By Samir Shukla
Score: The Doctor from India
Rachel Grimes has composed a delicate homage and backdrop to the documentary film, The Doctor from India. The subtle piano and strings evoke a solemn mood but is filled with a cheerfulness. This can be enjoyed outside of the documentary as a unique piece of music to be enjoyed at twilight with the light still filtering through the trees or, better yet, around midnight. Grimes is a composer and pianist who has a long and varied catalog, including her work with the eclectic combo Rachel's.
This recording is meditative and features piano, violin, harp, saxophone, and strings with sprinklings of tender sounds. It is classical, minimalist, and subtly jazzy. The Doctor from India is a documentary film by Jeremy Frindel that tells the story of Dr. Vasant Lad, a holistic health pioneer whose approach centers around the ancient practice of Ayurveda.
He has spent his life promoting and bringing the system of whole health known as Ayurveda to the West.
One may feel that a soundtrack to a documentary about an Indian doctor should feature some Indian music, maybe sitar or sarod gently floating along. But Grimes' music cozily fits and enhances the film's aura and storytelling. It's another notch in Grimes' eclectic works.
By Samir Shukla
When was the last time you were bored? Let me rephrase that. When was the last time you shut off the phone, TV, computer, something electronic, and spent some time just sitting, maybe on a porch, or in a comfortable chair somewhere around the house, reveling in self-induced boredom?
Spend some time completely unconnected, what the hyper-connected digital generation may consider being bored? This is not about being bored; it's about reconnecting with our innate natural order.
We are so digitally connected that we don't allow ourselves the space to just, well, not think for a spell, the kind that is free of digital information. We don't allow ourselves to be bored because we don't like the thought of being bored. One may even think it a waste of time to induce nothingness, a bit of thoughtless boredom, even for a few moments. But I have come to believe we need that disconnection, those moments of do nothingness, and it will actually advance productivity and clarity in daily matters.
We have access to so much information, so much entertainment, that its power to inform as well as counter our boredom rapidly diminishes. We often wind up simply swiping quickly to get through the unending incoming messages and information, lest we fall behind. We become jaded to even the occasional gem of information sent our way.
I noticed this recently when watching a movie, something I love to do. With access to so many movies on different platforms, I sometimes become jaded even toward my favorite films. It is this availability and access to so many films that I take their artistic value of escape or inspiration for granted. This thought hit me quite succinctly one night when I was watching a movie recorded on our DVR. Even though it was a film I've wanted to see for many years, I found myself grabbing the remote control and flipping over to another recorded movie, and after a few minutes flipping to another.
It was a moment of entertainment saturation. An activity I love became a bore itself.
I turned the TV off, and just stared at the surroundings in the living room. The quiet of midnight, the sounds of the night, or the lack thereof, entertained me and cleared my head till I became sleepy. The darkness of the night further induced visual-free bliss.
We all need some time to just clearly think in our daily busyness, but it is just as important to set aside moments to not think at all. One may suggest that meditation is an escape from information overload. I'm suggesting something beyond meditation.
I'm suggesting complete nothingness. Even meditation is a practiced ritual, the breathing, the attempt to connect to something inside us, or whatever your meditation quest is. Meditation, of course, has tremendous value. I'm saying just laze yourself into mind-cleansing, if that is such a thing. I suggest something blanker, beyond meditation.
This would require a return to our simpler, less technological times, even if for, let's say, a half-hour every day. I call it the “thinkless thirty" and allow ourselves to be just bored or just roam aimlessly in our own minds. Your “thinkless thirty" could be broken into two segments to be practiced during different times of day, or could be simply a few minutes, say five minutes. Let's give it a name, ahh, “freebie five."
Clearly we are social creatures, and what I suggest maybe anathema to someone living alone, craving social connection, either via face-to-face or social media. What I'm suggesting is for most people to disconnect briefly when possible.
This idea further brewed inside my head during my family's trip to Big Bend National Park in West Texas last month. There are areas in that vast expanse where there is simply no cell signal. The disconnection was liberating, making the desert, what many would consider to be a drab environment, come alive in its own multi-sensory grandeur.
Of course a lack of connection can create anxiety for many, even if only for a few minutes. Am I missing something? How many posts on social media have I missed? What if someone texts me?
So, what do I mean by “thinkless thirty" or whatever is your chosen time of unthinking?
Let's make it simple.
Allow me to demonstrate.
Ok. Thanks for observing.
How was that?
This makes sense if you now fill in your own nonthoughts inside the little white space above.
See, it's simple. Now, by all means, you may return to your regular programming.
Happy unthinking boredom!
By Samir Shukla
“Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy."
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
The other day I found a photo frame my son had made years earlier when he was in the Boy Scouts. It was stamped “my hero dad" on the sides. It got me to wonder about the meaning of the word hero. Have I lived up to those words stamped on that frame? Instead of coming up with a meaning, I thought about what constitutes a contemporary hero.
Every act of guidance, protection, discipline, mentoring, is open for critique with the passage of time. We may not be heroes in the valiant, stereotypical sense, but we give it our best shot. That in itself is heroic.
Our children aggregate all we gave, spoke, delivered or failed to deliver, and will eventually forge their own ideals and paths. The world is a wily and complex jungle filled with heroes and villains not very clearly defined. The years pass and we pat our now grown kids on the back and send them off to navigate that jungle.
Add the toxic political atmosphere that we live in into that jungle and the search for a stalwart, ethical hero gets even tougher. Where have they all gone?
In this age of incessant connectivity via social media and pervasive surveillance, people put on pedestals as heroes by others unhinge themselves via their sometimes minor or sometimes unforgivable misdeeds.
One day they are tall, strong, inspiring the world, the next they are mere mortals bringing shame on themselves by getting caught with their pants down, or their hands in a pot of illicit money, or succumbing to the seductive, soul-crushing charms of power.
A hero becomes just another pale human being when he misplaces or loses his own moral compass.
Shine a bright light and that tall, dark and strong hero suddenly seems pale. When you watch old B&W films, there were always the occasional closeups of beautiful stars and handsome heroes. They were shown in soft light, where all unseemly facial features and their shortcomings as humans were rendered unseen with the magic of light and movies. In today's high-definition world all the scars and warts are exposed on our big screen TVs and especially on the little screens we carry around all day long.
Even the celluloid heroes of old can't escape our voyeuristic, overexposing world.
Heroes become lesser the more we know about them.
Overexposure taints the sustaining of perceived heroes. Even the quotes of philosophical masters are undone in our unending exchanges in the muddles of social media. They are read for a brief moment and then swished away with the motion of the finger, on to the next incoming post. Do we really follow words of wisdom on a consistent basis?
Sometimes long-respected heroes disappoint when they turn out to be as ordinary as the path you walk on. Some of humanity's beloved heroes over the centuries were disheveled, lesser men and women when they were alive. Yet, their actions or even a single action or invention or inspiration turned them into heroes; people willing to cast aside their other foibles or misdeeds.
My heroes were always obtuse, imbued with steady yet disruptive genius. Sometimes it was Gandhi, often it was Captain Picard, and on the musical front if I chose one it would likely be Pete Townsend.
But these men are more inspirers than heroes. They were disruptive in a manner to affect change in art or politics. I tend to gravitate toward anything that unfurls the status quo into something better.
I have also always admired the myth of the American frontier cowboy, relying totally on himself to make a living or survive. But even that cowboy is a blend of multiple other cowboys, with my admiration overlooking their oft-destructive machismo.
There's the teacher in high school that pushed me to write better, inspiring me to engage in a life of words. The more I ponder; it was the act of a stern teacher guiding me that I remember most, not the person so much. I cannot say she was a hero, but I will always remember her for nimble edits that made learning the craft of writing a joy.
I suppose I don't know what a perfect hero is. There can be no such thing. We have to accept someone as a hero with all the caveats and boils that go with that person, for there is no perfect hero.
Competence alone is not heroic. Doing something positive that sets one back or is maybe personally damaging but is helpful to many others is heroic. We salute soldiers and call them heroes but it is only the soldiers who have faced death and brought death upon others that truly understand their perceived heroism. For them it may have been simply about survival, not heroism.
Sometimes you just have to take facets of different people and create your own hero, again via the actions they have taken that you admire while setting aside the ill-tempered, narcissistic, or amoral persons they may be.
Putting one's life in danger to save others is always honorable, but even that comes with a footnote. A while back I read of someone saving several kids in an accident, the temporary hero was later judged differently when people learned that he was a convicted felon.
We must accept that heroes today are as fleeting as the bursts of images in our daily, oversaturated electronic world. A simple act of kindness or lending a steady hand can become the hero of the day and not necessarily the person behind the act that betters someone's life just enough for them to pass on a similar act to another.
I don't know if I can be a hero to anyone, but I can always pass on a bit of wisdom or lend a helping hand. Maybe, in the end it is such simple acts that will sustain us, the pale heroes in us all.
By Samir Shukla
The Milk Lady of Bangalore
By Shoba Narayan
Cows and their lore are wholly intermingled with India's culture and religions, especially Hinduism.
Writer Shoba Narayan lived and worked in the US for 20 years and moved back to India with her family (husband and two young daughters) to the South Indian city of Bangalore (now formally known as Bengaluru).
Sarala, the milk lady, lives across the street from Narayan family's new digs, a modern apartment complex. Sarala and her family own several cows, keep them in sheds near their simple home and sell fresh milk to people in the vicinity. Narayan meets Sarala and the two women slowly strike up a friendship and over the course of the book expound on life, family, and all things milk.
Narayan develops this backdrop and writes from the crossroads of centuries old traditions (folks selling fresh milk daily) crossing paths with the 21st century modernity of Bangalore.
Cows are part of the fabric of India. They are everywhere, lazing on roads and highways, sauntering about where they please. They are bringers of good luck and are used to bless everything from apartments to auspicious occasions.
The Milk Lady of Bangalore is a wonderful non-fiction account of the friendship between a world-traveled and educated woman and a local, illiterate milk seller. Narayan documents many encounters and adventures with Sarala in everything cows, their milk, dung and even urine in her wit-filled book.
Narayan follows Sarala and her family of milk sellers, their connection to their cows, and their constant need for money. The working poor of India are forever in debt and trying to make ends meet, but are also passionate for life.
Eventually Narayan embarks on a journey to buy a cow she wants to give to Sarala, guiding readers into the unseen world of cow markets in South Indian villages with their unique ways of bargaining and socializing.
The book is a travelogue through a world so common in India, yet its struggles and ethos unknown to most. She writes with the keen reporting of a journalist combining fluid prose and storytelling, stitched with first-hand research.
The following passage gives the essence of India's connection with the cow and the premise of the book perfectly.
“The elevator door opens. A cow stands inside, angled diagonally to fit. It doesn't look uncomfortable, merely impatient. “It is for the housewarming ceremony on the third floor," explains the woman who stands behind the cow, holding it loosely with a rope. She has the sheepish look of a person caught in a strange situation who is trying to act as normal as possible. She introduces herself as Sarala and smiles reassuringly. The door closes. I shake my head and suppress a grin. It is good to be back."