Sunday, September 28, 2014

Finding my Inner Fanboy

Think about the next paragraph as a series of increasingly smaller concentric circles. It's not essential to do so, in fact it's entirely unnecessary, but it might be fun.

I have a father (as do we all). He's a voracious reader. He bought as many books as he could as a school and college student and managed to hold on to them through moves between multiple addresses, preserving them in (fairly) good condition. As an adult, he then had the incredibly good fortune of being able to buy a house which afforded him storage space for these books. Which he used to its full measure, stacking them high and snug, lining bookshelf after bookshelf and paying for stone shelves to be fitted in where it looked like the wooden ones might just give way.

Which is how I, decades later, in a small study with sloping ceilings and round windows and an always debilitated table-top fan, was able to discover the books of his boyhood. I encountered illustrated editions of Homer's Odyssey, books chronicling the World Wars, monthly magazines on science and mechanics, the Phantom, Mandrake, Biggles, the Hardy Boys, the gritty, grizzled cowboys of Louis L' Amour's  Wild West, Perry Mason (who I was too young and entirely too sensible to find attractive) and the man from U.N.C.L.E (whom I did not like). I read Alistair Maclean and even a little pioneering science fiction, although I didn't warm to the genre as my father had.

I wasn't the archetypal tousled tomboy with scraped knees and elbows. But as an indiscriminate reader who had the good fortune of never being schooled in 'girliness,' I genuinely enjoyed these books written for boys. They were filled with adventures and almost-disasters and acts of rough-and-tumble heroism which perfectly complemented the lessons in boarding school social justice and the slightly compliant cleverness that characterized writing for girls. At least, the writing I was reading until I discovered the more complex charms of Roald Dahl and E. Nesbit and many, many others.

I was a girl with a little bit of boy mixed in. Boys were boys with a little bit of girl mixed in. We were too young for gender consciousness. It didn't feel like a choice needed to be made between playing house and watching Blossom and reading about fighter pilots, all in a day. Our lives were gendered, I know that. Whose aren't? But we were the country's last generation of pre-lib children and we were blissfully unaware.  

I was thinking about all of this when I was wondering, on loop, what it was that I liked quite so much about Sons of Anarchy, my new favourite TV show. Which is saying something for someone who is incredibly ambivalent about television and has worked through a short-lived Mindy Project phase less than six months back.

I've tried to diagnose my affection for the show and its characters by reading critics' reviews, by looking at blog posts which are as likely to describe the show as misogynistic, as they are to examine the machinations of its strong and stronger women characters, by perusing deconstructions of the show's authentic constructions of modern-but-mythic biker subculture.

I really shouldn't enjoy the episodes as much as I do. The body count is healthy, the profanities flow on tap and some of its moral 'dilemmas' can be easily resolved by anyone with a functioning moral compass. Practically everyone on the show, even doctors doubling up as girlfriends, are bona fide killers. And I would have given anything for Charlie Hunnam to get his golden locks out of the way and invest in a proper shave and haircut. Which he eventually did get, for free, in jail.

But there's a part of me that enjoys the performances (most of them absolutely spot on), the all day drinking, the eccentricities, the quips, the noisy bikes, the improbability of wanton mayhem that's allowed to unfold as long as the debris collect outside Charming. I can acknowledge that these might in fact be good guys gone bad. Sons of Anarchy is entirely unrelatable, is removed from everyone and everything I know. But it's fun and it speaks to my long-forgotten, now grown up, smidgen of boyishness.

Dude? Man? Boy.   

And I realize that that's as good a reason to watch as any. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Evenings Less Ordinary

Through some mysterious alchemy of light and humidity, Bombay's skies immediately before and after the monsoons come alive in a psychedelic palette of orange, pink, yellow and purple. They are a sight to behold, a spectacle equal parts cloud and color, forming a backdrop that dignifies and dramatizes the drudgery and dross of this creaking, chaotic city. Life is, for twenty minutes or so, back-lit as in the most indulgent movies. 

But no one seems to notice.

Last week, an ordinary ride home from work was enlivened by precisely such a sight - monumental clouds changing shape and shade every moment, set against a fierce sun and blue-grey-gold skies. Something shifts within most people when they look up at the sky. But clouds, those ponderous, slow moving cathedrals of vapor have their own weighty magnificence. Looking at them on that weekday evening, watching as they let shafts of burnished September light break through, I wondered whether clouds didn't, in fact, lend the sun something of its power. After all, the sun without clouds is just a bald, shining statement of fact. Concealed, softened, its edges rubbed out and outlines blurred, it acquires its beautiful, even transcendent quality. 

And so, looking, I let myself experience a moment of rare - and actual - luminosity. But then we rolled to a stop at a traffic light, and the passengers in the car next to me looked back at me, looking at them. The spell was broken, but it was enough. 

Do yourself a favor. Look at the sky. But equally, look at the clouds. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

What I Really Think About When I Think About Ryan Seacrest

I have moments when I wonder, in the loosest and most unstructured way possible, what it would be like to be Ryan Seacrest. 

These moments are fleeting and come by once every couple of years, if at all. They're usually prompted by equally fleeting, media-mediated encounters (or brushes, rather), with the Seacrest persona - a quick evening listen-in on radio's weekly American Top 40 show, a split second glimpse of E!'s logo as I surf through channels, contact with a long-repressed memory of American Idol, of which I have, admittedly, watched a handful of episodes.

I don't really think about Ryan Seacrest. But whenever I do, I think of him as embodying a quintessential kind of Americanness - bleached blond, pearly toothed, successful, easily familiar with the bold and the beautiful, flip and glib while mining a vein of caustic charm. Ryan Seacrest has built a media empire, is definitely driven, evidently ageless and probably very clever. He does it all in style and on very little sleep. A quick Google search indicates that he has recently launched his own clothing line. 

Ryan Seacrest sits at the intersection of celebrity, entertainment and voyeurism, pulling strings as a producer, immersed in the absurd world of showbiz, but not so much that he doesn't recognize the enormous value attached to packaging its absurdity for consumption. He seems to come equipped with an innate Teflon gloss which defies time and introspection and inquiry from the outside in. And in this, he is not unique - successful image managers, celebrity handlers and PR people probably possess it in some measure as well. 

I suppose it is the ability to capitalize on what's happening in culture without questioning its quality, the ability to participate in and accelerate the Tabloidization of Everything. An ability (and cultural current) that's symptomatic of our times, not necessarily exported to the rest of the world by the USA, but most easily associated with the LA of the rest of the world's imagination. 

Ryan Seacrest as a symbol? Imagine that.  

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Petitioning Parents

Confined as I’ve been to my home over the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to strike up an unexpected acquaintance. With M______ and S______, ages 1 and a quarter and seven respectively, neighbours and frequent visitors who pound on our door (they cannot reach our doorbell) in the pursuit of chocolate biscuits and fruit shaped candy. Their mother indulges these transgressions.

These kids are essentially the definition of adorable.

M lunges for things she likes the look of, including objects many times her size, hurtles around our house like a pint-sized cannonball, is by turns peremptory and charming, and knows her mind.

S is bright, capable of simultaneously holding conversations and keeping an eye on her sibling, well-behaved and interested in clay dough. She attends an expensive and allegedly excellent school, affiliated to the international IGCSE and IB boards.

As far as these children's lives are concerned, I’m nothing but a benign bystander. But as I encounter their personalities and enthusiasms in the course of our everyday interactions, I find myself hoping that both manage to escape the fate of being Socialized by School, their quirks and kinks ironed away in the pursuit of grades and scholastic success, with just the prescribed dosage of extracurricular activities thrown in.

I have less than a handful of friends who are parents, with their daughters yet to reach a year. Already, they worry about how to protect their children from an educational system that emphasizes only one kind of achievement, while also ensuring that the girls get a sound foundation and developmental head-start for their later lives.  

What I, non-parent and disinterested observer of (almost all) children am yet to grasp is why this ‘start’ needs to begin at months ten and twelve and eighteen. I hear about projects being assigned to two year olds, of toddlers being asked to learn that A stands for astronaut and auto-rickshaw and not just apple, of pre-school admissions testing and coaching for these self-same tests. And I wonder why we, as a generation and a society (or both) feel so compelled to 'instruct' and 'improve' our most curious and malleable minds. I understand that there’s a line that connects high school to college, but do we really need to stretch that line all the way back to pre-school and play-school? Why infect our children with our anxieties? Why can’t we trust in their resilience and native intelligence and ability to make their own way through the world, at least till ages three and four and five?

