Ruminating on the relationship between TV, cinema and culture

O, the glorious days of TV!

As I was writing the last blog on Kunal Karan Kapoor and Indian TV, I remembered the shows on TV as I was growing up. When TV was only one, then two channels of Doordarshan. There was even a time when all programming stopped after 10pm and I used to think that the late night shows on New Years eve were the greatest treat ever and prepared well for them with an afternoon siesta too!  Who knew at that time, that I am probably a genetic ‘night owl’,(yes they exist, Craig Venter says so), and don’t need even one coffee cup to stay awake till 2am, then maybe one to stay awake till 4am or simply a good book. ( it is harder after that, I think its time for the ‘larks’ to take over by then!).

I remember watching Hum Log, I even caught a few episodes of the re run when I could actually follow it, the first version was just some moving images I witnessed with my parents, I suppose, but I remembered the background score. Then I remember being sad when the last episode of Nukkad, or was it Naya Nukkad? being aired, as the friendly members of a neighbhourhood of a small town bade good bye to the viewers. I devoutly watched He- Man of course, followed by Ramayana and later Mahabharat. I remember we checked to see if our hotel had a TV room ( yes, I was probably 7, and all hotel rooms didn’t have TV) so that we didn’t miss Mahabharat while we were in Baroda. I think the mythological series tried to do their best, but may not have been really good. However in the recent years, the mythological series ( Veer Shivaji and Chandragupta maybe exceptions for the time being) tend to rely on whatever works with the audience, instead of getting ahead with the series, as though these stories have not  been written hundreds of years ago! We had calculated political strategy in Chanakya (1991), enacted with great prowess.While story telling never got better after Vikram aur Betal. Then came Flop Show, which probably has a record of reruns in Indian TV, and Jaspal Bhatti introduced to me the parody of famous songs I found totally hilarious. I vaguely remember another show, because I knew I wasn’t supposed to understand it, when Aman Verma was a newbie ( yes, he used to be a good actor until he just became a terrible host and a worse megalomaniac). It also had Mita Vashisht, who is still pretty great: Pachpan khambe lal diwarein ( google search, I honestly didn’t remember the name), which was a love story that actually had a story.

More people will remember Malgudi days (1986, rerun 2004) (which I have seen multiple times), Buniyad, even Chitrahaar. Discovery of India : ‘Bharat ek khoj'(1988), deserves an honorable mention, I still have not been able to get my hands on that DVD set. I love Raghuveer Yadav, who is the absolute best, be it in comedy in, be it a small town man tending to daydream any time as and in Mungerilal ke Haseen Sapne (1989-90) or the clever Mullah Nasiruddin who is fooled by no one and can trick anyone, he is marvelous in films, he sings soulfully, there are no words that can do justice to that man, in my mind, he should have been born in LA.  Then came a  few detectives, best by far was Byomkesh Bakshi, but others like Karamchand and  Dev Anand’s brother and Saurabh Shukla in Tehkikat were also memorable. Later there were lots of countdown shows ( that I was guilty of watching, like Superhit Muqabla). Kaun Banega Crorepati took over Bournvita quiz contest, because anyone with  a lot of luck and some knowledge of mythology could win a lot of money and more importantly meet Mr. Bachchan. KBC also sort of started the trend that made TV less beneath the level of movie stars! Since Ekta Kapoor’s regime began, I literally wished someone would bomb the planet and I could hitchhike to another galaxy.. Alas, that was not to be. And it is not her fault, per se. Without extending this list, it is clear that we had a golden era, then have somehow lost all the gold.

Looking at the film industry, the transition is not that clear. We have had good cinema, off and on, more dependent on the directors- so Satyajit Ray (active yrs 1955-1991), Guru Dutt (1950s), Raj Kapoor (1950s,60s70s even 80s), Shyam Benegal and others who I am sorry to have missed.  Then years of actor (read ‘super star’) led films which would have been never ending, were thankfully dotted with Sanjeev Kumar, Utpal Dutt, Amol Palekar and others, some humor and good movies, like Angur, Naya Din Nayi Raat, Golmaal, and even some star studded movies like Chupke Chupke, that did not fall into the abysmal ‘main tera khoon pee jaunga’category .

Now we have Anurag Kashyap, Sudhir Mishra, Vishal Bhardwaj  (thank dear GOD in heaven for that) so that even when the dialogues are in Hindi, I sometimes have to think about what they could mean, even when the cities are known and the people familiar, I wonder if I really know anyone at all, or was everyone something else entirely. God in his heaven smiled evilly when I saw Lagaan and even looked around in the theater to see I was the only one squirming in her seat. Ashutosh Gowariker thinks he can come up with his own personal genre of extremely long period movies with no or little bearing on real history and get away with something that has absolutely no appeal to anyone who has read any good book or seen a really good movie in their lives ( or maybe thats just me). Veteran actors do try and take on a variety of challenging roles these days, wherever possible, so film industry is going more forward than backward, I think.

However, one cannot disregard the success of Rowdy Rathore (I had barely gotten over the tremors after seeing a few minutes of Dabangg) , it has all the basic ingredients of a hit, known to work ever since David Dhawan tried his hand at comedy and ruined it for everyone, and what a surprise, it still works! Though at least they don’t purport to appeal to a worldwide audience. Every one has got to make a living.

Nonetheless, there were and are often respites in cinema, on the other hand, Indian television productions have been on a downward spiral for 20 yrs now. It probably is not worth the time and effort for producers to try something different that may not eventually satisfy the TRP requirements. It is more about survival, so if people like to believe that a group of sexy young people are actually trying to survive in the wild while wearing close to nothing, and more importantly doing even less that looks realistic, then that is easily copied.

It is probably the cost of production of movies that drove making of nonsensical, superstar led musicals, that would at least make up what was spend on them- but the music in many films in the 60s and 70s was the saving grace, unlike in the mid-late 80s or 90s, before A.R. Rehman came and it is getting tardier.. I think bollywood music and television have suffered more for the lack of creativity or innovation, or maybe just pure bravado as no one is trying to be different any more. (Except Dhanush of course) S.D. Burman, R.D. Burman, Salil Choudhury, O.P. Nayyar, Madan Mohan are surely sorely missed. Thanks to the talent shows though, we have plenty singers!

But I, like everyone else, have been busy living a grown up life with no time for art, nor time to feel a sense of loss.

Meanwhile in the US

I  also have been watching American shows, and if there was any proof that we certainly should NOT emulate the US blindly, we just have to look at their television. None of their shows, not even the most acclaimed ones in the last 40 yrs can be compared to Malgudi days, in my mind. They did have a good Hitchcock series way back in the 50s and of course their TV documentaries often capture the essence of the topic, but not their television shows. They have had good scripts for sitcoms, like Seinfeld, then variety shows like Saturday Night Live. But they also have had the tiresome Friends, which is very popular even now in some circles and I cannot say that I have not watched all the seasons, but I will claim mental instability as my defense. These days or years it has been How I met your mother and The Big bang theory, both of which started out quite well, but now are taking on the soap opera fever, that no one in the whole wide world seems to be capable of escaping ( Na Bole Tum Na Maine Kuch Kaha, producers, please please please don’t fall into that trap!). But I have to concede that their comedy shows are in general quite nice, especially the animations (like South Park) that the Indian audience is not quite ready to embrace yet. Their children themed shows, also used to be quite nice, like Sesame Street, but the new Disney Channels with Miley Cyrus and everyone -else- who- would- like- to- be- her, hardly produce anything to look up to. I had Potli Baba ki, Hum Panchi ek dal ke which were great too! I am not informed enough of the cartoon productions, unfortunately, to comment.

If there weren’t enough reasons to condemn the US, the introduction of reality shows would be enough, the ludicrous Survivor series is nothing compared to ‘The Bachelor‘ or ‘Bachelorette’ and of course the “Real housewives” and the millions of fans following the Kardashians. I am not even getting into the religious channels that deny evolution and the evangelists that deny science. India’s ‘ MTV Roadies’ and ‘Big Boss’ make me want to cry! I have no opinion on American or Indian idol, song and the dance competitions. They do give people hope, that they too can make it and obviously require talent to actually be worth backing with money. Additionally, the only true power to the people that I can see, is in voting for who they want to win in talent shows.. Because they actually watch them, and they definitely don’t follow the news or politics and law making, social issues. Should there be a better use of their time, certainly, but can there be? Us Orwellians think not, not unless all possible avenues of mind numbing alternatives have been tried and by then hopefully a more intelligent form of life would have evolved or targeted Earth.

Hollywood movies, unlike my belief when I was in India, also tend to be formula based. While bollywood had the rich girl-poor guy love stories or family feuds with the children of feudal families in love, finishing with action sequences, hollywood makes I don’t know how many movies with teenage geek boy or girl in love with the current high school heart throb, or the handsome rake falling for  a next door girl who then plans a wedding and going strong for decades now: some unknown (but smart, dashing, righteous cop like) guygirls can only help that guy with their bodies, saves the world without wanting any fame or glory for himself. There is also the never ending sycophancy to one or the other sport (baseball or American football)- though there have been good movies ( The Blind Side, Invictus) that developed the characters outside of the ‘sport’, with a greater theme than a losing team suddenly coming out as winners in the final match against all odds,because of a transformed alcoholic turned inspirational coach and one gifted team member.  Boxing movies are often good ( The Million Dollar Baby, The Fighter) though.  The more recent ones on or about friends with benefits seems to be trend that is also not nearing an end.

Hollywood actors, however are way ahead of most, if not all, Indian perhaps Asian? actors. There in fact can be little said to even compare them and I am not going to be the one saying it. Once established, they take cherry projects, change personalities, accents, diction,body types,  songs and dance, ( and the actresses change a lot more !)  to be the character and while I have never believed that anyone should be paid that much for entertainment, they do work very hard and are immensely talented and my favorites Kevin Spacey, Christian Bale, Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, Anthony Hopkins, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and to a certain extent even Robert Downey Jr. (ok, he is really cute), can do no evil!

But a lot of these stars, don’t even spend most of their time in the continent. And the more ‘popular’ stars are always at rehab or divorce courts, and some really good ones even OD on drugs. I don’t know of an Indian movie star, with a status like Heath Ledger, ODing on drugs, though they do tend to have car accidents and run over a few homeless people here and there. However, drunken brawls are not unknown of in the US and many of the stars probably never drive unless drunk.

Kill me now..

Television, what??

As far as TV and cinema mirroring the culture of a  place, I find myself reluctantly agreeing. The more Indians emulate the US, the more our TV and movies become like theirs. No matter how much more potential India, just by merely existing for the thousands of years, has for stories, the human angle there remains almost untapped. NBC tried to tap it with the completely inane and atrocious Outsourced.  But NBC also airs 30 Rock and Parks & Rec, and has giving the world talents like Fey and Poelher who are both smart and funny and exceptional in comic timing. I forgive them.

I would like to see if  Indian TV makes a come back- it is about time. I would like for  us to stop this mindless worshiping of the west, denying our true roots and closing our eyes to the plethora of really beautiful stories we have. Its not just emulating the west, I think in an attempt to preserve our ‘culture’ we are being overtly zealous and over- compensating, and over- dramatizing the idea of the Indian ‘family’. With never ending saas bahu series with two decade jumps in EVERY show, glamorous chawls and insipid, stupid characters, conniving aunts and ignorant saints, lets get a little more real, like  NBTNMKK. We have a solid foundation, we should neither be afraid of nor worship the western influence. We need to hold on to our identity, not change or lose it, neither be afraid of changes in society which is a natural order of things. Indian writers have influenced the west, we all know Slumdog Millionaire, we can try to find more of our own to project on screen..Or put a new angle to a British or American story ( Mungerilal was inspired by a western book by James Thurber). While I personally may not read Chetan Bhagat’s books, they are still a lot better than ‘Sex and the city’ movies. Amir Khan’s Satyamave Jayate seems to have a lot of potential of bringing social issues to the public, that may just watch the show for him.  I wonder where that will lead. I for one, am ready for change.

NOTE: If you have reached here- I realize this is rather long, but it is being published in  in parts.. From next time, perhaps I will try that 🙂

George Orwell and Charles Darwin

Ahem, what do Orwell and Darwin have in common? (Some people may ask) Well, this is actually about how those two geniuses can be so different and yet lead to the same dictum. Darwin led the revolution in scientific thinking of how all the diversity in nature was the product of “natural selection” and Orwell is one of few who wrote with certainty the doubtless evolution of society towards evil oligarchy. Oligarchy of the few smart or privileged ones , the faces of who may change following “revolutions”, but the end is always the same balance in society.

Masses of creatures allow variations to accumulate, such that should some of them move to a different place, or the climate change a little, some of them survive better than the others and the species survives and maybe gives rise to a new one. However, all species, do the same thing, live, eat,reproduce, fight and die. So Orwell says, the result of variations in the human population are always the same. Ignorant masses, easily hypnotized by speeches and grandeur or dreams of grandeur, are used by the few powerful leaders. The actual power brokers rule through some people who are great orators: even if they may not always know what their speeches are causing (most of the politicians). The masses comprise the people who reproduce in high numbers: the alpha males, who maybe brainless jocks or simply people trying to have more children so that they have more hands that contribute to earnings. They reproduce to  refurbish the population of the mindless masses who live in a quagmire of problems.

And then there are the real leaders, who are fewer in number, but rest assured, make sure their power outlives them, so they never have to let it go and so that it percolates into the lives of their hand picked descendants ( biological or not).  As these people in power constantly create diversions that either terrify or make deliriously happy the people they “rule” such that the real issues are neither discussed nor solved or even thought about. Real issues of not having the freedom to exercise one’s will or ask for rights and respect.

But, what is the real issue for a species? : to survive. Human beings have managed to fulfill that, technically, up till now!  Here, even the most evolved, like the cockroach, are at mercy of nature. So, they at least take reassurance in that mother nature is always looking to keep the smartest or the strongest of them, for the future, for their own good. Sounds like the theme from Animal Farm and 1984. So, who is big brother? Is that God or Nature? Well, no, God is good and He created nature, didn’t he. He is Omnipresent, pray and you shall be heard. He will give you what you deserve and if you don’t get that, then you didn’t deserve it in the first place. Or you can wait, the time isn’t right, not just yet, look at all those around you, suffering, aren’t you better off from those dying of starvation and yellow fever, or worse in war torn countries like Syria, Ukraine? And yet you ask for more!! Pray, because He has been kind enough to let you be disease-free and fed.

Darwin talks about the requirement of variation in the populations of species, for natural selection to act on and favor one over the other, under changing conditions. Orwell, thinks that conditions might change, revolutions may happen, but the “social “order of things will stay the same. In some cases man is big brother, as we exploit the environment for first our good and then because there is no other way. Then we exploit each other, again using the same excuses, why, the “American”Indians have been moved to reservations for the sake of development. The naxalites or the indigenous people are terrorists and hinder economic development of our great nation. The nation that ignores its people, because they have always been hidden in forests minding their own business, is in turn ignored or exploited for its own good. It is told, you are too poor to harbor nuclear weapons and how are we going to maintain world order if every little third world country wants to go to the moon and have nuclear energy, what next? Next they will all want food and water for everyone! Let us take your minerals and cheap labor and we will show you how to live.
But there is poetic justice, what was once Great Britain, is not so great anymore and what now is the United States may well end up someone else’s bitch.

Hence, all is in order. The names in that order change, maybe there is a God after all. As some of us gaze in awe at the diversity of life and how much we don’t know about so much and how much we will may never know ( but technology may yet have surprises in store),  about, say dinosaurs. How we all started from a single-celled organism- a point in dispute and will remain so , it seems, now and forever. The more things change the more they remain the same. Someone will soon find an additional detail in a way a small snail evolved, or even better in human paleontology. And the masses, aided by God’s men who say ‘See? the scientists don’t know everything!’ ( although they never claimed they did!), needing some way to stay hopeful will throw evolution out of books.  Because isn’t it a threat to the existence God? However, if He exists , then is He not big brother incarnate, for tortured creatures dying all the time without having had a life cannot be for the good of all. And if He is making it hard for our own good, because He knows best. We may write books and have theories and find a cure to cancer, make electrons and protons clash at the speed of light, if He in fact is in control then all that doesn’t mean anything. He can make all that a lie in a whiff of smoke All that makes life easier for a few, interesting for a few more. But most of the proles-masses, just barely exist and couldn’t care less. A large number of them pray for His kindness and mercy way more than the ones that seem to be under His special care. The concept of heaven or hell,makes their harsh realities bearable, but the mere concept of a heavenly abode in the sky is even more ludicrous than animals taking over a farm and making a windmill. It is so easy to relegate control to someone else, someone higher up in the hierarchy, so that ‘they’ can be blamed for all that is wrong with our lives. And even when a common, but motivated man ( or woman) becomes the change he wants to see in the world, the world rejects him or he realizes that the barriers that exist cannot be dissembled because the forerunners and their protegees have made them too intricately intertwined with how things work and no one actually exists that can be blamed, except the ‘system’ (referring to Che Guevara’s efforts in Africa and the Aam Aadmi party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal from India. Kejriwal is an overall outstanding citizen, but still powerless). The system, is Big Brother and that will take you down, because you cannot fight shadows and you cannot fight the devils in people’s minds- the devil of racism and bias- evolutionarily granting some kind of benefit to stick together into groups that look alike, but not letting all peoples live together in solidarity. Therefore the smart ones check out, look out for themselves, play demigods and pull strings wherever possible. Exploit and brain wash whoever possible to try and get to the top of the order, be closer to big brother in spirit.

In the end, our evolution, if indeed we are evolving, is not in our control . We keep on endlessly cycling and recycling thoughts that have always existed in different minds.

So do Darwin and Orwell have a common thread? Yes, that the order of things as they are, has existed well before mankind and will continue to exist through the time allotted to mankind and well beyond.

The Underdog with a famous name

And he reads Wodehouse.. My favorite humor writer.. enough said!

This post is going to be on an Indian TV actor. Not so long ago I was  one of the believers that those three words (ok, one is an acronym) don’t go together, so any one else who does believe that, let me introduce you to Mr. Kunal Karan Kapoor. To many people he is Mohan, from the relatively new show on the TV channel Colors- Na bole tum na maine kuch kaha. The show started when I was in India for my three month ‘vacation’ within my long term vacation which could very well be retirement at 30. This post is not about the show per se, so only a few words on it unrelated to Mr. Kapoor’s character. Great casting, I particularly revel in Renu bhabhi’s snide remarks and remarkable shrewdness enclosed in a concrete shell of stupidity and self obsession- I don’t really believe in pure anything, including evil and she is exactly as complex as any of us can be. Waagle ji from my elementary school days, as papaji and all other characters have that- a character, though not as complex as Renu or Mohan.

Why choose Mr. Kapoor for the second person I write about, well it was originally going to be Che Guevara, he will be next- even though everyone and sundry has written about him and what more could I add, subtract, deduce or extrapolate? While Mr. Kapoor is quite talked about in the Indian forums that I don’t really frequent, except for reading a couple of his interviews (from which I deduced I really like him) he is not that written about and I like that too. I think its a lie when it is said that actors cannot be private- many manage that quite well and here I bring out Kevin Spacey for the first time in this post.

Mr. Kapoor is unfortunate  to have the same  name (Kunal Kapoor) as another actor, famous for a role in what some consider a cult movie in India- Rang De Basanti, about the same age as himself- Mr. Kapoor resorted to adding his father’s name in the middle, to avoid confusion and more importantly some embarrassment, I think. In science, this could be a smaller, yet irksome problem, imagine people having to sift through all the journal articles or news stories of someone else in the same field as you, to find you. Now imagine that someone who is looking for you, is you. But at least you are not competing for recognition by the masses- or the casting crew. Especially since they both look somewhat the same and they can both act. Though obviously, since I am writing about Kunal Karan Kapoor, I muchly prefer him.

It is one thing to convince people, hungry for entertainment in a 30 min – 3 hr appearance that they may have paid money for, and quite another to convince people to turn their television sets on to a particular show everyday, especially for a show which is deliberately subtle and has no fancy clothes or sets or people all of which together attract the TV watching crowd.

Moreover it is even more unlikely for people like me, who are born sarcastic with an acidic lining and a well under cover romantic heart,  for TV’s conscienceless ( and may even be unconscious, to the amount of thought that goes into some of the shows) melodrama to grip and hold. Reality TV (a.k.a. the Kardashians) lets the public live vicariously off celebrity madness. And such celebrities usually record the show in between rehab and divorces or simple drunken festivities.

I don’t think thats the case with any of the cast members of NBTNMKK. Mohan convinces me with his narrowed questioning eyes or what some may call smoldering looks, but more by his voice modulation (aapki aankhon mein nafrat..., nahi dekh sakta ), or scratching his head or the hesitant smile and  body language (wherever possible, its Indian TV meant for family viewing, people!). I think most of it and the characteristics are likely to be an extension of his real self- after all it is not easy to shoot 24/7 and be someone else constantly and convincingly. I don’t think he smiles a lot in real life either. I realized later that this sounded as though he doesn’t laugh or is a serious introvert. I don’t know about the latter, which is a very big hurdle for an actor, but you do what you have to- to do what you love to do. So, I am just re writing what I said in response to a comment, I do think he doesn’t smile a whole lot- he may be more likely to laugh- his comic timing is great and I think it has not been exploited to the max in the script. Plus he has acquired the ability to not take himself too seriously- something extremely hard to do if you don’t have a healthy sense of humor..

When he convincingly hugs nanhi, and you feel they are really fond of each other, I would say they truly are.Their chemistry is the best on screen in the show, according to Mr. Kapoor himself. Though, that is not to say thats not acting- the one thing I think any good actor has to be is- complex, like Kevin Spacey or Naseeruddin Shah, they always have to have something inside already that can be molded into the character they are playing. Something that is used to nucleate the beginning of their new role, but has to exist to start with. And they may also have a very amorphous feeling for their ‘self’ so that it doesn’t stand in the way of the character- something that requires an incredible amount of humility, considering the amount of fame some of the good actors accrue and remain good. Or some like Ms Rai- Bachchan never get over themselves to be someone else.

Now for Kevin Spacey there were years of training by specialists at institutes like Juliard, the caliber of which is still quite unattainable in India, just because fine arts are neither well paid nor popular in India. Surprisingly few actors who act well are liked by the masses or even known to them. Unlike movie stars many TV actors don’t haul from a known family, just like Mr. Kapoor, but they also don’t evolve as he clearly has,while in the profession. Whatever training he had in the beginning has been overhsadowed by what I see as self training, he can’t possibly have time for classes once the show started. I am sure the director/producer of the show deserves credit here, and never let it be said that I didn’t give it. He did say in one interview that he was his worst own toughest critic- and that is showing!

Indian TV for me, for the near future, is going to be restricted to and personified in Kunal Karan Kapoor, and I thank all those real life characters who led to those experiences that molded and made him what he is now. Especially those that have given him the perfect forlorn look, though he may never have wanted it. But (then and in the future) he deserves more and if there was any fairness in this world, he will get it too. Whether or not there is (fairness in the world, that is), if he does read this ever, he should know that he has one fan for life, who is currently waiting to be shunned by everyone who knows her since birth for writing about a actor who is on an Indian ‘soap opera’, when in the 3 decades of her life she has never been a fan of anyone, other than Stephen King, George Orwell and Charles Darwin ( and no, while I greatly admire all the other actors named in this post, I am not a real fan of any of them, which would require me to watch all their movies). Lekin mujhe bhi kuch adha adhura pasand nahi…

And yet another loong post, but I cannot end without explaining why Kevin Spacey was mentioned at all.In one rare interview he said that an actor’s job is to convince the viewers he really is the character he is portraying and thats why he himself keeps a low profile. Now the cynic in me knows this and paradoxically still thinks that there is a lot in common between the NBTNMKK character and Mr. Kunal Karan Kapoor…

Again, I don’t think anyone is purely this or purely that.. And I would like him any way..

Paradise lost

These are the remains of mud cups used to sell tea along the banks of the Ganga river, in Kolkata India. Next to them are garlands that were once used as an offering to deities.. My feelings for research work exactly!!

This post will not be long. I have been castigated for writing posts that are too long for a blog and dull, to boot.

I have been thinking of all the things I could have been doing, or perhaps am doing in the parallel worlds in existence, and if there were clear markers that I missed, that had tried to direct me to a position I would have been more productive at. I can’t think of any, except my mother being opposed to me doing a Bachelor’s in Biochemistry. There weren’t any better options then. Even if I had wanted to take be an engineer, I didn’t have the confidence that is needed to work hard for the entrance exams. I know now, that I do have a brain, a little late for it to be any of any use. Who knows, maybe thats its true purpose, to remain hidden until its presence is irrelevant. Maybe only for people like me, who are just plain lazy. It sees its uselessness and remains dormant in the hope of divine intervention.

Anyhow, the goals of most of my life are in tatters right now. Most of it was doing good science, though to be honest, even that was very early twenties. Before that was making my dad happy, which doing well in school, college or university, invariably did. In fact, until I did really badly in my senior year in high school and saw how it could affect him, I was not a hundred percent into doing even that well, as I realized later (again). What people may call a lack of the killer instinct.

I found that elusive streak for a short while when it had seemed almost impossible for me to have any hope for a ‘future’ and lost it almost immediately once hope in the name of a graduate student fellowship at JHUSOM, was delivered. It made a come back twice, once it led to results that made a thesis despite all the odds (not yet free to divulge all), and the second time when I successfully wrote and published a science story and while I have published more since, I didn’t need the KI. When an undergrad science writing instructor thought my ‘skills’ were not up to what he thinks can handle his class on science writing, while I was doing a PhD at the SOM! But at that point, my brain had made its presence felt, thanks to killer instinct reprisal#1, and I knew the guy didn’t know what he was talking about. NPR show host/ Harvard PhD. or whatever, there aren’t many Hopkins grads who I think are worth their salt, why should Harvard grads be any different.

Plus, he, like me is a failure in science. Are they not the only people who do allied services to science because they can’t do ‘science’ anymore? My problem is I did ‘do’ science or do justice to the parody of science I had to participate in because of the paradoxical situation extant in the academic world, where no one is actually accountable to people working under them. Only to some larger purpose aiming towards uplifting the world, otherwise alien to scientists. No wait, isn’t that true everywhere? The difference being that in most other professions this fact is out in the open, so it tends to be fair to the people who have the ability and resources to know what they are getting into. Unlike science, where all you have is the larger purpose of solving world problems.

I think this is an acceptable length, as an ode to a profession I can no longer profess to ever successfully make my own.

Only when its personal

The last time I started a blog was when a friend passed away, because of anaphylactic shock in reaction to eating a crab, mixed with being inebriated. This time, I had created my page a long time ago, spending hours on the photographs that would make it look like what I wanted it to stand for. And then gave up, I don’t really know if it stands for anything, just like I don’t seem to.

Today, I am reacting to my friend, philosopher and guide being jailed in Kolkata, initially in police custody ( where suspects of murder, terrorism are usually remanded, to elicit information) then later remanded to judicial custody ( where the police cannot interrogate them further). He was one of 7 detainees arrested from a peaceful assembly to protest eviction of slum dwellers from Nonadanga area, Kolkata, India. He was granted bail last night and will be released wednesday morning in India. The fate of the others, especially Ms Debolina Chakravorty and Abhigyan Sarkar, who remain in police custody, is less certain and more troubling.

Partho Sarothi Ray was granted bail as, being of eminence in the field of molecular biology, virology, evolutionary biology he is known to scientists worldwide and several written petitions from world renowned figures, were sent to the Indian Prime Minister to point out the outright fabrication of charges against him. The one patently spurious was assault on a police office  in the Nonadanga area on the day he was not even present there, but was instead attending a faculty meeting at IISER, Kolkata about 65 kms from Nonadanga. Despite the documentary evidence of his presence in the meeting, he was not granted bail for nine days. Apparently, the police think scientists are equally capable of fabricating documents and the court believes so too.

All this and more has already been written about clearly by several bloggers and at I am a late arrival, but at least this time I arrived.

For all those others, like Soni Suri,  who I watched several videos of and felt indignation and flaring temper with every report I read, and yet did not arrive, I beg forgiveness. Not that they want it or need it. They are the kind of people who are brave everyday, facing problems most blog readers cannot imagine and show courage knowing they may and probably will come to harm if they do. Such bravery doesn’t require a certificate.Only it warrants the support, from me from anyone else who considers themselves responsible, conscious, Indian, and who doesn’t have to worry about where the next meal for their children is going to come from or if there is going to be a roof over their heads when it does come, whether they can live with some self respect and stick to the last vestiges of hope.

Coming back to the incident in Kolkata, one of many over the recent years when I have been at a safe distance from the country. In reality, I have been at a safer distance all of my life in India, mentally and physically unaware of any problems that don’t touch me. After all, middle class families don’t delve in such rebellion. If they are honest, they work hard, live within their means, hope for a bright future for their children  preferably in India and perhaps even abroad, don’t get in trouble with the law or the government and of course read the newspaper to remain informed. I didn’t even read that regularly, it didn’t seem to be anything I could change. Thats another mentality which is perhaps the safest place to live in, if you think you can’t change it or make it better, why bother knowing about it?

Then where do people like Partho come from? I have often wondered that. They do seem to come more often from West Bengal, the land of public uprisings, demonstrations, meetings and political activism. I had read an article on the characteristics of people from U.P., Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. And I agree that only in WB education is considered to be an end to itself, not something that would help making more money. But people used to be happy about this distinction earlier, though not anymore. Why, everyone is making money, most of them are less educated, less ‘cultured'(a term I hold at an arms distance at all other times), and even less knowledgable about history. Isn’t this political activism the main reason that the state is behind all others in development? 35 yrs of CPM- who were believed to have socialist ideals, had put WB behind in every type of industrial growth. Even the Tata Nano factories were not allowed to get set up here.

Public outrage and uproar ( I realized that this line is a little misplaced here, as Mamata Bannerjee opposed the Nano factory, so i am moving it to the next paragraph) to that had been tremendous and probably partially guaranteed the CM post for Didi.

However, if Gujarat is going to be the Detroit of the east, Kolkata should at least be London. And anything less than that is not acceptable, we are not discussing possibilities here, only the rot in the system has lasted so long that any mishaps can be blamed on that, even if we only have mishaps.

Ask a person in the US, what they think of Detroit, especially after the meltdown but even before that. A part of the rustbelt that never came back up. A strong mix of  high crime rate, unemployment, and constant lack of funds in the city government makes it an undesirable place to live for anyone who has a choice. One wonders how a city with such high profile industrial manufacturing units comes to such a downfall, but that is for another day. And so what, thats years down the line. First set up the auto companies, known to fail in business and building good cars like General Motors, Ford, Peugeot, Tata, then what happens in 10 or probably 30 yrs is not the problem of the state today. Sustainable development what?? No dhenkyou. And who, my friends is going to buy the cars and where my friends are they going to drive them? Have you been on the Delhi metro? These are the people who can probably afford the cars that are being build, but don’t want to drive in the ever clogged streets, broader than in most indian cities.

So, in the quest to become London, cleaning up the streets and using decorative lights is a must. Sure, point taken. Now slums are an eyesore, but the industrial capital of India, Mumbai has also not been able to solve the problem overnight. Slums is where all the workers live, they build the city around them. Sometimes the government gives them money and flats to relocate, which they sell or rent out and go right back to slums.. They therefore deserve to be evicted. Hence the enlightened public of Kolkata look the other way towards high rises and shopping malls that don’t run too well within a few years of their inauguration, as the slum dwellers are being forced to leave without any kind of compensation.

This is where a cultural heritage comes to the rescue, the heritage that used to make people proud, perhaps for tardy reasons, but even so. There is a police approved demonstration, with activists from all walks of life and Partho, the eminent scientist and assistant professor is present among the other social workers and activists on April 8th.  But the police change their mind about the approval and decide to arrest over 60 people in the demonstration. Nothing that will jeopardize londonization and all the work that is being put into it, after the years of sitting around doing nothing, will be tolerated. At his bail hearing, apparently, the police had nothing to say against him, well next time someone needs a 10 day vacation, consider the options for a state paid one, maybe the police officers who assaulted the slum dwellers would warrant one, but wait, no, there is no FIR against them.

What happened to the state where you always saw as many women activists, freedom fighters or more, as men? Where gender equality at least tends to enter people’s minds. Where books are read and worshipped. But anyone who wants to translate the lines to real life – of democracy or human rights- is now a Maoist or a Maoist sympathizer. The state where everything was personal, everyone was didi (sister) or dada (brother).Where humor found authors like Sukumar Ray, quite unparalleled, now can’t even tolerate a joke. The state cultured to the extent of being stagnant, some thought. ‘Bengalis all live in the past with Rabindranath Thakur’, I have said many times. But rice needs stagnant water to grow, remember. Rice is the staple food for most of the world’s population, albeit in the east and far east- (where the sun rises) and of course West Bengal.
And maybe that why that’s where all the activists have come from, because it has always been personal to them as political activism is to their heritage. That is why intellectuals support activism in Bengal and now intellectuals worldwide know what transpired. If an FIR can be fabricated for a peaceful, government worker with international credentials, one may now begin to harbor doubts about the Maoist who is only an adivasi trying to get hope and a future for his family or a girl trying to live with respect.

While I hope I have arrived, there is the lingering doubt in my mind that maybe I have not, maybe I won’t ever.

The dragonfly on the cover of the website was flitting around in Machlandapur where I had gone with Partho to attend a science adda in a Bengal village. Both a first for me. A long, sometimes harrowing I was told, but affordable local train ride, to a small town, that used to be a village and still has the feel once you get past the railway station. I hope the people who invited Partho there will be as outraged as I am, because they treated us with great respect( I wasn’t sure I deserved it). Wanted to know how we were changing the world, as they seemingly live a quiet inconsequential life in a village. They wanted to know about science and environment protection and conservation. About sustainable development. A truly unique West Bengal feature, this science adda, where I spoke in bengali in front of about 30-40 people, who didn’t mind my diction.

Thats Bengal to me, and that is personal. Those people and others far worse off than them depend on people like Partho and Debolina to bring them closer to the big bosses busy changing their world. Some of them believe, even if we the city people are totally indifferent to it or don’t know what to do with it if we aren’t making money out of it, that knowledge is power. And here is power to the people.

 The following link has the bail petition with the documents showing Partho’s attendance of the faculty meeting, under ‘Hard Facts’,