Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The virtue of passion..

Martin Luther king Jr, the celebrated Civil rights activist is known throughout the civilized world for his historic “I have a dream…” address, delivered on August 28th 1963, against the majestic backdrop of Lincoln memorial to more than tens of thousands of citizens who stood along Capitol hill, awestruck, inspired and transformed by the passion and intensity that those simple words evoked, when they gushed forth from the deep throated southern voice of Dr king. It is an exhortation that ranks amongst the most celebrated orations in recorded Human history, and without any question of doubt, galvanized an entire nation, nay - the whole of Mankind to rise above divisions based on skin and color and to strive to create an egalitarian society. But to me, personally, there is one more speech, or more of a sermon rather, delivered in a small Baptist church in Chicago that is closer to my heart. It resonates even more truly of the spiritual dimension and kind of Man Dr King really was. Listen to these electric sentences as these issued from the lips of this God inspired man:

‘What I’m saying to you this morning, my friends, even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; (Go ahead) sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”

If you can’t be a pine on the top of a hill
Be a scrub in the valley—but be
The best little scrub on the side of the hill,

Be a bush if you can’t be a tree.
If you can’t be a highway just be a trail
If you can’t be the sun be a star;
It isn’t by size that you win or fail—

Be the best of whatever you are.
And when you do this, when you do this, you’ve mastered the length of life. (Yes)’

There cannot be a more truthful utterance than these powerful, heartfelt words. Life is all about passion about one’s vocation. The part, the role that one chooses is to be performed with aplomb, excellence, and an involvement that is not enforced, but realized in the depths within.. Interestingly, the etymological Latin root of the word “passion” is suffering, or to suffer. It is the kind of inward pain that one feels when we have pushed ourselves to exceed boundaries. Like the lingering pain and sourness in our muscles, when we manage to sneak in a few more minutes at the tread mill, or stretch that extra yard during a swim - passion is a painful sense of bliss that wells up within us, far surpassing any actual outcome of the task itself. Christian theology symbolizes the crucifixion of Jesus as a passionate endurance of immense redemptive pain, or the myriad epics across cultures depict their heroes, heroines and villains as passionate beings who give everything they have in love, hate, sex, jealousy or war. Every act is a celebration - a complete obedience to one’s nature… In fact, the division of labor into castes was based on this principle, and not with the any subversive idea. Plato’s Republic, the utopia for the world - was conceived along these same lines as well. These structures of Communal living were born out of a deep understanding that society is dependent on each individual’s contribution to it. Just as we cannot have ‘absolute” Good, without the notion of “absolute” evil, so much so, every occupation has an intrinsic place in Man’s social life juxtaposed with each other. These roles and vocations are as Joseph Campbell beautifully phrases it - “The masks of God”, and it is the goal of every mystical religion to make man understand this abiding truth, that these roles need only be played ‘sincerely’, and not seriously. Because, the moment we become serious, we confuse roles with the person playing it, and thus is born the unfolding catastrophe of ideological warfare that is likely to bring man to the brink of annihilation.

Well, the genesis of this ruminative essay was born out of my conversation with a cab driver, who drove me to Denver airport last week. He was a middle aged Moroccan Muslim: A thin man, with fair complexion and dark penetrating eyes. He was at the Hotel lobby, 10 p.m. – on the dot… Apparently, he had just finished his fast (Its ramzan time…) and had rushed to pick me up. He was profusely apologetic that he couldn't come ten minutes earlier, which I believe, he usually does. Throughout my ride, he spoke with me with an interest, an enthusiasm, a passion about the vocation of cab driving – that held me in his thrall. He said, he considered it his scared duty to ply people from one place to another, and he could not bear to see anyone uncomfortable in his car. He was very articulate, and I learnt that he was cargo manager with a major airline, before 9/11 changed everything for him. I could not but feel that he was genuine in his emotions, and when he dropped me at the terminal, I asked him the fare. He said something very profound to me “Sir, Money is a not a measure of service, it is but a byproduct. I know the meter says eighty odd dollars, but I would accept whatever you wish to pay. I would only want you to come back and give me another opportunity to serve you more...” I was transfixed, and of course, paid him the actual fare. He waited for me to get into the terminal, then got back to his car, waved and drove away with a warm smile, guileless smile on his face…

Here was a man who loved what he was doing. God bless his creed……

God bless…

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

God - an investigation - Part 8 - Advaita - an uncertain state of being..

