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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Avatar the movie

Just watched Avatar. Not on 3D, thank you: I’ve seen enough 3D-movies before, and I am rather tired of special-effects, having been watching them since the days of King Kong and later Star Wars (Roger Ebert is not. Try Rotten Tomatoes too), and anyway, this movie is not one of those which should have needed the special effects to be called good. Most certainly it’s a whole lot better than Titanic, whose global success made me gawk when it was released, and which I still cannot swallow.

I find some details of the story line a bit silly (a precious metal called ‘Unobtanium’, and giant blue humanoids with tails – how creative can you get?) compared to the many truly great works of fantasy I have read and seen, and I consider Messrs. Cameron and co. lucky for having made such a big splash, as I have always considered them lucky who can make fantasizing pay as a career. Lots of details have been hijacked from other movies, too… I wonder what the director of the Matrix series is saying about it, to name just one obvious source of ideas.

The plot is very in-your-face green, and pro-native peoples, and anti-war and anti-corporate capitalism: the reason I love America is that probably nowhere else on earth can artists make anti-establishment works so freely and even expect to be applauded and richly rewarded for it! It is a little kinder towards science (as distinct from technology, which is portrayed as crudely and overwhelmingly destructive – cocking a snook at the founders of Google? – and contributing to humans becoming drunk with power like little children), but it also underscores the idea that so-called primitive people could be repositories of much more wisdom and skill than scientists are trained to credit them with, so it is both wrong and stupid to hurt and destroy them or even mock them instead of trying to understand them and learn from them (as the old shaman says, ‘you can’t fill a cup that is already full’).

For me the chief reason for liking the movie was that it gave me occasion to recall a great deal of history, and to discuss some of it with my daughter. It has all happened before, right here on earth, with the white commerce-obsessed, technology-reinforced imperialists discovering, exploring, and bulldozing indigenous peoples to the point of extermination in all the far-flung corners of the planet in their quest for new territories and natural resources to feed the engines of industry. It started on a large scale in medieval times with the invention of ocean-going ships and cannon, and it is continuing to this very day in south America, Africa and various parts of Asia and Australasia. Just read oil, copper or timber in place of Unobtanium. You don't have to venture into outer space for it: but maybe the storyteller is saying that we humans will never learn to mend our ways! The fact that the invaders cannot understand why the natives are neither interested in nor grateful for the opportunity to be ‘improved’ is entirely historical, and has been an issue since Shakespeare raised it in The Tempest, though it will be simplistic and unfair to believe that the imperialists did only harm, as it is now fashionable to believe in certain intellectual circles (the British banned sati and introduced scientific education in India). It was also good to see the idea of reverence for all sentient living things has been given such good press (Gaia is called Eywa here). Can we hope that the fact that such middlebrow works are entering and winning huge applause in the sphere of popular culture is an indication that we are likely to enter an era of greater gentleness and wisdom among all humans and among humans towards nature as a whole?

Or – as I fear is much more likely – is it just a nine-day wonder, to be completely forgotten as soon as the next blockbuster comes along, which is sure to be in a few months’ time? Does 'interest' go even a step beyond childish special effects these days? And does anybody really think and remember anything any more?

P.S., March 09: I am glad that Kathryn Bigelow's low-budget, far more serious movie Hurt Locker has beaten Avatar to the Oscars (delicious irony that Bigelow is Cameron's ex-wife!). As someone wrote on twitter, 'it's a reaffirmation of basic human decency'. Or at least that even in today's world big money and high-tech, low-IQ extravaganza can't always buy up everything!

P.P.S., March 22: Now that I have seen Hurt Locker, I must say it hasn't impressed me much either, compared to many other Oscar-winning movies I can remember, including those about war and its horrors.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Just musing...

I had written a post titled To those about to become ex-students a while ago, and expected a lot of old boys (I don't count girls) to write in and tell me, as well as the youngsters, what sort of memories they have of my classes, and give the current pupils some tips about how they could best benefit from them. I guess I was mistaken: not many old boys have either the time or the inclination. Funny how many of them gush over the phone or by email and even face to face about what varied and wonderful experiences they had! Is it all make-believe, then, designed to please me with a false sense of satisfaction?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Serving up on request

I have added a new blog to my blogroll: that of my old boy Sreejith. I think readers will find good stuff there. I take this opportunity to urge my readers to try out the blogs on my blogroll whenever they visit mine, and to comment on those posts they like – that would be a great encouragement to the writers. I also urge the blog writers to write more frequently. Only Tanmoy and Shilpi write often enough. Those who don’t write for months on end I am sadly forced to remove from the blogroll. I shall also request all to let me know now and then about any interesting new blog they have found - I shall be glad to visit them. And one other reminder: nobody is stopping you from visiting older posts and commenting on them!
I was thinking about the various requests that have been made lately regarding what people would like me to write about next, and wondering whether I could write something that addressed several of those requests simultaneously. Anirvan asked about how to raise children well; Harman (who himself lives a frighteningly busy life as a neurosurgeon based in New York) was musing on the need for solitude (and even provided a link to an article which I want all my readers to look up and reflect upon), and Subhajit asked about how to empower individuals and be of some use to mankind. Too divergent questions to answer at one go?
Well, yes and no. The fact is not only that peaceful solitude is vanishing from our lives (except for those like the handicapped and the very old and the very young with no guardians to look after them, who might have too much of it!), but children are actually being brought up in such a pressure-cooker atmosphere that they are not only not learning to appreciate the immense value of occasional solitude, but actually to be afraid of it, to regard it as some kind of sickness. It is not that they are having to work or study all the time – indeed, compared to the amount of regular studying good boys used to do in my day, these creatures hardly study anything at all except at exam.-time, studying anything ‘outside the syllabus’ is equally anathema to both parents and children, and it is a rare child which is both trained and encouraged to do regular household chores in this part of my country, at least in the social set that I deal with. But going to school every day (regardless of whether much learning happens there), attending sundry tuitions, doing the same kind of homework, watching the same sort of stuff on TV, playing the same sort of computer games, having the same sort of birthday parties, giggling over the same kind of jokes, swooning over the same celebrities, being seen in the same kind of clothes, being programmed to desire the same sort of status-symbol gadgets – and never being allowed to be alone with their thoughts – it often strikes me that in an apparently democratic society which makes a huge fetish of free choice, children today are actually being raised in concentration camps designed to produce hordes of clones (tellingly, hundreds of them even make exactly the same mistakes of grammar and spelling!), with only the starvation and physical brutality missing. Not needed, I suppose, since brainwashing works so much more effectively. Half a century ago, lots of children could think on their own; today I can see my old boys (and that too, only a small fraction of them) beginning to think now and then after they are past their mid-20s, if by thinking we mean wondering why things are the way they are, and why they are being told lifelong to do the things they are told, and trying to figure out whether they could live better, more meaningful, more rewarding lives. By that time most of them have their careers and lifestyles unchangeably decided for them – alas for all those who then start feeling that this is not what they wanted!
Another awful thing that has happened (and this has to do with Subhajit’s concern with ‘empowerment’) lately with children is that, in the process of being brought up as described above, they have actually been taught to feel helpless without parents, tutors, formatted syllabi and routine examinations – more and more with the passage of time they are being convinced that they cannot do, learn, think, feel or achieve anything on their own. Where are the Tom Sawyers and Indranaths, the Dickens-es and Faradays today? They cannot possibly learn anything without tutors (I am tired of telling parents their wards, especially when they are doing well by themselves, don’t need me); they cannot travel anywhere on their own until they are past 20 (and sometimes not even then!), they cannot be trusted with money, they cannot go out to play with their friends (the parks in my town are either empty or occupied by old men or kids from the slums – lucky kids!), they cannot learn by themselves to deal with the opposite sex (too ‘dangerous’), they cannot even ‘afford to waste precious time’ going shopping for their mothers (though I know as they do how many ways they have devised of wasting time…). And this is becoming self-fulfilling. After five years of college, MBBS doctors say they are not yet ready to treat patients on their own, so they need a further diploma for ‘hands-on’ experience; graduate engineers are having to be 'trained' in elementary good manners and language skills before they can become job-competent; PhD scholars are passing off others' earlier work as their own ‘research’ and getting their papers ghost-written, housewives with master’s degrees cannot teach their primary-school going children, I personally know married ex-students whose parents still virtually run the household, and I read about actresses pushing 30 being chaperoned by their mothers on the sets. Does empowerment merely mean giving poor people some means of making money? I often discuss with my wife and daughter that the girls who work as our maidservants and simultaneously take care of younger siblings at home are far more ‘empowered’ than their more ‘fortunate’ brothers and sisters - all they need is better wages!
To return to the need for solitude, it has been my lifelong conviction that one needs a lot of it not only to become one’s own man, sure of one’s strengths, tastes and goals, not only to become truly creative in any field, art or science or philosophy, but even to enjoy all the many good things of life. You don’t need cackling company to enjoy a baby's hug or a beautiful sunset or a grand symphony or a good movie or a great book or a fine wine: in fact, unless it is genuinely congenial company, you are much better off without it. It’s a terrible pity that today’s children hardly know all the enjoyment they are missing, with adults as well as peers breathing down their necks all the time. Thoreau’s solitude in Walden is not for everybody, but we all desperately need some of it to live good lives. And those who think they don’t perhaps need it the most!
P.S., March 03: Try this article, it's a must-read. And I swear that I didn't write it myself. The writer is a very successful American social entrepreneur.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Great fighter aircraft, and...

Arthur Lundh, 71 and of Swedish ancestry, alongwith his erudite and very caring wife Bernice were among the best hosts that I had during my two month-something Rotary Club-sponsored trip in and around Arizona, USA, back in the summer of 1991. Very quickly Arthur and I discovered a deep and informed shared love of aircraft (he had been a bomber pilot during the Korean war, and I had got my first serious assignment with a major English newspaper based in Calcutta after wowing the editorial staff with technical information about top-of-the-line fighters around the world that I could reel off from memory in an emergency). As a very exclusive treat (in which none of my travel partners were interested) he drove me to Luke Air Force Base out in the desert, and to the remarkable Champlin Fighter Museum in a little town called Mesa, and we had a whale of a time together: chatting up the museum staff and air force personnel about their magnificent machines. It made my day when I managed to pose beside the most famous fighter aircraft in all history - the Spitfire which won the Battle of Britain. A real plane, not a mockup model, and in ready-to-fly condition (God doesn't grant all our dreams: I didn't get to fly in it!) Click here to look up a few photos...

Arthur had started off as a restaurant waiter in his youth, gone on to join the air force, left it to study architecture and used that skill to become a senior engineer with Greyhound Bus Corporation, and in his old age, he had joined college once again to cultivate a talent he had newly discovered: painting. He isn't likely to be alive today, and we became friends before the internet and email became all-pervasive. Sometimes I really feel sorry that certain kinds of technology arrived too late. In case you are around and happen to read this, Arthur, you'll transport me to the seventh heaven of joy if you drop a line. If not, God rest your soul.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Thanks, and another request!

I am delighted to see that so many people have already responded positively to my last request, with suggestions for writing and with enlistment on the followers list. Thanks very much indeed. I am not the conceited sort who says ‘I write only for myself’ with a haughty air: I write because I want to communicate, and I want to draw like-minded people close to me, and I love to know, again and again, that there are many like-minded people in the world. It is with that purpose that I have been writing since mid-2006. Now I have a target which excites me. As you can see, the number of visits has crossed 40,000 (actually one must add about 4,500 to that, because that was the number when I last accidentally uninstalled the counter), and the number of followers stands at 112 at the moment of writing. Will you all help me to celebrate the fourth birthday by pushing up the number of followers to 150 and the number of visits to 50,000 (that needs only about 5000 more visits by July – a not impractical target, I think). That will really give me the feeling that I have become a serious blogger now! Think about it, all, and pitch in.

And meanwhile, keep the suggestions flowing. Every now and then a bright idea will spark off something in my head, and presto, a new blogpost will be in the making!