Saturday, December 15, 2012

Sunshine

The day has ended almost before it has begun. A colleague remarked yesterday that the pressure of work wasn't allowing him time to assimilate the myriad victories and defeats of the day, so that he could arrive at a rhetorical assumption about how life was progressing for him and the world at large. The perpetual news cycle doesn't grant the bemused cynic any latitude to indulge a theory of social progress or decay when he is blindsided by the next big story that is always about to strike. The pace, the freneticism, the gratification, the mission of - release, has overshadowed what was once a binding narrative, even in confusing times of war, that one can base one's judgment on when confronted with a metaphorical mirror that you could hold up to virtue and its comeuppances. The sense of comparison is dead... in this age when there is really very little material available to use to relate anything to a sense of triumph... which is, I think, a psychological imperative for the justification of life - ours and everyone else's.
I should solicit help posthaste.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Obvious Gesture


- Picture from the Vanity Fair article on Osama Bin Laden's assassination.

First impressions are often the truest, as we find (not infrequently) to our cost, when we have been wheedled out of them by plausible professions or studied actions. A man's look is the work of years; it is stamped on his countenance by the events of his whole life, nay, more, by the hand of nature, and it is not to be got rid of easily.” William Hazlitt (1778 - 1830).

A simple Google search of common hand-on-mouth gestures yielded this link:


Sunday, September 30, 2012

A day-dream of iniquity

I remember reading some time ago about how watching scenes of people partaking in drugs on a screen, with all the attendant rituals, can trigger withdrawal symptoms in drug-addicts even though they have been off drugs for a while. Reading Jeet Thayil's, 'Narcopolis' it seems easy to imagine a similar psychosomatic eruption in long-reformed opium smokers from a by-gone era when immersing themselves in the lush landscape of the writer's Bombay - in a meditation on a time and place in history that I'm sure very few historians will have revisited, if only for the devilish complexities inherent in its ethos that seem so resistant to a neat and diaphanous compartmentalization that inexorably leads to contemporary narratives of the modern world.

It goes without saying that the credentials of the writer are sound, his telling of the tale, stylish, and his character-portrayals, convincing in the extreme, and not only because the sum of his characters' individual quirks all put together, make them seem more human than your next door neighbour. It took Thayil years to write this book while being involved in other artistic pursuits, and all the hours revisiting those parts of his youth that he draws on must have been ponderously painful for him and, on contemplation, reminded me most vividly of Bill Murray's character's attempt in Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers (2005), plodding through the ghosts of past love-lives, to discover if he really has a son.
I don't know if it just seems this way to me or whether it's really true that we are witnessing an extraordinary cross-cultural re-examination of collective humanity's past interaction with opium, through important tales that seem to have been hitherto lost somewhere in colonialism's hidden harems that are only now being shown the light of day, inducing in the reader an eerie reflection of modernity's greatest anxieties by resurrecting the iniquitous circumstances in the lives of our ancestors. Over the past year, Amitav Ghosh's trilogy that began with, 'Sea of Poppies' and continued to, 'River of Smoke', forced a re-examination of a heavy page from history that was apropos conveniently forgotten in contemporary criticisms of the rise of China in the present. A recent book from a serious collector of opium paraphernalia tells us that it is easier to source original items from private collections in the Western world than it is to buy and trade them in the bazaars of the East. But for all the lauded mystique behind that most oriental of pursuits, 'Narcopolis' is more than just a recounting of Bombay's transition from an opium-induced melting-pot of cultural oddities to a hyper-city of fast passions and faster comeuppances, through the eyes of colourful characters steeped primarily in the drug trade.
I hadn't read anything close to what amounts to a fully realized eunuch character taking centre-stage as we observe the self-immolation of an entire culture at the altar of economics, until 'Narcopolis'. I didn't know anything about the uprising in Wuhan until I read its fascinating impact on the life of one of the main characters in the book. I didn't know about the genesis of garad heroin and its fatal repercussions on a whole way of life for many of old Bombay's residents, until 'Narcopolis'. And I definitely hadn't read a story told with so much angst about the disappearance of a romantic ideal of base escapism that shrouds every character in its enveloping haze, until 'Narcopolis'.

Jeet Thayil once responded to a newspaper interviewer's question about what he was trying to say with his novel with a blunt denunciation of the efficacy of questioning the motives behind anything produced as art. In another interview he said that a friend of his once remarked that the book exists in a genre all its own.
I doff my long-disappeared pipe to him, from one survivor of iniquity to another, for the great gift to the rest of us still standing that is Narcopolis.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Pitter Pater

The temptation to see the things that are so obvious that they assail you with a benumbing sideways headache that you can actually reach out and touch on your skull, in a light that is reflective of prejudices that are ingrained auto-mechanically on your psyche finds special expression in the experience of being a father to a child in ways both startling and shameful once you come to recognize the inherent discrepancy at the heart of its subjective puzzle.
I took my 19-month old daughter to a two-year old's birthday party yesterday. There she was joined by many children around her age. Once ensconced within the atmosphere of the party and reconciled to the balloon-cake-soft toy-party hat ethos, she danced, sang, laughed out loud and revelled in the adulation thereof, like a veteran of social engagements of the kind that I used to balk at ever since I can remember. I was bemused at the confidence with which she approached her interactions with people she had never met before. I was nonplussed at the assertiveness with which she dealt with other children considering she doesn't really have much to do with any in her day-to-day existence otherwise. I was secretly proud of the ways in which she chose one contorted farm animal balloon over another, and sometimes two, based not on what the other children were getting but on her own predilections at the time. And I was flabbergasted at the relative ease with which she manoeuvred her way in and out of crowded spaces, and into the thick of the action so many times with nary a backward glance at her father looking warily on, even while registering her mother's absence at the event.
There are many ways of analysing this sorry excuse for a post brimming with beaming paternal conceit, but if there's one thing I cannot reconcile with it is the instinct that hits me with a sledgehammer every time I experience one of those moments that everyone hears described as, '...my heart nearly burst when...'.  In these moments I am most aware, not of joy or pride or gratification, even though they must constitute the sum of the experience... but doubt.
Can I be the best father to this glorious creature so full of promise it breaks my heart to just contemplate her? Can I justify the enormous and unquestioning faith that resides in the heart of she who runs toward me at the hint of an angry outburst (that has nothing to do with her) - to cuddle, coo and soothe. Can I put the constant preoccupation with my private study of eugenics aside in the realization that time will decide what life wills for my child and not her genetic heritage? Can't I just love this...?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The scrawl mnemonic

I must confess that when I began this blog I imagined that it would be an outlet to the frustrations of having to make myself understandable to people I met and knew through everyday life - who did not share my passion for academic and exculpatory idiomatic usage of language as a proven means to make the hours go by more easily. I did maintain a diary for years before, and I still sometimes make notes with pen and paper when I am reading something that catches the eye, unless, that is, I am feeling terribly lazy at the time. But stream-of-consciousness was the guiding principle and even finds mention in this blog's description that I have adamantly refused to change, cringe-worthy though it reads every time I happen to glance at the right column through a perusal.
But the means to put ideas - converted to barely communicable thoughts - filtered by the constant terror of being found out as basely ignorant - to the final result that one sees on the page, hasn't really changed through the years. I start out with a feeling that I need to say something and a bare concept of what I intend to say and then bring together the means by which the transposition takes place. So the concept of voice-driven writing that seems to be the next inexorable step in the writer's evolution toward being a content-creator, is grounds for umbrage to what seems an engineered debacle in the offing directed wholly at me.
It has taken me years to develop a speaking style that is in direct contradiction to the way I write, and the dissimilarity extends even to the communication of interests, hobbies, pleasures and needs that I make based on the platform in question. People who know me primarily as a speaking person have quite a different idea about me from those who have never met me but read what I write and put out there for consumption. Those unlucky few who have had the misfortune of knowing both sides of the spectrum that my articulation affords, come away shaking their heads at a confusing encounter with bare-faced dishonesty, none the wiser for it.
But an amalgamation of the two, the mosh pit of the worst kind, a single kind of expression that never allows you to take back or pause mid-way through a description, and change, add, multiply and always, always subtract from the convoluted smorgasbord that your mind makes you believe is a cultivated line of thought is ... is... is... subversiveness of the vilest kind.
My deepest respect to the views of Plato, Mark Twain, Henry James and Dostoevsky, not to mention dear blind Milton, but I'm with Heidegger on this one. After all, who would I be without my furiously fingered doppelgänger?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Siege mentality

It took me months to get through Open City and every moment spent on each delectable page slowly encouraged what very nearly can be described as hero-worship of the author... until that very fact began to worry me.

