Tuesday, May 31, 2011

All Things Bright and Beautiful

IndiBlogger is currently holding a writing contest, open to all members of the Indian Blogging Community. The topic is - What does real beauty mean to you?

I glanced through a few submitted posts, and was blown away by the immense talent and the wonderful writers. All these bloggers have done a great job at defining what beauty is, and I am humbled by their posts. I really hope all these people believe in their words and hold true to them always :). In this obsessed era of physical perfection, such reflections are indeed necessary from time to time.  I have often thought about what beauty is, and have even rambled on my thoughts now and then, but I have nothing spectacularly different or insightful to add to the burgeoning views on beauty that IndiBlogger has garnered. However, I was still tempted to write about it - more as an exercise in writing and expressing my thoughts on a topic that always feels incomplete and hard to verbalize. But I don’t plan on submitting the post for fear of marring the beauty of my imperfect expression with the pressure of competition :)

Nature has wired our basic instinct to notice and appreciate that which is helpful to our survival and to the proliferation of our genes. We love flowers because flowers help bees, bees help flowers, and the flowers, the delicate, helpless looking wonders help the ecosystem, and in turn, us. This delicate, yet robust and marvelous chain of support that sustains the planet is beautiful. The unfailing rhythm of Nature that masterfully orchestrates so many interconnected cycles of energy transfer is beautiful. Everything about Nature and its wired instincts in us follow symmetry as the benchmark of beauty. The symmetry of seasons, of night and day, of shapes and sizes, of colors and textures, of movements and sounds, even the fury of disasters - is beautiful. The lesson that Nature teaches, that of Karma, of the unforgivably generous effect of every single minuscule activity - is a beautiful lesson to ingrain. Nature - its specimens, its rhythms, its harmony, its symmetry, its evolution, and its endurance - embodies real beauty. Nature is as is - truthful, quiet, elegant, simple, unadorned, and yet gorgeous.

But this definition is an ethereal one, one that cannot be used in every day practical scenarios, when one tries to understand beauty to live life contently and meaningfully. We often grapple with the question - what makes a person beautiful? When I was very young - as a kid of six or seven, I believed that anyone with fair, creamy skin was beautiful. Cliched, yes. But it was a revelation to me, then. It was my first ever comprehension of the term “beautiful”. Going by the remarks of family, friends, and teachers, I narrowed it down to skin color (or lack of one). And realizing the absence of that precious attribute in me, I spent the following few years retreating into shadows of self-doubt and vanity as I became keenly aware of the unspoken attitudes of those around me. I started hearing this phrase far too often - “This color will not suit you”. So I found myself shrinking into subdued colors, slinking behind vibrant girls who could wear bold colors. But surprisingly, I accepted myself more easily and readily back then - the beauty of being a child. Thanks to my parents for nurturing my interests, and teaching me the value of inner-beauty. Good manners, grace, piety, and purity, my mom said. Intelligence, hard work, undying spirit, and altruism, my dad said. And I clung onto these values, which were mere words to me, hoping I will one day come to understand them and their beauty better.

Today, I do wholeheartedly realize the value of those words. A person is most beautiful for the humility, kindness, empathy, compassion, and generosity they exude - both within themselves, and outside themselves, showering others in their brilliant radiance. They are even more beautiful human beings if their minds are sharp, intelligent, curious, and most importantly, open. The human body can never be perfect in terms of the shallow definition of physical symmetry and flawless skin. But one might still keep aspiring for these in little ways, for somewhere buried in our subconscious, Nature’s instinct lingers, and it flares up now and then. Such mild feelings are harmless, I say, even inevitable really. The need to present oneself as a clean, sheen, and fit individual will always reside. But it is not a quest for beauty, it is an expression of the self to indulge in fleeting “feel-good” moments, when the task of beautifying the soul gets too difficult and abstract at times. Those who have conquered the difficult task of beautifying their inner-self are magnificently beautiful people for sure. Such beautiful individuals learn to accept and love themselves and those around them, for who they are.

Finally, when it comes to my perception of beauty in inanimate objects, I have two metrics - one is color, and the other is emotion. I love colors, and cannot live without them. I’m mesmerized by everything that reflects a bright or pastel glow. I’m glad I’m born a female, for I can lavish myself in so many colors without being scorned or judged. Why color is associated with gender, I don't know. But I live and breathe in colors. They are my reprieve in the daily routine of stress and work. They define beauty in a very materialistic, at the same time, ethereal sense.

Finally, anything that evokes a pleasant feeling, emotion, thought or memory, is beautiful to me. I love Art for the beauty of its varied expressions. And some objects, no matter how ragged and decrepit they turn with age, are souvenirs of memories and feelings we want to hold on forever. Their beauty increases with the number of experiences they share with us in life. These objects become keepers of the treasures of our life experiences. But sentimentalizing on material aspects should be kept on check. It’s beautiful if the mind develops sufficient detachment to merely outwardly recognize the beauty of these objects without getting sentimentally attached to them.

It’s beautiful to see how we coexist with Nature and with each other; that despite the squabbles, the violence, the intolerance, the competition, the greed for power, control, and the immense amounts of ignorance, we connect over the need for love and survival.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Reflections: East, West

The book is a collection of short stories - stories from the East, some from the West, and finally a few that touch upon the amalgamation of East and West. Rushdie, in his characteristic style, tries to bring out the core elements that define the Eastern and the Western sides of the world, and in what ways the two sides come together, resulting in some successful communions and some disastrous ones.

Why this sudden interest in books by Salman Rushdie, you may ask. I have made up my mind to read the Booker of Bookers, his masterpiece, Midnight’s Children. I need to find out for myself why the book is so hailed. But I am extremely intimidated to start it. So, I am “easing” myself into his style of writing by first picking all the “low hanging fruits”, so to speak. I was a little disappointed with The Enchantress of Florence, although his writing was wonderful. But I am sorry to say that this book disappointed me in both the content, and the writing. Although, a short book, I took more than a week to read it, because my attention struggled to cope with the words and the story. However, I did like two stories - the first and the last, especially the last one. The last story deals with the fusion of East and West. Rushdie tells the story of immigrants torn between their homeland and their adopted home. His characters are sharp and distinct, and his words are sparse, yet strong.

His assertion is that while the East teems with mysticism, spiritualism and organic, rustic culture, the West primarily struggles to get a grounding on all the former elements in order to anchor the abundance of freedom and liberty they are lavished with. Both sides long for the attributes of the other side - well, the grass is always greener on the other side. Reaching a middle ground is easier said than done - people usually resort to extremes, or unfortunately end up mixing those aspects that are not meant to be “fused”. The dilemma regarding what to adopt, and what not to is as prevalent in the West, as it is in the East.

While the themes are interesting, barring a few stories, the majority of the stories were vague and a little too dense for my liking. 

Friday, May 20, 2011

If the glass is full...

Don’t make someone a priority in your life, if you are just an option in their life.

It took me years to come to terms and accept this piece of advice. But my dearest and closest, still struggle with it. I am frustrated with all the hours of talking, cajoling, and more stern-talking. I want to shake them and scream into their ears, in the hope that they will let go. But I can’t. But I can scream into one other space. This space - which is like the highest peak of the highest mountain. When I cry and scream, I have the feeling of venting to the whole world, yet I know there is no one but me in this vacant and still space. I can hear my words and screams echo down the silent spaces, but I know an ear or two will eventually pick up the ripples of sound, and I’m grateful for the mock-belief of shouting into the ears of the Universe.

Me and my dear ones have always been the “unpopular” ones, among family and friends. We try to fly under the radar, blend into the surrounding, and never make a splash. I, for one, am happy being so. That’s who I am. But trouble is, it isn’t pleasant to be ignored all the time - or most of the time. Especially when one wants to, nay craves to, share their love, affection, and hospitality with someone who has far too many adoring friends and family, that they are forced to pick and choose. When they choose, it is not us, surely not the unpopular, low-profile ones.

Trust me, I feel your angst. But you need to understand this, accept this as the way of life, and let go. It is not a reflection of your self-worth, it is not a reflection of their regard for you, nor is it a matter of hue and cry that you need to so fiercely compete over. We don’t know how to demand the spotlight on us, and it is not worth the clumsy effort of trying to. You can even bring down the moon, and I can stand by your side and help you collect all the stars, but it is still not enough - for they have already made their choice! Why such a choice, you ask, over and over again. Because their plate is too full, I keep saying. 

And the more harder you try to capture it, the faster the sand slips out of your closed and strained fist, right? Does that image help?

A person once told me, when you try too hard to share your love and affection with someone who is not keen on receiving it, you descend to the state of a beggar - down on your knees begging someone to receive all the things you can offer. When ideally, the person who gives should only give to those who are willing to receive. Or even more ideally, we should give without even expecting someone to receive it, let alone reciprocate it. Expectation is the evil which ruins the value and beauty of giving. If the latter is too philosophical, stick to the former practical saying. Besides, it is not fair to demand or force your offer on anyone.

There are far too many people in the world who are in dire need of the love you can so generously offer. Channelize it their way, instead of forcing your way through the current channel, which is fortunately, already brimming and bursting! If the glass is already full, find another one to pour your love into. 

Make peace, please. Spare us the agony, the unwanted negative energy. This is not a competition. Even if it were, it is not worth winning.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Political Correctness

I'm not sure if this is a cultural phenomenon, or something related to individual traits. Many don't realize there is a difference between being frank, and being brutally frank. One can be frank and honest, yet convey their thoughts in a refined, politically correct manner that targets the problem to be solved to the mutual satisfaction of both parties involved. However, I come across many Indians (I may be wrong) who literally speak their mind out and hurt people, or put their foot in their mouth with a politically rude/incorrect remark, when they attempt being "frank". Their remark takes the attention away from the core problem. In a professional setting, it is embarrassing when you see people do this time and again, albeit in a harmless fashion. It is even more bristling when some others inquire if this trait is cultural. Although my first reaction was to argue that this was just yet another personality trait, further thought has made me wonder if the roots are indeed cultural.

Before people start pouncing and tearing at me, let me clarify. I am not stereotyping. My thoughts are probably shaped from the experiences I have had while growing up in my city, neighborhood, and family. I welcome your thoughts to broaden my perspective. 

In my family and the place I grew in, people usually refrained from direct confrontation. Maamis and uncles are astute in the sly game of subtle slights, and indirect comments and allusions. The receiving party either broods in the hurt, buries and nurses the grudge, retaliates in an equally cheeky manner, or complains and gossips to the so-called sympathetic "friends".  A disagreement  is never resolved in a direct, honest fashion. Due to the game of indirect and behind-the-back gossips and repartee, even a small and inconsequential disagreement builds up and blows out of proportion after years of accumulated grudges. When people eventually confront - the scene is pretty nasty. People will be frank - but crassly so. This is the model of "frankness" we build in our head.

Culturally, we are taught to not be rude, or speak up to "elders". However politely we address concerns to "elders" or even neighbors, the fact that we open up a problem so directly and expect a solution, is taken as an affront. The norm is to let the problems fester till it cannot be tolerated anymore. Basically, we are brought up to be coy and "nice" (often by faking it), and have little training in being honest and direct.

Here comes the problem. When we are put in an environment where people are painstakingly politically correct AND direct, we poor people are lost. We realize the need to be direct, but we have no training, and no clue on how to present and word our direct remarks in a polite, constructive manner. Unfortunately, to us, direct means rude and blatant. And that's how we spit out our words, and claim on being "frank".

I admit that even I have been tongue-tied in the past. I have taken hours to compose a tough email. I would marvel and collect professionally worded emails that demanded improvements, out-rightly rejected, or addressed an important concern with the party's work, with such polite and honest flair. I tried to fit it all into a formula so that I could assimilate it, and emulate it (for instance, talk of the positive aspects, the potentially positive aspects, then mention the unpleasant in a direct but polite manner). But diplomacy cannot be squeezed into a formula. It is a gradual cultivation of your thought process, speech, and mannerism. 

Smooth-talkers are blessed indeed. And I realize there are Indians who are savvy and glib speakers, as there are Americans who are rude and blunt. But, I'm not sure if my experience with the role played by culture has any influence on most people I see straining their professional relationships. If so, I'm wondering if we need to hold a special orientation on diplomacy and political correctness.

Or, as many are bound to say, let's not bother about the fluff, and keep calling a spade, a spade, and not care a hoot about the relationships soured and severed.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Unheard Melodies

The past weekend, we watched the movie The Bridges of Madison County. For the very first time.

Yeah, I do have the distinct feeling of having spent the majority of my life under a rock. And as expected, the husband censured and lamented over Francesca’s “shocking” promiscuity and resignedly resorted to playing Angry Birds. I also surprised him by not entering into my usual "righteous" discussions on morality. Instead, I was weeping.

I wept for many reasons, but none of them has anything to do with the film resembling my life in any way. A cautious disclaimer ;). For seeing my tears, the husband was rattled and was rethinking his decision to leave me all by myself during his upcoming official trip. So, yeah, I cry because the world’s sorrow is my collective sorrow and all that.

I wept in appreciation of Meryl Streep’s performance - tears of awe and respect. Next, I wept that I was grown up enough to understand infidelity; to not judge or scorn it. I shocked myself by even empathizing. Anna Karenina did that to me. And now, this movie. Finally, I wept because the notion of romantic love is indeed fickle. The only sure way of preserving the fire of passion is to leave it stranded, and unattainable. Just the memory of not being able to attain it, elevates the romanticism and sustains the longing. As Keats said, “Heard Melodies Are Sweet, but Those Unheard Are Sweeter”.

As much as I long for peace and harmony, I see that our lives are indeed more interesting and fully lived when the horizon is always colored by some challenge, or smudged with some imminent uncertainty. Life in general, becomes more worth living because we then cling to a “purpose”- an idealistic one. We try to savor the best of what the present offers, focus on bigger elements, realize with clarity the most fundamental things that truly matter, and those million and one extraneous things which were previously picked on, but that don’t count in the harsh light of impermanence.

That said, I still strive for Happily-Ever-Afters. The more the challenge, the more tenuous the certainty, the more the idealism.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Reflections: Bombay Time

I’m sure someone has noticed my recent trend in books. While previously I was guarded and lukewarm towards books written by authors of Indian origin, these days, I’m making up for my indifference by diligently scanning the library for the very same authors. I have to say that I am pleasantly surprised, both with myself and with the authors. Looking back at the books I have enjoyed and admired in the last few months, I’m thrilled to find that most were written by authors of Indian origin. I have been stirred and awed by the stellar writing prowess of Manil Suri, Abraham Verghese, Anuradha Roy, Salman Rushdie, and Indu Sundaresan. I’m proud of them, and of their beautiful writing that inspires and teaches. Therefore, I find myself in a quest to seek out books and authors that I have ignored for so long; to explore a genre I previously shunned out of the fierce protectiveness I felt towards my own country, home, and people, of the agony of reading about them in a less-flattering light, and of the fear of unearthing uncomfortable memories.

I’ve heard plenty of glowing praises for Thrity Umrigar, so I picked this book of hers. Let me cut to the chase before I embark on my rambling and state that Umrigar is yet another author I would go hunting for in the book racks.

This novel follows a different style of story-telling. It tells the stories of the different occupants of Wadia Baug, an apartment complex in Bombay, housing a well-knit Parsi community. In the throes of their late middle-age, the members of the community nostalgically look back at their lives and wonder at the early dreams, hopes and happiness their lives held, and the detours and disappoints that fate threw their way to break their wings of hope. Despite the uneven bittersweet journey they traveled, they were grateful for one robust pillar of support - the friendship of the Wadia Baug community. The novel is a seemingly simple story of the importance of community and companionship. But the stories are heavily layered with so many aspects of life, especially of life in Bombay.

This is a character-driven book, as some people would classify. The book teems with interesting characters, reminiscent of people we know, of people we probably are turning into, and of people we have struggled to understand. What I respect and marvel at is Umrigar’s honest and insightful psychological appraisal of these people. Despite the characters’ numerous flaws, she shows us the true person they are at heart. She articulates my hypothesis that people are inherently good, and even, simple. Yet, they become complicated, and sometimes reprehensible, because of the disappointments, tragedies, and painful experiences they are forced to go through. They continue to live life as their vulnerabilities, insecurities, guilt, regrets, and wounds threaten to never heal, and fester just under the surface.

For instance, we admonish and hate the gossipy, old woman in the neighborhood, but have probably never taken a moment to consider how her life had been before she became so; why she seems to unfailingly provide food and help when you need it; and why your parents implicitly trust her with their house keys, despite her petty talk and inquisitiveness. Or why the “apartment board” never fires the inefficient, ill-tempered, weak, watchman. Every person has a story, a reason for why there are they way they are. With a little empathy, and a little consideration, we look into the unsoiled person within them. Although we will continue to resent their flaws, their stunted maturity, their cloistered thinking, their intrusion and comments on your life, we need them just as much to establish a community and rely on their basic (sometimes, well hidden), harmless, good nature. We realize, grudgingly at that, that our quintessential Indian neighborhood does indeed do more good than the secluded islands of the western residential communities.

Digested Thoughts: Although at times I felt there were a tad too many characters and stories to keep track of, Umrigar beautifully unwraps the stories of six different Parsi families, and their connection to the Wadia Baug apartment complex. The stories cannot be more real, and honest, and they each involve the role played by Bombay - its boisterous, harsh, unforgiving part. They also shed light on subtle Indian customs, traditions, and its social and political dynamics that complicate life needlessly. As much as Umrigar emphasizes the benefits of being part of a community, she also brilliantly and subtly shows the flip-side. If we wrap ourselves too very tightly and comfortably in the safe cocoon of our little ethnic community, we remain ignorant, indifferent and callous towards the rest of the world operating around us. Secluding oneself within a community is just as bad as being intolerant of other communities. We all need to realize that we are part of something bigger than just our tiny community. It is important to connect with all of humanity, as being part of one big society. This is especially true of India, where there are a million different sectarian groups, that we tend to see ourselves as total strangers if we so much as move to a different religious neighborhood within the very same city. This feeling of being an alien if we step two streets away from our community, is the cause for communal tension and violence.

Anyway, to wrap up, I enjoyed reading this book, especially the character analysis, and will definitely recommend it. Umrigar's writing is simple, but evocative and insightful.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Reflections: An Atlas of Impossible Longing

Seeking solitude and a niche for himself, Amulya moves to the idyllic village of Songarh, and sets up a factory that manufactures authentic herbal potions from the unique plants of the region. As much as Amulya appreciates Songarh, his family, especially his wife, dearly misses the bustling life of Calcutta. Her loneliness is an implacable longing. The longing starts there. Each person has his or her own deep longing, and grapples to fill the void caused by it. Due to the stringent rules imposed by a complicated social structure, the characters realize that their longing is almost impossible to be quenched. So, they move on and live through life, trying to swim against the currents, until they resign themselves to the path charted by destiny. Anuradha Roy has crafted a moving story and real-to-life characters that leave a strong impression on the reader.

My thoughts on the book are sparse, but the feelings it has evoked, and the images it has burned in my mind, are far too many. The story takes us through three generations, spanning from the 1920s to the 1950s of India. Roy delicately weaves the political and social shifts in this time period into the story. It is subtly and expertly done to vividly show the marked changes these bring about in the lives of the characters. I loved the tight-knit integration. And the sheer breadth of social and political issues she seamlessly covers, is remarkable. She covers caste system, the pitiable treatment of widows, the hindu-muslim rivalry, the cut-throat nature of survival in Calcutta, the impenetrable distance between the English and the locals, the colonial hangover, infidelity, and the dynamics of an orthodox family. It might seem like she went through all the essential check-list items on India, but her execution is impeccable and everything neatly and naturally falls into the story. Nothing is over-done. Her prose has an under-stated elegance in conveying these heavy themes. Through her precise and sensitive descriptions, she captures the heart of India, and Indian families.

Her writing is beautiful - it has a quiet flair to it. Her words are used sparingly, but aptly, to draw her characters and emanate their thoughts and feelings from the pages. Her characterization is brilliant. Although it’s been two days since I finished the book, I still retain crystal clear images of the characters and the settings. And I’m sure I’ll carry these quaint images with me for a long time to come, even if my memory of the story fades.

Digested Thoughts: I loved the book from beginning to end. There was never a moment when I lost interest, and easily continued reading for hours together in the wee hours. The book touched a chord in me. The main characters were personable, and the writing was sublime. I thought long and hard about what rating to give this book, for I realize I’m a bit of a tough-cookie when it comes to giving the highest rating. But I guess the real test of a good book is in its capacity to touch you, and live with you in your thoughts, even after the last pages. When such a book sits on my shelf, I would often pull it open to randomly read a few passages and revel in the writing and setting. For these simple reasons alone, I think this book merits the highest rating I can bestow. 

Monday, May 02, 2011

Reflections: The Thing Around Your Neck

I started reading Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus a couple of years back, but given my mental state then, I couldn’t stand the distressing nature of the story and abandoned it half-way. But I did like Adichie’s writing that I sought another book of hers - something that didn’t have to do with wars, and I was left with this book of short-stories. I quite liked the book, but back then, I hadn’t yet stumbled into the phase of recording my thoughts on every book I read, so I just shelved my thoughts. However, I was reminded of the book when recently, I came across this TED video of Adichie’s talk.

Just a short while ago, I had written about my curiosity to know about the person behind the pen/words. Quite surprisingly, Adichie’s voice and speech were exactly as I had imagined. I was impressed by her confidence and measured words, which made clear she was of substance. Her speech was on the dangers of stereotyping and narrowing one’s perspectives because of the kinds of stories the media (books, television, movies, Internet) chooses to concentrate and perpetuate. All through her talk, I was reminded of the many different insightful stories she had written in this book. So, although this post is about two years late, better late then never, I told myself.

People in developed countries have certain common images and impressions about developing countries - poverty, unrest, illiteracy, disease, violence, and corruption. They are not wrong. It is indeed true that cows languish on Indian roads, and every street corner is likely to have a crude little temple teeming with superstitious people. But to latch onto just these, and assume that the country is made of cows and superstitions, is gross ignorance. To eradicate people’s stereotypes, their ignorance, misunderstanding and oversimplification of Africa, Adichie presents twelve different stories of Nigerians.

Through a host of well-defined and different characters, Adichie shows that there are Nigerians who are well-educated, well-read and refined, who own good cars, travel abroad, are distinguished authors, journalists, university professors, and doctors. She also writes about those who are riddled with poverty and struggle to make a living as shunned immigrants in the US; those who stray from education due to the ravaging influence of war, violence and communal disputes; those beguiled women who find themselves as dependent wives to their partly Americanized, over-bearing, chauvinistic husbands; those ambitious immigrants who succumb to the illusion of milk and honey; those young girls who grow to hate their own brothers because of the excessive favoritism they receive; those well-meaning elders who cloister themselves with misguided notions of culture, and end up oppressing and subjugating women.

Every story is honest, and speaks volumes. The stories on immigration, the conflicts between cultures, the dilemma of  going back home, the violence, communal riots, and deep-seated belief in complex values, go across borders and ring true to anyone from a developing country. I could relate to almost every story, but my most favorite was The American Embassy. It says a lot when you get moved to tears by a single short-story. I thought it captured Africa (or rather Nigeria), and the relationship between the US and developing nations, in a nutshell.

Although some stories might seem a little abrupt and incomplete, what impressed me most was the simplicity of Adichie’s words, and the vivid, and perfect characterization that the stories achieve despite the parsimony of words. I can never do that, and I commend authors who can powerfully capture the insights, and the million and one hues of the characters and the story through simple, honest words.

Digested Thoughts: I enjoyed reading this book of short-stories. The stories are simple, honest, and powerful. They truthfully speak the unheard stories of Nigerians. Adichie’s simple and solemn writing does not try to dim any rough edge.