Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The bittersweetness of being almost

This is not a review. It is not an attempt to critique or summarise a film that many have been talking about in different ways. But yes, it is a response of some kind, to a movie that I watched in an serendipitous matinee moment.

I found myself a completely willing participant, happy to be taken in by the melodramatic retelling of what is undoubtedly a motivational story, even without Bollywood's embellishments. I found myself choking at the appropriate junctures, shedding a tear and wringing my hands at others, smiling and cheering mentally when things went the right way for the protagonist. I found myself heaving a sigh of relief when the almost-moment yielded to complete victory.

All sports movies finally do this, and Mary Kom was no exception. When the national anthem was played in the movie to her final win, the entire auditorium stood sharing the pride of victory, much like the way they clapped when the Chak De girls scored their goals or the boys in Lagaan beat the villainous British at their own game.

But as I said at the beginning, this is really not about the movie. It's about the struggle and possibility of extreme disappointment felt by all those in the rarefied spaces of final rounds, in any sport, any game. It's about knowing that you're in an activity, a sphere, where every year older is a mark against selection, where the margins of success are so narrow, where the making of a champion depends on milliseconds and micro differences in speed or skill, where the second best is forgotten even faster than last weekend's meal.

You see, I'm one of those who's watched, all too often, the face of the child who gets so close to being there in the centre of the ring, a point away from winning, a stroke away from a championship, but who doesn't quite make it all the way. I've hoped and prayed with the team that all too often reaches the finals only to make second best. I've watched them walk off the field knowing they could have done it with just another push, just a little more speed, just a little more perseverance. I've empathized with the keenness of loss and experienced, second-hand, the moving away of the camera as the spotlight moves to those in first place, leaving the others in complete darkness. In sports, not winning means suffering repeated heartache and developing the ability to bounce back with amazing resilience. And given the high levels of effort that go into participating and staying inside the competitive space, any distance covered is remarkable, yet we rarely (publicly) acknowledge that.

For every Mary Kom, there are scores of young women (and men) who don't make it, who are not allowed to feel the pleasure of their play just because they play. They are nothing if they are not at the top, and we all know that there is room only for one in that position. We all make too much of the win, and for those who view and judge, the play becomes meaningless without it. Would Mary's story be any less worthwhile if she had lost that gold? Or, a couple of years later, had failed to make it to medal round? We idolise the one who reaches and ignore those who almost reach.

For those who are in the sport, while winning may be the ultimate validation, it is certainly not the only point of playing or participating. For the player, it's about playing, about being on the field, on court, in the ring, at the table. Every game/match is an end in itself. In India, sticking with sports calls for a huge amount of commitment to the process of play, for a willingness and ability to remain unaffected by the politics and greed that surround it. The very fact that someone has stayed inside long enough to make it to a visible platform is highly commendable. But unless their staying power has been medal-worthy, it is simply not acknowledged. We do need success stories that celebrate victory and achievement; they play an important motivational role and stoke our vicarious pride (not to mention jingoism, oops, sorry, national spirit). But we need to also allow for the nuanced emotional spaces in which the rest reside, those whose effort is not counted as success.

In business, you're not set aside because you haven't made the Fortune 500 (or 50) list. Even in creative fields, your work is judged on its own merit rather than exclusively on the basis of prizes and awards. But in sports, the winner truly takes it all. There is no second best, there is only loss that is remembered.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

weekend gone! and other academic peeves

When a weekend begins with making a to-do list, it's a sad state of affairs. Especially when that list is overwhelmingly work related. I made the list Friday night and now, close to 48 hours later, I have done two and a half of the seven tasks I set myself--and mind you, that was a pared-down list! I suppose one can take some satisfaction in having spent time doing things that were not on the list--a habit I have mentioned before. But this time I really don't want to talk about the list itself but the tendency many of us seem to have developed of setting goals for weekends. This past week I've read more than one article exhorting us to eschew work emails when we're not at work, or limiting online time when we should be off, and so on. Reading, agreeing with, even sharing on Facebook is one thing, and actually doing what we have so enthusiastically liked, is most emphatically, another.

(alert--moving to an ostensibly unconnected thought)

A couple of years ago a student walked into my office when I was doing what seemed to be ... nothing. In other words, I was staring earnestly into my computer screen and moving my fingers over a keyboard while words were appearing on the monitor in apparent random fashion. He asked me, quite earnestly, "Ma'am, what is it that professors do with their time?" The daggers I threw at him as I paused in the middle of my nothing-activity seemed to have missed their mark, as he continued: "I mean, yeah, you teach a few classes, you grade a few papers, but then, like, that takes just a few hours, right?" More daggers, spiked ones, this time. Again, they miss the target and the voice drones on. "Must be a cushy job, no?"

In my politest tone I replied, "Yes, it is. You get to interact with all kinds, too. And read their work." The smile that went with those words must have made it seem like a pleasantry, because he just smiled back, waved a greeting, and went on his way.

Yes, we've all heard that truism about a woman's work never being done, but no one told me that academics really don't get to have weekends unless they are extraordinarily organized. And tell me, do you know anyone who is, really? And what about academics who also happen to be women? Is that some kind of double whammy?

What I really wanted to tell that student was this: come, be a fly on the wall in my office. Come listen to all the excuses I have to listen to, each time someone doesn't show up for class, or has to turn in an assignment late, or not turn it in at all. Come watch me sit in on meetings that could be wrapped up in twenty minutes but take two hours. Come see me sign scores of forms and type an equal number of letters. All this, at work. By the time I can think about getting down to "real" work, it is time to go home, so I just take it there with me. Between getting dinner ready and clearing up in the kitchen, I am planning tomorrow's lecture. And after everyone else has gone to bed, I am taking notes and grading papers.

So what about that academic output called research? Didn't they tell you? That's what weekends are for!

But wait, that wasn't even on my list....

In short. Tasks incomplete. Weekend over. And out.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Not just things, never just things!

I open the cupboard and stare into its messy fullness, wondering where to start. I reluctantly take out a bunch of papers and begin rifling through them. A keychain falls out, begging to make the transition to the other side of possession, where it can rest peacefully among other trash. It is asking me to be trashed. I pick it up, my hand makes the short arc to the bin and then stops. Wasn't this the key ring I used to carry my first dorm room key? All of thirty two years ago? I pull my hand back and open my palm to stare at it and the images come rushing back.

"Maa, the milk is boiling over!" Have to stem the memories and pay attention to boring details such as scorched burners and spilt milk.

Ten minutes later I'm back and the keychain, fortunately, gets thrown where it belongs. But I find a picture frame with some stars pasted on it. No picture, but that's no matter, I know what used to go there. My daughter's kindergarten photograph, after she made the transition from wailing newbie to confident star pupil. Now how can I discard that? A few more minutes of staring into the frame does it. It goes into the "keep for now" pile and I go back to sorting the sundries on the shelf. Broken bracelets, odd single earrings, old diaries, a Beanie Baby of indeterminate colour, ... so many precious items that pull me into spaces of feeling and remembering.

Each time I plan to clean up and clear up the layers of living that we trip on all over the house, I run into this wall of memories, all tied up in these things, some broken, some bruised (the things, not the memories), some only vaguely recognizable, but all somehow important. Too important to be cleared away. Like the ticket stub to a Broadway performance of "The Phantom of the Opera" or a notebook with my father's handwriting, mathematical equations that I cannot understand but that carry the sense of his hand moving over the page, or the case of an old camera that holds the stories of weddings and family outings.

One of my friends suggested that I take pictures of the things and discard the material versions. Pack all those atoms into the digital space instead, to float ambiently on my electronic picture frame as I try to avoid distraction at work. That would allow me to boast of neatly stacked books on my shelf instead of a rumble of odds and ends of vague description. This would mean making space for the many new layers of living that are waiting in the boxed present to be unwrapped and put on shelves. It also means privileging the space of now over the remnants of the past, those little catalysts that speed up my backward journey to a different time.

An hour passes and I have made little progress. I look at the piles (very small) that have built up on the floor by the cupboard. The "trash without doubt" pile is negligible. The "keep for now" pile is larger, but the largest pile is "do not discard". I need help here. Someone who invests no meaning in these things--and who can see them as just things--needs to step in and help.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Not Silence but Verse

These poems were part of a call for submissions by Prakriti Foundation in early 2013, a collection titled "Not Silence but Verse". Some Tanka and some Haiku. But all born out of an everyday anger.

Breaking glass cuts through
skin, teeth, hair, mind, to settle
deep, in memory.

Fingers filter sleep
letting it escape for good
like the child’s blanket
that was slid off silently
to reveal my growing pain.


I could give a damn
about outraged modesty
when it is my self
the totality of me
into which rage has been poured.


The sound stuffs itself
out of hearing range;
one law, that’s all it would take
to quiet the fear
and turn the panic to peace.


His gaze unzips me
from bus-stop to work and back
wreaking possession.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Weekend in West Godavari

"They sell fish and buy cars," said my friend and host, most matter-of-factly, as we watched a shiny white sedan draw up by the dusty track outside the house. She was referring to the rapid replacement, over the past decade, of lush paddy fields by aquaculture ponds that brought quick riches for a large number of entrepreneurs in the region. Of course, there are also several stories of those quick bucks making an equally quick exit, but there's no denying that West Godavari is one of the most prosperous areas in the undivided state of Andhra Pradesh.

But I wasn't really here to engage in an economic analysis of the district. I was, in fact, here to disengage from analysis and simply take that much needed break from a non-stop series of deadlines. It was the first step in taking my own advice seriously (ref: my previous post).

So, here are a few moments from that pause in my city-fied routine.
I find myself, an unlikely pilgrim at the Ramana Kendram in Jinnuru

The two heroes of the district, Alluri Seetharamaraju and Sir Arthur Cotton flank the ubiquitous Gandhi bust outside Jinnuru's community library

On the edge of the new economy of prawns; aquaculture in Peddanindrakolanu

Jesus and Israel help us relieve our thirst with freshly picked tender coconuts

Gadde Danamma watches a herd of goats with her trusted aide

...while the Goddess of the paddy fields tries to ward off inclemency of various kinds

Emerald green and fiery orange: my lasting impression of the Godavari basin
And then there are pictures that are left for my mind to savour: a rickety yet pleasant auto-rickshaw drive from Bhimavaram to Peddanindrakolanu; a walk across the village with my friend Sreedevi and Parvathi, who insists on showing us both the Sivalayam and the Krishna temple (rare moments for the skeptic in me); waking up to crisp, hot pesarattu spiced with chopped onions and green chillies, made by Pinnamma; sitting on the terrace and watching the sun set over a scene I had only so far seen in the odd Telugu movie.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

the year of setting things aside

It's two weeks into the year and it already feels old. This year crept in on slow legs, carrying on its prematurely aging back the burden of false promises and stillborn ideas, dressed in a new veil of shiny hope. From time to time this covering slips off to show us that underneath, there is little that is new. It is just the inexorable passage of time. Yet we accept the fiction. We choose to be intoxicated by the effervescence of the market and charmed by the seductive ringing of bells of various kinds. We wake up on a day marked as the beginning of a new calendar and believe that we are changed. That the world is changed.

Yes, I received my share of phone calls, emails and text messages. I stayed up till past midnight and colluded in a round of hugs and handshakes. I posted a post on Facebook and responded to others' posts as well. I willingly contributed to the conspiracy of expectation and excitement.

After all, ritual is an important part of our lives, and the ritual of new year does allow us a pause of some kind. Apart from throwing away old calendars and putting new ones up on our kitchen doors, or acquiring new pocketbooks that we hope to fill with interesting and important appointments and assignations, it allows us to think about what how our plans went and what new ones we can make so that we can look back on how our plans went the next time this comes around [with apologies for that complex sentence].

I'm not given to making resolutions, really. But I guess we can't get away from that process of reflection, however brief, and with reflection comes some resolve, however faint.

I spent the first weekend of the year clearing out my closets. That yielded a big suitcase of clothes that I had no need for. The process made me think a little bit about the nature of acquisitiveness...we see, we admire, we buy, we use (briefly), we put away, we rediscover, we wonder why, and we throw away. Of course, life is meant to be enjoyed and experienced, but maybe that doesn't mean one has to keep buying every beautiful dupatta one sees in Fab India or every woven garment that one stops to admire.

That's when I decided that this would be the year of setting things aside. From clothes one doesn't really need to negative emotions one doesn't really need to feel. Guilt, for instance. Or resentment.

But maybe what I really need to do is to work on setting aside time. To do nothing. To read. To laze on that armchair in the verandah and watch the children playing on the street. To write more. To call friends. To enjoy my coffee in the morning without thinking of the hundred things I need to do in the next twelve hours.

To make sure that these promises to myself do not add to the burden of the year as it passes on to the next.