Tag Archives: violence

Tenzin’s Hammer

Nizar, the owner/chef at Amantha Restaurant, whose grinning, elongated face is the kind you never forget, had a habit of inhaling on cigarettes as he smoothed out paratha dough on the hot plate. On fine mornings, the smoke swirled elegantly in a beam of sunlight that streamed in through a hole in the corrugated iron shroud. It partially overpowered the sweet and spicy smell of masala but was no worse than the exhaust fumes emitted by passing rickshaws, so if you had objections initially, they quickly melted away (especially if you were also a smoker, as I was at the time). In any case, the taxis roaring by at 80km/h on the newly paved Edava-Papanasam road were a far greater health hazard than any air pollution.

Where's your cigarette?

Nizar tossing parathas at Amantha Restaurant, Varkala

More pertinently, the food at Amantha was cheap, tasty, and delivered with a smile. As it was situated at a busy junction, where three thoroughfares meet, the tables were often full.

One morning, I was walking over for a breakfast of appam, egg curry, and chai when I spotted Tenzin sitting at one of the front tables, barely a metre or two from the asphalt surface of the road. A large hammer was resting on the table in front of him and he held a glass of chai still in his hand. His eyes bore a hole in the street in front of him, his mind seemingly elsewhere. I imagined him finishing his chai in a single gulp, slamming down his glass, picking up the hammer and striding off to mete out bloody, mafia-style justice to some foolish transgressor.

I deliberately walked into his eyeline so that he would notice me, and as soon as he did, the blank expression vanished and his face lit up.

“Oh! Barnaby! Hello!”

Tenzin would smile with his whole face. Everything lifted, from the corners of his mouth to the highest wrinkles on his forty? fifty? year-old forehead, and he looked directly at you with wide and unassuming eyes. Even his voice lilted pleasantly as he greeted you. His intensity from a few moments ago stood at stark odds with his usual serene demeanour, and was quickly forgotten as I reflected his smile.

Tenzin had been running his Tibetan shop Wind Horse on the top of the Varkala cliffs for over about a decade at this point, which made him one of the longest serving shopowners in Varkala’s tourist area. Like many other Himalayan natives –- Kashmiris, Tibetans, Nepalis -– he would be in Varkala from mid-August to mid-May every year, and during the May to August monsoon he would return with his wife to Tibet to spend time with family and buy stock for the next season. Together, they would use their customary courtesy and a quiet, unshakeable self-belief to convince tourists they needed beaded necklaces and notebooks made from recycled paper, among thousands of other items in their cliff shack.

“What’s the hammer for?” I asked as I sat opposite him, my back to the street.

“Pardon?” he replied. Obviously the hammer wasn’t as prominent in his thoughts as it was in mine.

“The hammer! It looks like you’re… ready to use it,” I said, hoping he’d understand my implication.

“Oh! The hammer! Well, I have some workers to build my new shop but they don’t have a hammer, so I had to go and buy one. After this I will go back and we will continue the work.”

These two weeks of construction in mid-July were the exception to Tenzin’s off-season routine. Like many other shopowners on the cliff, he had returned to Varkala early to rebuild his shack, which had deteriorated after a summer’s worth of wind and spray from the Arabian Sea below. This tearing down and rebuilding was Varkala cliff’s yearly regeneration ritual. Most workers who come from elsewhere only make it through one or two of these regenerations before cutting their losses and trying their luck in another tourist paradise. Either they weren’t making money or, worse, they made too much money and got forced out by a local population swift to act against any successful rival to their operations.

The end result is that each season a few old shops would disappear and be replaced by new ones. This particular aspect of the regeneration cycle was sometimes made unconsciously explicit in the naming of new establishments. One year, Sun Rise Restaurant was torn down by its departing proprietor and replaced by a row of fabric shops. A little further along the cliff, a new eatery was being erected with an almost identical menu, despite no connection to the previous management. It was called Sun Set Restaurant.

Sun Rise or Sun Set, maybe?

A clifftop restaurant in Varkala

Tenzin’s longevity in Varkala was therefore something of a miracle — but it didn’t mean he was exempt from the regeneration, or the quality of local labour.

“How’s the work going?” I asked.

“Oh, Barnaby, it’s not going very well. These men, if I don’t watch everything they do, they do very bad work. I have to tell them all the time what to do!” He raised his voice above the din of a passing Ambassador taxi racing along the tar seal with its horn blaring. “Even though they are builders and I am not a builder!” He was still smiling, almost laughing at this point, as though this crucial stage of the process -– which sets the foundation for his and his wife’s livelihood until next May -– was just another trifle to be dealt with. Nothing to get too upset about.

It was a hard enough fight just to remain solvent for a businessman in Varkala, let alone to remain as calm and collected as Tenzin always seemed to be. The challenges were frequent and ranged from the petty to the physically dangerous. One nightclub-style establishment once had its electricity wires cut by a neighbour envious of its success, while the manager of a textile shack (which also served as his accommdation) awoke one morning to hear a rival placing a venomous snake at the entrance to his shop. One of Tenzin’s biggest problems came when the cocky young Nepalese manager of a new restaurant took a shine to Tenzin’s wife and started openly flirting with her. Within a couple of days, Tenzin called a meeting with him and halted the issue before it exploded, as such matters so often do in Varkala. Despite the affront, he made sure to maintain a positive professional relationship with the guy, and in his shop, with the customers, his smiling demeanour wasn’t compromised.

According to a few rare confessions, during which his voice would drop and his gaze would fall from my face to the ground, Tenzin wasn’t always like this. He used to drink and smoke and ride a motorcycle at high speed, late at night, on winding roads carved high into the mountains of Tibet. He used to have extraordinary violence in him that could rise to the surface at the slightest provocation.

Something happened to change all that, something he never told me about in detail. All he ever said of it was, “I thought I died. I should have died.” After that catastrophic event, he latched onto a selection of Buddhist and Hindu beliefs that made sense to him, found a guru, and was effectively born again. The idea of an angry Tenzin, which I had never known, seemed impossible to reconcile with the peaceful man I knew. He defeated all comers — not with blunt instruments but with a warm heart and unwavering conviction.

I wondered, though, if that look on his face as I walked up had offered a glimpse into his past. Perhaps that violence was still in him, somewhere. Maybe just the memory of it returned to him sometimes, an unwanted but necessary reminder of what he had been, before he files it away again and moved on with his life.

Tenzin tipped back the last of the chai and placed the glass back on the table. “Sorry, Barnaby, but I have to get back. If I’m not there, you know, they won’t work! It was nice to see you.”

He picked up the hammer by its head and allowed it to hang freely from his fingers, like a set of house keys dangling innocently from a forefinger. And off he went down the road armed only with his inner strength, the hammer’s potential menace neutralised.

*

This is a re-edited version of a piece previously published on The NRI, an online magazine bringing together Indians, NRIs and anyone with an affinity to India.

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‘Drive’: Machine Versus Horse

IMDb / Ebert
Rating: Recommended
Alternate JW Title: ‘Hero Story

The opening sequence of ‘Drive’ had me thinking all my expectations about the film were correct. The Chromatics’ ‘Tick Of The Clock’ kicked things off, setting the tone with its confident, sinister, minimalist rhythm, with a telephone conversation laying out the terms of the agreement and a splendid pan across a barren room out onto the street lights below. A helicopter shot showed Los Angeles at night from above, sources of yellow light illuminating the city like controlled balls of flame, establishing LA as a character like Michael Mann’s ‘Collateral’ did. The initial getaway job played out like a scene from ‘Driver’, a ten-year-old PlayStation game: all rough atmosphere, near collisions and police radio sounds. The whole film was going to follow in the same vein: a dimly lit, pulsating thrill ride through city streets and bad deals.

What I hadn’t picked was that ‘Drive’, and the nameless hero played by Ryan Gosling, would instead be cut from the same poncho cloth as the great Westerns. Throughout this opening sequence, and for much of the film, he is as silent and imposing as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name; he even chews on a toothpick with the same brooding intensity. In the film’s bare-bones plot (which is little more than an accessory on which to hang a combination of allegories, images and music), Gosling’s driver appears from nowhere, changes everybody’s lives forever and then rides off into the sunset. There are good guys and bad guys, in that the bad guys must do bad and the good guys must try to do good.

Refn’s camera is almost fetishistic in its appraisal of Gosling. He is allowed to leave his chiselled features virtually motionless in many scenes, simply present and immaculate for our appreciation. He’s shot from low angles when driving or doing violence, the skills he has honed well enough to be his vocation, and from high angles when sharing scenes with Carey Mulligan, the woman who steals his heart. In place of a poncho, he has a distinctive jacket that he continues wearing even when it is covered with blood. These stylistic choices establish the driver as a hero, which is the chief purpose of the film (which, again, reminds me of Westerns more than any other genre).

This is what makes the central element of an extremely effective soundtrack – indeed, the film would not be nearly as interesting without it – so interesting. College’s ‘A Real Hero’ plays twice during the film, once during the sweet ‘getting to know you’ scenes between Gosling, Mulligan and Mulligan’s son, and then again at the film’s conclusion. The lyrics, over an unforgettable synth motif, repeat over and over:

A real human being
And a real hero

Gosling is certainly a clear hero, a classic Good Guy of few words driven to do the right thing to the right people and the wrong thing to the wrong people. Virtually the moment he sets eyes on Mulligan, one gets a sense he will protect her to the death – which he does, to all intents and purposes. Though a getaway driver, aiding criminals on a regular basis, his rule of only giving them five minutes of his time gives him a moral footing above that of his employers; he simply drives, until confronted with circumstances that force him to either flee or kill the ones who wish to kill him and the other Good Guys first. Being a hero, he faces his responsibility. He kills.

But Gosling’s driver is not a real human being. He’s a character in a film, as starkly as any character I can remember in recent memory. It’s because he is such an obvious, perfectly troubled, archetypal hero that he is not a real human being. A trick of a film called ‘Drive’ is that it leaves you wanting to believe its central character’s purpose was to drive, that cars gave him meaning and purpose, but they are merely a tool he uses on his heroic path. As are a hammer, the heel of his boot and a very sharp knife. The most human moments he has are those shared with Mulligan and her son, but these exist only to deepen his mythical status as a hero.

Indeed, Mulligan is the only truly human figure in the film. The mobsters, chiefly those played by Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, are also archetypal Bad Guys or antagonists; they serve their own evil ends, gaining from others’ misfortune and eliminating anyone who gets in their way. Mulligan’s son, too, is unrealistic, a child with little purpose of his own other than to be offered a father figure in Gosling. Mulligan, however, lives and breathes every second of her performance as if it were true. She flirts awkwardly with Gosling and feels shame when he finds she’s kind of been leading him on. Her face demonstrates all the emotion of a young, conflicted woman.

One scene makes the contrast between the two characters and their respective world absolutely clear. As Gosling apologises for his involvement in an act that has changed Mulligan’s life, she slaps him – and immediately shrinks, looking down at the ground, scarcely able to contain her anger but dreadfully ashamed to have expressed it with violence. A stranger intrudes, and after Mulligan and Gosling reconnect with a time-stopping kiss – a bridge between their two worlds – Gosling brutally murders the stranger in front of her. She recoils in horror. As far as I can remember, they do not see each other again; Mulligan’s path leads to a continued life in the real world, while Gosling’s leads to heroic duty and death.

But he doesn’t die – at least, not that we get to see. Like Eastwood’s The Man With No Name, or – even more so – like Charles Bronson’s Harmonica in ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’, he ensures the heroine’s survival and then disappears. His function is almost machine-like, reminiscent also of the T-1000 in ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’. (You get the point. Film hero. Not human being.)

I guess this makes Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’ a strange kind of character study – not of a believable person, but of a film archetype most notable in Westerns. It certainly isn’t the all-driving, slow-moving actioner I was expecting – and it is much better for it. It’s growing in my estimations with each passing hour since I left the cinema, when I usually tend to revise down my opinion after getting past the initial adrenaline rush of seeing a film on the big screen.

Two things to note before you go in:

1) With a film so caught up in genre concerns as this, the suspension of disbelief is essential, as is a willingness to forget whatever importance you place on plotting. The plot of ‘Drive’ is a framework for the exploration of genre ideas; in fact, there’s enough in there that I wouldn’t be surprised if other viewers read the film along different genre lines than I did.

2) The few scenes of violence in this film are completely visceral and brutal, mostly carried out with analogue implements to make it that much more tactile. You will likely flinch. Just remember: it’s only a movie.

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Mumbai’s Dark Glory

This is a new one, published Today Itself. My first night in Mumbai, we went down to Colaba and visited two of the city’s most emblematic landmarks, the Gateway of India and the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, both of which were stamped with violence on 26 November 2008. The city gave me a small lesson that night.

This was in early December 2010, just over two years since the terror attacks in South Mumbai that have become known as 26/11. Not such a long time, really. “Imagine, they came right up through here,” said Isha, looking through the arch to the harbour on the other side. “And over there,” said Jag, pointing off to the left at a small mooring on the edge of the concrete expanse. It was, in fact, very difficult to imagine. I’ve never had to deal with any kind of large-scale violence in my life; my only frames of reference for gun-toting commandos on the charge come from television news and action films.

Read more at The NRI…

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