Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Petitioning Parents

Confined as I’ve been to my home over the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to strike up an unexpected acquaintance. With M______ and S______, ages 1 and a quarter and seven respectively, neighbours and frequent visitors who pound on our door (they cannot reach our doorbell) in the pursuit of chocolate biscuits and fruit shaped candy. Their mother indulges these transgressions.

These kids are essentially the definition of adorable.

M lunges for things she likes the look of, including objects many times her size, hurtles around our house like a pint-sized cannonball, is by turns peremptory and charming, and knows her mind.

S is bright, capable of simultaneously holding conversations and keeping an eye on her sibling, well-behaved and interested in clay dough. She attends an expensive and allegedly excellent school, affiliated to the international IGCSE and IB boards.

As far as these children's lives are concerned, I’m nothing but a benign bystander. But as I encounter their personalities and enthusiasms in the course of our everyday interactions, I find myself hoping that both manage to escape the fate of being Socialized by School, their quirks and kinks ironed away in the pursuit of grades and scholastic success, with just the prescribed dosage of extracurricular activities thrown in.

I have less than a handful of friends who are parents, with their daughters yet to reach a year. Already, they worry about how to protect their children from an educational system that emphasizes only one kind of achievement, while also ensuring that the girls get a sound foundation and developmental head-start for their later lives.  

What I, non-parent and disinterested observer of (almost all) children am yet to grasp is why this ‘start’ needs to begin at months ten and twelve and eighteen. I hear about projects being assigned to two year olds, of toddlers being asked to learn that A stands for astronaut and auto-rickshaw and not just apple, of pre-school admissions testing and coaching for these self-same tests. And I wonder why we, as a generation and a society (or both) feel so compelled to 'instruct' and 'improve' our most curious and malleable minds. I understand that there’s a line that connects high school to college, but do we really need to stretch that line all the way back to pre-school and play-school? Why infect our children with our anxieties? Why can’t we trust in their resilience and native intelligence and ability to make their own way through the world, at least till ages three and four and five?

As a child, I thought of my infant cousins as life-size sources of amusement. As an adult, I appreciate children as people-in-the-making. And I’d love for the making to break the mould. Parents, please. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Looking for Loops

I first heard of Roger Ebert during an undergraduate class on film appreciation. I'd signed up for the extra credits, for the chance to watch good, even great movies, to use my afternoons differently than I normally did. I remember being bemused by 'Alien' and 'West Side Story' and enchanted by 'Cinema Paradiso' and 'Red' - all reliable film class staples. At the end of the course, the instructors handed out a list of must-watch classics as a parting gift of sorts. For a short time, I dutifully referred back to this list and scratched movies off it, one at a time. I signed up with a local DVD library.

I lost that list. I retain and renew my library membership. 

I don't love the movies. Never have, and probably never will. But that class made a vital difference in that it made it difficult for me to watch a movie mindlessly. I began to want time spent with a movie to be time well spent. And Ebert's online archive became my port of call in making movie-viewing choices. 

I don't know about regional language publications in India, but intelligent and reliable critique of cinema in the mainstream English papers is hard to find, and has been, for a while. Our critics - and here I use the term very loosely indeed - are content to summarize plots and sub-plots, chalk up marks for acting, and share a wink-wink-nudge-nudge quip or two with their readers. Apart from Nandini Ramnath at the Mint Lounge (and occasionally, the Mint), there is no one who seems to write about cinema with authority and a keen eye. There are a few writers of books about our actors and our movies, but many of our critics are essentially glorified trade analysts.

Ebert's insightful reviews weren't exactly revelatory, but his was criticism of popular cinema unlike any I'd previously encountered - considered, full of depth, but also unexpectedly warm. Those reviews read like conversations, and I trusted Ebert's judgment. I began to read what he had to say about movies I had already seen or had decided to see, and I trawled through his 'Two Thumbs Up' reviews to figure out what to see next. Reading what Ebert had to say felt like a worthwhile way to open (or close) the loop on a movie. Reading about him in Esquire's acclaimed feature and following him on Twitter only helped cement my admiration of a writer who seemed to be clever and kind and who seemed to be writing about movies while hinting at everything else. 

Even so, why write about Ebert, for no particular reason, roughly 16 months after he has passed away? Because I've spent the last two days greedily paging through his memoir, 'Life Itself,' and I have a renewed appreciation for his skills as a writer, for the range of his experiences, for the catholicity of his tastes. Ebert's book is peopled with characters, newspapermen, actors and eccentrics like they were meant to be - one-of-kind, funny, handsome, odd, twinkling, irascible. He starts the book by saying that his life felt like a movie, and just even reading his memories, twice removed, I get the feeling that I have wandered onto the set of an indie movie old friends are making just for fun. No one expects much from it except for the joy of making it, but it's destined to strike a chord and make millions nonetheless.  

And in the way my mind always seems to work, I begin to wonder - where are our eccentrics, now? The flamboyant, the odd, the discerning, the discriminating, the colorful and carefully colorless, the dispensers of bon mots, charming compliments and devastating put downs? Looking around me, browsing our papers and magazines, visiting restaurants and cafes and pubs that are perennially crowded, why does it feel like everyone is Beautiful People but no one is genuinely cool? We have celebrities, page three doyennes, wannabes, hipsters, creased and idealistic jhola-wallahs but who is it that's playing against type? We have all the affectations and props but who has the personality? The impractical ideas? The out of date wardrobe? Surely we do not count among our eccentrics members of the fashionable set that preen for style-spotting blogs at the Hyatt during Fashion Week?  

I worry sometimes that in doing what we are supposed to do, taking one step after another, connecting the dots, we're becoming linear and flat. Losing our texture and a-tonalities. I don't mean to say this is a generation without bright and brilliant minds and wonderful people, of course not. But somewhere among the entrepreneurs, TEDx conveners, juvenile wonders, elfin women with pixie cuts, glamour dolls of both sexes, the annoyingly earnest and absolutely certain, the reliably tepid or tempestuous, I would love, love, love to encounter someone authentically intriguing, someone who throws me for a loop. Oscar Wilde. Beau Brummell. Dorothy Parker. Circa 2014.

It's a long way to travel from film appreciation class. I guess. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

About Time

In the one month since I first broke my foot, things happened that I didn't entirely expect. I found that modern medicine wasn't quite fixing broken bones at warp speed yet, that using crutches was surprisingly demanding, that my city was littered - peppered - with threats to anyone past their ambulatory prime, that (some) people were more courteous and considerate than I would have expected, and that time worked differently than I had thought. 

I realised that it was, in fact, possible to spend whole days doing very little. That taking minutes to hobble very short distances between points A and B changed my appreciation for what was waiting for me at the end of these bite-sized journeys - a meal, a conversation, a caffeinated beverage. Moving slowly for the first time in my life, I began to understand why speed might, in fact, be overrated. 

Why do we value doing things quickly quite as much as we seem to? What psychological prop does  our in-built sense of urgency provide? Why do we cling to self-imposed deadlines while claiming to abhor and labour reluctantly under them? Once it becomes apparent that our personal worlds don't quite crumble when we give ourselves a little temporal leeway, it becomes harder to justify our perpetual time-crunching, task-juggling dance. 

I work in an industry in which clients want everything 'as of yesterday.' My peers and I often watch, indignantly, as files and reports put together overnight drift between us and them in inbox limbo, to be accessed only days - even weeks - later. 

It's almost as if prioritising and postponing have become cop-outs. As if we trust neither ourselves, nor others, to get anything done if the requirement isn't etched out somewhere in bold, honking letters with the words 'NOW' attached. As if, lacking the distraction of induced urgency, we might actually start reasoning and questioning and wondering whether what we're doing might be done better, or indeed, needs doing at all. Where would that leave us? With time on our hands. And the sense that we should probably find something worthwhile to do with it. 

Just a theory. Now that I have the time.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Setting Us Up, to Fall Short

If the past week has taught me anything, it's to make my peace with the unexpected and faintly ironic. How else does one account for the fact that a sedentary soul such as myself manages to sprain her foot right outside her front door, while wearing safe and sturdy, ergonomically certified wedges? And that the sprain turns out to be much more, namely a fracture calling for surgery? And that, after months of wanting a break, I find myself confined to traveling the short distance between my bedroom and living room, with all the time in the world on my hands? 

After the mandatory couple of days spent railing against the fates and contending with my crutches, I decided to use this time by doing something I have always wanted to do - indulge myself with a TV show marathon. It seemed a deliciously decadent thing - a wilful waste of time, the one thing I find myself always running short of. I had my laptop, a working wi-fi connection, and a specific show in mind - The Good Wife, recommended by friends, acclaimed by critics and anchored by the impressive Juliana Margulies. 

I was good to go, ready to be absorbed and engaged by people, scenes, settings, maneuverings and dialogue. And yet, a handful of episodes and a few hours later, I found myself feeling strangely spent, caught up in a morass of emotions that I was experiencing first-hand but that weren't mine. It felt like feeling, twice-removed. All my buttons were being pushed, in the right order and to the right degree, but the drama felt a little too deft and therefore, dissatisfying. 

And I realized why television dramas leave me cold. The emotionality is too insistent, the characters' graphs too intriguingly grey, the conversations always clever and meaningful and nuanced. It's too much life, in short. Shorn of banality, quiet, silliness, pointlessness, routines and chores - all the pauses that give the peaks their significance.   

Television works best for me when it presents as itself. As consumerist fantasy (Sex and the City), as actual fantasy, as history recreated, as masterful re-tellings of famous stories and resurrections of beloved characters (Sherlock), as behind-the-scenes, wheels-within-wheels perspectives (Studio 60), as problem meets solution with a few punchlines and detours thrown in (CSI, NCIS), as political intrigue (West Wing, House of Cards), as amusement and distraction (New Girl), as wry, scripted takes on the mundane (Parks and Recreation), as fanciful story-telling (Pushing Daisies). All of this is fiction, stories about life as I've never known it, and never will. But the breathlessness, intensity, conflict and chaos of drama, the rendering of lives in heightened colour and pitch - it is television at its most cloying and compelling and manipulative.

It sets our reality up for falling short. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Unlikely Adventurers

It was a conversation about grandmothers, with three colleagues sharing stories about how their grandmothers energized and inspired them. One spoke about her grandmother's love for gardening, making birthday cards and taking un-chaperoned walks in strange cities, another about the lessons her grandmother took in calligraphy, arthritis notwithstanding, and the third about her grandmother's love for travel and openness to experiencing the 'foreign.'

What is it that these women have that drives them and enthuses them in their 70s and 80s? Is it a spirit of curiosity, the value they attach to their time and years, or simply the willingness to be delighted by small adventures? How is it that so many of us, so much younger, so much more mobile and connected, are preemptively complacent, cynical and blasé, seeking out comfort and convenience instead of the new?

I've been thinking about age, ageing and the attendant stereotypes over the last couple of weeks, maybe because I've been coming across accounts of people in the 'twilight' of their years who have done, or are doing, truly remarkable things. Whether it is Dr. Sunil Kothari, scholar and critic of classical dance, who has published book #16 at the age of 80. And this book is no vanity project, but a detailed and comprehensive account of Sattriya, Assam's classical dance form and the latest addition to the country's official list of classical dances.  Or whether, on the other side of the world, it is Cristopher Lee, who has just released an album of heavy metal music at the age of 92. Yes, 92. I had to read that one twice to believe it. Or whether, closer home, it is the late Capt. CK Vinod Nair, who was already a millionaire many times over when he made adventurous forays into the luxury hotel business in his 60s.

Of course these are all very different people doing very different things. They have nothing whatsoever in common. But I notice that they are each completely upending the notion of a person's 'prime.' Too many of us watch the clock, marking our slow but fast progress through our twenties, thirties, forties, fifties. 16 is the new 25. 40 is the new 20. 60 is the new 40. It's all very confusing. When are you supposed to start winding down? How do you know when you're past it and need to start acting the part?  

I don't suppose anyone I've mentioned here, including the grandmothers, are out to prove a point or to hold themselves up as poster children for successful ageing. But they are living examples of how curiosity, ambition and passion enable a person to keep growing, exploring, experiencing and learning. There is no temporal sweet spot, no deadline or sell-by date. But neither is it a default that by simple fact of being young, one's life will just happen and unfold wonderfully. To wind down one first has to wind up, no? 
 
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