Monday, December 3, 2018

Free Speech is Costly

A few years ago, I was an active commenter on a blog.  For a while, it was a terrific place for me to frequent.  I admired the author’s writings a lot.  There were several commenters whom I enjoyed interacting with.  But something happened over time.  I started witnessing several negative, hurtful, sometimes distasteful comments.  There were a handful of people who abused the comforts that anonymity afforded them.  A subset of these comments was directed at me – I had clearly set up myself for this.  In my comments, I would come across as righteous, indignant and, worst of all, sensitive.  I thought that I was doing the right thing in standing up for fellow commenters, spouting philosophies on what I believed the rules of the online universe must be.  After a while, I decided that I would not be part of that blog anymore.  And I signed off with a rather dramatic, longwinded comment.  My experience on that blog was an unforgettable one.  And as is the case with key experiences in life, the exam came first, the lessons later. 

I thought of my experiences on that blog and what happened later while reading Mark Manson’s rather deceptively titled book, “The subtle art of not giving a f*ck.”  The book is a lot more profound than the seemingly flippant title suggests.  And one of the most thought provoking lines in the book flips the famous Spidey line.  Before I get to that, let’s start with the Spidey line – “With great power comes great responsibility.”  If my memory serves me right, I actually quoted Spidey in one of the several holier-than-thou comments that I had posted on that blog!  But let me hasten to add that I do not regret the fact that I said that.  Far from it.  I am glad that I voiced my opinion that the internet affords people the kind of freedom and liberation that can easily be misused.  People can be brutally honest, hurtfully blunt or tastelessly vulgar all without a care in the world.  Well, maybe not completely.  Cyber crime is serious business and people do get caught for serious crimes.  But what about the comments that are not a crime in the legal sense of the word?  Nobody is going to be charged with “verbal assault aided and abetted by sarcasm!”  I digress.  My comments on that blog were many a time a plea for decorum and civility.  The responses that I got were varied.

A number of people could sense that the pain I expressed was genuine – some of them are my great friends today.  Others – including the author of the blog – displayed tough love by saying that I was doing myself a disservice by coming across as touchy.  That I had to accept the fact that the online sphere was going to always have people that would misuse the freedom and prey on folks that are openly expressing the remnant scars left by prickly words - well-meaning advice for sure.  A small set of people gleefully enjoyed the anonymity and subject me to verbal volleys which now seem funny when I think of them but no, I wasn’t laughing then!  After a while, as I said earlier, I quit.  I was steadfast in my refusal to veer away from my beliefs.  In the past 2 ½ years, I have been writing a lot more regularly for my own blog than was the case before.  I still do follow the author’s writings but of course, have not left a single comment on his blog, the comments section of which, I am happy to say, has become a lot more civil over time.  So yes, all is well now.

But at the time I ‘quit’ the blog, I definitely felt hurt and downbeat.  I had done one thing that Manson wrote about in his book even before I read it.  But I wish I had done one other thing that he so passionately describes in his book.  The thing that I did followed one of Manson’s deeply affecting lines – “Negative emotions are a call to action.”  Very soon after my rather dramatic final comment on that blog, I decided that I would revitalize my own blog and use it as an avenue of honest expression, be it on films or people that have made a difference in my life.  That part worked out well.  So, what did I not do?

What I didn’t do is summarized by a sentiment expressed in Manson's book in lines of differing lengths but of similar depth.  One is the aforementioned flipping of the Spidey line.  Manson writes, “With great responsibility, comes great power.”  The other line that expresses a similar sentiment is, “We get to control what our problems mean based on how we choose to think about them, the standard by which we choose to measure them.”  While I was a part of that blog, I didn’t exert full control of myself.  While I was responsible as a commenter, I was not taking responsibility for my reactions towards the reactions that resulted from my actions.  I depended on people’s good graces and expected people to interpret my words with the intent that was behind them.  I did not say to myself, “Okay, if I sound earnest and directly, even if civilly, call people out, some are bound to retaliate.”  I worried as much about people’s perceptions of me as I did of what I wanted to express honestly.  In Manson’s words, I did not have the “control” to define what the problem meant to me.  I have made this mistake in some relationships too, not being content with my authentic expressions of affection but also in craving relevance in the way I define it.  There, right there, I lose “control” when I shift my gaze away from an inward focus.  But owing to thoughtful well-wishers and insightful books, I sincerely feel like I know what I must continue to work on, in order to silently experience the power and lightness that comes from taking full ownership of actions and a level-headed awareness of varied reactions that can result. 

In the recent past, I witnessed two unrelated instances - actor Prasanna and singer and MeToo activist Chinmayi – of celebrities being subject to vile comments on Twitter.  Both responded with guts, gumption and grace.  Instead of stooping to the lows plumbed by the originator of the abhorrent comments, they displayed the kind of “control” that Manson describes.  Of course, the comments would have caused them pain.  But their responses showed that they were willing to face the unfortunate realities of the online world.  I can only hope that the voices, also anonymous in their own way, that came out in support of them must have warmed their hearts at least a little. 

Until the day comes when people realize that abusing free speech is bound to have costly implications for others, I can only hope that we all empower ourselves with the priceless riches of self-control, self-preservation, an unwavering focus on our own values and genuine ways of expressing those values.  That way, even if we don’t ace every one of life’s exams, we can at least be well-prepared to get through them relatively unscathed! 

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

‘Men’mai – Thoughts on the portrayal of men in Tamil Cinema

“How far do Tamil films accurately portray men as well-rounded personalities with real challenges, goals or needs other than getting laid?”  This was a question posed on Twitter by Iswarya V, one of the most outspoken activists on the perils of stalking and its glorification in Tamil cinema.  It’s a very loaded, thought provoking question.  Loaded, because the question I also pose to myself while watching films is, a particular character might be truly representative of some of the realities of our society.  But is it necessary to show everything as is?  Sure, a filmmaker might consider his primary responsibility to bring a story authentically to screen and not always have societal consciousness as his primary goal.  But isn’t it also the case that in a film culture like the one in Tamil Nadu where heroes and heroines are adored, worshiped and imitated, that at the very least a filmmaker should not come across as blithely irresponsible?  Having grown up in an urban milieu, I might not be able to instantly relate to characters from say, a slum or a rural setting.  But it is a filmmaker’s conviction and his ability to use all the tools at his disposal to tell a story, that could transport me to a setting, a way of life and understand why the characters do what they do. 

Back to Iswarya’s question – Tamil films in the last few years have gotten truly diverse in terms of content, quality and taste.  This heterogeneity extends to the representation of male characters.  On the one hand, we have filmmakers like Hari, Lingusamy and their ilk make commercial cinema with larger-than-life heroes projected in scarcely believable scenarios.  The men sometimes get well-written characters (I liked Madhavan in “Vaettai” a lot) but for the most part, their job is to vanquish a cartoonish villain, be adored by a clueless heroine to whom they would invariably direct casually misogynistic remarks while simultaneously extolling the virtues of womanhood!  Since the masala template is set up for these men to emerge victorious on every front, there is not much of an opportunity for nuance of any kind. 

The other prototype of a male character that became hugely famous in the wake of Ameer’s spectacular debut “Paruthiveeran” was the uncouth aggressor.  While these characters are not the kind that I might encounter in my everyday life – I thank the heavens, stars and every surface in space for that! – they certainly are more multi-dimensional than the types you see in masala films.  The most famous of these characters, of course, is Parthiban’s unforgettable character in his debut feature, “Pudhiya Paadhai.”  In choosing to focus an entire half of his movie to the detestable sides of the lead character, Parthiban took a mighty gamble.  But to me, the redemption in the second half is what makes the movie shine brightly to this day, nearly thirty years after its release.  Whether a rapist deserves such benevolence is a moot point.  Whether “Pudhiya Paadhai” is a socially responsible film can be debated for hours.  But to me, this film is powerful in a number of ways.  Firstly, the protagonist realizes that he has been an incorrigible beast to a very undeserving, innocent woman.  Even though his orphan status is mentioned repeatedly as a reason why he turned out the way he did, it is not brushed aside as an excuse.  The character is made to realize the error of his ways and genuinely turns over a new leaf in the second half.  The arc of this character is complete in a touching scene where he falls at the feet of his wife who reformed him.  Many films have followed the style of characterizations written by the likes of Parthiban, Bala and Ameer.  But to their detriment, many fail to realize that the humanization of a flawed character is a tightrope walk that requires tremendous thought to be put into the writing. 



By the end of a film, if we the viewer do not sense a certain level of respect afforded to the women characters, then these male characters are going to unfortunately leave a negative impression on viewers, especially young minds.  If we walk away with the sense that the negative sides of a character are portrayed in an exploitative manner, then that is going to overshadow any attempts – sincere or otherwise – at showcasing the positive facets of the character.  This is especially true in films about youth or adolescent characters.  “Boys” didn’t work at all because Shankar’s camera seemed to gleefully focus on the escapades of the irresponsible youth while the attempts at realization and repentance in the second half barely registered.  There was no conviction in the scenes where the Siddharth character pays for his past mistakes.  The ‘playful’ scene outside the court was just about the worst possible finish to an already wobbly script.  On the other end of responsibility spectrum are the films of writer-directors like Cheran and Samudrakani - well-intentioned but preachy.  Their intentions and sincerity of purpose are laudable.  But the male protagonists invariably come across as mouthpieces for the directors than flesh-and-blood human beings.  Somewhere in the middle is a film like “7/G rainbow colony” – it does have scenes where the son calls his father names, in a drunken state.  It does have scenes of the hero stalking and harassing the heroine.  But there is something matter-of-fact in the sure handed writing and film making of Selvaraghavan that suggests that what is onscreen is life as is.  The director shows, but doesn’t celebrate or even condone the negative sides of the rudderless youth.  The couple's exchange after the lovemaking scene and the conversation the next morning just didn’t work for me.  The lines came across as completely phony.  But I could at least sense that the director was striving to have the audience understand his male lead, who was making a transition from boy to man in the most painful manner possible- painful for him and for those around him. 

The kind of writing though that appeals instantly to me is one that attempts to portray the male protagonist as inherently responsible, warts and all.  These men are not angels.  They make mistakes, take missteps and don’t always ‘get’ the people around them.  But they want to do right by the people around them, especially the women.  They rightfully treat their women as their equals or, in some cases, put them on a pedestal that they deserve.  Filmmakers like Mani Ratnam (Alai Paayuthey), Vasanth (Keladi Kanmani, Rhythm), Gowtham Menon (Yennai Arindhal), Radha Mohan (Mozhi), Karthik Subburaj (Iraivi) and most recently C Prem Kumar (’96) have created fascinating, well-rounded, urban - and in some cases, urbane - characters that have made an abiding impact on me.  


I smiled at the way Madhavan barked at Shalini in a heated argument about visiting her ailing Dad (who had previously slapped him in public) only to tell her first thing next morning that they should call on him.  I like the way Vasanth’s male characters, even the younger ones like Ramesh Aravind in “Rhythm”, usually address women as “neenga.”  I find it incredibly poignant that in "Keladi Kanmani," SPB refers to Radhika's parents as "...enakum avanga thaan Appa Amma."  I applaud the way in "Mozhi," Prithviraj says that he wants to “share his life” with the mute, hearing-impaired Jyothika and is not “granting” her a life.  I find it sweet that in ’96, the only time Vijay Sethupathi touches Trisha in the entire movie is when he stops her from hurting herself in the bathroom.  I teared up in the scene where Ajith refers to Trisha’s daughter (in “Yennai Arindhal”) as “unakulla irundhu vandhava.”  Even in an intensely disturbing movie like “Iraivi” – that polarized public opinion greatly – the SJ Suryah character delivers several unforgettable lines in the climax on the innate weaknesses of men.  Regardless of whether the writing truly worked in these movies, it is heartening to me to see the male protagonists treat women with empathy and respect without having any inflated opinions about themselves.  Isn’t genuine menmai the mark of a true man than superficial notions of aaNmai?  Isn’t everyday heroism, the heroism of the deepest kind?  I only wish that more writers and directors follow the path of these trailblazers.  That way, we have films that appeal to and resonate with a wide audience, regardless of gender.  That way, Iswarya will happily admit that her question to me has become completely redundant!







Thursday, November 8, 2018

A memory to remember - My review of '96 [Bonus - Ravishanker's 96 cartoon]

Kamal Haasan once presided over a debate where the topic was, art house pictures vs. commercial cinema.  His verdict was, “Artistically made commercial cinema is what will endure.”  His judgment could be summed up in one number – 96!  96 takes place during the course of a night, focusing on a man (Vijay Sethupathi) and woman (Trisha Krishnan) who, partly owing to choices and largely due to destiny, took different paths in life and are meeting after two decades at a high-school reunion.  What happens during the course of that one night is the crux of this tale, lovingly brought to screen - and to life - by writer and director Prem Kumar.

                                                                                                       
For a first-time director, Prem Kumar comes across as a filmmaker completely assured of himself and his command over the medium.  This is a beautifully photographed movie - the unobtrusively lovely work is by Mahendran Jayaraju and Shanmuga Sundaram.  Simple shots like the school kid driving a cycle across a puddle of water are aesthetically done.  And the close-ups of the lead pair capture every minute change in expression.  Every choice of lighting is tasteful yet purposeful – a case in point, the use of the flashlight in the power cut sequence.  The tools that the director utilizes to bring the 90s to life too, are not flashy, yet make us smile– a floppy disk in the hands of a Computer Science student, a student singing a snatch of “Thendral Vandhu Theendum…”  Govind Vasantha's exquisite score ("Kathale Kathale..." is a haunting melody) too fits the mood of several scenes in an undemonstrative yet impactful manner.

In addition to being an aesthete, Prem Kumar is also a masterful storyteller.  He knows exactly when to cut away to the school portions.  Every flashback reveals a little facet of a character or chips away at a plot point.  He has a couple of recurring elements such as the hands-on-the-chest gesture or the craving for the “Yamunai Aatrile…” song that have sweet, little arcs of their own.  But to me, the pinnacle of his writing skill is the college sequence, which plays in two versions.  It is so splendidly written that it leaves a lump in the throat by the end of the second version.  There are subtle touches (like the way a young Vijay Sethupathi asks the name of a supporting character) that make the two versions distinct.  The two versions say pretty much what needs to be said about fate and how seemingly little choices seem monumental in hindsight. 

If the cinematography of the movie is the eye and the writing the brain, the actors are the heart and soul of ‘96.  Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha, individually and as a pair, well and truly make the movie.  This role is a breeze for the former, who uses his casual body language and undemonstrative dialogue delivery to full effect to bring to life a man who is stuck in a time warp.  This is Trisha’s finest work yet.  She imbues her character with immense warmth.  Of course, the writing plays a part in shaping her performance. (Chinmayi’s voice work is pitch-perfect too.)  But the actress is wonderful here – be it sobbing her heart out in the bathroom or smiling impishly while asking if Vijay is a virgin, she is as ‘alive’ as I have ever seen her.  She also does something nuanced – she underplays the parts where she playfully lords it over Vijay Sethupathi.  There is a refreshing casualness in the way, for instance, she squats on the floor and asks him to sit closer.  Or the way she insists on a clean-shaven appearance.  This dynamic does wonders for their chemistry.  The duo goes into top gear in the concluding portions, working perfectly with one another, knowing exactly when to cede the spotlight to the other.  If Trisha sparkles in the restaurant scene, Vijay Sethupathi is brilliant with the monologue that he delivers about attending a wedding.  Devadarshini and Bagavathi PerumaL have delightful cameos.  But the movie, especially the second half, belongs really to the lead pair and they lift it to great heights.

It is very rare that acting, writing and filmmaking all cohere as well as they do in ‘96.  It is a testament to Prem Kumar’s thoughtfulness and taste that ‘96 comes across as a film that is not only pleasing to the eye but also tugs at our heartstrings, lingering long after the end credits roll.  This is the type of cinema that endures.  This is the kind of cinema that a certain Mr. Kamal Haasan will especially be proud of!

Ravishanker's terrific cartoon of 96:

His website - with numerous nifty sketches and witty writings - is:
https://thezolazone.wordpress.com/


Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Fearless?

In characteristic style, film critic Baradwaj Rangan noticed something about a movie that had escaped many.  In writing about the playful “PeigaLa nambathey” song in Mahanadhi, he detailed how the song was a subtle way of foreshadowing some of the ghastly events to follow.  The hopeless Kamal Haasan fan that I am, I thought of that song on the eve of Halloween!  One line in particular stuck out while I was listening to the number – “AchangaL enum boothamunai andaamal nee oattu…”  This roughly translates into, “The apparition that is fear…drive it away.”  I know of a few people who are utterly fearless.  I have known them well enough and long enough to know that they are not faking it.  Nothing fazes them because they face everything with fierce determination.  Or did I reverse that?  I do not know.  But I have utmost admiration for them. 

I am not fearless.  Have never been, will never be.  But I would like to think that with a few grey cells in the right parts of the brain that I have learned to face my more important fears.  To borrow a favorite imagery of my Aunt, you enter dark tunnels hoping for light, not fearing an incoming train!  As I have written earlier, it is absolutely imperative that everyone has at least one anchor – be it God, science, family or friends.  Instead of delving into my anchors, I shall share five of my fears, some conquered, others not quite.  I have mixed up the lightweight ones with more serious ones.  Regardless of level of seriousness, these are certainly things that I fear. (Needless to say, this list is not exhaustive for the simple reason that I didn't want you to feel exhausted!)

Bark, Bite and Fright – thanks to an insensitive pet owner who was my neighbor during my formative years, I have a morbid fear of dogs.  Irrespective of size, my canine friends make me shudder with very little effort.  I am just thankful for the fact that over the years, I have had some very sensitive pet owners as friends and acquaintances that respect my fear and give me my space.  Well-wishers have tried to help me overcome this, only to realize that they barked (!) up the wrong tree. 

Men in Boo, err…Blue – Being a die hard fan of the Indian cricket team is a boon and a bane.  Victories can be really sweet.  But defeat can be so bitter that even badly made chai would pale in comparison.  To non-cricket fans, this may seem trivial.  But I confess I have a real fear of defeat whenever India plays.  Having grown up watching Indian cricket in the 90s and having seen the Indian team grasp defeat from the jaws of victory many a time, this is a fear that has been partly conquered by enduring, endearing images of Sachin Tendulkar’s sixer off Shoaib Akhtar and the most joyous moment of them all – “Dhoni finishes off in style…A magnificent strike!”

Hospitals – at the risk of sounding pretentious, I shall say that I do not have much fear for myself and my own health.  Whereas near and dear in a hospital?  Now I see the personification of pusillanimity in the mirror.  I have tremendous regard for good Doctors.  Having had the privilege of interacting with a few owing to the nature of my work (in a pharmaceutical company), I know that there are physicians out there with an unerring drive to improve human health.  But the hospital is one setting where emotions trump rationale.  I have had some positive experiences in hospitals but the emotional baggage of unfortunate experiences is yet to be lifted.  One day I will feel lighter.  Until then, I will have to keep my eyes wide open as I walk in, especially when my support is needed.  After all, a bit of selfless focus on others is a surefire way to ignore what is in the mirror.  And making a loved one feel lighter rarely makes us feel heavier.

Single Child Sentiment - Don’t blame me.  Blame my 49-year old Aunt who passed on two years ago.  Why did she have to be a sister, mother and friend all rolled into one?  Why did she do so many things that she didn’t have to?  Why did she never tell me - when she was alive - that she was the reason why I never felt any pangs of being a single child?  Why does she make me feel - even after her death - that true, genuine affection is that exhibited by someone that doesn’t have to?  Why does she make me fear a lack of sense of belonging and relevance?  But as I think deeper, the answer is ridiculously simple.  I just have to emulate my Aunt.  I just have to be a good protective sibling to those that have given me the privilege of being one.  Oh, I almost forgot to tell you - among those ‘siblings’ is my Aunt’s 14-year old daughter.

Delayed action, Useless inaction –Words can be impactful.  Kind words uttered can be as soothing as unkind words spitted can be hurtful.  We all know that.  But I have come to realize that nothing can usurp the importance of action.  Thoughtful gestures and supportive actions can mean the world to people.  Having been a lucky recipient of many a kind gesture, I try sincerely to pay it forward.  But I am no saint.  I do know that there have been instances when my misdirected action, inaction and delayed actions have all hurt people.  I can only say that I am a work in progress.  One with a healthy dose of fear that I will cause hurt if I don’t spring into action timely, thoughtfully.

So, there you have it.  Let the fears be.  Time may help me conquer a few old ones while new ones sneak in.  To me, facing the apparitions that Kamal sang about is as important as exorcising them.  I don’t think that I will ever be fearless.  But something tells me that with time, I will fear fears less! 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Hashtag BluePrintForMeToo

Adam Grant could possibly be the new best friend for anyone passionate about the #MeToo movement.  Well, if not him, then at least his book, the wonderfully insightful Originals.  In the concluding chapter of his book, aided by a couple of deeply thought provoking examples, he lays out the blueprint for a long lasting revolution.  None more impactful than the story of Serbian activist Srdja Popovic, who had masterminded the downfall of their dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

Brave victims, empathetic caregivers, driven activists and even passive onlookers of the pervasive, painstaking MeToo movement should take to heart Grant’s single most important line in that chapter – “To channel anger productively, instead of venting about the harm that a perpetrator has done, we need to reflect on the victims who have suffered from it.”  He writes elsewhere, “Venting doesn’t extinguish the flame of anger; it feeds it.”  Grant also makes an oft-ignored demarcation – being angry for someone will result in more justice than being angry at someone.  Not for a moment does Grant suggest that the perpetrators be given undue impunity.  Rather, the excision of societal weeds must begin by sowing the seeds of well-directed, controlled aggression.  That was the story of Serbia, the story of Popovic.

Popovic had the foresight and astuteness to know that direct, overt confrontation of Milosevic would only result in unfortunate loss of life and fleeting scents of emancipation.  In order for the people of Serbia to breathe the air of freedom for a lifetime, he realized that the spotlight had to be switched onto the unfortunate plight of the victims of Milosevic’s tyranny.  A case in point – on New Year’s Eve at the turn of the millennium, Popovic organized a concert where dirge-like songs were played.  And in a dramatic move, he had all the lights switched off and then proceeded to flash on a giant screen gut-wrenching images of Serbian police personnel and soldiers who had lost their lives in the struggle against Milosevic.  Not one image was of Milosevic himself. 

For the MeToo movement to cause sweeping changes in written laws as well as unwritten rules across professions in favor of victims, it is imperative to first respect the sensitivity and privacy of the victims.  The mother of singer Chinmayi – one of the leading voices of MeToo in India – made a telling point in an interview that while she truly believes in the value of the movement, she is simultaneously opposed to the “washing of dirty linen in public.”  At first glance, the two might seem contradictory.  After all, for the movement to succeed requires great fortitude on the part of the hitherto oppressed subjects to come out with difficult truths involving personal, sensitive details.  But the point she makes is that more women and men who have been subject to harassment and humiliation should come out and share their stories.  But what should be dwelled on in public – oh, the media would hate this! – should not be the sordid details of their encounters with coercive demons.  And instead, their hurt must be registered, their voice heard and the movement be propelled in the direction of safe environments for women and men to flourish without pressure or fear.  For all the trauma undergone by their family, Chinmayi’s mother also vocalizes her contempt for people’s urge to slap a perpetrator more than using that hand to hold the hand of a sufferer.  The punishment of the offender would then come as a byproduct of this movement, not the primary goal.  Clearly, great minds – be it in Serbia or South India – think alike!

Another golden nugget actually mentioned in a footnote in the chapter is on catharsis.  Grant writes of how in the wake of 9/11, the efforts of counselors to get trauma victims to purge and express their grief proved counterproductive.  He writes about how vocal expression of grief tends to have a more soothing effect on a suffering soul once sufficient time has elapsed from the time of the distressing event in question.  This is important for MeToo supporters and caregivers.  Too often we have, with the best of intentions, the urge to rush people into catharsis when a bit of time would actually help heal wounds.  The way I see it, our quiet, tacit empathy could be the calming anesthesia that victims need before they put themselves through the painful yet necessary scalpel of detailed, sometimes disturbing reflection.  It is also a reason the media and celebrities alike must not scoff at the time that it takes for victims to come out with details of their depressing experiences.

Grant ends the book with some truly inspirational lines on Originals – that they “embrace the uphill battle, striving to make the world what it could be” instead of settling for what the world has given us.  Let us respect, applaud, support and above all, listen empathetically to the voices of pain.  As Popovic so ably demonstrated, the collective voices of pain have the power to silence people in positions of power more so than a philippic ever can.  And by the way, he wrote a book too – Blueprint for Revolution!

***
Reference: Adam Grant’s Originals – the final chapter titled, “Rocking the Boat and Keeping it Steady.”

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Gifts of the Future

No sooner had I uploaded my previous write-up, “Presents of the Past” than I toggled to a few of my favorite albums from the 90s during my ride to work.  It felt just right.  It was not as though I was wallowing in past memories – a few songs in a 35-min drive, just enough to hum a few notes from the pages of nostalgia.  One song that made me pause considerably was the scintillating, “Putham Puthu Bhoomi” from the caper Thiruda Thiruda.  A quartet of small time crooks stumble upon a truckload (literally so!) of money and launch into a song.  But the lovely twist is that the song doesn’t feature a single line about money or wealth.  It is about a utopian future, sans poverty, hunger, a world where lasting peace satiates the mind’s appetite for a better tomorrow.  Subsuming the ideas springing out of that song under the larger fabric of thoughts that stitched itself in my mind in the wake of my Aunt’s second death anniversary, I have put together a wish list of 10 items (in no particular order).  For each of these ‘gifts’ that I would like to receive, I shall add a couple of lines on what attracted me to it in the first place.

-          Ability to speak loudly with actions
o   Ever since I heard Anu Hasan state that it is imperative to shift focus away from content to intent, I feel that I have to put more thought into the possible reactions derived from my actions, over any possible resonance that my words may hold.

-          Thoughtfulness to appreciate effort regardless of outcome
o   The CEO of a startup that I worked for in the 2004-05 timeframe once came to the cubicle of every employee before we headed to an important conference to thank us all for our hard work in preparing for the launch – he made it a point to not wait until we got to see labor bear fruit.  Just the labor merited praise and acknowledgement.  As William James once said, “The deepest craving of human nature is the need to be appreciated.”  Our CEO has surely taught me a thing or two on how to cater to the cravings of my family, friends and colleagues. 

-          The magic mix of analysis and storytelling
o   As I strive to advance in my career as an analytical marketer, I hope to never lose sight of the value of a well told story.  My former manager once said, with his tongue firmly in cheek, “Never let the facts come in the way of a good story!”  Well, let me find ways to make them co-exist. 

-          The alertness of a thinking leader
o   Sanjay Manjrekar wrote of former captain and current prime minister of Pakistan Imran Khan that when on a cricket field, he had never seen Imran’s focus shift away from the action.  He wanted to make things happen, not wait for them to happen.  If not for anything else, the thought of Imran (thanks to Manjrekar) is likely to help me resist the lure of multitasking and the distraction of my dumb…err…smart phone.

-          Patience to convey pain without hiding it in a capsule of anger
o   A dear friend of mine once told me in a very low tone, years after he got married, that he was very upset that I didn’t make it to his wedding.  I have never felt a stronger urge to apologize.

-          The zest to read non-fiction
o   Given the abiding impact that non-fiction authors like Susan Cain and Charles Duhigg have made on me, I wish to never be bereft of meaningful words.  After all, every author gifts me a fresh pair of lenses to view the world through.  It all started with Sheena Iyengar who urged me to “be choosy about choosing.”

-          The zeal to write about what is right
o   When I lose myself in a train of thought, writing seems to provide the directions to the right stop where I must disembark and change tracks.  When I write about my value system, I sincerely feel that the words come first, the thoughts later.  It is strangely comforting and during times of need, the pen (well, the keyboard) becomes a friend indeed.

-          An Undying love for cinema
o   Movies have been an integral part of my life for as far as I can remember.  To enter and exit worlds created by others is a gift that I am truly thankful for.  For the characters to then enter my world and stay in the deep recesses of my mind is a kind of magic that I am very grateful for.  Exhibit A – Rhythm.  Exhibit B – Iruvar.

-          The blessing of relevance
o   In recent times, this has become a prized commodity for me – the strong need to feel that I am relevant, that I matter to those that are relevant and those that matter to me.  May long distances not result in my fading out of sight.  And that the mirror of thoughtful reflection correct any issues of myopia.

-          And finally, the wealth of good health
o   If I continue to receive this gift, then I am rich.  If my loved ones all get this, then I will be superrich.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Presents of the Past

The lens that we put on to look at the past is invariably rose-colored.  This is especially true when we narrate a story or share a memory.  By cutting out generic details and embellishing the story, a dash of spice here, a hint of exaggeration there, any scene from the past seems to be the product of a taut screenplay and well-timed dialogue – even the aesthetics seem to be right in place.  When reminiscing about a walk on the beach with a loved one, was the sky truly as beautifully azure and serene as we make it out to be?  Or were the sands too hot and dirty to walk past to get to the rather crowded part of the shore?  Even when we recount messy details, there is a tendency to vivify details with more nobility and positivity than what truly ran in our minds then – was the “sorry” after a nasty (and needless to say, needless) argument with a friend outside a movie theater more perfunctory and obligatory than a deep realization of a mistake that we claim that it was?  The truth is, the ‘truth’ really doesn’t matter beyond a point.  The scene that plays in our mind’s eye is the scene, well edited and all.  The story that rings in our ears is the story, even if coated with the saccharine sweet treats of nostalgia.

In less than two years, I have lost two of my very close family members – my maternal grandma and my aunt.  As an only child born and raised in India, I used to be frequently asked by curious extended family members and acquaintances whether I felt bad that I did not have any siblings.  At that time, I would laugh it off.  My circle of loved ones was small but tightly knit.  As a result, I never yearned for a sibling.  Since everyone that cared for me (and everyone I cared for) seemed to be within driving distance of where I lived, there was never a question of yearning for anyone.  I don’t think I ever said, “I miss you” to anyone  simply because I never had to miss anyone.  In essence, Chennai was part cauldron, part cocoon. 

For the past 20 years, I have lived in the US.  While I have enjoyed many personal joys and professional successes, I do find that when I am by myself, doing yoga, running on the treadmill or even driving to work, I have the tendency to dwell on memories from the times when more members of my family were alive.  Without getting into the kind of details that I gleefully mocked earlier, I can unhesitatingly say one simple thing – the memories feel nice.  I feel less bereft of the departed when I recollect an incidental detail that makes me smile.  For a fleeting moment, that detail brings the person to life.  Of course, it is only right that the feeling is transient, for it is odious to distance oneself from surface realities as flashbacks take flight. 

But what is more enduring is the past that finds a definite shape, form and structure in the present.  As I have mentioned time and again, the ultimate tribute to loved ones that have passed on is to find ways to live life in the ways that they would have liked me to.  Whenever I find ways to concretize my loving memories of them into actions, little or large, they seem to be brought to life in a manner that is still transient – you don’t need me to tell you that death has a stunning, irreversible finality – but the residual positive effects and vibes seem to last that much longer.  This thought, at least to me, applies to important relationships too.  The members of my family and circle of friends that I continue to have deep bonds with are the ones where I not only have a long, wonderful history with but also have a strong sense of a shared ‘present’, not just a shared past.  The anticipation of new memories that get created on account of being relevant to a set of people is quietly comforting.  So comforting that it achieves the impossible task of stacking up to the magnificently tall structures – made up of memory cells – that I have built up in my mind.

I suppose that moderation is vitally important in ensuring that thoughts of the past, positive or negative, do not consume the present.  It is imperative to respect and cherish the mutability of the present and future as much as it is to resign to the constancy of the past.  That way, images from an earlier time can exist as a well-edited prelude to the scene that is about to unfold.  That way, the narrative arc of our lives continues to have all the elements of suspense and surprise that the boon that is life throws at us.