Saturday, September 9, 2017

The depths of an actor’s persona

As I was watching, with rapt attention, a few scenes from Mahendran’s Mullum Malarum, two people that came to my mind were Satyaraj and the late Director Manivannan.  The duo had a long fruitful association which peaked in their 1994 blockbuster, the political drama Amaidhi Padai.  There were two parallels that I could see between Rajnikanth and Satyaraj in Mullum Malarum and Amaidhi Padai respectively.  The first, obvious similarity was that they turned in arguably their greatest performance in these two movies.  But digging deeper, I realized that the reason these actors scaled the zenith of their careers acting wise was that the directors in question not only understood their persona but also delved deep and deeper into it until there was no further facet to explore and not an extra shade left to project.

Released in 1978, Mullum Malarum was Mahendran’s debut as a director.  A writer of some repute (Thanga Padhakkam, Mogam Muppathu Varusham), Mahendran, in an interview with Bosskey, mentioned how he used to bemoan the fact that Rajni’s tremendous potential as an actor had scarcely met its match in his prior movies.  Prior to the movie being made, Rajni had been acting mainly in supporting roles, mostly as an antagonist, taking baby steps into the leading man territory.  But in the best of his performances till then – Moondru Mudichu, 16 Vayathinile or AvargaL – there was simmering anger.  You could always sense a dynamite ready to explode.  

Alfred Hitchcock once said, “There is a bomb under the table.  If it explodes, it is surprise.  If it doesn’t, it is suspense.”  In an inspired move, Mahendran decided that he would tease the audience by having a light next to the wick of the dynamite but would set it off only when needed.  What also benefited Rajni was that the director (who also wrote the movie) gave him a character that was essentially good-hearted.  In fact, the build-up to the Rajni – Sarat Babu confrontation is an exercise in skillful writing.  Sample the sequence (25:00 – 30:00 min point in the video below) where Rajni thrashes his colleague for attempting to tarnish his reputation.  If the actual beating of the hapless colleague is raw, messy and lifelike, what is enormously touching is the way he describes his affection for his sister.  What is also wonderful to watch is how in the montage scenes, Rajni is marvelously casual. (Watch him chat with the old women!)  The supporting cast, especially Samikannu, does a stellar job, proving to be an apt foil for the charged Rajni as he lets sparks fly.

Watch the 5-min sequence from the 25-min point:

Satyaraj had been a leading man through the late 80s and early 90s when Manivannan decided to bring back the villain in him to the screen.  Satyaraj’s fan base would have been just content to see an antagonist on screen.  But Manivannan was not content in just presenting any villainous character.  He envisaged the portrait of an evil man that was so consumed by thirst for power that he found it impossible to accommodate any goodness.  If you look past the legendary highlights of the movie like the election scene, you will see shades in this villain that are rarely seen in antagonists even these days.  This is especially true in the case of his relationship with his wife Sujatha.  He knows that she is a righteous person who doesn’t deserve to be killed.  Yet in his desperation and fear that she will turn into an approver, he orders his aide to kill him.  Satyaraj is brilliant in this scene, as the hunger for power kills any residual humanity in him.  Be it his last conversation with Sujatha or his casual orders to his henchman to kill her, he brings to life an evil man who is unable to curb the demon inside.  In a superb touch, he adds, “Please don’t torture her like you do your other victims.  Just slay her and let her die without suffering.”  This was Manivannan’s pen at its sharpest, not content with exploring the actor’s persona on the surface and instead, piercing it and tearing it asunder.

Start - 2:28 min point:

Mahendran, with Mullum Malarum, had introduced a style of writing where painting a leading man in shades of gray would actually make him seem human, warts and all, and not ‘heroic’ in the way prior leading men of Tamil cinema had been portrayed.  He probably noted in Rajni’s earlier films that the actor had built the persona of a loose cannon.  By keeping the movie strongly rooted in the sensitive brother-sister relationship, Mahendran is able to showcase the tenderness of the Rajni character.  This allows some of his character’s questionable actions, be it banging his wife’s head against the pillar or wanting to marry his sister off to an older man to get back at Sarat Babu, to be forgiven by the audience.  Even in the moving climactic sequence, Rajni’s ego co-exists with his abiding love for his sister.  Mahendran’s shaping of this character is so exquisite that we rarely realize while watching the movie that he has taken the actor’s persona and strengths and worked with it and around it. 

Watch from 4:15 (with a kerchief handy!)

Manivannan, on the other hand, probably realized that his best chance at making Satyaraj’s ‘performance’ work was to have him appear effortless and relaxed.  But it is a testament to his writing skill that he gives Satyaraj line after sizzling line that mixes acerbic wit and perceptive social commentary.  Since it is all tossed off with panache, the lines make us laugh but upon a bit of reflection, they make us think. Witness the scene where Satyaraj plots a caste-based riot.  In a scene that is hilarious on the surface, he touches upon religious fanaticism, caste-based factions and the sad state of affairs of the uneducated voting public.  But there is no highfalutin talk here about any of these heavy duty topics.  Manivannan, in a remarkable demonstration of ‘invisible’ writing, places all these issues into the safe hands of the master villain, who uses his dialogue delivery and casual body language to bring these lines to life.  In none of their earlier collaborations (such as 24 Mani Neram) was the villain much beyond a smiling assassin driven by base instincts.  But here, Manivannan tapped into the antagonist in Satyaraj and wrote his character as the personification of sociopolitical evil. 

5:30 min point -- 

Modern day directors like Karthik Subburaj – his casting of SJ Suryah in Iraivi was a masterstroke – and Pushkar-Gayathri (the duo behind the sensational Vikram Vedha) do use actors purposefully to fit their vision.  For them, yesteryear doyens like Mahendran have set high standards.  These directors that do want to shape the future of Tamil cinema will do well to revisit the work of masters who have invested time and effort into their writing, casting and making inspired choices in their direction.  If history can repeat itself more often, then the influx of directors into the pantheon of great Tamil filmmakers will happen at a much faster pace.

***


Friday, September 1, 2017

Thank Goodness for Roger Federer - A guest post by Nand V. Kumar

The following is an article written by my friend and colleague Nand V. Kumar.  It was so beautifully written that I requested that I host it on this blog since Nand hasn't started blogging yet.  Thank you, Nand.  It is a privilege to post this article here. - Ram

****

Tennis has changed a lot lately. The courts are slower, the rackets larger, the strings tighter, the serves faster, the balls fluffier, the grunting louder, the baseline rallies longer, the fans rowdier, and the sportsmanship rarer. It is no longer a gentleman’s game that it once was. Genteel has morphed into brash, and power has replaced finesse. Promising younger players complaining of boredom and/or premature burnout are now emblematic of the decorum and discipline the game appears to have lost forever. And yet, right in the thick of the change, the remarkable resurgence of a remarkable tennis player has allowed us to pause, recalibrate and rejoice.

Thank goodness, we have Roger Federer.



When Federer steps on a tennis court, none of the above matters. His game straddles different eras like a veritable time machine. If one is lucky enough to catch Federer in the zone and in full flight (there is nothing more resplendent in all of sport), one just might see the past, present, and, yes, the future, coalesce into a display of shot making brilliance so out of the mainstream that one can only marvel at his inventiveness and audacity. Improbably angled crosscourt forehand slice winners, no-look backhand flicks on the full stretch, and spinning squash shots out of no-man’s land are interspersed with sublime shots of controlled aggression on both flanks of the court. Federer is that rare breed of player who evokes nostalgia and anticipation in equal measure. His hybrid game, an unlikely amalgam of finesse and high-powered tennis from current and past eras, takes us back to the future, to a place unlike any we have ever known. Andre Agassi summed it best several years ago when he said, “Federer plays a game with which I am not familiar.”

PeRFection, the monogrammed sign that pops up ubiquitously whenever and wherever Federer is playing, is not just a fan appreciation thing, it gets to the core of his personality, both as player and human being. Astonishingly enough, almost twenty years on the tour and 93 titles later, Federer believes there is still room for improvement. He stepped away from competitive tennis for six months last year, not so much to heal the body but to heal the mind and rekindle his passion for the sport. He came back in January this year with a purpose and a plan; the purpose, to start winning again, especially on the big stage at the majors. The plan: to walk on the court without the burden of expectation, to be aggressive, and “to play the ball…not your opponent.”

If you think an old dog cannot learn new tricks, you simply have not watched a reincarnated Federer lately. Remember the fifth set at the Australian Open final? Down a service break against his biggest nemesis, Federer went on a tear, winning five straight games to snatch (pardon the cliché) an improbable victory from the jaws of defeat. It was arguably the best five games he ever played. He was fearless and free-wheeling throughout the match, but during that five-game stretch, he literally abandoned all caution, stepping in on second serves, taking the ball early, hitting his backhand with impunity, and charging the net at the earliest invite. One commentator on ESPN exclaimed Federer was “flying around the court again now.” The joie de vivre that had been missing from his game in recent years was back, and Federer was at the summit once more. Six months later, in July, Federer went on a tear yet again to win a record eighth Wimbledon title without dropping a set. Writing in The New Yorker after that match, Louisa Thomas eloquently states, winning (for Federer) “seems like a natural consequence of a more general joy.”

There is no tennis champion, past or present, who has embraced life on the tour (and beyond) with as much affirmation of joy as Federer. The racket throwing moments of his youth are long gone, replaced now with a genuine sense of wonder, not just over his own achievements but those of his fellow players as well. When he plays, he is calm and serene, almost Buddha-like. During practice, his relaxed and casual demeanor on the outside belies a steely resolve on the inside. He is a stickler for rules (and excellence), for which the purists love him. If injured he will not play, and if he plays he will not quit midway during a match. He does not wear his celebrity on his sleeve when he hangs out with younger players in the locker room or invites them to be his hitting partner. He hobnobs easily with ball boys and girls and throws pizza parties for them even when he loses. He displays an air of quiet exuberance when he talks to the press, for whom he always somehow makes time. Most endearing of all is the fact that he travels with his family as much as he does (wife, parents, two sets of twins) not just because he can, but because for him the joy of tennis also means having them around as much as possible.

Greatness in most fields of artistic human endeavor is absolute. How can you compare Rembrandt with Picasso or Mozart with Beethoven? You cannot put genius on a scale and assign a numerical value to measure one versus the other. Greatness in tennis is for the most part relative, with grand slam titles, weeks at number one, and head-to-head performance serving as primary differentiating markers. And then we have Federer. All the talk one hears about Federer being the greatest of all time (or not) misses the point altogether. To compare him with others on relative measures is to troll. He is as much an artist as he is a tennis player. His balletic movement and grace on the tennis court compel references to Baryshnikov and Nureyev, so how can relative numbers alone capture the full measure of a man who has brought so much joy to the world?

The final grand slam tournament of the year gets under way in New York tomorrow. Federer may or may not win an unprecedented sixth US Open title, but that the spotlight continues to be on him at this late stage in his career (he turned thirty-six earlier this month) is in itself a celebration of a remarkable athlete and his continuing legacy.

****

Sunday, August 20, 2017

And there was silence

Sanjay was the only child of a cricket player who went on to represent India.  But one didn’t have to know a thing about the sport or his father Vijay to get to know him because he never played or followed cricket.  His mother Lakshmi never had an issue with that.  What she had an issue with but rarely voiced was the chasm that existed between her religious beliefs and his atheistic leanings.  He would accompany her to temples but wait outside until she was finished.  She would pray for a bit more quiet to silence the din in Sanjay’s mind, a place where events from 1998 routinely paid a visit and played off-key notes.

***

March 20, 1998.  MAC stadium in Chennai, India. 

The stadium emanated heat like a frying pan.  Beads of sweat ran across Vijay’s forehead.  The heat was not the only culprit; the game had come down to the wire.  His opposition needed 16 runs to win off the last six balls, a stiff but not impossible task.  After he made changes to the field, he sprinted to his fielding position, barely a few feet away from the batsman. 

No sooner had the bowler completed his delivery stride than the batsman hit the ball in Vijay’s direction with the ferocity of a howitzer.  The ball traveled at a pace that even a cricketer blessed with Vijay’s reflexes could not stop the ball from hitting his forehead.  His wail echoed all around the stadium, most notably in the direction of Lakshmi who had been watching this from the pavilion, with six-year old Sanjay seated on her lap.  As Vijay collapsed, she rushed to his side. 

The clock in the hospital seemed frozen.  Lakshmi’s stomach felt like the insides of an overpowered blender.  She was surrounded by her family and Vijay’s teammates.  Meanwhile, Sanjay was at home wondering why his grandparents had come to spend the night with him.  As the doctors and nursing staff flitted in and out of sight, Lakshmi chanted prayers under her breath.  The silence was sickening; she could hardly hear her own prayers.  24 hours passed.  It felt more like 86,400 seconds.  The doctor walked up to her and said something that she heard but could barely register.  Regaining the voice in her mind, she signed a consent form.  As she got up from her chair, she shook the doctor’s hand and said, “Thank you for trying your best, Doctor.”

***
March 20, 2017.  MAC stadium again. 

Lakshmi held a gathering every year on this day, where she presented cash awards to three budding cricketers.  She alighted from her car along with Sanjay and her husband Anil – she had remarried in 2003. 

During the course of the ceremony, the batsman who had struck that unfortunate, fatal blow 19 years ago, walked up to Sanjay.   

He put his arm around Sanjay’s shoulder and said, “Sanjay, you know, I felt so miserable the day Vijay left us.  I wanted to quit the game.  But the day after the funeral, Lakshmi visited my house.  She comforted me and my wife that what had happened was an accident, that my going on to play well for India would be the best tribute to her husband, a person who simply loved the game, almost reverentially.  I don’t remember her exact words but they meant a lot to me, my career and my life.  And I thought you must know that.”

Sanjay smiled faintly and replied, “Thank you, Uncle.”

After the ceremony, as they approached their car, Sanjay said to Anil, “Pa, I need some time to myself.  Could you drive back home and I’ll come later?”

Anil smiled, patted him on his cheek as Lakshmi responded, “Don’t be late, okay?”

Sanjay went back into the desolate stadium.  Save the bees buzzing around, there was not a sound to be heard.  He stood behind the ropes, in front of the pavilion.  For a few seconds, his eyes were fixed on the area around the 22-yard pitch located at the center of the magnificent stadium.  He sat down on the grass and gazed at the stillness of the azure sky, vast in its expanse and rich in its simplicity.  He looked at the center pitch again and sported a smile.  By now, even those nearby bees couldn’t punctuate his silence.

Nowadays, whenever he accompanies Lakshmi, Sanjay continues to wait outside the temple.  But then, the means never mattered to Lakshmi.  

***

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Autograph Memories

Note: For the scenes described below, I have pointers to the specific portions of the youtube video (of the full movie) just above the snapshots.  The youtube video is embedded at the bottom of the article.  Thank you, Anu Warrier, for introducing me to your style of movie essays - that's the format that I have adopted for this piece.

A bunch of friends are having a get-together at a restaurant.  They await the arrival of Divya, the lone girl in their group.  She walks in wearing a checked shirt, carrying a backpack, sporting an unfussy hairstyle, her hair kept in place by a black band.  Looking a little pensive, she apologizes for being tardy.  When her friend inquires, she responds by stating that she bumped into her former beau.  As he (wrongly) guesses the nature of the meeting, her face slowly turns red.  Unable to digest her friend’s comments, she stands up in the middle of the restaurant and creates a bit of a scene, slapping her friend.  Regaining composure, with her eyes welling up, she explains to him that the reason she could face her ex was because of the security that his friendship offered her.  This explanation, coming from a girl who had attempted suicide after being spurned by her boyfriend, says a lot that there is to be said about the ability of a genuine friendship to offer a sturdy pillar of support when the emotional foundation of a person is on shaky ground.  Sneha, the actress playing the role of Divya, handles this scene exquisitely.  Anger, sadness and strength all form part of the gamut of emotions she undergoes in this sequence.  She expresses and internalizes in equal measure – this balance is what makes her performance in Autograph the crown jewel of her career. 

Scene starts at the 2:03:40 min point

This ‘balance’ deserves elaboration especially because the creative brain behind this movie – writer and director Cheran – is not known for understatement.  Cheran’s movies invariably elicit polarizing opinions.  Some find them unbearably preachy but others find them sweetly old fashioned.  Irrespective of the camp one belongs to, it is hard to deny the strength of some of his characters.  Actors like Parthiban who can internalize effectively (Bharathi Kannamma) can serve as a counterpoint to the dramatism (sometimes loudness) of the scenes, making the characters lifelike and the sequences more realistic.  Never has this been illustrated better in Cheran’s oeuvre than in Sneha’s masterful performance here.  An actress blessed with large, expressive eyes, Sneha had the acting chops to make her emoting look effortless.  Rarely did she look awkward on screen because she seldom tried to oversell a moment.  But on the other hand, for tragic sequences, she used every facial muscle to bring the moment to life.  The scene where she realizes that her mother has passed away is a case in point.  Especially poignant is the way she cradles her mother, tearing up uncontrollably.  It is raw, powerful emotion erupting out of a face that looks like it stored each iota of sadness in every cell only for them to tear asunder.

Sequence begins at the 2:14:21 min point

Two other moments deserve mention because Sneha, at first glance, might appear to do very little.  But owing to the thoughtful writing and deft direction, she is resplendent.  The first of this is the brief scene outside the orphanage where she has decided to live, following the death of her mother.  Her friend Cheran is a little upset with her decision but understands and respects her choice, describing the inevitability of separations in a relationship.  We hear her voice (splendid voice work by Savitha) in the background as she talks affectionately, almost reverentially, about her friendship with him.  The casualness of Sneha’s body language is in perfect contrast to the heavy duty lines that we hear in the background.  As I mentioned earlier, you need a natural like her to make this kind of drama work.

2:19:36 min point -- 

The other moment is in the climax at the wedding hall.  In a small but lovely moment sans any dialogue, Sneha teases Cheran for removing his beard.  The impish smile is just about perfect given the comfort level that exists between them.  Again, this is an instance of a talented actor bringing a touch that helps make the character well-rounded. 

2:36:30 min point -- 

In the hero-dominated world of Tamil cinema, it is rare to find well-fleshed out characters for women.  But upon closer inspection, the true torchbearers of sensible cinema have always invested their female leads with agency.  Seasoned veterans like Balachander, Mahendran, Mani Ratnam and Vasanth to the latest generation of filmmakers like Karthik Subburaj (Anjali and Pooja Devariya in Iraivi) and Seenu Ramasamy (Tamanna in Dharmadurai) may have had markedly different filmmaking styles.  But the one common aspect of these perspicacious creators is their vision to project their women through the lens of feminism and not just through the male gaze which can be sometimes be covered with the blinders of chauvinism and sexism.  It is when we see roles such as Sneha's in Autograph that we see the value of this thoughtfulness.  Sincere thanks to Cheran and to Sneha for giving me such an abiding memory of a well-etched character in an unforgettable movie. 


Sunday, July 30, 2017

Meet my Philosopher

4 pm at the Starbucks near the Germantown Mall in Memphis.  The time and place have not changed since 2001.  As is always the routine, I arrive a few minutes early and get a seat near the window.  As I see her walk towards the store, I head out to open the door for her. 

In the late 90s, the US immigration authorities had opened their doors for her and her family to enter this country as refugees from the Middle East.  Sincere thanks to them, for I have known her since our undergrad days in Memphis.  It was in 2001 that I moved out of Memphis.  And every time I return there to visit my parents, the meeting with Awaz is the one inflexible appointment on my calendar.

We order our teas and settle into our chairs. 

She looks at me for an extra fraction of a second and says, “You look healthy.”

I smile at the observation and reply, “You’ve lost a ton of weight.  Are you enjoying your yoga sessions?”

“Oh yes, I am.”

As we pick up our teas, the conversation shifts to my wife Nandu, who couldn’t join me on that trip. 

“So, how is Nandu doing?” she asks.

“She is good.  Since the last time we came here, I think she is much happier.  You can ask her if you’d like!”

Her smile reaches her blue-green eyes and her sigh of relief is definite, even audible!

***

On our previous trip to Memphis eight months prior, Nandu had taken Awaz into confidence and shared with her a few details of our arguments and squabbles, seeking her advice.  The root cause had been my inflexibility and tendency to impose my value system and beliefs on Nandu.

It had been a rather delicate balancing act for Awaz.  She said to Nandu – in my presence, I might add - “You both mean a lot to me.  You might feel sad and disappointed with his recent behavior.  But just remember that he is a good guy.  Both of us know that.”  Awaz then turned towards me, looked at me intently and said, “You are my best friend.  So, I am going to take the privilege to tell you what you could do differently.  I am even okay if you get angry with me.  But I feel it is my responsibility.  You have to see things more from her perspective…”  And she proceeded to tell me in the sweetest, most polite manner that I was being incorrigible! 

In the period between the two trips to Memphis, there were several instances when arguments would be nipped in the bud because Nandu would gently remind me of Awaz’s advice.  And for her part, Nandu began to cut me slack because of Awaz’s suggestion to be a tad more patient with me. 

***

4:25 pm.  As we indulge in our marble loaves, I rib her, “Remember, you and Nandu gave me a 10/10 for how good a friend I am and a 6/10 for how good of a spouse I am to Nandu!  How about revising that score, Philosopher?” 

(‘Philosopher’ was the nickname that I had coined for Awaz during the previous trip!)

“Hmm, I’ll have to ask Nandu if she would give you an 8,” she says gleefully.  And to rub it in, adds, “Maybe an 8.2 - how about that?!”

“That’s so generous,” I quip.

After we confabulate for a while, it is time to leave.  As we walk out of the store, I feel heavier than usual, not really wanting to bid goodbye.  I should actually be feeling light, I tell myself.  I had acted on some well-meaning advice from a dear friend and as a result, my wife is quite happy.  So am I. 

As we hug each other, she says, “Please tell Nandu that I am so happy for the two of you.”

I choke a little and faintly respond, “Sure.  Do visit us in Philly.”

As I drive back to my parents’ home in Memphis, thoughts about Awaz flood my mind like the aftermath of a broken dam.  I realize that the heaviness that I had felt a little earlier was the result of my feeling overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for a friend that understands me deeply.  So deep that she had made me introspect and realize that a relationship rooted in non-judgmental behavior and sprinkled with generous doses of empathy will lend a protective shadow when things heat up.

Akin to the predictable cadence of waves on a balmy Spring day at the shore are the vibes of understanding from a genuine friend.  Sure, there are things that must be completely private between a husband and wife.  But there are times when a voice of reason from a caring soul can sometimes be that wave that touches you, urging you to securely hold your partner’s hand, while washing away any feelings of rancor. 

I then pick up the phone, intending to ask Nandu if she would give me an 8.2!  We talk for a few minutes.  For some reason, the question feels unnecessary.  And I leave it at that!

******



I am pleased and honored to have gotten into the top three list in this week's non-fiction grid.  Sincere thanks to everyone that voted for me. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A prayer for Stacey

The message on the onesie read, “Fabulous, just like Mommy.”  There was one to make the Dad happy too - “Handsome like Daddy.”  Next to the onesies was a humidifier shaped like a penguin.  Beside that was a gray swaddle cloth.  A changing pad at the edge of the table was wrapped and the card on top read, “Poopsie!”  And there was, of course, the “Goodnight Moon” book.  These were items placed on the table in a conference room at Stacey’s workplace.  Several blue colored balloons floated around.  On the table was a red velvet cake with a message that read, “Congrats Mary!”  Sporting a light-pink shirt, gray suit and matching pants, Stacey was placing candles on the cake.  She was a 48-year old marketing manager who had a team of five.  As one of her team members walked in with homemade cupcakes, Stacey looked up and smiled.  A friend of mine once mentioned that when one smiles genuinely, their eyes smile too.  He even mentioned the name of the smile – the Duchenne smile.  That is difficult to pronounce – I’d rather call it the Stacey smile.

The rest of Stacey’s team had been tight-lipped about the baby shower.  As a result, Mary was genuinely surprised when she walked into the room to the cries of “surprise!”  With an impish smile, Stacey said, “Mary, now you know why the meeting invitation said ‘must attend’ in the subject!” 

As people settled down to enjoy the refreshments, one of the newer members of her team asked, “Stacey, do you have kids?”

With a faint smile – no, it did not reach her deep hazel eyes – she replied, “No, I don’t.”  She quickly added, “Try the cupcakes.  They are fabulous!” 

As people were getting ready to leave, she said to Mary, “Ping me when you are ready to leave.  We will help load everything into your car.  Why don’t you plan to work from home tomorrow?  We can move our one-on-one to Monday.”

Mary gently hugged her and said, “This was so sweet of you.  I really appreciate it!”

Later that evening, as soon as Stacey got into her car, she took her phone out of her handbag to take it off vibrate mode.  She spent a couple of extra seconds looking at her husband Ron’s photograph.  Ron had been traveling for work.

She texted him: “Hey Ron, I miss you.  Is there a chance that you can come back a little earlier than planned?”

Within a few seconds came a response: “Hi honey, you ok?”

“Oh yes, I am totally fine :)  I just felt like talking to you.  By the way, Mary’s baby shower went off really well.  The kid looked so beautiful today.  So glad that we didn’t have anyone squeal!  Mary was genuinely surprised, I thought!”

“Cool!  Let me see if I can get on an earlier flight.  Ciao!”

Ron was able to advance his return journey and instead of arriving the next day, he returned home late night.  Stacey was asleep on the couch, with her reading glasses still on, and her book on her lap.  He took her glasses off gingerly, kissed her on her forehead and whispered, “Hi sweetie!”

Resting her head on his lap, she asked, “Hey…did you have dinner?”

“I did.  But the steak was as underprepared as my vendor’s presentation!”

She grinned and said, “I am too lazy to go upstairs.  Why don’t we just doze off here?”

He patted her on her cheek and responded, “Sure, let me go upstairs and get some pillows and a blanket.”

A little later, he walked over to their yoga room and squatted on his mat with his eyes closed.  He felt that his short internal monologues which could sometimes be a quiet prayer, helped him unwind before retiring for the night.  It was a routine that he had started around ten years ago following a difficult phase for him and Stacey, one during which visits to gynecologists and fertility clinics were frequent. 

As Ron eased into his posture, he felt blank at first.  And then thoughts around something specific started to traipse across his mind.  What he prayed for that night was...well, that’s between him and Stacey.

***
Note: Names have been changed for privacy reasons.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

"Dr. Jamison, I am scared!"

“Steve, I am seriously addicted to coke!” 

These were words that I had uttered to my good friend Steven Stewart during the first month of my undergrad at The University of Memphis.  I had lived in India till I completed my high school.  I then migrated to the US with my parents in 1998.  Chennai and Memphis – just about the only similarity I could find between my hometown and my new town was that they both belonged to the southern region of their respective countries!  Pescatarians will be up in arms if I claim to have felt like a fish out of water.  And they would be right – it surely felt worse! 

Soon after landing in Memphis, I was to figure out that Southern accents don’t sound the same in India and the United States!  But it was to get much better.  Plus, living under the protective roof that my parents blessed me with, it did not feel right to complain.  So there I was, taking tentative steps into the beautiful, lush green campus.  I quickly made some friends, one of whom was Steve. 

A few weeks into the semester, Steve and I were walking to the library to work on a homework assignment.  It was a rather muggy afternoon.  I was feeling quite parched.  And as I approached the vending machine outside the library, I made the proclamation rather loudly!  Steve’s face was as frozen as the carrot on a snowman’s nose.  It took him a few interminable seconds to realize that I was referring to diet coke, my soft drink of choice!  As he saw the stunned look on other students’ faces, he helpfully pointed out that ‘coke’ was slang for cocaine and that it was best not to use the word “addicted” alongside!  As one’s face was being thawed, the other’s face was getting frostbite!  My embarrassment was so acute that I was almost in tears and I excused myself!  I had to see Dr. Jamison right then!  Dr. James Jamison – he was my Math professor.  He was to be a lot more to me in the years to come. 

I took Dr. Jamison’s Calculus class in my first semester.  In one of the happiest accidents of my life, I was supposed to be in another section but I was so green that I couldn’t even figure out the error until I received a letter late in the semester stating that I had not attended class all semester.  Of course, I hadn’t…in the section that I was supposed to sit in!  I was in Dr. Jamison’s class all along.  A professor in his 50s (at that time), he at first seemed to be a little distant, but unmindful of that, I kept asking questions in the middle of his lectures with a standard opening line, “I have a doubt.”  It was standard practice in schools in India to say “I have a doubt” when one has a question for a teacher.  But Dr. Jamison had no clue what I was saying.  I am sure my thick Indian accent wouldn’t have helped my cause!  After a couple of weeks, during his office hours, he gently asked me why I used the word “doubt” when all I was asking was a simple question.  The thoughtfulness that he exhibited in not embarrassing me in front of my classmates and instead asking me in private, was the first of many meaningful things that he had done for me in my life.  The person that seemed a little distant initially was now making me feel closer to my new home.  So it was only natural that on the day that I spoke unabashedly about an addiction, that I felt the need to rush to his office!

With sweat dripping from my forehead – no, the hot weather wasn’t the only culprit! – I knocked on his door.  Much to my relief, he was there.  When I narrated to him this incident, he laughed out loud.  But he immediately added, “It is okay, Ram!  You can laugh!”  In response, I asked, “I am scared of talking to anyone now.  What if I commit more blunders?”  He was silent for a couple of minutes.  But he then said, “Go to the Educational Support Program office.  I will send them a note.  Go enroll as a tutor!”

I was incredulous.  Here I was talking about being scared and he was asking me to become a tutor.  When he saw the disbelieving look on my face, he said, “Ram, you are very good at Math.  Go and teach.  Your love for Math will help you overcome your fear of speaking.”  Even though I was not sure of myself, I trusted him blindly and joined the program (that was designed to help struggling freshman students) as a tutor.  Before I left his office he added, “But remember, you might make mistakes.  Just remember to laugh.  Just remember to learn.  That’s it!”  Years later, I was awarded the “Outstanding Teaching Assistant” award during my MBA at Carnegie Mellon University.  No prizes for guessing the person that I called right after the ceremony.

The equation of his life had the unwavering constant of grace.  In a similar vein, in the sixteen years that I knew him, the equation of my life had a constant amidst several variables – his presence.  I am glad that even after I left Memphis, we stayed in touch.  I am glad that he saw me achieve great successes.  And I am glad that he made me see my failures as a passing phase.  I just wish that his cancer had not added a variable that morphed the equation of my life into an unsolvable inequation on November 28, 2014.  May your soul continue to rest in peace, Dr. Jamison.  I have one last ‘doubt’ – “Why did you have to leave us so early?”