“If not us, who? And if not now, when?” is a spur to quick action in the now, without waiting for a prod, and is frequently used as clarion call to take up cudgels against social injustice. Dithering makes one, by implication, part of the problem. Although this rousing articulation or differing versions thereof have been made popular by several political figures, its origins lie in Hillel the Elder, a first-century BCE Jewish leader, who reportedly stated, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being for my own self, what am I? And if not now, when?”, as more of a commentary on self-advocacy than social activism. Since Hillel’s utterance, variations of it have been used not just in politics, but in arts and literature as well.
The telling observation strikes us once again in the context of the passing of a titan like Mikhail Gorbachev who went about his task with an ‘íf not me, who and if not now, when’ zeal. When the world was still mired in insanity inherent in history’s reiteration of similar events irrationally aimed at expectations of different results, leadership set against societal currents and principles not standing firm like rocks, Gorby, as he was fondly called, stepped in with refreshingly powerful dynamics that promptly dismantled the monstrous edifices of yesteryears and restructured them with new-age constructs that reflected emerging aspirations of openness and freedom, an initiative famously encapsulated in perestroika and glasnost, two Russian words that since gained entry to the global political lexicon. Though in power for less than seven years, Gorbachev unleashed a breathtaking series of changes resulting in the collapse of the authoritarian Soviet state that was otherwise on the road to penury and implosion; further leading to the liberation of East European countries from Russian domination, also culminating in tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and the cessation of decades of East-West nuclear confrontation. A rare statesman who was driven by the belief that yesterdays’ problematic enormity only served to remind of today’s reformative inadequacy, he had the prescience to predict that a different future was possible and the courage to risk his entire career to achieve it. The result was a safer world and greater freedom for millions of people.
Raisa and Mikhail in their younger years...
During my student days, the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) held a great deal of fascination, projected as it was as a welfare state and a beacon of socialism. Sprawled over 22.4 mn sq kms, USSR, headed by the Russian republic, was a mammoth geographical entity eulogized by left liberals as a land of milk and honey. It spanned most of Eurasia, accounting for almost the size of entire North American continent. The romance of the flagship communist state that began in 1922 petered out by1991; by Boxing Day 1991, USSR had fully disintegrated, with its constituents becoming separate sovereign states.
Gorbachev envisaged an end to conflicts and the arms race, aiming for an open socialist society with ex-Soviet and Warsaw Pact countries free of Stalinism in its various formats. He was the kind of Soviet leader the world had never seen. He was young, relaxed. He tried utmost and his efforts were crowned by the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990; though determined to build better relations with the West and to reinvigorate the stagnant Soviet economy, he did not quite succeed in his endeavour. By the time he left office, the Soviet Union no longer existed. “What happened to the USSR was my drama,” he later narrated to a journalist, “And a drama for everyone who lived in the Soviet Union. A split in society and a struggle in a country like ours, overflowing with weapons, including nuclear ones, could have left so many people dead and caused such destruction. I could not let that happen just to cling on to power. Stepping down was my victory.”
Many Russians were critical of his governance and blamed him for the unintended collapse of the USSR, caused by events spiralling beyond his control. Recalling his early days in power, Gorby once recounted to an interviewer: “When I became General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, I travelled to towns and cities across the country to meet people. There was one thing everyone talked about. They said to me: ‘Mikhail Sergeyevich, whatever problems we have, whatever food shortages, don’t worry. We’ll have enough food. We’ll grow it. We’ll manage. Just make sure there’s no war’”.
It was a very different Gorbachev that the same interviewer encountered in 2019. There was a sadness in him not seen before. It was as if he sensed that his achievements were being rolled back; that Russia was re-embracing authoritarianism and East-West confrontation was returning. To the query at this juncture whether freedom was under threat in Russia, Gorbachev claimed that the process that was set in motion had not attained completion as yet, and that there were still some people for whom freedom was an annoyance as they did not feel good with it. When asked if he meant Vladimir Putin, Mikhail Gorbachev’s tacit response was to leave it to the questioner to guess the answer. It was customary for Gorbachev to end his interviews musically, with him moving over to his piano to play and croon some of his favourite songs in Russian. The lyrics of one of these songs are tinged with irony: “Between the past and the future is the blink of an eye, and that instant is what we call life.” The Soviet Union passed in the blink of an eye. What are 70 years as a timescale compared to the centuries of Roman and Ottoman empires?
On Gorbachev’s 90th birthday in March 2021, President Putin praised him as “one of the most outstanding statesmen of modern times who made a considerable impact on the history of our nation and the world”. On his passing, António Guterres, general secretary of the United Nations, said Gorbachev was a “one-of-a kind statesman who changed the course of history”.
At inflection points in history some leaders rise, others falter. Mikhail Gorbachev rose to make our world safer. He, too, was imperfect. But he had a vision for stability over chaos and ultimately freedom over repression.
In cinema there is no God, only Godard: Celebrated film-maker and the eternal god of cinema exited from the scene at his Lake Geneva home on 13th September 2022. “When you are still with dolly shots and close-ups, we are with the protesting workers and students”, raged Godard while urging the organizers to suspend Cannes Film Festival in 1968 as a mark of solidarity with the agitators. Not just political films but cinema itself needed to become politics, according to Godard. Holding a hand-held camera, he was in the midst of agitating students and workers in France. He believed that “Photography is truth, cinema is truth 24 frames per second”. Even at the age of ninety, he was active directing the 3-D film entitled ‘Image Book’. Indeed, his was a life that fathomed the artistic depths of cinema. There have been more radical filmmakers before, during and since Jean-Luc Godard made his great body of cinema. But no one has been arguably so revolutionary, in the sense of dramatically changing the language of celluloid art. A pivotal member of La Nouvelle Vague, or ‘New Wave’ cinema, which Francois Truffaut aptly described to be not a movement but ‘a quality’, Godard’s first feature film, the 1960 ‘A Bout de Souffle’ (Out of Breath) – better known in the anglophonic world as Breathless – was itself a manifesto of this ‘quality’, with its jump cuts, elliptical narratives and organic dissolves. In films like the 1963 Le Mépris (Contempt), the 1965 Pierrot le Fou (Pierrot the Fool), the 1968 documentary-cum-feature 1+1, and the 1987 experimental King Lear, Godard, with his scorn for the ‘thick’ plot line, showed the true value of not just moving pictures but moving situations.
In cinema, Godard depicted that an art form can be seen as an arch-rival to life, with controlled distillation of dialogues, meshing and unmeshing of characters, and a sensory collation-collision where beginning, middle and end need not follow the dogma of that order. As he had once said when responding to violence portrayed in his films, ‘It is not blood, it is red’, a nuance that eluded most viewers in his time, and would have certainly eluded even more people today. Along with many of the celluloid masters such as Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, David Lean, Alfred Hitchcock, Chaplin, Federico Fellini, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Andrei Tarkovsky, Richard Attenborough and Roman Polanski, Godard was the light of truth passing through films to project memorable works of cinematic art.
The King leaves the Court, long live Federerism: A few countries may want to consider the recently concluded seventy years’ reign of a 96 year old as a measure of the end of an era. Not so the world of sport and its legions of admirers. For them the departure of tennis’ monarch from the far more crowded courts signals the glorious end of the Federerian Age. The numerous accolades and trophies may bear testimony to his many achievements. But they simply do not do justice to what the 41 year old Swiss has been capable of in a career spanning a near quarter century that came into the limelight when Roger Federer won his first Wimbledon Grand Slam at 21 years of age. The languid grace in his movements across the court, fluid serving and volleying, and his silky backhand together with a formidable forehand, perfectly balanced overhead shots, exquisite slice and drop shots will forever be etched in collective memory as feats of supernatural beauty. On the lawn, he was the grass whisperer, not using power or strength as much as deftness, a genius for the right touch of racquet to ball to achieve high precision placements in unexpected reaches of the court, leaving opponents stranded. Watching him play was akin to viewing a scintillatingly choreographed ballet on stage, all glide and flow, seamless, seemingly effortless movements culminating in tennis wins of spectacular artistry. Roger’s final hanging up of his racquet means heartbreak for the world of tennis, of no longer being able to see one of the greatest athletes of the modern era ply his glorious art and precision trade. Game, set, match, tennis, Roger Federer…!
With Gorbachev, Godard and Federer becoming part of a glowing historical narrative, the vacant space in the domains of politics, cinema and sports is awaiting greater statesmanship, creative flair and dynamism, driven by the missionary spirit, in the manner of the late Russian leader, and beauty, inherent in a game of tennis as played by Federer and Dostoevsky’s illumining ‘beauty’ that ‘will save the world’.