely ordained. Especially, in visual arts like cinema, when an actor has found abiding fame, unshakeable public opinion, and lighted the fantasies and entertained millions through their youthful presence and superior art, it would be tragic to watch them wither away in time, lose that youthful beauty, shrink into old age, slowly sidelined by patrons and directors and finally leave the stage when all is finished and nothing more is expected. On the contrary, when they die young, at the prime of their lives, having achieved so much in so little a time, with so many more promises to fulfill and dreams to weave, then such a death leaves an indelible mark in time, never to be erased. They are framed for posterity. Can we ever conceive of a Marilyn Monroe as anything other than the sultry, ethereal beauty we see in innumerable pictures? Never. Similarly, Sridevi, who passed away today, will forever be remembered as the vibrant, beautiful, supremely talented , multifaceted actor who straddled both south and north Indian film industry with an authority and presence difficult, it not impossible, to emulate in times to come. We will never know an aged sridevi. She will always be remembered as a beauty whose eyes glittered with naughtiness and innocence as she danced and acted her way into our hearts, and through the myriad roles she donned with competence and ease in wide range of films in a career spanning decades in modern Indian cinema.
For those of us from Southern India, Sridevi holds a very special place in our hearts. We have seen her as a child artist play the role of a recalcitrant son Muruga opposite legend Shivaji Ganesan in “Thiruvilaiadal” - the epic about the adventures of Lord Shiva. Even in that cameo role, dressed as a boy, her vibrant eyes expressed deep anger, poise and joy with consummate ease. Then, we watched her grow into young, slim and rustically beautiful girl with a slight flawed nose making her mark in path breaking movies directed by legendary K Balachander and Bharatiraja. She never looked back after that. She realized early she needed to be a pan-India actor, and that took her to Northern India, where actresses from South India were already making a great mark. It wasn’t easy to convince the crowd with her native accent, but what she lacked in language, she more than made up in performance. It was “Sadma”, a remake of the Tamil film that marked her as an actor of superior calibre. Alongside Kamalhasan, with whom she shared a wonderful chemistry, she played the role of a mentally unstable girl, who regains her memory, only to forget the man who aided her. It was a class act, and signaled the arrival of a complete artist in Indian cinema. Unlike Hollywood, Indian heroines have to straddle different parts within a Movie. They have to competent dancers gyrating to cacophonous tunes, project themselves as alluring, beautiful and sexy; act with conviction, and more importantly learn to play second fiddle to the Hero. Amidst all this, they have to strive to make a mark for themselves as individual actors. It is not easy task. Very few actors come equipped with so many talents, and if they did, the burn out rate is high. But Sridevi not only managed to keep herself at the top in a male dominated film industry, but did so for decades without waxing even a little. By and by, in the late eighties and nineties, movies started revolving around her. She became the focal point, and popular heroes vied for a spot with her. Around the same time, she was also physically at her prime and gorgeous best. Slim, voluptuous, with an face that exuded innocence, she was everyman’s fantasy come true. A look, a shake of her hip, a wag of a finger, a sensual glance would send a Man’s adrenaline shooting up. Directors learnt to use that charm well, along with her wide range of emotive capacities. She was equally at ease romping half clad with Jitendra around trees, and playing serious roles with under great directors. She was a born entertainer and artist. Yash Chopra’s “Chandni” was all about Sridevi in her various hues and colors. He lavished on her the choicest costumes, and sumptuous locations to shoot her for every conceivable angle and emotion. The result was a portrait of Sridevi that remains unmatched even today.
I can keep listing innumerable performances, but that is not the purpose of this short tribute. Suffice it to say, she had done it all. In the late nineties, when she realized that a younger generation of actors were taking stage, she gracefully quit acting, and settled down with Bonney Kapoor and their children. That was a difficult thing to do for someone who has always basked and blossomed under the glare of foot lights. We thought, she would come back in couple of years. But, No. She stayed away, until she felt she was competent to take on newer and more mature roles. English Vinglish, in 2012 signaled her return. What a great performance there. The old charm and acting prowess was still intact, and her expressive eyes could still convey myriad emotions. She made acting look so simple and straightforward.
I wrote this piece the moment I read about her sudden demise in Dubai, and as I reach the end of this personal tribute, a sense of sadness envelopes me. From the perspective of the art she so lovingly practiced, Sridevi’s place in history is assured and unassailable; but, her death is no doubt little premature. One wishes she could have lived bit longer and watched her daughter debut on screen. One wishes she could have played few more roles and stepped into other aspects of cinema. One wishes she could have done a million more things. But there is no end to what we wish. Life decides otherwise. Fortunately, for an artist of her calibre, there is no death. She is and will be reborn, recreated each time her vast body of work is examined and studied. Younger generation of actors will do well to learn from her the value of hard work, integrity, commitment and the elusive craft of acting different roles and how not to be stereotyped. Directors who have worked her speak about her extraordinary commitment to any project. During the making of Mr India, when she needed to dance seductively in poring rain clad in skin tight blue saree, she was running a high fever and shivering to the bone. Shekar Kapur, the director wished to postpone the shoot, but the lady said “No... Its all arranged, it needs to be done..”. The shoot was eight hour long, and all through it she was wet and ill; yet, when we see the song on screen, it entices, captivates and remains emblematic of the kind of female power she possessed.. Such is the nature of her talent, which now rests in eternity.
I think, it was James dean, the iconic Hollywood actor, who died young himself, who once said “Being a good actor isn't easy. Being a man is even harder. I want to be both before I'm done..”
It is fair to say, his observation is vindicated in Sridevi extraordinary life. She excelled in both spheres - as an actor, and as a person A difficult combination in the uneasy world of mainstream cinema.
God bless…
yours in mortality,

Jottings - Slice of life - 196 ( The rivalry which changed the face of Tennis: Borg Vs McEnroe)

Jottings - Slice of life - 196 ( The rivalry which changed the face of Tennis: Borg Vs McEnroe)
On a cold wintery afternoon, July 5th 1980, two men, so unlike each other in every aspect of their personality, upbringing and game, walked to the center court of Wimbledon grounds to play out the final match of most prestigious tournament on earth. It was to be a defining moment in the game of Tennis. The game, which had its origins in the leisurely lawns of the affluent, and blossomed into gentlemanly sport embracing qualities of restraint, politeness and leisure, had in the course of the twentieth century transformed itself into professional business.The facade of upper class conduct were slowly falling away, and men and women were beginning to play the game for the money it offered and the fame it bought. Yet Purists, still held on to old notions of the sport. Baseline rallies, long leisurely games, impeccable behavior on court, respect and dignity were still considered the cherished hallmarks of the game. Winning or loosing was secondary. That was about to change.
In mid 1970’s players of different temperament began to grace the game. The relaxed , laid back cadence of the sport was suddenly transformed into one of different styles and techniques. The rivalry between baseline game and serve and volley, between stoic grace and arrogant flamboyance, between strict discipline and nonchalant talent, between subdued passions and pent-up anger was reaching a crescendo, and the entire weight of this paradigm change took the shape and form of two of its greatest exponents - Bjorn Borg, the icy swede and John Patrick McEnroe, the American brat. In them, the discerning public saw two aspects of Tennis competing for glory. While the weight of tradition favored Borg for his measured aggression and grace on court; it was quite clear the McEnroe’s spontaneity, prodigious talent and tantrum couldn’t be ignored. The crowds loved Borg; they hated McEnroe. For twenty two matches preceding the 1980 Wimbledon finals, Borg was the undisputed favorite, and McEnroe the unruly intruder and the number of wins between the two were more or less equally divided. The stage was therefore set that day in July 1980 for the final confrontation to decide who is the better player. History was to be enacted. Before this tournament. Borg had won straight Wimbledon titles from 1976 - 1979 , and if he could defeat McEnroe, it would make it five, and establish a precedent that would forever change the course and game of tennis. Both men had vested interests in winning the tournament. In months leading to this momentous game, they had to grapple with their tortured selves, priorities, and more importantly reassess the role of tennis in their lives. As they grimly walked out to the court that evening, they knew a lot was at stake, and in some corner of their hearts, they understood this match was unlike any other. They didn’t disappoint on court. In the annals of tennis, those four and half hours of sublime tennis between the two still remain some of “the finest” moments of the sport ever played and recorded. Borg went on, as we know, to win his fifth title. The score line will say 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16), 8-6. But numbers dont do justice to what happened on court that day.
Tennis at the highest level is a very lonely game. Unlike other sports, there is hardly any contact with ones opponent. Across 26 yards, you dont see the man, only the trajectory of the ball and a peripheral vision of where your adversary is. The rules of the game do not allow for coaches to sit on side lines to talk and encourage, and neither are players allowed to solicit any strategic help. All aggression and frustration is directed on the ball, and force of the racquet swing. Psychologically, there is no help on court at all. Every point won or lost is an existential crisis that one needs to be solved by oneself very quickly. And that is why tennis is so much a mental game, at the highest level. The player who can draw from deeper resources each time, point after point, is the champion. Physical endurance, technique, speed, force - all of them are subservient to mental equipment one carries into court. In that respect, Borg and McEnroe were diametrically different. Both had difficult childhoods. While Borg seethed with anger at lack of opportunities growing up in suburban Sweden, McEnroe had a lavish childhood with indifferent parents and misplaced priorities. While Borg learnt tennis with single focus to win each game; McEnroe flirted with the game and played to rebel. While Borg was tutored to control his emotions; McEnroe refused to be tamed and regaled in being the bad boy. While Borg could hit the tennis ball with icy consistency from the baseline; McEnroe was erratic, but could conjure a magical shot out of nowhere from the net. While Borg lived a disciplined life with maniacal resistance to change; McEnroe would party late night before an important match, and care less what he ate or wore. Each in his own way was grappling with inner demons, and tennis was their only salvation to be themselves.
Between themselves, there was no personal rivalry. As the 1980 Wimbledon approached, it was clear there were two different types of champions, and the crowd preferred one. The pressure on both was enormous. It was not so much tennis choking them, but expectations from family, coaches, media, fans and friends. Left to themselves, they would have continued playing the game the way they played it, regardless of winning or losing. But the 1980 finals had taken away that playful freedom. From a mere game, it had become a battle of wills, a battle of technique, and above all - a battle of perseverance and tenacity.
Borg walked into the game as clear favorite. But as the match progressed, a silence descended on center court. Something magical was happening. Borg was, as always, playing his trademark flawless best tennis, and McEnroe, strangely, subdued and hardly uttering a word of dissent or throwing a tantrum, was carving out moments of pure genius. The favorite was being pushed to the edge. The ice cool swede was witnessing something he hadn’t expected - McEnroe had transformed himself. It was McEnroe’s tennis, his uncanny grace across the court, his sublime touch that was speaking now, and not so much the man. After a grueling and fascinating fourth set tiebreak, that vacillated between sublime tennis and supreme athleticism, McEnroe levelrd the game 2 -2. It boiled down to the last set, and field was ripe with excitement and expectation.
The Borg serve has always been his weak point, and in the past opponents have often exploited that weakness. But throughout his career, his superior ground play more than compensated for lack of serve. In the final set then, when it was clear that McEnroe matched him stroke to stroke, strategy to strategy, Borg had to do something different; conjure a different trick. And that is always the mark of a genius -they quickly adapt and improvise. In that seminal fifth set, Borg lifted his first serve to unbelievable levels, hardly expected of him. He faulted only 6 out of 31 first serves, and each of those serves sliced the line raising chalk, making a return difficult, weak or impossible. McEnroe lifted his game too; but in the end, the stoic resilience of Borg had the better edge of the two. Pundits of the game would later comment that Borg served the best during the last set than they have ever seen him serve. McEnroe would acknowledge it was true. Such , as they say, is the stuff of genius.
The Borg - McEnroe rivalry is now a legend, repeated in modern era through Nadal-Federer battles. What was different then was Borg and McEnroe became close friends, God Father's to each other children and companions otherwise. The 1980 finals was a tipping point. A huge release to both players. Borg had achieved his life’s ambition of winning five wimbledons, and McEnroe had cast away his juvenile image and emerged as great player. Both of them came out of that crucible transformed. In 1981, McEnroe beat Borg in Wimbledon and ascended to top in world rankings , and in the same year Borg retired from Professional tennis.
Personally, for my brother and me, this match has poignant memories. Father was a member of the Coimbatore cosmopolitan club, and we saw this game live on small television installed in a big hall It was one of the first live telecasts of a grand slam tennis match final. Little did I realize, as a Kid, that I was witnessing something extraordinary. The only concrete memories I have of that day is the boyish charm of McEnroe and the stern demeanor of Borg on court, nothing else. Thirty seven years later, I relived the match as I watched the new Swedish movie “Borg vs McEnroe” during my recent flight from India. A great film, directed with sensitivity and thought. The fact that great sportsmen are as much human as all of us are, have the same insane emotional struggles, grappling painfully with day to day life and trying to rise above it, is bought out quite beautifully in the movie. I am convinced that the 1980 Wimbledon final irrevocably changed the game of tennis, and it many ways added flamboyance and excellence to the sport ; ripples of which still reverberate in the modern game.
God bless…
Yours in mortality,

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Jottings - Slice of life - 193 ( An answer to a question)

Jottings - Slice of life - 193 ( An answer to a question)
A few days ago, I received an email from a young reader as response to my essay on symbols and the Helen Keller story. After describing his interest in what I write, and how he would read my essays more than once, he went on to conclude his short email with a question: He asked “ Bala, I have been meaning to ask you this question for months now; but didn’t think it was appropriate. But this time, I had to ask. Why do you sign off your posts with “Yours in mortality”. That seems strange. Because , people generally wish for oneself and others immortality, infinity, everlasting peace, God and such like; but you are different. Is there a reason you choose to use the word mortality, or is it just that you wish to be different. Pardon me, if this seems an impertinent question? but if you think, there is merit in asking this, I am curious to know, if you wish to share…”
It was a simple enough question, and I am not sure how many of my readers actually noticed it, or even if they did, cared about the reason. But this young boy had noticed, and even more - mulled over it long enough before posing it to me. The straight answer is “ Yes , there is a reason, an existential and experiential reason, why I sign off in this manner”. I distinctly remember the day four years ago, when I had reached the end of a particularly personal and poignant essay, and as I typed out my closing words, my fingers involuntarily stopped typing. I paused. I couldn’t bring myself to type out “ yours in immortality” ( which is how I used to end my essays until then). And in the next moment, I typed the word “ mortality” - a matter of removing two preceding characters from the word ( “im”). Yet, when I wrote that, and closed my laptop, a tremendous peace surged through me. I felt a strong sense of existentially accepting a truth, the only truth I have ever known with great certainty and conviction. To know something as factual is one thing; and to accept it in the marrow of ones bones is quite another. It makes all the difference between authentic life and a borrowed one. It is said in mystical literature, to write something down is to freeze an experience, acknowledge and accept it as one own. An experience that is yet unnamed, unspoken and unwritten is elusive and not yet truly ours. therefore, when I wrote those words “ yours in mortality”, it was a deep acknowledgement of what I had seen, felt and experienced. To me, this quantum shift in perception occurred earlier this decade under circumstances not very propitious. It took a while for what had happened then to sink in. But slowly it did, and the flavor, essence of that experience convulses through me even today. Every single moment, I look upon with tremendous gratitude the resilience of life, and its alter-ego - death.
