Monday, September 22, 2014

“Behind the beautiful forevers” by Katherine boo.

“Behind the beautiful forevers” by Katherine boo.

To write Non-fiction with a flair of fiction is a literary art that few writers possess, and very few books exhibit. I am not talking about historical fiction – a genre that has great many exponents- which help us relive an era or a life with period prose and reasonable factual accuracy; but rather, to write accurately about current state of affairs as a journalist would; and be able to weave the message into a spectacular story told with great sympathy, lucid prose, deep understanding and a rare insight into the underbelly of India - is something that is quite extraordinary. It is in this context that I rate Katherine Boo’s “Behind the beautiful forever’s” as one of the finest books to be written in modern times about glaring inequalities in contemporary India- its moral putrescence and tragic apathy. The author picks a mundane real-life incident in an urban slum in Mumbai and weaves a frank tale of reality; a happening that otherwise would not be reported or known through the quagmire of media - pitiably skewed towards presenting a cosmetic picture of the country. Spending nearly four years in India’s financial capital, interviewing hundreds of slum dwellers in Annawadi (near Mumbai’s new international airport); getting into the skin of their beliefs, hopes, aspirations and way of life; transposing her learning into characters that throb with stark realism; providing a frank back drop into the corrupt, mismanaged and almost inhuman conditions of living and governance, juxtaposed with overflowing affluence all around; writing with dispassionate detachment that can come only with deep resonance within, of human suffering and joy; showcasing lives that live by standards and ethics that are alien to us - urban Indians; making a subtle mockery; without sounding condescending, of the lop sided growth in India- which has no relevance or meaning to more than half its population ; yet , demonstrating that goodness, virtue, compassion and ambition can flower under the direst of circumstances, regardless of one’s economic or social conditions - is the gist and tale of this wonderful book by Katherine Boo.

I am slightly skeptical of Westerners, who attempt to define India after a brief sojourn in its metros; but, when I picked this book from my shelf, I knew the author was not one of those flippant writers who could or would reach grave and biased conclusions based on a few stray encounters in India’s vast, rich and diverse landscape. Katherine belongs to a distinguished, rare brand of journalists whose sensitive understanding of underprivileged have opened many eyes to the realities of poverty, discrimination and neglect in the United States and elsewhere. I have read her vivid essays in prestigious New Yorker magazine, for whom she has been working as a senior investigative journalist for many years now. A Pulitzer award winner (2002) and a MacArthur “genius” awardee for her brave and candid Journalism - and with this book, the National award for Non-fiction (2012), prestigious Samuel Johnson prize were among many other crowning felicitations that were conferred on her.

This is her first full length book. What is truly extraordinary in the narrative is the total absence of Journalistic prejudices. Though based on real time conversations with innumerable individuals, Katherine manages to remove herself completely from the flow of events. The prose, dialogues and circumstances are brusquely matter of fact and chiseled to perfection. Her understanding of Mumbai, its cultural diversity, the minutiae of daily living among thousands of under-privileged in that overcrowded city; divorced from mainstream urban development and psychological consequences of it- are captured with raw intensity and frankness. Above all, what comes at the end of reading this book is feeling of human resilience and moral integrity that cannot be crushed, no matter, how much humiliation, oppression and poverty comes its way.

If it is true that a study of microcosm can reveal a Universe; then, to live with the slum dwellers of Annawadi in the pages of Katherine boo’s book will open a new vista of understanding and empathy that could be extrapolated beyond those turgid slums. A sensitive reader will, I am sure, turn the last page of the book realizing that words like progress, development, quality of life and justice are chimeras - which sound good in urban living rooms surrounded and buffeted from harsh realities of living; and for millions out there they are either empty words or irrelevant or inapplicable to their survival. Perhaps, some of us would close the book; chastened a little, become broader in our understanding of blessings and privileges, and possibly, contribute a little to bridging the yawning chasm that goes unnoticed in a world that predominantly boasts of increasing prosperity and a bright future.

Highly recommended!

God bless…

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Mandolin U Srinivas - premature death of a genius..

The advancement of culture happens not by mass movements; but through the conduit of a minority; nay, a very few select individuals – into whom, an inexorable life force pours everything that she was; far too much, far too soon; mercilessly propelling them into achieving her selfish ends; then, casting them away like flotsam in an ocean: psychologically tortured, physically weak and lost – yet, making sure that the cultural landscape they trod upon will irrevocably remain transformed with their indelible imprint for generations - who would admire with awe over such an achievement made singularly possible in a brief life time of a person. Such is the destiny of a genius.

Mandolin U Srinivas will not play the Mandolin anymore: those nimble fingers, graceful hands, delectable artistry, ripened talent will never grace the instrument again. It is an instrument that found its way into a little boy’s untrained hands when he was six years old, an instrument that gave itself up to him, like a lover in her beloved’s arms; an instrument whose pitch and tone had to be tamed by its indefatigable owner to meet the strict demands of Carnatic notes; an instrument that yielded and flowered into multiple streams of consuming music under the rich, natural and creative genius of Srinivas; an instrument, under his masterly usage, began to rival the violin in its acceptance in the conservative world of Classic music; an instrument that enabled the young humble boy to cross boundaries of Musical genres , reaching out to wider world of harmony and universality - all this , and more is the legacy of Mandolin U Srinivas, who left us yesterday, with unfinished notes and an incomplete life..

About a month back, I accidentally tuned into one of Srinivas’s formative albums, “ecstasy” - one that he recorded in 1983, when he was barely thirteen years old. A look at the discography cover would make one smile; the mandolin is as big and tall as the young boy holding it; his larger black eyes looking hesitantly, perhaps with a tinge of shyness, into the camera; and a whiff of a smile on that innocent face. The seven tracks in the album are not representative of the kind of music that later played through him, but it definitely gives us a glimpse of an enormous talent, almost prodigious, bubbling and effervescing in that little body. The high notes that a Mandolin naturally produces cools down under the touch of this young man. Like a wild racing horse that know the tug and pull of its jockey, one could hear the gentle persuasion of those young fingers on the taut dual strings of the instrument, humbling it to play the Hasmanandi and kambodhi with a precision that is unbelievable. Interestingly, I later learnt that George Harrison (Beatles) rated this album as one of his favorites, and kept it close to him, always.

The world of music will miss him, but as a student of civilization, I draw solace in the fact that he played his part well. His music was his life. Though his personal life was a roller coaster ride, he did not allow it to impact his work, his temperament or character. Perhaps, the end came a bit too soon. Greater and deeper musical realms needed to be explored and expressed, and we would have loved to have a Srinivas unravel it for us; but in the end, it will now fall upon the newer artists to pick up the threads and carry this marvelous legacy forward. That is a big ask!.

I can only end this tribute by paraphrasing a tribute to Mozart by an aging Neimetschek, a close friend and biographer of Mozart, when he said “… if I dared to pray for one more earthly joy it would be that I might hear Mozart improvise..”. Many will agree; listening to Srinivas was as ethereal and ambrosic an experience…

God bless….

Friday, September 19, 2014

A beloved Friend - A short memorial

Plato proclaimed immortality to be in the undying memory of a person, but perhaps the Master was a trifle mistaken when he wrote these words. For, when physical presence of a loved friend, guide and mentor passes away; the sudden absence strikes us like a gust of wind, blinding ones wisdom- no matter, how subtly philosophy and religion manages to camouflage death with its ratiocinations, platitudes and promise of a God and after-life; the blunt reality, though, is a tremendous void, a vacuity that can never be filled.

Yesterday, I got to know that a dear family friend, ailing from cancer for some time had quietly passed away after a brief period of hospitalization. She must have been around seventy five old. In many ways, she was close to our family, more so to me. Her gentle smile, prodding confidence, and infectious optimism has brightened many a dark day in my life. Despite my self-defeating acts, unpardonable blunders, wayward life style - I have never heard her utter a word of admonishment. She had this quiet, unshakable confidence in my abilities and future that I couldn't perceive in myself. In an imperceptible manner, her positivity and hope permeated my being, and what I am today is largely because of her strong presence at pivotal points in my life's journey. It is not that I met her very often, or talked to her every week. No! It is just the comforting thought that she was alive somewhere; showering upon me - her goodness, encouragement and blessing over every little progress that gives this relationship its value.

I am philosophic enough to understand the passage of mortality; but then I am painfully human as well to feel the pangs of loss. But in her case, I take consolation in the fact that it was a life well lived; a wonderful balance of traditionalism and modernity; rooted in moral values and adaptive to changing times as needed. Above all, when I close my eyes, it is the image of her smiling face, soft and gentle voice, measured wisdom and remarkable patience - that comes to my mind. And it is this fragment of memory that will remain immortal amidst our family.

I was happy to hear that she died as peacefully as she lived. St Paul’s wonderful words in the first epistles of Corinthians could well apply to her:

“O' death, where is thy sting? O' grave, where is thy victory?”

God bless her soul, and provide solace to all her beloved ones…

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Yet another conversation near the pond...

Jacques Barzun’s “From Dawn to decadence” lay open on my lap; as I sat near the duck pond (my customary haunt…). It was a beautiful Sunday evening; threatening to rain, but never did. A pleasant breeze wafting around, the ducks going about their business with a serene countenance unruffled by daily cares. A few new additions to their flock, though: all merrily enjoying being alive and sticking together in warm comfort of their family.

The elderly Indian Gentleman was sauntering along the pond. He was a tall man; reasonably built, close to six feet, I must say; hair completely greyed; wearing a loose fitting pair of black pants and striped white shirt. His hands were clasped behind his back; walking back and forth apparently lost in thought. He lives in my community. I have been seeing him around for the last eight months, on and off; near the swimming pool, washing area; or playing with a girl child (His granddaughter, may be). I distinctly remember his relaxed demeanor, earlier this year. He would be in the pool or walking around the community, exuberant, laughing whole heartedly; making conversation with anyone who happened to pass him by, enjoying the flush of spring and summer. And then slowly, over the year he had visibly mellowed down. Gone was that vivacity and energy; a forlorn look had started creeping into his face, and I would see him sitting on a bench with a faraway look. I have not spoken to him at all; merely acknowledged each other’s presence as our paths crossed. Yesterday, for the first time I saw him near the pond; we smiled at each other and I continued reading Barzun’s marvelous account of the Reformation.

The Sun was setting, it was becoming difficult to read. I put down my book and looked around to find my acquaintance sitting on a bench a little away from me. He slowly got up and came over to me and introduced himself:

“I am Ramanathan (Name changed). I have seen you many times walking with your back pack...”

I replied in the affirmative and gave him my name. He sat down beside me and continued:

“Do you live alone here?”

“Yes, I do…”

“Are you married? How about family...”

“Well, I am not married, and my family lives in India. Kerala, in fact. I lost my father a couple of years ago. My mom lives with my brother…” - I thus condensed a three year history for him.

He went on:” You must be finding it difficult with food. Does your mother come to stay to with you? It will be nice, you know. It will also be helpful to you…”

An interesting proposition. I paused for a moment and said “I would definitely want my mother to come and look at this country, stay with me for some time. But frankly, when I bring her here, it would definitely not be to help, cook or clean my place. I guess, she has done enough of that even in her seventy odd years of dedicated life to bring us to where we are today. She will come here, relax; enjoy the beauty of this place; breathe some fresh air; will take her to visit her relatives all over this country; and then when she has had enough; she will have the liberty and decision to go back at any time. In other words, sir, staying with me will be her prerogative and certainly not a moral compulsion from my side….”

My words silenced him. His face dropped a little. I was afraid that I had hurt him. I quickly added “Sir, I hope I did not offend you in any way…” He straightened up immediately and smiled at me saying:

“No, No young man, I was really happy hearing you say what you said. I wish I had the same freedom. You see, I am a retired government employee. My wife and I and over sixty five now. We have a huge social circle and lots of community activities back home. My only son, came here about four years ago along with his wife. Our first trip here was real fun. I had dreamt about seeing America, and couldn’t have enough of it when I landed here. As you can see, I am by God’s grace in decent health and was able to travel. Then my first Grandson was born. We are all delighted. We came back to see the child and stuck on to take care of him. My daughter-in- law had just gotten her new job, and you know how it is? So two years - back and forth, making sure the young kid had us at home for him. But then, I was already beginning to miss my familiar Indian surroundings. My friends and I had planned a lot of things to do after retirement. It had to be postponed. Well finally, we got back home after the kid was old enough to be trusted with day care. We are so happy to return to India; and also painfully realized that we were tired and visibly older than ever. Taking care of the baby, house and all the rest of it was a very laborious exercise. Somehow we had not bargained for this. Anyways, towards the end of last year, we had to be back again; my daughter-in-law was pregnant, and my son wanted our help yet again. Frankly, I was not keen, but my wife’s maternal instincts got the better of me. We are now here for another couple of years, I guess, going back and forth, bringing the second kid up. But believe me Bala, this is a thankless job. My son has taken us for granted. In these four years, he has professionally grown as well. So his Wife and he go out for vacations leaving the Kids with us, with a customary phone call each day to make sure that the kids are alright. And we are here spending the last part of our lives, still caught in household chores and family upkeep; each day slipping away from us…. Every time, I broach the topic of going back, there is uneasiness in the house. My wife urges me to keep quiet, but somehow I feel that my freedom is lost yet again, after having striven fifty years for it…”

I am a patient listener. Every word that he spoke smacked of truth. Coming to America, planning a family, bringing ones parents as baby sitters clothed as parental love - you will see them all over the place pushing trollies and baby carts with a tired look in their eyes. Lost in an alien country, language, culture, religion; they brave it out for the sake of their children. How long will the initial euphoria last? Once, they settle down, all that remains for them is boredom and feeling of psychological oppression. I remember a trip to New Jersey a few months ago and happened to drive through Edison. It was unbelievable to find so many elderly couple baby-sitting kids. I am sure some of them enjoy what they are doing; but a significant number would give anything to get back to their fold. I have also heard young professionals flippantly say during many a conversation “Hey, My parents will come over and take care…” I am never happy when I hear such blatant suppositions. It is a tribute to our culture that our parents still feel obligated to do things for grown up children. The west would smirk at such a task, or at the very least make their terms clear. Unconditional love also comes with its own caveats. But somehow, we have come to take it as granted, and there lies the problem. Mr Ramanathan is representative of a generation of fathers and Mothers, whose old age is spent flying 25 hours to America and back every six months unmindful of their health and interest, assisting their sons and daughters in bringing up their kids while they are busy rising up the corporate ladder. The English language has a word for such a job; I will, however finish this essay by leaving it unsaid.

