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Opposes/Supposes

11 Dec

I shared this with close friends exactly a year ago, and the question still haunts me, so I thought I’d put it out there for you guys to shed light on. Not your typical cheery holiday fare, I know.

~

American rhetoric is littered with war words on a daily basis. The nation’s lexicon is so charged with conflict–the war against smoking, the battle against cancer, the fight to save a marriage–that every act, no matter how innocuous, is verbally militarized. So deeply entrenched are these cultural references to violence, that those raised in the country barely appear to notice. Is there anyone else who sees this? I can’t be the only one! Why don’t we question it? Is there any literature or research on this that would help me understand the phenomenon?

Love All: A Tennis Tale

5 Jul

This is a little story. Not a giant news headline that will shatter any records. In a world buzzing with soundbites, it will be a mere unnoticed blip, but it is a story of adoration. Of respect and national pride. A story of people I have never met, but who succeeded in warming my heart with their affection and hope. And a story is nothing if it doesn’t give us that one elusive reason to believe. For that reason alone, this is a tale that needs to be shared. Spread its small sweetness to your friends.

*And if you haven’t left a comment on the 5th birthday post yet, it’s not too late!!! Go do it now. 1 comment = $1.*

~~~

Remember my uncle who lives in England? He is a doctor. Such an excellent physician is he, that he serves as the official doctor on call at Lord’s (yes, the cricket mecca) and Wimbledon. He was on a cruise near Norway last month, when word got out on the ship about his tennis affiliation and he received a rather interesting request. A few stewards and bartenders approached him hesitantly, clutching an envelope.

“What is it,” Uncle M asked, when one of the group mustered the nerve to offer him the missive.

“It’s a letter for our hero,” they said simply, “If you see him at Wimbledon, will you give it to him from us?”

That’s when Uncle M realized that all the men standing hopefully before him were Serbian. Their hero: countryman Novak Djokovic.

“Sure, I’ll give it to him,” smiled Uncle M, “But I can’t guarantee he’ll read it!”

Relief and smiles broke out among the band of men, who respectfully pressed my uncle to at least pass it on if he got a chance. They chattered excitedly among themselves, thrilled that their words of affection and praise had found a messenger.

Then, they waited.

“Anything else?” Uncle M smiled, tickled and moved.

Nobody bothered with a reply. Within seconds, mayhem had broken loose and every Serbian worker on board the ship had materialized on the deck to be part of a group picture. Men in crisp white uniforms and beaming smiles arranged themselves in rows amidst a hubbub, a camera was produced, and pride, hope and adoration clicked themselves into the photograph when that shutter did its job. Hurriedly, it was handed to my uncle and it was safely tucked away in his luggage along with the letter when he disembarked in England.

My uncle now has the task of delivering the wishes and hopes of Djokovic’s countrymen. It is anybody’s guess whether the Serb will rise to victory in Sunday’s final, but I get the distinct feeling that regardless of the outcome, something beautiful has already been won. And love, ironically derived from the French l’eouf (meaning egg), has a lot to do with it.

Play Review: Vande Mataram

19 Jun

When we moved to the San Francisco Bay Area two and a half years ago, our aunt introduced us to Naatak, a local theater and indie cinema company with a reputation for interesting productions, well-executed scripts, and great performances. Naatak’s plays, enacted in Hindi (mostly), English (sometimes), and Tamil (infrequently), with supertitles, have used the scripts—both original and adapted— of stalwarts such as Bhisham Sahni, Satyajit Ray, Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad. The play in review, Vande Mataram, was written in 1997 by one of Naatak’s mainstays, Sujit Saraf. And if you’re wondering why I’m blathering on about the writing piece more than any other element, it is because this wonderful performance that we enjoyed this past weekend was the product of a strong, nuanced, beautifully written script that was satisfying and whetting in equal parts.

Vande Mataram opens the night before August 8, 1942. For those of you not familiar with the Indian freedom struggle, this date marks the launch of the Quit India movement. With Japan advancing rapidly and successfully through the countries east of India, and Britain’s increasing need for Indian military and resource support to fuel its WW II efforts, Indian leaders finally had a playing card and employed resistance and civil disobedience tactics to make the Empire take heed of their demands. It is here that the storyline departs from the black-and-white textbook version of history that would have us believe it was Gandhi vs. the British Raj, Independence vs. Colonialism, and Honor, Freedom and All Things Good vs. Exploitation, Repression and Popular Sub-continental Narratives.

Naatak picture

[Photo credit: My resident photographer, the one and wonlyderful Boy.]

Interestingly, the production whose byline reads “A play about greed, gunpowder and Gandhism” manages to skillfully remove Gandhi from center stage and relegate him to the footnotes. Based on the Keezhariyur bomb case in Kerala (erstwhile Malabar), it introduces us to a cast of characters that plot to blow up a bridge in Patna along the same lines and draws us into a web of their motivations, personal histories and politicking. Six men, each playing his part superbly, embody a motley crew of a Colorado-trained professor, a local Congress committee head, two Marwari businessmen (and feuding brothers), a restaurant owner and a former soldier-turned-bank-guard with “a chudail who dances in his head”. Together, they debate, squabble, negotiate, reminisce, manipulate, plot, re-plot and maneuver the circumstances to their individual viewpoints and advantage, and through their synergy, we are rapidly transported from a macro picture to a microcosm of their personal greed, ambition, humor, and failings. We relate. We associate. We recognize. Sitting in a darkened theater on a sunny California afternoon 70 years later, the audience identifies the common human denominators that bind us all, and it is to the scriptwriter and actors’ credit that they make it so easy.

Then there is the plot. Moving at a fair pace, this dialogue-heavy play never feels a minute too long, and with a well-timed interval, leaves one waiting for the second half. Will the plot succeed? Will they be caught? Will a difference be made to the freedom movement? In spite of knowing how it turned out, and witnessing the imperfections of its characters, Vande Mataram is a play that makes you root for them, their well-being, desires, and safety.

The Sanskritized Hindi is true to its period, which has us modern mortals glad for those English supertitles. The costumes are authentic, and the set is simple and effective. Not intended to be a high-cost endeavor, Naatak’s production is nonetheless neat, efficient and a job well done. This genre of theater is what they do best and would do well to focus on in the future.

The play leaves you pondering about the multiple layers of sentiment, motivation and issues that form a complex but never tedious package, and it is to the team’s credit that they do not aim to dumb down any of it. For so many of us fed a simplistic version of one true representative of the people versus the British Crown, it is a gentle reality check about the multiple voices and opinion streams of the period. It invites the audience to take from it what they will, at a level and depth they are comfortable with. For me, an idea that has me toying around with it in my head nearly a week down the line and likely to continue, is a worthy one.

Not your typical treatment of nationalism, this. Which, incidentally, is what makes it a winner.

Go watch it if you live in the Bay Area. I just got even gladder that I do. 🙂

CSAAM 2013

31 Mar

April is almost upon us, and it is time to turn our attention to child sexual abuse awareness. Yes, yet again. Today and everyday, to keep all our children as safe as we humanly can.

I’ll make this short, I promise:

Please head to http://csaawarenessmonth.com, where you will see personal testimonials, expert advice, twitter chats, information sources and resources, workshops, an iPhone app and plenty of posts across the blogosphere, all centered around child sexual abuse awareness.

You can choose to be an active participant in conversations, a channel of information through your own social media feeds, or a recipient of material you need–the choice is entirely yours–but any valuable input/support would be appreciated.

For more on how to contribute to this effort that is now in its third year, please go here.

Feel free to link to this post, tweet about it, put it up on Facebook, or email it to anyone you think will benefit from knowing more about CSA.

Thank you for reading. Spread the word. May we protect our young ones from this scourge.

Seduction of Cities

3 Dec

Long before there was Sex and the City, urban landscapes unleashed their siren calls to populations, who, glazed-eyed and entranced, followed trails of grit and dust toward the lure of money, a life of relative anonymity and the opportunity to reconstruct their history. Cities, those giant sprawls of architecture, social alchemy and the human narrative, were levelers and dividers in equal measure; entities that made humans offer their sweat and spirit in return for bestowing on them the gratitude of belonging. Cities were power centers, hubs of every cog in the wheel of humanity, save perhaps, agriculture and animal husbandry, and legions of our race responded willingly, increasingly, and near-slavishly to the piper’s call, as the 19th century played host to this giant global phenomenon—the rise of the heterogeneous, indifferent-to-differences metropolis, where you were as worthy as your last contribution.

The world over, cities became shrines to human endeavor. To dreams, to plans, to architects of destiny.  Throbbing, expanded versions of village squares and coffee houses, they became repositories of social dialogue, justice movements, and battlegrounds for human rights. As decades hurtled forward, they turned into hubs of industry, agents of rewritten reality, organic farms of political thought and social sub-institutions. Cities, these nuclei of power and vibrancy, were only as strong as their denizens, and it is here that the human spirit rose to meet the challenge of morphing a maze of streets into megapolises of learning, expansion and culture.

Developing at different paces, cities found their niche. Their size and demand based on what they had to offer, cities became the textbook examples of macroeconomics and cultural anthropology. A majority of them operate in a blinding vortex of speed and urgency and the Next Big Thing. They pulse with things to do and targets to achieve. Entertainment is measured, pre-slotted, with chunks of time dispensed toward preserving sanity, lest existential angst get out of hand and run amok amidst our overloaded mental circuitry.

And yet, few complain. For the City is a charmer. A seductress. A deceiver. And we willingly succumb to its wiles for what it throws our way. In eliminating our uniqueness and personal history, the City invites us to belong. In disregarding our past and turning a blind eye to social strata, it allows us to blend in. It acts as Provider. Protector. Benefactor. With a dark and ugly side that we choose to take in our stride. It smiles non-committally when you call it Home. It shares its bounty ungrudgingly. To the winner go the spoils, and someday that might even be you. You can partake of its history and cloak it as your own. You believe in its script and mouth its lines earnestly. You are of its culture. Of its space. Of its zeitgeist. You give and receive and don’t keep score. You may be among its earliest settlers, or a train dropped you off  just yesterday, in a city, a sliver of space can always be yours, simply because you become that space, one of the headcount, you are, you exist, and living is not denied.

Without its montage, I cannot see my own existence, identify the entity that is me. Some may consider it a curse, but it is a trade-off I am extremely comfortable making. Without the City, I am contextless. Without the City, I am half a soul. Being born into the City and born of it, we are forged. For better or worse, richer or poorer, Home or half-spaces, without the City, there is no me. Cities distort the concept of Home. Wring it and hang it out to dry. You find it in yourself to belong to another. Fully in some, half-heartedly in others. Cities make your identity easy to whore. Today, it’s this one; tomorrow, another. Even amidst their extreme difference, you find yourself able to negotiate space and identity, and that is the ultimate gift of being of the City.

Violence Against Women Awareness Month 2012

30 Sep

Hands up all those who have never heard of or witnessed an act of violence toward a woman.

Thought so.

Starting tomorrow, or today, if you’re anywhere ahead of Pacific Standard Time, we kick off Violence Against Women (VAW) Awareness Month 2012, that will run through all of October.

I’ve shared this with you before and I am proud to continue to extend my support to the cause and the fantastic team of people behind it.

If you have a story to share, or are among the lucky ones not to have a violence story of your own, hop over.

Read, write, spread the word, encourage friends/family to speak up, offer support. Just don’t be an ostrich and pretend all’s hunky dory, and that if it doesn’t affect you directly, you’re going to sit pretty and not let it affect you at all.

This initiative doesn’t promise to change the world. It is intended to remind you–if the daily news doesn’t do that already–that violence, frequently gory, life-altering, vicious assaults on women’s bodies, minds and spirits, is far from declining. It could be happening next door to you as you read this. Or definitely down the street from your comfortable couch. Don’t believe me. Just read the statistics. And for the love of god or glitter, do your bit. Here’s your chance.

For more information on how you can help or contribute a post,

Write to: vawawareness@gmail.com

On Twitter, follow: @VAWawareness and RT our tweets

On Facebook, ‘Like’: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Violence-Against-Women-Awareness-Month

 

So am I going to see you on http://vawawareness.wordpress.com? 🙂

Documentary Review: Family Album

24 Sep

I am delighted to have made Chabi Ghosh’s acquaintance. She died in 2008, at the age of 91, unaware of my existence, never having met nor heard of me. How then, do I know she played the piano, was part of her college basketball team after delivering 2 girls, and had a naughty sense of humor that belied her nonagenarian-ness? For this and other stories, portrayed with simplicity and charming reserve, I have Nishtha Jain’s ‘Family Album’ to thank.

A documentary that I watched yesterday as part of the San Francisco South Asian Film Festival, Family Album generously allows the intersection of photographs, memory and cross-generational stories rather than forcing their paths to collide, and what struck me long after I had finished watching, was how little the filmmaker injected herself or her agenda onto the frames, letting the subjects speak for their own histories. And that is precisely what photographs become, irrespective of what we wish them to be—chroniclers of history, crystallized pieces of time that hold individual yet shared versions of stories that become the truth, regardless of the fleeting reality of the moment.

Taking us back to Calcutta’s old families and ancient baris (and reducing me to a quivering mess at the sight of all that achingly beautiful history), Jain introduces the viewer to clans that traces their kinship back to 38 generations, interviews multiple generations of the same family, facilitates their reminiscing ever so gently and occasionally, and asks very relevant questions.  Do we become our photographic memories? How do frozen frames elicit stories, how do we hold on to and pass on these stories, and in becoming the repositories of familial myths, how do we perpetuate stories? With one brief view of a family tree that abruptly ends after records of double-digit generations, the camera silently contemplates the white sheet of paper and we feel the story seeping away.

You guys know I’m a sucker for history. The confluence of time, architecture and the human narrative intrigues me. But what you may not know is that photography holds a terribly special place in my heart, given that I was born to my first teacher of this beautiful art form and am married to someone who continues my education in the field. For this and the reasons listed above, ‘Family Album’, a companion piece of City of Photos, struck a deep, resonant chord, but even without the personal context, is a delicate and valuable contribution to the world of documentaries. Catch it if you can lay your hands on it sometime. I reckon you won’t forget Chabi Ghosh in a hurry.

~~~

Updated to add: I wrote to the director, sharing this review with her, and here is her response:

Dear OJ,

Thanks for taking out the time and sharing your thoughts about Family Album. A lovely review. Reading it means a lot to me as I couldn’t be there in SF to present my film.
Yes, Chobi Ghosh is so endearing and unforgettable. I loved her spirit. She was about 90 when we were shooting, she had a clear photographic memory of things from her distant past but her present memory was very short. She wouldn’t remember things we had talked about a few minutes ago. In a way she was in a happy state. She was a great storyteller, there are many more stories in the footage. Unfortunately I couldn’t put everything in the film.
You can buy the DVD of City of Photos by making a payment on www.paypal.com to raintreefilms@gmail.com. It costs USD 40 plus shipping cost USD 5. This DVD is for home use only.
Warmly,
Nishtha