Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Jottings - slice of life - 261 ( Few thoughts on what is happening in Sabarimala)

Jottings - slice of life - 261 ( Few thoughts on what is happening in Sabarimala)
What is happening in Sabarimala is a sad reflection of our understanding of what equality means, and where and how should it be applied. As a boy growing up in south India, the melodious renditions of Yesudas and Jayachandran have filled my ears and mind with an image of the resplendent Boy god, and the annual pilgrimage that millions make to the hallowed mountain bearing the strains and tugs of an ascetic life for 40 days, walking barefoot crushed between hordes of men jostling for space, and then the final emancipatory climb over the narrow eighteen steps leading to the sanctorum, where the lord sits sculpted in squatting position with hands raised in benign grace, has been eulogized with passion over countless songs and poems to varying tempos and beats. This journey to the feet of Iyappa reverberates in hearts of millions as an inner symbol of a private journey into ones self , amidst the distractions and travails of modern civilized life. Yes, it is a journey symbolically meant only for men, and women who do not fall within the menstruating age. There is a reason for it.
The temple of Iyappa has over the centuries been regarded as a guardian of an esoteric faith, with a firm tradition and belief that personifies him as a bachelor, with a divine origin, and his presence on the mountain-top indicates a state of spiritual realization that goes beyond the cycle of birth and death, hence beyond creation as in the world of forms and shapes. The pure life principle he represents cannot be associated with anything that leads to form, though he himself is represented as male form. Like a finger pointing to the moon, his masculine presence is only a hint, an indication of the formless. In hindu tradition, principle of Shiva is often the steady state, and Sakti the dynamic energy that moves the universe. Ironically, in many temples across India, the formless is represented in the form of female too. We have both variants in the subcontinent. In a land of Gods, there is no dearth of diverse beliefs and faiths, each with its own story and stigma attached to it. In the case of Sabarimala, men folk are bound to celibacy during the period of pilgrimage, and women who are biologically ready for conception are consciously kept out in strict adherence to the untouched spirit of its deity. These are merely ritualistic dictates of a religious faith formulated centuries ago, duly transmitted from generation to generations, and both men and women have lived those traditions without the need to question them. Skeptics today may question: if celibacy is the point of contention, what prevents a man from masturbating in private, and thinking impure thoughts. Why only should women be subject to explicit prohibition, and Man can walk free because of a biological expediency. Well , there are no answers to such questions. It is the code of the place, and it has worked for centuries without a blemish or dissatisfaction.
What then is the dispute all about now. The supreme court's decision is absolutely spot on. Nothing wrong in their judgement. The constitution accords equal status to men and women, and from that legalistic standpoint women are free to enter public places of worship. If the matter is disputed under social rights, then women have won that battle. But having won the battle, is it necessary to explicitly break taboos, illicitly enter the sanctum covered in men's clothes with police protection to defy the code set over centuries. Winning a battle for equality is one thing, but respecting the traditions of a faith is something different. By violating the rules, nothing is gained, but everything sacred and austere about the temple seems to be lost. That is the tragedy when we confuse equality across different personas in our public life. In a democracy it is important to know when and where to assert our equality, and where to acknowledge and respect rules that may seem to contradict our sense of equality; otherwise we will end up breaking many cherished institutions and land ourselves in chaos. If breaking the injunctions of Sabarimala and entering the temple is the only way of asserting gender, then I have nothing more to say. I wish those ladies spiritual success.
To conclude, Religious faith is a separate space, and quite different from the political or social equality. That is why democratic constitutions, along with other equalities provisioned by law, provide independent rights to practice different faiths, allowing no one to impinge on the other. Gender equality is a great blessing of the modern age; but at the same time, there is a growing movement that speaks of such equality in more mature terms than merely thinking of it as Boy versus girl, and "I can do what you can do" terms. I hope it dawns upon all soon enough.
God bless...
yours in mortality,
Bala

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Jottings - Slice of life - 264 ( Gita Gopinath - an incredible academic journey to the pinnacle of her profession)

Jottings - Slice of life - 264 ( Gita Gopinath - an incredible academic journey to the pinnacle of her profession)
Amidst the media and hype a prominent actress is currently attracting because of the sheer scale of her extravagant wedding and the innumerable star studded receptions ; on the other side of the globe, in Washington DC, in a quiet, polished but significant ceremony conducted without much fanfare, a young and distinguished Indian economist who was serving as John Zwaanstra Professor of International Studies and Economics at Harvard, has taken over the mantle as chief economist of the IMF ( The International monetary fund), a global organization established in 1944 at Bretton woods to balance and arbitrate global economic health in times of need . It is one of the most prestigious positions in the world of global finance, and Professor Gita Gopinath is the first woman - among the eleven economists to have held this vital position since IMF’s inception - to occupy this honorable chair, and what more!! She is only 47 years of age. A glance at Gita’s picture, and one observes an young, dusky, beautiful lady from southern India; with sharp features and deep black eyes that sparkle with intelligence; slim and petite; with wavy hair let loose, and often falling over her eyes when she passionately argues her economic theories; a disarming smile constantly adorning her fluid face ; a down to earth demeanor that doesn’t betray the prodigious academic accomplishments she so lightly carries on her fragile shoulders; and above all the fact that Gita was nominated and confirmed for this position among stalwarts in the field is an achievement of the Mind that far exceeds anything that physical beauty can buy or attract. Gita was formally appointed to the post in the October of last year as Chief economist designate, and this January, she formally took over from Maurice Obstfeld the full scope of the role.
Dr Gita Gopinath’s parents are from Kannur, Kerala, but, Gita was born and bought up in Mysore, Karnataka. With schooling in Nirmala convent, a conservative school that laid the rudiments of her basic education, she travelled to Delhi’s prestigious Sriram College for her Bachelors degree. The year was 1991, and Dr Manmohan Singh had just then opened the doors of Indian economy. Gita was caught in the excitement of liberalization and the reaction of world markets to brave economic decisions made by the brilliant academician turned Finance minister. It didn’t take Gita much time to understand where her passion and career lay. It was in Macro economics. Having decided her area of study, and with excellent academic track record, she joined another prestigious institute in Delhi - the Delhi school of economics - the only place in India where the best economists come to teach, and was considered the simmering cauldron of ideas from which fumes of fresh economic perspectives arose. Within the spacious campus of the college, she found kindred souls who debated and argued on the future of India’s position in the world. After all, it was a great time to learn economics; India was liberating itself from the clutches of State controlled economy to laissez faire market place. Gita , as always, excelled in academics during her tenure a Delhi school of economics, and not surprisingly, emerged with her masters in the field with a Gold medal to top her achievements in the university. Along with her Master degree, she also found her future husband in a class mate: Iqbal Singh Dhaliwal , who was, like her passionate about economics, especially about methods and policies conducive to alleviating poverty. It was a good match, the two minds were in harmony. Iqbal would later go on to establish himself as an authority in his field at MIT ( Massachusetts institute of technology). Anyway, In 1996, for two bright and sizzling minds fresh with their academic accomplishment, the next destination was a doctorate in the USA, and Gita chose Princeton to complete her Ph.D under Ben Bernanke, the former chairman of the Federal reserve Bank - a great accomplishment by itself. That formally culminated a long and brilliant academic journey, and at the age of 31, Gita was ready to test her theories and was accepted as Associate professor of Economics in University of Chicago. From there Gita moved to Harvard in 2005, and grew in stature with each passing year, establishing herself as one of the foremost exponents of macro economic principles of trade, debt and monetary policies and their effect on global markets. With numerous papers, articles and talks under her belt, she was widely recognized by International bodies and institutions who regularly invited Gita for academic tenures to share her breadth of insights. Even Governments sought her advice, and she generously gave it with her trademark smile and brilliance.
Her only brush with controversy so far in an otherwise spotless academic life was her appointment in 2016, as economic adviser to the Kerala government. The chief minister of the state Mr Pinarayi Vijayan hails from Kannur, and many felt he was biased in appointing a home town girl to guide a politically and socially sensitive state. Nothing could be further from the truth. Gita made it clear that her tenure at Harvard took precedence over anything else; however, she was available to the chief minister should he choose to consult her. Kerala is a predominantly leftist state, and it is not surprising that they took objection to a lady who only believed in free markets. As of yesterday, Gita has formally resigned from her post as adviser to Kerala given her current appointment as chief economist in the IMF. On a side note, It is matter of concern that India has not been able to retain economists of world stature in positions of importance. Raghuram Rajan, Arvind Subramaniam and now Gita Gopinath have found their place and peace in International bodies outside the country, and the Indian government is happy to let go and bless them wherever they are. It is ironical indeed. The first two - raghuram and Arvind - were openly critical of idealogical interference in economic policy making. Both wrote books, and went back to their professorial jobs, not wanting to do anything more with politics. It isn’t that Raghuram and Aravind were unpatriotic in doing so; they simply couldn't find the freedom to operate purely on economic rationale for which they were best equipped . Anyway, that’s a story for another day.
Indians are doing well globally in great positions. It feels good that we are recognized for positions of global importance. One of the greatest merits of the US has been its strength to provide a level playing field for all. Over the years, the rules may have changed a bit; but hands down, this is the only country which grants anyone with right talent the means and opportunities to flower. Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella, Francisco D Souza of Cognizant, Gita Gopinath and many more are living testimonies to this fact. Anyone who say otherwise have motives that aren't generic. Getting back to Gita, I happened to watch her on television for the first time in a panel discussion with Prannoy roy in 2016 during the world economic forum held in Delhi. It was wonderful discussion, and I remember Prannoy introducing Gita as the most intelligent of the panelists. She smiled without a sense of importance, and innocently brushed that compliment away . Watching her talk that day , I was impressed with her command of facts and articulation of it. She needed no notes, and her contributions were laced with dignity and humility. Every now and then, the camera would focus on her, and one could sense her intelligent, bright eyes focussed, sparkling as she listened to points deliberated in the discussion. Since that time, I have regularly watched her international talks and presentations on youtube, whenever it shows up.
I am sure, for Gita, the role of Chief economist is one more step in her magical academic journey. Now the world is her stage. I join all of you in sending out our best wishes to her on this incredible honor.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala


Monday, January 7, 2019

Jottings - Slice of Life - 262 (Adapting a novel for screen. The brilliance of Daphne Du Maurier and the genius of Alfred Hitchcock)

Jottings - Slice of Life - 262 (Adapting a novel for screen. The brilliance of Daphne Du Maurier and the genius of Alfred Hitchcock)
One of the most perplexing questions that often face movie makers is how efficacious is it to adapt a popular novel, or a significant work of literature for cinematic representation. The temptation to do so is always there on the periphery of a director’s awareness. To pick a story from a book that is widely read in its day, gives the film maker the confidence that his audience wouldn’t shun the movie because of its story. Once that important element of risk is taken care of, then all that remains for an astute director to do is to assemble the right actors, set the right atmosphere, infuse life through music and anticipate with confidence that his movie would resonate well with viewers, rake in money, and help him climb the ladder of artistic success. In the last hundred odd years of cinema, majority of movies, especially those made in the early years of cinema, lasting till the 1960s, were mostly adaptations of books. Virtually no author - living or dead-was left alone. From the ancient epics to modern classics, books provided the default story line. Tolstoy, Dickens, Austen, Hardy, Bronte sisters, Trollope, Daniel Defoe, Victor Hugo, Jonathan swift, and many of the contemporary writers including Ian Fleming, Agatha Christie, Raymond Carver, Herman Wouk among others have lent their written word to the magic on screen. In this enterprise of converting books to movies , the task and dilemma of the director is simple. Should he translate the book verbatim into its cinematic representation, page to page, chapter by chapter; or use his artistic and creative discretion to extract the essence of the tale, and cast it into different mold for screen? To translate a book as it is without modification is no doubt operationally arduous, but, from the directors’ point of view relatively secure because there is the underlying assurance of the text to vouch for what is happening on screen. On the other hand, subtle art of extracting the essence of story, transmute the substance of it to create a captivating cinematic narrative requires genius, artistic courage, confidence and heightened mastery of the medium and its craft . The audience will either love such a movie for its ingenious adaption, or shun it as blasphemous and not worthy of the book or the author. Directors who have adapted the essence are often the geniuses of cinema, and their work is testimony of how two great arts forms - books and movies, can collaborate without impinging on the other.
Daphne du Maurier is undoubtedly one of the most widely read authors of the last century, and she continues to be read with the same enthusiasm by millennials today. Most of her books have never been out of print. As is invariably the case, there are critics who classify her writing as mere pulp-fiction with no literary merit, and others who place her work on a high pedestal; but, that hasn’t stopped the reading public from relishing her works over and over again. Like it or not, she is one of few authors whose books can be reread with increasing satisfaction. There is something about the way she narrates her tales of fragile or untenable marriages, the brooding atmosphere and gothic decor, her depiction of impenetrable gloom and darkness within the human heart and outside, the centerstage given to the feminine elements of instinct, gut feel and deep emotions; and more than anything else, her unique style of unfettered writing to tell a convincing story with precision, heightening tension and voluptuous language, makes her one of the few writers in the history of literature who can educate and entertain equally well. The fact is: one just can’t put down a Du Maurier novel. Like surging waves, it drags the reader along its ebbs and flows, tossing him in and out of passages of great beauty and emotional intensity, before leaving him awash with delight and aesthetically refined. How can one forget “Rebecca” in which the Heroine is never seen, only felt as a shadow in vivid descriptions; or “My cousin Rachel” where a young man is torn between the bewitching beauty of his uncle’s wife, and at the same time secretly suspects her to be the murderer of her husband; or the “French Man’s creek” - the chivalrous yet forbidding tale of a pirate’s love for a noblewoman set in Maurier’s favorite town - Cornwall, England; or “Jamaica inn”, the classic gothic tale of lustful uncles and creepy rooms, the book that set Du Maurier up as a novelist. All these books are long novels, leisurely developed and spun without the pressure of length or time. And not surprisingly, all of them have been made into films, not once, but multiple times. But it is in Maurier’s short stories that she true genius as a writer shone through. In 1952, She published a set of stories under the title “ The apple tree”, which among others, featured one of her finest stories — “The Birds”. As a short story, Birds is unparalleled in literature. In twenty odd pages, Maurier sketches couple of days in the life of family, who suddenly find themselves in the grip of birds behaving violently and agitated. The oddity slowly begins to take ominous proportions as Nat the farmer understands the gravity of the situation, and attempts to physically secure his family, sealing his home in all possible directions. The birds persistently screech and bang against the sealed windows chipping the wooden planks to break in, and in the process some die in the manner of Kamikazes - suicide bombers of second world war. To nat, the whole thing doesn’t make sense. As the attacks continue relentlessly, it dawns upon him through the local news that what is happening around his farm is representative of a full scale bird attack on various parts of England. The News also informs him that the government is taking steps to curtail this mysterious phenomena. Meanwhile, the attacks increase in intensity and regularity, making it impossible for Nat to step out of his home. He is fast running out of food, and cigarettes too, which he needs to calm his nerves. In the final scene, when the birds retire after a fearful assault, Nat summons the courage to drive down to his neighbor’s home, only to find that they have been pecked to death. Their home is in disarray, and the husband and wife dead and bloody. He cares less, and goes about collecting as much food as he can from their refrigerator , reaches home, only to regret that he forgot to carry back firewood to keep his own home warm. Nat doesn’t feel any regret. He has no time or inclination to display even basic remorse over his dismembered neighbors. In a war, which is what Nat thinks it is, there is no time for such frivolities. This is the sense of appalling apathy that Du Maurier creates through her writing. From a warm, retired and pleasant farmer in the beginning of the tale, to a paranoid man towards the end who believes that birds have launched a full scale war on England, the character of Nat undergoes transformation in a couple of days. Du Maurier’s beautifully crafted sentences mirrors the feelings of Nat as he grapples with something he cannot comprehend, but knows for real. In each page, the readers enter deeper into Nat’s psyche and lives those complex emotions along with him, as the threat from the birds turns ominous and cannot be reckoned as a casual outburst anymore. At the end of the story, the spellbound reader is left a little uneasy and frightened, and at least for some time, our heart will skip a beat if there is sound of a bird heard in the vicinity.
Given the genre of Du Maurier's stories, It is not surprising that over 12 Film adaptions and 40 dramatizations for television has so far appeared of her works. Her tales make fascinating material for cinema, and anyone who wants to make a gothic story with a touch of foreboding and doomed romances turned to her books. Alfred Hitchcock was one of them. As a long time friend of the Maurier family, Hitchcock had worked with Daphne’s father and was reasonably acquainted with his Du maurier’s works. In 1939 and 1940 Hitchcock adapted two of Maurier books - Jamaica inn and Rebecca - into movies. However, in both these ventures, his artistic demands were subject to the whims of producers, and Hitchcock throughout his career resented any interference with his vision of his films. Therefore when Rebecca became a commercial and critically successful, and was considered one of the finest adaptions of a book for cinema, Hitchcock himself wasn’t particularly satisfied. In his mind, the film was nothing but a faithful reproduction of the book with nothing of his own creative vitality or interpretation present in it. Hitchcock always had a particular liking for short stories as his raw material. It gave him the inspiration he needed, without going into details. Therefore, when the short story “The Birds” came out in 1952, Hitchcock creative antenna stood up. He was deeply interested in the idea of Birds revoting against mankind, but decided to bide his time, committed as he was to other projects. By then, ironically, Maurier was also becoming uneasy about cinematic adaptions of her stories. She was worried that her works was beginning to be known more through movies than her books themselves, and the reading public began to perceive her stories as written primarily for the silver screen, and not so much as works of literary fiction in its own right. Nothing can dissatisfy or dampen the spirits of a keen author more than such a perception. However, in 1962, Hitchcock returned to Maurier’s theme once again. From 1952 the idea was incubating in his mind, and when he finally decided to make the film, he was firm and clear that the movie would not be a word to word adaption of Du Maurier’s story, but a completely different narrative with just the essence of the story running as an underlying thread, and nothing more. Du maurier agreed, after some debate. With the authors consent under his belt, Hitchcock bought the tale from the gloomy settings of Cornwall to the ocean drenched shores of California; and, from travails of a single character of Nat the farmer, Hitchcock expanded the screenplay to a broader canvas with multiple personalities and perspectives. Beginning with pair of love birds entering the bay area as a gift, followed by a touch of romance , a flicker of jealousy and a hint of forbidden love, Hitchcock lifted the theme beyond it confines of the book to allow for different interpretations depending upon which relationship strikes a chord in the viewer. While Du Maurier just based her book on an hypothetical abnormality in natural world drawn from her experience with aircrafts bombing England during war time, Hitchcock constructed a multilayered visual narrative based upon the original idea interspersing the tale with his trademark human fears and trepidations. the audience were left with the question : did the birds trigger the panic in human beings; or was it the human atmosphere in Bodega bay, and its undercurrents of emotions that instigated such abnormal behavior in the birds? Hitchcock leaves us a conundrum, which renews itself each time we see the movie.
Alfred Hitchcock made “Birds’ after a gap of twenty years from his last Du Maurier adaptation. It is undoubtedly one of the finest movies Hitchcock made in his illustrious and prolific career. In it, he demonstrated how a true convergence between movies and books can be achieved, and what it takes to lift the theme of a story, embellish it for the screen without sacrificing the essence, and able to transcend the original tale in its visual form and effect. “Birds” represents the art of movie making at its very best - the genius of Hitchcock borrowing from the literary imagination of Du Maurier. It cannot be bettered.
God bless…
yours in mortality,
Bala