It is night by then, and both of us slowly walked back to our community. The canopied road was utterly quiet; just an occasional sound of insects and gentle breeze caressing the trees on their way. We bid each other farewell, and promised to meet again soon. I hope I find him in better cheer next time...

God bless..

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Health club chronicles - Touching inner chords of melody

I swim because I love being an amphibian ; feel of water, its buoyancy; the wriggly adjustments the body makes to cut through it; the effortless breathing patterns it generates ( quite unconscious..); the sheer electric delight that courses through my veins as strokes become more rhythmic and self -sustaining - is simply delightful;

An elderly gentleman jumped into the pool ; in the lane adjacent to mine. A well built man, toned body; hair greying a little around his temples; but seemed in good physical condition. His strokes had natural athleticism and a practiced grace to it. There was hardly any displacement as his arms slit through water with languid precision ; he went on and on, continuously, for nearly forty five minutes without pausing a moment in between his laps. All that I could hear was the little splash of water as he tumbled over to resume his swim in the opposite direction. I had finished my swim and was warming off in the sauna close by, when he joined me after his rigorous exercise..

I began the conversation :" Sir, I must say, that was a wonderful swimming routine that you did just now..."

He gave me a wry smile and replied " Yeah, vented my frustration on the water, I guess..."

My curiosity piqued. I enquired : "But, I thought, your strokes seemed well measured and timed. It was very elegant to watch, and hardly seemed to be that of man expending pent up stress.."

He nodded .. " You know, This is my first outing in the pool after nearly ten years....". I was aghast; but allowed him to continue "....When I turned forty five, I started running the marathons. Strangely, I never knew that I loved running so much until I started doing it. Despite my tough work schedule, I run on an average at least 5-10 miles a day. Never missed a single day in the last decade. I have participated in every Marathon in this country; not to win ; but for the sheer joy of running. I like the flow of adrenalin when my feet hit the roads.. You see there is a Chicago marathon coming up on the 12th of October, and I had been preparing for it. A few weeks ago, I started developing a little nagging pain in my right knee. Nothing to worry, but it was holding me back when I ran. I kept ignoring it; until today morning when I got back results from my doc. My knee cap has been damaged and needs replacement. Which means. no more strain and definitely not Marathons anymore - at least not in the near future. I went home, picked up my swimming trunk and headed straight here..."

He ended his monologue, and I suspect that I saw his eyes a little moist after this outpouring. I am not sure, why he had to recount this story to me; but then I realized that he needed a vent, an ear to listen without any judgments. I brightened up and said " Hey, you know what, with your grit, I am sure you will be there for the next Chicago marathon. If your swimming today is any measure to go by, then i must confess that you are in peak physical shape; and this knee thing may be a minor aberration that will very soon overcome. I salute your passion and energy..."

He looked at me and said "Thanks man.. I hope your words come true... I really hope....."With that, he got of the sauna and walked away.

Every individual fights his own little battles each day. In a sense all of them are heroes in their own right. It is not the glare of publicity or effusive accolades that define heroism; but it lies in those simple tasks done to fulfill our own goals; the passion that we bring to whatever we do; and the tremendous satisfaction that one derives from them - that is the measure of a life well lived. To this gentleman, who I am sure has a good stable job - running is a passion; and it is in that he fulfills himself. Likewise, blessed are those who can tap that secret nectar within themselves and find joy in it. Nothing can be more satisfying then that..

God bless....

Oscar Pistorious - A verdict

In one of the most perplexing verdicts of recent times, the South African court acquitted the highly decorated, sympathized, sponsored and larger than life athlete - Oscar Pistorius, for the murder on Valentine’s Day, of his beautiful young girlfriend and promising model Reeva Steenkamp, in what must be a bizarre case of careless shooting in the annals of high profile criminal history. Common sense revolts at the travesty of justice here: A man claiming that he shot four times into a small closed cubicle of a toilet, assuming that it was an intruder in there, and not his girlfriend (who incidentally was sleeping with him that very night...), and cries out in agony and false repentance, awakening the world around him to this supposedly ghastly mistake - seems a little too far-fetched for my little intellect to digest. After eight months of sham trial, which in my opinion, wasn’t going anywhere at all, the court today overlooked justice to set free an athlete, allowing his achievements on and off the track get the better of a legal system. Oscar Pistorius, no doubt, overcame grave physical challenges to perform triumphantly at the London Olympics in 2012; and I salute the tenacity and overwhelming will power of this sportsman to rise above disabilities to bring hope and motivation to thousands suffering for such handicaps. However, it certainly does not absolve him from the rashness of his act, which smoked the life out a young girl forever in a fit of unprovoked rage. One may be tempted to ask, what was a beautiful girl like Reva doing with Oscar, if not partaking and basking in new found money, power and fame of her Romeo; but that is beside the point. The primitive , raw rage of a man to shoot , not once, but four consecutive times, without bothering to check if his Girlfriend was still in bed with him and not in the washroom ( a normal possibility, I must say…) speaks and reeks of a motive that cannot by any stretch of imagination be rationalized or mistaken as normal..

I am sure Oscar must have been dealing with deep levels of insecurity within. In the world of commercial sports, where increasingly - publicity, money and a blonde has come to define a champion; it must have been rather difficult for Oscar to believe and expect fidelity from a good looking young lady as Reva. Possessiveness would have to be an acquired trait in such people; especially so, when out of absolutely nowhere, one is catapulted to highest echelons of fame, glory and richness, and they hold on to it with tenacious obsession. It can get a bit dizzy at that rarefied level and inner balance can be lost very swiftly. We have had the OJ’s, the Tysons blaze such a path to their peril in our own lifetime. Add to it the personal feeling of vacuousness and emptiness inside; and we have a deadly volcano waiting to erupt any time.

Well, I am not sure on what terms of legality the honorable judge reached this verdict. Thokozile Masipa is a Learned, experienced Judge; risen from the ranks – and must have had firm reasons of law to declare an acquittal and to sentence Oscar for Culpable homicide (which in lay man terms mean: Murder but with no intention to Murder...!). But somehow, my heart beats with a note of moral injustice here. History may soon forget Reva as an inconsequential girl who aspired for too much; may celebrate and shower adulation on Oscar for his bravery, conduct and presumed innocence – but somewhere in this drama the truth has been buried under the full glare of lights and costumes. And that is a tragedy, whose odorous scent will linger for a long time to come…

God bless....

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Prince of Tides - a study in Psychology

Joseph de Maistre, the celebrated French lawyer of seventeenth century, known for his defense of Monarchy during the revolution captured the essence of psychoanalysis succinctly when he wrote: “I do not know what the heart of a rascal may be; I know what is in the heart of an honest man; it is horrible”. This is precisely the predicament of Human personality. The façade does not always reveal the inner self. A thousand conflicting desires, feelings, thoughts and emotions flit though our little brain; and all that we present to the world outside is a balancing act. Fortunately, we are held in check by barbed wires of moral codes, ethics, education and an inherited discipline, otherwise, the chaos inside can jeopardize ones sanity and integrity in the world outside.

The year 1991 was a fascinating one for the Academy awards. There were two movies, based on two bestsellers, vying for top honors. Both of them based on psychological turmoil and palpitations of modern man in his complex relationship with the world around him. Both were written, directed, acted and cinematographed with great depth, flair and sensitivity. Both of them deserved to win accolades, but it always remain an irony that there could be only one indisputable winner, and the other had to be content knowing that it lost to a better adaption and an incredible performance by its lead actor. The loser that year was Barbara Streisand’s wonderful adaption of Pat Conroy’s “The prince of Tides”; and it lost to “The silence of the lambs”. Anthony Hopkin’s numbing performance as Dr Hannibal Lector left nobody else with a chance in the race. I have read Pat Conroy’s book many years ago, and I remember closing it with a feeling of satisfaction. The life of a school teacher bought up in a dysfunctional and abused childhood; with parents alienating themselves from each other and from their children; bereft of appreciation and genuine love – grows up to have a family of his own, carrying the discontent into his life; unable to touch the warm chords of marital bliss, repressing, wallowing in self-pity over his predicament – thus pushing his marriage and fatherhood to the brink of disaster. Fortunately, he is called to New York to attend to his sister recovering for an attempted suicide, and there meets her psychiatrist (played by Barbara Streisand herself...) In a series of events and beautifully structured emotional layers, our school teacher (Nick Nolte) slowly melts down, gets to face his demons and allow the thwarted waves of anger find empathy and physical comfort in this lady doctor and her troubled life; slowly the inner wheels of his psyche get oiled and lubricated enough, integrating back with his family - now as an understanding Husband and a loving father.

This story is in stark contrast to Thomas Harris’s psychologically depraved Hannibal Lector. Here, the brilliant doctor carries his schizophrenic delusions to a perversion unimaginable and grotesque. In both the books, it is a question of psychic adjustment to values, morals and codes of reasonable decency in the world around. One of the prices we pay for evolution is the ordering and managing of our inner selves. No other species faces this problem. They are all genetically wired with appropriate responses that fit stimuli, and there is no emotional baggage to carry beyond what is required for survival. But Man, needs to grow not merely physically to maturity, but also nurture, develop and protect the person that he has been bought up to be. The barriers of moral codes, ethics and laws are to keep this elusive entity called personality in check, and have him act and live within certain acceptable perimeters of society. A civilization is possible only when there are such restraints and balances, otherwise not. The industrial era displaced man from his community, family and value systems that governed him for ages. And with that seminal shift in inner balance, the onus of protecting and adapting himself to the need of living in groups became quite a challenge. Though abundance in twentieth century has freed significant number of us from physical needs; inner void and alienation deepened; and to alleviate and bridge this gap, we have a proliferation of Psychologists, psychoanalysts and spiritualists, who aspire to fuse the splintered individual to the demands of a group. In fact I would go as far as to say that the last five hundred years of History is nothing but this effort to reconcile an individual to society.

Well coming back to my movies: Here then are two contrasting films about Human psyche and its possibilities. Pat Conroy finds solace in the fact that it is possible to live harmoniously in society, once we muster the courage to open ourselves and look within; face the seething demons within, exorcise them and return with a renewed resolve and energy. Thomas Harris, on the other hand presents an antithetic case of a psyche lost in its extremities; completely impervious and insensitive to world outside; woefully cocooned in its own madness, self-aggrandizement and fulfillment; and would go any distance to emphasize the perverse eccentricity of the individual - Dr Hannibal Lector is an extreme symbol of our species gone wrong and maladjusted.

I has always had a fondness for Barbara Streisand. Though many find her very stereotyped and pretentious; she, in my opinion, has a knack of picking the right roles and stories. Nick Nolte as Tom Wingo - the southerner, with a wry sense of humor and sarcasm plays the repressed husband well enough. Music by James Newton Howard is gentle as usual and provides a wonderful backdrop to this drama. Finally, this movie is a gentle reminder that life need not always be lived backwards and in neuroses. We can learn from it and move on. That perhaps is the best way to remain sane, integrated and to find joy within oneself.

God bless...

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Legends of the fall - Moral consequences of war

The moral damages of war can seldom be altered by peace. In the long history of Man’s carnage in the name of territory, ambition and unbridled foolishness, the victim has always been the hapless “soldier” on either side, who wields his lance, or sword or the gun for a cause that he does not understand or sympathize; but yet, gives himself to the task of plunging headlong into battlefield with impunity and increasing relish. The psychological consequences of such an internal hardening is bound to unleash within, when the heat of war and flow of blood have ebbed; and he needs to integrate back with society that awaits him as the person that he was. How many stable families have been left emotionally, physically, morally and in million other ways uprooted from their cloistered lives; thrown into this maddening milieu of an ideological war; drawn to it by a strange taste of nationalism; passions running high, blood boiling with a fever characteristic of youthful folly heading into a moral chasm with a lame hope of returning to normal life once the madness is over- but only results in leaving him mutilated, emotionally transformed and strangers to those finer aspects of life that holds family and society together.

“The legends of the fall” - a 1991 movie captures the essence of this trauma quite effectively. Colonel Ludlow (Antony Hopkins) despaired of war, settles down with his three boys in a farm at the Canadian border. The young lads grow up into handsome men, deeply respectful of tradition and blooming in the innocence of a quiet life at the farm among native Indians. The youngest Ludlow (played brilliantly by Brad Pitt) is the maverick - charming, raw, wild and close to the earth than any of his brothers. The family is joined by his brother’s fiancee (Julia Ormond); an attractive young lady who quickly becomes a part of their lives- drawn irresistibly towards her intense, well chiseled brother-in-law. Such an idyllic life is interrupted by the clamor of First World War, and the Ludlow boys are aroused by patriotic fervor to serve their country. The colonel refuses permission and dissuades them from participating in a battle that has nothing to do with them - but who has ever stopped the lust for blood by reason or entreaties? The war irrevocably changes the peaceful contours of the Ludlow household; leaving one dead, the other cynical and the third immersed in guilt. Morally vacillating and psychologically unsure in this inner chaos are the heart broken bride and the aging Colonel. The reminder of the story is about the turns that life takes to regain the equilibrium that was so foolishly lost; and drawing to a conclusion with a solace that comes at a huge price to the Ludlow family.

This film is based on a book by Jim Harrison (I haven’t read it though). But I have a feeling that the book may have exposed finer textures of character, story and emotions than presented on screen. Nevertheless, the two hour extravagance is worth a watch. The undulating landscapes, the rich variegated colors of autumn and winter, the changing hues of brightness and light; slow transition from peace before war to corruption, moral decay and turmoil after - are captured exquisitely on screen. The Academy awards honored this cinematographic effort. Antony Hopkins had not much to do; and whatever he did was effortless and polished as usual. The film however belonged to Brad Pitt, who plays the wild boy along with his forbidden love Julia Ormond. The young Pitt beginning to show signs of a fine actor that he later became, and Julia enacting the tortured feminine soul caught between the demands of passion and dictates of decency with sensitive sublimity and control.

All in all, a brooding story that blends with the American west; turning a bit cliched towards the end, but leaves an impression of good performances, shimmering landscapes and a lasting moral…

God bless…

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A homage to a teacher from an aspiring student in me - Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan - A teacher, philosopher and a Statesman 

( A homage to a teacher from an aspiring student in me)

The year - 1952. A touching moment in history, when Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, walked into Joseph Stalin’s spacious and ornately furnished office in Moscow for the last time to bid him farewell, after his tenure as the first ambassador of India to the Soviet Union. After brief pleasantries, he held Stalin’s hands and said “You know, there was a great emperor in India, who renounced his kingship after a bloody purge and became a monk. His name was Ashoka “, and with an enigmatic smile continued – “God knows, what will become of you…” Not many men have ever had the audacity to look at Stalin in his eye, let alone talk to him on the morality of his actions, or in a condescending tone. However, the aging dictator, understood the deep import of the sage’s words and his intention; and with a trembling voice replied “Yes sir, Miracles do happen!!! After all I have spent five years of my life in a theological seminary...” After which, Radhakrishnan stroked his back, wished him long life and good health, turned around to leave. Stalin was speechless. Here was a man treating him like another human being; without the dread and trepidation of those who trembled in his mere presence. He held Radhakrishnan’s hand for a brief moment and said "I am sad, you are going . . . . . I have not long to live. . .” A ruthless dictator bidding an emotional farewell to a Philosopher- statesman.

Such was the stature and dignity of The First president of India. What a life! Born into a poor South Indian family, educated in public schools, enrolled into Madras Christian college for a course in Philosophy by pure chance (He was donated some books by his cousin); mastered the esoteric texts of Plato, Berkeley, Hume, Bergson and other obscure tomes of Western thought; deeply cognizant and proud of the Hindu vision he inherited; studied deeply the fundamental treatises of shankara, Ramunaja and the blossoming of Indian mystic tradition in its various branches ; became a professor of philosophy pressed by financial necessities; loved it, and turned out to be a consummate teacher, philosopher and distinguished orator attracting young minds with his lucid and penetrative insights into doctrinal differences and inherent unity in eastern and western thought; moved on to occupy the prestigious George V chair in Philosophy at the University of Calcutta – in all, a steady deepening of maturity, wisdom and stature that culminated in his election to the highest office in the country.

If Vivekananda arose the passion in Western world with his fiery Indian philosophic vision and breathless passion; then it was Radhakrishnan who gave it the intellectual scaffolding that was required to hold itself on alien ground. His Upton and Gifford lectures, later published as “The Hindu view of life” and “An idealist view of life” - delivered to stunned, disbelieving intellectuals in England, hemmed in Vedantic insights into the tapestry of occidental metaphysics. The dialectical rigor that was demanded of the dreamy east was provided with a force, grace and language that forced contemporary western philosophers to rethink their position on basic philosophic premises; taken so much for granted by Western rationalists. He was knighted in 1931 for his admirable services in advancing Human understanding and cooperation.

Meanwhile, Our philosopher continued to tread the holy grounds of hallowed universities teaching, both in India and abroad: The Benares Hindu University, the prestigious Spalding chair of Eastern religions in Oxford, back to Benares, and then to the newly established Andhra university - talking to large audiences of students and professors alike; expounding the fundamental basis of all religions, and the critical relevance of Indian thought in reaching daring conclusions beyond the net of epistemology and metaphysics that had unfortunately come to dominate the life-giving study of philosophy in the west. His seminal study of Indian Philosophy in two volumes still remain, in my opinion, the finest compendium and survey of various systems born on Indian soil. His prose - simple, yet powerful; can take off at times into flights of poesy illuminating afresh a whole wide vista of religious thinking. Read them to feel the pulse of this great thinker!!!

