Thursday, December 25, 2008

Is it Christmas already?

In the blink of an eye, it's already the 3rd Christmas since I've plunged into the painful business of living off money made by myself. For the last 2 Christmases, both of them spent in Calcutta, I had managed to get myself to a church for midnight mass. I am hardly a religious person, but it just seemed like a fun thing to do - hang around and actually see masses of people on Calcutta streets at 12 in the night, a rare sight. Back in 2006, it was in the cavernous hall of St. James church that I managed to find a seat in. The 180 year old church looked grand in the light of all the candles, the only source of light used for that special night. 2007 Christmas Eve was spent at on the baclony of St. Peter's cathedral which was huge and unfortunately highly impersonal too. The hall was so large that the pastor seemed to speaking from across the sea and the hymns sounded like someone playing overused cassettes from a music system below. I'd make it a point to leave before the rest of the attendees began the whole "Merry Christmas" circus in between them. It seemed to me that this socializing on such an extensive basis puts paid to all the feelings of peace and calm that the service itself might have initiated. 

Ironically this year when I am in a country where Christmas is actually the big thing to celebrate, I am grounded at home. Taunton is a small town so I never had too many expectations about Christmas from it. Still it does have many houses done up prettily with the lights, reindeers and St. Nicks along with the snow from last weekend's storm making for a picturesque white Christmas. New York is where the Christmas glitz really is, they say and that's where I was supposed to be right now! But my plans for New York got nixed at the last moment. I am yet to decide that was due to my bad (read non-existent) planning or just my bad 'karma'.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Honest cop movies

When it comes to movies, I really have a difficult time trying to pick my favourite movie of all time. I find that every movie that I like is in such a different genre that it is highly unfair to compare them to each other. I try not to fall into the "Declared a movie classic therefore a great movie" trap but then there are a lot of movie classics that I do like. I am an unapologetic fan of the big budget Hollywood blockbuster as well and really have no compunctions about admitting that. I love "Jurassic Park" as much I love "Million Dollar Baby", and would easily watch "The Matrix" and "Terminator 2 : Judgement Day" as many times I'd watch "Apocalypse Now". In fact, I'd go to the lengths of saying that I had enjoyed watching "Dumb and Dumber" as much as I had enjoyed "The Godfather 2", though their recipe for entertainment was completely different. Choosing one single name out of the lot is an impossible task for me. 

But if I were to choose just one genre of movies that I've found myself totally hooked to, it'd be the "honest cop versus the corrupt system" movies. Some would joke that it is really entertaining because these are the only stories which are 100% fiction. I find myself extremely involved with the internal as well as external conflicts of the protagonist of any such movie. "Training Day", "LA Confidential", "The Departed", "American Gangster" and all similar cop dramas have their lead actors weather the most cruel twists of fate for standing by their principles. These stories rarely have happy endings, mostly ending in a zone of grey which never preach the importance of honesty, instead tell of the anguish of being men of their word. These are really strong men, I think to myself at the end of every such movie after I've watched it for the 10th time, with a mixture of pity and respect. Strong enough to understand that the path of righteousness is by no means a guarantee to a happy end, and that being conscientious is an end by itself.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Bit players

As I explore my options of going to Canada for New Year's Eve, I assume nothing about the country. All I know about the country is that it has a bright red maple leaf on its flag! Canada belongs to an entire group of developed nations like the Scandinavian countries and others in Western Europe which appear to take special pains to stay out of the news. None of them come to mind first when we think of the so-called "first world" countries. All we pay attention is what is happening in the USA, Russia, the UK, China or France and these should be enough if we were to think of the countries of consequence. There are times when I feel that these are probably the good guys who take care of their own development and do not go poking their noses around to spread 'democracy and freedom' and for all such nefarious motives. At other times, I try to comprehend how they manage to keep their wheels of efficiency turning without even causing a ripple in the muddy waters of international politics.

Take Switzerland for example. Swiss banks, Swiss watches and Roger Federer are probably the most famous symbols of this country. Sure, millions of tourists go up the Swiss Alps and marvel at their beauty but this is a country that sat out of two World Wars while the world around them was going to pieces. How can they afford to be so uninvolved? Their neighbour Germany on the other hand tried to take over the world not once but twice, besides doing an awesome job of making the best cars in the world. Now that's a country with presence, Germany: active, prosperous and forever stamped on the world's consciousness for good reasons as well as bad. 

Or take Finland for that matter. Now there's a joke that Finnish boys grow up playing only two games. If they live in towns they take up track racing and if they live in villages, they while their time away by rally racing. We know that they manufacture F1 drivers and World Rally Championship winners on an hourly basis, and that it is the home of India's favourite cell phone company, the super user friendly Nokia. But for a country that once was home to the marauding Viking tribes, they are a tad too quiet now.

So on and forth for a number of countries that we know are going forward in their quiet, super-efficient humming ways. They represent the real unknown to me. For all other countries, there are certain stereotypical images of their lifestyle and people borrowed right out of pop culture which I can summon at an instant's notice. Now pop culture is hardly the most authentic source, but at least it's a starting point. I am sure each of these reticent countries has a vibrant history which is as interesting as their more well known brethren. But the real problem is that these bit players on the world map are doing a very bad job of promoting themselves. Or is it because they have had the better sense not to?

Monday, December 22, 2008


I have had to travel extensively on the massive network of the Indian Railways. Indeed every summer vacation in my school days meant a long haul for my family across the width of India. The soothing rocking of the train was a companion for at least 36 hours. That was if the train reached Calcutta on schedule which it never did. We'd pass numerous signal houses adjacent to the tracks: a couple of them on either side of each of the stations (tiny as well as major) that lay in between. Most of them were insignificant places for our high-and-mighty "express" train which didn't have no time to stop. Even the town of Bharuch where I spent my childhood in did not warrant more than a two minute stop before our train, the only train from our parts to Calcutta, the Ahmedabad-Howrah express rushed on to bigger and more important places.

The smaller stations all had even tinier signal houses where the only signal I had ever seen was green as our train rushed past gathering up her skirts. I often thought that no trains would ever stop there because there never seemed to be anybody on the platforms. And in some places, even the signal houses did not deserve a crew of their own. The station-master would stand on the platform itself, a lonely figure with the green signal in his hands as the train rushed by. It was around these stations that the signal houses lay decrepit, overgrown with weeds and the word "ABANDONED" scrawled across them in paint to avoid the possibility of any mischief mongers guiding the train on their own signals. The exact spelling of abandoned was apparently a challenge for many of these doom-sayer painters, and it would range from "OBANDENED" to "EBANDOND".

Come to think of it, there is no scarier word in the English language than abandoned. The word is pervaded with more futility and despair than any other. Abandoned children, abandoned dreams, abandoned efforts: pair it with anything to suck the life-force out of it. These abandoned cabins all must have a story to tell, very sad ones at that. Of how prosperity gradually turned her back to the town that they once upon a time announced the arrival of or worse still briefly flirted with them before leaving them skeletons of her unkept promises.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A fairytale for grown-ups??

I watched "Pan's Labyrinth" yesterday and felt that it'd serve as a good enough reason for this new label on my blog. I had read it's review which said that this movie was a fairy tale for grown-ups. I was mystified by what such a thing could possibly mean. 

The movie has a level of violence so visceral that it is definitely not for kids. Yet how a movie with fairies and satyrs in it cannot be meant for children beats me. The sets and scenes of the little girl's adventures are so imaginatively constructed, but the creatures that she encounters are equally gruesome in a way that offsets the childishness of the concept. The sadistic step-father of the girl Ofelia only adds to the overall grittiness of the movie as he continues on with his blood curdling ways. The haunting lullaby playing in the background as Ofelia's blood drips into the well of the Labyrinth is a typical example of the conflicting worlds routinely brought together in the movie.

I really liked the movie but I scratch my head in vain to figure out the intent of the story. In some sense, it is about a childish hope that a violent death in this world is only a step into a wonderful new life in another world. But if a story is to be made about hope, why not go the whole hog, instead of wallowing about in a sea of conflicting emotions. It's the director's call at the end of the day, and there is no doubting that he made a great movie.