Saturday, September 24, 2016

When Nithira Devi was knocked down by my nocturnal train of thought

The pillow looks so inviting after a long day. As soon as I hit the bed and wait for sweet sleep to take over, few uninvited guests come knocking. "Tadading..  tadading... " no they aren't Facebook, WhatsApp notifications.  They are pesky neurons  transmitting thoughts at the speed of 120 miles per second. I think, think and think and finally fall asleep when my neurons had had enough.... some 2-3 odd hours later.  

I know I'm not alone. This is one major epidemic seriously threatening body clocks world over. 

This picture perfectly sums up how majority of our brains work. 

Picture this. You live in a city. You look at the night sky and you hardly see any stars.  Where do they go? We fail to see them because of the artificial lights all around us.  They obstruct stars' light from falling within our line of sight. Meanwhile, if you go to a place with no man-made lighting around and look up, you'll find your jaw drop. 

Poets, musicians and painters are at their creative best at night precisely due to this reason. The stillness of the night. Serene and brilliant. 

I usually forget everything I think at night the very next morning. The smartest wisecracks*, some amazing comeback lines** and the most intricate plot lines*** that I'd conjure at night disappear into mist the next morning no matter how hard I try to remember them. I had to come up with a way to note them down.

There was a WhatsApp group to share placement related stuff during my college days.  In due course everybody left except one. I used this group (ironically named 'information unlimited') to send myself messages so as to pen down things ranging from grocery lists to birthday reminders. And this was the group I used to chart down things I think about each night for a week. 

And the results were um.. You decide. 

So here goes a random list of thoughts that keep Nithira Devi some light years away from me. 

Ratha Kanneer and Iraivi. 
          I watched the 1954 classic "Ratha kanneer" (tears of blood) this week. M. R. Radha's voice requires no Dolby surround sound to make a lasting impact. His portrayal of a spoilt educated brat with a self acclaimed  penchant for art (!) was as breathtaking as his subsequent role as an all suffering leper. His performance drew my breath away that I didn't notice the storyline until much later..yeah until I began reminiscing at snooze time. The movie had the dying protagonist admit that he is the sole cause of his wife's misery. 
My mind drew parallels between this scene and the main plot line of the recent Karthick Subburaj flick "Iraivi". 

"Iraivi" (Goddess) is a finely made movie that unabashedly states the fact that most women in our society languish  because of the men in their life. The problem with Indian flicks is that there are characters who are painted white (the hero,  heroine, hero's mom etc. ) and there are characters who are wholly black (the villain, the goons, heroine's mama payan etc.) In reality we are people of grey, with different shades of it. We all have our weaknesses and "Iraivi" boldy attempts to bridge this gap between white and black,  portraying men and women as they are. Men in this movie admit without ego, without any 'buts…' or 'ifs…' and without blaming their wives that they are directly responsible for the latter's grief. Therein lies the similarity. 

In Ratha Kanneer, the lonely wife of the rich lecher has an epiphany of sorts when she tries to convince herself to break from the shackles of society and lead her life with a new partner. A friend advises her not to depend on any man and thus lead a life unscathed. She refutes him saying a life without a husband isn't as easy as it seems to be.   

Fast forward half a century later and we see a similar scene in Iraivi where an estranged woman seeking remarriage is counseled by her friend not to give into marriage and lead a free life. The woman shrugs off her advice as wishful thinking.  

The climax of Ratha Kanneer has the leper hero, now in dire straits, convincing his wife to get married to his best friend so as to make amends. He proceeds to leave them alone, resigning to his fate.

We see a similar ending in Iraivi where one of the lead characters on realising that he faces a jail term and a grim life ahead, makes way for his divorced wife to get remarried by faking a drunken brawl, thus degrading himself in her eyes. 

Both movies have lead me to rethink the definitions of "progressive" and "regressive". Messages driven home in less than 3 hours - so stark so deep that they kept me thinking almost the entire night.

To be or not to be… organic
              I have this habit of drinking soaked Fenugreek water early in the morning in the belief that it reduces body heat. Every night, I religiously take a handful of Fenugreek seeds, put them in a bowl and then proceed to hold a mini debate as to whether wash them before soaking or not. 'Hey!  The pack read "organic" when I bought it. No pesticides to wash' I assure myself, dunk them in water and hit the bed. 

Have you seen this amazing CGI in Anniyan/ Aparajit, when Ambi transforms into Anniyan and they show this electric spark that zaps from his toe, through his nerves, his spine and makes a touchdown in his head? As soon as I hit the bed, similar imagery takes place within me, leaving my neurons super excited. The result?  Thoughts break free leaving me with puffy eyes the next morning.

So what did my neurons do that particular night? They fetched this for me!! 

Richard Muller is a physics professor at Berkeley and a name to reckon with. He has some 88.1k followers on Quora. So it is not some Buzzfeed post but a Richard  Muller answer that now haunts me. So the Fenugreek seeds that I eat everyday ups my risk of cancer? And if I buy a non organic version I'm still prone to cancer if the chemicals are not within permissible limits ? But who checks for pesticide permissible limits in India? Do they check anything at all? Remember the lead in maggi? And how it turned out to be a joke?  A costly one at that?  What about potassium bromate in bread?  FSSAI banned it after finding the carcinogenic additive in 84% of breads tested. So how far did they go to enforce it? How far can I believe the ingredient list ? The shampoo that reads "100% herbal actives" lists methyl paraben at the bottom of the label.  A video by India101 showed how malachite green is added to make vegetables appear fresh and how silicone spray is used to add sheen to stale vegetables. And there was another video where the "organic" label was abused to sell everyday stuff at a higher price and now organic isn't organic anymore! 

All this thought slamming leads to a burn out that I ultimately get out of bed, head straight for that damn bowl of soaked Fenugreek seeds, wash it thoroughly, refill it with fresh water, hit the bed and just pray to God that I fall asleep. A sob story! 

Books!  Angst!  Jeyamohan! 
         A fetish for books frequently keeps me awake from time to time,  be it reading a novel or just thinking about one.  This time around, I kept thinking about my visits to book fairs.  10 used books for 200 rupees. Stephen King,  Khalid Hosseini, Jeffrey Archer, Lee Child and a hundred more biggies among that pile. The seller mostly wouldn't know the difference.  Every book worm's delight! 

 One more reason to cherish local book fairs were regional books. Books written in English are readily available in Amazon or Flipkart but that isn't the case with regional books,  in my case Tamil ones. Book fairs seemed to be my only way to discover tamil literature. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find one good book. And why?  

Rhonda Byrne's "The Secret", Paulo Coelho's "The Alchemist", Chetan Bhagat box set, the Shiva trilogy by Amish Tripathi fill most of the book Tamil. These translated best sellers are a big blow to any reader seeking original content. Other tamil books that are rampant include the ones written by Sujatha and Kalki. I'm a big fan of these two writers but where are the others? Publishers hesitate to stock up lesser known works due to lack of popularity of the writers. Writers of regional language are struggling to find foothold in an era where the reading population seems to be dwindling with each generation. 

It's a sorry state of affairs when I see my peer group having no exposure to regional literature. To revive our sagging interest in Indian languages, an extensive campaign is needed (No I'm not talking about another Semozhi Maanadu) and reading books written in one's own language must be in everyone's checklist. Readers aren't the only one to blame. While there is a book for every age group in English, there is almost no book in Tamil targeting the teenage/ adolescent segment. Young writers below the age of 35 are painfully few in number. 

When talking about Tamil writers of this era,  it is impossible to let slide Jeyamohan. Most of his works are available online through his blog. He is undoubtedly a genius, his works are diverse and often requires pain staking research.  But he is a writer and writers world over have a common trait,  pride. 

An earlier edition of this wonderfully curated monthly magazine "Vikatan Thadam" (buy it folks!  Worth every penny) carried Jeyamohan's interview. The whole interview was thought provoking to many as well as wrath provoking to some. His views on Periyar,  current crop of writers, community bias among others may evoke criticism from some quarters. But what personally irked me was his comment on women writers.  He generalised them saying they write only for fame and for invitations to literary events held in America. How misogynist for an accomplished writer in this century! He accuses women writers in Tamil do not spend time on research before writing. But a novel is more than just some research thesis, isn't it sir?  

Writers like S. Ramakrishnan,  Perumal Murugan, Jeyamohan and the like pen incredible novels specific to a timeline and to a particular region that require solid groundwork. And there are writers like Balakumaran who write on relationships and influx of emotions. One can't claim Balakumaran is not a writer just because his novels don't belong to the former genre.  The same rule applies to women. When Dalit writer Bama writes about caste discrimination prevalent in Hindu-Christian communities in her region, she writes what she sees before her.  She has been ostracized from her community for doing so.  Women like her would rather like to speak out than seek fame.

Thus goes another night where I have make-believe conversations with a writer I guess I'd never meet in my life. 
                                                - - - - - - - - - -
Not all the nights go like this though. Some nights I’d read a very boring book so as to sleep immediately. Other nights I’d feel happy thinking about college, friends and trips that I'd taken with best pals. Thanks for the trip to Ooty guys!

Then there are nights where I hope to listen to some long lost songs and gradually fall asleep. And of all the songs in the world, this is the song my mind comes up with - "Theemthalakadi thillale" (damn you Put Chutney!) 

To all insomniacs out there - never watch a Christopher Nolan movie, eat Andhra mess kothu parotta, start going through your childhood photo album, scroll your quora feed or watch the Newshour debate at 9 just before falling asleep. Unless you are Kumbakaranan on a 6 month sabbatical or my friend Kavitha, I assure you your chances of finding Nithira Devi are pretty slim. Sweet dreams everyone!

*** classified information (wink) 

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Rain Maiden - a tribute to Satyajit Ray

The dark lords black, burdened
Heave a sigh of relief 
  Droplets flung all over 
  Stir the lake from her sleep
Concentric circles abound 
  Their lives mystical but brief

The rain maiden's soaked 
  Drops slide down her hair
  Unoiled yet fragrant, 
  Setting off ripples a few
Outnumbered  though
By the dark lords' own.

A pair of little eyes watch
Her antics from afar 
  Part thrilled part terrified 
  Join didi? um no!
Petrified or amused- Apu stands still 
  And so does the tree beside.

  The rain maiden's delirious,
Unmindful of the the dark lords' cry
She spins her fragile figure around
Weaving magic like fine silk.
If the sky, the lake, the rain make the canvas,
Our rain maiden's the art 

  The rain maiden's finished 
  She runs towards the frail thing 
And holds the child close. 
  Apu, eyes wide, seeks refuge 
  In didi's outstretched sari
Wrapped safe, fear lapses to joy 


  The dark lords filled with rage 
  For some reason unknown
Perhaps taken aback by her audacity
Cast a spell so fierce!
The rain maiden's no longer fiesty;
Gold has a melting point and so had she. 

  The rain maiden's sick 
  Bedridden, numb with cold 
  Her playfulness knows no illness.
She beckons the worried child
And promises a spectacle soon,
"We'll run alongside the chugging train!"

The dark lords still relentless
Storm her room at night.
The rickety doors, the open window
Only hasten her woes. The rain maiden-
Scared, clings onto her mother 
  And onto her dear life.

The kind neighbour relents 
  To poor Apu's plea
What awaits her is pure misery.
The mother and her young
One alive one dead; 
Eyes as lifeless as the rain maiden.    

The rain maiden's gone
And so is his smile 
  He's bereft of her fingers-
The fingers that caressed,groomed
His unkempt hair. A void, left behind,
As big as their bond.

The picture of the desolate child
Staring at the vacant sky
Evokes something inexplicable 
And soon we find ourselves say,
"Take heart little Apu, 
  Durga's only asleep, till it rains again"

The 1955 Bengali movie Pather Panchali (song of the little road) is a poignant tale laced with love and warmth.  Satyajit Ray was an unconventional story teller with an eye for detail.  His repertoire includes an assortment of genres- ranging from the highly intellectual to the deeply spiritual. Pather Panchali, his best known piece of art, was incidentally his debut movie. Watching the movie was indeed a surreal experience for me. The grandmother who gleefully relishes stolen fruits, the aspiring playwright who finds it hard as a priest to make ends meet,  his wife who is the ultimate embodiment of sacrifice, our hero Apu who is the picture of innocence and gaiety,  the child maiden Durga who wins our hearts with her sprightliness and makes us cry inconsolably at the very end are earthy characters who tug at our heart strings and claim all our love. I have tried to pen these verses as a devout fan drawn to the inimitable genius of Ray as well as the lyrical realism of his debut work.  
  To Ray, with love. 

Note -

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Are we ready yet?

Thanks to social media, we have people turning famous overnight and things going viral in less than 24 hours and fade out from our memories even before the 24 hour time frame is up.  “Sensational” - this word has crept up every time we Indians attach ourselves to some new change or mission.

Ringing bells” (sounds like a wedding planning company?) felt obliged to do something for the nation and ta-da, we have freedom in our hands @251. All those features and what a cute looking phone! What were our people thinking? Would I consider buying a car whose price is cheaper than petrol? Think of this phone and the rate of 1 GB data pack. You get the picture.

 Like tickets to an India-Pak match, people thronged to buy it even before they realized the prototypes handed out during the launch weren’t even made by them but a Chinese company, Adcom. It can benefit the masses at a steal of a price, true -but why am I so skeptical about it?

Trust issues. People didn’t trust the Nano  (Tata PR guys did a bad job marketing it as the poor man’s vehicle) or the Government subsidized Akash Tablet but when an unknown company, even if it is well intentioned, rolls out a massive plan that banks on our money to release its products and with a business strategy that lacks clarity,  I can’t help but flinch looking at my naïve countrymen . Very well the deed is done so I’ll wish the company the best of luck. They know they are being watched by sharks – IT honchos and the media. We know stories of people who apparently built robust empires but couldn’t handle the heat eventually. Think Satyam’s Ramalingam Raju, Sahara’s  Subrata Roy, United Spirits’ Vijay Mallya…

We took to social media like a fly to a light bulb. Sentences acquired new meanings and conversations took dramatic turns.

“I like this song” now meant liking Adele’s Hello on YouTube and down 
voting a negative comment below it.

“I shared a meal”  now refers to sharing a snap of last night’s Biriyani on Instagram and make sure your dirty fingers are somewhere in the pic

“I voted for the Delhiwalla”  now meant upvoting an 4.8k answer of a most viewed writer on Quora to “What are the most embarrassing incidents that happened in front of your crush?”

“I need to change my status!” means... Yeah adhey! Adhey!

Social media keeps our always online friends near and boredom at bay. There’s no dearth of “25 crazy things to do with food that spills on the floor”, “67 things people do to hide their dark circles. You are not gonna believe this!”  (with an awkward photo accompanying it),  “101 tricks to teach your Dalmatian” , “This amazing potion can make you go from flab to fab in under 26 minutes” and the like. It goes on for all eternity.

I’m not going to write how we are all heading in the wrong direction and how smart phones have taken over the inhabitants of planet earth. I leave that to the Open –Ed page of the Hindu. Humans evolve, technology changes, attitudes differ, passions and interests evolve. Change is indeed inevitable. Even before smart phones and applications became our obsessions, we looked elsewhere while having our dosas and tomato chutney for breakfast, we laughed at things that weren’t talking to us and there were things that made us miss our bus stop. These “things” were magazines, television sets, books, radio sets and crossword puzzles.

Some of these pre-smartphone devices were also met with resistance.  In the 15th century Bonfire of Vanities in Florence, Italy, certain books were burned along with cosmetics, dresses and musical instruments by the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola as they were too “sinful” to his taste. Uninstalling some apps might be our personal bonfire of vanity. It takes less than a minute to uninstall that candy crush app but it requires immense courage and effort for an individual to rise above the average and “just do it” (pun intended). Addictions to some applications are harmless – be it criminal case, clash of clans or 2048. They are akin to doing meaningless activities like throwing pebbles at the lake, crushed paper bits into bins, popping bubble wraps and squishing ants (Never mind there are apps to do all of these)

Not all the apps can be ticked off as harmless, some apps are used by miscreants to spread malice and instigate violence. Consider the inhuman and meaningless lynching of a person at Dadri, the hapless man was killed by a mob for eating beef at his home. It wasn’t beef but that’s not the point. Mohammad Akhlaq was killed over a dead piece of meat by a mob that gathered over the course of a WhatsApp message.

Any emotionally charged piece of act triggers us. We fall for the Facebook post which rebukes us for “shamelessly” celebrating the death anniversary of Bhagat Singh as Valentine’s day. 


The tragedy of Rohit Vemula and the JNU incident have created furors all over the social media space. With fingers pointing in all directions, we are confused on whose side to stand by and voice our support. Should we stand by Kanhaiya Kumar? Should we believe he is a wronged student? Did Vemula die because he was a Dalit? Did the JNU students raise slogans of  “India Murdabad! Afzal Guru Zindabad!”?

We feel our emotions are being swayed every day with every new report, every new political speech.

Report  1 - “JNU student Kanhaiya Kumar arrested on charges of sedition. JNU students intensify protests over free speech” screams the headline and we take the student’s side .  Sedition is a serious charge and we don’t really think twice when the reports state that Kanhaiya is falsely accused.

Report 2 - Rajnath Singh’s tweet that JNU student’s protest had the backing of Hafeez Muhammad Saeed,  Lashkar- e - Taiba chief made us raise our eyebrows and we reconsidered the whole situation. After much media bashing , the Home Minister later admits he made a blunder and we roll back to Report 1.

Report 3 – We all have the video grab of Arnab Goswami turning green with rage and metamorphosize into Hulk. He shredded JNU student and protst organizer Umar Khalid to pieces. Arnab brought martyr Hanumanthappa into his speech. We are patriots and we start hating Umar as well.

Report 4- A JNU student posts on Quora that the video of students shouting slogans of anti-nationalism is misleading as the students who feature in it aren’t JNU students but belong to a political party and we end up really confused.

Report 5 - Smriti Irani speaks out her mind, silences her opponents. We see the video on YouTube, she wins our admiration and we are back to square one.

Social media puts too many things on our plate. Even before we could chew on one, it offers another!
We must decide for ourselves, trust reliable sources of information before we take a stand.  It is hard not to get overwhelmed by watching an emotional/traumatic video. Our voice counts, our support counts. It is to cater to us, the media works round the clock.

So, are we as a nation ready to handle social media and not let our emotions take over? Not yet, Not now.