Friday, March 25, 2016

Last words.

Last words..
However well a man may have lived, his death, or at least the last words spoken on his deathbed, lingers for a long time like perfume in the air. The words end up taking even greater importance if the person was a legend in his life time,or has martyred to a cause, was a soldier or a statesman , or was a religious Saint venerated or desecrated during his life time, or sometimes, it could be common man whose daily life is lost in the obscurity of history but elevated by chance to pedestal of glory through few dying words - giving them immortal fame. History overflows with such individuals. And, for some strange reason, we, the educated public have great fascination for those final words. We have the capacity to forget and forgive everything else about a man, if his dying words carry significance beyond the grave. They become hallowed individuals for us, like Gods - worshipped, venerated, to be emulated . We like to cling on to them in our memories as they presented themselves to us in those last few dying moments, and pass on that adulation and remembrance to our children, pointing out how well they lived - based on how wonderfully or courageously or full of wisdom they died.
Let me illustrate with few examples. The legend of Mahatma Gandhi needs know introduction anywhere across the globe. In Richard Attenborough’s magnificent presentation of his life on screen, the first few acts enact the tragic shooting of Gandhi by a militant Hindi, Godse. Shot point blank as an aging Gandhi, escorted by his aides walked up to his prayer meeting , He looks up perplexed at his shooter, and mumbles “Hey ram”, and his frail body collapses to the ground. That striking image and those resonant last words set the tone for the entire movie. Those remarkable last two words, in the midst of immense pain placed Gandhi and his life’s work in a different league altogether,not merely as a Political emancipator of India, but more as deeply spiritual man whose destiny was to carve out a path of Non-violence in a world driven to despair by two world wars and moral insecurity it gave birth to. He was beacon of light in an age when Violence was its virulent best..Gandhi’s dying words, was an icing on his cake, so to speak.
Again, the life of Socrates presents a Man whose death by drinking hemlock is celebrated as the most morally heroic deaths ever possible for anyone. Plato immortalized that scene for posterity. No well meaning man can remain unmoved by this epic fictional narrative. Though Plato was not physically present when Socrates drank his poison, the grateful student chose to garnish the event with poetic sensitivity in his dialogue “The Phaedo”. Phaedo, is the fictional character who narrates the last few hours of Socrates death. After describing at length, Socrates stoic preparation for death, and when the poison had him paralyzed up to his waist, he says the final words to his Friend Crito “ Crito , we owe a cock to Asclepius. Do pay it. Don't forget..” In that one brilliant stroke of Philosophic and literary genius, Plato elevated Socrates to be the most pragmatic and courageous of all philosophers. Even as his body was degenerating rapidly, his mind was calm, composed and utterly at peace with impending death. His final fictional words along with the manner of his death has given Socrates a place in history books for ever. At least, that is what Plato wanted to us remember Socrates for and by..
Or listen to the dying words of Sir Thomas More, the chancellor to Henry the VIII, whose only burning passion in life was to divorce his barren queen Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn. All of us know that story, and how it changed the course of English history and its church forever. Sir Thomas was a Humanist in the tradition of Petrarch, and was against this seemingly senseless act by the king. His life met a tragic end at the guillotine for intransigence and not willing to bow down to the king’s wishes. When he was dragged to the tower for execution, whole of Westminster watched with teared eye. The executioner hesitated to bring the blade down on so respectful a neck. And when Sir Thomas realized the hesitation, his last recorded words to the executioner was “ Pluck thy spirits, Man, and be not afraid to do thine office, My neck is very short…”. The crowd burst into tears and roared, the executioner closed his eyelids to prevent tears overflowing and cut the neck of England’s greatest Humanist in one swift blow. His final words and its repercussions still echo in the corridors of English Parliament.
French Renaissance’s crown jewel was Voltaire. European history cannot be written without his name in it. One of the most powerful voices of freedom ever to erupt in Human breast; his mouth was as sharp as his pen and so were his powerful and Libertarian thoughts. Utter disregard for the church and God, his life was one series of persecution after another by both organized church and its obedient slave, the State. Wriggling away each time using his tremendous wit and intellect, he survived each attempt, wrote prodigiously and died at a good age of 82. At his death bed, he was repeatedly asked by priests around him to accept God and forswear or give up Satan, and his reply was “ There is no time to make new enemies..”Nothing could have consummated his life better than this recoded reply. In this pithy response, Voltaire’s entire life is condensed.
Thomas Jefferson - the man wrote the Declaration of Independence and widely considered as the most incorrupt and intelligent statesman USA had even seen. While Lincoln was a political wizard, Jefferson was an well rounded intellectual, whose love for America went beyond anything conceivable. His independence document is testimony to that fierce pride and dignity he wanted America to possess. It is divine justice that he lived to see fifty years of Independent America. On the Fourth of July 1826, He woke up to ask his doctor “ Is it the fourth…?”, to which Dr Robley answered “ yes sir, it soon will be… Jefferson then said “ I resign my spirit to God, and daughter to my country…” As the dawn brightened into day, Jefferson quietly passed without speaking another word. It is coincidental, or one may call it tryst of destiny that on the same day, his closest political rival John Adams also breathed his last with Jefferson’s name on his dying lips. Both of them remain America’s most beloved Presidents for the way they lived and the way they died.
Some words , like Franz Kafka’s, the great German Jewish author, was found written alongside his pillow to be read only by his friend Max Brod. It said “ Dearest Max, Everything I leave behind me… In the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters, sketches, and so on – is to be burnt unread..” Fortunately for us, Max ignored his friend’s will; went on to publish Metamorphosis, the Penal colony, the Trial and all unfinished novels that Kafka had assiduously penned during his convalescence in a sanatorium. Hi last words, again was representative of the way Kafka lived. Depressed, unhealthy, victimized for being a Jew, losing his immediate family to concentration camps - he had no reason to be optimistic about himself or life. He wrote to cleanse himself, and little did he realize that he writings were to fundamentally revolutionize the form of self-conscious existential novel. His final words reflect his weariness in life, nothing more.
As a student of History, I could keep coming up with more personalities and their last words almost endlessly. But I guess, I have made my point. Death is the final mortal challenge that Man faces, and his actions and reactions during those final moments are true reflections on the way he has lived. It cannot be otherwise. During my younger days, I remember reading a lecture by Osho, where he remarks on the act of dying. He says “If you have lived rightly, if you have lived moment to moment totally, if you have squeezed out the whole juice of life, your death will be the ultimate orgasm…” I am not advocating the man or his teachings, but I think, In this quote Osho did manage to capture the essence of dying. In all Men and women we admire, Death always has come to them like a whiff of fresh air, or even if the end is tragic, there is strong inner quality of presence that shines through them. Their lives are a fulfillment of an inner cause to which they have been utterly faithful and committed.. And death is a just a passing over and not something to be dreaded, feared or avoided.. That is why we call them heroes.
God Bless….
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Jottings: Slice of life - 1

Jottings: Slice of life
Each month, a nearby senior housing facility brings all its inhabitants ( or those that are interested) to a Goodwill store close to my home. The Saturday they arrive is usually a bustling day at the store. There are on an Average about 25 of them, dressed casually in Pants and light tops, wrinkled skins of different ethnicities ,covered with white or grayish hair tucked with no specific care, leaning on Walkers or walking sticks, walking through all aisles with the intensity and joy of a five year old, calling aloud to their friends when they spot something interesting or identify an item they have specifically been looking for. All around, there is tremendous enthusiasm when they are there. On the day they visit, Goodwill takes on a facade of high class store with all eager elderly shoppers romping around with eyes wide open and chattering incessantly, when on other days, the same store wears a subdued look of a charity house where people mostly with long , morose faces come to buy or donate used stuff, purchase things cheap and nothing else. The vivacity and exuberance of these elderly ladies will be hardly be seen in normal shoppers. It is indeed amazing to observe each time these aged denizens pick a thing they like, there is a visible sparkle in their eyes,as though, it was the one important thing they wished to possess or hoped to find. For most of us, drowned in surplus of materialism, that kind of joy and energy is hard to define, imagine or emulate.
I make it a point to visit Goodwill every Saturday ( or sometimes twice a week) to look at books. Over the years, I have found some real great gems lying on those racks. First editions, rare books, out of print volumes, complete collections of stories and novels, beautifully leathered copies of precious manuscripts and many more. Among all the second hand book stores I visit, this is one place that continues to surprise me every time. They somehow seem to be getting a constant replenishment of great books. Considering, this is just one of the many Goodwill’s in this area, it is almost miraculous. But it suits me. Well coming back to my narrative. Among these Elderly ladies, there are couple of them who spend most of their time in the store at the Book section. I have been seeing them for three years now, almost every month. They pronounce my name as “Bali..” ( Somehow the last “ a” eludes their grasp). Julia and Ruth are always together, exchanging notes on books, excited over finding an author, and it always seems to me they complement their reading well. They come with a specific budget of Twenty dollars, and intend to spend to it only on books they can read during the coming month. The problem with Goodwill is that books are not organized or stacked in any particular order ( not surprising!!), and hunting for specific volumes is almost next to impossible, if one is not regularly reviewing the racks. And that I where I pitch in.. My unwavering regularity to this corner has given me a photographic memory of almost all books available on the four lines of shelves, and if there is anything new for that week, it immediately strikes my eye. So when Julian and Ruth talk about a book, or find it hard to locate related volumes, I help them locate it instantaneously. That is how I got acquainted to them. And over a period of time, they have come to expect me there when they arrive to help them find books. They would give out such a guffaw of welcome as they see me ( sometimes it is embarrassing) but I wonder, if I would be ever be greeted with more sincerity and innocence by anyone else in this competitive world.
Yesterday, there was new stock of Den Koontz novels on shelves. Eight paperback volumes were stacked together, and Julia was certain (I don't know how?) that “Odd Thomas”, supposedly one of the very best detective stories of Dean Koontz should also be here somewhere. It was not alongside other volumes. When she saw me, she waved frantically, and asked me if I could quickly check if “odd Thomas” was placed In any other shelf. I sure did. It took me less than five minutes to walk along the aisles, allowing my eyes to pick new insertions into shelves, and spotted the book she wanted in the bottom rack snugged between two college text books. When I handed the volume to her, she was ecstatic. She triumphantly held the book aloft, left go of her walker and did a short tap dance in joy. Her face was beaming with happiness, and she leaned over a gave a warm long kiss on my cheek saying “Thank you Baliiii……” I have never seen anyone so filled with joy over a book. For a moment , I was profoundly moved, but quickly regained my composure.
As I drove back, It stuck me how easily all of us take things around us for granted. Have we ever felt that kind of profound joy over anything at all? Living our lives Half-dazed and lost, very few things genuinely interest us. But for Julia and rest of them, each day, every thing acquires great significance because there is an unconscious understanding of impermanence that embroiders their rich, aged lives.. And once that feeling seeps deep within, every act will be total and immersive in itself. Our petty lives, lived in selfish competition over impermanent things will start falling into perspective, and more importantly , there is deep healing that follows such a transformation. A realization, relaxation and giving into small joys and acts with everything we have got, holding nothing; because there is nothing to hold onto, except this passing, beautiful moment..
God bless…
Yours In mortality,
Bala

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Jottings on a Tuesday evening.. - The triumph of AlphaGo

Jottings on a Tuesday evening..
While we celebrate the victory of artificial intelligence over Man in a game of chess or Go, I would like pause and think on what do we mean by this word intelligence. Chess or Go, if you come think of it, is in essence only a series of computed moves based on logical rules accumulated through experience, culminating in a decision triggered by a previous frame of reference. Which means, if a piece of software can be programmed recursively for all possible combinations of moves based on a variable or a set of variables, then it is not at all surprising that we would eventually end up building a machine capable of holding billions of instructions to be served at moments notice. Given the state of computing today, this is child's play. Machines are unemotional, psychologically irrelevant, relentless, methodical, error-free and they don’t suffer from the vacillations to which Human beings are naturally prone. Hence anything that requires tireless persistence and rigor are fit candidates for automation. Therefore, Board Games, card games , physically and mentally repetitive tasks find greater success in our endeavor to automate Them. Nothing more. When Gary Kasparov lost to deep Blue in 1997, or when the young Korean master Lee-se dol was comprehensively beaten by AlphaGo in last few weeks, are we seriously speculating or expostulating that Machines are becoming more and more intelligent, or is a threat or substitute to Human Intelligence? Nothing can be more ridiculous!! Intelligence, for God sake, is more holistic a phenomenon than merely calculating moves on a chess or a Go board. Let us not forget it has taken years of extreme computing to outmaneuver Lee on the Go board. After feeding millions of games into it, AlphaGo was able to produce a statistically viable move capable of outwitting the champion. It is more long term rote, than intelligent decision making. But would you consider that to be threat to Human intelligence? I am not for a moment demeaning this achievement in creating such a software. It has its place in human progress, but let's try and place this event in perspective. Since the time the phrase "Artificial intelligence" was coined in late 1950's, there has been this persistent worry ( or expectation, some would say) that Machines would slowly outdo human beings. Nothing wrong with that. We have always made machines and appliances only to make our lives easier. But that does not mean they are intelligent. In fact, the problem is calling it "intelligent” because the word means something entirely different. All that software has done or can do is compute and measure, based on past data.. Intelligence is something beyond that. It is that irresistible sense of "knowing" and "feeling" in the presence of numerous alternatives without any foreknowledge of it. And no software can ever get there, at least not in the near future, unless we suddenly decode the mystery of Human consciousness.
Lets get one thing straight. I am willing to accede that machines may eventually be programmed to do everything a logical, reasonable human would do, but what it can never replace or substitute is the "experiencing self" of Man- which is the cusp of intelligence . A machine may beat me in a game, work for me, play for me, think for me - but never once will it ever feel the living pulse of “I” ness, which I, as a Human being experience to be constant thread of my existence, against which the drama of life is played out in its wonderful variety, with so many conscious and unconscious intelligent decisions made every moment. We may be fallible, but in that very fallibility lies tremendous joy and existential knowing. Lee made a significant remark after his defeat. He said " It is odd playing against a machine. A game is played in response to Human reaction, body language and emotions. But with a machine, it is just precision..." And there lies the foolishness. Why would I want to play against something that essentially does not know what playing means, or fun means, or tension means. If all that is taken away, then what is the purpose of the game at all. What are we trying to prove.
Intellect and intelligence are two different dimensions. What machines can do successfully is ape Human intellect because it is built from Logical rules, but intelligence is that intangible presence within us that makes intellect worth possessing in the first place. J Krishnamurti brings out the difference beautifully when he says
"..Training the intellect does not result in intelligence. Rather, intelligence comes into being when one acts in perfect harmony, both intellectually and emotionally. There is a vast distinction between intellect and intelligence. Intellect is merely thought functioning independently of emotion. When intellect, irrespective of emotion, is trained in any particular direction, one may have great intellect, but one does not have intelligence, because in intelligence there is the inherent capacity to feel as well as to reason; in intelligence both capacities are equally present, intensely and harmoniously.."
It is not my intention to go into current researches in neuroscience and what its proponents feel about the quality of Human Intelligence. But , it seems clear to me, it's leading advocates are strongly convinced that mimicking processes of thought is not intelligence. It seems something larger, more encompassing than that. That's good news for all of us..
God bless…
Yours in Mortality,
Bala

Sunday, March 13, 2016

"The Reader" - shadow of the holocaust

"The Reader" - shadow of the holocaust
(PS : This is a pretty long essay. A Good friend of mine requested me to add a note on top (specifically on FB) whenever my writing crosses 1500 words. His reasoning was it makes it easier to find enough time to read. It seemed good, sane advice and I decided to incorporate it straight away.. Thanks Old boy.. )
Enough has been written of the holocaust; more reams of paper have been filled with the gory details of how more than six million Jews were incarcerated, brutalized, broken physiologically and physically and finally exterminated in the most inhuman conditions conceivable – than any other subject in the last seventy years. Scenes of Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald have arrested our attention in thousands of biopics, to the extent that many of us have become in-sensitized, accustomed to its horrors, and anesthetized against the sheer “banality” of evil committed during that span of five years between 1940 and 45. No amount of solace, sympathy or retribution can assuage the grief, the scar, the repercussions of those ghastly years. For the sheer scale of Man made annihilation, Holocaust remains and will remain (Hopefully!!) unparalleled in the annals of recorded history. Never before were a race so specifically targeted for massacre for so flimsy a reason. The crimes of Nero, Caligula, or the ravages of crusades pales to insignificance in comparison. Even At this distance, barely a generation away, one shudders at the very thought of how a nation of educated Men and Women could allow themselves to descend to such levels of depravity, despite the promise of social progress and material prosperity ushered in by the previous century. Scholars, historians, philosophers, social scientists are still speculating on how this could have happened. Regular books of Fiction and non-fiction still fill books stores with their theories and reconstructions of those ghastly years.. It is almost ironic, when the twentieth century began, that anyone would have believed they would witness two explosive wars within next fifty years. Despite Man’s confidence and pride in his mastery of the world around him, there silently lurked within his human breast a volcano of discontent, hatred and thirst for blood – which went quite unnoticed and simmering, until the first gun was fired on the fateful day In August 1914 precipitating the First World War and exploding into unbridled fury; followed a decade later from its unquenched embers rose the reasons for Second World War, and the rise of the most virulent forces of hatred in the form of Nazi dominate Germany – led by Adolf Hitler and his fanatically devoted team.
The basic question that haunts us is how could a nation unanimously, without any iota of dissension , chose to kill without remorse. They called it the “Total solution”. In 1942, in a secluded Villa in Northern Germany, at the height of Nazi power, Thirteen major departments of the German Government met to decide on the conduct of how this extermination should take place. The infamous name for this congregation is Wannsee Conference . Not once , during those proceedings was the goal ever discussed, only methods were clinically proposed and adopted. It is spine chilling to even think of how well meaning Men and women tacitly accepted means of such barbarity. Academicians, Generals, clerks, truck drivers, laborers, children- every one of them involved in running this ghastly killing machinery did their job with utmost precision, dignity and commitment. Like cogs in a wheel, they did not or could not pause to think on the implications of their actions. “Moral responsibility” - the golden phrase that stood as epitome of Man’s achievement lay tattered amidst the blood, grime and flesh of hapless Jews. To achieve the kind of methodical murder, an entire nation had to be prepared and work with clock-like precision. Decent citizens, who would not have hurt a fly was consumed in this fire of hatred. All sense of responsibility was sublimated to the cause of German superiority and the rhetoric of its perpetrators. The question that normally one asks is : why didn’t anyone stop or question the blood bath?. And an answer to that has eluded us till today. In 1962, when the Eichmann trials were held in Israel , Hannah Arendt, the great Jewish Philosopher and thinker, covering the trial for New York times, made the startling observation that none of the Nazi war criminals had a choice in their participation and execution of Final solution. It was a job they had to do. In totalitarian regimes ( It is hard to conceive, because we don't live in one), choice and moral responsibility has no place. Throughout the trials, Eichmann kept repeating that he was merely “following” orders, and did not know the consequences of his actions. Though it is hard to believe Eichmann, that a Man’s moral compass can be so incongruous he cannot make a conscious difference between right and wrong in so brutal an assignment, the testimony of numerous war criminals during the Nuremberg trials seem to point to the fact they actually may be speaking the truth, after all. When a entire nation is geared to a pernicious goal, it's loyal citizens only act as agents to that end. This is the brute reality of totalitarianism.
Literature and art have kept the agony of the holocaust alive for us. From the moving dairies of Anne frank to Thomas Kenneally's Schindler’s Ark to Bernard Schlink's The Reader to Markus Zusak's The book thief among many others; these works of historical fiction have time and again recreated for us the private emotional world of individuals caught in concentration camps or having to make difficult moral decisions regarding them. Though William Shirer's masterly non-fictional account “the rise and fall of the third Reich” did place before the world a comprehensive factual account of those fateful years, it was only through stories and movies that common man came to experience intimately what it would have been to live through those years. It would indeed be an insensitive soul who would not have cried silently on reading Anne Frank’s frank words, or not come out of theater deeply disturbed after having watched Spielberg's heart wrenching portrayal of Schindler. These are our mirrors of introspection, and it is through their eyes that modern generation have come to know the holocaust.
In 2008, Stephen Daldry adapted “The Reader” for the screen. Translated from German into nearly forty languages, the book is about a middle aged German lady having an affair with a young boy in need of companionship during Nazi Germany. She cannot read or write , but loves to listen to stories and cadence of its language. Every night, after stormy sex, The young boy reads out classics aloud to her, forming a relationship between the two based on physical needs and intellectual curiosity. War changes things. The boy goes on to study law, and the lady takes a job with railway transportation. Years later, the young aspiring lawyer encounters his first love in court , standing trial for genocide along with six other women. They are charged on imprisoning and burning over 300 Jews in a church, and Hanna Schmidt ( the lady) is made to bear the brunt of this charge. She is accused of writing the report of that horrific incident for SS. She doesn't defend herself, but quietly accepts the tribunal’s judgement. Michael (the young lawyer) realizes that she is giving herself up by withholding vital information that could help her case. He knows Hannah cannot read or write, hence could not have written the report. Yet, he does nothing, but quietly pines within. While she is in prison, he sends her audio tapes with stories recorded in his voice. And Hannah, begins to learn the language using those tapes. The story then takes tragic turn, ending in redemption both for Michael and Hannah. The main segment of the story lies in Hannah’s answers to questions in court. While she acknowledges her role in choosing, transporting and locking Jews in the church, she finds it incomprehensible that she could have done anything else in those circumstances.There is a air of disbelief in her answers. In previous paragraphs we spoke about moral responsibility, and how it is almost impossible to have that quality in a totalitarian regime. Though Hannah is gentle, dignified and cultured, her position during the war was dictated through an external agency, and she was only to execute orders and not question them. This is the same dilemma Hannah Arendt observed during Eichmann trials.
I watched this movie yesterday, and ( as you would guessed) is the genesis of this essay. Every artist has a peak, a year or couple of them, when their art is supreme, sublime and almost spiritual. Kate Winslet was in that zone in 2008. There could not have a better choice to play Hanna than her. If an actor needs to learn how to infuse life into a character based on a book, they should watch Kate translate the passion and agony of Hanna on screen. It defies description. Produced by Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella - two great producers, the movie went on to equal Spielberg’s effort in 1993. Sadly, both men weren't alive when the movie was released , but they could rest in peace with the thought this was a crown jewel in their long and illustrious careers. Kate went on to win the academy award that year. Not surprising at all!!!. There was no competition.
This has turned out be a lengthy essay. I apologize, but as a student of history and philosophy , I genuinely feel that the holocaust is a singular event in modern times, and is a great lesson for all emerging, new and established democracies to learn from. There is a very thin line that divides freedom from indoctrination; nationalism from totalitarianism; war from brutality; equality from racism, religion from fanaticism, free will from destiny. As we march ahead, there will be periods (if not already) when we will confront similar choices and questions that arose then; and if we learn our lessons from history well enough , chances are likely we will not slip into same follies that led to millions to die in the hands of those who earnestly believed they were doing the “right” thing. That is a scary thought!!. I hope and pray, that never again shall our history be tainted with such saddening blood. If it does, we may have no future..
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala




Saturday, March 12, 2016

Jottings in Boulder..

Jottings in Boulder...
The city of Boulder in Colorado is one of those eclectic places in the US. Something similar to Berkley or San Francisco in California. An university town; sizzling with energy of young people, a flamboyant attitude and a sense of raw life coursing through its veins. Surrounded on all sides with beautiful mountains, the city itself nestles in its arms like a child in a mother’s. The name of “Boulder” is apt. In a land of Mountains, it evokes a sense of big stones.. There are no multi storied buildings around; Boulder city prohibits building any, and all its establishments have distinct architecture reminiscent of those built decades ago - flat style colored in deep brown, blending seamlessly with the texture of woods enveloping them.
After work yesterday, Sameer -a senior tech developer took me home with him. What a beautiful home, and family!!. Sameer is one of those immigrants who came to the United States in early nineties, straight out of a premier institution in India. He came here a junior engineer in a multinational telecom company; grew into managerial roles very swiftly, and by 2008. – he was heading a product development team of nearly 2000 people across the globe. Smart, articulate, composed, speaks with thought, authority and clarity. ( What was he doing in a class full of developers, I will allow him to explain that story in the next paragraph). I was not surprised when he briefly recounted his career to me. He was attending my class as any other student would, without any pretenses or assumptions. As a teacher, I instinctively perceived a superior quality in his approach to my teaching, his questions and understanding of subject taught - only vindicated his stature when he told me his story. His house was perched on a hill, the patio almost overlooking its precipice. It was not a huge home; just three bedrooms, a hall and a kitchen. It was spotlessly maintained by his painter wife, whose canvases adorn choicest places on the walls. Her paintings were essentially views from her home - undulating mountain ranges changing colors and hue in the Crimson rays of dying sun, or a big Mountain bear ( ranges adjacent to their home is called Bear Mountain..) languidly waiting around with uncharacteristic solemnity, or deer prancing around in lush greenery of Boulder Spring. In 2009, Sameer made a bold decision. He quit his comfortable position, decided to take a sabbatical; relearn new coding techniques and technologies.
His reason is ( I paraphrase ) “ Bala, It was actually a simple choice, if I didn't complicate it with my then current life style. My passion is to work on details, but as Manager - I found over years I was drifting away from that core. My contact with technology was becoming sketchy and incomplete. When I thought about it and spoke to my wife, we understood very quickly that I could always go back to basics If I wanted to. The problem is not so much personal but social. We are more worried what others will think of us. How could a “Manager” relapse into a developer? Progress is not always not about changing visiting cards with new titles. The real joy comes when we can keep doing what we love with more and more intensity. Of course, an organization must realize that and compensate accordingly. That is the key to success in companies like Google - where progress is not giving you new roles, but paying you more for what you can do best. And you see, the results speak for themselves. Well, I stayed at home for one year, and got down to ABCD’s of mobile technologies. Believe me, it wasn't easy.. The fluid parts in my brain had rusted a bit, but the good news was it woke up at the first touch of intellectual lubrication. I changed my resume, removed my top notch managerial experience.. (Employers were skeptical of employing me with my vast experience. He laughed out aloud…). I got into this company in 2010, and started reporting to this young brilliant guy, who was nearly twenty years my junior ( in age, I mean). In fact, nobody knew my past, and I was Ok with that. It was only recently during a party that many came to know my background after a few rounds of whiskey ( He laughed again). Money wise, I am pretty good and satisfied. I sold a big home in Denver, and bought this cute, but sufficient house overlooking the hill. In terms of physical space, this home is one fourth of what we had, but we were Ok. My wife and two kids had no qualms. The point is , Bala, Both my wife and I are now doing what we love to do, and I am excited about what tomorrow will bring…”
It was a wonderful story.. And something I have always believed strongly in. Among Indians and many Indian based companies, there is this skewed theory that good pay comes only with senior position, and to remain doing what one loves to do for long time indicates failure or an inability to succeed? How strange? God forbid that a Bach, or Michelangelo or a Poe did not think that way. I have been asked innumerable times why have I not left behind teaching. My answer has always been “ I love it, and will keep doing it even If I do other things..”. But, I do agree that many may not feel that way. If financial growth and prosperity are the only things that really matter, then one must be prepared to let go and sublimate genuine interests. Its that simple. It is a choice to be made, and most choose to the detriment of their love at some time. And it is equally unfortunate that companies forces its employees to make that choice by not rewarding true vocation, interest and dedication. I am sure, everyone would want to keep doing what one likes, if their pay-check keeps in pace with their talent and vocation. That’s rarely happens, isn't it? Modern professional world is more about compromises, and never about what one wants. And the few that have the courage to live by what they love is a dying tribe indeed. Sameer is one of them.
One of the most significant pronouncements in the Bhagavad Gita "swadharme nidhanam shreyah paradharmo bhayaavahah “, which means - "To remain true to one’s own nature is happiness. To be someone else or take up some other vocation is not only dangerous but filled with fear”. Insecurity, stress, depression – all these stem from this basic dichotomy of what one really wants and what one is doing. This is a problem typical of modern workplace. The trick then is to touch that chord of interest within as quickly as we can in our lives, and live by it. Sameer was perceptive enough to turn his life around at the right time, and that requires psychological courage - which not many would possess or wish to exercise.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Listen Amaya...

Listen Amaya...
Even though the dichotomy between East and West has largely narrowed in the last century or so, it is still, in my opinion, largely visible when it comes to Human relationships and its various nuances. In traditional cultures, the concept of family, relationships between its members, their behavior and expectations - all these are fostered and nourished through generations of practice, enforcement and inheritance. It really cannot be thrown overboard overnight. No matter how competently we ape others, there is a deep inner voice in all of us that cannot be ignored. Call it conscience, traditionalism, conservatism - give it any name; fact remains we still shrink at some behavior or attitudes. We may call ourselves modern, liberated, mimic and adopt customs and habits of our brothers and sisters in the Western world, but none of that can really bring out a fundamental change in our beliefs – at a deep level of what we are, and what we have grown up with.. We are Libertines when it comes to other’s life, but when something happens to us, we get very uncomfortable , unsure about how we should behave.. It really takes a real psychological revolution to accept and change such deep rooted foundations.
On my flight from Atlanta to Denver, I finally got around to watch “Listen Amaya..”, an offbeat Indie film featuring two of my favorite actors. - Deepti Naval and Farooq sheikh. It is unbelievable that in the meaningless environment of commercial Hindi Cinema, someone dared to conceive and execute a drama with such poignant sensitivity as this. It is about a Middle Aged widowed lady finding new lease of meaning and purpose in a relationship with a photographer- a widower himself having lost both his wife and daughter tragically. Leela ( Deepti Naval) owns a coffee shop cutely called “ Book a coffee" along with her grown up daughter Amaya, aspiring to be a writer. Amaya is an independent, strong minded, articulate and intelligent girl whose love for her mother is filled with respect and admiration, but when she finds out that mother wishes to have a relationship with Jayant beyond friendship , she is disturbed. She asks her mom a stunning question : “is it all about sex?”. This question underlines the moral and cultural drift in Modern youngsters, and the mistaken belief that the only need that a post-marital relationship can satisfy is sex. In the changing prism of social context in India, where more and more couples are beginning to find solace and warmth beyond the sacred boundaries defined by marriage, this tale raises the important question about the extant and nature of such a relationship, and more importantly, when is it considered appropriate.. While, it is clear to us as audience that the relationship between Jayant and Leela is mature and more stems from a need for genuine companionship, the daughter misinterprets it. The beauty of this tale lies in the understanding both the elders display, and their ability to put themselves in the shoes of the young girl bristling with unwarranted anger. With age should come maturity and wisdom. And “listen Amaya..” is an ode to that stage in life.

After nearly twenty five years, the magic between Deepti and Farooq shimmers again on screen. The best pairs are always those whose presence is non-intrusive and allow each other their spaces. It is never contrived. When this pair got together in “Chasme Badoor”, it seemed impossible to believe that they had not previously acted together. Their chemistry was a class act in emotional fluidity, the doe eyed Deepti complementing the innocent, docile and shy humor of Farooq. There was never a tinge of vulgarity, instead their presence created an aura of understated sensuality which lingered long after the movie. Audience loved the down to earthly beauty of this pair. Common man perceived his own life mirrored in their performances, and that is the true yard stick for any art. Intelligent, articulate and not after financial glory movies could give them, they performed merely for the love of acting. Perhaps, that is why they weren't as commercially successful as some of the other less talented ones who shot to limelight.
What I liked about this movie is the unpretentious portrayal of a very sensitive subject. And the movie does not take sides. The upset daughter is right in her own way, and so is the mother. There can be no outward reconciliation of the two. One of them has to transform and perceive things in true light. No amount of ratiocination, reasoning can effectively solve an social dilemma, unless there is radical change in one’s stand. In our Upanishad’s, our sages talk about two kinds of truth. Sruti - values that cannot change with times, and Smriti - values and relationships that definitely change and one must flow with those changes. The fact that a mother is also a woman with needs is a long accepted truism in Western society, but In India with our long history of placing Women on a pedestal festering with unsolicited opinions on purity and divinity, it will take a lot of courage and inner resolution to accord her the same position as in the west. We still have our restraints. The good news though is that things are changing, and changing fast. And movies like “Listen Amaya” bring out that sense of liberation in a refreshing manner. The strong statement the film makes is this :While the meaning and importance of Motherhood will never diminish, it doesn't not necessarily mean that woman behind that motherhood should suffer solitude and deny herself a life because of bonds of marriage, especially so, if such a marriage unfortunately has ended prematurely, for whatever reason. It is a theme that has been told many times before, but this film presents it afresh for modern times.
A simple story, told in remarkable style. Well done Avinash Kumar singh for directing this work.

God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala



Friday, March 4, 2016

Edgar Allan Poe - an enigmatic life

Edgar Allan Poe - an enigmatic life
Over the years, I have always felt a shudder course through my veins as I read Edgar Allan Poe. I am not sure why. A collection of his short stories, journalistic pieces and poems always rest near my reading lamp. And every now and then, when my mind gets slightly weary, or when I find myself hindered by “Writer’s block”, I turn to Poe’s prose like a moth to fire. It doesn't matter if know his stories well enough, it doesn't matter if some of his ideas are far fetched and abstract, it doesn't matter that his style sometimes is too ornate and embroidered for modern readers; I don't care, I guess, it’s the overall quality of his language, passion and an insane energy his words and sentences evoke – that takes me along in its voluptuous flow like a river in spate. I come out after having dipped into his writing completely refreshed and rejuvenated. How do I describe this feeling - the closest I can think of is the experience of first sip of alcohol after a hard day’s work – a warm tingling sensation, the bitter sweet taste of awakening, sudden clarity of perception in a benumbed brain and a mesmerizing grip of fantasy and imagination that gently takes hold of ones being.
Over the last two centuries, this has been Poe’s mysterious attraction. Writers, critics, and avowed purists of style have not been able to point their finger at what makes Poe’s writing tick. There is an intangible quality to his work that is tantalizing. Is it his stories that enchant, or the way he wrote them? No one is sure. After all, what he wrote during his brief life time of forty years can easily be condensed in couple of volumes, and most of it is a motley collection of themes so bizarre and otherworldly , not relevant at all to times he lived in. But then it is addictive, and he books even today sell like hot cakes. There is reprint after reprint of Poe’s unfathomable tales and essays . Selections, complete works, abridgments, borrowed screenplays, costumes, Halloween themes - innumerable offerings bearing his name continue to exist, and new incarnations keep popping up with unswerving regularity .It seems His hold over public imagination is almost unshakeable, despite what pundits have to say. Yet, the man himself lived the most solitary, depressing life possible. It is only by a curious stroke of fate his works managed to survive at all. Probably, divine intervention- But Poe wouldn't have believed in it.
Poe was the first writer in recorded literary history who actually "wrote" for a living. In the sense, each essay or short story he produced, he needed money from it to live, to drink and sustain. Perhaps that is one of main reasons, he could never produce a longer work of fiction. He simply didn’t have the time, luxury or monetary incentive to write them. His efforts were more of the moment: a flash of insight turned into art, or a figment of morbid imagination catalyzing into something evil, or a piece of science fiction becoming an essay in science, or a cryptographic puzzle that would quickly transform into detective enterprise, or a weird observation emerging from his feverish brain as a warped story of chilling horror, or a historical fact turned into a gothic terror - his brain and pen was ever ready to write them in a flash, and cast it away into publisher's hands to earn a few pennies. He needed money, and he wrote his little masterpieces for it. To be fair, he was a genius caught in unfortunate times. America in the mid eighteenth century was in the throe of grinding financial depression, and being a writer was the last thing one wanted to be. There was no hope, and Poe's life and work reflects the gloominess, brooding melancholy and shadows of uncertainty prevalent during those times.
A troubled childhood, loss of both parents at an early age, bought up by his uncle and aunt with whom he seems to have had a love-hate relationship, dropped out of college, relieved of military duty because of his compulsive habit of lying, tragic death of his wife from tuberculosis - Poe had all the markings of a colossal failure in life. He hated the world, and his art reflected it - How else can one think of a story like "The golden bug" or "the pit and the pendulum", "The premature burial" ,"the black cat" or numerous other short stories that extol the virtue of darkness in the human heart.
As I said earlier, it is providential that his works have survived at all. His bitterest critic, artistic rival, his one time publisher - Rufus Griswold acquired the rights to Poe's manuscripts from his Mother in law only to besmirch Poe's reputation as a Human being and a writer. The short biography that Rufus wrote of Poe, after the collected works were published were ridden with factual errors, and unwarranted character assassination – which unfortunately remained the only details available on Poe's life for long time. Therefore, For nearly hundred and fifty years, it was Griswold's inaccurate portrayal of Poe which held sway in Public imagination. People were lulled into believing that only such a depraved man could have written such stories of grim insanity and darkness. Modern scholarship has however, in the last century disproved most of Griswold's claims, and also exposed Poe's alleged letters to him as forgeries. Poe now stands redeemed in the literary world, but I guess, it wouldn’t have made a dime of difference to him. He never had any great respect for his reading public . "The nose of a mob is its imagination", he wrote "By this , at any time, it can quietly led.."
What then is Poe's legacy? Surely he established the short story as a powerful narrative, created the genre of detective fiction, popularized tales of darkness, and predicted the birth of science fiction as a means to stretch man’s imagination. Generations of writers after him have, consciously or unconsciously, imbibed his spirit. Auguste Dupin, precursor of the iconic Sherlock Holmes was a class act. The police procedural began with him. The clean, methodical, objective and meticulous observation of facts without the cloud of presumptions touched a mystical chord in most readers. His dark stories of Human heart and paranormal occurrences resonates in thousands of modern books and movies. Stephen King, master of the Horror genre acknowledges all members of his trade as "children of Poe..”. And lastly, his lasting legacy would always remain his uninhibited style of writing, his use of words, marvelous sense of description and an indescribable energy he bought to his paragraphs. When we hear a Vincent price or Christopher lee read his works, one could hear a lilting melody in his sentences, a cadence that is at once dark and immensely beautiful - a gentle balm to weary souls. That such a man should have died like a beggar on the streets of Boston, of unknown causes, was indeed a great tragedy. But, perhaps, that is how it needed to end. Two hundred and more years have passed, and Poe still remains a mystery to us: How and why did life pack so much talent into a man to have had him waste away into nothingness, leaving behind only a little of what could have been potentially possible, if He had lived longer. Why could not such genius be recognized in their own life times? Why does the cruel hand of fate mete down such injustice time and time again? We ask these questions with an aching voice each time gifted individuals pass away? Don't we not? But , an answer never comes; never will…..!.

God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala