31 May 2005


Many years ago, I remember seeing a movie starring Lloyd Bridges called “The Deadly Dream”. In it, a genetic engineering scientist (Bridges) believes he is being hunted down by a group of people who believe genetic engineering is a danger to humankind, and who are willing do anything, even kill, to prevent its progress. Of course, everyone around Bridges assures him that no such thing is happening, and that he is being delusional, but this makes Bridges even more suspicious of his wife, friends and colleagues.

Although the plot of “humankind being endangered by the advance of science” was quite thrilling to me as a teenager, a much larger concept had surfaced in my mind then: That, our waking life is a dream, and our dreams are actually the real life. Foolish? Even delusional, you think? Maybe. But I see a lot of recurring similarity in this concept, not only in science fiction, but also in science, spirituality and in real life.

On this, Professor Richard Dawkins, at Oxford University, has an interesting point of view. He says, specifically in science, time changes everything. In a 1996 BBC lecture, “Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder,” Prof Dawkins says, even a fact like “The earth is not the centre of the universe. It orbits the sun – which is just another star…” would sound delusional to Aristotle, or any Greek from that period. He elaborates, “Aristotle could walk straight into a modern seminar on ethics, theology, political or moral philosophy, and contribute. But let him walk into a modern science class and he’d be a lost soul. Not because of the jargon, but because science advances, cumulatively.”

Then, in the context of science, which helps us to interpret reality on a day-to-day basis, would delusion – i.e. a false belief based upon a misinterpretation of reality – require time as a vector component to make sense to us? Or, could another view be that it’s a purely subjective matter, as Aldous Huxley discussed it in his book, “The Doors of Perception” (see my earlier post)? Or, as in real life, could it also have a socio-cultural and political component to it such as “we are God’s chosen people”… something along the lines that the United States may use to justify their war against Iraq?

30 May 2005

One Reality: two views

Drugs, DNA, death or delusion (see yesterday's post), the pursuit of pleasure, the pursuit of happiness, the pursuit of self-realisation and enlightenment have zigzagged between thousands of points of view for thousands of years. What is enlightenment? What does it mean to be spiritually awakened? What is the spiritual quest all about?

Here are two views – of the same Reality – which have deluded me:


The universe, physical and metaphysical, is all one Reality. Therefore, there can be only one Truth; one wisdom.

The purpose of human life is the discovery of Truth. Contemplation of Truth is the end.

The practice of love and non-attachment is the greatest virtue. Virtue is not the end, but the indispensable means to becoming one with the divine Reality.


Man possesses a double nature: a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self.

Man’s life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so acquire knowledge of the divine Reality.

Right action is the way to knowledge. It purifies the mind, and it is only to a mind purified from the ego that the intuition of the divine Reality can come.

If man chooses to become what he potentially already is, an eternal Self, he too can be eternally united with the divine Reality.

Man’s spiritual quest begins with the ego and ends in wisdom.

[I’m not 100% sure if these are the teachings of the Great Masters, or of the great religions of the world, but they seem to have cropped up in various discussions over the years.]

29 May 2005

Think you know it, but you don't

The prophesies of Aldous Huxley have always fascinated me. He had a great respect for sanity, and a concern for that which threatened it.

In his most famous book, “Brave New World”, published in 1931, much before the ’60s exploration with mescaline and LSD, or the CIA’s experiments using mind-control drugs, Mr Huxley talked about the possibility of humans wanting a chemically-driven state of happiness to counter depression – using biotechnology. No more pain, only pleasure.

And why not? Even spiritual seekers are chasing the same dream… maybe in the guise of enlightenment. Everyone wants life-long bliss, so what’s wrong with a few designer drugs or a little splicing of our DNA? Have problem, will re-engineer – that’s the idea of the future, right? It’s a nice cosy thought, but how “real” will our world be!

Mr Huxley’s concept of a utopian world – a world without over-population, mechanisation and coercive politics – was published in a novel called “Island” in 1962. However, whether “Island” is a possibility is yet to be seen. On a lighter note, a possibility of a happy future is under study by a team of academicians from several American universities. In a New York Times article, “The Futile Pursuit of Happiness”, Jon Gertner presents an analysis of their study which makes good reading. You may think you know what the future has in store for you, but do you, really?

28 May 2005

The doors of perception

“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.” – Aldous Huxley

Jim Morrison chose the name of his rock-and-roll band, The Doors, from a book called “The Doors of Perception” by British author and essayist Aldous Huxley (1894-1963). The book deals with Mr Huxley’s experiments with mescalin – a hallucinogenic drug – and contains his commentary on the effects of this drug compared to the effects of art. He feels they are similar: both elevate the “viewer” to a state of ecstasy. In his book, Mr Huxley talks about a metaphysical subconscious landscape, The Outer World – a concept, which may also have been a result of his leaning towards Hindu philosophy.

Reportedly, Mr Huxley was an active participant of the 60’s movement, becoming some sort of a guru for Californian hippies. If this is true, and since The Doors of Perception was published in 1954, I guess the 60’s movement actually started in the early 1950s. Mind you, in those days, mind-altering drugs were used as an avenue for exploration – asking questions, challenging established notions, exploring spirituality. In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of Mr Huxley’s book (and the ’60s movement, for that matter) was the attempt at finding the difference – and the relationship – between the mind and the body.

How did it all originate? More influence of Hindu philosophy?

Interestingly, Aldous Huxley chose the title of his book, The Doors of Perception, from a poem by William Blake (1757-1827):
“If the doors of perception were cleansed
everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
(from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

[The second part of Mr Huxley’s book, The Doors of Perception, is called “Heaven And Hell”]

William Blake, a British poet, painter, engraver (apparently he illustrated and printed his own books) and visionary mystic, approved of free love, sympathised with the French revolutionaries, and believed imagination ruled supreme over the rationalism and materialism of the 18th century. Way-out thinking for 18th century society, wouldn’t you say? In “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” (engraved and printed in 1790), Blake is quite vocal about his feelings against the established values of his time:
“Prisons are built with stones of Law, brothels with bricks of Religion.”

William Blake, Aldous Huxley, Jim Morrison – and the doors of perception. Creative genius at work.

“To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large, this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual.”
(Aldous Huxley – The Doors of Perception)

27 May 2005

Madman, musician, poet, genius

“I pressed her thigh and death smiled”
(An American Prayer – Jim Morrison, The Doors)

Jim Morrison was essentially a poet, obsessed with sex and death, haunted by self-destructive urges. Heavily into alcohol and drug abuse, he died at the age of 27 in Paris in 1971, leaving behind his music and poetry for generations of fans across the world. A touch of mystery; a touch of madness; a touch of genius.

“We chased our pleasures here,

Dug our treasures there,
But can you still recall
The time we cried?
Break on through to the other side.”
(Break On Through To The Other Side – Jim Morrison, The Doors)

Better known as a Rock icon and a sex symbol – although Morrison hated the distinction people made between him and The Doors – his music has always overpowered his poetry. Songs like Riders On The Storm, LA Woman, Break On Through, Hello I Love You, Light My Fire… from The Doors’ albums have rocked and swayed the world for years; but to my mind, Morrison has always been a poet. Not because he (apparently) confessed to this fact during the recordings of “An American Prayer”, his lyrics of stark imagery have always resonated as poetry in my heart.

“Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding

Ghosts crowd the young child's fragile eggshell mind.
Me and my mother and father, and a grandmother and a grandfather, were driving through the desert, at dawn, and a truck load of Indian workers had either hit another car, or just – I don’t know what happened – but there were Indians scattered all over the highway, bleeding to death.
So the car pulls up and stops. That was the first time I tasted fear. I musta’ been about four – like a child is like a flower, his head is just floating in the breeze, man. The reaction I get now thinking about it, looking back – is that the souls of the ghosts of those dead Indians... maybe one or two of ’em... were just running around freaking out, and just leaped into my soul. And they’re still there.”
(An American Prayer – Jim Morrison, The Doors)

In his own words: “I see myself as a huge fiery comet, a shooting star. Everyone stops, points up and gasps ‘Oh look at that!’ Then – whoosh, and I'm gone... and they’ll never see anything like it ever again, and they won’t be able to forget me – ever.”

26 May 2005

A tolerance for irrationality

“Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence – whether much that is glorious – whether all that is profound – does not spring from disease of thought – from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. In their grey vision they obtain glimpses of eternity...They penetrate, however rudderless or compassless, into the vast ocean of the light affable.”
(Edgar Allan Poe, cited in Galloway, 1986, p. 243).

Talking of Edgar Allen Poe, Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway or Sylvia Plath, and trying to make sense of their lives and their work, always leaves me puzzled. Is there a link between creativity and madness? Is genius and insanity irretrievably interlinked?

There seems to be an alleged association between creativity and madness, say psychologists all over the world, citing cases all the way from Plato and Aristotle. Reportedly, Sigmund Freud himself believed that great works of art and literature contain universal psychological truths, and that, the study of lives of artists and writers reveal basic psychological truths in persons of heightened sensibility and talent.

Observations from psychiatric studies suggest that there are three characteristics common to both high creative production and madness: disturbance of mood, certain types of thinking processes, and tolerance for irrationality. In “Creativity, the Arts, and Madness”, Maureen Neihart, a clinical psychologist, alerts us, “Disturbance of mood appears to be present in a high percentage of talented visual artists… Many of them committed suicide.”

According to Ms Neihart, “Artists argue that they strive to keep contact with their primitive selves because it is from their core self that they draw the energy and inspiration needed to do their best work.” She suggests, creativity provides a way to structure or reframe their [the artists’] pain and acts as therapy… a means to self-understanding, emotional stability and resolution of conflict.

But what about the creativity of Rabindranath Tagore? With a collection of over a thousand poems, eight volumes of short stories, eight novels, a dozen or so plays, many more essays, over two thousand songs (both lyrics and music), and national anthems of two countries (India and Bangladesh), was he not a creative genius? Reportedly, he even held his ground in debates with Albert Einstein over quantum mechanics and chaos theory. What signs of madness did he display?

25 May 2005

Intense emotions

“Creative people need intense emotions to inspire their work,” says Stuart Fischoff, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University in Los Angeles, as quoted by Shelley Widhalm in an article “Madness to their Method” in The Washington Times. Prof Fischoff goes on to say, “When you’re writing, you live with yourself and your ideas. You’re in your head a lot… You end up taking your own counsel and reinforcing your own ideas, which may be deluded. You don't have any reality testing.”

Ms Widhalm’s article specifically refers to cult writer Hunter S Thompson who committed suicide in February this year at the age of 67. In his famous 1971 book, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (also made into a film by Terry Gilliam), Thompson – a journalist and writer, and heavily into alcohol and drugs – wrote, “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” Would Ernest Hemingway agree? I wonder.

“Writing a novel takes stamina and mental effort. As you get older it starts to feel like physical effort…” says Ian McEwan from England, in an interview to France Hardy in The Mail on Sunday. McEwan also delves deep into the dark recesses of the human psyche, but (he says) he does this for pure fictional purpose – for his characters in his stories. Although his stories have earned him “a reputation for writing literature to shock because of its preoccupations with sexualised children and violent relationships,” McEwan is noted for his gentle and sophisticated ways.

Hunter S Thompson, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath – drunk and depressed, unable to face reality, committed suicide. Ian McEwan, 56, winner of several literary awards, a father of two grown-up boys (from his first marriage which ended with some rancour almost ten years ago), and now happily into his second marriage, may however live a long and happy life.

According to Prof Fischoff (Ms Widhalm quotes): “Emotions liberate us to see the world in different ways and to reach deep in our unconsciousness and souls… and without these emotions, what they [creative people] produce could sell millions but never be truly creative.” Should I agree? I wonder.

23 May 2005

Innocent Ian McEwan

Re-reading “The Innocent” by Ian McEwan sent a shiver down my spine, exactly as it had done the first time I read it years ago.

“The Innocent” is a love affair between a British man, Leonard, a telephone engineer in his mid-twenties who arrives in Berlin during the 1950’s Cold War, young and innocent, and a slightly-older attractive German woman, Maria.

Predictably, the story concerns the loss of innocence, and Leonard begins to change in some frightening ways. He begins to associate himself with the conquering West and Maria with the defeated Germany, treating her with mounting brutality in their lovemaking, until one day he goes too far. Another crisis emerges when they accidentally kill Maria’s ex-husband, a wife-beater, and then dismember the body to hide it.

Frightening? Mr McEwan is unperturbed, going headlong with macabre plots such as this one in a series of novels, and winning much acclaim in the process.

According to Christian Perring, Ph D, who also reviews fiction in connection with metapsychology, Mr McEwan’s stories have often brought out the sinister side of human nature. His early collections of short stories and novels took pleasure in their own perversity, flirting with taboo subjects while maintaining an emotional distance from their characters – largely through poetic use of language.

It seems Mr McEwan is drawn to the theme of youthful sexuality, of the innocent and the not-so-innocent, as they recur in his novels from time to time. His early works have an adolescent quality to them, skilfully styled, yet refusing to engage in profound analysis of the lives he describes.

Critics have tried to trace elements of Mr McEwan’s earlier fiction to his past. Reportedly, while studying English at the University of Sussex, Mr McEwan was deeply disturbed after finding out that his father would get drunk and beat his wife, Rose.

Mr McEwan, who has won literary awards such as the Booker and the Whitbread, among others, is quoted in a review of “Atonement” (a later book) by Thomas Wagner, “I have a great sense of the randomness of life… Some people want to make me out to be a sort of gothic writer about horrors that intrude. I'm saying I'm reflecting what happens when peoples’ lives are utterly transformed or destroyed by sudden events.”

When asked by David Wiegand in a 2002 interview, “What about the secrets, the shocks in your writing? Are they planned?” Mr McEwan replies, “Ideally, I hope to surprise myself. For me writing a novel is like beginning an investigation, and you don't quite know where that investigation will take you. I might have a clear idea of where I might end up even, but along the way, I hope to be surprised.”

22 May 2005

Born somewhere

“Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children. And if you believers don't help us, who else in the world can help us do this.” – Albert Camus

Francesco Zizola presents scenes from Ne Quelque Part (Born Somewhere).

Stephen Shames presents scenes from Street Kids and Outside the Dream: Child Poverty in America.

Zana Briski presents Kids with Cameras.

Ho Chi Minh City Child Welfare Foundation presents Street Vision.

Tides Center and Julia Dean & Associates presents Images of Child Labor.

21 May 2005

It's a spectator sport; let's watch

“We watch the reports from the front of television as if it were a spectator sport. But they suffer for us.” – Lori Grinker

Wars never seem to end. And yet, there are some who never tire of trying to put wars to an end. In two different books of photography, two women tell their stories.

Lori Grinker, who’s been documenting the physical and psychological wounds of frontline war veterans in a fifteen-year project says, “In the aftermath of war, one culture mirrored another, it made no difference if one had been in a ‘bad’ war or a ‘good’ war, justified or unjustified, on the winning or losing side.” The result of Ms Grinker’s project is a book called “Afterwar: Veterans from a World in Conflict.”

Then there’s Jane Evelyn Atwood. Ms Atwood focuses on a single aspect of the aftermath of war: landmines and the lives they destroy. Her book, “Sentinelles de l’Ombre” (“Sleeping Soldiers”), not only contains portraits of the injured, but also the territory these people must negotiate daily in their lives. She says it wasn’t easy documenting her project: “At first, I couldn’t see past those knobs of limb that ended so abruptly. I found myself avoiding photographing the space that was left…”

If you have the courage, go to “war never ends” and see some of the photo exhibits of Lori Grinker and Jane Evelyn Atwood. You could also read Chris Hedges’ passionate essay in LA Times, “Maimed, betrayed, forgotten”, which also appeared as the introduction to Ms Grinker’s book, Afterwar.

20 May 2005

How the world conducts itself

How the world conducts itself is the theme of iWITNESS, Tom Stoddart’s heart-breaking photographic documentation of the world we live in. The book is a compendium of storytelling, humanitarian effort and creativity in photography. Some of the photographs are so powerful that they may bring tears to your eyes. Whether it’s Gujarat, Rwanda, Sarajevo, Malawi, USA or Sudan, Stoddart has been there to capture the moment and tell his story.

The publishers of iWITNESS, Trolley Books, introduce the book as “an intensely personal view by an observer who refuses to believe that human beings can only exist in conflict with one another and the environment they inhabit.” Makes me want to fill Stoddart’s shoes – but I’m simply not capable.

www.irish-photography.com writes: The images present a moving tribute to the dignity and courage of ordinary people who find themselves in terrible situations through no fault of their own. As Stoddart says: “The people portrayed in the photographs are heroes: innocent people trapped and battered by circumstances beyond their control.”

He adds: “Most of the events chronicled here can be attributed directly to mankind's greed, intolerance, prejudice, inhumanity, lust for political power, and sheer stupidity... Don't feel sorry when you look at these pictures – feel angry that we need to be reminded of such folly. It is sad but necessary that these photographs exist.”

Jean-Francois Leroy, whose text accompanies Stoddart’s photographs in iWITNESS, presents another perspective to Stoddart’s work in an essay, The Pride of Being a Witness, which is worth reading, but words are no match for Stoddart’s photographs.

Some of Tom Stoddart's epic B&W photographs from iWITNESS can be seen here, thanks to The Digital Journalist.

18 May 2005

A few words from James Nachtwey

It’s a shame! In spite of the excellent coverage of Kargil by the Indian media, and the Indo-Pak war many years before that, we still can’t boast of our very own war photographer. And, what about our photojournalists in war zones outside the country – Iraq, Rwanda, Bosnia…? You can forget that too. Not a single war photographer in a population of a billion.

What’s wrong with us? As a nation, do we cower at war? Is our media too weak to present the correct pictures of wars around us? Can we not cut through the bureaucracy and head for the frontlines with our cameras? Or, do we simply not possess the right frame of mind that a war photographer does?

Whatever be the reason, we can always learn from others.

“I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated,” says James Nachtwey in the introduction to his website. I admire his commitment as much as his pictures. Mr Nachtwey has been one of my favourite war photographers for several years now.

Already celebrated for his wide spectrum of work, Mr Nachtwey caught a lot of media attention when he released his book, “Inferno”, in early 2000. In a PBS interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth in May 2000, Mr Nachtwey confessed, “I became a photographer in order to be a war photographer, and a photographer involved in what I thought were critical social issues. From the very beginning this was my goal.”

And, to John Paul Caponigro in the June/July 2000 issue of Camera Arts: “I think the raising of people's consciousness is the first step toward creating public opinion and public opinion creates an impetus for change. It creates pressure on decision makers, the powers that be, who make choices that affect the lives of thousands of people. Helping create the impetus for them to move in the right direction, through public opinion, is something worth doing.”

Besides determination, focus, talent and guts, I guess, it also requires a certain selflessness to be a war photographer. And, Mr Nachtwey points this out just as succinctly: “I'm a messenger. I don't want people to be concerned about me. I want them to be concerned about the people in the pictures.” (as told to Douglas Cruickshank in a Salon interview in April 2000)

17 May 2005

The first war photographer

Many newspaper and magazine editors refuse to publish horrific images of wars or disasters. Many photojournalists also take on this attitude – some subjects they just don’t want to capture on film. They feel it would be wrong to do so. It’s a personal choice – and a dilemma in the most opportune of moments.

For Roger Fenton, however, there were no precedents. He was the first war photographer, sent to document the Crimean War by the British government. The British press had talked about chaos and incompetence in Crimea, and Fenton had to produce a positive report for his sponsors.

Fenton arrived in 1855 to find the truth was worse than what was reported by the British press at home. Although he wrote about many scenes of death and devastation, he did not capture them on film. Most of his photographs were quite boring – officers and soldiers, and the landscape. There were no pictures of battle, soldiers in combat, or death.

But remember, these were the first photographs to be taken during a war. Considering the light conditions and the technology available to him – and the fact that he couldn’t take his photographic van to the front line as it would make an easy target for enemy cannons – Fenton did a marvellous job. This was, after all, 1855.

You can access The Library of Congress archives of Fenton’s photographs – and read more about him in this excellent story by Peter Marshall in About.com.

16 May 2005

Photography and war

“War is an acid test for photography. It deals with life and death, and possesses great drama. Yet it raises questions about what pictures can and should be made, and what pictures can and should be seen. What does it mean take to a picture of someone being shot or of dead bodies? What does it mean to want to see such pictures?”

That’s the introduction to war photography in a feature called American Photography – A Century of Images on www.pbs.org. Click here to read the rest of that essay.

15 May 2005

The unknown soldier and his wife

In 1967, Peter Ustinov had written a play called “The Unknown Soldier and His Wife” which I had chanced upon at a British Council Library many years later. The play, an anti-war satire, is about the cycle of war and peace. It sweeps from ancient Rome to medieval England to modern times, with links provided by recurring characters – the unknown soldier, his pregnant wife, the bully sergeant – who emerge whenever war comes, and whose fates are inevitably linked with war.

Although the play is funny, it does deal with a serious subject: why war keeps happening over and over again. Do war and peace really operate in cycles?

In an essay in The Perspective (dated 7 August 2002) titled, “Breaking the Cycle of War in Liberia”, George Werner presents a thought-provoking plea from a Liberian point of view. But, whatever be the nature of the cycle, war’s impact on human misery is immeasurable. On this, the TimesOnline obituary on Sir Peter Ustinov quotes: It was a conviction he felt deeply. “I have no solution,” he said, modestly, “except that the spirit of the world is altering.”

Sir Peter Ustinov was one of the signatories, along with Mikhail Gorbachev, Vaclav Havel and the Dalai Lama, to a declaration by the Club of Budapest that, “The time has come for the world to recognise that war, rather than an instrument for the elimination of terrorists and aggressors, is a crime against humanity.”

14 May 2005

Destroying the destroyer

Can heroes emerge – or thrive – in a world of peace? Well… I wonder.

Our histories and cultures are bursting with examples of heroes fighting demons; good winning over evil. Whether you consider the Trojan War, the Crusades, the Second World War, or the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, good has always destroyed evil – emerging as the victor.

Lord Krishna sums this idea up well when he tells Arjuna at Kurukshetra, “When adharma (injustice) sets in, I descend upon the creators and propagators of adharma and destroy them.” [The meaning of the dialogue has been mentioned here, not the actual translation.] The fact is: evil destroys; good destroys evil.

The hero, as the rightful representative of good, destroys evil and brings peace. But, in a world of peace, would there still be a role for a hero? Seems to me, as much as the hero has his job cut out for him, evil has its role pretty well defined too. So, I ask you: Can peace without war really be a possibility?

13 May 2005

A masculine thing!

Heroism is a masculine thing. Or, so it seems from whatever literature I’ve read so far. Even David Krieger of NAPF corroborates this notion (see yesterday’s post): “The traditional hero has been a man (seldom a woman) writ large, larger than life.” Of course, you’d disagree, citing examples of female heroes throughout history, like Joan of Arc, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and our very own Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi.

But, think about this for a moment. Could heroism really be the essence of a male domain? Is heroism always centred on a male identity? Would the image of a hero conjure in your mind a powerful vision of masculinity? Going by the symbolism in films emerging from Hollywood, it would certainly appear so.

If we were to go back to, say, the Middle Ages – to the days of knights in battle – maybe heroism was a sign of manhood. Donning so much armour, carrying a heavy broadsword, charging into battle against a thousand bloodthirsty men wielding similar weapon, and perhaps ensuring a violent death, would certainly require physical prowess and courage. Maybe even aggression and violence. Not exactly what women are known for.

Or, am I idolising a stereotype? Dying in a medieval battle, of the kind I’ve just described, is certainly going to be painful, but am I promulgating an ethos of valour and heroism only fit for a masculine gender? From a cultural point of view, is there a code of behaviour for heroes subscribing to a specific male anatomical description? Or, is this just a Western concept?

This question of heroic masculinity, from a Western perspective, has been addressed in some detail by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and the Members of Interscripta from Georgetown University in a 1994 (revised 1995) document called "Medieval Masculinity: Heroism, Sanctity, and Gender" – and is worth reading if you have the time. In India, traditionally, we have our Bhima and our Duryodhana who fit the Western stereotypical description of a hero. But, we also have our Lord Rama and Arjuna. And Lord Krishna. They, too, were combatants who went into battle and emerged as heroes.

12 May 2005


The concept of a “hero” is a common thread in storytelling. We’ve all grown up with myths and legends that glorified the feats and accomplishments of our heroes – some of whom actually turned out to be fictional characters later in our lives. Were we disappointed? Definitely not! Heroes are heroes, and they have their place in all cultures – and a permanent one in our hearts.

Throughout history, literature has played an important role in creating and glorifying our heroes. And, parallel movements have sprung up in all facets of storytelling – from cave paintings to comics to computer games, with folk tales and films falling somewhere in between. Not only to rejoice in the feats of our heroes, but also to help us understand and conceptualise the idea of a hero – a larger-than-life phenomenon.

As Indians – with gods, mythical animals and super-humans adorning our culture – we are perhaps more open to the concept of a hero than other cultures. Read the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and you’ll get a colourful picture. We also have the privilege of being acquainted with modern-day heroes like Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama, who have taught us how to travel along the path of peace.

But there are others, the war-makers, with their own cult followings, who have also etched their names in our history and our culture. They, too, are honoured by many. But then, ultimately, choosing one’s hero is a personal decision.

Unlike the definition Ridley Scott and William Monahan provide while talking about knights and their hero in the film, Kingdom of Heaven (see yesterday’s post), David Krieger, President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, suggests, “There are no rigid criteria that define a hero. Cultures may honor heroes to help in fostering a cultural identity conducive to patriotism, but heroes cannot be forced on individuals.”

In “Why A Page On Peace Heroes”, Mr Krieger presents a most illuminating dissertation on the concept of heroes. “The hero is seen as a central figure in the drama of history, a leader whose strength and spirit shape destiny,” says Mr Krieger. “The hero is defined and described by the culture so as to glorify and give meaning to the culture.”

Thank you Mr Krieger. “Heroes, after all, are in the eyes of the beholder.”

11 May 2005

Another story well told

“I'd always wanted to make a movie about knights and medieval times, the Crusades especially,” Ridley Scott had said, as reported in an article I read on a South African website, called The Writing Studio, about the art of writing and making films.

“Historically, the knight – like the cowboy or the policeman – represents a person on the leading edge of his culture at a particular time,” Mr Scott had elaborated. “These figures have always given us great opportunities to tell stories that carry the attributes of a hero. And one of the most important is that the character carries with him his own degrees of fairness, faithfulness, and chivalry.”

The story was given to Mr Scott by screenwriter William Monahan, who dramatised the characters in the film using actual historical events as a backdrop. “The knight stands for an ideal,” Mr Monahan had reiterated, according to The Writing Studio, “and the period that most illuminates that ideal would be the Crusades.” And that’s the story of our hero, Balian of Ibelin, at the end of the Second Crusade, in an epic film called Kingdom of Heaven.

The Writing Studio, however, tells us another story – that of the making of the film Kingdom of Heaven. It’s another story well told. Definitely worth reading.

10 May 2005

A fascination for castles

As a child, I had always been fascinated with knights, kings and their castles. “Ivanhoe” was my favourite film and I had pestered my father into letting me see it twice. It was a treat! Later, I bought the Eyewitness Series from Dorling Kindersley on subjects like knights, castles and medieval life. And even today, while watching films like “Kingdom of Heaven”, “Braveheart” or “Excalibur”, I escape into a fantasy world.

Did you know, medieval castles were incredible feats of construction designed for military efficiency? They were fortifications ready to withstand onslaught from the toughest and the most skilled of invaders. Military tactics centred on the taking of castles, and weapons technology improved over the years to exploit weaknesses in castle architecture.

A very European concept, castles probably came into fashion as a response to the Viking raids of England. For 500 years, including the Dark Ages and the Medieval Era (1000-1500 AD), thousands of castles were constructed throughout Europe, stretching all the way to West Asia. But, it wasn’t easy to build a castle. Some of them took several years to build depending on the location, weather, and availability of raw material like stone, mortar and timber, as well as labour.

What’s more interesting is that a castle was more than a building to attack or defend. It was a whole community, designed to be self-sufficient in times of siege. Records still exist documenting the lives of castle residents like the lord and the lady, the knights, soldiers, servants, cooks, masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, tailors, musicians, jesters, stable boys, and many others. Quite fascinating!

09 May 2005

The Fall of Jerusalem

The film “Kingdom of Heaven” ends with the surrender of Jerusalem during the Second Crusade. Although this fact – the surrender – is greatly mourned by the Papacy (which had supported the Crusades) and the people of Christian faith, what – or how it – really happened, no one seems to know for sure.

Although the surrender seems to be an undisputed fact, historians and chroniclers point out discrepancies in documents available on the subject. After seeing the film (and the film has discrepancies too), I turned to a copy of Erik Durschmied’s “The Hinge Factor”, in which the second chapter, The Loss of The True Cross, addresses this very subject.

Then, on the Internet, amongst various documents of value, I found two which caught my attention: first, “The Battle of Hattin from a Muslim source” – a short account of the same story dealt by Mr Durschmied in his book; and “The Fall of Jerusalem, 1187” – a fairly detailed account by Roger of Hoveden, from Fordham University. These articles provide interesting perspectives.

If you have an interest in medieval European history, or war, or religion for that matter, you will find the Crusades to be undeniably a period of excitement. Holy wars have a tendency to attract both attention and participation – and the Crusades exhort a fair share. Of course, the Crusades have a greater significance to the Christians and the Moslems – as they have always been upkeepers of the True Faith, and contenders for Jerusalem. I believe this dispute is unresolved even today.

08 May 2005

Ask, where lies your faith

“God, what is it that you want of me?” asks Balian (Orlando Bloom), our hero in Kingdom of Heaven, a masterful film directed and produced by Ridley Scott.

In this film about the Crusades – historically, I believe, referring to the Second Crusade – and the fall of Jerusalem to the Saracens (Muslims), Balian, having lost his wife and killed a priest, is on a spiritual journey to reinforce his faith in God. Not that he doubts God’s existence; he is more concerned about God’s acceptance of him.

A reluctant Crusader, he is thrown into a battlefield of religious zealots, bloodthirsty knights, politics and love. He tells the truth, he protects the helpless – as he is taught to do by his dying father (Liam Neeson). Yet, “There will be a day when you will wish you had done a little evil to gain a greater good,” he is warned by his love, Princess Sibylla (Eva Green). What could be more complicated!

Still, Balian ends up a champion of the people: Virtuous and gallant.

There’s a great deal more to Kingdom of Heaven than heroism. Some of it is actually disturbing – at least, for the Christian community. The film presents an unsettling view of religion and its endorsement of faith. In the film, Mr Scott and screenwriter William Monahan portray Muslims as chivalrous, virtuous and honourable, while creating a less favourable picture of the Christian Crusaders. The Saracen leader, Saladin, comes out more humane than what you may have read about him in history books.

But that’s not all. What moved me the most about this film is the question it raises about faith, and the desires and actions it generates in us. It asks: Is it God’s will to kill over God’s Will? Well, you know the answer, right?

When Balian tells the Hospitaler, a military priest, (played ever-so-subtly by David Thewlis), “God does not speak to me on the hill where Christ died,” the Hospitaler replies, “I have seen rage and madness in the eyes of many men who are religious. Godliness is what is here [pointing to the head] and here [pointing to the heart]. It is about what you do each day to your fellow man.”

Kingdom of Heaven places before us a clear distinction between faith and religion. It puts forth a need for interfaith tolerance, acceptance and respect. And tells us that pure human goodness can still save the day. It shows us that there can be a world of peace for us all – a wisdom which is still to be understood by many.

(Apologies to Mr Scott, Mr Monahan and anyone else concerned, if I have made errors in quoting from the film.)

07 May 2005

A policy of "assimilation"

In an earlier post (see The Stolen Generation), I had referred to a policy of “assimilation” while commenting on the systematic removal, by the Australian government, of Aboriginal children from their black mothers.

Perhaps in not so serious a manner (though this thought may need further investigation), the policy of assimilation carries the trademark of colonisation. And since I’m an Indian, I feel it has a direct bearing on my cultural history. After all, haven’t my forefathers fought against this very concept for two hundred years under the British Rule? How can I escape from “assimilation” when I’m a derivative of this process!

I came upon an article, “Colonial Education” by John Southard from Emory University (Fall 1997), which explains this concept rather well: “The idea of assimilation is important when dealing with colonial education. Assimilation involves those who are colonized being forced to conform to the cultures and traditions of the colonizers.” Simply put, in the process of colonisation, the colonising nation implements its own form of schooling within its colonies.

Mr Southard goes on to say, “Colonizing governments realize that they gain strength not necessarily through physical control, but through mental control. This mental control is implemented through a central intellectual location, the school system.” The article also alerted me to an early nineteenth century speech by Thomas B. Macaulay on British India, which Mr Southard says is “The ultimate goal of colonial education.”

Here’s a brief portion of that speech by Macaulay (as quoted by Mr Southard): “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”

Mr Southard says, “While all colonizers may not share Macaulay's lack of respect for the existing systems of the colonized, they do share the idea that education is important in facilitating the assimilation process.” Perhaps you’re right Mr Southard, but for me, Macaulay’s words are distressing enough.

06 May 2005

Aboriginal Nations

Not many would know about the Aborigines (indigenous Australians), or their storytelling. Yet, I feel, some of the best stories have come from them – with an integrity and naiveté seldom found in the stories we read today. What excites me about this is that, the whole culture of the Aborigines (and their storytelling), is conceptualised around dreaming. “Dreamtime”, meaning since the beginning of time, is the history and the culture of the Australian Aborigines.

Some say, Australian aboriginal folktales go back 65,000 years, explaining the origins and the culture of the land. How did the universe come to be; how human beings and animals were created; how the land was shaped and inhabited; how to be a good human being. These were stories told by the elders to their groups, or by mothers to their children, sitting by a campfire – and passed on, orally, from one generation to another.

Many of these stories have been documented in the last 1,000 years and various sources can be found on the Internet. Katherine Langloh Parker has been one to contribute immensely to this documentation, and you can read her Australian Legendary Tales dating back to 1897. Since she had access to the women of a tribe called the Euahlayi, some of her stories have an aborigine woman’s point of view, which adds an interesting perspective to aborigine storytelling.

Recently, many of these stories have been captured on audio and you can download a few of these audio stories from Indigenous Australia. Another organisation, Aboriginal Nations, has created several animated films, taking inputs from aboriginal children in their storytelling and creative development. An idea, we can all benefit from.

05 May 2005

The Stolen Generation

Compared to the children of Darfur, or some others around the world, I realise how insignificant my fuss over my cultural identity really is. Perhaps it’s one of the vagaries of comfortable urban living.

After reading a friend’s email on motherhood blues, I was reminded of my childhood in Australia and a matter that, though it didn’t mean much then, suddenly sprang up in my mind last night. For over half a century, maybe longer, Aboriginal children were legally removed from their black mothers and put into the care of state institutions and white foster parents. It was a policy of “assimilation” - whatever that means.

These children, now known as “The Stolen Generation”, who have lost contact with their natal families and their culture (and their trauma must still haunt them), received considerable media attention after a major government inquiry in 1997. Reportedly, it even led to a call for a national apology to the Aboriginal people, although Prime Minister John Howard refused to acknowledge that the Australian people have anything for which to apologise. But, as a gesture, he did make funding available to link-up and counsel those who were affected.

In another gesture, Jim Soorley, The Lord Mayor of Brisbane, led a National Sorry Day in 1998, formally apologising to Aborigines on behalf of the people of Brisbane. Thus, began a “Journey of Healing”.

04 May 2005

If design = culture, where do I fit in?

I wonder what my cultural identity is. What designs do I, or should I, have on my own identity?

As an Indian – from India, and not to be confused with those who roamed freely over the American continent before the Whites arrived – I’ve often tried to pinpoint my place on the cultural map. Geographically, I know where I stand, but in terms of ethnicity, interests and lifestyle, things get a little out of focus for me.

Culturally, India is so diverse that perhaps there is no single Indian culture. Each state has its own ethnic formulation, with variants that could boggle any scientific mind. On top of this, living in Mumbai, which is a cauldron full of various ethnic potions, defining a single cultural identity becomes even more complicated.

With a childhood spent between Bengal and Brisbane (Australia), a university education in Economics which pointed out a career in marketing and communications, a penchant mostly for English books, Blues & Rock music, Hollywood films, and a circle of friends from around the country, I’m not quite sure which cultural or ethnic group I belong to.

So, I was glad to read an article titled “Cultural Identity” by Wendy Richmond in Communication Arts, and later reproduced on the Net where I came upon it. Ms Richmond’s final words appealed to me the most: “Instead of having a single cultural identity, perhaps I am part of an ever-changing cultural consciousness.” I think I fit in somewhere there.

03 May 2005

My blog is about...

I couldn’t do it!!! Simple though it may seem, I just couldn’t complete the sentence, “My blog is about…”

Why not? Don’t know. Perhaps I have a problem with self-expression. Maybe I’m simply bad at communication. Or maybe, I haven’t figured out yet what my blog is going to be about. Could it be that I started intuitively?

Looking back at my posts (sadly, at the moment, too few to make any statistical representation), I realize that some of them were intentional, and some, I didn’t quite know what it would turn out to be until it was posted. And then, a sigh of relief.

But I know this, there’s a lot I wish to say – a whole stockpile of experiences, emotions, imagery and points of view just waiting to be posted. And, over time, these will provide clues to what my blog is about.

The rest is up to you.

02 May 2005

design = culture ?

While TASCHEN focuses on “making” books (read my post of 27 April) on design, art, architecture, photography, pop culture, lifestyle, even erotica, design professionals and academicians across the world are debating the role - and even the contribution - of design in art, in communication, and in our culture.

Although I can’t be sure that the debate is over - or ever will be - at least one point of view has me thinking even today. It was a presentation I discovered on the Internet - made in October 2003 by William Drenttel and Jessica Helfand at an AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) conference on the theme “the power of design”.

The presentation, specifically titled, “Culture is not always popular”, actually offered several points of view, including one that questioned the idea that design can be considered a body of knowledge. The mainstay of the presentation was, of course, the impact design has on our culture. It’s a critical perspective, but definitely worth a look.

01 May 2005

Blood on peace

As a recent blogger, I've been asked by many: Why start a blog? After all, they tell me, it's a whole lot of people trying to get themselves heard; and, as the media comes in free, they're putting up any old stuff.

More likely, it's putting up with any old stuff, is what I try telling them. That bloggers believe in a sort of democracy, in differing - and sometimes in entirely opposing - points of view; that they approach the media with an open mind, in a participative manner. And, as a fellow blogger, I feel this carries a lot of responsibility.

These feelings and words are really not mine. They belong to the bloggers who pioneered the way for us, and the millions of bloggers who follow this code of ethics everyday. At a personal level, I was particularly moved by an article, Waging Peace, by Rebecca Blood, delivered almost two years ago, which discusses my very feelings and points of view.