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,
Bala

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,
Bala



Sunday, January 14, 2018

Jottings – Slice of life – 191 (Arun Shourie and his new book “Two saints: Speculations around and about Ramana maharishi and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa”)

Jottings – Slice of life – 191 (Arun Shourie and his new book “Two saints: Speculations around and about Ramana maharishi and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa”)
Arun Shourie is renowned intellectual in Indian circles. He may not be a very active voice these days, but for those us who became politically conscious in nineties, Arun was everywhere. His pointed face, sharp eyes, thinning hair, measured speech, grammatically correct language and unflinching views dominated print and television. A fantastic spokesman. For more than four decades now, his voice has been heard with respect. In the early seventies, after graduating, he joined World bank, one of the first Indians to do so with distinction; then returned to India, worked as an editor in Indian Express and Times of India, where he honed his writing skills, and developed a keen sense of Hindu Politics. In the Vajpayee Government, he held top government positions and additionally was given free rein to talk openly about the Hindu nationalism and its pervasive roots in India. He is a prolific writer as well. Over 30 books to his name on wide ranging subjects. Not only are they well written, but well-argued too. I haven’t obviously, read all of them, but the few I have read, especially “A secular agenda”, written during Vajpayee days still lingers in my memory. If there ever was a subtly argued book that Hinduism is the panacea for all India’s problems, then this is the one. Anyway, what makes Shourie’s public life so special is because his personal life is deeply tragic, and he kept both these compartments separate. Anita, his wife suffers from Parkinson’s, and his only son Aditi was born with Cerebral palsy. In such a situation, it is natural for a man of Shourie’s intellectual caliber, after active social and public life, to divert his fertile mind to understanding the philosophical causes of pain and suffering. His last two books have been about that. His most recent one, the subject matter of this essay is a curious one. “Two saints: speculations about Ramakrishna and Ramana”. Before I briefly present Arun’s take on both these saints, I present a short summary of the nature of speculation Arun talks about.
Throughout recorded human history, we have been trying somehow or other to validate and rationalize the experiences of our “God men”. In every age, in every civilization, in every religion, there are quite a few who have claimed a unique status for themselves in the name of a higher power. Most people either credulously worshipped these Godmen, or spent time evaluating their claims, or played one against the other. Very few paused to question and understand what this question of enlightenment is all about. This has been the tragic story of religion. But the fact is: We really don’t know what these few holy men have seen or experienced as liberating; all that we have are inadequate verbal descriptions – sometimes in their own words, but mostly by from others. However, it is our firm belief, based on such books, oral heritage, family traditions and an unusual amount of indoctrination, that these God Men have seen and experienced something which is normally unavailable to common human experience, because of which, their lives are full of sanctity, purity and holiness, to which other can only aspire but never reach or “attain”. In the earliest documents of religious history, God was never personal. He was always collective, and represented the unpredictable and potent forces in nature. From a deep sense of fear and wonder (in equal measure), the notion of God was born. It was an act of appeasement. The glorious, sonorous hymns of the Rig Veda, perhaps the oldest testimony to this strange feeling of otherness, is a rapturous and sometimes incoherent outpouring of human incomprehension and appeasement. In the tracts of Old testament, and even older books of Western pantheon, once again, we sense fear and awe. This force encapsulated as God was mediated and understood only by few. We do not why only few were chosen to be vehicles of this understanding, or what they did to achieve such proficiency. Shamans, witches, priests, - whatever name we may want to give them - these select individuals possessed the ability to be at peace with the mystery of nature and cosmos, and more so to penetrate into their secrets. They also possessed certain characteristic traits such as detached relationships, calmness and a positive indifference towards life, that eluded others. Voices and oracles from deeper sources regularly worked through them. They were privileged to come face to face with something beyond normal human sensory experience, and were definitely wiser than the rest. Slowly, such men came to regarded as God- men, or men to whom God - the unknown, spoke in special and privileged tones.
Even to this day, in our age of scientific rationality and prodigious advancement, we really have no clue what kind of experiences a Buddha, or Jesus, or a Mohamad, or Nicolas of Cusa, or St Augustine, or Rumi, or a Ramana, or a Ramakrishna had. How did they achieve enlightenment? And what did they mean by it? Science provide various theories and intelligent verdicts ranging from madness to schizophrenia, to epileptic fits to illiteracy on one hand; and on the other, religion offers theories of enlightenment, super consciousness, nirvana, mystical communion with Oneness of Brahman, and several other philosophical viewpoints based on different traditions. Learned scholars have dissecting and analyzing the scant writings of saints to understand the process of enlightenment and its physical manifestations. But all efforts have proven fruitless. All that we know for certain is that these men, underwent a cataclysmic physical experience during their lifetime, which altered forever their perception of the world and themselves. Ramana consciously experienced Death in all its gory details, and came out of it unscathed and transformed. Ramakrishna threatened to kill himself at the altar of Kali, if she didn’t reveal herself, and in that seminal moment something clicked within. Many Christina mystics declare similar physical events which led to an awakening into God. Now, all these experiences could have been purely biological or psychosomatic, or just psychological - we don’t know; but it is clear that the after effects of the event left them profoundly altered in the way they related to the world outside. It is impossible to validate if such states as experienced by these saints are reproducible, or is there a ‘method” to get to such heightened states of living. In a way, that is unimportant. What is important is to recognize and understand what such mystics taught and passed on to us as their learning and message. After enlightenment, Ramana and Ramakrishna lived a deep life of virtue, compassion, understanding and acceptance of life. They touched people who came to them at profound levels. A glance, a word, a physical touch would render a potential seeker speechless and doubt free. Some instances of such transformation would make this clear.
When Paul Brunton, the rationalist met Ramana Maharishi at Tiruvanamalai, after he had wandered all over India in search of spiritual direction, he writes in breathless prose “There is something in this man which holds my attention as steel filings are held by a magnet. I cannot turn my gaze away from him. My initial bewilderment, my perplexity at being totally ignored, slowly fade away as this strange fascination begins to grip me more firmly.”
Or when Narendranath Dutta, later Vivekananda, met Ramakrishna in Dakshineswar and asked him if he had seen or experienced God (the same question he had asked of all other religious authorities he had meet thus far), Ramakrishna spontaneously, without hesitation looked him straight in the eye and said “Yes, I have seen God. I see Him as I see you here, only more clearly. God can be seen. One can talk to him…” The confidence, authority and directness of Ramakrishna’s reply shook Narendra’s rationalist faith to its foundations, and opened his thinking to a newer dimension
Similarly, St Augustine writes in his great book Confessions, how one afternoon, after deep emotional crisis, he ran into his garden beckoned by a voice to pick up and read the bible. When he did so, the page his eyes rested upon bore the following passage of the letter Paul wrote to Romans “Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” In a flash, something gave way within St Augustine, and his heart, he says was flooded with light and all his doubts were resolved.
Now coming back to Arun’s book, in all these three cases described above - Ramana, Ramakrishna and Augustine, there is no doubt there was an indescribable quality of peace, conviction and selflessness that followed their spiritual experiences, but the question Arun speculates on in his book is whether such experiences these saints reported were really “spiritual” experiences or were they biological conditions – which medicine today can better understand. Arun draws upon a wide variety of literature and scientific evidence to place ecstatic experiences of mystics within the boundaries of scientific reason. He attempts to do this not because he wants to discredit them, but just to point that enlightenment or attaining Godhead need not be something beyond human reach, and what is important is not to focus on miraculous and mystical experiences themselves as valuable, or proof of anything divine, but only to consider the effects of such transformation in day to day life. Ramana and Ramakrishna radiated peace, joy around them, and never once did they refer to their own mystical experiences as anything special. In fact, they said it is of no consequence at all, and would actively discourage anybody from talking about it. In nearly 500 pages, Arun laboriously (sometimes repeating himself) draws the reader to take a closer look at both these saints with scientific glasses on. The result is ambiguous, as such enquiry would always be.
