Between the two continents

It was past two in the morning local time in Abu Dhabi while we were waiting in the pre-clearance queue. The queue was long and kept changing as the take-off time for some of the transit flights were announced. Everybody was visibly tired but not complaining.

“What time is it?” the elderly gentleman who stood in front of me asked. He was well-dressed and looked like a retired professor or a scholar of some sort. I told him the time. “It takes a lot of time, every single time.” He pointed towards the interview counters. “I’m so tired and just want to board my flight and rest for sometime”, he said but with a smile. I returned the smile, agreeing quietly. As the conversation went on, I learned that he came to America for his studies while he was young. Back then he did not mind all the security hassles, he said. But now that he is old, and after traveling all these years, it has become difficult for him. I didn’t know what to say. I just looked around while nodding my head. “But I have to travel since my family, my wife and children are there.”

“So, where are you from?”, I asked. “Iran”, he replied. “Now that I’m retired, I spend my time between the two countries. My family wants me beside them and I want to stay back in the home country, so I have to keep traveling.” Every six months or so, he travels between Iran and America, so that he can keep in touch with his wife and children in America and his family members back home in Iran.

With the Trump administration’s travel ban, I wonder how that old man is coping up now.

Rahman @ 50

As A R Rahman turns 50, I think there are two things unique about his contributions in the field of Indian film music. One – he used human voice as just another instrument. He brought in the singers, had them record and used their voices as he pleased. Two – he started crediting musicians on the album labels. Musicians like flautist Naveen and drummer Sivamani had become household names.

First was his biggest and most disruptive contribution though. Human voice was considered to be pristine and divine in the film music until Rahman came in. One could not imagine playing around the vocals with the electronics. You could do that to guitar or violin, but not to the vocals. The singers could make sounds that are funny and weird which was considered to be a talent but no one was allowed to touch their voice and mix it electronically. Rahman broke those rules slowly and steadily. The monopoly of the singers were about to be crunched (and when I say vocals as an instrument, I’m not talking about harmonies or a’capella or western choir settings in the music; Ilaiyaraja had already done that).

Many credit Rahman for bringing in the elements of western music to the Indian film music, but he wasn’t the first do that. Again, there was Ilaiyaraja with whatever little exposure he had to the different kinds of music available back at a time when the world wasn’t this open. Maybe Rahman experiemented a bit too much with instruments and different styles of music that the musical identity that he consiously created was soon lost to others who followed this ‘technique’. As a result, in the initial days of Harris Jeyaraj, one could not tell apart the difference between Jeyaraj and Rahman. The arrangement and approach were just about the same. Which makes one wonder whether Rahman was more of a musical arranger than a composer, though the difference between the two is a fine thin line. There is no ‘Rahman sound’ in the film music, just as there is no Harris Jeyaraj sound or Yuvan Shankar Raja sound. They all seem to follow the same pattern and technique, and are failing to make a mark of their own (and I’m not talking about popularity here).

Post-Oscars, Rahman seems to be in a quest to find his own identity in his music. Off late, his music seems to be veering away from the populist lines, but it doesn’t look like he has found it yet. Maybe, the influence of sufism is the kind of identity that he should further explore, like Folk is to Ilaiyaraja, but he is not yet ready to take that up.

That said, I end this note with one of his songs, one in many years that is still ringing in my ears.

Year end notes

I never really believed in the cliche that hard work pays off. I always thought that only people who are lucky enough and people who play with strategies get their due or undue share. But 2016 proved me partially wrong. It has been hectic, but it paid me well. From the time I did menial jobs – from a bakery salesman who earned Rs. 12 a day, to an office boy to a mechanic to a goldsmith – to where I stand this year, life has been so kind to me. Compared to last year, I end this year with a positive note, with so much hope for the future.

Throughout my life, I’ve been fortunate to have people who would help/guide/mentor me at times of crises and 2016 was yet another example of that. I’m fortunate to have genuine friends across the world – for I’m sure that no matter which part of the world I am in, there would be someone who would be kind enough to help or guide me. 2016 reinstates my belief that you would still find goodness in this world, even in the corporate world. That there still are honest people who value hard work and integrity.

Life is a constant struggle though. Your challenge is to maintain your integrity, humility and positivism (while you maintain your pessimism in a limited quantity – I believe a limited amount of pessimism is a must for one to survive in the current ways of the world) among all the pretentious, discouraging, demotivating people around you.

Let me end this year on that note. That regardless of all the negativity that surrounds you, keep working hard. At work, in relationships and in life in general – hard work gives you a good ROI even at the brink of depression. Happy 2017 to all of you, dear friends.

The neighbor we never knew


As the war cries arise back home, I meet a man who is probably in his late 50s. Originally from Haryana, came here a long time back, went back home and then came back again about three years back. His parents were migrated from Pakistan before partition. During the chat he talks about the current neighborhood. “There are about 4-5 Indian families living in the same apartment complex”. And then he starts to talk about where in India they originally came from. Haryana, Himachal, Delhi. “And Pakistan”.

I was curious. Because he made it seem like Pakistan is yet another state in India. And his parents were, well, ‘Pakistanis’. I ask him about it. “Well, its not much different. The people of Pakistani Punjab speaks Punjabi and we get along well”. And no enmity in between at all? “We’re all struggling working class people, no? The politics does not affect us”.

Back at the hotel, men in glowing jackets gather for breakfast. White, Black, Hispanic and Asian even. Old and young. Chatting, laughing and in good company. Again, working class.

What would business men in politics, or politicians whose best friends are businessmen know about this?

Food for talk

American diaries } FOOD FOR TALK

When you want to strike a conversation with a stranger from another country or continent, start with the weather. When you want to talk to someone from another culture, talk about food. That’s how I got along with Andre, the chauffeur who had a moustache that made him look like a version of Samuel Jackson from Pulp Fiction. And that’s how I learned about Balut, a Filipino street food delicacy.

Balut is a developing bird embryo (yeah, with the exact shape and even feather and all that) and you got to have it directly from the egg shell. Though Wiki says it is either steamed or boiled, Andre said he had it raw. “It was a $20 dare”, he said. “Eating it is one thing, but you got to drink down a few beers first to get past it’s horrible smell”. He was visiting the south of Philippines where his ex-wife came from and their friends made him do it.

It is supposed to be a natural Viagra, according to the local belief, and the duck embryo is considered ‘stronger’ than chicken. “Oh, but believe me, it doesn’t make any difference. I tried that very night.”, said Andre amidst a loud, hearty laughter.

“I have made mistakes”

American Diaries } “I HAVE MADE MISTAKES”

At least two men told me so. The first one to have said that is doing Uber during the day, while attending the evening classes to be a highway patrol cop. All the while being a father of two little kids. Why highway patrol? It is less risky, he said. “I’ve always wanted to be a cop, it is just that I got lost on the way. And my girlfriend told me that I should pursue it”. And his name is Ryan. I told him that is my son’s name too. As he dropped me off at a concert venue, he said: “Take good care of Ryan for me, will ya?”

Another man, another Uber drive. He talks enthusiastically about his passion too. “I didn’t do very well in the school. I’ve made mistakes.” But his uncle, who is also a cop, is keeping a check on him. “He is very supportive and wants me to get right on track”. So why does he want to be a cop? Because there are cops in the family, and he wants to serve people and a little more into the conversation… the pay is good too. So he is attending evening classes like the other one.

Men who have made ‘mistakes’ before, now so badly want to be cops. But that isn’t the whole story. One is of Filipino origin and the other is originally from Spain. Are the trigger-happy cops who thrive on race listening?

Story of two cabbies

American diaries } STORY OF TWO CABBIES

One, an Afghan who has been in the U.S. for 36 years. He fled Kabul when he was young. Went to places like Germany and Italy, then finally settled in the U.S. “There is no Kabulians in Kabul now”, he said. All jobs are taken over by Iranians and Pakistanis. “Because the lives of people in Kabul were torn apart by war and they could not get education. When you don’t have education, you do bad, stupid things”. You can see the sadness in his eyes. When we spoke of food, he spoke proudly of Afghan cuisine. “You must try our bread, you’ll love it”, he said.

Evening. Another cabbie. Old and jovial. “I’ve served 22 years in Vietnam. I was in the air force.” But don’t ask him about flying the planes yet, because he was a cook. The conversation moves to politics and he talks fondly of Trump. “He will save the economy and he will deal with the terrorists. They come in normal attire, you know. When we were in Nam, it happened the same way. The congs came disguised as civilians”.

Two sides. Two lives. Stories of survival and resilience, power and fear.

The case for Uniform Civil Code

I think the case for a uniform civil code is valid. The only thing that worries me about it is that it is now put forth by BJP, whose leaders and their parent organizations have majoritarian and sectarian agenda to their politics. However, that is no reason to oppose it vehemently.

USC with regards to core practices of societal life like marriage and inheritance etc would be beneficial to people, especially to women and those who want less interference of clergy and community leaders in their lives. But it cannot happen overnight because it involves questioning so many religious, tribal and community practices across different religions.

Many of the sanghis and minorities seem to think that it affects certain practices of minority religions alone. But these practices are prevalent among many tribes, sects and communities among the majority religion as well. Which could be why the RSS’s Golwalker was one of the early opponents of USC. Which leads to the question why BJP, the Golwalkerish political offshoot, is proposing it now and that is the question concerning a large section of the minority as well.

But that is also the reason why minorities should actively engage in discussions about USC and take it forward to ensure that it doesn’t tread on the BJP/Sangh politics. This should be seen as an opportunity, if the minority concern is not to protect their dogmatic religious interests but the Sanghi agenda.

I support the uniform civil code unless convinced otherwise. And I think the process of implementing it should involve taking cues from similar laws in other, progressive countries and also gain the faith of community/political leadership and alleviate the doubts of common man before passing it as law. But it shouldn’t take forever to do that.

The Revenant

“The Revenant” takes us back to the ‘olden’ days of Hollywood film making and tells us that movies can still be made outside the green screen studios. And that definitely is a plus, for a generation of computer-savvy movie goers aren’t much thrilled or convinced of stories told by the ‘gruesome’ visual effects these days. Lubezki’s camera would captivate you so much because it reminds you of the wide angles or close-ups that you have seen in movies about the wild west or native Americans (I also hear that he has used the natural lights, so that makes the cinematography here a lot interesting). Some of the shots are so Terrence Malick-ish and I’m talking about Malick movies before Lubezki started associating with him. At times, the movie has it loose on the conviction part – particularly on the scene where Glass could not move a finger when his son was being killed yet manages to drag himself out of his grave thereafter. The film in spirit too is a mixture of ‘Dances with Wolves’ meets ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ in a Terrence Malick movie scripted by Quentin Tarantino.

But that is not to discourage you from watching the movie. In fact, it is a must-watch and you should go to a theater where the widest screen and good sound are available to watch this movie (people of Trivandrum, do not miss this in Audi 1 of Ariesplex Cinemas). Because even with the advanced visual and sound technologies available these days, movies of this genre and visual quality are seldom made. DiCaprio’s performance does not come close to what he did with Wolf of Wall Street but is sure to gain the Academy members’ attention (who doesn’t like tragedy on-screen?). And I’m sure Lubezki would walk away with a golden man in his hand. I read that the crew had to go through a lot of pain while shooting and you can see that on screen.

Mongolian Throat Singing

I was unaware of what is called Mongolian throat singing until I chanced upon it through a friend’s Facebook post. I didn’t really think the style was nice but was captivated by the instruments used, particularly a two-string instrument that is played like the Chinese violin. Then a friend gave me some links to check out and I saw this video of a Mongolian throat singing band called Huun-Huur-Tu and I was blown away! You could hear a harmony, about two layers of vocals at work minimum at the same time, when they do this throat-singing. And that is amazing.

Check out the band here: