Sunday, May 30, 2010

One Straw Revolution - Reflections on a book

An old Japanese farmer writes a book about farming, food and life. 30 plus years go by. An Indian guy comes across the book, and even though he has never planted a seed or lifted a sickle, reads it. It gives him immense joy, pushes him into deep reflective phases, makes him feel like riding a cloud when reading, and guides him through a world which is very removed and very immediate to his all at once.

And there have been many many more Indians, Kenyans, Americans, Italians, Kampucheans, and other ---ans who must have read this book and share this outlook. The book would mean different things all of them. What it means to you, you have to figure out. It doesn't offer (or claim to offer) solutions to all the problems in the world. It will just help you reflect. In a good way. In a way where it expands your mind, and opens your thought buds.

The book is about farming, about one man's life - his struggles to find answers to his questions, and once he finds answers, his efforts to communicate it to the outer world, about food, about what constitutes food, about one's approach to life, about philosophy, about sustainable agricultural practices and so much more.

It talks about cultivating rice and barley. It doesn't matter if you care about rice or not. It doesn't matter if reading this gives you a faint uncertainty about how barley looks like. It talks about coating seeds with clay - why, you might ask - it doesn't matter. It talks about working with your hands, working with mud, water, pulling weeds, thrashing grains. It doesn't matter if you can't remember the last time you put your hands in mud or made a sand castle. It doesn't matter if it makes you wonder why children are so happy and joyous playing in mud and water, and adults with all their wisdom, freedom to do things, buy things, consume things, grapple to be happy for a few moments. It doesn't matter. You will still enjoy the book.

Why are people so confused about food? Why do they have such conflicted realtionship with food? Should you eat more proteins, and less fat or should you eat more fat and less carbs? Is "zero fat" food better? Or is "no artificial sweetners" better? Is added vitamins a good thing? When the food companies and medical associations certify that the food you eat is the most healthiest thing you ever put in your mouth, who are you to question them? Don't the experts know what is best for you?

All I can say is, when you don't get the right answers, most likely it is because you are asking the wrong questions.

These questions will continue to appear in your mind, in your TV screens, and in the front page advertisements of your news paper. Good looking, near-thirty year old women dressed in pressed cotton sarees will keep appearing in your TV screens and admonish you to buy this, and not buy that, because they will say, the experts said so. You will go to bed with a faint feeling of guilt, till you go to your next grocery shopping when you will pick up the box of ....., recommended by the cotton saree lady and feel guilt free again. Any solution to life questions offered by products in boxes is most likely not the right answer.

Neo says in Matrix "I didn't come here to tell you how it is going to end. I came here to tell you how it is going to begin". This book cannot give you answers for all the questions you have. It might, just might, be able to help you ask the right questions.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Up in the air

There are some movies which effortlessly pull you in to their narration, cast a spell, and stay in your thoughts for days to follow. Up in the air is one such little gem. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a consultant, who is hired by companies to fire people (or scores of people), or execute their downsizing plan. Why would companies hire specialists to do it - well, lot of reasons - it is dirty work, potential for law suits, and most importantly, if you are a manager worth your salt, you would never do a job yourself when you can hire consultants to do it and spend a fortune (read someone's annual CTC)on it.

As you can imagine, in the current economic situation, he is in great demand. Clooney jets around from city to city (enjoy the arresting aerial views of dozens of tier-2 US cities), moving in and out of offices, leaving scores of people jobless and in shambles.

Corporate travel in the US could be suffocating and soul-sucking to some. With the standard issue corporate buildings, meeting rooms, beige barricades called cubicles, ubiquitous dark suits (with the colorful ties trying in vain to break the monotony), airport hotels which are located as far away from civilization (or normal life) as possible, window less hotel conference rooms, mediocre food, and lots of dread. But Clooney's character thrives in it. He doesn't embrace it - he ravishes it, raking up frequent flyer miles meanwhile. He is a man who has calibrated himself to the system around him so efficiently, that he almost forgets that it is the system around him and not real life.

Of course, there are intruders from the real world who intrude his perfect system, engage him, play him and puncture his perfect cocoon. His sisters, a younger colleague whom he is showing the ropes of his trade, a fellow business traveler and others.

The film is carried by very good performances - Clooney tones down his charm quotient to fit the character and gives a measured, beautiful performance. Matched by Anna Kendrik as his co-worker and Vera Farmiga as his co-traveler. And an array of consistently good performances by people (some of them were cast as they had to go through this in real life) who get fired in the movie.

There are some very funny moments, some poignant ones. There is heartbreak, razor-sharp dialogue and tit-for-tat. And some hope and possible redemption. Rent it, watch it, mull it over, and smile.