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The blue reel

 

Miracles

 

By Walt Whitman 1819-1892

 

Why, who makes much of a miracle?

As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,

Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,

Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky…

 

 

There's an impatient honk and there's the sound of tyres screeching to a halt as the signal turns

red. There's a shrill whistle signalling the cars at the opposite side of the road to move. The traffic

police are trying his best to control the unruly cars, but it's a daunting task. Then there's the splatter of water as pedestrians make their way around water filled potholes, as though playing the game of hopscotch: winner is one who gets to the destination with the least amount of splashes on their

clothes.

 

   Privy to all this is the Arabian sea, a layered expanse of sheets of blue, with each sheet smoothly

picking up pace and rolling over the sheet that has lost some of its potential energy, creating a

mesmerising show of crests and troughs, while sprinkling the passers-by on the promenade with

water. The sprinkle could very well be the cry of the sea for attention, its attempt to get people to

acknowledge its beauty and elegance, while they move on with their lives.

 

   This drama is a dumb backdrop pasted to the glass facade of the TAO Art gallery, one of the oldest

art galleries in south Mumbai. The sounds of vehicles faintly carries into the gallery but otherwise it's

like watching a silent movie, where the scene is played on repeat mode with the colour of the sea

changing from a bright white dazzling in the sun to an ominous black as the sun sets beyond the

horizon. Oddly, it is a graphic that has diligently accompanied Hesh, just like the endless landscape of

fields and trees running parallel to out-station bound train. Hesh is on-board the train of life and the

backdrop of a waterbody is a constant witness to his life, even following him from Mumbai to

Manhattan. "I grew up at Shivaji Park in Bombay. My cousins and I would play at the beach, showing

up after hours of making sand castles and downing large quantities of naariyal paani," says Hesh

Sarmalkar, a professional actor now settled in Manhattan.

 

   Born to a family of filmmakers, Hesh naturally had an inclination for the performing arts but his

journey to becoming an actor took its staggering path, not unlike the Hudson River. "Education was

always stressed upon by my parents and they always tried to instil a good balance of doing well

academically and simultaneously following your passion, whatever it may be. I was always fond of

acting, and of course, since my mom's family was one of the founding families of the Indian film

industry, I was exposed to good cinema at an early age. But my dad always said that I could only act

if I stood 1st or 2nd in class." Then at the age of 16, Hesh had to deal with a course-changing

obstruction, his parents said, 'no more acting!' Submitting to this undesirable tide, Hesh decided to

at least do it on his terms. "I always aspired, for some weird strange reason to live in America. This

obsession arose with a Walt Whitman poem I studied in school, it was called Miracles. It had a line

that said, ‘As to me I know of nothing else but miracles, Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan, Or

dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,…' And that stuck with me. Since the age of 14 I

used to frequent the United States Information Centre at Churchgate, reading everything about

America, especially New York. Parents were of course sceptical about my dream to study in

Manhattan because the movie Saaransh had released around then, it was the story of a son who

gets mugged and killed in New York. But I was very bold and ambitious, so very smartly I found a

university that was only 45 minutes from Manhattan. This way I could go to Manhattan once or

twice a week. This fulfilled my parents’ criteria of not living in Manhattan, and it worked very well

for me as I got a $40,000 scholarship for an MS PhD program in Neuro Bio-chemistry."

 

   "I finished my course work but I had that constant nagging feeling that said, 'you know what, this is

not what I want to do!'  So I finished my double masters and left the world of science research and

joined the Strasberg acting school in New York, switching unswervingly to acting. It was a tough

choice, but backed with my rich legacy, my upbringing and the unflinching faith shown by my

parents and sisters, I boldly followed the whispers of my heart," says Hesh about finally making it to

his career delta.

 

   After firmly saying no to play stereotypical roles, Hesh finally bagged some crucial rules in plays

and got his foothold in the world of acting. "To strike a balance, I joined the Asia Society; it's a

cultural and educational organisation. I felt like this was my way of staying connected to my roots

through my profession," says a patriotic Hesh.

 

   As Hesh narrates his story while sipping on a glass of nimbu paani, the Arabian Sea seamlessly

blends with the clear blue sky, giving a sense of eternity. In contrast to the sea, the Hudson River is a

lucid void, a clear breather meandering through the glass-steel-concrete jungle, perhaps, flowing

constantly to find a quiet home close to earth while the buildings soar up towards the sky. "I don't

know if it has followed me or if I'm following it but it has consistently accompanied me wherever I've

settled. Whenever I'm thinking of a scene that has an emotional element, I like walking by the

Hudson River because I look at it this way: the divine drops from the heavens created the water,"

says a passionate Hesh. Interestingly, an anti-climax to Hesh's story is his desire to leave the

waterscape behind and be surrounded by the grainy warmth of the desert in Rajasthan. "I've always

told everyone that my body is in New York and my soul resides in Rajasthan."

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The People Place Project is an initiative to chronicle the life and times we live in. Through a lens of people and places, we hope to pin together the narrative of how we have come to be here - our language, our thoughts, our attire, our structures - everything that defines us. The Project will travel through cities of the world to unravel fresh individual narratives that add to the whole. Started in 2014 under the title People Called Mumbai, the project now aims to travel across the prime cities of India and the globe. 

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