“Advaita” is a beautiful word:  Its esoteric meaning indicating a precarious sense of Non-duality, a kind of dialectic cul-de-sac that points to nowhere. The Hindu mystics coined this term realizing early in their introspective adventure that the Universe will remain a composition of polar opposites, only as long as one continues to verbalize and pigeon-hole experiences – otherwise all that it is:  is merely a continuum that oscillates between being and non-being: like music- which in its essence, is a delicate, intangible flow of absorbing silences interspersed with accentuating noises. One without the other cannot exist, and the Human ear needs to hear those “silences” as much as those noises in-between to recreate the magic within the brain. Our ‘core self’ abstracts the minutiae of this process of Silence/Noise from the lens of consciousness, and coalesces discrete pieces of experience into a wholesome flow, which we know and admire as Music. The funny thing though is that neuroscience has categorically proved that there is no single unifying agent within the body that’s stitches together this seamless reality for us. It seems to be manifestation born out of a confluence of many different parts of the Human organism and its environment. Though, we would like to believe that there is a singular entity within us that inhabits this body and governs its destiny. In reality, Neither Science not Religion (in its true sense) actually advocates or pursues this idea. The notion of a 'self' as a pattern- oscillating within a certain degree of uncertainty, depends upon the level of its magnification. Just as, when our blood stream is observed under the powerful glare of a microscope, we see a million cells and microbes jostling, pushing, and devouring each other. And if one were forced to take sides, we would definitely want certain micro –organisms to win against others. At a higher level of abstraction, it is an insane position to take; because it is this very “warfare” that keeps the organism alive and kicking. So it is with everything else. Nothing is certain and static. If at all, anything can be considered as constant, it is the pattern that life and living exhibits, which leads to a sense of a “core self”. The moment we put our finger to it, it disappears like a mirage, receding forever from the net of conceptualization. Hence the sages were reluctant to call it “Ekam” or oneness. Because, when we posit a “one”, then its polar opposite of the second is born, and so on ad-infinitum. So, all that they wanted to indicate is its state of ambiguity – “A cloud of unknowing”, as a medieval Christian text describes this condition; where pathways of intellectualization ends, and intelligence is born.

Advaita, then is symbol of “That”, which essentially cannot be pointed to. Very significantly, the portion of the Vedas that deal with this inner conundrum is almost towards the end of it. After a long tirade of liturgies, rituals and theologies that abound in the four books of Vedas, the verses of the Upanishads that contains this non-dual philosophy (Advaita) is an abrupt break, a paradigm shift, a quantum leap into a qualitatively different dimension. The stark poetry of its verses, the austere cadence of its utterances seem to be a pivotal point in Human intellectual history. The concept and awe of a heavenly Godhead seemed to give way to a participatory dance of creation and destruction, where Man realizes his role as a spectator, and an actor at the same time - A diaphanous state of being.

Interestingly, the Upanishadic dialogues does not impose this idea on its listeners. Oftentimes, one would find that the master take a young student on long winding, hair-splitting journey of discursive reasoning and logic - chiding him, pushing him to exercise his intellect as sharply as he can; before giving him the news that all this mental jugglery is of utterly no use whatsoever in the search within. The intense reasoning folds into itself, just as the restless waves of the ocean merge into still waters. And in that split moment of conscious indecision, the individual breaks into a new dimension of awareness. The Japanese call this experience “Satori”, or the Chinese “wu”.

Another important insight of Vedanta offers is that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the world. The restless struggle of the individual to make sense of this seemingly mad state of affairs is merely an illusion, a mirror tainted by dust. Contrary to educated opinion, this is not a fatalistic position to take, but a deeply factual truth that is difficult to digest. Social theorists may argue that such a viewpoint ridicules the tremendous improvement made by man over millennia, and calling them illusory only makes a mockery of Human progress. Well, the point is, none would want to deny material prosperity achieved, but to call it growth or progress is merely a Human idea or concept, and may not necessarily be true in the cosmic scale of measurement. The fundamental question that Advaita then posits is: “Who is this ‘I’ that strives so hard”, and any serious inquiry into this “Koan” or intellectual puzzle, will keep receding like a mirage until the very question becomes futile; and in the wake of such futility shatters all claims to our megalomaniacal attachment of bettering the world. However, this is not to say that we should not be making the effort at all. In fact in one of the stunning commentaries on Vedanta, The Bhagavad Gita – The master categorically states that one cannot remain inactive even for an infinitesimal moment, but let’s not take it too seriously that it spoils the fun of it. It is in this context, Vedanta uses the term “Maya” - to denote a state of play, a game.

