Discover more from “Yet Untitled”
Yet Untitled 010 - "Being There"
Hello dear friends.
We. Are. In. Double. Digits!
Thank you thank you thank you to the over eighty of you out there. Eighty! Just twenty shy of triple digits!
For ten straight weeks, “Yet Untitled” has dropped at 6:30pm IST without fail. And, nobody has unsubscribed so far. You know what that means? It means that this ain’t a flirtation no more, baby. This here’s a dang relationship!
You know what? I think it’s a great time for us (us!) to grow. Ways in which we can advance: we can engage more. Notice that I’ve been ending with a question for the last few editions? Please drop me even a one-sentence comment if you can. Hit reply and respond if that’s more your thing. Commenting below will definitely help the others get past their shyness. Why keep pushing for this to be a double road rather than a comfy-wumfy one way street? Because there’s more value in it. At least in my book. Or newsletter 🤣.
Please do share / recommend “Yet Untitled” to others like yourselves - people who’d get a kick out of being inside VN’s pia mater once a week (who’d have thought?)!
Enjoy Edition 010!
Being There. Where?
A friend of mine made it to Berlin when The Wall came down in 1989. He’s shared photos of this trip on social media off and on - and I’m always blown away imagining how it must have felt: arriving at what was indisputably a Moment, where it felt justified to simply arrive, sleep rough in the park and mingle with a crowd that was similarly high on the times with you.
It made me wonder - what turning point in history have I been present at? The Pandemic for one! Yes, I was there, but so was everyone else! I imagine myself as a granddad, sans teeth, telling stories about masks, vaccines and lockdowns to a bunch of bright-eyed grandkids, competing for their attention with some dystopian evolution of a smartphone that my mind cannot currently fathom. In my imagination, I receive a big MEH in response. So I dig deeper for what to tell my meta-human grandchildren when they ask me - “what else did you live through, grandpa?”
This is what I’ll tell likely them, while they fact-check my ramblings against the Wikipedia of the time being projected directly onto their retinas:
For one, I’ll definitely tell them about being present at centre court on Day 3 of Wimbledon, 1999, hearing - actually hearing - what Goran Ivanišević serving an ace sounded like.
Then, I’d likely tell them about the time when I followed the procession carrying Gandhi’s ashes from Mani Bhawan to Chopatty beach for their final immersion into the sea.
Now, that’s something to elaborate upon:
In 2008, an urn full of Gandhi’s ashes turned up from…somewhere. Enough people verified that they were the real deal and it was decided that they would be immersed in the sea off Chowpatty Beach, South Mumbai.
When I arrived, I saw a Japanese monk reciting sutras to the beat of a drum that looked like a large ping-pong paddle. He would follow the procession, chanting with great sincerity. I remember him chanting Nam Myo Ho Renge Kyo. Eight years later, I would start chanting this phrase every day myself when I took up the practice of Nichiren Buddhism.
I felt like I had made a time jump to 1948, because everyone present seemed to belong to another time, or at least be thinking outside the present temporal moment. I felt convinced that many of the faces I saw (and photographed) had gazed upon the great man in person. Everyone was contemplative, as if thinking of that very meeting and what it meant to be with his mortal remains now, in the present.
What was I contemplating? Why was I there?
Gandhi has inspired and fascinated me for as far as I can remember - beyond the taught reverence I inherit as an Indian educated in India. I became especially interested in him via the work of Joseph Alter, who references Gandhi in a book he wrote about wrestling (among other things), deconstructing how, ironically, Gandhi’s frail, fast-wasted body had become a symbol of masculinity alongside the muscled body of the champion wrestler Gama Pehalwan; two archetypes that became instrumental in negating the image of the ‘weak and scholarly Hindu’ that prevailed during times of Empire. Alter also presents Gandhi as a progressive thinker whose fascination for the avant-garde practices of his day - German Naturopathy for one - became the bedrock upon which he built his own vanguard political philosophy.
More recently, Gandhi became even more important to my life because of my study of Buddhism. My understanding of applied Buddhism very often leads back to Gandhi. Daisaku Ikeda, president of the Soka Gakkai - the lay organization that promotes peace, culture and education through the practice of Nichiren Buddhism - says of Gandhi in his book “Hope is a Decision” -
“His hope was not based on circumstances, rising and falling as things seemed to get better or worse. Rather, it was based on an unshakable faith in humanity, in the capacity of people for good. He absolutely refused to abandon his faith in his fellow human beings.”
That day in 2008, I landed up trailing Gandhi’s ashes to their final rest long before I had heard of Alter or Daisaku Ikeda. However, my heart was already pointed in their direction, and was simply reinforcing it’s orientation in the direction of Gandhi.
What I conclude is this: what feels like a Moment for us tells us a lot about who we are.
We should listen carefully.
Thanks for reading “Yet Untitled”! Subscribe to receive new posts directly into your inbox.
Being in a Moment
Here’s my ready-reckoner for deciding whether the moment I’m in is likely to go down in history for me:
The feeling of noise shutting off and hearing becoming acutely sensitive.
A pronounced awareness of my own breathing.
A flashbulb memory being created - all details being frozen in time in my mind along with other unrelated sounds, smells and tastes experienced.
Sounds weird? Believe me, it’s a thing. I wrote a dissertation on flashbulb memory for my M.A., about how people remembered the planes crashing into the Twin Towers. My respondents had shared the oddest of remembered details while recounting their impressions of the moment.
What I find interesting is that the moment doesn’t have to be big for these physical responses to be triggered, it just needs to be significant.
Here are some instances where the breath slowed, hearing heightened and the being went all in, hitting ‘record’:
While talking about books and films with MT Vasudevan Nair (also mentioned in Yet Untitled 006), exclusively and alone. The fact that he chose me, me, as worthy enough itself triggered these bodily responses. While books and films were the starting point, I knew that I was being given the privilege to see life through MT Vasudevan Nair’s eyes. You can bet I listened hard.
Being in an acting workshop with Naeeruddin Shah: he used to be in my yoga class. I once asked him casually if I could participate in an acting workshop because, as a director, I wanted to understand actors better. He told me that no director had ever asked that of him, and held a workshop more or less especially for me. Before I could get a big head about it, he turned me inside out with some unforgiving acting exercises. It wasn’t pleasant, but I learned what it takes for an actor to make themselves vulnerable enough to let another person inside them. It was a valuable lesson.
I was researching a college story and found myself in a room full of 3rd year Sociology students in Delhi - all young women. I had wanted to know about the challenges they faced as young women in a city that was clearly unsafe for them. After two hours of asking them questions, they really started opening up. After a point - I could’t understand why then - but they stopped holding back. I could see that it meant something for them to share their fears, joys and hopes with me. I had been given a rare privilege, so the world faded out and their words and faces became the only reality.
In all these instances, being present as a listener - as a witness - seems to hold a special significance. Seen together - there’s something common in all these moments: I was there with a question - a curiosity.
The more this curiosity burned, the more these borderless elements in the seamless continuum of time became first fragments with edges, then finally - Moments.
The curiosity that stemmed from the alchemy of who I am and the question that it evoked in me - resulting in a desire to generate meaning, understanding - I think, made the mind and body pay attention with every last bit of strength they could muster.
Memory was operating. Thus there are words.
A camera was present. Thus there are images.
The heart was present. Thus there is meaning.
Words and images are incidental. The meaning, essential.
The Moment is full of energy and potential. What we do with it is up to us.
…because, phew! This got a bit…intense.
In 2004, I was director’s assistant to Deepa Mehta on her film Water, part three of her Elements Trilogy. Here’s the trailer:
Gandhi was a big part of this film’s story - a window into the lives of severely oppressed widows in Benaras at a time when India fought for its independence from both the British empire and its redundant, enslaving social structures. In fact, Deepa Mehta says in this article that Gandhi was the real hero of ‘Water’.
Of course, the role had to be cast. In this case, it was given to a Sindhi gentlemen from South Mumbai, who I met for a drink at the Radio Club in Colaba on instruction from the director. I was struck by the amazing resemblance he bore to the Father of the Nation.
I also had the honour (the completely surreal experience?) of sitting next to him as we prepped to shoot the movie’s final sequence in which Gandhiji makes a grand appearance and saves everything and everyone. There, this genial Sindhi gentlemen who enjoyed his daily drink at the Radio club - in full Gandhi garb - proceeded to tell me the dirtiest, raunchiest jokes I had heard from a human being, let alone a human being dressed as and bearing an uncanny resemblance to Gandhi.
You can’t make this shit up.
I will leave you with a question: Can you tell me about a moment from your life when your breathing slowed, your senses heightened and you paid attention in a way that has lingered till now?
Tell me. I want to know.
Thank you and see you next week!
Can’t conclude a post titled ‘Being there’ without mentioning Being There - a truly amazing film about the stupidity prevalent in the modern world, and also our thirst for optimism. Go in and watch the trailer cold. Just know that Peter Sellers is brilliant in it!