It is a sign of great humility and wide understanding of Dr. Radhakrishnan that he wished his birthday be celebrated as Teachers day, if necessary. What else can we expect from such a Man; who actions reflected his words. Listen: “... A good teacher must know how to arouse the interest of the pupil in the field of study for which he is responsible; he must himself be a fellow traveler in the exciting pursuit of knowledge...” or “the aim of education is not the acquisition of information, although important, or acquisition of technical skills, though essential in modern society, but the development of that bent of mind, that attitude of reason, that spirit of democracy which will make us responsible citizens…”. Such quotes are endless and prolific.

He lived and assisted three prime ministers in his lifetime with his wisdom and guidance; especially Nehru, who was fortunate to have a Philosopher-king (The ideal of Plato’s Republic) as the President of the country. It is unfortunate though as a nation we have not been able to keep up the promise of universal education, which was Sir Radhakrishnan dream for Modern India; but whatever impetus it got came from the vision of this philosopher, who remained a quintessential teacher till the very end of his life.

I began this essay with an anecdote; and would end it with another. When Dr Radhakrishnan landed in the United States for the first time in 1963, to be received by its charismatic President John F Kennedy; the weather in Washington was extremely inclement with lashing rains and billowing winds. Kennedy, the gracious man that he was apologized to the Indian president on such a rough welcome; to which came the characteristic reply of our philosopher with a courteous smile on his lips: “…We cannot always control events, but we can always control our attitude towards events..''

It is to such a man that we dedicate the fifth of September.

God Bless…

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The unmaking of a virtuoso..

Few in the annals of Indian classical music have achieved greater virtuosity, global fame and unfading aura of mystic lure than Pandit Ravi Shankar - the renowned sitarist, who died in San Diego a couple of years ago.. His transcendental concentration, absorption and austere stage presence has thrilled audiences all over the world. Since his migration to the United States in the early sixties, to join his brother- the versatile dancer Uday Shankar; they helped forge the deep traditions of the Hindustani music and classical dance forms within the ambit of other popular genres; and gave their successors and fellow artists a platform to explore and experiment. It would be fair to say that they were the first to step out of conservative restraints that tightly bound the schools of Indian art, and give it a voice that was truly universal.

However, this short essay is not about him. But about Ravi Shankar’s ex-wife Annapurna Devi, daughter and protégé of the legendary Ustad Allauaddin Khan. She was christened with a Hindu name by Maharaja of Maihar, where her father was the court musician. Ravi Shankar and she learnt the rich nuances of the Sitar from the same master; married each other for convenience in 1941, and divorced in 1961. When Ravi met her in the home of his guru, she was already an accomplished bass sitar artist. What came laboriously to Ravi, swelled effortlessly in her. Even today, when one hears a rare recording of Annapoorni (where else, but on YouTube) one can feel an electric artistry that flowed out her fingers. The swiftness, the gusto and controlled speed seems almost magical to be true. For twenty years, the duo performed together to enthralled audiences. Those who had privilege of being a part of their concerts vividly remember the magic they created on stage. The Measured nuances of Ravi; the gay abandon of his wife, transformed Raagas Yaman and Kaushi into raptures of spiritual and cathartic delight. Interestingly, it was Annapurna who gathered all the applauses. The duo was great together, but it was her subtle mesmerizing touches of brilliance that raised the bars of excellence. It is ironical but true, and history vindicates that the male ego has always been a suspect when the better half overshadows his majesty. And Ravi, a gifted mortal (after all!!!) began to suffer pangs of jealousy; and its repercussions cut through the seams of their relationship. The subdued, conservative and affectionate Annapurna had a difficult choice to make: the preservation of marital bliss, or pursuit of her inner gift. She chose the latter, but unfortunately, lost the first in the process as well. She secluded herself from society and stopped performing on stage, after Ravi left her in 1961. Those divine fingers were silenced to bear the pains of separation and hurt. But life ensured that such talent cannot go wasted, and slowly over the years, she took into her fold young vibrant artists like Hariprasad Chaurasia, Nikhil Banerjee among few others– who absorbed the distilled juice of her creativity, and transcended it in their own ways. However, she chose not to come back to limelight, or seek to touch the taut strings of her Sitar again in public.

As a side note, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s “Abhimaan” was loosely based on the story of Ravi and Annapurna. Hrsihida was close to the Shankar’s and did not quite relish the abandonment of Annapurna at the height of her prowess. His magnificent rendition of the trauma, jealousy and its reconciliation (a deviation from actual life...) remains an outstanding biopic on the frailty of marital vows, and the practical inequality of it. It remains one of my favorite films.

The Times of India carried a short news item today about Annapurna Devi that triggered this essay from me. As I read that article, I remembered Will Durant’s words of wisdom “….no man will go down the hill of life with a woman who has climbed it with him…” The young Ravi Shankar gained his individuality through his consort as they climbed the staircase to artistic perfection; but to sustain it, cost her a deal more than him…..

God bless….