As a child, I thought of my infant cousins as life-size sources of amusement. As an adult, I appreciate children as people-in-the-making. And I’d love for the making to break the mould. Parents, please. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Looking for Loops

I first heard of Roger Ebert during an undergraduate class on film appreciation. I'd signed up for the extra credits, for the chance to watch good, even great movies, to use my afternoons differently than I normally did. I remember being bemused by 'Alien' and 'West Side Story' and enchanted by 'Cinema Paradiso' and 'Red' - all reliable film class staples. At the end of the course, the instructors handed out a list of must-watch classics as a parting gift of sorts. For a short time, I dutifully referred back to this list and scratched movies off it, one at a time. I signed up with a local DVD library.

I lost that list. I retain and renew my library membership. 

I don't love the movies. Never have, and probably never will. But that class made a vital difference in that it made it difficult for me to watch a movie mindlessly. I began to want time spent with a movie to be time well spent. And Ebert's online archive became my port of call in making movie-viewing choices. 

I don't know about regional language publications in India, but intelligent and reliable critique of cinema in the mainstream English papers is hard to find, and has been, for a while. Our critics - and here I use the term very loosely indeed - are content to summarize plots and sub-plots, chalk up marks for acting, and share a wink-wink-nudge-nudge quip or two with their readers. Apart from Nandini Ramnath at the Mint Lounge (and occasionally, the Mint), there is no one who seems to write about cinema with authority and a keen eye. There are a few writers of books about our actors and our movies, but many of our critics are essentially glorified trade analysts.

Ebert's insightful reviews weren't exactly revelatory, but his was criticism of popular cinema unlike any I'd previously encountered - considered, full of depth, but also unexpectedly warm. Those reviews read like conversations, and I trusted Ebert's judgment. I began to read what he had to say about movies I had already seen or had decided to see, and I trawled through his 'Two Thumbs Up' reviews to figure out what to see next. Reading what Ebert had to say felt like a worthwhile way to open (or close) the loop on a movie. Reading about him in Esquire's acclaimed feature and following him on Twitter only helped cement my admiration of a writer who seemed to be clever and kind and who seemed to be writing about movies while hinting at everything else. 

Even so, why write about Ebert, for no particular reason, roughly 16 months after he has passed away? Because I've spent the last two days greedily paging through his memoir, 'Life Itself,' and I have a renewed appreciation for his skills as a writer, for the range of his experiences, for the catholicity of his tastes. Ebert's book is peopled with characters, newspapermen, actors and eccentrics like they were meant to be - one-of-kind, funny, handsome, odd, twinkling, irascible. He starts the book by saying that his life felt like a movie, and just even reading his memories, twice removed, I get the feeling that I have wandered onto the set of an indie movie old friends are making just for fun. No one expects much from it except for the joy of making it, but it's destined to strike a chord and make millions nonetheless.  

And in the way my mind always seems to work, I begin to wonder - where are our eccentrics, now? The flamboyant, the odd, the discerning, the discriminating, the colorful and carefully colorless, the dispensers of bon mots, charming compliments and devastating put downs? Looking around me, browsing our papers and magazines, visiting restaurants and cafes and pubs that are perennially crowded, why does it feel like everyone is Beautiful People but no one is genuinely cool? We have celebrities, page three doyennes, wannabes, hipsters, creased and idealistic jhola-wallahs but who is it that's playing against type? We have all the affectations and props but who has the personality? The impractical ideas? The out of date wardrobe? Surely we do not count among our eccentrics members of the fashionable set that preen for style-spotting blogs at the Hyatt during Fashion Week?  

I worry sometimes that in doing what we are supposed to do, taking one step after another, connecting the dots, we're becoming linear and flat. Losing our texture and a-tonalities. I don't mean to say this is a generation without bright and brilliant minds and wonderful people, of course not. But somewhere among the entrepreneurs, TEDx conveners, juvenile wonders, elfin women with pixie cuts, glamour dolls of both sexes, the annoyingly earnest and absolutely certain, the reliably tepid or tempestuous, I would love, love, love to encounter someone authentically intriguing, someone who throws me for a loop. Oscar Wilde. Beau Brummell. Dorothy Parker. Circa 2014.

It's a long way to travel from film appreciation class. I guess. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

About Time

In the one month since I first broke my foot, things happened that I didn't entirely expect. I found that modern medicine wasn't quite fixing broken bones at warp speed yet, that using crutches was surprisingly demanding, that my city was littered - peppered - with threats to anyone past their ambulatory prime, that (some) people were more courteous and considerate than I would have expected, and that time worked differently than I had thought. 

I realised that it was, in fact, possible to spend whole days doing very little. That taking minutes to hobble very short distances between points A and B changed my appreciation for what was waiting for me at the end of these bite-sized journeys - a meal, a conversation, a caffeinated beverage. Moving slowly for the first time in my life, I began to understand why speed might, in fact, be overrated. 

Why do we value doing things quickly quite as much as we seem to? What psychological prop does our in-built sense of urgency provide? Why do we cling to self-imposed deadlines while claiming to abhor and labour reluctantly under them? Once it becomes apparent that our personal worlds don't quite crumble when we give ourselves a little temporal leeway, it becomes harder to justify our perpetual time-crunching, task-juggling dance. 

I work in an industry in which clients want everything 'as of yesterday.' My peers and I often watch, indignantly, as files and reports put together overnight drift between us and them in inbox limbo, to be accessed only days - even weeks - later. 

It's almost as if prioritising and postponing have become cop-outs. As if we trust neither ourselves, nor others, to get anything done if the requirement isn't etched out somewhere in bold, honking letters with the words 'NOW' attached. As if, lacking the distraction of induced urgency, we might actually start reasoning and questioning and wondering whether what we're doing might be done better, or indeed, needs doing at all. Where would that leave us? With time on our hands. And the sense that we should probably find something worthwhile to do with it. 

Just a theory. Now that I have the time.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Setting Us Up, to Fall Short

If the past week has taught me anything, it's to make my peace with the unexpected and faintly ironic. How else does one account for the fact that a sedentary soul such as myself manages to sprain her foot right outside her front door, while wearing safe and sturdy, ergonomically certified wedges? And that the sprain turns out to be much more, namely a fracture calling for surgery? And that, after months of wanting a break, I find myself confined to traveling the short distance between my bedroom and living room, with all the time in the world on my hands? 

After the mandatory couple of days spent railing against the fates and contending with my crutches, I decided to use this time by doing something I have always wanted to do - indulge myself with a TV show marathon. It seemed a deliciously decadent thing - a wilful waste of time, the one thing I find myself always running short of. I had my laptop, a working wi-fi connection, and a specific show in mind - The Good Wife, recommended by friends, acclaimed by critics and anchored by the impressive Juliana Margulies. 

I was good to go, ready to be absorbed and engaged by people, scenes, settings, maneuverings and dialogue. And yet, a handful of episodes and a few hours later, I found myself feeling strangely spent, caught up in a morass of emotions that I was experiencing first-hand but that weren't mine. It felt like feeling, twice-removed. All my buttons were being pushed, in the right order and to the right degree, but the drama felt a little too deft and therefore, dissatisfying. 

And I realized why television dramas leave me cold. The emotionality is too insistent, the characters' graphs too intriguingly grey, the conversations always clever and meaningful and nuanced. It's too much life, in short. Shorn of banality, quiet, silliness, pointlessness, routines and chores - all the pauses that give the peaks their significance.   

Television works best for me when it presents as itself. As consumerist fantasy (Sex and the City), as actual fantasy, as history recreated, as masterful re-tellings of famous stories and resurrections of beloved characters (Sherlock), as behind-the-scenes, wheels-within-wheels perspectives (Studio 60), as problem meets solution with a few punchlines and detours thrown in (CSI, NCIS), as political intrigue (West Wing, House of Cards), as amusement and distraction (New Girl), as wry, scripted takes on the mundane (Parks and Recreation), as fanciful story-telling (Pushing Daisies). All of this is fiction, stories about life as I've never known it, and never will. But the breathlessness, intensity, conflict and chaos of drama, the rendering of lives in heightened colour and pitch - it is television at its most cloying and compelling and manipulative.

It sets our reality up for falling short. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Unlikely Adventurers

It was a conversation about grandmothers, with three colleagues sharing stories about how their grandmothers energized and inspired them. One spoke about her grandmother's love for gardening, making birthday cards and taking un-chaperoned walks in strange cities, another about the lessons her grandmother took in calligraphy, arthritis notwithstanding, and the third about her grandmother's love for travel and openness to experiencing the 'foreign.'

What is it that these women have that drives them and enthuses them in their 70s and 80s? Is it a spirit of curiosity, the value they attach to their time and years, or simply the willingness to be delighted by small adventures? How is it that so many of us, so much younger, so much more mobile and connected, are preemptively complacent, cynical and blasé, seeking out comfort and convenience instead of the new?

I've been thinking about age, ageing and the attendant stereotypes over the last couple of weeks, maybe because I've been coming across accounts of people in the 'twilight' of their years who have done, or are doing, truly remarkable things. Whether it is Dr. Sunil Kothari, scholar and critic of classical dance, who has published book #16 at the age of 80. And this book is no vanity project, but a detailed and comprehensive account of Sattriya, Assam's classical dance form and the latest addition to the country's official list of classical dances.  Or whether, on the other side of the world, it is Cristopher Lee, who has just released an album of heavy metal music at the age of 92. Yes, 92. I had to read that one twice to believe it. Or whether, closer home, it is the late Capt. CK Vinod Nair, who was already a millionaire many times over when he made adventurous forays into the luxury hotel business in his 60s.

Of course these are all very different people doing very different things. They have nothing whatsoever in common. But I notice that they are each completely upending the notion of a person's 'prime.' Too many of us watch the clock, marking our slow but fast progress through our twenties, thirties, forties, fifties. 16 is the new 25. 40 is the new 20. 60 is the new 40. It's all very confusing. When are you supposed to start winding down? How do you know when you're past it and need to start acting the part?  

I don't suppose anyone I've mentioned here, including the grandmothers, are out to prove a point or to hold themselves up as poster children for successful ageing. But they are living examples of how curiosity, ambition and passion enable a person to keep growing, exploring, experiencing and learning. There is no temporal sweet spot, no deadline or sell-by date. But neither is it a default that by simple fact of being young, one's life will just happen and unfold wonderfully. To wind down one first has to wind up, no? 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

'What Money Can't Buy' - Agreement with Asterisks

I first heard about Michael J. Sandel, a 'rockstar academic,' only very recently. He was travelling through the city on a promotional tour for his book,  'What Money Can't Buy.' I read a couple of his interviews, attended his Asia Society Lecture (which was massively oversubscribed) and was intrigued enough by his thesis to buy his book.

Sandel is a philosopher who unpacks the moral implications of the assumptions that underlie economic theory in general and free-market thinking in particular. I suppose this is tricky terrain in the United States and Sandel seems to have his fair share of critics and lecture-circuit adversaries. In India, the idea that money can't buy everything certainly stops well short of being provocative. We're a people who have embarked on the market experiment relatively recently, and there's been protest and skepticism every step of the way, and rightly so. At the very least, the bewildering diversities and disparities of this country should (and hopefully do) compel us to think about the consequences and implications of economic policy as experienced by people whose financial circumstances are very different than ours. Any failure to do so is a failure of imagination. But I digress.

Sandel argues that we are moving from being societies that have markets, to becoming societies driven by market values. Market principles and practices are encroaching on relationships, values, ideology, civic spirit, health-care, sexuality - areas, he believes, where market values have no place. What is the designated domain of the market, then? How do we decide?

The book is not so much about defining where the market belongs, as it is about describing where it doesn't. To make his case, Sandel argues (easily, logically, expertly) by example, undermining supposedly self-evident economic 'truths' over five chapters and two hundred odd pages. Markets are not value-neutral, commerce can change the nature and meaning of what is traded when it commoditizes what should be a non-commodity. Markets do not always auto-correct to create level playing fields  - a person's ability to pay for something is not always a proxy for their desire for a commodity and is not always the fairest or most value-neutral way of allocating a good or a service. Transactions of consent are sometimes implicitly coercive. Putting a price on something is not necessarily the appropriate way to value it. Emotions and values such as civic-mindedness and empathy are not in limited stock, humanity will not deplete its goodness every time it demonstrates it. 

All of this makes eminent sense. It makes so much sense, in fact, that the most interesting way to read this book is through the eyes of someone who thinks it doesn't. It helped me understand the dominance and the force of market thinking in American society in a way no editorial or essay has.

But one of Sandel's contentions does make me uneasy. He claims that markets can 'corrupt' or 'debase' our values and ideals through the simple fact of trafficking in things that aren't - or shouldn't be - run of the mill commodities, goods and services. I believe this, I really do. But he doesn't address a central issue - where do our notions of what constitutes 'corruption' become less about morality, ethics and equity, and more about taste? I'm going to use an example to illustrate.

Sandel thinks the commodization of the life insurance business is a moral morass. The viaticals industry exists to take out policies on the critically ill, in the hope that they will die soon enough that encashing the policy will yield a profit. In the less morbid industry of life-settlements, seniors are being encouraged to sell policies they were intending to lapse on, in exchange for large one-time payments. Other seniors are not only being asked to sell existing policies, but to take on new ones and 'flip' them at a price to investors.

Viaticals are clearly a distasteful business - they give one person a stake in the early death of another. But they can also serve a purpose, which is to ease the financial burden on those who are dying  - a gap perhaps opened up by inadequate government insurance. Life settlements, on the other hand, can undermine the metrics on which the life insurance business works, making policies more expensive for everyone (including genuine buyers) in the long term. What is corruption, in this context? A question of morality or a question of market mechanisms?  

Similarly, can the case against death bonds be extended to advertising in baseball parks, on metros, in wildlife preserves and team tactics? Sandel doesn't like the concept of moneyball - a statistics driven approach to winning baseball games. He says it makes baseball more efficient without making it better. Do we have to make a trade-off between efficiency and improvement - and who gets to say which is which? And isn't moneyball just a textbook instance of market innovation, one that will run its due course in time?

No one enjoys omnipresent and grating advertising, and I say this even though I work in advertising. Advertising in national natural parks can be construed as an infringement of the public's experience of the park, because people go to parks to experience pristine natural beauty. That is the parks' purpose. But can one really make the argument that a train commute is sacrosanct? That advertising can undermine the purpose of the metro station and 'corrupt' the experience of a shared civic space? Doesn't advertising subsidize costs for the public in a day and age when US municipalities are struggling to balance their books? Is it really 'corruption' if something changes the quality of an experience without altering the content of it?

There's a point somewhere in the last chapter where the case against markets really becomes a case for nostalgia, a case for aesthetics. Of which I am very wary, because questions of taste are essentially polite questions about class.*

What Money Can't Buy is an important book. It makes important points and cautions us against easy, one-size-fits-all market thinking. It asks all the right questions and starts some good debates. But it doesn't go far enough in articulating the answers. Maybe in 21st century America, asking the questions is enough?

*More on this in a separate post.  

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Here's Hoping

After the heat and the dust, the allegations and counter-allegations, the millions of reams and bytes of declamation, discussion and debate, the surprisingly stirring spectacle of the world's largest electoral exercise comes to its conclusion. 

And over the last couple of days, I seem to have come to some conclusions too. 

In 2009, 2009 looked like a tipping point, a coming of age. In 2014, this year of records broken and unprecedented firsts and a parliamentary overhaul, 2009 begins to look like nothing more than an opportunity squandered (if you're feeling charitable) or something of a con-job in the making (if you aren't). 

In 2009, I thought I could read the papers and follow blogs and go to websites and talk to friends and develop a legitimate sense of what people wanted and how things would unfold. In 2014,  I realize that many of us belong to charmed circles, so entrenched in our world-views and so confident of our intrinsic superiority that we think we get to proclaim the indefensibility of opposing views via FB status updates and Whatsapp messages. Smug and self-assured as we are, maybe 2014 is a timely reminder that participating in a democracy is about learning that Other People - whatever our definitions of that other might be - have as much of a right as anyone else to chart this country's course. In constructing our notions of what our political and/or ideological 'others' look and sound like, have we equally considered how we might look and sound to them? 

I'm not saying that one shouldn't have strength of conviction, or that beliefs and values should be infinitely negotiable - of course not. But everyone gets to choose, and everyone's choice is equally valid (and in numerical terms, equally valuable). That's the premise that underlies democracy, universal adult franchise, free and fair elections. Once every five years, we are compelled to contend with each other - biases, prejudices and all - and we reluctantly realize that we have a stake and a say in a shared future no matter how vehemently we disagree. 

No one said democracy was going to be comfortable. And so, in the spirit of being constructive rather than cynical, here's hoping:

Here's hoping we have a government that honours its mandate
Here's hoping that it isn't business as usual
Here's hoping that our collective expectations energize and animate its actions
Here's hoping we have an opposition that is responsible and rises above rabble-rousing
Here's hoping the Congress finds a semblance of its soul. And then searches it 
Here's hoping that the people of this country - wherever they might slot themselves on a political spectrum - continue to feel less and less obliged to put their aspirations and ambitions on slow-burn 

You know what they say about hope. It springs eternal. 

It gets you every time. 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Democracy of Doing

I'm paging my way through Daily Rituals by Mason Currey - a collection of accounts of the creative process as experienced and enacted by over 160 artists, writers, poets, philosophers, scientists and composers. In his introduction to the book, Currey talks about how these accounts - culled from biographies, autobiographies, interviews, letters and personal journals - can seem superficial, concerned more with the production of great work than with any analysis or appreciation of the work itself. He also uses the term 'small-bore portraits' to describe the perspective taken on personalities such as Jung, Marx, Freud, Voltaire, de Beauvoir, Mozart, Beethoven, Fellini and Matisse (to name just a few).

It sounds promising, although there is always the lingering doubt that this kind of portraiture, determined to charm, will devolve into something saccharine and slightly precious.

I'm only about 40 pages and a couple of dozen accounts into the book, and those doubts have been firmly dispelled. I'm not sure how Currey's managed it, but he's taken some of history's best known figures and fixations and shown them in an idiosyncratic and humane light that is simultaneously inspiring, endearing and reassuring.
Inspiring because there isn't a single instance of genius documented here that isn't accompanied by a commensurate measure of grit and gumption. The doing of work has always been difficult, and yet there is evidence to show that it can, in fact, be done. And that it must be done, even if it has to be endured. Inspiring also because in hearing these first and second hand accounts of work and working, we get a sense of what it means to be driven, moved and animated by a love for what one does.  

Endearing because everyone is portrayed in the context of their relationships and immediate domestic environments. I learn that Beethoven's method, involving the slopping of liters of water on his arms and face, aroused much laughter among his household help, that Toulouse-Lautrec came up with cocktail recipes to create the feeling of 'a peacock's tail in the mouth,' that Kierkegaard's coffee was a treacly treat that made his fingers 'tingle,' that Jung enjoyed big breakfasts and Bergman, cornflakes for lunch. There's something to be said for the ordinariness of routine and the light it throws on a person, no matter how complex and idealized he or she is otherwise.

And reassuring because the struggle involved in creating something memorable and worthwhile has evidently, always been the same. The devices we use to trick ourselves into states of productivity and creativity are part of a long, illustrious tradition that predates anodyne notions of 'time management.'  

Reading this book, I realize in a way that I haven't before that time is not something to be 'managed.' It is neither to be saved nor squandered but spent choicefully, and learning how to make those choices well is the essential challenge. But at the end of that series of challenging choices is a body of work.

And what about those of us who are neither poets, painters nor philosophers engaged in solitary pursuits? Whose schedules depend on bosses, clients, children? Maybe there is no body of work to show at the end - just books read, movies watched, connections made, health regained, maybe even money made on the stock-market.

But there's no absolving oneself from making the choice, from opening up the necessary windows of opportunity to do.  Read about Mozart (p. 16) who courted patrons and Constanze and composed in between. Or Anthony Trollope (p.23) who held down a post-master's job while writing over twenty books. Or Bergman (p.13), who would spent eight to ten hours on a set to get three minutes of film.

Reassuring because doing is, ultimately, democratic. Harder for some than others, but doable (and done) nonetheless.  

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Salt of the Earth

Stunted and sturdy. Maharashtra's Sahyadris don't exactly fit the template of what we'd imagine mountain ranges to be. Which makes sense, because the Sahyadris are not so much mountains as they are a hill range. 

Visitors looking out at these hills can be forgiven for feeling a little cheated - there's really nothing to amaze at or feel awed by. None of the peaks and crags and mighty majesty of the mountains up north, nor the lush, postcard-perfect prettiness of the hills down South. Just a matter-of-fact, business-like string of hills looking back at the viewer.  

And yet, there's something to the Sahyadris. A brusque solidity of substance that isn't quite beauty. These are hills that aren't embarrassed to remain tied to the seasons, going brown in the heat and green in the rain. Nothing is ethereal or ephemeral, everything is empirical - the plants that visibly struggle to flower, the forests that thin out and then thicken again, the animals and birds that contend with the elements, the terrific heat and the torrential rains, the none-too-reliable respite of cool winters. 

There's nothing intangible or mystical to be found here. There's no escaping the world and finding wisdom on remote snowy fastnesses. No wispy, gauzy inspiration for budding poets, philosophers, or artists. Everywhere, there is only the salt of the earth, leavened with flames of the forest and marigold.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Perspectives in Unlikely Places

I did something yesterday that I haven't done in a long, long, long time. I saw my city in a new light. Not metaphorically, but literally. I chanced upon an interesting perspective in the most unexpected of places and came away feeling the better for it. 

Where, one might ask? Along a newly constructed freeway, recently opened up for use. 

This freeway connects the commercial south of the city to some of the suburbs in the north. It runs through (or more appropriately, above) a many-kilometer stretch that has been long-forgotten and mostly ignored by the public at large, in all probability because it is home to dock operations, warehouses and dreary manufacturing set-ups that appeal to and attract almost no one other than those who work there - and even they might legitimately question its appeal. 

As I wound my way along the freeway's length at a quick clip, I realized that I was looking with the eyes of a tourist, a first-time visitor. There were new vistas on both sides - housing complexes - well maintained officers' quarters with towels of the same color hanging on clothes-racks in every balcony, as well as run-down slum (re)development projects. Trucking depots. Fields. Massive cranes, shipbuilding yards, a mini-oil refinery, gauzy-looking smokestacks, hills on the periphery and everywhere, everywhere, a delicious profusion of yellow marigolds. My work-life stomping grounds, as they looked from a distance.  

I realized how quick we are, in our fascination with constructs such as 'knowledge work,' 'service economies,' and 'development' to forget about the foundations on which our fashionable enterprises rest. Almost as if the manufacturing of real, three-dimensional things is something so far removed from what we do and enable, that we no longer need to acknowledge or appreciate what it takes to make and move products. These tasks are relegated to the margins of our imaginations and our geographies, and we can spend our lives and conversations pretending that we have transcended 'labouring' and 'doing.'

Capitalism isn't pretty. But that is no reason not to at least witness the engines of our economy and the levers and pistons that power our cities at work. And to feel just a little humbled and awed by the infrastructural muscle on the surface of which lightly perch our 21st century ideas of consumerism.  

Now, in my city, I get to catch a glimpse. And I look forward to it. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Seeking a Social Compass


It's one of those words that is much, much crueler than it looks; that when said out loud manages to sound deceptively decorous, conveying in refined syllables an emotion that could physically, metaphorically, slowly, surely crush a person with its weight; that forms the organizing theme of books, music, art, poetry, wishful thinking and waking nightmares. 

Regret. A little word for a big thing.    

And then there is embarrassment. A long, winding caterpillar of a word that perhaps overstates the impact of a minor moral transgression or social faux pas. Embarrassment is a sharp hurt that soon subsides, regret lingers long and runs deep. 

And I am really, honestly beginning to wonder, in this age of instant messaging, overflowing in-boxes, Whatsapp messages, BBM pings, 140 character tweets, long-length 'posts' and status updates - are we beginning to lose our capacity to distinguish between the two? Are we so quick to think, share, react, respond, so constantly and consistently (and superficially) aware of ourselves as social beings in the act of performing our selves, that we mistake the silliness-es and the solecisms and the stupidities as being something more? As being abiding and un-fixable and inescapable? Or, conversely, are we mistaking the undertow, the undercurrent, the quiet gnaw of regret for something smaller? Something that can be 'managed' or photo-shopped or text-ed and tweet-ed away? 

Maybe it's just a question of how our language is no longer what it used to be. How many emoticons amount to 'My bad'? How many 'Oops, my bad,' add up to the same thing as 'I'm sorry?' Or maybe it's just a pervasive lack of persistent presence. How does one identify and then undo a hurt when there are so many conversations to be managed at one time? How does one withhold explanations and rambling apologies and wait for the right time - and the right words - to say the things that need to be said, when the means to express and share are so plentiful? 
This isn't nostalgia for quieter, simpler times. It's simply honest-to-goodness confusion about what is a violation of the codes of conduct. We are evolving a grammar for our new conversational modes. But what about the manners and mores? To put it even more transparently - When it comes to all exchanges digital, what should I be embarrassed by? And what will I regret?    
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