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, ' 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...?