I must go back a little in time to the first discovery - to the viral Joseph Kony video and Cole's comments made first on Twitter which were then reported widely to much guilt-driven angst in the western media. The comments, when I first read them, immediately awoke a long suppressed urge to shout out from the rooftops - in exasperation at my shame at not giving vent to a similar outpouring of outrage, in general condescension at the white-man's-burden-redux circa 2012, and in unabashed glee at an encounter (at long-last) with the latent courage that every person living in the Third World learns at their mother's knee to suppress when dealing with western reportage of areas of the world that closely, remarkably, reflect their own conditions of life.
Run, I did, after a quick search for works by the author, to Open City, and with each turn of a page, my unease at a nagging horrible doubt grew - that the reason I was enjoying myself so much was only because I knew the race and antecedents of the author beforehand and was placing that knowledge in context with the subject material of the novel. That doubt thankfully died when I reached the part when Julius accompanies his girlfriend Nadége to a potential-immigrant detention center on the outskirts of New York and begins to describe her walk across the grounds and how it was the first time he was noticing her deformity. After that revelation, it was easier to settle down to the tempo of the book, and take in the remarkable self-absorption of Julius - in a portrayal of a singular life that I do not doubt the city of  New York can afford the well-to-do immigrant.
There were, of course, occasions when I wondered when, in relation to the timeline of the book, Julius was accessing his historical facts about the various places he wandered about in. And the references to the classical music which washed over me without leaving much of an imprint. But Cole's distinctive stamp is marked on the descriptions of the art in the novel, and Julius' interactions with the character, Farouk, that gives expression to a certain nuance in subjectivity that seems dangerously absent in the discussions we have these days about fundamentalism and our reactions to cultural encounters that are not bound by regional and national identity. It must also be said that Julius' feelings about the event of 9/11 (again, in relation to his discussions with Farouk) seems out-of-character, but only in terms of the character being drawn for us in the first-person by Julius himself. It leaves the door open to a question that, outside the U.S. and the Western world, very many reviewers would be perfectly within their rights to ask - about how a person like Julius whose obvious distance from cultural aspects that affect his own identity would come to feel so strongly about the violence visited on a few thousand people who are not related to him in any way, in a city that he would only later make his own.

I read the last few pages with the dread that the looming sight of the bottom of a glass of finely matured whisky or wine must arouse in a connoisseur.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A room with a view

It's important that I put this post in context before I begin articulating my reactions to the matter at hand i.e. a subjective reading of Katherine Boo's, 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' that I completed the day-before-yesterday.
1. I am one of those who might have probably paraded a visage of cultivated distaste on looking out through an upper-level window from one of the star hotels around Annawadi to catch a glimpse of slum, spoiling the vista-view.
2. I am one of those who would not have had the time or inclination through my years of living in Mumbai to venture beyond the familiar boundaries of the Western Express highway to investigate a locality built around a sewage lake.
3. I did drive through the city on the day after the 26/11 attacks on my way to the international airport, and only registered the eerie calm that Mumbai seemed to be enveloped in without ever thinking about what the individuals that constitute its approximately 20.5 million population were thinking.

I am a product of my upbringing, my religion, my culture and my geography. What all those factors instilled in me at a very early age was a very real fear of the 'other' that followed me around wherever I happened to go and right into middle age. The 'other', in my case, isn't an easy encapsulation of persons in any way removed from the physicality, the plan of language and the access to material goods and services of those who were constantly around me. The definition of the 'other' in the class I belonged to constituted all those who spent all day, every day, performing tasks that my peers deemed extraneous to their perceived roles as those with a 'future'.

Parallels can be drawn between that 'sense of a future' from the treacherously oblivious childhood of mine, to the sagas of Asha and Zehrunisia and all that they do in their disparate ways to raise themselves and their families above the circumstances they find their lives caught in. But the main reason the lines will never intersect is that the access to that future is not obstructed by the humdrum and unpleasantness of daily living that we, the overlords of the overcity, have never bothered ourselves with. We have access to leisure, the time to think about things and the ability and resources to dream about what can be.
One of the main highlights of Katherine Boo's celebrated book is the portrayal of that disparity - the reality behind the dirty saris, the sweaty smelly bodies, the marked cynical lines on faces. There is no hiding from it, no literary relief as in most other portrayals of the city - of descriptions of Bollywood, forays into manic entrepreneurship or the romantic depictions of the main players in the game of corruption that runs through the city like a swollen river that bursts its banks at regular intervals. No wonder that the character most easily read in the book for me, despite my natural resistance to it, was Manju - the doyenne of a relatively privileged sangfroid that I could subliminally relate to.

