Friday, 17 October 2014

Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967

So yet again John Mayer has moved me to write about one of his songs. Unlike last time, this one is not a Grammy winning creation, but it is a piece of art of singular beauty none the less. As I write this, it fills my headphones on repeat, though I have no need of listening to it so often for inspiration. I received that the first time I heard it, and I immediately had to share it with my loved ones. Walt Grace's Submarine Test, January 1967 can have that effect on you.

The title is as offbeat as the starting tune. I have heard of few other  Mayer songs named after people ("Victoria" is one, though I wonder whether she is imaginary; Walt Grace certainly is). And  I have never heard a song that starts with a distinct  instrumental intro, clearly separate from the tune of the song proper. And then the tune itself kicks in, and again its not the guitar that hit me; as one would expect with John Mayer; but the percussion beat. It made me imagine a tiny parade of toy soldiers, or a mechanical whirring reminiscent of the sounds one might imagine in Gepetto's workshop, where he would be busy bringing to life a creature of wood and paint. Mayer's intelligent and easy on the ear rhymes have the same effect on the music.

And the interlude.  It is a beautiful soulful instrumental piece, placed between verses two and three.  Mayer again takes the road less travelled on this one by favouring a piano in this section instead of his  faithful guitar. The music is simultaneously haunting and soothing, awakening something deep within me, and at the same time singing it to sleep. It is a piece that speaks of hope sown into the tune amid a few fears and a bit of doubt, in continuity with the theme of the song.

The lyrics describe the imaginary Mr Grace , who decides that something must be done with his life, something greater than simply the sum of his years or the count of his hours. So he locks himself up in his basement and takes to birthing something uniquely his own, something unseen and unthought of, unexpected and astounding. He builds a submarine.

"Cos when you're done with this world,  you know the next is up to you..."

Being employed in the railways, hardly a day goes by when I don't hear about someone talking about their retirement.  "Pension and no tension",that holy grail for government servants. Those are the rewards which hang like a carrot in front of our noses and compel us to commit our entire working lives in their pursuit. Somehow I imagine that Walt Grace is one of the same breed, who has done the hard yards, put in the work, brought up his children, and provided for his family. But now, upon retiring, he takes up something risky, something outrageous and unbelievable,  prompting the line "his wife told his kids he was crazy, and his friends said he'd fail if he tried..".

But when you're done with this world, you know the next is up to you. Walt Grace had lived his life for others, racing along in the pursuit of happiness,  only to realise his destination didn't give him the peace of mind he thought it would. So he set out on a journey, perhaps obsession is a better word, of his own.

And on that journey he found beauty and wonder and belief, and maybe, just maybe, his life's meaning too. Maybe he created a memory, that would endear him to the world and his family in ways his job never could. And maybe he taught us all a lesson on how to live our lives, so that we needn't have to wait till they are almost over to make something extraordinary of them. That ridiculous dreams aren't as ridiculous as they seem. That,"with a will to work hard, and a library card", anything is possible. 

The song itself, with a beautiful paper art video on the background:

Monday, 8 September 2014

Conversations with a Taxi Driver

Its all my brothers fault.

Like most things in my childhood were (including the loss of my favourite cycle; yes I will never forgive you for that), the events that unfolded today were also my younger  brothers fault (not to be confused with my youngest brother). First he asks me to book train tickets for him to travel to our home in Pune from Mumbai for the weekend. When the IRCTC site renders itself unavailable due to maintenance, I, out of the boundless love I bear my brothers,actually stand in line(who does that nowadays?) to get his reservations done. But I need to drop an application off at VT (CST) station to get his ticket confirmed. And this almost undid my own journey home.

Friday. Churchgate Station. 4:20 pm.  After trying (and failing) to sneak out of office early, I had less than an hour left before my own bus to Pune left from Dadar at 5:15 PM. And I still had to drop the application at VT, then go to Lower Parel and pick up my bags, then somehow get to Dadar and catch my bus. I was trying to figure out if I could make it all, when I remembered that trains,not roads are my domain. So I asked a road expert. A taxi driver.

I hailed a cab outside office. A glance at the Ganpati idol on his dashboard told me I should speak, my mother tongue, Marathi. All the following conversations took place in Marathi, but since ashamedly it is not my strongest language, you will have to endure this post in English.

I explained the logistics and asked him if we can make it? He said, ''We have about an hour, so lets try. If it were not Ganpati season, I could tell you for sure. " I ignore the voice of reason in my head that says I'm not going to make it, and with a sense of hurtling into adventure, I walk into the proverbial rabbit hole.

I'm not usually the types who will chat with a stranger, but discussing logistics, traffic and stoppage time is a good conversation starter. After making our first stop (VT) in pretty good time, he ask me where in Dadar were headed. ''The Shivneri bus stop, heading to Pune", I say. Pune is another conversation starter. He told me about a few jobs he did there, before moving to Mumbai and getting into the business of driving. Told me about a techie he recently drove to Pune.

"So whats better? Working the Mumbai-Pune expressway or a cab within Mumbai" I ask.

''Cab in Mumbai.'' ,he promptly replies. ''Start at 7 AM, finish up at 7 PM, then go home to your family. Expressway might earn you a bit  more, but you are on the road too much. Family is more important."

Wow. My respect for this guy just shot up.

He asks about my job and we talk about extra curriculars. I tell him about sports quota railway jobs, He tells me how his niece could pick and choose her college because of her singing. Then he tells me he sings Marathi Natya Sangeet (musicals).

"Oh! My brother studied that too!"

He tells me how they have drama contests at his work, which give him a chance to leave work early and travel for the contests.

''Work? meaning?'', I ask,confused.

''Madam i actually work in BEST. I'm a bus driver. Been there 10 years. We also have sports and cultural quota. I drive a cab on my weekly off for timepass."

This guy is full of surprises.

He talk about how extra curriculars helped his own kids. Proudly tells me that they both study in an English medium school. Ryan International. He talks about the cost of education. I realise hes not driving a cab on his weekly off for timepass.

"The costs are really  high. But an English medium education is worth it. But they really have to study a lot. They have big fat books that I cant understand. Since my wife and I don't speak good English we cant tutor them at home. so they attend extra tuition. Which is an extra expense. But they are doing well, so its worth it. I don't mind working extra hard for them."

I tell him it will definitely be worth it. I tell him about my grandparents and parents, whose hard work has given my brothers and me the luxury and the joy of choosing off beat professions.

"Madam whats your surname?" he asks me. I give him mine, and I ask his in return. Rajaram Maruti Khedekar he says. How strange it is that we tend to talk about everything else with a person, only to neglect to ask thheir name.

We were only just at Lower Parel picking up my bags. Things were about to get exciting. Picture abhi baki hai.

Now the focus had shifted from the conversation to the transportation. No more school fees and  dramas. It was all business now; routes, signals and ETAs. It was 5:07 PM  when we left Lower Parel. I was now counting on the bus leaving five minutes late as was its habit. Our driver had turned onto a road that was usually open but closed for the Ganpati festival. A policeman stops us on the turn.

"Going for a cricket tournament!"

"Have a 5:15 bus!"

"Please please please"

After a bit of such grovelling the cop lets us go.

By the time we got to Dadar it was 5:24. I rushed out to the enquiry counter leaving my bag (containing my wallet and laptop) in the taxi. I had never done that before. Ever

And I had missed my bus. I had never done that before either! EVER.

Like I said, all my brother's fault.

"Maitri Park!" I said as i got back into the cab! I would have to try and catch the bus at its next stop in Chembur!. Without actually saying it, I had just said,''Follow that bus!!''

So we rushed as much as one can on Mumbai roads, all the way to Maitri Park, and the driver kept saying how fast these new Volvo buses are, and that if we haven't seen it yet we probably wont make it. Amidst all this, I was sitting in the back seat, with a faint smile on my face. I was really enjoying myself. This was all an adventure, and if I missed the bus and had to pay double for another ticket, plus the taxi fare, I wouldn't mind it much.

One signal before Maitri park, we spot the bus! The driver parks in front of the bus, I rush out to make sure the conductor hasn't sold my vacant seat to someone else. Its still vacant, and I am so happy that this adventure had a happy ending. I pay the taxi driver the fare (which was now more than the bus fare to Pune!), thank him for the good time, and get on board.

And  then I remember why I had to take this taxi in the first place. All my brother's fault, and I'm glad it was. Its not everyday you find reasons to smile fondly at the adventures and conversations Mumbai tends to throw at you.


Monday, 4 August 2014

The Silmarillion : A book review

It's been a while since I read a book non-stop, but I found myself home-alone, recovering from a stomach bug, and my youngest brother's copy of the Silmarillion lying ignored on the desk. Perfect conditions for a read-a-thon, which lasted for 14 hours! And happily took little effort, as J.R.R. Tolkien is one of my favourite authors.

For the uninitiated,the events of Silmarillion come before the Hobbit, before the Lord of the Rings, much before most of the characters of either book existed. And if you are so uninitiated that you haven't heard of any of them, well, then dont bother reading any further. For you are not one who can comprehend the world of fantasy, there where my mind often flees for solace and silence,to dabble in awe and wonder, and to leave the suffocating bonds of reality. Fantasy is my favourite genre by far, and this is my first fantasy book review, so do forgive me if I get carried away.

So back to the book. Tolkien is in a wonderful position at the start, for he has carte blanche.  Imagine writing a tale that takes place before the Big Bang occurred, before time or space as we know it existed. Such was the empty canvas upon which Tolkien painted his universe. So he describes a God, Iluvatar, and His vassals whose song creates out of the void, Midlle-earth as we know it. Some of these vassals, christened the Valar, enter Middle-earth to govern it and make it fit for the children of God, elves and men. Then one of the Valar decides that he wants to possess all Middle-earth for himself. Enter Melkor, aka Morgoth, the antagonist for the most part, and the book describes deeds that were done by the Elves in their war against him. For Melkor stole from the elves the Silmari, three perfect Jewels crafted by the elf Feanor, in whom is preserved the Light of the Two Trees created by the Valar. Feanor and his sons swear an oath to wage war on whoever possesses a Silmaril, for in them too the darkness of possession is awakened. Thus Feanor and his people turn their back on the Valar and embrace a dark path of war, destined to consume their kin, and come to Middle-earth, where Melkor has entrenched himself. 

The book goes on to tell many tales of valour, heroism, sacrifice and love, and just as many of deceit, betrayal and malice. For me, most moving of all were the tales of the fall of Fingolfin and the story of Beren and Luthien.

Fingolfin, half brother of Feanor, faced with certain defeat and possibly the obliteration of his race, challenges the Lord of darkness Morgoth to single combat. The venture, although hopeless (for Morgoth is one of the Valar, and Fingolfin, no matter how great, is an elf), showcases the bold and limitless self belief that the elves had in themselves, and armed mostly with this belief, and a love for the elves of whom he was King, Fingolfin fought, gave Morgoth seven wounds, cleaved off his leg, but fell in the end. 

The tale of Beren, a man, and Luthien the elf maiden almost made me cry at the end, hopeless romantic that I am. For theirs is THE epic amid all the many love stories in the book, and theirs was the first union between man and elf. Beren, in order to win the right to marry Luthien, does as her father asks and seeks to wrest a Silmaril from the clutches of Morgoth. In this he is assisted by Luthien herself, for she cannot bear to be apart from him. The two achieve the impossible, not once, but twice, for not only do they manage to escape Morgoth's fortress with a Silmaril, but Beren also comes back from the land of the dead, as the sorrow and love of Luthien moves even the hardest hearts of the Valar.

One of the recurring concepts in the book I really enjoyed reading was The Gift of Men, that is death and mortality, which is also spoken of as the Doom of Men. This Gift the God Iluvatar gave only the race of men; the elves he made immortal. Death, which we humans fear so often, becomes an objecct of wonder for the Elves, for it signified a freedom from the cycles of the world, which they had not been granted. For them it truly is a gift, but few mortals would look at it that way. How many of us can really think of death as a gift? Can we keep in  mind that our mortality should drive us to value every second, and make something beautiful of it. And isn't death, to the organised mind "the next great adventure"(Yes, I'm quoting Dumbledore, in a Tolkien book review)? If you, like me believe that the soul is eternal, its not that hard to see. Funnily though I don't think Tolkien believes in rebirth et al. For he does speak of a place where the souls of elves go after death, but never what happens to the souls of men, and never that any soul returns to be born again.

And so if you are a fantasy fan, and haven't read the Lord of the Rings yet, I strongly suggest you read the Silmarillion first. The stories are just as rich and the narrative just as enchanting (though the chapter on the children of Hurin seemed to drag a bit). It will fill some of the gaps that the reading of the Lord of the Riongs presents, for  in that book, the events of the Silmarillion are spoken of in the way we would speak about the Mahabharata, as myth and legend alone. If, like me, you have read the Lord of the Rings already, still I suggest that you go back and read the Silmarillion. I can promise you, at the very least, a lot of "Ah thats what he was talking about" moments.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Blood on our pages.. let's keep it there

So I started writing this post like a year ago, around the I re-read Harry Potter Book seven, and its been on cold storage ever since. I got a few more lines in (words actually) when I watched The Hobbit earlier this year, but what really got me writing was the Mahabharata; both the serial running on TV and the illustrated storybooks I've been reading. Kay sambandha? (Whats the connection?) read on..

Spoiler alert! Details about characters of LOTR, HP and  the Mahabharata are revealed below!

I took a generic and macroscopic view of how these series of books annoint their heroes. King Aragorn from the Lord Of The Rings, for instance, is a direct descendant of Isildur, one of the famous Dunedain, the men of Numenor. Harry Potter, on the other hand, is considered by his enemies as half blood by virtue of his Muggle born mother. Both seem to be portraying contrasting ideas of who qualifies as hero material. The LOTR  series does seem to lean towards the school of thought that the ancestry or blood of a man greatly affects his destiny. It mentions that the lineage of men began to fall when the Numenorians began to intermingle with men of lesser blood. The HP series however, stresses strongly on the choice that every man has in the making of his life. "It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be", to quote Albus Dumbledore. Although it later emerges that Harry is descended from a very noble wizarding family, another of Rowling's lead characters, Hermione, is muggle born, without a hint of magical blood in her family tree, and showed that with sheer perseverance, and shrewd application, she could best most "pure blood" wizards.

Where does the Mahabharata come in? Most of you know that the Mahabharata is the culmination of an inheritance war between two families, the five Pandavas and the 100 Kauravas, who are first cousins. All kings who participated in this war were kings by descent, save one. Karna, the son of a charioter, and the king of Anga. He was annointed King courtesy his prowess with the bow, which matched even that of the Pandava prince Arjuna, the son of Indra, king of the Gods. It is one instance in the epic where a man of a lowly caste rises to be counted as a king based on his valour and skill, not his birth or blood.

But then much like Harry, Karna is also revealed to be the son of Surya, the Sun God, and older brother of the Pandavas. Is his prowess and skill too a product of his divine descent? 

Yet there is another hero in this tale who showed that even one without a noble birth can show glimpses of greatness. Eklavya, the son of a tribal leader, was turned away by Dronacharya, the arms instructor of the royal household, due to his low birth. Through an almost fanatical faith in Dronacharya, and despite his guru(teacher)'s absence, he became an archer par excellence,even better than Arjuna at that young age. Alas, he never got to his chance to shine. Had Dronacharya not sought his right thumb as Guru Dakshina (payment to ones teacher), he might have overshadowed even the sons of Indra and Surya.

One common ghost haunts  the paragraphs of most mythology and fantasy literature: Blood. And while it makes for fascinating reading, how much does blood count for today? (Not much, if the recent  general election in India is anything to go by.) "Blood always tells" is a phrase doled out easily enough while pointing out a flaw in a person, but not often remembered in times of his success. But should it be given so much due? 

Must we always blame Nature, or also count the role that Nurture plays in moulding a person, even our children and heroes. Accepting that Nurture plays a bigger role is often difficult, because it sets the blame (or the credit) of how the future turns out squarely in our own uncertain hands. The Nurture philosophy would suggest that free will is THE defining human quality. Free will, that lone true freedom that our Maker grants us. Free will is what separates us from animals, who act on instinct, that slave of blood. Free will is what makes us destiny's writers, not its children.

Perhaps it is best to leave this predilection and fascination with blood on the pages of our books. Perhaps the concept itself is age old, medieval, and should be consigned to the realms it adorns best: fantasy and mythology. Too many wars have been fought and too many lives maligned on the altar of blood.  

We live in a new day and age, where the strengths  of our arms craft our future, not the strength of our blood. To quote Albus Dumbledore again, "It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."