White Whale

“As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.”

So it is with White Whales. The everlasting itch for that unattainable goal. Guess everyone has one. And I have many. Why do we have white whales? Professionally it kills one to chase for eternity something that is at arms length yet so far away.

I read 'Moby Dick' in intervals. It is not an easy book to read. Sometimes it bores you to death. Sometimes, the pages fly. It may have taken a few months but I finished it somehow years back. The American classic stunned me in more ways than one. 

It is such a dark novel and the protagonist, Ahab, such a miserable guy, it goes against everything I have always wanted to read. But the book somehow rubs your soul in such a way that you hang on to it till the end. I am more of a Dumas, Scott kind of guy. I love adventures. But at times, it makes me feel good to torment myself with Kafka, Sartre etc and it is kind of a masochistic pleasure to read. 

Artist - Elicia Edijanto.

I gave up on such readings. It is not worth the effort to become what Ahab calls 'the November soul' - damp, cold and wet. I would rather pick a Wodehouse or a Fry. 

However, the books you've read always have an impact on the way you look at things. So it is with the White whale. Ever since I've read 'Moby Dick' it has become my favorite allegory for all that I am aspiring for and that keeps me going. The list is long. So, should I say my favorite pod of White whales? 

Is it ok to have more than one? The life changing ambition that you strive with all that you've and fail and then get up and strive a little more? What if you have multiple ambitions which you want to keep failing and the getting up just becomes harder and harder? I have always had many things I wanted to do. Some I am still running after, some have fallen behind, some went past me and I went past some more. The list changes, when a white whale is harpooned, it somehow becomes an ordinary whale and the target moves to another one. Why? 

Ahab also says at somepoint that 'wisdom is woe' and that is madness. Wisdom is woe, indeed. The ability to connect one's ambitious struggle with a metaphorical allegory is woe, indeed. And then write gushingly about the same is madness. 

I no longer remember why I started writing this. The constant thirst to run behind a white whale which changes color once you caught it has been the story of life so far and will be as well.    

Amend (2021)

 'Amend' is a docuseries which explores the citizenship of America. It does not sugar coat the whole thing but documents the fight to gain equality for everyone who is a citizen of America. The series is a good history lesson if you are so inclined but I looked at it as a lesson in democracy.

Democracy has a crazy name. It does not seem to work immediately. It works slowly and intermittently. So it gets a bad name. Why is a Fascist state be able to do things faster while a Democratic state plods through? Why is there no corruption in a Dictatorship and it flourishes in a Democratic state? I am not going to answer these but looking at the way citizenship evolved in the oldest democracy in the world is a lesson on how to bring about change through continuous activism and good democratic institutions.

'Amend' tells the story of the 14th Amendment and the way it changed the political fabric of America. The 14th defines who an American citizen is and is pretty much the basis of all the rights that comes along with it. America has to go through a Civil war to get that. Of course. Nothing comes easy. However, the subversion of the 14th through the laws continued for another 100 years till the Civil Rights laws were passed. By the time segregation ended for the Blacks, it was a continuous struggle and fight in the streets for a hundred years. We go through a list of Black leaders starting with Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr., all of whom were willing to get down into the streets and fight for the rights. 

The struggle for Blacks didn't end there and continues today where they fight racism along with the other minority groups in the streets. Change needs continuous education of the issues to the masses and ensure that the legal means are kept busy till you achieve that incremental progress.

'Amend' talks about the struggle of the Blacks for three episodes and dedicate one each for Women, LGBTQ and Immigrants. Thats a tall order to cover in about 6+ hours. 

Each of the struggles go through the stages - awareness, setbacks, success. You start with accepting that segregation is part of life. You go through the awareness phase where you start looking at the inequality and question. Then the backlash against the awareness sets you back - legally and politically. Finally you achieve incremental success. This is important since there is no such thing as complete success. We do compromises, get what we can, move to get more in the next phase. 

Democracies are not perfect. But given that you have a 'functioning' democracy, it is possible to bring about change. When one fights for a particular right, the progress is made in bringing about awareness about a cause. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the bus, she brought to attention how segregation affects people on a daily basis. It took another 10 years to remove it, but then thats how it works. It took leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X to keep the focus on the issue and not get distracted into others to bring about that change. Was it 100% foolproof? No. But it was progress.

So, what lesson to take from here? That given the paucity of options we have, democracies are our best bet if we want to give ALL citizens a better life. Sadly, the current state of the country leaves much to be desired and for us (and for the world) the only way forward is through building a vibrant, dissenting, strong democracy. 

Two Actors

 Watched a couple of movies over the weekend and saw a lot of arguments on the acting skills of one (still going on). Since its been so long since I wrote a post, thought I will record this. 

Compared to his other movies 'News of the World' is very ordinary. Tom Hanks have set the bar on acting so high that it is difficult, even for him, to hit it every time. That said, it is still a very decent movie set apart by the calm acting skills of him. He is old now and is bringing the frailty of that into the acting without effort.

The premise is the very-common western story of a lost girl being returned to her family and the old man who helps with it. Here, Tom Hanks is a old, Civil war veteran who goes around towns reading news papers for the working people in the night. A sort of like a live news show on the move. He comes across an Indian girl - who need to be returned to her family 400 miles from where they are. By circumstances, he takes up that work and what happens next is the story.

The movie has its melodramatic elements well-etched - there is a shoot out in the valleys, a chase and a riot in a town. However, it is the calm moments that stick with you - when the girl and Tom Hanks try talking to each other and start saying the words for the things around them in English and Kiowa to each other or when Tom Hanks visits the cemetery of his wife, who passed away when he was travelling around. Those are the moments that make the movie good. Overall, if you like Tom Hanks, you can definitely watch it.

There is a definite argument going on between the acting prowess of Kamal and Mohan Lal in the Tamil Twitter. To me, Mohan Lal remains the one and only actor in India who can give any actor in the world a run for their money. While Kamal is good, he is more melodramatic (in the fine tradition of Tamil cinema, no wrong in it!) and subtlety in acting is a skill which I value more and Lalettan is the master of it!
That aside, the movie we are talking about is the sequel to Drishyam - aptly named, Drishyam 2. I liked the movie - it still retains the clever elements of Jeethu Joseph's movie and plays out them quickly to the expected end. Unlike last time, this time you know that George Kutty is gonna win and we are just waiting to see how the hand is played.

The only disappoint I'd is the dependence on the deus-ex-machina  elements of the screenplay - not one, but two - which kind of dampens the cleverness and move into the realm of Luck. But the movie also recognizes the fact that the crime is not going to be excused, whatever the reason might be, and so the 'crime is the punishment' for Georgekutty is a good way to ensure that there is some sense of justice in the story (which also makes it different from the superhero culture, which is a relief!).

So, if you like Mohan Lal like I do, definitely watch it and if you like good cinema, then again watch it without fail.  

A Suitable Boy ( 2020 )

 It took about a month and a half to watch the six episodes of 'A Suitable Boy' by Vikram Seth adapted for Netflix by Mira Nair. Probably I read the 1200 odd pages of the book in lesser time. But that was a different time from a different world.

Infact, I read ' An Equal Music' first. In 1999 it was the toast of the literary world. The next novel from the author of 'A Suitable Boy' , it was supposed to be a classic instantaneously. However, I was disappointed by both the story and the number of pages it took to tell it. However the prose flowed like poetry and I wanted to read the previous book as well. And I loved it.

'A Suitable Boy' is a book of multi-dimensions and tells the story of the selection of a suitable boy for Lata. However simple it may sound with that one line, the story weaves itself across the landscape of India in the initial years of Independence when the country was trying to get on its own feet and walk.

" Mad bird, for God's sake let me sleep

Why do you cry like one possessed?
When will you rest? When will you rest?

Why wait each night till all but I
Lie sleeping in the house, then cry?

Why do you scream into my ear
What no one else but I can hear? "

So recites Amit - one of the suitors of Lata. He writes it thinking of her. In a way, its a comment on the women of India who have their husbands picked out for them all the time. In Suitable Boy also Lata choses the wise man over the passionate one. 

No matter, this is about the TV adaptation. The book, I remember, was commented to be a love story with little love in it. Mira Nair goes all out to show it off as a love story with the material she had. Which is all the better as otherwise it will become a harsh commentary on the way we chose husbands for the women of this country.

The 1950s were a dreamy period when the country was full of hope , the politicians had an inch of decency in them and the great nation-building program was in progress. However, the harsh reality was the upliftment of the poor and the communal poison that was injected into the soul of the country during partition (which has come to roost now!). The TV series touches these a little over the course of telling the story. 

But the primary thread is Lata trying to chose between the three suitors in front of her - her mom's favorite - Haresh , the poet - Amit and her passionate love - Kabir. The sub plot is that of Maan - her brother-in-law and his infatuation with the courtesan, Saeeda. The multiple threads are brought to an end at the end to the satisfactory conclusion.

What I liked about the adaptation is the lightness with which the story is told. Knowing the complex societal mores in India, the story moves along a simple path of following the way Lata is being pulled by everyone to chose their favorite and she making up her mind for her future happiness rationally. 

What the book is not is a commentary on the mores of the Indian society as a whole. By showing the events as it happens the adaptation becomes the commentary of the same. The book written in 1993 has subtly touch on a whole lot of things which have sadly become more relevant in today's India - caste , religion and the combustible mixture of politics into it. Although we do not hear any comments on these , the fact that they are there is enough to make you aware of it and be embarrassed.     

In the end, it is an absolutely entertaining adaptation with the right cast and the right director. A little bit of nostalgic watching and feel good about a story well-told in screen. 

The Civil Servant - musings on the American presidential Election

One of the effects of the politicization of Sibi was the eagerness with which he went out to vote. He turned 18 this year and so was super eager to be part of the election. The political awakening he is going through helped in terms of going enthusiastically about registering for vote , the mail-in ballot procedures and then finally casting the vote. Knowing him, I can say safely that he doesn't do it if he is not really interested in doing it.  

This is the first election in which Sibi casted his vote. And he wanted his candidate to win. We had a lot of conversations around the Indian-American candidates in the field and how and why so many of them are the right wing bots in the Democrat party. Hence, he was not fully convinced about Kamala's ( even now) affiliation to the cause he supports but he went ahead and casted the ballot holding his nose.

However, what I wanted to write about was the ( almost ) month-long charade of the election results tamasha being run by the outgoing President - Trump. In a way , I was a little sad about the complete entertainer going off the stage and handing it over to the most boring candidate I've seen in a while. 

Seriously though what impressed me is the way the American institutions handled the onslaught of the intimidation and the exhibition of raw political power. Knowing what happens in our democracy, it is with a jealous eye that I was witnessing the strength with which the last civil servant was standing up against the mighty president and his cohorts. 

There was no hesitation to do the duty and the numerous examples of the government workers in the ballot counting centers going about their duty while the mob was thirsting for blood outside and still was able to announce the results without fear says something about the strength of the process and the people who ensure to carry out those processes.

Irrespective of their party affiliation, the state level officials ( elected and others) were standing on the side of the law and ensured that the results cannot be questioned. Constitution was paramount and there is no questioning the established law - for any one person or for fear of the person. 

It is something to see the Indian rightwing going nuts over the American election. Thats not something you see often. Mostly, they cannot understand how these 'little' men can stand against the ' O! mighty one! '.

Of course, the career politicians in US showed how they can be bent against the law or for spreading fake news/rumors or for dog-whistling the supporters etc. Infact, the Republican senators and Congressmen behaved exactly like the counterpart servile politicians of India. There is no policy or anything, just a bunch of fake nationalist cult worshippers , more intent on being in power than doing anything for the people or the country.   

Ultimately, the clerks in the election offices, the state election commisions , the city/county/state level politicians , the media to an extent showed what can be done if they grow a spine and stand up for 'something'. The lowly , often-abused civil servant saved the democracy in USA by just doing his duty without fear. 

Freshman year - 2019-20

Had it been a normal year , I wouldn't have written this. But these are extraordinary times that we live in. The pandemic has become something of a terrible dream we are all learning to live with. And I am sure each one of us will have a pandemic story to tell. 

Given that and the fact that we sent Sibi to BYU last year and he has to live through all these times growing up probably in record time to manage himself and his affairs. That is for later. Let me tell the story of how we learned to live in these tough times.

The first year in college started off as always. Sibi was very enthusiastic about getting started and was keen to explore the various facets of life in front of him. He took up a job with the dining services , cleaning dishes 2 hours a day on a flexible schedule. The reason I write about it - rather than the classes he took is primarily because I take pride in the fact that he was able to do that and manage his affairs very well. And that he got a practical understanding of the word 'Dignity of labor' by himself.

He had a quiet room mate and settled into a rhythm very fast. If he missed us in any one of those days , he never told us. He used to call in unseemly hours asking a question on this or that , but beyond that he was able to manage everything by himself. He got excellent support from the school - both the friends he made and the professors he studied under helped him in whatever ways necessary.

The semester was rigorous and between the time he was spending on the work and the studies , he was pretty busy all the time. If he felt any pressure , he did not show it. A lot of credit need to be given to the university as well. While he was made to feel welcome, he also made a staggering number of friends ( by his standard anyway! ) in a very short time. I will give a lot of credit to those boys who took him out for movies , the conferences and importantly , the Thanksgiving parties as well. We are happy that he is making friends and memories that will last. 

Christmas break was kind of bad as the campus emptied and Sibi was left with only a handful of international students. He did receive a basket full of goodies as Christmas present from 'Anonymous' friends. They made the Christmas and New Year a little more special. 

Winter Semester started with the anticipation of his travel back to India in April. Little did we know at that time how things will change. 

However, Sibi was able to absorb the cultural shock and be able to respond well to the challenges by learning and behaving well. The only area he struggled and still struggling are the religion classes. That is a completely new thing to him and is doing his best to scrape through. 

The pandemic and the shutdown of the campuses started in March and the campus emptied quickly. As the Spring and Summer semesters moved online, the flights got cancelled as well. We wrote to the housing team to extend Sibi's stay and they agreed to do it at a very nominal cost.

Here is why I was happy to have chosen BYU. One, Sibi was made very welcome in the campus and it is difficult to make Sibi do something he doesn't like. Hence, he must find it to his liking to be in the campus. Two, the kids are all very well behaved ( mostly, for college kids , anyway!) and I was thinking of the way I used to be in campus and compared to that , these boys are angels. They celebrated Sibi's birthday , made him gifts for Christmas, took him out for drives to different places and generally , took the effort to be friends with him. That is not easy ;-) . More than that, the university helped with every request to accommodate during the difficult times and also provided financial support on that as well.

The Freshman year which took the least expected turns by the end of it , somehow managed to instill a lot of responsibility in Sibi and he was able to adjust , learn quickly and manage his affairs much better than what I myself would've done. For that , I am grateful.

Kafka Vs Dostoevsky

Read MDM's assessment on his change in thoughts on how he started finding Kafka more relavant than Dostoevsky. While I understand what he says, I think I differ a little.

I read both 'The Trial' ( in Tamil ) in college and 'Crime and Punishment' ( in English) a little later. Took me multiple readings of ' The trial ' to make sense out of it. Kafka remains relevant because the societal norms that we have are always absurd. The way he describes the trial process , the judges , the advocates and finally the judgement for a crime he never get to know all talk about the farcical nature of the society we create and follow and the need to be able to look at this absurdity and understand how it demeans and destroys the innate human nature.

The night I read ' Crime and Punishment' , I did not sleep. Strangely , the mental struggles of Raskalnikov was too close to be able to discern. The book juxtaposes the crime versus the punishment and without criticizing the system which imposes such , looks into the inner battles of a criminal towards redemption as the reasoning for existence. The Christian tenets of sin and sacrifice are in and Dostoevsky takes a long class on redemption through self and the removal of sins through acceptance and repenting. The individual struggle finds a way to resolution.
The resolution Dostoevsky comes up with ( in almost all his novels) is pretty much the same. While he is focused on the individual's life in a society, Kafka focuses on the society's absurdness in the individual's life. Kafka's show of absurdity came to life with the larger than life pageants of the Nazi Germany and the way it squashed the individual with its absurd notions of superiority and is more than relevant in today's world. The struggles of the individual as Dostoevsky portrayed is more relevant in an alienated world which has discounted redemption as a solution.

So , who is better? To me, they represent a piece of the world I would've struggled to understand on my own. Kafka helps me to pass the absurdities of life as it presents before me with a smile (sometimes , terror) and Dostoevsky has this more intricate hold on my values and forces me to look into that often before becoming a prey to the absurd world of Kafka.

White Whale

“As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.” So it i...