December 30, 2015

[Experiences] Day Thirty

A life-changing December for many in my city, it sure has been! Nature’s fury threw us out of our complacent routines and made us focus on the important things in life. Adding an internal layer to this all-consuming external force, this was the month I had taken upon myself to write a blog article every single day for thirty days.

Originally, it was an attempt in silencing some voices within. When you have been ignoring what you love, voices can taunt you saying, ‘You have lost the spark’ and ‘Your words are dead!’ On the brink of believing that, I rebelled and decided to challenge this voice and write, no matter what. Yes, I could have written secret little articles on my laptop, just for my eyes. But, when one writes knowing other eyes will see it, one writes with the power it gives and the responsibility it asks. So, I took this challenge, trusting life. And, without fail, every single day, there was something to move me to write, to create, and to marvel. A few experiences, I went in search of; many, just came my way. I seized it all and made this December, one to remember!

Through sickness of loved ones and the consequent sleeplessness; Through the luxury of inspiration but poverty of time that is travel; Through the ups and downs of everyday life - Through it all, I kept going. But surprisingly, not one day did it feel like a burden. In fact, it felt like a balm, whatever was happening within or without.

As I shared thoughts and experiences, I felt a sense of calm enveloping me. I saw the creative child in me leaping with joy at being given these free reins! As this led me inward to heal those wounds of time that’s there in everyone, it simultaneously made me reach out to the world outside, to my long-lost friends and to people I meet every day, with a new humanity. It was a journey, to thirty different places in thirty days, bringing out a thirty different me.

As I wrote day after day, not aiming for my nitpicking perfection but for a sincere consistency, I found creativity to be an inexhaustible well. As I fetched each pail, I saw new ideas gushing in. Many a time, words that I knew not existed within me, came alive. It seemed like a whisper of the universe and the shout of every atom, all at once.

I see this as an exercise to show not just to myself but also to you, that you can break those barriers in your head and go towards whatever it is you want. You will know if it’s right or not when you get there. I hope, like me, you will come to realize that the only person standing in the way of your creativity is you! Go on, take up a challenge and prove it to yourself you can do it, if you ‘will’ so. Make that promise to the most important person in your life - you!

Now that I have fulfilled that promise I made to myself, I look at the fluttering flag atop this small hill. I turn to look lovingly at every mile behind me with a content smile. As I stand here at this moment, a kinder, warmer voice within says ‘This is not the end!’ It wordlessly points to those rugged mountains at a distance. And, I gaze ahead with hope!

December 29, 2015

[Reflections] As you beckon with love...

The everyday death; the fountainhead of life; the doctor of troubles; the priest of desires; the undertaker of the past; the foreteller of the future - What would we be without you, O Sleep! 

Isn’t it often said that one must forget sleep to make dreams come true? Do you think so? Don’t we find our lives going for a toss, if we do just that, no matter how aligned we are to our dreams. Perhaps, the saying is just to remind you that just dreaming won’t get you what you want. Perhaps, sleep here is the kind of sleep we do with eyes open - in refusing to do what’s good; In refusing to give up what’s not right.

What happens when one has to lose a lot of sleep, all the time? Volcanoes burst in the head at the merest trifles. It’s like setting a forest fire to light a lamp. On the other hand, after a night of calming sleep, even mountains seem moveable. Winds of serenity and waves of creativity flow within the soul.

An image of a classroom pops up. It’s the dreaded afternoon hour after lunch. The professor is going on about some little facet of study that is going to be of no use in another three years. They must buy his voice for those sleep lab demos. Instant soporific! Our friend, after a night of late-night partying in the hostel, seems to be tightrope walking between conking out and keeping eyes open. There, gravity wins and a head suddenly plonks on the desk! Next instant, a chalk lands on his head. Bulls-eye! They must ship off the professor to ISRO. What a precise launch and landing! A wave of muffled laughter pulses through the class. Another image of a conference room and a comatose colleague flashes by. Sleep sure has entertained us in more ways than one!

It’s my guess that the lack of sleep somehow has a huge role to play in half the wars happening around the world. Speaking of which, among warring couples, one might have the philosophy that says, ‘Stay up till you finish the fight!’
And, the other may say, ‘No talking in the night!’
‘How can you sleep now, with all these issues burning? one rages.
‘How can you want to talk, when your mind can’t find meaning?’ another responds.
This second speaker, no matter what his/her flaws may be, has won the argument hands down. Best thing would be to set a calendar reminder for the next morning to finish the fight and take one’s troubles to one’s own counselor, Dr. Sleep!

Isn’t sleep the one territory in which one reigns supreme? In spite of Inception The Movie, I don’t think there’s any way to enter another’s dreams, no matter how much one may want it. The only way is to be around a person, in a good or bad way and that person’s mind will decide if you make a difference enough to be let in and either way, you never know if you have been let in. In there, lies many valuable lessons. If, in sleep, when we have no control, we let no one into our minds, then why do we, when we are conscious and in control, let people and their words, actions and thoughts affect us? Why not learn to let it all pass like a dream even when awake. And, when a day of this is done, remember not to keep that lover called sleep waiting…

December 28, 2015

[Random] All in a Day's Work

Outside a clinic, hangs a board with smiling men and women in white coats. The text proclaims ‘Athena White’. A woman and a man in their thirties approach the clinic. They walk at a balanced distance, not as close as lovers, not as far as strangers, at the point of convergence called marriage. A receptionist with a dazzling smile greets them. He nods them in and asks them to wait in the reception area. He tells them, ‘The hygienist will call you in once the room is ready.’ The man meddles with his mobile while the woman takes in the atmosphere. The place looks as if it’s been refurbished since she was last here. Her eyes fall on the date flashing on the wall - 28/12/15. 

After some time, the man gets a call on the phone and just then, an attender arrives to call them in. The husband gestures to his wife to go in first. She enters a room and sees hi-tech medical instruments - probes, scrapers, polishers and other assorted unnameable ones. The hygienist starts her work. She peers inside and says, ‘You have some deposits. Not much. But watch out for the sensitivity’. With her probing eyes, she picks up an sharp instrument. An attender stands close by, with a long tube to suck in the waste the hygienist dislodges. The hygienist painstakingly scrapes off the deposits. 

‘When was the last time you were here?’, she asks.
 ‘In May’, comes the reply. 
‘The sockets should be tighter. But they have loosened a bit. Add a massage routine everyday.’ she advises. The woman on the slanting couch, nods her head silently. As the hygienist proceeds, she squirms a bit as a sensitive nerve is touched now and then. The cleaning goes on nevertheless and finally, it is done. The woman scans around and feels it to be fresh and clean. Satisfied, she walks out and sends her husband in.

Taking a look at the man, the hygienist tells herself, ‘This is going to be a dicey one. At least his wife took some pains to routinely clean. He has been slack.’ It’s a painful, bloody affair, as the hygienist works her way around. But meticulously, she makes up for his lack of care and attention. Months of sediments peel away. Deep inside, the healthy and the unhealthy have gotten intimate and it’s hard to get them to break up.

‘Too busy a life he leads, no doubt’, the hygienist tells herself. After a long and soul-searching effort, the cleaning is complete. In spite of all the bleeding, she acknowledges the inherent strength. A lot of wear and tear but he’s essentially strong, she decides. 
‘He certainly bites more than he can chew’ she quips to herself. While all these theories go on in her head, as a true professional, she gives nothing away. Done with her work, she smiles and recommends that it would be better for him to meet another specialist. 
He comes out and his waiting wife sees traces of the strain and asks, 
‘How was it? What did she say?’
‘Not a single problem. So perfect and fine!’, he replies.
They both start laughing.
She makes a face at him and asks, ‘How do I look?’ 
‘Great, as always!’, he replies.

The receptionist hands out the bill, with a even more dazzling smile. The woman settles it and they both get ready to leave. Just before she opens the door, as if she remembered something, the woman turns and asks the waiting hygienist, 
“Your name? I want to recommend you to a friend. When did you join this place?’ 
The hygienist points to her badge with a smile, and says, ‘2114’.
It reads, ‘Mana, Mental Hygienist’.

December 27, 2015

[Reflections] An Ode to Philia

Who is a friend? Someone who first comes to your mind when you see those hilarious Whatsapp memes? Someone whose face flits by when you are feeling down in the dumps? That one person who has been there for a long time? One of those many people who were there at different points in time? Someone who lives only in your memory? Someone you are living with, everyday? Someone you play a badminton game with? Someone you have long arguments with? Someone you laugh with? Someone on whose shoulders you cry on? Someone you felt an instant connection with? Someone you lost over the years? You’re right! There is no single answer, rule, logic or formula to have or be a friend. Even when nothing much is happening in the here and now, a friend still inspires that inexpressible feeling that makes you feel you’re alright.

Meeting and making a friend is as miraculous as being born, as falling in love! How did you happen to be at a place and time and with a certain attitude and mood to attract such a person into your life? What are the odds of something like that happening? Perhaps even the smallest, most irrelevant decision at some point in life could have made you meet or lose someone. It’s hard to imagine who we’ll be without that friend who was maybe there only briefly. What we know not, we cannot miss. What we know, we cannot bear to miss!

At one point in life, we couldn’t imagine a day passing without meeting a certain person. With that same person, months and even years now pass without a single word. When life seems to squeeze us from all directions, sometimes we decide reaching out to friends is more than we can handle. One lives life like a modern Robinson Crusoe, self-marooned in a concrete jungle. Yet, even when everything is going well, there seems to hang an air of desolation. An emptiness yearning for the echo of friendship!

Some friends are lost to distance and some to time. Some bridges have broken down beyond repair and the chasm seems too wide to cross. Perhaps, all you can do is to send a silent wish: ‘Our lives have got in between us. But I wish you well for the good you once did.’ Some other bridges are still hanging in there… by a few strands. You know that because those luscious once-upon-a-time memories are getting vague like an uncared-for painting with color fading, contours mingling and just a blur of the old glory remaining in your mind.  

As one finds many such bridges giving way, winds of loneliness swirl through the gaps and the mind seems to torment in a thunderous voice, ‘You are all one. You will always be alone’. You cannot reign over your mind if you fight it as if it were a devil in disguise. But if you can see that it’s a little child, a little you, throwing a tantrum, crying for a real friend, then you have hope. Go on, write that letter, make that call and you will know, how that act can change you around. To see dreams like yours hidden within one; To feel the joy of togetherness in another’s family; To bask in the affection of a long-forgotten voice; To hold one’s hand in listening to an ordeal faced; To celebrate the miracle of being blessed in trying circumstances. Feel yourself become so very light and rejoice in your capacity to love beyond your flesh and blood and watch it ripple outward to all of humanity.  

December 26, 2015

[Random] Gushing river!

A blank page;
A barren land;
Whatever flows flows.
No barring the surging waves;
No stopping the sprouting seeds;
Will this river reach the ocean?
If it didn’t, would it be a river?
Will it make deserts flower?
Will it make mountains cower?
Why not let it be what it will be?
Why not a symphony of serendipity?
Why pain for the past?
Why fear of the future?
Why seek to find something?
Why not find whatever was found?
Why is any path, the wrong path?
Because it should be somewhere, elsewhere?
What if it didn’t go all the way?
Because of this dead end?
Either ram it with all there is,
Or turn back and find another way.
Brave enough to choose either!
What flowed in isn't what's flowing out!
That’s all the meaning there is.
The change within, the destination!
Every mistake made, was to be.
Every path trod on, was to be.
Flowing words flood the soul!

December 25, 2015

[Experiences] On Tales and Trails

Often, travellers to a city know much more about it than the people who live there. And often, a city where one lives and works becomes just a place one wants to escape from. Should familiarity breed only contempt? Can it not evoke a sense of appreciation, a curiosity to know the unknown amidst the well known? Driven by this reflection, decided to take a tour with Storytrails. Storytrails is a Chennai-based company that conducts walking tours in different parts of the city on different themes, creating an experience, wherein they stitch the sights of the present with the stories from the past.

The trail I chose to walk on was the Bazaar trail, through a bustling market area in George Town. The walk started at a church facing the Madras High Court where the storyteller for the day, Lakshmi, opened the session by sketching a story of the British East India Company’s foray into Madras. Stories of George Town and Black Town came alive with her words, and looking again, I could see a street full of traders from all over the country lining their wares, for here was a ready buyer in the East India Company with a factory that made ‘nothing’!

From there, we took a short walk to a quiet church, the Armenian church, linking the faraway landlocked country of Armenia in West Asia to Chennai’s pre-British past. A marker for Chennai being a cradle of trade for the world! Then, she regaled me with the stories of British Traders like Parry, Binny and Arbuthnot and their exploits in work and personal life. With the past running in the background, we then walked, nay bumped, into today! Narrow streets piled with vegetables, spices and assorted things; A truck trying to venture into a road that we would think twice to walk into; Every couple of minutes, someone saying ‘Nagarunga(Step aside)’ and wanting your space; Hangover drenched faces of sellers, loudly bargaining with customers and sounds of Chennai’s unique dialect ringing in the air!

Walking with Lakshmi, I learnt unknown facets of everyday things in a local household: Of how an unattractive ridge gourd becomes a beautifying, biodegradable loofah; how the banyan leaf is an offshoot of the caste system; Of English women carrying snuff in bejeweled boxes supposedly to clear their sinuses; Of chilies and lemons wading away the bringer of doom, Allakshmi and many more such intricacies, in a sensory albeit sneeze-filled experience.

Before it was time to say bye, I wanted to know the story behind my storyteller’s storytelling. She told me how this path emerged with her training in Montessori education and its emphasis on storytelling. When she heard of this venture, she wanted to reinvent her passion of storytelling and joined this team. Showing how committed she is,  she talks about doing tours on all seven days of the week and only trying not to do more than one on a Sunday! When I asked her if it wasn’t boring to tell the same story, she said ‘Surprisingly no. I’ve even stopped analyzing why.’ She says she tries to vary the fare and tell a funny line with a different intonation or in a different order. She talked about how much she learns from the people she meets, mentioning the one time she received an instant crash course on the fine art of slowing down!  All this made me reflect that a story is not just about people or incidents in the past or imaginary present but has as much to say about the person telling it and the person listening to it. So, here’s a job for someone with a penchant to meet and greet the world with stories of one’s city!

December 24, 2015

[Movies] Star Wars - (7) The Force awakens 2015

The Force has awakened! No one back in 1983 knew it would. Likewise, the parents of the majority of the audience I saw the movie with, hadn’t decided to have them back then too. So, here’s a movie and an audience celebrating the joy of being born! If a movie franchise could capture the imagination of such an audience, more than three decades after its inception, then one should acknowledge the power of its force. And, if I told you that this crowd raised the roof even as ‘Lucasfilm’ appeared on screen, then you can imagine the rest!

SPOILER ALERT - Do come back after you have experienced the movie

In the way, Rey, a lonely girl on a desert planet, moves, thinks and relates, you are constantly reminded of someone you’ve seen before. As she scavenges for machines and machine parts to make a living; In the way her life changes with the arrival of a droid; In her sense of goodness in refusing to give up the droid no matter how desperate she is; In her sense of duty in wanting to go back to Jakku, her planet, although it’s a dreary and unliveable place. Yes, it’s young Luke Skywalker, in aptitudes, attitudes and even life circumstances, as the world first saw him, a long time ago, in a faraway galaxy, in 1977.

What ho to see Han Solo again! Not the handsome one we remember. A haggard-looking Solo, now in the shoes of a father pining for his prodigal son. One of the defining dynamics of Star Wars, its focus on father-son relationships, is at play in this one too. In the first trilogy, a son tries to save his father from the dark side and now, it’s the father's turn to do the same for his son. Why is it that it’s the father who dies, no matter what? 

One sees the ‘continues…’ in bold, underlined and italicized fonts even in the backgrounds and characters. Here’s an intergalactic pub, up-cycled for modern purposes, reminding us of the one we met Han Solo for the first time. An obese Jabba-like creature sits with an attractive female in its armpit, watching the proceedings. And most of all, there’s Maz, who looks like she’s related to the legendary Yoda. His uber-cool granddaughter, why not? 

The thing I love about this sequel is the power it gives to a girl. In the very first Star Wars, there was a ladylike Leia, a leader to her troops. In spite of her bravado, you could sense her lack of confidence as she pulled the trigger on her machine gun. Now, in this latest sequel, there is redemption. Here we find Rey, a girl living on her own and quite capable of taking care of herself. She does not want to be saved or held by the hand by any man, no, thank you! She’s capable of saving herself and what’s more, she can even resist the power of an errant Jedi, with no training whatsoever! In my eyes, a tribute to every modern woman, living life on her own terms.

The movie begins with an image of a girl sitting huddled up in an ocean of sand, looking expectantly at the sky. It ends with the girl walking up an island in the middle of an ocean from her dreams, and looking into the eyes of the person whom she has been searching for, her whole life. This poignant moment holds in its grasp, questions about their past which is the hope for the future of Star Wars. And we can say, the Force has captured the imagination of yet another generation!

December 23, 2015

[Analysis] A Study in Whose Hue!

After what seemed like a walk through the words of a book, I took a car ride through the scenes on a screen into the world of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson once again. What catches our eye heavily depends on how we are travelling. While legs may ache from all the walking, a car ride seems easy enough. Thousands of words condensed into a single frame; Pages of description captured in a single look! That’s the power of the film, but so much now depends on the viewer. The conclusions are left much more open and highly subjective. Sherlock here appears to be more snobbish, more annoying and faster than the one in the book. The speed perhaps, is not just because of the mode change; it’s also due to the change in time. Perhaps, if the 1880s Sherlock were to appear now as he was then, people would think him too considerate and totally decent. Introducing Dr. Watson, we find him waking up from nightmares of scenes of war. What a coincidence that since the book was written in 1880s, we have another war in Afghanistan. This is history repeating itself, literally and literarily! With our excessive emphasis on the diseases of the mind in this era, the consequence of Watson’s nightmares is that he finds himself with a therapist. As Sherlock observes in a matter-of-fact way, ‘You've got a psychosomatic limp. Of course you've got a therapist.’ 

As is to be expected of any self-respecting detective of this age, Sherlock is adept in the use of gadgets. Hacking, group messages, ‘Find-my-phone’, GPRS Tracking, CCTV cameras and even the humble microwave (holding a pair of eyeballs) delightfully shout out that it’s the age of technology. In this postmodern translation on TV, we find attributes of characters in surprising places, where we were not expecting them at all. For instance, there’s polygyny that’s crucial to the plot in the novel. Here you find adultery, which serves not the plot but only to show the prowess of Holmes, as illustrated by the way he extracts the information about a person's marital fidelity from the state of her wedding ring, dirty on the outside and clean on the inside. Then, there's the word ‘Rache’ which appears in both versions. But the reasons are reversed. The wrong conclusion then is the right one now. Also, in a poetic stance, the hunter in the novel is retained as a metaphor. ’Who hunts in the middle of a crowd?’ is the question that ultimately leads to the killer.

In a lighter vein, now is the age wherein two men sharing a space and a few adventures can only mean one thing: That both of them are gay! Mrs. Hudson thinks so; A restaurant owner thinks so; At a point, Watson suspects it of Holmes and Holmes suspects it of Watson too. We are quickly relieved of these mushrooming suspicions although the other characters do not give up their conclusions so easily. Such a thought never crossed Doyle’s mind, I bet. A reflection of the Now and its piercing focus on sexuality!

The killer in both cases is a person who takes people places. In the book, it’s a man of physical strength, at ease with horses. In the film, it’s a man of intelligence, at ease with spaces. Coming to the motives behind the murders, we are treated to a fascinating story of the travails of the killer and the justification in his murders in the original. Here we find a psychopath who, having made a pact with the devil, makes people die so that his girls can live a happy life after his death. Perhaps, we should acknowledge that there is love in both. The sword of death hangs above both our protagonists. One wants to keep it at bay until he has had his revenge. One is driven by the sword and makes a devious game out of it to give him the satisfaction of outliving four healthy individuals. Life and death seem to be doing a dance of contrasts! 

The essence of the killer is not in his physical prowess and earthy skills of that era. It’s all about the mind. Perhaps, that’s what moves the world now. In this new version, we find no dashing victim, no moving love story and no noble motives. Instead, it’s a man broken by fate and divorce. This transformation has a huge role to play in shifting the emphasis from the killer to Sherlock Holmes, without a doubt.

On the whole, how I see this is that the creators cut the novel into pieces, scattered them all over the show and somehow still managed to retain the soul of the story of Sherlock Holmes from the pages of the past to the picture of the present!

December 22, 2015

[Books] A Study in Scarlet

Even as I key in the first word, I know this is going to be a long one. How can it not be, for it’s a jubilant celebration of worlds created by words. Many years ago, when I had the leisure to lose myself in books of every kind, there happened a time my interest had turned in the direction of classics. Although an ardent fan of Jane Austen and her minute exploration into emotional dynamics in relationships, I guess there was a part in my mind that seemed equally comfortable getting friendly with the logical unraveling of crime in the works of Arthur Conan Doyle. I remember reading quite a few books and being wowed by the skill of Mr. Holmes and the way he explained away his skill to his admiring companion with his customary, ‘Elementary, my dear Watson!’ Recently, I got to see the British TV Series on Sherlock Holmes and was much taken away by this sleek and open-ended interpretation. What pulled me towards this, was the way a story from the 1880s has made its transition to 2010s.  A journey of more than a century! What was the power of this creator who could make his plots time-travel? How superior must have been his understanding of the core of human nature! 

’A Study in Scarlet’ happens to be the first book in which Holmes makes an appearance. Thus, we meet for the first time, this enigmatic British gentleman, who can be called the godfather of many generations of spies and detectives around the world. It’s a little novel and you can read the entire book for free on Project Gutenberg. The challenge is finding the time to start. But you just have to start and then Doyle will work his magic on you and keep you engaged till you finish the book in a feverish read. What had driven my curiosity initially was just to observe the transition from book to screen and from the nineteenth to the twenty first century. But, as I read it, the turn of phrases and the nuances of human nature propped the book in a special place and I wanted to do justice to it.

If this is the first book that Sherlock Holmes appears in, then this is also the first book where Watson and Holmes meet. We should remember that in spite of all his fame, the world-famous Holmes will not be, if not for the reminiscences of Dr. Watson. The story starts with the doctor and his career trajectory in the military, with his wanting to go to India and how the Afghan war overtakes his dreams of a peaceful practice and he is led to face the fire of the battlefield. Being wounded in war, he soon finds himself on his way to London, which he describes as ‘that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.’ This is the simple story of how Watson and Holmes, who have regaled people across time and space, meet. Not for some grand purpose but as two men in search of a decent place to live and share expenses with another... As if they were penny-pinching students at a university of our times. Great things have simple beginnings, indeed! 

The restraint of Watson in asking Holmes what the nature of his work was, in spite of multiple conversations, sketches that era in clear strokes. Not knowing that it was written by Holmes, ’The Science of Deduction’ is disparaged by Watson, but quickly understands that Holmes is no armchair philosopher when he explains how he knew that Watson had returned from Afghanistan, knowing nothing about him, but with just a careful look. It’s illuminating to watch a brilliant mind reveal its reasons as to why it made a certain decision and came to a certain conclusion. In this book, we also meet Gregson and Lestrade, both officers of the Scotland Yard and having their ardent followers, even without Twitter, Facebook and whatnot. Holmes does not think much of them as can be seen by this observation in French, ‘Un sot trouve toujours un plus sot qui l’admire’, which apparently is translated thus: ‘A fool always finds a greater fool to admire him.’

The excitement of Holmes when he scents a murder is palpable, as is revealed by the tone of piqued interest in which he gives this collection its name and his view on this thing called murder: ‘A scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of life.’ Sensing this unnatural yearning for murder and indifference to the emotional trauma of it, people sometimes suspect him to be the murderer. This happens especially at times when he demonstrates his skill of knowing without being told and he disarms them with this comment that he’s no wolf, just a hound. In another instance too, Watson observing Holmes in the crime scene, compares him to a ‘well-trained foxhound’, one scampering about in search of a lost scent and whining in excitement on getting a whiff of it. 

The relational dynamics between Holmes and Watson is a delight to behold. Watson is no empty flatterer. He is truly impressed by the skills of Holmes. But Watson understands the power he has over Holmes. In a multi-layered observation, one looking at his own words as if he’s a third person and the other, by looking at the response it evokes in Holmes, Watson remarks that ‘I had already observed that he was as sensitive to flattery on the score of his art as any girl could be of her beauty!’ 

In different scenes, the tiny contours of human nature are drawn with the delicacy of a creator of miniature art: The scene in which a low ranking police officer is tempted by the bribe of a half-a sovereign coin and promises to tell all he knows. The arm of corruption has long been at play, one supposes; The way Watson’s nature is revealed in actually feeling gratitude for the man who had removed the abhorrent looking victim, not just in physical looks but in the deeply ingrained flaws of his soul. This is also a clue, an omen of sorts about where the story is going; In a discussion between Holmes and Watson wherein Watson wonders why having seen so many murders in the battlefield, he’s still affected by these crimes of the civil world. To which, Holmes explains that reason for the heightened response is the presence of a mystery. Only when mystery is there, imagination comes to play and without imagination, there can be no horror, he pithily concludes.

Watson describes a moment when Holmes concedes defeat, as a tangibly expressive moment when on Holmes’ face, amusement and annoyance struggle for mastery and how he lets lightness take over him and accepts with grudging praise of how he’s been taken in. In another light moment, not for Holmes but for us, when Gregson remarks excitedly of how he’s managed to untangle the mystery, Sherlock remarks with a yawn, ‘How exciting!’ Guaranteed to let out those peals of laughter from within you.  

In a series of stunning moments, Sherlock Holmes manages to lure the murderer to his home and then arrest him, in the presence of Watson, Gregson and Lestrade. The passion of this cornered person is captured in the lines, 'He appeared to have the convulsive strength of a man in an epileptic fit’. The first part of the novel ends with the capture of the murderer and Holmes’ promise to explain how he made this happen.

As we sit waiting for Holmes to explain, instead we are whisked off to the wilderness of Sierra Blanca in the North American continent, as if the pages of another book got bound in, by mistake. If our acquaintance with Conan Doyle made us think that he was just a master weaver of stories of crime and nothing else, he knocks us out with a travelogue, a historical fiction, a cultural account, a passionate love story, a thrilling adventure and a seed for a vendetta, all rolled into one. We get to travel the American wilderness; see the life of Mormons in Salt Lake City in that era and observe their customs, such as in one quaint point, when a man refuses to marry, as is their custom to take many wives, he is described as one reluctant to incur ‘expense’. This has much to tell about views on marriage and women as much as the Mormons, I suppose; gaze with a smile at a moving romance, which is foretold by some of the most beautiful lines I’ve ever read on how a girl becomes a woman: ‘Least of all does the maiden herself know it until the tone of a voice or the touch of a hand sets her heart thrilling within her, and she learns, with a mixture of pride and of fear, that a new and a larger nature has awoken within her.’  So here weaved inside this crime novel is a delicious spread of a sumptuous literary feast!

Pages can be written just about the characterization of the murderer and who I think, is the hero of this novel truly, no offence to Mr. Holmes. Doyle talks about how he gets his power of sustained vindictiveness from living with Indians. His skill and practice in hunting, which he later employs to hunt down the men who took away the love of his life. His experiences, his motives, his mannerisms, even his physical characteristics are all interwoven in one coherent whole! In the end, you totally take sides with this murderer and give him a standing ovation when looking at the police, he says, ‘I am just as much an officer of justice as you are’. 

The story winds back from the history of the murderer to story of Holmes as told by the doctor. After reading the accounts of how this incident is reported in the newspapers giving all credit to Gregson and Lestrade, Sherlock Holmes remarks cynically, “What you do in this world is a matter of no consequence. The question is, what can you make people believe that you have done.” Dr. Watson consoles him by making a pragmatic observation asking him to take comfort in the coins that fill his pocket and adding that he was now there to take all these facts to the world. Lucky us! 

December 21, 2015

[Reflections] A sack on your back!

Ever get the feeling you are stooping low even when there’s nothing on your back? Ever feel as if something is pulling you down and you can’t see what? Look deeply and you will find an imaginary sack on your mind’s back. The sack started piling stuff in, a long while ago, even before you knew it. Perhaps, when as a baby you were howling with pain and somehow there was no one to pick you up and comfort. Perhaps, when as a child, you had built that amazing sand castle and the people with you were too engrossed in their conversations to notice; Perhaps, as a teenager, when you were ignored or worse, insulted by a group to which you wanted to belong; Perhaps, in all those little and big blows in your relationships; All the dents and bumps you’ve ever received from life. And so, the sack has been filling up by itself. Like that unassuming frog, sitting in water turning hot, the piling weight does not come to our attention at individual moments. Collectively, it starts to wear us down in our work, in our personal lives, in our relationships and in our yearning to do more and be more. 

What then should one do with this pile? It seems like there is no way out of filling it and no way out of being pulled down by its weight? The mind’s hand automatically reaches out to those damaging stones that come labeled as regret, negativity, rejection, failure, loss and on and on. Why does it do it? Perhaps it thinks, ‘This is no stone! It’s a memory and it could be something precious!’ Perhaps, it says to itself, ‘I may not understand it now but if I hold on to it, in time, I’ll mine the diamond out of it!’ And so, the sack bulges!

How can we rise above this burden and stand tall? Can we ever walk upright? Is there a way we can refuse to accept these rocks given to us by life? Can we learn to say, ‘No, thank you! This is of no use to me now or ever’? But if we do that, won’t we miss the lessons of life? Or, do you think we can examine our sacks, sort and throw away all the useless stuff of the past lurking in there? Do we have the time, the patience and the strength to do that?

It doesn’t seem right to throw away every one of those stones for there may indeed be diamonds in them, hidden somewhere. It would be a tragedy to have a ‘spotless mind’, wouldn’t it? Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet would vouch for this. So, we can’t simply dump our sack into the river of amnesia. And in other times, it’s too painful to even look and sort out the dry deserts and fertile forests amongst these. Peering closer, there seems to be another path on this valley of possibilities. Why not become modern alchemists, not to make gold of the sand in the world, but to make feathers of these stones in our sack? Why can’t we all learn the art of making art with our pain? Yes, it may seem beyond us. But stirring that pot of gooey goodness in us and pouring plenty of positivity, we can surely create this magic potion and in no time, our stones will become feathers!

Then just wait and watch the weightlessness of your sack lift your spirit and life. See it make you fly high, far beyond your ‘Can I?'

December 20, 2015

[Movies] Star Wars - (6) Return of the Jedi 1983

The Return of the Jedi found me exhausted with this series. In spite of the initial excitement of watching this cultural phenomenon of a movie, I found it hard to continue sticking to my initial plan of watching all six. So, this will be my last on this series unless ‘awakened’ by the upcoming sequel of Star Wars.

Creatures and their characterization in Jabba’s island tested my patience. There were some that seemed straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, only painted in evil tones. A significant point of interest in this episode was in finding out that Darth Vader was indeed Luke Skywalker’s father and not just a ploy employed to trick Luke into turning over to the dark side. This led me to ask myself why I couldn’t see it. Anakin Skywalker was portrayed as such a great and good man that it was unthinkable for me to consider him to be this dark and destructive Darth Vader. The confirmation of this fact and the revelation of who the other 'hope' is, were the only intriguing moments in the film. Luke and Leia! Brother and sister, they turn out to be! This unraveling story of sorts becomes a circus of too many things flying all over the place.

The way Luke senses Vader’s presence and vice versa strongly reminded me of the same connection between Voldemort and Harry Potter. The faith and patience of Luke makes his father repent and turn over to the good side in the end. This stands as illustration to the religious core on which the philosophy of this series seems to stand.

There was a light moment when Yoda tells Luke, seeing him look at him curiously, in his characteristic style, ‘When 900 years old you reach, look as good, you will not!’ If not 900 years older, at least a little older Leia, Solo and maybe Skywalker, we shall get to see in the sequel and see for ourselves, if there isn't some truth in Yoda’s words.

After being done with this, decided just reading the plot of the prequel trilogy would do. There was one point that disturbed the flow. In the summaries of the prequel trilogy, I read that Leia and Luke’s mother dies giving birth to them. But Leia tells Luke that she remembers her mother. ‘She was beautiful, kind but sad’, she says. This jarred as a contradiction between the two trilogies! Other than this food for thought, the rest of it was about a lot of Jedi action and the story of good Anakin Skywalker becoming the evil Darth Vader. 

On the whole, the characters in the series didn’t have much depth. Perhaps, when trying to bring in all this technology that did not exist and conjure up things about space and creatures, there wasn’t time for depth. On this tangent, the protagonists of Arthur.C.Clarke’s Rama Series come to mind in recollecting the shades they had, as space travellers and how even that was in flux throughout the series. From another angle, one should admire the patience and strategy of the director to wait for more than two decades for the technology to progress to the level he wanted on the animation front, before making the prequels. This is a movie series for the tech-buffs and the animation nerds, while the rest of us are left with an empty feeling of wanting more.

Still, what is interesting about what lies ahead is that here comes a sequel after 32 years. Makes one reflect whether a movie too grows like a human being in one’s imagination. How much have we changed from what we were in 1983 to now? As a grown person, we probably ‘know’ more but do we really understand more? Isn’t it completely possible that childhood was the true period of understanding, when all this learning hadn’t corrupted our thinking? Perhaps, these parallels apply to the movie series too. That remains to be seen!

December 19, 2015

[Movies] Star Wars - (5) The Empire Strikes Back 1980

The Empire Strikes Back starts on an icy remote planet. The rebels are being hunted by the dark forces and forced to evacuate their base. The tensions in the relationship between Han and Leia play out, with Han declaring that Leia is in love with him and Leia refusing that, insisting that the allies need him not just her. Luke Skywalker is getting a lot confident in using the 'Force' and he is able to escape the grip of an abominable snowman kind-of-creature.

The attacking ‘Imperial Walkers’, bug like metallic robots with long legs and an impenetrable armor reminded me of the chunky robotic things in the transformer movies and the machines invading Pandora in the Avatar movie. It made me conclude that the Star Wars series is indeed the mother of all the hi-fi sci-fi movies of today. In three years, the designs and detailing have gotten much better. Perhaps, the success of the first one helped. Emotionally, the characters don’t seem to have evolved much. In a scene, just to prove to Han that she’s not in love with him, she kisses Luke Skywalker, who turns to look at Han, as if he’s beat him and won a trophy! While, from the relationship angle, the characters seem to still be in the adolescent stage, things have matured a lot in the philosophical front, for here is Yoda!

As the voice of Ben sows the seed for Luke’s journey towards becoming a Jedi warrior, we first hear of the legendary Yoda in the Star Wars Series! No other character seen so far comes close to the interestingness of Yoda.  In some ways, Yoda reminded me of Oogway, the tortoise Grand Master in Kung Fu Panda. Whether it was the way they both hold their eyes half closed a lot or the intuitive, wise and a little crazy approach of the two, I couldn’t pinpoint exactly, but I see a clear shade of similarity. 

Live from Yoda, we get to hear all the lines that pervade popular culture. These are my personal favorites.

Do... or do not. There is no try.

(The king of motivating punch lines. The kind of words that seem to zing with action)

Luke: I don't believe it.
Yoda: That is why you fail.
(The essence of what he must learn, captured tersely. In believing lies winning)

Luke: Is the dark side stronger?
Yoda: No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.
(A perfect psychological portrait of all darkness, be it anger, hatred, doubt) 

Yoda: [points to a cave opening beneath a large tree] That place... is strong with the dark side of the Force. A domain of evil it is. In you must go.
Luke: What's in there?
Yoda: Only what you take with you.
(Could all the evil we perceive, be whatever we take with us? )

Entering this very cave, Luke finds Darth Vader within and defeats him, only to find that his own face in the black mask of the slain Vader. Perhaps, this cave is the place where one finds what one fears the most. Perhaps, it’s the philosophical inverse of Harry Potter’s Mirror of Erised where one sees what one desires the most. 

As predicted through out, Darth Vader tries to win over Luke to the side of the Dark Emperor. His motive and the methods are reminiscent of Lucifer tempting Jesus. Interesting is the way Vader tries to confuse Luke Skywalker saying that he is Luke's father and we are led to believe that Luke believes this, as he keeps murmuring ‘Why didn’t Ben say?’

There are plenty of puzzles in this one. As Ben declares to Yoda that Luke’s their last hope and Yoda replies, ‘No. There’s another!’ Much to look forward to, in the final of the initial Trilogy!

Yoda Quotes: Courtesy - IMDB.

December 18, 2015

[Movies] Star Wars - (4) A New Hope 1977

I have been meaning to see the Star Wars series for sometime now, having first heard of it a from a geeky friend in college. I remember that he rolled his eyes when I said ‘Nope. I haven’t watched Star Wars’, as if I had no right to call myself a movie buff. Besides, I read about the Indian Prime minister’s address at Central Park, New York where he seems to have told Hugh Jackman, ‘May the Force be with you!’ amidst rousing cheers. Does one need any other reason? Then again, the order of release in the movie series was an intriguing 4-5-6-1-2-3. This going back and forth over more than three decades on a single plot caught my fancy because that would have so much to inform us about not just the changes in technology and knowledge of space travel but even the cultural perceptions and life attitudes reflected therein. Most importantly, there’s the Star Wars Episode 7 about to release in 7 days. It seemed like the ‘Force’ was indeed pushing me to finally watch it.

I was advised to not begin from the beginning but begin from how it began! So, I started with the 1977 movie, which was the 4th episode. The fact that I wasn’t even born then made it extra interesting to me, as a viewer. Still, it took quite a bit of effort to stop myself from giggling at the representation of robots, the expressions of those actors interfacing with advanced technology, and the so-called hi-tech computer effects, which to a person of this decade, looks like pretty primitive video games. I’m sure, in another thirty years, they’ll be roaring with laughter about what we consider impeccable sci-fi movies of today. Anyway, I had to keep bringing myself back to sobriety by reminding myself that how one sees the future is, for the most part, an extension of the present. That the future could be something phenomenally different from today is not an idea we seem to entertain often.

As the movie started, the first ‘thing’ that caught my attention was C-3PO, a feeling robot, who was fearing its doom almost poetically. An over-talkative, over-smart human-cyborg relations droid, portrayed in a shiny gold exterior and going out of its way to show that it’s a robot, courtesy those colorful wires that seem to peek out of its torso. Its companion is R2, the super-intelligent robot that could hack into any system and do just about any technical operation. Of course, we don’t understand a word it says. That’s why we need C-3PO! In a way, these two are modeled like a genius, eccentric man and his talkative, emotional wife. 

Princess Leia, whom we meet soon after, glowing in white, seems a delicate person with lofty ambitions to save the whole universe from the evil forces. Even the way she fires a gun is as if she’s shocked about it. At times, it feels like Princess Leia is playing a part in a romantic-comedy movie. Case in point, she kisses Luke Skywalker clumsily when they are about to make a leap across a ledge on the enemy starship and says ‘It’s for luck!’

Luke Skywalker is a boy brought up by his relatives, after the death of his father, but in him, there is a sense of destiny beyond his immediate dry world. He tries to be dutiful to the uncle and aunt who have raised him even though he is frustrated to be doing meaningless chores in the name of duty. There was a scene where the uncle, aunt and Luke are at the dining table having their breakfast of a white liquid and some powdery stuff, the planet’s version of milk and chocolate cereal, no doubt! Luke is having a meltdown about being held back from the academy to help his uncle. The aunt stays perfectly quiet as Luke argues with his uncle, observing him intently, not trying to get a word in. Only after Luke leaves in a dejected albeit accepting manner, does she talk to her husband, arguing for Luke’s sake. Again, her husband listens to her advice but shows he’s the one in control by ending the discussion having his way and the last word. Perhaps, a reflection of man-woman roles as it was in 1977, rather than in the future, in a faraway galaxy.

In a reflection of what we know not, being an extension of what we know, the extra-Terrestrial creatures on this far-off planet have for the most part, human torsos and deformed or distorted heads of animals we have seen and read about. In this alien world too, we find a pub and there are all these creatures drinking and behaving as if they are in Madison Avenue on Planet Earth instead of Mos Eisley on Planet Tatooine. No surprise in finding a swashbuckling Han Solo here. Interesting to get into the skin of this pragmatic but good-hearted character played by the charismatic Harrison Ford. His very hairy first mate is a bear kind of figure who goes by the name ‘Chewie’. Although a ragged looking creature, Chewie cares about how he smells and expresses extreme reluctance to jump into the garbage chute even when it’s a matter of life and death! Even if these characters are clashing laser swords or are surrounded by enemy bots amidst laser gun shots, they are seen reeling off wisecracks at one other. An ‘Aha’ moment was when Han Solo looks at a moneylender, don kind of figure, to whom he owes money and who happens to be a greedy talking lizard and says ‘You are a great human being, Jabba!’  Who really is a human, it makes you think!

What I learnt about the ‘Force’ from this movie is that it is that which connects and moves all living beings. The Jedi warriors are trained in employing the force in their warfare, which is referred to as a religion. The Force is felt when there is a disturbance to life forms. ‘It controls you but obeys you too’, Obi Wan says. It made me reflect on other things in this same combination. ‘Instinct’ would fit the bill too. Heard phrases popularly used like ‘The force is strong with this one’, as Darth Vader remarks of Luke Skywalker in what I heard as a grudging but complimenting tone. Speaking of the devil, isn’t the idea of Darth Vader turning evil after training under a Jedi master like Obi-Wan, much reminiscent of Angel Lucifer’s fall from Heaven? 

At the end of the first movie, I think Star wars is legendary because it combines religion, politics, technology and serves a heady cocktail to a dreaming nation, waking up to the possibilities of the future. 

In the end, the evil forces are destroyed and our hero brings home the ship and saves the rebelling warriors on the good side. All’s well that’s end’s well, American style, but there’s more, as the Empire will want to Strike back. Unlike the first viewers, I don’t have to wait three years for that!

December 17, 2015

[Reflections] A life of learning!

Imagine you were a student living thousands of years ago. How would you further your knowledge? You would seek out a Guru, eat with him, travel with him, wash his clothes and clean his home and in return for your services, he would condescend to share his knowledge with you. This knowledge was sealed tight in the cryptogram of classical languages, far from the reach of the common man. Talking of linguistic cryptograms, remember the Q.E.D we used to write at the end of our geometry theorems! I doubt if we had any idea about what this meant then but we plugged it in anyway. Later, if we had the inclination to investigate such childhood oddities, we came to know that it stood for ‘quod erat demonstrandum’, which was a fancy way of saying, ‘Remember, this is the thing we were going to prove!’ As if we were sitting in ancient Rome and studying under a Latin philosopher! Coming back home to our own learning scene, sometimes, as in the case of Ekalavya, a Guru could easily refuse a student, no matter how sincere he was. There are many Ekalavyas today too. If not for any isolatable reason, just for the omnipresent one called numbers. Consider how many young and old people aspiring to learn, live in our country. Consider how many centres of learning - universities and colleges, there are. So, no wonder, the overburdened lords and ladies of our seats of learning choose to find ways to say more no’s than yeses. Many a student has been turned away from their doors, although a passion burnt inside to learn. These heartbroken souls must first mourn their losses, but should soon realize that the centres of learning are now right in front of them - in the form of their laptops and smartphones. Walk up to Coursera, EdXUdemy, and you are sure to find worlds opening up. Whatever it is you want to learn, be it the recipe of an apple pie or the significance of the mathematical pi, one needs to look no further. Personally, I have had a joyful experience on this path. The first course that I took was ‘Anthropology of Current World Issues’, offered on EdX by The University of Queensland, Australia. It was an elegant introduction to the study of human beings. All about the differences, the similarities, the paradoxes, the parallels of cultures around the world. Every week, the course would take me to a different part of the world and make me understand how the people of that land face a world issue they locally have, through the eyes of anthropologists who work with them. Through this course, I was introduced to the many approaches in anthropology through interviews with inspiring anthropologists across the world. The course had what is referred to as ‘opinion maps’ and on these maps of the world, you could see the views of students everywhere from Colombia to China. These online education portals do have a way of bringing the world as one. One learns not just a course but to learn about oneself and the world. Just like Ekalavya made a mud statue of the teacher who refused to teach him and went on to teach himself and become a master of that, you too can do the same with your metal university. There is no need for you to break down with tears when they find reasons not to open those ivory gates. When the world is in your hands, why yearn for walls?