Thursday, May 26, 2016

Jottings: Slice of life - 14

Goldberg Variations..

It is one of those mysteries of life and art  how great artists sometimes produce something completely unpremeditated and almost effortlessly to satisfy a trifling demand, to please an acquaintance or merely at the spur of the moment. And that frame of painting, book or piece of music becomes a masterpiece in the eyes of future generations. History is full of such works of genius. For instance, In between laborious symphonic compositions Beethoven found time to write a short piano piece for a young child of 13, which is now universally and fondly called "Fur Elise" , or a Leonardo da Vinci painting "virgin on the rocks", almost out of boredom - which now proudly hangs in the Louvre, and acknowledged by connoisseurs to be one of his most profound works of art, or an Edgar Allen Poe writing the "Raven" on a drunken night with nothing to eat, and published as an afterthought by his Editor, or a Johann Sebastian Bach composing his immortal "Goldberg variations" to put a Russian count suffering from insomnia to sleep - which today stands as one of the most challenging pieces of piano music ever composed. The Russian ambassador to Germany requested Bach to write a piece of music for his accompanying pianist Goldberg to play. Goldberg was the Count's musician and companion who traveled with him on his extensive journeys. His duty was to make himself available in an adjoining room, when the count took his periodic rest and entertain or sooth his capricious moods. History has it that Bach was not very happy writing this music, but he needed the Count's blessings and patronage, so he forced himself to produce something that met its purpose. However, what he did not realize was the fact that 30 or 32 variations he wrote for the  Harpsichord were not only supremely challenging technically speaking, but capable of being interpreted in numerous ways  and aesthetically, one of the most satisfying compositions ever. Since it was Goldberg who first played them, it came to be known and recognized as "Goldberg variations" - an unlikely fame for an otherwise ordinary court musician.

Over the last hundred years, It has been the dream of every accomplished pianist to interpret and play the Goldberg variations, at least once in their life time. Very few have actually achieved that summit with glory and fame , and even fewer have explored its nuances and done justice to its musical intricacies. For a long time, I have been searching for a Vinyl record of Glenn Gould's rendition of those variations. The name Glen Gould needs no introduction to Piano enthusiasts. He was one of those maverick geniuses who walked the stage of life,  every now and then. Eccentric, gifted, unconventional and extremely articulate - he recorded the "Goldberg variations" for the first time at a very young age in 1955. I say first time because, Gould has played and recorded them multiple times. He believed the Goldberg variations to contain a mystical charm which never ceased to amaze. I listened to his 1955  recording on Spotify few  years ago, and immediately fell in love with it. Since then, I have listened to many other versions of Goldberg variations, but somehow, this particular recording stands fresh and unique in my memory. There is something about the way Gould strokes the piano keys, the energy and verve his brings to its tonal quality and the sudden stillness it generates in between -  that captivates every time I listen to it.

A few days, I was driving past a Goodwill, when out of sudden impulse I turned towards it. It is not a store I have visited before. It looked small and a little run down as well. Nevertheless, a sense of  destiny ( strong word!!!) pulled me irresistibly. As I walked down the narrow aisle where Music was stacked, I saw two Vinyl's leaning against the shelf. I had almost walked past it, when the familiar intense face of Gould on the record cover caught the corner of my eye . I stopped, and picked it to see what it was. It was indeed Gould's 1955 recording of  Goldberg variations. The record itself was a 1972 reissue, but is in pristine condition. Price  - .77 cents + .05 cents tax.

If you care to glance Wikipedia's list of recordings of Goldberg variations, you will notice around 100 names over the last century or so, but if you look closely, Gould's name will appear four times in that list. He loved that piece so much. Though critics rate his 1955 recording as the finest, he was not very happy about it. He felt his tempo to be too fast for Bach's notes, and in later recordings one could audibly feel a slowing down in his performance. But for me, I love the first. After reaching the fifteenth variation, Bach gently changes his melody. In a casual listener, It is difficult to notice that subtle change, but if you alert enough - around the 28th he slowly weans back to merge imperceptibly - like two rivers merging into an ocean-   with his first variation. I have listened to at least twenty different recordings, but in none of is the transition so crystal clear as it is when it emanates from Gould's nimble fingers.

The vinyl preserves that genius for posterity.

God bless..

Yours in mortality,

Bala






Monday, May 23, 2016

"Piku" - a tasteful adaption and glorious performances

"Piku" - a tasteful adaption and glorious performances
There is an apocryphal story about Tenali Raman ( the equivalent of Birbal in Northern India) and his King Krishna deva Raya. I have heard this story as a child, but I have not found any evidence of its literary source. However, the story itself is very meaningful and true , and sets the tone for this piece. It goes something like this. One day, the king had a curious question placed for consideration in his court. He asked his wise Men " What is the happiest act a Man can perform in a day, without which his life would be hell". As is customary, Poets, Ministers, intellectuals gave their answers. Some said charity, others lenience and justice, many others suggested money, select few dared to say devoted service of a good wife and many other ventured different answers to suit the ears of the king . Finally, the King turned to Tenali. The young and wise Jester looked around, hesitated a little, swallowed some saliva and said " Oh King, the best moment in a Man's life is the profound joy he derives when he clears his bowels after a hearty, satisfying meal. Nothing can come close to that ecstatic satisfaction.." The court was silent and stunned. This was an impertinent answer. The king grew red in his face, and said "Raman, How dare you speak obscenities in my court. I Banish you to the outskirts of my Kingdom for a few months..." Well Raman knew this was coming and so bowed and left the court accordingly. A few months later, Raman sought audience with the King to call him to his house warming ceremony. He had lot of time in his hands; hence built a huge palace for himself with numerous rooms. The King always had a soft corner for Raman, and decided to grace the occasion. On the appointed day, Raman organized a grand feast. Course after course of sumptuous food Kept arriving on the plantain leaf, and the king (known for his voracious appetite ) ate his heart full. When it was over, Raman solicitously requested the king to accompany him on a tour of his house. With the fullness of food in the stomach, the King's face and state was glowing with contentment and happiness. He readily agreed to go with Raman. Both of them walked room after room with Raman tarrying at every spot to explain architectural subtleties to the king. The place had Four floors, and it took down them two hours to visit two floors. The initial enthusiasm of the king was beginning to wane, and also he began to sense a vague discomfort in his stomach. His digestion process was beginning to do its job. Quietly, he asked "Raman, is there a Bathroom anywhere close?". Raman Replied "Yes, My King, just a few more rooms and will be there..". So saying, the house tour continued for another two hours. Meanwhile, the king was in a terrible mess physiologically and psychologically. He could barely walk,or listen, concentrate or appreciate the finer nuances Tenali was attempting to explain. All that he could think off was When and where to relieve his bowels. Every room began to look like a Toilet to his eyes, but Raman was seemingly oblivious to Kings's concern. He kept saying " Just a few rooms more..". After nearly five hours, The king could hold it no more. He stopped and yelled at Tenali " I cannot move an inch forward without relieving my bowels. I command you to show me a toilet instantly". At the moment, Tenali pointed to a door and said that was it. The King ran like a mad man into it, and as he relieved his bowels, there was audible sound of relief heard from inside. When complete, the King came out with a beaming smile and happiness writ all over his face. He hugged and patted Tenali " You scoundrel, you wanted to prove your point on the joy relieving one's Bowels; Therefore you played his elaborate drama.... Hahahaha. I understand now and completely agree with you. This was the most joyful moment of my day.. No doubt. My wise Minister. You are welcome back to my court..."
Two hours of "Piku", and you will see the relevance of my story above. In tenali's story the King could not contain himself; in "Piku" Bhaskor bannerji finds its hard to get it out of him. We call it constipation. The difference is only one of semantics, essential problem is the same. Well, coming to the meat of my essay, after nearly one year of being in my playlist, I finally got around to watching Piku today. A brilliant theatrical!!. A simple story, a slice of life that reveals more than it conceals, it really showcases what Indian film makers can acheive when they strive to get out of the stereotyped commercialism that sells.
Maturity in film making happens, when its praticitiioners can lift a subtle relationship, embroider and elevate it to act as a mirror for its viewers. As long as it only deals with flights of imagination and has nothing to do with reality, films are nothing better than cheap titillations of senses. Indian cinema, has for long been caught in this vicious cycle of fantasies, and it's time that mold in broken and the art is taken to the next level. Piku takes a look at the lives of a Father and daughter with fresh eyes. Over the years, relationships between Parents and children in cinema has undergone drastic change, but most them are exaggerated. But here,for the first time ( at least for me), there is a brutal honesty between them. It juxtposes modernity with cultural roots, which is an important part of Indian culture. No matter, how westernized one may become, genetic roots will take generations to mutate. Until then, we have to straddle between two worlds. In Piku Bannerji - played to perfection by the charming and beautiful Deepika Padukone - we see an intellectual gleam in her eyes, a strong sense of professional and personal identity, a filial love which can empathize and argue with equal vigor and consistency, and above all a depth of character willing to change when facts are presented with honesty. And Bhaskor Bannerji!!. - the father..Who else in Indian Cinema can play this role? None in my opinion. Probably Kamal, after a decade will reach this level of excellence; but for others, this acting performance by Amitabh Bachan should be bedside bible. Fifty years of evolution as an actor reaches its crescendo here. His sheer brilliance rubs off on Deepika's talent. Like the reflected light of Moon, she shines in scenes where she engages her father in debate, argument an understanding.
Shoojit Sircar - the director has beautifully constructed this movie. Admittedly, the story is taken off a Hollywood film, but like great directors, Shoojit has adapted it well for Indian screen. I loved his sensitive treatment in Vicky Donor, and Piku has again proved he has it in him to break out of type casts. The only element of this movie, I was not thoroughly convinced was Irfan Khan's role as Rana - an educated unemployed entrepreneur struggling with his business and family. Neither was Irfan's, normally focused performance , anywhere near his best, nor was the character really necessary at all. Between an intense father daughter relationship, Rana is lost. While I do agree, he provides some turning moments in the story, My point is, it did not need the talent and caliber of Irfan to be playing that part. Anyone else would have done justice.
Finally, to end this rather long essay and review, I must add that the best part of this movie is that there is no Philosophizing or moralizing. Bhaskor bannerji suffers from constipation, does not believe in low IQ marriages, protective of his daughter, and then suddenly dies like any other. That's the end, Life goes on for Piku as she is shown picking up discarded threads in her own world. No brouhaha, no fanfare - just as life Normally is. And to translate this essence on to screen captivating audiences world wide is phenomenonal.. Cheers!! To all concerned.
God bless...
Yours in mortality ,
Bala


Saturday, May 21, 2016

Jottings: Slice of life - 12

"Let the force be with you.., All the every best..." Amar was congratulating Mike's son's successful admission into good college. I said "God bless you...". The group around looked at me curiously, and one of them interjected" Bala, do you really mean this wish. I Mean 'God bless you'. I am sure you don't believe in a personal God or any kind of anthropomorphic entity. What is the meaning of this wish.."

It has become a fashion these days to not sound God-centric, if that's the phrase I am looking for. On social media, conversations, you will find a lot of people deliberately avoiding the use of the term "God" and in its place try and say something else, that in their minds sounds and means more neutral. To use the word "God" is deemed primitive and blind, and to use the word "Force" implies enlightenment and an agnostic stance. It is become a sign of modernity to speak in abstract terms like this, than to say something with genuine feeling in your heart. God seems very personal, Sectarian and childish, while "force" projects a objective and scientific frame of mind. Frankly, I am not surprised at the perversion of a meaningful and pregnant word like God. Given the state of organized religions today, use of this term does seems a little dubious. But that does not mean, the word itself has lost its meaning. We have lost its true understanding. That's all.

Stripped of ideological references, the word God, it's etymological roots only indicates a deep state of resignation to state of affairs beyond human comprehension, yet somehow underlying it as well. It's a beautiful word pregnant with humility. Albert Einstein, referred to God, when he couldn't fathom something. And so have all serious Men and Women who can think for themselves. To deliberately avoid the use of this word only underlines our ignorance of what it means. It is very interesting though, that most people who are reluctant to use God in normal conversations are those who claim to have read Chrisropher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris . Very unfortunate!!!. Because, if they have read these deep thinkers carefully and completely, they will understand that not one of them ever questions the use of the word "God" but only doubt and discard the creator-created paradigm surrounding it. Which is perfectly alright. The problem is most of of our pseudo- intellectuals who parade around in the garb of modernity are only half read; hence misunderstanding is rampant.

Anyway, I have always maintained that words are symbols. Pointers to something beyond it. And many times use of words and phrases are colored by how we wish to be seen by others, than by intrinsic meaning of the word itself. Naom Chomsly, the most celebrated linguist and social theorist once replied to a question on God Like this : "If you want to use the word "God" to refer to "what you are and what you want" -- well, that's a terminological decision, not a substantive one...." 

I guess The need to use the word "Force" and not "God" is more a personal pose than anything else. God points to something more substantive..

God bless....

Yours in mortality,

Bala





Thursday, May 19, 2016

Sex Lies and Videotape

Before you start reading this essay, Let me place on table a fairly long warning or disclaimer, as the case may be. Here it is.. The moment one starts talking about sex, and its tremendous ramifications in Modern society, there is almost definitely an instinctive withdrawal into a defensive cocoon. We have all three (not fifty) shades of opinions about it. From the ultra conservative bought up on puritan values, to the ambivalent individual who could swing both ways, to the modern libertine Who has no inhibitions or scruples  -  almost everyone has a definitive view on this matter falling within this broad spectrum. In the following paragraphs, I review one of the finest adaptions of this complex theme on screen, and in the process present my views as usual. So for those of us for whom the subject of sex is an anathema or would touch an uncomfortable raw nerve, I apologize. But It is my strong conviction that nothing is outside the purview of one's awareness, and to be intelligent, is to be able to objectively look at our innermost desires and thought processes. And this is particularly true of sexual undercurrents - our strongest and most resilient instinct. The more we sublimate and ignore it, the greater and harsher will its rebound be. It's better to face it Head on and move ahead.

In 2014, Professor Yual Noah Harari wrote an important book titled "Sapiens - A brief history of Mankind". Unlike other history books, in this magnificent work,  Prof Harari sketches "Human advancement" based on Man's ability to create adequate fiction. What is fiction, after all?. It's a mysterious  process that happens in the Human brain, which results in conjuring a virtual reality that may or may not have any material or objective essence.  From our Neanderthal origins to Modern Homo sapiens, the taming of instinct, evolution of culture , society, manners,representation  - all of them have been excessively cerebralized and fictionalized. Today, to call a man "instinctual" may not be construed as praise. Because, we are assumed to be civilized, hence we must think, fictionalize and only then act. While all of us agree that to live together, we do need some kind of verbal fictions, the question is: do we know or distinguish boundaries clearly enough? Let me illustrate. Of all bodily needs and instincts, sex dominates our consciousness like nothing else does.  Whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we are conscious of it or not  - almost everything that we do as a Male or female has subtle sexual connotations. I am not trying to sound Darwinian or Freudian here. It is a fact, if one has the courage to look deeply enough and observe.  Years of intellectual training and indoctrination may have beaten this overpowering instinct or drive into submission, but like a coiled snake, it is ready to hiss and crackle at the slightest provocation. And from the dawn of history, the perversion of Sex into numerous fictional channels for lack of oppurtunities to physically quench its unrelenting demands  is known to all of us. The clear divorce from what is essentially an act of procreation to becoming an abstraction of the mind (fiction), where it can endlessly produce pleasure without any outward biological significance - has in effect progressively led to moral and ethical complications between sexes; the results of which are pretty evident in sexual tensions prevalent in society today.

Until the 1970's, expression of sex predominantly found vent in paintings, sculpture and to a large extent in literature. The first novel ever published, Richardson's "Clarissa" , which runs into nine volumes has numerous beautiful references to sex, infidelity and promiscuity . And since then, almost every novelist has made intelligent use of sexual innuendos to capture and trigger imagination in their readers. I remember reading Ian Fleming and Harold Robbins during my college days. While, there is no doubt they were masters of the genre of fiction, the captivating feature of their work were those few paragraphs of graphic description of sex. And most paperbacks those days, had on their covers a vivid image projecting a Male or female anatomy in various poses of seduction.  thousands of Mills and Boons books thrived on this simple technique. The 80's, however , ushered in the era of video pornography. And with that, the written word began to fade in power. The innermost fantasies, imagination and expectations was now laid bare on screen with no inhibitions, no food for self- reflection and with utter disdain for sanctity of Human body and act of copulation. 

It was during this period in 1989, the movie "Sex, lies and Videotape" was released. The movie heralded a significant moment in history of Cinema for few reasons. Firstly, it realistically portrays perversion, degeneracy and absolute confusion about sex in Modern Man. Secondly, it was the first low budget Independent film that was widely recognized and set a new trend for avante garde Film makers. Thirdly, it elicited magnificent performances by James spader and Annie Mcdougal, who were until then relatively low key actors. Fourthly, the screenplay wonderfully bought out the sense of sexual release mere words could bring out without any corresponding physical motions.The power of words to touch an erogenous zone found its finest expression in the dialogues of this movie. The story is straightforward. A successful lawyer (John) sleeps with his wife's (Ann played brilliant by Andie Macdowal) sister, because his wife is frigid and believes that sex is an odd thing. Not that she isn't beautiful or does not have passion; but intellectually, she is not convinced that there is need to engage in regular sex. Into their lives, comes a young man (Graham, again a role of a lifetime for James Spader) as John's friend. He is a curious person. Introverted, lives out of suitcase and car, unsuccessful at work and relationships, he however possesses a magnetic attraction , an inquisitive mind that can spot deeply hidden complexes in another. His hobby is to record intimate conversations with his girlfriends, getting them to talk about their sex lives. He doesn't touch, molest or engage them in Physical sex. He cannot, because he confesses his impotency . Both Ann and her begin to melt in his presence. They feel a compulsive need to unravel their thoughts, and end up recounting their intimate experiences with him. And in the process, both of them peel layers of Physchologcal knots within. This baptism in conversation proves healthy to all . Each comes to face their complexities, misgivings and skewed expectation and more importantly begin to place their individual sexual motives in context. There is healing all around..

By modern definitions, this Film is what we categorize as an arty" film. But the sheer pace and depth of the narrative raises it to a far higher level than that. There is absolutely no background score at all.  Ominous Silences, common places sounds plays a significant role , and measured dialogues without any cliche  adds meaningful gravity to some incredible acting performances. It came as no surprise, the jury at Cannes festival in 1989 gave it a nod for their highest honor - Palme d'Or Prize.  For an average viewer, the movie may seem vulgar and gross; but if one can watch it without any prejudice or opinions, then it reveals something of oneself. Behind this facade of respectability, there lies this buried but simmering sexuality waiting for an outlet -  an ascendancy over our rational selfs. 

Before I conclude this essay, James Spader and Director Steven Sodenburgh must be given their due. It was only a year ago, that I saw Spader in action for the first time on Netflix. He stars in the Television series "Blacklist" as the most wanted global terrorist who chooses to assist FBI for professional and personal reasons. Spader excels in that role. His laid back, nonchalant attitude, twinkle in the eye, a sarcasm that goes beyond words captivates. In "Sex. Lies and videotape", we see Spader in his younger years -  Blue eyed, blonde curly hair, deceptively sultry voice, a whiff of feminine charm clothed in masculinity. It was a break through film for him. And speaking of Steven,the director, it was a bold movie, made on a shoe string budget of 1.8 Milion, depending entirely on his story, cast and screenplay. Legend has it that Steven conceived this movie on a flight to Los Angleles and wrote it in flat five days. May be true or may be not. But the end result is quite brilliant. 

For those of us who like watching well made movies with a deep resonating theme, this is definitely a must watch. 

God bless...

Yours in mortality,

Bala

"A Home Owner now..."

"A Home Owner now..."
About 55 years ago, on a wintry day, Professor Lorenz, meteorologist at MIT was simulating weather patterns based on 12 variables on mainframe machines. That particular evening, he was recreating a weather pattern of two months ago with 12 verified, documented values. As he stood up after hours of concentrated work, and grabbed his coffee cup to walk out for a short break, he lazily punched in the decimal number .506 for one of the variables ,instead of the original recorded value .506127. When he came back after fifteen minutes, he stood staring at the screen in disbelief. All the wavy graphs on his monitor for last two months looked radically different from what he had earlier tabulated and observed. There was no resemblance between the original graphs and the new ones simulated by his software. At that breathless moment, he had a tremendous insight into what had happened to generate this drastically different simulation. The minute rounding off he had done on a value had triggered a complex chain of changes in the software algorithm, eventually snowballing into something totally different, unpredicted and catastrophic. He had unwittingly, accidentally stumbled upon what we have now come to know and understand as "The chaos theory" - When a butterfly flaps its wings in New mexico, it could cause a hurricane in China. It means, it is impossible to predict the future, because a single insignificant change in an initial condition can lead to completely indeterminable outcome.
Now why am I recounting this story here? Because, around Mid November last year, on a rainy evening In Dunwoody, Atlanta, I was mugged by three inebriated young men. No bodily harm was caused, and the financial loss was very minimal; but that small incident released a chain of events in my life that would quickly alter the way I "materially" lived.Within a month of that mugging, I happened to see a car I liked and bought it. Considering i have lived without one for a long time, and never felt the pinch of it, this was a major decision. Very quickly following that purchase, in the month of March, I woke up one morning and decided I was going to buy a Home here in the US. Now that I had a car, mobility was no more a problem. My search for a Home lasted exactly three days. My real estate agent ( an adorable man of 72 years with a great sense of humor) showed me five homes. I picked the fourth. It is a town-home, a corner plot and in a wonderful locality. My search ended, and next steps to acquire it began.
Again, there was absolutely no hurdles at all along the way during the process of acquiring it. Acceptance of my offer by the Seller, Home inspection, professional Lending service, right rate of interest, Appraisals, documentation - all flowed one after the other like waves upon an ocean . I sometimes had this strange feeling that I was a mere spectator to this unfolding drama around. Almost everyone close poured their generous advice into me.Their inputs proved invaluable to make right decisions without any effort on my part. After all, they had done all the needed thinking for me; all that I had to do was to pay heed to their thoughts and execute it. Which is what I ended up doing.
So well, Today morning 16th of May, I finished closing formalities; and officially, as my Manager in his inimitable style said " Bala, you now own a little part of America...". True, there is a place now I could call my own and can live in it the way I would love to - surrounded by racks and racks of books, groovy sounds from Vinyl records permeating the air with vibrant strings of Mozart, Cooking rasam and Potato curry in a fairly large and comfortable kitchen, sitting out on the patio watching the sun go down, recline on a Lazy-boy chair with Boethius "Consolation of Philosophy" or a Ellis peter's Brother Cadfeal mystery, and choose the bedroom I would like sleep in. Sounds like a good deal!!!
This home is most definitely dedicated to my Parents and Family. My father's invisible presence and Mom's ever present unconditional love and support in everything I do is a constant source of solace and joy for me. Without their blessings, My life in many ways would not have taken the turns it took to reach this point. My Brother has stood behind me in my decisions. Finally, I cannot refrain from expressing my gratitude to all friends for their time, support and inputs in helping me make this important decision.
So ending this essay with what I began : here is the Butterfly effect in action. What started as a small , incident generated an avalanche of decisions, which I believe ,would not have come to pass , if those three boys had decided to let me alone that rainy evening.
Definitely, food for thought... :):)
God bless..
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Jottings. - slice of life 11

The seed of experiential spiritual search is sown only when there is grace -  call it grace of God, life, nature, luck or any other name you may wish. And what I mean by "Spirtual search" is genuine discontent with how we have been leading our lives so far, and allowing that ever present little inner voice which incessantly keeps humming in the background, pointing us to a more richer, deeper and more peaceful place within to be our infallible guide.. None can deny this inaudible voice!!. Even a full blown atheist feels it in the marrow of his bones.

In the Gita, The master says " Rare is a human birth, rarer still are circumstances that pushes one to search for real peace , and  rarest are those who diligently pursue that faint thread of everlasting peace and attain it.." Like the Greek myth where Prince Theseus  holds onto the thread given by his lover Ariadne to find his way through the complex labyrinth to kill the Minotaur and redeem his love; Grace, often takes the form of that dangling thread that appears when everything seems lost. It is unconditionally given to all who are willing to see and latch on to it, but only few are blessed with the courage to hold on. A religious life is not a different life altogether, it is still our daily life; but the anchor, the source of our actions is a still point within. Again, there is a wrong misconception that this still voice is our moral conscience.. No, Not at all.. Morality is still within the range of cerebration and it is relative and contextual. What we talking about goes deeper than that. The paradox or the irony of it all is that to understand and grope for that center we need a fine tuned intellect; but to taste that bliss, we have to let go of this instrument, or rather it miraculously drops away by itself.  And that is grace.

Sometimes, as we listen to piece of music, or read a book, or even look at a tree or a flower or a flowing brook , or watch a child's smiling face - we have this extraordinary sense of peace, a sudden breakthrough in consciousness. It is only for a infinitesimal moment, and then our thoughts cloud our awareness quickly enough. But that little taste of bliss is Grace. It is life seeping though our hard inner shells to give us a glimpse of who we really are, and how we could "BE". It is a knock on the door that often goes unanswered.  Whether we attend a Hindu Satsang, or a Muslim Namaz, or a Christian Mass -  the idea is one. To drop into that state of "beingness" and stop being a husband or a wife or a engineer of an employer or somebody, if only for a short while.. When one's throat is parched , even a drop of water can be blissful. Even so, with a little taste of our real nature, there is an extraordinary transformation that begins within.

God bless..

Yours in mortality,

Bala










Friday, May 13, 2016

Jottings: Slice of life -10

Jottings: Slice of life.
The city of San Francisco always holds me in thrall. Especially, the eclectic downtown surrounding the Union square. I am not sure what pulls me into its vortex of attraction ; it could possibly be the strange mixture of beauty, vulgarity, class and style that abounds in every brick of this beautiful city. My work has taken me to many places in this country, but in none of them do I drop into such a contemplative spell as I do here. Here is modern Human life in a nutshell. Alongside the posh, affluent and high browed millionaires walking its elegant undulating roads; homeless men and women clad in cast away tatters, reeking with sweat and smell of their defecation, intoxicated with pot - smiling, laughing and dancing with gay abandon also walk oblivious of their pathetic state. The city embraces all of them and mixes their lives in its phantasmagorical melting pot. It accepts none, it rejects nobody - the atmosphere of the Bay Area transcends petty human inequities. There is a strange dignity in this inequality which goes against the grain of moral imperatives. One doesn't feel sorry for the vagabonds, nor does one feel awe at the socially well off. All of them are living the human drama as best as they can. Behind those designer wear sun glasses, Armani clothes , BMW cars and million dollar homes; there is the same human pain, craving, suffering and and hurt - only covered in layers of paint and attitude. Gosh! Enough of my meditation about this divine ground (or is it purgatory).
There was strange encounter in the cafeteria today at the client location. I was sitting on a bar stool watching Trump's campaign speech, when an elderly gentlemen with white silky hair, slightly bulky, dressed casually in jeans and Polos took the seat beside me. We were making casual remarks about GOP 2016, when my neighbor asked me "
"So what do you do for this company...."
"Well sir, I am a vendor teaching a class here"
He then went to enquire what I was teaching and how the participants were responding. He showed an extraordinary curiosity and enthusiasm to understand the nature of my work. And what stuck me was his undivided attention to my words. He received a couple of calls, but his politely cut them and continued to engage me in conversation. He also seemed very knowledgeable about the products I was training on, and made some remarks on proposed enhancements on it.For some reason, I did not ask him his name, nor did he venture to tell me. After fifteen minutes of dialogue, I excused myself to get back into class. We shook hands and went different ways. Before he left he said
" You teachers are our best salesman and evangelists. Keep the good work going...
I have to pass by front office to reach my classroom; and as I walked past, the lady at the reception stopped me and asked"
"did you realize whom you are talking to?"
"Gosh, no, I forgot to ask him his name, who was he, anyway?
" He is Jeff ( name changed), the CEO of this organization..."
I stood transfixed. Not because I had just spoken to a man who heads a two billion dollar company, but out of respect for his unpretentious simplicity, presence and interest he showed in what I was doing. I have seen him in many videos clad in formal suits, but seeing him in person decked in causal attire had thrown me completely out of guard. I simply couldn't recognize him as he sat there with me.
As I walked back to my hotel after class, What stuck me was his interest in details. He wanted to know what version were we teaching, what topics, which ones were given importance and which weren't, what kind of courses. - in fifteen minutes, I realized , he had culled enough information to reach a judicious assessment of what his company was offering as education to his customers. And all of this without asserting any authority whatsoever. We always believe that as one climbs the company ladder, a leader tends to lose touch or interest in ground realities. But frankly, Great leaders are those who can soar high, and can when needed a keep their eyes focused on minute details. Like an eagle, who glides through rarified skies, yet can swoop down to pluck its prey with meticulous precision, Leaders must know when to soar and when to get down to details. It is only under such a leader can a team achieve quality, effectiveness and growth
God bless....
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Thursday, May 12, 2016

"Sliding doors" - a crevice in time

The question of "What if" constantly haunts Man. He is probably the only creature endowed with this ability to imagine, introspect and extrapolate alternatives.  Questions like what if I had married John instead of Tom?, or what if I had accepted admission into Johnston college for a course in Literature instead of joining engineering at Livingstone, or what if I had said yes to Stephanie when she invited me to her Party and not go out with stag friends and got piss drunk? What if I was born to parents with an aristocratic lineage -  there are innumerable such trivial, vital and sometime life changing what-if's in our lives. More so, because we value chronological time very much, and pretty much look at ourselves through the prism of  time as measured by clocks and calendars. We are given to understand , or let me say, indoctrinated from childhood that our lives are to led in a linear manner, and what has happened today is irrevocably lost and buried in this inexorable movement of time, and there is no way of us to recapture, relive or alter happenings in lapsed time. I am not here to argue whether chronological time has any justification at all in reality, that's besides the point of this essay. The fact is most of us are prone or love to fantasize on what could have happened if different decisions were made in the past than what we actually did. The source of all human misery and discontent lies between "what could have been?" versus "what is".

"Sliding doors", the 1998 feature film captures this vacillation wonderfully projecting two parallel stories branching from a single inconsequential incident. Helen , played by the beautiful and talented Gwyneth Paltrow, wakes up one morning , rushes to her office, where she works as a PR officer, only to find that she has lost her job. As she picks up her stuff and walks back dejected, she runs into James Hammerton, a nice English gentleman and a stranger , in the elevator. She repeatedly keeps bumping into James at different times during the day (played by John Hannah), until each of them, in their own separate ways reach the underground rail. James manages to step into the coach as the sliding doors close, whereas Helen  misses boarding the train by a whisker. In that infinitesimal crack of a moment, Director and writer Peter Howitt  visualizes  two parallel universes, one in which Helen does not board the train, gets mugged , reaches home, and cries on her unfaithful boyfriend's shoulders and tries to resurrect her life ; and an other life where Helen reaches home, finds her Boyfriend in Bed with another girl, stomps out, falls in love with James and rebuilds a successful career. The juxtaposing of "what-ifs" in Helen's and James lives is captured well on screen

As a viewer, one is caught in both worlds. We empathize with the Helen who struggles to find something wrong in her Boyfriend's clandestine behavior, and we ache with the other disillusioned  Helen who cannot muster enough courage to get past a failure in relationship. We are made to believe that both these strands of cause and effect are equally plausible, and if given a chance can be equally true. This is called the  theory of "Mutiverse" , and was pronounced by the Wiiliam James in 1895, first in his lectures , which then was compiled into " The varieties of religious experience" - arguably , one of the most influential books of Western mystical experience ever written. And in 1952, the father of Quantum theory Edwin schrodinger gave the idea necessary scientific thrust it needed . Since then, the existence of Parlallel universes in different fields of Human experience has remained a Hotly debated topic in top scientific circles. In Literature HG wells, the consummate science fiction writer he was, wove his magic in his wonderful novel "The time machine"( coincidentally in 1895, the same year William James gave Mutiverse  its philosophical stature), and since then all forms of art have embraced this idea rather enthusiastically. In recent times, Movies like Back to the future,  Matrix, Terminator and many others have used this idea of non-linear time, and possibility of multiple outcomes in human life to give general public a taste of what happens when tradition linear time breaks down and Newtonian  rules of causation ignored. The relativity of time, space and matter is now no more a matter of esoteric academic interest, but has infiltrated into common human consciousness.

A word on Gwenyth  Paltrow before I conclude this essay. Often, In my reviews of actors, I have spoken very highly of Meryl Streep, and I still consider her as the finest actress in the last fifty years. And I am sure not many will disagree with me on that point. But of late, I have been watching many movies featuring Ms Paltrow, and I must confess that her range of emotions, natural grace, and statuesque beauty does come really close sometimes to Streep's ethereal performances. The five years between 1995 and 2000 were the golden years of Gwenyth's acting career, reaching a crescendo with "Shakespeare in love" -  which won her an Academy award. Unlike Streep, who chose her movies and roles with meticulous precision across her long career , Gwenyth lost her way a bit post 2000. A few insignificant roles and inability to handle the glare of publicity, her work suffered. But fortunately, in the recent past, she has began to find her bearings again. Which is good news for the movie fraternity. 

God bless....

Yours in mortality,

Bala

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Jottings: Slice of life. - 9

Jottings: Slice of life...
William Blake is better known for his Dionysian energy that filled his verses than for his sensitive poetical nuances. Unlike Keats, Shelley’s and Wordsworth’s who are read purely for aesthetic pleasure, Blake is read for sheer force of his mystical convictions. In his masterpiece “the marriage of heaven and Hell”, he writes: “ If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern…” No contemplative philosopher, modern or medieval ,have escaped the power of sentences like these, and in the same vein, some of Blake’s ecstatic outpourings have also led to justifications of Drug use in the literature of modern thought. It was, Aldous Huxley - a thinker, novelist, and philosopher, I greatly admire, who wrote a pivotal slim volume in 1954 titled “The doors of perception” ( a title borrowed from Blake’s quote above) that more or less established the philosophical basis of experiences born out moderate use of drugs. In fact, Huxley’s interest in mystical thinking led to experiment with Mescaline – an age old plant that induce alternative consciousness. Over a period of three weeks, Huxley carefully observed the paradigm shifts in perception occurring under its influence; and immediately thereafter , within a month of the experiment produced this magnificent book. The literary artist in Huxley managed to raise the act of drug induced liberation to heights of written excellence. It is unparalleled in its intensity, language and honesty. Many thought It was almost an apology for using and entertaining drugs for “right” purposes; which in Huxley’s term meant - expanded and deepened consciousness. However, Towards the end of his book, Huxley made an important observation
“ The need for frequent chemical vacations from intolerable selfhood and repulsive surroundings will undoubtedly remain. What is needed is a new drug which will relieve and console our suffering species without doing more harm in the long run than it does good in the short.”
This statement, along with many such similar pronouncements, has become the lingua-Franca for those who believe the drugs and intoxicants of all kinds should be decontrolled and freely available in the marketplace. After all, it helps one spiritually. The Hippie movement during vibrant sixties that literally changed the social, ethical and moral landscape of America took Huxley’s words at its face value. The cult of intoxicating oneself to the point of self- annihilation became a spiritual fashion. Thankfully, legislation controlled the degenerative process quickly enough then. However, In recent years, a spate of States in the US has deregulated marijuana (pot) and similar intoxicants for reasons best known to them. When I first visited Denver in 2009, Colorado was a drug free state, but a couple of years ago marijuana was legalized and is now available as easily as one could get a cigarette in a store. While this undoubtedly increased state revenue manifold times, I could see parents and elders visibly disgruntled over this decision in the long run.
Well, The reason I started this short essay is because I read few days ago about Sister Kate in California , a self proclaimed Nun along with a fellow helper, growing Marijuana in her back yard and mixing them in concoctions that would help alleviate pain. They have a wonderful website to aid their sales. What is interesting is that Christine Meussuen (now Sister Kate) never in her wildest dreams wished to become a Nun. She spent 10 years of her life living in Amsterdam living quite a sordid existence , before divorcing her Husband and migrating to California. With three children, not enough income, she was virtually homeless, when she read about a curious legislation by congress that if a Pizza has three tea spoons of Tomato sauce in it, it shall be considered Vegetarian. That is when Kate decided to become a Nun. If Pizza could be considered veggie by virtue of its dressing, then by wearing a white robe robe, she would be a Nun as well. She has not taken any oaths, she is not a celibate, she does not profess the bible. She is what we theologically call the “third order” ( a name commonly given to groups we cannot categorize). When people come to her with pain, she prescribes her plant based remedies. No sermons, no spiritual healing, no advices; only purely unadulterated doses of Cannabidiol infused remedies to expand consciousness and relieve physical and emotional pain. That is all. And going by statistics she is doing unbelievably well. Her central theme is this : “ We disagree that suffering an pain is part of normal life. It is only a way to criminalize plant-induced remedies…” I wonder what Huxley would have thought of this rationale. With Sister Kate's success, the establishment of organized church has now began to question the validity of her vows, and the local county have began to take steps to stop cultivation of Cannabis.
My point is very simple. Any kind of intoxicant taken in moderation, and under controlled circumstances can yield a sense of “selflessness”. This is quite obvious. During a social gathering, after a few rounds, tongue loosen, inhibitions shed and people present themselves more truly, authentically than what they normally are. It is also a fact, that physical pain subsides, and senses become more diluted and clear. There is clearer perception. Color, light, shapes – all of them begin to look fresh and exciting. These symptoms point to a state of consciousness that seems out of grasp in daily life and more in tune with what Mystics along the ages have been pointing out. The doors of perception are opened to reveal a new sensory experience. But one has to be careful. It is very easy to exhaust sensory limits to the point of physical exhaustion and cause irrevocable damage to oneself. And in cases like sister Kate’s adventure, it can quickly become habitual delusion, and the thin line that separates genuine “out of self” experience from caricatured acts becomes blurry. While Sister Kate and her associated may have stuck upon a wonderful business proposition to lead comfortable lives, it may end doing irreparable damage to the community around. But again, if history is any witness to human follies, then there has never been a time when Man has not invested in shortcuts to ecstasy. So, I am not surprised at all.
God bless...
Yours in mortality,
Bala



Sunday, May 1, 2016

The burden of choice

If there is one thing that distinguishes modern times with our past generations, it is the abundance of choice we have in almost everything we do. From the time Adam Smith made a philosophically imperative case of "capitalism" in 1776 ( coincidental isn't it? with birth of America) with his Book "Wealth of nations"; industrialism, division of labor and specialization have literally usurped the laid-back attitude of common man exchanging goods. Earlier,He could only barter what he physically had with others who could give him what he essentially wanted. Since needs were less, choices were almost non-existent. And of course, they did not have to deal with a class of people called Marketeers or advertisers, whose only task to is to weave new needs where there is none and push people on to a "hedonic treadmill". For our ancestors, as long as their basic needs were satisfied, there was no grave psychological discontent. I don't think history even speaks of " clinical depression" ( Psychological and economic) before the eighteenth century. Fast- forward to current times. Walk into a department store, or think about buying almost anything you can possibly conceive (sadly even Mothers and fathers from sperm banks) - there is an explosion of choices. Rows and aisles of products varying from each other in most subtle ways, millions of needs - tangible and intangible - fueled through media and its void filled by thousand different offerings, advantages and disadvantages being compared in deceptively significant ways creating tremendous psychological strain - all these are common experience for all of us today. Even important decisions like Education, Marriage, jobs, hospitals bury us with choices. It seems we will not be allowed to lead a simple life, even if we wished to, Unless one deliberately breaks the pattern that has so insidiously entered our lives.
Here is the reality in today's world: if there is anyone who is not willing to spend time going through pros and cons of everything before investing in anything (big or small) He or She may be considered a fool, illiterate or downright impractical fellow - in that order respectively. In a gathering of friends, we have to assert that we have spent X number of hours researching a buy. If not, something is seriously wrong with us. Alternately, if we don't have the capacity or inclination to weigh options, then we must, at the very least seek "expert" advice. If either of the above two courses are not followed, chances are high we may lose our respect among peers and may be branded as dumb witted. In other words, if you are one those people like me, who finds satisfaction in whatever you buy, almost instinctively, you may be frowned upon. Not that you are careless buyer. No!!. You know what you need and buy the first product that meets those requirements adequately. Period. No looking at myriad options which plays on psychological subtleties, and sense of disappointment and disenchantment it brings even after the purchase.
You see the point, I am trying to make in this short essay is this: Do we even realize that we spent an inordinate amount of time weighing choices? Do we also realize that even after investing, we are not entirely happy most of time because we are more focused on what we could have bought against what we have in hand? Do we not genuinely feel happy in some cases where we do not have too many choices, but have to decide on something that is available and satisfactory (if you are middle of nowhere, even the most unclean, unhygienic food will taste divine)? Think about it..
It all boils down to this. We measure progress with number of increased options available. We have somehow come to believe that if a society does not have many options, it is backward, and needs to be restructured. Democracy is confused with choice, as against individual freedom to make balanced choices based on needs, means and culture. We want to breed a society of "Maximizers" against "satisficers" . These terms and its distinction was beautifully bought out by social theorist Professor Barry Schwartz in his 2004 book "The paradox of choice". The common notion that increased choice leads to increased happiness is a theory that is not supported by any study in any field. In fact, the converse seems to be true. Let me conclude this essay by bringing to your attention a most wonderful, must read book on this notion and perception of choice. The book is "The art of Choosing" by Sheena Iyengar published in 2010. Sheena is a professor at Columbia university and recognized authority around the world on choosing as a cultural and social paradigm. Sheena herself made some great choices in her life. She was completely blind before she was sixteen, yet made bold decisions to graduate with honors from Penn and Wharton. She walks with a cane,reads and writes in Braille and speaks with eloquence and confidence. She teaches advanced students in top universities on the mechanics of choice. Her book "The art of choosing" was an eye opener to me , when I read it, and I am sure it will be to most of us who are sensitive to this important question in our daily lives. In her introduction, Sheena talks of an experiment she conducted in one of the biggest stores in the United States with Jams. In one booth, thirty varieties of Jam were displayed with varying price ranges, and In another booth six varieties with higher prices. The experiment yielded an astonishing result. People came to the booth with more choices of jams , but hesitated buying. Whereas when they walked to the smaller booth, they actually bought. The irony was that all the brands displayed in the second booth (6 varieties ) were available in the first.
Maybe too much of choice is not a good thing after all..
God bless...
Yours in mortality,
Bala