Jul 28, 2008

Notes on The Road

Camus, beckett, orwell, burgess, atwood and sometimes even joseph conrad. Cormac mcarthy’s 2007 pulitzer prize winning ‘the road’ reminded me of the works of the above authors & then some more. Western authors have been preoccupied with the end of the world & I don’t think mcarthy’s novel is unique for the way he treats the same. No, he pretty much says what we’d have imagined from any able author. It is in the way he goes about describing the savage destruction that follows such end that the novel derives its power, “The mummied dead everywhere. Their flesh cloven along the bones, the ligaments dried to tug & taut as wires. …they were discalced to a man like pilgrims of some common order for their shoes were long since stolen.” Not only does a sense of ‘nothingness’ pervade the tale, it’s accompanied by a continuous sense of foreboding, threat & danger for this is a world where houses and supermarkets have been ransacked and abandoned by the remaining survivors; shriveled bodies lie, unburied, in aabndoned homes; packs of men in gas masks wielding pipes roam the countryside, cannibalizing and raping. It is a nightmare world in which the little boy’s sudden joy at discovering dungeon full of naked people quickly turns into the terrifying realisation that they are captives, fodder for cannibilsation. He asks anxiously, "We wouldn't ever eat anybody, would we?" His question shows the doubts that gnaw deep. He knows his father to be a fair & loving man & yet in the nightmare world they exhibit there is only that much he can take for granted, including his father's good nature. It’s as if the very foundations of piety & compassion have been uprooted for all times & the old order that celebrated & rewarded goodness has been cast aside.

An unknown holocaust, nuclear probably, has laid to waste all of humanity. So much so that when the man comes across an old newspaper, "the frailty of everything revealed at last. Old & troublng issues resolved into nothingness & night........ The curious news, the quaint concerns" are exposed for what they currently are. Nothing, in a sea of eternal nothingness.

The apocalypse itself is dismissed easily: “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of concussions.” This Orwellian reference is all we are offered. Why or how it happened is never revealed. Faced with such devastation, it’s cause is irrelevant. Another detail is cleverly inserted. This was when the boy was born & for all meaningful purposes, beauty, brotherhood & love are things he has never witnessed & ought to have no idea of. But it is not so. He is the strongest voice of reason & compassion in the novel & must clearly have imbibed these from the father & therein lies the magic of Mcarthy’s book. The boy has no early refernces of humanity to guide him save from what his father has taught.The man's tragedy is of a different order. He still struggles with the memory of a world that he once knew - “the names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colours. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. The sacred idion shorn of its referneces & so of its reality."

While the macabre vision is unremmitting in its impact, it is balanced & soothed by the bond between the man & his son, who is the metaphorical carrier of the flame, “you have to carry the fire." If there is no hope in this new order, the man is unshakable in his faith that they have to carry on till they reach the coast. What is truly amazing is the way we wish him success despite our comprehension that nothing much may change even when they reach their destination. It’s no promised land for sure & no hope has been dangled before us. Yet, for the man it is imperative that they boy carry on, even when he knows his own end is near:

"Keep the gun with you at all times. You need to find the good guys but you cant take chances. ....you have to carry the fire.
i dont know how to."
yes you do.
is it real? the fire?
yes it is.
where is it? i dont know where it is.
yes you do. it's inside you. it was always there. i can see it.”

The number of things he does for the boy, the sheer effort that goes into it - whether it is washing the dried blood frm his hair at the end of a long & tiring day, wrapping his feet in the blue tarp which is their only means of shelter, offering him the last bit of cocoa, or"kicking holes in the sand for the boys hip & shoulders where he would sleep & he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it" - it is these moments that balance this harsh & biting narrative of endless starvation, hardships, death & devastation.

Early on in the novel when he fears they may be attacked & raped or cannibalized by the marauders, the man still cannot bring himself to shoot his son as he’d intended. Even here his first thought is always for the son. "No crying now. You know how to do it. You put it in your mouth & point it up. Do it quick & hard." This is where the levy is breached; that it has come to this, after all that they have been through. This abject hoplessness is what makes 'The Road' so unbearable & yet so uplifting. That a father has to say this to his son, this most perverted reversal of filial responsibility, is what lends a burning pain & rage to this novel. Yet there is hope for he says. "I was going to run. To try & lead them away. But i cant leave you." To kill the boy would be to accept defeat; to deny that even when the external markers of civilisation are long gone, there is a Being that justifies goodness and humanity & a moral code that prohibits stealing, that makes eating ones own kind a heinous act, no matter how compelling the circumstances. It is only right that he belives, “That the child was his only warrant. ..if he is not the word of God, God never spoke.” To witness such beauty in language is nothing short of a miracle.

As the man painstakingly carries on the Sisyphian struggle for existence & meaning in an irrational & Godless universe, he knows there are some ‘good guys’ left & to find them is the journey that comprises his life. He knows that danger & barbarity are never far behind & yet those are not the things he has schooled his son about. To leave the world a better place than you found it, to make even a grain of difference, marks the distance between the beginning & the end. When the boy plays his make shift flute, it’s left to us to decide whether it’s “a formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin.'' This extraordinary fable has shown us which one it is.

Jul 22, 2008

Money Woes

i am a semi-regular reader of their blog. for all those academics & investment bankers who ridiculed levitt & dubner's highly engagings freakonomics, the book found its own fan following amongst people like me who are interested in matters beyond salma hayek's latest heartbreak or amy winehouse' hubby's recent jail sentence. even as i freaked out on the book, i realised that much of the deductions reeked of over simplification but that mattered not an iota. the reason is simple. i'd not even have cast a cursory glance if it was the stuff of ricardo's 'essay on profits'. Books like 'Freakonomics' or 'The Undercover Economist' serve the purpose of educating readers who'd otherwise have never given a thought to the corruption prevalent in the chicago public school system, the interesting conundrum of adult drug dealers still living at home with their parents & much more that the book covers. in short, the close relationship between human behavior and incentive & how much of today's crime can be controlled by studying this close connection.

reading this today set me
thinking whether what dubner is proposing here is really the correct answer to all our economic woes. i like what he says, only am less than convinced of its efficacy. extending his logic, i can also argue that schools should also teach legal affairs, that civics or political science should be more than the poor cousin who's always lumped together with 'history' in school curriculum.

i think the problem abt poor financial literacy is not so much a matter of poor education than it is of poor methodology. even when students are taught abt the basics of compound interest, they are never encouraged to apply it in their lives. also, the essential dryness of the subject & its requirement of basic mathematical ability drives women away. since it is women who are largely responsible for managing the household budget, we all know its ramifications.

of all the female relatives & friends i possess, there is not one with whom i have discussed the recent stock market crash or the chances of bridging my home loan & investing in a new property. mind you, most of them are perched pretty high on the corporate ladder & definitely have a lot more moolah at their disposal than i currently do. many have most of their money languishing in checking accounts earning no interest at all. i think one of the reasons for my interest stems frm the fact that i was brought up by a man who'd explained abt assam's double freight policy, inflation, how the war in pakistan would hurt sugar prices much before i'd even started buying my own stocks. even today, i possess but lil more than a rudimentary knowledge of such matters but i strive to understand stuff beyond the chaucer or dickens i so enjoy. also the idea of there being 'topics' that are beyond the ken of women has always seemed grossly insulting to me.

though i got all three of lusardi's questions right, i am no wiz at great investing. i think the basics of money should appeal to anyone who wants to live a good life. if i ask myself why i cannot afford a house in bandra i will be forced to find ways & means of investing my money wisely so that it earns better. it's just a matter of being aware that investing in an MF pays bettter than letting the money sit in a savings account at 4%. with an MF u dont even have to strain ur eyes checking the prices of TCS & IPCL everytime they flash across the ticker on CNBC! so, more than knowledge, its just being smart.

lastly, financial literacy has no impact unless it is coupled with a fundamental shift in the way society things & functions. forget financial education, a majority of indians have never even been to school. yet, debt is a bigger prolem in the u.s than back home. even among the 20-something youngsters who comprise the BPO crowd in india, debt & credit card defaults are still alien concepts. indians primarily are a 'savings' oriented people. our burts of consumerism are balanced by a social system where one is forced to save for his/her own house or pay for their parents' treatment or sister's marriage. there is simply no choice. this puts the brakes on instant gratification. stricter penalties for corporations for misleading customers or overextending themsleves & more stringent bankruptcy laws might solve some of the problems america is witnessing today.

the recent american elections are also an eye opener abt the way people perceive the urgency of the economic crisis looming large. despite all our concerns abt money, we still choose our elected representatives based on the emotions they generate & not on sound economic principals. most american economists argue that ron paul should have been the presidential nominee. conversely, i am not sure that having candidates who are well versed in economic fundamentals is the answer to our financial woes. even manmohan singh, sound economist that he is said to be, didn't really make headlines for pushing the disinvestment process or cushioning the inflation that is now said to be accelerating higher than it has in 13 years.

Jul 18, 2008

Notes on Blue Umbrella

there is nothing extraordinary abt vishal bharadwaj's 'Blue Umbrella' save its awesome background music and mesmerizing cinematography & both stand out in the viewers' mind. in fact i'm pretty much sure it's not going to send the cash registers ringing, not least of all because it doesn't have much to say to today's audiences by way of a story.

unlike the west, indian audiences are way too immature to sit back & enjoy a film for other elements besides the story. narrative is all important in bollywood, never mind that it can be as asinine or as oft-repeated as u can imagine. it'll be ages before we'll begin to accept the likes of 'No Smoking'. mind you, BU is anything as self indulgent or bizarre as NS. no, thats not what i'm saying at all.

sure BU has a thin storyline, the likes of which will resonate in the mind of anyone who grew up on a staple diet of aesop's fables, tales from the panchatantra, the parables of sri ramkrishna or the hundreds of other tales that chiefly comprised kiddy literature before the advent of j.k.rowling. recurring themes in all these tales were that of good triumphing over evil, of forgiveness being greater than revenge or suffering being the true path to salvation. so there's not much by way of a storyline - no edge of the seat suspense, no witty punchlines and no great music.

yet the film worked for me & the other person i watched it with and that's not simply because the umbrella in the story is a metaphor for the unattainable, for power, or perfection, or something that is outside the realm of the mundane. methinks the film's power lies in its simplicity & the way it plays with itself. the repeated snapshots of first biniya & then nandkishore posing with the umbrella, or the wide-eyed villagers gazing at the umbrella with apt adoration & often lust are all scenes that are beyond the reality we are accustomed to. it is immaterial to argue that things are no longer this way in the villages of india, that its denizens no longer as innocent, as untouched by big-city fashion as depicted in the film.

the villagers' obsession with the umbrella, the unraveling of the plot behind the umbrella's sudden disappearance & the suffering that is visited upon nandkishore which leads to his ultimate redemption are all ploys to drive home the moral in this fable & while doing so they also arouse some powerful emotions. for me good cinema touches upon concerns that are universal and strokes my feelings. any film, no matter how intelligent (mullhollands drive), that leaves me cold & uninvolved is not a great film by my yardstick. even the most cliched film is good, if not great, if it has the power to move me even upon watching it for a second time (kal ho na ho.)

finally, pankaj kapur, the actor who one wishes never dies, never stops delivering such performances, too few & too far in b/w as they are, for they at least affirm that there remain actors who can move u to tears with the faintest trace of an embarrassed smile & a sideward glance (the scene where he is teased by the others at the barber's roadside stall post his fall from grace.) man, words fail to express the hollowness that he feels deep inside, the spiritual isolation that he choose when he decided to indulge in something that he knew to be utterly wrong.

it is also important to understand that in the scheme of things nandkishore's crime is but a mere travesty. in the world we know people get away with much more. again seriousness of the crime is not in question here. it is a man bartering his soul for something that's priceless to him. a story as old as paradise lost or faust or dorian grey. stealing in itself is not a very grave crime but in nandkishore's world it assumes gargantuan implications because he believes it is wrong; that it is wrong to covet that which is not yours is the first rule he learned at school, he admits.

time and again i am humbled & grateful by the power of art to soothe & comfort us in our darkest hours. despite the madness raging in the world outside, good art is the single beacon of hope that shines bright & affirms our faith in the power of human goodness like nothing else does.

Jul 7, 2008

Notes on In Bruges

watching Martin McDonagh's debut film 'in bruges' last night reminded me of johny gaddar, the best noir film to have emerged from bollywood. in both films we are presented with bad men who we end up rooting for, who we wish are alive & escape the consequences of their actions at the film's close. but it is here that the similarity ends. while in the hindi film the lead character is responsible for the ensuing tragedy & is given choices that could have averted the disaster, the tragedy in 'In Bruges' arises not so much out of the characters' actions as out of the circumstances they are thrown in the midst of. i think mention should be made here of that other superb film i saw this year, 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead' which is also similar to johny gaddar & equally tragic. returning to 'in bruges', McDonagh brilliantly makes use of the medieval belgian town from which the film derives its title. also noteworthy is carter burwell's slow piano score.

Ken & Ray (brendan gleeson & colin farell) are guns for hire who are ordered to lie low in the quaint flemish town & enjoy the sights after a shooting goes awry & Ray ends up accidentally killing a small boy. the incident has changed both men more than they care to admit & the consequences of which we witness as the film unfolds. dogged by guilt & yet striving hard to function as if nothing has changed, both men react in different ways to the beauty of the canals, the gothic architecture & the dark paintings of heironymous bosch. while the artistically inclined, gentler & subtler Ken endlessly peruses guide books & exclaims enthusiastically, "this is the best preserved medieval town in belgium', the younger, restless & guilt wracked Ray rants, hurls profanities & insults, & in general behaves like one of the loud insensitive americans he so despises. his never ending twitches & relentless complaints about the 'shithole' they have been thrown in doesn't hide the fact that here is a man who talks & eats & walks simply to avoid facing the silence that is always nearby to engulf his soul. how can he find peace when everything he sees or does reminds him of the child whose life he snuffed out. respite comes in the form of the pretty chloe (Clémence Poésy), but here too complications abound in the form of a possessive ex-bf who nurses a grouse against Ray who blinds him during a scuffle.

what is brilliant about this film is the clever way the director uses bruges to exile his characters & develop them. both men are far removed from the life they usually lead & the things they would ordinarily do & this gives them an odd freedom; one which they aren't even aware of. cribbing about the single room they have to share, the endless wait for their mentor harry's (ralph fiennes) call, they don't know that they are changing in ways unbeknownst to them, that they will behave in a manner that contradicts the basic tenets of self interest, the only code a contract killer abides by. it is in bruges that they have the luxury to step back & reexamine what they are & what they have made of their lives, and if it is possible to be something else.

there is a lot of absurd humor in this film, the kind that cannot be easily labeled 'dark'. Ray's obsession with midgets & eventual friendship with one plays out in a climax that is oddly touching, a deserving untangling of the different skeins the film throws out. while we are quite accustomed to films like babel, 21 grams & eternal sunshine where disparate narrative threads & people are shown to be connected in unusual & tenuous ways, the action here is less random. it is only fitting that the same people cross each others paths in the central square of a small town; not much happenstance there.

eugene of neil, that great carrier of irish guilt which he communicated so achingly through his plays once said, "Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue". here too the broken ready themselves for His grace by their final acts of righteousness & justice, no matter how damaged they are or how far they have strayed.