Talent and Bad Behaviour

Growing up, I was subjected to Carnatic music classes, like most children in my neighborhood. I grew up resenting it all.

I don’t as such hate the music part of it. I love what I’ve got from Carnatic music… the ability to keep a tune, to not be tone-deaf and to be able to understand and appreciate all genres of music. But when it came to the teachers, most if not all of them weren’t very nice people. And I noticed that the more qualified they were, the more crazy they got.

After years with this neighbor of mine, who was just a nice lady who taught music for extra income, and didn’t push us much, the time came to shop for a new teacher when this nice lady found love and happiness and moved to the other end of town. The proper music school in my neighborhood had an intimidating man who took my interview, made me sing and said to my doting grandmother ‘She is very weak, but I’ll see what I can do’. In hindsight, I likely was, but that’s kind of not what you say to an eleven-year-old. And I was a sensitive child. A few years ago, my nice-neighbor’s music teacher sat in on the class. He was this sixty year old man. And he lectured me on how terrible I was or something, and I left in tears. No one understood why a crotchety old man got to me so much. I don’t know, you tell me why an obedient eight year old might react adversely to a sharp rebuke by a sixty year old.

Anyway, so we found another lady, who sang in Kannada films. She cheerfully accepted me as a student. She never made it on time to teach us. I found myself running away because I was getting late for maths tuitions or swimming. She wasn’t very nice either. She would get irritated to no end if her students made mistakes. Besides, the teacher’s pets were all crotchety little girls who wore flowers in their hair and considered Bollywood music with the regard and coolness I reserved for hard rock. I didn’t stand a chance. Besides, being a Tamilian who went to a CBSE school, my Kannada wasn’t that great and for some reason, that irritated her a lot more.

I had enough. I began playing hooky. It’s another fun story when my mother ran into the teacher and they talked.

So… what am I saying… these people were mentally ill? No, not exactly. It’s just that this eccentric behaviour that would be shut down in no time in other circumstances was considered okay because they were ‘artists’. And ‘teachers’. You could literally throw dark looks at a student because she didn’t speak your language, and no one would bat an eyelid. Your meekness was directly proportional to how much your snotty behaviour was indulged. Being any kind of ‘different’ was license enough to be given step-motherly treatment. And oh, it was totally fine to hit a student for making mistakes in singing.

Also, you didn’t have to have any level of competence to exhibit such behaviour. In fact, if you threw your weight around, people would assume somehow that you must be talented.

This is more South Bangalore ’90s things than Music Teacher things, but the point is, none of them made their art any more appealing or fun to me. And I guarantee it, 90% of the responses I get will be of the nature of ‘Oh, you’re too sensitive’, or ‘They didn’t mean it like that’, or ‘You generalize, and incorrectly’, or ‘My teacher slapped me and I am the better for it’. My problem is, such behaviour is considered acceptable.

When I began considering comedy for a hobby, I faced similar issues. Standup was such a hostile, painful environment of one-upmanship and shockjockery. It especially isn’t easy on women and non-whites. Most standup comedians seemed like people with serious issues. Which would be fine, but it showed a lot in their social interactions and general lack of regard.

Thankfully, I found improv.

What I like about improv is, it is an ideal hobby. No one is giving you a hard time for not practicing. No one is telling you you’re wrong. You just watch and learn and get better. The whole teaching culture seems to be geared towards making people comfortable on stage and offering a lot of positive reinforcement. If you mess up, which is hard in improv because ‘there are no mistakes in improv’, people usually show you a better, easier, more comfortable choice instead of telling you you’re wrong. Besides, you never know who you’ll be improvising with next, so you’d better be nice to everyone you play with.

It might also have to do with the fact that I learnt improv at Magnet. It is such a friendly, welcoming, accepting environment with so little room for negativity, that I fell in love with it the first time I watched a show there. It isn’t full of snooty competitive people, but with regular folk who like doing comedy. The ‘great’ people immediately distinguished themselves from the ‘good’ people with the sort of comedic choices they made while performing. Not by being smartass in class.

It was a huge thing for me to accept as well. Often I found people making such terrible comedic choices. Like subverting the point of a scene for momentary giggles (Like you point your finger and say ‘stop or I’ll shoot’, and your scene partner responds with ‘that’s not a gun, that’s your finger’. It throws you off your game, and after that little laugh, you have to start fresh again). Or when they got too serious. Or said something abnormal and dark. Or stuck to the same, comfortable choices over and over….. there was one guy who would keep lapsing into a faux posh old lady accent; I found it unfunny after the second or third time.

My improv teachers didn’t question or correct those choices. They stuck to their plan and kept it going, while making sure everyone got a fair chance to try. And by the fourth week of classes, people began falling in line no matter how they were before. They felt empowered enough to try new things and challenge themselves.

So why does this come up?

I’ve been trying to teach improv in Seattle. I found very few avenues for long form improv in this city, and instead of cursing the darkness, I decided to light a candle. I haven’t been doing most of the teaching until now. And I notice how different teaching styles can get.

I’m a leader-by-consensus. I don’t believe I know everything, so I leave wiggle room for feedback and others stepping in to share what they know. I can’t stand cutting someone’s creativity off. I can never think of admonishing someone’s comedic choices. I won’t ever tell someone how exactly to do a scene. At best, I’ll establish the rules of an activity before I start, and then stick to those rules, not micromanage the scene. I like to be sensitive to my students and don’t mind flexing the class around to benefit everyone, because everyone must and should feel comfortable enough to contribute and never once think their idea is nonsense. And anytime I’m in doubt, I hark back to all the people who taught me at Magnet, and do as they would have done. Not once do I remember anyone outright dissing someone’s choices on stage.

Turns out, there are other styles. There exist people who take improv so seriously that they actually believe there are wrong choices and go out of their way to point that out. People actually say ‘should’ and ‘should not’ instead of ‘try to’ and ‘try not to’. There are others who are so very dogmatic about the Harold as a form that they forget about what makes it fun, and will go to any extent to cut any deviations off.

And that just because they are fastidious about these self-made rules, people will think they know more, and are better.

Seriously, improv is an art form and all that, but I don’t find that much of a difference between someone who’s finished Improv 201 and someone who’s finished Improv 401. You can see vast levels of skill differences between someone who does improv more regularly and someone who doesn’t, but that doesn’t give anyone the license to shoot someone else down. This is true for all forms of art and science, but it is quite stark in improv because here, you explicitly state that there are ‘no mistakes’.

I understand a lot of people develop terrible improv routines and crutches, but when you’re in a position to do something about it, approach with love and understanding and work with them, not tearing down everything they stand for.

I find a lot of people revelling in abuse they get from those they consider pros and maestros. A senior programmer roasting your design on a public forum is met with admiration, never mind that under different circumstances, they might have praised the same design. An experienced standup taking nasty digs at a younger standup and it gets brushed off as ‘ribbing’ and ‘more publicity’. A famous guitar teacher hitting the knuckles of his students when they make mistakes is something they talk about proudly in interviews. Why, there was this famous ICSE tuition teacher in Basavanagudi who was famous for his abuse and thrashing, and someone everyone just went with it as a feature and not a bug. There are famous quizzers on the Indian quizzing circuits who are more famous and admired for their insults than for their breadth and depth of knowledge.

It somehow feels okay to give talented people leeway to be nasty, because they are talented.

That’s how you get a Roman Polanski and a Woody Allen.

The point is, talent doesn’t usually make you any nastier, unless you have others enabling that behaviour. Talent doesn’t suddenly give you a license for eccentric behaviour either. Eccentric behaviour usually doesn’t help with talent. I watched Michale Fassbender’s Frank recently, and there’s a line where the lead character’s parents say ‘He was always musical, the mental illness didn’t make it any better… if anything, it’s slowed him down’. That’s how it usually is. You can’t and shouldn’t conclude from Robin Williams’ suicide that all comedy comes from a sad, dark place.

Perpetuating those stereotypes usually just serves to keep people out. It also reinforces and enables bad behaviour and a cycle of abuse. And the thing is, you don’t have to tolerate that.

Everyone has the right to be respected and treated like a human being. If someone is being nasty to you, it’s just that, they are being nasty to you. Their talent has little to do with it. If anything, the most talented people are also the nicest and more humble, because they recognize that they got to where they are not just by ability and effort, but also with a lot of luck and mentoring.

Posted in analysis, Bangalore, Music, New York City, Seattle | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How we remember things – A few thoughts on Boyhood

I watched the much-hyped Boyhood a few weeks ago. It’s a brilliant, brilliant experiment.

Boyhood is made by Richard Linklater of Before Sunrise fame. The fun bit is, it’s shot over a period of twelve years, from 2002 to 2014. The main reason Mr. Linklater says he did this was because he wanted to shoot a movie about childhood, but realized nothing good could be done over a span of a year or so… it was always incidents over a period of time, and obviously, if you have a child actor, you can’t cast multiple people to play him at different ages and also keep the coentinuity in the mind of the viewer.

So he took this kid, Ellar Coltrane, aged six then, and shot about ten-fifteen minutes every year for twelve years. Ellar plays the main character, Mason. There are other characters, most notably Mason’s older sister Samantha, played by Lorelai Linklater, his mother, Ethan Hawke playing his biological father. There are men his mother marries and divorces over the years, a ‘parade of drunks’ as he calls them toward the end, friends, a girlfriend, a teacher or two, and his grandmother. It’s wonderful watching everyone grow older together.

Given no one else might be releasing stuff with this level of time-commitment in the near future, this is pretty much all we have for a while to learn what happens when you shoot stuff over a long period of time. The stuff we can draw from this is notable, mainly because the sort of script and scenes and stuff are different from what you’ve seen otherwise.

The movie starts in first grade and ends when Mason goes off to UT Austin to study photography. Mr. Linklater’s approach throughout was to think of it all as a series of memories, not as a story to tell. The approach itself is not the brilliant bit. It’s easy to go wrong with this, have something that’s all totally disconnected and completely pointless, or have an agenda no matter how much you try not to. Mr. Linklater succeeds in not falling into either trap.

Some of the important events in his life are shown, like the time his biological father reenters his life, when he first notices his mother’s interest in her subsequent husbands, his fifteenth birthday, winning a medal, going off to college.

But you also see a lot of stuff you don’t know the point of – like when his mother’s student checks out his room, or when his girlfriend and wake up in his sister’s roommate’s bed and see that the roommate’s back earlier than expected, going camping with his father, his job washing dishes at a restaurant…

And a lot of the big things are missed. You never see any of his mother’s weddings. Not his first kiss, not his first time having sex. You do see references he comes across to sex and porn through his childhood, but you never see any of that having a real point…. like you do see his father educating his sister and him about condoms, but you don’t see him experimenting subsequently. Not even when his girlfriend cheats on him… you only get to see the conversation they have later, and even that is pretty drama-free.

Nothing really leads into something else, you don’t revisit things that much, the threads don’t necessarily connect. And that’s kind of how you remember some things in life. Some things, not everything. I have a few big loud memories, but also a lot of random moments where I remember irrelevant things everyone else has forgotten.

Which is why that conversation he has after school with a girl inviting him to a party stuck with me. The girl is talkative, and really deep in the way only fourteen-year-olds can be (she doesn’t like Twilight), and really interested in him, while he is standoffish and not saying much, though he is quite obviously enjoying the conversation and likes her… it sounded way too familiar, way too close to home.

You also get to see the ugly manifestations of alcoholism and abuse in ways you haven’t seen before. You see his stepfather getting more and more controlling. You see him lose it, but not in the dramatic way you’ve seen a million times before. The kids are scared, but not scared that they are going to die. You feel the confusion, the faux-normalcy, until his mother takes the children and goes away. You see his other stepfather seeming like an idealistic veteran and father figure, before he begins drinking more and more, growing in despair and anger. I haven’t quite seen anything like that.

The other thing that happens when you shoot over a period of time is the throwbacks to a past era are more subtle. It is the polar opposite of the opening sequence of The To Do List, which is insanely ’90s. You see an old Apple computer in the library, the videogames the children play, and you see him making a video call on his IPhone… some people found that in-your-face, but I found that a little more subtle than other references.

Boyhood makes me think of a larger point. The way we remember things doesn’t have to be coherent, neat sequences of events. But, at least in my head, the way I remember things is like a story ready to be narrated to someone else. So there’s this beginning and middle and end and I make them tie together. It might be because I blog and write a diary, it might be because that’s the only sort of narrative I come across. It makes me wonder how much of how we think is shaped by how we see others narrate stories. It is oddly freeing, after watching this movie, to know that patterns of my thoughts don’t have to have a point or a narrative.

That said, it takes a lot of talent to do this sort of an experiment and have the result be even half-coherent. It takes a lot of vision to even decide to do something like this. It takes an infinite amount of patience, self-awareness and commitment to decide to have it look like a series of memories and not a complete story by any means. As an improviser, I find it very interesting to see how just natural conversation and reacting to each other can be so powerful.

I wonder what my Girlhood would look like. Off the top of my head, there would be the time I argued with my mother to wear this white dress at age twelve and she wouldn’t let me. The FRIENDS marathon that was on TV the day I was joining NITK. Suffering from typhoid in a hospital, and the nurses smiling at my colouring books. Going off the rails in third standard when the teachers put me in the back row with the rest of the troublemakers. A week of headache after the first time I dove into the pool from the springboards. Missing catches in throwball because I couldn’t stop catching with my fingertips instead of my palm. Visiting five different relatives in one day and my mother having the exact same bitch session with each of them. A whole crowd of distant nieces of my uncle’s new bride visiting us, and their playing havoc with the toys I carefully arranged in the living room and never played with because I considered myself too grown up to do so. Shivering by a campfire and falling asleep at age 10, and waking up wrapped in the jacket of this twelve year old boy who seemed like such a grown man back then that I looked up to him for weeks after that. Running into the same boy eight years later, and he was such a snob that though I recognized him, I decided I wouldn’t bring it up. Guess the last scene would be waiting desperately for the crowd gathered in my room at 2am on my first week at NITK to leave, and after they left, tucking myself in my serene blue blanket and reading English, August. 

Posted in movies, Review | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

School For Girls

Everything I read or write these days seems to be Heavy. It’s almost like everyone’s lost the ability to just muse about small things. Everything has to be about ebola or Hamas or ISIS or something. So here’s a lightweight ‘It Happened To Me’.

One of the things appealing about Seattle to me was that I have family here. Among the clan is my little cousin, who just turned thirteen. She’s been born and raised in Seattle. She’s incredibly social and can talk to anyone on their level, be they nerdy like me or chatty like my mother or with her very young cousins or her old grandparents.

While walking around, I came across this small one-storey building, with bright yellow walls and ‘Wexley School For Girls’ on it in ornate calligraphy. There was also a whole bunch of graffiti on one of the yellow walls. It seemed like a cool school, and I assumed in this city that was home to grunge, this school was supposed to exemplify it or something. I was intrigued, and snapped a picture on my tablet.

Later that day, I was with my cousin, and she was telling me about school. “I saw this school today”, I interrupted. “It’s called Wexley School For Girls. What kind of a school is it?”. She said she didn’t know, and had never heard of it. She didn’t even know there was a school in downtown Seattle. “It seemed like a cool kinda school, the one where you didn’t have rules or something”. “What kind of a school doesn’t have rules?” she asked. I put it down to her going to a strict Catholic school. Besides, American kids don’t know freedom like we did or something.

I pulled my tablet out and showed her the picture I’d taken of it. “Oh. Looks cool…”, she said, looking at the graffiti. Then suddenly “Hey, why is there a naked woman there?”.

I got shocked and pulled the tablet away. Given how sheltered American kids in my experience were, I freaked out. And sure there was graffiti of the naked woman there, among all the other scrawls and drawings.

“What sort of a school for girls is this place?”. I was angry by now, waiting for my tablet to connect to the WiFi. “How is this place even allowed to exist?”. I was pissed not only at the school, but also myself for subjecting the little girl to this.

And then I googled for Wexley School For Girls.

Turns out, it’s an ad agency.

Not a school.

Ugh.

Posted in Attempts at Humour, Priya's Travails, Seattle, travel | Leave a comment

Bombay to Bangalore – A comparative study of the writings of Hussain Zaidi and Agni Sridhar

The movie Aa Dinagalu  came highly recommended. Saw it on a list on Reddit, and it had been coming up in conversation every now and then.

I watched it, and loved it.

The title, literally Those Days, seems like one of a mellow tale of student days. Instead, you’re treated to the film version of two of the most landmark events in the history of Bangalore crime. The best part? None of it was even made up. Not the industrialist who hires rowdies to keep his son off of a girl of another caste, not the rich kid who takes it as a personal affront and decides to off the city’s biggest don.

I couldn’t get enough.

I watched the ‘sequel’, Edegarike. It has the same people. But a different story. More intense on the mindblerg.

I decided to read the book it was all based on. Agni Sridhar’s My Days in the Underworld – Rise of the Bangalore Mafia. I devoured all six hundred pages of it in a day and a half. I had never, ever read such a juicy, fast-paced, erudite book before.

The closest anyone’s come to to writing about organized crime in India other than this has to be Hussain Zaidi, who has written extensively on the Mumbai underworld. Those books are infinitely more famous than Agni Sridhar’s, given they have been the basis for movies like D, Company and Shootout at Lokhandwala and its sequel, Shootout at Wadala. I devoured those books too. But it felt like there was something missing, something not quite up my street.

And Agni Sridhar hit that spot.

Think about the Bollywood depiction of the Underworld, and Dons. Gangmembers are always introduced in a cloud of smoke. They are always nuzzling the muzzle of a gun. Cussing. There are cool camera angles, and music. Oh and some vamps, who almost always dress like fisherwomen and have paan-reddened lips. And they call each other Bhai all the time. And even the songs aren’t complete without bhai dialogue in them.

That’s the gangmembers. Then there’s the policemen. Poverty-stricken, with families, and corrupt. The one honest cop is either as evil as the gangs or he is off’d in the first thirty minutes.

And the Don. They are all based off of someone’s impression of Dawood. The Don is usually Quiet. Not quiet, but Quiet. All you see of him is one look, one nod, one wave of the hand. And maybe a nasal voice. They mess this up with Don Corleone sometimes, and you get Sarkaar. In that, the Don does everything silently. He manages to communicate everything from an execution order to intense desire in one look. It was fascinating when Brando did it, but when Amitabh Bachchan does it, it is plain overdone.

When bad guys were the protagonists in Satya, it was new and refreshing. Now it’s the same old grind, same old glorification of gore and violence. It feels fake after the third or fourth time. The roles get written as chores, not as a genuine feeling in someone’s heart.

The books are insightful. You’ve never heard of half the crazy things that happened. The stories are exciting. They touch on politics, history, social dynamics, and are just plain fun. But it’s obvious they aren’t Hussain Zaidi’s own perspective. They are dramatized versions of stories someone tells him, and they seem to tell him the Bollywood masala versions of those stories. And you kind of empathize with him putting those stories out there – he’ll be bumped off if he doesn’t, it feels like. After all, in Mafia Queens of Mumbai, he very conveniently skips Dawood’s sister Haseena Parkar who died only recently.

Contrast with the Kannada versions. The movies are based each on one incident in the book. And they get as de-glam as they get. No convenient camera angles, minimal swearing, no women showing tons of skin. No flashy gangsters. And best of all,  the most it goes to ‘silent don’ is Atul Kulkarni gently telling the hotheaded male protagonist, ‘Anger must always be a positive emotion’.

And yet, at something as benign as ‘I’m Sridhar Murthy, Advocate’, you find your hair stand on end.

The book…. the book is something else. I don’t have enough words for it, but I’ll try. First of all, hardly anyone gets into crime solely because of poverty. Rowdyism is not glorified, but at the same time not vilified either. The tone is very matter-of-fact. You hear shady stuff about everyone in Karnataka public life and politics. Most of the rowdies even have day jobs. And cult nicknames as well.

Various con schemes are elaborated on. Violence is not the first resort, and killing is certainly more plotted than actually carried out. And, heck, the police even keep their integrity and power for the most part.

And that, everybody, is the difference between a crime novel written by the fanboys of a Don, and one written by the Don himself.

Agni Sridhar survived the rule of two dons of Bangalore, Kotwal Ramachandra and Jayaraj, and was second-in-command to Muthappa Rai, before couping him out of town and pretty much being the Don. Until finally he decides he has enough and reforms. And starts the tabloid Agni.

The other difference between Agni Sridhar and Hussain Zaidi? Sridhar studied Law. His bag on stakeouts had two ‘long’ swords and two books. He read extensively. He moved in the same circles as Lankesh (one of his first arrests was for beating up Gowri Lankesh’s stalker) and counted among his friends professors at Bangalore University. Hussain Zaidi… in a talk he gave once, he said reportage is not about the writing ability, and that he didn’t know to write in English when he first came to Mumbai. As much as we like to think that doesn’t make a difference, it does.

It’s not about the language. Agni Sridhar’s book was translated from Kannada. But he is a born raconteur. The tales are told matter-of-factly. Each bit is narrated with so much insight and understanding. Though it is a first-person account, it has a third-person detachment to it, none of the dramatization or strong emotion.

It’s a good read, a fun read. More so if you are from South Bangalore. The nooks and corners I grew up around, they were used for shady meetings upon shady meetings. A restaurant a stone’s throw from where I lived was planned by Muthappa Rai to be the scene of Sridhar’s murder.

He speaks out against Kannada tabloids glamorizing rowdyism when in reality it wasn’t anything like that. And how it led to him eventually starting his own. There’s tidbits on famous journalists like Tejsaswini Gowda and HR Ranganath. And pages about Ravi Belagere. And about how he tried convincing BC Patil to stick to policing and not do movies. A ‘senior’ Swamiji at Siddaganga Mutt paying him to ‘off’ the ‘junior’ Swamiji.

Preying on and extorting homosexuals in Krishna Rao park in the ’80s. Roughing up couples around Bugle Rock and robbing them. Using a fake currency racket as a front and conning people.

And the best ever twist? Sridhar gets into a life of crime because Kotwal’s men broke his brother’s leg for no reason. The brother on the other hand studies well and becomes a cop. Such a successful cop that even in 2012, there were issues about posting him to Kumaraswamy Layout police station as his ex-don brother was living in the same area and was involved in several land deals.

The movies are made by Sumana Kittur, who seems an out and out bold village girl, the sort that Sridhar seems to respect a lot (He says that glowingly about Tejaswini Gowda). Given her background and how quickly she got taken under Sridhar’s wing when she gets to Bangalore, it feels like he’s been ghost-directing the movies anyway. And doing a better job than RGV and Mahesh Bhatt put together.

True crime fiction’s got a long way to go in India. For now, the ones that are going to be popular as hell are going to be Hussain Zaidi’s, because they are so influential, and about Mumbai. But Agni Sridhar’s account is better than any I’ve ever come across, a true first-hand account. Zaidi says he’s the first one to put together an account of the Mumbai underworld, and I still wish there had been someone as sharp as Sridhar to write about it than Zaidi who simply compiles accounts.

Read them all. But start with Zaidi and move on to Sridhar. Start with the movies and move on to the books. You’ll appreciate them all well that way.

Posted in Bangalore, movies, Review | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Vote for the funny fellas at Mindry.In.

I’ve been a longtime fangirl of anything that Mindry.In comes up with. I love the sense of humor that Harish and Arjun from there have, and would love to see more of it out in the world than just as private jokes and videos shared among a few thousand of us.

You remember Rashmi Bansal? She’s come up with this pretty nice concept. Publish a couple of chapters of a book on a blog, have people vote on it, and the ones with the most votes get published as physical books. Nice, no?

So Arjun and Harish have their book, India 2020  – Exodus to Utopia up there. It’s a really good book, a really nice and complete history of India, its politics, politicians, movies, sports and whatever else there is to summarize about India. Being the modest South Bangaloreans that they are, they are shy to promote themselves. Irrespective, do a good deed, and read the book here.  It won’t be entirely unselfish of you either, because those are some damn funny chapters excerpted out there. Do read, and do vote for their book.

This book in bookstores would make a lot of folks very happy. Help them  get there!

Posted in Attempts at Humour | Leave a comment

Thoughts about Indra Nooyi having it all

Indra Nooyi, as is usual for women in any position of power, talked about having it all and how she doesn’t have it all. One telling anecdote was when she came home after being anointed CEO of PepsiCo and her mother asked her to go get milk because no matter what she is professionally, she is still a wife and mother. You can read that and other gems in this article here.

Some thoughts…

* If my parents read this article, they’d probably say ‘See? She’s the CEO and still listens to her mother. You, hardly a stripling, talk back to us’, only half jokingly. Yeah, talking back to your mom is so easy, someone still in school can do it.

* Why would you care what your mother thinks when you are the CEO of something? Unless you are Rajinikanth in Mannan, that is. I don’t mean in the “hurr durr I’m the boss” way, but you’ll have a little magnanimity to empathize with what people say if you got that high up? At least enough to not have it affect you enough to put it in a book years later?

* My parents ask me to run errands. Me being the lazy non dutiful daughter whine and wriggle out of them. That’s likely why I’m not CEO material.

* Was this very unlike her usually supportive mother that she was shocked? In which case you must have a large enough heart to forget this bit which is insignificant compared to her large body of supportive actions. If this was her mother’s usual attitude, she should have developed a thick skin by then. Either way, offering this incident without context seems very unfair to her mother.

* For every such Lucille Bluth mom, there are a hundred other mothers who for the entire duration of 10th to 12th make sure their kids never have to do any chores other than prepare for exams and entrance exams.

* Given the sort of misogyny I saw at NITK, I can’t help feeling her husband being an alumnus is somehow connected to not having it all. No, that’s actually being very unfair to male NITK alumni. But… You my get my point.

* What is this having it all? Girls of my generation dreamt of full time jobs because financial independence and freedom from having to play dutiful daughter in law were things our mothers didn’t have and made it a point to tell us so on every available occasion. We aren’t all CEOs (yet), but we sure don’t think the joy of parenting makes up for lost professional opportunities.

* Would staying home have made Nooyi a better mom? Judging by her mother, I’d guess no.

* My mother sacrificed career for family. But I was a latchkey kid for more than a few years. How? Because my mother was away taking care of my dying grandfather. I wouldn’t see her for days at a stretch. Yeah no, not all those who opt to be stay at home moms are able to devote full attention to their children.

* Oh, and my father sacrificed career for family as well – he turned down several opportunities involving travel to be able to take care of his ailing parents. Why, several male friends of mine want to drop lucrative careers in the West to go back home and take care of their families. Somehow these sacrifices never find a mention anywhere.

* Somehow, the only people I find feeling guilty about not being good mothers are urban, racially privileged, upper middle class women in first world countries. For my maid back home, she doesn’t have the luxury to think twice to leave her kids behind with her parents in their village while she and her husband toil in the city.

* Why is dinner mother’s responsibility? Make the kids help? Several of my mornings were spent whining while cutting vegetables before getting ready for school, while my mother complained about the tomatoes not being chopped fine enough. Others I grew up with did similarly. These women CEOs seem to pamper their kids silly.

* Upper East Side moms seem to palm off child rearing to nannies and don’t seem to die of guilt. Why can’t West Coast CEO moms do the same?

* What annoying child calls her busy mother for permission to play Nintendo? My sister and I did as we pleased, played rough, broke vases, spilled food, but knew enough to clean up before our parents got home. And finished our homework and studied for tests because Amma and Appa would whoop us if we messed up. There was one family friend whose kids wouldn’t let her have a moment of peace. In the days of landlines, when their mother would visit mine, they would repeatedly call whining about the second born wanting to poop, about the first born drinking juice from the fridge…. I know not all children are easy. But at least try to train them?

* What stupid school is this her daughter goes to where mothers are expected to come in every week? How annoying and embarrassing it must be to have your teacher and mother meet in front of all your friends every week.

* If this and other articles are to be believed, everyone before this generation was born to twenty year old stay at home mothers who made dinner every day. My great-aunt worked in the sessions court, her sister in law was some high ranking government official, another great-aunt was a surgeon… And after her husband’s death, my great-great aunt was a cook and nanny in America and South East Asia while her sons stayed with relatives in India…. There were several other ladies who had to work after their husbands suffered poor health or passed away. And my family isn’t even one of those ones where all the women are overachievers and liberated. We were just a lower middle class family trying to get by. These jobs were out of necessity. And they managed fine with husbands and children. Maybe not as fine as we’d like, but certainly not how much Slate, the Atlantic and Salon want us to worry about these decisions.

* If you’re a woman reading this… Chances are, you’re doing just fine. You can rise pretty high in your career if you want, you can have children when you want, and most likely your family will be proud of your achievements. Yeah, you’ll hit a few roadblocks, you’ll be discouraged, you’ll come across misogyny, but overall, there isn’t anyone out there conspiring for you to fail. You can go about your life without much worry. Feminism has a long way to go, but several paths have already been cleared for us.

* Indra Nooyi is an old dingbat on the verge of retirement. Her mother is from an even earlier generation. Are you really going to let a random incident between two ancient relics affect your perception of where women stand in this country, and disregard the miles of progress we’ve made in the sixty years of Nooyi’s lifetime?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

English, August – A Decade Later

Earlier today, I was watching Kevin Spacey’s Shipping News. It’s about a guy who moves to Newfoundland and builds a new life after his wife’s death and his parents’ suicide.

It reminded me of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August. Strange, because English, August is quite the reverse. It’s about existential crisis encountered on moving to a new town and a new job. The protagonist is also very, very cynical, quite unlike Kevin Spacey in Shipping News, who is just trying to put behind the demons of his past, and the movie is themed on rebirth.

The book had a strong, strong grip on me in college. I bought it just before I moved to NITK on a whim, because I liked the title and Rahul Bose on the cover with a frog. It was one of the few books I’d brought along with me when I first moved to Surathkal. I read it cover to cover, over and over again. It riveted me in a way nothing I’d read before had. Why, I even mentioned it on this blog more than a few times as a book that has influenced me a lot.

When I started at NITK, I was a cynical big city girl who’d seen and read way too much to be happy in a small town. Back then, I hadn’t yet understood that I was really a loner and that rooms full of people weren’t where I naturally thrived. I missed my friends, boys and girls who shared my dry sense of humor, were outraged at the same things I outraged at, liked Tamil movies but wouldn’t be caught dead watching a Rajinikanth-starrer…… the works.

So August Sen appealed to me. Surathkal felt to me as desolate as Madna, and the attempts people made to have a life there felt fake to me, like the semblance of a social life felt to August. I felt little if any passion for things. The cynical way with which Agastya regarded the people he met seemed a good, almost defensive way to understand the horde of new people I was meeting without having to get too involved. Like how August had cleared the IAS exam and was stuck in a rural area wondering ‘now what?’, I was wondering if I was cut out for engineering after clearing the AIEEE. The ladies at the GB Mess were analogous to Vasant and his terrible cooking.

Things changed a lot since then. I realized I could love computer science. I fell in with a group of people with whom I could be myself, and today, though most of them don’t keep in touch with each other, I keep in touch with all of them.

But what did not change was that every year or two for the past decade, I’d move to yet another desolate place without charm and fun people, where everyone around me stayed friends because there was no one else, where there were fun things the people I worked or studied with wouldn’t do because it was infra-dig to them, but instead try to create a substitute world of their own that somehow was never as fun as I’d like. I’d always feel cloistered, and always feel like it was a temporary situation and I didn’t want to waste time getting comfortable because, what was the point, I’d have to do it all over again. There was an air of helplessness and inability to change my life situation.

However, I’d decided by my final year at NITK, that English, August‘s effect was me was akin to cannabis, and decided I shouldn’t be letting it affect my world view so much. I had gotten comfortable with my armchair cynicism so much that I wasn’t motivated to break out of the rut it had gotten me into, much like the lethargy and complacence that marijuana smokers say come with some strains. I decided no matter how boring or irritable or terrible the situation I was in, I would have to at least attempt to add some value to my own life from it, instead of twiddling my thumbs.

I took my dog-eared copy of English, August (which by then had had its spine broken), home and relegated it to the back of my bookshelf. I could have chosen to take it along with me when I moved to Irvine, but I didn’t. I relived Madna over and over again, and each time it made a little more sense than the last, and affected me even lesser. I wasn’t looking for my Delhi in my Madna anymore, and I wasn’t looking for my Dhrubo in every person I met. The phrases from the book I remembered like the lyrics to a Rebecca Black song didn’t anymore spring to mind and make me laugh. I learnt to find joy in every city I lived in, and finally gained enough control of my life to not have to go to cities I knew I wouldn’t be happy in, because no matter how hard I tried, I can’t get the better of the loner city slicker in me who feels most comfortable with the anonymity of crowded public places and hidden bookstores.

So, I did move on from the rut my cynicism got me into. The cynicism itself though…. I like to say I’m in the throes of Cynicism 2.0. I have a genuine appreciation for honest efforts and emotions. I don’t really believe what people say about themselves anymore, no matter how honest, because people don’t see themselves the way I would see them. And I’m cynical and skeptical about my own words as well… I don’t assume what I’ve just said is unique to me anymore. My cynicism has been tempered with a healthy pragmatism and bias to getting things done.

I wonder what my life would have been without English, August though. I mean, what would have happened if I’d picked up Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey that day instead? I wouldn’t have taken it to NITK for sure. Would I have been more of a pessimist or less? Would I have been able to cope with the disappointment and disillusionment as well? I don’t know.

So after I was done with the uplifting Shipping News today, I googled, as I’d done occasionally over the years, for ‘watch online english august’. I’ve done this in the past for other Indie movies, and have managed to find and watch most of them, but English, August? Nope. No success. I’m even willing to pay for a DVD But all there is this teasing line on Dev Benegal’s blog  and no follow up.

I really enjoyed watching Road, Movie and wonder what a younger Mr. Benegal did with my favorite book, how he communicated the feeling of desolation and being misunderstood as well as the book. I like Rahul Bose a lot and wonder what he was like early on in his career. And the rest of the cast don’t agree with what I’d imagined the characters to look like, to the point where I’m really interested with the director’s interpretations of them.

Do I want to watch the movie? Ten years ago, I really did want to. Then for a while in the middle, I didn’t, because I didn’t want to ruin the book for me. But now, I’ve gone back to really wanting to, because not only do I wonder how such a philosophical journey is communicated in a film script, but also because I wonder if it all will still make sense to me.

I’m kind of afraid it will.

Posted in analysis, Flashback, movies, Priya's Travails, Reading | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments