Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Jottings Slice of life - 109 ( Salman Rushdie - my muse)

Jottings Slice of life - 109 ( Salman Rushdie - my muse)
There are only few contemporary novelists who can match the torrential and luxurious prose style of Salman Rushdie. Perhaps a Mark Helprin, Julian barnes, a Kazuo Ishiguro or an Ian McEwan can sometimes write few paragraphs that transcend normal semantics of writing, but no one, in my opinion can consistently, page after page, sentence after sentence, pour into a novel so much lingual virtuosity, elegance of phrase, clarity of thought, audacious flights of imagination and characterization, spell binding story telling; and a seamless narrative gathering itself like a river in spate all that it encounters into one magical climax without , even for a minute, losing track of the central thread, the axle of the story being told. Reading Rushdie is losing oneself in a world only pure geniuses can create, where imagination is everything, and inhabiting that magical world of imagination is a rich profusion of ancient and mythical symbolism, whose meaning becomes clear to a perceptive reader, in solitary moments of enchantment with the written word. It is magical realism at its very best.
Over the last two months, I have been re-reading Rushdie. I personally believe to pass subjective opinion on a seasoned writer, one must read all their works in the chronological order it was written. An author is, after all, an evolving person, and each book invariably reflects the subtle changes of thought patterns, ideologies, understanding of human nature, linguistic maturity, command over the medium itself, and many a time a complete revision of outlook on life. Rarely would you find in literature, a novelist whose entire work is consistent and outstanding at the same time. Even great Dickens or Austen were not exceptions. There will be always early attempts reflecting immaturity, over confident efforts at something beyond oneself, but if there is within the seed to write, in conjunction with sufficient opportunity and commitment; they are able to bring their ideas and its expression into focussed prose quite naturally and rapidly. During that period of flowering, a writer goes through a purple patch when anything they chose to write is flawless. Not a word, not a paragraph or punctuation can go wrong in that phase. The intensity of genius will dictate the length of this creative period. And after this explosion of talent, follows the menopause of creativity - a period of decline, repetition when they run out of ideas, and begin to rehash old thoughts and themes into new formulations. This is when as a reader, you know, that your beloved writer is past his prime and is slipping into history as an iconic figure to be cherished and studied , with newer players now taking over the stage.
With Salman Rushdie, except for his first forgettable novel “Grimus” written in 1975 - a pseudo attempt at science fiction, every other work which has flowed from his pen starting with “Midnights children” in 1981 to “Two years eight months and twenty eight days” in 2015 are masterpieces of syntactical craftsmanship and transcendental story telling. Even “Satanic Verses” which bought him international recognition for wrong reasons is a book of great depth and structure, if one can to read it for its beautiful prose, satire and allegorical references to a system of beliefs. In “Shalimar” and “Moors last sigh”, written in the 90’s and early 2000, one can feel Rushdie settling down to a pattern, his language more controlled, his fertile imagination still able to spin out multiple internal universes within half a thousand pages. Rushdie could write short stories as well. In “Haroun and sea of stories” ( not stories of the sea , note the difference) , Rushdie chiseled short stories from his mythological raw material. In the tradition of old bards, Salman begins his tales with “Once upon a time…”, and as readers we are swept in its tidal flow into a journey that takes us back to our cocooned childhood days when fantasy was everything and reality a gross violation of life.
It is not my intention in the short essay to critique Rushdie’s works, not am I even capable of attempting it. But I do share and participate in the ecstasy of simply enjoying his books. For a writer who has been in exile for most of his creative life, with a threat of death hanging perilously like a Damocles sword even today, Rushdie’s talent and genius has flowed unabated despite the vicissitudes of his living conditions. Lesser writers would have succumbed to the tremendous psychological burden of living constantly in insecurity, but Rushdie seemed to have thrived and grown on it. Married and divorced four times, sticking to his beliefs, and open as ever in his opinions and criticisms, he has not allowed his creative sap to be wrenched dry. 2017 still expects a book of him. And I am certain it will be worth reading. The nobel committee has several times over the last decade come close to honoring Rushdie, but has shied away from it for reasons best known to them. However, the Booker awards have been more generous and acknowledging of his literary brilliance. Oftentimes, during casual conversation with friends, the question comes up about who is the more accomplished of the English writers of Indian origin: VS Naipaul or Ahmad Salman Rushdie? Both are wonderful writers and both have sustained their creativity for decades. But personally, for sheer pleasure of reading prose, I would prefer Rushdie to Naipaul, but if stories have the necessity to be grounded in reality then Naipaul’s books remain truer.
French writer Francine Prose in the introduction to her book “Reading like a writer” mentions how she need to be enveloped with great books whenever she writes. Sometimes in order to write, one needs to dip into sources of inspiration. Somebody to ease you over an internal hurdle. And once in a while, reading a book makes you write one yourself. Francine writes: “Reading a masterpiece in a language for which you need a dictionary is in itself a course in reading word by word. And as I puzzled out the gorgeous, labyrinthine sentences, I discovered how reading a book can make you write one.”
Salman Rushdie’s books have been my muse for many years now. When I find my creative sap going dry, I dip into few chapters of “Midnights children” or “Shame” or “The moor's last sigh”, and somehow, mysteriously, the roots gets watered again, and my pen moves with much more confidence and poise than before. To me, that is the lasting quality of any writer - The ability of their words and sentences to transform ones energy and thinking into something much more than what we are normally capable of.
God bless…
yours in mortality,

Friday, March 17, 2017

Jottings - slice of life - 108 ( The taming of a beautiful, cold beast )

Jottings - slice of life - 108 ( The taming of a beautiful, cold beast )
To observe a snow storm from a Hotel room is spectacular. Especially those of us for whom snow is a rarity. And what a blizzard it was. For five hours, little, cold, sizzling flakes of soft ice cut through strong winds with ceaseless precision. Within no time, the brown earth was covered by a patina of white coating, which grew in density every passing minute. Vigilant snow ploughers standing by with their machines would sweep the roads, only to be covered again with a rich, copious deposit of fresh snow, even as the plough engine moved ahead. Relentless!! is the word that comes to mind. I took some time off from my meeting, put on my wind sheeter, and stood out in the front lobby, hearing the merciless drone of cold winds, witnessing a face of nature that was at once fascinating and terrifying.
But what impressed me is the state of preparedness of Man used to living in such conditions. The city of Boston was ready. Weather channels, experts had plotted every movement of this beautiful beast over two days. They knew exactly what to do to get back to normalcy. Within hours of the storm passing away, roads were clean as if nothing had ever happened. All the remained was six feet high snow piles along road sides, conveniently and aesthetically tucked away. They were the only the reminders of the powerful blizzard. Nothing more!!. Somehow as I stood watching the storm, and Man’s response to it, a simple, yet powerful observation made by master historian Arnold Toynbee in his monumental six volume “Study of history “ flitted through my mind
“Civilizations die from suicide, not from murder..”
Toynbee was referring to the inability of many old civilizations to adapt to local circumstances and live through and by it. To respect, venerate and adapt to life as it presents itself in ones living environment is the key to Human progress and success. A few years ago, just about 800 miles from Boston, less then half an inch of snow and ice bought an entire city to standstill and panic. I am talking about my home town - Atlanta. For weeks, the impact of an inconsequential amount of ice generated existential distress. We didn't know what to do. We weren't prepared. We can handle as much as heat as nature would like to throw at us, but not an inch of snow - never!!. That is how local life is. Though we wish to think of ourselves as global citizens. Funny!!
Yesterday evening, I went out to dinner with a wonderful family. They are originally from Israel, and I always love to hear them speak in their native tongue - the fascinating sound of Hebrew. Like all ancient languages: Sanskrit, german and many others, its tone, inflections, the depth and range of sounds in Hebrew touch something very deep. Even if the meaning competes eludes me, the texture of sound vibrates within. Felix and his wife , both are teachers. Felix works for an IT company with whom I am associated. A brilliant man ( Like many Israelites). Clear, logical and methodical, I stuck a chord with him the moment we said “hello” nearly a year ago. As we talked we realized both of us had shared common interests, and we shared the conviction of software as a manifestation of deeper level of spiritual reality. Felix is widely read in Indian philosophy and very soon both of us started talking about Vedanta and Bhagavad Gita in particular.
An Interesting point came up. Felix bought it up casually.
“Bala, if imparting spiritual knowledge is as simple as dialogue between a master and student, why is it that we dont see many meaningful transformations..??”
True, isn't it... If one were to read the Gita from cover to cover, there should be enlightenment. But why does that not always happen. Felix definitely had a point there.
But I pointed out to Felix the answer to his question lies in the Gita itself. The penultimate verse of Chapter 18 Vyasa writes
“yatra yogeśvaraḥ kṛṣṇo
yatra pārtho dhanur-dharaḥ
tatra śrīr vijayo bhūtir
dhruvā nītir matir mama”
Freely translated , it means
“Wherever there is a teacher like Krsna, the realized master and a Student like Arjuna, a genuine existential seeker, in such an environment there will be mastery of self and destiny. I am certain of this truth”
“Alex, the key phrases here are “realized master” and a “seeker who is existentially thirsty” and not merely intellectually hungry. That is a crucial difference. If a student, who is ripe for the flame of understanding to be transmitted - well oiled, sharp and every fiber of his body is ready for transformation; then all it needs is a look or a word from a realized master. But on the other hand, if one approaches religion with an intellectual curiosity and nothing more, then it will stay at that level. Will not penetrate deep.
That is the meaning of a dialogue in the true sense of this word”
“Ahh..” said Alex.. Very much like Moses on top of mount Sinai - alert, thirsty and open to the voice of God “
"Yap...." All three of us nodded and smiled.
God bless…
Yours in mortality,

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Jottings - Slice of life - 107 ( "Technology evangelist" and not a technical Instructor)

Jottings - Slice of life - 107 ( "Technology evangelist" and not a technical Instructor)
As a teacher, the only consolation and joy at the end of the day is to have inspired, modified and enhanced the levels of understanding of your students. Nothing more!! This week was an extraordinary adventure.
In the class were fifteen senior participants, six in the class, and the other six attending online from different parts of the world. They work for one of the biggest payment solutions business in the Western hemisphere, and for more than two decades all their data is stored and managed on standard relational databases. We are talking in the magnitude of hundreds of terabytes every two days. Each one of them in the class have solid background in Databases, back to the days when Fox-pro ruled the roost and before, and from there moved to become DBA’s ( Database Administrators) for large scale data storage solutions for transactional processing.
The challenge is now to move from a traditional paradigm of storage to a newer model. Thankfully, there are many such solutions available today in the market, but the real difficulty is in triggering a mind-change or ( as I normally would like to phrase it) a re-wiring of our thinking process to adapt to those changes. That was my task this week. I had four days to do it. If could walk out of class with beaming, smiling faces on my students and an aura of wisdom surrounding them - my job is done.
But there were four issues to contend with. One - this was my first class on this technology, two - my participants were hardcore advocates of relational databases with a entrenched view that nothing can better the way things are done right now. Three - all participants have already studied online versions of the materials I am about to teach. Fourth - The head of education of the product had flown down to be part of this class to audit how things were going. So, this was going to be a challenging task, and could quickly become an embarrassment if it is not professionally handled.
Within first 30 minutes, I decided to let go of all my slides and prefabricated demonstrations. If I was ever going to transform their thinking, the only way to do it was to get into the trenches, show changes on their own environment, and convince them why they should change . Otherwise, this class is a waste of time. That is exactly what I did. For four days, not a single slide or a lab. We would assemble at 9 AM in the morning, take up few use cases and work through it in their own Test environment. We projected our experiments on screen for whole group to see and brainstorm. Tempers flew high, arguments followed, reasoning interjected, jokes abounded, but in the end, the common goal was to see if this solution would prove effective. It was fascinating. At some points during the class, I felt like a master conductor waving his baton to play a specific note. My goal was to steer the group to a conclusion which is favorable to the product. I had no doubts in my mind and neither did I have any technical doubts about what we were proposing to this group, but it was my job to convince the assembled team of my convictions and technical veracity. Otherwise, the battle is lost.
On the last day, at 5 PM, all of us were exhausted, but intellectually sizzling. We had managed to benchmark every important feature against traditional way of doing it. And the conclusion was unanimous. The new solution was indeed the right way of moving forward.
As I headed back to my car, the Head of education caught up with me and said “ In twenty years, I have never seen anything as extraordinary as this. You are a teacher in the true sense of the word. I now know whom I should call if I need to sell my product..
I laughed “ yes sir, I call my team “technology evangelists”, Not Instructors. A technical Instructor is a limited term and anyone can be groomed to become one. But to convince a set of reluctant participants to adopt technology - that is the goal of the company I work for “
“Great, we are happy to be associated with all of you..”
God bless…
yours in mortality,

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Jottings - slice of life - 106 ( “The innocents” - an Anne Fontaine film)

Jottings - slice of life - 106 ( “The innocents” - an Anne Fontaine film)
“Faith is twenty four hours of doubt and one minute of illuminating hope..” - Wise Sister Maria explains to the young French red cross Doctor Mathilde Beaulieu, as she attempts to convince the Sister of the need to look beyond religious beliefs and vows to God. The history of sacred faith hinges around this pivotal point. Can one forsake deeply inculcated beliefs around God, heaven and sin to yield to matters of flesh? Can we abandon convictions of Hope, comfort and security in an afterlife to the ravages of the daily living and its horrors? Can we reconcile what happens to us now to what we have been given to believe for ages? Can we live for that one minute of clarifying hope while enduring every hour of unceasing doubt and apprehension? These are questions this beautiful film raises in our hearts and minds.
Much has been written, said and discussed on the horrors of second world war, and the moral deprivation that followed. Art is so full of it even today. However, when I watched the Polish film “The innocents”, yet another dimension of this moral savagery was bought to light. During the end of 1945, when Poland was left an orphan, caught in the crossfire of war, a secluded monastery for women situated deep in its icy forest was violated by group of Russian soldiers. Almost all the sisters - young and old embracing Christ as their divine Husband - were raped and left impregnated or otherwise diseased. It was a nightmare come true for them. Indoctrinated in the belief they are eternal virgins, and their body, mind and soul belonged only to God, and nobody else; they were left shamed, humiliated, surprised, dejected, confused, and in most cases began to reject the young life growing in their womb as an intrusion to be cast out as rubbish. It was a clash between deeply felt beliefs and life itself, and each reacted differently to this profound challenge of faith. A young doctor aspiring French doctor is summoned by one of the inmates attempts to help assuage their physical pain ; but she faces tremendous push back from the community , except for few Sisters, who had known worldly life before coming into the monastery. The babies, however, start come out one after the other, and the Sisters are faced with the moral dilemma of tending to a living child on one hand and adhering to a system of codified rules and beliefs on the other.
Anne Fontaine is one of my favorite directors. A few years ago, I reviewed her movie “Adore” in my blog. It was based upon a short novel by Dorris Lessing “The grandmothers”. Anne had grafted Lessing's controversial story to the wonderful beaches of Australia and staged the drama between teenaged boys and their attraction to each others Mom’s without giving way to vulgarity or sensationalism. She continues the same assured treatment of a difficult subject in “The innocents” too. The moral contradictions of faith and the living reality of body and its needs finds sensitive embodiment in the sequestered community of sisters. They are not wrong when they affirm they are wedded to Christ. Belief is a strong force, and sometimes can become the only real thing to hold on to. It is difficult for an outsider to empathize with kind of abstract certainty, until one becomes a believer himself. The young doctor Mathilde played beautifully by the French actress Lou de Laage is an non-believer; but her heart is filled with compassion for physically suffering sisters. She takes it upon herself to help them no matter what. In that attitude of moral empathy, she stands alongside them in their high moral high ground of religious beliefs. While Doctor Matilde wishes to ensure they are physically alright and can deliver without complication, the sisters wish to protect the kernel of sacred vows they have sworn to live by and refuse to be tended by her. The slow reconciliation between the two wonderfully unfolds as the movie progresses. The end is perhaps a little cliched, but the strength of the film lies in its ability to evoke a deep sense of sadness and an exhilarating sense of joy - both at the same time. There is a point where deep suffering and love meets, and that intersection is the axle point of transformation.
“The innocents” shows us a glimpse of what that transformation would feel like..
God bless..
yours in mortality,