Mar 5, 2018

Echoes of lost faith

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My memories of the Kanchi Acharyas are faded and creased. But, when I saw the news of Jayendra Saraswati Swamigal passing away, I realized the residual feelings were still alive. My grandmother who steadfastly refused to revere anyone living, made allowance when it came to the Kanchi Acharyas. Especially the one who just needed to be mentioned as 'Maha-Periyava.'  Chandrashekara Saraswati commanded that sort of deep respect with his quiet dignity, wisdom, and majesty. 

Back in the eighties, when I was a young school girl, holy men had not yet started appearing on TV and YouTube channels commenting or tweeting on sundry matters. I only got to read what they occasionally wrote on staid print media or dry pamphlets mostly on philosophical or mythological issues. Or I saw them in one of the seasonal assemblies.

I don't remember ever hearing a sermon or a speech by the elder Acharya, just of him raising his hand and saying a word or two in blessing. Aunties and uncles in their madisar and panchakacham jostled about for darshan, there was the scent of jasmine flowers and incense and the sounds of chants. The mystique of the whole scene called to me. There was something unimpeachable about the way 'Maha-Periyava' conducted himself. There was a prick in my heart when my grandmother, a widow, said convention prohibited her from coming face to face with him. But my otherwise questioning and critical adolescent self, still could not denounce him.

Jayendra Saraswati came on to the scene, adding a personal charisma, a benevolent smile, fresh energy and a seemingly more secular face to the old age institution. That appealed to my young self. He talked of inclusion, of charity, of alleviating poverty. He seemed to have no issue with my widowed grandmother visiting him. We even traveled to the Kanchi mutt once as a family and the taste of a simple free meal that we partook with other visitors, a pungent rasam and rice, is still seared in my mind. 

The day the unprecedented news broke of the Acharya leaving the mutt, it was mainly sympathy that I felt for him. Identity conflicts between the self and the perceived can be deeply troubling.  Like the Dalai Lama, the Acharya took on his position before he became an adult. Is it a life of unequivocal calling? Or a life of constant struggle to reconcile? No one outside can tell, can even begin to guess. But people in positions of power do not have the luxury of airing their internal conflicts. 

He eventually came back to the mutt; the eighties gave way to the media fuelled nineties.  I gave the Kanakabhishekam telecast a pass as a first step on a path of already fading faith. Under the glare, almost no holy man, irrespective of their religion, could any longer hold up to our projected hopes of who they should be. They no longer had the luxury of seclusion and unflinching trust. They were now mired in this material world, stripped off their mystery. As the years wore on, many were routinely exposed for their involvement in all sorts of horrific activities. It was only a symbolic last breach for me when Jayandra Saraswati was arrested on murder charges. 

I broke the news of his passing away Wednesday morning to my mother who was busy in the kitchen. She asked if he had attained Samadhi, unable to use an earthly word like death. I replied firmly that he had died, but a part of me wished I could tell her that he did indeed attain Samadhi.



Feb 26, 2018

Not so new resolutions

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I am almost morbidly introspective. And to add to that, I have a fascination for techniques and concepts like CBT, Kaizen etc. Naturally, irrespective of the outcome, I happily come up with resolutions every new year, every birthday, whenever I change residence, jobs, heck even when I change devices.

In the past, these resolutions used to be erratic, and somewhat of a wishlist of things to do. It'd range from learning how to bake a cake [which I never did] to making tie-dye shirts for the family [succesfully made rag cloths] to finishing 'Gone with the Wind' [by skipping a considerable number of pages].  They were often indicative of my wide range of, also somewhat capricious, interests. Over the years though I have managed to narrow, shorten and sharpen my resolutions list. Let's face it I am never going to grind my own lens for a Newtonian telescope; I still think it's quite cool to do it, but have outgrown the need to sort my list by coolness factor. Coming up with the right resolutions these days turns out to be an exercise of prioritization.

I notice I have been fairly successful with going from zero to some minimal achievement. For example, until a couple of years ago I had never meditated. I had set a modest goal of meditating a few times over the year which I achieved. [Let us not detract the success story with details like I started sometime in October and I have meditated only for 10 mins at a strtech]. I don't seem to go from reasonable knowledge to expertise. [I can hear my friends and family chortling - 'that's a character flaw, not a problem of resolutions].

With these two data points, the last couple of years I have been a bit tougher on myself. The resolutions of late require persistent action over a period.  Apart from that, I have picked up a new fad of tracking myself obsessively as well. I have spreadsheets that pull all kinds of data from sundry apps and trackers. Good news is I know exactly where I stand with my goals. The bad news is it's not looking that great at the end of two months. Good news is I don't give up that easily. The bad news is I need a lever.

So here's to some success in March. 

Nov 17, 2017

Book hoarder's future

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Two unrelated things I did last weekend got me thinking about the future of books. No, rest assured and read on, this is not a condescending lament about how the young generation does not read anymore.

The first was some decluttering that I did.

When it comes to my kitchen or the wardrobe or the shoe-rack, I am ruthless. If an item does not stand the test of some questions, out it goes. These questions range from the poetic ('does it invoke a spark of joy' a la Marie Kondo) to the efficient ('did I use it last year') to the realistic ('do I have any chance of ever fitting into that dress again'). Thanks to this excellent approach I have used the same amount of storage space all my adult life. That I have lived mostly in the tropics is surely a reason that the said space used is quite small. The other reason being I am an anti-social, lazy, introvert with  no sense of fashion and a blissful ignorance of what does not go with what.

So I breezed through clearing out all that stuff but got stuck with my bookshelf. There are no easy questions to formulate when it comes down to books. Each of the books brings a spark of joy - okay maybe not that unopened 'Half girlfriend,' but still ninety percent of them. On lazy Sundays, tired weekdays or even on a rushed morning, just a glance of a well-thumbed book brings me a spurt of energy and happiness.  'Did I read it last year?' is not really a fair question. And I am never able to or even want to honestly answer, 'Will I ever read it again?'  Who knows what I will get from re-reading the 'Tao of Physics' a decade from now. Or 'Half girlfriend' for that matter.

This problem is only with books. I had accumulated many audio and video cassettes and CDs over the years. Those, I was able to chuck without any qualm. I am more than happy with the abundant streaming choices I have in-lieu. Except for a few that I have placed in my living room as tongue-in-cheek showpieces, or a few that I have retained for sentimental reasons, I  gave them away without any compunction. 

The difference is when it comes to books, the tangibility matters to me. The rustle of the paper as I turn the pages and the smell of books old and new only enhance my reading experience. I prefer the contrast of a printed paper still.  Since I am wedded to the physical object,  the luxury and comfort of on-demand reading is not yet enough. So there, I have full justification to keep all my book until I cross over. 

I do think there is more to it though. It has to do with a certain middle-class unostentatious upbringing that frowns upon unfettered materialism and glorifies the pursuit of knowledge. While an extensive collection of shoes, in this world-view, is unequivocally vulgar, a shelf full of books is not. The latter is associated with the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom and is therefore appreciated. I suppose ultimately though it is vanity - elitist, internal yet eventually a display of a certain superiority.

Despite that introspection, as I type this I am horrified at this equivalency of shoes and books. And part of me is lining up a whole set of outraged responses as to why a collection of books is special.

Clearly, I am nowhere near giving away my books. 

Sep 12, 2017

Zombie on the back

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Thoroughly enjoyed the movie 'Vikram Vedha.' I love movies that work on many levels, that are well polished indicative of the hard work that has gone in, and lastly, that are sheer fun.  VV was one such movie. I didn't care too much for the opening animation, but other than that minor peeve, I was so charmed that I came away thinking the movie was near flawless.

It's a straight up shoot-em-up that in the beginning seems almost uncaring about the body count. But the intelligent screenplay slowly and surely unravels the many threads that bind the protagonists, leaving the viewer with a very satisfactory ending.

Movies that deal with shades of gray, that portray the human side of the 'villains' and the not so human side of 'heroes' are not novel. Starting in the eighties, we have had many movies that make heroes out of gangsters, stalkers, con-men and so on. Clearly, VV is at one level inspired by many of the classics in the genre. I could easily spot the 'Blacklist' influence not just in the scene that introduces Vedha to us, but also in the way the character influences Vikram.  What elevates this movie though, in my opinion, is the brilliant reinterpretation of the age-old Vikram and Betal encounter.

The familiar beginning of each installment of the Vikram series that I read is so etched in my brain. 'Vikram not losing heart, brought the Betal down from the tree and started yet again.' The series can primarily be viewed as a set of puzzles that clever Vikram solves, and through the solutions, gives some sort of a moral guidance. The last story, which Vikram purportedly fails to solve is not necessarily perplexing in the context of human behavior and seems more about semantics.

This movie uses a different prism to view the series. Vikram, the King, through the series is sure of his answers; he is not just clever, he also has an uncanny clarity of what is right and wrong. In the movie too, when the first 'story' is told by Vedha, Vikram, the cop, is not particularly confounded. He answers quickly and quite reasonably about what he believes is right. Unlike the original Betal, this Vedha ups the ante as the movie progresses, bringing more complex problems to Vikram where ultimately he is transformed. I think the original Vikram might have felt cheated, that the Betal tricked him with a not so complex moral problem. And with that, he could have still been unshaken in his core stance, a black and white stance where he continues to be able to pronounce judgments without dilemma. Where there is ultimately one right answer, where he didn't have to agonize or regret a decision. But the modern Vikram, who starts off determinative, is exposed to stories and questions and ultimately betrayal that presents him with a problem where judgment is not so easy. I loved the ending. One more shot and it'd have ruined the movie for me. The two protagonists laugh in the end and in their laughter is unease, an acknowledgment, and growth.

I must also mention the camera. With its aerial shots, the camera loves the housing colonies, making the metropolis part of the puzzle. Also effectively countering the claustrophobic actions that happen mostly inside houses and warehouses. The camera angles pull you into the narrative by pausing on seemingly unsuspecting bystanders, by rushing along with the children, and by being still in dramatic moments.

Full marks for not reducing the women to complete cardboard figures in what is ultimately Vikram and Vedha's story. Also, for not overdoing it.

Both Madhavan and (unsurprisingly) Vijay Sethupathi have done commendable jobs with their subtle performances. There are several scenes where they have to give clues to the audience of what's coming, without necessarily doing so to the other characters on-screen. The opening sequence when Madhavan notices the trembling hand of his friend and the scene where Vijay Sethupathi swallows his sorrow before asking why Madhavan shot that man are cases in point. Vijay Sethupathi portrays his love for his brother in a mellow, subtle manner that is as always impressive.

I would have been happier if the songs had ended in the editing table. All in all, absolutely worth watching.

I also watched Bahubali. After doing some prep in terms of dismantling some parts of my brain I enjoyed part II. Part I required complete disassembly.