Through the reading, I questioned, I found myself answered (especially on the vexing issue of why overt violence does not break out from beyond the slums more regularly), and I cringed and cringed and cringed at my complicity. A brave, brave, brave book by any standard.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

In support of ol' Günter

What Must be Said

By Günter Grass

Why have I kept silent, silent for too long
over what is openly played out
in war games at the end of which we
the survivors are at best footnotes.

It’s that claim of a right to first strike
against those who under a loudmouth’s thumb
are pushed into organized cheering—
a strike to snuff out the Iranian people
on suspicion that under his influence
an atom bomb’s being built.

But why do I forbid myself
to name that other land in which
for years—although kept secret—
a usable nuclear capability has grown
beyond all control, because
no scrutiny is allowed.

The universal silence around this fact,
under which my own silence lay,
I feel now as a heavy lie,
a strong constraint, which to dismiss
courts forceful punishment:
the verdict of “Antisemitism” is well known.

But now, when my own country,
guilty of primal and unequalled crimes
for which time and again it must be tasked—
once again, in pure commerce,
though with quick lips we declare it
reparations, wants to send
Israel yet another submarine—
one whose speciality is to deliver
warheads capable of ending all life
where the existence of even one
nuclear weapon remains unproven,
but where suspicion serves for proof—
now I say what must be said.

But why was I silent for so long?
Because I thought my origin,
marked with an ineradicable stain,
forbade mention of this fact
as definite truth about Israel, a country
to which I am and will remain attached.

Why is it only now I say,
in old age, with my last drop of ink,
that Israel’s nuclear power endangers
an already fragile world peace?
Because what by tomorrow might be
too late, must be spoken now,
and because we—as Germans, already
burdened enough—could become
enablers of a crime, foreseeable and therefore
not to be eradicated
with any of the usual excuses.

And admittedly: I’m silent no more
because I’ve had it with the West’s hypocrisy
—and one can hope that many others too
may free themselves from silence,
challenge the instigator of known danger
to abstain from violence,
and at the same time demand
a permanent and unrestrained control
of Israel’s atomic power
and Iranian nuclear plants
by an international authority
accepted by both governments.

Only thus can one give help
to Israelis and Palestinians—still more,
all the peoples, neighbour-enemies
living in this region occupied by madness
—and finally, to ourselves as well.

“Was gesagt werden muss” published in Süddeutschen Zeitung (4 April 2012)

Translation by Michael Keefer and Nica Mintz

Friday, March 16, 2012

The joke's on me

A routine, I have discovered, can be a debilitating thing, especially when it involves having to deal with people - debilitating to the mind, body and soul, in which rests, if we are to believe the purveyors of evolution, an escape map from the horrifying banality of living.
To wake from a restless repose in the morning, owing to the mute but not soundless pleas of a one-year old child, with nothing to look forward to but the turning on of a switch that wakes a motor that pumps water into a tank that in turn redirects it to our taps... and then the humourless wait for the sound of the newspapers hitting concrete in the driveway... metamorphosing after a brief interim when one (disbelievingly) actually finds meaning in feeding, bathing and breathing in a wholly dependent dependent, into a drive in manic traffic to a geographical space defined by a psychological wasteland of denial - of individual form, personality and eclecticism. The shapes that denial takes range from an induced fantasy that a few principals still entertain about the services industry, to a downright irrational justification of space and time and that a certain person's right to them is greater than another person's natural claim to the same (this might also relate to the content of the erstwhile National Budget , and the elevation to the Chief Minister's post in our largest state of yet another scion of a career politician with no other qualification than that he is the son of his Party's founder... but I am neither an economist nor a political analyst, sadly).
What I do find in the meaningless flotsam of a rudderless profession is dark, bleak and frequently anemic, with no real possibility of encountering a mood or reflection that one can carry over into a chance at a plot or character.
Where did those days go when every occasion demanded a dive into the muddied waters of experience - a dive that never allowed mere surface buoyancy, that demanded descents into madness, eccentricity or even reactionary mediocrity?
I fear that I can never again recapture my sense of solitude - a feeling that always hinted at an eventual reconciliation with the ghosts of a manic past.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Solidarity

In support of Nilanjana S. Roy's initiative for February 14th.


Where the mind is without fear
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
~Rabindranath Tagore



For further information, visit: Akhond of Swat