Saturday, December 31, 2016

Jottings : Slice of Life - 80 ( On new years eve..)

Jottings : Slice of Life - 80 ( On the morning before new year..)
Another chronological year comes to an end, and almost all of us will rejoice, entertain each other, make new promises and resolutions ( some will reaffirm promises made years ago), renew relationships and start counting 2017 all over again in few hours from now with the firm belief and conviction a fresh, unwritten page in the book of time has opened, and we are free to scrawl our own destinies upon it. Its a beautiful thought. Truly Human and utterly naive!!!
In the year 1752, the English Parliament cut down eleven days of that year to synchronize it with the Gregorian calendar in use all over Europe - September 2nd 1752 was followed by 14th september ( skipping 11 days). There was revolt from the public. They believed eleven days were actually taken away from their lives, and wanted it reinstated at any cost. The revolt failed, and it took some time for them to understand that chronological time and resulting calendars are merely functional human conventions, like meters and miles, and have no bearing on reality whatsoever
We are no different from our English brothers and sisters. We too are inextricably bound by our blinding devotion to years, hours and minutes. A new year means a "brand new" time of our lives. As if the universe decides to unwind itself, at the stroke of 12.00 AM and bloom forth afresh. I wish it were so. Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, the next day begins like any other, without an iota of change - internally or externally - for all of us. At most, we have a blinding headache and stomach disorder, after all the alcohol and food that recklessly went in.
For years now, I have stopped viewing 1st of January as any different from others. Apart from the fact, it takes few days to get used to writing "2017" on documents and letters and bank slips, and not slip into writing 2016 as matter of habit, nothing changes "because" of a new year. This is me, and I dont speak for anybody else. For other, a new year may be "transforming". I dont know, but will wish them good luck.
However, I personally believe it is nice to take stock of ones life each chronological year. After all, It is a nice round number 12 months, 365 days- to account for what you done with yourself. Beginning 2014 , I started keeping an account on how many books on my reading list and personal library did I actually read, how many movies (not commercial blockbusters, but movies with substance) I got around watching, and more importantly how many essays I managed to write. Not that any of these numbers mean anything beyond what they are - just numbers; but I do look forward with a palpitating heart ( hahaha!) to take stock on where those numbers stand. Just for fun.
Well here is the final tally :
Books Read : 21 books of Non fiction and 20 fiction. Hmm. That is about 3 complete books a month besides the enormous amount of undirected reading I do.
Movies Watched : 58 full Movies ( approx. 2.5 hrs in length each). out of which, 8 are movies in Indian languages. Well, I would like improve on that Indian number in 2017.. Hopefully..
Essays written : 96 essays on my blog and posted on facebook in parallel, ranging wide variety of subjects. Each essay, on an average of about 1300 - 1500 words. Also, I did manage to research for a book I am writing and wrote four chapters of it. I also see I have accumulated about 80 full length pages of analysis and findings.
Those numbers dont look bad at all, considering all this was done in between an intense software-techie's life I lead. When I sit back and think how all this was possible, I understand the reason pretty quickly. On an average, I wake up between 4 - 5 AM most days and regularly go to bed only around one in the night ( including weekends, holidays and festivals) with a brief siesta of about 30- 45 minutes on some days. Therefore, with only four to five hours of deep, relaxing and absorbed sleep most of the year, I do have quite a bit of time to do what I want to do.
Well, as a parting note for this year , I do wish all my friends, family and readers from all parts of the globe a wonderful, joyful and fulfilling chronological 2017. Hopefully, you will make the most of every infinitesimal moment of time packed into this year, and enjoy whatever you are doing.
God bless...
yours in mortality,
Bala






Friday, December 30, 2016

Jottings : Slice of life -79 ( “All the light we cannot see” - by Anthony Doerr.... Lyrical meditations on war and its psychological ramifications)

Jottings : Slice of life -79 ( “All the light we cannot see” - by Anthony Doerr.... Lyrical meditations on war and its psychological ramifications)
The period between 1938 and 1945, the dark and painful period of Second world war still reverberates in Art, and literature in particular, like an unending ripple across the loom of time. Even though post war world brimmed with new found confidence and promised to be significantly different economically, politically, socially and culturally, the deep scars left by those torrid years of unimaginable brutality, primeval violence - both physical and psychological has left its indelible mark on Man’s collective psyche. Even after all these years memories of that appalling tragedy seems ineradicable no matter how much we wish to move away from its torrid memories. They spill over consciously and unconsciously into our writing, music and cinema and other arts.
None would have thought at the beginning of twentieth century our cosy world would crumble into chaos and confusion in matter of years. After all, 1900 began with a wave of optimism. Science had won its hard battle with theology, industrialism was revolutionizing the way we lived, Economists put forth theories of abundance and prosperity promising utopia, Art was breaking traditional formats and expressions, European powers were blooming with geniuses and were proud of their culture and imperial reach - and then 1914 happened. From nowhere, an inconsequential shooting incident in Sarajevo snowballed into collapse of European peace, and major nations quickly slid into war like of pack of cards falling on each other. The hardy Germans, since the time of Bismarck have been threatening to be world leaders by virtue of their race and blood. They smelt an opportunity to fulfill that prophecy and began their war with an assault on a neutral country (Belgium) . For five years they battled , until they were were overwhelmed and beaten by Allied forces into submission. The aftermath of the war left Germany devastated, and the treaty of versailles agreed upon and signed by victors, only added salt to an already gaping and infested German wound, and nothing else. There was no way they could pay the heavy repatriations the treaty demanded, or handle the shame and humiliation they were subjected to lying down. It was a matter of time they would recoup. While the world rejoiced in the thought that they had once and for all put an end to the German problem; in a dingy, festering prison camp, a short, mustached man thought otherwise. His dream, anger, charisma, racial hatred and vaulting ambition gave birth to the second world war, hundred times more devastating and painful than the first, and more importantly bought to bear upon the world the most shameful and uninhibited barbarism ever recorded in human history. Churchill described the rise of Hitler after the first world war thus .. “..the void was open, and into the void after a pause strode a maniac of ferocious genius, the repository and expression of the most virulent hatred that has ever corroded the human heart..” . True!! It couldn't be summarized better.
The above paragraph was meant to give my younger readers a rough and sketchy historical context . To be in the middle of a full scale war as an involuntary victim or pawn, and not a active participant is an agony and existential distress hard to imagine for all of us who havent yet felt any anarchy around us. While there may be many factually accurate non-fictional accounts of two world wars in academic and popular press, the emotional and intellectual life of common men and women pulled into war because of circumstances beyond their control can glimpsed only through sensitive literature and art, and by master story tellers. From the pages of Shirer’s “The rise and fall of the third Reich” or Churchill’s six volumes of second world war or Hannah Arendt incisive book on “origins of totalitarianism” , we could , at the most, get an impersonal, abstract sense of historical direction , but never the inner microscopic life of men and women who had to live through each day of bloodshed and brutality with no prospect of a future, and only an obliterated past remaining with them.Their emotional condition, their daily lives in the middle of chaos, aspirations, empathy, fear of death, seperation from beloved ones - all these can only be sensitively depicted in a play, a book, a symphony, an opera, or a movie, a gripping photograph or a moving piece of painting. In other words, only art has the ability to snapshot and express private moments of Mans life in a crisis with all its inner tremors and palpitations. It needed a short diary of Anne Frank to open our minds to how intense was the jewish suffering . The holocaust and treatment of jews took a whole new meaning after the world read her diary. Her sensitive recollection of fear, emotional decomposition, uncertainty; and amidst all the turmoil, the solitary reaper of human hope and optimism she found in the german family who sheltered her - educated us more than any large, scholarly volumes on world war ever could.
Over the last half a century innumerable works of fiction have based themselves in the milieu of second world war. Scenes of battle, concentration camps, invasions and daring escapes, espionage, family life and many other themes have lend themselves to be embroidered into a fascinating by a competent writer. Herman Wouk, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Gunter Grass to name few that immediately come to mind, and many others ( the list can fill up a book) who have bought tremendous emotional resonance into their writing about war, and emotional state of an individual participating or caught in an unsolicited war. In the last decade or so, Markus Zusak’s “The book thief” based in Nazi Germany was admirably written for young adults. But by far the best book, in recent times on the psychological turmoil caused by second world war has to be Anthony Doerr’s’ 2014 Pulitzer prize winning novel “ All the light we cannot see”.
I bought this book in early 2015. It has been lying in my library ever since waiting for its turn, which eventually came last month. I have never read Doerr before. “At dusk they pour from the sky…” , so begins his beautiful novel on the incredible story of a young German boy and and blind French girl, whose disparate lives are torn apart by a war they dont understand, mysteriously find each other and psychologically redeem themselves in a momentary act of inner emancipation from fear and guilt. Doerr’s mediations on war, mesmerizing observations on man’s psych in a totalitarian regime, fluid poetic phrases and metaphors leaping out of sentences and paragraphs with stunning lucidity, his crisp narrative style zigzag chronologically in time carrying his emotionally, intellectually pregnant tale across across desolate towns and villages, and above all, Doer’s mastery of language and its evocative use makes this work of literature one of the poignant expressions of war manifested in the hearts of two lone sensitive individuals grappling with its depraved enormity, and maturing as they learn to cope with it.
This book has to be read in small doses like poetry, and one should find time to linger with Doerr’s meditations. In between poetic prose, Doerr exhibits meticulous mastery of facts as well. He writes about radio signals. snails, birds, guns, diamonds with equal felicity and poise. And at the heart of this beautiful story is a myth - in fact , a portent curse on the possessor of a jewel. It is Doerr's supreme artististry that he weaves the myth of this curse along with horrors of war and its rippling effects on his characters. “All the light we cannot see” is a multi layered novel. It is prismatic in its structure. Depending on the angle we study it from, the narrative reflects different shades of color and understanding. Finally, it is a story of hope, confidence and triumph of Human spirit. No matter how horrible the past has been, or how miserable the present appears to be, the future can still be wonderful and fulfilling. In concluding on this optimistic note, Anthony Doerr propels himself to that stratum of writers who writing qualify as classics to read and re-read again..
God bless…
Yours in Mortality,
Bala

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Jottings : Slice of life - 78 ( George Michael - one more tragic end in an unending tale )

Jottings : Slice of life - 78 ( George Michael - one more tragic end in an unending tale )
George Michael died on Christmas day. He was found, once again, like many legendary, popular singers and performers of modern western pantheon, lying in bed, dead, apparently from a massive cardiac arrest. Like others, his death was “deemed normal” without any conclusive evidence of how he died. Probably, we will never know. But what puzzles me is this strange notion of creative genius we have cultivated over the last half century or so. We tend to bestow immortality on artists who die or kill themselves in mysterious ways. Perhaps, we believe, it is part of their genius to die so tragically, early and controversially. After all, normal death is only for mere mortals. And for supposedly maverick artists like George Michael’s of this world, Modern icons of music, death should be unique and abnormal. How else do we distinguish between mundane and divine? Strange!!! Somehow, we have been indoctrinated to believe that artists who die prematurely of wild, profilgate, reckless living do so because their art is too much for them to bear, that their’s is an overflowing genius which no mortal body cannot contain for long- hence unnatural death is to be their artistic salvation, or some would say redemption. In my opinion, nothing can be more convoluted than this adulation we shower on those who simply cannot handle life without the glare of lights, the shower of praises or the incessant hordes of crying and wailing devotees, who would rip open their shirts to show their love , and accept a sweat laden jacket of their hero as token of their genius. Music really doesn't play any role here.
That is the reason I was so happy when Bob Dylan was given the Nobel prize. Here is a man, an artist, who has maintained his equanimity, creative balance, his principles and integrity over forty or more long years of fame and glory. He send his emissary, a close friend to read his speech in Stockholm and collect the prize on his behalf. Not for him the fame under the glare of footlight. His solace lies in the creative seclusion of writing and singing music, even if its power and energy have diminished over the years. A true musician never evaluates his work. To him every note he composes, a syllable he sings is pure art. There is no explicit need for a doting audience to scaffold his creative fountain. For many others, there is constant need to be in the limelight; do anything it takes to keep their name alive. Flaunt civic rules, drugs or scuffle with law, broken relationships and resulting depressions - anything to keep the interest of their audience alive. Many a time sacrificing their very art, gift in the process.
Speaking of George Michael, Contrary to what many may think, I believe he was more of a crooner than a singer. His voice would be an excellent accompaniment in the background while doing something serious, but his voice per se was never compelling enough to take the foreground and make you want to hear - which is what real vocal talent is all about. Lets put this way : He never exhibited his full-bodied voice. It was always soft, prancing from one phrase to another lending a weak prop to some wonderful instrumental orchestration. The secret of his success was his musical troop and the support they lent him. And of course, who can forget the fact he gained popularity in an era when Musical videos were beginning to direct the fate of young artists. A particularly bad song would quickly scramble up the charts because it had a captivating video, backed by financial muscle of MTV and other channels. Those of us who were in our teens during the mid and late eighties will recollect what I am talking about. George Michael did make beautiful, classy videos. The "Freedom" song which found four of the most gorgeous ladies in the modeling business lip syncing, pouting, bathing and cat walking while Michael - with his baby face, hazel green eyes, and toned muscles twisting, turning and hanging on curtain bars showing off his rippling masculinity around and underneath his arms - whispering his words intermittently, or the Funky number, which was really visually funky with Linda Evangelista delightfully moving around the screen in skin hugging wear - were brilliantly conceived. His videos revolutionized the way Pop music was packaged; its effect reverberate even today.
“Jesus to a child” along with “careless whisper” will remain his best artistic work. These two compositions may be the defining moments of his brief musical journey. In them, he bought together words, vocals, emotions and instrumentation into one symphonic whole, like never before or after. Whenever one thinks of George Michael, only both these songs readily come to mind. At least, to me.
Starting with Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Amy , Prince and God know how many more singers and performers will die a tragic death in the name of art and artistic sensibilities. I wonder !! I would rather respect those who live through failures and reinvent themselves constantly ( though often resulting mediocre work after their peak), but nevertheless finding joy in life and living than giving it up in desperation, weakness and recklessness.
As a ending note to this essay, though little misplaced in this context, I would like to pay my tribute to a Giant of Indian Music, Dr Balamurali Krishna, who died few months ago at 86. A child prodigy, with ups and downs in his singing career, yet retained his joy, mastery and passion for music till his last day. Like Bob Dylan and others , he silently nourished his art, and the fragrance of artists such as them will spread around imperceptibly affecting lives of many budding artists for generations to come. Their fame is not based on their life style, but on the purity of their art. And there lies a crucial differentiator between artistic mortality and immortality.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Jottings : Slice of Life - 76 ( An adolescent’s failed attempt to write verse)

Jottings : Slice of Life - 76 ( An adolescent’s failed attempt to write verse)
Early yesterday morning, around 3.20 AM, I received a message from a friend with a scanned copy of the page you see before you. In those sleepy, foggy eyed moments of the day when it is difficult to focus clearly , It took few minutes for me to read what was on that page. It slowly dawned upon me the handwriting I saw there distinctly resembled mine during my younger days. It is a poem, or rather a clumsy attempt at versifying thoughts. I checked with Bhanu to confirm if the handwriting was truly mine. He confirmed, and curtly said the poem had to be only mine. I nodded.
For the life of me, I cannot remember when I wrote this, or why? or how did it end up among Bhanu’s papers at his home in Hyderabad. It is true, both of us were very close during the mid eighties, and would constantly visit each others homes frequently, but it eludes my memory on how such a poem came to written and what prompted its rather pessimistic tone. Throughout yesterday, I kept jogging my memory at regular intervals to discover some thread, a clue to the motive behind this amateurish composition, but all that I hit was a blank, dark wall and nothing more. It was almost as if I was trying to pry into a strangers life with whom I have absolutely nothing in common. Yet, the faded page with its scrawled hand writing grimly stares at me through its inky, wriggly strokes reminding me of a self which was once part of me , and is not operative in me anymore, or has disappeared so completely leaving no vestiges of its presence in my brain. Such a fragile, unreliable thing memory is?
“A desolate life” is how I have named this poem!! Only God knows why? The entire poem ( apologies for calling it one) seems more of an effort to versify thoughts , than say something true and heartfelt. Early eighties was the time I started reading literature. So attempts like these were probably my own justification on how well I had absorbed the works of great masters. I dont know? I am just speculating.
There is however one thread of thinking in this poem which has interested me for a long time; and that is : the nature of what we call this “self” or “Myself”. The resolution to this question happened only around five years ago. Therefore in a fundamental way, this poem reflects my adolescent interest in this theme. Apart from that, I would dismiss this effort as childish in its execution, and more of an attempt to prove to the world of my capability to write “poems” - which obviously, at this distance seems thoroughly misplaced and utterly unjustified.
Well, to end on a positive note, it is good to know that I had began writing more than 30 years ago. So, the seed was there. Thanks Bhanu for dusting this off your storage and sharing with me..
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala


Friday, December 23, 2016

Jottings : Slice of life - 75 ( Lolita - pronounced Lo-lee-ta - a Vladimir Nabokov masterpiece)

Jottings : Slice of life - 75 ( Lolita - pronounced Lo-lee-ta , “the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta….” - a Vladimir Nabokov masterpiece)
In 1955 Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian emigre, educated in Trinity college, England, naturalized citizen of America, produced one of the greatest and most controversial novels of the twentieth century: “Lolita”. The book could not published in the US and its first printed edition had to come out of Paris, where bars of censorship were always not very high. It was only in 1958, that America relented to publish Lolita; and when it did, hell broke loose in all quarters. Readers did not know what to make of this novel : Puritan parents read few pages and threw the book away never to expose their children to such unadulterated pornography, Young male adults surreptitiously read the book under blankets with torch in hand, or hiding in secluded corners basking in its brilliant description of sexual concupiscence; sections of young American female readers were shocked to find their innermost desires so explicitly exposed, but majority were repulsed at its pedophilic connotations and sexual acts reasoned away as psychological aberrations of a rational and scholarly man; connoisseurs of language however loved the book for its lyrical prose, sublime metaphors and inspired use of language; Literary critics were astonished to find an almost flawless narrative style chiseled to perfection with hardly a misplaced word, paragraph or comma; Social critics and armchair intellectuals compared the story as symbolic of American consumerism, uninhibited voyeurism and sense of vulgar mimetism - in all, the book roused and appealed to almost anybody who had a passing interest in life, art, books and literature. When the storm dissipated, and many readers reread the novel with serene eyes, It was then Lolita began to emerge as a piece of fiction that embodied meditations of a modern age and a mirror reflecting cultural cross currents, moral ambivalence and sexual deviations sweeping through the west.
The story of Lolita is pretty straightforward. The protagonist Humbert Humbert is of European descent, educated, articulate, masculine with misplaced sense of sexuality. He lusts after young nubile flesh. Not in a carnal sense of forcefully deflowering them, but his body responds with overpowering intensity to budding pubescent young girls with pony tails and pock-marked skin, quivering on the threshold of adulthood. They aroused him. A failed frustrated sexual encounter during his younger days with one such girl finds its morally devastating consummation years later in the daughter of his landlord in America - Dolores Haze aka Lolita. By that time Humbert has learnt to rationalize his craving, and yearns to strike a fine balance between not hurting the girl physically or emotionally, yet at the same time gratify his insatiable need for sexual gratification. Lolita meets a tragic end, and Humbert is bought to trial for rape and child molestation. The entire story is narrated in first person singular as Humbert's justification of his acts. He addresses a Jury, and through them the readers - to whom he wishes to objectify and explain his uninhibited passion, the circumstances leading to his sexual apotheosis , and the true nature of his love and attraction for “Lolita”.
Anyone who attempts to read Lolita today in the 21st century will probably not flinch as much as their predecessors did. In the last sixty odd years since Lolita was published, sexual morality, its visual depiction in commercial pornography, movies and endless sexual bombardment in all forms in printed media and television has perhaps fogged the moral lens of our age. Today, Lolita will not offend you at all. At the most, we may feel a little sympathetic . Thats all. Moral standards are always relative and ever changing. What was deplorable once becomes acceptable next. To modern day readers, Lolita may indeed seem very puerile and many would wonder what the noise all about. Unlike “Lady Chatterly’s lover” written and published by DH Lawrence in 1929, which shattered Old English morality and was finally published in England only in 1960, after numerous lawsuits, debates and corrections; Nabokov refused to touch or edit a word of what he had written. There were expurgated editions of his book available, but none authorized or endorsed by him. He was convinced, and so are social commentators today that America in the fifties was indeed giving birth to a culture which provoked sexual promiscuity. The bill boards, commercials, fashion statements of young boys and girls , the post world war boom - all nurtured unbridled consumerism, and more importantly precocious consumption of it. Nabokov marvelously evokes the era, its cultural stereotypes in his plush, inimitable prose.
If one reads Lolita carefully, it becomes clear that Nabokov doesn't not justify anything. He throws a moral conundrum at his readers, asking them to resolve it in their own way. He simply asks : what does a Man do when he has an urge for nymphets ( thats the word he uses for young girls of his liking) and there is provocation all around. Lolita’s innocent behavior, her unassuming sexuality coupled with Humbert's inner resistance, his scheming brain produce an environment of frictional heat and lust. While Humbert painfully realizes in few poignant pages in the book that his fatal attraction to Lolita is indeed deviant, and may have robbed Lolita of her childhood, innocence and ultimately her life; he quickly recovers from such bouts of introspection with the thought he tried his best to control his urge, and thats the best he could do under the circumstance. Was that enough or not - is a question for us readers, and not for Humbert Humbert or Nabokov, his creator.
I reread Lolita a month ago. This time with the eyes of a lover of literature. For sheer beauty of language, felicity of expression and intensity of story telling - Lolita is probably unsurpassed or unsurpassable. It was almost as if Nabokov was proving a point to his western readers that a Russian emigre soaked in the Pushkin, Dostovoesky and Tolstoy’s flair for story telling and language could outdo the very best of English bred authors. Like a peacock showing off its plumes, Nabokov’s unleashes his literary and lingual virtuosity to an open jawed audience. One cannot take our eyes off Nabokov’s sentences. They are sculpted, chiseled, pruned and laid out to perfection. If mesmerizing is an epithet which can be applied to prose, it is Nabokov’s.
Since the 1970’s, especially after Nabokov’s death, Lolita has been regarded one of the most influential novels of the last century , and definitely the most elegant prose ever written. Lolita is now standard text in many undergraduate programs in top universities. Matters sexual have always been taboo, and youngsters often find themselves unable to come to terms or express themselves freely on this innermost need at the right time in their lives. A discussion on Lolita’s text, meaning and symbolism can be a catalyst for such discussions. The other day, I heard Monica Greenleaf, a very articulate and balanced professor of slavic studies in Stanford mention during a podcast how certain paragraphs of Lolita evokes deep reactions from her students, which otherwise is lost while studying literature. Art has be to a catharsis. Thats why the Greeks invented tragedy and drama. Similarly , written literature should hold a mirror to our souls. Sometimes, what we see there may not be pleasing and socially correct, but that does not mean it is invisible or not there. The quicker we get to terms with it, the better for us as individuals and for society all round..
If you are a lover of literature and have not yet read Lolita, I request you to attempt reading this wonderful book. Its an experience unlike anything else you may have encountered.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala



Sunday, December 18, 2016

Jottings : slice of life - 74 ( “Ethics” - a book which transformed my thinking)

Jottings : slice of life - 74 ( “Ethics” - a book which transformed my thinking)
The year was 1656, and the young man in question was a sephardic jew twenty three years of age. The scene of this enactment was the Talmud congregation in a synagogue in Amsterdam - the sanctum sanctorum of many Jews, who after centuries of running away from one nation to another finally found peace in the enlightened and democratic country of Holland. In that glorious Dutch period of tolerance, they were given the freedom to practice their own religion, but with the caveat they were not to disturb existing Christian traditions. Jews were elated. After the Mohammedan rule in Spain centuries ago where they were treated well, this was their first taste of renewed freedom to practice their cherished religious beliefs with confidence and security. The elders of this community strictly instructed, watched, censured and guarded their fellow members from violating the accepted interpretation of the old Hebrew bible or the New testament in any way to cause discomfort to the Governing body of Amsterdam - who were predominantly Christians. After all, who would want to sacrifice well earned peace and physical security offered after so many centuries of relentless persecution. They vowed to keep a low profile. And anybody who chose to violate their tenets were dealt with severely. The worst punishment for a Jew, worse than death perhaps, was to be excommunicated, ostracized from society until deep penance was undertaken to atone for their sins of transgression. Under the shadow of this threat, not many jews in 17th Century Amsterdam dared to transgress.
But this young man in question was an exception. He was born to parents of Portuguese origin, and was trained to become a priest. But he was attending lectures by atheists, surreptitiously learning Latin and beginning to question the God of trinity. He was conversing on blasphemous topics with teachers of dubious reputation. A melancholy shy, young man, with large brown eyes, curly black hair cascading up to his shoulders , short of stature, soft spoken, reticent, not easily given to argument, yet, his intellect - soaked in the scientific environment of copernican revolution, Galileo’s stunning discoveries and Descartes rationalism -couldn’t be contained within the capsular boundaries of traditional jewish or christian pedagogy. From an young age, any kind of internal authority without reason irked him, and like great Philosophers had this tremendous urge to get to the bottom of things by himself. As he learnt more about the God of Hebrew Scriptures and the trinity of the Bible, strange stirrings of doubt arose in him, and worse, he was beginning to voice them gently to others. Jewish elders warned him few times, tried talking sense, pleaded sometimes, but the young man couldn’t be weaned away from his philosophical doubts and ruminations. There was no way but to cast him out from their fold. After intense deliberation they arrived at their decision. But, this time around, for some strange reason lost to history , their statement of excommunication was extraordinarily severe with no opportunity for repentance at all. In an assembly full of Jews, the priest read out the following curse on Baruch Spinoza or Benedito de Espinosa. It is worth quoting in full. Not many times in record history has a curse so full of vehemence, hate and dislike like this ever been pronounced on any man. Even at the distance 250 years, these words cannot be read with a shivering tingle shooting up our spine. Read it for yourselves:
“By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law. But you that cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day.
That no one should communicate with him neither in writing nor accord him any favor nor stay with him under the same roof nor within four cubits in his vicinity; nor shall he read any treatise composed or written by him.”
Spinoza was not physically present when this curse was pronounced. It was relayed to him by a friend. When he heard of his excommunication, his biographer (Lucas) observes , Spinoza responded with perfect innocence and equanimity. He is reported to have said
“All the better (they cursed me); they do not force me to do anything that I would not have done of my own accord.… But, since they want it that way, I enter gladly on the path this opened to me….”
From that day on Spinoza lived alone in rented homes, grinding lens for a living, thinking and writing on deepest human concerns till his quiet death in 1677, at the age of 42. He lived a solitary life with discipline with most cordial relation with people near him. None understood the depth of this thought or the audacity of his thinking. He was to revolutionize the way Western Philosophy understood God and Universe. His most profound work “The ethics” was published posthumously; and when the world read it - they were perplexed, confused and astonished all in equal measure. Here was the consummation of a human mind pushing the limits of intellect and rationality to arrive at spectacular conclusions. He reasoned that the entire Universe had to be derived from single “substance” and everything that happens in it has to have a casual explanation, but not necessarily decipherable by the limited human brain. He refrained from calling that substance “God” because of its anthropomorphic connotation. Divided into five parts consisting of over 80 propositions, Spinoza threw aside all assumptions and inquired afresh about the nature of God and Universe. In step by logical step, he dissolved the dichotomy of matter and mind which Descartes, the french philosopher began in early 17th century and stopped shy of resolving. He logically proved there could be no dichotomy, or two different substances, but only one. His stunning conclusion strangely echoes the notion of “Brahman” in Advaitic philosophy. While Advaita advocates intuition and grace to discover this truth of oneness, Spinoza made a similar discovery through rigorous application of logic, using which ,he believed anyone could reach the same truth as him, provided they have the courage and tenacity to put aside inherited tradition and unsubstantiated assumptions , and stop wallowing in superstition and confusing theology. However, the difficult part of Spinoza is reading him. Many an ardent reader of the “Ethics” has put the down the book in sheer frustration after first few pages, never to touch it again. In fact, many have lost all interest in Philosophy after attempting to read Spinoza. That is natural because only if the enquirer is serious about his questions will the enquiry be serious enough. Otherwise not! And Spinoza’s ethics is not for those who wish to dabble in philosophy or read for sheer entertainment. He says “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death”. Only weak intellects are bound in traditions which console them with unaccounted theories; but the brave , free men would want to find out for themselves who they are, and where they go, and what is the secret to unbroken happiness . It is for such people Spinoza wrote. The book is written in the Euclidean format. It begins with definitions, followed by axioms, then propositions and finally proofs. Spinoza had great love for the purity of Mathematical reasoning. He believed just as angles of any Triangle will equal two right angles, no matter where and when; so too, the nature of infinite substance can also be proved to be unitary and self sustaining, if we could start from self evident truths which no need no further proofs - such as ones "being" or existence. The book is definitely not easy to read, but thats how Spinoza wanted it to be. Like the Upanishads, they need focussed study, persistent thinking and assimilation. But once, we get past the initial understanding of Spinoza’s terms, arguments and reasoning, then pages begin to lighten and steady waves of clarity break on the shores of our befuddled brains. Sudden intuition springs from within, and all of sudden the intellectual rigor of Spinozoan thought seems self evident and so simple
My interest in Spinoza stretches back more than ten years, when I first encountered his life and thought in Will durant’s wonderful book “The story of philosophy”. God knows , how many people have been inspired by Durant’s great book containing short essays on all important Western Philosophers . I certainly was one among them. Since then, I have tried reading the “Ethics” at least five times. Each time, I would plod a little deeper, but never had the energy and intellectual commitment to go though with it. During a business trip in August of 2013, I made a spontaneous resolution one night sitting in my hotel room to study this work. I had this firm conviction the book had something in it for me. Luckily, The “Half price” book store in dallas was close by, and I went in and bought a paperback copy of “Ethics” , with no commentary or annotations. Just plain Translation by WH White. From that day onwards, my love affair with Spinoza began in right earnest. I vowed not to force myself to read it within any fixed timeframe. I wanted the understanding to blossom in me. I would read a definition, an axiom or a proposition; and mull over it for a few weeks (sometimes) until it made sense to me. If I needed elaboration on a specific word or a context in which Spinoza uses it, I would consult Michel de Rocca or Stephen Nadler’s or Rebecca Goldstein’s studies on Spinoza, and return to the text again. This book always travels with me along with portable version of the Bhagavad Gita.
A few days ago, I finished my first complete reading of “Ethics”. It has taken three years and two months to make this intellectual journey. Frankly, every moment of it has been full of joy and ecstasy of understanding. Unlike a physical journey which has signposts to direct our travel, an inner journey has no such props. It is solitary, unnerving and sometimes devastating and dark. It needs self sustaining courage and commitment. The grandeur of Spinoza’s vision and the meticulous exposition of its truth in “Ethics” has convinced me intellectually and intuitively that all mystics speak the same language. When I read the Gita for the first time, a similar joy tingled through me. I felt the same rush of intuition as i journeyed through Spinoza.
As they say in Spiritual traditions, no study of a great book of truth is ever complete. We always start again with all humility and interest. The rigor of Spinoza’s logical reasoning is now part of me, and I shall open its first page again and lay my eyes on his very first definition.
“By cause of itself, I understand that, whose essence involves existence; or that, whose nature cannot be conceived unless existing”
The journey begins afresh….
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Jottings : Slice of Life - 73 ( Mahadeva Mama - a reminiscence)

Jottings : Slice of Life - 73 ( Mahadeva Mama - a reminiscence)
( PS : When I woke up today morning, Strangely, my first thoughts were about an uncle of mine for whom I have the greatest love, affection and regards. He died in the mid nineties. Coincidentally enough, my brother today posted in a private whatsup group an old photo he had dug out from his archives of my Uncle along with his wife and their four gorgeous daughters in the prime of their lives. The photo must be at least thirty years old. To me this was sign enough to write about him, and his influence in my/our life. Its a private photo, and I dont wish to reproduce it here without permission; but be assured, it is a stunning photograph of a family on whose faces confidence, joy, peace, satisfaction, beauty and prosperity are written all over. I have tagged two cousins from that group in this post….)
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In every family, over and above ones parents, there is usually another mentor, a senior member who stands as a role model, a preceptor, a friend who introduces you to angles of life and living that does not come easily from a father or mother. At least, in India during my younger days, there is a certain extent to which your father and mother could handhold you. Beyond that, it is uneasily difficult. Therefore, for a young boy, standing at the threshold of adulthood, such a relationship with an elder family member can be radical and transforming. In my case that role was fulfilled by Mr Mahadevan or Mahadeva mama, as he was/is fondly known among family circles.
The name and aura of mahadeva mama was known to my Brother and me from a very young age. My Parents had great regard, respect and love for him. And in many ways, he was my father’s mentor and guru as well. He took my father into his fold when he ready to work for a living, molded him, introduced him to art of work, and more importantly inducted him into the secret of living life king size and not worry too much about anything. He thought of my father as his protege and all of us as part of his embracing circle of love and affection . The few times I had seen him as child still remains vivid in my memory. He was dark, well proportioned face, medium sized with deep baritone gruff voice which thundered equally in love and anger , immaculately groomed, meticulous and loved to wine and dine. He was always a looming presence in the background of our lives.
When we moved to Chennai in the early nineties mama was above seventy years old, and lived very close to our home. In fact, he lived stones throw away from us. He was not keeping too well physically, but mentally and intellectually he was still functioning at his peak. His joy for life and its nuances were intact. I was to come within his inner orbit very soon. I was at that curious age when inner direction was very important, not so much in the professional sense of the term but psychological. To have someone teach you that life is not as straight jacketed as it seems, and one can revel and find joy in the most ordinary and beautiful things , and yet remain focussed and successful in life. This is a lesson that not many impart - and which Mama did very well. Close proximity to Mama’s house gave me an opportunity to visit more often. He would also drive over in his trademark leaf green colored fiat to have lunch with us. The only car with such a color. His reasoning was simple : “My eye sight is bad, and In a crowd I cannot miss this color, no matter what. It may not look great, but serves the purpose.” Such was his approach to life - always practical and decided. He would call my mom with all the liberty in the world and tell her what he wants to eat, and what time he would arrive for lunch. One could rest the clock to its right time when he arrived. Punctuality was in his blood. With every mouthful he would send out whole hearted unconditional praises. One could palpably feel that deep warmth in his presence. At other times, we would go out to a movie or to his favorite south Indian restaurant in Nugambakkam road (Palm grove). He would sit at the table which had his favorite server serving, and no orders were necessary. Dishes would arrive in specific order in regular succession and intervals until we called a halt with a hot cup of filter coffee brewed to perfection. He would tip them so well saying “ good service deserves encouragement..”
I have spent many hours with him when he needed company. He would call me and order “ Sunder, come over, if you are not doing anything useful …”. I would reach there in no time and we would sit together watch movies, talk about films and music, or he would reminisce about his younger days. He was a great conversationalist. He knew how to get down to my level and talk to me in my own terms. I have seen him do that with everyone. His ability to find the right pulse of the audience he was conversing with was extraordinary. Sometimes, I would simply sit looking at him , at his joyful face and smile as he watched song clips of Sridevi dancing dripping wet in rain. He had very poor eyes, yet nothing escaped his attention. He would suddenly exclaim “ Sunder, watch her graceful steps, Wow. gorgeous ..” Life was beautiful to him all the time, and he enjoyed as much as he could of it. He would physically get tired quickly because of breathing problems, but only for brief while, before he recovered and the sparkle and smile would return to his eyes and lips once again.
He had a passion for collecting movies, and at that time , nobody else I knew had a better collection of good films. It was a monthly ritual for him to visit a nearby Video store and enquire about new arrivals. He would pick few that he liked. Not based on reviews or artistic merit, but just on instinct. If he liked something, he needed no other endorsements. He was own critic. A special glass doored rack was made in his bedroom to host all his video tapes. They were neatly arranged, catalogued and indexed. He was extremely particular about its order. In a jiffy, he would pull out a movie based on his documented list.. Nobody had permission to touch his collection, except privileged few. The accepted truth was : if mama gave you access to his video collection, then you must be in his good books.
His sense of Humor and timing was legendary. He could virtually bring out humor out of any topic. Once he recounted to me how an acquaintance had asked him the secret behind producing four beautiful daughters one after the other in succession. Mama laughed and said “ Sunder, you know what I told him. I told him it is science fiction. I dont believe it even today, yet it was somehow made possible..” He was that candid ,open to life and making fun about it.
When my Paternal grandfather died in early eighties, I couldn't accompany my parents to his funeral because of school. But I did write a short letter of condolence and sent it along with my mother. That was my first piece of public writing. Few days later, I was accompanied by a family friend to our Grandpa’s home in Chennai, and I found Mahadeva mama sitting on the front porch with another uncle of mine. As I walked in shy and unsteady, Mama called out to me and the first words he uttered were “ Sunder, what a nice letter you have written. I read it..”. These were the first words of encouragement I got for my childish, amateurish words penned on a death in the family. But to mama, it is enough that I had the courage, thought and talent to write it. Perhaps, somehow in a deep way, it helped water a creative seed in me. I dont know. But I would like to think and believe it is so.
Unlike my other essays, this one is more personal. But I think, everyone has somebody in their lives to whom we owe gratitude. Our parents and immediate family without doubt play a pivotal role. But beyond them, there are few select individuals who push us in certain direction consciously or unconsciously. This short piece is in honor of one such great man.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala




Sunday, December 11, 2016

Jottings : Slice of life - 72 ( Neerja - extraordinary courage, professionalism and humanity under pressure)

Jottings : Slice of life - 72 ( Neerja - extraordinary courage, professionalism and humanity under pressure)
When Pan-Am flight No 73 was hijacked on 5th september 1986, I was in my mid teens. I think I learnt of the incident from news papers, or I remember my father mentioning that a flight to America was taken hostage by a group of people at gun point , and after nearly eighteen hours, most of the passengers managed to escape through an exit opened by a very brave, young Flight attendant named Neerja Bhanot - who was shot dead during that process. I distinctly remember the beautiful, magnetic smiling face of that recognizable young girl ( Neerja was a popular model) as it appeared in print and limited news channels. We did not have live coverage of tragedies, as we do today. If I jog my memory to see if I was affected by her tragic death in 1986 , I would have to say No. A good looking girl had died by gunshots, and that was all there is to it. I probably assumed it was part of her job. I dont know. All that I am saying is, I simply did not have a frame of reference to grieve over Neerja’s death, the way I do now. Who was a flight attendant, what do they actually do in a flight ? I had no clue. That Neerja was a head flight attendant on flight No 73 really didn't mean anything to me at all, except that she heading something. The kind of courage it took for her to do what she did was unclear to me. I boarded my first flight in 1994. Equally unconcerned was I about the fact that “terrorists” had hijacked the flight. The word terrorist with all its awful connotations -which have become part of ones daily life now - was then, something rare and not often in news. Yes, the assassination of Indira Gandhi had bought that dirty word to the forefront, but the killers attained infamy more from a fact they were Bodyguards and not terrorists. All I could understand about Neerja's death from what I heard and read was a set of bad buys entered a plane with guns and shot many people, including a nice looking girl who helped other passengers escape. Movie like.. Thats all. And then a year later, in 1987, Neerja was awarded the highest civilian honor In India for Bravery - The Ashoka chakra - during the glittering Republic day parade. In recognition of that honor, popular Magazines ran full length articles on her life, modeling career and courageous death. Neerja had by then become part of India’s national consciousness, and I became, sensitive and educated enough to empathize and understand her tragic sacrifice. Along with that understanding came a deep appreciation of tremendous courage and presence of mind shown by that young girl 23 years of age , during those crucial few hours, which could have very easily meant death for over 350 passengers on board that ill-fated flight. She did not do anything spectacular. But what she did needed extraordinary courage and composure. And those are rare commodities under duress.
Intelligence is action, and the ability to bring what one has learnt and digested to bear upon a problem on hand. Intelligence needs courage and intense presence of mind. Old solutions will not work when confronted with new problems. As Flight attendant, one may go through thousands of daily grills on the do’s and dont’s within a flight, but to bring that entire knowledge into single focus, and adapt it to meet a unique situation confronting them is the true test of intelligence. Neerja displayed that quality of active, dynamic intelligence. Frightened she must have been, existential fear would sure have gripped her; but once the situation sunk into her being, she performed three acts which elevated her from a mere twenty year old, vivacious and beautiful girl to a tenacious lady, firm of purpose and determined professional doing her job. She alerted pilots on the hijack almost instantaneously giving them time to abandon the plane ( the first golden rule during a possible hijack) leaving it stranded in Karachi airport. Secondly, she had the common sense to distribute instructions to exit row passengers again, asking them to surreptitiously read and be ready; and thirdly, she found the right opportune moment to open the rear door, when power failed within, and there was chaos all around. Neerja was able to put her training into action when necessary. That is intelligence.
The above three acts are part of any Flight attendants training and duty which they are expected to perform, and probably few others in her situation would have done so as well. But what made Neerja rise from a normal professional doing her job to stirring heights of heroism was her act of extending compassion, sympathy and protective instincts to embrace her fellow passengers and crew members, and put their safety first and her’s next. And that cannot be taught in any school or college or workplace, no matter how many manuals are forced down ones throat. This spirit of selflessness comes from within, from a deep, mysterious source - the origins of which have not yet been discovered. Call it divine strength or whatever name you want to. But it rises in rare individuals under special conditions. Neerja was one such. When the chips were down, and she could have been the first to get off the plane, she chose not to. Instead she pushed all others down the sliding airbag, until only a few were left. Earlier, she made sure that none of the Americans on board were identifiable by terrorists. She collected and hid their passports. And lastly, she made that supreme motherly sacrifice, of taking bullets herself to save the lives of three American kids whom she pushed down the pathway to safety before rolling down half dead, bleeding, and strangely smiling. The human spirit in her had reached its consummation. These three acts mark her a special human being, worthy of emulation, worthy of the highest civilian award for bravery and worthy of finding a place in the hearts of Millions forever. They are signposts of what the Human spirit is capable of, especially in today’s world where basic decency seems to be missing.
in 2016, Neerja’s life inspired the movie “Neerja” directed by Ram Madhvani with Sonam Kapoor playing the lead role. A well made movie with focus on essentials. It had the right feel of realism to it, which made the film all the more worth watching. The young, fun loving, Rajesh Khanna fan with a failed marriage and resilient spirit was well captured. It is easy to catapult Neerja’s sacrifice into something other worldly and not attainable, but I was relieved to find that director had not taken that route. The Neerja we see in the movie comes out as a real, vibrant woman so abundantly alive; and it is from a sense of fullness she was able to respect and save lives. Brilliantly acted by Sonam Kapoor. I Haven't seen much of her, except in passing. But if this movie is anything to go by, then there is lot of talent in her ,and deep understanding of what acting means.
Late night yesterday, I watched Neerja on Netflix and then read a little while about her and surrounding circumstances. It was interesting to read there are few detractors in recent times who claim that Neerja really did not distinguish herself as was claimed. I could only smile. How often have we seen facts distorted, revised, re-interpreted ( revisionist history is the technical term) when viewed through the lens of the present. Nobody has escaped negative judgement. What has happened can never be assessed as it was, there will always an error or a bias, depending upon who is looking at it now, and for what purpose. In my mind, Neerja acted when needed out of a depth which is uncommon in most people, and whether the factual circumstances surrounding it are completely true or not is not my concern. That is for armchair academics and intellectual historians who make a living though discursive reasoning to figure out. To me, the juice, the essence of Human spirit in key moments are more important than anything else. Respected historian Barbara Tuchman, whose footsteps I follow in my own reading of History writes in her preface to collection of essay published in 1981 ( I paraphrase for clarity):
“The risk of a Historian is the temptation to manipulate facts in the interest of his system….I think of History as accidental and perhaps cyclical, of human conduct as a steady stream running through endless fields of changing circumstances, of good and bad always coexisting and inextricably mixed in periods as in people, of cross currents and counter currents usually present to contradict too-easy generalizations..”
It is that steady heroic human stream or spirit which Tuchman talks about that Neerja exemplified, rest is peripheral…
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala



Thursday, December 8, 2016

Jottings : Slice of life - 71 (On my Birthday...)

Jottings : Slice of life - 71 (On my Birthday...)
(PS : I request all my friends to pls accept this note as my personal thanks for taking time to remember and wish me this day. It is truly humbling. Thanks again)
Words are inadequate to express the deep feeling of gratitude I feel on being remembered and wished on my Birthday by so many good friends from all around the globe. It is a privilege, a blessing that cannot be measured or reciprocated in any kind. I can only offer a weak “Thank you” to all of you, and remain grateful. Over the years, I have often wondered, why should a Man should celebrate his chronological birthdate as something special. Any answer I could think of seemed trivial, and certainly not worthy of celebration. Five years ago, I hit upon a deep , existential realization while lying in a hospital bed that made real definitive sense to me, personally. The fact that life had chosen a particular moment in time to help this human body, with life pulsating in every cell, equipped in all respects to survive, grow and prosper, come out of its mothers womb - not a day late or early - just right to ensure its emergence as a physiologically complete organism is cause enough to be elated, grateful and celebrating. It is a miracle, and nothing short of it. From the time when a determined, wriggly sperm among millions pierced an equally stubborn and vigilant ovary - to the flowering of every minute part of this complex organism and its ultimate release into this world with a self consciousness that uniquely marks a human child - is an astounding act of creation, the very thought of which should make ones spine tingle and hair rise on its skin. It is this deep feeling of mystery, awe, gratitude ,surprise and most importantly the tremendous fortune to be one of the successful experiments of life among millions of its permutations, combinations and failures - that we celebrate each year on a specific date. Not for anything else. Not for our social status, intellectual abilities or emotional ties. It is sheer veneration of that immensely intelligent life force which made this body-mind organism possible.
The beauty of it is that there is no guarantee to its continued blessings, and in that sense the very nature of its ephemerality lends a deep poignancy to each passing Birthday. Though all of us do wish each other in all sincerity and belief “Many more happy returns of the day”, we do know in the deep recesses of our heart that we are not very sure, and can only hope it be so. That is perfectly alright. The truth is : Anything beautiful cannot be lasting. A rose will not be a rose if its continually luminous and fresh. Likewise, every life is precious only because it is temporary. And there is no sadness to this attitude. To the contrary, it is great source of joy. That I am alive now, and able to celebrate this day with all you is the richest grace I can ever hope for. If I cannot enjoy this day and accept your blessings and wishes, it would be a betrayal of trust in this life force which still keeps me alive and kicking.
So I join all of you in wishing myself a wonderful Birthday, and send out a flying kiss with all the love I can muster to that cosmic force which makes all this possible.
God bless..
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Monday, December 5, 2016

Jottings : slice of life - 69 ( Dr J Jayalalitha - a great artist, a woman of indomitable will and a charismatic leader)

Jottings : slice of life - 69 ( Dr J Jayalalitha - a great artist, a woman of indomitable will and a charismatic leader)
( PS : I dont want this article to be read like an obituary, because it is most definitely not one. Dr J jayalalitha has been confined to a Hospital for the last two and half months, and we have not seen a cheerful photograph of her till date. Nor do we have any concrete news on her medical condition. All that we have is mere speculation, rumors and half baked rejoinders by her inner party circle. As a Tamilian, I join millions all over the State of Tamilnadu in hoping that she recovers well and steps of her confinement. Our prayers are with her. However, even if she does, it is highly unlikely she will have enough energy and health left in her to regain active control and immersively participate in the administration of her party or State. To that extent, I think, we have reached the end of one of the brightest, controversial and determined political careers in independent India. For better part of my life in South India, starting early 1990’s Jayalalitha has been part of my daily life in some manner or other. Never has a day passed by when she wasn't in news. Either as Chief minister, leader of the opposition, or Aunt to an adopted nephew, or simply as an Individual who just will not stop at anything to reach her destination , I have literally grown up with her in the background of my life. “Amma”, as she is affectionately called by her party followers, took over from where Dr MGR left off. The great Paternal void left by the charismatic actor and leader was quickly filled by his Maternal Protege, and she sustained, nurtured and nourished the greater than God image of her Master and took it to levels unimaginable in modern day political Governance.. This article is my personal musing about her, her tenacity, her determination and rise to power. I want my readers to read it in that spirit. Nothing more, Nothing less. )
The first vivid memory I have of Jayalalitha is of her clad in white saree, elegant and subdued, 38 years of age then, - standing in an open van rearranging flowers and garlands on the lifeless body of her mentor Late Chief Minister of Tamilnadu Dr MGR in 1987, alongside his wife and other senior party functionaries. It was a Jam packed Funeral possession. Even a Gandhi wasn't sent off with as much emotional farewell as MGR was. He was after all a Demi-God to Tamilians, their divine incarnation on earth, and now they were orphaned. Atop that van stood all potential inheritors of his legacy, including his aged, innocent wife and ambitious party veterans, and it was clear that one among that motley crowd would assume the mantle of power. But nobody could guess who or how? Furthermore, the slice of memory that stands out from the funeral procession is of Jayalalitha being pushed, jostled around and not given her legitimate place besides her friend, political guru, a co-actor in more than 24 movies, and importantly a man who inspired her to live a life beyond the world of tinsel town. She was an outsider in the party and not many liked MGR’s closeness to her. And her presence on that van wasn't welcomed at all. But there on top of that van was the true beginning of political career of Jayalalitha. She was insulted in public, and she channelized that anger into carving for himself an astounding Political career in the state of Tamilnadu, and to a certain extent nationally as well. Until then, her Rajya sabha membership, the post of party propagandist were only appetizers and a platform for something bigger, vaster and deeper than anyone could have imagined. For the next twenty five years, she would end up ruling Tamilnadu six times. each time coming back with greater majority and resolve then ever. Ruthlessly subduing any dissension, singlehanded dismantling the most powerful political structure in the state - that of DMK, and endearing herself to its people like her Mentor, her guru MGR did. It was one heck of a life lived in all its glory and tribulations. Her death, whenever that happens, will be an end of an era, not merely for her and her party, but for politics in Tamilnadu as a whole.
The young girl Jayalalitha Jayaraman could have become anything she wanted. She was an accomplished singer, dancer, and could play several musical instruments with flair and grace; she was extremely intelligent, educated in best of schools, spoke English, Tamil , Kannada and Telugu with equal fluency and mastery. She stood first in her tenth grade statewide examination winning a gold medal. She could act with effortless ease under the insistence of her persuasive mother, completing films during her holiday breaks and then move on to resume her studies with no trouble at all. She was mysteriously beautiful: Dove eyed, with a symmetrical face and an hour glass figure -which every woman loved to possess; could carry herself with grace, dignity and coquetry both in traditional saris and modern outfits. She was the first female actor to wear a skirt on screen in Tamil cinema. Her contagious smile, childlike laughter, quick silver tongue, erudite repartee’s could captivate anyone within her orbit in no time. She could hold an educated audience spellbound with the depth of her oratory and width of her arguments. A born leader around whom friends and colleagues coagulated as bees around a Honeycomb. With her in a room, there couldn't be a second. What more could a young lady want by way of natural gifts. She possessed all of them and in ample measure. It was up to her to decide what she wanted to be, and that decision was made when she fell to the charm and glamour of MGR’s political life.
Dr MGR inducted her into politics only because he needed an educated, articulate, and savvy face to his party at the national level. Jayalalitha’s natural flair and grace was felt, and still remembered in the upper houses of Parliament. She didn't make too many speeches, but ones made left their mark on listeners. It was clear she was a lady with great determination and will power. And MGR knew her well enough. When one has acted in over twenty movies with a co-star, it is inevitable they will get to know each other pretty deeply. Though MGR had a family and a public image to keep up, he did encourage Jayalalitha to become his shadow. The sharp acumen of the leader perceived the pulse of his people well. After him, if there was somebody they would adore with same intensity as himself, it would have to be Jayalalitha. He understood that. But unfortunately, MGR was not open about it. And his death in 1987 tore open the seams of the party and volcanoes of dissension and hatred erupted. Like a well mentored protege, Jayalalitha weathered those gathering storms with equanimity, tact and poise and bided her time. And when it eventually came she proved herself to the undisputed queen of the AIDMK party. What had split into two factions, now became one - with Jayalalitha as its unanimous leader. This was in early nineties, and she has not looked back after that.
Over the last two decades, She has matured with every tenure. The initial lure of Power, wealth and sycophancy slowly gave way to more balanced and refined approach to chief ministership. She was and is still dictatorial, One cannot otherwise, as a Lady, Govern a land which is still predominantly male chauvinistic. She had to have an iron grip, and she learnt that art painfully but quickly on how to hold the reins of a male dominated party together. It is not the purpose of this essay to go into her political entanglements, but it will suffice to say that every challenge thrown at her was faced with courage, conviction and a bravado that comes when one knows that destiny beckons, and nothing can stop the final outcome.
Personally, I wonder how Jayalalitha herself would look at her life in retrospect. Would she have done anything different? Gifted as she was in all departments of life, Would she have chosen to remain an actor? She was obviously good and critically acclaimed as an artist; or would she have loved to continue her education to reach greater intellectual heights? The best of colleges were opening their doors to her at a time when not many girl students were persuaded to study? or - would she have never traded the allure and taste of Politics and power for anything else that life may have had to offer? Well, She chose to remain in Politics. That answers the question, I guess. The inexorable flow of time and circumstances carries each ship in its own course, and no matter how multifaceted or gifted one is, one realizes that not much is within control. We accept our destinies with stoic firmness and do the best we can with it.
This has turned out to be a rather long essay. I began writing this when I heard the rumor today ( we dont know for sure) that she suffered cardiac arrest and is back in the CCU. It was raining outside, and all of a sudden I felt like penning my thoughts on this remarkable lady. Hers has been a tiring, struggling and eventful journey to reach where she is right now - a beloved leader for whom millions will wait in heat and rain with bated breath to catch an ephemeral glimpse of her . Such adulation does not come easily, and definitely not to everybody. She is blessed and privileged. But for now, She needs rest and peace. I hope and pray she finds both very soon..
God bless….
yours in mortality,
Bala