Babette’s Feast

“Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another. Man, in his weakness and short-sightedness, believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We do know fear. But, no! Our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when your eyes are opened. And we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence, and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And, lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us. And everything we rejected — has also been granted. Yes, we even get back what we rejected. For mercy and truth are met together. And righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another”- (Adaptation from Psalm 85:10) and thus spake Lorens Lowenhielm in Babette’s Feast.

– ooo -

Does self-denial really make us more virtuous ? Self-denial as a means to salvation has been pursued in various faiths and at various times. Self-denial is not the same as loss of desire for ‘denial’ inherently means that there was desire.Therefore self-denial takes infinitely more determination than abstaining because of a desire free existence.While I dwelled on this thought as I watched the 1987 drama film, Babette’s feast directed by Gabriel Axel,it left me much more to think about later.

In 19th century Denmark, is a tiny hamlet situated in an isolated stretch off the coast of Jutland.In this barren landscape, two beautiful sisters, Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Phillipa (Bodil Kjer), follow a rigidly devout path.

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They had opportunities to deviate from their chosen path, but they doggedly stick on.Initially I was tempted to attribute it to the high handed approach of their father, a minister in the church, but later was forced to renege when I saw their obvious devotion and joy in their faith.Many years pass, the father is now deceased and the two sisters still continue to follow their path with the same joy and devotion. And then on one stormy night, a young & desperate French woman knocks on their door and she brings with her a letter which rekindle some forgotten memories. They take her in as a cook and so it was that Babette(Stephane Audran) came to live with them and loyally served them for 14 years.

On the 100th death anniversary of their father, Babette requests them to let her cook an authentic French dinner. But when they observe the dinner preparations which includes wine,tortoise soup and quails, it sends the puritan sisters into a flurry. And the would-be dinner guests undertake a vow that not a word about the dinner would pass their lips.

And the meal would have received no verbal recognition had it not been for the sudden appearance of a former suitor of one of the sisters, Lorens Lowenheilm,now a general in the army.

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He was the only person present who could genuinely appreciate the meal unhindered by austerity.He found that the superlative meal could easily parallel one of the finest dining experiences he had  long ago in an exclusive French restaurant.The power of the delicious dinner is such that it breaks down the distrust and the rivalries between the guests and after partaking the wonderful spread, they are uplifted to a different level of equanimity.

It was then that Loren Lowenhielm says – ‘Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.

The film has been shot at some very realistic locations which bring alive the bleakness of the countryside.Every actor plays their part to perfection which is not surprisingly considering that they were specially selected from the same nationalities as the part they were playing.The film won a lot of awards including the 1987 Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.

The movie has some interesting thoughts at play.Does moral uprightness result in small-minded pettiness ? Does one’s humanness take a backseat when confronted with religious intolerance? Did it make the guests hypocritical who in spite of savoring every morsel, felt ashamed to state the obvious ? Was it the bliss of good food alone that brought forth the halo of congeniality ? The film also brings to the fore, the unfailing faith of the two sisters.Before leaving for dinner, Lorens Lowenhielm also ponders about his life’s choices – whether he has won or lost. But after the dinner,he realizes that life was not only unpredictable,it was also beyond reason.Winning or losing was too narrow a boundary to confine God’s wishes.The film also has lent itself to very deep religious interpretation owing to its use of Christian symbolism.

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Babette is a great artist and as she herself declares ‘An artist is never poor’. Paradoxically, the meal was never meant for the sake of the guests.It was,in fact, for herself that she cooks.It was just as she had intended it to be – Not only an artist’s statement but also her personal spiritual en-devour.

The movie kind of grows on you and it will linger long after you have watched it. Watch it if you don’t mind watching slower paced movies and for the interesting interpretations that follow.

Here are some interesting links which talk at length about the religious interpretations..

http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/BabetteWW.htm

http://home.snu.edu/~ghackler/babette/bancroft.htm

http://www.cgjungpage.org/learn/articles/film-reviews/710-the-discovery-of-meaning-in-qbabettes-feastq

Lemon Tree

“We are born with the capacity for empathy. An ability to recognize emotions transcends race, culture, nationality, class, gender, and age” says Mary Gordon.

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‘Empathy’ was the foremost thought that struck me when I saw this beautiful Israeli movie.Lemon Tree is a 2008 movie directed by Eran Riklis.The movie is set in West Bank,a part of the Israeli occupied territory -as classified by the UN.A land-locked territory near the Mediterranean coast of Western Asia, it has perpetually witnessed upheavals and finally was occupied by Israel following a six day war in 1967.Ensuing the military occupation, Israeli settlements in West Bank comprised a sizable population in an area predominantly dominated by Palestinian Arabs.

It is in this combustible landscape that two women’s lives intertwine – a Palestinian Arab widow and a Jewish Israeli woman married to the Israeli defense minister. Salma Zidane (Hiam Abbass) is a middle-aged Palestinian Arab widow who lives alone with limited financial support from her three children. Her life revolves around nurturing her small lemon tree orchard from which she manages to derive a meager income.Her simple life is unsettled when an Israeli defense minister moves in as her neighbor.Barbed wires, tall check posts and round-the- clock security men invade her life and peace. But she finds her life careening, when the orders come in to uproot her beloved lemon trees,as a security measure to deter any armed attack on the defense minister’s house. Salma, a woman brought up in a strict patriarchal society, refuses to be cowed down and decides to take on the Israeli government to save her lemon trees.The story is about her determined struggle to get justice.
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When she hires a young lawyer – Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman) to fight for her, long forgotten emotions resurface. The story is also about loneliness and desires.

Mira Navon (Rona Lipaz-Michael), the Israeli defense minister’s wife is witness to Salma’s struggles to save her trees. A compassionate woman, Mira is moved by her plight and empathizes with her.And in the process,she can no longer ignore her husband’s glaring hypocrisies and shortcomings. She doggedly sticks to the role of a dutiful wife but she can no longer cast aside the growing loneliness within her. Mira and Salma – two women who can’t even communicate with each other. There are language,nationality and history barriers, but they reach out to each other. In a human bond, which is devoid of all requirements of such frivolities.Two women, who struggle in their own way to break the molds society has set for them.Both choosing to revolt in their own way. There are no winners or losers. There is only a sense of completion.
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It is a simple movie – brilliantly directed, poignant and depicts a plethora of subtle hues of the life, times and people involved.Hiam Abbass has acted exceptionally well and in several instances her face emotes far better than any verbal dialogues possibly could.Being a widow in a society, where social mores are rigidly imposed is also depicted through some well chosen shots.
Eran Riklis deals with the movie in a largely apolitical fashion focusing on people and relationships rather than on the conflict. The film did come in from criticism as it was said to be pro-Palestine and portrayed the Israelis, who wield more military power, as abusive and arrogant. Nevertheless, it went on to win several awards in Berlin Film Festival and Asia Pacific Screen Awards.

The Juvenile Pedagogue

Parenting technically speaking, is said to be the process of promoting and supporting the physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development of a child from infancy to adulthood. But when I pondered on the tremendous amount of things I have learned from my child, I agreed in toto with William Wordsmith “Child is the father of the Man” both literally and metaphorically.
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Life is a great teacher but you have to do your part and show up for class each day !

Every experience good or bad, molds us in ways that we sometimes consciously comprehend and at times, fail to register.As years passed and life threw new experiences at me, I too kept learning.But it was the day I became a parent, that I truly learned to ‘look’ at myself – warts and all.

A tiny child grows physically and mentally through a natural progression, the way destiny intended it to be. The child acquires skills at a rate that can shame an adult. We can kid ourselves and feel completely responsible for the child’s development or we can acknowledge that we were mere conduits in the pre-destined journeys of our children.And in those fleeting moments of humility, we might perhaps sense the bigger purpose of things.

In a world, where wonder is considered akin to naivety, weathered with day to day travails, all that was left in the bottom of my cup were the dregs of cynicism.As I watched my son viewing a bug through a magnifying glass, mixing together his paints to discover new colors, saw the exhilaration in his eyes as he created a volcano with soda and vinegar, I found my lost feeling of wonder. To truly feel wondrous is to be in the moment fully.Being in the ‘now’, without a care for the past and future is something I saw in my son.Not for him, worrying about the homework waiting to be done and neither did any past success or failure leave much of an indelible mark. If the punishment or reward was not for that very instant, then it didn’t need to be bothered with, because the next moment would take care of itself. However much that exasperated me and contradicted all that I was trying to teach him about delaying gratification and learning from past mistakes, I had to acknowledge the carefree happiness that I saw in a soul unencumbered by the past or the future.

In my child’s world, I found bonds that were not formed on a worldly wise view of give and take.It did not matter whether his friend invited him to his party or not, he could still ask himself to be invited. As I struggled with my adult responses to these situations, I realized that the ego-less state that I was trying to remedy was exactly what I myself was aspiring for.

As I strove to teach and bring up my child, I forgot that under the harsh glare of my child’s eyes, all my shortcomings were clearly visible. I could preach all I wanted and still disconsolately fall short, did I not practice it myself.I realized if I had to stop my son from doing something , there was no way I could ever hope to continue the practice myself.Where my parents had failed, my son succeeded.This is one role where one can simply not be an armchair consultant.

I didn’t realize the extent of my hypocrisy till I was faced with my son’s questions.While I harped on social equality, was I okay to let my son fraternize with the street urchins ? There are ideals we mouth and ideals we actually stand for. Faced with uncomfortable questions, reason wilts and all that is left in the arsenal is the often impotent ‘Because I said so’ argument. My son brought me face to face with my own prejudices.

A child pushes your buttons like no one else does. I have alternated wildly between being an angel and a monster and been taken aback by my own anger. As I observed my reactions, I was both shamed at my inability to control my anger and amazed at my capacity for patience. It is in times like these, when I stood by and observed myself that I could really see who I was.My child showed me a mirror that sparkled with his innocence.It was now left for me to decide who I wanted to be.

My son bombards me with questions 24 X 7. Why does hot air rise ? Are humans still evolving ? Why should he not take the easiest route ? At times, I have to dig out the information from the dimly lit recesses of my mind and at times, I have to search. I google facts, learn new languages, examine concepts I had learned in an era gone by and wonder at questions that I myself never asked.

There is nothing that can hone your creativity more than trying to teach concepts to a dis-tractable child. How to convert ‘studies’ from a matter of duty to that of interest is a subject that forever fires my imagination.Every night, I tell stories to my child. Many a times, I read them from a book, but the ones he likes best are the ones I invent. The escapades of a boy with an alien friend, conjured up to catch the attention of a technology-savvy, science fiction loving kid and yet, to be grounded in day to day values.

My son with his uniquely simplistic questions of ‘are you happy or sad’ showed me that life need not always be a multitude of greys. Underneath all the hues,only the basic colors matter.Amidst all the complicated jargon, there are only life’s basic questions and underneath the subterfuge, there are only primal emotions.Life is only as simple or complicated as we choose to make it.

As I saw my son writing a secret letter in invisible ink to his best friend, a memory from yesteryear impinged on my senses – a similar scene – a similar thrill as I wrote a letter in secret code to my friend long long ago.My son brought back the joy of my childhood to me.

I am unsure about who’s bringing up whom.As I travel this journey of parenthood, the revelations and the knowledge that it brings forth puts the onus on me.More than learning to be a better parent, I can choose to be a better person and while I do that, I might perhaps end up being a better parent.

Unforgettable Journeys: Road Trip in The Nilgiris

As I was cleaning out my closet, my eyes fell upon a small album tucked unobtrusively between other books. I began flipping through its well-worn pages and old memories tumbled out. I sat ruminating on one of the best vacations we’ve ever had.
A seven-day trip through the Nilgiris had seemed highly improbable amidst hectic work schedules. But we had managed to pull it off. Recollections of vacations always leave a pleasant aftertaste but at times, something singularly stands out. And this one invariably reminded me of how footloose and carefree we had been. Road trips in particular, give plenty of rope to the free-spirited.

Read the rest of my post here..http://blog.travelyaari.com/road-trips/unforgettable-journeys-road-trip-in-the-nilgiris/

Draupadi’s Question

Source: Wiki Commons

Source: Wiki Commons

The messenger enters Drapadi’s chamber and asks her to be present in the assembly after the cruel throw of fate.She sends him back with the question “Whom did you lose first, yourself or me ?” It was legal question at that point of time. But later, she turns it into a moral question in the assembly “Is it right or fair that a woman, let alone a queen, become a slave because her husband staked her in a gambling game ?”

Though the legal aspect resounded completely, the moral one fell short in one aspect – If she could be won at a contest, so could she be lost, taking into cognizance the prevalent customs of those times.But a lady who could stand up and ask this question in the face of dire adversity indicated courage,clear thinking and a will to preserve her dignity at any cost. It could only point to a trait of boldness above all else.

Therefore, it came something as a surprise when I read a completely different interpretation by Iravati Karve, of the very same incident. Quoting from her book, she says..

“Draupadi’s question was not only foolish, it was terrible. No matter what answer was given, her position was desperate.If Bhishma told her that her husband’s rights over her did not cease, that even though he became a slave, she was in his power and he had the right to stake her, her slavery would have been confirmed. If Bhishma had argued that because of her slavery, her husband had no more rights over her, then her plight would have been truly pitiable… She had made many mistakes in her life that were forgivable, but by putting on airs in front of the whole assembly, she had put Dharma into a dilemma and insulted him…Though she was only a young bride of the house, she had spoken in an assembly of men, something she should have known she must not do.Over and above, to pretend that she could understand questions that baffled her elders – that was inexcusable arrogance.”

She further espouses that instead of arguing about the legal technicalities like a lady pundit, she should have cried out for decency and pity in the name of the Kshatriya code. Had she done so perhaps things would not have gone so far.

There are some definite points which struck me – Draupadi had the guts to speak in an assembly of men and elders who might have been more learned than her but who were also prepared at that point of time, to be mute spectators to her humiliation. To think, that at a moment of adversity such as this, a woman would have the capacity to put on airs instead of focusing on using all weapons at hand to defend herself, is also casting an unjust aspersion on her.Though there are sexist connotations and it abounds in far too many patriarchal interpretations for my liking, I had to acknowledge there are facets which are interesting and deserve further thought.

In the face of adversity, which one should a person rely on – Courage or Practicality ? Is a courage;which is guaranteed to lead one to failure, only false bravado. Is practicality which dictates a person to appear weak and grovel, more worthwhile if it guarantees success.Will the ‘success’ earned in this manner be devoid of shame.

Everyday, there are enough and more instances, wherein this question finds its way into conscious thought. There are innumerable cases of victims of rape, some who lose their lives as well and some who fortunately survive to tell their tale. In those darkened alleys and corners, when terror strikes, the question of courage versus practicality would haunt the person who faces it. For all we know, their choice may not have mattered and affected their ultimate fate, but yet again, it could have.

In historical times, there have been enough tales of courage and valor. The story of Chittorgarh is worth remembering in this context.Though the women sacrificed their lives for saving their honor, an idea which can be disputed in the current world context, its a story of courage nonetheless. Was it a story of success or failure or would it be too naive to bracket it so narrowly.In today’s context, there was a case of a woman attacked at an Bangalore ATM. The fact that she resisted a machete wielding man and refused to hand over the money was almost laughable to me.Being practical was a clear winner there. But there are more gory cases of rape which at times lead to murder, some of whom bring forth the question – could the victim have saved herself by being practical.

The importance of Draupadi’s question would find no relevance for an audience which lacks the will and the power to arrive at the right answer.The fact that she asked the question also shows that she reposed faith in their moral dharma and their system of governance even though her faith was later proved to be misplaced.In today’s world, there will be no divine intervention when a woman is being disrobed. It will be entirely upto the woman to keep her wits about herself and figure out the answer to Draupadi’s dilemma.

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