By Samir Shukla The ambassador of India’s music passed away on December 11, 2012 at the age of 92. Pandit Ravi Shankar left behind a musical legacy that will unlikely be matched in the near future. A sampler of Ravi Shankar essential listening: (Some passages for this piece were taken from the earlier interview article I wrote in 2009.) It’s in the stars What does it take to persuade folks to glance at a star-filled sky? Our fast-paced, work-embroiled lives leave little time to gaze at the boundaries of Earth and beyond. It usually takes an event such as a lunar or solar eclipse, proximity visit by Mars, or some astronomical aberration covered in the media to get our attention. How many times do we look up on a clear night, swivel our necks and wonder what’s out there? Not often. It maybe because the cosmos are like a painting, still and distant, where the only seeming changes are the positions of the sun and the changing shapes of the moon. Electoral College On a train in Western India The country air wafted in through the half open window and swirled around my hair as the sudden loud clanking of the train changing tracks jostled me back to a state of alertness. I awoke from a nap caused by the train’s motion and the cool, whispering breeze. Generational Sacrifice Pervasive social and economic injustice won’t go away without sacrifices. In order to evolve socially, every generation must make specific sacrifices. Unshackling the chains of political oppression, unraveling women’s suppression, unfolding embedded prejudices, spreading tolerance for minorities, opening doors of opportunity; these actions require sacrifice. Or more specifically they require generational sacrifice. Rock Rolling and Aging It was 1 a.m. The rock & roll band I had gone to see at a local club had just finished playing and my adrenaline was still pumping. The age of amorality Amoral: not involving questions of right or wrong; without moral quality; neither moral nor immoral. The recent controversy over SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) brings to mind bigger questions about humanity’s ethical leanings. SOPA was supported by content producers and opposed by popular internet gatekeepers (Google, WikiPedia, and myriad others). Hollywood and the music industry want to protect their copyrighted content (intellectual property), and while Google and others support fighting piracy, they felt that SOPA was overbearing and would adversely affect how the internet works and disseminates information in ways that would have an impact on freedom of speech and privacy issues. An old wooden deck in mid summer Taking a break from staring at the computer screen for hours, I sat on a wooden deck across from the parking lot at work, nestled up against a row of trees. It was midsummer, but the day was pleasant and the heat was subdued by the previous day’s rains. I was startled as the metal brakes shrieked. They were grinding against metal as the train slowed while approaching a turn. The beats of wheels of rail cars trudging across the tracks filled the surroundings with a momentary cacophony of an iron and steel orchestra. The Soul of Music Stranded Rejoice. Fatherhood. A Summer Day Canyon dreaming The sunlight drenched it all and harassed all that it covered. The heat, competing with the sunlight, burned the skin and parched the throat. The brightness permeated every nook and cranny. Under shade trees. Even in the odd geometric spaces under rocks. Synthesis Musical Mornings
Goodbye Ravi Shankar
Indian classical music would likely have entered Western consciousness much later than it did in the 1960s, if sitar master and musical troubadour Ravi Shankar had not gently opened the doors decades ago. It may have never gotten the attention and the influence. The music would have arrived, but may have taken a backseat to the popularity of Bollywood musical fusion.
Ravi Shankar, the perfectionist performer, always toured with a handpicked group of musicians that were specifically assembled for each tour or show. Shankar’s nimble fingers inspired awe and influenced countless musicians.
The maestro, composer, teacher and writer brought Indian music to all parts of the globe, while attaining a fatherly stature as a renaissance man of traditions in his native land for most of his life. Although many traditionalists criticized Shankar when he mixed Indian classical music with other genres, including rock, electronica, fusion, jazz, and Western classical. But no Indian has brought as much focus and attention to Indian music than Ravi Shankar.
He created many ragas and brought life back into ones that were forgotten, even in classical music circles. Ragas, which in Sanskrit mean “color” or “passion,” are the essence and foundation of all Indian classical music. A raga can loosely be described as a combination of several different characteristics, but at the same time it is not a tune, melody, scale, mode or any concept associated with Western music.
I interviewed Ravi Shankar a few years ago, just before his performance in Charlotte in May 2009. I sat there, phone in hand, with a stack of questions. Before dialing the number his publicist had given me, I thought long about what you would ask someone like Shankar.
He has performed thousands of concerts around the world and recorded with top musicians all over the globe. He was at the peak of his craft even when he was nearly the age of 90. And he had done countless interviews for all types of media. Every question on my list has been asked by someone else. I dialed the number and the maestro went straight into chat mode. He spoke softly but with interest and answered all my questions. He was delightful to talk with.
The question I most wanted an answer for was about ragas. It took me many years to start hearing the colors and subtleties of the different ragas. I’ve always wondered where they came from and how they’ve evolved.
“Spontaneous, creative ragas are created by open minds,” Ravi Shankar explained.
“I have experimented for 60 years (with music) and have created many new ragas over those years. New ragas are created using permutations and combination of tones.” He went into further explanation and by the end of the conversation I felt that I had at least now scraped the tip of the iceberg known as Hindustani music.
He felt that many new ragas awaited creation in the future, and it’s this characteristic of Indian music that had kept his creative juices flowing for years. There are also “old, forgotten and lost ragas that are recalled and re-created” by enlightened musicians, he said.
The sitar sounds soothing to casual listeners, yet those that listen without preconceptions can transport to a trancelike state wrought with emotions. Those that “open their minds” absorb the distinct auras and feelings of ragas. There are numerous ragas, evolved over centuries, and each can be specific to particular times of day, moods and even locations.
A disciple of Baba Allaudin Khan, Ravi Shankar first began performing at an early age with his brother Uday Shankar’s group. He honed his skills and developed an expansive view of the world through travels with Uday Shankar’s troupe. By the late 60s, Ravi Shankar was the most famous Indian musician on the planet, and even with the current recognition of world-class musicians such as Zakir Hussain, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Jasraj, and many others, Ravi Shankar still towers above the rest.
A prolific composer, Ravi Shankar worked with and influenced Philip Glass, Yehudi Menuhin, George Harrison, Zubin Mehta and other groundbreakers while inspiring jazz legend John Coltrane to name his son Ravi.
He also composed extensively for films and ballets in India, Canada, Europe, and the United States, including Charly, Gandhi and Apu Trilogy.
For the past couple of decades, he had been guiding his daughter Anoushka Shankar’s increasingly prolific career as a sitar player. She is clearly the torchbearer of the Shankar legacy, as proud papa softly boasted in the phone conversation. Ravi Shankar remained active till the end as he performed several concerts during 2012, the final year of his life.
As I reflect on his legacy and on that short phone conversation, I’m transported to the concert in Charlotte in the spring of 2009.
After the applause and the adoration once he stepped onto the stage, Ravi Shankar sat down, cradled the sitar and then several minutes of tuning ensued. The raga began several minutes later. The tabla joined in. The air melted.
All those years ago, the winds from the East carried with them the subtle drone of Shankar’s sitar, continuing and spreading timeless traditional music, as well as creating possibilities of musical evolution. We are better for it.
Chants of India (EMI/Angel)
Ragas with Ali Akbar Khan (Fantasy)
West Meets East: Historic Shankar/Menuhin Sessions (EMI/Angel)
Concert for Peace - Live at Royal Albert Hall (Moment Records)
Homage to Mahatma Gandhi (Deutsche Grammophon)
As children we often created fantasies of space travel or shot rockets to the moon, we looked at twinkling stars and reached for them, grabbed at them. We never realized how distant celestial worlds were until we began to understand the science and theories and discoveries behind the entities that are close to us such as the moon, or stars that are visible to the eye but are so far away as to boggle the imagination.
When Mars was recently “close” to Earth, the closest it has come in 60,000 years and as close as it will get for a couple of hundred more years, minds wondered and eyes wandered toward dark skies for a peek at the reddish glow of our celestial neighbor.
Humans have always been fascinated with what’s out there, beyond our little planet. When celestial novelties occur, our curiosity peaks. It’s a shame we don’t gaze skyward more often, beyond the gauzy stares of young lovers feeling more romantic by the moonlight, beyond occasional news of the space station or the space shuttle.
We are simply too grounded down here. Most people will never get any closer to the outer boundaries of Earth than when standing on a mountaintop or atop a skyscraper or sitting in a jumbo jet.
We travel through space in our cozy little sphere. Our theater is our solar system, likely the only reachable parts of our galaxy for the foreseeable future.
As we reach out into the cosmos, we are actually reaching further into our beings as humans. The visible sky is not much different than what our ancestors saw hundreds of years earlier, but it is a bit more within grasp.
What’s out there? That eternal question finds a few more answers each year and we continue to add knowledge by our persistent curiosity that never rests. And it shouldn’t.
It is inherently human to explore, reach out and socialize. We do this within our circles, with other cultures and races and now with explorations outside of our little blue home.
Our globe has been shrinking for years, ever becoming smaller, so why not reach out toward the sky, stretching further with each reach. The arguments about costs of space exploration are valid, yes, but the return on the investment into understanding our own solar system, our own existence and what lies beyond can be infinite. The inevitable return on investment of space exploration will have a far deeper impact on humanity than the costs, however astronomical they may seem.
We constantly seek new frontiers to explore and widen our eyes to see what lies beyond our atmosphere and understanding. In the cold and empty stillness of space, the possibilities abound.
If someone had told you just a generation back that people would communicate via wireless phones while standing in remote locations anywhere in the world to somewhere else in the world, you would have probably laughed.
In the short span of a generation, recall the technological advances humans, the busybodies of the planet, have made. Imagine the possibilities that lay ahead. We are indeed a curious bunch, constantly stumbling but always getting up and trying harder in our never-ending searches for knowledge. The challenge now is to move forward, but inflict minimal environmental destruction of our own little sphere then in the past. The ravaging of our only home must be slowed. It will take a communal effort on the global level to do that, but of course we can do it.
It’s generally a pleasant surprise when a long-lost friend calls up or shows up nearby our home and pays a visit. When mysterious Mars visited and gave us a closer look a few years back, even though it was only a few million miles closer than its usual orbit, its reddish glow inspired millions.
Much fiction has been written about the elusive and imaginary Martians, friendly or otherwise, and more myths and truths will be revealed as we send probes like the Mars Curiosity Rover currently strolling about the Martian surface, sending back juicy information and photos. We will eventually, but definitely land people on its surface.
It’s immaterial whether or not you are a science fiction fan. Whether watching the old Ray Bradbury books turned into TV miniseries Martian Chronicles or cheering Captain Piccard as he whizzes through the Alpha quadrant of our galaxy in yet another adventure on Star Trek, science fact eventually makes science fiction a reality. No matter how farfetched a sci-fi tale may seem; our endless universe will probably reveal that tale to be at least somewhat accurate in the near future. Science fact eventually mirrors science fiction.
It’s nice to see interest peaking with subtle celestial happenings as the Martian visit close to Earth and now the Rover exploring its surface. In our violent, stressed out, busy bee world, a simple distraction such as the closer orbit of Mars or a passing comet helps us step back, take a deep breath and take in the evolving majesty of the visible and the unseen worlds beyond our little blue home.
Science fiction ignites the imagination and science fact tempers the enthusiasm with continuous updates while refocusing human agendas.
Mars has always intrigued writers, astronomers and scientists due to its proximity. It is the most likely planet for humans to set up outposts and eventually colonies. That scenario maybe quite a bit in the future, but it’s on our agenda, and it will happen.
Next time Mars or a comet visits, or the moon glows large and bright, extend your arm and hold it in the palm of your hand. Tonight gaze into the sky at a distant star and jump a little higher. Be careful, you just might make it there.
As I write this, it is exactly three weeks prior to the 2012 Presidential election. Both campaigns are in the heat of throwing punches during the final rounds to convince voters to select their candidate’s name at the polls. Once again, the election hinges on a few “swing” states to tilt the electoral votes one way or the other. One of the reasons the Electoral College, a voting process not a place, was set up is so that the small states wouldn’t be left out of the process and would have a voice in selecting the President. There are other reasons and arguments for the Electoral College.
The system has worked fairly well over most of the country’s history. But times are changing. Even though some of the arguments for maintaining the Electoral College, the current system in which we choose presidents, remain valid, logical reasoning dictates that it’s time to dump the old process.
I’ve heard counter arguments from proponents of the system. And it wouldn’t be easy getting rid of it and replacing it with a simpler, more equitable popular vote process. But the arguments for the change to select presidents via the popular vote are becoming clearer.
So what’s wrong with the candidate that receives the most popular votes nationwide from becoming the President? All other elected offices in the nation, from mayors to governors, state legislators to members of Congress, are won by the person receiving the most votes. Why should it be different for Presidential elections? Yes, the founding fathers and writers of the constitution were brilliant, and the system currently in place has worked within its perceived benefits over most of America’s history. But times are changing.
This year’s election hinges on half dozen states, give or take a couple. The rest of the states are already on either Obama’s side or Romney’s side. That’s the problem with the current system. Since there are so-called “solid” red states and blue states, it may affect the turnout of those that may vote for the underdog in those states. The last several election cycles have hinged on a few “swing” states. This phenomenon is proving the folly of the Electoral College in the new century.
The Presidential election of 2000 is a perfect example. Al Gore received more votes nationwide yet lost the election because of a few dings and hanging chads on the paper ballots cast in Florida. The difference in votes in Florida was about 500 votes. It took several weeks and the Supreme Court to decide the final winner. Gore lost even though more people voted for him in the country as a whole.
In 2004 John Kerry would have been elected if he had won Ohio, even though in the end George W. Bush would have wound up with more votes in the country as a whole. The last several election cycles have disproven the perceived benefits of the Electoral College system. It will only get worse as the country has become politically fractured and divisive.
There’s an easier and more equitable solution. Keep it simple and let the majority speak. The candidate with the most total votes in the country as a whole should be crowned President. By making popular vote the main engine, more Democrats in Texas will get out and vote. And more Republicans in Massachusetts will get out and vote.
This would mean that the campaigns would have to become national, instead of concentrating on the “swing” or “tossup” states. It would also mean that a viable third party can emerge over the next several election cycles if they are able to get a bigger and bigger chunk of the votes.
The Electoral College system is now proving to be a detriment to the American democracy and society. There maybe a couple of minor advantages remaining for the argument to maintain the current system, but in this constantly shuffling, people on the move, socially and media-connected 21st Century, the criticism and detriments of the Electoral College far outweigh any remaining advantages.
The founding fathers wanted to make the voices of the smaller states heard. They didn’t want the small or largely rural states to be denied a voice in the American democracy. But in today’s instantly-connected, internet-fused world, those old arguments have become weaker. When was the last time a Presidential candidate made an attempt to visit most of the 50 states to make his case for election? Yes, that’ an impossible task, but that’s not the point. The point is the current system has evolved into the election being decided by a few tossup states. These are not national elections; they are “swing” state elections.
The total popular vote in the country as a whole, the total number of votes each presidential candidate receives, should be the factor that decides which candidate becomes the President of the United States. Just imagine how many more Democrats in the so-called red states and Republicans in the so-called blue states would come out and vote. The numbers of voters would increase nationally while enthusiasm and participation would skyrocket, because now every vote would count. This would mean it may take a couple of days to find out the results since tallying the final votes would be time consuming. But so what? It’s a positive thing since it would be very difficult for the news channels or even the campaigns to know who maybe gathering the votes nationally and make those too-early predictions. With a national popular vote deciding the election, everyone would have to wait for the final numbers.
It would mean that states with traditionally low voter turnout may become more active in national elections. Because it is conceivable that even in states with small populations, the number of votes per candidate would become amplified. So why not make the popular national vote a reality? Simply count the total number of votes received by each candidate in the entire nation and crown the next president. The guy with the most votes wins. Send the Electors packing.
The election fiasco of 2000 still rings loud in most people’s minds who voted that year. Do we really need to get the Supreme Court involved in electing the President? It’s conceivable another similar scenario may occur. It may happen in 2012. My hope is that this year’s election goes smoothly and there is a clear winner without controversy.
Like I said, there are still a few minor reasons to maintain the current system, but in this increasingly digital world where instant videos, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle rules the roost, those reasons become increasingly irrelevant. It is clearly advantageous for the American democratic process to dump the Electoral College for a simplified system where the national popular vote makes the decision.
It was now just past twilight and a thickening darkness covered much of the landscape. For some reason a happy and feisty song was playing in my mind when I dozed off and that perky, danceable melody had now morphed into a somber song, a mellow evening raga if you will.
It was one of those songs where a wistful protagonist looks out the window of a moving train while the world passes by. He’s waiting for the end of the run where, it his hope, that a woman still awaits. And, oh yes, the scene is in glorious B&W, the way it should be when an old-time song is spinning in your head.
The train moved slow and screeched to a halt on the outskirts of the upcoming train station. Cooking fires flickered on the nearby horizon in the otherwise calm and serene evening. An old timer sitting across me said the stop is probably to clear tracks for another incoming or outbound train. The train conductor stood at the end of the train, awaiting a swinging green signal to get the locomotive moving again.
An express train, clearly flouting its right of way, passes in a cacophonous blur on the parallel tracks. The local train, which stops at all the stations along the way, lunges forward, and, with the blow of a whistle, the train shakes loose to begin a slow movement forward.
The train I was riding had left its originating station on time, but added several minutes of delay at each station along with a lengthy, unscheduled stop just before a bridge. The arrival time into the train’s final destination is now going to be well past midnight, almost two hours late.
I’m standing in the open door of the rail car as the moon is rising. On Indian trains, it is possible, but not advisable, to open the doors and hang onto the side railings and watch the country roll by.
The train is now moving but at a pace a sprinting man can easily jump on. And, as many local travelers do on slow moving Indian trains, a young man is running near the end of the train and hops on board onto the metal stairs. He rides along for a few minutes and then jumps off again. He must have been taken advantage of the rolling train to save some walking.
A stray dog wanders across the parallel tracks as the intercity train picks up a little speed and rolls toward the next station. There are always dogs hovering about the rail tracks of nearby stations and towns. It’s as if the stray dogs know just when the train will be passing and reward them with some stale or leftover food dumped out the window. Those scraps add up to meals for these lean, scavenger dogs.
The dog is walking parallel to the moving train and grabs a half-eaten roti tossed out by the child in the 2nd window from where I’m perched in the doorway. I hear a mother scolding the child as she hands him another roti from her handbag. The dog enjoys his small meal; it will be one of many during the night that will sustain it.
The train doesn’t pick up full speed before it slows for the upcoming station and makes a smooth stop. This station is lively, it is dinnertime and all aboard the train are looking for a meal. Some have packed meals in tin cans and metallic boxes, while others jump off at the station for a bite.
Tea trolleys roll next to the train while a young boy carries a basket of hot samosas, which he is selling in pairs. A customer argues with him to get a little more hot chutney while another waits impatiently for his turn. The temperature feels warmer here, with the train stopped and temporarily out of the countryside.
The station is abuzz with activity where fathers are running back and forth carrying snacks for the wide-eyed kids waiting in their seats. The train is running late and most will be delayed from reaching their destinations. Frantic dealing is concluded as the vendors collect and make change for the customers. The whistle blows as the train pulls out of the warm town into the cool countryside once again.
The bright moon lights the arid landscape. The dusty land is speckled with thorny bushes greening up the brown sameness. Random palm trees pop up at odd angles alongside farms and small farmhouses. Cacti are used in some places as fencing surrounding small plots of land, a natural deterrent serving as a “keep out” barrier for critters and unwelcome folks alike. A small cotton farm passes by, still dotted with unpicked pinkish white puffs.
It’s now approaching midnight and the moon is high in the sky. The almost full moon looks even brighter in the semi-arid, almost treeless environs of western Gujarat. The train pulls into the last station at the stroke of midnight and is now almost empty save for the pair of couples carrying their sleeping children and a station porter looking for any customers needing help with heavy baggage.
A crowd of men has gathered around a paan/tobacco shop and its companion tea stall for late night banter. The radio is playing a nighttime raga through crackling static. The sitar is feeling romantic, the tablas are jovial and the tambura is keeping them both company.
The raga slows to the solo drone of the tambura. The air is warmer now than it was just before twilight, yet the moon has a cooling effect.
The train has stopped. The station turns into a stage. The dim lights and the haphazard lanterns and oil lamps color the station and give the feel of an old theater.
One of the men standing at the tobacco shop turns the dial on the small transistor radio that is hanging on a pole of the tea stall’s shelter. A classic Kishore Kumar song comes on and the scene turns B&W as the protagonist straightens his hair and jumps off the train. He smiles as a female vocalist joins in for a late night song custom-made for lovers.
Civil rights, women’s rights, independence from colonialism, all had beginnings in a generation making sacrifices for the benefit of future generations. Brave souls from each generation banded together, acting on different levels within their capabilities, made sacrifices in order to remove obstacles, to achieve freedom, or to spread fairness and tolerance.
What do I mean by generational sacrifice?
I’m not talking about Gandhian or a monk-like sacrifice. It’s not about living simply, letting go of material things, or living a chaste life, although those are valiant pursuits. I’m talking about sacrifice for the sake of societal improvement.
It’s the natural order of things. One generation makes personal sacrifices so that the next generation benefits with a more just, tolerant, and open-minded society.
The American civil rights movement required the sacrifice of many risking personal safety, the threat of violence lurking in the shadows. Overthrowing oppressive governments almost surely invites physical harm, maybe even a dance with death.
And then there’s corruption. That invisible force that is like a mutating, incurable disease that spreads slowly, eats away at ethics, morals, and good judgment while economically devastating many and enriching others.
The disease of corruption is pervasive in India. It has gripped, infected, and soiled nearly every aspect of life in India. It has become an acceptable vice to conduct business.
For corruption to be brought under control in a vastly diverse country like India, generational sacrifice is needed. A generation that is ready to submit to discomfort, inconvenience, increased daily hassles, and slower economic progress. This sacrifice, either subtle or expansive, made in daily household economic activity or regional activism, is requisite to chip away at pervasive corruption and slowly bring about change.
It will require a generation that chooses long-term improvement over instant gratification and comforts delivered via bribery, content piracy, economic amorality, and direct participation in corrupt activities.
That generation is the current generation. The long battle against the culture of corruption must rise up from the ground. Clearly there’s a long-term problem when corruption is an accepted way of doing business.
In the past year there has been a huge movement and agitation in India for the anti-corruption Jan LokPal Bill. That’s a wonderful thing, and the nationwide furor over the hold of corruption in Indian society may be the match that lights the fire. But laws alone won’t solve the problem. People have to realize their personal shortcomings, their participatory amorality, and their own contributions to the cycles of corruption, however small they maybe, and realize that it all add to the layers of corruption.
The current generation has the power to unleash change as never before seen. They must activate generational sacrifice to root out and minimize corruption. They must project a blinding spotlight on every corrupt practice, but more importantly they must not participate in it. No matter how difficult their lives become. This is the only way to untangle the barbed wires of corruption. Slowly. One strand at a time. It may take several generations to accomplish this, but there must be a catalyst. This generation, with its unprecedented access to technology and communication, is that catalyst. This is their chance.
Unless, people “act” anti-corrupt, which involves not participating in anything corrupt – in essence requiring the strength to handle hassles, discomforts, slower economic gain, event the threat of violence from corruption enablers – then there is no chance of this generation becoming a catalyst for change. The buck will be passed to the next generation, to someone else willing to make necessary sacrifices.
It’s about non-participatory sacrifice. In the case of corruption, non-participation is the best solution. Of course this requires a respect for the laws of the land. It means if one is clearly in violation of traffic laws, then don’t resort to bribing the cop to get off with a slap on the hand. For business people non-participatory sacrifice may mean more headaches and longer time to establish business. But for every “under the table” open hand that is exposed and slapped away, a small scratch is made in the walls of corruption.
It won’t be easy. But it would be a start. Realizing that there are no short cuts to quick profits, which when chased in a corrupt environment generally mean a transfer of funds from one person or taxpayer to another, without actually creating long-term, viable and sustainable commerce.
This type of generational sacrifice begins with a few individuals. The civil rights movement and women’s liberation movements are two contemporary examples in the United States. Both required sacrifices that were tough and initiated by a few brave individuals, but the movements snowballed and became more effective, not just with the help of new laws, but with people’s long-held ideas and perceptions changing, the status quo actually changing. The sacrifices softened as the goals were achieved over a generation or two. This continuing process creates a more just society with each subsequent generation.
The Indian freedom fighters defied the imperialists, even dealt with imprisonment. The current generation needs to defy corruption enablers. It needs simply to not participate in corrupted practices. This may seem like a naïve solution, but nothing else seems to be working.
Seizing on the current anger against corruption, with the help of stronger laws, a few brave souls can become catalysts.
Corruption will never be eliminated in any society or country on the planet, but it can be diminished, mitigated and made small, it can be made tolerable, reducing its pervasiveness in society into manageable levels.
The time is ripe for generational sacrifice in India. The ancient land is brimming with new ideas; it is interconnected and internet-connected like never before. By pointing a bright light on the shadowy corruption practices in every aspect, whenever it rears its head, the participants will wither, will give sway, and will be driven from participation.
The night is young, I thought. Where to go next?
It was the 3rd night in a row of clubbing and I wanted more. The only other place anything was going on at that time of the night was the late night dance club. There was also the option of calling up one of my night owl friends and hang out.
Those were the days of tireless youth, when I didn’t think twice about going out to clubs 3, 4, or 5 nights a week. They were the good old college and post-college days. That was nearly 30 years ago. Life has progressed, wife, kids, gray hair, mortgage, creaking bones.
Today, time moves at a different, more structured pace. It’s the only way to keep up with the hectic schedule of family and work commitments. On occasion the old days pop up into memory, when a forgotten song comes blasting on the radio, or when I run into a long-lost clubbing buddy.
Adventures of youth, even ones I’d like to forget, peek out of the folds of memory either putting a smile on my face or a sense of disbelief. Did I really used to do that?
Flashback three decades. I was driving back from a club on a frigid February night. The band I saw would soon become one of my favorites. The radio was playing when I felt the car’s engine rev while motoring down the street. It revved higher when I waited at a stoplight. With a big whoosh, the car stalled at the stoplight, just at the edge of downtown. The wind howled outside as I tried to restart the old jalopy.
There was no one around on that night to lend a hand and it was during an era when cell phones were still in the realm of science fiction. I bundled up and braved the deserted streets looking for a pay phone. After walking several blocks, I noticed someone entering a building. It was the city jailhouse and the night guard must have stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. I ran and caught up with him before the door closed and was able to use their phone to call AAA to the rescue.
It was youthful fervor that kept the rock rolling in those days. There was always something going on at the favorite clubs, and there were plenty of pals to go out and have a drink with.
In the fast-paced days and nights of youth, the process of aging is rarely on a young man’s mind. When young blood is pumping in the veins, all you see is the prospect of your whole life still ahead and not what’s been left behind.
And then a certain reality kicks in, say as you rapidly approach the age of 50. It’s just another number, of course, not much different than turning 30 or 40. But life’s experiences and perspectives converge. Accomplishments as well as missed opportunities stroll back into introspection.
Time moves quickly with the progression of youth, even faster on the other side of 40, picking up pace as it tugs up against the half century mark.
A certain amount of attention to details is required after the first half of your life has passed and the second half is beckoning, tapping on the head.
It’s also a time when quirks, likes and dislikes become amplified, as one has invariably fallen into routine and comfort zones. Mind you, comfort zones aren’t all bad, even though they come at the cost of spontaneity, that youthful abandon and love of life.
Once a person hits that certain age, and it may be at 35, 40, 50, routines become fixed and too many deviations cause discomfort. Entering the final third act of life, one seeks a slower pace.
There was a time when one jumped up, climbed out the window and dashed onto the road, headlong and steadfast. Now, forethought and planning are necessary to make the day productive.
Creaking bones have a way of mellowing youthful bravado and fervor. Creaking and popping bones? I wouldn’t have believed it, but it’s the beginning of the third part of life’s trilogy, and bones do creak.
Of course brain cells are scattered further by aging and its related physical processes. The simple act of finding car keys sometimes turns into a battle, as numerous distractions jumble your thoughts along the way.
I’ve been a full-fledged member of the above 40 club for nearly a decade and now approaching the 50 club. The past decades have left layers of experience and brought about contentment. Life does spin on a different plane at the beginning of the third act, inviting you not only to tag along but relish in what remains.
So, here it was; another frigid February night. The band that became a favorite after that night all those years ago was playing in town. I was revved to go. The careening guitars beckoned, the eclectic rhythm section awaiting a high five, and my fellow, the similarly aging singer seemed to call out my name, to join him in crooning old favorite songs. I was ready for the decibels accompanied by cold brews.
The house was quiet, the night progressing. It was still a tad early to head out as the band I wanted to see was headlining and wouldn’t begin till around midnight. I sat on the couch to rest for a moment, reminiscing, TV flickering, songs buzzing in my head.
My head jerked and I woke up, my eyes focusing on the clock. It was nearly midnight and I had fallen asleep for more than an hour. The wind was howling outside the house. The weather was almost a repeat of the night all those years ago. The night the same band played when the old jalopy I was driving died at the stoplight in the middle of the night.
Back then, I would have pulled on a pair of shoes, bundled up and headed out. Groggy head or not.
But, my adrenaline was not pumping; rather it was goading me to lie back down. The house was nice and toasty and the sweet weight of slumber filled my eyes.
I took a peek at the dark, deserted and very cold street outside the living room window, let out a sigh that I would miss a band that’s been one of my favorite for nearly 30 years.
I hummed a few notes of one of their songs, made some air guitar motions with my fingers and arms, sent a high five to the lads who were probably just cranking up the first song, and crawled into bed.
Yes, freedom of speech is essential, for the internet and otherwise. And SOPA, in its current frame, is audaciously overreaching in creating controls over the internet. But while protecting the glorious freedoms, creativity, and global connectivity of the internet is very important, so is protecting intellectual property, which includes movies, music, books, software, photographs, and video games. We live in a land of laws and laws protecting copyrights and intellectual property are generally sensible. Both supporters and opponents of SOPA have valid points. But along with the good aspects of the internet, with its cheap or almost free connectivity and an unlimited access to information and content, comes the mindset that anything is up for grabs.
Most of us would never steal and yet almost everyone has illegally copied or downloaded software on their computers. Movies and music are routinely pirated and downloaded. It’s one thing to share a favorite song with a friend; it’s another to actively participate in the greater criminal enterprise of piracy, either knowingly or by simply not thinking about it. Content producers – musicians, filmmakers, writers, photographers, designers, artists – create their content for either personal consumption or mass consumption. It is then their choice to either give away their content or copyright it and preserve their right and access for commercial gain.
If stealing intellectual property, either over the internet or in hard copy versions, was a benign problem, we wouldn’t need heavy-handed government legislation or laws. If copying, downloading, and illegally disseminating copyrighted content, which is in essence piracy, wasn’t so rampant no one would be talking about SOPA. The basic nature of the internet, its global connectivity, makes it easy, almost justifiable to steal content. Because to most people content is intangible and invisible; it doesn’t seem solid and real. Most people would not shoplift a CD or DVD from a store, but the same folks have no compunction downloading unlicensed music, film, video games, or software. The assumed “no one is looking over my shoulder” aspect of the internet makes this easier.
Internet gatekeepers, providers, and websites have an absolute right to free speech and seamless global connectivity, but we also need reasonable and non-intrusive ways to combat piracy. If musicians or filmmakers want to give away their content, it’s very easy to do. In fact many bands and filmmakers do just that. They may give away content digitally or in hard copy versions because they want people to hear or view their content. But that’s a personal choice. Free speech and an untethered internet are essential. But stealing, also known as illegally downloading or swapping content, is, well, stealing. Most people consider stealing wrong. No amount of self-serving justification makes it right.
Enter the age of amorality, where the satisfaction of getting something for nothing is very powerful. If there was a pervasive conscience that illegally downloading or copying and distributing movies, music, or software is wrong, there would be no need for SOPA. Most people I know wouldn’t go to a restaurant, eat a meal (download a meal), and wait till the server maybe busy or distracted and walk out without paying for it. But the internet provides a comfortable, almost invisible access to content, to downloading, where grey areas prevail and black and white laws are essentially ignored. So, until we evolve a world where free content is the norm, financed by other means, we are all, in a sense, participatory thieves. We are amoral participants. That’s the main discussion here, not the legal fights for the protection of intellectual property.
If a sense of wrongness bothers a person when knowingly stealing content, then that person will conscientiously become a fighter of piracy, because he or she will desist from stealing. If the majority of people feel this sense of wrongness, then amorality is diminished, and a natural sense of rightness, which is innate in most humans, blossoms. If the majority of humans live in rightness, then we wouldn’t need overbearing laws.
When illegal downloading and swapping sites such as megaupload.com are taken down by the government, the response of many, which of course includes hackers, is to go on the attack. They assail against the oppressors, the government. They hack, they attack, rather than acknowledge that right is right and wrong is wrong.
This is because amorality is easy. It’s a blanket to throw over and douse the fires of rightness. Amorality is damn convenient.
Statistics reveal that 98 percent of the world’ people consider themselves religious, or proclaim a belief in some god or dogmatic system. If that is the case why is corruption such a problem throughout the world? This is because amid all the self-proclaimed faith and morality, most people simply fall into the comfortable arms of amorality, suppressing personal morals while joining the gang. Getting something for nothing is empowering. It feeds the gang of amorality.
Amorality has become requisite in the world of finance, stock markets, banking, and real estate. The way our financial systems, taxation and accounting methods have evolved, everyone involved in the enterprise is forced to become amoral. There’s no way out. To simply survive, ethics work, to thrive, amorality has become essential. Global financial systems wouldn’t function without amorality. We are all participants.
This is not to say people are not good or honest. Most people have a naturally evolved sense of right and wrong. No matter what religious dogma they follow, their goodness is an instinctive thing. Just look at any bright-eyed child. Almost all kids are naturally, innocently honest. They feel guilt. They show guilt. Their eyes show guilt when they’ve been naughty. As they grow, their surroundings, their environment, family structures, religious dogma, media exposure, all play a part in their development of rightness and wrongness. Alas, most of them discover amorality, adopt its comforts and become a part of the gang.
Welcome to the age of amorality.
The tracks were visible behind the trees on the other side of a fence, especially on the bend where I was sitting on a wooden deck. Since the passing locomotive was a freight train, the medley of metallic noises was even more amplified. The empty rail cars had a different resonance than the compartments that were filled with various goods.
The train was moving faster than it should have been while traveling through city limits.
The engine was hitched with what must have been more than a hundred cars and the noise took a while to fade after the caboose disappeared from sight.
Now the birds took back their rudely interrupted socializing amongst the lush greenery. They darted back and forth, from tree to fence to tree to rooftops.
It was now breezy and peaceful as if the passing locomotive was just a sub-conscious daydream.
The wooden planks on the old deck showed their age but have remained resilient through years of use and the inevitable damage caused by natural forces and the weather. Just about an hour earlier a group of youngsters were milling about on the deck, conversing, laughing and planning out details of their upcoming lives. An impromptu dance formed to liven up the chatter as one of the teenagers pulled out a small drum from his backpack.
Apparently more than one youngster from the gathered group had lugged along an instrument as another pulled an acoustic guitar out of a case and played along with the drummer. The percussion, along with the fast-strummed guitar, seemed to imitate the train that would later pass, but their collective playing was of course more harmonious.
Their playing imitated the spontaneous impulses of a carefree mid-summer day.
The first half of that year had been very wet. Streams and rivers up and down the East Coast took detours from their usually sedate routes to explore surrounding farms, fields and homes. It had been a spring and early summer marked with floods in many parts of the country.
The rainstorm of the previous night had been loud and windy, and had drenched the area. The roads and streets were muddied and strewn with tree branches and foliage scattered about. It was as if the wind had partnered with the rain to wreak havoc. Cracks in the aging parking lot were just waiting to expand into bigger cracks and eventually potholes. The rain assisted in that bidding.
Somehow this old wooden deck sitting at the end of a parking lot still remained useable and continued to serve its purpose, even though no one made an effort to maintain it. A few denizens from the nearby blocks of office and warehouse buildings, which were mostly vacant, still used the deck.
Surprisingly the creek running nearby the tracks didn’t overflow and flood the area in either last night’s deluge or in the past six months of above average rainfall.
It was now midsummer but the dog days hadn’t quite arrived yet. But it was just a matter of time that the cool breezes of the abundant rainfall would give way to heat and brutal humidity that would further loosen the cracks in the paved lot around the old wooden deck. Summer just isn’t summer without at least one wave of stifling heat. But for now the rains had kept the summer comfortable. A light breeze stirred just enough lethargy to make an occupant want to stay planted on the benches of the old deck.
It was now close to twilight and I was sitting on the deck whittling away time while a stack of work waited across the parking lot. But this was summer and if time isn’t whittled and wasted away on an occasional breezy, bright summer day, then life is just too busy.
A breather and time spent in solitary reflection, conversing with one’s own thoughts, helps smooth the rough edges of daily hassles.
As I gathered my notes and stuffed them in my bag along with writing utensils and a clipboard, a young couple sauntered onto the deck on the opposite side. They were obviously trying to coax conversation from each other while sitting silently side by side. There was just enough space in between them to indicate a waning quarrel.
As the sky began to change from blue to colors of twilight, the couple finally warmed their fingertips with caresses and moved closer, where they wound up snuggling while locking hands. It was a silent and personal truce, obviously initiated by the changing palate of colors across the sky and the chorus of eternally happy birds socializing amongst the trees.
I quietly left the couple to their moment on the deck, stepped off the elevated stage and strolled across the lot back to the office.
The simple and aged wooden deck across from a parking lot next to the tracks provided the final nudge of confidence the couple needed and a return to focus, albeit temporary, that I needed.
The old deck still provides a modest haven from the workday and the beaten industrial complex looming across it. It’s not in the best of shape and weeds manage to poke out between the planks. But it is surrounded by a grassy, tree-lined area that gives a visual break from the dull, concrete blocks of nearby office parks.
The deck must have been built as an afterthought when the office complex was completed. Now it occasionally serves to accompany solitary thinkers while the creaking boards beckon folks to gather on it, if only for a while. The deck hasn’t been refurbished in years, but it hangs on.
The deck’s longevity lies in simple pursuits, to document stories of summer afternoons.
So what is this elusive human soul that devils and gods fight over? Numerous religious myths have evolved over the eons; they all posit numerous questions and ideologies about the human soul in one manner or another. They bicker, wage wars, seek believers, convert non-believers, spend lifetimes trying to save souls or philosophize about reincarnating the elusive, invisible human soul.
Could soul be the percussive beat of the human heart? Is the life-sustaining, rhythmic beat of a heart the soul that devils are in the market for? Or is soul simply the last abstraction, the unsolvable formula keeping god myths alive.
I believe the mystery of the human soul is subtler than that. The answer may be simpler. Soul is the essential goodness of humanity, its natural love of life. The physical manifestation of the human soul resides in the music we create.
Music is the language common to all humanity.
Music is soul. Soul is music. Humanity’s capacity to communicate via music, whether through rhythmic percussion or via voice, is the external apparition of soul. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to call music the collective soul of humanity. Music is the galactic language that transcends barriers, breaks down inhibitions and dissolves mistrust. It sings unity. People who don’t speak the same language, or aren’t part of the same culture or ethnic group, can converse through the rhythms, harmony, and melodies of music.
The conversation need not be complicated. The simple progressions of three-chord punk rock can get heads swaying as much as an elaborate orchestral composition. The timeless drone of a sitar soothes and comforts, while the somber wail of a violin can dissolve the grimmest of hearts.
Let the fear-mongers fight over the elusive human soul. It cannot be judged or tarnished. This is because soul is spirituality and music is true spirituality. It cannot be broken. It cannot be converted. It doesn’t hate.
The lilting notes of a piano or the universal language of percussion can help bring solace to a world of chaos. The rhythmic percussion of a human heartbeat is the simplest form of percussion. It is the rhythm that the earliest humans imitated through percussive instruments. The tribal drums of distant epochs called all within earshot to gather.
A mother’s heartbeat, the rhythm sustaining two beings, surely comforts a child growing restless in the womb. The same child is comforted to sleep while nursing, close to its mother’s rhythmic heartbeat. This is the true transfer of the human soul, from mother to child.
Humans have always imitated nature’s music. Simple percussion instruments and the human voice are the oldest forms of musical expression. Humans learned to imitate the warbles of songbirds or the roars of predators at the earliest stages of evolution. There are countless sounds in nature that are the rhythms of the earth. A breeze dancing through the leaves, a flowing stream, or birdsong are among myriad forms of nature’s music.
Music has color. The great conductor Leopold Stokowski once mused, “A painter paints pictures on canvas, but musicians paint their pictures on silence.”
The conversations between a sitar player and the tabla player, between the saxophonist and the drummer, between the guitarist and the bass player, are musically spoken without a human word being uttered. But the stories they tell can fill volumes. A symphony can be a short story or an expansive, multi-layered novel.
Folk songs carry the stories of a culture from generation to generation. In a sense they transfer the soul of a culture from one generation to the next.
Music can evoke early mornings or settle a frazzled mind into subdued twilight or simply blanket its spell in the still of the night. It can hail the seasons. Spring is song. Summer the symphony. Winter is eternally in search of a warm note. Monsoons are the beats of countless drummers.
The chill of winter fades to make spring sing. It is a sad soul that isn’t moved by music or has lost the ability to appreciate the subtleties of music. There’s music out there for everyone.
Music calms, infuriates, seduces, incites and makes time slow down or speed up. Ever have a song get stuck in your head? It might be a jingle from a TV commercial, or an old favorite ditty, or a children’s song that suddenly appears in your head and you can’t stop humming it the rest of the day.
Musicians can goad otherworldly sounds from their instruments or inspire spirituality through musical notes.
A full symphonic orchestra can blanket a hall, a saxophonist can undress suppressed desire, a violinist can moisten the toughest eyes, and a tabla player can turn air into stellar dust.
There are so many genres of music that one can spend a lifetime studying them, collating them or understanding them. Indian classical music, be it Hindustani or Carnatic, can take a lifetime of learning to absorb. Musicians of India spend their lives in disciplined study and performance to obtain the titles of ustad or pandit.
These are lifelong quests. They take raw talent and bloom its soul. When accomplished musicians unfold their hypnotism, humanity begins to sing along.
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once noted, “Without music life would be an error.” Music makes humans whole. A piece of film soundtrack can create the mood of an actor on a cold and rainy day when it maybe perfectly bright and warm outside. Or it can raise spirits on a cold and dreary day with uplifting and sunny vibrations.
Music stirs the senses and awakens spirituality. Let the devils and gods bicker. Let the merchants of soul haggle over its price. Human soul is the lullaby that calms a restless child, it is a poem that binds lovers till death, it is a children’s song sung while running around in circles, and it is a folk song sung during countless harvests, or a sinewy jazz standard that brings back the forgotten feeling of a lovers’ caress. There’s an innate feeling of warmth when a few notes of a familiar musical tune fires the senses.
Yes, there is a soul within us. That soul is in the music within us. That’s because music is soul.
It was a cold February night.
It turned out to be the coldest night of that winter.
The ghostly streets of downtown Charlotte seemed frozen, literally, as well as in time. There was no traffic or movement on the streets. A glance at my watch showed it was around 2am as I drove home from a show at a local nightclub. There weren’t many people at the show on that Tuesday night. It was just as well because the band played as if they didn’t want to be there. They might as well have taken the night off and spent it in a warm motel room instead of loading and unloading their equipment into and out of the club on a frozen night.
My route took me through some of the rough neighborhoods of Charlotte. The same areas today sparkle with shiny buildings and burgeoning businesses. But the frozen night was I drove home was the year of Orwellian doom, 1984.
The classic rock radio station was playing an old favorite as I approached downtown on my way home. All of a sudden the car jerked hard and the headlights dimmed a bit. I rolled to a stop at a red light on the edge of downtown. Charlotte was the biggest city in the Carolinas then, as it is now, but it was still a relatively unknown city nationally.
My old car had been acting up all during the week and when it jerked hare, I knew something was wrong. At the red light, on the edge of downtown on that coldest of nights, the old car proved me right. There was a whooshing sound, the car revved up and shut down with a metallic clang.
I cranked it many times while the light shifted from red to green and back to red and now back to green again. It’s never fun when your car dies at an awkward and inconvenient time. Two o’clock in the morning on a frigid night at the edge of a deserted downtown is an awkward and inconvenient time.
This was the early 1980s and of course cell phones were still many years in the future. I had driven through this area many times, but didn’t know where the nearest payphone was. It could have been just a couple of blocks away. But in which direction? To make matters worse, I didn’t have any change on me, either. I needed a quarter and brave feet for a long and cold walk through an eerily abandoned downtown. This was also a time when the Charlotte downtown was a collection of a few tall buildings and economically depressed areas scattered like patchwork on the perimeter of the buildings. The area where my car broke down was not a place you’d want to be during the day, let alone in the middle of a freezing night.
I cranked the car numerous times to no avail. I popped the hood and took a look. Of course, I couldn’t fix anything to save my life, but still, I tightened the spark plug wires, twisted and caressed all other wires I could see in a vain effort to get the jalopy cranking again. I even kicked the tires. I finally gave up and scanned the perimeter for any passing cars or a warm soul to help improve my predicament.
I sat in the car for a few minutes, wishing I had a hot cup of chai.
I gathered my thoughts after nearly grinding down my starter and ventured out looking for a payphone. I walked a few blocks in one direction and remembered that there was a county jailhouse just about 3-4 blocks from where I’d broken down. So I bundled up for a bone-chilling stroll. Of course the place was locked up and there was no way to ring the bell or alert a security guard of my situation. As I turned away and decided to stroll back to my car, a security guard stepped outside to smoke a cigarette and take a break from his night shift. I don’t know who would want to leave their warm building and step outside into such a frozen night, but I was ecstatic that help maybe a hand wave away.
I was able to run over and flag him down before he slipped back into the building. I explained my predicament and he was kind enough to let me use the phone to call AAA.
I ran back to the car, hugging myself to keep warm.
The soft glow of street lights and the softer glow of lights of distant office buildings created the aura of an abandoned space station on a distant planet of some long forgotten sci-fi film. I expected a burly alien to appear behind me at any moment.
I had never been stranded like that before. Right in my hometown, a few miles from my house. If the guard had not walked out of that door, I would have sat in the car waiting for a passing vehicle for help. Or I could have hiked all over downtown looking for a payphone.
The frigid night added to a sense of complete isolation. I sat there while waiting for the tow truck thinking of stories one reads about stranded travelers stuck in raging snowstorms or someone lost in the woods for days.
The stillness of the night was spooky, as well as meditative. You could hear the wind howl every few minutes. I was mentally prepared to sit in the car for a few more hours if the tow truck didn’t show up. It was already around 2:30 in the morning and within a few hours the downtown workers would start driving by.
You get crazy thoughts in your head when you are dead tired and stranded in an isolated place, even though that place maybe just a few miles from home. Stranded in your own hometown also conjures up images of horror films where someone takes a wrong turn while driving through familiar neighborhoods and winds up in an isolated alley or deserted road. The theme from Twilight Zone would pop into my head every few minutes.
In knew I would only be stranded for a short time, although it was so cold that my fingers were already numb after sitting in the car for about a half hour. There wasn’t much to do except sit motionless machine and rub my hands for warmth.
There wasn’t a time before or since that I’ve felt stranded like that. That feeling of chilled isolation and of being helpless is something I’ll always remember.
I was nodding off when the reassuring, blinking lights of the tow truck pulled in behind me.
A grumpy old man, yawning and half-asleep, driving what seemed like an even older truck had finally appeared. He took a few minutes before hopping out of his truck. He tried to crank the car, then tried giving it a jump and gave up and began attaching the tow chains. He was kind enough to give me a ride home after dropping off the car at the repair shop.
I thanked him and walked into my warm apartment just as the sun was rising.
I’m running a marathon. It’s an event I have never participated in. I am running with all available energy to make it to the finish line. For someone averse to even short walks, this seems an impossible challenge. I’m not out to win, but would like to finish standing up and with pride. The finish line is a mirage, though. It appears in the distance and moves further away upon approach. My pace slows, but I keep running.
I am now pulling the heaviest thing I have ever pulled in my life. I wonder where the energy required in moving such an object comes from. I drag it and then push it, sometimes kneeling on my knees, and run with it as fast as possible for brief moments. Feeling the burn in my arms and legs, I know I need to take the object further down the road but don’t know where it is to be left. A juncture appears. It’s a place where the road splits off into several directions.
I sit down, catch my breath and deliberate which road to take. One path will likely be easier than another. Either path will change the story, the journey, and the destination. Which one to take?
In the next scene I fade and reappear at the bottom of a giant rock. The top of the massive stone wall is not visible. With a burst of energy I begin climbing. I’ve never climbed such sharp, jagged rocks before. There are endless edges and cracks to maneuver over and around. With careful steps and fingertip grips, I continue on my way to the top. I climb higher and higher and reach for the next ledge while wondering what waits at the summit. It is apparently an unreachable summit but I’m determined to keep going.
I have arrived at these scenarios with free will and a feeling of preparation. I wonder how those who are unprepared and thrust into the ultimate test cope. Millions toil away in their functions, I only hope to rise above and beyond basic requirements. I want to not only keep my head above the water, but also glide valiantly on its surface, if not as a hero, then as a firm-standing guide, as a friend.
I once soared as free as an eagle, roamed the lands with carefree abandon, arriving and departing with the mood of the moment. Now I am as single-minded as a worker ant. Is this a gift, an option, a choice? It is undeniably a test of will and endurance.
There are moments and days of unsure footing. The nights can be quiet, but also restless. Deep sleep rarely comes. The heat is unbearable. The cold chills to the bone. The land is lush and barren at once.
Despite all odds, a worker ant roams tirelessly, almost invisible, completing its unending tasks. I try to emulate its instinctive resolve.
I wake every morning and a sip of water becomes an ocean of patience. I must be strong and unerring. I must control anger and push away frustrations. If a day is bad, there is always tomorrow. Setbacks are dealt with and successes must be kept into perspective. I build the blocks ever so carefully and try to keep the foundation from crumbling.
There are daily tackles and transitions. Focus is of utmost importance. An age-old exercise assists in keeping the demons of anger and frustration from unleashing their will.
It is the exercise of breath. Breathe. Inhale a slow, deep breath naturally, hold, and release gently through the mouth. Breathe, hold, and exhale.
It is now early afternoon and a thousand thoughts fade into a toddler’s giggle. Ooooohhh! She says delightfully while looking at a little cardboard book she holds in her hand. A few unsure steps evolve into a bouncy run and she plops down in my lap. She just recently learned to walk. The book is full of images where black & white turn into bright colors as her eyes widen with wonder and amazement. I contort my face into a silly one and her mouth, lips and three tiny teeth push forth a smile and laughter sweet enough to melt the toughest heart.
Does she feel secure? I vow to protect her from impending storms and the ever-changing winds. There are no easy answers but those of daily self-assessment. Have I done all I can? Have I felt all I can feel? Have I run as fast as I can? Constant vigilance is the goal, but I do slack off, I do get weary.
She falls asleep in my arms and I make my way toward her room to lay her down for her afternoon slumber.
On my way I cross a swaying bridge over a raging river, walk on grass with blades like knives, and navigate around bubbling puddles of hot mud. All the while I carry a bundle of flesh and blood and feel my veins pumping with warm, contented blood. I hold strong and reassure her, my back may break, but you will not fall.
She’s tucked in for her mid-day nap, surrounded by her favorite fuzzy and stuffed toys. By the time I tiptoe out of the room and make my way down the stairs, a decade has passed. How can a span of 10 years pass by the time I reach the bottom of the stairs? I look up and a pre-teen girl is dashing down those stairs. She’s full of energy and cheerful, a huge smile ending at the bottom of her ears. She’s hungry and asking what’s for lunch.
Past, present, and future all seemed to converge at that moment. Just a few deep breaths earlier her older brother was napping in my arms. Now he’s off to college. The moments when they need me, ask for guidance, or seek direction are becoming fewer. But it’s all right.
I wake daily, never fully rested, but somehow exhilarated, stepping into the future, down the stairs, into the good beyond.
Do I slack off in my duties? Yes. Sometimes. Do I get weary? Yes. Sometimes. Do I want to run off and regain the carefree abandon of my youth? Yes. Sometimes. But it’s all right.
We stumble, we trip, make mistakes; get mad when we shouldn’t, avoid discipline when we shouldn’t. We keep moving. Keep running. Keep pulling. Keep climbing. Rejoicing, in fatherhood.
It was the sort of morning where the sun wakes you with a gentle nudge. A softly colored Saturday morning it was where the warm sunrays filter through the window shades and birdsongs lift you out of slumber. The morning was an invite to a perfect summer day. A day sandwiched in the midst of a full-bloomed summer where the hot sun was subdued to comfortable warmth due to the rains from previous days and their cooling effect on the surroundings. A sprinkling of clouds also helped keep the sun from getting too hot and baking everything in sight.
Kids were riding their bikes up and down the neighborhood, older couples strolled on the sidewalks with an extra pep in their feet, some folks were walking their dogs and the neighbor across the street had sprawled out several tables and filled them with stuff from his attic and garage for a yard sale. The repeating melody of an ice cream truck could be heard in the distance. The entire neighborhood was abuzz in activity.
It was, in short, an uplifting, breezy beginning to what one wished would be an endless summer day.
It was also a day where the buzz and the whirr and the gasoline-laden smells and noise of lawn mowers, weedeaters and chainsaws were everywhere. The noisy downside of a perfect summer Saturday is that the whole neighborhood dives into landscaping activities. If you want to enjoy a day like that in peace and quiet, you had to seek out the nearest park. And if you’re lucky, it won’t be a day when they are also cutting the grass and trimming the hedges.
Amid the cacophony of summer sounds, our lawn also beckoned, as it needed a good trimming. The blades of grass were tall and unwieldy following a week of alternating rain and sun. The pesky weeds were also high and swaying, constantly trying to bully their way into all corners of the lawn. The hedges were overgrown and needed some attention.
A few hours at the neighborhood swimming pool were on the agenda on this picture perfect day, but first the lawn and the rest of the yard needed attention.
I pulled out the rusty yet trusty mower from the crawl space under the house, cleaned the blades, gassed it up and began cutting the grass. This was our first house, it was small and it had a rectangular, fenced plot in the backyard. It was also flat without slopes or mounds save for a few spots where the blade sometimes kicked up dirt instead of grass. I liked to cut the grass in square, circular and triangular patches, anything to make the laborious activity a little less dull.
A curious squirrel jumped out of a tree to investigate the whirring mower. The pesky critter darted back and forth in front of the mower. It was imitating a child playing around where it shouldn’t. The only difference was that the squirrel didn’t giggle as a child would, it simply darted across, stopped, and darted the other way. It would stand on its hind legs, twitch its head and run off in playful abandon.
I kept mowing and noticed there were an unusual amount of Yellow Jackets hovering about the yard that day. But they kept their distance and I kept pushing the old mower up and down the yard. As I approached the western half of the yard, just about three feet away from the Azalea bushes, there were quite a few Yellow Jackets diving in and out of a hole in the ground. I wasn’t very familiar with Yellow Jacket nests, so I just kept cutting the grass in its vicinity.
I finally made it near the buzzing insects and didn’t think too much about the fast moving critters as the mower roared directly above the nest. That was it. After that intrusion of their nest, all I saw were little yellow flashes blasting out of the hole directly toward my face. In the next few minutes I would understand the reality of disturbing a nest of Yellow Jackets.
Less than a second after I rolled my mower over the hole, about a dozen of them set their radars toward my direction and hit the warp drive. The incessant buzzing around my head got me jumping and running. Instinctively I ran, but realized they were chasing me. The determined little bugs furiously circled around my head, legs and arms, trying to find a bare-skinned spot to land on and cut lose the agony of their powerful stingers.
I had disturbed a yellow jackets nest and instantly learned they are about as mean as they come when you do that. I darted back and forth around the backyard, all the while imitating those Egyptian dance drawings as if they were set on fast-forward. Visualize taking off your shirt, putting it back on while slapping your thighs, neck, face and head, all at triple speed.
The scene was like an old World War II movie, where the bombers swoop up and down with a loud hum and drop their bombs or dive while emptying out their machine guns. The bugs were the bombers and I was their target.
I continued my Egyptian dance for a couple of more minutes, frantically slapping my palms all over my exposed body parts. I ran around on the opposite side of the yard, still swatting my face, neck and back, running away from the nest one more time to make sure I had lost them.
I ran toward the door of the house when I thought I had shaken them all off. Fortunately because of my aversion to mosquito bites, I usually wore pants and a long sleeve shirt when cutting the grass. I followed that practice even on hot days.
I stood near the back door, scanned the perimeter and noticed that there was still one little bugger lodged on my right shoulder furiously stinging away. It was the thickness of my shirt that repelled its efforts. I slapped my shoulder and it went squirming away, half dead. It rolled around on the ground, tried to fly, and retreated in the taller uncut grass. No doubt it was regaining its bearings, retreating to its hole in the ground to recuperate for an avenging attack on some other day.
After I caught my breath I looked around to see if anyone might have seen me. To a casual observer I would have looked rather silly dancing around the yard like a spooked chimpanzee. The lawn mower sat where I abandoned it during the blitzkrieg, a foot away from the nest. I decided to leave it there and retrieve it later when the flying stingers weren’t buzzing around its vicinity.
Thankfully the only witness to my evasive maneuvers was that pesky little squirrel. It was standing up on its hind legs, twitching its little head while staring at me. I could swear it was laughing at me as it jumped into the bushes and disappeared.
Outside of the shade of trees and ledges, eyelids squinted in a communal manner. But it felt good. The typical complaints of a hot summer day simply melted away because of the surroundings. The colors, shapes, the vastness of the horizon made participants ignore the heat.
We were told as children that the sun burns the skin so it’s better to play in the shade or avoid the mid-afternoon summer sun, and, of course, never look directly into the blazing sun. But this day, even with the hot sunlight, hikers, trekkers, and riders basked in its heated warmth. They saluted the sun while gazing over the ledges, into the vast openness of the canyon below.
The Grand Canyon is geological story of the planet told in high definition. All known geometrical shapes inhabit the eroded buttes, rocks, mesas, and cliff walls of the canyon. This is where even nature gets confused at its own creation. How the eons slowly shaped the canyon is confounding. Even though we are part and parcel of nature, gazing at the carved geology can be as disorienting as it is exhilarating. The Grand Canyon is truly a work of nature’s art.
After arriving at one of the canyon trailheads and packing up water and snacks for our hike, we headed down the winding and narrow path. On our trek down the canyon, a couple of hours after escaping the blazing upper reaches, we found a shaded ledge, a big flat piece of rock about a third of the way down the forested trail leading to base of the canyon.
We decided to sit and rest our feet for a while. It was a perfect spot placed by nature as a resting place for hikers trekking down the trail that leads to the bottom of the canyon, and onto the Colorado River.
From our perch the canyon burned red, and you could get just a peek of the winding Colorado River way in the distance. We sat there watching the hikers, the mule riders, and the constant stream of characters making their way up or down the winding trail.
Those walking down had the giddy child-like faces, grinning that they can hike the entire trail. Those walking back up had the same grin, albeit exhausted as they huffed and puffed slowly up the crooked path.
The ones who opted to ride mules down the rock-strewn, roots-covered, winding up, then down, going straight for a bit and then impossibly turning trail, sat swaying contentedly as the beasts trudged the familiar steps. We sat there observing, chilling, luxuriating in the fresh air, and munching on a snack as a guest appeared from around the tree. The fat, furry squirrel had absolutely no fear of people. It must have watched scores of people come and go, seasons come and seasons go, and more people come and go in this neck of the canyon.
The chubby critter obviously relished bits of food dropped by hikers. Those staring eyes seemed to expect people in its vicinity to toss it crumbs. The squirrel was so used to humans that even my shooing and yelling didn’t deter its mission of trying to accost some crackers from us. My young daughter was enchanted and amazed at the little one’s stubborn stance.
We wound up tossing some cracker crumbs.
How all the grasses, mosses, lichens, plants, vines, and trees manage to attach themselves at all odd angles on cliffs, around rocks and in seemingly moisture-less dirt makes the surroundings even more surreal. All around our perch under that shade tree, a few feet from the sheer drop of the canyon wall, leaves on oddly shaped trees clung and created a clunky tapestry. This spot was just one of myriad places to stop and ponder this geologic masterwork.
The occasional breeze ruffled the leaves in a symphony of sound. Then there would be no breeze, just stillness of the surroundings broken by the chattering of hikers and the plops of mules. And the singing and muted noises of critters and birds.
Just above us, a small bunch of leaves fluttered ever so gently. At the moment there was no wind in the air but the flutter was from a bird that took flight from a dainty branch covered lightly with bright green leaves. The leaves danced in their stuck position for a moment and became still, as if awaiting another bird or creature or passing breeze to dance with. The ruggedness of it all was touched with such moments of gentleness.
The vistas surrounding our perch, the collage of otherworldly patterns, geometric shapes, and rock art were chiseled, eroded, sharpened, rearranged, and bloomed over millennia by forces of nature, and with the additional forces of the inevitable human expansion and intervention.
A floating cloud created even more intricate art as it passed over the canyon, the shadow creeping over the redness of the cliffs and the sheer drops. The slowly drifting shadow created by the giant fluff of white sauntered away into the distance.
And suddenly there was a gust of wind. As if climbing up from the river below, up the canyon, the wind swirled around our temporary nest, kicking up dust from the eroding land and the canyon walls. It was just another moment of never ending natural bursts of wind and rain that continue to shape the canyon.
Sitting on that ledge for a couple of hours was a meditative experience; the vastness of Grand Canyon’s North Rim sprawled across the horizon. As the afternoon advanced, the air became cooler, the desert and forest flora holding court while the flow of people slowed.
That particular collage of ancient rock, dirt and forest will unlikely change within my lifetime. Nature works slow in the canyon. And that’s a good thing. As another breeze rises from the canyon bottom, it lifts us and we gather our things and make a return hike back up to the top.
Dreams come into the hollows of slumber and fade away too quickly. The vivid dreams of canyons, though, will nudge and inhabit a lifetime of slumbers.
There was a brief moment during my teen years when I had a struggle with heritage identity, a likely common quandary among first-generation immigrants as they adjust to their new surroundings. This jarring feeling of displacement may happen during their early days after migrating to another country, or after many years residing there.
For me it was during a summer of youth, in a decade filled with transitions. It was after arriving in Charlotte, a few short years after relocating from a dusty Indian town to the blinding lights of New York City and then eventually to the heartland of the South in North Carolina. One particular week during that hot summer, I would gaze at the setting sun every day, as low hanging clouds mingled with the purplish, orange light, and ask myself. Was I an Indian or was I an American?
I was born in India and lived there through the first 11 formative years and have been living in the United States since then. Along the way I became an American citizen and consider myself as completely American, the stars and stripes unfurled, firmly grasping the American constitution, wanting to explore the land of opportunity from sea to shining sea.
Yet I’m also an Indian. I’m a part of an ancient culture and civilization and I’m also a part of one of the youngest cultures on the planet. I belong to two confounding and amazing democracies. I breathe rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, bluegrass, country, and the blues. And I breathe Hindustani, Carnatic, Bollywood, folk, and myriad other expressions of Indian music. I daydream in red, white, and blue. I dream at night in saffron, white, and green.
America is a colorful, pluralistic society. India is a colorful, pluralistic society. Both have their problems and quirks, America with a dark past, India with a haunted, dateless past. Both are engaged in an active present that is a continual work in progress while looking toward a future that is uncertain, yet inviting, beckoning with promise.
Both countries are remarkably tolerant of diversity, albeit in a walk with me and I’ll walk with you manner.
Some immigrants find and define a convenient identity while others cling to their old ways, still others work to erase the old and try to live in the new, the American. However personally that American is defined.
I consider American culture and way of life really to have begun blooming and becoming identifiable in mid 19th Century, at the onset of the Civil War. That’s when the North and South, two brothers who drew a line in the dirt, set America on its path, its journey of becoming America.
Indian culture is unfathomably ancient. The scriptural texts, the Vedas and the Upanishads, hark back several millennia while numerous conquerors, raiders, visitors, philosophers, and an ever revolving, evolving cast of characters have shaped the entire region. Both India and America are heterogeneous societies, with many religions, languages, and cuisines that somehow blend into a whole. Remove any thread, any element, and the story takes a turn.
Foods are cultural markers. I love grits and biscuits, cornbread and California wine. I adore samosas, rotis and daal. The all-American apple pie and the all-Indian roti and daal are bookends to endless food variations and local specialties contained within.
One way the conundrum of cultural and heritage synthesis can be answered is through hyphenation. The hyphen works fairly well for many first-generation immigrants. For me the dash connects the two, the Indian, the American, Indian-American. I can deal with that, but in a very generalized sense, a state of mind, if you will. As my descendents arrive over the next few generations, I’m sure they’ll just think of themselves as Americans. Or maybe political and cultural landscapes will change, with borders and nationalities melting away, and they will think of themselves simply as Earthlings.
My family left India on a fine September day and arrived in New York City, a little more than a month after President Nixon resigned. A little Indian family walked into an America that was politically shaken and culturally reshaped by a war that was in its final stages of an uncharacteristic, uncelebrated American withdrawal.
A kid who had spent the last few months in a dusty village on the outskirts of Gandhinagar, preparing for migration, landed in the cacophonous carnival city of immigrants’ dreams.
It took a while to get my bearings. I remember going around our apartment complex during that first Halloween. My cousin, who had arrived in the States a year earlier, pointed out that they were saying “trick or treat,” not trip a tree.
Adjustment and eventual self-identification is simple for some, difficult for others, and never quite brought to terms for still many. Cataclysmic events or migratory decisions can change or address the future as much as the simple decision of changing one’s diet.
Of course I’m a proud American. I’m a proud Indian-American. Now that I’ve lived in the South for three decades, I consider myself, in the context of Americana, a Southerner. A Southern Indian-American, to be a bit more precise. That doesn’t mean I want to fly the rebel flag outside my house, rather it’s a state of mind, of being Southerner. Identifying with the dirt, the air, and the sky of the South. Much like someone’s California or Texas state of mind.
I am a fully formed American. I am a fully formed Indian. This is not a case of chest thumping and flag waving to some nonsensical quasi-nationalist drumbeat. It’s simply coming to terms with a sense of being and belonging. A continuing synthesis that defines being a human. The red and the saffron, the blue and the green, and the purity of white continually synthesizing, accepting any shade, any added color. It is, truly, the best of both, the best of all worlds.
There’s something peculiar about a morning when you are awakened by a Barry Manilow song playing in your head. “I write the songs that make the whole world sing…,” Barry croons in the recesses of my brain while I open my eyes and squint at the reddish glow of my digital desk clock.
I look around to see if aliens have transported me during my slumber to their musical torture chamber and put the dang song in my head.
No. All seems well in my familiar bedroom. It is 7 am on a Saturday morning and Barry is already performing a gig in my head, singing a happy song. I crawl out of bed, stretch my legs and walk toward the bathroom to pay a visit to the ceramic portal as Barry continues his pop hit.
“I write the songs that make the young girls cry...,” whoa, let me at least relieve myself first, Barry.
Maybe the eternally smiling and clean-cut lounge singer has lodged his crooning inside my head because outside a gorgeous spring day is awakening, the sun blanketing everything where everything is green or red or pink or yellow.
After a cold winter, spring has finally arrived in full regalia and our man Barry is decked out in sparkling white duds and singing about, well, writing songs.
The morning is cool and breezy as Barry lays on more lyrical genius, “I write the songs of love and special things.” What did I have for dinner last night? As a time-hardened music lover and critic, soaking up all genres of eclectic music for over three decades, I consider Barry Manilow to be pop light. Make that pop ultralight.
I fancy mornings when I wake with a clenched fist singing The Who’s “My Generation,” or rise on a rainy day humming the saddest of Mohd. Rafi songs. I love the mood of a morning while a sublime morning raga swirls around in my head or when John Coltrane is firing up the sax and I think all of a sudden I’m an actor. Or when Bob Marley’s sinewy reggae rhythms immediately warm up the dreariest of winter mornings.
But Barry Manilow?
Come to think of it, yes, there was a commercial for a Best of Manilow CD on that late-night TV show I was watching last night when I dozed off. That’s right. That’s when Barry surreptitiously lodged inside my head, waiting for the first waking moments of the morning to click his crooning back on. Sort of like a virus waiting to infect your computer the moment you turn it own.
Ok, so let’s put the Manilow swipes aside. To his credit, he has written numerous pop ditties that get inside your head no matter how cheesy you think they are. He has also managed to stay relevant in Las Vegas , on Broadway and in musical theaters for many decades. Let’s give him props for that. So I think a giddy spring morning occasionally deserves a wake-up call from ole Barry.
I’ll admit, though, Barry’s crooning is a smoother rise then when Metallica whacks you on the side of the head, at full volume, first thing in the morning when your brain decides to play the headbangers’ songs stored in its cells.
I’ve gotten up on some days and the dual guitar attack of Metallica kicks in like a mutant, sleeper cell coming to life. That’s when you’re out of bed and in your car with the pedal to the metal in under 10 minutes, thinking, damn I forgot to even comb my hair. And the kid I have to drop off at school is still in bed. Thanks a bunch, boys.
It’s funny how musical mornings can affect moods or maybe even reflect the subconscious mood we wake up in.
Sure, it’s usually too early in the day to decide whether you’re grumpy or happy, but music inside your head can sometimes reflect a specific mood or how a song begins playing in your head in the still of the morning could be a hint of how the day will unfold. Music is a magical force.
There was a time when I started the day almost every morning with music playing on my trusty old stereo. The first thing I would do after I had a few minutes to shake sleep out of my head was to toss a record on the much-used turntable and make my own musical morning while making breakfast or getting ready for the day.
I had a huge collection of music in my small apartment because I also owned a record store at the time. The stereo would be blasting either chill music or perky music depending on what the particular morning called for.
That was before I had kids. Now mornings are a blur of activity dealing with breakfast, school, work, taxes, errands, projects, bills, do lists, and myriad other family-related matters.
Nowadays I mostly play music in my head during hectic mornings. There’s no time to flip through my CDs and put on a tune at eight in the morning when you’re frantically trying to get the kid fed, dressed and ready for school.
There’s a particular hum and rhythm to mornings. I’ll admit there’s a certain charm to mornings. Even a non-morning person like me feels the vibe stitched into the early hours of the day.
If you wake with a long-forgotten melody or a favorite old tune playing in your head, then it could be said you are in tune with that morning’s rhythm.
So whether your musical preference is for tango, Hindustani music, reggae, soca, acoustic blues, psychedelic jams, heavy metal, bluegrass, country or any other myriad forms of musical expression, a musical morning can be therapeutic, even if only for a few moments.
A musical morning can be invigorating. A musical morning can be meditative preparation for the hectic day that waits.
Yes, even when Barry Manilow decides to open his Copacabana in your head, clears his throat and begins his lounge act while the sun pops up over the horizon, winking and dancing.
By Samir Shukla
The ambassador of India’s music passed away on December 11, 2012 at the age of 92. Pandit Ravi Shankar left behind a musical legacy that will unlikely be matched in the near future.
A sampler of Ravi Shankar essential listening:
(Some passages for this piece were taken from the earlier interview article I wrote in 2009.)
It’s in the stars
What does it take to persuade folks to glance at a star-filled sky? Our fast-paced, work-embroiled lives leave little time to gaze at the boundaries of Earth and beyond. It usually takes an event such as a lunar or solar eclipse, proximity visit by Mars, or some astronomical aberration covered in the media to get our attention. How many times do we look up on a clear night, swivel our necks and wonder what’s out there? Not often. It maybe because the cosmos are like a painting, still and distant, where the only seeming changes are the positions of the sun and the changing shapes of the moon.
On a train in Western India
The country air wafted in through the half open window and swirled around my hair as the sudden loud clanking of the train changing tracks jostled me back to a state of alertness. I awoke from a nap caused by the train’s motion and the cool, whispering breeze.
Pervasive social and economic injustice won’t go away without sacrifices. In order to evolve socially, every generation must make specific sacrifices. Unshackling the chains of political oppression, unraveling women’s suppression, unfolding embedded prejudices, spreading tolerance for minorities, opening doors of opportunity; these actions require sacrifice. Or more specifically they require generational sacrifice.
Rock Rolling and Aging
It was 1 a.m. The rock & roll band I had gone to see at a local club had just finished playing and my adrenaline was still pumping.
The age of amorality
Amoral: not involving questions of right or wrong; without moral quality; neither moral nor immoral.
The recent controversy over SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) brings to mind bigger questions about humanity’s ethical leanings. SOPA was supported by content producers and opposed by popular internet gatekeepers (Google, WikiPedia, and myriad others). Hollywood and the music industry want to protect their copyrighted content (intellectual property), and while Google and others support fighting piracy, they felt that SOPA was overbearing and would adversely affect how the internet works and disseminates information in ways that would have an impact on freedom of speech and privacy issues.
An old wooden deck in mid summer
Taking a break from staring at the computer screen for hours, I sat on a wooden deck across from the parking lot at work, nestled up against a row of trees. It was midsummer, but the day was pleasant and the heat was subdued by the previous day’s rains. I was startled as the metal brakes shrieked. They were grinding against metal as the train slowed while approaching a turn. The beats of wheels of rail cars trudging across the tracks filled the surroundings with a momentary cacophony of an iron and steel orchestra.
The Soul of Music
A Summer Day
The sunlight drenched it all and harassed all that it covered. The heat, competing with the sunlight, burned the skin and parched the throat. The brightness permeated every nook and cranny. Under shade trees. Even in the odd geometric spaces under rocks.