Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Great Hindu Monk's 150th Birth Anniversary.

Today is the 150th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda who is often called the greatest missionary of Hinduism.

I remember exactly this day, 25 years ago, I stood at Belur Muth, Kolkata, India, in front of 7000 people - with butterflies in my stomach - speaking about the youth perspective on National Integration from his teachings.

I was 20. And I was proud. So, were my parents, and my college's principal, because I was selected from among all the colleges of Hyderabad to represent Ramakrishna Muth, Hyderabad at the Youth Session of the 125th Birth Anniversary Celebrations of this great Hindu teacher.

What I'd learnt about Swami Vivekananda during my preparation for the talk, and especially during my six-day stay at Belur Muth, Calcutta (as Kolkata was called then) was truly eye-opening. So, in a way, this post is a dedication to the monks I'd met during that time.

As a Christian who grew up questioning my religious belief, and as a young boy who was seeking knowledge on how religion matters, I was truly blessed by my short association with Ramakrishna Muth, Hyderabad.

I really do not know how much the current leadership of this mission is doing in promoting discourses and debates on religious values and their application to everyday living, but it had had a profound impact on my personal value system, during my formative years.

Today, even though I am now a Christian, by personal choice and conviction, my respect for this influential and zealous Hindu teacher has only increased with age, and I am sure, it will never diminish.

I just wish, like millions of others, that India produced more such philosophers and teachers.

I had had the privilege, and a couple of rare opportunities, to actually talk with Swami Ranganathaanandha and Swami Prabhupadananda, who were then at the Hyderabad Center of the Ramakrishna Mission - which was founded by Swami Vivekananda in 1897 - which bases its work on the principles of karma yoga, and subscribes to the ancient Hindu philosophy of Vedanta.

The Mission's global headquarters was however at Belur Math in Howrah near Kolkata, India.

And, thanks to my selection for this event, it had suddenly become a special place for me, to spend at least six days where I got to understand the Hindu belief system better.

I must have questioned the monks there, and talked to them, with an immature mind. But I will not forget one particular monk, Swami Krishnamachari, who patiently explained 'Vedic Hinduism' to me.

He even surprised me with his interpretation of what Jesus could have meant when he used the words 'living waters'; while talking to the Samaritan woman at the well. In fact, this swami surprised me more by actually saying, "As you know, in Chapter 4 of the Gospel according to John.... " and by quoting chapters and verses, made me realize he was well-versed with the Bible.

The vivid scene of my sitting with him on the grass of Belur Math, on the banks of River Hoogly, as we talked, and as we watched the stars slowly appear out of the twilight - and as we watched a fire, from a cremation taking place, a little distance away - will not easily go away from my memory.

Even though I was largely ignorant, and several years younger than him, Swami Krishnamachari answered my questions with knowledge, humility and patience (values that the late Swami Vivekananda, the founder of his order, would have been proud of).

I came to understand that these monks of the Ramakrishna Mission take up celibacy - only to devote more time to studying Hindu scriptures and comparative religion. And they go through years of education, like how any Christian pastor or priest would do, at a seminary, before he is formally ordained.

Like the other seven young speakers selected from across the country, I too received 'The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda', in eight huge volumes, which I will always cherish.

The way in which Swami Vivekananda talks about Jesus' teachings, in the 4th Volume, is so good that I'd brought it with me to Bahrain, and I keep referring.

Recently, less than six months ago, when on a sight-seeing trip with family and friends, I had had the pleasure of renewed memories when I stood at the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, in Kanyakumari.

I soon found myself animatedly explaining to my two daughters, the greatness of this man who had stunned the world with his now-famous Chicago Address.

Here is his very interesting perspective of Christ, when he addressed a gathering in Los Angeles in 1900 :

"Many times you forget, also, that the Nazarene himself was an Oriental of Orientals. With all your attempts to paint him with blue eyes and yellow hair, the Nazarene was still an Oriental. All the similes, the imageries, in which the Bible is written--the scenes, the locations, the attitudes, the groups, the poetry, and symbol,--speak to you of the Orient: of the bright sky, of the heat, of the sun, of the desert, of the thirsty men and animals; of men and women coming with pitchers on their heads to fill them at the wells; of the flocks, of the ploughmen, of the cultivation that is going on around; of the water-mill and wheel, of the mill-pond, of the millstones. All these are to be seen today in Asia." ----You can see the full text here

Sadly, Swami Vivekananda died when he was just 39.

But by then, when aeroplane travel was unheard of, he had already travelled the world and influenced the generation of that time. And he still influences the new generation.

On the 150th anniversary of his birth, I salute the great teacher.

And the legacy he's left for all of us.


Monday, January 07, 2013

Les Miserables (2012) - My Review

Within first three minutes into the movie, Russell Crowe, starts speaking in verse. I knew, immediately, that its music would be good. But I did not expect the whole movie to be in the same unusual format.
This 2012 film - adapted from the 1985 musical of the same name - is based on the literary-masterpiece and hit-novel of  Victor Hugo, first published almost a century earlier, in 1862.
With the movie tag-line proclaiming ‘The Musical Phenomenon’ on all posters, I obviously expected music. But, I did not expect music all through the movie. I did not expect that there would be no normal dialogue.
So, watching Hugh Jackman , Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, and all other actors sing-song their way, through a dark and grim movie, could seem unnerving and irritating to some.
But being a lover of musicals, and having seen an earlier version of Les Miserables – which, by the way, Hollywood has remade at least 4 times - I found this version of Les Miserables powerfully touching.  

You might like to know that the movie should be correctly pronounced in french as,
Lay----me-zah-ra'a-bl. Which means 'The Miserable Ones'.
Jean Valjean, the protagonist (Hugh Jackman), is the first miserable one. He is just released from prison in 1815, in post-revolution France, when France is experiencing several after-shocks of revolutionary activities.
After his release, this man, our prisoner 24601, stays a night at a Bishop’s house, but is tempted to steal again. The Bishop’s pardon, however, makes him a new man (Some may have read a famous short-story called ‘Bishop’s Candlesticks’ based on this portion of Hugo's novel). Anyway, he becomes a rich gentleman soon. Our prisoner. Not the Bishop.
But since Jean Valjean has broken parole, he is being chased by a determined Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who vows to bring the ex-convict to justice.
Meanwhile, in one of Jean Valjean’s factories works a young lady called Fantine (Anne Hathaway). Her jealous self-righteous colleagues drive their immediate boss, to sack her. Her crime? She's an unwed mother. Left by her lover. We learn that Fantine's child's name is Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). And it is for Cosette's upkeep that she needs money. She regularly pays an Inn Keeper and his wife - rascals cheating everyone - who demand more and more money from Fantine, to take care of her daughter.
With no job, Fantine ends up selling her hair, her teeth and even herself, at a dark, dirty den of prostitutes.
Now, the rest of the story is all about how Jean Valjean, our prisoner 24601, promises to a dying Fantine that he will take care of her daughter Cosette. And how he goes to Paris, how he and Cosette get caught up in the June Rebellion, how they try to escape the persistent grip of Inspector Javert, how Cosette grows up into a beautiful lady, how she falls in love with a revolutionary activist Marius, and how - in the background of France’s post-revolutionary times - several aspects of human judgments of the main characters are put to severe tests.
Duty. Justice. Forgiveness. Love. Hope. Strength. They are all dealt with in a thought-provoking manner. I think the movie does justice to the book.
My favourite songs are two. First, ‘I dreamed a dream’ by Fantine (which Anne Hathaway sang herself, in the movie), but which we all know as being made popular by Susan Boyle - when she performed it (from the stage musical, Les Miserables) in Britain’s Got Talent

I still feel Susan Boyle’s stage rendition was a lot better than Anne Hathaway's movie rendition. Second one, Red And Black , a song in ABC CafĂ©, where students, led by leader Enjolras, meet to discuss their revolutionary plans. It has that powerful revolutionary beat to it. A very appropriate chant-song showing us the mood of those times. People in poverty and misery yearning for the overthrowing of the government.
Technically, the movie should be rated brilliant. At the start of the movie, when the camera pans from the front of a huge early 19th century ship up to the masthead and zips down through the ropes to zoom-in onto prisoners pulling the ropes, made me wonder how much they have been spent for a shot that is barely a few-seconds long. 

The dark and dirty, muddy and murky, alleys of decadent brothels, and the wide and long, bright and busy street scenes of Paris of early 1800s show us that the preparation of sets as well as the work of camera is excellent.
I only wished there were some dialogues. But from the way the Arabic audience was sitting with rapt attention, reading the sub-titles, and following this musical story, I know it will appeal to audience with taste. 

From the way it deals with a range of moral issues, from Duty to Love, from Patriotism to Tyranny, I can say it is a masterpiece.
Yes. You can judge a book, by its movie.