Saturday, August 05, 2017

Being a good friend

My father had an example he would quote often. As a principal of a popular school, he had thousands of examples to choose from! Yet one example stayed constant through the years. One hard-working student beat the odds and got into an IIT in an era before coaching institutes and 99.9% cutoffs. Just through his own merit, studying by himself, without any help from home where parents were very ordinary folk. His working hard to crack IIT had a cascade effect on his classmates, and they all were tutored by this guy. These were days when getting into an Engineering college was mighty difficult, and ranks had to be in 3 digits if there was no reservation. This batch of students wrote all entrances and while the first of them got thru IIT, many of the rest got into top colleges like BITS and REC. Almost as good in those days. For a small town, an ordinary school with very low fees, and mostly first generation students, it was nothing short of heroic! 

The example my father made out of it was about peers and the influence they have. No other factor comes close to having that sort of a grip on our lives. Not parents, not teachers, not religion, not circumstances. Peer group is the single most powerful influencing factor on our lives and personality, primarily because we don't recognize it! Every other factor we resist. Influence of the peer group, we celebrate and dig deeper into! Docile children turn unruly by choice, and the bullied becomes the bully. A student who wouldn't open a page becomes a bookwork, and the lethargic become champions.

When we're young, we often don't have a choice on choosing who our friends would be. The group of kids who live around our homes and the ones we study with at school automatically form the first circle we're a part of. But as we grow up, our 'intelligence' starts choosing. We gravitate towards those who make us look cool. Or so we think. One of the primary functions of a friends' circle is to absorb pressure. Friends allow us to vent and dissipate pent up energy. And it is natural that we choose those who allow us to do so. But therein lies the problem. In today's world, friends circles regularly run into hundreds of people. And technology allows us to be a part of dozens of circles at the same time. In addition to people we know, social media allows us to pick and choose thousands of unknown folk who become a part of our circle through our choices. The noise we generate is unbelievable. And the pressure to belong has never been higher in human history. To belong, and to participate itself has become a stress-inducing factor. From being a dissipator, peer groups have become stress creators. 

An unanswered 'Good morning' is cause for friction! A message replied to an hour later becomes redundant as plans are made already without us in their midst. We're on a very short leash. If friends want to go to the movies and you don't want to, the group's dynamics change immediately and you're made to feel left out. Expectation is a bitch. And our circles expect complete involvement from us all the time. So we play the game whether we want to or not, as the threat of not feeling like a 'part' of the group is a constant Damocles sword. Because of the noise and the clutter, resisting the pressure has become almost impossible. Especially in formative years when other people's opinions are still very important to us.

But sadly, many of us never grow up! We lead our entire lives meeting others expectations and wanting to belong. The circles change, the expectations increase. Nothing else changes. Where technology should have made it easier for us to reach out to the right folk and to relax, it has become the exact opposite. School groups from our childhood continue to behave exactly like we did at school. The bullying continues. Fun at the expense of others is what forms the groups' core. The topics have changed from games, films, and girls, to money, career, and girls (or boys if it is a girls' group - they're no less 😉 ). The way the banter goes on hasn't changed. Ganging up against the timid hasn't changed. Girls get married, have kids, pursue careers, and in their groups, trash-talk the families they marry into, and consider it a stress buster. It isn't!! Makes things worse because we have to act normal with the same people in a few minutes again. Its a bloody drug, and keeps dragging us back to that phone. But what if whoever is on the other end of that message / call doesn't stoke the fire? What if they gently move our focus away from the negativity and talk about something beautiful? Initially it may anger us, as we've gotten accustomed to taking acceptance as support. We don't need anyone to actually support us. We just need them to hear us out with well-timed Ah's and Ouch's. And then they take over the baton and we reciprocate. Once this mutual scratching is done, we both (or the entire group) go back into our lives with increased frustration in our systems.

What sort of friends are we if we encourage our 'friends' to dwell on negative stuff? We give big lectures about the power of positive thinking and make jazzy presentations to our office staff, and in a few minutes, we turn to our phones and become the same thing we warned others against? Tragedy is that we call it 'letting our hair down'. It isn't busting any stress if we're adding into the stream! Why is it so difficult to understand that we are making things worse for ourselves and for all around us? Can't we get better at encouraging our friends? Can't we stop the conversations from moving to judge people and making assumptions? Can't we tell our friends that we don't want to hear about the negativity they've perceived in their day? Is it so difficult to talk about music, art, good food, and positive experiences without getting drawn into comparisons, judgements, and putting people down? Is it that difficult to be a good friend?

It isn't a difficult choice to make. When we were kids, in order to appear cool, we did stuff we did not enjoy. All of us did. What adults are we today if we continue doing the same thing at a larger scale? How have we become a better person? One change we make - to stop fuelling negativity, will change the dynamics of our group. Not everyone will like it. But as grown ups, we should have already come to a realization that we can't please everyone! Our actions are not meant to please others. If what we do makes our mind quieter instead of more agitated, we know we're on the right track. It is a constant effort. But it is not even necessary to try and change the narrative. Often, just not participating in stuff we don't enjoy will make the difference. We don't need to do this in order to make the group better. We make ourselves better people. Less stressed, less agitated, adding less into the already overflowing stream of nonsense. And we're not doing it for others. We do it for ourself. We do it because it gives us peace. Saying something because we are expected to is not necessary anymore! We should have reached a level of comfort with ourselves that doesn't need others confirmation for us to feel good.

The guy who got into IIT did not get into it for others. He did it for himself. And others benefited from it. Not everyone did. And he did not blaze a trail for his family to prove a point. He just did. Being a good friend isn't to empathise with our peers on every topic under the sun. In this world of overcrowded 'friendships', it often means just to step back and stay available, but on our terms. Not stoking the fire is what being a true friend means.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The joy of work

Sanding of wooden boards, watching the wood scraps fly, breathing in the fresh smell of timber, running hands over the smoothed edges.

Writing a book. Putting together hundreds of sentences, filling up pages, throwing away used up refills and filing reams of paper filled with amazing blue-black words

Chopping vegetables, putting them into an experimental dish, watching it simmer. Watching the joy of the people relishing it.

Kneading the dough, proofing it, watch it rise and then bake it. Get the kids involved in baking and lie back contentedly that afternoon with the smell of the baking lingering all over the house.

Make a movie, write a script, spend endless hours in the sun and shade, edit it, put it all together and then watch your creation unfold on a large screen in front of your eyes.

Build a house, lay the bricks, paint them, work in the accessories, know where every little thing is, every nook, every cranny. Know the stories of that house from inside out - from the chipped bricks you used in a corner to the area where paint of another colour was patched up because it did not seem right. Smile to yourself when you're reminded of these stories, sitting alone sipping tea.

Create a software, code it all line by line. Spend endless hours in front of the computer till the keyboard breaks. Fail at it repeatedly, give it up too many times. And start it again in the middle of the night because it seems like you cracked the code and it doesn't let you sleep.

Create a garden. Dig the trenches, the flower beds, watch the flowers bloom, protect them, don't pluck them and watch them wither away on the plant itself, only to see them become their own nutrition. Watch the birds come and sample what you put together, take care of it continuously. Water it, pull the weeds, change the topsoil, spread the mulch. Get dirty.

Paint a picture. Set up an easel, draw the outlines, fill it with colour. Get your apron splashed with a multitude of colours. Go out and buy more tubes because you exhausted the ones you already have. And buy a few more sheets too. Spend hours on it and keep it covered till you complete it all and unwhip the covering with a flourish.

Man's nirvana is to work. The easiest way to find peace is in activity. A lot of activity. Mind numbing, body pounding activity. The joy of creating something is one of the worlds greatest experiences. Farmers, artisans, city builders, survivors. Cooks, coders, mechanics, craftsmen. The journey is greater than the destination. And the journey is never ending.

Creating a sand castle on the beach, knowing fully well that it'll get washed away when the tide comes in, gives the same high as building an apartment complex over a period of two years. It's the same thing. Scale does not matter. 

The biggest thing we have lost in the last hundred years is the ability to work with our hands and feet. A little DIY project where everything comes ready and cut still manages to fire us up and keep weekends busy in the garages.
A furniture manufacturer who requires users to assemble it himself becomes the worlds largest brand in its field and makes billions. A toy maker who sells blocks that interlink and allow users to create a bit of something has movies made with its figures. Though what we create is limited by design, it still is enough for us to plan our weekends around and we thump ourselves on our backs that we're teaching children the value of creativity :)

We love to create. And it is coming back. We spent too long behind desks, and the great outdoors are calling. People are growing their own food, old cars and bikes are being restored, vineyards are being expanded, beaches are getting cleaned.

We may not be able to get away and establish a city like One hundred years of solitude. But we can do our own bit of creation in whatever field appeals to us. Afterall, that sand castle is the same as a big building. Both will get washed away in time. One sooner and one later. And we won't be around forever anyway. The time we are here, we create something not to leave behind but in the full knowledge that it will become one with the earth again in time. And that is the greatest joy. Of doing it in spite of that knowledge. 

Our ancestors knew that magic. From the Rig Veda period, when varnasrama of that period was put into place, everyone was assigned ample work to do. In fact, rather than the birth of the person, back then, their ability to work put them into the different varnas. We spoilt it by understanding it wrong, but that is for another blog post sometime later. They knew that when people have their hands full of work, when they have fulfilling work waiting for them when they wake up, the world would be a peaceful place, where everyone's energy would be satiated and they would go home and sleep in peace. 

The urge to perform physical work is so strong that people left their established civilisations with machetes in their hands and went into jungles in continents across oceans, and then set about creating their own homeland. From scratch. When it was already there in their hometowns!

What we have done to our society is to shun that physical work. Instead, we filled our days with planning, redoing those plans, and having meetings about those plans. And all that pent up energy had to come out in some way! So our minds went into a tizzy, thinking of weird ways in which that could be expended. Not all of them good. And along the way, we somehow developed a warped sense of hierarchy in which we convinced ourselves that working from a chair with a computer and a phone was superior to working with hands and feet. In fancy presentations we use Krishna's quotes from The Bhagavad Gita to fit our slides, but forget that most of the Gita only talks to us about working. Just work, without bothering about the result of that work. No higher work and lower work. All work is the same. We use fancy phrases like dignity of labour today, while in reality we had all of that and more thousands of years ago. We just lost it along the way.

For that to successfully happen, we need to uncouple our profession from work. Work is for the body and mind. Not all work has to give us rewards. Work is its own reward. There is no question of 'What do I get from this work'. 

And now I really need to go smell some baking. Yeah, I'll probably burn the cookie, and if so, it'll all just be thrown away. But the joy of the work will remain. Nothing can take that away.

Monday, October 31, 2016

To be, or not to be

The way heroes are made and modified has always been a topic of interest to me. On other blog posts here and elsewhere ( is one example), I've rambled on and on about the topic, and the root for many of these thoughts is 'The Invasion that never was', which I was given to read at an age where I still was impressionable :) An entire invasion was apparently fictionalized, and our history thoroughly distorted (though there are others who think the invasion really happened and was reported accurately) within a single generation! Think about it - our entire history, the biggest source of our pride, was distorted by a bunch of over-educated fools who found it fair game.
The same applies for our heroes too. Whether we worship them or vilify them seems entirely dependent on our narrative. Afterall, the image we put up for a hero is what causes future generations to idolize / demonize him / her. The post mentioned earlier was written in 2012. It's been 4 years, and with age, I should've grown wiser. However, I've only grown cynical, and I guess that's often a synonym and an acceptable alternative to appearing wise! We have now had a right wing government in power for over two years, and a whole new bunch of heroes have come into vogue. While that isn't much of a problem (except for those preparing for quizzes and UPSC examinations!), the real problem is that heroes we've grown up idolizing have become like he who must not be named!
Most of India has grown up in an environment where Congress has been presented as the savior, and the people who brought about India's independence and identity. Along the way, some folk from that party split and formed a different wing, And another, and another. Our civilization has always judged us on the basis of our history, and so they changed their history by bringing in people who weren't a major part of it till then. Dead people, remember. We keep bringing in people who are no longer alive, and use their history (or distort it) to help create and protect the image we'd like to portray to the world.
After a right wing absolute majority govt was formed at the center in 2014, icons who we were made to idolize were gently (and sometimes roughly) pushed to the side. Gandhiji's image started taking hit after hit. And it built and built till today I would get skewered if I made a simple statement like 'Father of the Nation' on my social media profile. Lesser known heroes suddenly came into vogue. Nehru became a proper villain. The cause for all our troubles. Think about it - his legacy has hit rock bottom  50 years after his death! And is plummeting further.
Chinese whispers isn't just a party game. It is true, and affects the psyches of entire generations! A normal chap from a rural village who is still in college, tweets obscenities on long dead leaders because it is in vogue, and gets him to be popular!
Going back further, Tipu Sultan was portrayed as a hero of the country, and that image was bolstered further by the eponymous TV series. For the last few years, however, that image has been thrown under a battle tank. Right wing Kannadigas have come out in force with facets of Tipu's life which weren't mainstream till then, and it is a fact that most young folk of that region today hate Tipu and if given a choice, would destroy his palaces.
In Andhra, there is a different kind of a malady. Of caste. Sri Krishna Devaraya was treasured as the guardian of culture, language, and heritage for the Deccan. Then a caste took over his persona to bolster their own image, and all the others started finding ways to destroy their newfound fame as descendants of that great king. The result is a broth of half-truths and absolute lies, which, as time goes along, will get embedded in word-of-mouth, and become the basis for impressing the next generations.
In this process, we make heroes out of people who are ill-suited to it. History is replete with examples of folk who destroyed entire generations because they were incapable of handling that responsibility. Every day, our media monster makes new heroes in order to keep feeding the frenzy. Malala became a hero for doing something which wasn't common in Pakistan. Several others opposed the regime, but it was she who became the poster girl and got a Nobel for it. We made her an icon, added a chapter about her in our children's books, and put her up on a 'Great women of the world' poster. Then she came out last month in support of Pakistan during the Kashmir unrest, and the entire nation went up in outrage against her and called her a fool! We want those chapters removed rightaway.
We are quick to worship, and quicker to loathe!
Human Beings are a weird species. We seldom live in the present. Either we are caught up in the past, or worried about the future. Most actions that we do, we do either to continue a legacy, or to protect our coming days. Creating an image is like building a brand. In order to do that, we pick up stuff from the past, and weave it into a narration which we hope will carry us into the future. In order to do that, if we have to distort actions (and their results), or even to throw long dead people under the juggernaut, we don't hesitate to do so. A hero (or a villain) is remembered only till his image serves some benefit to the living people. Characters from the past are dug up and polished whenever the present needs them. 
All through our childhood, 31st October was Indira Gandhi's death anniversary. At school, hardly anyone knew it was also Vallabhbhai Patel's birthday. That was how it was back then.
And today, Narendra Modi tweets about Sardar Patel's birthday first, and then pays tribute to Indira Gandhi on her death anniversary. With a gap of one minute between them. That minute's more than enough!

There is a game conducted in training sessions where participants are allowed to pick up any of the objects in the room and use them to achieve the objectives set by the trainers. We use anything from the past to further us in the present. Our next generations will do exactly that. Our history will always be fluid and flexible, because the history in the books is not the history that people remember. Facts will be overwritten by fiction. Rumors will become legends. Our entire lives' works will get cast by the roadside as time goes along and there is no longer any need for the image we nourished. Needs change, and history is made to adapt to those needs.

Great is the man who lives a life without caring for what the future generations will think about him.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Hudhud - A year later

The Indian subcontinent is hit by dozens of note-worthy cyclones each year.
The world is hit by thousands of natural phenomenon which are termed to be of 'disaster proportions'. 
Most of these strike in areas of limited or nil inhabitation or dissipate in the oceans that make up 70% of Earth, and remain only as a matter of academic interest to scientists. A few of them do damage worthy of being discussed by the world. Each time a populated city is struck, our world turns grisly. Thousands are killed, property worth Billions is destroyed. The human spirit often prevails and life comes back to normal in a few weeks or months. Once in a while it takes years. A really bad natural disaster may spell doom for the region, and in cases like Pompeii which was destroyed to an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, civilization in that region is wiped out.

Last year on this day, HudHud visited Vizag. An 'Extremely severe cyclonic storm' hit a highly populated city for the first time this side of the world. We lived through it, and are richer for the experience. Yes, it was terrifying. Yes, windows were shattered at home, our office sustained much damage. The city we love so much became a rubble. Comforts like running water and electricity took a few days to restore. Drinking water became difficult to find, climbing up the stairs a dozen times a day pushed us out of our comfort zones. Schools were closed for two weeks. Monumental loss of property happened. Some folk living next to the sea lost everything. It was inconvenient to provide medical assistance because of the conditions of the roads. Communication was non-existent, and relatives and well-wishers outside of the region were more worried about us than we ourselves as they did not know our situation. 

Thankfully, there wasn't any loss of life. A couple of stray incidents and freak accidents apart, Vizagites were all alive. Thank you, mother nature.

I began writing this post 11 months ago. It has been in the drafts folder of my blog ever since. But somehow, it never got published. And I'm glad for it. Much has been spoken about the way the government has swung into action, about the different agencies which selflessly contributed their time, resources, energy into clearing our city and getting people back onto their feet. When we're grateful, it isn't for the present, but also for the future. One year from that date, we remain grateful. Thank you, Odisha disaster rescue teams. You were the shining beacon among nature's carnage. The way you came in on your yellow and orange jeeps with your own equipment, and even your own water and food, was a lesson for the country to emulate. Self-contained disaster rescue units are a Godsend for those stranded. Thank you, employees from all the departments all over the state who drove in on ordinary RTC buses and made camp near Naval Coastal Battery. We saw you cooking your own food in less than desirable conditions on the streets, and sleeping on city bus bench seats and on the pavements. We are grateful. Thank you, Army, Navy, Air Force. You work behind the scenes eternally. The real contribution you've done will never be covered by the media, but you go on. Thank you, Govt machinery and ministers, led by our dynamic CM. You camped at the collector's office till things got as close to normal as they could in the conditions. Much praise has been heaped on Mr. Chandra Babu Naidu, and he deserves it all and more. The sirens of his protocol car could be heard late into the night, every night. Citizens of the city slept just fine. We cooked and ate timely and fresh meals. Power and water came back real soon, and we did fine. But these people worked tirelessly. They slept little, and stayed away from their homes for days and weeks. NGOs, various corporates, religious organizations, impromptu teams of youngsters, thousands of you all came in by your own transportation, did your bit, and left without waiting for your 15 minutes of fame. Thank you. 

Yes, work slowed down after the initial hurdles were surmounted. What should have taken a week took a month after the initial burst of rescue operations. Even today there is much damage that is visible which hasn't been repaired. We have lost our beautiful beach to the cyclone, and it may never go back to how it was earlier. Plantations were taken up on a war footing, and many of the plants have withered away, leaving empty eyesore rusting contraptions that the plant-guards have now become. People profited from the disaster stooping lower than any human being should. But then, this post is not to rant about what could have. It is to feel thankful for what has.

We are guests in nature's realm. The world runs on its own rhythm and dances to its own beat. Each generation of people come aboard thinking they want to change the world and leave their footprint on it. The strongest footprints are washed away in an instant, and the world just shrugs off all change - unless it likes it and makes it its own. I'm of the firm opinion that we are not powerful enough to actually impact our environment in the long run. Together we are billions of people doing incredible damage to our world, but one shrug and it'll all go back to however nature intends for it to be. Hundreds of known civilizations have perished in these shrugs of nature, and thousands more will. Then one day nature (or call it God) will decide that it wants a fresh slate to redraw, and will wipe everything off. Dinosaurs ate up more than they should have, and have become fossils to warn future generations. We haven't learnt from it. A few thousand years hence, a human fossil will be seen with awe by whichever species is around at that time. Or we may just become pieces of nothingness floating in space. What we call disasters are but little specks on the canvas of time. But in that speck are our entire lives! Everything we have managed to accumulate and hoard away, all the layers of society we have so carefully created and maintained, our very lives are a minute part on that speck. Like the tiny people living on pollen on Horton Hears a Who. One sneeze and we're gone. These sneezes fling us back to where we belong. They tell us that there are much more powerful forces at play. Large trees which survived in the Andhra University campus for hundreds of years were uprooted and many of us shed real tears looking at them. But what about the millions of trees which we uprooted and built our homes on? Where has all the wood we're surrounded with at home come from? Newspapers sensationalize and put up headlines like 'Nature's fury' and stuff. But all the trees uprooted by HudHud are cut down in a day in a logging forest in the Amazon! We cried about roads being washed away. We dig up a hundred HudHud's worth of earth under the guise of mining and exploration every week! Crocodile tears we shed! Blaming God for a disaster is foolishness. Poor man. We destroy a thousand times more than all the disasters around the world in a year, and we go back and crib on him :).

The real takeaway, the real magic, is the human spirit. That is what allows us to go on with our lives till the day we're gone. That is what we pass on to our next generation. Not those pieces of stationery we fondly call as currency. Not the gold, not the land. What worth would we put on giving a bottle of water to a family the day after HudHud? How would we attribute value to a squad of people from a neighbouring state who came of their own accord and got to work of their own initiative and showed our people the way without expecting anything in return? Where can we find the thanks for the hundreds who left their problems at home and came following their bosses' orders, and worked tirelessly day and night without being even able to call back home and enquire about their wellbeing? We can't. Deep down inside, we are all awesome people. We enjoy tranquillity and harmony in our surroundings, and will strive for its upkeep. The sad thing is that it takes 'Nature's Fury' to bring out the best of us. We have made our world an attention-seeker's paradise, and the cacophony of media channels searching to make instant heroes out of ordinary people have destroyed our normalcy. A donation of a cycle to a child of poor parents becomes a newspiece. A dozen people stand behind a stage and the child and his parents receive the tricycle, with a backdrop of a 'charitable organization' and under the spotlight of cameras. Thousands of selfless acts much grander than this are performed every day across our world. Neither is the doer interested in fame, nor does he remember the act later.  That is true humanity. And that is how nature intended for us to live - together; in harmony, and lending each other a hand. At Vizag, we have been fortunate to witness innumerable acts of love from strangers who came in to our fallen city and set it right again. We salute you all. We are no longer strangers.

Friday, September 11, 2015

For a seat at the plaza

One of the wisest pieces of advice I've ever been given is to converse to elderly people once in a while. That doesn't mean telling them what to do or shouting at them, but also to listen :) While its easier said than done, with our inflated sense of self-worth, and our make-believe busy lives, once in a while, a day does come along wherein a simple conversation with a man from an earlier generation stops us in our tracks and adjusts our compass' orientation in the right direction.

This is one such conversation.

A well-heeled gentleman and lady came home for dinner recently.

After a long and illustrious career, the man retired at a senior position in the central government, and by then, three of their children were settled in the USA. Like thousands of parents, the couple spent six months in the US and six months in India for a few years. Then as age caught up, they simply decided to stay back in the USA to avoid this shuttling around. They got Green cards, and have been quasi-citizens for close to a decade now. Once a few years, they come to India in the guise of a family function, and then head back.

We were conversing about the different cities he lives in the US - as his children live on opposite coasts owing to their professions. Like most parents do, they travel from one city to the other, spending a few months at each place - depending on the weather, and on family obligations like births and sicknesses. One son lives in California, and the man mentioned he prefers to stay there. I thought it was for the climate, and said so. His answer couldn't be more different! He simply said he prefers California because there is a Plaza near their son's home there, and that plaza has a bench he could sit on and talk to others.

A very well read man, a man considered as a genius in his family. He got an Engineering seat decades ago, joined a steel plant in its initial days, and grew with it into a position of senior management. Planned his childrens' educations immaculately, planned his finances well in advance, sent all three of them abroad, funded their studies, and got them settled there. The man has tremendous respect on both sides of his family, and has helped scores of others with their education and careers. While in active service, he helped dozens of deserving folks get steady jobs, and is considered a mentor by many. Folks from his family made a beeline for him when in need. You get the picture - there are people like him in all of our families. Pillars of the society we inhabit, and their number is on the speed dial of many phones.

This is a successful life - it has ticked all the items on the 'success' checklist. And then to top it off, he applied for and got a Green Card for himself and his wife so that they could stay on the USA. A dream for thousands of parents who've pursued that path and failed. 

And he prefers to stay on in California not because of the climate, or because of the affection of his grand children, but because there is a plaza with a bench within walking distance from home.

Simple stuff

What have we made of our world? We've filled it with concrete, with monuments to our own personal successes, and we constantly outdo the other in a never ending game of one-upmanship. In the process, we've left no space for us to enjoy the 'success' that we have created for ourselves! Such a simple thing - a bench in a plaza where people who're not burdened by time can sit, breathe, converse, and contemplate! A whole life - a very successful one at that - today wonders if the bench will be free to sit on when he gets there. All that knowledge, experience, and wisdom acquired over decades of education, career, and overcoming everything that life's thrown at them, lies dormant, seeking expression.

This blog post is not to come up with a conclusion or to lecture our living style. It is just a hit from Thor's mighty hammer so we sit up and realize that we're not going to be at this age forever. Things won't always happen the way they're happening now. All that recognition we run after, the objects we lust for, they will all lose their sheen. We should achieve all of those for sure; not for the sake of the objects, but to feel good that we've finished another item on our to-do list. But the to-do list needs to take in fewer items. And one day it has to be empty. That day is what I'm looking forward to.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Long Live the Film Writer!

Note - This post is about Films; specifically Telugu films. You may or may not appreciate it fully if you're not a film buff patronizing our incredible movie industry :)

In Internet Marketing, we tell ourselves every single day that Content is King.

Our Film industry has forgotten that Golden rule. And sadly, we are the generation saddled with this mediocrity.

Last year, the Telugu film industry produced 253 films according to Wikipedia, and even the most die-hard Telugu film fan would be hard-pressed to name over 50 of them if there were a quick contest.

The Writer, who should be real star of the film making fraternity, has been relegated to the sidelines, to just follow orders and copy-paste stuff based on pressure from The Hero's Image and The Director's Ego. Since they're paid a pittance (side actors and bit-comedians often make much more than what a writer would for a movie here), survival is the name of the game. And its a fact that you can't pursue your passion on an empty stomach!

Last year, while watching the Oscars, it was thrilling to see the Oscar for best Original Screenplay (which is what they call the Best Writer's award nowadays) recipient getting a standing ovation from the entire auditorium! And that award was given away last. After the actors, musicians, and other technicians. A true honour, no? The final, and most important award should go to the most important department. Hollywood has realized that.

When will get to see such respect to our film writers? Poor chaps. They sit in Krishna Nagar tea stalls fine tuning their characters, and no one even knows them! They run around the film studios, giving passionate hearings to anyone who can make the story take form, and when it does, the film is nowhere close to the actual story that has been written! There are writers who have extraordinary stories, who've told it to dozens of producers!

Two TV series I've watched with great interest recently are Breaking Bad and Prison Break. Got the full versions and watched them like crazy - four and five episodes a day. Yes, the performances are awesome, the background music is terrific, and the direction is tight. But what stands out is the writing. Pure Genius! The series' creators screenplays were so awesome, it became a true delight to watch. A character that appeared in a bit role in an episode suddenly becomes central to the plot much later on, and when we see that character on screen again, the whole past story comes flooding back. What appeared like skulduggery in one episode takes on a whole new light when explained much later. Splendid writing.

Here's another example (and a Spoiler Alert in case you haven't watched this series yet). True Detective, an HBO original series starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, made its debut on TV last year. The 8 part series, to sum up in a sentence, is the journey of two detectives who attempt to crack a satanic murder mystery, retire from the force without having cracked the case, and then join up together again a few years later to solve the mystery. Now, if you watch CID on TV (how can you miss it - its everywhere, and has been so for a dozen years now!), you'll realize that a plot line like what I just mentioned is solved every single day by the redoubtable ACP Pradhyuman and the door-kicking Daya. They solve these mysteries with their hands tied behind their backs, and blindfolded.

There must have been a thousand books written on such a premise of a story, and a hundred movies made on a similar story line. So what sets True Detective apart?

The writing.

Through interspersed screenplay weaving back and forth in time, and through a unique concept of bringing out the story in an oblique manner, the writers make a brilliant job of building the simple story to its climax. Look back at the names of the two stars. Each is a superstar - and bringing them together onto the small screen is a serious risk - that too with a regular storyline. But what gives True Detective a rating of 9.3 on IMDB is the way its woven together.

And talking about writing, how can we not mention Game of Thrones? No better example to showcase the brilliance of a writer and the true power of majestic, unbridled writing! Imagine the faith the production house must have on the script in order to spend upwards of $6 Million per episode! You've read it right. It costs over $6 Million to shoot an episode of Game of Thrones. That's about ₹38 crores, which is more than what most films would cost to make here! One could make 5 movies here with that budget! And Game of Thrones is a purely made-for-TV production, with a running time of 50 mins. Writers rock! A small character in Season 1 suddenly becomes central to the plot in Season 2. Characters who we hated last season, makes us root for them this year, and we pray that George Martin doesn't kill them off suddenly, like he revels in doing!

George R R Martin blackmailing us!

When done right, a writer should be able to do delight the audience. Enthral them in his characters' complexities, get them to flow with his story. I'm quite convinced that a good writer can take a simple one line story and weave it into a blockbuster. There are superstar writers like James Patterson, who have made careers out of that ability. Since we're speaking about story adapted for cinema here, I don't even think there needs to be a solid story. A simple concept is enough - as the screen time isn't enough to bring out all the complexities in the characters. With a book, you're using only one sense of your audience - visual, and have to engage him fully, competing with the other senses around him for his attention. But in a film, you have access to both vision and sound. The environment is in your control, they can't run away for the duration of the presentation (unless the movie really really is shabby). In theory, that isn't too difficult to do. But what's sad is that our folks manage it with great aplomb, and in increasing frequency!

Till a few years ago, atleast we had a story. Yes, there's a Hero, a Heroine, a love story, a Villain, and some Comedy in between. But they were woven together with a string of a story. Sadly, that's seldom needed today. All we need are a star's dates, a particular pairing, a producer with deep pockets (who is easily found if the star is favourable with the audience at that point of time), and everything else can be done in post-production. The film can be completed without even having a music director in place. A song or two are shot abroad after the film is complete and shown to financial backers, based on how much money they can mop up from satellite rights. If the movie sells, there is a better music director. Else, it's a freebie from a recording studio. If the movie gets support of a biggie in the industry, there's a marketing agency that's roped in to spend ₹₹₹ on branding the film. Else, it's a single theatre release (if even that is possible). The story doesn't even come into play! Its all a gimmick - package it well, and hope it will sell!!

A movie called Vinavayya Ramayya released yesterday. The team roped in Rasool Ellore as cinematographer and Anup Rubens composed the music. Brahmanandam, Prakash Raj, good supporting cast. And here's the story - A village boy falls in love with the headman's daughter, who is already engaged to be married. How he convinces her father (Prakash Raj, naturally) and wins over the girl forms the story. How many hundreds of movies will be made on this storyline?? Prakash Raj himself must have played the exact same character in about 50 films. New record? Brahmanandam must have shot for a couple of days so that they can put him on the poster and sell a few more tickets. He must've done that for what, 500 movies so far? The exact same storyline must have been narrated to producers thousands of times in various forms? But yet, films continue to get made! This movie, with such a technical team must have cost a minimum of 10 crores. Such a waste of money.

Yes, there is a feeling that experimentation is risky in our industry. But a film with a storyline like above is even riskier! Not only will it bomb at the box office, but it'll kill several careers along the way, and make a pauper out of the producer! Why the hell do people keep making the same stuff over and over again? First half shot abroad. Hero's parents reminisce about their estranged family back in India, who they fell out with over some misgivings in the past. Hero decides to settle the dispute. Leaves his girlfriend in that country and comes to India to discover that his maternal uncle has a daughter here. A few fights, some comedy, and a couple of songs later, all's well, and yet another 'blockbuster' is ready to strangle its viewers!! How many stories will you keep making with these storylines, Tollywood???

Ram Gopal Varma, who today criticises everyone and everything on Twitter, was a true maverick once upon a time! Shiva, Kshana Kshanam, Govinda Govinda, Gaayam, Anaganaga Oka Roju, Antham, Money Money, Gulabi, what movies! True game changers in the Telugu film industry. And then the guy just lost it. Under the guise of creativity, he churns out absolute crap, and promotes it like each of these pieces of eccentricity will change the face of the film industry! But the fact remains that once upon a time, the story and its writer were truly the king! Telugu Audience in the 90s were treated to some incredible storytelling, through RGV's films and many more. Really good tales, told with a flair.

But then the star was born. And our industry has been going downhill ever since. When the star became bigger than the story, films became bhajan programs. Each movie, depending on its star, had to pay its respects to the family the star comes from. And had to appeal to a certain segment of the audience, failing which the film will bomb. Its a no-brainer, really. Why does one have to make a movie within these rigid frameworks to appeal only to a certain section of the audience, and depend on them alone for the movie's success? Why not tell a story on its own merit? If it is told well, the audience will respect it. Every single time. But when a single actor's remuneration is more than 50% of the film's entire budget, and when the promotions cost 5 crores and the writer is paid 5 lakhs, what creativity are we talking about?? What inspiration do writers have to do justice to a story?

The audience isn't the same like it was earlier. Till a few years ago, whatever nonsense got made, was watched because our folks are passionate about their movies. Whether good or bad, films got their basic collections. But with multiplexes coming in, a family outing to watch a movie now costs over ₹1000. Tickets, Snacks, and Parking. Movies that garner a negative word of mouth aren't going to be watched. Period! Rather than watch trash, people can watch intelligently made TV series and satiate their grey matter! The risks are becoming larger for producers and production houses, and it is high time the writer's worth is realized. Without a strong story, there's nothing! A Drishyam gets made in four languages - all with top stars, only because the story is worth it. The books - Schindlers List, and Saving Private Ryan are deeper than the movies they inspired. Anyone who likes to read would enjoy the books more than they do the movies. That is how it is supposed to be. The writing has to always be more incredible than the movie it inspires. Movies have to take wing from the written word.  Not without one. Books from Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi get optioned immediately because of the clarity of their characters. A Bahubali gets made with a budget of 200 crores because of the faith the production house has on the writing ability of Rajamouli and his team. And a hundred ghost writers pore over forgotten English novels looking for plot lines and character quirks, hoping to use them in their next story. The fact remains that nothing can take the place of a well written story. The sooner our industry realizes this, the quicker audiences will come back to the theatres. Hope they don't stretch it till its too late.

Long Live the Film Writer.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

My Religion and I

Let us start with the part that says 'I'. Because that is how God intended for us to be. I have been here forever. Religion came much much later.

I have my intellect. This intellect takes decisions based on how it has been trained. And these decisions form my personality. This personality becomes 'Me', and everything that is 'Mine' is formed through it.

While the original I is the same for each of us, there are manifestations of it which we live our lives through. Sadguru Sivananda Murthy garu says "I pick up a bit of Prakruthi with me each morning when I step into this world, so that I can function here". He is a master, so he can choose to pick up and drop the many impositions this world creates on us. Ordinary folks like us live lives viewing ourselves and the world through these images that we believe to be the truth, and die thus.

This post isn't about Vedanta; though one may call anything that takes us closer to the truth to be Vedanta. It is about the I and its interaction with religion (or atleast religion as we know it today).

I'm no Psychologist. But anyone who observes human nature can break up the different people we see into personality silos. There are those of us who are teachers. Not teachers as a profession, but those who love to take a thought, dissect it, contemplate on it, and explain it in easier terms. That is what a teacher does. There are the followers. Followers don't analyze. They put all their belief in who they consider as a leader, and then onwards, the leaders' words become their guide. There are the doers. The karma yogis. For them, the purpose of coming onto Earth is to act. They are perennially in action, and it is through these people that the work of the world gets done. There are the radicals. Radicals who question everything irrespective of whether it is required of them or not, and they seldom believe in anything. New philosophies are expounded by the radicals, and it keeps adding to the thought stream of the world. There are the witnesses. Folks who are quite comfortable with their place in the world, and have no desire to disturb the harmony the world possesses in its natural state. They live their lives in peace. 

We come into this world possessing seeds of these personality types. There certainly must be more types, but for the purposes of this blogpost, the ones mentioned above should suffice. Depending on the circumstances and the society we're born into, the seed germinates and manifests into an image that we consider as our personality. This is the answer to 'Tell me about yourself', and our work (or lack of it) gets done through that personality. 

In early times, people were categorized as Hunter-Gatherers, Foragers, Soldiers, and Lazy Bums. Wherever they were born in the world, thanks to their genetic disposition, they became the same thing. A Hunter in Africa and a Hunter in Australia had the same characteristics, and that is how they spread across the world in their nomadic lives, taking their personas along with them and doing the same job in different locations. Just because they were born in different environs, they hunted either Bison or Kangaroos.

As civilization happened, we grew comfortable in our environment, and with it, we created for ourselves a sense of security. This sense of security gave birth to intellectuals, who decided to improve the civilization by creating a system that could be followed by the upcoming generations, and they laid rules for living. This set of rules is what became religion, and has become the bane of our world. Different civilizations wrote down their own rules for living, and different religions were born, based on the location where it was created. Religions spread with people travelling all over, and took on various forms as they mixed with the religions of that particular place, thus forming new sub-sets and whole new creations.

But I came first, and then came religion. 

Religion, as millennia flew past, became rigid, with people wanting to make it perfect; and became an obstruction for our personality to blossom. But again, that is matter for another blog post. In this post, I'll stick to the premise we've established so far. There are different kinds of people, and that happened before religion was ever invented. People existed without 'religion' for tens of thousands of years. The personalities just adapted to the religions as they were created. Now, whether a teacher was born into a Hindu family or a Muslim family, he would do the same thing! He would read the scriptures of his religion, contemplate on them, come out with his own version of the rules, and share it with others around him. The followers would follow the rules unquestioningly - irrespective of whether they are Christian Commandments, or Jewish ones. The doer, who revels in action, would perform the acts mentioned by his religion, joyfully. And the Witness, irrespective of the religion into which he was born, would simply witness.

If a man who possessed tremendous passion were born into a family that follows radical Islam, he could become a Jihadi. If he were to be born into a radical Hindu family, he probably would climb atop Babri masjid and destroy it. The expression is the same. It is just the framework and the color they each sport that is different. There is no question that if the exact same man were to be born into another religion possessing a different set of radical ideas, he would get drawn to them and use it to express himself. Just the birth and the environment are different. The ideas are the same, as seeds came with the birth. They just take form and flourish in their surroundings. If Shankara were born in Jerusalem, he would have become Jesus. Our scriptures have been saying the same thing ever since they've been written - that it is all the same. We're just pursuing the thought from a more worldly plane through this blog post. Noah from Mesopotamia, and Manu from India, both built great boats, gathered species, and sailed till the great flood subsided. They would have made great friends! Sharing stories of how each built his boat, what wood they used, and how they each herded the animals, collected the plants, and made do till the waters receded. They could've been brothers, with the similarities in their personalities. Except that they were born into different regions, and different times, and hence became different people, doing the same tasks. The waters split for Moses, and they also did for Vasudeva. They probably did so for other people from other regions too. 

As time went along, religion started influencing us more and more. I was born into a Hindu family and chose to be a Hindu. If I would've been born Amish, I would probably be living out my life in interior America, without speaking to anyone and without any worldly comforts (except that they call these 'comforts' as impediments on the path to God). Being born isn't usually in my control. So from where does the concept of 'My Religion best' arise?

Over time, 'I' became 'Me', because of various factors, including religion. And that is where the degradation began. The day my religion became more important than I, I ceased to exist. The personality I carry, juxtaposed onto a set of radical ideas that my religion threw up, became a monster and ate me whole. They destroyed the teacher and made him a preacher. They destroyed the follower and made him a Sevak. They destroyed the doer and made him a Jihadi. And then the 'I' died. Except that I doesn't die; so lets call it 'I' went dormant. Dormant till this image of myself as a crusader for my religion fades out. Dormant till I discover that I am more than my religion. That my religion is just an expression for me to find the purpose of my life (or to find God - they're the same). Dormant till I realize that the symbolism in my religion was created by a person like me, and is not meant for me to get caught up in. Dormant till I realize that Noah and Manu are the same; that the man speaking on Bhakti TV and the man on God TV are the same. 

Dormant till I realize that I came first, and that religion came much much later.

PS - The title of this post was originally 'I and My Religion', But as I wrote it out, I realized that we've sadly changed our order of priority thus.