So, the term “Advaita” denotes an uncertainty, a conclusion-less movement of life. And once, we understand the deep import of not having answers to every question; to be able to revel in a state of childlike acceptance of whatever happens; not strive to pull ourselves up by tugging at our bootstraps; begin to intuit the essential wriggly nature of this Universe that lies outside the trappings of categories or symbols – then this timeless wisdom codified in our Upanishads begin to make sense and an abiding peace descends on our restless souls – weary and tired from the hustle and bustle of existential paradoxes.

God bless…

Friday, July 18, 2014

The banality of Penal execution. "Dead Man walking" - a touching commentary...

When Death row prisoners are taken on their last solitary walk in chains to the Gas chamber, the guards accompanying them shout aloud: “Dead Man walking…, Dead Man walking….” No one is clear on the origins of this ritual, but it is one of those chants that linger thick in the air, reverberating across lonely steeled corridors, reminding all inmates who lurk in their lonely cells counting their days, hours and minutes - that the end is near. Society has deemed them unfit to live anymore in their midst, and they wait: handcuffed, tied, emotionally drained, physically emaciated, intellectually paralyzed; and, in most cases, bemoaning their destiny and banishment -with an unspoken dread of complete annihilation that they imminently face.

The Moral issues of ritually preparing a man for slaughter, over a period of months, or even years; and the agony of having an audience watch the sordid show with a Sandwich and Soda in hand and a gleam of satisfaction in their eyes the torment and retribution imposed on a social offender – have long been debated by Human rights and Judicial activists. I am sure, there can never be a logically conclusive answer to this question. If I am a bereaving parent, who has lost a teenage daughter or son to a brutality that is unspeakable: then, I may argue that it is justice to see the culprit suffer to death in front of me. But then that raises a question of how is this different from murder? What it takes for a man in a fit of rage or insanity to kill in a moment’s frenzy, is merely rehearsed all over again with clinical precision and studied deliberation in the precincts of execution center. So, which is more “moral” than the other? These are some of the fundamentally ambiguous issues that a “Death penalty” brings in its wake.

It was Norman mailers brilliant novel “The Executioner’s song” published in 1979 that probably, for the first time, bought forth the inner conflict of a death roll candidate. The book was based on the real life of Gilmore, a convicted murderer, who pleaded that he be executed by a firing squad, than go through the laborious appeals process. He found a certain “dignity” in willing to die than face the agony of having to relive the past. Gilmore was one of the first to be judicially executed in 1976.

I, however, started writing this essay after watching the movie “Dead man walking” featuring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon - A role that got her the Academy award. I am normally not affected by films. I watch them with a passive detachment. But this time around, I found myself emotionally moved and carried along to a realm where I became more of a participant, and less a spectator, in the tragic drama that was unfolding on screen. Sean Penn, as the death row candidate; and Susan, as a nun acting at his behest as his spiritual adviser. She brings out the inner essence of the futility in herding a man to his death, when there is nothing remains in him to “die”. The abnormal vengeance of bereaved parents- eating into their souls, cauterizing their existence; consumed by a grief that can only be assuaged by revenge; and the empathy of the Nun, who looks into the tortured soul of the murderer, feeling the pain of his estrangement and the fear of death that looms large in his eyes, bereft of everything else except the chains that bind his legs and arms; never ever going to see feel the sunlight on his skin, or the breeze wafting through his hair; condemned to a prison house that will host him in custody till his body withers and dies a forlorn death… What can be more painful than this painful laceration?

Susan Sarandon’s masterly (almost unbelievable performance…) is an act that goes beyond conventional boundaries of emoting. Her frail countenance, large black eyes gropes deep into us, questioning our attitudes and thinking; her unfinished sentences are answered and completed in the deep recesses of our heart. The deep resonance of her Christian faith in absolving the past - to heal the prisoner and have him accept responsibility for his grievous deeds, without imposing divine sanctions or commandments, but just appealing to his better nature, urging him to feel the anguish caused to others by his irresponsible actions; and finally managing to break through walls of resistance to achieve a recompense that no death can ever bring - is a saga that will echo in me for a long time to come..

Nearly 143 countries across the Globe have removed Death penalty from their law books, and many more are contemplating on the futility of it. But I guess, there will never be a defining end to this debate.

God bless…

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Meryl Streep - Artist extraordinaire..

There comes a time, when words fail; and no more accolades are left to be lavished upon a great artist. It is not sycophancy, or being a mindlessly fanatical admirer of their work; but it is simply the fact that the extraordinary potential in them has broken every barrier, opened all possible doors of creativity, explored every crevice of emotional sensitivity- as if, He or she, was born to fulfill a destiny that was preordained. I am talking about Meryl Streep…

Critics and fans unanimously agree that Streep is the greatest actress alive, but to me, she is probably the greatest actor ever, to have graced the silver screen. Over the last few years, I have nearly watched nearly all her films, and never once have I got the impression that Streep was merely going through the motions of emoting, without getting into the skin of character that she was essaying. The movie may not have been noteworthy, but none could point a finger at her for mediocrity. And to remain in that rarefied plateau of intensity and excellence for decades is nothing short of miracle; and a vivid testimony to Streep’s passion, commitment and inexhaustible talent.

A few weeks ago, I happened to read a remarkable work of fiction by William Styron set in Brooklyn, NY, about the life of a female polish emigrant from Nazi Germany. The book is titled “Sophie’s choice” and was published in 1979. It is a tale of a woman who is forced to make a most terrible choice in a Nazi camp - a choice one way or the other would lead to inevitable emotional turmoil, everlasting pain and an overwhelming sense of suffocating guilt. The poignancy of the tale and its anti-Semitic setting set the public imagination on fire, and very soon the idiom “Sophie’s choice” became a part of English vernacular - to be used, when one is made to choose between impossible choices. The book went on to win the National book award for fiction. Styron was a depressive throughout his life, and his work reflected the darker shades of Human life. His explicit sexual references (some call it profanity...) were controversial, but towards the late eighties, his work began to be recognized for its literary value and incisive study of pathological Human behavior. Well, the point is:  Sophie’s choice was made into a movie in 1982, and who else but Streep was chosen to play the lead character of Sophie. History has it that the original choice for the role was Ursula Andress (remember the famous Bond girl, who blossoms out of undulating waves to meet Bond’s roving eye tarrying over her ample curves), or an actor who had a non- American look that would fit Sophie - but Streep surreptitiously bootlegged a copy of the script (and so enamored was she with it), that she wrenched the key role from Director Alan J

Pakula’s hands, despite his reservations. The artistic demon in her was aroused by the character of Sophie with the immense opportunities it presented to her. It was a just a couple of years ago, that she had won her academy award for “Kramer vs Kramer”, and now she had one more role that offered her a greater challenge, a richer character – to get her creative juices to flow in spate again.

And, what a performance!!!!!!. It was her film from the beginning till the very end. The Camera looming over her face - voraciously capturing the myriad emotions flitting across it. Her almost complete transformation into a Polish √©migr√© grappling with subtleties and difficulties of articulating in an alien English tongue, trying to recount with staggering poignancy the horrifying story at Auschwitz to a fellow boarder and friend; battling a strange love-hate relationship with her neurotic Boyfriend unable to comprehend his inconsistencies ; to have to express her deepest emotions with not enough words in her armory; hence, complementing and juxtaposing speech with intimate and realistic body language that quivers with life in each frame;  – All in all, an act of the highest order.

The role of Sophia won Streep her second Oscar in three years, and her performance is widely regarded as  of the very best in history of Motion pictures. The two and a half hour long movie leaves us dangling in a beleaguered fictional reality that almost seems real and plausible. Her prodigious talent turned a great book into a movie immortal.

The famous Drama critic Gordon Rogoff, one referred to Streep as “... a scholar of emotions, burrowing in the archives for card indexed feelings”. How very true! She has played virtually every kind of role, reinventing herself with age and time. Nineteen Oscar nominations in career is a dream only a few can ever dream, let alone achieve. I am sure, Streep will keep going on. I saw her interview a couple of months in the Ellen DeGeneres show. She looked vibrant, agile and never short of words and opinions. In fact, she had just returned from an African Safari, and Ellen requested Meryl to talk about her experience. And Lo! In an instant, she became the “elephant”, the “Tiger” and all those splendid animals that she had beheld. It was breathtaking to watch her mimic and emote at a moment’s notice. For those few minutes she became them... Such is the iridescence of genius.

So Read, and then watch ‘Sophie’s choice’ - an intellectual and artistic feast…

God bless…

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

John McEnroe - Unfettered Artistry

As I watched Federer play Djokovic yesterday – A Game lasting nearly four and a half hours, my mind began to languorously reminisce about the glorious rivalry that existed between Borg and McEnroe in the seventy and early eighties. My brother and I used to watch recordings of those epic finals in the cosmopolitan club of Coimbatore. Those were days when Television and live broadcasts were a rarity, and all that we had with us to admire were newspaper clippings, and, of course, the articles and center-spreads in Sportstar. There have been many champions who have graced the open era - athletes with great athleticism, tremendous reach, marvelous serves and incredible power; but in my opinion, none matched the dexterity, grace and sheer magic that emanated from the racket of John McEnroe. Yes, he was inconsistent, a spoilt child, a man who could throw tantrums at the flip of a coin, but yet, despite all these inconsistencies, he played the game of tennis at such a sublime level, that very, very few (possibly Federer comes close) have ever touched his scales of mastery of the two thousand odd square feet of a tennis court.

A couple of weeks back, I was watching clips of that unforgettable 1980 Wimbledon final, which Borg went on to win and become the only player then to hold aloft the coveted cup fifth time in a row. But, winning apart, I was palpably lost in the sheer artistry of McEnroe. His movement around the court, the natural flair of a left hander’s ground strokes, his audacious and deft angles that seemed to explore every minute crevice on the other side, the nimble touch that almost would caress the ball with gentle ease at very last moment to drop perilously over the net ,or kiss the sidelines; those marvelous wrists which could turn a 180 degrees to achieve an almost impossible volley - all of these achieved with an aesthetic symmetry of an artist consumed by an energy and passion of a different dimension.

Over the years, I have adored different champions - the Becker’s, the Sampras’s, the Agassi’s, the Nadal’s - but in my mind, McEnroe stands alone and apart. The other important aspect of his career is the commitment and zeal with which he played the Davis cup, the national Tennis event. When most other players sought the ATP circuit and relegated representing the country to a low priority, McEnroe, almost single-handed, revived the American team with some glorious wins in the Davis cup. He never allowed his open tours to conflict with his patriotism. Nirmal sekar, the celebrated sports commentator writes in his inimitable style:

‘ ..A side of the McEnroe personality - a pointer to his character as a champion - that was generally ignored when the genius from New York was at his prime had to do with his unshakable commitment to playing for the country. In fact, it was McEnroe's fierce passion on the Cup stage, his charismatic presence that revived the sinking fortunes of the oldest team competition in sport at a time when other superstars such as Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg displayed a rather ambivalent attitude to playing Davis Cup. McEnroe ended his Cup career with a 59-10 record. No man has won more Cup matches while losing fewer!’

Not many players in the open era will hold up to such a scrutiny.

God bless..

Sunday, July 6, 2014

God - an investigation - part 7 - A conservation by the pond

The other day, as I sat reading near a pond, an acquaintance, who lives in my community came along with his wife and two children to feed the ducks that float there. It’s a lovely, quiet place, especially late in the evenings, when the heat comes down and sunlight mellows into a crimson red - a wonderful period of time when I can stretch myself on the bench and read, with chirpy birds all around me, and the placid waters of the pond gently reflecting the serenity of the trees around; and heavens, darkening slowly in anticipation of the night.

Oftentimes, I have met this gentleman here, and each time we wish each other, and our conversation never gets beyond it. This time around when he wished me, I replied (as is my usual practice...) “I am wonderful sir. And how are you...” He nodded his head and with a little bit of hesitation said “I am Ok, pulling along…..” With that brief exchange, I got back to my book, and he to his kids shouting out to them , and the ducks- encouraging them to come out and peck at the bread crumbs they had bought along.

After a brief while, the gentleman returned to the bench, and said “Sir, may I ask you something”. I closed my book and said “Of course, pls do...” He went on:

“I have seen you here many times, and on each occasion, I have observed that you always say you are wonderful, fantastic ; and never the run of the mill answer that people normally give : “I am ok..” or like sounding expressions . What I wanted to ask you is whether you really mean what you say, or is just your way or greeting someone. Pardon me for asking this, but I have never heard anybody, at least not in last six, seven years, with an insecure job market and a less then healthy economy sounding so optimistic and cheerful as you are…”

It was an interesting question, and I thought about it a little while before answering him:

“You know sir, I must with all honesty tell that I am indeed blessed and as happy as I sound. And I will tell you why... One of the most important realization in my life has been that most of us take our lives and everything about us for granted, including the fact that we are alive. It is sad thing that we do not experience death each day, because if we did, I am sure, each one of us will cry out with joy every living moment. You see sir, every living breath we take in is sustained by innumerable forces and events that “conspire” (if I may say so...) to keep us alive. The millions of cellular activities that keep this organic metabolism going, the somato-sensory framework that preserves our individuality, the bounty and the grace of this planet that revolves at a speed that is neither to fast or slow, the gravitational pull that keeps us grounded, the blessing of the sunlight that reaches us with optimum heat and light, the transformation of seasons that replenishes energy , the vastness of the oceans that keeps life moist, the riotous colors and sounds of nature that penetrate us without our beckoning. In fact to keep us alive and kicking is the greatest benediction that Life or God or Nature, whatever you may want to call it – can offer us.

Now, what are we worried about? Our Jobs, Our financial security, our children. None of these are even relevant if we do not rejoice in the fact of living. When we are in love with the throb of life within us, the pulsating vibrancy of our heart beats, the roar of blood flowing through our veins, then all the rest will follow. In the kind of society that we have built, there are inconsistencies, inequalities at the peripheral level of one’s psyche. But that’s the game all of us have agreed to play. So cribbing about rules in the middle of an ongoing game is foolish. Either play it to accepted rules, or quit it and do something else that is in tune with one’s inclination. None of this affects the beatitude of life. One of my favorite lines in the Bhagavad Gita is when Krishna admonishes Arjuna: “Fight the bloody war, my friend. What difference does it make to “You”, whether it is won or lost?” Simply rejoice in the ability that makes you fight. Hence I mean it Sir, when I say “I am Wonderful...”

I am sorry that I put you through this long winding answer, but the bottom line is this: if I cannot find joy within me, I am sure I will not be able to find it anywhere else. This is the resurrection of wisdom…”

God bless…

"The virgin suicides" - A directorial debut by Sophia Coppola..

It is always difficult to step out of the shadows of one’s parentage. Especially so, if the Parent happens to be a creative artist of the highest order - A man whose legendary film making skills has more or less made him a household name in the world of Movies. I am talking about the Francis ford Coppola and his illustrious daughter Sophia Coppola. With a family as involved in the art of Movie making as Copolla’s, it is but natural (some may call it nepotism) that young Sophia began acting as a child in the God father series, and then went on to essay a few forgettable, undistinguished roles in sundry other films blessed by her Father. It was clear though, that she was not cut out to be an actress. But then, as they say, “Genes don’t lie”; and the artistic DNA in her evolved into a film maker, director and screen play writer in the year 1999, when she made her first feature film based on a remarkable book by Jeffrey Eugenides named “The virgin suicides” - a story of five young, beautiful girls in the Lisbon family killing themselves in fresh bloom of adolescence, in a quiet, conservative suburb of Michigan. Sophia’s treatment of this sensitive, subtle and emotionally distressing sequence of events is nothing short of masterly - The young lady had found her vocation!!

The entire film is shot in a First-person narrative: A group of young boys relate the history of the Lisbon girls from memorabilia collected over years. The movie begins with the suicidal propensities of the youngest girl Cecilia, and her decision to jump from her bedroom window and impale herself on the fence. It is never clear, why the girl chooses this bizarre option. In one of the most poignant dialogues in the movie, when Cecelia is told by her psychiatrist that she doesn't know how hard life can get. Cecelia replies in a tone of philosophical nonchalance: “obviously Doctor, you have never been a thirteen year old girl…” But that is the point of the story: the sense of alienation, solitude and unfermented desires and dreams, that throng the threshold of pubertal consciousness - can prove to be too much of a burden to carry on young shoulders, when the biological pull is diametrically opposed by the ethical conduct demanded by society. Well, after Cecelia’s demise, the other four girls are then put on a tight leash. Though they are given all possible affection and care by loving parents (beautifully restrained performances by Kathleen turner and James woods), the girls find it difficult to reconcile their stirring desires with filial captivity. A group of four boys in the neighborhood, budding in their own adolescent infatuation try to woo them; and in the caressing light of their attention the girls begin to respond with innuendos and affectations that mark their gentle rebellion against the thin veil of morality that hides their hidden desires. It’s a tragic end though, with solitude, alienation and unrequited dreams getting the better of rationality; and the beautiful family is reduced to a state of inner annihilation – a systematic and equally seismic destruction of beauty, joy and sense of moral justice...

Sophia Copolla’s genius lies in the way she captures the emotional nuances of the tale. Her cinematography, her Camera plays and toys with light, color and depth to recreate the ethos of an American society twenty five years ago. Her choice of Kirsten Dunst as Lux, the most beautiful, subtly eloquent daughter, whose momentary moral transgression tips the moral curfew against the girls - is illustrative of Sophia’s understanding of the medium. Every look, posture and smile of Kirsten evokes a raw understated sensuality that is reminiscent of a conservative age and culture; and her slow transformation into a bold lady capable of risking her emotional cocoon of guarded morality and plunging into the abyss of sensual gratification, hoping it would last forever – show cases the talent of this young actress with great promise. What impressed me most though, about Sophia’s treatment of the story is her grasp of the “moving frame” and her detachment from it as a director, allowing the story to develop and unfold without the intrusion of the Maker. This is a skill that only great directors cultivate over years of experience. And Sophia seems to have it effortlessly right in her first film. In fact, it is this sense of abstract story telling that marked her masterpiece “Lost in translation’ as well. The prolonged silences, the meaningful background score subtly accentuating a scene, and getting each one of the cast to play their brief roles to a right pitch and intensity - marks this brilliant debut by this mercurial director. This is the third film of Sophia’s that I have seen and reviewed. And in each of them, she displays a heightened control over the art of film making. I am sure, we will see more of this young lady’s work in years to come. The Mantle has rightfully passed from the father to daughter…

Watch this movie, if you wish to see how a thin, but powerful story line is enough in the hands of a sensitive director to explore the passions, rationality and emotions of the Human psyche, without sacrificing any of the elements that mark a great film...

God bless…

Friday, July 4, 2014

Gibran Kahlil Gibran - the inner eye of poesy

It is a veritable tryst of destiny that Kahlil Gibran never became an American citizen. He never belonged to any country, to no one. His was a free life lived by the breath of divinity; hence his words ring true to all Men and Women of every class, clime and status - A quintessential outsider to himself and society; dipping his poetic mind in the burning embers of inner solitude and fire, fructifying itself into some of the finest prose verses the language has ever seen or understood :- verses that direct ones fragile intellect into new directions, verses that cut through the heart like a gilded sword, verses that caress our souls like a gentle cool wind on a full moon night, verses that illumine the mundane with a light celestial, verses that act as a balm to hurt, famished lives whose destiny is to wander in doubt and perilous confusion. Such is the power of his writings, that even after nearly hundred years, they still reverberate in our hearts and minds as verses immortal. Let us then dip a little into Gibran’s masterpiece - The Prophet…

The clearest enunciation of Gibran’s notion of divinity are found in twenty six prose verses that constitute “The Prophet”. His was a God that was unnamed, formless, ever present - more of an inner sense of beatitude and grace reflecting itself in the mirror of the Universe; than any outward manifestation. Deeply versed in the esotericism of the Bible and the serene flamboyance of Sufism, Gibran pours out his heart, his philosophy, his life view in the magnificent setting of the Prophet. It is symbolical as well: The book starts with Alumustafa, the fictional mystic, sequestered in an Island for twelve years, and now waiting for the return of his ship to take him back. Like the Buddha, he is faced with a momentous decision of casting away his mortal concerns and plunge all at once into the eternal spirit; or to be waylaid by his fellow Islanders, who had nourished, sustained and given him the space to touch the truth within himself. He stands at the crossroads of existence: the pull of the infinite dragging him to its bosom; and the compassionate, love infused faces of his adopted land beckoning him to stay. Almitra, the seeress breaks the dilemma for him. She intuits the cosmic need for him to withdraw and dissolve, but then humbly requests the vacillating Prophet to address a few questions for his people, to share his wisdom on the conduct of daily life. And thus begins the wonderful insights of the mystic, pouring out spontaneously like a fountain, refreshing every aspect of Human endeavor from birth to Death; Joy to sorrow, Reason to passion, friendship and prayer, Good and evil, eating and drinking - all of these, tethered to the infinite center that dwells as life in us.

Gibran’s God is daily life and living. Rooted to the present and complete acceptance of one’s vocation is the cornerstone of his vision. Hear him on religion:

‘Who can separate his faith from his actions, or his belief from his occupations?
Who can spread his hours before him, saying, "This for God and this for myself;
This for my soul, and this other for my body?"
All your hours are wings that beat through space from self to self. ‘

Or on Death:

‘And what is to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink form the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.’

Verse after Verse of such limitless depth and profundity. Gibran was an artist, and to such a one every aspect of life throbs with grace and beauty. In his brief forty eight years if mortal existence, he allowed life to penetrate him without a hindrance, and his physical form danced to the tunes of Universal music bringing forth Sketches, paintings, letters, poems and stories that captured life in its different hues. His faith and religion was a convergence of different influences and he tied them together in a unity that goes beyond dogmatic and theological interpretations... He knew that words cannot do justice to the deep feelings that coursed through his veins, yet he continued to express. In his most notable statement on his own writings Gibran says: - “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it so that the other half may reach you". Such was the humility of the man.

God bless….

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The archetypal detective in fiction

Edgar Allan Poe is not merely a progenitor of the Gothic form of Novel; but known more importantly as a creator of the genius, philosophic and poetic detective in C. Auguste Dupin. Dupin appears in three short stories that Poe wrote between the years 1841-45; and in each of those he sets the tone for writers like Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie to etch characters that have a little trace of Dupin rubbed into them.. In fact when Poe wrote the Dupin stories, the term "Detective' was not yet a part of the language. It was a later addition. To Poe - Dupin was merely a keen observer of Human nature, and a man who possessed an incisive and uncanny reasoning capacity to resolve knotty issues.

The problem with Poe’s Dupin is that he ends up becoming a mere mouth-piece of the author’s philosophic ruminations on Human depravity and nature of evil. Poe’s fascination with the morbid is legendary (Who can forget his undiluted caricature of evil in “The pit and the pendulum?). Dupin is never given a chance to develop as a character. In my opinion, the reason why Sherlock Holmes is admired, loved and revered the world over is simply because  Conan Doyle gave him fifty six short stories and four full-length novels to grow, evolve and become a part of the readers psyche. Also, Sir Doyle was a better writer than Poe. The terse, gloomy and often dense structure of a Poe story was no match to the fluent prose and finesse of Sherlock Holmes tale. Hence in the annals of literature Holmes became a better detective- widely loved; and Dupin was relegated to the miniscule circle of readers who call themselves connoisseurs. But all said and done, it is an undeniable fact that Poe’s Dupin stories were the precursor of the Modern mystery novel.

There is a reason why I am writing this essay today. And the reason is this: - of late, I have taken to listening to audio books of my favorite English classics. With my current work, reading and writing schedules, I have little time left to revisit those golden oldies which have nourished me into becoming a lover of literature; and so, I have gotten into a routine of listening to books during my work-out on the treadmill in the mornings. It gives me a good thirty to forty five minutes of undivided listening time. Over the last few days, it has been the short stories of Poe that have kept me company, and today I happened to listen to a dramatized version of Dupin’s finest detective adventure “The Purloined letter”. No other story of Dupin exhibits the superior qualities of Human observation and reasoning than this. In it Poe achieved his goal of portraying a man who can look through the deviousness of a persona by empathizing with them; thinking like them, and looking beyond the narrowed grooves of habitual patterns. I wonder how many of my readers have had the opportunity to read this short story. If you have not, I request, urge you to get hold of it as quickly as possible.

It is a very simple tale of a stolen letter held by a French Minister of high esteem. He is a mathematician and a poet; hence can think rigorously and be creatively imaginative at the same time - a potentially explosive confluence of traits. A member of the royalty is to be held ransom on the basis of this letter, and right from the outset, we know that this contentious piece of paper is in the possession of the Minister, hidden somewhere in his establishment and Home. A structured search by the secret police yields nothing. Every square inch of his home, office, wardrobe is disturbed to find a semblance of evidence. Nothing!!!. And that is when Dupin takes over the mystery. What follows is a masterpiece of reasoning and a deep philosophical truth that emanates from it.

It is not my intention to give away the story, but merely to set the stage. Read it, if you wish to... The point I wanted to bring out in this essay is that oftentimes, we forget to realize the immense debt that we owe to a period of history or to a person, for bringing about a new perspective, a fresh dimension to an art form or science. I would not want to speculate on whether Edgar Allan Poe consciously created this genre of Mystery and crime -  probably not; but the thrust and the traction that he provided in Dupin , has without doubt percolated, oozed into every single detective character, in some form or the other for the last two hundred years.

And for that Literature will forever cherish his name.

God bless..