Saturday, May 28, 2011

RPM / Pranay Gupte: What a long, strange trip it has been English

An old portable movie camera. (File photo)
An old portable movie camera. (File photo)
When I was very young and still a college student in Boston, I saw a movie starring Anthony Quinn and Ann-Margret. Their chemistry didn’t quite sizzle on the screen, but I went because Stanley Kramer directed the film, Erich Segal—author of the bestselling “Love Story”—wrote the script, and I was their fan. The movie was “RPM”—”Revolutions Per Minute.”

Those of a certain age will recognize that, in those days, RPM referred to the spins of long-playing records. They were made of resin, and they were surprisingly resilient, although a favorite pastime at college used to be trying to snap those records in two (at least the ones we thought were lousy). CDs, cassettes and digital music hadn’t arrived then, and as college students we lugged around cumbersome records that were encased in large, colorful cardboard.
Some of my friends went to see “RPM” because they thought—mistakenly, of course—that it was about the music industry. Others went because the film had a fine soundtrack. Still others went because Ann-Margret was shown partly undressed in some scenes. It was a time of free speech and free love, the “Age of Aquarius,” and titillation was always welcome, whether on campus or in celluloid. (The porno industry had yet to crack the commercial market, so we flocked to films that were considered daring then but would pale in comparison to the explicitness in today’s mainstream cinema.)

I went to see “RPM” for another reason entirely. I’d heard that it nicely captured the ethos of the time, the clangor and the clamor as students across the United States protested American foreign policy in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Their protests contributed to the decision by President Lyndon Baines Johnson not to seek re-election in 1968. Their protests were a huge irritant for Johnson’s successor, Richard Milhous Nixon. Their protests helped change America’s popular culture. Their protests shook the American political establishment.

And their protests eventually proved decisive in the US withdrawal from Vietnam, where 58,220 young Americans died, and many more were grievously wounded, not to mention an estimated 3 million Vietnamese who were killed or maimed. I wanted to see how these tragedies would translate to the big screen. How would Stanley Kramer portray campus culture, inflamed and agitated as it was? Would the director get it? Or would reality override fiction? Movies are a powerful medium and I wanted to be enthralled, unsettling though that era was.

In the event, “RPM” proved to be a messy film of truculent dialogue and terrible cinematography; I thought that it did not catch the zeitgeist. Stanley Kramer had lost his touch, it seemed, and Erich Segal’s script was anemic. I wasn’t especially moved by the music either. But in those days, admission for students was not even quite $1, so it wasn’t a poor way to spend an afternoon away from my campus.

“RPM” comes to mind now because it has been such a long time since my Boston days, and I have witnessed so many revolutions in the long years since I decided, even while at college, to become a journalist. The revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa are the latest that I’ve monitored. RPM indeed.

“RPM” also comes to mind because it is my birthday today. I am beyond making new resolutions to change my life, but I am not beyond summoning recollections of a life spent in the trenches of journalism, of a career as a storyteller in the bazaar—in novelist Irwin Shaw’s memorable phrase—of years trying to figure out the dynamics and subtexts of different cultures. I have reported from more than 140 countries, but the most impenetrable have been Arab societies.

That isn’t because they are inaccessible, even though I have encountered less than friendly governments who sometimes just wanted me to stop asking inconvenient questions. That certainly isn’t because Arabs aren’t warm and welcoming; indeed, they can smother a stranger with kindness.

That certainly isn’t because Arabs do not extend their friendship and loyalty to you: how many times have I been befriended by Arabs within minutes of meeting them, how many times have they joyously thrown open the doors of their homes and houses of worship to me. And that certainly isn’t because Arabs don’t wish outsiders to understand their history and sensibilities; how often have I met Arabs who patiently explicated the timeline of their vast ethnography.

No, it isn’t all those things.

It really comes down to this: It is impossible for a non-Arab to enter the mind of an Arab. His mind is special, it is layered, and his thoughts and speech are nuanced. His very being is steeped in a history that goes back to time immemorial. His cultural memory is so formidable that you, a non-Arab, can barely begin to scratch at it.

His language is so rich in imagery and aphorisms that even if you, a non-Arab, can speak it fluently you can rarely grasp its subtleties fully. It is not a language simply of the vocal chords, or of vocabulary. It is a language of the body, of the eyes, of shadings, of a nod of the head and a turn of phrase.

I do not mean this essay to be a paean to Arabs, much as I would like that; I am not a bard, and I certainly can never expect to match the poetry that comes out of Arabs’ prose. But this I can say: It is my birthday, it is a time for reflection and recollection, and it is sobering to realize that, despite a lifetime of high adventure there’s so much I do not understand about life and living.

It’s not fashionable for journalists to acknowledge this sort of thing. These admissions are not even bruited about when my tribe gathers around the modern-day campfire of hotel lounges and hideaway pubs. I cannot even take refuge in the fact that I have rarely joined my brethren in bars because I do not imbibe. Even had I done so, I would have been greeted with hoots of derision, and tart suggestions that admissions of personal inadequacies were best taken to a psychiatrist’s couch.

Journalists brag, they boast, they strut, they talk entirely too much. I suppose that this is understandable: We spend so much of our time listening to others during the course of our professional day that when the day ends, we like to listen to ourselves talking. How else to explain the braggadocios unleashed at our insular gatherings, how else to parse our self-congratulations?

Nowadays, our days simply do not end. We measure our competence in 24-hour news cycles. The Internet has changed the media industry. There is a deadline every minute, especially in Web-based journalism. Those days of hanging out in bars, trading tales, swapping stories, reviling our editors and drooling over wenches we might encounter during our travels and travails—those days have disappeared. They will never return.

The velocity of events, the demands of a business beleaguered by diminishing profits and audited by gimlet-eyed bean counters, and by the impatience of readers (eyeballs?) pretty much guarantee that the leisurely libation, the savory collation at the railed bar, the nudges and winks at comely colleagues, the mutual exchanges of looks pregnant with carnal promise—all of these things have been relegated to a distant past lodged in not so distant memories. That past cannot be recaptured; one must be content with recollections.

Those recollections constitute a procession of images, and they elicit a stirring of sentiments. I think of the graciousness of the late King Hussein bin Talal of Jordan, and of his brother, the erstwhile Crown Prince Hassan bin Talal. I think of the time when President Hafez al-Assad of Syria promised me 20 minutes of interview time in Damascus and then, when he found out that I’d been born in Bombay, happily talked for an hour about his friend, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India—this was while Yasser Arafat was kept waiting in an anteroom.

I think of King Hassan II of Morocco, who plied me with French chocolates and almond milk at his palace in Fez, while pointing to the names carved in gold on the ceiling that listed his forbears from the time of the Prophet Mohammed.

The procession continues: irritable dictators, imperious bureaucrats, and everyday people living under the yoke of stifling systems that they did not vote for. There were midnight flights to places that had been bombed, and where I would be shot at.

And an important part of the procession: my son, and my former wife, whose stares shrivel my soul because I simply did not spend sufficient time with them—there was always the story to hunt, there was always a deadline to be met.

Part of the procession, too: Friends who drifted away because my ambition always came first. And part of the procession: my parents, role models who applauded my success but who died before I could ever honor them for shaping my life, before I could tell them how much I missed their love and counsel while I was trekking alone through the jungles of journalism.

The procession has a voice, it says to me: This is the life that you chose to lead.

But what, in the final analysis, is the point of the very act of recollecting? I often revisit T. S. Eliot and his “Four Quartets,” in particular the third poem, “The Dry Salvages.” A lot of people take it to be inspirational verse, but it isn’t really. It is terrifying. It speaks to the human condition. It speaks of deep personal failings that we, all of us, have.

I thought that I should reproduce “The Dry Salvages”:

It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence—
Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy
Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,
Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.
The moments of happiness—not the sense of wellbeing,
Fruition, fulfillment, security or affection,
Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness. I have said before
That the past experience revived in the meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations—not forgetting
Something that is probably quite ineffable:
The backward look behind the assurance
Of recorded history, the backward half-look
Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror.
Now, we come to discover that the moments of agony
(Whether, or not, due to misunderstanding,
Having hoped for the wrong things or dreaded the wrong things,
Is not in question) are likewise permanent
With such permanence as time has. We appreciate this better
In the agony of others, nearly experienced,
Involving ourselves, than in our own.
For our own past is covered by the currents of action,
But the torment of others remains an experience
Unqualified, unworn by subsequent attrition.
People change, and smile: but the agony abides.
Time the destroyer is time the preserver.

Eliot wrote “The Dry Salvages” in a different time. But what he said then is no less true now. You need to look no further than Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Oman and Bahrain. Like every journalist I know, I really did not expect way, way back on December 31, 2010, that their polities would be upended by protests, that, in some instances at least, political establishments would be demolished.

Journalists are supposed to hold straws—or at least wet fingers—to the wind in order to anticipate events. But this time a cyclone, not merely a wind, came: all of us scrambled to cover its path, often getting in one another’s way. It wasn’t quite journalism’s shining moment, although some TV networks performed well; the limelight belonged to the masses, and deservedly so. Those who tweeted and blogged drove news coverage, for the most part.

So what is it? Have we seen the future of journalism? Are conventional journalists being made irrelevant? Should we all simply blog? Are our dispatches going to have to be limited to 140 words at a time? What will happen to the long-form narrative? Is the age of editors vanishing? Who will be the filters and guardians of our craft? Heavy questions, few answers, fewer certitudes.

What a strange trip it has been since that long-ago afternoon in Boston when I was very young and at college; when my career dreams were still nascent; when everything seemed possible for an ambitious stripling from India who had chosen to study in America; when the terrors, tribulations and triumphs of life were yet to rise on my horizon; and when I went to see “RPM.”

It is still RPM, but the disk of daily life is spinning even more giddily that I could ever have imagined. We had all better come to terms with that. How else to cope with what’s coming our way?

(Pranay Gupte’s next book, “Dubai: The Journey,” will be published this year by Viking Penguin. He is working on his memoirs of nearly five decades in international journalism. Mr. Gupte can be reached at:

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