Thursday, February 24, 2011 3 reflections

Thank you Uncle Pai

The first words I uttered when I heard the tragic news were 'Oh my God'. As I reflect upon them now, trying to cobble the sentences for this blog, I realize how true they really are. Uncle Pai indeed was my God during the days I would sit bored beyond belief in school. He was my God for introducing me to the wonders from my country's prolific history. He was my God for teaching me that greatness lies not only in victory but also in sacrifice. He was my God for opening my young eyes to that rare potion of humor which didn't come dipped in expletives and cheap one liners. He did everything a good, nay excellent, teacher should do, but without ever meeting me or knowing that I exist. He did all this with his divine vision of narrating important tales through unimportant seeming 'cartoons'. A word much maligned with the adults as I would be yelled at furiously if ever I was caught with an Amar Chitra Katha or a Tinkle when I was expected to be studying books that mattered – my textbooks. Large boring volumes filled endlessly with facts, symbols, proofs and diagrams that made absolutely no sense to me. I remember fantasizing during those ACK laced reveries about examinations that would be held only on the contents of these comics. I was so convinced I would ace them all without batting an eyelid.

Uncle Pai's presence in my life was more than just for information. His books were that cocoon of comfort that I would vanish into whenever life became too confusing to deal with. It was in his bright and realistic illustrations that I would find the inspiration to get out of that cocoon and face the randomness called 'life' yet again. Much like the unclear and defeated Arjuna who sits and listens patiently to Krishna in the Bhagawad Gita, I'd sit and listen to the words that spilled out of each page of an ACK that was the grand combination of both intellect and art.

I remember the days I would be home sick with high fever and with generous gobs of Vicks Vaporub all over my nose, throat and chest, drinking nauseating turmeric milk that mom used to make. The moment her back was turned I would stick my hand under the pillow and fish out a Tinkle to dive right back into Kalia's world to see who the brave crow would save or walk straight into Shikari Shambu's planet to see what new feared beast was fated for his unplanned assault. Uncle Pai's trademark was all over those pages that contained such high quality vocabulary embroidered in an equally brilliant narrative. I now realize it wasn't the Vicks or the milk that made me were those books that filled me with such healthy optimism that the sick body had no choice but to respond. When we traveled across the nation aboard endless Shataabdis and Rajdhanis I would always forget to pack whatever mom thought was important to me. But I would never forget to carefully plant my beloved collection of Uncle Pai's comics that were the only thing I ever cared about. Heck, they were the only thing I knew I couldn't live without.

Somewhere along the way then, the tragedy began to occur. Suddenly words like 'board exams', 'college', 'career' and 'job' started making their frequent occurrences. Uncle Pai's books started becoming increasingly less important as I voluntarily found myself choosing Goel's ruthless Science books or Mathur's brutal Math ones. Painful phase, I tell you. Oh how I missed Uncle Pai in those moments. How I wished I could throw away these meaningless books that didn't teach me a thing about life and how to become a better person. But alas I didn't and once I left India for good more than a decade ago I left behind large, priceless, soon to be lost, volumes of Uncle Pai's books as well. That was when I had finally moved on from Pai to Paisa. A sad unfortunate transition.

Today as I sit here reflecting upon that version of myself, I cannot help but wonder just how quickly we can ignore a good thing. Years later, after I had spent enough time on the 'Paisa' and visited places aisa and waisa such as 'Pisa', I finally scrambled the word back to what it originally was – 'Pai'. The name of that God of mine who, without ever meeting me, taught me about the value of humanity in all species across the planet. Who was convinced that if a story is told the right way, good decent human beings can be created.

His efforts to our nation do not need an award or a certificate of validity. The fact that millions of fellow Indians from my generation are mourning his demise today is proof of just how genuinely beloved he was. The fact that despite the adoration he knew he had, he never made any effort to publicize himself on large billboards speaks volumes about him both as a human being and of course, as a creator. A true genius and a real legend. I sincerely hope someone out there has the integrity to make a motion picture on this great man. He told us a billion stories. The least we can do is tell just one – his.

Dearest uncle Pai, I am sure whatever Gods there may be are giving you a warm welcome right now and saying the same thing to you as I am with this humble blog – “Thank you sir”.

RIP Anant Pai aka Uncle Pai, Creator of Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle.
(17 September 1929 – 24 February 2011)

Saturday, February 05, 2011 3 reflections

127 Hours - A review

'127 Hours' by Danny Boyle is based on the true story of climber Aron Ralston who ventured into the gorgeous Blue John Canyon in Utah back in 2003. He had not informed anyone where he was headed and wasn't carrying a mobile phone either. While there, he runs into two girls who seem a tad smitten with this carefree, risk-taking, self-confident young man. Their admiration for him extends to them inviting him over to their party that's taking place later that night. Aron tells them he'll be there and heads on further.

Just moments later, Aron's tryst with fate begins. While exploring a dangerous canyon drop, he trips and falls. What falls along with him is a now dislodged boulder that ends up jamming his right arm firmly against the wall of the canyon. It is the moment this happens, that the look on Aron's face (played by James Franco) changes colors instantly. This incident takes place about 15 minutes into the movie and it is then that the credits read – '127 Hours'.

Aron is now trapped hopelessly. His lung busting screams are to no avail in that uninhabited wilderness of rocks and dust. With an extremely limited supply of food and water, Aron now has to figure out a way to get out of there. He has to gather his thoughts by constantly reminding himself not to panic and carefully plan his escape. He has to figure out what he will take, and more importantly, what he will leave behind. Either he can die there with all his limbs intact or get out of there by making some tough – extremely tough - decisions. With just a blunt pocketknife to help him make this life altering move, Aron begins his battle to stay alive.

The title of the movie is essentially about two things – one, about the duration of his ordeal in that cave and two, about the time he needed to make the choices he eventually ended up making. Somehow, the second aspect mentioned here seems the primary focus of the story. It is in these 127 hours that Aron sees images from his past, present and future as he hallucinates back and forth between his family, ex-girlfriend and friends. He records all the goings on via his digital camcorder and camera including some confessions. He even etches a crude obituary to himself on the cave's wall convinced that he'll probably not make it out of there alive. But is this really what he truly believes? Or would he rather snap his arm against the cave's wall and chop it off to break free?

The film isn't violent per say yet has a beautiful poetic shade of human suffering. There is something both entertaining and tragic to watch a rational human being trapped mercilessly under a boulder. While it certainly highlights just how vulnerable humans really are, it also acts as a reminder that there is no such thing as a 'lifeless nature'. Aron's monolog as to how that boulder – possibly a product of billions of years of formation – was just waiting for the day the two would meet, truly highlights the core essence of the story. It is a test of his willpower in the face of nature's little gauntlet that has been thrown at him. It is also a reminder to the rest of us that nothing is ever permanent. Even something as simple as a drop of water can sometimes become the only reason for our desire to live. This reminder, more than anything else, is the true horror of '127 hours'.

James Franco is brilliant as Aron Ralston. Despite the physical constraints of being stuck in one single position for most of the movie, James brings to the screen a wide plethora of emotions which make us feel with him, fear with him, empathize with him and finally, root for him. Boyle excels in this form of storytelling where a piece of rock ends up becoming such an integral part of the narrative. Visually, the film captures the rocky mountains splendidly as does the apt soundtrack by AR Rahman. It is this juxtaposition of human fragility against a product of billions of years, that makes 127 hours a memorable, relevant and inspiring watch.