Monday, October 24, 2011

Bangkok Floods: News vs Facts

If you have been following the news, you would get the impression that all of Bangkok has been flooded. Cars and apartment buildings are submerged in water. You can't walk in the streets. You would have to wade through waist-high water. The city, as far as civic life goes, is dead. The government has declared a state of emergency. And so on -- a litany of dreadful dross. That is the kind of depressing news you must be getting.

Trust me, it is far, far from the truth (well, the emergency thing is true but I hardly saw any soldier anywhere).

I am just back from Bangkok after nearly a week-long stay there and I did not see a single drop of flood water. I repeat, not a single drop of flood water--and I was in central Bangkok. It was warm and sunny and it did not rain at all during the six days of my stay in Bangkok.

Before I had started for the Thai capital, my friends had cautioned me. I had chosen a bad time to go to Thailand.

It reminded me of the last time I had visited Bangkok. Then too, the city was battling another national crisis. The red shirts and the yellow shirts were fighting it out on the streets of Bangkok. Malls were burnt down, people had been shot at. Army had been called in.

Like the last time, this time too, I ignored the warnings and went ahead with my plans. I come back with no regrets.

True, there are widespread floods in the plains and in the areas adjoining Bangkok, but the water is still outside the city. Areas like Pathum Thani have been inundated, which is like 25 kilometers away from the main city (locals have moved to shelters and expats have moved back to their countries for now). The water has since been coming closer to the city and the administration wants to use the city canals to drain off the water to the Gulf of Bangkok. Yesterday, the headline in a local daily said that flood water in Bangkok was expected in 4-5 days.

The government has said that the flood situation could continue for 4-6 weeks in the affected areas. If it does not rain, I don't see any major flooding in the Bangkok city.

During the time I was in Bangkok, I did not notice any flood water but I saw some signs of public panic. I put it down to public preparedness, a natural human instinct, in the face of an expected disaster.

In one of the stores Big C in downtown Bangkok, I went to buy bottled water. Most of it was gone. Only a handful of bottles were left on the shelves. Same was true of noodles (The Thais are fond of noodles, aren't they?).

My sister who lives in Bangkok reported something similar. Water and noodles were gone from the shelves at the store in Narathiwas where she shops. I checked for other items in the same store. There were many empty shelves and I noticed that some choice spices were also gone. My brother in law, who is an expert in disaster management, said that these stores are one of the biggest beneficiaries of the flood. Given the brisk sale and the resulting profits, one shopping store chain has even announced an IPO on the stock exchange. This is called business sense.

Another interesting story that I read in the papers was about some local residents who had parked their cars on a highway, fearing that flood waters might damage their vehicles. This kind of parking then caused anger among the motorists who use the highway. Apparently, all parking places have been opened to Thai citizens who can park their vehicles without paying fees.

In the flooded areas outside Bangkok, apparently some crocodiles had escaped the farms. The authorities had advised people to beat the waters with sticks to scare away the crocodiles. A zoo in the city reported that it was ready to move the animals to proper shelters following an emergency evacuation plan.

A city of sandbags

While I walked around the city, I noticed sandbags at the entrance of malls and other business establishments, especially banks and ATMs.

Other than this, the city seemed normal. It was business as usual everywhere. I saw the Thais and tourists enjoying their Phad Thai noodles and barbequed chicken and cat fish everywhere. The malls were open, tourists were buying fake Luis Vuitton bags and the pimps were peddling girls and sex shows in Patpong like nothing was happening outside the city.

Outside a mall. I saw a tent manned by uniformed people. They were there to collect donations for the flood victims. I saw packets of noodles and water bottles stacked up within the tent.

On my way to the Suvarnabhumi airport on Sunday, the freeway was devoid of much traffic. It was a shiny morning and the green farms around the airport looked beautiful. As I boarded the plane, I silently said a prayer for the City of Lost Angels. I flew with the foolish belief that calamity will not touch this great city. Foolish beliefs--sometimes that's all we have.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Job, Jobs and 'The Tree of Life'

This Thursday (6 October) morning, I was on the bus to my office. I was surfing through the books section of The Guardian on my iPhone when I received an SMS from my colleague and publisher, Mark Hobson. "I'm hearing on the news that Steve Jobs is dead." The message shook me to the bone. I didn't know what to say. For a few seconds, I just held the phone in my palm. It lay there, cold. I knew that the cancer-stricken, frail-looking Steve Jobs, the darling of Apple's fans, might die in the next few years. But I didn't expect to receive the news of his death so soon. It was as shocking as Michael Jackson's sudden death or as Lady Diana's death in a freak accident many years ago. Only a day before, Mark had shared with me that iPhone 4S, and not the much-awaited iPhone 5, had been launched in the US. And the very next day, I am told that that the man who gave the world the iPod, the iPad and the iPhone was dead.

I checked the news in Google. It was true. Jobs was dead at 56. A rare form of pancreatic cancer had claimed his life. I checked my friends' status notes on Facebook. Many were mourning Jobs' death. "Oh, no!" I replied to Mark.

Death. It spares no one. As children, our elders told us: "Death is a certainty. If you remember death every day many times over, the chances are that you will not make grave mistakes in life. You'll not go astray."

I remembered Jobs' own words on death from his famous commencement speech delivered at Stanford: "No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life." (Stay hungry, stay foolish)

Jobs, probably the most iconic inventor of our times, was saying this about death--that death is "very likely the single best invention of Life". Such words could have come only from a deep understanding of life. Jobs was a man whom life had afforded a second inning, and in his speech, Jobs had acknowledged his search for self-knowledge in India when he was young and out of college. The son of a Syrian Muslim, raised by a Christian couple, had gone to India to seek peace and knowledge from Hindu sages and had died a Buddhist. Jobs' understanding of death--and in turn, of life--could have come only from the wanderings of such a bold and searching spirit that he possessed. That's why he could say to the Standford graduates: "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

I haven't heard any contemporary business leader speak so eloquently about death and about the courage to follow one's heart and live with its consequences.

When I reached office, I found my colleagues discussing Jobs' passing away. Jobs' death had made everyone sad.

The Tree of Life

In the evening, I was supposed to go to watch Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. This was Malick's fifth film in a career spanning 40 years. The project was apparently in development for decades. Malick had been developing it as 'Q' and it was meant to be about the birth of the universe and the creation of life. After years of many false starts, the film was finally produced by the film's lead actor Brad Pitt. The film missed 2009 and 2010 release dates and was premiered in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d'Or. Robert De Niro, who was the head of the jury, said that the film fitted the bill for the prize.

Some of my screenwriting buddies had read rave reviews of the film and wanted to see it in a group. Eight of us marched into the theatre. The theatre soon filled up with people. Two middle-aged ladies sat next to me.

When I began watching the film, I suddenly realised that Malick's film fitted in squarely with the sombre mood of the day. The Tree of Life is about birth and death, about love and loss and coping with pain.

Both Malick and Jobs are great minds. Unlike Jobs, Malick is very reclusive: he refuses interviews, refuses being photographed. Even though it might sound ludicrous, I began to see (perhaps more now when I am writing this, in hindsight) some parallels between Malick's and Jobs' lives: both had Middle Eastern fathers (Malick's was an Assyrian Christian Lebanese immigrant), both dropped out of college (Jobs from Reed College and Malick from Magdalen College, Oxford), and both had a philosophical bent of mind (it sounds weird to use past tense for Malick)--Jobs was interested in Eastern philosophy, Malick in the Western. Malick even translated Heidegger's Vom Wesen des Grundes as The Essence of Reasons and taught philosophy at MIT before he turned to filmmaking.

Malick is a rare filmmaker in America: Hollywood that produces hundreds of soulless films every year, a filmmaker like Malick compensates that soullessness with his uniquely photographed films, which are more like poems in motion pictures. His films are deeply philosophical and metaphorical.

The Tree of Life opens with a quotation from the Book of Job, when God asks, "Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation ... while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"

I saw this film as an adaptation of the story of Job from the holy Bible. Malick has set his film in the 1950s Texas, where he spent his own childhood. A large part of the film revolves around the childhood of Sean Penn's character and his two brothers and parents, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. One of the three brothers dies (perhaps in a war zone) when he is 19. The film is about Penn's childhood memories and Chastain's and Penn's coming to grips with the loss of the child (for plot and production derails, see this page).

Here, the Biblical Job is Pitt's character, Jack O'Brien (initials are J-O-B). In the Bible, Job was a man tested by God after Satan wagers Job only serves God because of His protection. After losing his wealth, family and health, Job would rather curse himself than God (from IMDB).

One of the most weird parts of the film is the almost half an hour long creation of the universe sequence which is breathtakingly photographed. I saw the two ladies sitting next to me giggling at this Malickian indulgence. Because of the film's quirky sequences, apparently in the US, some theaters set up signs that warned "moviegoers about the enigmatic and non-linear narrative of the movie - following some confused walkouts and refund demands in the opening weeks". I can understand this confusion and I do empathise with such viewers. Perhaps they did not want to follow the director's vision, who, with a godlike eye, shows us the dimensions of the universe and the powerful elements of nature (just as the Lord talks about them in the Bible in the Job chapter).

The Tree of Life is a work of art, a work of genius, and by the end of the film, I was speechless at the sheer ambition of the film. I felt as if I had read a great book of philosophy or a great and wise tale from Tolstoy. Some critics have compared the film to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. As a film, The Tree of Life seems to be able to transcend all boundaries and communicate to even filmgoers who might live on other planets. This is a truly cosmic film. The last scene of the film, about life after the Day of Resurrection, is one scene that I dreamed of filming as a filmmaker. Malick beat me to it.

Poor Sean Penn looked lost in the film, not sure of what was going on. "I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read," he said in an interview. "A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly."

When I came out of the theatre, I felt compelled to write about it on Facebook. I posted a status update. The film somehow lessened my pain of Jobs' death. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.