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January 13, 2015

War, and Peace

Parmesh Shahani winds up his Yale stint conflicted about the nature of the world, but still finding reasons to be positive about the future

  • A scene from War, Parmesh's Viewfinder
    A scene from War
  • Parmesh Shahani with the Yale World Fellows on the last day of their programme, Parmesh's Viewfinder
    Parmesh Shahani with the Yale World Fellows on the last day of their programme
  • Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Parmesh's Viewfinder
    Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
  • Parmesh Shahani with designer James Ferreira, one of the key Khotachiwadi festival organisers, Parmesh's Viewfinder
    Parmesh Shahani with designer James Ferreira, one of the key Khotachiwadi festival organisers
  • At the Khotachiwadi Christmas festival, Parmesh's Viewfinder
    At the Khotachiwadi Christmas festival
  • The Renzo Piano-designed unified Harvard Art Museums building, Parmesh's Viewfinder
    The Renzo Piano-designed unified Harvard Art Museums building
  • Parmesh Shahani with Nobel prize-winning economist Robert Shiller, Parmesh's Viewfinder
    Parmesh Shahani with Nobel prize-winning economist Robert Shiller
  • Salvatore Iaconesci explaining his Human Ecosystems New Haven project, Parmesh's Viewfinder
    Salvatore Iaconesci explaining his Human Ecosystems New Haven project
  • Parmesh Shahani with the South African politician Lindiwe Mazibuko, Parmesh's Viewfinder
    Parmesh Shahani with the South African politician Lindiwe Mazibuko
  • A Calder sculpture on the Yale University campus, Parmesh's Viewfinder
    A Calder sculpture on the Yale University campus
  • Sorab Wadia in The Tempest, Parmesh's Viewfinder
    Sorab Wadia in The Tempest

Is war the real nature of the world? In shock after hearing about the school children massacre in Pakistan, words fail, and I flail for answers to the same old hackneyed questions. How can humans commit such terrible acts of violence on innocent children? And in a world gone this crazy, how do we lucky ones cope with our daily privileged lives, without feeling guilty every single moment?

As I wind up my Yale World Fellowship, I reflect on what a generous gift the last few months have been. To seek knowledge and insights, and to enjoy beauty in an insulated cocoon, while the world rages on outside in an orgy of mass murders, stabbings, genocide, rape and more, from Sydney to Peshawar.

In Boston, I gape at the Pritzker Prize awardee Renzo Piano-designed unified Harvard Art Museums building. The new space houses the three Harvard museums – the Fogg, the Busch-Reisinger, and the Arthur M. Sackler – all under the new spectacular roof of the old Fogg building. Now, the Palladian columns rise to meet a gigantic glass pyramid above them, with a granite-cedar building extension alongside, that nudges Le Corbusier’s only building in America, the Carpenter Center, in a weird and wonderful conversation. Standing in the museum’s sun-drenched courtyard, I almost don’t want to go into the galleries, even though they have Rothko murals within that I am dying to see, among their other treasures.

To me, university galleries and museums are the best cultural institutions in the US Harvard’s Art Museums have a combined collection of 250,000 objects, one of the largest in the country, while Yale, has a more modest 200,000 items. I am blessed that the street that I live on at Yale is flanked by two Louis Kahn iconic buildings. (Kahn taught architecture at Yale). The Yale University Art Gallery – Kahn’s first significant commission – is on one side, and opposite it, the Yale Center for British Art, his last building. The past few months have been a joyous exploration of both.

Likewise, I have been greatly stimulated by the theatrical performances that I witnessed during my time at Yale. The Yale School of Drama is one of the leading breeding grounds for US talent. Actors like Meryl Streep, Signourney Weaver and Paul Newman, to name just a few, all graduated from here. The attached Yale Repertory Theatre gives a chance to the Drama School students to collaborate with established professionals and put up theatre productions that would rival anything on Broadway – and the four Pulitzer prizes and the 10 Tony Awards their plays have won over the years after shifting to Broadway, are a testimony to their excellence.

At the Yale Rep, I attend the world premiere of War – the new play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who is today, one of Amercia’s foremost playwrights, at just 29 years of age. War, like the rest of Branden’s work, explores the complexities of race in American society and the world at large.

The stagecraft involves two tableaus that alternate between us in succession. On the one hand is ‘real life’, which features Roberta, an African-American woman who has just had a stroke, lying on a hospital bed. The characters around her include her bickering son and daughter, and a white woman who claims to be Roberta’s sister visiting from Germany with her own son as her companion. She is the child of Roberta’s dead father who had had an affair with a white woman while he was a soldier in Germany during World War II, and has come to the US to reconnect with Roberta and her family.

Intercut with this tableau is another, that shows us Roberta’s internal landscape – a parallel universe that has her trapped in a kind of Plato’s cave, surrounded by ape-like creatures who communicate with her using projected subtitles. Through the conversation that she has with the leader of these creatures, Roberta recollects her past, and the past of her family.

What does it mean to be black? Is African-American even a correct term? Why does race have to enter and inform every interaction in America? Is marrying across the race barrier something to be celebrated or censured? The play deals with questions such as these, and more, with sharp and often funny dialogue. It was a very moving experience. Branden is a genius.

I saw a lot of theatre and art the past few months beyond the Yale campus, on regular visits to my second favourite city in the world, New York. (The first one is Mumbai, dear readers, didn’t you already know that?) These included Broadway shows like This is Our Youth (Micheal Cera and Kieran Culkin have sparkling chemistry!) as well as off Broadway ones like a brilliant rendition of Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the historic La MaMa theatre in New York’s Lower East Side, with Joseph Ryan Harrington – the star of Broadway’s Billy Elliot – sharing the stage with my lovely friend and Mumbai export Sorab Wadia.

I caught shows like the Zero retrospective at the Guggenheim (wonderful), Jeff Koons’ Whitney spectacle (overhyped and disappointing) and a very poignant Takashi Murakami’s In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow at the Gagosian, that dealt with border crossings between pasts and futures and the role of faith and religion in today’s (or rather, in always) crazy times. I had gone off Murakami for a bit in between, but this fascinating show brought me back to fandom once again.

Despite this veritable feast in New York City, I came to realise that there is nothing quite like the intimacy of having all-day access to the best Van Goghs, Monets, African art, Greek art, Japanese art, Calder sculptures, and so much more, pretty much the moment you step out of your home. The pleasure of getting down from my apartment at Yale, sometimes in my pyjamas, and stepping into an Aladin’s cave of artistic riches, and that too, for free, was just unbeatable!

In Boston on a visit to my alma mater MIT, I was filled with pride when I walked into the Media Lab and saw the Minsky arm, on display at their foyer exhibit honouring the Lab’s pioneers – Marvin Minsky, Muriel Cooper and Seymour Papert. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Professor Marvin Minsky had created a robotic arm that used a video camera and computer to build with children’s blocks.  Since then, research has progressed exponentially at the Lab – across every discipline. Cognitive scientist Deb Roy – who I have come to meet at MIT – heads the MIT Lab for social machines, which is researching the intersection of human and machine communication for the future. Other work at the Media Lab covers fields like biomechatronics molecular machines synthetic neurobiology and the future of cities.

What a world! On one side – we have so many advances, so much goodness, so many committed people, pushing the boundaries of what is possible in a positive sense.  But still, we choose to bomb each other. And worse, we bomb children. Why does such evil exist in a world where so much goodness is possible?

Back in Mumbai, the Yale memories flood by – listening to former US President Jimmy Carter speak so eloquently on why gender matters more than ever in today’s world; sharing some ‘irrational exuberance’ with the Nobel Prize-winning Yale economist Robert Shiller. Memories of cold nights and warm conversations with my beloved batch of Yale World Fellows who have all now reached their home countries, just as I have, and are now tiny WhatsApp icons on my phone, but occupy a much larger place in my heart.

Race – the subject matter of the play War is something that bookended our Yale stay. From the riots in Fergusson Missouri that greeted us on our arrival, after black student Michael Brown was shot by a police officer, to the nationwide protests that we ended our stay with, after black father Eric Garner was killed by police officials in a chokehold (neither of the offending police officers were even charged by the respective grand juries!) – it was interesting to witness first hand how the optimism of a post-race America that began with President Obama’s election in 2008 had dissolved into a cauldron of escalating tensions and divisiveness. But how do we get out of this vortex? How to get out of any vortex, for that matter, whether of racial tension, violence or inequality?

I try and remain positive and draw inspiration from the work of the amazing people I encounter in my life. At Yale, these included Chetna Sinha, the founder of Mann Deshi Mahila Bank who is a 2014 Charles Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year and was my predecessor in the World Fellows programme in its inaugural year. People like Lindiwe Mazibuko – the former parliamentary leader of South Africa’s major opposition party – who has learned how to grapple with what it means to be both black and a woman, and forge an exciting career in politics.

People like my World Fellows classmate Salvatore Iaconesci – who is a philosopher, robotics engineer, hacker and artist – and who conquered his own brain cancer some years ago by crowd-sourcing its cure. During their time at Yale, Salvatore and his partner Oriana Persico created a version of their Human Ecosystems Project for the city of New Haven – that captured, in real time, public conversations happening on major social networks in 29 languages – and helped the city map and visualise emotional contagions, like love, fear, and hate in the city. “Our desire as humans is to interconnect,” Salvatore told me as he explained the project to me. “People can use this data for beauty as well as community action.”

This also includes people like the visually impaired Sheena Iyengar, the superstar professor at Columbia Business School whose place I pop into on a cold New York day, to eat post-Thanksgiving cake with. Happiness is a choice Sheena reminds me, and gives me a copy of her book, The Art of Choosing, before I leave. And back in India, this includes people like the indefatigable James Ferreira, who mobilises the East Indian residents of his beautiful heritage Khotachiwadi urban village in the heart of Mumbai, to come together for an annual Christmas festival, celebrating the creativity that lies within each of them. One doesn’t need to look far. There is goodness right next to us.

I remember the story of The Tempest – Shakespeare got it so right all these years ago. As Sorab Wadia tells me while sipping on a post-show hot chocolate, The Tempest is especially relevant today because we can all learn from “Prospero’s humanness, his struggle with acceptance and forgiveness. This man has been deeply wronged and spends 12 years of his life honing his craft, plotting and orchestrating his revenge, and yet when all is said and done he accepts the flawed world in which he lives and chooses to forgive even those who have wronged him most terribly.”

As I leave the US to board my plane back to India I remember Praise Song for a Day – the poem by our very first lecturer at Yale, Elizabeth Alexander, for President Obama’s first inauguration. Here is an excerpt:

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.
Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
Others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?
Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light.

In 2015, dear readers, despite the global bombs, despite the madness, despite overwhelming cynicism that is easy to sink into, I have resolved to move forward into the light. Come and join me there.

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