Thursday, July 5, 2018

Jottings - Slice of Life - 216 ( evoking wonder in science and mythical symbols - Carl Sagan and Joseph Campbell)
In the 1980's, two television series captured the imagination of the world. In one - a flamboyant, statuesque middle aged astro scientist wearing his signature turtle neck sweater with sparking eyes and wavy black hair -fluttering gracefully in wind swept locations across the world - spoke passionately about the wonders of the cosmos we live in, our anthropomorphic insignificance, and in equal measure of our uniqueness as the only species capable of contemplating the immensity, mystery and laws of the universe. “Cosmos” which beamed across the world for 4 months spread across 13 episodes, presented a holistic understanding of the planet, our human heritage and meaningful insights into our stewardship of planet Earth. To many, this was the first comprehensive exposure to the world of science in visual medium, and a stirring recreation of Man’s evolution over millennia. Many young minds, who were fortunate to watch all thirteen episodes, were transformed into budding scientists with lively curiosity, and for 60 Million lay viewers across the globe spanning more than 80 countries, the name and presence of Carl Sagan became a household name, along with a new found recognition and pride in themselves and the planet they were inhabiting. Popularizing science was never the same after Cosmos. It epitomized the power of technology, and raised the bars of teaching to a higher level of discourse. I intend to write a separate piece on Sagan soon.
The second television series I alluded to in my opening sentence, was presented in early 1988, filmed in the picturesque and spacious Skywalker ranch of Film maker George Lucas in California. It had none of the visual dazzle of science that Cosmos generated. These were a series of six reasonably sedate dialogues of 45 minutes each, between the renowned interviewer Bills Moyer's- a man of broad erudition and understanding, and eighty year old retired professor Joseph Campbell, one of the greatest interpreters of world mythology in 20th century - who had died just an year earlier. These conversations were extempore, and organized at the request of George Lucas to capture the spirit of Joseph Campbell without any strings attached. To Lucas, who wrote the Star wars script based upon the inspiration derived from Campbell, and the millions who had read his path breaking books “ The hero with thousand faces” or the four volume work “The masks of god” , or his books of interpreting James Joyce’s complex works of literature - he represented the purest voice and interpreter of myths available in modern times. These series of conversations were meant as a summation of Campbells work spread across fifty years, 30 books, and hundreds of papers, and it was designed to bring out of him the essence , the juice of what he had learnt, contemplated, understood over a life time of passionate study - the relevance and meaning of myth and its place in Man’s inner life. In these videos, at eighty years age, Campbell looks sixty, with that illuminating twinkle in his eye still intact, and the deep rapture of his eloquence still passionate, and at once captivating, elevating and enlightening. As Bill moyers artfully triggered ideas and initiated discussions, the prodigious insights of Campbell takes over and spans the world of religious and mythological ideas with effortless ease. The great teacher he was, he loved to dig deep into questions without reservations. To modern audience, starved of meaning and purpose, disillusioned equally by religious dogma and materialism, Campbell’s masterful discourse and clear exposition of how to appreciate the mystery of living and the true meaning of every myth, in every religion and civilization, opens doors, and lights up darkened and petrified corners of ones understanding and wonder. That every symbol is a pointer to something beyond and beneath, that every ritual developed across ages has a purpose revealing an inner dimension, that every man is essentially a Hero who begins his journey along a path, invariably losing his way to pleasures or distractions , and eventually rediscovering the path either by himself of through cosmic aids, and finally return - fully integrated, to take his place in society. From primitive myths of hominids who drew pictures on cave walls; to the legend of Jesus’s death and resurrection; to buddha’s fascinating stages of self realization; to Muhammad’s flight from mecca and listening to voice of God; to the polytheistic myths of Hinduism - it is the same recurrent theme of man’s attempt to find himself, his center, and returning to the world with perfect poise and inner equilibrium. The “Mono myth” - as Campbell calls it. There are astonishing variations in stories across myths and the way they are told, but underlying those narratives flow a steady stream of uninterrupted meaning and self-discovery.
What is amazing is the contrast, and yet a deep synthesis, between both these television series. While Carl Sagan approached the grandeur of man by objectively studying the universe outside, Campbell explored those very same themes from a subjective experience of Man. The goals of both men were the same - to become aware and conscious of your destiny. Both of them had no belief in the notion of a creator God. Both refused traditional religious communion as they approached death. They died peacefully fully, surrounded by loved ones, in the knowledge that their lives were a chance happening which somehow was imbued with meaning and purpose, but beyond that there is nothing. There is no afterlife, no reincarnation, no reunion - nothing. This is all there is. Such an attitude is neither fatalistic or nihilistic. It comes from deep and fearless understanding that wild beliefs and fantasies cannot bring us any closer to the truth, and to approach truth one must stop blindly following, and start questioning and discovering for oneself. In a way, both men were religious and scientific at the same time. They found one in the other, and showed the world how to synchronize the two.. If religion means , as the original meaning of the word signifies “to bind”, “to come face to face with ones true nature”; then both these men were exceptional practitioners of true religiosity than many, who blindly follow institutionalized faiths without ever confronting the nature of their own experiences. And if science means observing facts and gleaning universal laws, then both were great scientists; they never shied away from uncomfortable truths. When one reads Sagan or Campbell, in every page, words leap out with great intensity and passion. Each sentence pregnant with richness of their own lives and learning.
Over the last two years, I have been greatly enriched by a systematic study of the works of Campbell and Sagan. There comes a point in a man’s life - whether he likes it or not - when a choice must be made. Either one follows an established pattern and live the remaining years hoping what we are living by will turn out to be true and comforting, or we are throw ourselves ( unwillingly, at first) into a state of deep existential questioning of our belief systems we have grown up with. This is the stage when one grows from comfortable beliefs into conscious and experienced participation in life. The childish clinging to what is comfortable has to go, and in its place must come deeper recognition of oneself. In primitive societies, there were initiations rites, when such moments of transformation were dramatically staged; young boys were wrenched painfully from their mother’s bosom and transformed into Men under the threat of blood and sacrifice. Even today, we have several initiatory rites, but all of them are diluted and practiced as mere outer shells, with the inner core missing.
