Sunday, November 12, 2017

Jottings - slice of life - 173 (Gandhi, Gk Chesterton - and the writing of the book “Hind Swaraj” or “Home rule” )

Jottings - slice of life - 173 (Gandhi, Gk Chesterton - and the writing of the book “Hind Swaraj” or “Home rule” )
The transformation of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi from a suit clad aspiring lawyer in London and South Africa to a loin draped messiah of Indian freedom struggle – is a larger than life story, etched in Indian psyche so deep that it is now impossible to understand the origins of such a transformation in any other terms than destiny, divinity and genius of the Man himself. Twentieth century has made him an international Icon, whose statuary presence frozen and sculpted in the image of his childlike toothless smile, long aquiline nose, cane in hand and a long confident stride has become synonymous with inspiration, integrity, commitment to freedom, and honesty. In case of a man of such an image in the collective public mind, it becomes difficult to isolate fact from fiction, myth from reality, and often times, we come to believe what we inherit and taught, and tend to ignore, mask, or conveniently forget that such a legendary figure, towering intellect could actually have derived his inspiration from a different less patriotic English source. A source, most unlikely - from one greatest essayist and story tellers in English language- From a man, capable of writing a caustic or sarcastic opinion with nonchalant ease of literary genius, smoking a cigar and drinking beer sitting in an offbeat pub in Fleet street. I will talk about this man this later in this essay.
The story of Gandhi physically booted out of a first-class compartment from a train in South Africa is known to every student of history. It was Gandhi’s real first taste of discrimination at a personal level; which provoked and intensified his struggle against white rule. This incident happened in 1893. However, it was not until 1909, that Gandhi wrote his treatise, a short book on how he perceived Indian freedom struggle should be and what kind of Institutions are required to govern India. The tone of Gandhi’s Independence struggle distinctly took an “Indian” turn during that year. The Hind Swaraj or Home rule, as the book came to be called, was written during a Train journey between London and South Africa in November during that year. In a flurry of inspired writing, Gandhi wrote this slime volume in seven days in Gujarati, which later was translated into English and French. In it, for the first time, Gandhi articulated a full-fledged vision of Indian freedom struggle rooted in Indian values, and not based on principles borrowed from the West. The book itself, when read independently and not as agenda, is a startling transformation of Gandhi’s vision from an international perspective of what freedom means to local adaption of what it should mean for Indians. Until then Gandhi merely wanted the colonial powers to leave and relinquish power, and he thought, wrote, spoke and acted on the topic purely in the idioms of Western thought and institutions enunciated and popularized by the David Hume’s and Herbert spencers of his time. But in “Hind Swaraj” for the first time, we find a quantum change in tone. In those hundred odd pages, we find a new charter laid out of Gandhi. Indian Freedom struggle should be based on its own history, civilization and values, and not on any other terms. Prior to this seminal book, for the last 15 years of his life, Gandhi had been actively fighting the British in his signature Non-violent way in South Africa, but it never occurred to him during that period he was still fighting for freedom on British terms and with British institutions. His illuminating moment of truth happened during that brief train Journey in November between November 13th to 22nd 1909, the train journey from London to South Africa - A week of introspection and radical change sitting alone in his cabin and re-thinking his strategy.
The question is what triggered that change? What prompted Gandhi to write his testament of Hind Swaraj, at a feverish pitch, during that journey? The answer to that question lies elsewhere. In October of the same year 1909, GK Chesterton, the great essayist, wrote a short column for London news sitting a bar titled “India for Indians”. He wrote this article out of frustration over what Indians were demanding in the name of Independence. The white collared Indian civil servants from India’s elite were only asking for old wine in new bottle. They wanted the British to leave, but wished to preserve everything British behind. To an iconoclastic thinker like Chesterton, that sounded ridiculous. Though he was not a great enthusiast of Hinduism or Indian values, he was wise to realize that freedom of a nation should be procured only on its own terms. Anything less than that is a shame. In his usual flamboyant, incisive style of prose, Chesterton criticized the current crop of Indian patriotism as misplaced and misdirected in an article titled ‘India for Indians” in the Illustrated London new column on September 18th, 1909, a month before Gandhi’s seminal Train Journey. It is certain Gandhi read that article, and was stuck by the force of Chesterton words. In a striking passage in that article, Chesterton writes
“When all is said, there is a national distinction between a people asking for its own ancient life and a people asking for things that have been wholly invented by somebody else. There is a difference between a conquered people demanding its own institutions and the same people demanding the institutions of the conqueror.”
Or again, in one of finest observations on how Indian Freedom struggle should evolve, Chesterton writes (I request all my readers to pls read this rather lengthy passage)
“..Suppose an Indian said: "I heartily wish India had always been free from white men and all their works. Every system has its sins: and we prefer our own. There would have been dynastic wars; but I prefer dying in battle to dying in hospital. There would have been despotism; but I prefer one king whom I hardly ever see to a hundred kings regulating my diet and my children. There would have been pestilence; but I would sooner die of the plague than die of toil and vexation in order to avoid the plague. There would have been religious differences dangerous to public peace; but I think religion more important than peace. Life is very short; a man must live somehow and die somewhere; the amount of bodily comfort a peasant gets under your best Republic is not so much more than mine. If you do not like our sort of spiritual comfort, we never asked you to. Go, and leave us with it." Suppose an Indian said that, I should call him an Indian Nationalist, or, at least, an authentic Indian, and I think it would be very hard to answer him. But the Indian Nationalists whose works I have read simply say with ever-increasing excitability, "Give me a ballot-box. Provide me with a Ministerial dispatch-box. Hand me over the Lord Chancellor's wig. I have a natural right to be Prime Minister. I have a heaven-born claim to introduce a Budget. My soul is starved if I am excluded from the Editorship of the Daily Mail," or words to that effect…”
This is Chesterton at his best. Only he could write with such wit, acute observation and brilliant prose. When Gandhi read this article before he boarded his train, his intellect was challenged and fired, he understood the futility of fighting the British with their own weapons. Gandhi’s book, Hind Swaraj or Home rule, read in the light of Chesterton’s essay, looks like a crystallization of what Chesterton wrote with such effortless ease and wit to make a few dollars for a living writing to meet a newspaper deadline.
Taking nothing away from Gandhi’s vision, he was able to transform the texture of Indian freedom struggle through that single book. When he landed in India on the advice of senior Indian leaders to lead the struggle, almost all members of the freedom movement struggle had read, and was inspired by what Gandhi had summarized in “Hind Swaraj”. They didn't ask him where he got his idea from. What he had written in those pages was the fire that lit the pyre of Colonial rule. Whether it was Chesterton’s ingenious article, or Gandhi’s own thought process that led to Home Rule - it makes no difference. The fact is Gandhi found the right note in continuing with his struggle. And Chesterton may have been the catalyst for that radical change.
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Jottings - slice of life - 171 (Training to help Customers succeed, not to theoretically enable them)

Jottings - slice of life - 171 (Training to help Customers succeed, not to theoretically enable them)
For a development team, inheriting a complex technology platform from its predecessors, nothing can be of greater help than a Training session which helps them steady the ship. Especially, in a project that has seen rough weather for months with no respite or direction in sight. It can be quite scary, unnerving for all stakeholders with millions of dollars invested in migration from one technology to another, hawk eyes of senior management watching every decision and move, and team slogging desultorily each day towards successful implementation within stringent time frames. Of course, For hardcore passionate techies, such situations can be exciting and challenging, if taken in the right spirit; but oftentimes, the scale of what needs to be delivered and deadlines are so overwhelming that even the best of them can wilt under pressure and begin to have doubts. It is at such moments, teams cry out for training as last-ditch effort to recoup their pride, salvage some understanding and possibly forge ahead with what they need to do. With all other avenues closed, and no other forum available to vent their doubts and frustration, they walk into a class hoping their instructor is not merely a pedantic, pedagogical teacher who will read from slides, but someone who understands the ground reality of the topic, know the intricacies of implementation, would act as a mentor and guide, and more importantly - able to bring the project on track by addressing critical questions in production environment.
Over the last few years, I have seen this pattern emerge in more and more training assignments. A classic case was my two-day session this week for one the biggest wholesale home improvement companies. Thirty-two participants crowded the classroom from various levels - starting from lead architects to developers and testers. Anxious faces, uncertainty writ large on their faces, and a general sense of trepidation quivered in their eyes. The course I was scheduled to deliver was an advanced course, suitable only for those who understood fundamentals reasonable well. But during first ten minutes of Introduction, it was clear to me that many in the audience were unsure of basics, yet were at a stage in their project, when they couldn’t openly admit it to be so. They had to, however, getting the ball rolling smoothly. By the time, introductions were over, I was clear on the course of action. I closed my presentation, sat down in my chair and said
“Gentlemen, give me a hypothetical use case based on what you are doing. Let’s build a prototype in next two days. In the process, we will learn what needs to be learnt...”
It was a brave decision to take. I was abandoning a structured approach at the risk of jeopardizing a billable engagement. But this is the way I teach classes. So, this approach wasn’t daunting to me. The moment I said that - faces brightened, and within next half hour, a use case was created, and we began working on it. It was fascinating journey. We would spend ten minutes talking about what and why, and I would jump on to my machine to create a skeleton code. Intelligent and agile, as these young men were, within no time, they picked up the essentials and galloped along. Those who wished learn basics, surreptitiously and quietly did so without having to expose their ignorance, and others who knew fundamentals built on what they already knew. It was win- win all the way. By the end of day one, we had nearly half the use case done, and the next day was the merely icing on the cake. By mid-afternoon - day 2, we had achieved fulfillment of what we had started. It was nothing big or production scale; just a miniature replica on what they were struggling with over last couple of months. There was tremendous feeling of relief and accomplishment of all faces; and a sense of bonhomie and camaraderie replaced, what only a day before ,was filled with doubt, skepticism and mistrust.
As I gathered my things to leave the class on the second day, the tech-lead hurriedly came over and said
“Bala, out IT head wishes to speak to you for few minutes. Would you have some time?
“of course, let’s go” I replied.
He took us up the elevator to the ninth floor, a closely guarded corridor where the high and mighty sit. I was clad in customary Jeans a Polo T-shirt. my standard attire during training workshops. During our way up, he explained that this floor housed the top management. When we reached the floor, An elegant looking secretary ushered us into a spacious room, richly furnished and ornately decorated. It was as if we were entering a sanctum sanctorum. A middle aged, well groomed, geeky looking gentleman rose from his plush chair on the other side of the room, and said
“Hey Bala, glad you could come up. Just wanted to appreciate your tremendous session last two days. I understand you broke all conventions of trainings and helped them do what they have been trying to do for some months now. I am glad we had you come over. This is how training should be... We will see you soon...”
I smiled, and said nothing in particular, but thanked him for his kind gesture.
In an email last week to us, Our CEO, made an important, but simple statement. He wrote “A loyal relationship with a customer is one where we regularly beat their expectations.”. The key word there is loyal. Loyalty does not mean doing the same thing over and over again without any value addition at all. Loyalty is an evolving relationship, and a customer will begin to notice what we bring to the table only when results from training begin to produce tangible unexpected positive outcomes to them , not otherwise. The reason, why after few years, customers often wish to re-evaluate and change existing relationships is simple because there is no value-add from existing ones. We may be good; but goodness only indicates consistency and meeting agreed and negotiated customer requirements, not exceeding them. To be ahead of the customer requirement, and to agile enough to adapt quickly is the secret sauce in rapidly disruptive digital world. Teachers, Trainers, mentors and facilitators play a lead role in bringing such bleeding-edge transformation.
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Jottings : Slice of life 143 ( Love blossoms - story of a day in the life of the Obamas)

Jottings : Slice of life 143 ( Love blossoms - story of a day in the life of the Obamas)
One of the greatest charms of the White house is the mercurial quality, intensity, stormy personal relationships, great dignity and profound respect its occupants bring to bear upon the ethos of America and elsewhere. In the eyes of the world, The President and the first lady not only represent what America stands for, but more importantly, is a personal testament of love between equals and what it means to occupy the highest office with all its professional demands, and yet remain as human and intimate as possible. This responsibly has always been a heavy cross to bear for most of its illustrious occupants. In its long history of 45 presidents, many love stories are lost in the hustle and bustle of political and social drama surrounding them. Yet, despite that, there are stories of quite a few Presidential couples whose personal relationships have survived the test of time and suffused their own political legacies with an incandescence, which only the warmth and glow of the opposite sex can give. Who could conceive of John Adams, Our second president without his brilliant, devoted and intellectual wife Abigail Adams - whose stimulating letters to her husband during the seminal Philadelphia congress not only sparkle with intellectual vibrancy, but with tremble with rare emotional depth and understanding of her Husband. Who could think of George Washington without Martha - his devoted wife ( a widow from a previous marriage), who refused to attend his inauguration as President because she didn't want him to assume the office, and who refused to attend his funeral because she couldn’t bear to see his active body lying motionless in a state honored coffin; she chose a remain a virtual recluse throughout her remaining life. Who could ever fathom the limitless passion and love Abraham Lincoln had for his controversial wife - Mary Todd Lincoln; or she for him. The gold ring, he quietly slipped into her gentle fingers during an awkward ball room dance was engraved with the words “ Love is eternal”; and it was the same ringed finger he lovingly held in his, during those final moments in the Ford theatre awaiting Booth’s fatal bullet. In modern times, the love between JFK and Jaqueline , though stressed, complicated and often tumultuous, stood the test of his short Presidency and flamboyant persona. She held the shattered skull of her Husband as the bullet went though it, and continued to wear the blood splattered dress for three more days until Lyndon Johnson assumed Presidency - unable to believe and digest that the man she loved was no more and a bright flame and era had ended so abruptly. Bill Clinton may not go down in history as a President who held high standards of sexual morality; but no matter what the world said and wrote of him; his wife Hillary stood by the man. In the worst crisis of his life, he had a strong shoulder to lay upon and possibly cry. In one of the greatest testaments of love Hillary once said with profound emotion “ No matter what happens, I know that Bill loves me very much..” A hard thing for a woman to say, when her husband’s sexual escapade was published in every language and tabloid. But love is mysterious and its roots go very deep.
The long paragraph is only a preamble to the love story between Barrack Obama and Michelle. If one walks through Hyde park, between Dorchester avenue and 53rd Avenue in Chicago, there is now a unobtrusive marker with a pic of the two, which has gained historical interest. This marker was erected in 2012 to commemorate the unbelievable love story of one of the greatest couples ever to have adorned the White house. If ones looks closely and reads the note below, it is a quote from Barrack. It reads
“On our first date, I treated her to the finest ice cream Baskin-Robbins had to offer, our dinner table doubling as the curb. I kissed her, and it tasted like chocolate.”
On a day in the year 1989, when Barrack was interning in a law firm with Michelle, he invited her to attend a community speech he was about to deliver that evening. Both weren't clear if it was a formal date or just professional courtesy. But they went along. During the course of the day, inside Barracks broken car with holes showing the road below, in between his cigarettes, they drove and talked. The necessary hesitance between a conservative girl with strong family ties, and the boy who was more or less self made and independent, began with jerks and starts, slowly transforming itself into intellectual bantering, then into clash of ideologies and opinions, and finally to mutual respect. Its wasn't love or even remotely close to it. It was just a melting of barriers and an openness about each other internal universes. As they drove along the winding roads of south chicago, a dilapidated , neglected part of the city; Michelle, became less defensive, and young handsome Obama’s charm, intelligence and emotional resonance to fundamental issues of inequality and color began to transform her reticence into something more open, tangible and probably long lasting. All this during a single day. As the afternoon approached, Michelle heard Obama deliver his speech to an embittered community of Black Americans. The trademark fluidity, grace, empathy, relaxed oratorical flare captivated the young lady. In a short speech of 30 minutes, Obama soothed flayed nerves, articulated a vision and channel energies into productive directions. All done without a sense of high handedness or superiority. At this point, all the solid walls - Michelle had come equipped to deal with - were visibly crumbling. During the evening, after a couple of drinks, they watched a Spike lee movie together. When the commercially successful “Batman” was showing round the corner, they chose to watch Lee’s “Do the right thing” - a movie about black unrest in Brooklyn, which in years to come would prove one of the finest films Lee ever made before his death. An odd choice of a movie for an young couple, but a conscious choice, perhaps, by Barrack to impress upon his girl that he was willing to embrace new independent ideas. By this time, enough water had flown under the bridge between the two; the customary date kiss to forge the relationship was just an ice cream away. And that kiss happened in front of Baskin Robbins at 53rd street.
In 2016, Richard Tanne made on a movie about this day called “Southside with you”, capturing essential details, infusing his own creative imagination on how it could have happened. The result is a beautiful portrayal of the extraordinary relationship between two extraordinary people. Patrick sawyer play the role of Barrack and Tika Sumpter ( who also co-produced the film) recreates Michelle with great sensitivity. There couldn't have been better choices for the roles. Not only do they manage to physically capture the mannerisms of the Obama’s so very well, but also to subtly project the breaking down of barriers - both intellectual and emotional. At the end of the movie, we definitely get the impression that here is a relationship which promises to have far reaching repercussions. We are shown simmering discontent, vaulting ambition and deep abiding love - all coming together with artistic force. Watch it , if you can. I think it is available on Netflix.
A quick observation before I conclude. Love , as many say, requires time. I dont know if this is true or not; but if it means anything to me, it should certainly transcend chronological time. It is not the length of time in hours and days, but the depth of it. However it is only given to some fortunate people; for love to happen in an transformatory instant lasting a life time, ever renewing and ever intensifying; but for most others, it is merely a name given to a convenient relationship to lived out as amicably as possible for social reasons. Therefore too know somebody for decades, or living together does not necessarily mean love. As the great french author Collette famously wrote “ Love had nothing to do with living together”. Little would have Michelle and Barrack known on that day in 1989, the turn, twists and responsibilities that would assail them in years in come. There was a spark then between them and they trusted that spark. Even today, when you look at picture of both, there is a iridescent element of that wild spark in their eyes as they look at each other with great respect and admiration. In indescribable ways, they seek acknowledgement of their actions through relationship. Eight years in the Whitehouse, has not diminished in the least the quality of that light.
Ultimately Love is not a word given to a static relationship. If it were so, we need to call it “dependency” or “attachment”. Love is a purer term for a relationship which doesn't clip each other’s wings, preserves ones identity and yet transcends individuality. Its a rare thing, and Obamas show us what it can look like.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala




Saturday, July 29, 2017

Jottings - Slice of life - 140 ( “Walden”, by Thoreau - pronounced as “thurrow” - 1817-1862 )

Jottings - Slice of life - 140 ( “Walden”, by Thoreau - pronounced as “thurrow” - 1817-1862 )
At the dawn of American history, in early 19th century, two important men chartered the course of American soul, as it were : Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. While Emerson went beyond the pulpit and raised the American mind to a new form of transcendental individualism in which the Christian god of Pilgrim fathers gave way to a subtler and more eastern spirit of universalism ; Thoreau was the ever practical and enterprise driven American soul who was quickly disillusioned at the direction his fellow citizens were embarking upon in the new found freedom of this great nation. Emerson, left his vocation as a stirring pastor, converted his lectures to full length essays in sublime prose, which reverberate even today in university halls and intellectual podiums as living testimony to courageous, free thinking and self reliant man ; Thoreau, on the other hand - a Harvard graduate, a lawyer, an agriculturist, a self proclaimed poet, tutor to Emerson’s nephews and sons; at roughly around 22 years of age chose to retire into quiet countryside alongside Walden pond in Concord, Massachusetts, building for himself a hut with minimal comforts; lived there for two and half years as an experiment to discover what it takes to live a simple life without the encumbrances and frenzy of make a living. While Emerson’s erudite essays sparkles with learning, wit, originality and purple prose, Thoreau wrote his “Walden” - again a book of essays in matter of fact style , only occasionally slipping into sublime prose , captured his singular experience living alone with nature alongside Walden pond: cooking, farming, reading and writing. He wrote this book over a period of eight years - editing, correcting, rewriting - until the book transcended his existential experiment, and assumed a life of its own. When it was first published in 1852, nobody took notice of it. But slowly, when young America began to question its conscience on whether the promise and intent of its Pilgrim fathers were achieved, and whether the direction they had taken as a country was really the right one - then Walden came to their rescue with its essential wisdom and stunning simplicity . It revealed a nuance to living which was fast being forgotten or overwhelmed by industry and commerce. Men were becoming acquisitive and desperate. Walden was written partly as a journal and partly as a slap on the face of a country which even though had found its political freedom from England, had pitifully lost its inner freedom to unbridled and relentless pursuit of commerce and industry. Its citizens created wealth aplenty, but most men were psychologically burdened, wounded and in chains of debt and slavery. Through Walden, in series of essays, Thoreau revealed this festering wound with all its overflowing pus and inflammation, hoping that some of his country men would retrace their steps to a saner and simpler way of living. It is coincidental ( but not for Thoreau) that the day he stepped into his newly built hut was July 4th of 1845. The irony it was American independence day was obviously lost on him, not because he didn't care, but because those were early days and July 4th did not have the kind of importance and fanfare it came to assume later. So, when America celebrated its outer freedom, Thoreau stepped into his humble hut to experience his inner freedom. And out of that experience “Walden”, the book was born
2017 is the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth. Around half a dozen books on Thoreau have been published this year, about his life, his work, his philosophy, his political views and much more. “Walden” itself, has been reissued by many renowned publishing houses to commemorate his life. Some of them beautifully annotated. Among the few books I carry on my kindle “Walden” is one of them. I dip into it every now and then, like a scripture. To a Human mind, some questions are eternally fresh, no matter who asks them and when. Questions, such as : What does Man need to live a happy and contented life; what is his relationship to nature and world around; how much does a man materially need to live a healthy life - These are questions speculated upon in every conceivable metaphysical system. And there are enough answers to satisfy everyone. But all of us know that only answers which come from a man who has audaciously applied his understanding to actually living it, will ring truer than those for whom such questions were merely passings distractions. Thoreau lived his life in accordance with what he thought. It is this honesty and integrity of the man that strikes a reader of walden. The simple prose which comes directly from the heart strikes at the root of our selfish and confused living. We find ourselves unconsciously nodding with Thoreau as we read striking passages in Walden - one after the other after in swelling succession. For instance, when he talks about human needs, he writes:
“By the words, necessary of life, I mean whatever, of all that man obtains by his own exertions…. or from long use has become, so important to human life that few, if any, whether from savageness, or poverty, or philosophy, ever attempt to do without it..”
or when he writes about why he chose to live in the woods:
“I went to the wood because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…”
or when he expands on the splendor of rural life:
“Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness..”
or when he writes about the superfluous luxuries accumulated in our lives
“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hinderances to the elevation of mankind…”
Like these gems, in page after page Thoreau words penetrate deep into our hearts. Walden is not a book that can read as a piece of fiction or at one go. It is a book, that needs to nibbled, chewed and digested well in small doses. It is a book to keep besides ones bed, and a page or two read first thing in the morning, or last thing before going to bed. The power of his observations, his tactile awareness, leaves a beautiful residue in our minds. which slowly percolates into daily action. Especially, in the modern era, with some many external contraptions and machines dominating and chaining human life, his words and thoughts come as a breath of fresh, balmy air. For at least an instant, through the prism of Thoreau’s thoughts, we glimpse at the madness of our own lives. It is that taste of immortality and freedom great books, music, painting or any art is known to give. They open our habit ridden minds a little, and through that minuscule opening, we instantly perceive a deeper meaning to life and living.
It is also worth pointing out for my young readers that civil disobedience , or non-violent dissent as a means of political change was voiced for the first time in Thoreau’s writings. In an essay published in 1849 titled “Civil disobedience” Thoreau eloquently argued against slavery and America’s war against Mexico. In that remarkable essay, in one of the greatest passages ever written on Polity and man’s place in it, he writes
“.. the State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest…”
It were these very words that inspired the Gandhi’s, the Martin’s Luther Kings’s, and the Nelson Mandela’s of modern times to stand against unjust laws and institutions with courage and inner fortitude. All of them had Thoreau works in their bookshelves.
In a way, Henry David Thoreau now belongs to the world and not just America. He lived for 44 years, but he lived his life based what he thought, felt and wrote. There was an integrity to his existence which all of us consciously or unconsciously seek. It is nearly 200 years since Walden was published, and his words are more relevant today than when he wrote it. However, two centuries of industrialization has radically changed Human civilization. We are far away from Thoreau's world. One wonders, if it is at all possible to revert to our roots, as Thoreau passionately wished us to. Can we live without our extensions - the mobile phone, the computer, the jets, the innumerable contrivances we have surrounded ourselves with. Can we live alone as just one more species on this earth without complicating our lives morally, physically and economically. Can we ever be satisfied with our ever growing wants, and learn to say enough? Can we ask basic questions about our identity and purpose in this universe and arrive at original answers and follow dogmas?
All these seem remote to us. Not surprising. After all, Our measure of success is dubiously based on parameters which has nothing to do with life and nature. We run with panting breath towards a horizon, which we ironically know, to be always receding and can never be touched. Such is the madness and dilemma of modern man. Reading Thoreau in his 200th birth year may after all be a good thing, a panacea, an ambrosia for tired bodies and minds. There is an outside chance that our younger generation may get inspired and radically change directions. If that ever happens, then the experiment Thoreau began on 4th of July 1845 would not have been in vain.
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Monday, June 26, 2017

Jottings - Slice of Life - 132 ( Dangal - exquisite craftsmanship and brilliant performances)

Jottings - Slice of Life - 132 ( Dangal - exquisite craftsmanship and brilliant performances)
My favorite critic and Journalist of Newyorker Magazine , Anthony lane, had a simple rule to write about films. In his own inimitable style, he writes “ ..Whenever possible , pass sentence on a movie the day after it comes out. Otherwise , wait fifty years. Films are most plausibly assessed in the heat of the moment or with the icy advantage of the long gaze; anything in between is hedging ones bets..” I cannot agree more. But unlike Lane’s recommendation I cannot wait for fifty more years to write about one of the finest films, and extraordinary performance of Aamir khan in Dangal. It is true, I consciously deferred watching this movie when it came out last year. My friends, coworkers and every casual acquaintance I had a chance to bump into raved about the story, its intense portal of feminine power and the aura of patriotism which suffused it. But as Indians in a foreign country, sometimes we overdo this patriotism gig, and I politely ignored all earnest pleas to watch Dangal for that reason. One fact I was certain of though, and that is, an Aamir khan movie cannot get just be run of the mill stuff. It was certain to contain committed art in it, and Aamir himself would have given nothing less than hundred percent of himself and his talent to the movie.
The heroic story of a aging Wrestler fulfilling his dream of winning a gold medal through his daughters, is no doubt a fantasy come true. We really did have Babita and Geeta perform that extraordinary act in 2012; but what is even more amazing is how such an incredible and intense tale of success and determination in wrestling - a sport that does not often get as much attention as it deserves in the media, caught the perceptive eye of Creative director Divya rao of Walt Disney productions. Like talented and knowledgable publishers who know where success in authorship lies when they read a written page, people who head movie production houses must have a subliminal instinct on which stories can be told on screen, and how and who can tell them effectively and with conviction. When Divya read this small piece about Mahaveer Singh Phogat and his dream in the paper, she knew she had a great story and screenplay in hand, and she set the gears of production machinery rolling. The result is Dangal. The name Divya rao may not resound in public domain when the success of Dangal is recounted , but without her spot-on instinct and ability to convince a host of creative people that this idea is worth capturing on screen, Dangal may have never been made - at least not in the way it finally shaped up. To that extent, she and Walt Disney deserves credit for doing their job doing well.
My first impression after I finished watching Dangal is one of immense aesthetic satisfaction. A satisfaction that comes from seeing a flawless execution of a predictable theme. Every frame spoke of careful lighting, thoughtful arrangement of sets, great supporting cast, and a screenplay which peeled the story layer by layer without losing grip till the very end, when it floundered a little to accommodate a traditional cinematic climax. That is excusable. After Clint Eastwood’s “million dollar baby”, I havent seen a movie where a fighting sport (especially featuring Women) was so realistically captured on screen. Never for a moment did I get the impression that people were aimlessly fighting or going through half hearted motions of cinematic stunt; every action sequence gave us a ring side view of “wrestling”, its artistry and subtle nuances. The central theme of the film, for me at least, was not patriotism or gender struggle. While those are definitely individual tiles on the broader mosaic of the tale, the main theme of Dangal is Wrestling as a sport, and the discipline it takes to becomes a great wrestler. Gender doesn't matter. Like martial arts, Wrestling is a psychological exercise and anyone with right frame of mind and good technique, and educated instincts can rise above the ordinary. However, within the context of India or China ( where the film did unbelievably well at box office), Dangal may still appeal as a voice of female emancipation, patriotism and love for motherland in a predominantly patriarchal society - a theme Indians are very passionate about and which I thought was exhausted in “Chak de” and couldn't be bettered; but from the larger perspective of Movies as an art form, where Dangal succeeds, is in its picture perfect rendition of the ancient sport of Wrestling, a sport which looks clumsy at first to an untrained eye, but has enough grace, finesse, strength, strategy and spontaneity to rank among the most difficult and entertaining of sporting duels. In Dangal, Director Nitesh Tiwari captures its beauty through the eyes of two smart girls, who train and discipline themselves under a strict and admirable father.
There are very few actors of who I am in awe. Aamir is certainly one of them. From his early days of wavy haired, guitar wielding, innocent looking college boy who lip synced to the lilting tune of “Papa kahte hai bada naam karega..” to the intensity, manliness ,maturity and complete immersiveness in the role of the Patriarch Mahaveer Singh Phogat - is a study in artistic progression, commitment to art and stern determination to keep reaching higher and higher and not fall prey to the disease of complacency. A great performance is one where audience lose track of the person playing the role, and start seeing the character portrayed as a real person. Not many actors can achieve it. Some do in certain movies, but nobody in recent times has done it as consistently as Aamir. In Dangal, Aamir Khan, the man, the hero rarely surfaces. It is Mahaveer, the determined father, who dances in front of our eyes. What is commendable is not merely Aamir’s physical rigor and discipline in conditioning himself, but the sheer imaginative scope of the character he brings on his face. His intense stare can literally bore a hole through the wall. Performances like these should make textbook study for young actors in Film institutes across the world. Its worth studying. As his Wrestling daughters, the young and talented girls (Fatima and Sana) shine and sizzle, and never once does Aamir steal the thunder from them. Like a wall he supports their incredible performance, and lends the story its true heroines, as he quietly basks in their glory.
There is common criticism of Aamir, that he disregards the movie industry, he is arrogant, does not attend award ceremonies( though they are compelled to give him all the awards he deserves) and so on. I am not surprised. If Aamir needs to continue acting, producing and making movies that redefine Cinematic excellence in India, he cannot afford to mix with the mundane. True artists are essentially lonely people. The Gurudutts, the Meena Kumari’s, the Sanjeev Kumar’s could not survive in a celluloid world inundated with superficiality, and we know what they did to themselves. Aamir keeps a benign, spiritual detachment from mainstream, which allows him the artistic liberty and resources needed to realize his artistic vision. After kamal Hassan, he is the only actor who can dare to make a movie and force his audience to watch, appreciate and learn. There may be failures along his way. It is inevitable. When one walks the razors edge, as Aamir often does, one is bound to slip and slide; but the joy lies in keeping at it and experience the creative adrenaline rush through the veins.
In an introduction to his collection of essays that came out in 2000, Anthony Lane makes a poignant observation on movie making. He writes ( I paraphrase) “ ..Movie makers are never tired of keeping their fingers out of Cinema’s deepest and most promising pockets, the wallet and the heart. Whatever humans do on film, they do it for love or money…” To extend Lane’s acute observation a little, few film makers and actors are fortunate to make movies on both accounts - love and money; Love first, money later. The phenomenal commercial success of Dangal only shows that good movies do not need six years in the making, 100’s of millions in special effects, or international promos . All it needs is great performance, a simple tale told with conviction, commitment and honesty.
In conclusion, one more effulgent feather in Aamir’s cap, and a standing applause to the hearts, brains and resources behind Dangal..
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Jottings - Slice of life - 129 ( Rafa’s immortality, and the poignant absence of a great Journalist to celebrate the ecstatic moment)

Jottings - Slice of life - 129 ( Rafa’s immortality, and the poignant absence of a great Journalist to celebrate the ecstatic moment)
Some sporting events and statistics are ethereal. As the word suggests - it is not of this world, but belongs to a sphere far away from the range, aptitude and grasp of ordinary mortals.How else would we assess Aussie cricketeer Don Bradman’s almost unbelievable batting average of 99.94, or mercurial Squash player Jahangir khan’s incredible winning streak of 555 tournaments between 1981-86 without missing a single game for any reason whatsoever, or Edwin Moses deer like agility, grace and speed that led him to win 122 straight races without ever touching a hurdle enroute, before his 123rd race - when in the last 50 meters, his left toe gently scraped against the top bar of the last hurdle ever so lightly causing it to sway a little by its impact only to regain balance - as a breathless audience watched Moses complete one more historic sprint, or Baby Ruth’s unbelievable 40 Home runs in 11 consecutive seasons of Baseball, a feat that baffles baseball pundits even today; and now Rafael Nadal’s ten French open Men singles titles - an achievement unlikely to be surpassed for generations to come, unless the nature of tennis changes, or it somehow becomes easier to play this beautiful game on hard clay courts - a surface on which an athlete needs the highest levels of talent, physical strength, stamina, precision and endurance to battle consistently over long periods of time.
We are blessed as a generation to have grown up watching two of the greatest tennis players - Roger and Rafa - to have graced the tennis court, after Borg and McEnroe enthralled us with their magic in the 1980’s. While Roger epitomizes the skill, grace and poise tennis can ever reach, Rafa personifies grit, determination and indomitable spirit the game has ever seen. Between them, there is nothing much to choose. As a puritan, when both play against each other, my heart would often go out to Roger, secretly urging, praying he could make that delectable pass , classic crosscourt or impeccable down the line shot to break the iron wall of Rafa; but my intellect would scoff and smile at such a suggestion. How could Rafa not reach the ball? How could Rafa not turn a seemingly lost point into a winner from nowhere? It was always a battle between the heart and the mind; and more often than not mind would threaten to win, unless Roger played near perfect tennis, or could come up with something magical.
On clay courts, Rafa’s skill is unmatched. Only in those tournaments, where he chose to abdicate his throne for reasons of health or otherwise, others have won. So it has been for nearly two decades . Even yesterday, at the old age of thirty two (can you believe it, Rafa is only 32), battling injuries and not half as good as we known him to be be, his young opponent full of energy and talent in a French open finals was absolutely no match. It was one sided game, almost a surprisingly pleasant cruise for Nadal into history books and unto posterity.
I wish my favorite Sportswriter Nirmal Shekar was alive to write about Nadal’s achievement. In the last thirty years, Shekar’s peerless prose, incisive understanding of sportsmen and what drives them to greatness and daring, his ability to place sport and its heroes and heroines in the larger context of human life and culture, has in a way been my own inspiration to write as I do. He died peacefully at the age of 60 in February this year. There was not a sport that Nirmal shekar could not touch and write about with authority and grace. His deep knowledge of literature and Western Philosophy allowed his essays to sparkle and go beyond the ordinary to lift achievements in sport into rarified spheres of adulation and honor - granting them immortality in words in their respective arenas. Writing an essay on the racing genius Ayrton senna after his tragic death on the track in 2004. Nirmal shekar wrote, as only he could write:
“..It is almost a sacrilege to speak of records and statistics in a tribute to the Brazilian genius. For records were as irrelevant and insignificant to Senna as mystical powers are to a saint. His motivation was more spiritual than sporting…”
or when he wrote of Mohammad Ali,
“..At his peak, and for much longer, death was the last thing you thought of while talking about Ali. But this much is sure. Whatever course sport takes in the future, the legend of Ali will live on as long as civilization, as we know it, does.”
I will miss his writing , and so will readers all over the world who value prose in whatever style it appears. During his lifetime, Nirmal shekar found time to write only one complete book. That was about the famous tennis family from South india - Ramanathan and Ramesh Krishnan. A sumptuous book written with clarity, style and wit in his lucid prose. He didn't have to write many more books. After all, each essay he crafted week after week for newspapers and magazines he worked for, is in itself a study in how sports journalism should strive to be, and how good prose should be written. If one were to compile all his essays written over four decades and issue it in book form, it should be more than sufficient to grant him a permanent place among the greatest columnists, writers and commentators of his generation anywhere in the world.
On January 28th, in his last piece for his favorite paper, he concluded his essay, for the last time, with the following words
“…. the truth is, nothing may be forever – except perhaps Bradman’s Test batting average of 99.94 – immune to evolution. And, sport is no exception..”
Yes Nirmal Shekar, I agree.. Nothing may be forever, but your passionate prose sure will.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala

Monday, June 5, 2017

Jottings - Slice of life - 125 ( Rites of Initiation - few thoughts on Upanayanam, the sacred thread ceremony )

Jottings - Slice of life - 125 ( Rites of Initiation - few thoughts on Upanayanam, the sacred thread ceremony )
The biggest loss of Modern generation is their complete severance from the experience of catharsis and growth - by way of actualizing timeless myths in the form of rituals and initiatory rites in our daily lives. Traditional rites of initiation, which played a huge role in shaping individuals to fit into society, have become more of a formality completed without any understanding of what they mean, why they are enacted, and what are they supposed to achieve. After all, the age of modernity for all its talk of progress is one riddled with fear. We enact inherited rituals, visit temples, try to follow social traditions - not because we know why; but because we are afraid what would happen if we dont do so. We may argue and talk intellectually about the non-existence of God or an afterlife or argue about traditions, but deep down we are unsure, and would like to keep our personal gods appeased, in case there is need for hypothetical intervention later on. Our attitude towards myths and rituals are mechanical; more out of sense of professional and social duty than a meaningful exposition and enactment of it. Neither the performer, sponsors of the performance, or the beneficiaries of the performance know the reasons and meaning behind the social act and mythological rituals. This attitude is not specific to one society or religious sect in particular. It is a fact of every society . From Christian catechisms, to Muslim namaz, to Hindu rites of passage, to Jewish mitzvah - there is a strange confusion and a mechanized approach to traditions stripped of all its meaning and relevance. What we observe is the shell, the kernel is missing ,lost, or in my opinion - ignored.
The Human child is not equipped naturally to grow up psychologically into an adult. Physically, body grows, but unless society intervenes to educate and channelize his energies, he will forever remain a muted child in the garb of an adult, or worse ambiguous about his own self.. He therefore has to be taught, transformed, made to find his own bearings, and then let loose in the world. It is for the community in which he is born and bought up to prepare and pave the way for that kind of transformation. From the dawn of Human civilization, we find records of innumerable traditions and rituals from such transformatory rites. Scholars who spend a life time studying mythology are astounded to find the same underlying stories, similar rituals and drama, exact representations of Local Gods and Goddesses in different ages and cultures permeating through specific initiatory rites, even though it is geographically impossible for them to have cross fertilized each other. Elaborate rituals from birth to death were found necessary to gracefully, or sometimes forcefully, change the human child from one stage of existence to another. After suckling at his mothers breast for years, and living in her embrace and love , not knowing the travails and complexities that await him; the young boy or girl needs to be ceremonially pulled away from maternal and paternal care, transformed into an adult to fulfill the social need and position. It cannot be done overnight or by mere dialogue. It has to be community event with elaborate rituals and incantations to invoke an breathless atmosphere of change. Fires are started, blood flows sometimes, totems are raised, ablutions are poured, costumes and masks are changed, rechristening of names happen- and many more such props and acts are required to make that transition. Some initiation go on for months, some for few days to hours.The length of time doesn't matter; but the intent, purpose and atmosphere does.
In the Hindu Brahmanic tradition, young boys at the age of seven or eight are initiated into a period of deep introspective study. Brahmins are indicative of those individuals in society whose social duty it was to keep rest of community anchored to the truth about oneself without getting lost in the roles they play. In order to do that, they must know, understand and experience the truth for themselves firsthand. The rite of passage for this inward journey is called “Upanayanam”. A beautiful Sanskrit term , which means “ Seeing something very near” . In Hindu mystical tradition, the closest to you is your own sense of being, or atman or God. Hence Upanayanam is turning the young boy, who has just learned how to read and write, to turn his gaze inward. It is extraordinary why boys have to go through this process so very young. If you think of it, the greatest impediment to knowing oneself is our own fragmented ideas about who we are, which we gather over years through books, dialogues, family, social positions and hearsay. However, at the age of seven, the boy’s brain is virgin territory, and with his new found skill of reading and writing, he can use words are quick symbols to reality and not get lost in words about words. The more one knows, the more unlearning is required. Also, at seven the intimations of sexuality is very minimum which makes it easy to focus energy without any real context for dissipation. That is why the tradition catches them young. Its a three day rite filled with meaning and purpose. The boy is gently taken away away from his parents and turned into a mendicant devoted to learning for twelve years. He is given a sacred thread worn from left to right with three cotton threads, indicative of three states of consciousness - waking, dream and sleep, and later on when he goes back to society, gets married, the symbol is changed to six threads - adding three more to inform the world he has a lawful wife now, and she shares in his passion and commitment to serve as torchbearers of inner life and living. During “Upanayanam” numerous esoteric phrases are fed in secrecy into the young boys ears, both from the parents and the Guru, the teacher. It is unlikely the boy will understand anything at all. But it doesn't matter, like a piece of chemical which can act as a catalyst when the environment is right, these words will help coagulate the chattering brain into singular quietude when the moment is ripe. It is not a guarantee, but an invitation. A communal hall is chosen for this rite of initiation. Almost everyone in the community is invited to witness the transformation of the young child into a student. His status changes dramatically. When the ceremony begins, he is welcomed into the hall as a child, but when he goes out of it , he is a seeker in search of truth along with his guru. A beautiful moment - tearful parents bid farewell to the kid they so dearly loved and cuddled, and at the same time they are proud he is embarking on a journey so profound and deep. When he comes back after his tutelage, he will ready to serve his role in society.
I have condensed a scientific and meaningful ritual into a single paragraph. But in its actual execution , there are many nuances to it which create an aura of sacredness indispensable for such an undertaking. Even today, in brahmin communities Upanayanam is a mandatory ritual. But like everything else, it is just a formality and nothing more. Its become more of an an occasion for a family get together, or a tradition that is grudgingly fulfilled. Nothing wrong, but to call it “Upanayanam” in sense it was intended to mean is to dilute thousands of years of refinement and thought. But, as some would say, something is better than nothing. When roots are cut, whatever remains will continue to sprout in its own little way.
In many forums over the years, I have heard Rituals being laughed at, or spoken of as formality to be completed, or worse still derided. Personally, I don't participate in rituals anymore, because I dont see the sanctity and intent in the performance of it. But I am deeply convinced that each ritual is well thought out, orchestrated, controlled expression of a cosmic necessity couched as myth; and in their enactment the human psyche, if one has the capacity to sufficiently, truthfully and meaningfully immerse in it, can take an individual from one level of understanding to another.
God bless..
Yours in mortality,
Bala