Monday, 9 February 2009

Light and Dark

On a bitterly cold day in January, I was hurriedly cutting through the Tavistock Square Garden when I found myself face to bowed head with this arresting statue. Ghandhi, pared down to absolute simplicity: the distinctive bald head, the sinewy body, the simple dhoti. Gandhi, the great 20th century leader: associated with peace, non-violence and the independence of India.

Perhaps because of the cold, the park was completely empty. For several minutes, as I stood before this statue, there was an utter quiet -- all of London's millions muted by space and trees and a bulwark of enduring Victorian brick. The serenity of the scene was reinforced by the muted winter palette: iron gray, soft pale green, the pearly white of frost and breathy vapor.

Tavistock Square Garden is known as "the peace park," and Gandhi's statue is not the only tribute (or reparation made) to those who have tried to alleviate human suffering in this violent world. On the day that I was there, it was difficult to imagine it being anything other than what it was: quiet, still, contemplative. And yet: ironically, or perhaps intentionally, a bus was blown up just outside the park on July 7, 2005 and 13 lives were lost. Although I felt a deep peace emanating from that place, the world is constantly stirred up with anger, fear and all of the dire competitive aspects of staking a place and carving out the spoils.

Is peace the starting point, or only what is hard-earned after struggle?

Although Gandhi is only briefly alluded to in Slumdog Millionaire -- the film that swept the BAFTA Awards on Sunday night, and that I saw recently -- I keep thinking of him as I attempt to process the visceral experience of being immersed in the intense world of Mumbai. India: a rich stew of color, sound, smells and living things everywhere. Are there any quiet, muted corners in that great teeming city?

In England, one can absorb a sense of peace from the external landscape; but in India, I suspect that spiritual practices are so ancient and advanced precisely because they have to be enacted from an internal landscape.

The Slumdog Millionaire movie has been inaccurately billed as "feel good" by some media soundbites -- and I know of one person who had to leave the theater, quite unprepared for the assault on the senses and the emotional battering that the film delivers. Although the credits of the movie are certainly "feel good," it is a grueling journey to get there. I felt quite wrung out.

There is a happy ending of sorts, but as in the darkest fairy tales, it has to be earned through many trials. For Westerners, so intent on protecting on children from any small harm, it is shocking to witness what the central characters - who are young children, orphaned before the viewer's eyes - have to endure. Although the children show great resilience, humor, playfulness and loyalty, they are all scarred in various ways. Of course.

This morning, I was reading an article about an up-and-coming political leader in the United States and a phrase that he used - "prisoner of hope" - stuck in my mind. That phrase is further defined as "the existential armour to hold off despair and doubt." I think that Gandhi must have cloaked himself in a similar sort of armour. How else could he have believed that non-violence could liberate so many people? Although he knew that violence and hate would win many skirmishes, he had a deep belief that non-violence and love would eventually overcome.

There has been some criticism that Slumdog Millionaire portrays India in an overly negative light. Braja, who writes Lost and Found in India, addresses this notion in a post called "The truth about India." If the film is understood as a fairy tale or modern parable, I think that it makes sense to reveal the world as a dark place. I don't know if darkness is the yin or the yang, but it is the counterpart to light -- and those forces are everywhere, perhaps just a bit more obvious in a place like Mumbai.

Despite everything he experiences -- and these experiences are revealed ingeniously through the plotting of the film -- Jamal, the slumdog of the title, has a deep belief in love. That belief sustains him and gives his life focus. Whether you think of it as a guiding principle, or a "prison of hope," it keeps his spirit intact. He does overcome, in the Martin Luther King sense, although that is more of a process than an ending.

Life (as ever?) seems like a toxic brew these days. It always seems that we are slipping down, that the situation is worsening, that we are on the edge of disaster. (Same as it ever was, history might tell us.) The fiery landscape of Australia is just as present as the frozen playground of England.

Even so, it seems worthwhile to fix one's mind on peace, love and hope. It isn't an easy thing to watch - certainly not happiness at a bargain price -- but I would argue that Slumdog Millionaire is worth the effort.


flowrgirl1 said...

I have not had the pleasure of seeing the film but now i will go into seeing it with a hole new eye. I wasnt aware that it was anything but a feel good film. I am glad you brought up these points.

It is so saddening to see the world struggling. All those people in Australia, how devistating. Unemployment hitting so many, i hope these times quickly turn.

Elizabeth said...

A most thoughtful and interesting post.
I probably should have stuck out Slumdog.
I kept thinking , no, no - this cannot be being sold to me as entertainment. I know it got better - but dark indeed.
Your thoughts about the state of the world resonate.
The endless struggle to reach some sort of balance between utter despair and some sort of constructive hope.
All much much too complex for me this morning.
And so grim in Australia.
Do you ever read Janelle from Tanzania?
Such musings about the world.

Lisa said...

I've been ignoring this movie on purpose because I thought it would be more of a test of endurance than entertainment. Now that I have the itch to join Braja in India for a few days (if I can save the $$), I know that I need to watch this film so I have a clear idea of the country and its people, as best as a movie can do that.

CashmereLibrarian said...

I like how you described the process of viewing Slumdog: "emotional battering." It was indeed.
I'm currently reading Camilla Gibb's Sweetness in the Belly. (Did I get turned onto this title from your blog? I can't remember.) Anyway, your post today--Gandhi in a cold English park, Slumdog--is very much encapsulated in this book, where Ethiopian refugees (the main character actually having been born British) learn a new life in London.
I'm also concurrently reading Jerramy Fine's Someday My Prince Will Come. Very entertaining but then talk about contrasts!
I must be on another English countryside kick. It happens every early spring.
I must wrap up this rather rambling comment. Have a great day and thanks for another thought-provoking post!

CashmereLibrarian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CashmereLibrarian said...

PS. I refuse to see Revolutionary Road. I tried to read the book a few years ago and couldn't.

Unlike in RR, I have a happy marriage, but the frustration conveyed in the book of how life was "supposed" to be versus how mundane it really is hits too close to home!

Peggy said...

"Is peace the starting point, or only what is hard-earned after struggle?" What a wonderful question. It does seem sometimes as though a peaceful calm can only really be appreciated after the high seas that preceded it.

herhimnbryn said...

A wonderful many quiet thoughts that turn me to quiet thoughts this morning. Thankyou.

tangobaby said...

I agree with you entirely about the film. It's definitely an experience that makes an impact, but "feel good" is disingenuous and over-simplified, at best.

I couldn't help as I was watching this film, thinking as the story as being quite Dickensian, very David Copperfield-ish. I remember reading about the poor mudlarks of 19th century London, those poor, deprived children who were barely hanging onto life, trying to make a living anyway they could.

I guess this movie made me realize that life has been, and most likely will be, a struggle that some of us will never be able to comprehend.

Thank you for visiting my blog today and leaving such a lovely comment. I find your backstory on your profile quite intriguing.

Travis Erwin said...

I'm sure I'll see it but not until it hits DVD.

Beth said...

Have heard only good things about this movie - your recommendation is the final impetus to get me to see it. And I am not a brave movie-goer - tears come easily.
Wonderful review.
(Wish I'd seen Tavistock Square Garden while in London.)

Bee said...

Flowrgirl1 - I'm glad that I warned you about Slumdog, then! It is a shocking film in some ways, but joyous in others. And even though there is always bad news, it DOES seem like there is more than what is usual at the moment.

Elizabeth - Well, I thought that it was "worth it," but I understand why you would want to leave. I will check out Janelle, although I found Authorblog's post about Australian matters quite sad enough.

Lisa - I suppose it is an endurance test of sorts, but it is a rich, well-told story, too. You will be delighted by how enterprising the young boys prove to be.

Cashmere Librarian - You didn't get Sweetness in the Belly from me, but what an intriguing title! I like reading two very different books at a time. As for Revolutionary Road, I will probably write a post about it and save people the trouble of depressing themselves. You would like the 50s detail, though. It is a very stylish movie.

Peggy - Yes, I think that I agree. Peace has to be earned - or perhaps can only be appreciated - after struggle.

herhimnbryn - Yes, and Australia's fires are in everyone's mind, I think.

Tangobaby - Yes, it IS Dickensian. And Mumbai is to the 21st century what London was to the 19th. The resourceful children fascinate me -- what gritty survivalists.

I have mentioned this before, but during the last year I have been reading all of the "Little House" books with my daughter. Every time they load up the wagon and head out for a new patch of unsettled prairie I think about what softies we've become.

Travis - Do try to see it in the cinema if you can. It is very rich visually.

Bee said...

Beth - Make sure you are feeling strong when you see it! It is sad in parts, but more horrifying.

Brave Sir Robin said...

it will not make it down here to the provinces, I will have to try and catch it in Houston.

Along with almost any film worth seeing.

A Woman Of No Importance said...

A very thoughtful piece, Bee - and your photograph of Gandhi and description of stillness in the square was wonderful!

A Woman Of No Importance said...

Oops, and thanks to you and Braja, I think I will give Slumdog Millionaire a miss - I have also heard it described as feelgood, and think the hype may have overtaken the stark reality of the piece - I'm just not strong enough to deal with some films with such difficult, albeit important, material...

Fantastic Forrest said...

Bee - have you been to Northern Ireland? When we lived in the Republic, we traveled up there. It was sobering to see the murals about the troubles. So much violence. We spent a day in Derry and visited the Bloody Sunday Museum. The four of us were exhausted when we left. In some ways it was harder to experience than even the Holocaust Memorial in DC.

I need to see Slumdog Millionaire. You've convinced me. Have you seen The Namesake? I really loved the book and the movie.

Gifted Typist said...

Hmm, not sure I have the emotional surplus to have my senses assaulted this way. Worthy, for sure, but one also has to protect one's self from unnecessary exposure.

"the existential armour to hold off despair and doubt" This appeared next to the crocuses in Feb. So apt.

Maggie May said...

I will definitely see this film.

Barrie said...

I do think I should see this film. But I'm not sure I'm up for it. Thought-provoking post.

Anna said...

Hey Bee for the useful information, never really followed anything about India, and now I feel like I need to see Slumdog Millionaire movie. Very nice photo of the statue, so much detail captured. Anna :)

Bee said...

BSR - Yes, it's very hard to stay current with the film scene when you have to make a long drive to do it! I still miss having all of Houston's art theaters with 10 minutes of my house.

A Woman - Thank you! I did think that the Gandhi statue was amazing - humble and yet grand.

FF - I've only been to Southern Ireland, unfortunately.

As for The Namesake: I love the book and movie both. I want to read Lahiri's newest book of short stories. Raves on that.

Gifted Typist - Yes, I think that many of us are on overload right now. We need spring flowers and sweetness and light! I have some hyacinths in bloom right now - will post picture.

Maggie May - I would be really interested in hearing what you think about it.

Barrie - I know. It is amazing, though.

Anna - Thanks so much for the photo compliment!

Braja said...

I loved this. How shallow is that? Come on, it wasn't just cos my name was mentioned :)

I really like all things India so y'know.. :)

Gandhi: hmmm. I'm so on the fence about this guy. (And that's being polite). I appreciate what he wanted but he was never going to get it the way he went about it. As for India's independence, he was out of that race about halfway thru, when he realized that the whole of India wanted something different out of it than he did. He wanted them to remain as a hobby farm type village and not progress. Idealistic, but not realistic. He was misguided in many ways...

Loved Slumdog Millionaire. Just loved it.

Reya Mellicker said...

Fantastic post. I'm undecided about whether or not to see the film. I've been to India - took me months to recover from the experience.

A friend of mine says Slumdog is a fantasy. She also said, "There is no other movie like it." Maybe, though, I'll be content to read your review and skip the film itself.

Have you read Freedom at Midnight? One of my favs about the life of Ghandi.

Sarah Laurence said...

Beautiful image and words. You capture a moment so well. I’ll keep hoping. It’s too easy to get caught up in the little bits of life, but good to be reminded to look at the big picture. Very thoughtful post.

I also love the snowman in your sidebar, looking so stately.

ArtSparker said...

I must go see that film...I know a lot of people went to Pan's Labyrinth thinking it would be like Alice in Wonderland.

By the way, the film that was made of Tom Perotta's "Election" is quite wonderful

Bee said...

Braja - I always think that you give a balanced view of India, although well-tempered with love of course. I know at least 10 people who have either lived in India or spent large chunks of time there, and only one of them disliked it. Your comments about Gandhi intrigued me. I don't know much about him, really, other than the basic bio and the stately film from 20 years or so ago.

Reya - It is exhausting to watch, but not a downer. It is unique; I would recommend it, truly.

I will put Freedom at Midnight on the to-read list.

Sarah - Thanks so much for the kind feedback. As for the snowman, he is mostly melted - a midget snowman now!

ArtSparker - I know exactly what you mean about Pan's Labyrinth - an apt analogy. As for Perrotta, yes I've seen Election and Little Children both. I like his work a lot.

willow said...

I'm like Reya, in that I haven't decided whether to see the film or not. Excellent, thought provoking post, Bee.

Delwyn said...

I will see the movie..
but I was more intrigued by that line "a prisoner of hope" - quite an oxymoron...

I have found that the lack of hope, even a faint little ember, can lead to the lack of a deire to live.

I think hope is an essential for the sustenance of human life.

Think of the fire survivors, how can they move ahead without having hope?

Bee said...

Thanks, Willow.

Delwyn - Yes, it is such an interesting phrase; a seeming oxymoron as you say. A necessary delusion perhaps?

Dick said...

If I had needed persuading to see the film, Bee, your eloquent presentation and contextualisation of it would have provided the incentive.

JaneyV said...

"Is peace the starting point, or only what is hard-earned after struggle?"

Ah the ultimate chicken and egg question. It's probably more accurate to ask "Is the appreciation of peace the starting point, or only what is hard-earned after struggle?" I honestly think that peace cannot be fully understood or valued without the context of oppression or struggle. I spent my childhood in Ireland just as "the troubles" erupted. Although I was never personally touched by them, living as I did in the safe South, the daily news brought stories of bombing, hold-ups, knee-cappings and shootings. Political rhetoric was poisoned with hatred and division. Strangely the flash point for this time in history was brought on by marching for civil liberties inspired by Dr King, who in turn was inspired by Ghandi. I can see Braja's point about whether or not Mahatma Ghandi achieved very much in terms of Indian Independence, but his influence for sweeping changes against oppression and injustice cannot be denied. I doubt very much if President Obama would be in the White House were it not for the influence of Ghandi. I also doubt very much if I would be such a pacifist if I had not been exposed so young to daily violence on my doorstep.

I haven't seen Slumdog Millionaire yet but I have heard only good things about it. Your wonderful post has made me even more determined to see it.

Bee said...

Dick - If you do end up seeing it, I hope you will write about it.

Janey - I wish that I had collaborated with you before I posted this! You are so right: that appreciation is key. Elizabeth and I have been talking about that in the context of another recent film - Revolutionary Road. Thank you for for your really thoughtful commentary here.

P.S. I did originally have some bits about Obama and more Martin Luther King, but then I decided I too all-over-the-shop. That strategy of non-violence, though, might be the most revolutionary thinking to come along in human politics.

Braja said...

I'm finally getting around to acknowledging the award you bestowed upon me some time ago, precious...check out my sidebar later, and again, thank you :)

linda said...

thank you for this beautifully written post...I have been wondering whether to immerse myself in the slums of india and yet, know I probably will, at home on my dinky telly, no doubt...I can't even watch a movie in a theatre anymore for it's immense war upon my every sense! this movie has been lauded a fantastic comedy, but based upon the story, I doubted that shallow point of thank you for preparing me for this "feast of the senses"...

your words about Ghandi are profound as are your thoughts about peace...much food for thought here!

xoxo~ I must be off!!

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