Monday, June 18, 2012

Growing Up, Taking Notes, Giving Addresses

Growing up is a stripping away of illusions, isn't it? We must surrender certain beliefs, acquire a practised air of unconcern, sacrifice enthusiasm at the altar of practicality. The older we grow, the wiser we become - wiser to our frailties and others', more comfortable with the things that should make us very uncomfortable. We lose our sense of fight and lie to ourselves by saying we're just becoming more understanding. Or we swallow the bitterest pill of all and become cynical and resentful, because one of the chief perils of growing up is knowing that we will never be 17, or 27, or indeed even 37 again - doors have slammed shut, chances have passed us by and the possibilities for re-invention are thin on the ground.

But then, when we've resigned ourselves to growing up, we will discover Notes, Memoirs, autobiographies, interviews and commencement addresses, all relaying pearls of wisdom and experience acquired over a lifetime. We will hear Neil Gaiman exhorting young people to make good art, we will hear J.K. Rowling making a case for empathy, we will read about Steve Jobs'  connecting the dots, we will hear Meryl Streep talk about craft. Ray Bradbury will say something important about joy. And we will think, very hard (even if it is only for a couple of minutes) about how wonderful that essay/ address was, and how exactly it corresponded to our world-views, although we would have probably tweaked a bit here and added something else there.

One of the pleasures of growing up is that our years add weight to our advice. Only grown-ups can truly give commencement addresses. In fact, grown-ups from all walks of life spend a significant amount of time sharing excerpts from an imagined/ real commencement address. What else is that lecture on values/ manners/ ideals/ cleaning up a room, if not an extract from a much longer and more impressive text (shared in that moment just for one lucky child's benefit)?

Our growing up will be the making and unmaking of us. It would be nice to grow up in a way that leaves us with something compelling to say. What will our mantras and buzzwords be? What lessons will we have learnt? If we really end up doing everything that grown-ups are supposed to do (being responsible, learning how to parallel park and how to balance chequebooks, playing politics at work or even better, becoming bland and inoffensive) will we have any time left over for the stuff of commencement addresses? And most importantly, if we are doing commencement address-worthy stuff, are we making notes? Are they in order and will we be embarrassed if someone reads them? Incentive to start scribbling, no? And also incentive to do something worthwhile.      

Note: Some of the commencement speeches referenced here were discovered on I remain unsure whether this is a 'hat - tip' or a 'via' acknowledgement.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

St. Thomas Cathedral, Mumbai: Looking (Very Far) Back

A cursory knowledge of Bombay's history would equip anyone with the following facts - there is a terminus in South Bombay called Churchgate, named rather unimaginatively after a pair of gates that allowed access to the British settlement known as 'Fort'; that this church - the spiritual hub inside the setttlement - was known as St. Thomas' Cathedral; and that St. Thomas is credited with bringing Christianity to Indian shores. Knowing this, one would expect St.Thomas' Cathedral to be large, imposing, smug and self-important. It isn't. Through most of my life, St. Thomas' has been charmingly crumbled and moth-eaten. Even as I child, I worried about what would become of it. Those worries were misplaced. Benefactors, church-goers, heritage do-gooders, perhaps even the government (I am clearly hedging my bets here) have taken on the task of restoring the Cathedral to something of its former glory. Of which I am glad, because this church has occupied a special place in my imagination ever since sheer dumb luck helped me happen upon Ruskin Bond's 'Strange Men, Strange Places,' a slim volume of non-fiction that traces the lives, triumphs and failures of idiosyncratic Westerners who came to India during the Raj  to find their fortunes. Mercenaries, soldiers, missionaries -  many of questionable motives, all unquestionably characters, and several commemorated or buried in the Cathedral.

I've visited St. Thomas over the years,  eager to show it off to friends from out of town. Today, I went back - again with friends - but for myself. I've forgotten the Bond-compiled back stories (although that should change, since someone somewhere is probably shipping the book to me as I type), but I still found enough to marvel at - the elaborate plaques and engravings, the beautiful stain-glass windows, the carving and the woodwork.

But what has always fascinated me the most are the glimpses into lives snuffed out centuries ago - the 28 year old Captain ______, mentored by Nelson, who vanquished an enemy fleet much larger than his own and perished while doing so; the 26 year old adventurer who died on his way back from one of the first expeditions to the South Pole; the soldier who won praise from non other than the 'inexorable' Tipu; the twin brothers who fell in action, both within a year of each other. There are plaques erected in the memory of generals, army chiefs, heads of navies, 'first recorders,' 'assayers,' surgeon generals, commanders of corps of engineers, municipal commissioners, bishops. Others remember young children; wives who were 'amiable,' and 'full of virtuef';  men who were 'cheareful, filled with gentleneff.' In their names and titles I recognized the names of Bombay's streets and institutions. I liked the flourishes in the sculptures, the rhetoric in the epitaphs and the flagrant religious symbolism.  

I know I am looking at the memories and accounts of colonialists, conquerors, men and women who who exercised an unreasonable amount of power over 'natives' and didn't always wield it well. These are the same people who have been accused of grafting their world-view on ours and of therefore having altered forever, and for the worse, how we see ourselves. Some of them responded to what they felt was a call of duty - to the Empire, to God - others came for less exalted purposes. Many of the men who rest in the Cathedral may even have led battles and raised arms against Indians. 

But with their engineers, geographers, commissioners, water-works designers, horticulturalists, school principals and doctors, the colonialists also built this city. They gave it laws, a police force, a University, an architecture, a tram and train network, a sewage system, museums, hospitals and dare I say it - an identity. Their decisions may have served limited interests, but they were also just regular people, struggling with the question of how to bring up families, and adhere to long-held values in a bewildering foreign land. They may have invented the white man's burden, but they may not have known any better.

The reflexive parochialism we absorb from our environment encourages us to brand the British as villians and oppressors. Textbooks will assert to the gloriousness of ancient Indian culture, to the to efficacy of rural self-government, to the inherent guilelessness of Indian princes and to the corresponding scheming of our European overlords. It's easy to believe this version of events because our break with the British has been complete in some ways. Apart from pockets of Anglo-Indians and a few expats, I can't bring to mind any  English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh families who have lingered on in Bombay. There are no places selling British food, British beer or British nostalgia. There are only gymkhanas populated by the stuffy So-Bo elite. And a clutch of eccentric old-school Parsis who still hang portraits of Elizabeth in their living rooms.

But in spite of all the political and educational hectoring, we all know intuitively that things during colonial rule were a little more complicated than our textbooks would have us believe. It can seem unpalatable, but the truth is that our history as Indians is their colonialists'  history as well. We are so keen to disown the past that we are forgetting its part in our making - and some of what it has made of us has been for the better. And in St. Thomas Cathedral I realized with a certain force that here we all were, in the same place, ages apart. Three Indians taking pictures of British tombs in Bombay, delighted to be (re)discovering this particular slice of their past.  

In memory of Henry Curwen, editor of the Times of India

In memory of Mary Prescott, the first principal of the institution now known as The JB Petit High School for Girls

The biggest cheese - Commander in Chief of the East Indies Navy
Ok, this one is cool just because it has the words 'Hollywood House'
View of the Cathedral (to the right of the entrance) 
Bas relief commemorating a young and valiant naval officer, construction ordered by the Houses of Parliament, no less

An interesting sculptural detail...

...or two

Saturday, June 16, 2012

One of Those Days

Living in the world that we are in, doing the things that we do, meeting the people that we meet, it's easy on some days to just feel...talked out. Out of conversation, out of idle chatter, out of points of view and persuasive arguments, out of pleasantries. It is on days like these that writing provides respite. Here, in no particular order of importance, are my ten reasons as to why writing trumps talking:

1. It can be accomplished in silence.
2. You don't have to be sensitive to body language, posture, volume and the entire host of non-verbal cues.
3. It puts that other well-meaning voice that exercises better judgement (and apparently lives in your brain and manifests your unconscious) on mute.
4. It gives you a chance to feel superior about grammar and spelling (this one is more in response to another person's writing, but still).
5. You can play around with fonts.
6. You get to complete a sentence without interruption.
7. It demands effort and thought. It's hard (maybe even impossible) to write on auto-pilot.
8. It is one of those increasingly rare things that slows you down.
9. It's solitary but also inclusive. You can share an essay, an e-mail, a blog-post with dozens, hundreds even. You can't converse coherently with more than....four.
10. You can start someplace, end up someplace else, and trace this journey. Great conversations do the same thing, but they're difficult to document.
11. Freebie! It's possible to carve a niche for oneself as a prodigious writer. The prodigious talker space has been claimed, and how.

Talking can also (and frequently does) trump writing. But not on One of Those Days.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Go Forth and Judge

Judgement (Noun): 

1. An act or instance of judging.

2. The ability to judge, make a decision, or form an opinion objectively, authoritatively, and wisely, especially in matters affecting action; good sense; discretion.

3. The demonstration or exercise of such ability or capacity.

4. The forming of an opinion, estimate, notion, or conclusion, as from circumstances presented to the mind.

5. The opinion formed.

On the whole, judgement seems to be a good thing - a faculty we should develop and exercise. The weighing of circumstances, the summing up of situations, the formulation of opinions distilled from facts and observations.

Judgemental (Adjective):
Of or denoting an attitude in which judgements about other people's conduct are made.

Technically a neutral term, but rarely used as a compliment. We think of judgemental people as those claiming to occupy a moral high ground, looking down on lesser mortals and casting aspersions. We're also convinced that this high ground is necessarily precarious, and secretly hope that someday, it will crack and send the aforementioned judgemental person crashing into the depths that range below.

Dramatic, I know. But interesting. What happens in the space between judgement and judgemental? Why is one good, and the other, not so good? Why are we encouraged to have more of the former and as little as possible of the latter? To put it another way - why do we feel that when it comes to people 'the opinion formed' should not be voiced or acted upon?

Sometimes I wonder whether we are caught in the grips of a courtesy crisis - whether we have spent so much time learning to be nice to one another, that we have forgotten that nice has its limitations. Then, when people refuse to queue or hold doors open or let senior citizens take seats in crowded buses, I realize that I am way off the mark. We are experiencing a courtesy crisis of epic proportions, induced by a lack and not an excess of manners.

The suspicion of judgement(ality) is not about courtesy. It is about something else, a faint but pervasive sense of entitlement born out of the unique contemporary belief that all of us are the Universe's Chosen Ones. Harsh, but true. I've been part of sports days where 'everyone winning' was a mandate and trophies were always shared; heard teachers tell me that intent and intelligence were interchangeable; seen bosses and HR managers read the party line on how teams would have to share responsibilities and rewards. In and of themselves, these beliefs are well-meaning. Put together, they reveal the existence of a belief system that doesn't always distinguish between the world as it should be and the world as it really is. And when you look at it closely, a worldview that requires everyone to win is actually a worldview that means no one is allowed to fail.

Whether we like it or not, we aren't all equal. We are all equally deserving of courtesy, justice and dignity and we should be treated as such by law, government and other institutions. We must have the same rights. But that doesn't mean we all have the same abilities. Some of us are just smarter, slower, nicer, meaner, luckier, richer, prettier, more committed, lazier, chubbier, sillier and wittier than the rest. Some of us are genetically and/or environmentally wired to be better at chess, debate, cricket and kick-boxing (any one, not all of the above). Some of us are dealt golden hands by fate, some of us aren't. What should be is irrelevant. What's fair is irrelevant. It's just how it is.

And because it is how it is, it is OK. I don't mean that we shouldn't work tirelessly towards creating more equitable and inclusive societies. That commitment is a given. But in our everyday personal and professional interactions, it's important to acknowledge that we can't all have it all, no matter how badly we want it. Maybe someone else is more deserving of the glory and the credit. Maybe the fact that they are willing to take certain shortcuts does count for something. Even if it doesn't, what can you do?

The world is complicated and so are we. And once we accept that, we will become more comfortable with our own (and others') judgements. We will reconcile ourselves to the fact that we like some people better than others and respect some people more than others. And we will stomach the fact that some people don't like us very much, either.

We think we shouldn't judge, but we all do. Some of us will judge others on the basis of lifestyle choices, others on the basis of haircuts and music preferences. Others will judge people who judge. Organized religion has institutionalized judgement. So has the Mumbai police, but that's a topic for another post.

So, if you're reading, I encourage you to form your opinions, to articulate them, but not to take them too seriously. Tomorrow is another day and you might have a new perspective - better not to be too wedded to one point of view. Judge recreationally but remember to play (at least a little) nice, because the world is smaller than you think, and nastiness can weigh on you after a while. So try to be better, but don't forget to be. To judge is human.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Madonna, Mehdi Hassan and Mornings

I'm happy to report that I started this weekend as I should all weekends - with a cuppa, a newspaper and FM radio. Switching between stations, I stumbled upon a protracted homage to the late 80s - early 90s school of pop music. Madonna, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, Olivia Newton-John, Mariah Carey among others. And I realized that I like pop music. A lot. Not in an ironic, wry, tongue-in-cheek, it's-so-bad-it's-good way. But in a genuine, head-nodding, silly-smile-on-face sort of way.

Great pop music (and yes, naysayers, there is such a thing) is incredibly earnest, not in the least self-conscious, filled with love, ideas for changing the world and a little bit of angst and doubt - all set to sugary and frothy notes. It's easy listening, and with taxes and the traffic increasing the way they are, easy listening is just what we need. I'd written about jazz earlier, comparing it to a witch's brew - all chocolaty bitterness, knowing and grown-up. But pop music is the spiritual antithesis of jazz. It's got more heart than head, and this heart almost always stays stuck between the ages of sixteen and twenty. There's nothing knowing about pop. Pop is still figuring out the world - dressed in T-shirt and shorts, sipping on a big glass of sweet pink something while she does so. Hers isn't the life unexamined, just the life more responded to than understood.

I would stretch this analogy to classical and semi-classical music in the Indian tradition if I could retain even the slightest semblance of intellectual honesty while doing so. I can't, so I won't. But I will say that there's an interesting symmetry here that merits thought.

I watched my first ghazal performance last evening, after years of listening to Hindustani and (a little bit of) Carnatic classical music. Purists can be skeptical about ghazals - they are often structurally loose, technically unsound, and performed in informal settings and modes. Ghazal greats will agree - many of them have classical training and ability, but the skills of the ghazal singer are very different. Ghazals are much more about the couplets, the poetry, the give and take between performer and audience.

The few ghazals I've heard put me in mind of a polished poetic dandyism - and I say this with the greatest respect. Ghazals are elegant, stylized, filled with verbal and visual flourishes. Of course there's a great deal of soul underneath the poetry. Which is why ghazals are best sung not just in a certain kind of voice, but by a certain kind of person - someone who's seen the world, has had his heart broken and actually enjoys the idea of being heart broken because it lends depth to his witticisms. When I think of ghazals, I think of handsome men in sherwanis and churidaars, with flowers in their buttonholes.

Classical music, in my opinion, is less about the personality of the performer, and more about her intellect. It's beautiful and sophisticated and also more rarefied. The bandishs are important, but words matter less than they do in ghazals. Classical music sets a mood and a tone, it can move and delight a listener - but in order to do this, the performer must be intelligent, sensitive, innovative and very, very accomplished. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that classical music is less forgiving of its performers. They have to be brilliant before they can be personalities.     

If only music could really make the world go round. It's not often that I think about jazz, pop, ghazals and gayaki. Like I said, there's probably no better way to start the day.      

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Space to be Silly

As a rule, this blog is more tell, less show. But habit can constrain, and conscious of this, I am going to go against the grain to share an utterly delightful image. Part of a Vanity Fair album that celebrates the glory days of Cannes, this picture of three women sunning themselves, smoking, and getting their hair done - all at once - made me smile. As if that weren't enough, the salon is abutted by a tea-room, (in case someone feels like caffeine). On a mellow morning, magazine in hand, who wouldn't?  
Via Vanity

There's such candour in this picture, a claiming of the 'outside' for one's own purposes. In India, people I know seem to navigate the 'outside' and the 'inside' of their worlds very differently.  I've noticed an emergence of extremes in  'outside behaviour' - ranging from a complete and total disregard for others (queues at temples) to a tense watchfulness (queues at museums). And women, I find,  are frequently self-conscious in public spaces. Men will have their ears cleaned and their bodies pumelled by masseurs in bustling crowds, but women will retreat into the corners demarcated by propriety.   'Being outside' is fraught - which is such a shame, because public space is always better used when we are comfortable doing what we want and like with it - provided we share and play nice.

Comfort and whimsicality in public spaces needn't be luxuries. We could afford ourselves a little more of them. Couldn't we? Starting with getting our hair done in the sun. It would be the makings of a statement, the sanctioning of a little bit of silliness. I think it would be fun - doing something outside without caring very much about it. Not noticing it at all.  
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