December 11, 2013

[Experiences] Yours Subtly - On being a Subtitler

All those blog words away, at the end of the article on my experiences in search of a career, I had written, "I am now growing my own wings to fly in my own sky.... and soon, I will take you with me." 

The time has come to show you the world of my work. Friends who have been following me all these months already know that it's subtitling, I'm talking about. Still, whenever I meet someone new and I tell them I'm a subtitler, they look up curiously and ask what's that. So, here's to all those wanting to know more.

Let me tell you first how I found this sky. Having bid a bye to my five-year-old career in software, I was trying out many things. But at the same time, I was doing something without even giving it a thought. I was translating Madhan Karky's lyrics for his website. Just for him. Sometimes what you are desperately searching for is right under your nose! I realised that this was a love for languages and words, which went a long way back to my childhood, when I couldn't wait to vanish into the world of yet another book. A window opened and I could see where I wanted to go. Just because my spouse is in the movie industry, I didn't dive right in and start churning out subtitles any way I wanted. I wanted to learn all about it, first. I found the right person to teach me the art of subtitling. Bartho Kriek, founder of Subtitling Worldwide, is a certified teacher of subtitling and has been working on this field for decades. I spent three months and more than 200 hours of practice, working on Subtitling Worldwide's course to understand what good subtitling is.

'Subtitling? Isn't it about putting some words on the screen? What's the big deal?' - These thoughts may have crossed many minds. It may not be rocket science but I can tell why it is fairly challenging. In a given time frame of so many seconds, here are some of the many constraints, a subtitler faces:
1. You have to say what's being said in a maximum of around 86 characters.
2. Not reveal a comic punch line or suspense pointer.
3. The time window must not be too short or too long to disturb the viewing experience.
4. Ensure that the sentence is grammatically correct.
5. Present the essence of what's said to be read in the blink of an eye.

First of all, a subtitler must pack up his/her ego. Subtitles/ Translations are not about you. It's about a creation and you are just a medium through which it reaches a larger audience. You may have the skills to rhyme like a rapper, but that's useless and rather harmful if you are going to distract the audience from visuals that was created with so much effort. Hundreds of people have left the comfort of their home to stand in the rain and shine, to create something for the viewer to relish. If you, as the subtitler, are going to put complicated words to cater to your ego, you are not being true to the ethics of your work. A subtitler just needs to know where to talk, what to talk and more importantly, where to stay silent.

In the movie Thangameengal, which I had the good fortune of subtitling, towards the end of the movie, there is the scene when the father saves the daughter from the pond and shows the gift he has fought for and brought for her. As the child fondles the puppy with so much love, music from the mesmerising 'Ananda Yazhai' plays in the background. At this time, the little girl, calls out to the puppy with some endearing names. I didn't subtitle the words that the little girl calls out to that puppy right then, because at that moment what I felt was more important was that delightful expression on the child's face and that heavenly music playing.

There is justice in this world. Your hard work will surely find its reward. Thangameengal is travelling to many, many places today. On a personal note, I was so touched to read these words by Director Ram, saying how the audience in the International Film Festival in Goa, laughed in all the places where they laughed here in Tamilnadu and they clapped in all the places, where they clapped in Tamilnadu. To a subtitler, there is no greater compliment than to have a non-native speaker relish a movie like a native speaker!

Subtitles are for people who speak other languages, for them to savour a story in your language. When people who are Tamil speakers congratulate me on the aptness of my subtitles, I feel good that they have taken the time and effort to acknowledge my work. Still, my true happiness is in touching the heart of a non-native person, who has understood the beauty and meaning of what a creator is conveying. I received many appreciations for my work in 'Irandam Ulagam' but most precious of it, is the one accorded by a film school student in the UK, who does not know Tamil but is a fan of Tamil Cinema. He wrote to me saying,

"And thank you SO MUCH for the subs! Clear, concise, readable, and with all the Selva essence in tact! It is due to your work that I enjoyed the crazy dialogues (Anushka's friend analysing every part of Arya's body was my personal favourite...hilarious and strange!). I hope you have many more projects in the future and that they all make it to UK screens. This was my subbed first film of yours I've seen, and I loved the lack of over-complicated flowery language that the characters obviously didn't say (I'm too used to that!!) and the very readable formatting. Glad to see all the songs subbed as well!"

It's their appreciation of a movie, that's the best possible appreciation I could receive.

Then again, you have the complicated task of subtitling comedy movies. Anyone trying to elicit a laugh from the audience will appreciate how difficult the task is. Now compound that to the fact that it's in another language. Your jokes are not their jokes. What would tickle you may make them feel icky! So, it's challenging and interesting too, to do translations of comedies. Subtitling movies like 'Itharkkuthane Aasaipattai Balakumara' and 'Sutta Kadhai' gave me an opportunity to experiment with the comedy genre of movies.

In 'Itharkkuthane', anyone who has watched the movie would remember the following exchange between Sumar Moonji Kumar and Rombha Sumar Moonji Kumar:
"Annachiye Thookiralamaa?"
To which Vijay Sethupathy replies
"Annachi enna kulandhaiyaa da thookarathukku?"

A Tamil speaker understands that this is a comic play on the word, 'thookirathu', which means both 'to finish someone' and 'to lift something'. A literal translation would fall flat here. So I worked to find a right equivalent, which went like this,
"Shall we take out Brother?"
The reply is in the image below:

Coming to songs, which are the quintessential part of Tamil movies. I see songs as the quaint bridges that connect shifts in the movie. Songs written well, convey much more than many scenes put together. The songs are ploys used by our directors to quickly present the emotions, which are shifting gears in the actors. Movies go to foreign locales, work on intricate choreography or in the case of montages, have a lot of events unfolding on the screen.

To truly enhance these visuals, you need to work as much as possible on the beauty of language, but definitely not at the cost of distracting the viewer from those intricate emotions and painstaking visuals. In all my songs, I try to do that tightrope walk between beauty and meaning. With the nuanced and fine visuals that our directors create, the subtitler just needs to present the words as poetically and as simply, as possible.

What do I want for myself in this career? Do I want to do 100, 200 movies? I have never been a number person. It's not about how wide I go, just how deep! Each movie I accept, I give it my best. I take it as a challenge and a responsibility of taking what I have relished to many more people on this planet. If for every movie, even one person somewhere in the world has understood something because of my subtitles, I will consider my work well done and life well spent here.

I call upon anyone interested in this field. It's a fascinating world. If you love movies, have a flair for languages and most importantly, if you can empathise, welcome to the world of subtitling. Equip yourself. Learn the art of subtitling like I did, from people who know what they are talking about. There's a huge need for quality subtitling in Tamil Cinema. Hone your wings and come fly in this sky of subtitling!

June 15, 2013

[Travelogue] To the Center of Europe and Oneself

Why on earth would anyone travel? It's tiring. It's hectic. It takes you away from the cosy comfort of your home. It often takes you from where you are a king, to a place where you are a pauper in many metaphorical ways. With all that non-stop moving, running between planes, trains and automobiles and getting lost in places that you know nothing about, how amazing is that you find that restful peace and silent meaning, preached by philosophers of yore.

Two years since we had ventured from Indian shores. We were thinking about going to South America, when we finished our last trip, that being a continent both of us hadn't visited. We didn't consider Europe as Madhan had already breathed the European air in Denmark in his student days. But whatever be our plans, life will have other quirky designs and the best way forward is to go with the flow. It so happened that Madhan had to attend an audio launch in Geneva and after the event, we decided to extend it as our vacation.

Till then, every trip I had embarked upon was clearly researched and planned out. I would list and buy all the things needed for the trip, a month back and have the suitcases ready, a week back. But this was a first in that I was shopping and packing just hours before take-off. This was because I had a subtitling assignment that I had to complete, just before I took off on the long vacation. Still, first times always do happen and as I was running in a mad rush from one shop to another and packing stuff, I stepped out of myself and was standing there, laughing at this scattered, 'last-minute' person, I had turned into.

Geneva, Switzerland
I had the shivers thinking of how Haiku would behave in the plane, remembering our last trip and how he cried, "Please no plane. Let's go home", in his baby words all through the flight journey to South Africa. Ahem, didn't realize he's a grown man now! He was enthusiastically entertaining strangers in the airport at 2 in the morning and the instant the flight was up in the air, he fell asleep and it was a peaceful journey all through. We landed in the afternoon with many other artists from the industry and media in Geneva's airport. The room was the best thing I could ask for, not because of its comfort but the view. Looking out, I saw people walking, cycling, coming out of the metro station, waiting for the bus. In short, you could see the people of Geneva travelling by all forms of transport right before your eyes. All those people going many, many places and I could see them from a high place. One of my favorite things in the world. To observe the emotions and actions of random people unnoticed.

Right opposite the hotel was a burger shop with a cute name 'Holy cow'! We had our first European dinner there and retired early to bed. The next day, we got a little glimpse of Geneva. The weather was quite chilly for us, coming from boiling Chennai. Took a walk to the popular jet fountain and watched ducks and assorted birds with Haiku. Then a toy train ride around the parks and residences. Here we got an opportunity to bond with a few people from the industry such as director Nandhini, singer Balram Iyer and his wife Radha and singer Shalini, her husband Balaji and the cute little Aditya.

Decided to have lunch at a French restaurant nearby. Madhan is one for never having Indian food when abroad and wants to try the different local cuisines, wherever he is. In his culinary research, he had found out that a fondue was a must in Swiss food. To tell you how a fondue looked to me - it was a quicksand of cheese, cheese and some more. Madhan and some others fell in love and into it, but I found it a bit sour to my taste. But surely an interesting meal in all. But the seeds of the first disaster was perhaps sown there.

After the flavorful meal, we parted to get ready for the evening event. Got Haiku all dressed up. Kid was looking a bit sick for sometime now and while lying on the bed, he threw up, just minutes before we were planning to take an adventurous bus ride to the event. At first, I just wanted to stay back with Haiku but he cried and made a scene that he wanted to be with his dad. So, we all left in the car arranged for the people at the hotel, reeking faintly of vomit. Thankfully he was alright in the car and we got seated in that beautiful and ancient Victoria Hall built in the late 1800s and dedicated to classical music. In a place where works of Mozart and Beethoven had been performed and where stirring operas must have been sung, the music from Tamil film industry was to be launched.

As we were waiting for the event to begin, Haiku had other plans and threw up on me. Just me, thankfully. Calmed him down and decided to take him back to the hotel by myself. Walking with the stain of vomit on your attire, through a crowd with people dressed in their best, takes some confidence and poise, I found. The cab driver, on the trip back to the hotel, was continuously mumbling something in French. If he was complaining of the smell, having forgotten the little French I had learnt long ago, I was blissfully happy. Haiku and I found some time together but it was a very upset stomach and evening for Haiku. I thought the trip was gone. Thankfully, the next day, we had to leave to Netherlands to see my friends, Raji and Madhu, people who had lived in Europe for sometime now with little kids of their own. At that moment, I was really glad to have the support of friends, who knew what to do, in that unknown place.

Den Haag, Netherlands
While in the flight, whenever the pilot was addressing us, Madhan made up a story about it to Haiku. One thing he said was, "Pilot uncle is saying that whoever is sick, when they land in Amsterdam, they will become alright". To which Haiku replied, "Pilot uncle is talking too much". While the interpretation was funny, I hoped Madhan's words would come true. Landed in Amsterdam airport and got on the train to Den Haag. Watched plump sheep overflowing with wool and prosperous cows on the way. When you travel by flight, you hardly get to see a country. The more remote the transport is, the more you know a place. So, while by walk is the very best, it would take ages to get to know the entire country. Road and rail give you the option of covering the extra miles and when public transport system is good and available, no better way than to explore a place by that means. Landed at my friend's. With known food and the company of a kid exactly his size and his little brother, Haiku seemed to start to recover. Made a visit to the Den Haag beach and had a warm dinner by the fire.

Our friends had chosen a dutch apartment close to their place to spend our three nights in Netherlands. When living in hotels, we get the same feeling world over but in a home, you get to savor the real taste of living in the place. The thing that struck us there was the silence. I finally understood what 'deafening silence' meant. My ears seemed to be so full of 'no noise'. It was almost eerie. The only sound you could hear was your minutest movements and your heartbeat. Coming from a screaming Chennai, with never a moment of utter silence, at first it was an 'acoustic shock' but soon turned out to be a meditative experience. After a calm night of deep sleep, the next day began enthusiastically.

Amsterdam, Netherlands
Took a train to Amsterdam city, the city of Dutch sailors of the age-old days, venturing into the new world, establishing colonies and bringing back the essence and character of cities far off. The air reeked of a lot of history. But our second disaster struck just then. Madhan fell ill with an upset stomach. But the sturdy minded one he is, he wouldn't let us turn back. He managed like a warrior and saint, two in one and stayed with us, suffering the whole day. While in this disaster state, we were walking by and our eyes fell on '2TheLoo', a 'restroom shop' with toilet accessories and more! Guess we see what we want to see. Laughed that like a 'situation song' Madhan pens, here was a 'situation shop'!

Walked through the city, tasted some dutch pancakes, ate a curious tasting 'drop' and bought some cheese, very good for an upset stomach, not! Later in the afternoon, took a boat ride through the many canals of Amsterdam, while interesting facts about this city by the river was narrated in the audio system. Learnt about the severe housing shortage in Amsterdam, making the layout of houses very narrow, resulting in some very steep and narrow staircases, that would in no way allow furniture to be moved up to the higher floors.

So all these houses have hooks at the top and a rope hanging down and this contraption was used to pull furniture and other heavy stuff. As house upon house fell on our eyes, in this story of Amsterdam, these houses were pointed out to us like characters in a book, with names like 'Father and Son', 'Twin sisters', etc. It made me think the human mind will try to find a story even in the oddest of places.

Madurodam, Netherlands 
Felt like our trip was getting really jinxed with two down already. Still, we tried to cheer ourselves and hoped we would cross this fine. We started the next day late and as our first stop, visited Madurodam, a place where they have represented all the best of Netherlands as miniatures, giving you a bird's eye view of the entire country.

Haiku was like Gulliver amidst those mini palaces and castles. The best part about this place was the one minute animated videos, they had placed near each attraction. Just a minute or less, but you got the essence of that place, related in such a light-hearted manner that you would never forget the details. I learnt curious things like the fact that the Dutch eat a herring raw with just onions, about their 'drop' and the habit of sloshing the french fries with sauce and many more. It's the land of so much art and discoveries through the ages. But the people seem to brush it all, in a very self-deprecating manner. They are amused by everything and don't take themselves seriously at all. The mark of an interesting nation.

Haarlem, Netherlands
After the taste of Netherlands through its places, now it was time to meet a son of that soil, Bartho Kriek. He is founder and owner of Subtitling Worldwide and he taught me something that has finally made me find my career after going in diverse directions. After hundred of emails communicating on subtitling, I was finally meeting Bartho with my family. He took us into his lovely home and treated Haiku to many curious things.

Madhan and I had many interesting moments, conversing with him. All three of us are alike in some ways, our careers started with numbers as in with an engineering background. Bartho was initially trained to be a mechanical engineer. But all three of us found our calling in words. So there was so much in common and so much to learn from his rich experience of writing, translating and subtitling. Shared stories about his life in Netherlands, our life here and ended with a Dutch dinner at the picturesque dunes in Haarlem, which is the only slightly hilly-region in all of low-lying Netherlands. Haiku found many curious things on the way. Father and son bonded while giving me the time to learn from my teacher and mentor.

Came home late, bid farewell to my friends and made plans to do interesting things when they were in Chennai, we came to spend the last night at the Dutch home. Had loads of packing to do and again with the same 'three hours of sleep' that kept following me like a ghost from the beginning to the end, started our second sojourn into Switzerland.

Back to Switzerland 
Landed in Basel Airport and as advised took a 'Swiss pass' for 4 days. The beauty of this pass is that it lets you take any form of public transport, be it bus, train or boat to go anywhere within the country. It seemed so packed with potential and I intended to make the most of it. Grabbed a detailed map of Switzerland and started the journey by bus to the train station. Now, to tell you, a little more of Switzerland, they have four different divisions based on the language spoken. Regions of German, French, Italian and Romansh speaking people. Of this, the German Swiss regions comprise of 65% of Switzerland. These divisions based on languages are nothing new to us, Indians having 30 or more of the same in our vast country. But this was different in a sense because unlike us, these languages are those of the neighboring countries and being in these different linguistic regions, gave you a tinge of the taste of Germany, France and Italy for I believe the essence of a people lives in its words, in language. I resolved to have a taste of each of these countries in our journey through Switzerland.

Our intention was to take the train to Lucern from Basel and set-up base there for the rest of our explorations. So, Madhan asked a person at the station, how to get to Lucern. Now, with an Indian accent, we normally would pronounce Lucern with a 's' sound. So he did too. The help desk person asked him to repeat the name twice and then she gave some directions for the next train. Looking at the map, I wondered why we are going in the opposite direction. Still, I thought maybe there was no direct train to Lucern and we had to do this in a roundabout way. The very few hours of sleep was already taking its toll. Scattered lunch of some random sandwiches wasn't helping either. Then as we got down at the station where we were supposed to catch a connecting train to Lucern, we realized the person had directed us to 'Lausanne', which was in the French speaking part of Switzerland and quite the other end. I was starting to lose it. On another day, with good sleep and proper food, I might have enjoyed the detour. For what is a detour, but more exposure and more experience in an unknown country. But given the sequence of jinxed events, my mind was in a fragile and vulnerable state. Quarrels popped up such "you should have pointed to the place in the map", "you should have asked for directions", "you should have minded the baby" and what-not. Silly, when I think of it now but crazy things often happen without proper sleep.

Lucern, Switzerland
Finally, we got the proper directions by pointing to the place in the map. Apparently, Lucern must be pronounced with a 'Z'. With a lot of 'Danke', we were finally on our way to Lucern and landed in this beautiful city by the river. We put our bags down but the flames of the quarrel wouldn't settle so easily. It was a paradise of a place. A place just out of wallpapers and screen savers. A city on the banks of a gushing river, with swans and ducks and a lot of history. The quintessential tourist place of even Mark Twain's times. But my mind was elsewhere.

Just goes to tell you, you may be in heaven but if you can't make your mind be there, then it wouldn't matter where you were. We ended the night in silence and I thought, last man down and the trip has collapsed entirely.

Jungfraujoch, Switzerland
I woke up the next morning, with a hollow feeling and felt I was at the lowest point within. First, the disasters of the body and then the fall of my mind, now we all had been afflicted. How to ever get over this? What is the point in going on like this? My solution to everything is talking. I let Madhan sleep for a long time and then when he woke, we talked and talked. At a point, Madhan said "Let's move". Calmed by the discussion and armed with a plan in hand, things began to change within. Our plan was to visit 'Jungfraujoch', the highest point in Europe, taking the scenic 'Lucern-Interlaken' express and then the mountain rails to the highest railway station in Europe, a mountain engineering marvel.

There was very little time to catch the hourly train, but we made it. Once you decide to change your mind and do something about unfortunate circumstances, the universe will favor you with seemingly lucky coincidences. Things went smoothly after that. We met a SriLankan Tamil working in the Panaromic 'Lucern-Interlaken' express. He takes the scenic ride by the lakes, almost 5 times a day. Looking at me, he said he recognized my 'Tamil face' and felt a bond with us. He narrated his life-story and his experience working for the Swiss for 25 years and related about Switzerland from his experiences. It was good to hear such high praises of a country from an immigrant.

We decided to pause at Lauterbrunnen, a German Swiss village and savor a local meal before we climbed to the top. A fantastic and heavy meal of Rosti(a dish, sort of like Hashbrown potatoes) and fried egg. It was a filling meal, to which we were later very thankful for. After a 2 hour climb and 2 changes of mountain trains, we reached the very top of Jungfrau. Looking at the time, we barely had 1.5 hours to see the various attractions there and to catch the last train back to the plains. We were not even adequately prepared with gloves. But tremendously excited we were, to be seeing and touching snow.

I was seeing and feeling this pristine wonder of nature after five years while Madhan and Haiku for the first time in their lives at 33 and 3, respectively. Though freezing and shivering, we were at the top of our spirits, throwing fists full of snow at each other. From the lowest point in my mind, I had come to the highest point in this place, by just changing the way I looked at things and moving from where I was, within and without.

Train Conversations 
On the way back, in the first descend to Kleine Scheideigg, we met a Dutch couple. Had so much fun connecting to them and talking about Netherlands. We shared our recent Netherlands experiences and they jokingly asked if we had tried the raw herring, laughing at our shocked 'No's. At one point, the lady remarked, (pointing to Haiku sleeping in my arms), "How is he taking it?". To which I replied, "I think he's doing very well. Already he's been to South Africa when he was 1. He is an interesting companion to have around". To which she said, "You must love travelling a lot". An acute observation from this person and I sensed the pregnant thought in her mind of how hard it must be to go places with a kid.

On the next train to Grindelwald, we met a lot of Chinese youth. Apparently, they were student interns, working at the Tissot shop at the top of the mountain. Everyday for six months, they take the journey to the top. With them, was a Swiss national, originally from Mongolia, sharing her experiences of settling in this country and the difficulties in learning new languages. To my pride, Madhan conversed to the Chinese students in Chinese and they were much impressed. No quicker way to someone's heart than to speak their tongue. In my conversations, a Chinese student remarked of how these trains rarely had any Europeans but was always full of Asians - Chinese and Indians. We joked about it saying, "Perhaps, it's us Asians fascinated with the largest, biggest, highest... still".

Talking to strangers can be the most revealing experiences of all. You are gifted new eyes, making you throw away those myopic, culture-centered glasses and see yourself and the world, just a bit differently.

Goldau, Switzerland 
Madhan set me the task of planning for the next days. Rubbing my hands in glee at something I loved to do, after they both went to sleep, I perused many websites, connected the Swiss travel system and the things we wanted to see. Sticking to my initial goal of savoring the regions speaking different languages, decided we must travel to Lugano in the heart of the Italian side of Switzerland. That was a travel goal for us adults but before that, we had to do something for our little travel companion, Haiku. We had promised him a zoo. But I had to search a lot for this one. The Swiss have it hidden away from tourist eyes. Luckily, I found one on our path to Lugano and found that if we could stop at Goldau, we could catch the zoo for him.

At the station, the next day, a lot of Swiss kids, the age of Haiku were playing around and I was thinking how good it would be if they all came to the same place. Voila! they took the same train and got off at the same place. Madhan and I were so excited to be having so many children for Haiku to see and play with. What fun he had, chasing furred hens that looked like they were wearing sweaters, feeding the deer and walking on a trekking track for kids, jumping on ropes and playing with Swiss children.

On a huge tree swing, as he sat, little Swiss boys gave him a push. They understood not what each other spoke but connected with abandon, like only kids can do. All the trouble we took to have him with us made sense, seeing his joy. After sometime, when Haiku got tired and it was also time to catch the train to Lugano. Running through the streets of Goldau, we made it just in time and when we took our seats, Haiku had already dozed off his his stroller. Made him comfortable and started our 2 and a half hour journey to Lugano, at the very corner of Switzerland, bordering Italy. I saw the landscape change, the weather becoming sunny and whiffed the scent of olives in the air.

Lugano, Switzerland

A quaint little city full of highs and lows. Streets had very steep slopes and it was fun, running with Haiku in a stroller, down those sloes. After a sumptuous lunch of pizza and pasta, close to the land of their origin, we decided to stop over at Parco Civico, a park by the lake. Some lovely music on the way, a walk through pretty flowers and chat with cute kids ensued on the way.

Haiku had some more fun playing in the kids area, while we both took a stroll nearby the beautiful lake, bordering magnificent peaks. Then, on the way back, we decided to stop for some time on a scenic spot under a tree. That was a beautiful moment for me, lying on a low bench, caring not about who was staring. As I lifted my hands and moved them, I had a never before sensation of holding the air in my hands as though it were a very light but tangible thing.

As I moved my hands, the mediterranean wind seemed to whisper beautiful things to my hand. It was an unforgettable moment, as though touched and caressed by a strange breeze. With a glowing happiness and peace of experiencing a novel moment, caught the train back to Lucern.

Menziken, Switzerland
After our long and lovely trip to Lugano, the day still didn't end for the tireless travellers. We set on a journey by bus to the Menziken, a little town in the suburbs of Lucern to visit Sathish and Usha, our family friends and to have Haiku meet some people his age. It was almost 9 at night when we took this one hour bus ride and watched the sun set as we drove through fields and sparsely populated villages. Surprisingly, I smelt the same smells when travelling through the countryside here in Tamilnadu. Perhaps freshly cultivated land has the same fragrant smell of beginnings, the world over. The splash of colors in the twilight sky made a memorable journey to Menziken.

There we had a lovely Srilankan dinner and Haiku could not have enough of the food, kept asking for more and more, as though I had starved him all the while! He bonded with the kids there and we came back to the hotel, half-asleep in a dream-state, post midnight.

Verkehrshaus Museum, Lucern

Although I had planned a trip by boat, aerial cableway and gondolas to Mount Pilatus, because we had too much of travel, we decided in favor of visiting a museum, something which we wanted to do and which hadn't done since the start of our trip. So, the Transport museum it was and although something I'm not that into, Haiku just loved the place. He found some stones and a spade in the Roadways section of the museum and did not want to move from that place. We gave him almost an hour to play there but that wasn't enough. I had the enviable experience of calming a storm in the restroom. Here he was kicking and crying for 20 minutes flat that he wanted to be in that place only. I bolted the room from inside and let him cry while softly telling him that sometimes we like some things a lot and it's hard to let go but we have to. We will find it again another day, another place in another form. In words he would understand, of course. He calmed down, hugged me very tightly and finally let us leave the museum.

Lausanne, Switzerland
Our next and last stop before we went back to Geneva was Lausanne, the very same place we were misguided to, on the first day of our journey here. It was the French speaking part of Switzerland. Deposited our suitcases at the lockers and decided to explore Lausanne for what was left of the day. We took the metro to Lausanne but the people at the help desk said both the famous Olympic Museum and the Museum of Photography too was about to be closed.

There was just enough time to have a picnic and relish the atmosphere. Haiku had his fun in the kids area and the merry-go-round, while Madhan had fun clicking candid shots of splendid moments around and I was watching them both, satisfied that we had made the best of the rest of this journey.

On the way back, in the crowded metro, you could see people of all shades around. People of African, European, East Asian and South Asian origin. The blacks, whites, yellows and browns of our race. Haiku was in his stroller and there was a pretty little African girl, with many plaits on her hair, struggling to stand near her mother. At every stop, she was stumbling and rocking. At one point, Haiku gave his hand to the girl and she held it for a brief moment. That was a moment that took the breath away of all those adults around, no matter who they were or where they came from. To me, it was the micro-sample of what children can show the world, if given a chance - Just a hand to a stumbling another, be it a person or a nation, the very essence of humanity.

Returned to Geneva, where we had started and ended our trip the next day by taking the flight back to India. A journey, tiring the body but rejuvenating the mind, showing how little we know of this world and how much, how much beautiful more is there to be savored, around every corner.

March 8, 2013

[Reflections] A Story of Two Women

As wishes pour in for Women's day, my thoughts turn to two women who have taught me all about life, with their own. You may wonder why it's 'Story' instead of 'Stories', as you will know in just a bit, that they are two very different individuals. Almost polar opposites, you might say! But their story is indeed one and here it is...

One was born in a remote village. Another was born in a well-known city. One grew up surrounded by people dabbling with ploughs, amidst mud and stones, harvesting food for the body. Another grew up surrounded by people dabbling with pens, amidst books and words, harvesting food for the mind. As they were growing up, one saw relatives of her father fighting for tiny pieces of land and one saw friends of her father, fighting over points-of-view! And so they grew up, with their strikingly different flavors.

As Daughters
Both had fathers, who loved their daughters and understood that the best thing he could give her was an education. Striving through a lot of hardship, the father in the village, put his only daughter through graduation and her education turned out to be in the practical domain of Economics. Another father, perhaps only struggling on the point of safety of letting his daughter study in a city, put her through graduation and her education was in spiritual domain of Tamil Literature. Economics sharpened the practicality of one's childhood experiences. Tamil made another delve deeper into the humanity of her childhood experiences. Both became much admired and much loved teachers.

As Wives
Then, one day, one married the man, who was to be my father. The other, married the man, who was to be my father-in-law. One was love-after-marriage and the other, love-before-marriage. Both men were atheists. My flexible mother went along with my father's principle of not believing. But my firm mother-in-law went deeper into her religious faith.

Life keeps us on our individual tracks in tiny, small ways too. My mother was the one who took care of all the finances and managed the home. With her ability to plan, organize and actually do any amount of physical work, she was my father's equal in the physical domain. My mother-in-law was a thinker and a creator. With her prowess in tamil philosophy and her creativity, she was my father-in-law's equal in the mental domain. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder to a man in a man's world, is never an easy thing and they both did that with excellence, in their own ways.

As Mothers
The practical one had two daughters and the spiritual one, two sons. In their individual happy lives, tragedy struck in different ways. One was sudden and immense, with fate striking a blow of death and taking away my father prematurely. There was my mother, with two young daughters, tearfully standing at the end of a road. How was she to be the father and the mother, in providing for her daughters and protecting them in this violent world?

Another tragedy was gradual and unnoticeable. For you cannot be a prolific writer of 50+ books and a lyricist of 5,000+ lyrics and also, be there all the time, for your family. It wasn't my father-in-law's fault. It was also a blow of fate, striking him with fame. My mother-in-law was increasingly alone and had to nurture the minds of these two young boys, all by herself. How was she to be the father and the mother, in disciplining her sons, in bringing them up as good men in this tricky world?

And how they showed the world that they could! Life had already given the skills they needed for their respective journeys. It was about harnessing those with a deep perception. My mother brought her daughters up, with her excellent financial planning through every step of the way, giving them a good education and marrying them off happily. My mother-in-law brought her sons up, with the best possible values and strong minds, making them such men that the world now looks at them, not just with awe, but with love.

Still, you don't get to go through life's hardships without getting yourself a few rough edges. Sometimes, I don't understand the negativity in my mother's lack-of-trust in people and have fights with her, on this count. In a few moments, it all melts in the understanding that these quick judgements of people and situations have protected me at many points in life. Also, at times, I cannot accept the unquestioning religious beliefs of my mother-in-law and have my disagreements with her. Then, I realize that it is because of this same strong, unmoving faith, that she conquered the odds of her life and instilled positivity in her son, my husband. As I observe and absorb the two very different qualities of these women, it dawns that this is life's way of teaching me, balance.

Truly glad that life has made me know, love and be inspired by these two women. To have leaned on that down-to-earth, patient rock of a mother and to have wafted in that reassuring breeze of a mother-in-law. My salute to their womanhood!

February 23, 2013

[Movies] Aarohanam - On the highest Note!

When the cyclone Thane struck the shores of Chennai, there was an unexpected and unfortunate personal loss! It was the loss of catching a good movie, that was leaving theatres that very week. Although unexplainable at the moment of experience, time does have a reason for everything. A very good one, it turned out! Having heard a lot of positive reviews on the movie, Madhan and I were sad to let it go unseen. By a magical serendipity, we met the director of the movie, Lakshmi Ramakrishnan, in a mutual friend's wedding last week. How time orchestrates these things in a way, that only it understands! She was next in line in the queue to meet the wedding couple. Even if we were separated by two more rows, we might have missed them. As we had done in our earlier meetings, we started talking about Aarohanam and she asked if we had seen it yet. Hearing the reply in the negative, she asked if we wanted to catch a show on Tuesday organized by Dreams India. Absolutely, we said, delighted to be finally seeing the movie.

As the person who introduced the movie said, "Many people missed this movie, and sadly, many theatres too missed this movie."  This show was meant to be the means to let a few people catch what they wanted to, but couldn't. Luck was to give us an added bonus of interacting with the director, at the end of the movie. These few moments where people queried her about the movie and the fascinating details that thereby emerged made me thank Thane, for its mysterious kindness!

SPOILER ALERT - If there is even the slightest inkling to watch Aarohanam somehow, please stop at once and do come back, when you've experienced the movie.

The movie was narrated the way life whispers our own story to us. Normally, it doesn't neatly begin at A and plod along till Z. It has the habit of throwing random things at the random moment, that somehow explains a puzzling something from the past. Likewise, the story unfolded in jigsaw pieces, that the director seamlessly completed in your mind's eye, as the final credits ran. Although obviously coming from an affluent family, she has caught the essence of someone living a poor and wretched life, in minute detail. As Director Bharathi Raja, who happened to watch the movie with us, quirkily put it, "I simply refuse to believe this person has directed this movie, given the intricate details of the poor protagonist's life. A life has been captured deeply, penetrating through many layers", applauded one of the best film-makers of authentic Tamil Cinema.

The spotlight was positioned on a woman from a poor background with a mental illness and a husband who did not understand her. But in the periphery, there are also sad stories of other women from other worlds.  One might ask, what could possibly be tragic about a woman who has achieved it all in her business career? What might even be remotely sad about a wife, who travels around the country with her decorated army husband? Seems there is. The woman who has achieved stupendous success in her business career may have an empty home to go to. The woman who travels the country with her husband may have put away her personal dreams and aspirations, to be with the man she married. When the lives of these women are placed in parallel, there is perspective. You may have every advantage such as a rich family, a happening career and end up with a hollow feeling in your heart. Or, you may have every disadvantage such as poverty, abandonment, mental illness and still, emerge winning over the challenges in life.

Now, coming to the central theme in the film - a mental illness. Time and again, we've seen this topic being abused, misinterpreted, ending up horrifying the viewer. It is indeed hard to find a movie that balances creativity and authenticity in presenting a mental illness. In Aarohanam, we have a clear winner. Let me introduce the illness with scenes carved on the mind because of the picture-perfect performance of actor Viji. In one frame, the protagonist wears a bright saree, puts a big red kumkum on her forehead and is smiling so dazzlingly, full of happiness and confidence. In another, her hair is lying all tangled and messed up, tears streaming down and she stares blankly at the wall. In one scene, she arranges everything beautifully, keeps the house so neat and organized. In another, she doesn't lift a finger when the same is in a complete mess. In one moment, full of energy, she does the work of ten people in ten minutes. In another frame, she cannot even rise from her bed and can only sit and stare at the wall. In one moment, she dances for her kids, laughs with them and teases them like a friend. In another, at the slightest provocation, she throws a bowl of curry onto her kid's plate. In one phase, she is capable of securing a hard-to-get loan and starting multiple enterprises to become a vegetable vendor, an LIC agent and a house-cleaner. In another phase, she doesn't have the inclination or the strength to talk to a single person. Two different people, you say? The very same person, oscillating like a pendulum between these two extremes. The pendulum rests at various points in the interval but never for long and especially never at the neutral centre.

Know someone like that? Suffered because you were not able to understand or cope with the extremities of this person. If you haven't already been introduced, meet Bipolar Disorder. This is an illness, which makes the person who has it believe at points that they are not just in heaven, but are Gods themselves and at points that they are not just in hell, but the worst possible sinner there. A standing ovation for the sensitivity and the solid research behind this movie!

What about the people surrounding this central character, this ball of fire and ice? Imagine you have a stable mind but are constantly being provoked by the eccentricities of the person suffering. The director brings out the surrounding characters, in a realistic way. The daughter who stands by her mother so proudly and responsibly, understanding that her mother, in spite of her mental illness, has done more for her, than her father with a stable mind. The son who wants his father's affection, but cannot live without his mother. Most of all, the husband, who has used the excuse of his wife's illness to seek a life elsewhere. As he so indignantly declares in the movie, "When men are seeking other wives when their wife is perfectly alright, why shouldn't I seek someone else when I'm fated with a person like you?" Even more interesting in this movie is the other wife, who taken up by guilt or regret, comes to the support of the first and ill wife. Women and their various dimensions have been so beautifully captured in this movie. All you women directors, with dreams in your eyes and burdens on your shoulders, do come on and sensitise the world with your deep sensibility, as this director has.

In the interactions afterward, there was a psychologist, who deals with these issues every day of her life, who remarked, "Awesome job with this movie. So rightly, the focus here is on the patient. But, it is my request that sometime you must focus on the difficult and support-less life of the caregiver." It is indeed the care-giver who is the caught in the cyclone of this illness, without a shelter nearby. Made me think that the ill are treated, but for the pain of watching someone you love suffer, is there any medicine?

And why Aarohanam? The director illuminated that, "Of the two musical notes, Avarohanam is the one that falls and Aarohanam is the one that rises. Here I wanted to capture the rising phase of the illness in that one momentous night, where she touches many lives". So meaningfully apt to capture the positives of this up-and-down illness. The final note in the movie brought forth how some of the greatest human beings have made amazing contributions to society, in spite of all the lows of their mind. Kudos to this director from our shores, for shattering the stigma of mental illness everywhere.

Although her very first attempt at movie-making, so glad that this director understood that the most rewarding journeys in life are not to a new place in the world or even, the universe. But rather to an unknown recess of a mind. It's despair and it's hope!