Category Archives: Education

The Grammar of Genius

We’ve finally made it to St.Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and despite several people having warned me about before I left, it has rendered me speechless. I’m struggling to take in the sheer grandeur of it. Mother, on the other hand has locked eyes with what she’s come here to see all the way. There’s a small horde of people in front of it. Behind them, behind what I’m sure is bulletproof glass sits a haunting marble recreation of Mother Mary holding the naked body of her dead son. Even with my below average understanding of art, I know what I’m seeing pure genius in front of me. I use this adjective very rarely, but if there are a couple of places where one can use it without any regret – The Pieta has to count as one of them.

Mother’s been teaching students about Michelangelo since the past three decades, I’ve watched these lectures turn from notes of paper to floppy disks to CD roms to interactive video essays. In my second year, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting through them personally. Today, she’s seeing the sculpture with her own eyes. So am I, but I haven’t spent three decades studying every contour of it. That sculpture is her career. It’s been responsible for oooohh’s and aaaahhh’s in class, it’s been responsible for students failing semesters, it’s been responsible for doodles and jokes and wikipedia searches and kids getting kicked out of class for not giving a shit about it. It’s three decades worth of teaching sitting in front of her with frightening technical perfection. I mean that word. It’s perfect.

You have to understand what it feels like to finally see it. It physically impacts you. There are people standing in front of it transfixed, there are people who are silently crying, there are people desperately trying to freeze themselves in that moment by clicking a photograph or trying to sketch it. Couples are holding hands, small kids are asking questions, history teachers who have come with groups of kids are imitating a man chiselling away at marble, frat boys who’ve made ape like sounds looking at fig leafs covering dicks are staring open mouthed. The sculpture looms over everyone in its sheer arrogance.

If you’ve done a tour of the Vatican museums, this is the last point you’re going to be left at, which means by then you’ve already had an overdose of more art than you can deal with over a lifetime. You’ve seen Raphael’s School of Athens, you’ve seen Laocoon and his sons, you’ve seen Caravaggio, Apollo Belvedere, tapestries large enough to cover entire homes and maps you had no idea existed till you see them there for the first time. Heck, the token minuscule section of the Vatican Museums that houses contemporary art features Dali, Francis Bacon, Frida Kahlo, Matisse, Roy Lichtenstein, Van Gogh and Marc Chagall. It’s every name you’ve ever heard in every arthouse film, from every pretentious liberal arts friend and every person you’ve known who’s spent a week abroad and come back a seasoned critic. The Vatican museums have corridors leading to corridors which eventually end at the Sistine chapel exhibiting Michelangelo’s other magnum opus: the last Judgement – which looms over the sea of spectators all looking up desperately, trying to make the moment last till they’re booted out.

Yet, the Pieta is different.

It defeats the grandeur of the Basilica it’s in and if I haven’t mentioned already, the Basilica is the grandest, richest, vainest sign of opulence I’ve seen my entire life. It defeats all the art you’ve seen till that point, it erases out at that moment: every colour, texture and contour your mind has stored over the past few hours. It reduces you to silence. You want to shut the fuck up and think of some plausible myriad explanation to how a twenty three year old with a rock and a chisel came up with this. You want to know why you’re so untalented. You now have a benchmark for what ‘really really good is’. If you’ve had that benchmark already, you now know what the best is. You realise you’ve never been good and you never will be that good, no matter what Mrs.Rosy Fernandes said in the first standard, no matter what your Sheela Aunty told you when you drew that travesty of a scenery (seriously, the sun you drew in the middle of the mountains was smiling, it was that bad) on her birthday greeting card, no matter how many art competitions you’ve won. You’ve been below average at your best, and it’s nothing to be ashamed off. That’s just how it is. That phrase – ‘You’d have been great if you had put in effort – It’s a sham’. It’s just  not true. You know what’s worse, he didn’t even do it out of a burst of artistic inspiration. It wasn’t the byproduct of years of trying to find a voice. It was a paid gig. He made what would be known as the greatest masterpiece AD as a fucking freelance job. His brief was ‘To make something no one in Rome could better’ and he did it. Because no one has till now.

I don’t think mother can really take this moment. She’s been really ill over the past three days, and we’ve considered going back. Right now, it’s all forgotten. I ask her if she feels like giving me a personal lecture. She mumbles some random facts about how Michelangelo would mix colours and trails off but honestly, she doesn’t give a shit about me right now. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be her right now. Sixty years old, from a family of artists, to grow up in art school and see some of the brightest talent in the state year after year pale in comparison to to Goliath in front of her right now. I think of that scene in Good Will Hunting, where Robin Williams tells Matt Damon ‘You could peel of every date and fact about Michelangelo, but you don’t know what it feels like to stand inside the Sistine Chapel’

I don’t think I deserve this moment. I think mother deserves to be alone with the entire sculpture to herself for at least a minute, but I don’t think Michelangelo deserves to be left for one person either.

“How many students have you taught in your life?”, I ask her.

“Over thirty years? Ten thousand at least’, she says.

“How many of them were extraordinary, like you knew there was something special about them?”

“About seven – eight”

“Anyone this good?”

“I don’t think even he knew he was that good.”, said mom very seriously. I chuckle. She doesn’t.

We sit in front of the sculpture for twenty minutes. Mother asks if I want to take a selfie in front of it with her. I take a photo of her alone instead. She checks it out and asks if I want to leave. I nod. On our way out, she stops.

“What happened?”, I ask her.

“I wanted to take a last look before I leave. I don’t think I’m ever going to come back”

She’s sixty. I disagree. I assure her she will. I tell her I’ll get her back soon. She smiles and tries her best to look like she’s convinced. We leave. We don’t talk for a while. A melancholic silence rests between us. We feel like every commoner in the midst of genius – defeated.

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Ganesh Chaturthi as an Atheist

Yesterday marked the first time in twenty-five years I missed Ganesh Chaturthi in Pune. Usually, I make it a point to spend the first couple of days in Pune before getting back to work in Mumbai, because those two days mean a lot to me. It’s not because I’m religious, I’m as much of an annoying atheist as anyone can be. It’s been one of the last family traditions I have left I try to follow. Invariably this year, that’s broken as well.

Pune transforms during Ganesh Chaturthi. The sarcastic scowls that adorn everyone’s face in Pune for pretty much the rest of the entire year are replaced by a genuine temporary smile. There’s incredible warmth in the air, which I’d like to believe is simply because of how well fed everyone is. Buying sweets becomes a gladiator like sport; there’s banter moving in very fierce currents between customers and shopkeepers. Kids line up with huge aluminum boxes, with strict  and precise instructions about how many modaks  they’re supposed to come back with. There’s the ever present fear that one’s family might just have to present a meal to the Lord without a decent steamed modak, which I admit is very frightening. All this, combined with Pune’s perfect almost-autumn weather makes this stretch of ten days one of those annual stretches of time you start counting down from the beginning of the year.

I was brought up really religious, but never religious in the crazy ‘you have to do this because the gods will eat you in the afterlife’ way. Father was never god-fearing, he doted on the idols he worshipped. Besides that, he was a huge on science.  Which was insane. Because he wouldn’t ever endorse the superstitious bullshit that usually accompanies religion. He made a strong distinction between his faith and the influence of religion over his day to day morality. Which meant that he made sure he never made me do things for the heck of it. He’d always explain the meaning of whatever I was saying in Sanskrit and it was never an imposition for me to prove my faith. I worshipped the gods because I enjoyed it. It brought me a sense of peace. When I was really small, I had once placed pieces of egg in the ancestral idol of Ganesh in our prayer room. Mother had freaked out when she saw it, and I half expected father to lose it. I had really meant it as prasad. Father had been really pleased. He said it was one of the most sincere forms of a prayer he had seen. From that day we offered meat (basically whatever we cooked) to the gods as prasad. It was a mark of respect, more than an actual offering to them.

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I also grew up obsessed with Indian mythology. When we were in the second or third standard we had one of those typical mid-term assignments where we had to read out a story to the class from our favourite books. I had picked Bheeshma, from the Amar Chitra Kathas.  Now to be fair, he won over Tintin and Timmy the dog from the Famous Five series, but I genuinely saw him as a hero in the same vein as a bunch of my friends saw Batman or Superman. I loved the Mahabharata, and it’s been a wish of mine to adapt it ever since I read it as a comic book series and saw it transform on screen on Zee TV’s Mahabharata (which was just awful in every way possible). I took a special liking to Karna and Bheem and for some strange reason Drona’s son, Ashwatthama, who I always felt was wrongly represented.  Keeping the religion away from them was beautiful, because then they became like any other comic books, and their stories were just fantastic.

Ganesh Chaturthi was in itself, my favourite stretch of ten days in the year. There’s an air of such purity in every house in Pune. It’s a celebration of utter avarice. My mother would clarify for months before the day vowing to ‘keep things simple’ before demolishing her previous years’s spread by adding at least two more items. Our maids ate everyday at our home often making excuses to stay past their work time, which often made me wonder how badly the other households they worked at treated them.  Mother was religious depending on her mood. About a day before Chaturthi, she would declare solemnly that owing to the sudden onset of her periods, she would be unable to pray or partake in the puja. Father and I would laugh this off because neither of us had any problem breaking the old fashioned rules that demand a woman’s withdrawal from publically showing her faith during her menstrual week. I figured that my mother never liked saying that she just didn’t care for the puja directly. She needed an excuse to back it. If that’s what made her comfortable, so be it. She would channel all her energy in cooking and we’d have a feast ready on Chaturthi.

I would always wake up on Chaturthi morning to the smell of sandalwood. My father, who would usually personify sloth would be hard at work muttering his choicest complaints like ‘no one keeps things where they’re supposed to be’ or ‘So! You’ve finally woken up, when are you going to grow up and help around a bit’.  I would rush out to buy durva, the grass the elephant in Ganesh supposedly likes, the singular lotus flower meant to appease him and a collection of sweets for all the guests in the evening. I’d portion the five elixirs made as a basic offering to Ganesh – milk, honey, curd, ghee and jaggery. After the praying was done we’d eat through the seven courses mother had prepared while her eyes flashed at any signs of weakness from us. After the guests who came to pay homage to our idol left, after the evening prayers were done and the kitchen had (finally) been cleared and the refrigerator was groaning under the stress of mother’s amazing cooking we’d have a dreamless sleep. Here’s the thing though, I would sleep in absolute peace.

After father passed away, I stopped praying. There was a part of me that was incredibly pissed off that a man so utterly religious could have died without any warning. It was about the same time that I grew an absolute disdain for religion. Slowly and steadily, the prayer room started catching cobwebs. The gods were cleaned not out of a sense of devotion, but like any other furniture in the house. Ganesh Chaturthi became a day to celebrate nostalgia, more than anything else. My mother and I would have a quiet meal and spend the day like any other.

In my second year of college, I joined three of my juniors (who would later become my work partners) as we shot footage through ten days in the interiors of Pune, in the heart of the city. The sheer exuberance of the celebration there is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We shot through the late hours of the night scaling the tallest buildings around hoping to get decent footage. It was magical. For the first time I saw Ganesh Chaturthi at its most magnificent. A bunch of my batchmates from college who had badgered their parents into buying them a DSLR were around. It felt nice to belong though, as someone who had been a part of this for two decades. That’s a sense of belonging that I haven’t felt outside of Pune, because the way Chaturthi is celebrated in Pune is a very pure memory in my head.

You know, I’ve had a very weird relationship with religion. I’m as absolute an atheist as I can be right now, but I’ve seen myself transition from someone who was extremely religious, to someone who hated every aspect of religion to someone more accepting now. I feel like if you keep the absolute morality and legislation out of religion, there’s no harm seeking salvation with an idea of a creator.

It’s so weird, but I’ve spent seven years since I haven’t bothered praying. I still haven’t had a day where I’ve felt the absolute sense of peace I’ve felt during my childhood during the festival. I went to Dadar,for a meal last night (a huge part of Mumbai’s Maharashtrian community lives there) to salvage some of the homesickness I had since morning and it felt nice.

I saw a kid carry an idol home on the streets last night. He had such a familiar looking glint in his eye while his father walked alongside, reminding him to be careful where he walked. It felt like home. Simpler times, way more heartfelt.

 

 

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Ending the Reign of the Grammar Nazi

One of the biggest failures of our education system, and of our generation in general is our tendency to be hugely critical of mistakes. It starts from school where the kid who mis-pronounces a word while reading is mocked to little bits, often supported by the teacher who confirms that he is indeed an idiot. For those five seconds, he could discover a new radioactive element but will find himself alienated for the simple reason that he pronounced ‘tomato’ with an extra ‘ah’.

I restrict this particular piece towards usage of language, because it’s a problem that resurfaces on the internet repeatedly. It’s sad that despite our trend to seem as liberal and open minded as possible, we’re the first to criticize the users of incorrect grammar or bad spelling. The incorrect usage of language is often looked at as the sign of someone who has no clarity in what he or she wants to say.

To go wrong on a public platform is blasphemy, with people who you’ve never interacted with for months reaching out of their way to tell you that the ‘Athiest’ you’ve written is actually ‘Atheist’. I used to think languages were meant to communicate well in this age, not be a standard to prove how well educated one is nor weapons meant to be hurled at those unfortunate individuals who never learnt their model auxiliaries proficiently through school. Yes – You damn well understood the meaning of ‘Can I go to the playground?’

Make no mistake, I love language. I love language just as much as I like a rare steak, just as much as I love Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull. I am completely for its evolution as the need of society demands it.

It’s necessary to follow rules of grammar to lay forth the foundation of a language, to form a skeleton for words to bind together thoughts in a cohesive form. I respect that mesh. But to use grammar as a base to distinguish the few of us who have been privileged enough to acquaint ourselves in its accepted perfect usage and to shun the ones who fail trying is a gross mistake.

I understand that there are places where it is protocol to follow the correct usage of prepositions and verbs. Exams, for example. Job interviews, formal letters of application, where one wouldn’t want to bring forth a casual or slovenly appearance and would want to highlight the seriousness of ones outlook through every aspect of his diction. There is no need to have the same outlook towards casual conversation. That restricts creativity. That makes you conform when you don’t need to conform.

It’s for this very reason that I dislike the compliment ‘well written’. It’s freely thrown as a mark of appreciation all over the world. I see it more as an approval for syntax as opposed to the actual content that the writer has to offer. It compliments the performance more than the script. Of course, there are several writers whose artistry with language supersede their content. For  them; such an epithet is apt. I’m still a firm old believer in content thriving as a monarch in the world of creativity.

One day, I’m sure we’ll face someone who will break the mesh of our prim and proper rules of grammar and raise a middle finger to the apostrophe in the same way a Picasso raised his to proportion and a Goddard to the cut. It’s only then that we’ll realise that we halted our own creative expression just for the simple reason of not wanting an asterix on our timelines.

 

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