Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Jottings - Slice of Life -257 ( The annihilation of Kamal, the amateur politician by the seasoned, articulate and intellectually superior Smriti Irani - in a recent Republic TV debate)

Jottings - Slice of Life -257 ( The annihilation of Kamal, the amateur politician by the seasoned, articulate and intellectually superior Smriti Irani - in a recent Republic TV debate)
Thomas B. Reed, one of the most cherished Speakers of the US house of representatives ; known for his wisdom, arbitrating skills, justice and eloquence, once intercepted a member of the senate, who was debating at length without any specific purpose and told him “ Mr Russell, It seems you dont understand the theory of debate. The object is to convey to the house either information of misinformation. You have consumed several periods this afternoon without doing either”. On watching the debate between the Smriti Irani and the actor turned politician Kamal Hassan, hosted by Republic TV a week ago, and arbitrated by Arnab, I was reminded of Reed’s interjection whenever Kamal was given a chance to speak. The only difference between Russell and kamal was Kamal’s attempt to speak took more time, than actually speak something. The debate itself was a no-contest. It was Smriti who did all the eloquent, effortless, educated, well researched, witty and forceful talking; and Kamal, on the other hand, sat, dumb faced , grasping the mike with rigid fingers, mumbling incoherently, absolutely clueless why he was invited on stage, and what was his position and role in the debate. I have not been actively following the political movements and alliances in Tamilnadu for some time now; but I am aware that Rajnikanth and Kamal have finally “ condescended” to launch their political parties and hoped to cash in on the fanatical fan following their acting personas have in the State. It is for the first time , I heard Kamal speak on a platform in his new political avatar, and what I heard and saw horrified my sensibilities.
At the outset it was a bad idea to bring Kamal to debate with one of the finest debaters in the ruling Party. Since her active entry in Indian politcal scene in early 2000, Smriti has grown in stature and strength with each passing year. She is not merely charismatic in her saree clad presence, bilingually fluent,; but as a seasoned parliamentarian and autodidact, she is always prepared with the necessary facts and opinions well stocked and labelled in her mind before confronting an issue . Since 2009, She has been one of the prime torch bearers of the BJP agenda on television, and on the field. From a former contestant in the Miss India pageant in 1989, to acting in soap operas, to joining the BJP, She has displayed a firmness of purpose and commitment in all her actions. The prime requisite to become a politician, is to have firm convictions, whatever they may be and wherever they come from, and then find the right vehicle to translate those ideas into action. Smriti naturally gravitated to BJP, because her parents were affiliated to it, and her own ideologies further complemented those leanings. But that does not mean, she didn’t school herself properly, or undertake the necessary groundwork to establish her place in the BJP hierarchy. She worked on the field, learnt the nuances of power, understood the importance of priorities and refined her positions on key issues, before taking the role of media spokesperson for her party. She filled a critical position in the media for BJP ,especially, with their predominant bias towards Hindutva and its ramifications. The party needed a popular voice who could balance the fundamental thrust of the party with the sweet rhetoric of development and progress, and the ability to rationalize the party’s agenda in non-partisan terms with intellectual rigor and integrity. After two decades in different roles, and in power, Smriti is a formidable debating opponent in any political conversation, and to her, sparring words with Kamal Hassan should have felt like a carefree walk in the park. A pleasant distraction to an otherwise grueling administrative routine.
There is no doubt in anyones mind that Kamal Hassan is one the finest actors of his generation. Fifty years of acting is no mean achievement, especially so, for Kamal, who has throughout his career constantly striven to break stereotypes and present new thematic representations of prevailing social issues. He is self-declared atheist, and is proud to be a non-conformist Hindu. His movies, several of them, have nuanced attacks on the need to look at God through the prism of social welfare, and Gandhi’s philosophy of embracing all humanity shines through in his work. As an actor, he is versatile, and committed; but his articulation on screen has often come under criticism. His voice often gets muffled in his attempts to speak in a deep throated voice. Outside the screen, in public forums, he comes across as a thinking person, but lost so much in cogitation that he often loses the thread of the discussion he is drawn into, and is known to give tangential answers to direct questions. He apparently loves Tamil, TamilNadu, tamilians and claims to be passionate about preserving its heritage. It is also a fact that he has in the past been very vocal about not entering the political arena, and in true cinematic fashion promised to make that move when the time in ripe. He is now in his mid sixties, and probably thinks, it is time now to get way from mainstream cinema, which has many young and talented faces, and do something else with his remaining days. In Tamilnadu, after cinema, Politics is a door that is always open. With mass following, and fanatical devotion to the actor, and unmindful of person behind the paint and mask, the people of Tamilnadu have always swayed to the rhetoric of their popular heroes and heroines, even when more capable, educated and trained bureaucrats and administrators are available. In fact, the entire country suffers from this disease in its own way and intensity, but no where is it so blatant and prominent as it is in Tamil Nadu. Since the time of MGR, and Karunanidhi before him, politics in this State has had deep connections with film industry; and the bad news is, it continues to be so, observing the rise of Kamal and Rajnikanth as potential political candidates in the reckoning. Of the two, I assumed Kamal would appear more prepared and focussed; but if this debate on republic TV is anything to go by, I am not sure at all. The man has no idea what he wants to do.
Participating in a debate, or a dialogue, or a mediated conversation have a few ground rules. The first of which is to come prepared with basic facts about the topic. The aura of being actor is not particularly relevant in an educated debate. In such forums what one speaks, and what meaning that speech contains is more relevant that glumly looking at the mediator and opponent one after the other in regular succession. It seemed to all us from Kamal’s demeanor and body language that he woke up, dressed, got into a flight, landed at the venue, and hoped his very presence would lull any chances of rebuttal or counter point. Smriti did indulge quite a bit, but Kamal probably forgot he was participating in an intellectual conversation concerning the upcoming general elections, and would not be questioned on the current state of commercial cinema. The result is : He was overwhelmed and out beaten by superior intellect in Smriti.
Secondly, delivering lengthy and profound dialogues within the framework of a movie is not the same thing as speaking impromptu, intelligently and spontaneously in a public forum with wit, grace and eloquence. Very rarely can one do both. Ronald Reagan , the former US President, was an exception. After this performance, If Kamal has any thoughts of becoming a strong political voice in Tamilnadu, he needs a few urgent lessons in the art of speaking. As a social commentator mentioned in his review of the debate, it looks as though Kamal is so conscious of his language, grammar and structure, that by the time, words come out of his mouth, either the question becomes irrelevant, or his answers unsatisfactory.
Lastly, throughout this particular debate, there was five main threads of discussion that Arnab initiated. In none of those was kamal able to articulate anything of substance. He was more of less in agreement with Smriti on every point; so what is the point of sitting on the other side? Furthermore, and this is perhaps the most important of them all : Kamal didn’t seem to have any conviction about any of his political views. He was mouthing few cliches, and to the audience assembled in the hall it was evident that Kamal couldn't justify any of it, except on the point that people should be given the freedom to honor the National anthem when they wished too, and such an adherence should not enforced as a statute - which, of course, didn’t earn him any brownie points ( he should have known better) with anybody.
On a positive note what this debate exposed was the hollowness of people who claim to be political ready to assume office. It is true that the Indian constitution does not impose any specific qualifications to aspire for political office; but that does’t mean, anybody poplular with masses for whatever reason, can be offered a ticket. We can! if that person can exhibit the qualities and skills required to speak to the real concerns the nation faces, and boldly stand by convictions reached after hard deliberation, and not seek political office out of some altruistic need to “ to do good”. This phrase has lost its value. That should not be enough anymore. We should have more such one on one debates against holding meaningless political rallies where people are fed with empty bu dazzling rhetoric. In debates like these, people can see how their potential leaders react to questions, talk, intelligently defend their beliefs and vision. I dont blame kamal for this dismal performance. Many of our would-be leaders would have met the same fate, if pinned to specifics. Arnab, while concluding the debate, mentioned that Kamal had taken time off his busy shooting schedule for a movie, which is to be his last appearance as an actor, to participate in this debate. If that was the case, one would have expected more preparedness and focus during the exchange. Unfortunately, that did not happen either.
At the end of it, It was an entertaining ninety minutes, and star of the show was Smriti Irani - hands down.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala



Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Jottings - Slice of life - 256 ( Bruce Lee - the art, the legend, the man and his myth)

Jottings - Slice of life - 256 ( Bruce Lee - the art, the legend, the man and his myth)
( This is a long essay, triggered after I watched "Enter the Dragon" ( for God knows how many'eth time). Over the years, I have been reading as much as possible on lives of athletes who have pushed barriers that seemed insurmountable. Starting with Roger Bannister, to Sergei Bubka, to Pele, to Edwin Moses, to Carl lewis, to Michael Phelps, to Roger Federer, and of course Bruce lee - my childhood hero. All of them possess a madness, a stern resolve and commitment, hardwork and tons of talent. Beyond all of the above, there is an elusive spiritual quality about these champions which shone through when they performed on their respective stages. Bruce lee certainly had the mystique, and he still does, forty five years after his death. This essay is my tribute to Lee - the most enigmatic legend of all time)
For many years, a framed poster of Bruce lee as seen in “Enter the dragon” hung in my room. In it, the martial art maestro is captured standing in his trademark stance of defensive readiness with body erect, legs smartly crossed, standing on his toes for agility and balance , wearing only a loose black boxing pant hugging his proportioned hips revealing just enough of his bulging abdominal musculature , holding his favorite weapon ninjaku exposing those sculpted and toned muscles glistening with a healthy sheen of manly sweat, and above all - those sharp eyes which gleamed alertly out of their corners in relaxed anticipation of an approaching enemy. The entire picture is set against a background of the steel bars of an underground prison cell from which he famously fights his way to confront Han - the king of an illegal empire and a renegade Shaolin monk - in the grand finale of the inimitable encounter within the glass house when the treacherous Han coming from behind, is impaled to a lance with a spontaneous kick that comes from nowhere. The picture was pure delight. For a Bruce Lee aficionado, all this story could be read from that singular pose he strikes in the picture. I had this poster with me for nearly a decade, before it vanished among many things we discarded as we moved from one place to another. It was gifted to me by an elderly student at the Karate class I was attending as a kid. The year was 1976, and it was three years since “enter the Dragon” was released. I am not sure, at this distance, why I studied Karate in the first place? Was it because I was enamored watching the karate-ka’s ( students learning martial arts were addressed in Japanese. Ka means student ) clad in white uniforms with colored belts doing their weekly five mile jogs as they passed by my home , or was it because the Karate school was conducted in a YMCA nearby and for a weak kid like me, it was considered good to join some sort of physical exercise?, or was it the lure and the lithe grace and power of Bruce lee in Enter the dragon that blew my mind, and spurred my interest to become a martial art champion like him. I dont know, and dont remember. But I ended studying a particular form of martial art called “Budokai” for three to four years under a talented and strict Master, and during that time, there was no doubt in my mind, that Bruce lee was my God, my guru, my idol and all that I ever wanted to be in my life.
My teacher was a short man, with a goatee and always a spring in his step. He had renamed himself as Bruce Roberts ( his original name was Roberts) as reverence to Bruce lee, and so had many others during that time who venerated or sought to imitate Bruce lee . Along with Mohammad Ali, Bruce lee was perhaps the most influential fighters of the Twentieth century. In the case of Lee, the myth, the aura became even more stronger and pervasive because of his sudden demise, and unfulfilled life. At the age of 32, at the peak of his career and fame, Lee succumbed to rare form of brain enlargement. Mystery still surrounds his death, but little did the audience , who watched “Enter the Dragon” in August of 1973, know that Lee had passed away three weeks earlier. In fact, Many believed that Enter the dragon was Lee’s first movie, when it was his last. I certainly did not know that Lee was dead when I saw the movie for the first time in 1976.
Who was this Man?
Bruce lee was born in San Francisco to reasonably wealthy parents as Li Jun Fan, but true to the American spirit, a Caucasian nurse, while discharging him, wrote the name in the register as Bruce lee - because it was easier to pronounce. It stuck. Soon after his birth, the family moved back to Hong Kong and Bruce spent his formative years there in school and learnt the rudiments of martial arts in the wing-chun style. Back in the US, he majored in philosophy, married a docile girl who was to become his greatest support in later years, became a father, and had sweeping ambitions of stardom, especially in movies. Philosophy and martial arts are strange bedmates. When they combine, they produce an eclectic outlook on life. Especially, the Chinese form of martial arts, which is heavily influenced by buddhistic doctrines of “No effort is real effort” and the notion that response of the body reflects the state of the mind. Bruce lee was a keen student, well read and gifted with natural bodily speed, grace and talent. During his formative years, he grew up watching the great Mohammad Ali, the man who transformed Boxing from mere brute fighting grounded in power, to an art that combined grace, speed and tact. Watching Ali move in the ring and attacking when least expected was a turning point in Bruce’s understanding of the art of fighting. If martial arts is a way of living, then Lee believed it had to evolve to accomodate all forms. The only goal is to attack or defend in the moment, as it arrives, without preconceived moves. Lee started experimenting, learning and pushing himself to limits of physical fitness. In those early days, when taut bodies, toned muscles, and low fat was not yet as fad, lee set the pace. Convinced that no style is really sacrosanct, he broke existing barriers of technique and formalism, and charted a path that would assimilate all fighting techniques into a method that in reality was no method at all. He called his approach Jeet Kune Do , or the “the way of the intercepting fist”. As he famously says in the “Enter the dragon” “ You can call it the art of fighting without fighting.” This style juggled between boxing, naughtiness, force, athleticism, efficiency, simplicity, directness and speed combined with a primal raw feeling that comes from a center much deeper than ones personality. Deeply influenced by the writings of Alan watts, the zen guru of the sixties, and the sagely J. Krishnamurti’s insights into choiceness awareness, Lee compiled his philosophy of Jeet Kune Do lying in a hospital bed after one of the earliest episodes of bodily illness that would eventually take his life. When he recovered he knew his path and set out to walk it. Between 1963 till his death, the martial schools he founded, the movies he acted, and the esoteric observations he made on his style, catapulted Jeet kune Do to its heights of glory. So much so , after Bruce lee, almost every martial art practitioner, both in movie and otherwise, had a touch a Lee’s art, style and unassumed arrogance. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that within a decade, Bruce lee changed the face of martial arts. Before “Enter the dragon” lee had acted in twenty odd movies, including “The green Hornet” - his first appearance. But only in “Enter the dragon”, the crescendo of his art, did all the elements fall into place. Warner brothers, the producers of the movie, spent less than a hundred thousand on making it; but by the time the movie released on 6th August 1973, Lee was dead, and the audience who watched the film knew an epochal moment had arrived in action cinema. It was the biggest grosser for Warner brothers. During the seventies, the movie achieved cult status. Elvis priestly was proud of possessing a 35 mm copy of the film in his private collection and claimed to have watched it hundreds of times; the movie continued to run its full length in a theater in Iran with audience refusing to leave the hall even as Ayatollah komeni was overthrowing the Pahlavi regime in 1979 and the city were burning all around; for twenty years after Lee’s death, the movie was regularly released in dozens of cinema halls in the US, and each time, passionate Lee fans came to watch it with the same ritualistic reverence. By 1990, the movie had earned around 400 million dollars. Warner brothers couldn’t have hoped for a better investment, and Lee himself wouldn’t have hoped for a better finale to his brief, intense and revolutionary life than the success of movie and its subsequent frenzy.
What then is the legacy of Bruce Lee? Its forty-five years since his untimely demise, and even today speculations about his death ranging from murder to suicide to depression abound. In a way his death compounded the brilliance of his life. I started questioning Lee’s legacy much later in my life. There are two sides to it. There is no doubt he was one of the finest exponents of martial art form. Once he realized that he had enough talent, he worked tirelessly to perfect his style and chisel his body. In the words of Phil Och, a famous folk singer, who wrote when he saw Bruce for the first time “ It is the science of the body taken to the highest form, and the violence, no matter how outrageous, is always strangely purifying” Even when Bruce stood still, we could feel a movement around him, a palpable electrifying presence that shadowed his nimble yet firm steps. Until Bruce lee’s time, action was dominated by the gun slinging western cowboys, and the gadget filled Bond films. Physical action was push, a slap or a jab at best. But Lee changed that perception. In the twenty movies he acted in, he created a new paradigm for on-screen fighting that was at once manly, exhilarating and graceful. He catered to a need ingrained deep within our nature - The sheer pleasure of dominating someone with our bare hands. It is a natural human instinct, and Bruce lifted that instinct to artistic heights. Chuck Norris, Jackie chan , Jimmy Kelly and whoever came after lee’s time, invariably had the stamp of his style etched in their movements. A thousand Lee’s sprouted across the globe imitating his art and style. Walking, speaking and dressing like him became a fashion in the seventies and eighties. People who knew him in his formative years gained popularity basking in his glory.
On the flip side, not many realize that Bruce lee was never a professional fighter. At best, he was involved in a few gang related skirmishes during his younger and wilder days, but never once during his life time, was he matched up for a real fight without the artificial glare of camera and footlights of a movie. To that extent, he was an untested opponent. Lee was not a tall man either, and neither did he have weight of a professional boxer. His art was confined to treating martial arts as a soulful exercise, and not to plow down opponents in real time. It is the unanimous opinion of seasoned martial art practitioners that Lee would have failed if he had fought a real bout in the ring. And the other thing that many do not know is this: Lee was arrogant of his talent ( excusable perhaps in a man of his talents), and paranoiacally obsessed with fame and glory. For an asian immigrant, during the period civil unrest was fermenting, to be recognized in Hollywood was a dream come true. Lee rode that wave tenaciously, and without much support from anyone. He was a self made man, and the pressure of keeping up to his promise was getting to him, and he began relying on drugs to soothe his fraying nerves. To keep himself in top physical condition, he dieted and exercised to the point of extremity that doctors were worried that there wasn’t even the minimum fat required in his body to function effectively. He didn't bother as along as his muscles rippled as he flexed them with dexterity. He increasingly neglected his family; and fame, as it so often does, bought with it the passions of infidelity. Lastly, Lee did not invent any new technique. His strength was the ability to convincingly articulate a particular strain of philosophy to rationalize his lack of a specific style or tradition. The few interviews that remain of Lee show him to a convincing speaker with very positive body language. He mastered the media, and borrowed and used catch phrases freely from spiritual masters he had read, clothed, of course, in his own fighting metaphors. His biggest strength was bringing all his technique, philosophy and charm together to perfection on screen, for his students, and to generations of youngsters after him.
In a way, this essay helps in completing a full circle for me. As a young boy, Lee was my hero, my fantasy. Nothing could destroy his superman image in my mind. I would wake up in the mornings summoning the power of Lee, before anything important for the day happens, and a reverential glance at the poster in my room was enough to pardon all my sins, and give me courage to face my enemies at school. If someone had told me then, that one day, I would write an objective essay about Lee, studying him , not with starry eyed excitement of a boy, I would have laughed and brushed it aside as next to impossible. How could I ever assess Bruce Lee, the God who could knock down the strongest man with a kick and a cut and a piercing shriek. Never!!. But such is life. Time and maturity puts a perspective on our childhood heroes, and strips them of the charm they possessed once. However, the legend of Bruce lee can never die. If his art was his alone, there was a chance of it fading away; but by a stroke of destiny Lee influenced the field of martial arts for posterity. His unique style has become part of our collective psyche, almost a Jungian archetype that is invoked unconsciously each time anybody, across the globe, raises their hands and legs by way of fighting on screen. A little bit of Bruce Lee shines through in each such frame, and in all of us.
On a final note, one wonders what more would have Lee done if he had lived longer? Would he have mellowed down to live a normal life, or would he have scaled more heights than before? A difficult question, with no satisfactory answers. Perhaps, the best way to sum up Bruce’s life would be in the words of Davis miller, whose brilliant biography of Lee “The Tao of Bruce lee” is a landmark book in sports writing. He writes in the epilogue: “Jesus, Alexander the great, Joan of arc, and, yes, Bruce lee died young enough to believe that there was something about themselves they had to develop, and about the world that had to changed. As we mature, some of us come to another understanding. We hope to recognize things as they are and to accept them”
Bruce lee chose to change martial arts. He did, but in doing so paid the price with his life cut short in its prime.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala


Sunday, December 16, 2018

Jottings - Slice of life - 254 ( H.P. Lovecraft and “Annihilation” - the 2018 movie based on his idea)

Jottings - Slice of life - 254 ( H.P. Lovecraft and “Annihilation” - the 2018 movie based on his idea)
In the annals of English literature, no two writers have seen so much poverty, disregard, and unpopularity during their lifetime coupled with effervescent genius, dark fertile imagination and supreme written artistry over the English language as Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecraft - two of the greatest novelists and prose writers in the last two hundred years. In the majority of their writings , Man is often pictured as a species tottering at the edge of an uncertain certainty, and to whom the infinite vastness outside his parochial, blinkered brain is as unintelligible as it is frightening and numbing. If Poe is considered the creator of the mystery detective genre through the intricate characterization of his mysterious philosopher, rationalist and amateur detective Auguste Dupin in stories such as “Murders in the rue morgue” and “The purloined letter”; then HP Lovecraft is the pioneer of horror fiction based on unknown realms of alien existence which is mostly ignored or rationalized by civilized man. In works like “In the mountains of Madness” or the “Calls of the Chulhtu”, or the “The Dunwich horror," Lovecraft weaves a fantasy of dark beginnings, utter meaninglessness and the limitations of human standards of morality in the infinite expanse of the cosmos. Both authors died as destitutes, and in poverty. And ironically, both are today revered as masters of their art forms, with contemporary books, drama, movie and music deriving significant inspiration from different aspects of Poe and Lovecraft’s work. Especially, cinema - that medium which can project so vividly on screen, the visual and verbal imagery of darkness residing both in the human heart and outside - is highly indebted to both these writers. Their writings opened up exciting areas for film makers providing endless possibilities to explore the terrors and instability of human psyche when faced with the fear of the unknown.
One of the more recent movies based on Lovecraft’s original short story “Color out of space ," written in 1927, is “Annihilation” with Natalie Portman playing the lead role. Though, this movie is an adaption of Jeff Vandermeer’s first book in his science fiction trilogy, there is no question, that the genesis of the idea lay in the genius of Lovecraft. In fact, among the hundred of shorts stories and dozens of full length novels, Lovecraft wrote during his brief lifetime, he considered “Color out of space” as his personal favorite. Over the last three months, I have been reading all the works of Lovecraft in its chronological order. Not an easy task. On kindle, the completely collection runs into thousands and thousands of pages. What fascinates me about Lovecraft’s writing is his feel and conviction for this theme, and the austere language of the old good England. Though am American, born in Rhode Island, Lovecraft was against what he called the “Bastardizing” of English by immigrants. Yes, Lovecraft was a racist and a strong advocate of superiority of white man, and almost all his stories have a tinge of disdain for native and primitive cultures. The darkness in his stories often have their origins in rituals and traditions in long buries cultures. Anyway, “The colors out of space”, though, is based on a different theme. Lovecraft, as a child, was fascinated by astronomy. The vast immensities of space, and the darkness that enveloped this the planet earth - both terrified and interested him. Partly because of his weak physical constitution, and partly his brooding outlook, he was able to peer into those recesses of Human evolution, which otherwise men in cheerful frame of mind would bury under the carpet. In this particular short story, he conceives of an alien life form that appears on a remote farm in New England through a meteor. This life-form takes the shape of a colorful shimmer, and slowly wreaks mutations in plant and animal life around it. Biologically, our forms are programmed by cells and genes within. The hypothetical scientific question about what happens when those gene mutate or instructions morph into something else always puzzles and frightens man. In fact, what is cancer, but a form of terrible and uncontrolled mutation of the human cell. We still dont know why it happens? Why should a normal functional human body go on a spree of self destruction? Modern doctors are still puzzled as they were hundreds of years ago. In siddharta Mukherjee’s seminal book “The emperor of maladies” , he tells the story of cancer, and its elusive trajectory in medical sciences. Anyway, Extrapolating the theme of mutation, Lovecraft conceives his alien organism as a colorful spectrum of light from outer space bubbling up from the earth into which the meteor has sunk, and slowly seeps and transforms itself into other forms of life, changing their physical and behavioral patterns. In some of the most chilling and lyrical passages in the history of fiction , Lovecraft paints a intense picture of a family living on the farm the meteor landed, how all the members of the household slowly but visibly degenerate and disintegrate into madness and their body metamorphoses into grotesque forms that tenuously hangs on the balance trying hard to remain human, but pulled by an unknown force to become something else unnamable. Alongside the family's descent into raving madness and instability, vegetables around the farm grow to abnormal sizes but completely tasteless, lush green grass turns ash grey and elongated, cows begins to mow in a strange fashion, Horses collapse and shrink to nothingness, and there is general dark miasmic panic in the air. Scientists from the county investigating the material from the meteor can find nothing. Solid matter as known to science, doesn’t suit that material. Kept in a closed glass jar for observation, specimens slowly vanish exuding exotic colors beyond the known spectrum, and glitters with a warm shimmer which distracts and penetrates anything it touches. I am not surprised that Lovecraft considered “Color out of space” his personal favorite. There is an intensity to this story that lasts longer in our mind that others.
“Annihilation” - the 2018 movie, is based on this idea of mysterious shimmer around a remote army base, which gradually extends in all directions. Natalie Portman ( as Lena), a molecular biologist, and four other ladies from the army base decide to explore the interior of the shimmering haze, when none of the soldiers who enter that perimeter return alive, and the only one who comes out happens to be Lena’s husband. But he comes back physically and mentally sick - a grotesque caricature of himself. It is clear that something was happening within that haze which was consuming anyone venturing into it. I have always admired Natalie Portman’s intensity on screen. After debuting in 1993 in Leon - the professional, as a young girl who needs protection from the drug mafia ( a movie remade in Bollywood during the nineties as “Bichoo” with Sunny Deol and Rani mukherjee), Portman has essayed innumerable roles, growing in maturity and depth with each. “Black swan”, a psychological thriller got her the Academy award in 2010. Like Meryl Streep, Natalie has this incredible talent to allow her eyes do the talking. In “Annihilation”, Natalie showcases that talent to great effect providing a stunning performance as a scientist who is the only one who truly understands what is happening within the haze as a process of genetic mutation - of a force that morphs one form into another and new variants created - and not a mysterious enemy to be shot and defeated. There are some unexpected turns as the story moves along. It is, however, Director Alex Garland beautiful cinematography and deft touch that sets the right tone for the movie. He creates an atmosphere of eeriness that is at once starling, beautiful and dark. The rich and profuse colors of flowers , the deviant forms and structures growing within the shimmer, the sudden mutations of man to animal with human traits intact, the abnormal violence of cells destroying cells, and more than anything else, the sense of fear and dread on the faces of the five ladies as they grapple with something beyond their ken - is directed with consummate skill by Alex.
As an avid Lovecraft reader, I relished the theme and the movie. For a writer, who never thought his works will survive his life, his ideas have done well over the last three decades. There are innumerable adaptions and sub-adaptations of his books. The 1986 blockbuster “Aliens” featuring Sigourney Weaver was also based on an alien creature that Lovecraft conceived in his “ Call of Chulhtu” cycle. H. P. Lovecraft is today considered one of finest writers of the last century. His morbid and often skeptical view of mankind and its future can be a little frustrating sometimes, but if one ignores the racial undertones, his helplessness and his belief in the underworld, and read his stories as rooted in an existential fear of living in a universe that is vast and incomprehensible; then fresh meaning emerges. In his own words: “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents”. This was his basic stand. That human brain is limited by the senses and what it can know, whereas there is vast unknown that exists, and is as true as the one that we take for granted. His stories were always based on intimations from the other side of the light - a darkness, without which light cannot exist.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala



Monday, December 3, 2018

Jottings - Slice of Life - 251 ( revival of timeless wisdom, Hyperlink - the legacy of Vannevar bush, and the extraordinary repository of shimmering insights by a young Bulgarian)

Jottings - Slice of Life - 251 ( revival of timeless wisdom, Hyperlink - the legacy of Vannevar bush, and the extraordinary repository of shimmering insights by a young Bulgarian)
(Note to my readers : This is a long essay. I apologize. There are three strands of thought that come together here; each related to the other in a way that make sense from a higher perspective. At the time when each of these ideas germinated, it would have been impossible to speculate that one day the aims of renaissance, the birth of the internet, and evolution of the webpage would collectively lead to new way of designing and transmitting content. It is a fascinating story, and I have made a cursory sketch in this essay to present the three ideas to a lay audience.)
The Renaissance during the fifteenth century Europe was not an accident, or an event propelled by social upheavals-as is usually the case, when one epoch gives way into another. From the tenth century onwards, the dark ages which began with internecine warfare, deterioration in ethical standards, rise of superstitious beliefs , visible dimming of curiosity, and above all an collective amnesia of all accumulated knowledge and wisdom of ages - led to a point, when libraries and book hives, those treasures houses of Man’s wisdom, record of his quest and understanding became lost , forgotten or relegated to dusty corners of ancient monasteries scattered around the remote corners of Europe. In the beginning of the fifteenth century, when the world was still reeling under the effects of crusades and tightening of orthodoxy, a few thinkers, philosophers like Plutarch, Thomas of Aquinas began to reminiscence of the golden age that preceded centuries of misty ignorance. The original wisdom in the greek and latin tongues found a revival, and slowly a steady series of patient monks under the guidance and patronage of few revivalist patrons, began to visit dilapidated monasteries, abandoned and dusty libraries and private collections to either buy, steal or copy manuscripts written in a lost tongue. One can imagine those thin, emaciated monks, riding on weak and weary horses, in search of important manuscripts, having to placate or painstakingly endear themselves to high nosed and suspicious head priests of closed monasteries with the single intent to bringing out the ancient wisdom contained within its walls, restore its timeless wisdom, and attempt to replenish the sagging moral and intellectual spirit of the age. It was a noble endeavor, and a one that saved the western civilization from passing away into oblivion. Stephen Greenblatt in his 2012 Pulitzer winning book “The Swerve: How the world became modern”, beautifully describes the tale of one such book by Greek philosopher Lucretius “On the nature of things”, and how that book was retrieved by sheer chance from a vault by a Papal messenger and ardent book lover Poggio Bracciloni. In Greenblatt’s fascinating book, he opines that the finding of this book and its message was seminal in inspiring the best minds of the renaissance.
It seems to me, the twenty-first century also seems ripe for another intellectual renaissance. There is proliferation, no doubt, of information, news, facts and stories in print and digital media; But I think in all of this abundance, what is slowly disappearing are the voices that speak of timeless wisdom and truths that resonate no matter what. The written word is still a dominating force, thanks to the internet and free availability of information; but again, bombarding oneself with information without the yeast of wisdom is harmful, if not disastrous. Blogs are aplenty. Anyone who wishes to comment, observe or opine had free access to write and disseminate their musings. As readers, our attention and time is becoming as fleeting as the passing wind , and the blogs we read reflects the attitude that we need know only so much that can help us live efficiently, and not so much with intelligence, depth and compassion. Every generation speaks to us in few choice voices; and those voices are our conscience, the underlining thread of humanism against whose background all else is measured. Those voices are timeless words of insights, hope and wisdom articulated by minds who have grasped the essence of being human. If readers are not periodically exposed to those profound voices, chances are high, we may lose the thread of intellectual continuity for ever in the ever increasing miasma of information. We may fall once more into a period of dark ages, where all that we know will superficial, passing, hollow and meaningless without that touch of intellectual integrity and depth - which makes human life a miracle and worth living to its full.
The world wide web was born of this need to assemble vast quantities of information in a manner that makes it easy to access. Knowledge was becoming more and more specialized, and less and less available to others. Foot notes, bibliographies are credits were filling up more pages in a book than the subject matter itself. Vannevar bush (Not only in the IT field will know/remember his name these days), one of the pioneers of modern computing, wrote an epochal article in 1945 titled “ As we may think”. It appeared in the Atlantic monthly magazine and later published in his book “Endless horizons”. This article laid the thought foundation for what was to become one of the most important features of the Internet - The hyperlink. Way beyond his time, Bush suggested that the best way to retrieve data is to mimic the human brain, which hops from association to another stringing together a coherent picture of the subject in attention, seemingly without much effort. Though the brain is extraordinary and infinitely quick in its prowess to retrieve information from its complex neuroplasm; to build a computer that could match the human brain in its complexity and associations would be science fiction at the time Bush wrote about it. However, in that beautiful article, Bush thinks aloud on his hunch that with increasing quantities of knowledge accumulating each day, the only way to collaborate and use this swelling repository and cross referencing when needed is by “linking” all of them in a meaningful manner mimicking the model of the brain. Decades later Ben Schniederman from University of Maryland, and Tim Berner lee would evolve his masterful insight into the concept of a “Hyperlink” on a webpage to navigate from one topic to another. For those of us who work in the field of Software, this article by Vannevar Bush is a must read. Like the vedas which is perhaps Man’s first attempts to encapsulate the wonder he felt about the universe and his place in it, Bush’s three page article is one of the first thought journeys that would eventually culminate in the modern notion of digital transformation.
Maria Popova’s blog “Brainpickings.org” is perhaps the best illustration of the confluence achievable by bringing the insights and wisdom of thinkers, artists and scientists - past and present - to a web portal with a design, keeping in mind Vannevar vision of being able to navigate at will to areas linked to main topic. The story of Maria and her unique effort in maintaining this blog as a full time profession is fascinating and worth recounting. Born in iron curtained Bulgaria to a father who was Salesman at Apple , and a mother who studied library science, Maria’e early educations wasn’t compromised. She studied at an American school in Bulgaria. It was however, from her paternal grandfather, that she learnt the art and beauty of reading eclectically. Every evening, he would pull out the encyclopedia, and read random pages out it, creating in the young girl’s mind a deep interest in diverse fields of knowledge, and an awareness at an early age that individual strands of knowledge are useless unless one can connect it to the whole and apply it lead a meaningful life. After high school, she resumed her education in America in the University of Pennsylvania. Formal education wasn’t her preference, and she disliked the vocation aim of education, used as she was to learning and understanding at a different level. To relieve the mechanical cadence of her college work, she joined a small advertisement company to escape the tedium of routine college work and make some money. It was during this period, she conceived the idea of creating a short mailer each week, encapsulating thoughts and ideas from different fields of human endeavor , and sharing it with seven of her colleagues to help them find sources of creative inspiration. Her autodidactic studies came in handy, and each week, she was able to cull and piece together in a coherent manner, a set of ideas that glowed with intellectual and aesthetic brilliance. Her co-workers loved her email, and slowly expanded the circle of recipients. This was in 2006. By 2009, Maria was clear on her life’e work. She took a short course on web designing and quickly designed her portal - which she aptly named “brainpickings”. Within a decade, brainpickings.org has grown to estimated 7 million subscribers world wide and Maria Popova , hailed as the literary princess behind the carefully collected, chiseled and articulated essays. Maria calls her blog a “human-powered discovery engine for interestingness”. There is nothing in the blog that can be stereotyped. Music, painting, sciences humanism, criticism, environment, ethics, mysticism - almost anything that touches the substratum of human existence finds a place in her essays. And true to the spirit of internet, her essayist are prolifically hyperlinked. As a reader, one can take off on a detour into deeper exploration of a subject, or can read sequentially one essay after another. The writer Maria disappears, and only the essence of her reading, thinking and understanding is distilled for us. The portal requests for donation from readers if they are interested in contributing. It is not a mandate. But, believe me, for those of us who find inexhaustible wisdom in what she presents, a $10 per month is well worth the price.
It is hard to believe that Maria Popova is only 33 years old, and she has established a standard for what she believes a new age virtual library on how to lead a meaningful life. This was the same question the thinkers during the renaissance asked themselves, and in their quest for answers collected important scrolls hidden in obscure monasteries and revived the spirit of reading and learning. For this age and time, the internet is the repository, and what we put out there will be the trigger for humanistic revival - a sore need of the hour, when so much empty rhetoric and meaningless dialogues fills much of our public and private discourses. In Maria Popova’s words during a recent interview, she defined the vision fo Brainpickings.org in one simple sentence: “I want to build a new framework for what information matters..”
In Maria’s telescopic vision, the beauty of wisdom from different sources, the reach of the internet, and the power of the webpage in navigating through information — all of them come together in a manner that makes technology humanistic and worth having. I have been regular reader of Brain-pickings for many years now. Sometimes, I get lost in it for hours moving from link to another, deeper and deeper into a journey of self-exploration. I would start off with a painting of DaVinci embedded on the blog, and from there follow the thoughtful links Maria conceives to drive the reader into esoteric corners and angles of the science, art and philosophy. The layout and design is simple and unpretentious and gives prominence to matter presented. After few hours, one comes out the blog dazed and refreshed at the same time. Like scuba diving, we are lost in wonder and reflection on the written word and colorful pictures that illuminates a thought, before the reality of daily life rudely awaken us. But the effect of absorption in its contents leaves it indelible mark on how we think and act. That is the litmus test of a great work of art - which is what Brainpickings.org is in its technological, intellectual and aesthetic sense.
God bless,
Yours in mortality,
Bala