A reminder of our frailty as a species

A Single Eye

Loneliness is a strange companion.
She comes to visit me
when I am alone
or among a hundred.

She’s my best friend
when I think of my brothers
out there
in some other Universe
or the whole span
of my physical existence
as the blink of someone’s eye
and of their existence
as the blink
of someone else’s eye
and of their existence further —

Loneliness, my friend, my companion,
I blink my eye.

 

– First published in the magazine New Quest(Edited by the late Sh. Dilip Chitre)

As Delhi prepares to vote, an Indian reminisces about voting in Britain

A version of this article was first published on Newslaundry. You can read the original piece at https://www.newslaundry.com/2020/02/03/as-delhi-prepares-to-vote-an-indian-reminisces-about-voting-in-britain

 

0_SWNS_REINDEER_VOTING_01-12
December polling! From: https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/uk-world-news/gallery/dogs-general-election-2019-polling-21080855 (Image: SWNS)

On December 12 last year (2019), my wife and I voted in the general election in England, where we work. Interestingly, we could vote despite being Indian citizens. It’s a curious fact that UK residents from Commonwealth countries have voting rights. It may seem odd but it’s only fair given that our ancestors made a massive contribution to the UK’s wealth in the colonial times. In fact, it’s our colonial history (from a historic concept of commonwealth-ians being “British subjects”) that gave us this right.

It was around 9 am and my partner, Chhaya, had to catch the 10:52 train to London to attend her classes. We had decided to vote since it was billed as one of the most seminal elections in the history of the United Kingdom. However, she was worried that if she stayed back to vote, due to the expected large crowds, she might miss the train. The election day in the UK is not a public holiday!

It so happens that being a student in the UK has voting privileges. A student can register to vote at both their university and their home, and later decide where to cast their ballot. Chhaya could have registered to vote in London as well as our small town of Loughborough in the East Midlands. It was a little late to do that now. The other option was to get back to the voting centre before 10 pm. Voting centres in the UK usually stay open from 7 am to 10 pm. However, that would have meant cutting it too close for her return train from London.

The polling notice that we had received by ordinary mail provided the details of our polling centre – a community centre about a 10-minute walk from our home. We were in a scramble to find the polling cards. We also reckoned that we should keep an ID with us and hoped that we return in time for the train.

To understand this concern, we have to recount our experiences of voting in India.

It was the early 2000s. Chhaya was a young woman voting for the first time, in a municipal election in a small town in Punjab.

Chhaya and her father went to the voting booth in a government school. There, people of all hues and classes stood patiently in a queue in the afternoon sun. Polling officers sat on a table crossing names. When it was Chhaya’s turn, the sheets said that she had already voted.

She and her father meekly protested but to no avail. Most young people hardly ever vote, so it seems that their votes decide to cast themselves. As with other numerous things on an average Indian day, she had to accept this as an act of fate and, after a two-hour ordeal, head back home without voting.

It was in the late 90s that I voted for the first time, in a parliamentary election. It was in Gurgaon, now known as Gurugram. Not a single shopping mall existed then and the place was, almost true to its name, really just a gaon, that is a village.

The voting centre was a short walk from my home and rather organised. There were benches outside with party representatives ticking off voters from their lists. The centre itself was a sparse room sitting by itself at the edge of the Officers’ Colony.

I didn’t really know who I was voting for or why. I was voting because my uncle was voting and he had asked me to vote.

I remember standing in a queue for a few minutes, showing my voter ID, which was compulsory to the booth officer, getting a long paper on which I stamped my vote in a curtained booth, folding the paper, putting it into a box, and getting the famous indelible ink mark on my left index finger. In India, the indelible ink mark is used to make sure the same person doesn’t vote again – a medal of honour for having participated in keeping democracy ticking.

Indian elections have moved on since in terms of technology and systems, with voting done on electronic machines and celebrities parading their inked fingers to mobilise voters via Twitter. The task of organising the largest election in the world is in itself a big responsibility and it is well organised. Like Cricket, which the English introduced too, India has now taken elections to another level.

Wikipedia tells me that the indelible ink was first used in 1962 in the erstwhile Mysore state, and I doubt any technology is going to replace it soon.

To address the question of the voter ID, I did a quick search for the polling notice and found it in the papers on the piano. The card said, “You do not need to carry this card with you.” Bewildered, we also discovered that one does not need to carry any ID to the polling station.

With that out of the way and a comfortable cushion of an hour and a half for the expected long queue, we headed out to the community centre. It proved hard to find. There were no benches or agents around, only a simple board that said “Polling Centre”.

Inside, there was a bench with two polling officers engaged in a relaxed conversation, and no one else. There was no semblance of a “once in a generation election”.

We went to the table and gave our names. They crossed out our names from a list of registered voters and gave us a sheet each. On each sheet were the names of the five candidates in the fray and the names and symbols of their respective parties. We were directed towards the voting area. There were pencils on a bench and we put a cross in a box next to our preferred candidate.

We folded the small sheets and slid them into the ballot box. We waited for the indelible ink but it never came. Was there no real concern about people coming back to vote a second time?

We were done with the whole voting experience in around five minutes. It was such a big contrast from our experience of voting in India.

Polling ended on December 12 and counting began overnight. The results came out on Friday the 13th. Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party won with a big majority everywhere, except in Scotland. The country is still trying to make up its mind about how prescient the superstitions about Friday the 13th are!

 

 

Leader

Fire within and without!
My natural state is leadership
not for me
to be a follower
my natural state is leadership

When existence is in flames
inside and out
not for me 
to panic
to trample over others
for me
to stay calm in mind
with cool waters
douse the fire
lead
my fellow mates
put in the same place
by a temporal accident
the same time, the same space
the same air -
lead them away
away from danger
to live and fight
another day.

My natural state is leadership
even when I am 
of a clouded mind
a dull, tired body
pushed back by fear
and trepidation
fear I drink 
in my daily coffee
fear paid to me
by my mortgage
fear attached to me
by my possessions
fear my gains
have given me
fear of consequences
of actions
fear of not knowing
the right label
the right politics
fear of not knowing
if left is right
or right is right
fear that not knowing
is the fear
fear that there is
not enough time
to evaluate
to ponder
to know
till I know
there is not enough time
fear
of inaction
of pussillanimity.

My natural state is leadership
I cannot but act
with blind eyes
and sharp vision
I must act
for being a leader
has consequences
and so does not being
everything has consequences
it is a maze of cause 
and effect
a complex maze
of butterfly effects
but I must act
in the hope
that a butterfly
has my name
vanity perhaps
but I must act
Act
as a leader needs
to face the view
the open vista
the hissing caldera
the open battlefield
to lead troops into
a clear horizon
to promise.

Not for the leader
to be another number
to be forgotten easily
in that everlasting
brief moment of history
For the leader
to face the first bullet
or seem to do so
and if not dead
to be known 
as the one
the one
not to fight
what cannot be fought
to accept
in wisdom
or in foolishness
accidents of random
arrangement of genes
of space time and fellow beings
the natural state
of leadership
Fire within and without!
Fire within and without! ©Amitabh Trehan

Life as rhombus and triangles and as Enchanted Lens(es)!

Following on from my previous post – Life is a rhombus; Maybe your shapes are more complex with interesting patterns! This abstraction by the way of introduction to the following photograph of mine and as a nostalgic ode to my days of photography competition!

I spent many wonderful years being part of the Enchanted Lens Camera Club during my PhD days in Albuquerque, New Mexico (Any Breaking Bad fans here?). There was a monthly competition where you could submit upto 3 photographs judged by an expert (often a distinguished visiting photographer). Each photograph was judged out of 15 – the learning was immense as photographs rolled across the big screen one by one over a riveting two or so hours with insightful comments on each one of them!! Three photographs with the best scores in the general and some thematic categories won prizes i.e. pride,  honour and a ribbon.

Here is one of my photographs which won one of the prizes with the submission title being B-Assigned-Jagged triangles (i.e a submission in category B (amateur), Assigned (a themed competition) with the photgraph titled `Jagged Triangles’).

B-Assigned-Jagged triangles

Comments? Any guesses how the photograph happened? Hint: this is not a computer generated graphic nor is it digital!!

Life is a Rhombus

Life is a Rhombus

Your eyes are a rhombus 
your nose is a rhombus 
your circular eyeballs 
wheels on the pathways 
of the rhombus 
your lips have sharp edges; 
you chin is a wedge 
your face a rhombus

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On persistent demand from a friend, I revive this old classic. The story goes that during my student days when I used to have this poem up on my university web page at University of New Mexico, the person bacame so spooked that he almost reconsidered his move to UNM at the prospect of there being such deadly poets there!!

Once a poem is revieled to the world, it becomes the reader’s property and a canvas with some structure for the reader or listener to peg their own emotions and thoughts upon – like pegs that mountaineers nail onto a mountainside to secure ropes and feet upon to make a journey – to a summit or somewhere high. A good poet hopefully allows a free exploration across many paths guided by each individual’s thought. Thus, I would like to say much about what I was trying to convey from this rhombus shaped poem – save that is was inspired by reading about what makes a face pleasant. Over to you – please share your thoughts in the comments section below, if the poem inspires you to some!

 

 

 

Poetry Chaikhana on a Cold Winter Night

Buddhist temple front, Albuquerque

A short tribute to this lovely poetry blog an email from whom lands almost daily in my mailbox with a poem and commentary. I remember my cousin introducing me to this many years ago – occasionally I would read the mail but even if not, the fact that a piece of loved creativity walks into my mailbox often gives a warm feeling inside. Thanks go to Ivan M. Granger who has been running this initiative.

Here is the  beauitiful Haiku he shared:

This cold winter night
by Buson

English version by Sam Hamill

This cold winter night,
that old wooden-head Buddha
would make a nice fire

So, would you burn your beliefs for survival?

As a thanks:

Lovely Haiku, Ivan
Weather is chilly here too
Warm thoughts though I share

Have you written a Haiku? Care to share it in the comments section? Have you managed to follow the structure (5-7-5) and talk about nature in every one of them (as traditionally done apparently)?

A Single Eye

Loneliness is a strange companion.
She comes to visit me
when I am alone
or among a hundred.

She's my best friend
when I think of my brothers
out there
in some other Universe
or the whole span
of my physical existence
as the blink of someone's eye
and of their existence
as the blink
of someone else's eye
and of their existence further ---

Loneliness, my friend, my companion,
I blink my eye.

Another resurrected poem (originally published in the quarterly New Quest, a journal of participative inquiry, edited by the legendary Dilip Chitre).

Are we by ourselves in the whole wide universe? As lonely (7 billion lonely ones), we have thought a lot about this. Maybe we are not, as we discover more and more water on the moon and even that asteriods can replenish their own water!!

Poems resurrected on National Poetry Day

Today happens to be national poetry day,  I suddenly realized

and out of the tattered green book

below are a couple I have revived:

Formula Poetry

Poetry is spewn

from the exhaust pipe

of a revving car

desperate

at an unending red light

on a vast open road,

fed into mad frenzy by an imginary accelerator

held back

by real brakes, strong chains.

Poetry is a revolt

asking for the freedom of flight

poetry is a revolt against the red light;

the question is —–

does poetry turn the light green

does the revolt turn into a revolution?

Since I couldn’t stop at one, here’s another:

Day after God

What’s the good

if today

they remember me as a great poet,

if tomorrow

as a great leader

and maybe day after

as a God —-

What’s the good

if day after

they still search for Gods.

 

Roma: as I saw it!

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6155172/mediaviewer/rm3931467776

I saw Roma two summers ago; there was something captivating about it – there was a sense of being home away from home; a bit more cleaner, as colourful and maybe a bit less noisier home than the home that is India. I walked through Roma, took the metro to get there from Coyocan, the old heart of Mexico city. The latitude in the city was similar, the fruits ripening to the same heat: mangoes, mangoes con chile, Indian/mexican small limes, peas in pods, the spices in the salsa, yet a subtly different flavour to the place signaling a new yet familiar adventure. I was exhausted by the cold that living in northern Ireland had set in my bones and was feeling like the fruit that welcomes the summer.

The next time I saw Roma, it was on Netflix, The movie brought back the kind of flavours of nostalgia I had felt when I had walked those streets; along with the philosophical and familiar presence of inequality and poverty laced with the abundance of unmelodramatic love our societies share.

Maybe poetically, Roma on Netflix  sat there, strikingly crisp in black and white among the many offerings of bollywood movies, food shows and epic dramas! As I think about it, three things influenced my watching of the movie – those six weeks I spent in Mexico city, getting to know some of the director Alfonso Cuaron’s extended family in that time (a fortunate accident, let’s say!), and the fact that I am from India but living away from her.

The movie was already in the buzz a few months ago  – we had even made some unsuccessful attempts to get tickets to one of the very few public screenings of the movie. Thus, there were some expectations. I have to say that the movie easily lived upto them, in a rather calm, gentle and unhurried manner. As was recommended to me by somebody in the know, it should definitely be watched on the big screen, if possible. Not for the usual reasons one may watch a big studio action blockbuster – big action, big sound, big effects etc…but maybe for the reasons one may watch a great painting in an art gallery.

The movie is a beautiful black, white and many shades of gray creation of director-writer- and (first time) cinematographer Alfonso Cuaron;  another offering from the powerhouse of Mexican (or maybe even Mexico city!) filmmkakers. However, Roma is (literally) a personal story, as much on Earth as Cuaron’s previous blockbuster Gravity was in outer space.

Roma captures the childhood of the Cuaron family, centred around their house maid Cleo played brilliantly by first time actor Yalitza Aparicio. Cleo is based on the real life nanny of the Cuarons’ Liboria “Libo” Rodriguez. What the movie does brilliantly is bring out the invisible: the invisble life of the invisible helpers and the invisible struggle of women as they go along keeping familes and households alive. In some ways, it is a simple story set in  the 1970-71 Roma neighbourhood, Mexico city. Roma is a series of snapshots of life as maybe in a relatively affluent, well educated, middle class household in a developing country. At the same time, there are a number of significant events such as the corpus christi massacre and major changes in the character’s lives.

The developing country part is important here. Developed countries like the US, UK and European countries seem to have reduced inequality to at least the extent that only the very rich can afford household staff. In India (and Mexico), it is common to have household staff if you are above a certain level of a middle class.  These form a class of their own – blending into the background; essential like Utilities – not noticed when present, sorely missed when absent. This is to the extent that there are jokes that the woman of the house would rather lose her husband than her house maid (ironically, that’s almost what happens in the movie, except there was no choice involved!). What is noticeable is their background – the `servants’ (and sometimes they do get called that) do often come from a different social, or in the case of India, caste background (which is a label very difficult to throw off). In Mexico, they seem to come from the indigenous people (as in the case of Cleo and Adela, the house maids in the movie) (historical note:  Modern Mexico is an intercultural mix of (Spanish speaking) European settlers, and Indigenous people with a very rich ancient culture). Children, unlike adults, it seems, have much less of a sense of class, caste, and colour than they have of love – as this movie shows. That would be one lasting contribution of this film – the extraordinary in the ordinary life of an almost invisible class.  Beyond this, maybe I should not discuss the story and leave it for you to discover!

A scene which is likely to be a classic captures this love –  Cleo is washing the family laundry and the children enter the rooftop with their toy guns till Cleo ends up playing `dead’ with Pepe. The scene takes me back in a way to growing up in 1970’s India in somewhat similar circumstances – the presence of house maids and the love and care imparted by them to the children of the family.

Roma-1-1600x900-c-default
What are you doing? Tell me. I can’t, I am dead. Hey, I like being dead! (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6155172/mediaviewer/rm3965022208)

But, now, to the craft of the movie! The movie is simply beautifully made. To me:

Roma is an art gallery of stunning high resolution black and white photographic pictures!

Roma is highly appealing to the (amateur) photographer within me. It is well known that the Oscar winners Alfonso Cuarón (for out of the world Gravity, 2014), Alejandro González Iñárritu (for the crazy Birdman, 2015, and the difficult watch The Revenant, 2016), and Guillermo del Toro (for the deliciously mercurial The Shape of Water, 2018) form the `Three Amigos’. But, the fourth amigo here is the hat-trick man: Emmanuel Lubezki – the Oscar winner for cinematography from 2014-16 (Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant). The story goes that, naturally, Cuaron wanted Lubezki (Chivo) to be the cinematographer  but Cuaron took so long trying to get the perfect cast (i.e. find his Cleo) that Chivo’s schedule was blocked. Thus, Cuaron is also the cinematographer and may win that Oscar too on debut!

The camera comes in almost as another member of the cast – as a photographer moving with the story, often shooting in brilliant wide angles. There are shots of fields afar and children frolicking through them. There is the camera following Cleo from a short distance away as she goes through her house work. There is the camera hesitatingly following the (affluent) crowd `inspect’ a forest fire and in the stunning climax scene, the camera follows Cleo from the beach into the water shuddering and drenched with fear and trepidation. At times, such as a shot juxtaposing a family breaking apart and another celebrating coming together in a wedding, there seem almost too many characters in a single shot – multiple points of focus (maybe something a photographer would avoid) but it all works beautifully.

 

Roma-Yoga
Professor Zovek inspiring a generation? (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6155172/mediaviewer/rm1391358976)

There is so much happening at a leisurely pace and without warning that if you are not paying attention, you may miss it. There are aeroplanes making strategic appearances and cars being driven badly! Another such scene which I really liked was the training class being conducted by Prof. Zovek for the Los Halcones. He demonstrates what he describes as an incredible feat – striking a one-leg stand yoga pose of balance! – except that it has to be done with the eyes closed. The paramilitaries – all the young, heroic (in their mind, at least) men, including Cleo’s boyfriend, fumble and stumble. If you were not paying attention, you may not notice that the one person balanced enough to strike the pose is Cleo herself who is part of the insignificant crowd on the edge.

Finally, Roma brings up the debate of Netflix vs big screen cinemas! There has been a lot of debate around what constitutes a proper movie release – especially around awards season. And, it seems Roma has delivered a big blow for streaming services with the big Bafta in the pocket and 10 Oscar nominations!   I won’t go much into that debate by saying that it’s great that such nice movies are being made, and if Netflix is behind them, let that be so! I would however really hope that after the Oscars, the movie will have some more big theatre screenings. For one, I do not have a cinema level home theatre at home which can do the movie justice! However, in the meanwhile, enjoy this brilliant trailer which I heartily recommend – why? Because somebody had the genius idea of setting it to one of my favourite pieces of music – The great gig in the sky by Pink Flloyd!

…Finally, the camera rests…

Roma-Cover
The Camera rests (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6155172/mediaviewer/rm4184766208)

What is Time, if not relative?

How you read this article
depends on the relative speed
of you as the reader
and that of the writer!

My Biased Two Cents.

In the post It is about TIME!, I promised to write about Time and then I got busy doing other things. I have come back today to fulfill my promise after exactly 2 months and 24 days. A gap of almost three months between posts is long enough in the blogging world or may be not? Is it really a gap of  2 months and 24 days between It is about TIME! and this post? Well a physicist might argue that the elapsed time between  It is about TIME!  and this post depends upon the relative speed of the reader with respect to the writer. If the reader is moving at nearly the speed of light, almost no time has elapsed since my last post. In fact such a reader may not even have experienced the time it takes for him to fully read It is about TIME!

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