Saturday, August 5, 2017

Jottings : Slice of life 143 ( Love blossoms - story of a day in the life of the Obamas)

Jottings : Slice of life 143 ( Love blossoms - story of a day in the life of the Obamas)
One of the greatest charms of the White house is the mercurial quality, intensity, stormy personal relationships, great dignity and profound respect its occupants bring to bear upon the ethos of America and elsewhere. In the eyes of the world, The President and the first lady not only represent what America stands for, but more importantly, is a personal testament of love between equals and what it means to occupy the highest office with all its professional demands, and yet remain as human and intimate as possible. This responsibly has always been a heavy cross to bear for most of its illustrious occupants. In its long history of 45 presidents, many love stories are lost in the hustle and bustle of political and social drama surrounding them. Yet, despite that, there are stories of quite a few Presidential couples whose personal relationships have survived the test of time and suffused their own political legacies with an incandescence, which only the warmth and glow of the opposite sex can give. Who could conceive of John Adams, Our second president without his brilliant, devoted and intellectual wife Abigail Adams - whose stimulating letters to her husband during the seminal Philadelphia congress not only sparkle with intellectual vibrancy, but with tremble with rare emotional depth and understanding of her Husband. Who could think of George Washington without Martha - his devoted wife ( a widow from a previous marriage), who refused to attend his inauguration as President because she didn't want him to assume the office, and who refused to attend his funeral because she couldn’t bear to see his active body lying motionless in a state honored coffin; she chose a remain a virtual recluse throughout her remaining life. Who could ever fathom the limitless passion and love Abraham Lincoln had for his controversial wife - Mary Todd Lincoln; or she for him. The gold ring, he quietly slipped into her gentle fingers during an awkward ball room dance was engraved with the words “ Love is eternal”; and it was the same ringed finger he lovingly held in his, during those final moments in the Ford theatre awaiting Booth’s fatal bullet. In modern times, the love between JFK and Jaqueline , though stressed, complicated and often tumultuous, stood the test of his short Presidency and flamboyant persona. She held the shattered skull of her Husband as the bullet went though it, and continued to wear the blood splattered dress for three more days until Lyndon Johnson assumed Presidency - unable to believe and digest that the man she loved was no more and a bright flame and era had ended so abruptly. Bill Clinton may not go down in history as a President who held high standards of sexual morality; but no matter what the world said and wrote of him; his wife Hillary stood by the man. In the worst crisis of his life, he had a strong shoulder to lay upon and possibly cry. In one of the greatest testaments of love Hillary once said with profound emotion “ No matter what happens, I know that Bill loves me very much..” A hard thing for a woman to say, when her husband’s sexual escapade was published in every language and tabloid. But love is mysterious and its roots go very deep.
The long paragraph is only a preamble to the love story between Barrack Obama and Michelle. If one walks through Hyde park, between Dorchester avenue and 53rd Avenue in Chicago, there is now a unobtrusive marker with a pic of the two, which has gained historical interest. This marker was erected in 2012 to commemorate the unbelievable love story of one of the greatest couples ever to have adorned the White house. If ones looks closely and reads the note below, it is a quote from Barrack. It reads
“On our first date, I treated her to the finest ice cream Baskin-Robbins had to offer, our dinner table doubling as the curb. I kissed her, and it tasted like chocolate.”
On a day in the year 1989, when Barrack was interning in a law firm with Michelle, he invited her to attend a community speech he was about to deliver that evening. Both weren't clear if it was a formal date or just professional courtesy. But they went along. During the course of the day, inside Barracks broken car with holes showing the road below, in between his cigarettes, they drove and talked. The necessary hesitance between a conservative girl with strong family ties, and the boy who was more or less self made and independent, began with jerks and starts, slowly transforming itself into intellectual bantering, then into clash of ideologies and opinions, and finally to mutual respect. Its wasn't love or even remotely close to it. It was just a melting of barriers and an openness about each other internal universes. As they drove along the winding roads of south chicago, a dilapidated , neglected part of the city; Michelle, became less defensive, and young handsome Obama’s charm, intelligence and emotional resonance to fundamental issues of inequality and color began to transform her reticence into something more open, tangible and probably long lasting. All this during a single day. As the afternoon approached, Michelle heard Obama deliver his speech to an embittered community of Black Americans. The trademark fluidity, grace, empathy, relaxed oratorical flare captivated the young lady. In a short speech of 30 minutes, Obama soothed flayed nerves, articulated a vision and channel energies into productive directions. All done without a sense of high handedness or superiority. At this point, all the solid walls - Michelle had come equipped to deal with - were visibly crumbling. During the evening, after a couple of drinks, they watched a Spike lee movie together. When the commercially successful “Batman” was showing round the corner, they chose to watch Lee’s “Do the right thing” - a movie about black unrest in Brooklyn, which in years to come would prove one of the finest films Lee ever made before his death. An odd choice of a movie for an young couple, but a conscious choice, perhaps, by Barrack to impress upon his girl that he was willing to embrace new independent ideas. By this time, enough water had flown under the bridge between the two; the customary date kiss to forge the relationship was just an ice cream away. And that kiss happened in front of Baskin Robbins at 53rd street.
In 2016, Richard Tanne made on a movie about this day called “Southside with you”, capturing essential details, infusing his own creative imagination on how it could have happened. The result is a beautiful portrayal of the extraordinary relationship between two extraordinary people. Patrick sawyer play the role of Barrack and Tika Sumpter ( who also co-produced the film) recreates Michelle with great sensitivity. There couldn't have been better choices for the roles. Not only do they manage to physically capture the mannerisms of the Obama’s so very well, but also to subtly project the breaking down of barriers - both intellectual and emotional. At the end of the movie, we definitely get the impression that here is a relationship which promises to have far reaching repercussions. We are shown simmering discontent, vaulting ambition and deep abiding love - all coming together with artistic force. Watch it , if you can. I think it is available on Netflix.
A quick observation before I conclude. Love , as many say, requires time. I dont know if this is true or not; but if it means anything to me, it should certainly transcend chronological time. It is not the length of time in hours and days, but the depth of it. However it is only given to some fortunate people; for love to happen in an transformatory instant lasting a life time, ever renewing and ever intensifying; but for most others, it is merely a name given to a convenient relationship to lived out as amicably as possible for social reasons. Therefore too know somebody for decades, or living together does not necessarily mean love. As the great french author Collette famously wrote “ Love had nothing to do with living together”. Little would have Michelle and Barrack known on that day in 1989, the turn, twists and responsibilities that would assail them in years in come. There was a spark then between them and they trusted that spark. Even today, when you look at picture of both, there is a iridescent element of that wild spark in their eyes as they look at each other with great respect and admiration. In indescribable ways, they seek acknowledgement of their actions through relationship. Eight years in the Whitehouse, has not diminished in the least the quality of that light.
Ultimately Love is not a word given to a static relationship. If it were so, we need to call it “dependency” or “attachment”. Love is a purer term for a relationship which doesn't clip each other’s wings, preserves ones identity and yet transcends individuality. Its a rare thing, and Obamas show us what it can look like.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala




Saturday, July 29, 2017

Jottings - Slice of life - 140 ( “Walden”, by Thoreau - pronounced as “thurrow” - 1817-1862 )

Jottings - Slice of life - 140 ( “Walden”, by Thoreau - pronounced as “thurrow” - 1817-1862 )
At the dawn of American history, in early 19th century, two important men chartered the course of American soul, as it were : Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. While Emerson went beyond the pulpit and raised the American mind to a new form of transcendental individualism in which the Christian god of Pilgrim fathers gave way to a subtler and more eastern spirit of universalism ; Thoreau was the ever practical and enterprise driven American soul who was quickly disillusioned at the direction his fellow citizens were embarking upon in the new found freedom of this great nation. Emerson, left his vocation as a stirring pastor, converted his lectures to full length essays in sublime prose, which reverberate even today in university halls and intellectual podiums as living testimony to courageous, free thinking and self reliant man ; Thoreau, on the other hand - a Harvard graduate, a lawyer, an agriculturist, a self proclaimed poet, tutor to Emerson’s nephews and sons; at roughly around 22 years of age chose to retire into quiet countryside alongside Walden pond in Concord, Massachusetts, building for himself a hut with minimal comforts; lived there for two and half years as an experiment to discover what it takes to live a simple life without the encumbrances and frenzy of make a living. While Emerson’s erudite essays sparkles with learning, wit, originality and purple prose, Thoreau wrote his “Walden” - again a book of essays in matter of fact style , only occasionally slipping into sublime prose , captured his singular experience living alone with nature alongside Walden pond: cooking, farming, reading and writing. He wrote this book over a period of eight years - editing, correcting, rewriting - until the book transcended his existential experiment, and assumed a life of its own. When it was first published in 1852, nobody took notice of it. But slowly, when young America began to question its conscience on whether the promise and intent of its Pilgrim fathers were achieved, and whether the direction they had taken as a country was really the right one - then Walden came to their rescue with its essential wisdom and stunning simplicity . It revealed a nuance to living which was fast being forgotten or overwhelmed by industry and commerce. Men were becoming acquisitive and desperate. Walden was written partly as a journal and partly as a slap on the face of a country which even though had found its political freedom from England, had pitifully lost its inner freedom to unbridled and relentless pursuit of commerce and industry. Its citizens created wealth aplenty, but most men were psychologically burdened, wounded and in chains of debt and slavery. Through Walden, in series of essays, Thoreau revealed this festering wound with all its overflowing pus and inflammation, hoping that some of his country men would retrace their steps to a saner and simpler way of living. It is coincidental ( but not for Thoreau) that the day he stepped into his newly built hut was July 4th of 1845. The irony it was American independence day was obviously lost on him, not because he didn't care, but because those were early days and July 4th did not have the kind of importance and fanfare it came to assume later. So, when America celebrated its outer freedom, Thoreau stepped into his humble hut to experience his inner freedom. And out of that experience “Walden”, the book was born
2017 is the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth. Around half a dozen books on Thoreau have been published this year, about his life, his work, his philosophy, his political views and much more. “Walden” itself, has been reissued by many renowned publishing houses to commemorate his life. Some of them beautifully annotated. Among the few books I carry on my kindle “Walden” is one of them. I dip into it every now and then, like a scripture. To a Human mind, some questions are eternally fresh, no matter who asks them and when. Questions, such as : What does Man need to live a happy and contented life; what is his relationship to nature and world around; how much does a man materially need to live a healthy life - These are questions speculated upon in every conceivable metaphysical system. And there are enough answers to satisfy everyone. But all of us know that only answers which come from a man who has audaciously applied his understanding to actually living it, will ring truer than those for whom such questions were merely passings distractions. Thoreau lived his life in accordance with what he thought. It is this honesty and integrity of the man that strikes a reader of walden. The simple prose which comes directly from the heart strikes at the root of our selfish and confused living. We find ourselves unconsciously nodding with Thoreau as we read striking passages in Walden - one after the other after in swelling succession. For instance, when he talks about human needs, he writes:
“By the words, necessary of life, I mean whatever, of all that man obtains by his own exertions…. or from long use has become, so important to human life that few, if any, whether from savageness, or poverty, or philosophy, ever attempt to do without it..”
or when he writes about why he chose to live in the woods:
“I went to the wood because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived…”
or when he expands on the splendor of rural life:
“Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it. We need the tonic of wildness..”
or when he writes about the superfluous luxuries accumulated in our lives
“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hinderances to the elevation of mankind…”
Like these gems, in page after page Thoreau words penetrate deep into our hearts. Walden is not a book that can read as a piece of fiction or at one go. It is a book, that needs to nibbled, chewed and digested well in small doses. It is a book to keep besides ones bed, and a page or two read first thing in the morning, or last thing before going to bed. The power of his observations, his tactile awareness, leaves a beautiful residue in our minds. which slowly percolates into daily action. Especially, in the modern era, with some many external contraptions and machines dominating and chaining human life, his words and thoughts come as a breath of fresh, balmy air. For at least an instant, through the prism of Thoreau’s thoughts, we glimpse at the madness of our own lives. It is that taste of immortality and freedom great books, music, painting or any art is known to give. They open our habit ridden minds a little, and through that minuscule opening, we instantly perceive a deeper meaning to life and living.
It is also worth pointing out for my young readers that civil disobedience , or non-violent dissent as a means of political change was voiced for the first time in Thoreau’s writings. In an essay published in 1849 titled “Civil disobedience” Thoreau eloquently argued against slavery and America’s war against Mexico. In that remarkable essay, in one of the greatest passages ever written on Polity and man’s place in it, he writes
“.. the State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest…”
It were these very words that inspired the Gandhi’s, the Martin’s Luther Kings’s, and the Nelson Mandela’s of modern times to stand against unjust laws and institutions with courage and inner fortitude. All of them had Thoreau works in their bookshelves.
In a way, Henry David Thoreau now belongs to the world and not just America. He lived for 44 years, but he lived his life based what he thought, felt and wrote. There was an integrity to his existence which all of us consciously or unconsciously seek. It is nearly 200 years since Walden was published, and his words are more relevant today than when he wrote it. However, two centuries of industrialization has radically changed Human civilization. We are far away from Thoreau's world. One wonders, if it is at all possible to revert to our roots, as Thoreau passionately wished us to. Can we live without our extensions - the mobile phone, the computer, the jets, the innumerable contrivances we have surrounded ourselves with. Can we live alone as just one more species on this earth without complicating our lives morally, physically and economically. Can we ever be satisfied with our ever growing wants, and learn to say enough? Can we ask basic questions about our identity and purpose in this universe and arrive at original answers and follow dogmas?
All these seem remote to us. Not surprising. After all, Our measure of success is dubiously based on parameters which has nothing to do with life and nature. We run with panting breath towards a horizon, which we ironically know, to be always receding and can never be touched. Such is the madness and dilemma of modern man. Reading Thoreau in his 200th birth year may after all be a good thing, a panacea, an ambrosia for tired bodies and minds. There is an outside chance that our younger generation may get inspired and radically change directions. If that ever happens, then the experiment Thoreau began on 4th of July 1845 would not have been in vain.
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Monday, June 26, 2017

Jottings - Slice of Life - 132 ( Dangal - exquisite craftsmanship and brilliant performances)

Jottings - Slice of Life - 132 ( Dangal - exquisite craftsmanship and brilliant performances)
My favorite critic and Journalist of Newyorker Magazine , Anthony lane, had a simple rule to write about films. In his own inimitable style, he writes “ ..Whenever possible , pass sentence on a movie the day after it comes out. Otherwise , wait fifty years. Films are most plausibly assessed in the heat of the moment or with the icy advantage of the long gaze; anything in between is hedging ones bets..” I cannot agree more. But unlike Lane’s recommendation I cannot wait for fifty more years to write about one of the finest films, and extraordinary performance of Aamir khan in Dangal. It is true, I consciously deferred watching this movie when it came out last year. My friends, coworkers and every casual acquaintance I had a chance to bump into raved about the story, its intense portal of feminine power and the aura of patriotism which suffused it. But as Indians in a foreign country, sometimes we overdo this patriotism gig, and I politely ignored all earnest pleas to watch Dangal for that reason. One fact I was certain of though, and that is, an Aamir khan movie cannot get just be run of the mill stuff. It was certain to contain committed art in it, and Aamir himself would have given nothing less than hundred percent of himself and his talent to the movie.
The heroic story of a aging Wrestler fulfilling his dream of winning a gold medal through his daughters, is no doubt a fantasy come true. We really did have Babita and Geeta perform that extraordinary act in 2012; but what is even more amazing is how such an incredible and intense tale of success and determination in wrestling - a sport that does not often get as much attention as it deserves in the media, caught the perceptive eye of Creative director Divya rao of Walt Disney productions. Like talented and knowledgable publishers who know where success in authorship lies when they read a written page, people who head movie production houses must have a subliminal instinct on which stories can be told on screen, and how and who can tell them effectively and with conviction. When Divya read this small piece about Mahaveer Singh Phogat and his dream in the paper, she knew she had a great story and screenplay in hand, and she set the gears of production machinery rolling. The result is Dangal. The name Divya rao may not resound in public domain when the success of Dangal is recounted , but without her spot-on instinct and ability to convince a host of creative people that this idea is worth capturing on screen, Dangal may have never been made - at least not in the way it finally shaped up. To that extent, she and Walt Disney deserves credit for doing their job doing well.
My first impression after I finished watching Dangal is one of immense aesthetic satisfaction. A satisfaction that comes from seeing a flawless execution of a predictable theme. Every frame spoke of careful lighting, thoughtful arrangement of sets, great supporting cast, and a screenplay which peeled the story layer by layer without losing grip till the very end, when it floundered a little to accommodate a traditional cinematic climax. That is excusable. After Clint Eastwood’s “million dollar baby”, I havent seen a movie where a fighting sport (especially featuring Women) was so realistically captured on screen. Never for a moment did I get the impression that people were aimlessly fighting or going through half hearted motions of cinematic stunt; every action sequence gave us a ring side view of “wrestling”, its artistry and subtle nuances. The central theme of the film, for me at least, was not patriotism or gender struggle. While those are definitely individual tiles on the broader mosaic of the tale, the main theme of Dangal is Wrestling as a sport, and the discipline it takes to becomes a great wrestler. Gender doesn't matter. Like martial arts, Wrestling is a psychological exercise and anyone with right frame of mind and good technique, and educated instincts can rise above the ordinary. However, within the context of India or China ( where the film did unbelievably well at box office), Dangal may still appeal as a voice of female emancipation, patriotism and love for motherland in a predominantly patriarchal society - a theme Indians are very passionate about and which I thought was exhausted in “Chak de” and couldn't be bettered; but from the larger perspective of Movies as an art form, where Dangal succeeds, is in its picture perfect rendition of the ancient sport of Wrestling, a sport which looks clumsy at first to an untrained eye, but has enough grace, finesse, strength, strategy and spontaneity to rank among the most difficult and entertaining of sporting duels. In Dangal, Director Nitesh Tiwari captures its beauty through the eyes of two smart girls, who train and discipline themselves under a strict and admirable father.
There are very few actors of who I am in awe. Aamir is certainly one of them. From his early days of wavy haired, guitar wielding, innocent looking college boy who lip synced to the lilting tune of “Papa kahte hai bada naam karega..” to the intensity, manliness ,maturity and complete immersiveness in the role of the Patriarch Mahaveer Singh Phogat - is a study in artistic progression, commitment to art and stern determination to keep reaching higher and higher and not fall prey to the disease of complacency. A great performance is one where audience lose track of the person playing the role, and start seeing the character portrayed as a real person. Not many actors can achieve it. Some do in certain movies, but nobody in recent times has done it as consistently as Aamir. In Dangal, Aamir Khan, the man, the hero rarely surfaces. It is Mahaveer, the determined father, who dances in front of our eyes. What is commendable is not merely Aamir’s physical rigor and discipline in conditioning himself, but the sheer imaginative scope of the character he brings on his face. His intense stare can literally bore a hole through the wall. Performances like these should make textbook study for young actors in Film institutes across the world. Its worth studying. As his Wrestling daughters, the young and talented girls (Fatima and Sana) shine and sizzle, and never once does Aamir steal the thunder from them. Like a wall he supports their incredible performance, and lends the story its true heroines, as he quietly basks in their glory.
There is common criticism of Aamir, that he disregards the movie industry, he is arrogant, does not attend award ceremonies( though they are compelled to give him all the awards he deserves) and so on. I am not surprised. If Aamir needs to continue acting, producing and making movies that redefine Cinematic excellence in India, he cannot afford to mix with the mundane. True artists are essentially lonely people. The Gurudutts, the Meena Kumari’s, the Sanjeev Kumar’s could not survive in a celluloid world inundated with superficiality, and we know what they did to themselves. Aamir keeps a benign, spiritual detachment from mainstream, which allows him the artistic liberty and resources needed to realize his artistic vision. After kamal Hassan, he is the only actor who can dare to make a movie and force his audience to watch, appreciate and learn. There may be failures along his way. It is inevitable. When one walks the razors edge, as Aamir often does, one is bound to slip and slide; but the joy lies in keeping at it and experience the creative adrenaline rush through the veins.
In an introduction to his collection of essays that came out in 2000, Anthony Lane makes a poignant observation on movie making. He writes ( I paraphrase) “ ..Movie makers are never tired of keeping their fingers out of Cinema’s deepest and most promising pockets, the wallet and the heart. Whatever humans do on film, they do it for love or money…” To extend Lane’s acute observation a little, few film makers and actors are fortunate to make movies on both accounts - love and money; Love first, money later. The phenomenal commercial success of Dangal only shows that good movies do not need six years in the making, 100’s of millions in special effects, or international promos . All it needs is great performance, a simple tale told with conviction, commitment and honesty.
In conclusion, one more effulgent feather in Aamir’s cap, and a standing applause to the hearts, brains and resources behind Dangal..
God bless…
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Jottings - Slice of life - 129 ( Rafa’s immortality, and the poignant absence of a great Journalist to celebrate the ecstatic moment)

Jottings - Slice of life - 129 ( Rafa’s immortality, and the poignant absence of a great Journalist to celebrate the ecstatic moment)
Some sporting events and statistics are ethereal. As the word suggests - it is not of this world, but belongs to a sphere far away from the range, aptitude and grasp of ordinary mortals.How else would we assess Aussie cricketeer Don Bradman’s almost unbelievable batting average of 99.94, or mercurial Squash player Jahangir khan’s incredible winning streak of 555 tournaments between 1981-86 without missing a single game for any reason whatsoever, or Edwin Moses deer like agility, grace and speed that led him to win 122 straight races without ever touching a hurdle enroute, before his 123rd race - when in the last 50 meters, his left toe gently scraped against the top bar of the last hurdle ever so lightly causing it to sway a little by its impact only to regain balance - as a breathless audience watched Moses complete one more historic sprint, or Baby Ruth’s unbelievable 40 Home runs in 11 consecutive seasons of Baseball, a feat that baffles baseball pundits even today; and now Rafael Nadal’s ten French open Men singles titles - an achievement unlikely to be surpassed for generations to come, unless the nature of tennis changes, or it somehow becomes easier to play this beautiful game on hard clay courts - a surface on which an athlete needs the highest levels of talent, physical strength, stamina, precision and endurance to battle consistently over long periods of time.
We are blessed as a generation to have grown up watching two of the greatest tennis players - Roger and Rafa - to have graced the tennis court, after Borg and McEnroe enthralled us with their magic in the 1980’s. While Roger epitomizes the skill, grace and poise tennis can ever reach, Rafa personifies grit, determination and indomitable spirit the game has ever seen. Between them, there is nothing much to choose. As a puritan, when both play against each other, my heart would often go out to Roger, secretly urging, praying he could make that delectable pass , classic crosscourt or impeccable down the line shot to break the iron wall of Rafa; but my intellect would scoff and smile at such a suggestion. How could Rafa not reach the ball? How could Rafa not turn a seemingly lost point into a winner from nowhere? It was always a battle between the heart and the mind; and more often than not mind would threaten to win, unless Roger played near perfect tennis, or could come up with something magical.
On clay courts, Rafa’s skill is unmatched. Only in those tournaments, where he chose to abdicate his throne for reasons of health or otherwise, others have won. So it has been for nearly two decades . Even yesterday, at the old age of thirty two (can you believe it, Rafa is only 32), battling injuries and not half as good as we known him to be be, his young opponent full of energy and talent in a French open finals was absolutely no match. It was one sided game, almost a surprisingly pleasant cruise for Nadal into history books and unto posterity.
I wish my favorite Sportswriter Nirmal Shekar was alive to write about Nadal’s achievement. In the last thirty years, Shekar’s peerless prose, incisive understanding of sportsmen and what drives them to greatness and daring, his ability to place sport and its heroes and heroines in the larger context of human life and culture, has in a way been my own inspiration to write as I do. He died peacefully at the age of 60 in February this year. There was not a sport that Nirmal shekar could not touch and write about with authority and grace. His deep knowledge of literature and Western Philosophy allowed his essays to sparkle and go beyond the ordinary to lift achievements in sport into rarified spheres of adulation and honor - granting them immortality in words in their respective arenas. Writing an essay on the racing genius Ayrton senna after his tragic death on the track in 2004. Nirmal shekar wrote, as only he could write:
“..It is almost a sacrilege to speak of records and statistics in a tribute to the Brazilian genius. For records were as irrelevant and insignificant to Senna as mystical powers are to a saint. His motivation was more spiritual than sporting…”
or when he wrote of Mohammad Ali,
“..At his peak, and for much longer, death was the last thing you thought of while talking about Ali. But this much is sure. Whatever course sport takes in the future, the legend of Ali will live on as long as civilization, as we know it, does.”
I will miss his writing , and so will readers all over the world who value prose in whatever style it appears. During his lifetime, Nirmal shekar found time to write only one complete book. That was about the famous tennis family from South india - Ramanathan and Ramesh Krishnan. A sumptuous book written with clarity, style and wit in his lucid prose. He didn't have to write many more books. After all, each essay he crafted week after week for newspapers and magazines he worked for, is in itself a study in how sports journalism should strive to be, and how good prose should be written. If one were to compile all his essays written over four decades and issue it in book form, it should be more than sufficient to grant him a permanent place among the greatest columnists, writers and commentators of his generation anywhere in the world.
On January 28th, in his last piece for his favorite paper, he concluded his essay, for the last time, with the following words
“…. the truth is, nothing may be forever – except perhaps Bradman’s Test batting average of 99.94 – immune to evolution. And, sport is no exception..”
Yes Nirmal Shekar, I agree.. Nothing may be forever, but your passionate prose sure will.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala

Monday, June 5, 2017

Jottings - Slice of life - 125 ( Rites of Initiation - few thoughts on Upanayanam, the sacred thread ceremony )

Jottings - Slice of life - 125 ( Rites of Initiation - few thoughts on Upanayanam, the sacred thread ceremony )
The biggest loss of Modern generation is their complete severance from the experience of catharsis and growth - by way of actualizing timeless myths in the form of rituals and initiatory rites in our daily lives. Traditional rites of initiation, which played a huge role in shaping individuals to fit into society, have become more of a formality completed without any understanding of what they mean, why they are enacted, and what are they supposed to achieve. After all, the age of modernity for all its talk of progress is one riddled with fear. We enact inherited rituals, visit temples, try to follow social traditions - not because we know why; but because we are afraid what would happen if we dont do so. We may argue and talk intellectually about the non-existence of God or an afterlife or argue about traditions, but deep down we are unsure, and would like to keep our personal gods appeased, in case there is need for hypothetical intervention later on. Our attitude towards myths and rituals are mechanical; more out of sense of professional and social duty than a meaningful exposition and enactment of it. Neither the performer, sponsors of the performance, or the beneficiaries of the performance know the reasons and meaning behind the social act and mythological rituals. This attitude is not specific to one society or religious sect in particular. It is a fact of every society . From Christian catechisms, to Muslim namaz, to Hindu rites of passage, to Jewish mitzvah - there is a strange confusion and a mechanized approach to traditions stripped of all its meaning and relevance. What we observe is the shell, the kernel is missing ,lost, or in my opinion - ignored.
The Human child is not equipped naturally to grow up psychologically into an adult. Physically, body grows, but unless society intervenes to educate and channelize his energies, he will forever remain a muted child in the garb of an adult, or worse ambiguous about his own self.. He therefore has to be taught, transformed, made to find his own bearings, and then let loose in the world. It is for the community in which he is born and bought up to prepare and pave the way for that kind of transformation. From the dawn of Human civilization, we find records of innumerable traditions and rituals from such transformatory rites. Scholars who spend a life time studying mythology are astounded to find the same underlying stories, similar rituals and drama, exact representations of Local Gods and Goddesses in different ages and cultures permeating through specific initiatory rites, even though it is geographically impossible for them to have cross fertilized each other. Elaborate rituals from birth to death were found necessary to gracefully, or sometimes forcefully, change the human child from one stage of existence to another. After suckling at his mothers breast for years, and living in her embrace and love , not knowing the travails and complexities that await him; the young boy or girl needs to be ceremonially pulled away from maternal and paternal care, transformed into an adult to fulfill the social need and position. It cannot be done overnight or by mere dialogue. It has to be community event with elaborate rituals and incantations to invoke an breathless atmosphere of change. Fires are started, blood flows sometimes, totems are raised, ablutions are poured, costumes and masks are changed, rechristening of names happen- and many more such props and acts are required to make that transition. Some initiation go on for months, some for few days to hours.The length of time doesn't matter; but the intent, purpose and atmosphere does.
In the Hindu Brahmanic tradition, young boys at the age of seven or eight are initiated into a period of deep introspective study. Brahmins are indicative of those individuals in society whose social duty it was to keep rest of community anchored to the truth about oneself without getting lost in the roles they play. In order to do that, they must know, understand and experience the truth for themselves firsthand. The rite of passage for this inward journey is called “Upanayanam”. A beautiful Sanskrit term , which means “ Seeing something very near” . In Hindu mystical tradition, the closest to you is your own sense of being, or atman or God. Hence Upanayanam is turning the young boy, who has just learned how to read and write, to turn his gaze inward. It is extraordinary why boys have to go through this process so very young. If you think of it, the greatest impediment to knowing oneself is our own fragmented ideas about who we are, which we gather over years through books, dialogues, family, social positions and hearsay. However, at the age of seven, the boy’s brain is virgin territory, and with his new found skill of reading and writing, he can use words are quick symbols to reality and not get lost in words about words. The more one knows, the more unlearning is required. Also, at seven the intimations of sexuality is very minimum which makes it easy to focus energy without any real context for dissipation. That is why the tradition catches them young. Its a three day rite filled with meaning and purpose. The boy is gently taken away away from his parents and turned into a mendicant devoted to learning for twelve years. He is given a sacred thread worn from left to right with three cotton threads, indicative of three states of consciousness - waking, dream and sleep, and later on when he goes back to society, gets married, the symbol is changed to six threads - adding three more to inform the world he has a lawful wife now, and she shares in his passion and commitment to serve as torchbearers of inner life and living. During “Upanayanam” numerous esoteric phrases are fed in secrecy into the young boys ears, both from the parents and the Guru, the teacher. It is unlikely the boy will understand anything at all. But it doesn't matter, like a piece of chemical which can act as a catalyst when the environment is right, these words will help coagulate the chattering brain into singular quietude when the moment is ripe. It is not a guarantee, but an invitation. A communal hall is chosen for this rite of initiation. Almost everyone in the community is invited to witness the transformation of the young child into a student. His status changes dramatically. When the ceremony begins, he is welcomed into the hall as a child, but when he goes out of it , he is a seeker in search of truth along with his guru. A beautiful moment - tearful parents bid farewell to the kid they so dearly loved and cuddled, and at the same time they are proud he is embarking on a journey so profound and deep. When he comes back after his tutelage, he will ready to serve his role in society.
I have condensed a scientific and meaningful ritual into a single paragraph. But in its actual execution , there are many nuances to it which create an aura of sacredness indispensable for such an undertaking. Even today, in brahmin communities Upanayanam is a mandatory ritual. But like everything else, it is just a formality and nothing more. Its become more of an an occasion for a family get together, or a tradition that is grudgingly fulfilled. Nothing wrong, but to call it “Upanayanam” in sense it was intended to mean is to dilute thousands of years of refinement and thought. But, as some would say, something is better than nothing. When roots are cut, whatever remains will continue to sprout in its own little way.
In many forums over the years, I have heard Rituals being laughed at, or spoken of as formality to be completed, or worse still derided. Personally, I don't participate in rituals anymore, because I dont see the sanctity and intent in the performance of it. But I am deeply convinced that each ritual is well thought out, orchestrated, controlled expression of a cosmic necessity couched as myth; and in their enactment the human psyche, if one has the capacity to sufficiently, truthfully and meaningfully immerse in it, can take an individual from one level of understanding to another.
God bless..
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Monday, May 29, 2017

Jottings - Slice of Life - 124 ( Sir Roger Moore - The actor and the Man - a remembrance )

Jottings - Slice of Life - 124 ( Roger Moore - The actor and the Man - a remembrance )
Between 1952 and 1963 Ian Fleming wrote 12 Bond novels and two short story collections featuring his legendary creation - James bond, the articulate, suave and ruthless secret service agent of the British Government. Bringing his enormous experience of spy and espionage during the wars, Fleming’s imaginative brain spun Bond as the archetypal killing machine with heart and morals in the right place at the right time. Writing about his books and his method , Fleming once said “ I write for about three hours in the morning, and one in the evening. I never look look back on what I have written. It goes to the publisher as it is..”. We are grateful it did. The spontaneity, felicity and mounting tension of Bond novels will forever remain one of the top fictional creations of the twenty century, and well beyond it. In 1961, Albert Broccoli and his friend saw the potential of James bond on screen, roped in Sean Connery to play the character, and thus began the saga and fascination of James bond as a cinematic Icon - as it rapidly spread to reach corners of the globe, igniting passion, mystery and awe in a manner unprecedented in Cinematic history. It is given only to a chosen few to play the role of James bond, and in its Fifty year history spanning 24 films divided among seven privileged men chosen to play the tile role - the name of Roger Moore will remain a crown jewel, as one who transformed, demystified the elusive myth of Bond that Sean Connery had so marvelously woven before, and bought to screen an element which Fleming had grossly understated in his books , which is - wry humor, gentlemanly wit, twinkle in the eye, Apollonian looks and a sense of vulnerability as a human that he fictionally was.
Roger moore’s ticket to play James bond was his TV series “The saint”, in which he played the handsome detective. His physical looks had attracted a wide following, and so did his Saville-row wit and manner of wooing ladies. When Sean Connery finally decided in 1971 it was time to move on, the not so young Roger Moore ( he was 45 years old) was inducted to act in “Live and let die” along with the beautiful debutante Jane Seymour. It was the biggest moment of his life. As a young man, he had struggled like any another aspiring actor in the mushy world of Hollywood. He had talent and looks, no doubt, but in the world of cinema apart from these prerequisites, luck and opportunity is required as well. So “Live and let die” was his moment of truth. He was taking over the mantle from a great actor, in whose hands, the legend of James bond had acquired a certain charm, character and image in public mind. Roger had to either sustain it, or recreate the image. Roger did the latter. In his own words many decades later, he said “ I was terrified on the first of shooting on the sets of “live and let die”. As the time came, I suddenly realized I was a like woman in the throngs of labor pain rushing to the hospital. The baby had to come out one way or the other, so what does it matter how it comes out?..”. With this zen attitude, Moore plunged in his new role, and the outcome was a brand new image of Bond. It is debatable, if Ian Fleming would have recognized his bond in Roger, but what Roger did for Bond was to extend the dimension of the character itself without losing any of its vital elements. While Sean Connery stuck to the letter of Fleming’s words, Roger read through it and bought a different essence on screen. Surprisingly, audiences loved this Bond more than any other they had seen. I think, the key factor in Roger’s portrayal was his originality, native English wit and charm, coupled with adolescently flirtatious exterior which endured him to his viewers. In their minds, Bond now became a man capable of making mistakes, getting beaten at his game but eventually winning the battle. Roger had humanized James bond without relinquishing the mystery and aura of his trade. A singular achievement in that age and time. Like Sean Connery Roger went on to act in Seven bond films till his retirement from that role in 1985.
It is often a fact that some people continue to transform and evolve themselves even after they have left the main stage. It is difficult ,especially in the world of cinema to leave behind the world of glamor, publicity and prestige , and embark upon a new inner journey. But Roger did after his retirement. He had made many good friends, and gathered lot of respect in the industry as a man of dignity, honor and down to earth charm. Audrey Hepburn, his close friend and neighbor in Switzerland introduced him to the world of UNICEF, of which she was the most popular and endearing icon. The work with children stuck a deep chord in Roger. He once told his friend Jane Seymour “ You know, it is ironical that when we come into the film industry, we dont have clothes, money , cars or Home; and once we get famous all this is given free of cost..”. The urge to give what he so abundantly and freely received was deep within him, and UNICEF provided the right vent for that desire. He was its ambassador till his very last day - the longest man to have ever served that honorable position. In view of his work both on an off the screen, The British government knighted him, and UNICEF presented the lifetime achievement award. During the acceptance ceremony, Roger made a comment which perhaps best defines the Man himself. He said
“I am perhaps best known for my role as Bond, but my role as Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF is the one I am certainly most passionate about. It is beyond doubt that it’s the children and dedicated staff on the ground who deserve medals, but I am absolutely honored and would like to thank UNICEF for this truly humbling award.”
Sir Roger Moore, passed away on May 23rd after a brief battle with Cancer, which seems to take away many of our loved ones. For my generation who grew up in the seventies , “The spy who loved me” will always remain the best Bond movie ever. I remember the day in 1985 when I read the Roger Moore will not play James bond anymore. Something snapped within me. I knew instinctively that an era had ended, and the actors who come next have an immense responsibility to keep the flag of Ian Fleming flying and alive. The truth is the character of James bond will never die, but there may not be one more Roger Moore to give that role the finesse, charm and honor he so lovingly and graciously gave it - on screen and otherwise.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Jottings - slice of life - 123 ( Baahubali - my take on it)

Jottings - slice of life - 123 ( Baahubali - my take on it)
Over the last two years, on innumerable occasions during my travels and otherwise, I have been asked by well meaning Indian Friends and acquaintances who know my interest in cinematic art , either personally or through emails, if I had an opportunity to watch the first part of Baahubali, and if yes, what are my opinions on it. In fact, one of them recently said “ Bala, this movie was and is a cinematic sensation in India, and i am surprised you are keeping a studious silence about it, I would love to read what you have to say…”
The truth of the matter is I hadn't seen the movie, nor did I have any inclination to watch it ( until yesterday on youtube), in spite of the fact the movie ran in cinema theaters near me wherever I went. Of course, I did read about the movie, its gigantic production, the years of preparation and execution that went into it, the sheer magnificence of cinematic panorama depicted on screen, the vivacity, energy and beauty of its lead characters - all of that. But something within me didn't quite relish the idea of watching it. I have wondered why ,and the reason was not too far too seek.
I am a firm believer that technique is important in any art form. In fact, the history of art is all about refinement and improvements. For example, when painting was the prevalent medium of visual art up to nineteenth century, the amount of detail and themes that could be painted were limited. The path breaking few who could visualize something beyond the general were geniuses, and they didn't produce what they produced because of any notable improvements in technique, but only out sheer creative effervescence and grace within and nothing more. Technique of photography changed all that. There was a now a way available , which doesn't demand creative visualization as a prerequisite, enabling everyone to capture pictures and themes which could put a michalengelo or Ruben to shame in terms of what they could capture on photographic film. Of course, great photography needs special talent, and not all can handle the camera as an extension of their inner eye. Technique may be there, but must be wielded well, and to the purpose of the medium. Also the point is mere improvement in technique doesn't always necessary mean great art. I could capture a pic on my iPhone and claim to produce art, but it doesn't compare to someone who would travel to Antarctica in its coldest winter, wait sleepless and shivering, to capture the rays of sun during its winter solstice as it sweeps across the dark sky mercurially changing color from yellow to gold in the blink of an eye for few minutes. In such cases, technique should go hand in hand with inner vision and an urge to convey something extraordinary. Technique is useful, but art in any form cannot be merely technical, It must be used to unfold something deep within which can resonate in our hearts and mind - in our souls. In the hands of gifted artists, such technique can become magic wand capable of educating, entertaining and aesthetically uplifting .
Now commercial cinema is all about technique and money. And if technical production and amount of money pumped into it are the only measures of cinematic success, I think, in my opinion, we have completely lost the focus and impetus which gave birth to this wonderful medium of cinema. I am not for a moment saying that we should not invest heavily, or not produce big budget films; it is definitely required for quality and to allow the creative possibilities in a director - who wishes to tell a meaningful story - to flourish and flower. But what I am saying is the story must take precedence in a film and not always the superficial aspects of how its told. The technical production of a film should scaffold and safeguard the embryo of a sensitive tale and embellish it as much as required, and not more. The movie that comes to mind as I write ( and everyone knows) is Ang lee’s magnificent rendition of “Life of PI” . Everything you see in Baahubali as jaw-dropping is present in “life of Pi”; yet it is subdued there and serves the purposes of the poignant story lee wishes to tell and doesn't jarringly intrude in the flow of the narrative. Or for that matter consider James cameron’s “Avatar”, or Spielberg's “Jurassic park” or let me stretch to it to fifties and point out “Benhur" or “Ten commandments”. In all these movies, the focus was on what is being told, and the “how” of it is subservient to the “what”.
Baahubali - the beginning is now on Youtube. And I watched it. Its good tale of fantasy and nothing more. In the context of Indian cinema, the quality of technical execution was clean, and flawless. The production value and its visual impact , which has has been the talking point for years now, is nothing we havent seen before. My detractors may argue that I should watch it on screen and not plasma TV. Maybe, maybe not!!. I have watched enough movies both on screen and otherwise to make an aesthetic judgment for myself. I am sure, on screen, some of the effects may have been spectacular; but for me, that will never be a yardstick for a movie. I would watch Harry potter, Star trek anytime - if effects is all I need to admire.
All said and done , as an Popular Indian actor said during a recent interview “ Baahubali is good for Indian cinema. Its at least seeing money”. My opinion is Baahubali served its purpose of doing out what audiences wish to see. Three hours of suspense of disbelief, packaged in modern technology. As long as this remains what we want of movies as a medium of art, then Baahubali is a resounding success. But for me, and I may be an infinitesimal minority, Baahubali is passable entertainment. Nothing that would make me rush to watch Part 2 anytime in the near future.
( PS : This piece represents only my personal view on this topic, and I greatly respect the sentiments of those who have enjoyed the movie for reasons and perspectives I may not be cognizant of, or illiterate about. )
God bless..
Yours in mortality,
Bala

Friday, May 19, 2017

Jottings - Slice of life - 122 ( Devdas - the conundrum of love)

Jottings - Slice of life - 122 ( Devdas - the conundrum of love)
Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay was seventeen years old when he wrote “Devdas”, and it was eventually published in 1917 . Never before ,and possibly never after, has a triangular love affair captivated the Indian Hearts and minds as much as that between the tormented, tragic and finely etched characters of Devdas, Paro and Chandramukhi. It was Sarat chandra’s crown jewel, a work that catapulted him to fame, and established his name as a literary genius. With over twenty novels and many shorts stories during his active literary life, his fertile brain, facile pen and sensitive heart captured the essence of an Individual caught in the web of feudalistic society, which was slowly but painfully , emerging out its chrysalis to modernity in the early twentieth century. Emotional and psychological emancipation of women largely figured in his works, and it is through them he voiced his opinions and ideas. Heroines were his principal protagonists, with men only playing second fiddle, and often the tragic victim of his stories.
Last Sunday, I watched Sanjay Leela Bansali’s luxurious adaption of devdas during my flight to Chicago. It is a three hour movie, and the flight time was an hour and thirty minutes. So,I skipped quite a bit of the movie and watched portions of significance both in the book and the film.At the end of it, the question that haunts the mind of everyone who watches or reads Devdas, is this : Which is stronger and truer love of the two? Is it Paro’s unrelenting, yet diffident acceptance of her fate and wanting to possess her love on her own terms superior? or is the forgiving, forbearing, physically satisfying and mystically accepting embrace of concubine Chandramukhi deeper and more true? This has been debated in literature and social platforms for decades, and the balance more often than not tilts in favor of Paro - as the genuine love of Devdas, and Chandramukhi - the unlawful and unethical usurper of his affections. The fact that it is Devdas own cowardice at a critical time in the story which leads to tragic consequences is conveniently lost in arguing the morality of the leading female characters. It is a tribute to Sarat chandra’s genius that he held the tale as a mirror to his readers souls. Depending upon who is reading it, and from what social and cultural background they come from, the answer to this question will be colored accordingly. While Paro is pictured as the outwardly “pure” one, unadulterated by the evils of flesh, but consumed by fire of jealousy and reciprocity in her relationship; Chandramukhi trades her body as a profession, yet maintains an inner purity which shines in her unconditional acceptance of a broken, tragic man who stumbles into her embrace having lost everything he possessed, including wealth, health and heart. Ironically, Devdas resents Chandramukhi when he is sober, and pictures her as Paro when he is drunk; but in either circumstance, it is the professional courtesan Chandramukhi who anchors his troubled self in waves of solace without a word of admonition or reprimand. It is she who shows him the way, in rare moments of his sobriety. It is she who gently makes him realize it is his fault that Paro chose her own life , and it is he alone who must now seek redemption by reaching out to his true love - Paro and give himself unconditionally to her. It is with this fullness of heart, understanding and self-realization that devdas makes the final journey to Paro’s doorsteps. If the definition of love is transformation, then it is chandramukhi’s love that transforms devdas and not Paro’s - though she unknowingly becomes the recipient of his transformation. The brilliance of Sarat chandra’s work lies in the moral ambivalence he creates in the minds of readers.
Not many will know, that until 2002, there was no English translation of Devdas. Translations were available in all major Indian languages, and around 15 cinematic adaptions of Devdas produced in different Indian States are on record. However, It was only after Sanjay’s movie became a block buster in 2001, that writer Sreejata Guha, a seasoned Bengali translator, was commissioned to make the first English translation. It is a terse and meticulous translation without allowing nuances of English language to usurp the atmosphere of the story or intensity of its dialogues. I enjoyed reading it. It reminded me of the magnificent translations by great Edith Grossman of Gabriel Marquez and Mario Vargas Spanish works- clear and un-ornamented. Ironically, again, the front cover of Devdas English translation had a picture of Aishwarya rai, as if to suggest that devdas is also a “book” you can read, now that you have seen the movie. I will not be surprised if many young readers mistook the book to be based on the movie. I hope not. Anyway, the amazing fact is for eighty five years, after it initial publication, Devdas remained translated and read only in Indian vernacular languages. The need of English Translation was never felt, because all regional languages adapted the story wonderfully to suit its own needs. This arrangement worked well because until about twenty to thirty years years ago, most Indians could speak and write in dual languages - in english and their own mother tongue . But unfortunately many among the modern generation (millennials) have lost touch with their mother tongue, and have become solely dependent on English. Therefore the emergence of an English translation in 2002 only signifies the times we live in.
Before I conclude this piece, a quick word or two on Leela Bansali’s production. Enthralling and ravishing - to say the least. The two leading ladies, Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit were perfect fits for the roles of Paro and Chandramukhi. Their faces were plateaus of shifting emotions between pain, remorse, anguish and passion. They understood the inner dimension and depth of characters played, and the eyes did most of the talking with effortless ease and commitment. When they danced, it was mastery personified. As devdas, this was one Shahrukh’s better performances in the last two decades. His naturally tremulous voice, forlorn looks, unassuming humor, histrionics of drunken dejection, jilted lover fitted the need well, and in the later part of the movie, when devdas rushes towards self destruction, Shahrukh khan gives us glimpses of what he could have become if he had cultivated acting more assiduously and given it more importance than mere stereotyped expressions which he doled out at regular intervals. Finally, Devdas - the movie had some of the finest songs ever composed and choreographed for screen. Not a pin out of place in the sets, or a costume stitched incorrectly. Its as good as it can get.
I wonder what Sharat Chandra would have had to say about his phenomenal success of Devdas. I am sure, he will be happy that his core idea about moral conflict still remains a moving force in society, and no matter how many adaptations of devdas comes out, the question of love between sexes and what it means will still remain a conundrum , not only in the context of India, but everywhere where society assumes the power to dictates the perimeters and boundaries of Love.
God bless..
yours in mortality,
Bala


Monday, May 15, 2017

Jottings - Slice of life - 121 ( My love affair with a writer)

Jottings - Slice of life - 121 ( My love affair with a writer)
The most difficult choice I have to make while preparing for travel is the book I must carry to read on flight and hotel stay thereafter. Its a decision I postpone to the very last moment, and just before my cab arrives to pick me up, out of sheer educated instinct, I walk to my book shelves and draw out few books and drop it into my back pack. if I were to consciously think and make a choice, it would be a maddening exercise. Literally hundreds of books neatly shelved ( as much as possible) and many more stacked all-round my home - near the sofa, on the stair case, near the bed - on different topics, and all of them equally craving for my attention. I have read almost all of them, but books like good friends needs constant re-acquaintance and nourishing. And flight time is ideal to revisit books which have lingered in my mind and heart long after I have initially read them. The choice I made for last week’s travel made me go back in time thirty years to revisit an author whose books were formative in awakening my love affair with ideas, words and written medium. He still remains my love.
Irving Stone (1903 - 1989) belongs to that select band of authors who have transformed the way I read fiction, and to be honest, look at writing in general. It is not that he was exceptionally gifted craftsmen of words and language, or possessed a rare gift of imaginative story telling; but the choice of his subjects , the research he bought to it , the passion he imbued his characters with - is at once contagious, elevating and entertaining. His works spread over half a century bought to light an entire new genre of writing into vogue, and through it educated millions, on lives of geniuses who otherwise would have remained just dry names in History books and encyclopedias as men and women of achievement, but without any sense of personal life or emotion in them. Stone more than anybody else resurrected the need to know our heroes more intimately than just dates and Honors.
It is strange how a writer finds his Genre. It is highly improbable you will find an author who knows from the very beginning what they will end up writing. The formative years are always one of experimentation, rejection and frustration. Stone was precocious, and his mother ensured his love for books and education remained nourished throughout his childhood. But like any other reader who fancies he can write , Stone believed he was a short story and Play writer. At school, he would churn out stories by the dozen and produce them to his Teacher. All of them were bad. Fortunately, one perceptive English teacher in middle school noticed his persistence in writing despite its poor quality, and allowed him a back seat in class with the promise he should produce at least one story a day. Stone took that to be a confirmation of his talent; little knowing that his Teacher was only ensuring that Stone would not abandon his raw talent, and would continue his effort polishing his narrative style. However, It was clear, he did not have the talent to write short-stories, but it even clearer to his teacher who saw something in the boy which convinced him he had talent and commitment to be writer. Its just that he hadn't found that sweet spot yet.
As an autodidactic, Stone devoured books; and each book he read only intensified his urge to write. During college in California, his interest turned to Drama. He started pouring his energy into producing plays; some of which were staged as well. But again, it was clear - to him and his audience alike - that his plays weren't good enough as he imagined them to be. In one frenzied year, he wrote 30 odd plays hoping at least one would strike the right chord, but all of them disappeared without a trace. But fortunately, by now, the creative metal within him was ready in the Maker’s hands, and the time was ripe for Stone to stumble upon the direction his art would be channelized and find consummation.
It was in Paris, the land of art and creativity, at the age of 25 in 1927 , that stone would find that path, almost by accident. During a sabbatical there, on a cold rainy night, he was dragged by a persuasive friend to Rosenberg galleries to see Paintings by an obscure Dutch painter. Reluctantly, he went along not having anything better to do. In that dim lit gallery studded with canvases of Van Gogh sparkling in their vivid colors and striking vibrancy, something deep stirred within Stone. He felt an emotional resonance, an uncharacteristic calling from the deep to tell the story of this painter who had poured his torment and agony into colors and canvases so soul stirring. He did not know anything about Van Gogh, but his instincts told him that here was a painter, a genius - whose work could not have been a product of sun-filled brightness and luxury, but of a man who lived his life with the intensity of death each day. Stone could see deep pain in those paintings, and felt an overwhelming creative need to unravel the life of Gogh - the man and his paintings. That was the tipping point ( as Malcolm Gladwell would call it). For next four years, Stone researched in Paris, studied Gogh’s emotional, hurried and often incoherent letters to his brother Theo, immersed himself into the atmosphere of art during that period, wrote and re wrote his “Biographical Novel” four times, before he submitted it to a publisher in America. It was rejected. Not once, but seventeen times in three years. No publisher would want to risk their money on an obscure life of a Dutch painter, told in story form. They believed it wouldn't sell. They urged Stone to write a plain biography with no fictional embellishments. Stone refused. He was convinced that creative lives like that of Gogh can only be understood in the context of the Human being he was. His work cannot be abstracted from his daily life. And the only way to visualize and present it in written form would be the form of a biographical Novel based on known facts with characters breathing, speaking, loving and hating each other. Publishers were unconvinced, and the manuscript languished in his desk for few years; until his wife and collaborator Jean dusted it back to life, helped him edit portions of it, and gave it the title by which it was to become a publishing sensation and a classic for all ages . She suggested “Lust for life”, and the name stuck. In 1934, a relatively unknown publisher accepted to publish Stone book. Rest is history.
For next forty years, Stone wrote magnificent biographical novels on some of the greatest minds in Human history. “Agony and the ecstasy” based on the life of Michelangelo and his commission to paint the roof of sistine chapel, “Origins” , life of Darwin aboard the ship “beagle” and the theological implications of his theory of evolution, “Love is eternal” - the underrated and often misrepresented love affair between and Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln; “Passions of the mind”, a fictional account of Sigmund freud and his astounding thesis of the subconscious mind; “Sailor on Horseback” - a life of writer Jack London, Stone’s favorite author - and many more. For a generation of readers. Stone’s books was the gateway to understanding the workings of genius. Few were adapted to become hugely successful movies. Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh, and Charleston Heston as Michelangelo quintessentially captured what Stone had so lovingly characterized in his novels. Audience watched the movie ,then went back to read the book. Many found the book better than the film. A great tribute to any writer.
Coming back to where I started this post. The book I carried with me this week was “Lust for life”. I remember ( if my chronological memory serves me right) reading this for the first time out of the British Library in Hyderabad in mid eighties. A green hard bound volume with a self portrait of visibly tormented Van Gogh on front cover. It was heavy for me. I didn't understand much of Art or paintings or its aesthetic experience. But what captivated me then was the intensity of the Gogh’s life, depth of Stone’s research and his unobtrusive prose which narrated a biography with a flair of a novel. I quickly read all his available works from the library. They have remained with me ever since as works of scholarship and beauty. I remember also wishing for a time when I could own all of Stone’s books and neatly stack them on a book shelf. I guess, that wish now remains fulfilled.
As I write this piece, I turn around to see with sense of satisfaction and little smile an entire row filled with the all the published works of Irving stone. Many of them are out print, or difficult to get in a book store. It has taken me few years to buy, bid for, acquire many of his old works. Its worth the pain. The set is complete, and so is my gratitude to Irving stone.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala