Friday, November 30, 2012

Pittsburgh 2

now the city feels familiar, at least
in parts, the roads I walk on are friendly
like the lady in uniform who holds up the
traffic every time to let me cross
from one side of Federal Street to other.

the effusive salesman at Radio Shack
wants to sell me a service plan with the
recorder... he looks crestfallen when I tell him
the guarantees don’t work in the world he’s
not familiar with; I am only visiting after all.

I go to Starbucks and the cheerful waitress 
wants to know whether I had a good day...
buoyed by the greeting, I nurse a large coffee
for an hour sitting on a high stool and staring
at the world outside...  a woman passes by,
her shoulders hunched, she’s crying softly at
accumulated losses and unanswered questions.

but it is the young school boy, as old as my son
who catches my attention; he dances with abandon
to the delight of the three girls who surround him
two of his companions start to swirl too, keeping
pace with the frenzied beat of his tapping feet, but
one hangs behind and looks wistfully at the 
moving apparitions on a cold windy afternoon.

She is the one who doesn’t belong
She could be from any part of the world
She has been told she is plain.

Vijay Nair

Monday, November 26, 2012

Class Conflicts- 'Lincoln,' 'Good People' and 'The Stranger's Child'

Friends may find it difficult to stomach this but back in school I was really lanky. What they may not find all that difficult to believe is that I wasn’t particularly good at anything else apart from writing essays in English. My English teacher was fond of me. One day while she was taking a lesson on the American Civil War with one of the junior classes, a student perked up and asked her what Abraham Lincoln looked like. She thought for a while and answered ‘Do you know that boy in Class IX, Vijay Nair? I think he looks a bit like Lincoln.’ This was duly reported to me by my juniors when school got over and because I was always hungry for affirmation, I was delighted to hear that. I felt I mattered a little more than all my classmates put together, none of whom had the good fortune of resembling an American president.

I carried that happy piece of nostalgia with me when I went to see ‘Lincoln’ with two of my friends in Pittsburgh. As it turned out, the latest film by Spielberg held many more surprises to delight me. Daniel Day Lewis is brilliant as the tormented President leading a pack of rivals and trying to push the amendment that had to do with the abolition of slavery. 

The film is not a stereotypical biopic. It unfolds during the last phase of the American Civil War and concludes with the assassination of Lincoln.  The film portrays him not just as a great leader but also an astute politician. Spielberg’s job is made easy because of the accomplished ensemble cast he has at his disposal, the taut screenplay as well as the stupendous cinematography. It is a long film, around two and a half hours. But despite the inordinate length of the film, I was riveted to the screen for the entire duration. Some members in the audience actually clapped after the film got over and I had trouble resisting the temptation to join in.

For a film that concerns itself mostly with political wheeling dealings, my favourite scenes in the film are those that show Lincoln playing with his young son and one that doesn’t have Lincoln in the frame at all. Mary Todd Lincoln, played by Sally Field berates and taunts the radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, when he comes to attend a party thrown by Lincoln to win over his rivals before the vote. It’s not that Field is exceptionally good at hectoring but the scene is made memorable in the manner in which the recipient of her ire uses his silence to communicate myriad emotions. Tommy Lee Jones is a text book on what good acting is all about in that one scene.

There was plenty of good acting at display in Pittsburgh Public Theatre production of ‘Good People,’ directed by Tracy Brigden. The playwright is the Pulitzer winning David Lindsay- Abaire. Lindsay- Abaire’s most famous work is the visceral ‘Rabbit Hole’ that has also been made into a film with Nicole Kidman in the lead.

In a work rooted in class tensions, the playwright does well in the opening scene by paying a tribute to the most legendary of American plays, ‘Death of a Salesman.’  Middle aged Maggie working as a cashier in a Dollar Store is being sacked by her young boss, Stevie, who happens to be the son of one of the women she grew up with. She uses that relationship to win a reprieve much like Willy Loman tried with his young boss in the classic. Having that reference with us, we know Maggie’s life is going to spin into a downward spiral and it does, although as a character, she is much more feisty and upright than Loman ever was.

Maggie’s friends suggest that she tap her old boyfriend Mike for a job. Mike has made it good despite the shared neighbourhood of their growing up years. He is a doctor who works as a fertility specialist and lives with his trophy wife in the most affluent part of Boston. The reunion between the estranged lovers who belong to two different worlds within the same city can be milked for humour as well as pathos and Lindsay-Abaire’s mastery over his craft ensures that we laugh and cry with the characters on stage. It is a stunningly nuanced and layered script and the actors rise admirably to the demands of the edgy dialogues and the evocative pauses. I couldn’t detect a single false note in the rendition by a single member of this talented cast. I am happy I chose this play as the first to view in the longish stay I am going to have in Pittsburgh. I know I couldn’t have made a better choice.

‘The Stranger’s Child’ is not the first book I have read by Alan Hollinghurst. I did read ‘The Line of Beauty’ that won the Booker Prize and I am familiar with the elegant prose that Hollinghurst seems to muster effortlessly. But I have to admit that I preferred ‘The Stranger’s Child’ to ‘The Line of Beauty.’

 This one has an amazing structure. The plot leaps by a decade or more in every section and not only do we see the characters changing but also the British society dropping many of its old baggage and acquiring some new ones. Hollinghurst is the kind of a writer who can be sly and compassionate at the same time and that is always engaging.  He also has the ability to communicate through a single episode what lesser writers say in several chapters.

‘The Stranger’s Child’ is a work full of yearning and wistfulness and nostalgia and longings that we think we have lost until brilliant works like these bring it all back. Literary to the core, the strength of the book is that it is so smartly paced that once you have started reading the book, you don’t feel like letting it go.  When I had finished reading it, I knew I would revisit it again in a more leisurely manner.

It’s been a month and a half since I arrived in Pittsburgh and I have managed to watch a brilliant film, a great play and also read a really really good book after a long time. This in addition to all the research and writing I have been doing.

That’s not too bad. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Pittsburgh Musings- Lessons from the United States of America

I have never been blindly enamoured of the US, although I have visited it a number of times.  As a writer in the last five years and before that when I was working with a multinational.  I am not a great fan of the US foreign policy. In one of the first plays I wrote, the protagonist starts one of his monologues with, ‘America has gone to war today. The world’s most powerful nation is preparing to drop bombs on scurrying children.’ 

However, every time I have come to the country, I have been genuinely overwhelmed by the hospitality and generosity of the Americans I have met. They have by far been the nicest people I have known in my life. Leaving me alone and giving me my space when I need it and at the same time being there when I crave for company. That can be the best gift a writer or an artist can ever receive.  

Today it was the turn of a gentleman I had never met before to appear in my life and change it for the better.  There are some people who make me touch genuine humility and he turned out to be one of them.

Peter Oresick is a poet and a professor of creative writing in one of the well known colleges in Pittsburgh.  He has also worked as the head of a publishing house and as the chief editor of a literary magazine in the past. I was introduced to him over email by one of his ex-students. He wrote back saying not only would he spend time with me answering my questions but he will be happy to take me around the city and the places I need to visit for my research. To say I was pleasantly surprised by his offer would be an understatement.

My friends know I don’t even drive back home in Bangalore. Relying on cabs and autos to take me all over the city, so forget driving in another country where even the rules are different. I am sure even if I tried, I won’t be able to reach anywhere. And that’s likely to be my greatest challenge for the next seven months.

I am not good at waiting for buses either. Five minutes of waiting and I end up telling myself, I will take a cab, never mind the expense. I will economize on something else. I am sharing all this to communicate how grateful I am if someone offers to drive me around.

Peter was exceptionally generous not only with his car but also with his time. He drove me to almost all the spots where monumental events had unfolded over the two hundred years of American history. The day was cold to begin with but warmed by his generosity, the sun came up and it turned out to be one of nicest mornings to be outdoors, since I have arrived here.

By the time we headed for lunch, I had dropped my inhibitions enough to ask Peter why he had set aside nearly one day to take me around the city. I had learnt by then that apart from his job and his writing, he is also a painter. I couldn’t stop thinking about what his wife and three grown up sons would make of him dedicating almost a day to a stranger he had never met before.  

His response completely disarmed me. He said he has travelled to quite a few countries and his hosts have taken the trouble to show him their cities and in his own way he was trying to repay them for what they had done for him. I resolved at that moment to do my bit when I get back home for anyone I know who has come down from another country and occasionally feels a little lost.

The tour of the city proved to be educational in more ways than one. Two of the localities we drove through were Homestead and Braddock. Once the hub of industrial activity, these were thriving communities until the mid 80s when the steel companies closed down, rendering thousands of workers unemployed. Parts of these localities continue to resemble a ghost town and those that still have people in them have turned into rough neighbourhoods. But I was pleasantly surprised to see how clean the roads were even in these parts.

The New York Times article that has got the world thinking of Bangalore as a city drowning in its trash, mentions Kalpana Kar getting frustrated at a neighbour whose servant goes and dumps the trash on the road despite her asking him not to. And I am sure Kar lives in one of the most affluent localities of Bangalore. So I guess the one thing we need to learn from the Americans and practice is cleanliness. It is humiliating to land  in a foreign country and discover that for the residents here, the city you live in is identified with filth and dirt. Especially when you know that it’s not some evil propaganda but the truth.

One of the spots that we stopped at was where one of the earliest industrial strikes in history took place.  This was at Homestead in 1892. Henry Clay Frick tried to break the strike by hiring an army of goons to attack the strikers who had laid siege of the factory. The strike ended badly for both the parties. The striking workers had to cave in eventually and Frick was forever painted as the ugliest robber baron of all time.

I kept on wondering why standing at that spot I got the feeling of déjà vu. It occurred to me much later that the story sounded similar to something I had read about a few months ago.

I don’t know whether the Henry Clay Frick story has a moral for all Indians. But it certainly does for a particular automobile giant with one of its plants in Haryana.