art, artificial intelligence, deep learning, education, employment, prose, university

Why my kids may not go to any university…

Artificial Intelligence and Internet are two sides of the coin which need to be the currency of our education system

I studied in a classroom with peers who were probably as clueless as I was, and chose to stare at the walls or look at the teacher to feign attention (we’ve all been there eh?) I did my undergrad, and diligently pursued mass communication to now pursue a career in journalism. A lot of my friends went ahead into specialised fields like engineering, medical science and computer courses. But probably two decades from now, our kids won’t need to cram up information or study in a classroom with mute coloured walls to get a job. The era of specialised learning is at its fag end and the millennials know it.

The rise of online learning and free massive open online courses (MOOCS) are a clarion call to the future and spell the end of the traditional college model, which has a lot of apparent flaws. Our education system’s blueprint uses a cookie cutter approach– measuring all students at the same level in a classroom. But truth of the matter is that college degrees are an asset in a country like ours, which still favours a thorough (but not quality-centric) education. But we too are slowly progressing towards more skill-based education.

While a lot of skill-intensive training was undertaken in the manufacturing sector in our labour-intensive country, we now need to look towards two things that will soon run the world- Internet and Artificial Intelligence. The former has pervaded all aspects of our life while the latter is greasing its wheel and revving up its engines. Our focus needs to shift from manufacturing towards ordinary service sector occupations, which even world leaders have come to terms with. The founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, Jack Ma, warns of significant market disruptions, especially in the manufacturing sector, because of how AI will change the world.

The education system has been disrupted equally by the two. Learning process will and already has undergone a significant change over the past decade. While automation may sound scary, it sure turns in profits, and most human endeavours will soon yield to a machine. While it may(or may not) tantamount to lack of jobs, the fact remains that we as prospective workforce, need to evolve to quickly move from one sector to the other when automation hits us with full force.

With easier and greater access to electronics by students, education sector for most start-ups is a cash cow. Companies are capitalising on this by creating advanced learning programs. E-learning will eventually combine artificial intelligence to help students excel at a task and supplement their efforts when need be. AI can undertake cluster studies and decipher hidden patterns in a classroom to figure out the understanding level and modify course structure appropriately. The internet allows them to pursue education at an individualised pace. One of these undertakings, that uses AI in the classroom is Century Intelligent Learning, which allows teachers to create online curriculum always accessible by students. AI identifies gaps in knowledge and recommends what topic the student should study next based on their aptitude. While online courses lack the sophistication for a measurable impact on a student’s life, it has increasingly been used to supplement the learning process. Which is why online teaching portals, especially the ones using AI are witnessing a rising graph.

Our education system needs to create a space for automation in the future. AI will create new jobs in the future for which we need many short-term skill based courses instead of tedious and cumbersome degrees. No matter how advanced artificial intelligence becomes, some jobs will always likely be better done by humans, especially those involving empathy or social interaction. I do not imply that teaching will be extinct, but a wider education base, which includes a variety of subjects, are the need of the hour, starting with Artificial Intelligence. Hence unless my kids want to be scholars, they’d be better off with hands-on experience in different fields instead of completely theoretical 3-4 year of undergraduation in one core department.

However one drawback of the entire hullabaloo around automation and the internet is its impact on the poor, who make up the majority our country, and have limited access to education. Internet penetration in poor neighbourhoods in more than what basic amenities receive but its unregulated structure makes it hard for the government to implement internet as a mode of knowledge dissemination. However, the emphasis on regional languages may target digital inclusion of the marginalised. Internet and MOOCs may give them a shot at education, where the government has failed miserably.

I do not foresee a future that replaces teachers by robots and AI algorithms but our current system needs to reboot and be perceptive to change, because as Bob Dylan puts it, the times they are changing…

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drinking, life, liquor, ode

My tryst with rum and an ‘Old Monk’ I won’t remember…

My dad loves rum. As a teen, I never understood why. My throat would burn with each sip and every whiff smelled of nail polish remover. Stealing sips from my father’s drink, I wasn’t too keen on it and would immediately retreat to a familiar sweet taste of my fruit beer (duh!). Two years short of my quarter-life crisis, with almost no money in my pocket and an array of experiences, I am much wiser.
And I love rum.

* * *
Two days ago, a barrage of tweets and posts exploded, and people paid obeisance to a man I had never heard of. He ran a company I hadn’t heard about and they chanted numbers I couldn’t concern myself with. For a country that obsesses over Old Monk, the man behind it went unnoticed for 88 years. Until this week. Kapil Mohan – who popularised the much-loved dark rum, and one who gave us many a night that we cannot really remember – passed away after a cardiac arrest.

As a mid-twenties woman, on the lookout for cheap liquor, Old Monk had been a companion since the time I could differentiate between my spirits. When I moved to the city to start my job, my dad, while dropping me off, handed me a bottle of our common love, as a reminder of all the good times we had together. My mum had rolled her eyes and given me a shy smile of approval. My friend and I, to celebrate our college, drank to our favourite songs late into the night in the girls’ hostel, after sneaking in a bottle of rum. We had it neat, and it’s safe to say that she does not remember much of the night. That was Old Monk for me. Love. And memories.

While most were downing Tequila or raising lagers to good company, I confided quite a few tears to the sinfully amazing cocktail of rum and coke. I was a rum loyalist, much to the chagrin of my male friends. Wine, they said, is what girls preferred. Beer, if they were ballsy enough. Well, I beg to differ. But Old Monk did more than just lift my spirits- it was an equaliser.

No I won’t preach for preaching sake. But poor or rich, men or woman (yeah!), heavy pockets or light like mine, Old Monk was our go-to liquid sin whenever the occasion arose. And boy do these occasions come by regularly! The weirdly shaped bottle was a regular feature at our parties, and more so if the nights were bone-numbingly chilly in the northern subcontinent as they are now. I never bothered to look up who brewed it, or where the breweries were. Like most my age, I was busy looking for liquor at 2am in the night, banging on closed shutters.

And am I poorer for it? Yes. Kapil Mohan left behind a legacy. Even if he did not leave his name etched in our memories. He was awarded the Padma Shri for his contribution. I will probably not think of him again after I am done penning this down. But I sure will, whether in good times or dampened spirits, go back to the rum this Old Monk left us. And in that memory, this day, I raise my glass to a man I never knew.

article, free speech, Journalism, life, politics

50-50 Democracy: India is a sinking boat for freethinkers

Ramachandra Guha very rightly characterised India as a 50-50 democracy, which upholds certain aspects of democracy with staunch rigidity like elections, while remaining uneasily lax about law and order as well as seething political corruption. India has time and again shown the extent of the culture of intolerance practised in the name of democracy. While ‘intolerance’ may be understood as someone’s democratic right, it cannot encroach another’s right to life and liberty. Taslima Nasreen is the latest (but not the first) victim of this intolerant strain.

Taslima Nasreen, who landed in Aurangabad with the intention of visiting Ajanta and Ellora caves, was barred from leaving her hotel premise by protesters, led All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen MLA Imtiaz Jaleel. Her act was deemed offensive to Muslims residing in the city. Taslima has been in the past hounded by Islamist radicals due to her controversial views on Islam, which had caused a flurry in Bangladesh, leading to her exile from the country in 1994. And once again, with an apparent imminent threat to her well-being, she decided to leave.

Why do we as a nation promote the culture of intolerance? Books have been banned, writers roughed up for progressive criticism. A myriad of social factors, coupled with political complexities have made the political scenario unaccepting of voices of dissent. Freedom of speech has limits which make it hard, nay, impossible to voice opinions without hurting sentiments. We, as a society on the road of economic progress (and social, I pray), must realise that ‘Hurt sentiment’ is a part of the bargain we make to exercise free speech. We already have reasonable restrictions placed on free speech – no state can concede this right without ensuring the safety of its citizens. But so long as speech does not incite or in Guha’s terms, ‘advocate’ the use of physical violence, it must be a right that our democracy must defend. You may hold opinions in opposition to those of a writer but no sole individual or group can claim authority over the movement of an individual if he/she so wishes. This is undemocratic and unlawful.

Taslima Nasreen believes herself to be a crusader against religious fundamentalism; she desires to prove that Islam is not outside the ambit of critical scrutiny. The author’s criticism, which stems from contemporary political and social scenario, may be flawed. Although Bangladesh has, in recent times, seen many intellectuals being hacked for holding dissenting opinions.  To arrive on common ground, a culture of debate is needed, not that of brute force and hooliganism. A creative confluence of ideas is the bedrock of a democracy, which we promised to ourselves in our constitution.  But a set of archaic rules give the state a lot of latitude in placing limits to freedom of speech, which often pander to religious sentiments above individual liberty. We need to free India from the grip of identity politics that work, through the lens of caste and religious, to effectively throttle freedom of expression. Let the government not cow down to political considerations and rise above to reclaim India from its descent into a dark abyss of intolerance.

Holy cows, politics, religion, Uncategorized

A tale of two identities: Whats your beef?

One reason why Modi-wave gripped India in 2014 was the idealist/economist lens with which he viewed the nation. He ‘seemingly’ rose above petty communal rhetoric that had been his cross since Gujarat, and spoke about development, growth and the rise of a super-power. We were under the impression that he wanted to establish an expansionist pro-capitalist identity of our nation on a scale unimaginable to us. He has been sloughing day in and out to retain that I presume, continuously on tour for bilateral talks, erecting a new identity abroad. But our own identity politics has taken a backseat, or rather is going back to crude basics. The secular nation that was promised to all and sundry, has turned into a hollow premise on which lies the now unsteady foundation of India.

The majoritarian govt that has been elected by such a massive popular vote has taken to blatantly infringing on rights of the citizens. The latest assault has been the restrictions imposed on sale of cattle for slaughter, sounded through an amendment issued under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. Cattle brought to the markets would have to be sold for agricultural purposes, a tab on which would be kept by the Animal Market Committee. The rules define ‘cattle’ to mean “cow, calf, bull, bullock, buffalo, heifer, steer and camel”.

While the subtleties of the ban are lost in the political humdrum, the move does seem to reek of majoritarian bliss. Well my mother advocates what our government has implemented; I am a non-vegetarian and she has never restricted consumption of meat in our Hindu household, despite being a vegetarian herself. Though we have our own holy cows. Her behaviour, could be diabolical or hypocritical to an extent. To put into perspective rhetoric of religious sentiments, would anyone eat pork in an Islamic nation, where its consumption is banned? Well, the only logical answer I could come up with was the fact that these nations are Islamic- they have a religion with which their nation’s identity is inextricably linked and therefore that religion may well dictate rule of the land. Do not confuse my acceptance with assent, but only an explanation. India however has no national religious identity. What we have is one religion which dominates in number. Hindu beliefs are not the beliefs of all those who live in the nation and cannot be enforced. Nehru writes in Discovery of India- “A Buddhist or a Jain in India is a hundred percent product of Indian thought and culture, yet neither is a Hindu by faith. It is, therefore, entirely misleading to refer to Indian culture as Hindu culture.” We must pay heed to these words.

One of my mother’s pet arguments (and of many others I’ve met) – if people have a right to decide what they eat, why would anyone deny someone who has an appetite for Tiger meat? Or why raise such a hue and cry over killing of dogs in China? So, for the former- Tigers are Endangered. There aren’t a whole lot left in the world to make steak out of. She does not relent but I do feel like a hypocrite when I am all for beef consumption but would gladly sign a petition condemning Yulin festival in China. What I condemn is the brutality with which those dogs are tortured and killed. But the right to their consumption remains with the citizens. The gruesome reality does not feed the fodder of my argument. If I stick to my own canon, all animals must then be equal.

What NDA is doing is not based on sound economics either, if they plan to squeeze all the profits out of this nation. India ranks 97th out of 118 in the Global Hunger Index. People are starving across the country, with southern states reeling under the worst drought in decades. In such a situation, selling unproductive cattle earns them extra bucks that are the difference between a full and an empty stomach. Also, the fact that Centre has not banned cattle slaughter but only ‘banned sale of cattle for slaughter through animal markets’ is walking a thin line. This has supposedly been done to counter illegal slaughter houses and ensure hygienic conditions but all this ban would effectively do is drive the industry underground, pushing thousands out from the ambit of cattle sale in the markets amidst excessive legalities. Unproductive cattle are an economic burden, one which farmers, who are strapped for cash, cannot afford. The irony of India being the world’s largest beef meat (buffalo though) exporter isn’t lost on me. Since the order now includes buffalo, the economic scene may waver a bit. We also have a flourishing leather industry which may face tough times, and the consequences may not bode well for the economic super-power dream that has been fed to us. Regulating the conditions under which slaughter takes place is necessary but eliminating cattle trade from animal markets for now seems very restrictive.

A new order may be passed after certain petitions post which buffaloes may be removed from the ambit of the ban. The economic dream may well thrive. But we still have our holy cows.

Maybe in Modi’s world, much like Orwell’s, some animals are more equal than others.

article, life, traveling

To the Roots of Immortality

Trekking to this entangled mass of root is every man’s dream and no child’s play

Meghalaya is quite a serene state – the only welcoming sounds are the bubbling streams that overflow the narrow banks as the rain fills them with gushing water. And I am not romanticizing to the point of exaggeration. The state can boast of a lot of things, among them, having one of the wettest places in the world as a tourist destination – Cherrapunji. The monsoons are the best time to visit our Eastern counterpart. The southern Khasi and Jaintia hills are humid and generally moss covered, the dense woods resonating with chirping birds that fly across swelling streams and crisscrossing rivers. The trees are a different green, carpeted across as far as the eye can see. I remember driving into the quaint, quiet town, panning my head left to right lest I missed something. The beautiful interiors, with tiny wooden huts strewn on the sides of curvy roads lead your imagination to distant places in some far off imaginary land. It literally rains almost all the time, the pitter-patter of the rain makes for your lullaby and the morning wake up call. Cherrapunji is about 3-4 hours’ drive from Shillong, the famous city that often overshadows the little rainy town.

Nestled deep in the forests, at the slope of these hills, lie the quaint root bridges that are a treasure trove of wondrous sights. Those who come to Shilling and drive up to Cherrapunji, cherish their decision for perpetuity. The Ficus elastica, a species of Indian rubber tree with an incredibly strong root system thrives and flourishes in this area. The tree produces secondary roots from higher up its trunk; roots which can comfortably perch themselves atop boulders across riverbanks. The Khasi tribe – which has been long credited for recognising the ingenuous trait of the tree, and utilising it as an opportunity to cross the area’s many rivers – use sliced and hollowed betel nut trunks to assemble a guiding system for the roots. As the roots cling to the betel trunks, they reach the other side and are allowed to take root in the soil, leading to the final magnificent structure: a sturdy, living root bridge. There is something eerie about them, and they wouldn’t really look out of place in a fantastical world.

THE TREK

One special root bridge, believed to be the only one of its kind in the world, is actually two bridges which are set naturally one overarching above the other and is called the ‘Umshiang Double-Decker Root Bridge.’ The trek to this bridge starts from a narrow path which descents as one travels further. Some 3500 steps guide you down to crystal clear streams which form a small pool at the base of the trees, the roots of which hang above it like an earthly chandelier.

With each subsequent step, the noise of the world is left behind and the chaos dies a peaceful death. The steps are moss covered and all you have are sturdy bamboo sticks to help you balance out. You have to be careful, or you might break a couple of bones. A good pair of shoes may be your lifesaver in the treacherous trek. The trip is exhausting, but nevertheless it’s the last thing that will cross your mind after you reach the destination.

Going down the stairs is not an issue- gravity lends a generous hand too. It is the walk back that is the daunting task. The steps are extremely intimidating – I am a regular trekker so I don’t say it lightly. But the on-foot exploration of the place is to be waited for, with bated breaths. The slope works against you and you might feel your feet buckle occasionally from all the strain, but when you see local children trot down the slippery slopes in oversized broken chappals sans sticks, it rejuvenates you and you begin to take strides with renewed vigour. The root bridges, some of which are over a hundred feet long, take ten to fifteen years to become fully functional. They’re extraordinarily strong. Because they are alive and still growing, the bridges actually gain strength over time and most of the ancient root bridges in Cherrapunji may be well over 500 years old. The trail helps you unearth many beautiful aspects of the place.

 

How can such an unnerving trek feel like walking headfirst into the lap of nature and being one with the surroundings?

Seeing the bridge at first makes your heart skip a beat. The place which appeared to be inaccessible suddenly looms in front of you, larger than life in its dimensions and looks like the work of some gifted craftsman who weaves magic with his hands. The sight is etched deep and clear in my head. The stream, which flows silently underneath the huge structure, reflects the beauty as the sun sparkles off its surface, making the place almost ethereal. I remember people being extremely quiet after the arduous trek, and I still believe they were all trying to drink in the magic and beauty of the place, capture its essence for eternity.

While the sun is still high, it does well for one to lounge around, sit with the locals who often pass by the place. You might stumble upon some legends of the place that make for great stories around the fire. These root bridges are an integral part of the culture of the Khasi tribes, who have, through their efforts over the generations, taken the onus of saving and celebrating all that nature has to offer. What makes this union of man and nature more special is that it is a specimen of a man using his constructiveness to project a microcosm of nature’s abundance.

While modernisation coupled with fast paced industrialisation threatens to trample tribal culture in a major part of eastern states, to see some still live at peace in an antiquated hamlet brings peace to me in my mundane metropolitan existence. While life is hectic all year round, visits like these make for the perfect escape and it doesn’t take much to realize that it is imperative for us to protect these natural wonders for the sake of the future which is inextricably linked to our present.

 

 

Uncategorized

HOW I REMEMBER CHRISTMAS…

It isn’t the fragrance of freshly baked pies or the twinkling lights on the Christmas trees. Neither is it the Christmas carols we sang with great joy in school assemblies, lined up like little reindeers to a carriage. What I remember vividly are the candles, smell of everlasting love in the air, and yes the one that doesn’t need any reciprocation. The love we give without running out of stock. Ever. I remember that love. That is how I commit to memory my Christmas, simple homely and love-filled merriment, not of Christ’s birth, but the reincarnation of love in our hearts.

When I look back at all the celebrations and fervor that used to be around us when we were in school, I fondly bear in mind our Principal narrating little snippets of stories with morals that would always end in love. Love is certainly what made the world go round. We live on the love of our family friends or maybe if we are lucky enough, love of someone special. What I remember is that love knew no time zones or religion or colour or orientation. It was given and taken without any hinges attached to it, nor any hooks of immorality. The exchange of gifts, food sharing. I don’t know how we managed to pull it off year after year, without ever getting bored or weary. Maybe it was love. To put it in Dumbledore’s words, it is the greatest magic that existed.
But what I see around me now is not how I remember this, nor do I want to be part of such a world. A world where we have to fight for our rights is certainly not working right. How many roads we have travelled since time immemorial and yet we do not realise how unequal we have turned ourselves into? A line randomly sketched on a piece of paper called MAP divides us and turns us against our own kind. Our beliefs have made us loathe each other!
No religion teaches its men to massacre hundreds of innocent children. It is Man and not Religion that is at fault. We are so myopic in our views that we fail to realise the catastrophe we bring on ourselves. What do we expect to gain out of this incessant war for things that belong to each of us? What can we gain by shedding blood of innocent people all for superseding our own brothers? Is that what our religion preaches?
This is not the world I want to remember and a future in such ignorance scares me to no end.
This Christmas season, approaching a new year, let us give love to those who need it. Make ourselves a promise to be there for people regardless of who they are to us. Let us swell the magic of love and hope it heals the wounds of those, who have lost their loved ones; for whom Christmas was just another desolate day and the approach of a new year sends shivers down their spine, for it is a new day without joy or happiness.
This world needs love, people standing up for each other, saving each other. That is how I will remember Christmas, When the world rose as one.                                                                   

CHRISTMAS

article, life, literature and books, movie review, Review

13 Reasons Why (not)…

I fell in love with season 1 of 13 Reasons Why. My tryst with binge-watching started out with this series and in spite of not having read the novel on which the show is based, I could relate to all the characters, having had a turbulent high school experience myself. I admired how the show, although mired in moral ambiguity, showed multiple sides of a single story, which was the fallout of the suicide of a Liberty High student – Hannah Baker. The show explores different themes which have been brushed under the carpet, especially in India. Sexual assault, drug abuse, depression – all had been dealt with grace, without patronising any character. It had a lot of grey areas fit into one screen.

Season 2 does just the opposite.

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Credits: Netflix

The show picks up 5 months after Hannah’s death, and this time, the episodes start with voiceovers of characters who are testifying in a civil suit filed by her parents against the school. Liberty High is the same bleak place that it was in the first season; however, the events are more sinister and show a deeper problem than we’d ever expect. Slowly and steadily, all characters are stripped off their secrets and the pace of the show trots towards an end that is as ghastly, and prone to criticism, as the final episode of the first season.

Hannah’s batchmates, parents, counselor and an old classmate, everyone takes the stand in this 13 episode marathon. Their narration is like a personal address to the audience. It is probably the most gripping part of the series. Their side of the story may leave a lot of strings untied instead of helping you make sense of why Hannah did what she did. The storyline is so starkly different from that depicted in season 1, that it does not bear an iota of conviction. It does more to pour old wine into a new bottle. The show is all drama and little sense; we are introduced to more bullying, victim intimidation, drug abuse and assault which borders on forced storytelling. No amount of screen relief is a relief.

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Credits: Netflix

However, it’s Tyler’s tragedy that is the most jarring and troubling aspect of the show. While most of the season was spent dredging up the past, Tyler’s struggle with social identification, peer pressure and his slow descent into a violent streak shows a problematic depiction on the producers’ part. It is sad that the premiere of the show coincided with an actual shooting in a Texas school that left 10 dead, underlining how the debate around gun-violence needs to be deal with care. However in the show, Tyler’s growing obsession with guns is a precursor to the finale episode. His abuse at the hands of Monty and his minions is one of the most horrible scenes I’ve witnessed in my life – the graphic depiction felt unnecessary. His abuse seems to justify his decision to almost massacre an entire school. Also, it appears to be a last minute deed to balance the scale of gender by discussing sexual abuse that happens with men, albeit in a hurried manner. Also letting Clay deal with Tyler in order to break his trance is tipping the iceberg in a dangerous direction, one which could’ve gone the other direction with a lot less ease. It is important to discuss the repercussions of senseless bravery.

The mysterious polaroids is a plot device that is put in to take the narrative of the season forward, implying how Bryce’s corrupt character is far more sinister that shown in the first season, how the culture of Liberty High does nothing to prevent sexual assault and mental trauma. In his conversation with his mother, we finally see how cruel and depraved Bryce is. It is only his character on which the story takes a rigid stand. But post that, the polaroids are an unnecessary, complicated addition, sending the characters on a blind goose chase, which is evidently felt as the end draws nearer.

Every other character oscillates between the black and the white when their story is narrated, so much so that the show ends up condoning the actions of the students. Alex, who shot himself in the first season, has survived the ordeal but is left with physical and mental scars. Justin, who took to the streets, is found by Clay who tries to wean him off his heroin addiction. Jessica is dealing with the scarring reality of attending high school with her rapist. Tony finds love, but he too has to face his demons this season. The show tries to humanise the trials and tribulations of the young protagonists to an extent that they portray all the actions as having emerged from a harsh reality and an unfair system but not as a product of their own choice. But there always is a choice.

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Credits: Netflix

The one thing that 13 Reasons Why season 2 gets right is the absolute shock that awaits the parents of various protagonists. From Hannah’s mother’s struggle to maintain sanity in her world that is falling apart at the seams, to Clay’s mother trying to hold on to whatever remains of her son after he has lost his love, their struggle is a reminder of how important it is to involve parents in a constructive dialogue with their kids. Parents know of our struggles and vices, like Bryce’s mother did, but it is the egotism of a parent, that Bryce’s father epitomizes, which convinces them that for whatever reason, their child is different from the crowd. Clay, in a very telling scene, says to his father ‘…maybe we are trying to protect you’. It is this chasm, between reality and a perceived reality of the parents, that needs to be bridged through communication.

Season 1 called on our empathy, the exact emotion that was denied to Hannah. We went on to give it to all characters regardless. The show became a collective call to all people, institutions who continue to pass the buck, to parents who themselves are victims of this system. But in season 2, the entire base on which our sympathy was triggered for the characters is turned into a fallacy. Hannah is stripped of all honesty, her constant ghostly presence is dredged to a point you hope she disappears from the screen. By trying to uncover a new mystery about Hannah’s death in a facile manner, 13 reasons why gives us enough reasons to give it a miss.

LOVE, malaysia, road trip, traveling

An enchanted forest and the fireflies of Malaysia

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of these little lightning bugs is the famous song by Owl City titled Fireflies.

You would not believe your eyes

If ten million fireflies

Lit up the world as I fell asleep

In a little coastal hamlet an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur, magic unfolds each night. We reached Kuala Selangor with the sun setting behind us, a spark on orange lighting up the sky. We had been told about the firefly forest by a young couple we had met in Taman Negara, which is another hidden gem that Malaysia has to offer. And it does not get truer than that. A firefly cruise is one of the most happy-to-your-bones kind of experience in Malaysia.

The place will be underwhelming initially but we are glad we gave in to our gut feeling and good advice, and went in, travellers waiting to uncover some glorious treasure. We were ushered into a park that proudly announced itself to be the Bukit Belimbing Firefly Park Resort. Having been hurried into a boat, a young man quickly scuttled behind us and introduced himself as our boatman for the evening.

It’s a different world as soon as you step onto the boardwalks. Under the dense foliage, it’s nice and cool. We pushed off from the banks of the Selangor river into a marshy mangrove-ish route that reminded me of the backwaters in Kerala. The narrow channel slowly opened up to a wide mouth of the river with crowded embankments made of entwined roots that made up the forest. These mangrove mainstays have attractive cerise flowers whose nectar lures the fireflies. I was straining my eyes, the sun having set completely, and the darkness of 8pm hindering my perception. I struggled to search for the blobs of light as we turned into a wider channel. And find them I did.

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Out of nowhere, I see mesmerising patterns of twinkling lights that suddenly fill the space around us. The glow of the fireflies reflecting on the surfaces of the clear stream of Selangor beckoned us to a world akin to a fairy-tale.

Fondly called “kelip-kelip”, in Malay folklore, fireflies are believed to be the nails of passing ghosts, or so our boatman told us. This is supposed to deter the children from going out after dusk. I doubt it works though. I had been oblivious to bioluminescence except for an occasional little encounter with a firefly as a child, and here I was, surrounded by thousands, in each direction. And just like that, it was Christmas all over again – whole bushes of berembang lit up with little dazzling fireworks.

Our boatman skilfully manoeuvred his boat, weaving in and out among the tree branches that hung over the water, and often took our boats right in the middle of a dense grove, up until I had a dozen fireflies in my head, peeping from underneath my hair. The fireflies drifted lazily over tree branches and leaves, glowing a warm yellow against the night sky. I wish I had pictures to prove how surreal the experience was but cameras aren’t allowed there, damn it. Coming from a concrete jungle with skyscrapers that pierce the sky, being amid these glittering berambang bushes was heaven in a nutshell. We drove back to the shore, the entire experience as fleeting as the life of a firefly in your palm, but as beautiful as anything can ever be.

 

 

Picture credit: Kuala Sepetang

article, free speech, life, literature and books, REALISM

The Handmaid’s Tale: Why adaptation of Atwood’s dystopia deserved the Emmy

“We lived as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.” – Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Who could’ve predicted that a dystopian show could give online streaming portals a run for their money? The king of streaming did shake in its place when “The Handmaid’s Tale” won eight Emmys very recently.  And that is no mean feat.

What is so eerie about Handmaid’s tale is how close it is to the nightmares in the present cultural context. It instantly drives home the fear of a totalitarian state, towards which the ideological warfare in our times is pointing. To take women as pivots in a story and do it justice, all the while staying true to the essence of the novel is marvelous. The producers have contemporized Margaret Atwood’s dystopia by the same name and given us something that is beautiful yet horrific in its portrayal. The Emmy was well on its way.

Gilead (which is what the US has been named after being taken over by religious fundamentalists) is home to women who serve at the whims and fancies of their male counterparts. Fertile women serve as concubines to men, their voices muffled by power and threats. The story revolves around Offred (the very beautiful and charming Elizabeth Moss) and other women, who have been separated from their families and forced to bear children for their superiors.  The narration is in an omniscient first person, which lets us peek into the psyche of the lead and witness the raging internal conflict which is a microcosm of the external turmoil to a certain extent.

I had to pause and process different situations on more than a few occasions. I binge watched the entire season, which is breath-taking in its entirety. The show is layered- it has political overtones, and the show’s target audience is very specific. But it reaches out and connects more people in its portrayal of how sections of this community live without access to basic rights.

Without giving away the plot, the resemblance of the narrative to our world is both awesome and nerve-wracking. Religious fundamentalism with some wacko ideas about creation and women rights, the show can be read as political work on the current plight of women in the middle east. It is also conscious to the debate of pro-life vs pro-choice raging in the United States.

The scenes of power, subjugation and slavery leave you on tenterhooks; the rule of ultra-religious hypocrite bigots makes it eerily like something that is overtaking our own country. People are being killed in the name of religion and ideology. To use old religious texts as blueprints to create an ideal world now and the consequences it may bear has been realistically displayed.

Certain hard-hitting scenes – the demolition of a church, burning of old texts and the underground brothel which houses women who have a ‘little shelf life left’ – all serve to highlight the hypocrisy of their time (and ours). What would we be in a world devoid of free speech, movement, LGBTQ rights and religious order (whatever that even means anymore)?

What I loved about the show is how normal the cast is – you don’t have superbly good looking models parading as serious actors. All the characters are indeed very memorable- you have the crazy woman, the obedient wife, the rebellious lesbian and so many others who give you different perspectives on the issue. A certain hamfisted characterization could have been avoided in the black and white portrayal of individuals. That critique apart, the show spells must watch if you think this world is a circus and we are all either clowns or spectators.

art, life, movie review, psychology, REALISM

Liar’s Dice: Stellar performances and the ugly face of Migration

If you have lived anywhere in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and even Delhi, chances are someone has thrown the word migration around, often as the root cause of an array of issues, be it rising violence, loss of culture, ruin of space and now even stampedes. Thousands of nameless individuals cross state borders around the world in search of food and shelter, often woven in the ambit of an occupation. Migration is a hot cake in today’s political discourse with a volley of nationalistic ambitions that threaten to close borders to nationals of other countries. But immigration and migration are not the center of my tirade. It is a gem of a movie called Liar’s dice.

You might not have heard of it- such gems are often lost in the dirt and squalor of the backyard of Indian cinema because it gets no endorsement or appraisal from celebrities. Surprisingly, this movie, written and directed by Geetu Mohandas received national awards but did not see the light of the day through a theatrical release. I wouldn’t want to spoil the movie for you, which is a journey of a woman who sets out against all odds, with her daughter (and her goat), to look for her husband, who left to work at a construction site. Starring Geetanjali Thapa and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the cinematography blew me away. From the picturesque Shimla hills to the narrow stifling lanes of Delhi, the thematic essence is maintained throughout. The protagonist’s inner turmoil is palpable onscreen as slivers of emotions rupture your metropolis bubble of safety and bring to you the ugly face of oblivion.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui has time and again established himself as an actor beyond the narrow confines of mainstream cinema and that is his strength. The scheming crowd entertainer Nawaz is a shifty character and the movie derives its title from the game he plays to fleece the crowd. The title would obviously have several connotations – from helping Kamala (Thapa) out while lying to her, to Kamala risking everything on fate when she decides to travel with Nawaz, Liar’s Dice symbolizes a gamble for the forlorn woman. From a scheming vagabond to a considerate companion, Nawaz’s performance is a perfect complement to Thapa’s anguish and fear. Her construction worker husband’s name is a symbol – a unit which represents the mass of faceless nameless individuals who feature as mere statistics in the scheme of things.

While it is hard to portray the ugly truth behind the construction industry’s migration business wherein thousands of workers are brought in from far-flung areas and made to work in dangerous conditions, the director and the cinematographer Rajeev Ravi have managed to give us a glimpse into the characters’ lives and through them, the mystic gaping hole of namelessness, and to that end, of the importance of any one individual in this urban squalor.

article, life, music, social media

No offence Chainsmokers, but I will never attend another concert!

From spending on imaginary drinks to being sweated on by shirtless men, my first concert is also probably my last

In which miserable moment did I decide to leave the comfort of my bed and Netflix I know not. But I now know better than to leave my headphones at home, only to suffer an evening of sticky air in an overcrowded ground with people too drunk to even care. I love music, but I may never spend a dime on concerts ever again.

Let me get this straight- Chainsmokers were great. Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall took over the stage after Slushi and damn they were good! And not just because they don’t hurt the eyes but also because their music connects to a good part of the Indian audience. Concerts serve as a platform for bands to share music with an audience in person, give us a sense of involvement in an age of free downloads that render us strangers to the stars we idolise.

While I thought, I was the lone wolf in a sea of people who loved to jump around in tandem on EDM, a lot of people I know and spoke to once the euphoria died down were equally (if not more) disappointed at their experience. Our pattern of music consumption has changed so much. From memorising albums to barely memorising the lyrics of a few odd songs from a plethora of options available, our commitment to music has dwindled. We Instagram/Snapchat our way through a concert, with silly filters only to give our friends on the other end of the screen a temporary pang of jealousy. For me, I believe it is mostly because everything about concerts stands in opposition to why I turn to music in the first place. It is my happy place. I just need a warm corner and good music to make my day and I’d give up Netflix in a jiffy.

*   *   *

Enroute to the event, almost every nook and corner was swarming with people who were downing a drink or rolling up a joint. While I oppose neither, the simple fact that you need an additional kick or even liquid courage to enjoy music mars my opinion of the event even more. My headphones render me into a space so sensitive to my needs that even if only for a while, I blur out the world.

Road to Ultra brought me down to reality the minute I swam through the dense inebriated crowd, which broke down barriers and stole liquor bottles from under the counter or pinched my butt while I stood (very patiently for over an hour, but to no avail) for my drinks. The bar was shut by 7:30 (they were out of drinks apparently), yet somehow all the servers were drunk. One even had the audacity to take a swig from the glass of water that I was finally given after an hour of coaxing (all the while grinning at me sheepishly, asking me to not call him bhaiya). The card we were made to purchase to then procure drinks was a huge help. It got me the pleasure of standing in a queue and argue with a guy who waved an empty Absolut bottle in my face, telling me to put that card in my, well, pocket. The guys dispensing the cards were also a pain in the pocket, if I may. To know the money was non-refundable was I suppose not so much of a surprise anymore. To add insult to injury, what do we as Indians excel at when we don’t get a share of the pie? The crowd let itself loose on the bar counters, hurling abuses we are all well versed in. The bar finally vandalised, people went their way, maybe finally distracted by the headliners. The servers saw it coming before I did and immediately went packing. Splendid.

The euphoria as thousands of people partake in the creation of music is amazing. I reiterate that Chainsmokers were great. But the concert left a bad taste because it evoked feelings opposite to what I usually feel while listening to my favourite tracks. Amidst all the pushing and pulling, pinching and cussing, I felt apart from all those with whom I shared my first concert. Plus, if you are short like me, you were probably also just crushed between sweaty shoulders and even sweatier ribs of people, for God save you if the guy behind you has no shirt on.

 

 

Picture Credit: Google/TimesofIndia.com