Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Decade needs a new maxim

The Times Of India's Speaking tree column today has a very relevant article to mark the end of the decade - Balance your desires to avoid suffering.

Consumerism, world over came of age in this decade. As our economy began to bear the fruits of liberalization, the Indian consumer too became obsessed with brands. Material greed and instant gratification summed up and characterized by "Live as if there is no tomorrow" meant that values, morals and ethics assumed a lesser importance relative to competition, profits, greed and progress.

There is nothing wrong in working towards fulfilling our desires but the question to be asked is - Is there a sense of proportion and balance? Let me try to illustrate...

  • Recession - Primary result of too much speculation assisted by negligence and oversight. (Remember the age when the word loan was not invented)
  • Climate Change - Product of "We will grow come what may!" Whatever be the cost to the environment, I shall consume meat and drive to work every single day/it is not my concern - whether the earth is a better place for my progeny- as long as I am happy. (Remember your neighbor in office who is planning his vehicle upgrade and who consumes meat day in and day out)
  • Tribal/indigenous populations' unrest - Same story: As long as bauxite and iron ore fetch money, to hell with landslides and flash floods/My country needs resources and I will procure them if not within our borders, then in far off Africa. (Remember China in Africa and wealthy corporations in tribal lands closer home)
  • Civil wars and the threat of terror - The law is an instrument that is open to interpretation based on the need of the hour. Yesteryear friends can be today's foes if it suits me and keeps my country safe. (Remember US support for fundamentalists against Soviets in Afghanistan and the aerial bombings now)
  • Technology infiltration - When was the last time you smiled to a stranger? (Remember how listening to music on a ipod is more important and satisfying than striking up a conversation with a stranger while traveling)
  • Change in the nature of hobbies - Shopping with an obsession for brands, splurging on food and movies and the like...
  • Erosion of roots - Our memories are becoming weak particularly in remembering the lessons taught by history. We are forgetting our roots and relegating past to the back-burner in the crazy urge to pursue the future.
All these problems have their root in "Live as if there is no tomorrow"taken to its extreme. The high levels of testosterone in every sphere, the triumph of the individual aspirations (Remember vulgar displays of wealth, reality television stars and instant celebrities) and an appalling disregard for conventional manners and values - these are all defended steadfastly as part of the RACE to emerge the winner, however momentary and fleeting that position might be.

What we need in the new decade is a new maxim to live our lives by. This should factor in the consequences of our present actions and give room for introspection. "Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!" - Viktor Frankl wrote in "Man's search for meaning", a book I recently got to read. He explains that this maxim essentially means "Imagine first that the present is past and, second, that the past may yet be changed, and amended". How beautifully worded to factor the consequences of our actions beforehand!!

Here is hoping that the new year and the new decade is more gentle and empathetic. All of us, through our actions should resolve to strive and make the world a better place for our brethren in the remotest corners and for our future generations.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Buddy - You will always be a gem!

Vasu, with whom I have been fortunate enough to share accommodation in Bangalore from the time I came here, left the city today. It is a huge vacuum that he leaves me with.

Vasu is simply too good a human being to be real! His voice, his understanding of any matter and situation by getting to the bottom of it even with very little information (that intuition to completely imagine his friend going through something), the sound of his heartfelt laughter and his profound sincerity that always shines through, make him a gem. I wonder if God makes human beings like him anymore.

We have had the occasional disagreements, but as with people who know that such things shouldn't be allowed to dictate attitudes and behavior for long, we have warmed to each other quickly.

I have learned a lot from him - single minded focus, commitment, dedication (imagine all the synonyms - each one would be applicable) 100% empathy and the passion for things he really loves (AR Rehman, Sachin and algorithms of every hue and color) - to term them simply strong would be either due to my limited vocabulary or the inability of the English language to offer any better word. It is also not necessary for good friends to share interests. It is enough if there are the best of intentions for each other.

There are some things that get so inseparable when thinking about a person - these are random events or conversations we either partake in or exchange with that person but which will always jump into the foreground whenever we reminisce. I still remember in vivid detail, the night, we were talking about expectations (we have) from people we get to know- his viewpoint and my viewpoint were poles apart. An excitement runs through my veins every time I think about it.

Bangalore is never going to be the same. I have written before about missing people and saying goodbye to them. I wish this is not a goodbye. I wish that our paths and destinies cross often and life would once more bring us together sometime soon. I wait for that day to dawn.

3 Idiots - Meets Expectations

Five Point someone is not a great book; by Chetan Bhagat's own admission, his intention is to make everybody want to read his novels. Likewise, 3 idiots is not a great movie; it is made for consumption by the masses.

What works in the movie?/what would make it a huge hit?

  • Casting - It is as perfect as it can get. This movie will catapult Sharman Joshi to new heights. Any other actress in the place of Kareena is unthinkable. The svelte beauty bowls you over in Zoobie Doobie with a range of sweet expressions that makes her stand out as a very fine actress. What is acting without a little exaggeration when it is demanded?
  • Humor - The first half is fun all the way with pranks, friendship gyan and the "All izzz well" number. Though the jokes are not quite for the prudes, their placement shifts the attention. Wise scripting!
  • Friendship - In a bollywood movie with three friends taking center-stage, this is a no-brainer. Some sequences that are honest to the novel help here like the one when Aamir drives Sharman's father to the hospital.
  • Music - What sounded more than average on the ear is actually excellent stuff. When songs don't sound discordant placed in context and the choreography + cinematography is very good, viewing on the big screen is a treat! Shantanu Moitra of Parineeta and Yahaan fame doesn't disappoint and neither does the lyricist Swanand Kirkire. 'Behti hawa sa' is one of the best songs of 2009.
  • Gyaan - In small doses, with a good amount of sentiment and drama for accentuation, this is passable. In fact, the second half is a touch over the top. Sometimes, this medium in India finds the temptation too irresistible to curtail indulgence when delivering a message.
What doesn't make it great?

  • Everyone idolizes Aamir. It works in parts but makes him less human. In Indian cinema, this is forgivable.
  • The extreme caricatures of the rote-learning student Omi and the "Life is a race" mouthing Boman Irani.
  • It is not Aamir's best though I love him in the movie.
Watch it for the beautifully worded songs, the humor, the college sequences and for its actors. Its message has its heart in the right place though something else that is essential is missing.

2009 had better movies for the discerning viewer but 3 idiots would score higher with the common man who wants to live his dreams and pays to get entertained.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Dragon's Pearl - Complex web of politics, diplomacy and history

China - It is a mysterious nation to most Indians partly because our media loves to hate it (Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Dalai Lama etc) and partly because there is hardly any window we have into what is actually taking place there. I always get intrigued whenever I chance upon any fictional account set during historically significant periods or of late, non-fiction that is lucid, informative and wraps a subject that interests me.

Politics, be it in Sudan (Tears of the desert by Halima Bashir), Ethiopia (Sweetness in the belly by Emily cabb), Libya (In the country of Men by Hisham Matar), Kenya (The In-between World of Vikram Lal by MG Vassanji) or Iran (The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer), when read in bboks through the eyes of protagonists is a different subject altogether. All of a sudden, history and politics conjure a world full of possibilities - one complementing the other.

Coming to the subject of this post, 'The dragon of the pearl', its author Sirin Phathanothai writes in the 'Acknowledgments' - "To me, as to many others, China seems a repository of myths; living in their midst, I found I could only occasionally pierce them. And without my so choosing, I was borne along on the current of tumultuous political change and struggle occurring both in China and in my native Thailand." That is probably encapsulating the enormity and significance of the events that she has lived through much too simply...

The author in the relatively quieter period of late 50s is sent by her father - Sang Phathanothai, a prominent Thai Politician and adviser to Marshal Pibul - along with her brother to live under the care of the first Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. The Chinese Premier warming up to the trust imposed by such an action - read as a signal for bolstering backdoor ties with China - lavishes affection and care on the two children, Sirin in particular.

In a sense, the autobiography starts there though initially the reader is privy to the close ties between Sang and Pibul seen from the author's eye. In China, Sirin and her brother Wai take time to get used to the harsh life having to forsake luxuries. They live through the Great Leap Forward. Sirin contributes to the movement by joining the "steel campaign" as she puts it. She learns how politics works everywhere and she describes it beautifully - "Public statements about events (by political leaders) did not have to conform with private evaluations of them". It is in these places that the book scores highly giving a glimpse, in anecdotal details, about the conversations she has with Zhou Enlai.

As a reader, the descriptions of her experiences studying in a Chinese school and later at a music conservatory, made me feel as if I was living through them too! This is one of the greatest assets of reading books - I get the sense of being transported to a black and white past where events and people constantly buzz around with myself in the center. It is an experience that affects my dreams and some times, pervades my activities so much that i have to shake myself out from them.

Wiki describes Zhou thus: "To a large extent, Zhou epitomized the paradox inherent in a communist politician with traditional Chinese upbringing: at once conservative and radical, pragmatic and ideological, possessed by a belief in order and harmony as well as a faith in the progressive power of rebellion and revolution". As I progressed through the book and got to observe Zhou in his various avatars, I realized how challenging it must have been to maneuver so delicately across the political waters in such turbulent times!

The book loses pace after the 'Great Leap forward' and picks steam during the cultural revolution. (There is an excellent and informative photo series on the revolution) Sirin is forced to separate from Liao Chengzhi whom she and her brother come to view as a father figure. The events that unfold gave goose-bumps to me. As I read the accounts of Sirin living in the countryside and later denouncing her own brother and father, my pulse raced.

Indeed to a person who knew nothing of the cultural revolution before reading the book, this was like a history lesson - one not written by any academic body. History is often spoken of as written by winners; an objective account of history is by definition impossible to achieve unless one can travel back in time and live through momentous times ourselves. In the absence of such an absurdity, autobiographies like these might come very close to the actual truth!

Coming back to the book, The Gang of Four in the struggle for control with Zhou Enlai wreck havoc on the lives of loyal party leaders. In the meantime, Sirin's father is arrested by the military junta that captures power in Thailand and is later released. His role after the release and his constant conviction in belief are lessons in attention to execution come what may.

The book ends when China embarks on economic development under Deng Xiaoping. Sirin lavishes praise on Zhou Enlai even as she quotes the Premier as often saying "Life is a negotiation". How true it is ! This book is one of the richest as far as the information and the manner in which it is presented goes. I am immensely happy after completing it and sharing the experience through this post!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Choices on a Sunday Morning!

This picture tells the tale of a Sunday Morning!

Too many things to read, I was spoiled for choice. Should I start with -

  • Sunday Times - Weekly columns by Swapan Dasgupta, MJ Akbar, Chetan Bhagat and Swami Iyer.
  • THE HINDU Magazine - Articles by Harsh Mander on the Ayodhya demolition and aftermath, Sevanti Ninan and the captivating Wayfarer column that features Ladakh this time...
  • Times Life - Its available space (prominent inner wear ads dominate it) devoted to the usual Soul Curry column and celebrity takes on Spirituality.
  • Times Crest - A newly introduced magazine-like Saturday special with in depth stories. This week has climate change as the topic!
  • THE HINDU literary review - First Sundays of any month are always made special by the literary review! This week has a review of "The difficulty of being good" by Gurcharan Das, a book that I have been dying to read ever since I heard of it.
  • Two States by Chetan Bhagat - An entertaining masala ridden fare by a writer with no pretensions.
Now, imagine my plight on where to start! Sometimes, choices are good when each of them offers something interesting and new and engaging especially on weekends, not to speak of Sunday mornings. I would have appeared deaf when, with all this competing for attention in my mind, I managed to take this picture!