Monday, June 27, 2016

Jottings : Slice of life-21 ( dedicated to a friend and an accomplished artist)

Jottings : Slice of life-21
To appreciate an art in its finer forms, one needs to be inducted into its secrets. Nowhere is this need so visible as it is in music, the most prevalent and accessible of all arts. It is one thing to just allow sound to envelop you in its melody or rhythm , and it is a totally different experience to listen to the same piece of sound with a finer ear for details. That is the reason not many of us can enjoy Classical music - whether it be Indian or western. And the reason is not far to seek. There are intricate forms of sound and harmony in a well conceived and studied composition that is not readily apparent to an average listening ear, unless it is pointed out by a Master or a connoisseur or by someone who has a natural ear to pick those nuances. And once its hidden beauty is indicated, an astute listener picks up that insight instantaneously, after which the experience of listening to Music undergoes a gestalt change. There arises richer depth and profound aesthetic satisfaction to the act of listening itself..
I remember a moment nearly thirty years ago, when a good friend inadvertently changed my musical experience in this manner. It was a late evening in Madurai, and Rajkumar (a close family friend) was in my room listening to one of most melodious compositions of the Late KV Mahadevan ( unnai kaanatha kannum kan alla..). Until that time, to me music was predominantly vocal. A song was evaluated based on who sang it, and what was being sung. Orchestration, beauty of musical arrangements, the eclectic mix of instruments and their internal harmony - all these were only considered props to the actual song itself. I did not pay much heed to them. On that particular evening, however, as both of us were listening to the song, all of sudden Rajkumar stopped the player, turned towards me and said:
“Sunder, did you observe the slow movement of violins in the interlude, gradually picking up pace and rhythm, and gently merging into the mellifluous voice of susheela..”.. Rajkumar asked me.
I obviously said no. So we rewound the tape a little and played it back. And Lo! This time, my ears caught the subdued beginnings of violin gracefully picking up from where the vocal trailed off, gathering momentum and then tapering off into the singers voice again. This violin interlude was present all the time, but it needed a guide to point my attention to it in a meaningful way. The overall beauty of that transitional moment simply took my breath away. It was deep insight into how music should be listened to - An openness to the entirety of sound and to enjoy its holistic movement, and not just a part of it. From that moment onward, the quality of my listening experience changed forever.
I am reminded of this incident today because I spoke to Rajkumar and his wife today morning, after a very long time.. He is a great artist himself. Untutored, naturally gifted, he has been playing the Veena for decades now. Completely unorthodox; yet,when he plays this divine instrument, it would seem as though the melodious notes that issue from its tenuous strings transform themselves into something transcendental. Stripped of words, his rendering of some of the finest vocals would lift the tune from the burden of words and present the pure form of sound and emotion it represents . That is the highest level a musician can attain- when pure, unadulterated sound can transport a listener to different space within, and the musician is equally lost in the music as a stream loses itself in the sea.. Recently, he had sent me about ten of his recordings of evergreen melodies in Indian cinema; and each day, on my drive to office and back, they have been solace and balm. A few of these songs invariably move me to tears. The depth of feeling he brings to every touch is incredible. To reach such heights of artistry in the midst of leading a successful professional life, being a great father, a loving husband and a dutiful son only adds to his stature, commitment and integrity.
I would like to conclude this jotting with a song played by Rajkumar. I am taking the liberty of attaching it. Its one of the finest compositions of Ilayaraja for the 1976 film Bhadrakali. For my readers, who may not be familiar with this work, I request you to listen to it nevertheless. A song like this has no boundaries. All that it requires is taste, appreciation and an ear for good music. And the manner in which Rajkumar renders it make the composition truly timeless. Listen to it....
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Jottings : Slice of life -17

Jottings : Slice of life -17
1936, Berlin Olympic Games. One of the most poignant and controversial moments of sports and athletic history was enacted between the days of August 6th and 9th. I say poignant because, it was a defining event in racial history of twentieth century. Jesse Owens, the greatest American athlete, had just shattered Nazi propagandist myth that Blacks were inferior to Aryans. Owen’S amazing versatility helped him sweep the medal tally with consummate ease. The world of track and field would not be the same after that. I call it controversial because legend has it that Hitler not only refused to shake hands with Owens on the podium, but refrained from attending remaining award ceremonies for rest of the Olympics as well. Sometimes history can be one-sided, depending upon who is telling the tale. And when it comes to Hitler, all that we are fed upon is Myth, hearsay and extremely biased theories. Contemporary research throws up an entirely angle to this story. Anyway, the triumph of Owens was undeniable And iconic..For the first time in Black American history, a sport became a symbol of equality, strength, talent and dignity in its centuries long struggle against racism, and Owen’s singular achievement gave it a new impetus it so urgently needed. From his victory to the tempestuous civil rights movements in the sixties and seventies, is one long journey of rebirth, rejuvenation and coming of age of Blacks.
Two fascinating Men defined the civil rights movement. And they could not have been more different from each other. Dr Martin Luther King, the prodigal preacher, intellectual, blazing orator, staunch believer in Non-Violence and non-intimidation; and Mohammad Ali, the Man who rose from the ghettos, self made, instinctual, extremely temperamental, physically agile and strong, Gifted Boxer par excellence , natively poetic, and only believed in head-on Intimidation and bashful attitude. For Dr King, The story of racism and America was more in the larger context of History, religion, liberty and freedom; but for Ali, it was intensely personal, self centered and more immediate and physical. While Dr king, roused his fellow Americans into fiery realms of convincing dreams through his unparalleled oratory, Ali danced around the Boxing arena with a smirk, light and nimble dancing feet, unpremeditated swift punches, brash and impetuous body language - convincing his fellow brothers that the only way to rise above circumstances is to fight your way through it. While Stoical Dr King would never utter a disparaging or disrespectful word about others; Ali, his antithesis, would go out his way to offend, demean and assert. While Dr King wished to politely remind and convince white America to accept the March of History in Hegelian terms, Ali wanted to show them he was better than most of them, hence there is no scope for debate or argument on that account. Such were the contrasting Men, who defined Black freedom in those tumultuous sixties. They were the yin and the yang of Civil rights movement, and swinging between the two lay the birth of Present Day America.
Last week, an aging and ailing Mohammad Ali died. In many ways, it was an end of an era of a remarkable man. Never before in the annals of a sport has any athlete caught the imagination of so many people from diverse backgrounds and geographies. From young to the old, from those who intensely hated him to those who loved him as their own self – all of them held him in their hearts in their own way. A mysterious spark of Ali's life resonated within each individual. There was a palpable mystique, charm ,demigod like status about Ali impossible to ignore, even under extreme provocation. When Parkinson's made him look half the man he was, that aura of impregnability continued to surround him. In 1996, Atlanta games, the trembling and shaking Ali walked up the Olympic steps to light the lamp. The world watched in Awe. Those twinkling eyes, smirky smile was enough to camouflage the deterioration of his body. And when the lamp was lit, Ali’s eyes were little wet. And so were those of millions around. That a man whose legendary boxing skills in the ring, whose fleet footed steps, lightening fast punches, raw arrogance , indomitable confidence in his destiny - could after years of physical affliction still muster inner courage and physical determination to stand up before the world - is true testimony to what Ali was, is and will be to future generations.
To write about his Boxing skills and victories would be superfluous. Volumes have been written, and better qualified have spoken. To me, Ali represents the quintessential Man who knew what he was capable of, and more importantly had the courage, gumption and audacity to live by it. He listened to his inner voice more deeply than most men would care to. When he refused to fight the Vietnam war. His simple, deeply mystical answer was “ No Viet cong soldier ever called me a nigger!!!” .That was his justification not to fight an unnecessary war. Nations and Governments can take a cue from this pithy statement. Well beyond his boxing days Ali contributed to and nurtured many important causes he strongly believed in. Age or disease couldn't stop him from living his life the way he wanted to. That childlike face continued to charm audiences wherever he went or whichever occasion he graced. It was a most complete life. Death was only an icing on the cake.
In his article in the Hindu, my favorite sports writer Nirmal Sekhar sums up the life of Ali as Sportsman and Boxer. It is worth reproducing:
"Nobody who has played the sport at the highest levels can be ranked alongside him. Not Don Bradman or Sachin Tendulkar; not Pele or Lionel Messi; not Michael Jordan or LeBron James. If Ali did have a successor, we are yet to witness that unique sportsperson perform…”
That says it all..
Thanks Ali for giving us a chance to see Greatness in flesh and Blood in our generation.
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala


“Talvar” - the slippery slope of justice

Jottings : slice of life. – 19
“Talvar” - the slippery slope of justice
The word Kafkaesque means nightmarish, illogical quality of a situation one happen to be in. For Franz Kafka, one of the greatest German existential novelists, this would have been the greatest irony he could have ever conceived -that a word bearing his name becomes an irreplaceable part of English Language. During his lifetime, a reticent, shy and introverted Kafka was virtually unknown; but after his death , the wealth of his novels, letters and unfinished manuscripts were bequeathed to reading public by his close friend and lawyer Max Brod. They were profoundly moved by depth of Kafka’s vision and sensitivity to modern Human condition. “The trial” or “der Process” (in German) was published in 1924. It was an incomplete short novel when Max unearthed it, and Kafka had only written a draft of what could be a possible ending. But it was published nevertheless. It became a literary sensation. It was a story never told before, and in a manner never attempted. Joseph K, the protagonist of the novel, is arrested one day without any reason or justification. Neither is he told why, not does K ( that’s how Kafka refers to him throughout the novel)manage to find out. All that he is informed is he is charged with something amounting to a crime, and it up to the judiciary and its judicial process to decide on what should be done with him now. As the novel opens, we find a confident, articulate and aggressive K thinking and acting with the conviction he will soon get out of this misunderstanding he has inadvertently become part of; but slowly, he realizes that he is powerless, incapable of fighting a system so anonymous and better organized than him. There is a facelessness to his prosecution which slowly begins to overwhelm and consume him, and in the end he gives up completely and succumbs to a tragic verdict , which at that point seems more real, truthful and logical than the actuality of his situation.. The novel ends without revealing the cause of K’s persecution. The subsuming of an Individual within the collective abstraction of a system, and how one becomes helpless in its vicious grip is given its finest expression in this enigmatic work by Kafka.. It is widely regarded as one of 100 most influential novels of 20th century.
There is a specific reason why I began my essay with Kafka and “The trial”. I was in Delhi in 2008, when I woke up one morning to read about the gruesome murder of a young fourteen year old girl Aarushi. Her throat was found slit, while her parents claimed they were sleeping In an adjacent bedroom. The initial suspicion fell upon the servant, but very soon, a second body was found on the terrace (of the servant) killed in similar manner. Sloppy Police investigation managed to wipe away any trace of evidence in first few hours of their work.. In a few days, weeks and months that followed, the case turned on its head, and by strange tryst of fate, the finger of suspicion was beginning to fall upon Aarushi’s Father - a renowned dentist in Delhi. Once that suspicion started gathering momentum, the police and legal system closed upon him with contradictory,unreliable and piles of conjectural evidence. Though, the girl’s father consistently claimed innocence, and many found the Police's theory quite unpalatable and untenable , it seemed as though the judicial system was too deeply committed to proving his guilt that almost every circumstantial proof and sometimes imaginative motives were bought to focus to prove his murderous intent. From incest, to infidelity, to mood swings, to being a heartless father, an avaricious and corrupt doctor - all of them were twisted, pulled, compressed, expanded to suit a predetermined premise. Once the system had decided that Aarushi’s father could be the only one to have a strong motive, means and method, the battle was lost for this hapless individual. In a strangely Kafkaesque way, Not only him, his wife was also dragged into the whirlpool, and today nearly eight years after the tragic death of their daughter, both parents find themselves languishing in a Maximum-security prison in India with no recompense available in the foreseeable future. Like “K” in “the trial”, the parents really have no defense against an inexorable system. It swallowed them heart, soul and body.
In 2015, Meghna Gulzar (talented daughter of Poet Gulzar) directed a film “Talvar” – which is based upon Aarushi’s murder and eventual imprisonment of her parents. It is now available on Netflix, and being interested as I was in this case, got around to watching it yesterday evening. Without going into a discussion on artistic merits and demerits of this movie, I must say, it captured the chaos of Aarushi’s case well. Loosely stitched narratives from different angles, like Kurosawa’s “Rashomon”, The film gives us a good feel of what it is to be caught in a system which strangles you from all sides. For the sake of political correctness, Meghna has diluted reality to a large extent, but what remains is still enough to showcase the plight of an individual caught in its web. Irfan Khan play the role of Police inspector who is not convinced the way the legal system works, and tries to exonerate the Parents.. As usual, he brings credibility to his performance, but he is fast getting into a rut with roles like these. It Is time he moves on. Konkona sen as the bereaving mother and a forlorn looking Neeraj Kabi as the father, show us the bewilderment of Parents finding themselves in a strange and awkward position without any plausible cause or reason. Though the film was widely acclaimed in Indian media, and did gather a few awards, I personally felt the treatment could have been better. If one were to compare it to standard Bollywood fare, this is certainly way above the mark; but as an independent movie with a sensitive subject, Meghna could have chiseled her scenes better. There is an element of artificiality and comical undertone to some of the important scenes in the film, which with a little more care could have been avoided. Anyway, considering the legal and political sensitivity of this case, it is a great effort to not distort facts, and brave enough to step into muddy waters so early in her career.
As I write this, the Parents are still in jail awaiting the outcome of their appeal in Higher courts of law. Young Aarushi would have turned 21 or 22, at the prime of her life, if she were alive. I still remember the deep feeling of sadness I had when for the first time, I saw the face of Aarushi on paper that morning in 2008 ( the family pic in this piece). A profound grief swept me. Eight years later, Meghna’s film renewed that grief. Whether the Parents were responsible, or is it just one of those roller coaster rides of a faceless system, no one knows. As Kafka writes in the “the trial”
“it is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.' 'A melancholy conclusion,' said K. 'It turns lying into a universal principle.”
My pen rests..
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala


Jottings: Slice of Life- 20

Jottings: Slice of Life- 20
It is widely believed, and to a large extent true that "Sholay" - the 1975 blockbuster movie by Ramesh Sippy is one of the finest entertainers ever made for Indian cinema. It had everything in it. Melodrama, a convincing story line, magnificent performances, scintillating music, rollicking slick edits, compact screenplay, liberal doses of glamor and titillation, heart stopping villainy, stylish heroism- and above all a breadth and scope of cinematic vision that enthralled audiences of all ages and types. It is one of those rare films, which like vintage wine, grows upon you as time passes by. I own only two Hindi DVD's, and Sholay is one of them.
This jotting is about the other DVD I have, which in my opinion, is as good if not better in conception and execution than Sholay is. Feroz Khan's "Janbaaz" released in 1986 is the movie I am talking about. As a young boy, I grew up watching Qurbani. When one is 10 years old, Movies are all about make-believe. Three hours of reel time has to fulfill childhood fantasies. There must be action, heroes, villains, lots of color on screen and definite triumph of good over evil. No copious tears over unfelt emotions, no lengthy dialogues on topics that make no sense to me. I must be able to come out of a film feeling good, on top of the world and a sense of superiority over others (The reason all of us love super hero movies is precisely because of this). Qurbani, distinctly gave me that feel. The young, handsome, fair skinned, savvy Feroz Khan and his lover - the incredibly beautiful Zeenat seemed descended straight from Heaven. "Aap zaisa koi" was on our lips and mind for a long time, and so was the spectacular night club environment that Feroz had woven around the shining body of Zeenat. Qurbani was the only Feroz khan I had seen till 1986, which was when the maverick Khan bought out his magnum opus "Janbaaz".
I am not sure what the reason is: Probably right age, testosterones beginning to flow in prolific quantities, adolescence, sense of rebellion, or what not - "Janbaaz" just hit the right chord at the right moment. I cannot, even at this distance, describe with complete objectivity the intense feeling of joy, lust, contentment I felt when I first saw the movie on big screen in Hyderabad. My head was swirling with sheer breadth and scale of Khan's movie. Here on single screen, painted with lush colors, in exotic rich locales, were characters rolling in wealth, intoxication and class; prancing around in 100 acre ranches, zooming in imported cars, dressed and draped in fashionable clothes, doing and saying prohibited things, crossing those elusive and often blurry boundaries of ethical and moral decency, singing lilting songs, burning and seething with passion; arguing, fighting and killing with nonchalance and perhaps pride. It is just too much for a teenager to handle and digest at one go. I had to surreptitiously borrow videos, catch snippets of TV, ogle endlessly over magazine covers and somehow, over time, make sense of this whole new experience in Indian cinema.
Those were the glory days of Sridevi. Every actor has that purple patch when nothing can go wrong. Sridevi was in that zone, and to use her for just ten odd minutes in a movie was virtually unthinkable. Yet Feroz dared to. In brief transcendental moments of acting she dances, drugs, swoons and dies in a pool of water after romancing to one of the most memorable Kalyanji-Anandji compositions " Har kisi ko nahi milta" ; then he had Rekha, an actor at the height of her prowess, dance lasciviously at a disco under flashing flights and colored shadows; and then there was the phenomenon of Dimple Kapadia – in her early thirties, a flower in full bloom, nubile, with an aquiline face which could launch a thousand ships, wavy black hair that tumbled and tossed with each graceful and erotic step, her deep black eyes radiating love, passion and grief all at the same time with equal intensity. Her steamy scene in a horse stable on a pile of strewn hay with hairy, masculine and lusty Anil Kapoor forever changed the way physical love was presented on Indian screen. While Raj Kapoor always stopped at the boundaries of sensuality, Feroz crossed it with disdain. Critics, conservatives and traditionalists shouted from roof tops on collapse of moral standards, but I am sure, most of them silently watched the clip in closed corners of their privacy. And to what to speak of the opulence, grandiosity and lavishness of Khan's cinematography. Everything about the film was stylish, including the crime it portrayed. For Feroz, the young man of Iranian descent, born and bought in Bangalore in the lap of luxury, Janbaaz was his apotheosis, a culmination of all that his autodidactic education in Hollywood films had led to. After Janbaaz, he could never touch this font of cinematic creativity ever again. The only drawback of this film was its lack of depth. While Sholay managed to bring out some very deep emotional undercurrent amidst the gunshots, horses and all the rest of it, Janbaaz would only linger in our memories as a well told fantasy with none of the characters leaving a deep mark. Both of them have Tragic endings, but somehow, the climatic death in Sholay resonates much deeper. Well, that’s the price one pays for a tradeoff between style and opulence versus artistic and aesthetic.
Feroz khan was neither an original film maker nor a quality actor; and he never claimed he was either. Both Qurbani and Janbaaz were adaptions of its Hollywood cousins; one starring Kirk Douglas and the other Gregory Peck. But his strength lay in grafting these stories into Indian soil. Though his work was a little outlandish (and some would call it garish), he was able to make it seem plausible. In an era, when Actors were running around tress aimlessly, he had the audacity to make love, lust and rivalry seem more real and tangible. His locales were exotic, and so were his men and Women. His personal flamboyant life style percolated into films he made, and he was very clear and vocal on why he made movies. To entertain himself first, and then to please his eager audience. To the very end of his life (he died in 2009) he stuck to this theme of lavish, uncharted film making, and I must say, he succeeded.
You may wonder why all of a sudden I slipped into writing about Janbaaz and Sholay. The reason is simple. I was cleaning my cupboards yesterday night, when two old copies of these two films surfaced. I had bought them in Delhi years ago. I suddenly had this impulse to watch Janbaaz again, and I did. The last I watched it must be at least ten years ago, but I was surprised that I had the same intensity of enjoyment as I did the last time. It kept me riveted. Though, at this distance, the movie looked a little out of place and context, but nothing diminished the pure unadulterated entertainment it provided. It helped me relive my infatuation with Sridevi and Dimple. Thank God for that…
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala




Jottings : Slice of life - 21

Jottings : Slice of life - 21
There are moments in one's professional life, when you feel deep satisfaction in the thought that you belong to an organization which nurtures deep, committed and passionate loyalty in its employees. Perhaps "loyalty" is a wrong word. It indicates a sense of submissiveness; but what I am talking about here is something entirely different. When extremely talented, accomplished and seasoned professionals choose to stick to an organization, they do so not because they have nowhere else to go, but because they see value, growth, satisfaction and contentment in what they do right here - this is the sense in which I wish to use the word "Loyalty". Not many organizations can provide such an environment. It needs the confluence of many diverse factors to retain talented people for extended periods of time. A sense of psychological security, roles that churn out the very best in them, periodic professional challenges to raise their own bars of achievement , adequate financial compensation, a work environment which has the right blend of work ethics , and above all, an overarching sense of being part of an extended family. Only when all these factors fall into place can an organization effectively manage to retain quality professionals. I am happy and proud to note that NIIT is one such organization.
I write the above note because we honored few such co-workers today at office. Rajesh (25 years), PRS( 25 years), Sandy (15 years), Shankar (25 years), Jitender ( 15 years) and Prakash ( 10 years) received words of admiration from our President and commendation letters were handed over by Raju, who coincidentally happened to be in Atlanta on a personal visit. We are thankful to him
In fact, NIIT has a proliferation of such worthy individuals across geographies and Verticals who have given their entire professional lives to the company. Some of them are never in the limelight, so we don't hear much about them. But that does not diminish or take away anything from their contribution to overall welfare and growth of the company. Many, among them, started their lives as ignorant, immature students with dreams in their eyes, in one of the many NIIT branches in India; studied, graduated, sought employment within NIIT, grew up the ranks, and today find themselves in respectable managerial positions. And curiously, by tryst of destiny, many of them also found their life mates within NIIT's environs. When professional and personal seamlessly merge, the full potential of the individual is consummated. "Life begins at NIIT" is not a mere slogan for all of them, it is a lived and living truism.
Anyway, I deliberately do not wish to make this an unduly long note. But before I finish, My congratulations ( all my readers can join me as well) in wishing this select group all the very best of success, peace and contentment in whatever they aspire to do. Each one of you may have a different personal relationship with them, but all of us will be unanimous, I am sure, in declaring our respect, regard and applause for their well deserved professional recognition, expertise and high standards of work.
God bless...
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Farewell Chittappa - The sun sets on a triad of brothers

Farewell Chittappa -  The sun sets on a triad of brothers.

That death is a irrevocable finality - all of us know and acknowledge; but, when faced with the actuality of it, something deep within recoils, churns with pain, anguish and unfathomable regret. Today Morning (IST), my Paternal uncle-  the last of three brothers decided it is time to leave this stage. My father died in 2012, His elder Brother in 2013 and now Ambhi Chittappa in 2016. It seems as though, all three had a secret pact to follow each other in regular succession. In life, all three were so very different,  but in death, they resembled each other by passing away peacefully with as little pain as possible. What better exit can there be?

My earliest memory of Ambhi chittappa is that of a physically active man, kind to the point of excess, workaholic, supremely religious, and above all - a wonderful father to his children, husband to his wife and genial Uncle to all of us. Our summer vacations in Chennai were always enlivened by his generosity and ever embracing kindness. He would take us out to Marina beach, stick around there until all of us were soaked in salty water, get us back into his car unmindful of the Mud and grime we would fill it with.. But i dont remember him ever admonishing us. Not a word of anger or irritation ever passed his lips. I  also have vivid memories of all cousins sleeping over at his comfortable managerial lodgings in the factory he worked in. A colonial style, wooden bungalow - cool and cosy even in warm Chennai summers. On one such outing, he took all of us to watch the wonderful Charles Bronson movie "the dirty Dozen". Even now, as I write these words, I can see in my minds eye his ever watchful eyes keeping us in order as we clambered to our seats in the theater.

With each passing day, the older generation is slowly, imperceptibly and gracefully yielding to younger ones. The responsibility of carrying their mantle is heavy and difficult. What came easily to them - qualities such as unconditional  forgiveness and compassion, Unwavering commitment, wholesome contentment, unsullied affection - now seems so very difficult to even conceive, let alone live. But try we must to carry on their heritage.Otherwise all that effort they so assiduously invested will be rendered meaningless.

Our family joins in conveying our deepest condolences to Chitappa's family Sindhuja Shankar, Shankar Narayana Venkatesan, Jayashree Suresh. We share their grief and anguish, and pray that life and time will  give them enough strength to accept and tide over the loss of a Man - the likes of whom we dont see anymore.

Rest in immortality Chitappa...

Sunder

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Achilles - Hero of the Trojan war ( A book review)

( This is my first essay penned from my new home. It was important that my grey cells continue to be well-oiled  I am deeply satisfied with the penetrating silence of my neighborhood, stillness which stimulates thought, and an atmosphere that will sustain my writing. I remain grateful to life and God.)
Achilles - Hero of the Trojan war ( A book review)
Just as Ramayana and Mahabharata are part of Indian psyche, whether we acknowledge it or not; Homer's Iliad and the Odyssey lie behind the highly individualistic Western personality. These epics are our wise voices from the past, from antiquity, from those beautiful days when conflict between the Heart and Mind was almost non-existent ; when Men and women lived by an inner force that drove them irrevocably towards a destiny which they could neither chose nor control; when each act - whether Good or Bad, right or wrong- had its place in the universal scheme of things; when Men and Women lived as they were born to live, in tune with their innermost vocations and passion; and above all these Glorious tales contain within their pages an inner message, a hidden mystery which - like the unfolding of rose petals to the first touch of sunlight- begins to unveil to astute readers who can penetrate its deep symbolism, look behind the fantasies and magical realism of its unbelievable drama - and stand face to face with the reality it sought to convey.
When I first came to the United States, It was my desire to read, understand and appreciate Homer, Virgil, Ovid and the rest of the Western epic story tellers in their best translations possible. So as part of my Book collection, I managed to collect al least a couple of translations of each of these major works, written by eminent poet laureates and brilliant writers. It is not easy to translate an hoary, ancient language and its cadences to modern poetic idioms and prose. But fortunately, since the fifteenth century, when scholars re-discovered classics, there has been a flurry of masterly attempts starting from Petrarch himself to eminently literary stylists of today. Among those , Robert Fitzgerald's eminent rendering of Iliad and odyssey in peerless dextameter is one of my cherished books. In his translation, I have found the true meaning and intent of Homer's magnificent narrative of Troy and its catastrophic consequences. Unlike the Indian epics, Iliad and Odyssey are not easily accessible. Which is unfortunate!!. Even in the best rendered translation, the real meaning and flow of its narrative is obscure and quite difficult to keep pace with. Try reading a translation, and you will know what I am talking about.. That the king of Troy had abducted Helen, and the entire Greek force descended upon its gates to retrieve her - is the gist of the Iliad. But from the point of view of a story, the causes that led to it, individual tales of its heroes and heroines, the moral issues confronting hem, the incorrigible treachery of the Gods. - all these wonderful details get lost in heavy allegorical style of its narrative.
That brings me to the point of this essay. The Hero of the Trojan war was Achilles. Great warrior, son of God, the young man whose chiseled face shone with brilliance of the Sun , whose skin glowed with hue of Gold, whose athletic body rippled with supple and hard Muscles covered in thin sheen of sweat , whose sea blue eyes reflected his keen sense of destiny, he who was Undefeated and undefeatable - and without whom Troy cannot be subdued and Helen not rescued. Such, in short , is Achilles as drawn by Homer. But what you would not derive from even a deep study study of Iliad is the Human element in Achilles. He would come out as a supernatural man with no resonance in common man, and this is one of distinguishing features of Greek epics from its Indian counterpart. When we read the story of Karna - the legendary and tragic warrior in Mahaharatha, Vysa ensured, we understand him as a normal person given to vacillations, indecisions and emotions of a Man having to eke out his destiny. Therefore, we as readers have deep empathy for him. Homer, on the other hand was more interested in the grandeur of the war than minute portrayal of Individual protagonists. His Achilles seems more superHuman than Human. It is this perhaps this aspect, which is both the Beauty, and possibly a drawback of Iliad and Odessey. Having said this, I must also add that this is not the fault of Homer or of his epic. The fact is Achilles was a known legend during Greek times, and there are other sources reading public could draw upon , which can provide those missing Human details which Homer chose not to provide. But when we read the Iliad in isolation and not in tandem with surrounding texts, those facts do not come to light. However, Fortunately, for us, there is a contemporary scholar, literalist and a lover of Homer, who has filled in those gaps. We can now appreciate and revel in the Achillean legend more immersively then ever before.
In 2011, Madeline Miller - a Greek scholar from Yale, young graduate, teacher to young high school students published her debut novel titled "the song of Achilles". It took her ten years to write it, and three aborted attempts. But, we will be eternally grateful she persisted in writing his beautiful work. In it, for the first time, the story of Troy, and Achilles in particular finds its fullest expression. As a young girl, Madeline's parents read Homer to her each night; and from those dreamy nights, her passion for Troy and Achilles took roots. She needed to understand the complex psychological character of Achilles better. His relationship with Patroclus (friend, lover and confidant) needed more elaboration. Homosexuality found its first expression in the relationship between Achiles and Patroclus, and Madeline with great sensitivity injects this love into her broader story of Troy. It is this search for authenticity and holistic understanding that took her across the Homerian landscape. And the results of the effort consummated itself in this wonderful novel. For Madeline, it was a matter of proper expression to a right audience. Understandably so!. When you need to teach Homer to High school kids, you have to mind your language. For them to understand, Madeline had to couch complex allegories, subtle nuances and deep historical background into something that is easily digested; but more importantly, she had impress upon those young minds the beauty and texture of Homerian narrative and irs relevance for Modern western Man. Thus was born and written "the song of Achilles". From the very first sentence to the last concluding word, Madeline weaves a story of intensity, turmoil, love, loyalty, passion, sex and war that it leaves us breathless. One can literally sense, how careful She has been in carving words and sentences. Simple, without pretence, beautiful - and above all without an iota of compromise on historical accuracy and Homerian sense of Story telling. This Book won the prestigious Orange prize for fiction. And Joanna Trollope ( a wonderful author herself) chair of the judges, commented "This is a more than worthy winner – original, passionate, inventive and uplifting. Homer would be proud of her." No better praise or honor is required for a writer.
What started as a recommendation of a Book has ( as usual) turned out to be a full fudged essay. But that's how it should be.. One cannot write unless one feels deeply. Words are merely means to an end. Madeline Miller's has given me the perspective I needed, and plugged a lot of gaps in my understanding of Homer and his imperishable epic.
I strongly urge my readers ( if you are interested) to taste the beauty and energy of Madeline miller's magnificent book!! It's a journey well worth taking...
God bless...
Yours in mortality,
Bala