Monday, 23 July 2012

Paradise revisited

Back in London for my usual holiday, I was revved off my jet-lag this morning, with phone calls from friends confirming that I was indeed in town. Talk went from the Kodava Koota coming up in September to the coveted World Heritage Site tag that some want for Coorg and others oppose, to the miserable situation of connectivity and why we all, in spite of being intrinsically in love with our homeland, cannot see sense in returning to it the way it is now. We spoke of the many resorts and home-stays that have come up and, how, while they are very convenient to visitors like us, rampant developments like these, would impact the future of our homeland some years from now. And how all forest cover might be wiped out soon, in the name of indiscriminate 'progress'.

I was instantly reminded of a recent visit to my Grandmum's estate in Coorg where my little son hoppity hopped along the narrow pathways between paddy fields and rubbed his face on the bright red bunches of fresh coffee berries. While we leaned on the gate revisiting old memories, he stood staring at the plot of land right across the steep driveway to the house.

"Where is that dense forest you keep talking about, mum?" he asked, suddenly, in that thoughtful voice, usually followed by a forlorn mood that takes days to leave . "It's gone, baby", I replied in quiet contemplation.  "So sad", he mumbled, looking down, walking quietly back to the lushness on the other side of the house.

The quietness lingered on the phone too for a moment, before the caller brought up an article I had written many years back ... apparently many still relate to it. So here is a re-post, just because two days away from the country  and my true bearings, I have got all nostalgic, all over again.

"Importance of being earnest

I walked into my parents-in-laws’ house one day, to find the kitchen and part of the dining room under siege.

Warm and sweet-smelling, the vapours of steaming rice filled my senses, as I stood in the familiar aroma of my favourite dish. For a quick moment, I tranced back to a life I was married away from, just months earlier.

As my husband pushed past to get the car ready for the long drive, my mother-in-law was already onto her second round of kadambutté.

The sekala simmered away on the hob and the pandi curry came to a boil. As I tucked into the putté - my first involvement with a community I was yet to meet, my father-in-law wore a beam on his face and proudly educated me on what was to come.

We were getting ready for the annual gathering of the Coorgs in the UK- an eagerly awaited event at home. For six long years, my father-in-law oversaw these re-unions, with my mother-in-law in the background, constantly encouraging the cause. And as a family, our commitment to Coorg will only continue.

Since my first koota as puthangarthi, I have watched the UK Coorgs, each one valiant in their efforts, championing the endeavour to retain the affinity to their roots and propagate the pride of their race down the line.

The full significance of an initiative such as this came home to me along the years that followed, as I, guided by the exacting precision of my father-in-law, mulled over drafts and re-drafts of the newsletters that chronicled all the gatherings he had presided over.

Pre and post these meets, the many stories told during our frequent family dinners in front of warm gas fires, made me realise, afresh, how fragile the sustenance of our community really is- and how earnestly we need to address the truth.

Far away from a land that gives us our identity and strong sense of self, there is always a longing, unfulfilled.

Somewhere, in the contention between homeland and home, roots and fruit, and head and heart, intentionally or on impulse, we tend to flock together and seek out our kind.

Somewhere, a common bond keeps us tethered to what we know as our own. Call it strength of blood or even a well-wrought web cast by the veterans of our cosy community, the confluence of thoughts, variously modified beliefs and an incessantly evolving culture, ramifies a lineage well alive and holding ground.

While our genes dictate who we are and our aspirations define our lives, an institution brings us back together. At least once every year, we remember what makes us proud. We re-connect with what makes us one. And we awaken to what will keep us going.

The elders have, with experience and foresight, nurtured a quiet movement. Now, I find the current generation taking on the onus with pride, and making their own difference come alive.

Looking from the other side today, I see even more clearly, how distinct we are as a people. How progressive we are of tradition. And how indomitable we are in spirit."

Setting aside individual gain at the cost of a larger good, if only the richness of our terrain and heritage somehow melted into our psyches the strength of her nature, the versatility of her promise, the potential of her bounty, the openness with which she embraces us every time we drive up her pristine hills and the magic we can create by coming together in our vision for her sustenance, Coorg will be truly be that homeland of dreams we all hold dear.

The winding roads, the misty hills, the shimmering silver oaks, the fortress-like forests, the silvery mountain streams and gushing falls, the burst of red berries amidst the dense green of coffee bushes and the crisp, crisp air that can breathe new life into any weary traveller ... that is the essence of Coorg.

And that's why, in spite of all the inexplicable inconveniences that we love to hate about it, we keep going back. Home.

Let's just hope that in the decades to come, Coorg will remain that heaven even for my little son. And he won't have to look at photographs to remind him of a memory that 'used to be', Coorg.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

To cry, or not to laugh...
Deccan Herald. Sunday Herald, Cover Story. 10 June 2012

Among a hundred other things that keep me upbeat after reading Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam’s Ignited Minds, the one observation that has left me thinking is the amount of gloom the paper boy throws over our gates every morning. You would be right in saying that our newspapers are really not to blame here – they are duty-bound to inform and make aware. From frivolous government policy and fickle polity to derailed wheels and separatist atrocities, not to mention exaggerated coup tales and related arms travails, there are a good 18-20 pages of distress articles to choose from every day, as company to the morning cuppa. And, yes, all these can have a direct bearing on our lives. But, just to ease the pain, what harm could one come to, if all front pages started carrying stories that are more positive and encouraging?
Call me naïve, but we are a nation of achievers and a billion hopes - and what we get to see and read as first impact every morning, is that we are all in the wrong place!
The local laughter club seems to have the right response to thoughts like the above. There is ample scientific proof that happier people are healthier. Endorphins released as a result of hearty laughter induce a state of natural happiness that is infinitely more beneficial to health than any prescribed antidepressant. With increasing stress levels and decreasing opportunities to, well, just be happy, it is ironic that even laughter has to be made a planned activity!
Let me make things clear here. My battle is not the one between optimism and pessimism – that’s passé. I am a realist. And even there, it is a slim line that parts practical realism from fatalism. Very few appreciate this. Naturally, there are those that contemplate my daily dose of harmless banter and guffaw at my dreamy-eyed wish to, one day, live in a house on the top of a quiet hill, surrounded by the sea, a million stars shining over my night sky, a bunch of red-berried coffee bushes to complete the serene picture and soft saxophone notes wafting in with the breeze from the other side of the crackling bonfire! This mockery, usually, is their only shot at what they make out to be humour.
It is no different in the world of books. If the increasing number of exceptional fantasy writers of our time and their popularity was beginning to spur my interest thither way, the timelessness of a good romantic read or the connected-ness of the day-in-the-life type paperback has kept the hopes of many a new writer alive.  But then, to completely extinguish the tiny hope rising in my laughter-hungry appetite comes a list of 101 most popular themes for books commissioned by a leading publishing house. Outside the realm of Self-help and Success markets, Darkness, Death, Destruction, Disillusionment, Displacement, Doubt and Downfall emerge as top takers with Quest and Escape closer to the lower rung in the order. Humour, does not even figure as a regular listed.
But I have always been one that looks forward to my steady intake of ‘joke’. The smilie is my most favoured key on the cell phone keypad and Amul’s “utterly butterly delicious” line of the day is my first stop on Facebook. Thankfully, I am not alone. In fact, at a college seminar many years back, one of the students asked me if ‘humour’ had any sensible place in advertising (I was a young copywriter then, excited and full of dreams). I personally believed that the best way to communicate in a memorable manner was to see, and show, wherever possible, the funny side of life. I was also fortunate to have mentors who believed in the effectiveness of calculated humour. It was a fact in the industry then and remains true to most writing in and outside it even now, that humour works, it is a niche category, it is best left to the experts, it is too dangerous to be attempted by the lesser able and it is a la ‘grapes are sour’, to most.
And so, it remains. Dread is a notoriously lucrative career. Open any acclaimed literary anthology, the tales will most usually be sensationalised around depravity of thought or futility of body. The spirit, the free spirit within, remains imprisoned not only in real life but also in those masterful webs of words that win awards upon awards, inspiring more in that line, winding its way across media, slithering, hissing and spitting its juices incessantly iterating the same things variously. And we call this leisurely recreation. Spare a thought!
What is it about despair, doom and disillusionment that they always find abundant audience? They manage even the smallest part in the drama we live out every day, and yet they enthuse insatiable appetites for more! After the daily news in print and more on television and the internet, are people not tired of their own share of realities that they will go out and spend money to delve into the same of someone else – even when it is a mere product of imagination, expertly crafted?
After some personal trials of sleepless nights and dazed days in between and other sniffles filling out the rest of unending time, when I seek to uplift my mood slightly so as to be ready for the next bout of discomfort, I see a familiar jacket in tantalising print, beckoning from the shelf at my bed side. Eager, I turn page upon page, and get drawn deeper and deeper into the grinds of another hassled being.
In another bid of desperation I run a web search for the most recommended reads. Make no mistake, I strive to achieve the heights of storytelling and craftsmanship that the listed titles are revered for, but the top spots are still retained by the greats and their awe-inspiring works on existentialism, war and futility. Great names, greater words and hooked, though I am, I want out!
How can it be possible that absolutely nothing produced since – especially “light writing” as PG Woodehouse called it – fits the coveted mantels of excellence?! In this boundless sea of published authors, is it really the paucity of true talent that is to blame? Or is it sheer self-important affectation on the part of “certain critics” who cannot digest the “superior intelligence” that is the onus of the likes of Woodehouse himself and those that follow his trend?
Sadly, this is a cross-media disorder. I turn on the television and my favourite advertisement again tries to seduce me into buying the high-end car, now at an even better price. I dream of the colour that would best suit my tastes and suddenly, a well-toned youngster walks out of a wall exposing the most sinister manipulation yet! Stranger psychosis follows a lame attempt at slapstick and I am all but renouncing hope. Click click click... what can go wrong here? It is the fabulously produced singing reality show with my pet singer delivering a faultless rendition. Faultless, to a fault, that is. Disaster strikes and inexplicable audience votes boot out the week’s most worthy contender. Life!  
Switch channel again! Respite, whither art thou?! Ha! Frasier Crane ... has left the building ... next ... it is not always Glee ... Gayle storms out of IPL after tabling 733 runs with 128 off a single match – wow! ... Adam Sandler simply won’t grow up and Steve Martin’s dozen will never let him. It is now down to Ek Mein Hoon Aur Ek Tu! when Golmaal Returns and we have choices! Finally! Happy choices. Time to relax, I put my feet up and lean back. After an eternity. This is what it is all about.
This is why enthusiasts invest in the meanest 3D technology and the coolest La-Z-Boy. Or, the handy little Kindle that will scour the Amazon of hundreds of thousands of titles to bring you fresh sparks like Winnie Buxani and Yash R Isaiah, co-authors of The Business of Con, a newly released laugh riot. “After being conned several times in one month, we realized (over a cup of coffee) that we are not in this alone as the business of con is one sophisticated organization we are all a part of”, explains Buxani. When they first thank the many that have conned them over the years and then, equally unashamedly, thank ‘themselves’ for the “bright idea” of turning these experiences into a book, you know right away that the following pages will crack you up. And when they put in writing the “guarantee” of “non-stop entertainment in a bag of laughter with a pinch of salt” as their “disclaimer”, they define the very purpose of entertainment. In describing their effort as, “laughter therapy for the conned and the ones in the process of being conned”, Buxani, most kindly, grants an extended warrantee to my fledgling hope of keeping a bothered mind off the humdrum, even if for the shortest while.
Now, tell me, why not? My mother gives the strangest reaction to any misery on telly or even any dreariness that dares expression in print. She looks to mass media for an escape. When she takes a break from the day, she looks to be truly entertained; to be able to leave then, in a more pleasant state of mind. Any other offering attracts scorn. I now tend to agree with her. Not so with the world’s various agencies of commemoration and awards, though. Or those after their glamorous recognition.
Nevertheless, there are more among those who are ‘entertainment’ personified. We are not talking of the likes of Ms Vidya Balan here, but of cleaner pictures, here in Bangalore. I am referring to someone like ‘Ramsam’ (Rajesh Ramaswamy), Branch Creative Director at Lowe. A comedy magnet, when he begins to tell you a story, the most improbable and the most unthinkable will be the fact. The plausible and expected may or may not hold truth. Like when, among other side splitting stories, he, quite matter-of-factly, describes the “art and science” behind Advertising as, “all about guessing and gassing. The guess was the Art. And the gas was the Science”, few will disagree with the said; few more will end up with a hernia. His unrestrained narratives at ‘Dinchak Disco’ are the instant fix for the forlorn. May his ilk grow.
But like for all things uplifting, including Russel Peters and his brotherhood, that can laugh at themselves, here is the catch: Funny has a shelf life. Funny is funny because it is not the norm, it comes as respite. That is why we enjoy it and might even crave it in its absence. But like any overstaying guest, too much funny, beyond a point, is not funny anymore. Worse, it can also become offensive and border on insensitive. And many among us are guilty of it. Indeed, Funny is no funny business.
Presenting, the third reality – the one that sustains us. This reality that we are so rarely aware of lies between fleeting phantasmagoria and melancholia. It is this part of reality that keeps us rooted in the dips and dales of emotion, the truth and deceits of virtue and the paradox of relationship. It is’ the pivot of existence.
Yet, it is this reality that is most difficult to relate. Too close to see clearly. Too ‘us’ to want to tell. Too uninteresting to want to know.
So again, in my bid to look for a change, when I tear my sides laughing to the wisecrack in an auditorium or skim the paperbacks lining my shelf, I see stories from my own reality and those close to me, retold over and over, differently, so that when I do partake of them, I see another’s tale, taking shape in another’s world, in another’s time. And while I might get tired of laughing or crying, it is the intensity of plot, the conflict of intention, the disappointment with perception, and the resonance of each of these aspects to my own experiences, strung in those artistic words and projected from those reels and discs, that reach deep within and stay in longer than the numerous humorous tales retold numerously. Until, of course, I laugh even that off.
Is it just human nature, then, to cherish something like laughter that will come and go and holds its value because it needs that little nudge? Is it our lot to ponder and dwell upon despondency and uncertainty that we identify with most – that, which will not leave anyway? Despite few new releases that promise to rouse a giggle and look at life in a lighter vein, the larger evidence seems to suggest so.                                                                                                        

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Theme for a dream

Deccan Herald. Sunday Herald, Cover Story. 29 Jan 2012

I can watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Mary Poppins another ten times and be ready for more. But like my son, you might say, “ewww you’re such a guuuurl”, so no surprise there. Only, my husband still enjoys Star Wars, Iron Man and Voyager and will go to any re-release of them. My son and I would join him, as would thousands of others around the world, who filled up cinema halls to full capacity for similar fantasy movies like Finding Nemo, Enchanted, Twilight and apna Ra One. 

And how many of you, with children at home, have accidentally tripped over a sabremobile or strongarm detached from a form-changing ‘Transformer’? For novices, these are fabulous toys of various built-in superheroes ‘cum’ robots ‘cum’ supersonic vehicles ‘cum’ long range weapons – virtually indestructible man-machines that can be transformed from one mode to the other depending on the nature of the ‘mission’ the player is engrossed in. Of course, it’s all make-believe and thoroughly entertaining. In spite of the fact that my son got his first toy gun no sooner than when he turned nine, I have to admit that I enjoy watching him strategising at these war games and the hours of fun he and his friends get out of it. 

Now let me take you back to our doll days. Our elaborate gun-fights. House-house with all movable furniture overturned on the lawn outside and all available bed spreads made into make-shift tents. Think of a parent and remember horsie-horsie. Our childhoods are filled with stories of play-acting and dreams that make us swoon afresh in happy memory lane every time the lights go dim and four friends meet up after a decade of being away in busy lives. 

Most probably, even this meet-up would be at a themed venue, decked with memories of childhood tales or vibrant with the vivid imagination of someone who dared to ‘un’grow-up, gave flight to the child within and lived again. 

And that’s the purpose of dreaming, isn’t it? To live again, on our terms, amidst things that make us happy and fulfilled. Even if for just that moment. 

Many of you would be familiar with the Freudian theory that dreams are manifestations of ‘unconscious wishes of the dreamer’. Carl Jung took it further by suggesting that dreams ‘served to compensate for parts of the psyche that are repressed in waking life’. 

So, when Superman takes off ‘to the rescue’, it makes for heightened entertainment, not so much because a fictional character flashes his super ‘S’, but because at that moment, every member in the audience (irrespective of the constraining chair he or she is bound to or the miserable report that needs tending thereafter), subconsciously chooses to be either the saviour or the rescued victim and, in that glorious moment, lives out the role to complete satisfaction. It becomes a personal achievement and the popcorn is worth the money. Of course, no one else needs to know, but that’s how our mind works. 

As a race, we are a sentimental bunch and are never far from a fantasy. And much as we love to slight the possibility in conversation, we also love to indulge in them. Take a bad day at work, for instance. A myriad different scenarios will relive the moment in our minds, moments after the event. We will react all over again. We will deal with the incident in a faultless fashion. Mostly, it would be quite contrary to what really ensued. Familiar? 

Deny it all you want, but we really, really, love ourselves and the things we do. Which is why we dream. Because we believe we deserve more. ‘Dream big’, say the visionaries, ‘for yourself, for your land’. So, we dream of greater lives and do all in our might to turn what’s in our mind to matter.  

With so much available and so effortlessly, wishing is all we need to do before everything unfolds, as Amisha Bahl Chawla of BMI says, “magical, co-ordinated and exactly as we want”. A film-maker in the city, she weaves dreams for a living. She explains, “Apart from the regular corporate dish-out and TV advertisements, many come to us for a film rendition of what they would like to be portrayed as, to an audience. Everyone wants to be seen as the hero, the only hero, who can get you what you want”. 

It really is the business of happiness, this dreaming and living it up in tangible pursuits. And irrespective of our means and where we come from, everyone deserves a shot at it. So when singer Beyonce declares to the world that her wedding will be a lush multi-million dollar ceremony on the Caribbean island of Anguilla where one tenth of the cost will be spent on Beluga caviar alone, she’s not shy of anyone. To quote from a report, “She feels like she’s living a fairytale so why shouldn’t her wedding be equally magical?” 

But what about those who can only live their fairytales in dreams? Themes – the current raging trend! Let your passion speak. Throw a cowboy party with saddles for seats and hats for plates, doll up like a princess to a Cinderella Ball and do up your bedroom like Cleopatra’s boudoir to fit the queen in you. Or go Moroccan exotic! And why leave the kids behind? Launch your little astronaut into space in a rocket ship look-alike room – don’t forget the practical work desk, though. For the macho warrior souls among you, deck your bar with everything martial. Bring in the swords, put up those plaques. And, please, name your child smartly, for a lifetime of advantage. 

Even if it’s just downright exclusivity that you seek, it’s all there for the taking. Specialising in contemporary and colonial designs, Kabir Bhasin of East, prides himself in “materialising your visions for your home” into enviable works in wood. And though he personally prefers the slightly understated, the furniture he puts together for his clients, can be anything but. He talks of a client who lives and breathes sport. Images of Tom Brady and Micheal Jordon were printed directly onto the wood of the wine racks while the cabinets carried prints of cultural icons. The client’s appetite for the larger-than-life comes alive in every piece of practical furniture that peppers his home.  

It is the choice we have today and many will exercise it. And there is always the aspect of glorifying a favourite. Dawn Brindle, mum of three, quips from London, “Themed events lend a focus on treasured ideas … something to celebrate”. “Themes and make-believe”, says Psychotherapist Prathitha G, “serve to make a statement and get talked about. They are also fun and bring out our creativity. And they get more people interested in social participation”. Outside the professional analysis, she is all for “letting my hair down and having a good round of fun”. 

You might call it an ‘escape’ from reality, or a refuge from daily drudgery – the inner child's dream fulfilled in indulgences outside mere existence or a release into a world of make-believe, fantasy and magic. But the joy that excursion brings, however short-lived, is wholly real. So are its after-effects on our personality – almost always positive and productive. 

There was a time when ‘brands’ did us this favour. That was the theme then – brandishing labels that got us noticed. It gave us the edge. Soon, forget bags and shirts, even babies became an intrinsic part of brand-building. So now, while a Prada or an Armani ensemble is walked down the ramp at a high profile fashion extravaganza, there might be a walking, talking, flesh-and-blood city adding to the proceeds – wait, we are talking of India (Knight), Chelsea (Clinton) and Paris (Hilton) – inspiration and individual, place and person, both celebrated alike. The inner desire to be different and be inspired, rules here too. 

A good friend veers to another important aspect of this dreams-to-realty behaviour and refers to ‘Freakonomics’, the ground-breaking work co-authored by Levitt and Dubner. We get into a discussion on the phenomenon where certain sections of society, for improved prospects, started giving their children the same names that societies they believe to be superior to them, gave their members. And miracle or strategy, they found better acceptance in work and social circles, all the time grabbing a better chance at success. They too dreamed. And by adopting a successful trend, they too made their dreams real. 

It is the natural human urge, a primal instinct, to aim higher and, then, to exhibit success. We all like to stand out, to be noticed, to be sought after and respected. Some are subtle about it while others will be less discrete. From the days of the Masquerade to modern Halloween costume nights and Marilyn Monroe Karvachauths, nothing has changed. If anything, with expendable incomes, the scale is much larger now. 

But there is also a very clear shift. People are moving more and more inward. They are getting more in touch with what their true desires are. And considering that this prevalent ‘self-expression’ is largely an urban trait and with increasing popularity, the fact is that the more we indulge in pursuits of the heart and tend to personal gratification, the less we are inclined to care about the humdrum, the boring ‘normal’.  

Hospitals and counsellors are recording more and more cases of depression, delusion and other personality disorders radiating from unsatisfactory lives and a desire to escape hard reality. Those who get stuck in between, get diagnosed with strange sounding names for stranger ‘conditions’ that were previously unheard of. The fervent question that creeps up is: Are our urban conquests and efforts at making the most of everything, slowly moving into the realm of make-believe and mindless fanfare? More persistently, is this taking us further and further away from humane sentiments and ground reality? 

While some agree with the suggestion, many more, dismiss it. “Dreams are like opinions, we never run out of them. So it's great to indulge your dreams at any given opportunity. If it doesn't work out there's always reality to fall back upon”, muses Ujjwal Kabra, a Mumbai adman. Rimi Das is a marketing professional in the IT space and shares similar sentiments. “Reality has always and will always find a way to strike us so that we remain grounded. These theme pursuits and fantasy dos sprinkle that extra zeal and excitement to our daily monotony. They have an essential role to play in our lives”, she reasons. 

I couldn’t agree more – everybody needs a healthy distraction from time to time. Juggling between being a mother, homemaker and freelancer, I know I do. And thanks to our prospering economies, we now have the luxury and space to realise that the break we seek, is really within us, trapped. 

Calvin S Hall, the American psychologist who has contributed heavily to the field of dream interpretation, knits this thinking in, most aptly: "Dreams reflect the dreamer's unconscious self-conception which often does not at all resemble our trumped up and distorted self-portraits by which we fool ourselves in waking life; dreams mirror the self”. Other submissions say, “A dream is a work of art which requires of the dreamer no particular talent, special training, or technical competence. Dreaming is a creative enterprise in which all may and most do participate". 

So, if a natural behaviour such as dreaming, that is an intangible manifestation of the ‘inner’ self, becomes a tangible enterprise (like theme activity) and results in joy in the short term, evoking positive self-esteem in the longer term, participation in these, with conscious intent of gratification, might be the natural path of evolution that our race has embarked upon. 

Because, research proves that this trend is here to stay. In fact, a recent survey result, shared by a friend, shows that six out of ten people will spend days planning an event around a popular theme to celebrate a special day. And though there are many who would love to be part of themed extravaganzas “for a cause” as much as for the feel-good factor, most respondents are excited with the possibilities offered to them and are willing to pay substantial money for a complete experience. They welcome the opportunity to express their personal hankerings in their everyday and the increased involvement it garners. Sure, a lot has to do with showmanship, but what’s that in the face of focused camaraderie, some hearty laughter and a season full of cheerful banter?