Indian Housewives and Their Maids

The relationship many Indian housewives have with their maids is in many ways like that of arranged marriages.

To start with, the elaborate maid-hunting process begins much like bride-hunting in arranged marriages, where you first seek references for quality maids. After short-listing suitable candidates, they are then ‘screened’ in an interview where the capabilities of the maid are assessed in conjunction with her expectations. After the screening process for every candidate maid, feedback and impressions are discussed between the family before moving onto the next candidate. After some rounds of discussions about the nature of workload and what is a fair pay for that work, a candidate is chosen after a lot of negotiation. Veteran housewives nag and scoff at the unrealistic expectations of today’s maids, just like mothers-in-law nag and scoff at the unrealistic expectations of today’s brides.

The chosen candidate begins her work in the home much like a bride joining a family after marriage. The maid’s boss, the housewife, acts like a mother-in-law does with a bride. Every aspect of her work is observed through a microscope in an overtly judgmental fashion. The maid, like a new bride, has an innate acceptance that this is natural. During her initial days at work, she demonstrates her best behavior. The housewife takes care not to appear too demanding, lest the maid run away. For the housewife, it is a tricky game of how many demands of work you can get away with for the amount of pay agreed without losing the maid; for the maid, it is a tricky game of how superficially you can do the assigned work for the amount of pay agreed without losing the job.

At this stage, it is customary for the housewife to nag and complain about a few aspects of the maid’s work. The cleaned utensils still have some leftover soap powder or aren’t being cleaned properly, there is always some dirt left in this area even after dusting, she has been late at work two times in the past two weeks, it was her duty to inform beforehand when she skipped work the other day, and so on. Earlier generations of maids may have taken this criticism passively or simply deflected it to domestic problems, but modern maids, like modern brides, have evolved their own retorts. The quality of the soap being used, the cheap mop that should have been replaced long time back, how other maids in other households do much less work for much higher pay, etc. are now weapons in the maid’s arsenal that are used judiciously. It is a game of cards, where both the housewife and the maid strive to retain their aces up their sleeve should the need arise, while continuing to play counter-attack.

Like arranged marriages, many of these contrived relationships survive this initial challenging phase. Neither side’s expectations are fully met, but there is acceptance of the dissatisfaction as a price to be paid for the benefits of the relationship. After all, if there were no maid, the housewife would have a tremendous burden on her shoulders managing all the household chores by herself. On the other hand, the monthly pay for her work is financial security for the maid, whose husband usually can’t be relied on to provide sufficiently for her children’s future.

Jealousy, like in many marriages, is a another factor between neighboring housewives, about who has the best maid. Chatter between housewives breaks the ice with discussing how awful or awesome their maids are, and if the relationship develops, ends in how awful or awesome their husbands are.

The maid’s role extends well beyond the household work. She is the backbone of the grapevine in the society. From the daughter of neighbors so-and-so who is ready for marriage for whom they’re looking for suitors and how neighbor so-and-so has many domestic arguments, to how there was a brouhaha about that party last week and who was saying what about it to whom in the society, the maid is the dominant underground channel of communication.

In a few cases, again, like in those rare marriages, the relationship blossoms. The maid’s quality of work is adjudicated as excellent and best in class. The housewife can now brag to her neighbors about how she was able to find the perfect maid, just like how some women brag about finding the perfect husband. Over and above her usual Diwali bonus, the maid gets gifts for her children. Her absences at work due to domestic issues are treated with sympathy. She is given free medication and medical advice whenever required. Old clothes are no longer discarded, they’re instead donated to the maid’s family. From children’s toys to antique furniture, the maid enjoys the charity of the generous housewife.

I doubt this scenario exists anywhere outside India. It is a unique symbiotic triumvirate, where the maid works, the housewife orchestrates and the husband pays. Jai Ho!

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A Photo Essay on Friendship and Criticism

Sometimes, a friend’s criticism cuts so deep, it hurts.

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It causes such anguish, that our love for the friendship momentarily turns to dust.

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Criticism can leave a permanent imprint.

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Nevertheless, however hurt we may be, criticism can smoothen the rough edges in our character.

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A true friend is one who doesn’t pretend we are perfect, and who has the sincerity to criticize us when we deserve it. A true friend sometimes needs to be brutal.

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(These photos were inspired by Atul Sabnis, whose photography often teaches me to “see”.)

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Sequence

Everything in nature follows a sequence. From caterpillar to butterfly, from seed to tree, from stars to black holes. Enter humans and the sequence is broken. In communication, in behavior, in action.

When humans break a natural sequence, order turns to chaos.

Some context before we proceed.

It all started with my first meeting with a new friend bum bum bhole on Twitter:

A series of sequential tweets from me had the following response:

My dear friend Gaizabonts shared his love of playlists:

When bum bum bhole responded

I said

My meaning explicit:

This was then interpreted as my being against playlists, to which Gaizabonts rose In Defence of Playlists.

A series of tweets from me was my sequence of thought, expressed through a medium restricted to 140 characters at a time. It led to whether that was “cheating tweeting”.

The maximum length of a tweet is 140 char, of a Facebook post 63,206. The maximum length of time you can talk to your friend is unlimited.

How well can online social networks like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn handle the sequence of our thoughts, emotions, careers, and lives? Are we now living in a world where a person’s sequence of thoughts, expressed through whatever medium of communication is being employed at that moment, considered “cheating” for not adhering to that specific medium’s restrictions?

If you text me using 115 characters, in two SMS messages, are you “cheating”? No, that is ridiculous.

The concept of “playlist” came into being with the era of digital music from the days of WinAmp. There were no playlists when I grew up. There were no playlists when Kumar Gandharva or Kishoribai sang. There were no playlists when Mozart or Beethoven had their music performed.

Yet, there was a sequence to their music. Music, by definition, has sequence. Without sequence, it is not music.

Most of Western Classical or Hindustani Music CDs we get today have “assorted mixes” without sequence. It is not music.

Each of my music cassettes, whether Western or Indian, had painstaking hours of sequencing behind them. Every friend of mine whom I’ve gifted such carefully crafted cassettes remembers me not just for the songs, but for the sequence in which I arranged it. Some sensitive audiophiles also appreciated the difference between how many seconds of gap I’d kept between each song and why.

Can you imagine how Mozart’s 41st symphony finale would sound without the first three movements? It would be like arriving to watch an action movie’s final climax scene without knowing who the characters are and what they’re doing.

Every post on this blog is a continuation of a sequence. Every movement in a symphony or a concerto is in a sequence. Everything our friend is saying is in a sequence. We break that sequence when we interrupt and don’t listen.

Relationships have a sequence. In romance as well as in friendship, all relationships have a sequence, and when we try to fight the sequence, there is friction.

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The Challenges Of Unselfish Parenting

We capture every possible picture and video of our children today. We capture the audio of the first sounds our child makes. We capture the video of the first time our baby begins to crawl, and the first time our baby stands, and the first time our child walks.

We accumulate all such memories so that when our child grows up, he/she can see and experience his/her childhood in all its glory.

We grew up in a time when such continuous recording of moments and their accumulation was not possible. So we do our best to do what was not possible during our childhood.

At the same time, we dispose of our own childhood photographs casually, as we don’t think they are relevant anymore. We dispose of our school memorabilia, the whole class photographs, the now-silly-looking certificates of our extra-curricular achievement, etc.

We let go of our childhood because we are now focused on our child.

Let us take a step back here.

Did we not try to explore our parents’ childhood? After seeing a few pictures of our parents’ as kids, did we not thirst for more? Did we see any pictures of our parents in school? How many of us have seen certificates of scholastic or extra-curricular achievements of our parents? Wouldn’t we like to?

There was a point in time when our parents disposed of such memorabilia, because they thought their kids’ lives were more important than their own.

This is exactly the same practice we repeat, generation after generation. And every parent thinks he/she is being completely unselfish and devoted to the kid(s) when doing so.

In fact, it is the opposite.

As parents, we are not unselfishly considering what our child would consider important after he/she grows up. We are making decisions ourselves, in anticipation, with assumptions, because we think we know what is best for our child. We are not being generous enough to let our child have the freedom to explore memorabilia of our own lives.

While thinking to ourselves that we are being the epitome of unselfishness in our parental mindset, we are actually being the most selfish of all.

The parental paradigm is contrarian to the individualism mindset. It is often devious enough that as parents we think we are acting in the best interest of our child as an individual. It is often wise to relinquish the parental paradigm and rethink.

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How We Should Or Should Not Use Social Networks

This is a companion post to The Disillusionment of Social Networks. If you have not read it, please do, before continuing to read.

What I did not discuss in that post is our expectation from other people about how they should be using social networking or how they should go about their online communication in general.

  • You connect with someone on Facebook, which you use only to share personal stuff, only to find that they use it only to reshare funny or inspiring or (insert your own adjective here) pictures and messages.
  • You follow a “thought leader” on Twitter, only to find the person ranting about the traffic, or politicians, or simply singing praises of other thought leaders, or simply RTing any and all positive mentions of themselves.
  • Someone you follow on Twitter suddenly goes into overdrive, and there are a stream of tweets that drown everything else in your timeline.
  • All you see from your friend/relative on Facebook is the great time he/she is having or has had with great friends. There is no real person behind all the shares, it is all just an image he/she wishes to portray on social media.
  • Someone tweets multiple thoughts on a topic and we think it would have been better if he/she had blogged about it, since the essence of Twitter is its 140 character limit.

Sounds familiar? There are many examples and I won’t bother to enumerate them.

What underlies our disillusionment? Our expectation.

We have very specific ideas about how one should use a social network. When our expectations are not fulfilled, we are disillusioned. As far as our disillusionment is about a social network, it is okay. But often, we cross the line. Often, we are already disillusioned about the person who has not met our expectations of how he/she should use social networks. This is scary and it happens all the time.

We are predisposed to a person who we have met online, but have never met in real life, just because of how that person behaves online.

This is the other side of the Conflict of Online & Offline Identities.

Why should we have expectations about how others should communicate online? Why should we have expectations about how others should use social networks? But we do, just because we are accustomed to using that specific online communication channel in a specific way, and any anomaly offends us as a violation.

If we allow our own specific ideas of online communication and social networking to disillusion ourselves about people, the only thing we end up achieving is distancing ourselves from them.

Instead of online communication being a vehicle for greater connectedness, it can end up disconnecting us from people.

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How Our Intelligence Makes Us Bad Listeners

The more intelligent we are, the more we (think) we understand people. The more we are able to understand what they say. The more we are able to anticipate what they are going to say. The more we are likely to stop listening because we have not only figured out what they are going to say, we have already formulated our response preemptively.

This is a trap I sometimes find myself falling into, even several years after trying to imbibe Seek First To Understand, Then To Be Understood.

There are usually four levels of listening:

  • ignoring
  • pretending
  • selective listening
  • attentive listening

What most of us fail to do on a regular basis is the highest form of listening – empathetic listening.

Even after studying about empathetic listening as the pillar of human communication, we sometimes stray away from it. The problem is often our intelligence.

Our intelligence dictates that communication is intended for comprehension. In reality, most communication in close relationships is intended to convey emotion.

Our intelligence, working like an overclocked CPU, becomes hyperactive in anticipating what others are saying, relishes the discovery of our anticipation proving correct, gets high in narcissistic self-approval while the residual part of our brain spits out our already formulated response. By this time, our intelligence is already anticipating probable responses to what we have spit out, and readying our responses to it.

Intelligence is often lethal to empathy.

There is a higher intelligence that can help us identify situations where communication is not intended for comprehension but to convey emotion. There is a higher intelligence in understanding that comprehension constitutes only 10% of the communication; 30% of it is in the tone, 60% of it is in the body language. Our intelligence can cause myopia in focusing on that 10% of verbal communication.

We need to teach our intelligence to understand that it can be a very ineffective tool for human communication, unless its powers are harnessed not for comprehension but for more empathy.

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Western Classical Music in Films

[This post is #9 in the Western Classical Music Series]

Movies have used classical music since forever, and they help keep it alive in our culture. Here are a few of my favorite scenes in movies featuring Western Classical Music.

Also Sprach Zarathustra invokes memories of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey more than its composer Richard Strauss. Here is a unique (re)take on the classical music in 2001:

Also Sprach Zarathustra in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Do study the long note on the video at YouTube, it is an entire blog post in itself.

Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries was used to devastating effect in Apocalypse Now:

Ride of the Valkyries in Apocalypse Now

Who can forget Cavalleria rusticana in the opening credits of Raging Bull?

Cavalleria rusticana in Raging Bull

Also in Godfather III?

Cavalleria rusticana from Godfather III

The great Charles Chaplin, a composer of note himself, once said in an interview:

“Film music must never sound as if it were concert music. While it actually may convey more to the beholder-listener than the camera conveys at a given moment, still it must be never more than the voice of that camera”.

Study how he used Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 in The Great Dictator, his actions speaking louder than the music:

Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5 in The Great Dictator

Chaplin is almost wielding a conductor’s baton! Most audiences would assume this music was composed specifically for this scene.

Woody Allen used classical music in almost every movie he made. After Walt Disney’s legendary 1940 visualization in Fantasia of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue as depicting life in New York:

Rhapsody in Blue in Fantasia

Woody used it in the opening of Manhattan as “pulsating to the great tunes of George Gershwin”:

Rhapsody in Blue in Manhattan

Who can forget the moment in Out of Africa when Denys gets a gramophone for Karen, playing the Divertimento it took me a very, very long time to find?

Mozart Divertimento K136 in Out of Africa

One of the all time great, poignant scene in movies that always moves me to tears is the aria La Momma Morta (They killed my mother) from Philadelphia:

La Momma Morta in Philadelphia

Lastly, this scene from The Shawshank Redemption would have made a permanent mark on anyone who has seen it, featuring the “Letter Duet” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro:

The Marriage of Figaro in The Shawshank Redemption

To aficionados of WCM, its use in movies and advertisements can be tiresome as expressed here:

Purists ridicule the use of classical music in films, complaining that the same pieces are used over and over again…Yet the truth is, classical music, an art form that has been on life support for at least one generation, would have completely faded out of the public’s consciousness by now were it not for films and television commercials.

Films also help classical music from expiring. Classical music, used in hundreds of films, including movies where it is least expected, keeps the lofty art form in the public ear, even when the public does not know what it is listening to, or can barely hear the music in the background. It also helps that hundreds of movie scores are ripped-off versions of the classics.

Can you imagine The Seven Year Itch or Brief Encounter without Rachmaninoff’s 2nd? Will it remain relegated in our mass cultural memory to a film by David Lean or one starring Marilyn Monroe? We now live in a world where if you are attending a performance of this work, it needs a prelude of this kind.

I cannot end this post without a brief mention of the influence of WCM in Hindi movies, and especially Salil Chowdhury.

We have already discussed in detail the use of Counterpoint in Hindi film music.

Salilda was a great student of WCM since childhood and incorporated it in unique ways in his compositions, blending it with folk tunes. We discussed WCM’s polyphony before, as well as chromaticism, see how Salilda uses it in Rimjhim Ke Ye Pyaare Pyaare to create texture:

Rimjhim Ke Ye Pyaare Pyaare by Salil Chowdhury

Read this excellent post for a deep dive into this song.

Such was his love of Mozart that he adapted the Molto Allegro from Mozart’s 40th Symphony for Itna Na Mujhse Tu Pyaar Badha:

Itna Na Mujhse Tu Pyaar Badha

I hope this selection of movie clips helps highlight some unforgettable music in movies.

Posted in Arts, cinema, music | 9 Comments

Abstractions

There are moments. When you realize there is a “meta” to everything that happens. You have a feeling of accomplishment of having the insight of the underlying meta.

It is a clarity, an insight, that you are joyous about. It is as if you have found the root of it all, in that context.

But you know what? Nobody cares about the meta. Nobody cares about your supposed insight. That is when reality sinks in. All others are interested in is the here and now. Nobody cares about your insight. Nobody cares about your abstractions. However insightful they may be.

Abstractions are what they are; disassociated from reality, an indulgence of those who are Unquiet. Abstractions are an obsession of An Unquiet Mind.

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In Memoriam: Roger Ebert

Roger_Ebert

Dear Roger Ebert,

Since you left us in April 2013, I have been very lonely. There are few souls for whom movies are a core passion of their lives. For over two decades, you have been a lighthouse for those of us who dared sailing uncharted waters of the deep ocean of films.

Lesser minds like ours would have been fascinated at the “longest flash forward” in the history of cinema and identified with the terror of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was you who helped us to appreciate the unique use of classical music, observe that it is a movie intended to make us contemplate our place in the universe, that we became humans when we learned to think, and that we are not flesh but intelligence.

We had never realized how the gradually increasing claustrophobic tension in 12 Angry Men was achieved, till you shared Lumet’s strategy of shooting the first third of the movie above eye level, the second third at eye level, and the last third below eye level.

Discerning audiophiles among us had never really understood the box office success and popularity of Amadeus, till you explained its strategy of “portraying Mozart not as a paragon whose greatness is a burden to us all, but as a goofy proto-hippie with a high-pitched giggle”, and howfew of us can identify with divine genius, but many of us probably have had dark moments of urgent self-contempt in the face of those whose effortless existence illustrates our own inadequacies”.

There are some of us who like to watch a movie completely unprepared, with a blank state of mind, to be a virgin for the movie. There are others who come prepared, knowing what to expect, what to appreciate, having labored at their studies of the film as if it were an examination that somehow will ultimately determine whether they passed or failed. I belong to the latter category and you were my reference encyclopedia. I now feel as nervous as a virgin when contemplating to watch a new movie you have not reviewed.

You echoed our thoughts of how mental illness in movies is usually portrayed as “grotesque, sensational, cute, funny, willful, tragic or perverse” and how A Beautiful Mind avoided doing so. I had cried uncontrollably even as an adolescent when I watched The Color Purple for the first time, but you helped me understand how Spielberg and Goldberg deceived my mind by making me live Celie’s life though I’m not female, not black, and not Celie.

We might have simply laughed at the satire and comedy in Dr. Strangelove, but you made us appreciate “its willingness to follow the situation to its logical conclusion – nuclear annihilation – a purity that today’s lily-livered happy-ending technicians would probably find a way around”, that every time you see it, you find new things in it, and thus, that there is tremendous gravity underneath a successful comedy.

Your review of Dead Man Walking reminded us of “how most movies fall into conventional routine, and lull us with the reassurance that they will not look too hard, or probe too deeply, or make us think beyond the boundaries of what is comfortable”. It was you who helped us discern that Fellini’s 8½ is not a film about a director out of ideas; it is a film filled to bursting with inspiration.

You were never hesitant to admit your mistakes, rather cheerfully learned from them. You followed up your initial underrating of Groundhog Day in 1993 with a revised outlook in 2005, thus telling us that it is okay to under or over rate a film in the first viewing and change our perspective later. You thus taught us that movies are living entities in how they reflect our evolving selves.

You gained my respect two decades back when you deemed Ikiru as “one of the few movies that might actually be able to inspire someone to lead their life a little differently”. You became my soul mate when you singled out the “well” scene in Red Beard as the unforgettable scene in the movie. I knew then, that I had a friend for life. But now you’ve left us and I am left staring at loneliness. Inside my mind, I am screaming in a well, in desperate hope that you will come back.

No friend of mine, no ‘recommendation algorithm’, no ‘taste graph’, would have suggested that I watch Kinsey. That this “impossible” man’s work led eventually to the decriminalization of homosexuality is something I would never have learned unless I had read your review. Folks may continue to discuss the technicality of the “longest kiss in the history of movies” which side-stepped the production code of “no kiss longer than three seconds” by interspersing dialogue in Notorious, but it was you who put this Hitchcock masterpiece into perspective and explained his technique for the rest of us. You explained how Psycho’s misleading, deceiving plot setup enhances its shock, and how Hitchcock insidiously substitutes protagonists.

I will never forget watching One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in a crowded cinema hall with people even standing in the aisles, watching in rapt hypnotism in pin drop silence. But it was you who made me realize the underappreciated work of Louise Fletcher as the nurse. You did not criticize Hotel Rwanda for not focusing on the genocide, and portraying the kind of hero who is not silhouetted against mountaintops.

In 1999, five years after The Shawshank Redemption was released, you highlighted Red’s three appearances for parole as the “carrier of the film’s spiritual arc”. Five years later, on its tenth anniversary celebration on Charlie Rose, Darabont described those scenes as “carrying the movie’s trajectory”.

I was spellbound by Mephisto, but you helped me understand what it was all about. When Ingmar Bergman left us in 2007, I described how and why I was afraid of watching his films. I waited over 20 years to brace myself to watch Cries and Whispers, to have the courage of withstanding its extremes of human feeling, and it was you who instilled that courage in me.

You elevated movie journalism into an art form worthy of the first Pulitzer Prize for criticism. When you lost your voice to cancer in 2006, you became more vocal using Twitter, as gracious as ever in admitting you werehumbled by a mother of three in New Delhi”. Such was your tenacity in remaining engaged with your worldwide followers that you took “A Leave of Presence” just two days before leaving us forever. You taught us not to be afraid of death, when in 2009 you saidI was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state”.

Dear Roger, you were never just a movie critic. You were an inspiration, a philosopher, and a friend even to those you never met. You not only taught us more about movies than any film maker ever did, you helped us, again and again, to learn from movies how to live our lives better.

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