Thursday, May 23, 2019

Jottings - Slice of life - 295 (Musings on the eve of the election results in India)

Jottings - Slice of life - 295 (Musings on the eve of the election results in India)
"The true interest of an absolute monarch generally coincides with that of his people". So wrote Edward Gibbon in his monumental "Decline and fall of the Roman empire", nearly two centuries ago. As the day of reckoning draws nearer, it seems evident the people of India will vote Narendra Modi back to power for the next five years. The Monarch has held his sway over a billion people, and his vision reflects the aspiration of an entire nation. Again and Again, in these columns, I have drawn attention to the fact that BJP on its own strength cannot win the election, but with Narendra Modi, at its helm, they will not lose. For a country starved of authentic leadership for decades, the people of India look upon Modi as a charismatic, confident, brave and articulate voice amidst the confusion and cacophony of rival political parties. The party Modi represents may follow a different agenda( often subversive to the interests of the nation), however, as its leader Modi stands alone and apart as a beacon of light in a stormy sea, and it is through him that modern India seeks its place in the global arena.
The first five years of Narendra Modi has been a roller coaster ride. The fiery personality of the man who fought the elections in 2014, has now given way to a mellowed statesman who has understood the dynamics of running a country as wide and diverse as India. His rhetoric is measured, and so are his cadences. The picture of Modi silently meditating in the cave during the final phases of the election reflects the mood of the man and his message to his people. That no matter what happens, he is there to lead them forward to a bright future.
Over the last few months, Rahul Gandhi has also shown signs of maturity. His communication and conviction has vastly improved, but, unfortunately, it is not enough to combat the might of his political opponent. There is still that hint of hesitancy on Rahul's face. His demeanor betrays the lack of political acumen and finesse. Agreed, it must be hard on the young man to bear the brunt of the onerous legacy on his shoulders. But he has no choice, but to bear the cross as best as he can. Age still favors him, and these years of hard learning might still hold him in good stead at a future date - provided he still retains the tenacity to fight the battle at the national stage.
At this stage of India's democracy, we need a strong leader, who can hold the reins tightly, make tough decisions (even if some of them are miscalculated) and present a confident face to the world. In Modi, we see such a man. Hence our vote for him.
God bless...
yours in mortality,
Bala

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Jottings - Slice of life - 292 ( Bhanu and I - thirty years of memories, and accumulating more)

Jottings - Slice of life - 292 ( Bhanu and I - thirty years of memories, and accumulating more)

It is fascinating how an old picture, drawn from the forgotten fullness of the past, can seek out from the hidden corners of the brain enough buried memories to create a kaleidoscopic tapestry of visual images. The images are so vivid, surreal and pulsating, that for some brief moments in time the relived past becomes the intense and absorbing present. The mystery of this visual parade of memories lies not in the mechanical sorting of countless small memories scattered in the vastness of one's psyche, but the delectable selection and connections it draws from those memory footprints in the loom of time. The spectacle is mysterious as it is forceful. The faded picture in front of our eyes, in few chronological minutes, reveals to the minds eye a show specially put together, orchestrated and delivered with an eclectic mix of emotions: there is sadness and joy, failure and hope, betrayals and friendships, and above all a powerful sense of feeling that accompanies the memories; just like waves of powerful emotions trailing a melancholy piece of music. Vladimir Nabokov, one of the greatest prose writers ever, captured this mysterious stream of triggered memories in his acclaimed autobiography “ Speak, Memory”. He writes: “I witness with pleasure the supreme achievement of memory, which is the masterly use it makes of innate harmonies when gathering to its fold the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past.” Yes, “..the suspended and wandering tonalities of the past” - what a beautiful expression!!

It was Gore Vidal, the Americal novelist, who called his autobiography “ Palimpsest”. The word means something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form. Our lives are palimpsests. Layers upon layers of meanings and relationships, each camouflaging the one before, and shifting the arc of life ever so slightly, or radically sometimes, in newer directions. But traces still remain. We are what we were decades ago, transformed and catalyzed into different selves, but links, however faint it may be, still remain intact, and every once in a while, an old picture with arms around a friend, a piece of old music, a familiar face, throws the door wide open and a cascade of former selves rush in to fill the canvas.

Bhanu and I met in college in the mid-eighties. I still remember the first time I met him. It was in a classroom on the first floor of Vasavi college in Hyderabad. He walked into the class, with his trademark shirt-out style, deep eyes and said “hello”. A faint mustache on his face flits through my mind's eye. I don't seem to remember the exact moment when that acquaintance turned into friendship - that’s always difficult to identify. I am sure it didn’t happen instantly but over the course of time. At least that’s what condensed fragments of memory tell me now. Emerson wrote in his journals: “ It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.” Bhanu and I were stupid with each other. We could talk to each other about anything, on anything. In the headiness of youth, we were idealistic too. One of our favorite pastimes was to ride on Bhanu’s Motorbike ( Bhanu had fantastic driving sense, I hope he still does) to a solitary burger joint in Jubilee Hills. We would sit there, order a burger, and chat about life. It would be dark, and the hills around would become utterly quiet with only the buzzing sounds of mosquitoes breaking the silence. During our ride back, we would be very quiet, as though we had revealed enough of each other over the course of the evening, allowing the blast of cold Hyderabad air to fortify our bond even further.

Memories of music rush in when I see this picture. Bhanu worshipped Ilayaraja. He still does, when I met him a year and a half ago In Boston. I can still see his eyes light up like fire when the subject of Ilayaraja came up. He would gesticulate and explain the intricacy of each song in an Ilayaraja album, pointing now to the tonal variation of SPB, or to the subtle use of violins and flute, or the pacy interlude of tabla, and then suddenly conceive a musical connection from a previous album — all done effortlessly and with passion. It was almost as if a devil possessed him when the subject was Ilayaraja. He would bear no criticism. Even when he did, it would be a masked and muted apology on behalf of the maestro, followed by a rationale for that apology. In all those years with him, my sense of music became more and more refined and polished. That film music can contain so many wonders - Bhanu demonstrated and taught me.

This essay can go and on. So many memories are jostling for space. Studies, infatuations, books, spirituality, cinema, college events, other friends, family, and professional dreams - all of them coalesce into one another, and at some point, the images intertwine and overlap to create a rich, puzzling, varied and complex relationship that cannot be explained or dissected. It is one holistic tapestry of memories that define our friendship. Thirty years, out of which, we may not have spoken for fifteen odd years, doesn’t make a difference. There is still that intense closeness of those first few years. Time cannot wash it away. When I close my eyes now and dig into the past to pull out one single thread to conclude this essay, what comes out is an evening at Krishnamurti Foundation of India (KFI), Chennai. We had moved to Chennai in the early nineties, and Bhanu had come to visit us. I drove him this time on my Kinetic Honda. KFI is a beautiful and quiet place. Krishnamurti had passed away a few years ago, but the place was still soaked with his presence. Bhanu and I sat down on the edges of a shallow well, with steps leading to the water below, watching the stillness of its surface, and the small ripples caused by little insects floating on it. We were discussing Krishnamurti’s approach to religion. I don't remember the discussion, but that image of Bhanu and I sitting quietly, not looking at each other, lost in contemplation about life’s bigger questions, somehow remains etched deep in my memory. It was, I guess, a pure unconditional moment between two friends, not feeling the need to talk incessantly, yet deeply understanding each other, and valuing the nature and depth of our friendship.

Thanks for sharing this picture Bhanu. We still continue on that journey...

