Saturday, 26 August 2017

Book conversations: Between the Serpent and the Rope

Between the Serpent and the Rope
Mukunda Rao
Harper Element, 2014

For those of us who are spiritual aspirants, it is common practice to familiarize ourselves with the various spiritual folds and tenets, especially in the early exploratory phase.  

This, in essence, is the subject matter of this book.  Mukunda Rao records his own experiences from his peregrinations of famous spiritually important places of South India.  

Rao moves from Kalady (birthplace of Adi Shankaracharya), to Arunachalam (Ramana Maharshi's place), to Auroville in Pondicherry (home of the Aurobindo movement), to Puttaparthi (the Satya Sai Baba stronghold), to Mata Amritanandamayi's ashram, to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living campus, to Adyar (Jiddu Krishnumurti's main place of work in India), to finally finish with U G Krishnamurti's timeless, dogma-less, disciple-less and ashram-less concept of spirituality.

In so doing, Rao combines the details of his stay at and encounter with the people of these places, the rise and fall of the prominent religious/spiritual figureheads of some of these places, and his own take on the philosophies expounded by each of these gurus.  The result is a book that is at once a travelogue, a series of biographies, and an elucidation of the different spiritual theories of South India. 

Intriguingly, Rao comments on the failure/modification/misinterpretation/inadequacy of some of these philosophies, and the blind hero-worship that persists even after the founder-philosopher is no more.  Thus the idea behind the movement assumes gigantic proportions, and subsumes and supersedes even the founder-philosopher (for example - and this is my own take - the two Abrahamic religions; Christianity and Islam). 

In many ways, the preceding chapters are a build up to U G Krishnamurti's simple yet radical and difficult-to-grasp take on enlightenment; or Natural State, as he called it.  The added advantage Rao has is that he has met and interacted with the great man himself.

For the sake of completion, Rao (though I understand that he did not visit these places) could have included the accounts of Swami Nityananda's palaver and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev's simple yet profound spiritual messages.  

To me, this work also goes to show the richness and variety of spiritual thoughts and practices that exist in this great land of ours for a spiritual aspirant explore and select from - and we are only talking South India here.

Eminently readable!

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Saturday, 19 August 2017

Old article on nepotism in Bollywood

Nepolitics and nepollywood

Nepotism: The practice among those with power or influence of favouring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs.

This is how the Oxford Dictionary defines the term that has been in the news lately.  I have already raised this prickly issue in Angst.

In Hindi we have a more colourful description of the term: Allah meherban to gadha pehelwan!

Politics and Bollywood (I prefer Hindi Film Industry, but this term fits in here) abound in instances of shameless use of power and influence in getting one's own kith and kin plum posts/roles.

There are countless examples.

Very recently, before they were ousted, two sons of a 'foddersome' politician had occupied prominent posts in a northeastern state.  One of them, if news reports are to be believed, was the health minister even though he had flunked his school exams.  His elder brother had tried his hand at cricket, found it too much hard work, and went... 'hey, never mind! there is always politics..!'

The grand-old-but-irrelevant-in-the-present-context party continues to hold on to the family that has usurped the Mahatma's surname.  That the 'young scion' is not only young anymore, but is also completely unfit to remain in public life, leave alone lead a party, doesn't seem to matter.

No prizes for guessing who I am referring to.

Cut to the land of dreams and glamour: Bollywood, or any of the umpteen 'woods' that have sprung up across the country.  The story is the same in each of these regional editions.

I need not go into the details since I have already written about this long ago.

Recently, a star-kid - a failed actor - had written that she barely survived Bollywood and the bad things it did to her.  Sorry, what?  Who asked her to be a part of it?  Is Bollywood some kind of family jagir that needs to be thrust upon the heirs against their will?  

These gadhas have a simple choice of saying 'no'.  Instead what most of them seem to do is to take the plunge - after all, when the apple is dangled in front of you, why not savour it?  If it works out, fine; if not - 'hey, it is such a bad field..!  I barely survived it!'

Another star-kid - a successful one - was reported to have said, 'it's a free world, there's opportunity for anybody to make it big.'  Sorry, lady; beg to differ!  A rank outsider who has no prior connections with Industry insiders, who has no godfather/mother to guide him/her, who has no chance of getting a well coordinated grand launchpad, has NO opportunity to make it big - not as much as a star-kid who is blessed with all these criteria (minus looks and talent), anyway.

What does this tell us about ourselves?  Nepotism that is so rife in our public life implies that when it comes to handing over the 'family heirloom', we would like to keep it in the family.  We like to pass on the baton to our own ilk as we feel insecure about somebody else gaining an upper hand in our chosen professions.  When there is an easy route available to instant fame, recognition, loads of moolah and power, how can one say no?

So, it's my family, my son, my daughter, my nephew, my niece, my jagir, my fiefdom, my constituency, my money, my fame, my big fat EGO... that's all that matters in the end.  Fairness be damned.  Merit be damned.  'Strugglers' - that hapless breed of wannabe actors who have to jump through hoops to land a bit-role - can take a walk! 

Reservations, newer castes and religions, demands for new states and secession from the mainland... as if these were not enough, you can add a couple of other exclusivist, divisionist, selfish phenomena to this list: nepolitics and nepollywood.

'Nepotism rocks!' did someone say?  

No sir, nepotism sucks!!

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Saturday, 22 July 2017

Book conversations: Afternoon Girl

Afternoon Girl: My Khushwant Memoir
Amrinder Bajaj
HarperCollins 2013

I must honestly admit right at the beginning, I bought this one on a whim - a) because I am a big Khushwant Singh fan, and b) because it was available at a discount on Flipkart.

There, off my chest...

Now for the content.  There is something about books that you do not expect much out of that pleasantly surprise you in the end.  Afternoon Girl is one such neat little gem.

The invitation to be a fly-on-the-wall witness of Bajaj's somewhat clandestine, sometimes disharmonious, but always engaging association with the grand old man of Indian literature grips you as soon as you start reading it.  I found myself going back to it with eagerness as soon as I could find some reading time.

Besides, there was an additional serendipitous allure for me in this book.  The peculiar trait that I share with the author: doctor who harbours literary ambitions.  Bajaj's candid admission of her struggle as a doctor who wants to be an established writer, her dismay at being rejected by several publishers, and her outpouring of literary woes in front of Khushwant Singh kept me riveted.  

These revelations also reassured me, as I have experienced similar woes myself after I decided to take up writing in addition to doing medical work.  At last I have found somebody who has gone through the pain of trying to appease the selfish mistress that is medical career, while (vainly) attempting to put pen on paper.  

As for the revelations, the graphic details of her personal life and the ribald jokes she shares with the grand old man may not suit everybody's sensibilities.  But as Bajaj explains, they sell.  And I am not judgmental, so that's fine.  

The grand old man certainly did not mind.  If anything, he always relished the earthier side of life.  I have always been in awe of Khushwant Singh's ability to boldly disclose the details of his lurid affairs with, and the profligate lifestyles of the rich and famous.  

The famous Khushwant Singh penchant for wine, women, sex and death is underscored once again in this work.  It is amusing to read of his interest in Bajaj's 'solitaire collection' even as she pampers him with gallons of Chivas Regal! 

Nitpicks: samples from the handwritten letters, and a few pictures of the author's meeting with Khushwant Singh and the several book release events she attended would have enhanced the appeal of the book.  

Also, since Bajaj repeatedly wished for Khushwant Singh to live for a 100 years, a postscript describing the master writer's last moments, and Bajaj's reaction to his passing away agonizingly short of 100 years would have been the icing on the cake.

As it is, Girl is a naughty, humorous, heart-warming account of a writer's encounters with her muse. 

I am mildly envious of Bajaj as she got to savour the grand old man's company: a dream come true for any writer.  

But at the same time, I am massively chuffed for her - a fellow doctor-writer!

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Saturday, 8 July 2017

Champions Trophy 2017: Just saying...

Okay, this is not a case of sour grapes...just saying...

The eventual 'winners' of the Champions Trophy 2017 had a rat's chance in hell of winning it...

Now I do know that cricket is a game of glorious uncertainties...

I know that any team on its day can turn the tables and cause an upset...

I also know the 'winners' are known to be a mercurial side, whose performance can yo-yo between 'also-turned-up' and 'champions'... 

Still...I can't help wondering...because they are capable of anything...

Consider these:
  • The 'winners' who lost their opening game miserably against us, went on to win the remaining games against all odds.  Consider the opposition they beat en route to the finals: South Arica, Sri Lanka (who beat us comfortably), England (in the semifinals, and England were pre-tournament favourites to win in home conditions), and India (in the finals, virtually decimating us).
  • The other favourites, India were going great guns...until the finals.  Apart from the match against Sri Lanka, they had one bad day, and it happened to be the finals.
  • In the finals, why did India win the toss and take bowling first, when conventional logic seemed to favour batting first..?
  • The Indian bowlers had had a great tournament up until the finals...they had troubled batsmen of all teams they played against and had given away very few wides, and hardly any no-balls.
  • Bumrah had bowled only one inconsequential no-ball before the finals.  But in the finals...he bowled that dreadful no-ball which as we know cost us the match...
  • How is it possible that all our extraordinary, gifted, in-form batting stalwarts failed to fire in the same match en masse?  Why did the top and middle order collapse like nine pins?  Were the conditions in the second innings so miserable for batting and bowling-friendly?  
  • By the way the highest successful run-chase in the same venue is 322, which is not far away from the 'winners' total.  If there was any batting lineup in the world that could have chased successfully, it was ours. 
What happened then?  An off day?  Indian team once again flattering to deceive? 

The unlikely result, inspite of the more benign reasons, cannot put a lid on the can of worms...the conspiratorial possibilities...

Is it the familiar betting/spot-fixing monster again?  Unlikely, given the serious repercussions that would follow if caught - ask Sreesanth!  And it would be tough to get South Africa, Sri Lanka and England players to agree to the scheme.

Or could it be...dare I say it...threats?  Because the one thing that the 'winners' have in their arsenal is the power of gun and bombs.  They are, after all, the epicentre of world terrorism.  The best of terror universities are based there.  

Did they get their brothers in arms - many of whom have found a safe haven in Britain - to threaten the other teams into submission..?

Far fetched..?  Paranoid..?

Maybe...  But I wouldn't put it past them...

Did I say that they are capable of anything..?

Just saying now...

(Note: If not the ICC, at the very least the BCCI should thoroughly investigate the debacle...)

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Sunday, 11 June 2017

Book conversations: White Magic

White Magic: A Story of Heartbreak, Hard Drugs and Hope
Arjun Nath
Harper Collins India, 2016

I have referred several long-term alcohol dependent patients to rehab centres.  But they rarely ever come back to share their experiences - that is, if at all they do go on to have a successful rehab.

The few who have been to rehab in the past have only recounted horror stories of how staff verbally and physically abused them, how they were tied up and/or tortured, and in some cases, how they had to jump over the compound to escape the 'prisons' they were in.  

Naturally then, with White Magic I was curious to find out the insider's account of what it is to go through drug rehab as a patient.  I was hoping for a balanced account of the successes, happy outcomes, unsuccessful attempts at rehab, and the difficulties faced by staff and patients alike in battling a notoriously recurrent and exasperating problem that is drug addiction. 

I am sorry to say I was left disappointed...

What we get in this book is a personal account of the author's rehab experience in one particular centre called The Land, which we are told operates very differently from the rest, and has high success rates.  That's fine...I am okay with that bit, even though the author does not comment on the effectiveness of his own rehab experience in the end.  

However the rehab experiences of Nath or his fellow programmers recounted here are very few.

Instead the majority of the narrative is filled with the maverick founder Doc/Bhai's life story, whom, it is plain to see, the author lionizes.  Everything about his difficult birth, his dysfunctional family life, his headstrong attitude, and his struggles through life as he sets up the rehab centre initially at home, and later at The Land are described as in a biography.

More than anything, his multiple affairs and love life are described in lurid details.  Bhai comes across as a cantankerous Casanova who beds anything that remotely resembles the female of the species.  Sorry to scoff, but this is not what I wanted to find out from the book.

In spite of all this, I did manage to find a few things worth remembering: that the idea of rehab is not to run away from the drug, but to run towards a fulfilling life; that any goal is achievable as long as one aims high and works towards it; and that the power of belief in, and the act of prayer to an impersonal higher power can in themselves achieve more than the rigid belief in any one particular faith or its god.  

Few more things that rankle: there is a generous use of cuss words; not just from the programmers, but also from Bhai himself.  And they all smoke like chimneys in rural England.  It is as though the rehab program does not consider the harmful effects of nicotine.  Instead, cigarettes are inhaled in preference to oxygen, and their non-use is applied as a punitive measure against some transgressions in The Land. 

The writing is mostly excellent, although there are quite a few sentences which I had to read again to coax the meaning into my (thick) head.  Nath does mention that his 'soup'y writing may not appeal to one who has no interest in the subject of drug addiction or rehab - or indeed, enlightening onselfe about the life-story of Bhai.  I agree with him there... 

Only go for it if you enjoy reading biographies of eccentric individuals and their flamboyant lives.

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Monday, 5 June 2017

Film conversations: Baahubali: The Beginning and The Conclusion

Here's the question that was bothering the collective consciousness of the entire nation for the last two years: Why did Kattappa kill Baahubali?  Now we know.

But here's what rankles: surely a character like  Sivagami who is an astute Rajmatha, and is also aware of the hatred Bijjaladeva has for Baahubali, would have thoroughly investigated matters before ordering Kattappa to kill Baahubali.  Here's one probable reason for this: Baahubali 2 has a lot of ground to cover in terms of plot development, which makes her decision seem hurried.    

While Baahubali: The Beginning was about setting the tone and raising the intrigue in the minds of the audience, Baahubali: The Conclusion is all about recounting the events with a rather rapid culmination of the story.  

As with other films, the first part appears a better film than the second one because of those twin reasons: the freshness of the first outing, and the fact that the second part does not live up to the enhanced audience expectations after the rousing first part.

It's not that the Conclusion does not try: it throws everything in the book into the narrative to keep you enthralled.  As a result it does appear to be cramming in a bit more than it should; as opposed to the Beginning that was a right combination of measured approach and jaw dropping action.  The tribal war scene from the Beginning, to me, beats the climax of the Conclusion any day.  

Having said that, overall the two films are an awesome exhibition of film-making, reflecting the story writer's and director's (who happen to be father-son duo, respectively) grand cinematic visions.  Well done to the entire team for creating a pan-Indian phenomenon, and for putting an Indian film on to the global platform, without any significant involvement of the Hindi Film Industry.

But here's what's very intriguing for me, personally: the epic story seems to have been inspired by the two original epics of India: Ramayana and Mahabharata; especially the latter.  Here's how:

Baahubali is Bhima/Arjuna-like figure with a combination of power and heroism, and his antagonist Bhallaladeva makes for a fine venom spewing Duryodhana.  The latter's father, Bijjaladeva is at once the embittered Dhritarashtra as the older brother who was deprived of the right to rule due to his deformity, as well as the evil schemer, Shakuni who plots the downfall of Baahubali.  

Devasena's character too appears to be inspired by the stories of two women: Draupadi who is insulted in a court full of people, and the captive Sita who is kept against her will in the Ashoka Vatika while she awaits her redemption.  Kattappa is the Bhishma who is bound by honour to serve the kingdom and is therefore forced to do certain things against his will.

Even some of the events fit in with the stories from the epics.  Take for instance the sequence in the Conclusion where Baahubali, who is living incognito, rides with the coward prince on a wild boar hunting ride and inspires him to take affirmative action when faced with danger.  

This is so very like Arjuna as Brihannala inspiring the timid Uttara Kumara when faced with the Kaurava army (even the character in the Conclusion is called Kumara).  Then there is also the cattle reference: the go-harana episode in the Mahabharata at the end of agnyatavasa, appears to have been adapted as the stampede of the cattle with their horns on fire in the same subplot.

This is not a complaint; just an observation.

The makers leave a couple of doors open towards the end of Conclusion: Bijjaladeva is not killed, which raises the possibility of him scheming again; and there is a child's voice that asks (during the end credits) whether Mahendra Baahubali's son becomes the next king to which an elderly man's voice tantalizingly replies, 'who know's what's in Shiva's mind?'

I sincerely hope there are no plans for a third outing.  Baahubali 1 was the beginning, and 2 the conclusion, as clearly mentioned in the titles.  Together they tell one killer of a story, and contain some of the most memorable characters ever: Kattappa and Baahubali have entered the echelons of other iconic characters of Indian cinema such as Gabbar Singh and Mogambo.  And there they should remain.  

One hopes that their creators are not tempted into milking the story and stretching it into another never-ending franchise.

On the other hand, it would be great if they move on to depict the epics that seem to have inspired Baahubali: Ramayana and Mahabharata, with the same awe inspiring grand cinematic vision and fervour.  

Let's hope they do.

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