Macchars don’t wear sweaters

Archive for August 2010

“The Fall” by Tarsem Singh was sentimental, but I could not help being moved by it. Who would have though a Punjabi could make such a film?? It is the story of the sweetest little girl – cherubic, naughty, gusty – and a jilted lover – both patients in a late 19th century Spanishsey hospital. The girl is in the hospital for a fracture to her arm, when the young man is admitted for a fall which has crippled him below the legs. This new inmate catches the fancy of our restless young cherub, and promises to tell her a story. As the story progresses, we find that the young girl lost her father, probably killed by a group of “very angry men” who burned down their house, and the young man is in the hospital because of a failed suicide attempt. The action of the movie plays out in the brilliant and ripe imagination of the young girl, who visualizes the randomly concocted tale of the young man. The man’s real ploy is to fool the innocent little girl into bringing him pills which will finally allow him to effect his suicide.

The Fall is the story of the unlikliest of two individuals finding redemption in each other. The story in the mind of the little girl serves as a metaphor of these two finding meaning and hope in the other. Undoubtedly sentimental. And it was impossible to be cold to the irresistible sweetness of the little girl. I loved it.

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Vengeance is mine, I shall repay” are Leo Tolstoy’s terrible lines for Anna Karenina, who dared go against the natural order, and paid with her life. But vengeance is not God’s, or of the natural order, but it is of the invisible force of convention. Her anguish and gradual dissipation are not caused by her going against some in-alterable laws of nature, but her deeply embedded sense of right and wrong defined by the convention of her time.

It is great a metaphor for the hold convention has on our psyche. It runs deeper than one may imagine. One may consciously understand the bias and absurdities in conventional ways, will oneself to break from tradition, to live only in accordance with ones reason and principles, and assert oneself as a free agent bound by none. Relinquish their tradition and seek to live like a bohemian, relinquish their religion and be godless, relinquish their mores and manners and be eccentric. Break from society and live in the Jungles; break from what is defined as a “normal course of life” and refuse to marry, or venture further, live the life of an alcoholic, an ascetic, a drug addict. Play at the fringes. But stray too far, and dissipation and self doubt creep in. Our very sense of the sane is threatened. A lonely darkness looms large, the warm glow of comfortable beliefs behind us. Can we resist the invisible string that keeps pulling us back?

In this life so fraught with ambiguities, what hope does our small truth have against their mammoth truth, with the force of the mob and history behind it?

But men have forever ventured out, cautiously, or boldly, like Nietzsche, and paid with their mind. But men go the full circle all the time too, convention proving victorious.

Maybe convention was right all along, the wisdom of mankind, the milk of a million lives lived. Or is it folly and prejudice, reinventing itself over and over?

I admire the person who can break from convention and claim to have lived a happy life.

I happened to re-read a short story “The Kiss” by Anton Chekov after a long long time. I was literally gasping by the time I had finished. I have been so deeply moved by only very few readings over many years. One was Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography, especially his descriptions of his mother, the second was The Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy, and the third this story by Anton Chekov.

The Kiss is the story of a young Russian officer, who is unattractive and rather shy. He happens to be accidentally kissed by a woman in the dark, who mistakes him for someone else. Anton Chekov follows the effects of this purely chance and meaningless occurrence on the life of this shy and awkward man who has never known the joy of love. His whole life is consumed by this faceless She who he wasn’t even able to see in the dark. The young man is not stupid, and well aware of the meaninglessness of the event, but his yearning for love is so intense, that he cannot stop himself from projecting everything to Her. For months, his life is almost transformed, and love he never had in life plays out on the stage of his imagination. What recourse does a hungry heart have but the imagination? His emotions have built to a pitch when he returns to the town where the kiss took place, and he almost feels like a lover returning to his beloved. Events conspire to keep him from going to the house where the event took place, and at the height of his indignation and anxiety the senseless of his predilection hits him. It is almost as if nature has conspired to play a joke on his poor soul. And he submits to his despair.

A completely human and plausible story. Chekov doesn’t use cleverness or charm to make his story interesting. It is quite simply a snippet of life. It could have happened to anyone anywhere in the world. He weaves the tale effortlessly into the natural setting and events that unfold around the protagonist, each ambivalent to his inner conflict, thus heightening the tragedy of his tale. A tale that has come from a profound sympathy for the human condition. Another thing that makes the story special is Chekov’s descriptions of the inner state of this sensitive man, torn between his reason, yet helpless before emotion, wishing to share his state, yet spurned by the indifference of his comrades. You relate to this man, you feel for him.

I recently heard Chomsky say in an interview “there is probably more to be learnt about human nature from literature than scientific studies”. True knowledge of the human soul is indeed to be found only in literature. A friend had once said “i don’t read books. what are books but stories”. But the best literature is not amusing stories intended merely to entertain us.  A piecing together of these events and those characters. It is an expression of what is most intimate to any human. Although conveyed through the medium of stories, literature captures a direct, raw reaction to Life. We all learn something from life, never our stated learning, and it is this learning, the subtlest of impressions, that are expressed in literature. Everybody’s life is a story. A story that deserves telling. A story of deeply held hopes, aspirations and desires, of first love and betrayal, or love never found, of success, of loss, of relationships forged, of relationships broken, of reaction to beauty, art and nature, the tragedy of hopes dashed or never realized, of disappointment and joy, the striving to find dignity and self affirmation no matter what the situation, the inner struggle for meaning.

It is this part of us which finds resonance in literature. It is perhaps personal knowledge that is communicated only through literature. Thoughts and feeling that are probably never directly communicated to others, and would simply disappear after us.

What dead statistics can ever capture this living subject?

It is this which distinguishes a Chetan Bhagat from an Anton Chekov. At a certain level, even a Chetan Bhagat captures this knowledge, though superficially.

As i was watching Indian Idol the other night, and the broadly smiling hosts, I wondered why it is that there is never an unpleasant moment in reality shows like this. Nobody ever slips up, stutters, has awkward moments or says anything unpleasant. Not just the media people, who have been hardened over years of facing attention and the camera, but also the contestants, flung into the limelight only very recently. They are pictures of poise when they modestly acknowledge the appreciation they get, when they laugh good naturedly on being cornered, when awed by the celebrity guest (who is also their childhood idol), or when bonding and having college fun with their fellow contestants. Even the tears are timely.

Sometimes I feel its just me being a misanthrope and grudging these people their happiness. But then there are other reasons. The marketing department cannot let the show be hostage to fickle individual behavior and relationships, because the show is a product which needs to be packaged and sold. So behaviors have to be orchestrated, emphasized with music, and unpalatable parts edited out. Everybody obviously also self censors according to the situation, as in everyday life situations.

The behavior on shows sets up standards of behavior for the audiences. The ideal of “happiness” put out by these shows does to some extent creep into our life. The same holds true for the bitchy genre of shows on MTV, UTV etc. They convey standards of behavior of a different nature, targeted towards youngsters. As the media sinks deeper and deeper into our lives, maybe our ideas of happiness, self and behavior become increasingly “media savvy” and plastic as in the world of advertisements and shows on TV. The thought makes me wince.