‘O Captain, my Captain. Who knows where that comes from? Anybody? Not a clue? It’s from a poem by Walt Whitman about Mr. Abraham Lincoln. Now in this class you can either call me Mr. Keating, or if you’re slightly more daring, O Captain my Captain.’
These self-characterising poetic lines which includes a surreal invitation to leap forward into an off-beatish Quixotic adventure a la Jumanji is made to a bunch of students at a prestigious preparatory boarding school with its regimented and punctilious education design, depicted in the 1989 cult film ‘Dead Poets Society’. Here we have Professor Keating announcing himself with a theatrical flourish in the first few scenes and which is the disruptive design he employs to engage with his students as the film progresses to its tragic conclusion.
It is somewhat appropriate that Keating wishes to be addressed as ‘O Captain, My Captain’. Walt Whitman’s elegy is one of his best loved poems and has a sombre quality to its narrative. Somewhat counter-intuitively, Professor Keating uses these lines for his dramatic entry into the classroom full of adolescents whose learning practice appears to be designed to follow a prescriptive pedagogical design which Keating will challenge with an echo reminiscent of the Joker’s gnarly line ‘Why so serious?
For Professor Keating, to be daring offers numerous exciting prospects. When a student ‘dares’, she tends to express herself with joy and a shaking off of the coils of oppression, in a Shakespearean sort of way. For a student, many a times, freedom from pedagogical oppression requires her to pry open the not-so-easily accessible little door to the mind like Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’, from where she can emerge into the immensely vast land of opportunities that the space of ‘dreams’ offers and where anything is both possible and yet impossible at the same time. The ‘I wish I could’ and the ‘I am this’ place of being. Because when she dares to actually try doing what ‘she wishes she could’, it ends up in a lot of fun and a lot of personal flourishing!
Let’s look at Terry Fox who ran 5300 odd kilometres with a prosthetic leg. The 2005 movie ‘Terry’ pays tribute to his spirit and where by the end of the movie that captures his daring marathon of hope, Terry dies before he can complete his run across Canada.
But Terry dared all those who told him that he could not make it. Think of it! A 22 year old young bloke, stricken with cancer, one real leg, the other a prosthetic, runs 5300 odd kilometres before the cancer cells decided to strategize, attack his unwearying lungs and then finally, in a very cowardly manner, kill him.
Imagine that! First the leg goes, then the lungs go. Both being crucial to running, of course. It was a very big dare that Terry dared.
Professor Keating too dares very daringly as well. One of his first instructions to his very impressionable students was to tear out the pages of a very scientific explanation regarding understanding poetry that was written by J. Evan Pitchart, Ph. D.
Keating dared the boys to think outside the limits that were very strictly prescribed by the prestigious all-boys Welton Academy. Eventually Keating gets most of the boys to join him in reviving his ‘Dead Poets Society’; a society which Keating himself had founded when he was a young student at Welton. A society of poets who examined the essence of what it meant to be human, through the eyes of poets long dead and gone.
Keating, as he demonstrates, had been quite daring since his student days!
I share a collection of brief commentaries that were narrated to me by alumni from a few institutions I have been associated with and which allow pause for some reflection in the young adults whom I now teach. These narratives form part of my discussion notes which I have somewhat carefully preserved for my own re-reading and teaching;
Mohit Verma (Marketing Professional): When I was in college, I used to find consolation in Vincy Thomas, the fellow who lived down my lane. Because I thought he was good for nothing, like me. I thought, it would be a relief to have at least someone in our lane who would be a regular old Joe like me, while the rest of the bunch aggressively prepared for great professional success. Vincy liked to sing and in my compassionate moments, I conceded that he had an average voice.
But Vincy did not really care for my assessment. He wanted to be a vocalist and so he quit his job as a sales man for a prestigious potato chips company and joined a singing class. Then his dad passed away leaving them in debt.
But Vincy refused to take up a ‘proper’ job and joined a recording studio for a measly stipend. By then, I had found a job that I thought I could tolerate for some time, like most of the other guys. ‘We’ used to often talk about Vincy.
I remember we would enjoy feeling sorry for Vincy during those days. We had modest paying jobs with some interesting prospects if we stuck on long enough. More importantly, our income compared well with each other’s and that was quite a satisfactory thing. Except for Danish who made twice what we made at a MNC and had booked himself a M-800 with some help from his dad. He had not even got as good grades as some of us in college to make things worse. We didn’t like him all that much really.
During our train journeys twice a day in the sweltering Mumbai heat, we turned the conversation to Vincy quite often. It was a good feeling especially in March when our bonuses were due. We felt sorry picturing poor Vincy working for a stipend in a dingy recording studio. We were all ‘OK’ (in a Berne-ian way), unlike poor Vincy.
I haven’t met Vincy for years now, but in my more honest moments, I knew I envied Vincy for his daring. Vincy was doing what gave him joy. His clothes were cheap and his shoes were cheap and he kept singing old Hindi songs every now and then with great joy. And he earned a measly bit, but his smile was always honest and it vexed me that he did not really seem to care too much for my sympathy and my expert advice on getting a ‘good’ job and ‘thinking about the future’.
Keating said that there’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.
But Vincy had solid daring (sic). Over the years I have completely lost track of Vincy. Perhaps he has given up trying to become a singer or maybe he hasn’t and is still trying. I don’t know. I have not heard from him or seen him in any of the reality shows either. We have also moved away from my old childhood home to another part of this great meandering city. But I envied his daring anyway.
Abhilasha Moitra (Finance Professional): Sundeep Kamath seriously dared! He let go of being the top boss of a major banking Company in Mumbai to take up farming down South. From posh Pali Hill, Mumbai to becoming a farmer, requires daring.
Blessy Matthew (Media Professional): Tressy has tremendous gumption and daring. She came from the back when no one was looking, with her vernacular English and a waxy croaky voice. Now when she drives her Beemer in the sweltering Mumbai traffic, it sure makes the 3 hours of traffic worth her while as an Investment Banker, even in these tough times (sighs).
Jordan Fernandes (Banking Professional): Interestingly, most of the people I meet tell me how great it would be to get out of a 9 to 5 existence. If only it wasn’t for the price of having to ‘keep up with the Jones’. When I say most, I mean almost all of them. Most of them have this dream of either running a coffee shop on Baga beach in Goa where people don’t really drink too much coffee except to kill their late morning hangover. Or else they are dreaming of having flexible working hours that they would enjoy without having to run into nightmarish traffic during the best parts of the day, in the morning and evening.
And finally, Narayan Rao (Poet and Stage Actor):
Narayan has been long fighting anxiety and depression. He shared these written notes with me and read from them:
‘The vast sea is something you cannot fill by pouring in water and you cannot drain up by drawing water. I’m going there for a trip.’ Zhuang Zi states this on page 33 of the slim white booklet that I chanced upon at the Confucius Temple, Beijing. I think Zhuang Zi and Rumi would have got along well. Perhaps they were the same person separated by a millennia. They lived in different time periods but I think they were definitely the same person. Same soul, different bodies. Same potion, different bottles. Perhaps that restless soul drifted across the silk route from China to Iran in its thirst for love. So much mystical Chinese philosophy and no love? This would not do. The soul had no choice but to fly to the centre of the world leaping across those great mountains and civilizations to find the greatest lover of them all. It had to find Rumi. Perhaps after all that wandering it found the perfect place to rest in the rotund body of Rumi where it wove some more magic before it migrated elsewhere.
Narayan could conjure up a mystical world with his eloquence as he continued reading from his notebook….
Page after page of ancient wisdom resonated through the ages like the phlegmatic brush strokes of a painter unburdened by the cacophonous demands of the material world. ‘Is it better to give up one’s life and leave a sacred shell as an object of cult in a cloud of incense for a thousand years, or to live as a plain turtle dragging its tail in the mud?’ asks Zhuang Zi when invited by the Emperor to take up a royal office.
Narayan looks up:
I like the idea of being a plain turtle and dragging my tail in the gloriously creamy mud even if for a few weeks in a year. Never mind, Billy Loman. That (Billy Loman), by the way, is in reference to one of my most favourite speeches from Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ – the one where Billy ruminates over the American dream, the nature of life and how each of us lives a drab daily existence in return for two weeks of vacation a year.
I had watched Alyque Padamsee’s performance as Billy Loman at NCPA, Mumbai some years back. Alyque was beautifully oppressed as Billy Loman, his angst and despair at a life where he longs for the respect he deserves. ‘You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit’.
I’ll read you what I wrote recently for a spoken word event, Narayan continued (I had no choice but to listen and record);
Don’t look for me in happy places. I am beautifully oppressed. Find me in a pub or a lounge. Or on the shabby wall by the beach. Lamenting with joy. Thanking God for my misery. Drinking strong beer. Eating what is left over from the morning catch. The fishermen have a nice economy serving many such as me.
A pub is not about drinking anymore. That much is an excuse – everybody knows. It is not about meeting friends. That is also an excuse – as you well know. I am beautifully oppressed. I have on my make-up. My expensive perfume hides the odor from my skin. I am in a room full of mirrors. Look around, we all smell the same.
When I wrote this, he added, I was feeling alone. Thinking of Billy Loman and writing these lines made me feel lonely. And so I retraced my thoughts, from Confucius the moral disciplinarian, to Zhuang Zi and his stoicism, to the love and beauty of Rumi’s beloved. How did Willy Loman and his disillusionment with an inconsequential life come into this placid picture? Why was Zhuang Zi content with an inconsequential existence while Loman was unhappy with not being extraordinary? What do these words, being ordinary or being extraordinary, really mean? How does one remain inconsequential and yet drink deep from the reservoir of life?
Professor Keating’s words on living an extraordinary life were embedded within a belief in simplicity and the platonic ideal of enriching the mind because it was the most beautiful treasure we have. Why did Robin Williams, the actor who played Professor Keating, kill himself? Did not Keating teach him anything?
Thinking about these questions made me feel like I had rushed inside a log cabin deep in the forest where I was flinging window after window wide open in desperation. Everywhere I turned there were windows. Each one opened to a view that was exclusively its own and yet, each window gazed into the same forest. And from each window, depending on how I craned my neck and how long I stared outside, the forest was so alive in her terrifying colours and hues.
I was staring at the sky. A soft glint of amber light crept out of the forest roof in the twilight hours speaking to me with its emerging brilliance. Bright strokes of sunlight pierced through the glade like arrows burrowing deep into the earth with each passing hour towards noon. Then gradually pulling away with the artistic grace of silk curtains closing after a splendid stage performance. A victorious Samurai withdrawing his sword after an honourable kill and sheathing it with silent gratitude to the vanquished.
Narayan paused. So do my notes.
Professor McAllister: “Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams and I’ll show you a happy man.”
Professor John Keating: “But only in their dreams can men be truly free. ‘Twas always thus, and always thus will be.”
Professor McAllister: Tennyson?
Professor John Keating: No, Keating.
Narayan: As for me, if I were slightly more daring, you could call me ‘O Captain, my Captain’!