I must consider it a very curious co-incidence that the young boy chose this time to ask this question. I am currently working on my weekly essay, and the topic I have been exploring is how we approach death, and the resonance of mystics and sensitive doctors on that subject. Either it is sheer coincidence, or it is just of those things that cannot be explained, the young man’s question came just at the right time. I thought, i will quickly pen a public answer, in case there are others who harbor a similar question
My friend, I hope you have a partial answer, though not in great detail. At least, you know now that I deeply mean each word of “ yours in mortality”. After all , thats the only certainty.
More later.
God bless..
Yours in mortality,

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Jottings - Slice of life - 192 ( musings on sound and meaning of words and symbols. The Helen Keller story, its film adaptions)
The miraculous connection between the word and thing is one of wonder, and it is at the same time the essence of language and communication. Somehow, in a manner mysterious and profound, human brains are wired to make linguistic connections spontaneously at the age of two or three. At a seminal moment within first two years of a child's growth, in an event that really cannot be predicted, but which all parents wait for with palpitating expectation, the round shaped, rubbery "thing" their little baby held in its hands and played with, and the word "Ball" they have uttered innumerable times to describe it, becomes categorically and irrevocably wired in the child's brain. From that moment on, the word ball, articulation of it, and the thing itself become one, and the baby all of sudden stumbles upon what we call "meaning". Until then it was all babble, one word could have been easily substituted for another. But with that miraculous first word-thing connection made, the rest of the connections seamlessly synchronize, and speech comes out in torrential flow. Children impatiently look, touch, taste and describe everything they sense. Words and things words represent suddenly becomes easy and effortless. It is as if a new world has suddenly opened up, become more intelligible and tangible, and a sense of rudimentary, but necessary human independence has asserted itself. Cognitive science and psychologists are wonderstruck at this happening, and the evolving study of linguistics is still grappling with what happens in the human brain to make these symbols real. Noam Chomsky, a pioneer in this field, and Steven Pinker, his active propagandist believe, based on experiments conducted over decades, that roots of language and cognitive rules are inbuilt, and depending upon how those inbuilt rules are awakened, language proceeds along that path. Of course, none of us really think about all this. As we grow, we take our symbols, our ability to speak our language for granted. We rarely pause to think that words are only symbols acquired by common consent, and not the thing. None expressed this idea better than Shakespeare, the greatest wordsmith in English literature and one of the keenest observers of Human nature. In his classic play Romeo and Juliet, Juliet expresses her unconditional love to Romeo when he expresses doubt about family name and status as potential barriers to their relationship. She replies "What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet...".
In one masterly stroke, the bard manages not only to express what true love means, but also convey that words are only agreed conventions, and not fixed truisms. Juliet's hyperbolic question "what's in a name" points to the temporality and arbitrariness of language itself. Shakespeare understood that to irrevocably tie a particular symbol to a specific thing is the cause of so much confusion and misunderstanding. Words are only symbols to which we assign meanings, not vice versa. No object ever leaps up to our face and begs to be named. A rose will still smell as fragrant even if it is understood and communicated through signs, or guttural growls, or any other form of symbolized communication. The key for human communication is for the brain to connect a commonly agreed symbol with the thing symbolized. Once that is wired, in whatever form that wiring happens, language stops being a barrier to learning, understanding and communication. Over the last hundred years, the evolution of sign language as a viable alternative to spoken words clearly indicates that symbols, grammar, meaning and the thing itself are separate entities, and the way they come together determine the modality of understanding and communication.

Nothing illustrates this miracle better than the incredible story of Helen Keller and her redoubtable teacher Anne Sullivan. It still remains an astonishing saga of accomplishment, and testimony to what human spirit can achieve. That understanding the world outside can be non-auditory, and the sense of touch and gestures can more than adequately compensate for lack of verbal articulation is amply proven in Helen's remarkable awakening to signs, symbols and meaning under the trained and tenacious tutelage of her tutor Anne. Helen was not born deaf and blind. She became one when she was sixteen months old. At an age when most children awaken to meaning and connection behind sounds and things, Helen lost that ability. However, it was fortunate she was born into an affluent family, who could afford to arrange a tutor for her. And it was doubly fortunate that her special tutor happened to be Anne Sullivan, whose own eyesight was affected badly in her younger years, who lived in cheap orphanages, saw death, illness and depravation at close quarters, managed by firm tenacity of purpose to break free of the choking shackles of her oppressive environment, joined Perkins - an institution that taught the blind, graduated from it as valedictorian of her class , and was ready to take on challenging teaching assignments to prove that blindness was not a handicap, and learning is possible in many ways, despite handicaps. She possessed an indomitable spirit. And she needed every ounce of it to face young Helen Keller who was as undisciplined, pampered and angry, as any young child is likely to be in her predicament. The relationship between Anne and Helen needs no elaboration. In her marvelous book "The story of my life", Helen recounts how she struggled to comprehend the world using Anne's method of recognizing letters and words through signs? How it was impossible for her to make that leap between letters shaped through her fingers, the word it presented, and the thing itself, until one day, in one moment of divine epiphany, a tired Helen all of a sudden stumbled upon the connection between water as it flowed through her fingers from a pump, and the word "Water" itself. In a flash, her brain rewired itself to connect the sign, word and the object. That was all that was needed.
In 1962, the movie "The miracle worker" featuring Anne Bancroft as Anne Sullivan (tutor) and Patty Duke as young Helen, bought to life the remarkable story of Helen's awakening. The intensity of the struggle between the tutor and taught, as the teacher attempts to treat her student as normal and capable of understanding, but the stubborn student unyielding, and her overbearing parents ever present to sympathize and shield the child from the rigors of Anne's methods, found its highest artistic expression in Bancroft and Patty, probably unparalleled in the history of cinema. Even a hardcore cynic would break into tears watching the young helpless girl desperately seeking meaning, and the tough but loving tutor relentless in her methods to make her protégé learn. Both actors won academy awards and international acclaim for sensitive portrayal of their characters. In 2005, Sanjay Leela Bansali, the man under the lot of unnecessary spotlight these days, directed "Black" with Amitabh Bachan and Rani Mukherjee as protagonists. It was loosely based on Helen Keller's story. Nevertheless, it was extremely well made, and beautifully enacted by its lead actors.
Over the last few months, I have been studying language, its origins and forms. The cryptic works of Noam Chomsky, and the breezy popular expositions of Steven Pinker and other linguists have given me new insights into what language means to man, and how wonderfully nature has adapted the human brain to reach this degree of perfection. The more I study the more humbled I become, and more profound my admiration for this intelligent design of life. The innate rudiments of grammar, the morphology of words, the stems of sentences, the reinvention of language each time it is challenged, its rewiring in the human brain, the constant expansion of words for more inclusive and expansive understanding of the Cosmos - all this and more, convinces me beyond doubt that there is more to ourselves than we assume.
For all of us who love the sound and texture of words and sentences, here is one from Noam Chomsky (the only entry from him that figures in the heavy tome of Bartlet book of familiar quotations). This is a grammatically and semantically valid English sentence.
"Colorless green ideas sleep furiously"
No linguist can find fault with it, but this sentence has no meaning in human sense. Chomsky manufactured this to prove that words can be strung together in syntactically correct manner yet can point or mean nothing. Words by themselves are empty symbols unless they are correlated with meaning and objectivity. This is precisely the problem in modern times. There is too much empty rhetoric without meaning.
Perhaps it's time for all of us to take a closer look at language.
God bless...
Yours in mortality,