December 14, 2013

Philomena Presents a Perfect Judy Dench in a Real Life Adoption Nightmare

A feel good movie that makes me want to forgive all the petty grudges I hold against people in my everyday life. Philomena, a movie based on a true story captured by Martin Sixsmith’s novel, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, brings together two outstanding actors Judy Dench and SteveCoogan.  It is definitely their acting which raises the stature of the movie to something beyond a diatribe against an insensitive Catholic Church and a sexually myopic America. I thoroughly enjoyed the easy banter between Philomena and her journalist friend Martin as they ventured on an improbable journey from Oxbridge to a suburb of Washington DC to find Philomena’s son who she ‘gave up’ when he was a toddler, and she but a teenager!

The movie presents a situation that would be any mother's nightmare, but with Judy Dench as Philomena, the nightmare worked itself out toward a redemption. Having watched and enjoyed the movie, I now have a strong urge to read Sixsmith’s novel.  I’m also intrigued by the recently publicized reaction of the “order of nuns, the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in County Tipperary, who claim they were made to look like ‘villains’. Sister Julie Rose, the order’s assistant congregational leader, said the film ‘does not tell the whole truth, and in many ways is very misleading’.” Without a doubt, the nuns and the Catholic nunnery are the bad guys in this mellow yet heartwarming tale. Strangely, however their victim Philomena does not hold a grudge against them. A devout Catholic herself, Philomena believes the separation was part of the penitence she needed to do for having enjoyed premarital sex. The all forgiving Philomena is also very appreciative of the American family that adopted her son; she feels it gave him opportunities far better than she could ever have done, and for that she is grateful.  However, the audience is not as forgiving.  We cannot condone what the Sisters at the Nunnery did to Philomena, and we are also suspect about just how well life turned out for the separated son of Philomena in the United States, especially in the light of the fact that he was gay, and he was a part of the Reagan administration.  

Philomena, the movie, is the story of a separation; yet, I came out  of the cinema hall with a warm and fuzzy feeling of having witnessed a reunion.  Intriguing as that thought is, I strongly recommend you watch this movie if you enjoy underplayed emotion, witty banter, and acting par excellence.

November 11, 2013

Phyllis Chessler Documents her 'Escape from a Harem' in " An American Bride in Kabul" - A Memoir

"An American Bride in Afghanistan" documenting Phyliss Chesler's five month captivity in Afghanistan, some fifty years ago, as an 18 year old Jewish bride of  an older Afghan man, is a subject that interests many in the western world. I got this book as a gift from a dear friend, and, having read the book, I wonder what made him select this book for me; was it the writer, the subject, or was it the setting?

In this memoir, Ms. Chessler does a great job of recounting her harrowing experience as a young foreigner bride with romantic notions of inter-cultural harmony. Admittedly, the narrative, though personal, is diagnostic in nature and holds no bias toward or against any character presented.  For instance, Chesler's portrayal of her husband is an empathetic one as is her depiction of Bebegul, her abused and abusive mother-in-law. Ms. Chesler dispassionately presents these individuals as doing some violent and very unreasonable actions, and, as a writer, almost rationalizes them by providing a vivid sociocultural context that nourishes these behaviors.  Phyllis Chesler relates each experience without any venom, and with surgical precision she peels one layer after another of her travails in Kabul to explain that romantic leap of faith she took she took fifty years ago.

In the course of the narrative, numerous times, Ms. Chesler digresses to relate some anecdotal history of Afghanistan, perhaps to provide a historical landscape to her five month ordeal. These diversions, while they distract the reader from the storyline, are also not the best pieces of writing, and they often seem like add-ons. For example, the anecdotes about experiences of other westerners who visited  Afghanistan at the time do seem forced. Similarly, the section about 9/11, and how it served to crystallize Ms. Chesler's understanding of her five month stay in Afghanistan is a little far fetched. Also, it makes the reader wonder whether Ms. Chesler capitalized on her unique experience in Kabul only after September 11 happened?  World around, Bin Laden's hideout had become something of an enigma in the post 9/11 period, and Phyllis Chesler must have sensed that.  No wonder she advertised this memoir as 'My life of hell in an Afghan Harem.'
Much of the memoir revolves around a deep sense of betrayal the author felt after she left the USA for Afghanistan. She appears to debate upon which  betrayal was greater: the personal one that was meted out to her by the man she fell so madly in love with and who she believed loved her just as much, or the cultural one where her romantic notion of moving seamlessly between two cultures was shattered after she landed in Kabul. Meanwhile, to the reader the betrayal is but imminent, given the extreme naivete of the young Phyllis. Even though the reader accompanies Phyllis on her harrowing journey, for the most part the reader is wondering how Phyllis could have been so unaware of the cultural challenge she was walking into.  What was she thinking?

Phyllis Chessler claims that this memoir would raise awareness of the oppressive conditions in which women live in many Islamic countries. However, this memoir tries to touch upon other controversial issues as well, such as 'honor killings', 'harems', 'marital rapes', 'underage marriages', 'boy toys' etc. I deliberately use the phrase 'touch upon' because that is exactly how it is in this book.  Ms. Chesler attempts to weave in several such didactic asides that prove to be annoying and mostly unnecessary.

"An American Bride in Kabul" is yet another piece of writing that hopes to ride the wave of Islamophobia.  Alas, it fails to ride!

October 25, 2013


To and fro

in shade and sun

playing hide n seek

with a  cloud above


Just then…

Footfalls from the past

do flood gates open

to vistas long forgotten.


All of a sudden…

Bygone melodies

whisper wanted words

and a  warmth descends.



Fledgling hope

takes shaky root

within a sunnier heart.



Is this a new beginning?

October 21, 2013

Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" Grounds the Audience! Can a Movie do More?

No surprise that Alfonso Cuaron’s movie “Gravity” has pulledin so much money within a few weeks of its release, and this even before it has reached cine goers in China and India! A captivating movie about two lonely astronauts adrift in outer-space surrounded by an uncaring cosmos.  I enjoyed the movie despite some spoilers on the plot and nitpicking on the veracity ofdetails associated with the science of outer space. Not only did the movie keep me at the edge, but it also raises some very philosophical questions about our existence on earth.

Watch the trailer here.
The visuals of the earth from outer space are an absolute delight! In the midst of the space disaster our blue orb of life, so lovingly held within the wooly white whirl of clouds, appeared a haven of comfort and joy.  I am sure that at various moments during the movie the audience felt immense pride for this planet we so often casually refer to as ‘mother earth’.  The deeper significance of the term is definitely better understood once you see this movie.

  I am told that several Hollywood actors were considered for the two lead roles in the movie, but Mr. Cuaron’s final choice was just perfect. Ms. Bullock as the cold but remarkable scientist is simply unparalleled. The investors must have had enormous faith in Ms. Bullock acting prowess and her ability to draw in the crowds since there is little else in the movie besides her, a couple of damaged space stations and a vast empty space.  To add to that, there isn’t much speaking either, and whatever little there is, is Ms. Bullock speaking to herself; yet, that does not take away from the rapture of the movie, if anything it enhances the thrill.  George Clooney as Ms. Bullock's co- star does his bit, but does not get a chance to show his caliber for reasons I can’t give away.

The movie highlights some very socially relevant issues that we seldom like to address.  For instance, the space debris build up that nobody talks about, but which may one day become as big of a problem as a polluted earth is today. Then, the movie also prods you to think of the existential question of what it means to be alive, and the responsibilities that come with it, and the next thing you know is the audience begins to introspects and ponders on its raison-d’etres. Now, can a movie do more?

August 29, 2013

Mieville's "Embassytown" Reveals the Potency of Language.

‘Embassytown’ by China Mieville was a very difficult and perplexing read; yet, there was something about it that would not let me abandon it.  Science Fiction has not been one of my favorite genres in recent years. Complexity of plot and more so the discomfort of being transported into an alien world, has made me distance myself from this genre. Embassytown, a sci-fi novel, was no different, but it held my attention and my interest.  Although I had to re-read several chapters of it, some more than once, to comprehend what was happening and to decipher meanings of words and phrases that Mieville coins throughout the novel, I quite enjoyed the challenge this book offered.

The setting of the novel is Embassytown, a city located on a remote planet that has been colonized by humans, but continues to be home to the native Ariekei, an intelligent species who speak a language that expresses only that which is true or factual. The city is a diplomatic enclave and hosts different alien life forms including humans, some of who are ‘ambassadors’ as they can communicate in the Arikei language.  During the course of the novel, however, the Arikei learn to lie, and develop an addiction to this new language of lies and will resort to extreme violence if deprived of this new-language stimulus. 

The story is from the point of view of Avice, “a human colonist who has returned to Embassytown after a deep space adventure.  She cannot speak the Ariekei language, but is ‘an indelible part of it, having long ago being made a living simile in their language…a language she cannot speak – but which speaks through her, whether she likes it or not.”  It is on her return to Embassytown with her linguist husband that the story really begins.  Avice, though a facilitator for the ‘ambassadors’, is not an insider to the developing situation in this diplomatic colony, where a new speech is being introduced to the Ariekei through a ‘new ambassador’. What results in the aftermath of the ‘introduction’ is violent, frightening, and appears unretractable as Arikei society starts falling apart and diplomacy seems to have fled Embassytown.

Will the Ariekei, who ‘before the humans came didn’t speak so much….but speak now, or will speak now and be able to say how the city is a pit.....a vessel on the sea and (they) are fish in it” learn the new language and rise in revolt against the ambassadors?  Will the language addiction of the Ariekei bring about total destruction of Embassytown? Will Avice, who belongs as much to the Ariekei as to the human ambassadors, resolve her moral dilemma and pick a side? These are questions that the author may or may not answer in the novel. However, Mieville does force these questions into the mind of the reader, who then faces the ultimate question of 'how important is language to consciousness and thereby to society?' 

This novel is definitely a must-read for sci-fi enthusiasts, but I would also recommend it to language lovers.  The power of language is very strongly felt as the Ariekei speech-experiment unfolds.  Additionally, Mieville has carried out a ‘reverse personification’ in his characterization of Avice, the protagonist and narrator; I've never read/seen anything like this before.
This novel is definitely not an easy read, but it can't be set aside once you start reading it. It sticks; in fact, it is still resonating in my 'consciousness'.

August 14, 2013

Delhi Monsoon - Just Let it Rain!

I've never seen Delhi look so green as it did this time when I was visiting India in the months of July and early August. The monsoon was unrelenting, and there was barely a day when the sun managed to break through the blanket of clouds that covered the Indian capital.

The monsoon season is much awaited in India because of the largely agrarian nature of India's economy; in fact, the cropping pattern of this country depends on the rainfall the monsoon brings. The sheer joy and relief of a good monsoon was evident  even in Delhi, the capital of India. Despite the unrelenting downpours that were oftentimes inconvenient and sometimes costly, the people of Delhi   appreciated it, and went on with their lives even as the monsoon lashed over the capital for more than 3 weeks.
 Picture :TOI

Traffic was obviously impacted as roads and bridges were water logged. Even the Parliament House had waters coming in as did the Indira Gandhi International Airport, both of which were shut down sporadically to accommodate the onslaught of the monsoon. Several overpasses became rain shelters for two wheelers, and consequently blocked the thoroughfare for cars and buses slowing all traffic to a crawl, if at all. Those riding the two wheelers stayed put, unashamedly or perhaps helplessly, under the concrete shelters of bridges and overpasses and watched the water levels rise and the traffic come to a grinding halt. This would remain so until the rain ceased momentarily, and then the two wheelers would all together try to move in the direction of their destination violating several traffic rules, even as the traffic police watched from the sidelines.
 Children in Delhi react to the monsoon depending on the time of day.  If it's a weekday morning, they groan and moan the rain because they have to now carry the additional weight of a raincoat or an umbrella over and above their already heavy school bags.  However, if they encounter the rain in the PM hours, they can't wait to splash in and wade around in the water playing makeshift water games as they splish and splash home from school. I saw some raincoats tucked neatly around the book bags while the children gleefully soaked in the downpour.  The unpredictability of the monsoon makes for sharing, even with strangers, and so the children proved as they pulled in as many as they could to huddle under the 6 x 6 mackintosh cover to brave a thunderstorm while on way to school.
However, come afternoon, and it's now a different story, the monsoon rain is no longer to be battled!  it's now a source of fun and excitement.  It makes for creative water sports that couldn't be imagined by those living in a non monsoon country.  
Picture AFP/Getty IMAGES

The monsoon season in India is also associated with special food. As I travelled around Delhi, I saw business booming in the road side 'dhabas' (kitchens) because they were serving a two fold purpose: providing immediate shelter from a monsoon downpour, and while waiting for the rain to cease or at least lessen in intensity, getting to sip some hot 'adruk or elaichi chai' (tea) for a paltry sum of Rs.5/- (about 8 cents). If time is not of consequence, which oftentimes it isn't, then you could even buy a 'samosa' or 'pakoras' for about Rs.30 /- (50 cents) a plate to go with the chai to make for a full meal. In case you are looking for more variety or want a healthier alternative that is less oily, there is usually a 'bhuttawalla' located in close proximity to these 'dhabas' from who you can buy a freshly roasted 'bhutta' (yellow corn) with zesty lemon and spice rubbed on it. As I drove by these shelter seekers sipping chai at various dhabas, I couldn't but envy their 'enjoy-the-moment attitude' which brought them priceless joy of stolen/unexpected moments of happiness within the monotony of a workday, and all thanks to the monsoon.

'bhutta' :

'dhaba' :
Rain is symbolic of rebirth and rejuvenation in literature, and I was lucky to witness a living example of this in the Indian Monsoon. What is incredible though is that the people of India, despite the nature of the monsoon and the people's familiarity with it, they still retain the ability to appreciate the significance and the beauty of this natural phenomenon.

Cheers to the Indian Monsoon and to the people who celebrate it!

July 10, 2013

Amish Tripathi's Shiva Trilogy - Brilliant Storytelling that Rides the Wave of Religious Fervor?

Amish Tripathi's epic saga based on the Hindu deity Shiva proved to be a captivating read. Despite being a trilogy, it took very little for me to go from one book to the next because of the compelling storyline. I desperately wanted to know what happens next!

'The Immortals of Meluah', 'The Secret of the Nagas', and 'The Oath of the Vayuputras' are the titles of the three books, and each one of them unfolds a phase in the life of Shiva, the protagonist of this mythological fantasy.  My personal favorite is the first book, The Immortals of Meluah which unravels the mystery of how the superhuman 'Shiva' discovers his divine identity as also the purpose of his stay on earth.

Given that 1.7 million copies of Amish Tripathi's books have been sold and he is ranked 85th on the Forbes 'Celebrity List' for 2012, he must have captured the imagination of a large audience through his writing. The question is who is the audience? Is the audience primarily Indian, more specifically practicing Hindus in India and in the diaspora abroad? Does Amish's writing transcend religious and national boundaries? If not, then has he, indeed, 'arrived'?

Personally, I enjoyed the sheer magnitude of the setting Amish provides in the trilogy. The setting takes the reader to the peaks and valleys of the Himalyas, to the fertile plains around the rivers Ganga, Yamuna, the now-non-existent Saraswati, Narmada, and other smaller tributaries.  Amish's setting also connects up with the Ancient Egyptian settlements around the River Nile.  It's the audacity of his reach that is impressive, understandably so since Mr. Tripathi put in 20 years of research before writing this trilogy. He must have delved into the ancient scriptures to get a tighter hold on Hindu beliefs and practices, and he also must have explored the geography of the region over the last thousand and more years to paint such a plausible picture of the time in this writing.

It isn't only the setting that makes this read so gripping, it's also the themes that Amish explores in this trilogy that make the reader sit up and take notice.  Although the subject of his writing is the mythological Shiva of Hindu mythology, the action in the novels revolves around some important and highly debated issues of universal significance that transcend the religious, the regional and make forays into the realm of philosophy. For example, the central conflict of the trilogy is the manufacture and use of the "Somaras", the magic potion from Hindu mythology, but in reality it is a reference to 'Soma' a plant found in the north west frontier region of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. This plant is known to be an analgesic, and a weak aphrodisiac.  'Soma' was made popular by Aldous Huxley's novel 'Brave New World' where it was used as a stimulant, causing both euphoria and hallucinations.  The plant Soma has been used as a narcotic since the time of India's earliest civilizations; in fact, it finds mention even in the ancient scripture Rig Veda which came to be in 800 BC. Through the 'Somaras' conflict, Amish brilliantly explores the theme of human mortality and its moral and social implication in this trilogy. Should the Somaras, which provides cures for all ailments and extends life significantly if not forever, be manufactured and made available for public consumption is the essential question? In a current day context this question would translate to -Should longevity of human life be the primary focus of human civilization?

Another universal theme that Mr. Tripathi has woven into this writing is about the perfectness of the natural cycle of existence : "Dust thou art and to dust returnest": yet, what happens in the middle is of the essence, as it brings meaning to life. The middle of the cycle cannot be disregarded as it involves human choice be it 'good' or 'bad', 'right' or 'wrong'. It is this perfect cycle that stands threatened by the 'Somaras'! Consequently, that brings us to the next theme that Amish plays around with in his three novels: the duality in nature.  If there is 'good' there has to be 'bad', if there is 'life' then 'death' must exist.  If we were born out of a 'big bang' then there has to a final 'cosmic pile up' that will spell death. Amish handles this volatile and difficult theme with a dexterity that could only have come from years of research and planned writing. In the trilogy there are no absolute truths or absolute rights; thus, 'evil' earns a right to exist, as does the 'wrong doer' because without them the 'good' and the 'doer of good' would not exist!

Amish trilogy connects directly to Hinduism when he explores (more like preaches) the concept of 'Dharma' - the cosmic norm "that which holds" the people of this world and the entire creation. Perhaps due to my own ignorance of ancient Hindu scriptures, those that explain the concept of Dharma and how it relates to human life and the salvation of the human soul, I found Amish's narrative a trifle didactic whenever he dealt with the concept of 'Dharma' in these books. However, that may be due to my own shortcoming as a reader, and this criticism should thus be disregarded.

There are several other aspects of this trilogy that make it a fulsome read: there is action, adventure, romance, even sentimentality (tinted with didacticism). The characters though widespread and hard to keep track of, indulge your reading fantasy whenever they appear.  Also, each character symbolizes at least one very essential human trait such as courage, loyalty, honesty, anger etc. The character of Sati, Shiva's wife, is perhaps the most dynamic one: she is a caring spouse, an ardent lover, a devoted daughter, a brave warrior, a strategic leader, a nurturing mother, a loyal friend, and more. Amish captures the heart of every reader through his brilliant portrayal of Sati, also one of the most important female deity's in Hindu mythology.

As is evident, I enjoyed this epic saga of action and romance built upon and around Hindu Mythology, and one which has a strong socio-ethical message to it. Amish Tripathi may be a maverick of sorts having written a 'revisionist' mythology!
The question is will 'any' and 'every' reader enjoy this trilogy as much as I did?

June 13, 2013

Skyfall - What a fall it was...

....A post I forgot to publish!

James Bond movie ‘Skyfall’ was quite the disappointment. Not having watched a James Bond movie in the last so many years, I was looking forward to some classy entertainment. Sadly, it wasn’t.

The plot was tenuous with some glaring loopholes such as Bond carrying a detection device despite and after being patted down by the guards to the bad guy den of Javier Bardem. The characterization also has randomness about it. For instance, the seductive siren in the casino is totally expendable in terms of the overall plot. Even the antagonist is lacking the hard core evilness of a Bond villain. Javier Bardem as the bad guy battling an Oedipus complex with a Spanish accent evokes pity more than hatred. The action such as the explosions and the shootings seem contrived to the point of being senseless and the car chases in this movie are nowhere close to the signature ones in Bond movies.

Skyfall it was... of disappointment!

June 03, 2013

2013 Commencement Speeches : What Would Inspire Ivy League Graduates More? Bernanke's Wit and Commonsense or McNally's Dramatized Biography.

Ben S. Bernanke, Jeff Nunokawa
 Ben Bernanke at Princeton. R.Schultz/AP
McNally at Columbia via Columbia Spectator

I thoroughly enjoyed Terrence McNally’s keynote address at the Columbia Commencement Ceremony this year, but I think Ben Bernanke’s Commencement Speech at Princeton where he made “Ten suggestions, or maybe just Ten Observations, about the world and your lives after Princeton” drew more laughs and had more relevance for the new graduates on the threshold of ‘real life’.
Here’s the script of Bernanke’s speech (parts highlighted are ones that had me smiling or ones that wrinkled my brow). I'd be curious to know which address would you pick....
“It's nice to be back at Princeton. I find it difficult to believe that it's been almost 11 years since I departed these halls for Washington. I wrote recently to inquire about the status of my leave from the university, and the letter I got back began, "Regrettably, Princeton receives many more qualified applicants for faculty positions than we can accommodate." 

I'll extend my best wishes to the seniors later, but first I want to congratulate the parents and families here. As a parent myself, I know that putting your kid through college these days is no walk in the park. Some years ago I had a colleague who sent three kids through Princeton even though neither he nor his wife attended this university. He and his spouse were very proud of that accomplishment, as they should have been. But my colleague also used to say that, from a financial perspective, the experience was like buying a new Cadillac every year and then driving it off a cliff. I should say that he always added that he would do it all over again in a minute. So, well done, moms, dads, and families.  

This is indeed an impressive and appropriate setting for a commencement. I am sure that, from this lectern, any number of distinguished spiritual leaders have ruminated on the lessons of the Ten Commandments. I don't have that kind of confidence, and, anyway, coveting your neighbor's ox or donkey is not the problem it used to be, so I thought I would use my few minutes today to make Ten Suggestions, or maybe just Ten Observations, about the world and your lives after Princeton. Please note, these points have nothing whatsoever to do with interest rates. My qualification for making such suggestions, or observations, besides having kindly been invited to speak today by President Tilghman, is the same as the reason that your obnoxious brother or sister got to go to bed later--I am older than you. All of what follows has been road-tested in real-life situations, but past performance is no guarantee of future results 

1. The poet Robert Burns once said something about the best-laid plans of mice and men ganging aft agley, whatever "agley" means. A more contemporary philosopher, Forrest Gump, said something similar about life and boxes of chocolates and not knowing what you are going to get. They were both right. Life is amazingly unpredictable; any 22-year-old who thinks he or she knows where they will be in 10 years, much less in 30, is simply lacking imagination. Look what happened to me: A dozen years ago I was minding my own business teaching Economics 101 in Alexander Hall and trying to think of good excuses for avoiding faculty meetings. Then I got a phone call . . . In case you are skeptical of Forrest Gump's insight, here's a concrete suggestion for each of the graduating seniors. Take a few minutes the first chance you get and talk to an alum participating in his or her 25th, or 30th, or 40th reunion--you know, somebody who was near the front of the Parade. Ask them, back when they were graduating 25, 30, or 40 years ago, where they expected to be today. If you can get them to open up, they will tell you that today they are happy and satisfied in various measures, or not, and their personal stories will be filled with highs and lows and in-betweens. But, I am willing to bet, those life stories will in almost all cases be quite different, in large and small ways, from what they expected when they started out. This is a good thing, not a bad thing; who wants to know the end of a story that's only in its early chapters? Don't be afraid to let the drama play out.  

2. Does the fact that our lives are so influenced by chance and seemingly small decisions and actions mean that there is no point to planning, to striving? Not at all. Whatever life may have in store for you, each of you has a grand, lifelong project, and that is the development of yourself as a human being. Your family and friends and your time at Princeton have given you a good start. What will you do with it? Will you keep learning and thinking hard and critically about the most important questions? Will you become an emotionally stronger person, more generous, more loving, more ethical? Will you involve yourself actively and constructively in the world? Many things will happen in your lives, pleasant and not so pleasant, but, paraphrasing a Woodrow Wilson School adage from the time I was here, "Wherever you go, there you are." If you are not happy with yourself, even the loftiest achievements won't bring you much satisfaction.  

3. The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate--these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others. As the Gospel of Luke says (and I am sure my rabbi will forgive me for quoting the New Testament in a good cause): "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded" (Luke 12:48, New Revised Standard Version Bible). Kind of grading on the curve, you might say.  

4. Who is worthy of admiration? The admonition from Luke--which is shared by most ethical and philosophical traditions, by the way--helps with this question as well. Those most worthy of admiration are those who have made the best use of their advantages or, alternatively, coped most courageously with their adversities. I think most of us would agree that people who have, say, little formal schooling but labor honestly and diligently to help feed, clothe, and educate their families are deserving of greater respect--and help, if necessary--than many people who are superficially more successful. They're more fun to have a beer with, too. That's all that I know about sociology.  

5. Since I have covered what I know about sociology, I might as well say something about political science as well. In regard to politics, I have always liked Lily Tomlin's line, in paraphrase: "I try to be cynical, but I just can't keep up." We all feel that way sometime. Actually, having been in Washington now for almost 11 years, as I mentioned, I feel that way quite a bit. Ultimately, though, cynicism is a poor substitute for critical thought and constructive action. Sure, interests and money and ideology all matter, as you learned in political science. But my experience is that most of our politicians and policymakers are trying to do the right thing, according to their own views and consciences, most of the time. If you think that the bad or indifferent results that too often come out of Washington are due to base motives and bad intentions, you are giving politicians and policymakers way too much credit for being effective. Honest error in the face of complex and possibly intractable problems is a far more important source of bad results than are bad motives. For these reasons, the greatest forces in Washington are ideas, and people prepared to act on those ideas. Public service isn't easy. But, in the end, if you are inclined in that direction, it is a worthy and challenging pursuit 

6. Having taken a stab at sociology and political science, let me wrap up economics while I'm at it. Economics is a highly sophisticated field of thought that is superb at explaining to policymakers precisely why the choices they made in the past were wrong. About the future, not so much. However, careful economic analysis does have one important benefit, which is that it can help kill ideas that are completely logically inconsistent or wildly at variance with the data. This insight covers at least 90 percent of proposed economic policies.  

7. I'm not going to tell you that money doesn't matter, because you wouldn't believe me anyway. In fact, for too many people around the world, money is literally a life-or-death proposition. But if you are part of the lucky minority with the ability to choose, remember that money is a means, not an end. A career decision based only on money and not on love of the work or a desire to make a difference is a recipe for unhappiness 

8. Nobody likes to fail but failure is an essential part of life and of learning. If your uniform isn't dirty, you haven't been in the game.  

9. I spoke earlier about definitions of personal success in an unpredictable world. I hope that as you develop your own definition of success, you will be able to do so, if you wish, with a close companion on your journey. In making that choice, remember that physical beauty is evolution's way of assuring us that the other person doesn't have too many intestinal parasites. Don't get me wrong, I am all for beauty, romance, and sexual attraction--where would Hollywood and Madison Avenue be without them? But while important, those are not the only things to look for in a partner. The two of you will have a long trip together, I hope, and you will need each other's support and sympathy more times than you can count. Speaking as somebody who has been happily married for 35 years, I can't imagine any choice more consequential for a lifelong journey than the choice of a traveling companion.  

10. Call your mom and dad once in a while. A time will come when you will want your own grown-up, busy, hyper-successful children to call you. Also, remember who paid your tuition to Princeton.  

Those are my suggestions. They're probably worth exactly what you paid for them. But they come from someone who shares your affection for this great institution and who wishes you the best for the future.  

Congratulations, graduates. Give 'em hell”
Courtesy Federal Reserve

March 26, 2013

Bird Feeder - Showcasing Hunger Rules in Nature?

Easy food at break of day!
Manna for my wretched wings,
wintered out with desperate flying
to find some food and prey.

A surge, a measured swoop

to grab the rim n hang on to it.
Tentatively balanced,
to feast on every seedly bit.

The sparrows wait
the cardinals hover,
as I feed feverishly
till I can hold no longer.  

It is now the cardinal’s turn;
the red one on the ring.
In his hurry, he bangs the rim
and the feeder begins to swing.
Paying for his rushed entry,
the cardinal must now wait;
warily watching the tasty treats
until the swinging stays.
Crazy Cardinal!
For want of patience,
endures wrathful screeches
and a feeding time reduced.

One peck, two peck,
and now he must go.
Without a grudge he takes a bow,
soon alights a humble sparrow.
The line is growing, the bounty waning
I fly out to tell my friends…
finches, chickadees, blue jays and all,
still wethering Michigan's snowfall!
Hunger Games...
the humans play.
We birds know better
to simply share and obey
the Hunger Rules of Nature.

March 21, 2013

Verdi's 'Otello' at Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center - Spellbinding Musical and Drama.

What could be more enthralling than to watch the 321st Metropolitan Opera performance of GiuseppeVerdi's Otello,  from 'grand tier' box number 18 of the Lincoln Center?  This was an unforgettable experience for two reasons. First of all, I had never watched a Shakespearan Opera, let alone one of Verdi, and then getting to watch it from the center parterre premium seating at Lincoln Center was simply wonderful.

Otello is composer Giuseppe Verdi's Italian opera in four acts based on Shakespeare's play Othello with Jose Cura in the title role, opposite Krassimira Stoyanova as Desdemona and Thomas Hampson as Iago. This opera was one of Verdi's last ones and had its world premier in Milan in the year 1887 and is "often cited as Italian opera’s greatest tragedy, a miraculous union of music and drama. It is a musical masterpiece as profound philosophically as it is thrilling theatrically."

Shakespeare's Othello was one of my lesser liked tragedies of Shakespeare, but watching Otello has made me rethink that.  The intensity of emotion that the music and the singing aroused in me was  was almost unbelievable. Stoyanova in the role of Desdemona was magical; particularly as she sang'Ave Maria', her last piece, an emotional goodnight to Emilia her attendant. That piece, clearly foreboding Desdemona's death, had me in tears that were unstoppable. The orchestra, conducted by Alain Altinoglu, and the singing at that point felt almost as if the duo were plucking at my heartstrings "with every instrument playing as softly as possible, pulsing like the last breaths of a dying being."  I was absolutely overcome by the sheer volume and intensity of emotions I was experiencing.  This was despite the fact that I did not understand a word of the singing since it was in Italian, and I did not dare look at the translation provided on the ticker tape lest I miss something that was happening on stage. The fact that I knew the entire story of Othello to the smallest detail did only but enhance the experience.

There are at least five more performances of Otello scheduled at Lincoln Center in the next few weeks;  this is a must see for anyone who appreciates art and /or music in any form.


March 13, 2013

Anna Karenina - Stoppard and Wright's Adaptation of Tolstoy's Mega Classic Fails to Impress.

Much as I didn't want to watch another cinematic version of Leo Tolstoy's classic novel Anna Karenina, I did.  When the movie was released in 2012, I was intrigued by the fact that the vast landscape the novel rides through was to be captured in a theatre mould.  However, the movie did not make waves after its release, and I soon forgot about it until the Oscars this year where Anna Karenina won the 'Best Costume Design' award. Having seen it this week, my resolve not to see another adaptation of Tolstoy's classic Anna Karenina stands resolute, even strengthened.

I was impressed by the fusion of theater and cinema that Joe Wright brought about especially the scene where we along with Anna and the others watch a horse race on stage! However, this embellishment did little to redeem my interest in the movie which transformed Tolstoy's classic saga, his literary opus into a drama about a fobidden love that unfolds in glamorous Russia of the 1830s. Needless to say, Jude Law and Keira Knightly played out their parts well, but made no lasting impressions that would have raised the movie to the classic proportions of its literary counterpart.     

January 27, 2013

Paul Theroux Captures a Changing-India in "The Elephanta Suite"

For some reason, I received several of Paul Theroux writings as Christmas gifts this year. In the past, I've read short essays and articles of Theroux in magazines and newspapers, but The Elephanta Suite is the first book of his that I read. The Elephanta Suite consists of three novellas, in all of which the protagonists spend some time at the Elephanta Suite in Mumbai.

The title of the book is what made me pick it up over the other Theroux readings waiting on my bookshelf such as The Lower River and The Kingdom by the Sea. The title piqued me because I remembered visiting the Elephanta Caves near Mumbai as a child, and I was intrigued by the fact that Theroux, an American writer, had perhaps used the same as a title to his book of novellas.  Unfortunately, I still haven't been able to come up with a convicing deeper meaning to the title other than the fact that Elephanta Suite is a hotel room that features in all three novellas of the book. Regardless, I'm still pondering over whether Theroux used the creativity, the nurturing, and the destruction artistically portrayed in the Elephanta caves as the underlying theme for the three novellas. Seemingly a little far fetched, but I can see how the concept of Vamadeva, Anugrahamurti, and Bhairava, different avatars of Shiva in those caves, could trigger literary imagination such as Theroux's, who is both a writer of fiction and an acclaimed travel writer as well.

Although the three novellas are looped  together by their setting and their American protagonists, each novella has a distinct flavor and a unique after taste. The first novella The Monkey Hill  has a rich American married couple visiting an Ayurvedic Spa resort near Mumbai in an effort to understand and sort out a tenuous relationship. Theroux in the course of this novella doles out the expected and the surprising to his readers as we follow the two protagonists "in search of kicks and watch with mounting trepidation as their blindness to cultural nuances, their first-world illusions of invulnerability and their reckless sensuality lure them into dark and fatal corners where their traveler’s checks and consulates can’t save them."

The second novella, The Gateway of India is about Dwight, a germophobic young businessman from Boston, seeking new outsourcing deals in Mumbai for his American company.  He is on a second visit to India, a place he says is "dirtier, smellier, more chaotic and unforgiving than anywhere he’d ever been. ‘Hideous’ did not describe it; there were no words for it. It was like an experience of grief, leaving you mute and small.”  In fact, Dwight when we first see him, could well be espousing Kipling's, 'Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet'.

The Elephant God, the last of the three novellas, impressed me the most in that it came together neatly at the end; perhaps, that's how Theroux wanted it to be. In fact, I understood the earlier two novellas better after reading this third novella. This novella deals with the plain-Jane Alice, a graduate of Brown who very soon figures out that the real India is not akin to what she saw in the movies, nor is it like what some native writers had made it appear because 'Where were the big, fruitful families from these novels, where were the jokes, the love affairs, the lavish marriage ceremonies, the solemn pieties, the virtuous peasants, the environmentalists, the musicians, the magic, the plausible young men?' It is with these unanswered questions in mind that Alice sets out to seek enlightenment at the Sai Baba Ashram near Bangalore. Truly, 'a leap in the dark' for her in Theroux's words because it will leave her 'a different person at the other end'. 

The Elephanta Suite, published in 2007, could have paved the way for writers such as Anand Girdhardas who tried to capture the essence of a changing-India, except that Theroux, in this book,  does it so casually, yet deftly with the elan of a master writer. Unwittingly, Theroux's dragnet of call centers, god-men, child prostitution, and other socio economic realities of changing -India are laid bare to the reader, who is left awed and enlightened 'at the other end'! In the Elephanta Suite Theroux has brilliantly used his mastery as travel writer and fiction writer to illustrate the face of a changing nation as also the changing psyche of its inhabitants. He has definitely stripped the stereotypical romance and exoticism that India has long been associated with, and instead he presents a snapshot of contemporary India that is 'swarming, seductive, anachronistic, and which has a disorienting dynamism' that defies definition even as it demands a deeper delving into the human condition of those Theroux calls the 'accessible poor' and who constitute a significant majority.

Having enjoyed reading Theroux's "The Elephanta Suite', I now plan to read his other books that have been waiting on my book shelf since Christmas.

January 21, 2013

George Orwell's 'Dilemma' Remembered.

"A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago
To preach upon eternal doom
And watch my walnuts grow;

But born, alas, in an evil time,
I missed that pleasant haven,
For the hair has grown on my upper lip
And the clergy are all clean-shaven.

And later still the times were good,
We were so easy to please,
We rocked our troubled thoughts to sleep
On the bosoms of the trees.

All ignorant we dared to own
The joys we now dissemble;
The greenfinch on the apple bough
Could make my enemies tremble.

But girl's bellies and apricots,
Roach in a shaded stream,
Horses, ducks in flight at dawn,
All these are a dream.

It is forbidden to dream again;
We maim our joys or hide them:
Horses are made of chromium steel
And little fat men shall ride them.

I am the worm who never turned,
The eunuch without a harem;
Between the priest and the commissar
I walk like Eugene Aram;

And the commissar is telling my fortune
While the radio plays,
But the priest has promised an Austin Seven,
For Duggie always pays.

I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls,
And woke to find it true;
I wasn't born for an age like this;
Was Smith? Was Jones? Were you?"

by George Orwell

"A writer's starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice.... I write because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.....The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us."

Orwell's dilemma lives on!

January 02, 2013

Ang Lee's Movie "Life of PI" Illustrates 'Life Will Defend Itsef, No Matter How Small It Is!'

The failings of the flesh are clearly more powerful than the refrain of religion, or so Ang Lee’s movie “The Life of Pi” appears to suggest.  A story within a story, the movie is definitely a must see, but I felt the movie, despite some brilliant acting by newbie Suraj Sharma playing the young Pi, did not hold up to Martel’s award winning novel, "The Life of Pi.". 

Ang Lee’s captures the drama on the high seas with the elan of a maestro. It’s almost as if the emotional and moral storm that rages within Pi, the protagonist, manifests itself in the angry waves that lash and virtually tear apart the boat that Pi is forced to share with a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded Zebra, and Richard Parker, the Bengal Tiger, in the aftermath of a shipwreck. 

This story within a story could pass off as a simplistic fable for children to watch on a 3D screen; however, it could as well embed itself permanently in the viewer’s mind as a story that defies closure. What did Pi do on that boat, and what was done to him will have to be decided by the viewer. Not a wonder then, Yann Martel, the 2001 Man Booker Prize winning author of the novel "Life of Pi" also leaves it to the readers to decide what they wanted to have happened to Pi on that boat and whether  "Richard Parker is more than just a tiger... Some people could say it’s Pi himself. Some people can, in a sense, say it’s like God -- we're afraid of God, but he brings comfort and he keeps us going, which is what the tiger Richard Parker did."