Talking Back

Scenes like the one above have been featured in many films and TV shows. A version of something that most of us must have experienced multiple times during our school days ourselves. But this one, from Normal People, was uncanny in how close it was to an experience of mine.

Every time I’ve been caught in the act -- of being zoned out/falling asleep etc. -- I’d be slapped, caned or at the very least have a piece of chalk thrown at me by the teacher. The kindest of them yelled, insulted, and made me stand outside the class.

I’d fantasize about talking back to them, cornering them into a muted stupor, or worse an incoherent repartee that did not land.

The day actually came about when I was 20 years old. I was in my final year of college and my levels of insolence with the faculty that semester had gained some notoriety. The class was of one Ms. S, dreaded by students for being a bitter, humorless hag with a habit of escalating everything to the department head. I was distracted as usual and the lecturer suddenly called me out, “Suresh! You think you’ll be able to understand this by looking out the window?”

I turned to her, as if with the reflex of a thousand rehearsals, and said, “I don’t think I’ll follow what you’re teaching even if I paid attention.”

There was a stunned silence in the entire class for about 3 seconds. My classmates who are generally rowdy during these types of exchanges went completely quiet. For I didn’t squirm in embarrassment or deflect with a sheepish grin, and the fact that I spoke ‘proper’ English did its part too, I imagine. The few words that I could hear were ones of disapproval -- hushed ‘dei!’s -- directed at me.

The lecturer regained her composure and said, “come and see me after the class.”
Once again, without a pause, I replied, “I’ll think about it.” She said nothing, just wore a puzzled stare.

I had done it. It had taken about 17 years from the first conscious memory of a similar situation but I finally shut the authority figure in the room. A few murmurs started to emerge and the disapproval was unmistakably audible but she averted her gaze and continued on with the lecture.

I started preparing for a bigger showdown but that was the end of it. I didn’t see her after the class and no one brought it up again. I was nowhere near the smartest in the classroom, unlike Marianne in the show, but maybe Ms. S was convinced that it's futile to pursue any disciplinary action.

It was a telling moment in my life. That everyone hated her was no secret but even so they felt that I went too far. I realized that youthful petulance and churlish behaviour in front of authority figures should not be taken for anti-establishment sentiment. It’s merely an inchoate germ that has the potential to become something more ideological when cultivated carefully but has little value unto itself.

 An exchange later in the show underscores this point: the idea that some forms of authoritarianism is par for the course, especially when it carries the semblance of being universal. A de facto surrender is what is then expected even (or especially) by your peers. And at the hands of a 'decent guy' it's almost desirable.

The psychological relief and the momentary sense of control one enjoys by standing up, by saying 'fuck you!', even if faced with dire consequences, is enviable, after all. It is a privilege and unfortunately it is accessible only to a few.

Blurb of Intent

The last time I mentioned my intent to make a documentary it took over 5 years to actually have it done. And that was when I had a clear idea as to what I wanted to do and there was no uncertainty about whether I really wanted to do it. Neither of which is the case this time around. The scope of the topic and scale of the production is also likely to be more daunting. It will be significantly more contentious, controversial, polemical and even problematic. I will have to spend the next year or two researching for it and scripting it down to its near-final form. What's left then will be to interview 30-50 people and condense it into a 2-3 part docu-series that could serve as a primer for understanding contemporary Tamil polity.

This post is purely for my nostalgic reflection in the future.

Sober existence

At one point in Norm's 'Me Doing Standup' he says, "I don't know if you've ever had a one night stand, dead clean sober, but I have, and it's not a lot of fun". I thought about this while watching Euphoria. There are so many shows that deal with substance abuse in great detail (by various age/class groups); I can barely relate to any of them but I also get it. As in, "of course, why wouldn't you?" And simultaneously this counter/adjoining thought occurs: I don't know if you've experienced all of existence dead clean sober, but I have, and it's not a lot of fun.

Ra(d̷i̷c̷a̷)cialized people

Understandings and reflections one would encounter on race, caste, aesthetics etc., in the subcontinent is likely to be more diverse than reality itself. But some instances are poetic in their pithiness, presenting a truth that is complex and layered even if unintended. One such is the video below, especially the part where he mentions "Kashmiri brahman".

Grief (induced by the abstract)

    I saw the movie Man on the Moon in 2002, I had not even turned 20 then. It introduced me to the idea of self-effacement (self-erasure, self-caricature etc., apply too) in service of a craft that might not be considered respectable by many. Or in artistic terms, high art. One could, perhaps, think of people like Charlie Chaplin and 'clown acts' as a whole that might fit this category, but Andy Kaufman is of a unique breed. For Kaufman blended the performative with the 'real' and dared to explore its boundaries, apparently heedless to the consequences [1]. The ultimate act being his death itself, shrouded in manufactured (false) mystery.

I first got to watch Norm MacDonald in the 'Norm Show' around the same time. It was sharp and witty like some of the other sitcoms I liked but it was considerably more mischievous, in a dark, and perhaps, deviant sense. Oh, he was also very likeable because he could barely keep a straight face. Over the next several years I sought after and consumed every bit of Norm I could find [2]. It wasn't long before I started quoting and paraphrasing him in real life conversations, mostly to 'nonplussed' faces.

Many of Norm's semi-serious pronouncements did not sit well with me but I could not help but admire his fearlessness and commitment to a certain idea of his craft and the integrity it required. This idea, I thought, was constantly trying to resolve a paradox: humour exists in a context within a mind but it also seeks validation from an audience, even if only one, that might not be on board. True, there is humour in the unacknowledgement of it too, but to proceed with no regard for this paradox is where one declares their allegiance. And Norm did it more often and more successfully than others.

Condescension and even misanthropy are second nature to most standups (the good ones). It is a professional hazard. But Norm was generally better at masking it. Norm might have been inspired by Kaufman at some level, if not by his methods, by his chutzpah (which, ironically, is often projected as ignorance or gaucherie in their acts). His performance was driven by a semiotic sensibility that drew liberally from irony and farce. Norm saying "wait till you hear me do it" is one of the rare occasions he acknowledged his prowess. His profession did not get in the way of being genuine and earnest, nevertheless.

My everyday time-waste routine involved watching at least one or two of Norm's videos. They were always in my recommended list on YouTube and I never got annoyed by its ubiquity. It's been over a month since he passed away and my routine has been hit with melancholic disruption. I am now recommended videos of various comedians expressing their shock and sorrow at his passing; especially that he kept his nine year 'battle' with cancer a secret. Kaufman seems to have inspired him in at least one other aspect.

A palpable grief has crept in the last few days and has caused some dissonance. I have often wondered whether a favourite writer/artist who stopped producing anything for a long time being dead or alive makes a difference. Especially if there was no realistic chance of meeting them in person, for what its worth. In a strictly rational sense they are only an abstract entity whose real existence should not matter. We all get a periodic reminder that our rational self is always playing catch up, and Norm's death is one for me.

Norm had not put out any specials in a long time; even so the occasional word here and there in the plethora of podcasts had been reassuring, that there's flow still. Not anymore. But unlike most of his contemporaries we are not left just with a static composition but an iconic syntax. It's as if he used hours and hours of material that spans over decades to distill a predictable yet unique language structure that held his audience in wilful thrall. So much that his fans seem compelled to speak citationally wherever possible [3]. This is a rare form of adoration that few artists, let alone comics, have achieved.

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[1] - The film The Prestige comes to mind. 

[2] - Some self praise: it turned out that I was among the few in the 'audience' to get his act on The Roast of Bob Saget and was howling the entire set.

[3] - This essay is no exception.

Parts and the whole

An analogical thought experiment.

Person A lives in the main level of a house with all the modern first world comforts. Personal B lives on the roof of the same house with none of the aforementioned comforts and exposed to the elements year around. In fact, person A is able to enjoy those comforts because person B has been deprived of the same. The house may or may not have been designed to be so but that is how it is now. Person A and B are aware of each other's existence and their corresponding quality of life. Both occasionally wonder if their living arrangements are deliberate.

Given the above:

Person A says, "I live in one of the best houses out there. Sure the inequality needs to be addressed but it's still great".

Person B says, "I live in one of the best houses out there. Sure the inequality needs to be addressed but it's still great".

If one were to assign the attribute 'problematic' to only one of the two statements whose should it be?

Songs about stuff

Thank goodness for American music (and those from other English speaking countries), for songs about cats, dogs, trains, buses, paper, pens and all kinds of inanimate objects, and abstract and absurd thoughts.

 
©2009 english-tamil