Friday, July 30, 2010

Salt and Pepper

Took in 2 good movies last weekend – one a breathless entertainer and the other a mellow reflective romantic drama. The first was the over-hyped – Angelina Jolie’s thriller - S.A.L.T . It was so fast paced that it didn’t allow any time to think or question the sheer absurdity of the script. The original screenplay, I believe, was written for Tom Cruise and had to undergo a sex reversal of sorts when he turned it down and Jolie stepped into the role. I must admit it was much more fun watching Angelina perform the high voltage stunts and (even though the sex sequences - as shown on the TV clips - had been censored) her feminine vulnerability succeeds in arousing the audience's adrenalin (and related hormones) more than a cold-as-steel Cruise could possibly have.

And some pepper ......

(Penelope Cruz in a scene from the film)

old age is not for sissies

The second movie, which I downloaded from the net, was more up my street – Elegy starring Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz (click here for synopsis and previews). In a screen adaptation of the Phillip Roth novel – The Dying Animal, Kingsley plays David Kepesh a charismatic author and professor who serially bedded the best looking student of his class (taking care to skirt the sexual harassment code of the college by waiting till they get their grades). “When you make love to a woman you get revenge for all the things that defeated you in life” says Kepesh. He finally meets his nemesis – when he gets into a erotic entanglement with the stunningly beautiful Cuban co-ed - 30 years his younger – Consuella Castilo

Not quite in the league of Brando’s – The Last Tango, Kingsley is brilliant as the ageing academic who is trying to come to terms with the existential enigma of growing old vs growing up – something I had touched upon in my earlier blog Midlife Delinquencies (click here to read). The subject of an older man having an affair with a woman much younger to him has been beaten to death in literature and the movies. But, this one treats a serious subject without making it heavy - made possible by a very intelligent screenplay and superbly calibrated acting by all the lead characters. The film is full of some profound dialogue - gain delivered very lightly. For eg - Kepesh says : "Beautiful women are invisible because we get so dazzled by the outside we fail to look inside."

Standing by the window watching the rain, he talks to himself - “Old age sneaks up on you, and the next thing you know you're asking yourself, I'm asking myself, why can't an old man act his real age? How is it possible for me to still be involved in the carnal aspects of the human comedy? Because, in my head, nothing has changed”

The sexual chemistry between Kingsley and Cruz palpably pierces through the screen. But, this PC (unlike another I was briefly obsessed with sometime ago !!) is something else. To call her ravishing or just hauntingly beautiful would be an understatement – sans her clothes she is like a Goddess – worthy of worship as her on-screen predator honestly admits (see clip).

After all, as Kepesh paraphrases Betty Davies, “old age is not for sissies”.

another kind of BIMARU

Reading the memoirs of Ashish Bose – Headcount. Bose is a pioneer of demographic studies in India and is credited with the coinage of the term – BIMARU states (referring to the population issues of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) and other theories such as “linguistic displacement” in states like Assam post-independence.

Though, by his own admission, Bose has at times got valuable insights from ordinary people such as his “maalishwala” – he is undoubtedly a man of great erudition, who has also led a full life beyond academia. But, the book is poorly written and badly edited (surprising for a Penguin title). Coming right after Fali Nariman’s autobiography it makes a disappointing read (especially his rather simplistic account of the Emergency and mild fawning of the Nehru-Gandhi clan).

Monday, July 26, 2010

A mentors' mentor

I didn’t know Tarun Sheth, former Head of Management Development of Hindustan Lever – later mentor at the HR Consulting and Search firm, Shilputsi – that his wife founded and run for the most part by his 2 very talented daughters – Shipa and, later – only, Purvi, too well. I was traveling in the hills of Kumaon last week and missed the news of his death in the papers. I came to learn about it from the email of an old colleague and at once knew that I wanted to attend his memorial service on my return to Mumbai.

the missing "merchants"

So, I went to the Indian Merchants’ Chamber Hall at Churchgate on Thursday evening. It wasn’t a very large gathering. I thought that most people who had come were there not merely to mark attendance. – but, because, they genuinely felt that Tarun had touched their lives meaningfully at some point in their careers. And, this was not limited just to the old Levers fraternity. Apart from family, friends and old neighbours there were few elder IIM – A alumni (he taught there before joining HLL) and some senior corporate professionals whom he would have befriended during his Shilputsi years. The current top-brass of “HUL” were conspicuous by their absence except for Harish Manwani and Shreejit Mishra whom I could spot. But, coming to think of it – Tarun had retired in 1987 and most of today’s stars weren’t – so to speak – even “born” then.

The function itself was understated and dignified in keeping with the personality of the man who was being remembered. A small bunch of people spoke – 6 to be precise including his daughter -Atsi and Ashok Vasudevan who sent a very touching voice-recorded tribute from the US.

the amraas guru

The remembrances marked the measure of the man that visibly resonated with the audience. As in modern high rises, low-ceilings being the order of the new corporate architecture - It’s not just they don’t have room in organizations for professionals as tall – but, as RG (an old friend and associate) wrote in his piece in ET (click here to read) he was a rare HR practitioner with a “humane” side (an oxymoron as it may sound to be).

I didn’t spend much time in Lever House between 1983 (when I joined HLL) and 1987 (when Tarun left) – so didn’t get the opportunity to know him very closely. I have a rather sepia tinted recollection of him in his corner room on 2nd Floor West Wing (which was later appropriated by Amy Kharas and successive Heads of Administration) – that was like an in-house shrink’s cabin of sorts before it was turned into a police station interrogation room in times to come.

{I didn't have the privilege of being invited for any of his fabled "Amraas" parties and, so, had no idea of his legendary capacity for mangoes (believe he could down 25 katoris in a single sitting !!). I do remember a funny incident though, when a new recruit – taking his offer to help him “settle in” too literally – went to him for getting a gas connection that rattled even his most unflappable self.}

I was there at the condolence meeting because, for me Tarun embodied much of the values that, the old HLL – that youngsters joined with stars in their eyes - stood for. If today, Lever can boast of the maximum number of CXOs to have come out of its stable spreading across industries in India and, now, even overseas– a large chunk of the credit must go to the likes of the Sheth - for laying the foundations of the HR system which withstood the ravages of time till the 'age of deconstruction' began.

In a way – therefore - I felt, I was representing in a small way many old compatriots - whose careers he had helped to shape - who wanted to be there but couldn't make it - either because of distance or some other reason.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Midlife Delinquency

As threads of gray begin to show on my pate, those who have always believed that I colour my hair think that I’m making an age appropriate – albeit long over-due - correction as I approach 50. Others who know that I have been genetically gifted in this respect (my father who’ll turn 80 this year – has never used hair-dye – still retains generous tracts of black hair) attribute it to the stresses and strains of the last few years.

Though medical evidence would indicate that, the biological clock keeps ticking away non-stop, I believe – mentally – we age at discrete intervals rather than in a continuum. These step changes occur with important turns and events in our lives. Till then we continue to ignore many telltale external signs even if they are staring us in the face. We take time to reset our internal 'stop watch' until something life-changing happen to us.

This timing gap is – I guess – what people refer to as growing old (ageing) and growing up. The first is physiological and the other psychological. The variance between the 2 often manifests in people stretching themselves beyond their physical or mental capacity – with not-so-happy consequences. Sometimes – the effect of such excesses are only evident with a time lag – but it takes its toll for sure on the mind and / or the body - whether in the short or the long run. What was ok in the 30s and early 40s may not be what we are capable of taking in our late 40s or 50s. Personally, I am skeptical of statements such as – “you are as old as you feel”. That, to me is very often a recipe - if not for disaster, certainly - for major missteps and faltering, arising out of what psychologists call “mid-life delinquency”.

Coloured Linen Bush-shirt Syndrome

Sometime psychological changes set in sub-consciously but we don’t realize it. I remember my mother making fun seeing me in a pastel peach linen bush-shirt – a few years back – saying “Sandip is now beginning to show his age” (she knew I didn’t like to wear bright colours in my younger days – and she herself thought older men wear shocking shades in a mode of self-denial of their age).

Therefore, attempts at altering appearance may not be so misplaced or ill advised after all. It could, in fact be a tacit but reassuring recognition of the inevitable. Though, personally, I will never be apologetic about wearing colourful shirts, at the same time I will not be converted to a customer of L’ Oreal (or for that matter – good ol’ Godrej) hair colour products.

So, have I changed standing at the threshold of 50? Surely, I must have with so much that has changed around me. Some changes are for others to see and there are parts that only I know of.

There is a saying among the Bengalis that, the “Goylas” (or “go-walas”, i.e. milkmen - as the Ghoses are jokingly referred to) attain wisdom only after 40. Staying true to this adage – I admit – I took my own time in growing up and needed a few hard knocks and rough brushes from life to get me going.

Turbulent thirties and flourishing forties

Though my thirties may have been a little turbulent, the forties were far from flourishing (check out Gail Sheehy's Men's Passages). Life didn’t go quite as per the script, I had chosen for myself. That has made me somewhat inward looking - which friends interpret as turning ‘anti-social’ and a sure prescription for depression. Another sign of age is, perhaps, a throwback to the past - memories that were long lost (“things that I had forgotten, I had forgotten”) – suddenly coming up to the surface. With the ‘mortality markers’ (BP, Cholesterol, Blood Sugar) moving up - and some friends prematurely dropping off the map - death seems to be at shake-hand length.

Keeping God at arm's length

Yet, in what might seem like an odd contradiction, I sense a slight distancing from the concept of “God”. Never overly or overtly religious – my visits to temples or places of worship have reduced significantly. It’s been a long time since I caught myself either praying or meditating (which could also be a function of my fragmented state of mind). Though I wouldn’t call it a loss of faith – I feel the relationship is becoming more collegial.

That’s why – I have always been attracted to someone like Sri Ramakrishna – with whom you could relate more as family rather than a guru (Vivekananda – is a bit a bit intimidating with his intellect and force of character and someone like Jiddu Krishnamurty and Aurobindo intellectually inaccessible) – and, of late, I have taken a liking for the Dalai Lama – who wears “His Holiness” so lightly.

Last week, I saw the Dalai Lama’s interview (click here to see video)by Barkha Dutt on the occasion of his 75th Birthday aired on NDTV. Don’t think there was anything new in her questions or his answers. But, with his infectious laughter and child-like simplicity - he created subtle waves of endearing energy that could be transmitted even across an electronic medium.

From the edge of a cliff

But, dammit – this was not meant to be a confessional piece. Perched on the edge of a cliff – as I look at the mist and low hanging clouds shrouding the view of the valley below, I have come to admire 2 kinds of people over the years. First are the ones who have learnt to re-invent themselves and re-channel their energies into creating something new. I have seen quite a few of them from close quarters. To do justice to them – would require more than a few lines. They each deserve at least a short blog of their own.

The second are people who have lived their life to the full – despite all their faults and frailties. That’s why I am enjoying so much reading the just published autobiography of Fali Nariman – Before Memory Fades (Hay House). It’s wonderful to know that, even at 81 – the prospects and thrills of winning a difficult case still turn on the wily old lawyer. ‘The race is over, but the work is never done while the power to work remains’ – he writes quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes, JR.

( PS: I will come back to my take on the Maoists in a later post - hopefully soon)