God bless…

yours in mortality,

Bala



Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Jottings - Slice of life - 288 ( Champions are forever — the return of Tiger Woods)

Jottings - Slice of life - 288 ( Champions are forever — the return of Tiger Woods)
(Note to my readers: This essay is dedicated to my friend and colleague Vijay Shriram, who casually mentioned to me a few days ago that I should write about Tiger Woods, after his historic win in the Augusta Masters last week. Though I have been following Tiger woods incredible sporting journey for decades and sympathized with his personal life and fall from grace, I have never been a great enthusiast of the sport itself. A few years ago, I read Steven Pressfield's magnificent novel "The Legend of Bagger Vance" and was intrigued by his constant references to the Bhagavad Gita's exhortation that one must immerse oneself in action without yearning for the results. The caddie Bagger Vance speaks to his master (Junah) almost in the same language and cadence as Krishna to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. This book opened my eyes to the artistry of Golfing, and since then I have understood and appreciated the game better. I now see what can go through a Golfer's mind, when he stands with his club all alone on the golfing turf with a small white ball at his feet.
I conceived this essay during my drive back from office to home. I had to check a few facts, but beyond that, this piece was written as it emerged and took shape during my fifteen-minute ride. Thanks, Vijay for sowing the seed.)
Every sport has its mecca, and every sportsman aspires to perform at their sublime best on that hallowed ground. All other successes of a professional sportsman will pale in comparison, and a true champion will consider his sporting journey incomplete if that pilgrimage is not made, and victory not registered on that sacred spot. For tennis, it is the lush green lawns of the Wimbledon center court, for cricket, its the Oval grounds in London, for Baseball its Wrigley stadium in the Chicago, for Cycling its rugged and strenuous Tour de France cutting through the Pyrenees and Alps, for Athletics, it could be any of the Olympic venues , and for Golf there is no better theater in the world than the tough, alluring and ever-changing turf at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. For more than hundred years, the Augusta Masters ( or simply called the Masters) tournament has remained “the” title to win for a professional golfer. With all the sanctified traditions of the game held in trembling reverence there, and only the choicest players of the game extended an invitation to participate in the tournament, winning the Masters is the ultimate consummation of a Golfers existence and professional pride. To win the Master’s once is achievement enough, but to win it more than once is greatness in the sport bequeathed only to blessed few.
In the week of April 1997, the Augusta Masters witnessed something unique. A black young man, tall and focussed without seeming preoccupied, with eyes that gleamed with purpose, and face that bespoke supreme confidence, was making quite a mark on the turf. Golf has historically been a white man’s game, and Woods looked poised to break that pattern. Tiger Woods was playing in his first Masters tournament. He had come into Augusta Masters with a reputation as a young player who was deemed a natural — whatever that word means. However, the truth is Woods was playing the game since he was two years old. His Father, Earl Wood, a golfer himself and baseball player, spotted the little boy’s eyes light up when someone hit the golf ball. When Earl passed the club to young Woods for the first time at an age when kids cannot hold a toy securely in their hands, Woods held the gold club with a perfect grip in his nimble hands without any instructions. Then and there, Earl realized that his son had a special gift. Just as Williams sisters in tennis had their Father’s ambition backing their own prodigious talent, In Woods case, both Earl and his wife Tida resolved that they would sacrifice anything to make their young son the best player the game has ever seen. True to their resolve, Earl taught Woods the rudiments of the sport and became his official coach. By five Tiger Woods would swing the club with the expertise of a professional golfer, and by ten he was already the junior champion. Earl knew Tiger had come of age, when his young son, eleven years old, beat him on the golf course by more than 10 shots with effortless ease. Since then Earl has never won a golfing round against Tiger. Woods turned professional in 1996, at an incredible age of twenty, and within the same year amassed three professional championships - a unique achievement in itself. Coming into the Masters in 1997, he was not even in the reckoning for the last stages of the tournament, let alone winning it. But, as the game progressed, and thousands of spectators clad in golfing whites watched him play, they realized that something magical was unfolding on the course. Lay fans and stentorian critics stood transfixed at Wood’s “perfect swing”. A ram rod straight back that tilted and curved ever so slightly, the grip on the leather firm and resolute, the steady arms, the perfect arc of the club that did not quiver either in its descent or the ascent, the totality of the swing from start to finish that could have put a pendulum to shame for the sheer geometry of its trajectory, and the resounding impact of the club hitting the ball, sending it spiraling across its orbit for yards; and when the shot stood completed, the effortless body balance of Tiger woods as he stood nonchalantly tracing the flight of the ball to the desired hole - all of it was simply poetry and precision in motion. Woods won the 1997 Masters by twelve shots, beating the record of the other great champion Jack Nicklaus by nine shots set in 1965. The era of Tiger woods had begun.
In the next 13 years, Woods would establish a reign of an undisputed champion by winning thirteen major championships, and six professional titles and a Grand slam in between ( winning for major Golfing titles). He was in that zone of invincibility during those years. Years of grueling training under the tutelage of his father had perfected his swing, toned his body, and he was — so it seemed to those who watched him play - the perfect physical organism to have ever picked up the golfing club. Tiger’s ability to hit the ball 40 yards longer than most of his competitors, and to hit the ball with eerie accuracy each time, lifted the game to newer levels of excellence. Just as a Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal or Steffi Graf transformed the game of tennis, Tiger’s technique and quality of golfing shots became the creed for younger players who got into the sport after him. Not many, however, know that to reach this level of excellence Woods displayed at the Masters in 1997, fifteen years of hard work and practice proceeded it. The common fallacy we entertain about great artists or sportsmen is that they are born great, and what they achieve in their area is something they are born to do. Nothing can be further to the truth. Yes, some people are born with a certain propensity, an inclination towards a specific sport or art; but rarely would you find such innate talent exploding into full-blown talent, unless there is adequate tutoring and committed practice. Earl - Wood, Tiger’s father, would make young Woods watch Golf swings for hours in his garage, and later on, Tiger himself would spend hours each day, alone, perfecting his swing. By the time, Woods was ready for the professional arena, he had reworked and reprogrammed his technique twice, chipped away at his weaknesses, until that weakness became his very strengths. Geoffrey Colvin, in his best selling book “Talent is overrated” makes his case on how champions ( including tiger woods) and great artists practice incessantly and obsessively, not on their strengths, but more on their weaknesses. The popular notion of mastering a technique is to work on one's strength, but that is not how champions think. Whats distinguishes a champion from a mediocre practitioner is that champions realize that their weaknesses have to be converted them into strength, and work on it feverishly and persistently. Tennis enthusiasts will remember that when Steffi Graf started her professional career, she possessed an ineffective and almost amateurish backhand. Her strength was the ominous forehand that could score winners to all parts of the court. But as she progressed in her career, one could see that her backhand was becoming stronger and a perfect fiddle to her power play. Hours of grueling and lonely practice to strengthen her backhand goes unnoticed in the popular imagination. But that is the secret of her success. The key idea is that what comes naturally to someone, needs minimal practice to retain and nurture, but what doesn’t, requires tremendous practice and dedicated effort. That is what champions like Tiger woods are good at doing. Alone, without the eyes of the world prying on them, they practice and practice hard on areas that need improvement. So when they come out to play, it all seems so effortless. This is an important life-lesson.
Golf in many ways is a different ball game from others. Here, one does not compete with opponents to wear them down as they do in tennis or football. The goal of golf is to hit the ball into a hole with a minimal number of shots. And to do that with every shot the golfer attempts to find that perfect swing and pace that can get the white ball as close as possible to the hole. The shots of the opponent do not affect one's score. Winning or losing a game of golf depends on how many strokes an individual player takes to reach the goal. In this respect, Golf is a lonely game. We compete only against ourselves. Standing in the golf course alone, with thousands of eyes watching from the sidelines, the golfer has to synchronize his mind and body into one being. And before the club hits the ball, the player has to gauge the lay of the turf, assess the spatial coordinates of the distance the ball has to travel, factor in the vagaries of weather, adjust to the velocity, direction and flow of wind ; and , all of this needs to be done in those brief moments when the golfer steadies himself at the tee and prepares his swing. In his brilliant novel “The Legend of Bagger Vance”, a novel about Golfing (which was adapted into a movie starring Will Smith) Steven Pressfield, the author, beautifully summarizes the art of golfing. He writes: “ Each one possesses, inside ourselves, one true Authentic swing that is our alone… Our task as golfers is simply to chip away all that is unauthentic, allowing our authentic swing to emerge in its purity..” It is the unanimous opinion of senior players, critiques, and admirers of the game of golf, that Tiger woods had found that authentic swing, and when he strode the golf courses across the world, he didn’t compete, but simply let-go and allowed the inner swing to take over. During the period between 1997 and 2008, his golden period, Woods could hit the golf ball on any course with a precision that was unbelievable as it was incredible. It seemed as though Woods was drawing upon some force deeper than mere Golfing technique.
We often want our champions to be flawless. But we forget they are human too. The year 2008 marks a turning point in Wood’s career. News of his infidelity and subsequent ugly divorce broke the pristine reputation of Tiger Woods in the minds of the people. The prodigy, the genius and well-behaved champion of Golf had erred - at least, that was the verdict of the tabloids, critics and fans. After the US Open victory in 2008, against the backdrop of deepening personal accusations, Woods succumbed to the pressure and lost his Midas touch on the golf course. The “authentic swing” became more belabored, conscious and began to waver. Fans watched him struggle to get the ball anywhere near a hole. It was as though — as one writer in the Newyorker magazine observed - Nijinsky, the great Russian ballet dancer had forgotten how to pirouette on his toes. Woods finished last in most of the tournaments he played. After years of working and pushing his strong spine to his advantage, his back started plaguing him. Four surgeries in quick succession further aggravated the poor form he was in. By 2015, the world of golf had almost forgotten the legend of Tiger Woods. He was just one more player on the field.
But great champions are never truly out, they raise the bar for themselves and for generations to come. When Roger Bannister broke the four-mile barrier, or Carl Lewis the 10 secs threshold, those were landmark moments in the history of Man’s physical abilities. In the same vein, when Tiger Woods won the 2019 Augusta Masters last week, and for the fourth time in his career, he pushed the bar for those who believed it is impossible for a former champion to make a comeback in Golf after a hiatus of ten years. And to win the Masters, the most prestigious and grueling of all of the championships, is the ultimate message to the golfing world, that the hero is firmly back. To understand the significance of Tiger wood’s achievement is not easy. Sporting is an unforgiving field. Age, athleticism, rhythm all of them diminish over time. Even the best of sportsmen have a window of performance beyond which their abilities begin to take a downward swing. And once an athlete has reached a peak, remained there for some time, the slide is bound to happen. A sensible champion will know when to quit, or at least when to stop playing at the highest levels. If that distress signal is ignored, then infamy awaits the deluded sportsman on the field sooner or later. In the last ten years, the game of golf has radically changed. The level of the game has increased. In such a milieu, for Tiger Woods to make a comeback and find his “authentic swing” once again is almost an impossible dream made true only by sheer grit, talent, and more importantly the passion to play the game. The history of sports and athletic have seen some remarkable comebacks in the past, and this win of Woods’s in the Masters will rank among the top. Woods is forty-three years now, not too old by golfing standards, and still has many more years of active golfing left. If this win is anything to go by, then the world will witness a second round of golfing excellence from this prodigy. His personal turmoils are buried, and what we see is a rejuvenated and self-assured Tiger woods - a mirror image of his former self. The stride is back, and so is the magical swing and the accuracy of the shot.
Over the last few days, there have been numerous tributes to Woods on his magnificent achievement. Barack Obama tweeted just after the win praising woods for his grit and determination despite the highs and lows; but the best tweet was by Magic Johnson, the great basketball star. He wrote, “ The roar of the tiger is back”. Yes, it is, and this time, we hope the roar will be heard for a long time to come.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Jottings - Slice of life - 286 (“Man’s search for meaning” by Dr. Viktor Frankl)

Jottings - Slice of life - 286 (“Man’s search for meaning” by Dr. Viktor Frankl)
Last week, on my way back to Atlanta, a young man rushed into the flight, almost at the close of boarding gates, to occupy the seat next to me in the business class cabin. He looked flushed. In one hand, he was holding a thin book, and in the other, he was balancing a carry-on bag and a jacket. He quickly dropped his bag and jacket underneath the seat, sat down gasping for breath, turned to give me a quick nod, and opened the book in a hurry ( almost as if the boarding the flight was a distraction he could have done without) and continued reading. He didn’t give himself even a few minutes to settle down, adjust the air vent, or drink some water. It was obvious that the book he was possessively holding in his hands was irresistible, and he couldn’t wait to read the remaining pages.
It was then that I glanced at the title, and knew exactly what was going on. There are few books that can change the course of one's life if it happens to find you at the right juncture. And such books cannot be found; they find you. That is why deep thinkers, avid readers, and bibliophiles collect books by the dozen without thinking of when they shall be read. They know, someday, one of those books will speak to them in a voice that will answer a nagging question, an emotional conundrum, an existential enigma, or sometimes simply transform one's world view. The young man beside me was holding in his hand was one such slim volume - Viktor Frankl’s “ Man’s search for meaning”.
The role of Victor Frankl in the understanding of the Human mind, and in the field of psychotherapy is immense. I am not going to elaborate on it in this essay. But this little book “Man’s search for meaning” written in 1946, just after the war, describing Dr. Frankl’s experiences in the Nazi concentration camps for six winters between 1941 and 1946, remains one of the most moving accounts of survival, faith, hope, meaning and restitution during that tragic period in human history. The original title of the book published in German was “Say 'Yes' to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp”. In its English translation, the title was changed to “Man’s search for meaning”. The concentration camps were not prisons, they were temporary holding places for mass murder. What happened to millions of people in those camps was not just physical torture, but complete annihilation of spirit, of dignity, respect, and identity. Those five years of horror proved that Man’s pride in progress — both industrial and social - were mere myths, and beneath the veneer of rationality, there ran strong, virulent currents of bestiality and perversion waiting to overrun the flimsy structure of progress we were so proud of. The Holocaust was a turning point in civilization and a humbling experience too. We have not yet completely recovered from the shock of what happened within those gas chambers and filthy barracks. That is the reason whenever we observe symptoms of a totalitarian regime beginning to take shape, we become nervous and paranoid. Memories of the Holocaust come back, and our psyches cringe in shame and fear.
Dr. Frankl was a famous doctor even before the Nazi’s decided to purge the Jews. He was a jew in Austria, and by the end of 1930 established a third school of psychology alongside Freud’s and Jung’s. He called it Logotherapy - or the ability to find meaning in human lives, not as an abstract ideal, but something concrete and personal to the human being concerned. When the threat of an imminent Nazi purge was becoming a reality in 1941, thousands fled Germany by any means available. The American consulate formally offered Dr. Frankl a visa to the US, assuring immunity and professional freedom. But Dr. Frankl refused. He refused the offer because he couldn’t leave his aged parents behind and seek liberty for himself. In his preface to the book in 1991, Dr. Frankl describes how he was toying with the idea of leaving Austria or not and how a “a hint from heaven”, as he calls it, came from a piece of marble that lay casually on the dining table at home. That piece was from a synagogue that the Nazi’s had torn down. His father had recovered it from the debris because it contained a portion of one of the ten commandments “ Honor thy Father and Mother that thy days be long upon the land”. When Victor read that fragment, his mind was made up. He remained in Austria, knowing fully well what was in store for him.
When Dr. Frankl was taken a prisoner, and sent from one concentration camp to another, he was able to witness his own ideas and beliefs tested, challenged and forged in new ways. His principal question was this: what happens to a man when he is stripped away of everything he possessed — education, dignity, family, wealth, self-respect and importantly with no hope at all for the future? What does a man do in such a case? Is there anything at all that can give his life meaning and will to survive. Dr. Frankl asked and thought about these questions in the midst of the humiliating lives the prisoners were leading. Anytime, Dr. Frankl himself could have been gassed. There was no certainty about anything. Lives were held together by the thinnest of threads. The only unassailable part of living was the inner sense of worth and meaning each one possessed. The social context of the individual before they were deported to the concentration camps had no value whatsoever. The Nazis had stripped it away to the last shred, so what remained was only their own inner core, which none could touch. Many prisoners, Frankl noticed, died quickly not because of ill health, but because they simply lost the will and meaning to life. The victims would one day refuse to get up from their soiled beds, or eat, talk or co-operate — the complete depersonalization of a man. When an inmate reached this state, they would die within a week, simply wither away like an unwatered plant.
Dr. Frankl observed that many who survived the camps did so mostly by finding something to live for. In other words, finding a meaning that is very personal and can only be applicable to the individual. Dr. Frankl was working on a book when he was taken to the concentration camps. During the five years there, He found meaning in the thought that someday he would return and complete his work. Whenever he found some breathing space in the crowded camps, he jotted down his thoughts on scraps of soiled paper, which he later used to complete the book. He remembered his wife often. Thoughts of reuniting with her, and resuming the intimacy they shared kept him buoyant. Imagination is a great tool if used positively. This sense of re-directing the complete hopelessness of a situation into an inner channel filled with personal meaning summons the necessary energy to keep the body pulsating, and the Self to hold itself together. In the book, Dr, Frankl often quotes Frederick Nietzsche’s insightful comment “He who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how”. The important thing is to figure out the “why"-the meaning in one's existence - and the means to achieve the “why” will unfailingly appear. No meaning is trivial as long as we have and believe in one.
Some detractors did critique Dr. Frankl’s work that he accepted suffering the Germans so inhumanely inflicted, and advocated a philosophy of fatalism. That is a wrong reading of the book, and far from what Dr. Frankl meant. He strongly points that conditions leading to atrocities and suffering of any kind should be stopped; but when that becomes impossible, and people are thrown into a choiceness predicament such as the Jews found themselves in, then the only way to keep hope alive is to find an inner meaning. Otherwise, all hope is lost. That is a profound message. It needs to be pondered over.
Midway during my flight, my neighbor put the book down and pressed his eyes. It was a little moist and tired. I asked him” Do you like the book you are reading?”
He looked at me for a moment, as if I had asked the wrong question, and then answered:
“This book has opened my eyes. I bought this yesterday after work, and since then I haven’t been able to keep myself away from it. I almost missed the boarding announcement. For a long time, I have wondered how anyone could have survived the Holocaust, and if they did - How? Dr. Frankl’s little memoir has given answers, and a possible opening to change my way of life. From now on, this book will be the gift I will share with people close to me..”
I understood his answer. I felt the same way when I read it for the first time nearly a decade ago.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Jottings - Slice of Life -284 - ( The biopic on Modi - few thoughts)

Jottings - Slice of Life -284 - ( The biopic on Modi - few thoughts)
There couldn’t have been a better time for the release of the biopic on Prime minister Narendra Modi. Especially, with an upcoming general election that promises to be a touch and go for the BJP. Out of curiosity, I was reading the “Model code of conduct”, released by the Election commission of India, to check what the documents say about using “Art” to further one's position in an election campaign. After all, movies are a form of art, at least that’s how the ruling party would frame their case. So what does the document say about making a movie on the incumbent prime minister on the eve of a general election? The Code of conduct is silent about it. It has clauses on most other ways of unduly influencing the public such as: refraining from monopolizing public places, not causing any division by way religion, language or caste; not to hold meetings in front of opposition party offices or homes; not to use the Government machinery to campaign etc; but nowhere in the document are there restrictions on making a film, or dance drama, or song, or painting. The only caveat I could find that could be construed as a guideline for art is that propaganda material, created and used, shouldn’t be derogatory to other parties, and there is a cap on the amount of money that can be spent on creating such artifacts. Beyond these vague and general pointers, there is absolutely nothing in the code of conduct that prevents anybody from making a movie. To that extent, the matter is clear and unequivocal, and the BJP’s ploy of releasing a movie as a window to showcase Modi’s indisputable greatness is beyond legal contention.
Now there is a question of the spirit of following the “code of conduct”. Any constitutional document has two sides to it. One is the letter of the statutes and the other is the spirit behind it. I am not sure if the release of the movie “Narendra Modi” exemplifies the spirit. While there may be no statute that bars a party from making a movie; and the BJP may claim that the Congress has made movies in the past based on critical national events, I don’t think Prime Minister Modi needs such scaffolding. His personality and charisma in real life in more than sufficient to carry an election. By descending into tactics such as these, the BJP is only betraying a sense of vulnerability about its position and chances. That is unfortunate indeed. In India, nothing can sway the public more than movies. It is a known and proven fact. For some strange reason, when it comes to cinema, the line between fiction and fact is completely obliterated in India. Our heroes and heroines are allowed to live their reel life in real life. We consider their onscreen personas to be real and tangible. A hero can stop a train with his little finger, another can fly in the air to beat up hundreds. It makes no difference to us, and it doesn’t offend our sense of credibility. We acknowledge the superhuman quality of actors on screen without question. In such a milieu, a movie on Modi, projecting him to be in the same mold as Vivekananda, rising from poorest of circumstances to heights of success, recreating each step of Modi's journey in superhuman terms, is bound to have its effect on the gullible public ready to believe everything thrown at them. Add to this, the fact that all the “creative” artists involved in the project are staunch BJP supporters ( some card holding members), and the movie is blessed by the Prime minister himself by graciously allowing his poems to be used; and the President of the party finding time to release initial poster and other paraphernalia around the movie; and the first rushes of the movie as splashed on television and media exalting the Man Narendra Modi as quasi-spiritual leader heeding to an inner call to lead the country forward. It doesn’t need great intelligence and logic-splitting inference, to see that the timing of the release of this movie is an election stunt to scaffold the larger-than-life personality of Narendra Modi, and an attempt to ride the Modi wave for the second time. Not a bad ploy, if you ask me, considering it is done by the book with no legal violation of the code of conduct. But the spirit of it? Well, that’s another thing altogether.
Having said this much, I must also confess that the life of Narendra Modi is worth a biopic. I would definitely line up to watch it. Only a few prime ministers of Modern India have had the rise, tenacity, energy, drive, and phenomenal acceptance among all sections of the population as Modi has. The people of India love Modi, but whether the same can said of BJP - I don't know? My suspicion is that it has to be a “NO”. There is still a lurking suspicion about BJP’s overall agenda, but none about Modi. Modi looks steadfast in his commitment to the country. Detractors may say that Modi has risen from the ranks of radicalism, and ruled his native state like an autocrat. Agreed, but as a prime minister for the last five years, he has given India back its pride in the global arena, not so much in terms of evangelizing his party’s ideology, but reinstating the glory of India and the strength of its character, by his own impeccable demeanor and worth ethic. I still continue to hear the resounding voice of Modi, when he spoke a few years ago at the US Senate. There was pin drop silence and a sense of historic importance, as the august senate listened to the man speak with such fluency, conviction, and emotion.
Therefore, on the question, whether it is appropriate to release a biopic on the life of a sitting prime minister contesting his second term in a month’s time from now; I am clear - it is not. The film may not have violated any legal norms, but it certainly has stepped over the boundaries of the spirit in which those norms were written. But whether a movie on Modi is to be made at all; I am clear - it is.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala

Friday, April 5, 2019

Jottings - Slice of life - 282 ( When an English word causes trouble- the case of Shashi Tharoor’s tweet)

Jottings - Slice of life - 282 ( When an english word causes trouble- the case of Shashi Tharoor’s tweet)
The elections in India are around the corner. It is hard to believe that five years have passed since Narendra Modi assumed the reigns of the country, and most Indians were applauding the inauguration of a new chapter in Independent India. Five years is a reasonably long time for a party in power, and if one looks back at these years, it is difficult to feel euphoric. At the same time, there is definitely a sense that something has subtly changed for the better in the fabric of Indian society. At the very least, there is a new found confidence in the identity of the nation, which was conspicuously missing or persistently eroded in the previous era. This optimism is largely due to the magic of the Man Narendra Modi, his authoritative presence in global forums, and the powerful rhetoric of his public discourses. Whether the next five years belong to him or not is dependent on the people’s perception of the party he represents, and not so much on Modi himself.
Elections can evoke strange reactions and paranoia in political parties. I was deeply amused by the reaction of the BJP and ruling party CPI in Kerala, to an absolutely inoffensive tweet by Shashi Tharoor, one of the few remaining intellectuals in the political landscape of the country. It is a known fact that Shashi Tharoor’s command of the English language, and his penchant to clothe even ordinary thoughts in the most flowery sentences, is a distinctive trait of the man. He can’t help it. Schooled as he is the best traditions of the language, and his innate love for the beauty of words compels him to express his thoughts in words, phrases and sentences that most others will find difficult to conceive, let alone articulate. On a recent visit to the state capital of Kerala, Mr. Tharoor tweeted, (after visiting the fish market there): “Found a lot of enthusiasm at the fish market, even for a squeamish, vegetarian MP”. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong or derogatory about this tweet. While political opponents have attacked the tweet as derogatory and insulting to the Fishermen community; if I were Tharoor, I would have found the nearest wall to bang my head against, for having used a word that many cannot understand in context. Squeamish is an adjective, and if one cares to consult the dictionary, it means “ (of a person) easily made to feel sick, faint, or disgusted, especially by unpleasant images, such as the sight of blood”. Agreed, that the tonal quality of the word “Squeamish “ is little jarring to the ears and conveys a sense of irritation and disgust, but used in the context that Tharoor did, what he meant was “ The fishermen were enthusiastic around me, even though I don't eat fish or being anywhere near it”. Most vegetarians have this attitude. Nothing wrong with that. Mr. Tharoor is a strict vegetarian, he used the word “squeamish” to only emphasize his vegetarianism and to create the effect of a hyperbole. Now, what is a hyperbole? A Hyperbole in English is a sentence to exaggerate or amplify something. For instance, “His stomach is a bottomless pit”, or “She's as skinny as a toothpick.” The words “bottomless” and “toothpick” are not to be understood in its literal sense. They are meant to convey an exaggerated sense of what we mean. A “squeamish vegetarian”, as used by Tharoor, therefore indicates amplified sense of vegetarianism without any exception whatsoever. To infer that he abused or insulted the Fishermen is not only incorrect but comical.
Unfortunately, Tharoor found himself cornered. There is no way he could explain hyperboles to an audience who wouldn’t listen. Instead, he went on print and air offering reasons why he couldn’t have meant anything insulting, such as how everyone in his family ate fish except him, and that he had recommended the fishermen for a Nobel prize after their daring rescue efforts after the cyclone in 2017, etc. It is sad that Tharoor had to offer all these reasons and clarifications for having used a right word in the wrong context at a politically sensitive time, that was easily twisted by his opponents to score few political brownie points. However, some good can come of this too. It is a good lesson for intellectuals aspiring for political office in countries where English is not a mother tongue, to be careful about how they speak in public. Great orators and communicators keep their language simple and straight. Martin Luther King’s “ I have a dream..”, or Churchill’s “Blood, sweat and toil”, or Gandhi’s “Quit India” are simple sentences that evoke great significance. While the country needs men and women of the intellectual caliber of Shashi Tharoor, the reason they will never get an overwhelming mandate of the public is because of the barriers they erect for themselves, both in their language and the posturing. They have to be more grounded to make an impact.
This election promises more such distracting incidents. On one hand, we have the leader of the Congress, who revels in juvenile communication and incomplete facts; and he challenges Modi, who is one of the best communicators in the global political arena. And in between are the likes of Shashi Tharoor, whose good intentions and deep intellect are their own enemies.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Jottings - Slice of life - 280 ( A brutal rape, the police procedural that followed, and “The Delhi crime” - a Netflix crime series.)

Jottings - Slice of life - 280 ( A brutal rape, the police procedural that followed, and “The Delhi crime” - a Netflix crime series.)
On the sixteenth of December 2012, on a cold and hazy weekend evening in Delhi - the crowded capital of India - a rape was committed, that unsettled, horrified and paralyzed the moral conscience of a conservative nation. The repercussions of that single night, and the story that subsequently unfolded would forever change the course of legal treatment of rape, and the punishment for those who commit bodily heinous crimes against women. On that fateful winter evening, a young girl of twenty-three, returning from a movie (ironically, a life-affirming movie “Life of PI”) with her boyfriend was brutalized in a moving bus by six young men present in the vehicle. In a male-dominated society such as India, rape against women is not an uncommon assault. It happens frequently and in various shapes and forms. In most cases, such violations remain unreported due to the stigma attached to the act. But in Jyoti’s case, there was no need for anyone to report. She was found on the side of a road of a normally busy underpass in no-man’s land. Police patrols, who arrived at the scene based on pedestrian reports, spent some time debating and owning jurisdiction before they thought it wise to call the South Delhi division. When officers from South Delhi division arrived, in response to the emergency call, they found the naked and bleeding body of Jyoti, carelessly flung over the side of the road, bleeding, crumpled, distraught and moaning with physical pain. Little did the policemen realize the extent of the damage on the girl, or the insanity of the act committed on her. They immediately dispersed the crowd, carried the collapsing girl and her injured boyfriend to the nearby Government hospital. Jyoti was profusely bleeding hip down, and by the time the police reached Safdarjung hospital, she was unconscious. The two officers who accompanied Jyoti in the police van had a vague sense that this was not a usual rape. They didn’t know why, but there was something eerie and wrong about it. The officers were right in their premonition.
The true extent of the crime and the physical condition of the girl they brought in would trigger an unending nightmare for the Delhi police force and the nation at large. As hours passed, and the doctors diagnosed and unfathomed the trajectory of the injuries, they were aghast and numbed. The bodily condition of Jyoti revealed a horrible picture. The violations on her body, the sheer animosity of the act that could have caused such inhuman mutilation of womanhood, was something the doctors attending to Jyoti were appalled to behold and treat. And within the next few days, an entire nation would hear, cringe and cry with Jyoti as she oscillated between life and death, holding on precariously to the last shreds of her young and promising life, before giving it up twelve days later. The shocked country would rise in unison against the outrage, and demand instant death penalty for the rapists, and in the next few years, the painful death of Jyoti would catalyze the rewriting of archaic laws on rape and punishment. But for Jyoti, and her parents, a painful price was extracted without ever a chance of recompense, reconciliation or closure.
The six men who committed the violent rape belong to the economically and socially underprivileged sections of Indian society. Nearly, seventy-five years of independence hasn’t managed to create a strong bulwark of social institutions capable of raising the common living denominator of Indians. The financial and cultural disparities between different sections of society are only increasing with each passing day. Especially, in the urban towns of India which have seen phenomenal growth in middle and higher income groups, mass migrations from villages to the Metros, triggered by the lure of city-life, fill the vacant spaces of the city as slums, and most of the young blooded males who come in to such cities pick up menial jobs to sustain themselves. It is the pride of working in a “city” that is foremost in their minds; and it doesn’t matter what the nature of the work is, as long as they can feed themselves, enjoy the thrill of living among the elite, and be spectators, or sometimes participate, in the numerous diversions cities can offer. With no prospect of upward mobility, lack of educational opportunities and a deep-seated inferiority complex, many of these young migrants soon develop a sense of restlessness, and in many cases turn repressively violent. In addition to this, the constant bombardment of the senses by what they see others enjoying, but cannot indulge in themselves, only fuels the growing discontent within. Such frustration only exacerbates the psychic dichotomy that lies dormant within.
It was a bunch of six such people who were in command of that private bus, Jyoti and her boyfriend Awindra boarded that late evening. When the couple settled down in the front row, it wouldn’t have stuck Jyoti and Awindra as odd at all that that they were the only passengers in the bus. Delhi, After all, is a brave city, and young couples are used to traveling alone in the nights. When Ram Singh ( the main accused) observed the urban-bred Awindra cuddling closely with Jyoti, anger fueled by the fire of lust, envy and pent up frustration erupted in him and spread to the others in the group. All of them were drunk, and they only needed a nudge, a push down the precipice to act on their wild impulses. In the darkness of the night, drowned by the droning sound of the engine, driving along the city roads where pedestrians and others are either indifferent to the shouts emanating from the bus or preoccupied in their thoughts, six men, one after another brutalized Jyoti in a manner inconceivable to a sane human mind. To call what they did as rape is an understatement; it was an act that violated the very premise of being human. They desecrated the young body of Jyoti with all the virulent hatred they possessed. For forty-five minutes, with the screams of the girl bellowing out of the bus but reaching none around, the drunken men ripped her body apart in the literal sense of the word. What remained of Jyoti when they dumped her body on the roadside was only a sterile physical form writhing in unimaginable pain, devoid of any respect and dignity. Nothing more need be said.
In seven days time, the Delhi Police under the command of Chaya Sharma, the then DCP of south Delhi, grabbed all six perpetrators hiding in different corners of the city and the country. She led a team of Inspectors and sub-inspectors who knew the way around the Indian criminal system. Given the gravity of the crime and the absorption of the country in the savage details of the act,, not many people realized during that stressful period the stupendous job of the police in cracking this case, that had so quickly gained national and international attention and media time. Political and civilian pressure to nab the culprits and mete out justice was intense, and police leads were often misleading and elusive, but IPS officer Chaya Sharma let her policing instincts rule over emotional sentiments. The police had virtually nothing to go by. Through scant and hazy camera footage collected from the Hotels along the road where Jyoti was found, along with sketchy descriptions shared by Jyoti’s boyfriend ( who miraculously or some would say suspiciously got away with very minor injuries) Chaya’s team was smart enough to identify the white bus in which the crime was committed. With that single lead, police would nab Ram Singh - the principal brain behind the savagery. Ram would commit suicide in custody within months, but within a day of his arrest, through careful interrogation, the police were able to connect the dots and orchestrate the arrest of all the remaining rapists, among whom was a minor boy not yet eighteen. The political and civilian pressure on Delhi police was enormous, and the public wished to draw blood instantly. Despite the pressures from different quarters, mounting civil unrest and dire aspersions cast on the ineptitude of the police force, Chaya and her team did their job with alacrity and precision within a system that isn’t exactly co-operative or transparent.
It has been seven years, since the tragic rape and death of Jyoti. A lot of positive changes have happened in the intervening years in amending the process of law for rape victims, and legislating sterner measures for rapists. There is now in India a more acute awareness of the consequences of rape. Though, the rate of rape hasn’t plummeted ( it has increased year on year), at least there is the hope of shifter recompense to the victims and their aggrieved families if that is any consolation to anyone. It is time someone spoke for the Police too. The story of how the Delhi police managed to locate and arrest the six culprits in incredibly quick time, is something that is not widely known or acknowledged. The new crime series on Netflix “The Delhi crime” attempts to do that. The seven-episode mini-series brilliantly captures the details of the police work that led to the conviction of the rapists. In recent times, among the hundreds of movies and serials on the quality of policing in India, none does more justice to the acumen, professionalism, work ethics, their travails, handicaps and above all the conditions under which Indian Police work, than “Delhi crime”. In my radar, this mini-series is the best police procedural drama I have seen. Richie Mehta, an avant-garde filmmaker researched the case for seven years. In an interview, Richie says: “ He was amazed with the precision with which this case was solved, and so quickly”. The smart police work, the ups and downs during the frantic search, deserved a deeper and elaborate treatment than a mere feature film of two hours. Hence Richie decided to direct a mini-series. The theme of the project was not to delve on the gory details of the rape, which constantly remains as a shadow throughout all the episodes, but focused on portraying the smart persistence of the Delhi police, against all odds, with the singular goal of solving the crime. It is not the glorified police procedurals fed these days ( especially the Western ones) with well dressed and articulate officers, with access to elaborate databases at the touch of a key, and an intimidating team of prosecutors assisting the officers on the case. It's quite the opposite. “Delhi crime” demystifies police work in the Indian context. Frame by frame, Richie, explores the ground realities of what it means to work in a system where police stations do not have sufficient budgets to pay for electric bills, inspectors and lower cadre officers are disgruntled and not respected enough in society unless they are from the Indian police service, or how the stations are so under-equipped that it becomes difficult to conduct day to day business, or the sheer poverty in the lives of the guardians of law themselves.
I watched with pride all the seven episodes. Some of it may have been fictional. But it doesn’t matter. What is important is to know that despite all the obstacles and inconveniences of poorly managed police system, there was during the Nirbhaya case, a team of five officers who rose above all the hurdles and bought the culprits to justice in no time. To them, we owe our gratitude. In the capture of the six rapists, they bought the country to rethink the laws on rape. Even if one of them had escaped, and remained untraceable, we would have cut a sorry face in the international arena and utterly ashamed of ourselves, and who knows, Jyoti’s case may have never seen the legal closure it eventually did.
if you have a subscription to Netflix at home, request every Indian to watch this series. It is worth the time.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Jottings - Slice of life - 279 ( The rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes - the poster girl of the Silicon Valley)

Jottings - Slice of life - 279 ( The rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes - the poster girl of the Silicon Valley)
“Some in clandestine companies combine,
Erect new stocks to trade beyond the line:
With air and empty names beguile the town,
And raise new credits first, then dry 'em down:
Divide the empty nothing into shares,
To set the town together by the ears”
Daniel Defoe - “London”
The meteoric rise and ignominious fall of young Elizabeth Holmes, the former founder, CEO of Theranos, and a billionaire by the age of thirty-one is nothing short of a fairy tale, with the only twist that from the very beginning the fairy herself was flawed, never clean of intent or truthful of purpose. In his widely read book, “The extraordinary popular delusions and madness of the crowds” written nearly two centuries ago, in 1841, the Scottish writer Charles Mackay records many cases of what he calls “moral epidemics” — an irrational attachment to a crazy idea that starts off as a trickle but quickly generates enough momentum, gathering in its course, people from all walks of life, sometimes consuming an entire nation, to act on an idea or scheme, which in the normal course the individuals involved would never have undertaken by themselves. It is called the herd mentality, (or what we have now euphemistically rechristened as “crowd platforms”) The moral epidemic could be anything from a business scheme, to medical quackery to religious belief. It doesn’t matter what the idea is, but the snowballing effect it has on the populace is undeniable and nothing short mass hysteria, and for the period of time when the frenzy prevails, nothing can shake the confidence in people’s minds, about the venture, until the scam runs its course is suddenly revealed for what it is, and the duplicity of its progenitor and the bankruptcy of the idea stands starkly exposed in the public eye. When that happens the glass house crumbles with a resounding thud breaking into million pieces of no value whatsoever; and overnight, the heroes of yesterday are vilified as villains and monstrous schemers of today. The rise and fall of Theranos is a story that Charles Mackay would have loved to include in his book if he were alive to revise his 1841 edition. That an insane idea, with no medical backing at all, could lure hundreds of millions of dollars not only from middle-income groups, but from billionaires known for their financial and business acumen, and from former secretary of states and minister of defenses known for their judicious decision making - is nothing short of baffling. The story of Human greed and uninhibited ambition is as old as civilization, and no matter how much we progress outwardly, we never learn our inner lessons despite regular episodes of deception and malfeasance. Perhaps, the debacle of Theranos may be our moment of truth. But if past experience is anything to go by, I think, it will be foolish to assume so.
The silicon valley is a fascinating, yet strange place. Within those fifty square mile radius of the Bay Area, there is more wealth created than on any other patch of land on the human-inhabited globe. Dreamers are welcome there. Nothing is a taboo or inappropriate as an idea in the Valley, as long as one can fund and sell the idea. For those who seek millions in quick time, aspire to own lavish homes overlooking sunny California beaches, and drive expensive and handcrafted lamborghini’s, silicon valley is the place to be if they have the gumption, smartness and the ruthlessness to convert their promises into reality, and to live up to their dreams. It is not at all surprising then, that Elizabeth Holmes would, when the time was ripe, chose to make her fortune in the silicon valley. Nowhere else would one find the license to dream weird dreams, and hope to get away with it. As a child of five years old, when a relative asked Elizabeth in her home in Washington DC, what she wanted to become when she grew older; she responded without hesitation that she wished to be a Billionaire. That was the seed right there. Elizabeth’s parents were technically well off. Her father worked in a senior role in Enron, and her mother for the Federal government. Education, Money, and status was never an issue, and the young girl was innately precocious, intelligent and possessed that rare ( and sometimes) disturbing quality of getting what she wanted. Homeschooled in Mandarin, a language she supposedly liked, Elizabeth enrolled into Stanford - the mecca for the liberal-minded - in their summer program in Mandarin. Perhaps, it was at this point, that her ambition, which lay seething and throbbing inside began to finally sense its opportunity, and a vent in the fertile intellectual atmosphere of Stanford. Soon after school, she applied and got into undergraduate chemical engineering course at Stanford. Professor Phyllis Gardner, Professor of medicine at Stanford remembers Elizabeth as a hyper-intelligent student. Even before the idea behind Theranos was fully formed, Elizabeth discussed her thoughts with Dr. Phyllis, about a device that could run blood tests with just a spot of blood. The veteran professor dismissed the idea as incredulous and scientifically infeasible, but she vividly remembers with a shudder the look of nonchalance, nonacceptance, and a tinge of arrogance in those deep, blue eyes of Elizabeth when questioned. There was something about her inability to listen that troubled me", was Phylis cryptic comment about Elizabeth.
The idea of dropping out of college to make a fortune has been both the boon and the curse of the modern generation. From Michel Dell to Bill Gates to Steve Job to Marc Zuckerberg to Larry Ellison to many more, who left prestigious graduate courses in leading universities to forge their own paths has unfortunately created a contemporary archetype for dissenting adolescents to mimic role models without basis or integrity. The creed for modern breed of youngsters is: if one dares to drop out of college, then something good is up the sleeves. While this approach has worked for some, such an archetype can quickly become an excuse for prematurely ambitious and half-baked minds to embark upon a course action without necessary training and preparation. Genius and luck, together, are uncommon property, and few cases where it has come together and succeeded, cannot be extended as a general principle to be followed. Personalities such as Elizabeth’s wouldn’t understand or acknowledge this fact. Perhaps, it is the electrifying environment and the glitter of successful entrepreneurs all around - we don’t know, but Elizabeth decided that two years of Chemical engineering at Stanford and a three month of lab internship at the genome institute of Singapore at the end of her Freshman year was enough formal education to drop out and incubate her “revolutionary” idea of testing blood without the pain of intravenous procedure. It is typical of people with delusionary ambition and the impatience to get rich quickly; they don't pause to think of their own preparedness. They possess raw courage, without the tempering of patience and counsel. Elizabeth, even for a moment, did not question her own understanding of medical science or mastery over the chemical process needed to test blood, before she set out to commercialize this wild idea. She was supremely confident that she could pull it off with her magnetic personality, powers of articulation and force of persuasion.
One look at Elizabeth Holmes in any of her pictures over the last eight years, and what strikes us with intense force is the glassy look in her eyes and the carefully orchestrated body language. There is something in those wide, deep, blue pair of eyes that uneasily stirred the depths of the viewer. Like the deep sea, the surface shimmered with dazzling light, but one could instantly sense a quality of deep brooding darkness underneath. To paraphrase GK Chesterton, the master stylist, who described one of his female characters in a Father Brown story: “ She had the eyes of startling brilliancy, but it was the brilliancy of steel rather than of diamonds. She was one of those women whom one always thinks of in profile, as of the clean-cut edge of a weapon. She seemed to cleave her way through life…” This description fits Elizabeth perfectly. From the time she floated Theranos ( formed with the words “Therapy” and “Diagnosis”) to commoditize her idea, using the college money she had, Elizabeth transformed herself into a different persona. Her voice became more of a baritone, an octave less to make the words come out deep and intense, the costumes changed to mimic Steve jobs black turtle necks ( which she ordered from the same designer Jobs’ employed), her body language on stage and in interviews was carefully practiced to look more flamboyant and expressive, and more importantly, she held a crystal clear narrative in her head, which she expostulated to audiences and investors with passionate zeal and a contagious conviction. Between 2003 and 2016, in a span of 12 years , she managed to attract money in millions ( around 750 million dollars) from capital investors, opened offices in the heart of Silicon Valley, attracted top talent from Apple, many of whom, blown away by her vision joined Theranos leaving behind financially valuable shares in Apple. in 2014, at the age of thirty, Elizabeth Holmes was ranked by Forbes the youngest self-made billionaire and her assets valued at over nine billion dollars. She had reached the pinnacle of her dreams, and she was single-handedly instrumental in changing the way the world perceived women entrepreneurs in the Silicon Valley. Elizabeth’s success in a predominantly male-dominated valley was on the verge of rewriting history.
That brings us to the question: What exactly was Elizabeth’s business proposition and what went wrong. The idea was simple. For patients, who need regular blood tests done for a variety of reasons, the traditional method of drawing blood using syringes can be painful, and the results from such tests can often take days or weeks to process, keeping the patient waiting in a state of anxiety. Elizabeth hit upon the “bright idea”, based on her rudimentary understanding of biology and the chemical testing process that a drop of blood from a pinprick is enough to conduct over 240 tests using a proprietary portable Theranos appliance called Edison, which would use the capsule of blood as input, and yield accurate results within a short span of time. What made this idea especially enticing to the public and investors is that in cases of emergency, blood tests performed through Edison can quickly identify a serious medical problem, which could then help in saving lives. In a way, Elizabeth’s vision, if true, would have changed medical science in a profound way. After all, blood tests are the heartbeat of most medical diagnoses, and if a revolutionary technology like what Theranos was proposing, could expedite the process and make it less painful, it would definitely prove to be very beneficial in cases of emergency and in circumstances where there may not be enough time for a conventional intravenous blood test to be administered — for example, on the battlefield (which was incidentally one of Theranos claim that her method worked on the battlefield in Iraq saving valuable young lives) However, there were three key elements to make the idea work: The quality of the blood samples taken, the manner it was stored and the reliability of the appliance to generate accurate results based on those minute samples. Theranos began commercializing the product even before any of these factors were thoroughly tested and certified by FDA (Federal drug Administration) Patients cannot, at any cost, be subjected to inaccuracies in testing methodology, and consequent results. In 2006, Elizabeth, through carefully managed articulation, managed to fund the idea, and set up a thousand strong company staffed with creme de la creme of talent from Apple and other places. She did not pay attention to the fact that the patented machine Edison ( which was to test the blood samples) wasn’t producing right blood results even for a few simple tests, let alone over two hundred of them as claimed by Theranos. The technicians, alarmed and frustrated, repeatedly bought this fact to Elizabeth and her partner Ramesh Balwani ( an Indian immigrant who had made millions in venture capitalism and was living with Elizabeth for few years); but it fell on deaf ears. Theranos as a brand was overwhelmed with money and adulation. It didn’t matter that idea and the methodology it evangelized was skewed, misdirected and driving headlong over an inevitable precipice. It was only a matter of time before the charade ended.
When Elizabeth’s photo was splashed on the cover of the 2014 Forbes magazine, she was at the height of her fame. Her descent began soon enough after. By 2016, her carefully constructed empire started disintegrating. A few key whistleblowers broke their silence, and a reporter for the Wall Street Journal picked up the scent to penetrate this hoax. About the same time, business partners like Walgreen began to sense that Theranos was massively violating federal regulations, and the blood samples, as promised to the public, weren’t tested on site, but flown into a secret basement at Theranos’s silicon valley office. Patients also began to note wide discrepancies between blood tests performed at more established labs. Many patients also felt odd that Theranos technicians, more often than not, drew blood using syringes along with prick on the forefinger, when the company’s advertisements clearly stated that syringes wouldn’t be used. The whole business was beginning to sound murky, mired in confusion and misinformed. Based on published reports, In 2016, the securities exchange commission stepped in to investigate and quickly noticed widespread scam and lack of integrity. The company was violating basic principles of a public enterprise. Instantly, the market valuation of Theranos fell from billions to zero in no time, and Elizabeth was prohibited from joining the board of any public company for a period of ten years. During her lengthy deposition to the SEC, the usually confident Elizabeth was hesitant and unsure of her answers over 600 times. She couldn’t clarify her position on critical questions regarding Theranos technology or the application of it. Her plain, ashen face, devoid of the usual meticulous make-up, showed visible signs of confusion, strain, and failure. She did not, however, accept any wrongdoing, and denied knowledge of what happened at the grass root level.
Elizabeth is now facing criminal charges along with Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, her accomplice in the adventure. If found guilty, she could land in prison for decades. But that is a battle still going on. Meanwhile, Elizabeth continues to live in the Silicon Valley, and rumors have it that she is engaged, and is contemplating a new business idea, for which she is soliciting capital. Recently, on Hulu and HBO, documentaries on the meteoric entrepreneurial career of Elizabeth and her personality have attempted to answer a few critical questions. Is Elizabeth a Sociopath whose narcissism blinded her to facts ? or is it that she genuinely believed in the efficacy of her idea, and hoped she could get it right before the avalanche of money submerged her good intentions? or is she a product of modern times when our role models are billionaires who have made a name and fortune for themselves selling an outrageous idea and lead rich lifestyles, and imitation of those Demi-Gods becomes the ultimate purpose of one's life and career? or is it just a plain case of deception and fraud in the world of business? There are no answers right now. Elizabeth Holmes is only 33 years with a full life ahead of her, yet it seems she has lived a dream with nothing much left anymore. But Elizabeth will resurrect. That is who she is. In an event couple of years ago, just after the sham was publicized she said:
“You’ll get knocked down over and over and over again, and you get back up, I’ve been knocked down a lot, and it became really clear that this was what I wanted to do, and I would start this company over 10,000 times if I had to.”
When I watched the documentaries about her, I felt a trifle sad that such talent, nerve, and passion was wasted defending an idea that wasn’t intrinsically viable. Her idol is Steve Jobs, and in many ways, she imitated his work culture and mannerisms. But what she didn’t learn from Jobs was to never sell an idea before it can be thoroughly studied, researched, designed and tested. iPhone took remained five years in incubation, and so did the iPod before Jobs triumphantly announced the products to the world. Unfortunately, Elizabeth failed to incorporate this seminal work ethic of Steve Jobs in her entrepreneurial vision. Her goal was to make good money, with (let's give the benefit of the doubt) a vague notion of “doing good” for those who suffered from intravenous blood tests. But her approach, adamancy, and unwillingness to retract from her position despite good counsel from colleagues and others pushed her along a road doomed to failure. Her reckless attitude short-circuited her journey as a woman entrepreneur in the Silicon Valley, and knowingly or unknowingly her acts of deliberate omission and misrepresentation have cast a shadow on the creative world of Silicon Valley. It will take some time to heal the damage done by Elizabeth Holmes and the idea of Theranos. But there is still hope, as always.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala



Sunday, March 17, 2019

Jottings - Slice of life - 276 ( The disease of envy and its portrayal in “A star is born” and “Abhimaan”)
It is not for nothing that envy is listed among the Seven deadly sins. It is a silent killer. It may not visibly intrusive and glaring like some of the other sins, but the impact envy can have on a flowering relationship is similar to a cancerous growth that eats from the inside, slowly and deliberately and with suppurating inner pain. Some amount of envy is inevitable in any relationship, but when the Rubicon of moderation is crossed, and one ventures into that torrid zone filled with inferiority complexes, self flagellatory nightmares , emotional sadism and truckloads of self-pity ; then the end is near; not merely of the relationship; but the integrity of the personality itself. Literature, movies, and drama have captured this psychotic phenomenon of relentless envy in innumerable works. It makes for a great plot and builds enough cathartic and aesthetic tension to keep the beholder riveted to the book or screen. The trajectory of such stories often has a tragic ending casting doubt veracity of fame and adulation in the arts, or in few cases, the artist offers a different perspective of understanding and reconciliation. Either way, there is self-made pain and its panacea.
“A star is born" a classic tale of envy, has been remade four times over a century of Hollywood cinema. In 1937, it was Janet Mayor and Fredric March - a subdued black and white affair with a bewitching performance by Janet; in 1954 it was Judy Garland ( one of the best musical portrayals) and the debonair James Mason singing their way into envy; in 1976, the story was reprised with the ultimate diva of music Barbara Streisand at the height of her glory with the bearded, lanky Kris Kristofferson playing a fading second fiddle; and in 2018 the mercurial, eccentric and supremely talented Lady Gaga donning the character of Ally, the singer from a shady night club catapulting to singing fame in a matter of few frames, and reducing the alcoholic and self-tormented husband Jackson Maine ( played to perfection by Bradley Cooper), to physical and psychological shambles. In all four adaptations, the Hero dies, commits suicide, not able to come to grips with the rise of his beau who walks up the ladder of success using the Hero’s shoulders as a prop. The sheer abundance of talent propels the ladies into an orbit of their own. All that was needed was a launching pad, a pedestal to stand on — nothing else. Our love stuck heroes provide that pedestal driven by a genuine appreciation of their lover’s talent ; but quickly realize that the spark they helped kindle has transformed into something unexpected, something really big, a blazing fire whose artistic intensity subsumes everything in its wake, including the hero’s own artistic prowess, sensitivity, and status . In that vulnerable moment of insecurity, envy surreptitiously creeps into one's bosom, and before long, it stains and corrupts the purity and beauty of the relationship, that was responsible for bringing the talent to the forefront.
Lady Gaga, or Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, couldn’t have aspired for a better break than the latest remake of “A star is born”. The world knows Gaga as a performer, as a singer with wide repertoire of vocals, as a songwriter who could , when she wants to, write songs that touch the deepest chords in modern man, as a lady whose indefatigable performances on stage with the most incredible costumes and masks could throw thousands into state of delirium; and above all, as a young girl who rose from the streets of New York around 2008 to establish herself as a prima donna in the one of the most competitive and toughest spaces in art — the world of American commercial music. In a way, Gaga has always led a double life. Her exterior persona, which all of us know, is so larger than life with so much of hype and facade; that we have never seen the lady behind the smoke and lights. That she can act, and act with the great maturity and poise is indeed a revelation. As Ally, she quickly takes control of the movie, leaving Bradley Cooper playing second fiddle and made tp look little weak and average. Gaga's performance reminds me of Jennifer Lopez’s back in 1996. J. Lo ’s first appeared as an actress in“Selena” - a biopic that portrayed the tragic life of the Spanish singer by the same name. Her naive innocent face with an astounding voice and onstage persona fitted the role well, and the film proved to be a great launching pad for Jennifer Lopez’s incredibly successful career in Hollywood. Today, after two decades, Ms. Lopez continues to straddle the world of movies and music with equal ease; and I see Lady Gaga in that same mold and treading more or less the same path. Gaga, like Lopez, is a born entertainer with no inhibitions about herself and the world. “A star is born” has given her the perfect platform to experiment and explore her artistic limits. What struck me with great force is the ease of Lady Gaga in front of the camera. With a seasoned and talented co-actor in Bradley Cooper, it's not easy to stand out in the frame. But everyone who watched the movie would come out crediting Gaga for her sensitive portrayal of a role played by other great actresses in the past. It is difficult to infuse a new interpretation of a character that is already part of American artistic conscience. Not only does it require tremendous courage to attempt, but far greater audacity to pull it off. It is the singer Lady Gaga who ultimately walked away with the Academy award; but if her acting talent in this film is anything to go by, it is only a matter of time before she holds the golden statue for an actor in her hands.
Having written about “ A star is born” and the performances of lead artists in the previous paragraphs; I must confess that my personal favorite among all adaptations of the artistic envy and its consequences on screen has to be Hrishikesh Mukherjee's unforgettable 1973 masterpiece “Abhimaan” featuring two wonderful actors at the cusp of their careers. The storyline is similar. A playback singer at the height of commercial success finds a young, soft-spoken village belle with the voice of a nightingale. He marries, brings her to the city, playfully nudges her to pursue singing as a career, not knowing that what he has precipitated would return to overshadow his own towering success. The young bride Uma ( beautifully etched by Java Bhaduri in her finest performances ever) reluctantly follows her Husbands advice, and soon finds herself much more in demand than her mentor. Amitabh Bachan, playing the role of the mentoring hubby (Subir) begins to feel the pressure of envy lurking at doors of their relationships. The slow development of the psychological rot, and its gradual infiltration into daily life, affecting every aspect of a loving relationship is explored with great depth and sensitivity in the masterful hands of Hrishida. The audience deeply sympathizes with both the characters. We lament with Uma while she anguishes over her alienation from her beloved, and we stoically empathize with Subir as tries his best to accommodate Uma’s success into her own orbit. We feel the pain when Subir’s initial enthusiasm and encouragement turns sour, condescending and sarcastic, and the tremendous strain in places on the young wife for no fault of hers. The body language of the hero exudes sheer aggression without the actual physicality of violence. The performance of Amitabh as Subir is definitely a high water mark in his illustrious career. And so is Jaya’s as Uma, in her subdued yet strong role as a wife who decides to repudiate her talent for marital stability.
The beauty of “Abhimaan” is in the positive ending of the story. Envy is not an insoluble problem. It is a psychological imbalance, no doubt, but nothing that cannot be understood in perspective and set right. The descent into drugs and alcohol to forget the problem is hardly a solution. It may provide temporary relief by numbing the pain; but when the soporific stupor fades away, the pain returns with doubled force. In all four adaptations of “A star is born”, the hero commits suicide. He briefly returns to sanity towards the end of the story, only to be pushed over the precipice over a trivial incident or conversation about his wife. In “Abhimaan”, however, When Uma is on the verge of collapsing into a state of irrevocable depression Subir is made to understand, realize the fallacy of his position and unethical demands. He comes face to face with his inner demons and wakes up with the self-realization that his madness and misdemeanor is about to consume a beautiful life for reasons utterly selfish and misplaced. Elders step in, to counsel and bring the wayward artist back to track, and in the climax of the movie, both the husband and wife together sing the song of their life with harmony and coordination that only can come after the arduous trial of self-discovery in a relationship. They sing effortlessly, as one soul in two bodies, and yet retain their individuality. That is the hallmark of a healthy relationship - artistic or otherwise. The music of SD Burman captured every nuance of Hrishida’s vision, and in the history of Indian cinema, Abhimaan would rate as one of those very few films that blended meaningful music with deep emotional narrative.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala