Friday, January 27, 2023

Single Take #1 – No questions asked

Note to readers – I am starting a series titled, “Single Take.”  These sketches will be shorter than my usual blog posts.  I will be alternating between the short and the longer write-ups just as an experiment.  I would welcome any feedback and constructive criticism.  Happy reading!


I finally understood what religious people experienced when they entered the premises of a temple.  Thanks to the efforts of journalist S Shiva Kumar, I was allowed inside Ilayaraja’s studio in Chennai.  As I stood outside the building, only a glass door separated me and him.  I saw him.  More accurately, “I saw HIM.”  The security guard let me know that I should stand next to him until HE would wave at him.  Much to my amusement, he said, “Why don’t you move to my left so that you are not in Aiyya’s line of sight?  Once Aiyya waves to me, I shall let you in.”  I said to myself, “Ram, no, don’t try to respond with some lame, ‘witty’ remark.  You are going to soon be let inside ILAYARAJA's studio.  Just follow instructions to the letter.”  So, I did.  While I waited, I asked the guard for any tips he could offer.  Among other things, one piece of instruction stood out – “Keep your volume down.”  If he had only listened to the beats of my heart, he would have been scurrying to buy cotton balls for even the drummers in the studio.

The King must have waved to his guard.  For the latter told me, “Aiyya koopadraru.  Ulla poanga.”  As I entered the studio, the maestro gave me a hint of a smile and gestured me to sit down.  As I took my seat, the first words out of my mouth were, “I don’t have any questions for you, Sir.”  In response to the quizzical look, I continued, “Sir, I have grown up on your music.  Your music has meant the world to me.  And I wanted to use this opportunity to see you in person and thank you for what you have given me.”  I picked two of his songs that have touched the innermost recesses of my soul – “Ellorum Sollum Paatu” and “Nalam Vaazha” from Marupadiyum.  And I emphasized that these two songs, among countless others, have touched me, lifted me, inspired me.  I told him that there was something inexplicable about his music that set it apart from anything else that reaches my ears.  A smile here and a word there were what he offered in return to my monologue that was really a thanksgiving speech.

After a few minutes, I requested him for an autograph and a photograph.  He agreed to both.  Oh, the security guard had given me instructions for that too.  I was supposed to come outside and mime the clicking of a camera.  And he would then ask the person sitting next to him to go inside and take a picture. (Why I couldn’t ask the other person myself is a thought that crossed my mind.  But I was wise enough to not argue!)  Did I follow those instructions?  You bet.  To the letter.  As I thanked HIM and walked outside, I could understand how the pious folks in my circle would beam with happiness after exiting a temple.  The ‘darshan’ would have given them peace and tranquility.  It would have given them the cathartic reassurance that a superpower exists, to give them the strength to lead their lives, inclusive of its highs, lows and everything in between.  The fanatics would even exclaim, "Don't you question the existence of God."  Well, 35 days have passed since my visit.  The impact still lingers.  And guess what, I didn't question at all!

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Fully charged

“Charge” is a word that I think of quite often and quite deeply.  No, it is not about that ominous bar at the top of the device that I carry in my pocket.  Instead, it is a word that I remember from the commencement speech that Randy Pausch gave weeks before he died of pancreatic cancer.  He mentioned that the university President “asked me to come and give the charge to the graduates. I assure you it’s nothing compared to the charge you have just given me.”  Just the presence of considerate college staff and earnest students who were on the cusp of something special, gave a dying man a certain “charge.”  Several things can give us the kind of “charge” that Randy spoke about.  But I doubt if there are any that endure, uplift, comfort and secure us the way kindness does.

As a new year commences, it is but natural for us to reflect on the previous year’s happenings, the highs, the lows, the best practices, the lessons learned and set resolutions and goals for the year.  I rarely indulge in any activity that involves disciplined listing of things.  I don’t seem to derive joy or fun from listing accomplishments.  Or reflecting on a set of disappointments either.  What I instead do, is let my mind freewheel in search of one dominant emotion or thought that seems to persist in the mind, refusing to budge.  As I reflect on 2022, that emotion has been kindness. 

Among the things that I am grateful for, one of them is people who provide frameworks to organize my thoughts.  While social scientists like Adam Grant revel in tools like two-by-two grids to distinguish between different groups, I also find perceptive writers (for movies or otherwise) offer us a line or a phrase that is simple on the surface yet seems to drive us in the direction of common sense.  In that respect, writer-director C Prem Kumar (of ’96 fame) has been a remarkable inspiration.  It is an unfussy line in a poetic scene between Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha where he asks if she is happily married.  Her response is wonderfully poignant.  And more importantly, thought-provoking.  She says, “I am not sure if I am happy.  But I am at peace with myself.” (It sounds much nicer in Thamizh – “Sandhosham-aa irukena na…nimmadhi-ya iruken-nu sollalam.”)  It has been a very important line in my life ever since I heard it for the first time four years ago.

It is because, in my opinion, peace is a lot more controllable than is happiness.  The attainment of peace can truly be a quiet, personal, inward journey.  Whereas happiness, at least to me, seems to depend more on circumstances and other external factors.  Even as I reflect on 2022, yes, there were several moments of joy.  But as I think about the few rough patches in the year, I feel that, for the most part, I was able to be at peace with myself and my microcosm of the world.  That is because of the kindness that I saw in its most pristine form, sans blemish. 

Just like a variety of types of people make up this world, kindness too comes in different flavors.  Some express it in well-chosen words, others express it through thoughtful gestures and yet another set of people offer it in silences, just being there for us when we need them.  As I introspect on last year, I consider myself blessed to have been the recipient of kindness in all these forms, and more.  Instead of sharing the more obvious, overt acts, I shall just share one small memory that will be indelible for me for years to come.  I was having a particularly difficult day and broke down near the entrance of my house.  The person in question walked up to me, held me tightly and urged me to finish tearing up before entering the house so that I would not have to be seen by everyone inside.  He offered a few words of assurance, put his hand over my shoulder and walked inside with me.  Imagine a phone that was devoid of power, to be fully charged in a minute.  That is exactly what happened then. 

Of course, life is not just about acknowledging and appreciating acts of kindness.  It is as much about giving, if not more.  And from what I have learned from those innately kind souls, the key to giving kindness effectively is rooted in one element.  It is in how well we can transmute our feelings of empathy for a person into words, actions or gestures that touch the innermost core of what the other person is experiencing.  To place ourselves in the shoes of another person is easier said than done.  But if we were to truly get to the heart of what is disturbing another person, then we will come up with the right avenue to exhibit our kindness.  The person I mentioned above knew what was disturbing me and realized that what I needed at that moment was the license to tear up without fear of judgment.  He knew that I needed a shoulder, not a solution.   As a result, he enabled me to, in fact, strengthen myself post the catharsis.

As I look ahead to 2023, I seek comfort from the fact that I have people who give me that charge in many a form.  I am equally fortunate that I have been able to be that charge when a few close ones have needed my support.  In both cases, I tell myself that kindness can be the controllable element amid the vagaries of fate and the uncertainties of life.  It can be the constant amidst several variables.  In essence, it can be that supercharger that ensures that we are quickly up and running.