Saturday, December 26, 2015

August: Osage county - a riveting drama.

August: Osage county - a riveting drama.
There are moments in a Movie when all elements of genius – acting, screenplay, context and setting– gather together making it almost impossible to define or evoke in words that feeling of awe and transcendence such a cinematic frame could bring. And more so when on the same screen we have the intensity of Meryl Streep and overwhelming presence of an aging Julia Roberts enacting some of the finest pages of a Pulitzer winning play written by Tracy letts - August: Osage county. Let me try and recreate a pivotal scene of this film in words. A daunting task, but challenging as a writer and worth trying.
Picture a large Dining room dimly lighted and furnished in dark wood. Three families have gathered together for a funeral dinner. Matriarch Streep (plays the role of Violet), her three daughters and their families wish to settle down for a quiet dinner reminiscing about the dead father. Streep’s husband (a brief role played by Sam Shepard) was found dead just a day before. A hypochondriac by nature, He supposedly disappeared from home one morning, and was found drowned in a nearby lake. Violet - an additive pill user alternating between heights of eccentricity to depths of moroseness wobbles across the room to sit at the head of the table in her mourning dress with a cigarette in hand and a disinterested look in her eyes and demeanor, pitifully balancing her shriveled wig to cover her almost bald head caused by the treatment for mouth cancer. Yet, she continues to incessantly smoke and suffer, wincing with excruciating pain with every intake of smoke that touches her damaged gums. Her dead Husband was a failed poet, who found solace in drinking, reading and markedly interested in TS Eliot’s blank verses. They were both raised in poverty, and found wealth late in their lives. They gave their three daughters everything they had. Unfortunately, none of them became successful as they hoped; nor did they have a congenial personal life. Except for the youngest daughter who lived in the same house taking care of her mother, and whose melancholy outlook on life irritates Violet, the other two moved out pretty young and living a rather dull and mediocre life. Barbara (Julia Roberts) eldest daughter held a lot of promise during her younger days, but drifted away into bitterness and solitude. She has a teenage daughter, troubled by her Parent’s unavoidable separation, experimenting with drugs and meaningless television shows; she sits with a morose face to eat waiting to get to the nearest couch to resume watching her monotonous Soap operas.
This is the dysfunctional, motley crowd assembled for dinner; each trying to hold on to their sanity and simmering frustrations with great difficulty. Putting on a show of decency, the conversation around the table slowly but steadily degenerates into insinuations, accusations, sarcasms and condescension, with each member desperately attempting to wean the conversation back to a sense of normalcy. Violet is unusually exuberant. She digs into each of them with an acerbic tongue. She goes out of the way to insult each one in the family. The gloomy atmosphere of the room turns into a dark funnel through which the stale and repressed emotions of its inhabitants swirl through, pouring itself out into a vortex of conflicting interests. A tipping point is reached. Voices run high, so do the tempers, and in one final burst of exasperation Barbara falls upon her Mom with a visceral vengeance wrenching a bottle of hidden pills from her hand, rolling on the floor, pinning her down, asserting her new found authority after the tragic death of her father. The scene lasts nearly 13 minutes with the camera moving across the room focusing now on Violet, and then on Barbara and others, moving back and forth, capturing the brilliance of the acting ensemble assembled for this movie. Of course, as usual Streep and Julia dissolve into their roles. The thin veil of respectability that exists between mother and daughter that hangs precariously, and could be cut asunder any moment with an awkward word or phrase is reflected beautifully in the performance of both these great actors.. Their eyes do the talking and each palpable minute there is rising tension till it breaks into a cat-fight undermining all sense of decency that may prevailed during this farcical family communion.
As I said, I can hardly do justice to the brilliance of the scene; yet I couldn’t stop trying. I remember watching an Indianized version of Osage county as a play in Kochi a few years back. It was pretty impressive. The timelessness of the story rang true even when adapted to Indian ways. And in 2014, I still vividly remember watching Meryl Streep’s 19th Academy nomination as Best actress from my Hotel in Connecticut; and Julia Roberts looking a little upset on being overlooked and nominated only for best supporting actress. Frankly, the movie is carried upon the shoulders of both these Women. But for the first time, I felt that perhaps Ms. Streep’s performance did not quite match up to the toned brilliance of a deglamorized Julia Roberts. And at after the movie, it is Ms. Roberts measured characterization of Barbara that lingers on. For those of you who have read my raving tributes of Meryl Streep in the past, this comment from me must come as a surprise. But the truth is, I try to watch a movie as objectively as possible, and to me it is the art form that must ultimately succeed, not the personalities of the trade.
Movies like Osage county remind us that good stories and great acting – both are equally important for a film to become a classic. The audacity of John wells, the director to take a play that was critically and commercially a great success, both in the US and Europe and translate the essence of it on screen must be commended. He needed brilliant actors to do the job; and he couldn’t have found anyone better than Streep and Julia.
Watch it. It’s a study in dramatics.
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala




A close encounter - 18th November 2015

A close encounter..
In these ephemeral pages of Facebook, I have recounted, relived and reminisced about many conversations and chance happenings over the last few years, but the one I am about to recount is perhaps unique, and I pray that I may never may the occasion to meet such a situation again. But then one never knows. The beauty and horror of life lies in its utter insecurity.
At around 8.00 Pm today, walking back home from my Swim, there is dark stretch of road I need to traverse (unfortunately no street lights worth the name there) that bends towards an intersection that leads to my Apartment. It has been rainy day in Atlanta. Incessant drizzling and water soaked roads everywhere. With an umbrella over my head, tired and quite exhausted after a good hard workout, I was lost in contemplation over a podcast I was listening to in the Sauna. All of sudden, I felt someone tap my back. Turning around, I stood facing three hulks, Black-Americans, blood shot eyes, reeking of alcohol and dressed in over fitting clothes. One of them growled"
"Get the fuck to the side quietly, and hand over your wallet and bag".
For a moment, my reaction was numbed. It happens when an unexpected event hits you right on the face. I could at the moment only exclaim " What.."
And before I could complete the sentence, the big guy on the right shoved me to a railing, and wrenched my headphones. There was sharp pain as his massive hand pulled the instrument from around my neck And it was then I noticed that all three had a revolver in their hands. Their short barrels glistening in the rain.
"You M**** F***, give us the F*** money, else we will blow your head off.." was all I heard.
I only had my Phone in my pocket and my swimming costume with me in my backpack. Nothing else. I don't carry anything else with me when I go the Gym. I realized very quickly that it was futile talking to them. I continued to look intensely at the one standing straight ahead and said " here take my phone, if you need it, and here is my bag. "
Clumsily, they rummaged through its contents. Disappointed, one of them roared and raised his gun right to my face. I could almost see the innards of the hollow barrel. The road was empty, not a vehicle in sight; and here I was standing with three misguided, inebriated, angry young men to whom a bullet shot would mean nothing at all. What does one do? For those brief intense moments, when life is held in such flimsy balance, one's true composure is tested. All that I remember crossing through my mind is : This is it, one dies without a whimper because of a bang. Strange thought to cross my head at such a juncture. I was reading TS Eliot yesterday night, where he writes:
"This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper"
And I guess, his words percolated my thinking in a twisted way.
"what the fuck are you waiting man. shoot the fucking guy..." a voice broke through waking me up from my stupefied silence. One of them was urging, egging the other to pull the trigger.
"Go ahead and shoot" - I declared ( foolishly in retrospect). I have nothing to give you. You have my phone and my bag. That's all I Have. ".
Slightly taken aback by my statement, they took a few steps back and repeated their threat to shoot me. But when a man has no options, and existential threat stares at ones face - the brain gives up. One could, of course, shout, cry, wail - these are options; but none of them will take away the fact that all it takes is a single bullet to stop that voice forever. I stood my ground without movement or a word.
As suddenly as they came, they turned and ran with my phone and head phones. The traffic signal down the road had turned green, and one could hear the faint noise of revving engines. They threw my back pack at me and scampered away.
It was then, I felt immense tiredness in my mind. The gravity of what just transpired shook me to my bones. My body involuntarily leaned against the railing, and my blood was intensely warm. It was by a hair's breadth, I had escaped from lunatics, who wouldn't have known that they pulled a trigger at someone. They wanted money and I didn't have it on me. Their ploy had failed. And When desperate men like them fail, it spirals into uncontrollable anger blinding every sense of decency, civility and human sympathy. And what was I thinking when I told them to shoot me. God only knows!!!
Cars whizzed past, rain fell and all was silent , black and gloomy again. No one would have guessed that just a few minutes ago, a life was held at gun point. I slowly ambled to Target, bought some groceries and reached home. T-Mobile took just few minutes to lock the phone completely; and here I am writing an account of it.
In retrospect, I guess I was plain lucky. Worst things have happened to people with better protection and precautions. In a world where Guns are being traded like candies, terrorists shooting indiscrimately in closed halls, racists killing students in campuses, underprivileged citizenry succumbing to drugs and guns to make a living - anything is possible. Well, to end this on a slightly lighter note; I know now what a gun look like from the other end, and God willing will never have to see it again.
God bless...
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Jottings on 20th November 2015 ( Aftermath of a mugging)

Thanks!!!
My profound thanks to all friends who took time to read my post on the mugging that happened the day before yesterday, offered their wishes and enquired about my well-being. It is always very satisfying to receive such undiluted love and affection. Messages on Facebook, emails, Skype calls and chats inundated me. All that I can ever hope to do is to reciprocate such unconditional love, but never be able repay it. Many thanks again!!! However, there was one call that set me thinking in a different direction. It was from a close friend who pinged me on Skype and said “Bala, Why did you walk that way. Could you have not taken a different route?" A common enough question, asked with lot of care and genuine sympathy; but, as I said, it set my mind thinking.
The point is, I have walked that same path for well over two years now. A quick mental calculation revealed the number to be about 200 times, at least. And not once have I encountered anything close to being a threat. I guess then, as a thinking Human being, it is reasonable to assume that if it was safe to walk the path those many times, then walking the same way one more time yesterday should have been a matter of routine, habit and custom. But, as circumstances would have it, the 201st time proved to be different. Now does that mean what happened yesterday was an aberration, a deviation from the law of causation; or the 200 odd eventless walks before this was pure chance and this one yesterday was the real thing waiting to happen. It all depends on how we look at things. And this is how Human knowledge develops, isn't it. If an experiment succeeds n number of times, it declared to be infallible truth, and all "deviations" will be considered an anomaly. We accept the trend to be inviolable. In fact, if one looks at the history of accumulated human knowledge, it is based on this basic premise of recorded successes. The irony of it all though is that it takes only one deviation from the norm to dethrone everything we take for granted. Any major shifts in embodied systems of thinking is often jolted by a sudden discovery or proof to the contrary. In existential thinking, we call this deviation a "Black swan". Scholar, statistician and Investment analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb popularized this notion in his wonderfully accessible 2007 book "The impact of the highly improbable". In it, he argues that for most of us, security lies in the assurance that certain causes and effects cannot go wrong; hence it must be true for ever forward in time. And when something different happens, we bemoan it to be a catastrophe and something completely unexpected, when the truth is any such expectations as we entertained were only in our heads and nowhere else. If security and comfort is any measure of perpetuity, then Dinosaurs would have made merry even today. For thousands and probably millions of years, they ruled the planet, until one catastrophic event wiped them all away. No one knows why? It was a Black swan. Black swans then, are those hidden realities that now and then emerge changing the way we perceive life.
The way we handle Black swans is that we rationalize it after the event, pigeon holing the deviation, bending the unpredictable happening into the contours of the known, hoping that things will continue this way, until we encounter another Black swan round the corner. Events such as Yesterday's are typical examples of such unpredictability. Curiously, Mystics across all religions talk the same language. That life is essentially insecure, and the seemingly secure flow is only an illusion- is the beginning of deepening spiritual maturity. As a young man, I remember being deeply affected by Alan Watts’s wonderful exposition of this simple truth for modern man in his little book title “The wisdom of insecurity”
If I have learnt anything from yesterday, it is this - Be prepared for the unpredictable. It can happen in any shape, form or size. As a Close friend told me “Bala, I am glad you did not panic...” Yes true, I was only too willing to give up anything I had to those unfortunate youngsters, and I was totally open to anything that might follow. That I walked to target, chose carefully my bananas, potatoes and other essential items, making sure I didn’t cross the ten dollar I had in my back pack, went home, showered and then called T-Mobile to deactivate my phone – makes me looks like an odd man. Except for those few minutes after those boys ran and I steadied myself physically and mentally, I am not in any way rattled at all. I am still around to live life a third time. Heaven only knows, what’s in store for me. I can only smile at its playfulness.
PS : I now have a new SIM in an old Phone. So I am good now:)
God bless....
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Jottings on 28th November 2015 ( Voices of Intolerance)

I am surprised, and to an extent puzzled at the inordinate amount of time, fury and words that many of us has been spending on chastising Amir Khan ( an actor) who all of us know, happened to make a remark during a felicitation speech/interview on the state of intolerance existing in India. Well, here I am writing about it too. Now, There are two ways of looking at this vituperative outpouring in all forms of media. Either we have nothing better to do, run out of options and find it entertaining to display our patriotic fervor on print; or, this one scares me even more - we are really serious about an Actor's stray comment on his perception of things. As a country, we are stuck up with Actors and Actresses. That is the brutal fact all of us have to face. Not only do we idolize them, but chose to place them on a pedestal that will put the paganism of Romans to shame. While I understand that if one is a public figure whose words affect national polity, social and individual rights - then It is our sovereign duty in a democracy country to argue and rationalize about it; but if such words come from an actor, whose only ticket to fame is his brilliance as an artist, and whose words make no visible impact or meaningful effect on anything that affects our daily lives, then I guess, there is no point spending so much of time on him. The fault lies within us. That we chose to give so much importance to an actor's words, taking to heart his personal opinion on a question posed to him; demanding that he and his family leave this country, organize protests at his doorstep, writing advance elegies for him - only goes to show the paucity of character and lack of maturity required in us to be a part of largest democracy in the world.
As a democracy, we must be prepared for dissent. Its part of the package. If we dont, we are slipping down the slippery slope of totalitarianism. A huge word to use, probably premature as well, but the last six months has bought out some ominous signs that point to a state of affairs becoming increasing intolerant of diversity. Not a good sign for a country that aspires to outgrow its label of a "developing country". In the US, we have had at least two actors (I know of) who occupied the highest State and national offices respectively. We had a publisher of an adult magazine stand for Presidency. Even today, We hear Donald trump making damaging insinuations and comments form every podium he ascends. A healthy dissent is a true barometer of enlightened democracy.
The fact that Amir Khan is a Muslim, and his views represents the views of the entire Muslim community is the undercurrent of this unfortunate outbursts. You may disagree with me, but when I read all the posts, denunciations and aspersions cast on this subject , this is the feeling I get. I wouldn't want to comment on the political nature of this fiasco, it is not within the ambit of my study, but it seems to me, the country is splitting across its seams ever so slightly in the last couple of years.
And more importantly, let us leave Actors to do what they do best. - which is Acting. An Al Pacino's or a De Niro's personal views on America's social policy will not leave the slightest ripple on fabric of American life. But their performance in a movie will be written about, criticized in reams and reams of paper. Rightly so!!. As a country, we got to quickly divest ourselves of their fanatical obsession with Cinema as a factor in our daily lives. The objectivity required to separate the Man from his role is the touch stone of democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville, the man who gave voice to the notion of democracy, writes in his treatise of democracy “The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.” So let us leave Actors to do their quality job of acting, and not be captivated (in a convoluted sense) of what they say in public on public matters. It really does not matter. A healthy debate, if needed, can be had - but to shout from the top of one's roofs that a man who dissents should be sent packing from the country along with his family smacks of immaturity, childishness and does not befit the stature of a civilization that has known democracy even before western society even conceived a word for it..
Again, I wish to conclude this short rumination by emphasizing that verbal dissent is important for a nascent state. Nearly 70 years into independence, its time we channelize our energies into building a state where each man does his job, where one is free to express views, where can one stand completely opposed to an ideology yet be a meaningful and respected citizen, where one does not confuse roles played, where we give each man due respect in their field of activity and not graft them into positions they are competent to hold, where we learn to heal and grow organically instead of further cauterizing the already painful burn of partition. This is the synopsis of Tagore's great poem, which every child is made to learn by rote without ever imparting its true meaning..
"Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls...
Its time meanings start becoming more relevant and not empty rhetoric..
God bless...
yours in mortality,
Bala

Jottings on 5th December 2015 (A striking motif)



There are many profound books which have radically altered my world view. Some of them heavy tomes of prose that needed months of concentrated reading and assimilation, others containing epigrammatic propositions, again needing a lot of cogitation and time; and then there are those few books -written in unassuming style and vivid clarity - instantly strike a chord deep within, obviating the necessity of thinking about it. The meaning is intuitive and plain to see like the beauty of a freshly watered rose, or the striking brilliance of lightning. They are their own witnesses and need no further elucidation. One such book was" Does it matter?" by Alan watts. A collection of his essays on diverse topics, written for periodicals and mainstream media. I remember a particular essay on Money written sometime in the 70's in which he writes:
"Money is a way of measuring wealth but is not wealth in itself. A chest of gold coins or a fat wallet of bills is of no use whatsoever to a wrecked sailor alone on a raft. He needs real wealth, in the form of a fishing rod, a compass, an outboard motor with gas, and a female companion. But this ingrained and archaic confusion of money with wealth is now the main reason we are not going ahead full tilt with the development of our technological genius for the production of more than adequate food, clothing, housing, and utilities for every person on earth..."
For a young boy in college, fairly uncertain where his future will take him or anxious about how much money would he end up making; this idea from Watts cut straight though my being. It stuck a chord so deep, that it would be fair to say it left me unnerved. All round me, the world was busy making, saving, perpetuating, hoarding, worshiping money in various forms and kinds; and here was an idea that was not only brutally and factually true, but undermines the edifice of an entire society driven by a passion for symbolic exchange paper. Money as a symbol of real, immediate, possesable wealth, and not for its own sake - is perhaps the single most misunderstood, abused idea in the history of Human race. Almost every major human catastrophe can be traced directly or indirectly to this point of origin. Using money in exchange has given place to an ideology of "making" money for its own sake.. Just as one cannot eat the most elaborate and well laid out menu card when one is hungry, money as paper is pretty valueless , if it cannot be exchanged for something one values and needs. Old Americans who survived the 1930 depression, and still around will know the truth of what I am saying
The entire force of the above paragraphs became evident to me this week in Sanfranciso, where I was teaching a class to the biggest, most authoritative financial institutions in this country. They define what the dollar is or should be. Wonderful audience, great class and more importantly formed some good friends. Towards the end , an senior participant walked up to me with a bid polythene packet in his hands. When he gave it, I was not sure what it contained. All that I could see was shredded paper, and lots of it.
He said " This is a memento from us to you for a good class.. It contains the remnants of what was few weeks ago hundreds and thousands worth of Dollar bills. We shred them, for whatever reason, and use them for plastering and other construction work.. We are probably few authorized institutions to shred paper Money. If anyone else tries to do it, it may be illegal.."
When I carried the bag to my hotel and looked at it intensely for some time; the full force of my understanding over the years, and Alan watt's transforming idea took complete shape in my head. Here I have in front of me, a bag of paper that is totally valueless. A few weeks ago, Men would have killed each other for what it represented, or it could have bought a hoard of dream things that fantasizes about. But now, this very same lump of paper stripped of its symbolism is not worth even a dime. It cannot buy a cup of steaming coffee, homeless refugee on the streets wouldn't touch it, yet it stands contained in a bag front of me, essentially the same composition of green paper (nothing has changed), but bereft of all that it stood for. It is we who gives things its value, its never the other way around. Every idea, every symbol is only useful as long as it helps lead a fulfilled, happy and peaceful life; and the moment the symbol loses that value, or we change our perception of it - it no more has the power to define our lives. One could extrapolate this to any sphere: National, religion, race, profession. And this is the most profound education or insight anyone can have. Money is needed, one ought to work for it, but it needs to exchanged, bartered and enjoyed for real wealth. To be able to buy things that one loves, to be wise enough to spend generating food and basic necessities; and not be protective of the symbol that gives us the purchasing power is the sign of enlightened economic growth.
God bless...
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Jottings in Columbus 11th December 2015 - ( Indians abroad)

Dan and me were sitting at one of the finest Asian fusion restaurants on the East coast- "Molly woos", a signature offering by restaurateur Cameron Mitchell. Its been around a for a long time, and adorns a prime spot within the sprawling Polaris mall in Columbus Ohio. It was a cold evening, and had drizzled during a bit during the day giving the skies that overcast look which imperceptibly adds a little nip to the air. Dan heads a performance testing team and has been with the organization for 15 years. After a quick round of appetizers (delectably spiced spring rolls with little meat in it) , Dan asked me a question:
"Bala, Pardon me for asking you this. I have a lot of Indians working in my team and I have worked alongside many. They are great guys. Brilliant, hardworking and all of that. But one striking feature that stands out though for me is that most of them dont get along well each other professionally. There is always this strong undercurrent of , for want of a better word, "Back-biting". They wouldn't share learning, they would ignore and alienate someone who could potentially be a threat, form little coteries among themselves based on language, religion or creed. Even in our class today, I am sure you observed how some of them were pulling down a few individuals, and making mocking insinuations at others. Did you see what I am saying? Is this a common trait in your culture?
I could only smile when Dan asked me this. I knew exactly what he was talking about. There were eight Indians in this group I taught, and must agree and confess that the show they put on among themselves is perhaps one of the most unprofessional, immature and childish behavior I have ever seen in a congregation of IT professionals in a long time. Please do not mistake me. They were were attentive in class and had no issues. But between themselves, the psychological games they were playing, was creating a palpably uneasy atmosphere in the room. North vs south, Language Vs language - these were themes upon which variations were being played. At one point, i actively intervened and requested them to stop this bickering. All this done with a smile and a joke (obviously). So I know where Dan's question was coming from. I answered
"Dan, a good question. And here is my take on why we put on this kind of glaring odd behavior. And I have noticed this in many classes and forums. This happens only in a group of Indian who have not yet settled down in this country. Given the huge influx of software professionals, the fight to stay in US, get a green card, cement their lives becomes overwhelmingly pressing on them. And during those initial years, I mean three to five when they work on temporary visas, insecurity is rampant. Given the fact that India as a nation is fractured at every level, it is not surprising we tend to carry those illusory decisions, boundaries into an alien country. In our group, for instance, you noticed how a gentleman from North India was mocking at someone from the south. Individuals speaking same language or from the same stare often tend to isolating others, and many times go out to the way to promote members of their own community..." Dan and I laughed aloud . ..The fight to stay becomes very personal and unprofessional. But once they settle down,you will see they become more accommodating and less divisive. But your are right, Sometimes, it does look downright silly and childish.
Dan chuckled " Yea, I actually had a person from this group (He didn't name him) who came up and accused of another stealing his code. It is odd to me that someone would actually do that. They work in the same team. I asked him to forget it and move on.."
It was nine in the evening, and Dan left me to drive home, which is about 20 miles away. Temperatures had dropped drastically. As I stepped out of the restaurant, the sudden chill made me involuntarily shudder. I pulled my hoodies on, and put on my gloves.Walking back to my hotel, I was thinking about this conversation I just had. The basic problem Indians face in the US is the strong sense of language and geographical divisions they are bought up with, and find it difficult to let go. Even today, a common man from Chennai finds it difficult to relate to another from Delhi. Though we call ourselves a geographically united country, i doubt if this sense of unity has really sunk deep into our psyches. I am not generalizing here. Things are changing, but the predominant face of Indians I see in the line of my work seems to be more parochial than global. We invariably gravitate to each other based on language and state (Fortunately caste is becoming unimportant, Thank God!!). And between themselves they strive to establish a hegemony in a given context. Well one can argue that it happens with Chinese, Japanese , Koreans, middle eastern and many others, but the big difference though is they still conduct themselves as part of broader nationality in an adopted country than emphasize small differences in dialect and food. And what is more important is that these differences should never ever be bought to one's work place. While we are respected, to a great extent , even revered as paragons of intellectual and technical virtuosity in Global work place, we must also remember that we are exposing our inherent insecurities to a wider audience in many perceptible and imperceptible ways. Living in the US is certainly a dream worth pursuing, but definitely not at the cost of bringing down somebody in the process.
God bless..
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Jottings on 12th December 2015 - (2002 - Hit and run - Ruminations on a judicial travesty and an act of magnanimity)

2002 - Hit and run - Ruminations on a judicial travesty and an act of magnanimity
In 2002, a "car carrying an actor" drove over few unfortunate individuals who happened to be sleeping on the pavements of Mumbai. One of them lost his life, others incapacitated for life losing active livelihood. Like everything else there was national outcry, and the question debated in the courts of India for nearly fourteen long years was this : Was the actor driving the car when this happened, and secondly was he in state of intoxication during that period.? While common sense, the most preciously uncommon commodity, dictates beyond doubt that these were true, contrary to any arguments that may be provided by any learned exponents of law; our judiciary managed to prolong this trial for over a decade finally delivering a verdict last week, which anyway was a foregone conclusion that there is no "conclusive proof" against this "venerable actor". Though he was physically in the car, fell down twice as he attempted to run away from the ghastly tragedy, suppressed all evidence pointing a finger at him, managed to keep spinning his millions acting in inane, weather-beaten movies, voicing his opinions on social issues on national TV - the law of the land has let him go scot-free without so much as a minor penalty. Well this is not unusual in democracy these days. A couple of weeks ago Oscar pestorious was again declared innocent by the highest court in South Africa. All in the good name of justice and equality.
What moved me particularly in Mumbai case was a statement by one of the surviving victims - a Muslim, just after the verdict of not-guilty was announced. He said and I paraphrase
" We were expecting this result. I am not disappointed at all. I also understand what happened that fateful day was an accident. I am sure the actor never intended to run over us, but you know what, it would have been nice if he had helped us rebuild our lives afterwards. He has the means and the power. Anyway, I am glad this is over. We have already got over that bad phase and moved along. I hope he can also move on..."
As I read this, My eyes welled with tears. What wisdom!, intellectual maturity! and practicality in a man who is essentially an illiterate, living at the fringes of society. He will suffer consequences of those tragic few minutes for an entire lifetime; Yet, his heart is free of any malice. In my eyes, this young man has rendered the perfect justice that one can hope for. In the ancient tradition of law givers and makers, where wisdom is used as yardstick to mete to justice - this is most fitting. Though, it was reported without any fanfare as a casual comment in larger context, In my eyes, this man is a hero of the highest inner stature. Probably, he may not have meant what he said. It doesn't matter. The very fact he said it in the midst of this superficial proceedings that we call law and order, is reason enough for me to hold him a true winner in this case.
All those in the car, the "actor" especially, should introspect on the magnanimity of the victim, and if possible , gather some of the lost dignity and respect so cheaply traded in farcical proceedings of orchestrated and misplaced justice.
God bless...
Yours in mortality,
Bala

The day I bought my car in the US - 13th December 2015

"It's been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come." - Sam Cooke, writer and singer, 1964
As an immigrant, one of the first acts of spending in the US is on a car. Rightly so. It is considered almost impossible to move around unless there is one in our possession. Also, The system of trading cars here makes it so very simple to acquire one. From the time we conceive of buying a vehicle to the point of actually buying, it would take not more than a day to three days. Add to it, the plethora of options not only in terms of what car, make, color, Mileage and the rest of it , but also different financial options available - it becomes almost impossible to resist buying a beauty that exceeds ones budget or expectations. Therefore It is not very uncommon to see young families driving a BMW, Porsche or a Mazda on a shoestring immigrant worker salary. But that's alright. This is supposedly a land of dreams, milk and honey , and one has the right to be a little indulgent and profligate ( slightly harsh word, but used in a milder sense :))
Well, in these many years I never thought of buying a car. Not for want of resources or help, but I simply did not feel the need or necessity to own one. The nature of my work, and the location of my residence made it convenient for me to walk around. Blessed with a wonderful cabbie, who has been gracious enough to drive me wherever I wanted to at moment's notice and reasonable cost, it never felt it an impediment not owning a car. And of course, when I traveled for personal reasons, I rented whenever I needed it ( which, again not very regularly).
So I finally broke that impasse yesterday. I have come to believe - perhaps belief is not the right word - but accept that life brings in its own consummation at the right time. We just have to wait for it. The day i got mugged a few weeks ago, this decision began crystallizing in my mind. And once the thought took shape and form, rest followed easily. A very close family friend suggested a car, I organized finance and possession taken - all in span of two days.
Frankly, Now that I own one, I am not particularly elated or euphoric about it. It will definitely help me in being little safer on the roads (less opportunity to get mugged, I would guess), and take me around a bit faster ; but otherwise, I dont think it will change my life style drastically. Aah! the only perceptible comfort will be my ability to drive down to local libraries whenever I wish to, or to an eclectic bookshop in a god forsaken place somewhere, or disappear to a log cabin in Smoky Mountains to be enveloped in mist, beauty and fragrance to spend hours reading and writing or contemplating. Yes - these are some pleasures I can give way to...
So , Here we are. Some pics of this newest member of our family.
God bless...
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Thoughts - A journey within

Thoughts - A journey within
Sometimes all that it takes for a ripe fruit to drop without effort is the slightest shake of a branch. No wrenching, no tugging, no spasms of pain on being uprooted from a source that had held it for so long. It just gives way, severs itself to begin a new life. Similarly, there are those precious moments in one's life when a casual conversation can suddenly reveal a side of a relationship that was hanging there all the time, but hidden by a thin veil of ignorance or self deception. And, all of sudden a chance remark pierces that tenuous veil, a gaping hole appears and everything becomes crystal clear to mind's eye. Things can never be the same after that.
The important thing though is one's inner availability to recognize and change at that moment. It is easy to struggle, rationalize, argue with oneself, lose that poignant moment to be radically transformed and continue in our mutually uncomfortable relationships. But an intelligent, wise Man is one who will stop when he observes such an opening and plunges into its holy depths. There is a wonderful word for such a moment in English. It is called "epiphany" The origins of this word goes back to early Christianity, when the appearance of angels , birth and revelation of Christ was considered a "sudden shining forth of divinity", but close to eighteenth century the word crept into English to mean any moment that suddenly revels a hidden truth or meaning.
Yesterday in office, I had one such epiphanous moment. It happened all of a sudden, when a conversation I was having suddenly turned direction, and in that pivotal instant, a whole new truth manifested. It was very cleansing. Zen Buddhists would want to call it Satori - an experience that complete reverses or invalidates (probably the better word) ones assumptions and premises and is tremendously healing. Such moments are rare, and as I said earlier, it is one's availability that makes the key difference. All of us have many such opportunities in our daily lives, but unfortunately, we lose most of them because we are so caught defending our positions against all odds. Here again , the word "losing" is not used in a negative connotation. It means letting go one's erroneous or misplaced understanding and emerging out of it a more wholesome man. The litmus test of such an event is deep peace within and without.
This is the season of Christmas, and one of books that is always close to me along with the Gita is "The sermon on the mount" - a collection of Sayings of Jesus Christ collected in the book of Matthew. It is said that these aphorisms were one of the first utterances of Christ after he was baptized by John in the river of Galilee. The sayings are fresh, vibrant without interpretations. In it Christ says
"And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's
eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye ? "
This is purest definition of epiphany. When the mote in one's eye is recognized and removed, everything else becomes clear. Professional, personal and social relationships are all desecrated by the heaviness of our personalities. Like a ripe fruit with too much weight hanging around uncomfortably, we invest too much of ourselves in our relationships, and in epiphanous moments when we realize the dead weight on us and learn to let go - a new dimension opens up that is far more enriching, liberating and fulfilling than what we assumed for so long.
Every year, Christmas denote the birth of divinity. An opportunity to be reborn again in spirit. I want to wish all of my readers, friends and well wishers my profound Christmas greetings, and pray that all of us are more open to moments of change and inner transformation.
Merry Christmas!!
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Jottings on 21st December 2015

The best way to study something is to look at its extreme manifestations, isolating it from what is considered normal flow and then subjecting it to intense scrutiny. All sciences, in a way, develop in this manner. Experiments are conducted in well defined boundaries or frames of reference, and results derived are generalized to suit hypotheses and propositions. And nothing bends itself to this kind of study more than that of human behavior and nature of the mind. Almost our entire knowledge and experience in Psychology and psychiatry are derived from human beings who have displayed extremities of behavior. Almost everything that sciences have known about Human mind comes from observing compulsive abnormalities than normal ones. The writings of Freud, Jung, Adler - fathers of this kind of study- abound in case studies of individuals who came to them with distinctively extreme behavior. It may be sexual, neurotic, schizophrenic, stress or all the rest of it. It based on such individuals that we have today what we call as an 'understanding of Human brain or mind"
The above para is a preamble to a kind of behavior that I find extremely fascinating : which is - the tendency of always having to prove ones point, or unable to confess ignorance during a conversation. Watch three or more educated individuals talking as a group. Chances are very likely that very quickly such a conversation will turn into each one proving that they have either gone through similar experiences, or a much better one, or trying to outplay others in the group by dismissing the whole topic as nonsensical not worthy of their attention, or plain "one-upmanship" . Nobody listens. The wait time available when somebody is doing the talking is only used by us to think of something to say when the other person has finished talking. Soon, there is cacophony of thoughts and noises which ends with the group departing and no meaningful objective achieved.
I have a friend, an elderly man in his fifties who runs his own private business. An Italian by birth and upbringing, his family has been in the US for a couple of generations. Very loquacious, jumpy and hot blooded; he would step into any conversation he would find himself in, and on any topic. If I told him that I was in San Francisco last week on work, he would immediately pitch in " hey Bala, Bay area.. Wonderful place. I used to own a boat in Sausalito area......", or when we spoke about a book or a poem, he would jump in "Bala, I was a literature major and published poet....". If we spoke about war in Afghanistan, he would talk about his status as war veteran. In other words, he needed to be seen as a man who "knew" everything about anything. His urgency to respond is so compulsive that it prevents him for being welcome into any dialogue. In fact, people tend to stop talking when he walks in, and slowly slip away from his zone, lest they be subject to intense narcissistic talk.
Narcissism is common enough among people. Every one is to an extent narcissistic. We love to be the center of attention and attraction. Sometimes deservingly so. Especially, in one's professional life, we need to be acknowledged for what we do or don't do, and sometimes the only way to get that attention is to speak about it. But when it becomes an inveterate obsession in every context, then things start becoming very unpleasant for others. Mike is an extreme case of this behavior. He is a great person, but only if one understands that his intrusive behavior is reflective of certain deep seated insecurity on not having lived up to his potential, or squandered it away in frivolous pursuits. And now when Middle age is crossing over to the other side, his need for recognition and empathy is becoming all the more stronger and intense. Yesterday, I took him out for dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant. During the course of our meal, I told Mike" Can you for once listen without responding with an anecdote from your life... . He was taken aback a little.. I continued " Mike you are a great person. I like for what you are without your needing to justify anything to me. And there is nothing wrong in not Knowing something.. If you can but listen into a conversation and not try to usurp it all the time, you will find more peace within yourself, not to mention other things.." He was silent for a while, then burst out laughing " Bala, nobody has spoke to me like this before. hahahaha! you are right buddy. I should learn to keep quiet and not keep beating my drum all the time. I know I am narcissistic Hahahaha"
Well that's Mike for you....
God bless..
Yours in mortality,
Bala

The 1960's - Vidal-Buckley debates, a sign of times to come

The 1960's - Vidal-Buckley debates, a sign of times to come
(To all my readers : This is a long essay, and I primarily meant to write it for my own understanding and use. It took about two hours to write this piece, and when I finished, I felt there may be few readers who would be interested in what I have to say. Hence the posting. The Vidal-Buckley debate is now captured in a wonderful documentary titled "Best of enemies", which incidentally is available on Netflix. For those us, who have time, interest and desire, it is definitely worth a watch. America doesn't produce people like Vidal or Buckley anymore. They were quintessential Americans: Free, opinionated, liberal and deeply wanted an America free of dogmatic encrustations. With Presidential elections round the corner, the Vidal-Buckley debates still resonates with intellectual vigor and enthusiasm for a better future, which sadly seem missing or lacking in what we see today)
Charles Dickens begins his epic tale of the French Revolution in “Tales of two cities” with these unforgettable and deep words - “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”. Almost every epochal period in a nation or a civilization can be characterized in such immortal words. It could be a century, decade or even a few years, but the consequences of what is done during that time, becomes a pivotal point in the social and political fabric of its inhabitants; a swerve, a redefinition of priorities, values and aspirations that drive its men towards “progress” and well-being. It would not be wrong to say that the aftermath of such times is nothing short of a fundamental revolution in the way people think, feel and act.
To me, the United States of America has always been a fascinating subject of study as a nation, a democracy, as a crucible of liberty and freedom. And one of the reasons for this fascination perhaps stems from the fact that its birth, sustenance and growth are extremely well documented. Every aspect of its life over the last 250 odd years is richly chronicled without need for interpretations or conjectures. When most of what we know of the East, or even Europe for that matter comes from historical narratives that are more often than not interpretative, contradictory or vacillating, evolution of America is available to us for most part in its purest forms. Actual accounts, richly detailed biographies and autobiographies, admirable works of fiction and non-fiction, proliferous number of newspapers and magazines, arts that captured the spirit of its times, audio recordings, video clips, well preserved monuments and places of historical importance – all of them give an avid student the material required to understand the subtle movements of its life course along the arteries of social, political and cultural pathways.
Interestingly, there have been not many period in America’s history when things have really radically. From the time of its formation to the tumultuous and bloody civil war marked a definite phase, and then there was a period of consolidation and working out its distinctive principles of liberty, political systems, science and economic development. There was then a productive phase of strong individualism influenced by religious movements that leaned towards man direct relationship with God and a strict sense of puritanism that evolved from it; after which came its unfortunate involvement with two world wars - a time when America started assuming that mantle of moral superiority which it carries even today as guardians of Human liberty; then the biggest shock of them all came in the form of economic depression that closely followed the wars when people realized for the first time that material prosperity is but a dream that can dissolve anytime, and any value systems built on its flimsy grounds is perhaps not strong enough to sustain.
In modern times, the decade of the sixties is, in my opinion, a singular set of ten years that marks America of old from the new. What a decade it was? Who would have imagined when 1960’s dawned they would elect one of the most charismatic, young Men who ever stood for presidency (John F Kennedy) as their thirty fifth president, only to be dramatically assassinated couple of years later; who would have expected that the sixties would further bear witness to brutal killings of two other intellectual stalwarts: Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy. One, a champion of civil liberties, the other a level headed, intelligent Presidential candidate representing the aspiration of Modern America without the playboyish and controversial charm of his brother. Who would have thought that America’s participation in an innocuous war in Vietnam would spiral into such bloody meaningless conflict resulting in colossal waste of active Human life for a cause that really didn’t justify US military presence - the right of US as a Moral gate keeper came under severe scrutiny and reevaluation by its public. Who would have imagined that a socially stable America with “family- values” suddenly find its young men and women abandoning stability and middle class values and plunge into a mood of hippies and counter culture fueled by rebellious and anti-establishment lyrics of Bob Dylan and Beatles and many others? Who would have imagined that being “Gay” was no more a taboo, and homosexuality would be accepted as part of normal human psychological structure, much against existing conventional puritanism of Christian faith and morals? Who would have thought that one of biggest movie hits in the sixties will happen to be “The graduate” - a film that opens up fundamental questions on adult preferences and blurring of ethical lines in social behavior? Who would have imagined that Women would have ever get to enjoy the pleasures of sex without fear of pregnancy, when the FDA approved the birth control pill in late sixties? It is a discovery that radicalized feminine power in the USA. Who would have thought the Henry Millers “Tropic of cancer” would push the limits of US laws on vulgarity and pornography, and eventually be declared a work of literature by the Supreme Court - a decision that had wide repercussions on American letters? Who would have thought that America would allow itself to be inundated by spiritual practices from the east clothing themselves in fanciful names and garbs seducing disillusioned public in brand new ways? Discontent was seething from within in many ways, and the mood of its people towards the ends of this decade was that of undecidedness. The fond dreams upon which America was built began to rumble in its foundations. Change was in the air as the decade inched towards its end.
So in the midst all this turmoil, unrest and social upheaval arrived the Presidential elections in 1968. An election that was to prove not only decisive in terms of what people wanted out a Government, but also a prism that reflected the stand of republicans and democrats on where they stood on key issues in American polity ad social issues. An aging Lyndon Johnson had openly declared that he wouldn’t stand reelection. It was a fight then between Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey. With both Kennedy’s (who symbolized resurgent America for its fellow citizens) dead or rather killed, it was a tough choice for people to make. Both aspiring candidates in this election were by no means of the same caliber of those glamorous and eloquent brothers of Kennedy family. Therefore, it needed strong media presence to bolster their respective positions and voice their views to general public. ABC (American Broadcasting Corporation) came up with a brilliant idea. Leaving the run of mill coverage of day to day elections to other TV channels, they decided to host a series of twelve debates spread over Democratic and republican conventions in Miami and Chicago, featuring two towering intellectuals of the day: Gore Vidal – democrat, a celebrated Novelist, Chronicler of American history, playwright, proclaimed Homosexual, candid in his views on American imperialism and William Buckley Jr – republican ,redoubtable TV Host, a strict conservative, editor of the National review, sympathizer of racism, an eloquent speaker quick of wit, repartee and sarcasm; more importantly – viscerally loathed Vidal and all that he stood for in American life. To bring both of them on stage was a bold move. It was no mystery that both men disliked each other, and if not for intellectual integrity, restraint and an opportunity to knock each other out intellectually, they would have never agreed to sit on the same platform together.
For the first in Election history, such an analyses was being orchestrated. It was clear that sparks would fly, and each man would not only stick to their party views but will make sure they try to establish their unequivocal intellectual supremacy over each other. Both of them were public speakers of the highest order deeply steeped in American history and values. The fact the each one hated the other’s presence was not to be a deterrent for a fair, witty and stimulating dialogue on current state of affairs. The first series of debates were aired during the Republican convention in Miami. For forty five minutes, viewers and listeners were treated to crisp debating that crisscrossed personal and public boundaries without stepping upon each one toes. The tension in the air was palpable. The question in everyone’s mind was this: When is the debate going to get personal or who is going to make the first offensive move to put down the other. The speakers, obviously masters in this art of conversation would often perilously come to verbal blows with each other, but then would back off leaving the field clear for further discussions. ABC was happy to see viewership soaring to millions with each debate. After the republican convention, the balance was mostly even between the two, with Buckley holding a slight edge in debating skills and meticulously crafted replies. They had still gotten onto social issues where both men had diametrically opposite views and preferences. Two weeks later, the stage shifted to Chicago for the Democratic convention, and debates resumed with same intensity and from where they left off. Vidal-Buckley debates were imperceptibly becoming the barometer of the election, and the nation waited for its outcome in round two. Vidal began this second series with an upper hand. The moral and social chaos around, riots on streets and sense of dissatisfaction with republican policies gave him a good launching pad. Vidal was also the more street smarter of the two, and knew the pulse of the underbelly of America. Buckley on the other hand comes from Old England with a high nosed attitude on sensitive issues. It was evident as the debates entered its eighth of ninth installment, something within had to break, and one of these gentlemen would have give way to momentary weakness and get personal. On the eve of the tenth and final debate, riots on the streets had reached a new pitch, Police officers had opened fire on dissenters and the general mood was one of despondency. When Gore walked on to stage, it was clear he was on a moral high-ground, and steered the conversation towards totalitarianism, subtle references to Nazism and propaganda and use of violent force to curtail freedom. Buckley was visibly uncomfortable, but continued to maintain a straight face and usual wit until in one moment of debating brilliance Vidal subtly referred to Buckley as a “Crypto-Nazi” –which evinced a reaction from Buckley that still stuns us after fifty years. He replied instantly frothing in his lips, with ferocious anger, nearly at the edge of his chair with fingers maliciously pointing at Gore:
“Now listen, you queer - Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered…”
At this seminal moment, Vidal knew he had won the debate. It had gotten personal and physical, and once that happens between intellectuals discoursing at the highest levels of abstraction, defeat is a foregone conclusion. Millions watching couldn’t believe their eyes and ears. Gore with that sarcastic, placid grin on his face, and Buckley sweating and seething with visceral anger on being cornered by his opponent. Buckley refused to speak or comment on that reaction for the rest of his life. It was a regrettable moment in his otherwise peerless public life. He allowed his hatred for Vidal as Gay - and in his deep seated opinion of Vidal as a writer whose books (especially Myra Breckenridge) propagated unorthodox views of personal and social issues, and whose fame as Hollywood script writer, flamboyant socialite helped usher in a new set of decadent cultural values – get the better of him.
Both Vidal and Buckley died peacefully in early 2000’s. But the legacy of those debates is still resonating in every nation, in every TV channel that covers Elections. The slur that inadvertently emanated from Buckley’s lips corrupted political dialogue to one of personal Vendetta. The trend of having “political analysts” cover elections and take appropriate political stand on vital issues, often degenerating into vituperative dialogue has its precedent in Vidal-Buckley debates.
So when I said in the beginning of this essay that the sixties represented a turning point in America, it essentially boiled down to what Vidal and Buckley stood for? Buckley still believed in segregation of Blacks, imperialism of US, its sense of superiority and strict moral and sexual codes of conduct. On the other hand, Vidal was a passionate advocate of democracy, Hated US policy of going to war for reasons that don’t affect them directly, believed in equality of sexual preferences and most importantly emphasized the fact that founding fathers of USA wanted America to be a haven of liberal values and not a torch bearer of Moral righteousness of the globe. Well, it has been fifty years since Buckley-Vidal debates happened, and I don’t think we have sufficiently resolved or reached a conclusion on fundamental issues. Perhaps, we never will. Every period, every age will have to dig out their own sense of equilibrium. And it’s the way we achieve it that matters, not the end. For there can never be an end. Life is constant movement. The Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis is a cyclical operation. In the sands of shifting values, there will always be a Vidal and a Buckley. And there will never be comprehensive triumph, only an overarching synthesis.