For a modern age, such initiation can happen through the works of great minds available in different formats. In my personal growth, I found two great guides - in Campbell whose beautifully written books imparted a fascinating understanding of the world of symbols, and in Sagan whose documentaries and essays provided the canopy of scientific understanding required to reorient my inner life.
God bless..
Yours in mortality,

Monday, June 11, 2018

Jottings - Slice of life - 212 ( Suicides - Reflections on the death of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain)

Jottings - Slice of life - 212 ( Suicides - Reflections on the death of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain)
“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.”
By William Wordsworth
This is one my favorite Wordsworthian poems. We were asked to memorize this for our exams at school, which we did; and thankfully I still remember most of it. Little did I realize how these lines would slowly grown upon me, and with each passing year, begin to make more and more sense, and within its beautifully sculpted words find hidden a profound philosophy of life. The tragedy of Man man is that he takes his world, his little life enclosed within that world very seriously, to the point, he begins to think of himself as an island stranded and cut off from the whole. When that happens, life seems very shallow and meaningless. Even if one has the material riches in the world, an uncomfortable void develops within. It slowly but steadily eats into our vitality, and one fine day the inner anchor gives way, leaving us rudderless. At that moment, the logical thing to do is to annihilate oneself, get rid of the agent responsible for this gnawing discomfort; hoping in its destruction, peace will ensue. Its not a guarantee, for no one knows, what happens after death, but at least the burden of living hopelessly in the present condition is no more required, and to that extent suicide is considered a relief to those who attempt it, a cessation of an inner struggle which finally consummates itself in the powerful act of destroying the host itself. It is the last hurrah of a man, who sticks his thumb up against life, and says “ I have won, despite what you have done to me?”. But unfortunately, life never acknowledged ones life beyond the biology of it, and neither will it mourn your death beyond reducing ones body to its primeval substance of dirt and dust. It will move on unheeding and relentless in its march. But then, many, who commit suicide like Kate spade and Anthony Bourdain know this, yet give themselves no other alternatives . The world has been, as Wordsworth writes in his opening line , too much with them. They cant live in it; they cannot live without it. In this limbo, thought is paralyzed and tired and life weary people who have strive hard to maintain a dual persona - finally give up unable to find cohesion and happiness they were seeking. The only outcome is to jump headlong into the pit.
The first thing that came to my mind, after the initial impulse of grief, when i read about the death of Kate spade and Anthony Bourdain was the above poem. In the last ten days, both these charismatic and energetic celebrities, who apparently, had everything going for them thought it best to end their lives by hanging themselves. Kate Spade had singlehandedly built one of the most well known accessory brands visible in upper circles of Newyork. Hers was a fairy tale story about getting an opportunity and money when young, and making the best use of it in quick time. Her brand was a sign of fashion. Holding a Kate spade bag or a purse indicated a cool, trendy and upwardly mobile social status. She was depressive, and given to swinging moods. Many believe it was her eccentricity which gave her the professional edge, but that gift or curse ( as we choose to see it) didn’t quite help her retain an inner balance. In her suicide note, she tells her daughter “ you had nothing to do with it, ask your dad”. Will the girl really what happened to her Mom that pushed her over the edge. Not really!! And who wouldn’t know Anthony Bourdain, the bad mouthing , celebrity chef and restaurateur whose regular appearances in CNN as the ambassador of exotic food around the world opened the eyes of audiences throughout the world to cosines and food - lovable and repulsive in equal measure. His program was rated Adult because of profanity in Bourdain language. He grew up the hard way, and sucks wasn’t going to civilize him. But audiences love him for his candor and flamboyance. He was equally at home with Royalty as he was with the common man on the street. As a young immigrant cook , Bourdain spent many years in the grimy by-lanes of Newyork working in sleazy restaurants, and used the system to evolve into a food critic ,writer and speaker with flair and nonchalant style. Both Kate and Anthony chose to kill themselves at the the prime of their lives. They had everything one could wish for. Fame, money, success, public face, charisma, unlimited opportunities and open doors to corridors of power and influence .Yet, personally, life became a burden to them, to be thrown way. Strange!!
The stranger thing, however, is that even when if we read about the suicides of seemingly successful people like Kate and Bourdain, it still doesn’t shake us out of reveries and question our own pursuits in life. We may momentarily sympathize with the dead, speak well of them and remember them with nostalgia perhaps for few days or months, but beyond that - nothing!!. We dont want question what these untimely, self inflicted killings could mean for us, and the kind of goals and inner anxiety that could have led to these tragedies. No known animal knowingly and willfully kills itself. It tries it best to cope, struggle, survive under direst of circumstances, and when nothing works, it honorably dies at the hands of nature and its overbearing laws in accordance with its place in the food chain. With man it is different. we dont live by bread alone. Our needs have evolved over millennial to become more psychological. Even when the body is in state of extreme comfort, one is visibly uncomfortable inside. The more economically well-off we become, the less happier we are. A curious inverse relationship between the two. Either our attitude towards riches and professional goals are incorrect, or it seems very likely - we are seriously treading down the wrong path. A reassessment of priorities, and meaning needs to be scrutinized. Consider this : Those who are rich and famous dont seem to be happy, those who are poor struggle to get to a better state of happiness, and those who are in between are definitely not happy in either direction. Such a condition then begs the question : what is the yardstick of happiness? is there one at all? And if there is one, are we truly aware of it?
The rate of suicides in the US and other parts of the words are steadily on the increase. The figures of WHO (World health organization) seems alarming. At least a million people die each year of suicide, which means on an average death by suicide happen every 40 seconds, and if statistics stay true, this ratio is likely to increase in the next five years to one every 20 seconds. Those who dont take the final step of suicide are regular visitors to the psychiatrist couch. Nearly 50 million people of them regularly take psychological help each year. Unable to deal with their own lives, they make a disease of it and ask a doctor what to do about it. No wonder, for some patients, at some point in this process , death would seems the most sane option and easier way out, than living at the mercy of doctors and interventions. At least, in their minds, committing suicide in a convoluted way, is taking responsibility for oneself without being pulled and pushed by others. But again, is that a healthy way of looking at life and happiness?
I think, unnatural deaths like these should set us thinking. Our grief over the loss of successful lives should be complemented with deep introspection. For a new generations of millennials, life is measured by financial success and professional fame. Their ideals are aligned to those who have made it big in life, and whose names are splashed in the media. There is a sense of restless to be successful. It is good to have the drive to do well, but behind the drive, there should be an inner centering, a depth to which our lives should be anchored. Call it spirituality, religion, god or whatever name one may like, but what it means is - to take a step back and cultivate a sense of detachment, and look at life holistically as part of larger universe and not just my little man-made world of praises, censures and attachments.
In the inimitable words of Carl Sagan, in his book “Shadows of forgotten ancestors”, writing on how ephemeral yet how miraculous human existence is, he says "I believe our future depends on how well we know this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky." This is the attitude of awe and veneration we must possess as a human being. Our personal lives are to be dissolved in the immensity of our presence in this universe. Mystics throughout the ages, in every religion, have claimed such an oceanic feeling. Suicide seems a blemish against such a blessing.
God bless…
yours in mortality,

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Jottings - Slice of life - 210 ( God is not needed - Life of a spiritual iconoclast UG Krishnamurti (1918 - 2007))

Jottings - Slice of life - 210 ( God is not needed - Life of a spiritual iconoclast UG Krishnamurti (1918 - 2007))
Is there something called “self realization”? Is there a transformation of consciousness into something untouched by the the travails of daily existence? Are there certain qualifications to embark on such a journey and reach this state? Are some people privileged by birth, good fortune or grace to achieve such a state of enlightenment or liberation or Godhead , and others destined to imitate path set by few searching for second hand experience? Above all, a question more fundamental - Is there any at all called “spiritual” life, or is it just a well orchestrated assumption indoctrinated into our collective psyche for millennia, which nobody wishes to question?
These are not questions only raised by atheist or agnostics, but these are questions which rises within each one of us some time or the other. In quiet moments of contemplation or sometimes quite expectedly, they jump at us from nowhere. And these are, no doubt, uncomfortable questions, because the moment they arise, our impulsive reaction is guilt or attempts to brush it aside and seek comfort in orthodoxy and tradition. We turn to a religious book, a sermon, a guru and seek solace in their embrace. As a human child, hapless and dependent on its surroundings for crucial formative years, we are indoctrinated into specific modes of religious thinking, propelled into spiritual practices which claim to take us towards the highest goal. Throughout this journey, we repeatedly feel dejected, unworthy - as the horizon keeps receding and we are no more close to the goal than we were at the beginning. As dissatisfaction sets in, we don’t pause to question the goal, but hop from one methodology to another, one guru to another, hoping a change of plan will provide a refreshing new path and practice. Unfortunately, no matter, how hard we try and how many systems or books we follow, the goal remains a goal with only vivid descriptions available of what it is like, but nothing really, to vindicate any of it in the realm of our own personal experience. At the most, we are bequeathed a sense of calm, inner resignation and suppleness of body, but original goal of God realization remains a dream and chimera which eludes very attempt. We remain vacillating, unbalanced, traumatized and nervous about what we are in day to day life, when compared to what we are supposed to be. Entire lifetimes are spent grappling this dichotomy, strangely, without once questioning the very premise. This is the tragedy of our spiritual quest.
This essay is supposed to be about UG Krishnamurti, the most significant iconoclastic and system breaking philosopher India has produced for long time; but one cannot understand UG without the preamble of above paragraphs. Unlike his namesake J krishnamurti, whose teachings UG followed with great diligence in his younger days, UG did not leave behind any form of institution - either for learning or for practice. There is no UG way to spirituality. He did not write any books, did not give lectures, and the few videos and books in circulation are there despite his contempt for it. He is sparsely known in educated circles, and certainly unknown among lay devotees. In his long life of 87 years, he refused to meet people and discuss religion; yet hundreds of curious enthusiasts met him wherever he lived and drew him into intense and often vehement dialogues. He denied being an enlightened man, and he denied that there is anything of that nature available to Man. Academic, scientists, professionals - whoever came in contact with him, would return with deep of sense of angst and existential discontentment. UG’s authoritative presence, deep conviction born out of a life shattering experience ( which he refers to as a Physical calamity), would repudiate every known concept of religion and its heritage throughout history. The roller coaster ride of religion, of its glorious goals and visions, its stranglehold over people’s imagination and vitality, had completely severed in UG. There was no vestige of sanctity, as we understand it, in his presence. Meeting him was encountering a wild, primitive force in its uncoiled, aggressive and untarnished purity, unwilling to be categorized, pigeonholed and judgmental. Extremely refreshing to some, but deeply disturbing to many who held cherished belief systems. His words would hit like a thunderbolt, stirring questions that lay dormant and repressed. Some would emerge from these informal dialogues dazed and transformed, but majority would run away with fear never to return again. So who was UG?
It is uncanny how both UG and JK ( two krishnamurti’s) shared a common heritage. UG was born in Andhra Pradesh to a family of wealth and prominence. Educated well, Introduced to religious practices by his grandparents early, he developed an interest in spiritual austerities and was mesmerized by the notion of moksha. Theosophy was a big crowd puller those days. With its esoteric combination of myth, science and history, it was the ideal refuge for those who reveled in cosmic mysteries. Leadbeater, Madame Blavatsky and later Annie Besant created a complex theology, which satisfied the vanity of the educated class. UG was sucked into it. As a graduate of English and philosophy from Madras University, an eloquent speaker, UG could have opted for a life of spiritual evangelizing. It was lucrative and popular. He was suited for it, and, in fact, did lectures tours nationally and internationally for many years as part of Theosophical society. During this period, he also spent time with renowned Indian gurus in the Himalayas practicing their version of mediation.
At the age of 21, UG met Ramana Maharishi at Tiruvannamalai. By that time, UG was filled to brim with spiritual knowledge. His question to Ramana was similar to the one Narendranath asked Ramakrishna few decades ago.
“Can you give me this thing called Moksha?”
Ramana paused and said “ Yes I can, can you take it?”
UG was dissatisfied, but somehow Ramana’s straight answer shook him to the core. He did not return with respect for Ramana, but he felt redeemed. At least, here was a man who was honest about the whole thing. Throughout his life, UG displayed scant respect for gurus of any kind, except Ramana. He would never openly talk about Ramana, but he never once disparaged his name either. From then on, UG’s life took the turn of an intellectual vagabond. He travelled the world listening to J krishnamurti, and learning from gurus in Ramakrishna mission. he talked , probed, tried to pin them down to something concrete. Nobody was willing to commit to anything. There was enough gurus to offer advice and solace, but none to categorically bring him to the doorstep of so-called truth. By this time UG was married, had kids, and also sent his family back to India from US.
With little money he landed in Geneva Switzerland. He was almost broke and about to be deported, when an officer in the consulate, a lady, stuck by his unusual presence and candor , arranged for him to stay with her and organized his papers. This was early 1960. UG was 45, and still without answers to his questions. For three decades, he had run from pillar to post, from one guru to another, hoping someone would give him the state they so eloquently described. In 1967, JK arrived in Saanen, Switzerland for his annual talks. UG decided to attend. As he listened, a deep feeling of distaste arose, and it vividly stuck him with great force how somebody else can describe his state with more clarity than himself. If I am truly what is being described, then what is there to search. With this thought, he got up and left the gathering, never ever to return to any spiritual discourse.
The next day, UG pondering over his unusual restlessness since the day before, suddenly stumbled into what he would subsequently call a physical “calamity”. Every cell in his body, every nerve, every muscle, every sensory organ underwent a painful withdrawal and reorientation over eight days. It is best described in his own words :
“I call it "calamity" because from the point of view of one who thinks this is something fantastic, blissful and full of beatitude, love, or ecstasy, this is physical torture; this is a calamity from that point of view. Not a calamity to me but a calamity to those who have an image that something marvelous is going to happen..”
What happened to him was nothing like the descriptions of enlightenment he had heard. This was a physical phenomena, and nothing spiritual about it. The body had stumbled ( he used this word often) on its own intelligence without the crutch of thought and its manifestations. A natural state to function in this planet. Thats all there is to it. The important thing was this calamity happened despite UG’s preoccupation with traditional modes of spiritual quest. What happened was neither forced, nor willed, nor practiced. It was spontaneous, painful and least interesting. After all, the only outcome of all this was the body had rejected the impositions of mind, and thought was put in its right place - which is to react whenever appropriate to a given sensory stimulus. All fantasies about soul, spirit or God has nothing to do with Man or nature.
Friends who met UG after the calamity noticed a surprising change in his physical appearance. He looked younger and calm, without the restlessness of search. A certain beatitude emanated from him - a mixture of intense masculinity and feminine dexterity. Intellectually, at 49 years of age, all that UG had learnt and practiced dropped away irrevocably from him. He would often say that he had not willed such an outcome, but it happened without his volition or intervention. To him, search for a spiritual truth just ended; not that he found it, but with the realization there wasn’t one. The stranglehold of thought and its need to perpetuate itself through goals had snapped. It returned to its original and natural state.
UG passed away in 2007. Not very long ago. After the calamity, he divided his time between different countries as guests of close friends. Simple man, with limited needs, he would eat, sleep, talk when required in a group. He did not keep a diet, did not exercise, ate lots of ice cream, cooked his own mini meals and travelled with a cooking kit. He never suffered from any kind of illness and did not take any medication till the very end, when a fall down the stair broke his leg and triggered the eventual collapse.
His conversations in later years often sounded little bitter. He criticized gurus of all kinds, especially JK - he reserved his choicest epithets (pun intended) for him. People who came to talk didn’t get anything to hold onto. He would openly belittle them and question their quest. He cared less, if they walked out. In fact many did. Orthodoxy was skeptical of his stand. To throw away millennia of indoctrination is not merely difficult, but very uncomfortable. When seekers came to him for answers, he offered none. And many times, repelled them with his answers. Like Zen masters, he had no patience for theoretical abstractions.
Mahesh Bhatt, the film maker was a good friend of UG, and his biography “ UG Krishnamurti - a life” gives a good glimpse of UG as he was during his last days, slowly dying in a sea-side town in Italy. It also takes one down memory lane and fills in details about UG’s upbringing. A good book for those who are piqued to know more about this enigmatic man. In this essay, I intentionally stayed away from judging UG or his transformation. Its unto the reader to do. Personally, I think, UG’s message ( if one can call it that) makes one question. The directness of his appeal can reveal something we have refused to acknowledge.
I will end this long essay with an answer by UG to an usual question about God and religion. It sums up the essence of his message in style of Nietzsche
"I am not a God man; I would rather be called a fraud. The quest for God has become an obsessive factor in the lives of human beings because of the impossibility of achieving pleasure without pain. The messy thing called the mind has created many destructive things but the most destructive thing, by far, is God. God has become the ultimate pleasure. The variations of God, self-realisation, moksha, liberation, the fashionable gimmicks of transformation, the first and the last freedom and all the freedoms that come in between, are pushing man into a state of manic depression".
God bless.
Yours in mortality,

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Jottings - slice of life - 209 ( The wedding Royale - Saga continues..)

Jottings - slice of life - 209 ( The wedding Royale - Saga continues..)
One of my distinct childhood memories is that of Princess Diana's wedding. I must have been in 5th or 6th grade, when teachers announced that all of us will assemble in the school auditorium the next day to watch the live ( or recorded, i dont recall correctly) telecast of this royal event. They wrote a short message to this effect in our study notebooks for our parents to read and acknowledge. Few months before this wedding, I remember a lot of buzz going around, lot of adult talk about an impending wedding of grand proportions. I vaguely remember seeing glimpses of Diana’s young and smiling face in the Hindu, one of our national Newspapers, proclaiming her as the bride of the century. I was too young to notice if she was beautiful or not, but the image I distinctly have at this distance in time is - she did look very pleasing to the eye. A kind of disarming and open smile with a touch of melancholy which gave one a queer feeling of comfort and homeliness. However, I didn’t understand what the hype was all about. Not that I am supposed to, at that age. But still, with others talking so much about it, it was expected that all of us look forward to it. The only thing I understood about weddings in general was: it is a grand affair, people get to wear good clothes, eat sumptuous food, lots of fun, and more importantly, one gets few days off from school work. I didn’t quite realize, nor did anyone make the effort of making me realize, the difference between the gravity and scale of this wedding and many others I had witnessed or heard about in our family. To my limited childish brain, princess Diana’s wedding was nothing but a three hour break for fun. At least, thats what I was prepared for, when I went to school the next day.
Frankly, midway, I remember getting terribly bored. The interminable formalities, the loud and incomprehensible choir that seemed to go on and on, the solemn look on all faces, the utter slowness of the procession began to irritate me. I longed to get up and walk out the stuffy hall I was in; but couldn’t. The next best thing was to secretly pray for this event to come to an end. That didn’t seem a possibility either. I remember looking around to see my teachers glued to the television screen with awe, especially the ladies. They was passing endearing comments on Diana’s dress, her earrings, her necklace, and how chiseled and calm her face looked, what a great pair they made, and more. Every now and then, teachers would look at us expecting we to reciprocate their joy. It was clear they wished this wedding to go on forever. I was however visibly fidgeting, and my fellow classmates were no better.
But after all these years, If there is one thing that distinctly sticks out in my memory of the Royal wedding, it is the sheer glitter, extravagance and grandeur which enveloped the event. There was also a solemnity to the occasion, that my young immature mind couldn’t comprehend then; but, at this distance of time, I now understand it. The tremendous power and sway of monarchy, the sheer gravity of the responsibility of royalty, and the need for scrupulously exhibiting it on occasions such as that, can take quite a toll on oneself. Whether we like of not, we love our kings and queens and hold them to a standard. We want them perfect in all respects. For thousands of years, the human psyche was trained to look up to their monarchs as Gods. Two hundred years of democracy cannot change that attitude. It will take much more time. The reason why the wedding of Charles and Diana was hailed as the most romantic one of the twentieth century was not because there were the most handsome couple, but it was for the fact that monarchy had chosen someone so beautiful and fragile as Diana into their fold and reinforced the fact that for Royalty nothing but the best would do. Such an occasion demanded total allegiance, acquiescence and awe from its people.; hence the extravagant ceremony and pomp. For Diana, it was a vindication of the fairy tale story of finding a rich and powerful prince. The exuberant, care free girl had been transformed into role model with specific code of conduct, decorum and etiquette. What I remember distinctly from the day of the wedding was the hint of raw sadness in her deep blue eyes, periodically masked by spontaneous, mercurial smile on her face. A curious piece of memory to stick on after few decades. When Diana was killed in a car accident in 1996, strangely the first thought that flirted through my head was this young face with all the conflicting emotions writ large.
Well, one more Royal wedding just happened . Megan Markle , the American actress, now become the Duchess of Sussex. Once again, millions sat glued to the television sets watching the couple walk down the aisle in St George chapel. Once again, a young lady gets sucked into the halls of monarchy, and once again, every act, every move, every gesture, every word she utters will be weighed, criticized and analyzed by a stringent hand. It is a life which may seem glamorous and privileged for those viewing it from outside; but for the players themselves it is an serious act of adjustment, almost complete transformation of who they are and what they want to be. It is not easy. To some, it comes easily, to others, like Diana, for instance, the change was difficult, and in her case it never completely happened. We will now have to see how the American bred Megan adjusts to the stuffy demands of Royalty. Times have changed though. Prince harry lives in modern times with newer modes of thoughts and living. Perhaps for him ,Monarchy may not hold the same rigor as it did for his father; and perhaps because of that, the demands on his wife may be more respectful accommodative and less fettered. The aged queen still hold supreme. As long as she is alive, the penumbra of royalty will cast its traditional shadow upon the family. Not in any wrong sense , but in the fact that she will expect certain standards of propriety and behavior maintained as part of Royal household. But after her, it remains to be seen how the family adapts itself.
This time around, I didn’t bother to watch Harry’s wedding, though virtually all broadcasting stations beamed it. Thankfully, there were no school teachers forcing me to sit through it. However, I had no choice but to watch snippets of it on the news. It looked like Megan Markle is all set to live the live of a duchess. The self evident smile of satisfaction was lit large on her face. Prince Harry was subdued, obviously relishing his accomplishment of dating a beautiful lady for year and half, and marrying her without too much fuss within the Royal household. That is sure sign of changing times.
Lets wish the couple a wonderful Royal life. Not many get that privilege.
God bless..
yours in mortality,

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Jottings - Slice of life - 2017 ( The woman who put the man on the Moon - Margaret Hamilton)

Jottings - Slice of life - 2017 ( The woman who put the man on the Moon - Margaret Hamilton)
On 20th of July 1969, Apollo II landed successfully on the Moon, and two male astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, stepped out their spaceship and placed their first tentative step on its hallowed surface. It was a momentous event in Human adventure. That we could physically propel ourselves out of earth, soar into unexplored areas in space, and land with precision on a targeted satellite outside of earth’s orbit - was a grand dream come true from the time of the copernican revolution. From that moment onwards, we were no more tied to earth. Our destinies could now be linked to vistas beyond this planet. But little do many know that Apollo II nearly aborted before it landed, and even fewer know that if not for the robust and pioneering effort of Margaret Hamilton - the young software programmer in NASA who conceived, developed and deployed the complex multitasking code required to fly and land the spaceship - the mission would have failed, and history would have had to wait for another day to fulfill its destiny.
In 2016, President Obama conferred the highest civilian honor of the Presidential medal of Freedom for Margaret’s work in software engineering, and for the seminal role she played in landing Apollo on the moon. NASA had already felicitated her for exceptional contribution to Space travel. Along with Lieutenant Grace Hopper, another great female software programmer, they established the rudiments of what today is considered the discipline of Software engineering. In fact, the term “engineering” was applied to software for the first time by Margaret. Until then, software was considered esoteric hobby, a diversion, an unchartered territory. But after her committed effort in bringing together Hardware and software in the labs of MIT to create the in-flight software to run Apollo, the elusive study of software metamorphosed into a disciplined study, occupying a spot alongside other established branches of engineering.
As a child Margaret was interested in mathematics, the foundation of all sciences, and later, during her tenure at MIT, she had the privilege of working under Dr Edward D Lorenz, the man who introduced theory of Chaos and the term “butterfly effect” to indicate cascading effects from a single inconsequential cause. Computers excited Margaret. When NASA offered MIT the project to build software for Apollo space mission, she applied and got the job with couple of interviews with project managers, who had to toss a coin to decide whose group she would join. Luckily, it was the group that developed software. Gender didn’t matter, and did not play a part. That is commendable in an age when computers were mostly the prerogative of Male fraternity. Margaret had enough and more sparkle and intelligence which shone through instantly to be chosen into community of developers. And once chosen, She worked with computers as big as a warehouse, and learnt to write software programs in hexadecimal and binary instructions. Under Dr Lorenz’s scrutinizing eyes, she developed what would later come to known as Operating systems - piece of software that prioritizes and executes tasks on a computing machine.
Interestingly, what attracted Margaret's attention, which later would prove to be an invaluable asset for Command control systems in Apollo, was the need for reliability of software applications. In any mission critical system, one should know when things go bad, and more importantly, the program should recover from it as quickly as possible. This principle is universal in software, and it true till this day and time. Resilience and preempting errors is synonymous to quality software. In her interview, she describes how when her programs ran well without deviations, the sound emanating from those huge computing machines would resemble the gentle lapping of waves on the sea shore. When something went wrong, the sound was quite different. It jarred on the ears. Thats how engineers knew software need to be debugged. Quite extraordinary!! How tactile and sensory errors were, in those good old days? The quality of sound indicated the state of software. Because of this auditory quality, Margaret’s software programs were called “seashore programs”.
It was these abnormal sounds which commanders picked up, when Apollo was minutes away from landing on the Moon. The computer chips on-board were running far too many processes than required. Consequently, they heated up, began making strange noises, and the registers on command deck began to blink ominously. These were distress signals. But fortunately, Margaret had intelligently factored this event in her software, and the commanders in control of the spaceship were sufficiently trained to act when such deviations happened. During their practice runs on ground, they had practiced hard on what switches to toggle when things go wrong to stop processes allowing the software to prioritize its tasks and execute optimally - the ultimate triumph of multitasking, its power and control in software engineering. The first step on the moon was possible because a young lady had worked out possibilities of things that could go wrong.
The picture you see attached along with this essay is historically significant. The frail, petite, short and smiling Margaret standing alongside reams of paper, stacked one upon the other, are the coding abstracts of what went into Apollo II. At this distance, most of it would be undecipherable to many us. They were written in what we call assembly level code, and Margaret wrote most of it. She didn’t know much when she was recruited to code for Apollo, but she learnt to do all this with great curiosity and enthusiasm. And she wasn’t afraid of approaching a daunting problem. In a wonderful comment, she made in an interview some years back, which could be the mantra for every potential professional, she said:
“..I would add that what seems to work best for me when I want to learn about anything new or to do anything new is not to let fear get in the way…
One should not be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t understand,’ or to ask ‘dumb’ questions, since no question is a dumb question. To continue even when things appear to be impossible, even when the so called experts say it is impossible; to stand alone or to be different; and not to be afraid to be wrong or to make and admit mistakes, for only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly....”
The phrase to pay attention to is “ not to fear”, and desire to ask the right questions no matter how uncomfortable they are. These are the keys to creativity and success. Learners must not be afraid to look at new problems with fresh eyes. Sometimes, we must discard whatever we know to find something new. It is difficult. Though all of us love to remain in our comfort zones and find answers within its boundaries, but sometimes, answers may not be available. We have to look above and beyond.
Our gratitude to Margaret Hamilton's of this world for raising the bar, and forging new pathways. Without them software as a discipline would not have emerged the way it did. During the sixties, software was predominantly male dominated, but women like Margaret and Grace found their footing with confidence and courage. We salute them for their achievement and constant inspiration.
God bless..
Yours in mortality,

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Jottings - Slice of life - 207 ( Prakash Menon - a tribute to a gracious Man, and a leader par excellence)

Jottings - Slice of life - 207 ( Prakash Menon - a tribute to a gracious Man, and a leader par excellence)
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in Prakash’s hotel room in Gurgaon. It was a long day for both us; more so for Prakash. The launch of our new products for the retail market was extracting every ounce of energy and time out of him. He was tired, but his mind was bubbling with ideas. He put his leather bag on the table, settled down with his drink and instantly began talking about NIIT, its future and what ideas he had in mind. Few minutes into our conversation, his phone rang. He picked up his mobile and before answering, turned around and said:
“Bala, I have to take this call. I am sorry”.
“Absolutely, Prakash!!”
For next ten minutes, he was speaking to a lady. That much I could understand from his tone and conversation. He was enquiring about her Husband’s health, sharing positive advice, and commended her for showing good presence of mind and courage. What stuck me as he talked was he never hurried to complete the conversation. He allowed the person on the other side to finish saying what she had to say, and once done, gently hung the phone with the words “ Pls dont hesitate to call me anytime, if anything changes”. He turned around and said:
“A colleague of mine fell down unconscious in the bathroom yesterday. Luckily, his wife made all the right moves, and called me. I organized our team to immediately go to the Hospital and help out. I have never spoken to her before this event. Thank God everything is alright now. It was she on the line. She was thanking me for right and positive medical advice I gave, and all the help she got..."
“You know Bala, I am half doctor myself. My family is full of doctors. When you live in an environment like that, you pick up medical symptoms at the right time”
I looked at Prakash pensively, as he sipped his single malt and said
“ You could do with some medical advice yourself and eat something as you drink”
He chuckled in his characteristic fashion. “Of course , I am eating peanuts. Thats dinner for me. Now lets talk business. what do you think should be the tag line for our IT Product…..” The conversation drifted into familiar territory, of work and business.
It is ironical that two weeks later after this meeting Prakash menon is no more. It is hard to believe he is no more. It is hard to believe he didn’t read his own bodily symptoms well enough to reverse his fate. But that is life. We dont know what awaits us the next moment, no matter how wise or knowledgeable we may be. I am sure Prakash would have had the last laugh as death knocked at his door. He would have chuckled at the irony of it all. That was the kind of man he was. An institution by himself, a charismatic leader, a sympathetic and compassionate human being, a visionary in the field of education, and above all - an inspiring personality in whose presence one felt elevated and transformed. I cannot claim to have known him for long time. There are others who have known Prakash for decades, much more intimately. But Chronological time is nothing. In the little time I have known Prakash at close quarters, he has left an indelible mark on how I think and act. Through his actions and words, he has bequeathed a vision, a mandate and a charter for all of us to follow. And that charter is very simple . To bring together “ Ambition, passion and integrity” in shaping NIIT to be the best in the business, and in the process grow personally and professionally. His own life was a continuous journey and striving towards fulfilling that charter.
Starting off in early 80’s when NIIT was startup, Prakash grew with the company as it firmly established itself in IT education. He was a techie, who found sales more interesting than coding. And once he stepped into sales, there was no looking back. He very quickly emerged ahead of the curve. When the landscape of IT education changed, Prakash kept abreast of it, and till the very end believed in constant innovation and change as the only means to stay ahead in an increasingly volatile world of IT education and skills training. The new wave of learning products he incubated over last several months is now ready to break out of its shell. His vision is written all over it. Its only fitting that those products will carry his remarkable stamp and character.
In his email to employees, Sapnesh, writes about Prakash’s sense of generosity. So very true. There was a palpable feeling of Humaneness around Prakash. He was always spontaneous in his help and sympathies. Even when he disagreed, or was irritated with someone or something, one could sense genuine warmth and care permeating his actions . He loved young techies. During our bootcamp last month, he walked into the conference room twice, talking for more than two hours to all young employees, giving them direction and inspiration. He opened up a glorious and uplifting vision for them to follow with no bars or barriers. The key message he gave them ( his strong, deep voice still reverberates in me as i write this) was to remain “curious”. He himself remained an extremely curious man, spending whatever evenings were available to him watching TED talks or youtube videos of inspirational stories and technical breakthroughs. He wanted his India team to stay on top of technology, enjoy work and learn endlessly. That was his wish and advice to them.
We will miss his familiar figure outside the office holding fort with his core team smoking a cigarette and chatting; we will miss his immaculate, well groomed dress sense and regal bearing; we will miss his wit and deep insights, we will miss his warmth and unconditional support where it is needed, and more than anything else, we will miss an icon, a man who was synonymous with NIIT and what it stands for.
As I conclude this tribute, the very last words I spoke to him at his office, before I left for the airport on 20th April comes rushing into my head. Prakash was conversing with a colleague, when I stepped into his office to say good bye. He stood up energetically, shook my hands and said “ Thanks Bala. Will see you soon. I am in China in the first week of May. Text me if you need anything. Otherwise, we can discuss after I come back”
His " coming back" will now remain an unfulfilled promise forever.
Rest in eternity Prakash. Your spirit will remain intact in us
God bless..
Yours in mortality,

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Jottings - slice of life - 206 ( Churchill’s finest hour)

Jottings - slice of life - 206 ( Churchill’s finest hour)
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
The core episodes of history, more often than not, are electrifying narratives of right leaders showing up at right moments to transform or change the course of a nation’s history, and consequently affect the fortunes of world at large. Who could deny that If not for Alexander’s daring expedition to the east with no more than a few thousand men to battle, the geographical boundaries of the modern world would have been different; If not for Julius Caesar’s flamboyance, courage and consummate tact in unifying Rome and establishing the first true republic encompassing most parts of Europe, the western civilization, as we know it wouldn’t have evolved; or Charlemagne’s unifying rule; or Ashoka’s spiritual influence , or the sagacity and ruthlessness of Peter the great - such names can roll on. It is nature’s law that from the crucible of society’s predicament and turmoil, there will arise leaders whose vision overwhelms the vacillating and weak chatter of lesser mortals. Their energy, fanatical convictions and overpowering stature - Physical, intellectual and emotional - will wipe away feebleness from their path and empower a nation with renewed strength and vitality. In retrospect, history may judge many of these leaders as dictators, megalomaniacs or power mongers. It may criticize and cast aspersions on their conduct and integrity; but at the time they acted, there were no doubts or misgivings in their minds on what course to take. They did what they had do with unwavering resolution, and all seemed right.
Over the last few decades, the role of Sir Winston Churchill as the Prime Minister who led England into second world war, amidst political and ideological divisions, has led to lot of speculation in literature and movies. He is often referred to as the “war time leader”. His round face, rotund body with a perpetual cigar in his mouth, his proud bearing and arrogance of belonging to a imperial race, his slivery tongue which could lash out at moments notice to disparage or elevate his opponent, his unequivocal belief in imperialism and Britains omnipotent role in world politics, his hunger for war and preparedness for it, his didactic and wide erudition forged with brilliant eloquence when needed - have all become iconic and recognizable across the globe. In 1940, when second world war was precipitating, Churchill’s brave decision to confront Hitler’s germany head-on with minimum preparation on land, air or sea, puzzled the nation and its leaders. King George VI was alarmed, and so were many of his senior cabinet ministers. But they had no choice. With the peril of Germany advancing each day, Chamberlain - the previous incumbent, was reluctant, old and bodily sick to commit England to war. They were waiting for an arbiter to negotiate an improbable peace. However at home, English soldiers were dying each day on the borders of England, and the rise of Hitler and the banality of his policies were beginning to frighten this proud nation. People wanted their leaders to act with authority and not cuddle with a ruthless dictator. Public pressure mounted and chamberlain had to be replaced. The only choice to assuage the expectations of the public was to appoint a man who can stand up-to Hitler, a man who had been warning the country about the looming menace of Hitler, and a man who wouldn’t shy away from acting decisively, if needed. In a long political career spanning more than 40 years, Churchill’s education and professional positions had helped prepare him for this moment. His time in the war departments during 1920 and 30’s, both on land and sea, gave him good understanding on state of armaments, and where Britain stood in terms of fighting power. The tug of destiny was pulling Winston inexorably to meet the needs of this crucial moment. So, when the king offered him the prime ministership after Chamberlain resigned, Churchill accepted the appointment, no doubt, with slight trepidation on the enormity of the task ahead, but didn’t miss the opportunity to remind the King that he would accept this position except on his own terms. King George didn’t like Winston very much, but had no choice and had to accede. With Churchill at the helm, the course of second world war irrevocably changed, war became a certainty, reaching its climax in 1945 with the surrender of Germany to allied forces.
As I wrote in the beginning of this essay: The moment brings out the right man. At that crucial juncture in British history, none but Churchill could have swayed the tide towards fighting a full fledged war with Hitler. Though he was by nature arrogant, irritable and had no connect with public, held racist views, got it completely wrong about Britains imperial ambitions, humiliated at Gallipoli in the first world war - he had however correctly sensed the rise of Hitler much before anyone else on the world stage. The massive rearmament of Germany in the 1930’s, the chilling calm before the storm in German hinterland during that time signaled to Winston an imminent world crisis precipitating at rapid pace. He read the mind of Hitler better than anyone else; and unlike many British leaders, loved a righteous fight. By nature, he wasn't built to shy away from one. And like all great leaders, Winston was a superb orator and writer. His private life was artistic. He was a sketch artist, a writer of English history and magnificent biographies, he loved travelling and jotting down travel adventures. Along with these Winston had a knack of articulating his thoughts in precise, forceful and succinct manner; just as his books and paintings did.
Churchill’s masterstroke was his realization of what his people wanted at the right time. Shedding his royal demeanor when it was needed, he polled the pulse of the nation and smelt the simmering stench of hopelessness in his people. He knew that English people wanted Hitler repelled, no matter what price they had to pay. They simply didn’t like Hitler. Once he understood that, his speeches in the house of commons grew more audacious and touched the raw nerve of honor and pride, which Britain always held in high esteem. He sprinkled his speeches with phrases that resonated at the deepest level. As a gifted orator for whom words were never far away, he wrenched confidence from the guts of his listeners through passages such as - “We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender..” Such simple words uttered with tremendous confidence and clarity roused the nation to new sense of identity and purpose. As is always the case, once raw courage is awakened, grace and luck inevitably follows. The unbelievable tale at Dunkirk, when from sure annihilation, thousands of British soldiers escaped unscathed, to Hitler altering his war plans to accommodate the tactical maneuvers of Churchill; Britain met with success after success until USA joined the war to put finally end Germany’s plans.
Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill won the academy award this year for the film “The darkest hour”. A magnificent portrayal of Sir Winston Churchill during his first few months as Prime minister. In it, one gets a glimpse of the man torn by opposing passions. Unruly, unkempt and irritable; at the same time capable of highest levels of intellectual deliberation and action, Churchill stands before us as a leader chiseled for his time. A man like him was needed to strike fear into Hitlers heart. In one beautiful scene in the movie, King George meets Winston alone at his home and promises his unconditional support. Winston is surprised because the King didn’t particularly like him. When pressed to explain this sudden change of heart, George says “ If Hitler is frightened, then there must be something about you as Prime minister”. Both chuckle, and little tear wells up in their eyes. The pact is sealed. Britain is now irrevocably committed to war.
The quote at the beginning of this essay is attributed to Winston Churchill. But we dont know if he really said that. Nevertheless, its message is very clearly Winston’s. As a avid student of history, he knew that in every age successes and failures must be redefined afresh, and there is no finality about both. It is the courageous journey which matters. It is debatable, and it still debated, if Churchill turned the tides of war. There may not be a consensus anytime soon. But one thing is clear: if not for him, the gathering of world powers to meet the challenge of tyrannical regime wouldn't have found momentum. His words galvanized the nation into action. Hitler realized he was dealing with a man who wouldn't accept defeat. Hitler's entire campaign was conceived in light of the fact that Britain will not interfere in his plans, or that they were too weak to do so. But with Churchill entering the fray, equations changed, which in turn provoked changes in Germany's thinking. To that extent, at least, we owe the outcome to Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill.
God bless..
yours in mortality,