Dec 13, 2012

“Courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.”

Panicker Uncle who passed away recently was a true gentleman who displayed every qualities associated with one. The sense of loss, as his mortal remains were confined to the flames, struck deep within the psyche. I remembered the regal, dignified Uncle whom I knew since childhood.

“Repose and cheerfulness are the badge of the gentleman -- repose in energy”.

The first thing that struck one about him was his overwhelming presence. As soon as you entered the house, he embraced you with his loving, lingering glance. He would then ask, in his characteristic deep booming voice, “So, what is the news”? He would then enquire about your family, your parents and all near and dear ones. All the while, his face would light up in a half smile. Occasionally, when in a naughty mood, he would ask you probing questions. Any attempts at evasion would result in more penetrating questions, said in a louder tone. It continued until you opened up or gave up completely. He would then pause, a faint smile hovering on his lips before changing the topic. It was all done in fun and he never harbored malice against anyone. His cheerfulness was infectious and you couldn't help catching the positive vibes that resonated in the air.

“A gentleman is a man who can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Panicker Uncle had wide experience of the world, people and relationships. It was intellectually stimulating to engage with him in conversations. Even when he disagreed with you, he backed his views with sharp logic. You never felt put down. People around him were used to his loud verbal questions, whether it is a member of the family or even a friendly neighbor who happened to peek in and came in the line of fire. An unfamiliar person would wonder at the miniscule impact of all the sound and fury on the people around. The fact was, one couldn’t help sense the love behind what seems like mock anger that would subside just as fast. He was brutally frank and never hesitated to call a spade a spade. He would speak out his mind in your face tempered by love and compassion. It was a refreshing change to experience such frankness and honesty.

Panicker Uncle was fascinated with Kathakali, the traditional dance drama art form. He was what one lovingly calls as ‘Kathakali branthan’ or ‘Kathakali mad’. To be called so is no reproach, but an enviable distinction. Some of the ‘Kathakali mad’ have gone to excessive lengths in their zeal for the art, spending a good deal of their time, resources and capacities in perfecting the drama. Panicker Uncle, even with restricted movements, would watch a Kathakali performance and then its repeat performances in other parts of the town in the following days. Not satisfied, he would later watch the recorded videos again and again. He expressed a child’s delight in exploring the nuances of a complex performance. His love for Kathakali extended beyond being a passionate audience. As one of the founders of Sopanam, he ensured that the annual Kathakali program was held every year, now for more than two decades. Unlike hosting a classical music program, a Kathakali performance involves a huge budget. Depending on the person, he pleaded, cajoled, bullied (in a nice way) and relentlessly pursued ways and means to raise the required resources. Many people like me are grateful to him for introducing us to this otherwise inaccessible art form.

“A gentleman can live through anything.”

During the later years, Panicker Uncle had to often wear an oxygen tube. Even then, he would become breathless soon. Nevertheless, his spirit never wavered, the loud voice with which he greeted people never faltered. A man who loved to travel and socialize was confined to his room. Yet, people who came to comfort him left comforted and energized. Although he had to go in and out of hospital, his cheerful nature and zest for life never left him. It was not possible to visualize him as a patient and I have never heard him complain about his condition, though obviously he must have often been in discomfort and pain.

He had a tremendous sense of humour. Recently, my daughter was watching him pop a pill. He asked her, “Would you like to have one? I have got green, blue, pink and white”. Once, when I enquired after him as he was lying in the ICU with about a dozen instruments strapped on, he replied cheerfully, “Oh, it’s fine here. The only thing that I hate is the ceiling, especially at night. It would be good if I could be lying under the blue sky watching the stars.” I have never seen any serious patient, maintaining such a cheerful demeanor and bringing smiles to concerned visitors. He seemed to be drawing upon vast resources of strength steeped in culture and heritage and in which physical illness was just a minor irritant. 

He was proud of me during the period when my articles were published regularly in the TOI. Later, when I entered a long barren phase, he would reprimand me saying, “Why don’t you write? Very few people have been given the talent that you have got.” Although said in a loud voice, it was easy to sense the deep concern and love beneath.

For me, he was one of those last old fashioned gentleman, who, even while holding strong beliefs, was open to learning and adjusting to modern trends, understand and be compassionate to the generations below him even as the changes might appear shocking to his sensibilities. Even without large financial resources, he lived life king size, true to himself and with understanding, acceptance and regard for all who crossed his path.

I could go on and on but it is difficult to confine the life of a person like him in words. Suffice it to say that for me, as I am sure for many others, he was a true gentleman and a tremendous source of inspiration.

Actually, when you come to think of it, it seems that they don’t make gentlemen like him anymore.

Oct 21, 2011

When friends talked of how Google has a finger in every pie and the danger of one company having so much of  our private information, I was skeptical. The reason being that like many others, I am a big user of a host of free Google services and never experienced any kind of infringement. However, a recent experience with my daughter is indeed a little scary.

Encouraged by the school, my daughter and her friends started their own individual gmail accounts. They used the chat services and forwarded interesting mails to each other. At my request, some of my friends also wrote to her and she was thrilled to check her account every day and read new mails. Sometime back, out of the blue, she received a notification from Google that she will not have access to her account and that her account will be closed within 30 days if she doesn't provide proof of her being older than 13.

I have always encouraged her to be honest and provide the correct information. It is the reason why though many of her friends are on fb, she isn't because you need to be at least 13 to have an fb account. The question that arises is why did Gmail in the first place, allow an account to be opened without any age limitations and later impose such conditions. Isn't it possible that, in future, our accounts can be blocked  by quoting some condition and applying it with retrospective effect?  Shouldn't such an account holder at least be allowed to retrieve the existing emails which included projects related to academics?

With such experiences in real life, how do I convince her that honesty is the best policy.

Aug 3, 2010

Photo courtesy Varsha Panicker
Last Sunday, I attended the Sopanam sponsored program on music and dance. Kathakali music has a haunting, melodious quality. It was mesmerizing and though my knowledge of its intricacies is a big zero, it was a treat to get lost in the music as it traversed a wide range with slow and fast, high and low notes ably supported by the accompanists. Mohiniattam that followed was initially played by the junior students including Pramila whom I had primarily gone to watch.

It was 8.30 p.m. People were eager to go home. Sunanda Nair, the Mohiniattam teacher came on the stage and set it on fire. Her hour long performance bowled people over as they sat riveted indifferent to everything else. It was a test of physical and mental stamina as the dancer moved vigorously all over the stage for more than an hour embodying the essence of the mythological characters.  It was an unparalleled experience-pure aesthetic pleasure.

So, what was the dance all about? The dancer, dressed in off white sari embroidered with bright golden brocade, gracefully moved all over the stage. One of the scenes depicted was Sita’s swayamvar where the assembled kings had to lift the bow. Initially, she acted out the arrogance of the king as he flexed his muscle and overconfidently moved towards the bow. He tried to lift it putting in all his energy. As it refused to budge, the expression on the face changed from grimace at the effort to a false smile at the insult- then anger then frustration alternating with a mask of all is well. Different kings came forward, each of them arrogant in his own way, forced to retire with heads bowed. And, then it was Ram’s turn. A humble yet confident approach and he had lifted the bow with effortless grace.

Another scene I remember is that of Jatayu, the eagle. A slow movement of the stretched out arms, muscles rippling across and we could imagine the giant bird ready to take off. The arm movement’s increases as the bird gains height and slowly the dancer raises herself on her toes depicting the majesty of the bird. The arm movements and the entire body in tandem settled to a relaxed pace showing the bird in flight. Further on, the bird’s arm is cut off and all the agony and the courage to carry on were reflected in the dancer’s face and body language.

As I mentioned earlier, the dance was an experience of pure aesthetic pleasure. Aesthetic pleasure can be distinguished from sensual pleasure and intellectual pleasure. It is the emotional component of our response to works of art and natural beauty. Sensual pleasure, primarily body based, for example, loud music, raises the heartbeats and as one indulges further, it has undesirable consequences. It leaves you drained of energy seeking rest and recuperation. Intellectual pleasure is a mind based activity that is a self confining event and rarely touches another person.

Aesthetic pleasure is more all encompassing transcending the senses and touching somewhere deep in the soul. As I watched the performance, there was a pure sense of joy, for want of a better word, a feeling of being transported to another world, time hanging still and all encompassing peace and fulfillment. The experience is actually energizing as I felt a sense of power throbbing within me. At the same time, it was also a total sensual experience as the haunting music, the beat of the drums and the song kept perfect rhythm to the action on the stage. I had forgotten or rather my attention had shifted from the fact that I was sitting in a hall watching an artist. I was watching the bird in all its essence, the energy coursing through its veins, its majesty. I was the king who was humiliated, forced to hide the discomfort. Nothing and no one else mattered. It was scenes that were dance, painting and melody rolled in one filling the frame called the stage.

Mohiniattam is based on the Natyasastra, according to which the goal of any art form is to invoke rasa in the audience. Rasa is not easily translatable, an approximation would be aesthetic appreciation or enjoyment but then, this meaning leaves out the spiritual and philosophical aspects of the term. It is like that glorious moment when there is no other reality except that of the art; when the audience and the artist becomes one in spirit, you get the full experience of the rasa.

It was not me alone who experienced the magic. The audience sat through the performance with rapt attention, no one appearing bored or ready to leave. As the audience filed out after a thunderous applause, there was a palpable energy in the air, a sense of awe and reverence. The mood was best summed up by a housewife who spontaneously remarked, “I am lucky to have watched this program. It is a once in a lifetime chance.”

Jun 12, 2010

Car Seva

My love for cars is more utilitarian than for the prestige of owning a famous brand or other intangible factors like driving pleasure etc. No wonder my first car was a Maruti Omni, the cheapest car available with maximum capacity in terms of passengers. Even then it invited envy because of its unique Army green colour.

I used it extensively traveling to office at Kanjur from my home at Thane. I had an arrangement with 5-6 colleagues who were picked up from various spots on the way and dropped back in the evening. Apart from good company, this arrangement also took care of my petrol bills.

I liked the clear, unobstructed view as there was no projection in front.  I could stop so close to the vehicle in front that if I wanted, I could reach out and touch it. During a Crompton party, a senior manager wanted to try driving my van. He made a round and then commented that he felt like he was driving a truck. Incidentally, he drove a company owned Esteem. In those days, at Crompton, you got a Maruti 800 when you became a Manager, it is airconditioned when you become a Senior Manager. Another level up and you get a chauffer. Further up, the car is traded for an Esteem. You had to drive around with that Esteem till GM level when you can trade up for an Indica.

After the van, I got an old Maruti 800, unbelievable 20 years old- all my protests about how good the condition is etc. didn’t have much effect when people learnt of its age. With its powerful Japanese engine, it served me well for a couple of months. And then, one rainy day I had just crossed a narrow check naka when it refused to move from the middle of the road. There was a beat chowky in front and two poor policemen drenched in the rain started pushing it from either side while I sat inside steering it to the side. I had to foot a steep repairs bill.

Another time, while I was driving, the car forgot that it had to stop when I braked. It kept on moving and I kept on guiding it trying to be in a position where I didn’t have to stop. It was not easy but luck was on my side as I drove it as usual for a couple of kilometers towards my destination.  Not wishing to try my luck too often, I traded the 800 for a Santro with all bells and whistles- power steering, power windows etc.

I am a little scared of these big cars- my friend has this Accent and just thinking about it I wonder with its huge protruding bonnet, as to how he is able to see what is on front, left and right. It would be a pleasure driving on the highways but to think of maneuvering it on the narrow city roads gives me nightmares. Thanks to a generous friend, recently I got a chance to drive a Honda City for 5-6 hours, mostly on the highways.  It was a great experience, though thanks to my inexperience with the 5th gear, I would often slip into 3rd gear.

I would be a little ashamed of the 800, especially when I had to give rides to others. However, I had my moment when once, we took another family friend to a school sports event. After the event, the number of members had increased by two. I reluctantly mentioned that maybe some of us will have to take an auto. The lady, who herself owned an Indica, said,

“All of us will not fit in.”
“Who said? The old Maruti 800 is the best vehicle, better than all these modern vehicles. Everyone will definitely fit in. I will show you.”

She proceeded to give instructions on who should sit where, who should sit on whose laps with due consideration to age, gender, weight and X factor. Unfortunately, being the driver, no one was allowed to sit on my lap. Once all the doors were firmly closed, we zoomed ahead with a triumphant roar.

At least for a day, the Maruti 800 had made my day.

May 16, 2010

Nirmal Lifestyle mall is a landmark in Mulund. With plenty of spaces open to the sky and designed around huge trees, the mall is unlike the typical closed cut off artificial architecture of most malls. There is also a huge residential complex behind the mall.

Nirmal Lifestyle was conceptualized and born of the vision of one man, Dharmesh Jain.  During the real estate slump, he wrote a book titled, ‘There is a winner in you’. Most of the book is filled with homilies such as ‘Work hard’, ‘Be quality conscious’ etc. However, there is one interesting chapter on his father, the late Mr. S.P.Jain, the founder of the company.

Mr.Jain Sr., although diabetic, was a fitness freak. He was Dharmesh’s best friend and could discuss all matters freely and frankly. Apart from encouraging his son to think big in business, he also guided him on personal matters. Dharmesh was in love with a girl called Anju but there was no positive response. The father gave various tips over a long period with the result that finally, Anju consented to marry Dharmesh.

On the day of the engagement, his father, in his excitement forgot to take his regular medicines. He suffered a brain haemorrage and his movements were severely restricted. Typically, there were murmurings that the girl has brought bad luck to the family. A few days later, Jain Sr. called all his relatives to his room. He then mentioned that Anju has brought good luck to the family with her arrival. If it had not been for her, he would not have survived. From that day, Anju replaced him as his father’s best friend.

May 6, 2010

A couple of months back, my wife Rita, was hurrying down the steps with luggage at Thane railway station when she fell on her back. She still carried on as she had to catch a train to Nagpur on a 2 week official tour.

She told me about it only after she came back. There was a lemon sized swelling on her lower back but there was no pain. I insisted that we show it to a doctor and took her to a lady doctor, whom we shall call Mrs.A.  We didn’t know her personally, but she ran a full fledged mini hospital. After examination, Mrs.A said that it has to be operated upon.  It was a Saturday and she said that it had to be done soon, on Monday itself. She asked us to see a surgeon, Dr.K, then and there, who will do the operation on Monday and it can be conveniently done at her hospital.

We went to the surgeon Dr.K, who got the call from Mrs.A when we were sitting with him. Now, Dr.K was attached to another hospital and preferred doing the operation there but we could make out that Mrs.A wanted it done at her hospital only. Some blood tests had to be done before the operation and since the next day was Sunday, Mrs.A specially arranged a pathologist to take blood samples at her hospital.

I started doing some research and found that unless it was painful, such swellings are simple collection of dead cells with the technical term 'haematoma' and would often go by itself. We also visited an ayurvedic doctor, who without even an examination, prescribed some ointments and tablets.

Meanwhile, we bought time for a week from Mrs.A, citing work pressure. The ayurvedic medicine began working and the swelling started shrinking. After a week and a half, we informed Mrs.A over the telephone . She insisted that it be shown to her as it could develop complications. We didn’t go.

Over the course of time, the swelling disappeared completely.

It is pathetic to see the greed of doctors like Mrs.A, who schedule an operation without doing any preliminary studies. There are people who point a knife at you and ask for your money. I feel they are better than people like Mrs.A who unnecessarily drive a knife through your body and then ask large sums of money for cutting you up.

Apr 28, 2010

Generation gap is characterized by wide divergence in views and approach between members of two generations. When you consider these views, there is no right or wrong or, in other words, both are right depending on the viewpoint. For instance, when I was in college, I sought my father’s permission to buy a scooter. I had visions of an affordable and quick private transport, easy parking etc. My father consented but asked me to buy one with a side car. His concern was about safety, speed limits etc. The gap was there but each of us was right in his own way.

The generation gap doesn’t seem to have been a major problem in the past perhaps because life was relatively stable. You lived in the same house and generally retired from the same company you had joined. But, today, it  is the age of specialists and a single individual, whether it is father or uncle, cannot have updated information on all aspects of life. Tomorrow, if my daughter decided to become a clinical psychologist, for example, it is impossible for me to say a clear yes or no. At best, I can guide her to seek factual information from professionals in the field. If I use some incomplete sketchy information I have and come to a judgment, I may do more harm than good. A friend of mine with genuine artistic talent was dissuaded from joining the advertising line by his father. The father worked in the marketing department of a multinational company (with no direct responsibility for marketing) and his only exposure to the advertising world was through the glamorous client service girls sent by the agency.  He came to the conclusion that this was not a nice place for decent kids.

We are conditioned and brought up to respect elders and their views. This is often good because the elders have more life experience and can pass on valuable tips to the younger generation. Yet, things can go wrong when elders cross their areas of competency and pass on advice on everything under the sun. A friend of mine was planning to buy a second hand car. His usage was minimal and he saw no point in blocking a large sum and buying a new car. He informed his father about buying a second hand car (not sought permission).  The father made an observation that buying a new car would be better. He is now saddled with a huge monthly EMI and an almost idle fast depreciating car. This man is not some young, inexperienced person. He is approaching his 50’s and a senior officer in a bank, but was still considered incapable of taking such a decision.

In my view, while elders deserve respect and consideration, it is neither unconditional nor one way. The elders also need to understand the changed times and not live in an ivory tower. They also need to be able to figure out when to intervene and when to keep off.  I have some elders-distant relatives, who sometimes speak disparagingly about my choice of career, place of residence etc.  This would be acceptable if they had gone into the subject in depth or tried to understand the circumstances that led to the choice. Otherwise, it just appears like an ego trip.

As they say, God gave us relatives (elders), but thank God, we can choose our friends.  I have often got sincere, practical and constructive advice from friends, even though some of them are far younger than me. They do not dish out advice from a high pedestal but gently probe and understand the context with compassion. They are in tune with the changing mores of society and are not judgmental. I can ‘be myself’ with them and feel loved and understood, regardless of what I say or don’t say, do or don’t do. Sadly, except for an honorable few, I cannot say the same about my experience with elders.