The nature of enlightenment, its causes, conditions are very subjective. It is impossible to describe it, much less analyze it. All that we can know are its after effects. Sometimes, even that is elusive. That is the zone of understanding Arun Shourie wishes to draw the reader into. I think, to an extent he succeeds in his attempt.
God bless...
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Jottings - Slice of life - 190 (Alfred Hitchcock and his Dial M for murder)
In the annals of cinematic art - like any other art - very few directors leave an indelible mark; both, during their life time, when each movie they make has a definitive signature of the master; and more so after their lifetime, when their body of work continue to remain classics in their genre, and as a guide to future generations for study of technique, class and artistic excellence. Just as within reading few pages of a book, a sensitive reader can detect the literary style a Henry James or Dickens or Faulkner, or by the texture of colors and tapestry of form – the infallible hand a Van Gogh, or Rembrandt or Da Vinci; or by the first few movements of a symphony, the musical brilliance of a Beethoven, Mozart or Strauss; similarly, for any seasoned film lover, after first few frames of a murder mystery film, the hand of the master craftsman - the egg shaped, rotund and smirking face of Alfred Hitchcock - will immediately come to mind. Nobody can mistake his stamp. Over a career spanning 40 active years, Alfred Hitchcock made more than 50 films. Not all were commercially or critically successful. But there is no question that each one of them is emblematic of the art form he created and nurtured with great care and love.
It is strange though Hitchcock never considered “Dial M for murder” as one of finest works. In his numerous interviews, he would lovingly cite “Pyscho”, “Rear window”, “Vertigo”, “The Birds”, “North by North west” and others, which no doubt are creations of great value, but, somehow, he would never volunteer to include Dial M in that list. When questioned, he would shrug it off “There isn’t much we can say about that one”. This is strange considering, it was and is still a chilling movie, acted and directed to perfection. It was the first three-dimensional movie to shot in history, arguably the best ever. And to top it all, it had Grace Kelly acting for the first time in a Hitchcock movie, when she was at the height of her career. But, No, Hitchcock would never say a word about the film. To him, it remained nothing but a screen adaptation of a play that Premiered in BBC in 1952. He had contractual obligations with Warner’s brother to complete, before he could move on to Paramount for rest of his work; and Dial M was only final repayment of ethical debt to a production company for initially giving him the artistic leeway to establish his repertoire. What is amazing is the fact that even so effortless and less-than-serious work from the master, still remains unmatched in its style and brilliance, even though numerous remakes and rehashes of Dial M’s theme have been made over decades. None of them are a patch on the original. In "Dial M" The genius of Alfred Hitchcock is seen every frame and the effect is still one of perfection, wonder and unadulterated entertainment.
The story line is simple. A husband past his athletic prime, wishes to murder his wife for the money she would leave him. Fortunately for him, she has an extra-marital affair, therefore he has a reason. To achieve this end, he concocts an elaborate murder plan, using his former school mate of dubious reputation. In one ten-minute-long scene in the main hall of their home, Tony Wendice (the husband), played immaculately played by Ray Milland, explains to his accomplice the modality of murdering his wife (Grace Kelly). He goes through every single detail with meticulous precision, he answers every objection or questions posed by the killer with rational and objective answers. It seems as though, there is no way this murder could go wrong. The deviant husband believes he has it all figured out to the last detail. Reluctantly, the killer agrees, not because he is convinced but because he has no choice, and the plan itself seemed simple, complete and perfect to reject.
As audience, the plot is laid out for us in the first twenty minutes. We know what is going to happen. We also know that something in this plan is not right, and will fail. It is at that fulcrum of aesthetic expectation when we know the outcome, but unsure on how it would unfold - that Hitchcock holds our attention with breathtaking expertise. Everything happens in a single room, with just two brief frames shot away from it. In one of them, the Hitchcock’s face is briefly seen in a photograph at a college dinner. That is his signature style. He would appear in a scene in each of his films with an erect bearing and stoic look on his face. Without that solemn touch, a Hitchcockian film is incomplete. The rest of the movie breezes past towards a climax, which is more of less predictable; but the way Hitchcock orchestrates his camera, dialogues and performances to suit the meter of the Drama on which it based, leaves the audience with a sense of satisfaction, and distinct sadness at the outcome. Grace Kelly, in the very last scene, when she realizes her husband has been plotting this murder behind her back while dissimulating love and passion all along, gently lifts her beautiful face filled with grief and gives him one last tragic look of forgiveness, kindness and anger – all reflecting ever so swiftly in those deep blue eyes.
In a way, Hitchcock was right. Dial M is not his best movie, not even close to his best. When compared to Pyscho or Birds or Vertigo (which critics consider his most complete movie), Dial M is just run of the mill stuff. But it is staggering to wonder at the prodigious genius of the man whose below average effort can be so very good. As an avid collector of Hitchcock productions, and having watched them many times over, I sometimes reflect on what could be the underlying motive of the man. What did he wish to project through his movies? Both in his own words, and through the words of his wonderful biographer François Truffaut, Alfred’s fear of enclosed spaces and punishment enforced by his disciplinarian father, and the love of his mother who comforted him with food (he attributed his paunch to that) stands out as seminal influences during his childhood. The feeling of fear, guilt and inner retribution seem to have struck young Alfred as something important in normal human life, and that it could lead to unintended behavior later on. When in guilt, man can do lot of things, including murder. And in equal measure, to escape guilt, he would go to any length to hide, overcome or sublimate that feeling. In all his films, Hitchcock’s protagonists are victims of personal, social or psychological guilt. It keeps gnawing at their hearts, and they eventually commit a crime, or become a party or witness to it.
This is becoming yet another longish essay. Before I conclude, it is worth noting that Hitchcock movies are timeless. They are not just about murder for the sake of blood and gore. They are stories that capture the darkness of human heart which lurks in all of us, either prominently or subtly. That is why his films leave a deep impact. They stir something uncomfortable in us, and we quickly want to rationalize it away as “great movie” or “beautiful acting or direction”. The real reason why we like them is because it reflects a part of us hidden away from outward appearances. In “Pyscho”, curiously, we begin to sympathize with Norman bates, though he is perverse and murderous and insane as textbooks and social scientists will have us believe. Yet, at the end of the film, as he sits in his solitary cell, talking to himself, and his illusions, a profound sympathy emerges in our breast. The slashing of young girl in the shower pales in comparison to the state of this young man languishing in asylum. That is the genius of Alfred Hitchcock - to use the medium of cinema as a mirror to our darker or troubled nature.
It is ironical though, that Hitchcock never won an Academy award, though he was nominated five times. In 1967, finally, the Academy chose to honor him with Lifetime achievement award. And characteristic of the man, when his name was announced, he walked up to the stage with studied motion, accepted the award with straight face, adjusted the mike for couple of minutes, and said “Thank you very much indeed...” It was the shortest acceptance speech in Academy’s history for an award as big and long deserving as this.
God bless...
Yours in mortality,
Bala



Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Jottings - Slice of life - 185 (Eat, pray and love - an escapist’s account of the East)

Jottings - Slice of life - 185 (Eat, pray and love - an escapist’s account of the East)
In 2006, Elizabeth Gilbert, a short story writer and novelist, wrote a memoir based on her travels in Italy and some parts of the East called “Eat, Pray and love”. Not surprisingly, the book was a phenomenal success. It stayed on the best sellers list – for Fiction or Non-fiction, I don’t know - for more than 200 weeks. Readers lapped up the book as new age revelation and guide on how to lead a “Balanced” life. Brad pitt decided to produce a movie based on the book, which was released in 2010, starring Julia Robert as the protagonist. An undistinguished performance by one of the finest actors of this age. All said and done, the book, the movie, and of course, Ms. Gilbert achieved international fame, and Ms. Gilbert in particular - was crowned as a paragon of spiritual quest in maddening modern world. I beg to differ.
The story of West’s fascination with the east goes back two hundred years, when French and British philologists, working in India and other parts of Asia, translated ancient texts to English and other European languages. The mystic Asia, as it was called, is a creation of these minds. For the Western world, largely governed by Monotheism with its rigid rules of God and life, the thought of Asia was more a fascination, a distraction, and a thing to be toyed with. The Upanishads, the Buddhists texts, the strange practices and life styles of its God men and shamans were often a mocking retreat for work wearied Europeans. If not anything else, they believed they found solace in the ascetic lifestyle of Indian religion. When they went back to their countries, they often wrote about their experience in a language and metaphor that suited western palette, and in many cases, the ideas they transmitted were twisted, esoteric and confused as the mind that experienced them. In 1978, Edward Said, an astute and objective thinker on the subject of Asia and western attitudes about Asia, wrote a seminal work titled “Orientalism”, in which he elaborated how the very word “Orient” is a distortion of the West to accommodate the East as a culture inferior, hence subservient. When the West talks about the East, it is always from a vantage point. When the west gets bored of itself, it turns to the east as panacea. When the West cannot find answers to questions of man, it digs into the timeless traditions of the East. But, it is always West first, and then East. Art, science, especially religion has suffered great deal in the hands of Europeans, who claim to have understood the East, and written about it in terms appropriate to the West.
Coming back to Ms. Gilbert’s book, it is no doubt as well written travelogue. A successful writer, ending her marriage, jumping into another relationship; dissatisfied again, and starts questioning the meaning of life and her own priorities in it. This is the premise for Ms. Gilbert to take off on her journey of self-discovery. She goes to Italy to enjoy its gastronomic delights, travels to India to the welcome of half-naked children clamoring at her car windows, to stay in an Ashram mumbling Mantras she doesn’t understand, and meeting a fellow American who has run away from his guilt. Both of them squeeze tears about their predicament and talk of focus and balance. In between their tear jerking stories, we read a description of India, it marriage customs, its rituals as though it were a strange phenomenon from a different world. Then she goes to Bali, to meet a local shaman, who in a previous journey there, had predicted she would be back. There she settles to a domestic rhythm, trying to strike a “balance” between living life to the full, and maintaining inner serenity. In between humidity and mosquito bites, she is attracted (not surprising!) to a good looking and successful businessman, sleeps with him, and wonders if this is the balance and love she was seeking. Finally, both of them cement their relationship after deliberating superficially on matters which need far more seriousness than what both are capable of. This then is the story captured in “Eat, pray and love”.
As a book, this is great beach read. It keeps one entertained, as a good writer can. And I have a feeling that Ms. Gilbert had an eye on possible adaption of the book for screen. Nothing wrong with it. But to rate the book as classic spiritual quest is overstretching a bit. There is nothing solid in its pages other than the anguish of someone who is attempting to run away from problems, and incidentally finds few sane people who bring her to earth. There is nothing here that Ms. Gilbert couldn’t have done in her hometown of New York, if she wanted to. Like many other Europeans, the fascination of the orient as an otherworldly place, fit for hardworking Europeans to bask in once in a while to rejuvenate their spirits – is the message which comes through loud and clear in her book.
I read “Eat, pray and Love” many years ago, and have been postponing watching the movie, which came out in 2010. Somehow, I wasn’t comfortable. Finally, I got around to watching the film yesterday. For the first time, I was witness to a lackluster performance by Julia Roberts. Usually, an immersive and committed actor, whatever be the role; in this movie, she simply wasn’t herself. Her gestures, dialogues and body language, and even her trade mark smile seemed contrived and overtly manufactured. The spontaneity which characterizes her acting was absent. And the screenplay rambled from New York, to Italy, to India and Bali without any semblance of coherence or purpose. For two hours and twenty minutes, all that we get to see if a fretting, sweating, fuming Ms. Gilbert (played by Julia obviously) uncomfortable everywhere and with everyone, with a look of suspicion, doubt and skepticism about everything. Either Julia wasn’t explained the role properly, or it was erratic nature of the character and book itself, we don’t know; but the fact is, midway through the movie, I felt like switching channels. Not even the statuesque figure of Julia Roberts, bathed in moonlight, sultry and sensuous could make me sit upright and watch. I did eventually finish the movie, as I normally do. And when I did, I felt it could have been done much better. I enjoyed the book much more than the movie. Ms. Gilberts writing was more evocative than Ryan Murphy’s directorial job.
The above essay is not to construed as my dislike towards travelogues of any kind. No! Not at all. I love them. Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, Pico iyer, Jan Morrison, William Dalrymple and many others have mastered the art of writing about places with deep understanding, love and compassion. Their books make us think and reflect. They leave themselves behind, and step into the shoes of the culture they write about. They don’t bring a sense of moral or spiritual condescension to serve their own needs of a different culture. That is true meaning and art of Travel writing.
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Jottings - Slice of life – 183 (Training to implementation - a humble success story)

Jottings - Slice of life – 183 (Training to implementation - a humble success story)
“Nothing could have deferred our vacation but the fact you were coming to teach. Thanks a ton, Bala. This project wouldn’t be ready to go live, if not for your matured guidance” - John held my hands and in a voice choking slightly with emotion spoke these words. And with these words, I ended one of the most fascinating training assignments in my career.
It was in May 2017, that I ran the first installment of Big data workshop for this audience, who were then completely new to the subject. They were obviously experienced, articulate and handpicked to work on this flagship multi million project. A lot was at stake. The project was funded by Top management as a pilot to evaluate the feasibility of migrating their enterprise storage to a platform more conducive to Data analytics and mining. With the consumer market becoming digitized, and user preferences better gauged through social media and blogs, this project attempted to create a forum which could tap into the immense potential offered by newer storage platforms which enable such transformation. My audience came from a purely relational database world, and to them, the technology I about to facilitate and educate them upon was mysterious and, quite frankly, did not seem a viable alternative. I still vividly remember the look of skepticism and look of disbelief on all those faces, on the first day of class in May. The project had just kicked off and the company I was representing had promised heavens. After all, a lengthy process of evaluation preceded the decision to choose this company and their offering, and one of the key promise made during negotiations and signing of contract was to train all their folks form scratch to quality required to execute the project without a glitch. The dice was thrown.
Overall, I delivered five rounds of Training workshop to different stakeholders in the team. Few, like John, attended all of them; others came in when needed. No conventions of regular classroom training were ever followed. No formal slides, no structured labs, no guided demos - nothing at all. We would assemble at 9 AM and kick off with a problem statement in the project to be solved, and once that was laid out comprehensively, I would gently nudge them with questions, elucidate concepts whenever required, slowly and steadily work our way into the problem. There were times when tempers have risen high, and fists pounded the table defending a point. Between team members, there was dissension and debate. But all of it dissolved in that one overarching aim all of us had in reaching a solution. Nothing personal at all. All energy, arguments and counterpoints were sacrificed at the altar of technology and its eventual adoption. Sometimes at the end of a training day, usually seven PM, we would be so exhausted to even say goodbye to each other. We would deploy the code, pack our stuff and walk out of the class like zombies – our head still reeling with the intensity of our discussions.
During each workshop, we covered a different angle of the solution. In the intervening time, we were in touch through emails. So, each of us knew exactly where we were when we reassembled for a class. It is with pride I observed the transformation in the team. Each time, the discussion grew more mature and technical; after the third workshop, all of us were on the same boat as far our understanding of technology went. There was neither tutor nor pupil thereafter. The last two engagements were purely run as tech seminars with me playing the role of arbiter, nothing more.
The project goes live on 31st December 2017. Everything is ready and the team is least worried on how it will fare. Most of the them have planned vacations. The deployment scripts are ready, and it doesn’t need any further intervention. It just need to be run them at an appointed hour. We are confident the pilot will be great success. Much depends on it for future adoption. For me personally, the last six months has been a unique experience in many ways, and also a categorical vindication of my thoughts on technical training. The boundaries between training and implementation( which often is quoted in a negative sense) was completely obliterated in this case. Over the years, I have strongly advocated teaching technology not as a course, but a means to an end. The audience must at the end of a training program gain confidence to apply what they have learnt to problems at hand. If that is not achieved then we aren’t delivering value. Running off the shelf courses helps business, but for the customer to value a class and return for more training, they must experience a “wow” moment, a moment when what is learnt sinks into the marrow of their bones, and they stand technically transformed.
As a technical evangelist, this series of assignments will remain one of the high points of my career. A sense of satisfaction envelopes me, and the exhausting effort that went into each step of this process will now remain joyful memory. I look forward to 2018.
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Friday, December 15, 2017

Jottings - Slice of life – 180 (Oh! Jerusalem...)

Jottings - Slice of life – 180 (Oh! Jerusalem...)
(Note to my readers: The story of Jerusalem is a story of human potential of what can be achieved, and equally a story of human stupidity. A little piece of land has governed the imagination of millions for over two thousand years. It’s very name invokes deep divisions, yet at the same, an intense reverence. The following piece is meant to be a basic primer for those who would want to know a little about why Jerusalem has constantly remained a bone contention in world politics. For those interested in knowing more, I have recommended two popular volumes towards the end of the article.)
In the annals of history, no piece of land has been subject to so much dispute, possessiveness - and imbued with so much religious connotation and interpretation as that of Jerusalem - th city of foundation of the God Shalom. For thousands of years this land has been the bone of contention for variety of reasons. Its grounds have been trodden by Jews, Christian and Muslims with equal honor and equally ferocious impunity. During its long history, it was burnt and destroyed without a trace at least twice and rebuilt, ransacked and besieged more than fifty times, each time recaptured and restored by a distant friend or known foe. The resilient city simply refused to disappear from collective human memory. So Where exactly is Jerusalem? If you care to look at the world map, you would be hard pressed to locate it. Turn the map gently towards the middle east, gently run your eyes along the Mediterranean Sea, and if you are alert enough, your eyes will fall upon a little mountain Judea situated between the Mediterranean and the Dead sea; and Jerusalem smugly ensconced on a tiny little plateau upon it. In reality, the whole of historic Jerusalem is less than a square kilometer in area, with no striking beauty, with no natural resources to boast of; yet within its narrow perimeters, history runs as deep and wide as blood that has flowed upon it. Men and women across the globe, across civilizations and nationalities, across religions have coveted that little piece of land with a ferocity and zeal that baffles the modern mind. Even today, in this age of so called intellectual emancipation, that tiny territory continues to invoke the most virulent passions in the breast of man. Deserted, wasted and devoid of any semblance of normal city, it remains a disputed territory, with modern armies on either side gunning down even any innocent transgressions. On this emotionally charged land, the human mind has lavished its greatest infatuation - the love of God, and in his honorable name - the love of territory.
The central fact about Jerusalem, around which much of its drama hinges, is that it is home to three major monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam - each of them as fanatical about their God as the other can hope to be. Chronologically, Judaism found its birth place there at the dawn of Human History, about 3000 years ago. When King David, and his famed son Solomon consecrated Jerusalem as the land of Hebrew built its first glorious temple, the fate of the little land was sealed forever. The first act of entitlement to jerusalem was given to sons of Yahweh. It was believed that the sacred ark using which Noah saved the world from primodial deluge was hosted there. It was there the covenant that God made with Humanity resided in all its holy authority. After Solomon’s Death, the Jews scattered into different tribes, forever roaming and persecuted. Their search for Homeland still continues even after 2000 years.
After Judaism, it was Christianity’s turm to lay siege to the land. Jesus, the Christ was a born in bethlem, six miles from Jerusalem, and it was just outside Jerusalem, in Golgotha he was crucified - thus transforming this little hand into birthplace of Christianity. Under the Romans, Christians lived a charmed and precarious life depending upon which emperor was ruling, but after Roman emperor Constantine officially declared Christianity to be its official religion, there was no looking back. Christianity, now claimed absolute claim to this holy land.
The Islamization of Jerusalem began around late sixth century AD, by which time Muslims had already occupied the Eastern Byzantine empire. It directed its followers to pray facing Jerusalem. According to tradition, Mohammad ascended heaven in Jerusalem to converse with God. For thirteen years, this profound act of daily prayer facing the Holy land laid an indelible mark on Muslims. They came to believe with intense faith that Jerusalem was indeed the true birth place of Islam. Ironically, after thirteen years, Muslim was redirected by ordinance to change the direction of prayers towards Mecca. That is how they do it today. But, that has had little effect on how Jerusalem was perceived in the minds of Muslims. For those first-generation followers, Jerusalem was the original Holy land, and will continue to be so for generations to come.
Thus, it came to be that Jerusalem in first ten centuries became the center of three major religions and caught in the middle of their fanatic loyalties. But that was not the end of it woes. In 1095, Pope Urban II, on a momentous cold wintery day in Italy, announced to a group of disgruntled Knights they could gain heaven and absolved from sins on earth, if they could march to Jerusalem and reclaim the holy land from the infidels (Muslims had by that time control of the holy land). In the dark middle ages of Europe when superstition ruled, and men for few crucial centuries lost the ability to reason, this clarion call from the Crowned Papal Master of the Christian Europe was nothing short of voice of God, and the kind of encouragement they needed to go on a rampage. The knights who gladly took up arms came from all parts of Europe - France, Italy, England- and they marched to Jerusalem in their silvery steel armors, caparisoned horses and cross engraved lances to launch what we have come to know as the “Crusades”. Waves and waves of Men and Women in the name of Crusades, went on expeditions to Jerusalem to attain spiritual relief, and once there, they killed and looted with a smile on their faces and blessings of the Church. Barbara Tuchman, in one of her first books, “The bible and the sword” captures in arresting detail the march of ordinary and extraordinary men to Jerusalem in God’s name, and in the course of their travels created, documented and passed on cultural and social history of the time they lived in. It was a curious world, the years between 11’th and 15th century, and Jerusalem played an important role in the lives of people as a place to aspire, live and die for.
In the modern era, by which I mean the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the West has played a crucial role in meddling with the position and role of Jerusalem. It was England, as usual, who meddled with it. Caught between protecting their colonial interests, and the increasing demand for Jerusalem to be considered a Christian territory, and pressure from well-meaning clergy men to return Jerusalem to the Jews - swung the ever-vacillating English Government to consider supporting one group or the other. The climax of this effort resulted in the creation of the Balfour Declaration (Prime minister Balfour was instrumental in carving this out), in which creation of Israel as a separate state for the Jews was officially placed on table for the first time. After two thousand years of dispersion, Jews saw their first glimpse of the original promise of Abraham materializing. The diaspora was to become one people again. It was an ancient prophecy unfolding in modern times. But little did they realize that even with Israel recognized as a Jewish state, Jerusalem would never be theirs because the Arabs who lived in equal or more numbers in nearby Palestine had claim to it as well.
Numerous books have been written on Jerusalem and its tortuous history, but for the general reader, I recommend Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “Jerusalem” for non-fictional read covering its story across ages, or Dominique Lapierre’s brilliant narrative in novel form of the modern state of Israel. Both are thick books, but worth reading. Such reading and understanding is required, if one were to make sense of President Trump’s announcement he would treat Jerusalem to be a rightful part of Israel, its capital. He is more in the long list of Political leaders in history to have taken a stand on the holy land, and its future. Once more that land in Judea gets center stage attention.
When I was India this month, I read about the current status of the dispute over Ayodya. The Supreme court had finally issued a verdict on the case. And when I landed here, the first piece of news I read was President trumps announcement. In both cases, a piece of land is invested with so much of Human meaning, symbolism, ideology and sacredness, and we fight for its vindication. It is natures law that all animals fight for territory. In fact it is a biological necessity, an universal trait, but animals do so only for survival, food and shelter. Its only man who fights over a piece of land for an idea, an opinion, and in many cases a mere myth. Such an attitude is a boon, and a torrid curse. A boon, because, we have risen above the needs of human body, a curse because we have still not learnt where to draw the line between symbols and reality.
Oh! Jerusalem, I pray we leave you in peace.
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala