Thursday, December 27, 2012

Winter in the half-shadows

As I was letting some water run from the tap in this surprisingly cold Calcutta winter, my fingers nearly went numb, and suddenly after many many years I was reminded of the late winter-early spring weekend we had spent at Mansang, around forty minutes from Kalimpong. I was probably in Class IV, eight or nine years old, and I was the only child in the group of adults, comprising parents, relatives, and friends of parents. From that trip I had learnt how numbing mountain water could be; how the tip of the nose could get red because it was the only exposed part of the body; and it was from that trip that I had learned to spot figures in the clouds. While we were strolling behind the bungalow, I had pointed out to my mejo jethu a cloud shaped like a cavalry horse, except I didn't know then what 'cavalry' was. Mansang must have been the name of the village, although we never did see a village. For the eight year old self, all Mansang meant to me was Jawlsha Bungalow, the bungalow built by the British while planting cinchona in the Himalayas. After the British had left, it was taken up by the government, and in the fifties, rumours of its being haunted by the spirits of nautch girls -- brought up from Calcutta for the entertainment of the British officers -- prompted the cinchona department to demolish the bungalow and build another one just like it on its remains.

I do not think the rebuilding did much of a difference though. Decades after that, when we went in the nineties, we were treated with ghost stories by the caretaker, who lived in a hut with his family behind the bungalow. In all my subsequent visits to Mansang I would be scared to sleep in the adjoining bedroom, unwittingly recounting the ghost stories in my head. I could never see why my father preferred this place to all the other Himalayan retreats we had at our disposal, specifically the bungalow at Mungpoo where Rabindranath Tagore had stayed, and near which, on the ruins of Surail Bungalow he had composed his poem Nirjhorer Shopnobhongo. The bungalow at Mungpoo was huge compared to the one at Mansang, and I would always discover new rooms, anterooms and hundred year old pianos which wouldn't play in tune. Jawlsha bungalow, on the other hand, had a couple of bed rooms, a porch, a sitting and dining room, and a grandfather clock in between which chimed at every hour. The whole bungalow rested on a kind of plateau, which looked down steeply at the hills on one side, bordered with huge ancient trees. When one drove in from the mountain road from Kalimpong, one would only see a rusty wrought-iron gate to the left, which had never been closed in over fifty years. If one took that path, which rose slowly, one would suddenly find to one's left, a lush green ground giving way to the bungalow. In one of our last visits, my father had challenged my boro jethu to a stroll to the edge of the road in the dead of night. The latter had promptly taken up the challenge, and one of my lingering memories of that place, is looking out of the windows of the  adjoining bedroom into the dark, and seeing torch lights flash in the distance.

That bungalow in the middle of the Himalayas would shape me in ways I would only discover years later. In our first trip, mejo jethu had recounted an anecdote of his visit to the place in the seventies, when disturbed in  his sleep in the early hours of the morning, he had woken up to what he thought was his father's voice calling him. He had immediately taken the train to Calcutta only to arrive just in time for his father's cremation. I still remember sitting in mejo jethu's lap and burying my face in his red sweater while hearing about the grand-father I'd never seen, yet whom I admired deeply. In the same trip, Mrs. Mukherjee would narrate a ghost story from the times of the Raj, with the backdrop of British Calcutta -- doubly significant for me because being the only family member born and growing up outside the city, I had always felt a stark craving to belong to its streets and ways of life; and for the certain time in history that I was passionate about but would never experience.

As I sit in my Calcutta home, fifteen years after my first visit to Mansang, the realisation that I will never be able to go back to Jawlsha bungalow again hits me. Some of the people from my first visit have died; some have wandered very far away. I don't remember the name of the caretaker any more, and I would like to know what his children do now. I am slowly beginning to understand why my father always had a soft corner for the couch beside the fire-place at Jawlsha Bungalow. The Rabindrasangeet they sang, the whisky they drank, the ghost stories they told each other, the bread dipped in the honey made from the caretaker's apiary, the adults exchanging snippets about a city they had grown up in, and a child, wide-eyed with wonder, listening to them, weaving worlds, alternatively growing scared, and looking out of the windows into the cold night and imagining white horsemen and lonely nautch girls on the grass -- they will never come back.

For you see, it is in the starkest of winters, that one thinks of home; and with the harshest of disappointments does one realise that one is already "home", but with radical departures from what one had originally envisioned. I wish I could post pictures of Mansang, but I don't have any. Our old albums would probably contain photographs of a nine year old with missing teeth and short hair posing behind some red flowers, but for all I know, the albums might be stuck in a kind of time-vortex while I was busy moving houses.

Edited on 15.09.2014:

In a fit of last-minute desperate measures to cling on to childhood memories before major life decision, I did find old albums, and I did manage to scan some photos. There are absolutely no photographs from the several Mungpoo trips; however, Gott sei Dank, I found some photographs from our first Mansang trip. These, I hope, would give an idea of the bungalow, the grounds, and the little hillock on the ground. Still missing and will remain forever missed are the caretaker's lodge, the apiary, the play of clouds, and those happy days.





Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Particular Girl promises to be back as soon as her exams get over. Watch this space for deplorable whining, sentiment-varnished nostalgia, and cheap thrills. Ciao!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Reading List: October

1. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting -- Milan Kundera
2. Howards End -- E. M. Forster
3. Prater Violet -- Christopher Isherwood
4. The Sense of an Ending -- Julian Barnes
5. Mr. Norris Changes Trains -- Christopher Isherwood
6. Nine Stories -- J. D. Salinger
7. A Month in the Country -- J. L. Carr
8. Goodbye Mr. Chips -- James Hilton

If you'd like to read more about some of the books I read in October, you could visit this page.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Guilty

I first heard the song 'Guilty' while watching Amelie. I was twenty and was initiated into the film rather late, thanks to a late night screening at 'World Movies'. Yet my watching the film was not uninterrupted. My parents were coming to visit me that night -- delayed by a flight, they had hit the road. I had bunked class and drunk beer at Oly Pub with friends that evening, and I was still in the phase when beer made me slightly tipsy and I was mortally scared of my parents catching me drunk. So when they finally reached home, I was extra cheerful and tried to make myself look useful. As I was unpacking the bag stuffed with Maggie family packs (my parents used to get half a dozen family packs of Maggie for me every time they'd visit, knowing how it was my comfort food), and the telly was blazing in the next room, I heard faint notes of the song for the first time. I dropped the packets and ran to the room to see Nino waiting for Amelie at the Two Windmills and the song playing in the background. It was cut short, but I would never forget the notes.

Months later I could finally lay my hands on the soundtrack of the film, and as Yan Tiersen's brilliant folksy tunes played in the background, I switched off the lights and relaxed in bed, appreciating the music. The seventh track made me sit up. It was 'Guilty', and this time, the full song. I played it in a loop and decided to find out more about the singer. I had never heard of Al Bowlly. To my utter amazement I found that this talented singer, born in Mozambique, had once played in my city, Calcutta. Traveling and performing all over the world, he went from Europe, to the Far East, to New York, until finally coming to London. He has sung versions of most of my favourite songs -- 'I've got you under my skin', 'Blue moon', 'My Melancholy Baby' and so on. I discovered that he was killed by a bomb during the war, right outside his flat. He had performed earlier that evening at Oxford Street, and declining an offer to spend the night there, he took the train home. Later that night the bomb would explode his room and the street, and although his body wouldn't be disfigured, he would be buried in a mass grave, tossed with other nameless victims. That night I had cried myself to sleep.


I am often moved by the little epiphanies of life. One afternoon this summer, we were goofing around with Macs, and I suddenly heard someone play this version of the song on a machine. I started crooning the words, got up, and looked around. Becky turned and exclaimed, "You know this song too?!" I said, "Of course" and we spent the rest of the afternoon talking about the scene in the film and the singer, of the many versions including beloved Ella's too, which unfortunately didn't go down as well with me as Al Bowlly's. For I am a magpie when it comes to collecting old music and memories in black and white; and having my ear cocked up for timeless classics always brings its own reward.

It is past midnight now, I'm running a high temperature, and it's Durga Pujo in a couple of days. Sickness makes me garrulous, and with the light turned off, the curtains withdrawn just a little bit so that I can see the idol diagonally opposite my window, I started singing "Heaven, I'm in heaven/And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak/ And I seem to find the happiness I seek/ When I'm out together dancing cheek to cheek", thinking of the Fred Astaire out there in the night who'll teach me to dance cheek to cheek one day. And before I knew it, I started crooning, "Is it a sin? Is it a crime?/- Loving you dear like I do./ If it's a crime I'm guilty/ Guilty of loving you." I can contain myself no more. I switch on the lights, turn my laptop on, and play the song.
The playlist has moved on now, and I'm listening to Nat King Cole's 'I love you for sentimental reasons', and I feel blissfully content.

I think of you every morning,
Dream of you every night
Darling I'm never lonely
Whenever you are in sight.

I love you for sentimental reasons
I hope you do believe me
I've given you my heart.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Le Nouveau

Should I call it diversifying, or just as something new?

A few days ago I suddenly had the idea of creating a separate blog solely dedicated to books I read. I procrastinated and read some more, until today, in a spurt of technological creativity, I made this. It's pristine white, it's uncluttered, it's solely about the printed word, and I'm feeling ridiculously scared at the thought of writing down what I feel about books and making them public.

I named it after the Camille-Corot painting and I intend it to be just as it promises to be -- simply femme lisant or girl reading.

http://femme-lisant.blogspot.in/

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Infinitude, Variations, and Litost

On an unremarkable day last winter, I suddenly remembered that when I was little, my grandmother would narrate stories to me. Realising that I have forgotten all of them now, and curling in remorse, I decided to ask Thamma to narrate the stories to me once again, so that I could write them down and preserve them for the future. When I reminded her about the stories, she said, "But I don't remember which stories. It's been over twenty years." For  a long time I tried to enact snatches of a story I remembered, of a poor but happy farmer's family making pithe and hiding inside a bot gacchh or something along those lines. Thamma remembered the story, and we decided to fix a convenient time when she would narrate it to me.

However, the time didn't come. I remembered the bot gacchh and the pithe in dreary Delhi months later, and already consumed in litost, I kept blaming myself for not having heard the stories again when I had time. After I returned, I sat down with Thamma again and brought up the topic of the stories. This time she remembered three of them, I wrote down the titles, and we fixed proper dates when she would narrate them to me. A couple of days later, I went to her room to ask her to show me some of her pictures when she was young. Having seen them before, I knew that she kept them locked up in her cash baaksho. It was while talking about the photographs from seventy years ago that she confided in me intimate details from her adolescent years. I was surprised because despite having spent my entire life with her, and thinking that I knew every thing about her, that morning she shared experiences and anecdotes which I had no knowledge of. I could not forgive myself for asking so little about her, for knowing so little about her, and for being complacent and taking her for granted.

In a particular section of his The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera writes about the infinitude that is inside man. The self-reproach that I felt on both the occasions relating to Thamma apparently is understandable (if not entirely forgivable), according to Kundera. Most of us are awed by the infinitude of the universe. Looking up at the sky late at nights, I have simultaneously felt a thrill and an unbearable sadness at the vastness of the sky, the stars, the moon, and the sun which was elusive then, but at which I could never look directly even when it was bright in the sky. Quite the same thing happens when we listen to the intricate variations of Chopin's nocturnes. It is forgivable to be an amateur and find it difficult to embrace this infinitude of the universe and music. The realisation that we can never internalise the epic lies heavy in our hearts, but we easily learn to live with it. However the schwierigkeit becomes unbearable when we discover how we overlooked the infinitude of the interior world, within reach -- the world inside each of us; how we lacked the infinitude of the people we spent our lives with, or whom we loved.



One summer, I was in love with this man. We met every day, and every night I wrote letters and mails to him. I had only one tropical summer to spend with him, and I was thankful for its bountiful days. As the end neared, I gathered every little piece of paper I had received from him, and pasted them in a diary not wanting to open it again. And then, on the very last day, I didn't go to meet him, and when he left my city to travel half-way across the world, I had consciously moved to a faraway city simply because partir c'est mourir un peu. I had stopped writing to him, and hence when he wrote to me months later, saying how he thought about me in a bar so far away from my home, I remembered the infinitude of man that Kundera talks about. In a certain bar in the heart of Mexico City, a certain famous writer, then an adolescent, would play truant and drink beer. He would revisit it years later when he would return to his old country. I had written about it to LG once, and discovering that it was a few blocks from where he lived, he drew imaginary lines in the air the next morning to help me visualise the Spanish and French settlement plan along that block. Months later, after a day of writing, he would visit that bar and remember the story exchanged halfway across the world, and then he would open his laptop again and sit down to write a long mail about that day. When I would read it a few hours later, I would vacillate between self-reproach and litost.
The bar was called 'The Invincible'.

A symphony is a musical epic. We might say that it is like a voyage leading from one thing to another, farther and farther away through the infinitude of the exterior world. Variations are also like a voyage. But that voyage does not lead through the infinitude of the exterior world. In one of his pensees, Pascal says that man lives between the abyss of the infinitely large and the abyss of the infinitely small. The voyage of variations leads into that other infinitude, into the infinite diversity of the interior world lying hidden in all things.

Beethoven thus discovered in variations another area to be explored. His variations are a new "invitation to the voyage."

Variation form is the form in which concentration is brought to its maximum; it enables the composer to speak only of essentials, to go straight to the core of the matter. A theme of variations often consists of no more than sixteen measures. Beethoven goes inside those sixteen measures as if down a shaft leading into the interior of the earth.

The voyage into that other infinitude is no less adventurous than the voyage of the epic. It is how the physicist penetrates into the wondrous depth of the atom. With every variation Beethoven moves farther and farther away from the initial theme which resembles the last variation as little as a flower its image under a microscope.

Man knows he cannot embrace the universe with its suns and stars. Much more unbearable is for him to be condemned to lack the other infinitude, that infinitude near at hand, within reach. . . . All of us are lacking in our work because in pursuit of perfection we go toward the core of the matter but never quite get to it. 

That the infinitude of the exterior world escapes us we accept as natural. But we reproach ourselves until the end of our lives for lacking that other infinitude. We ponder the infinitude of the stars but are unconcerned about the infinitude our papa has within him.

It is not surprising that in his later years variations became the favourite form for Beethoven, who knew all too well that there is nothing more unbearable than lacking the being we loved, those sixteen measures and their interior world of their infinitude of possibilities. 



  

Monday, October 1, 2012

Girl, Reading

When SD and I finally met last week, we didn't adhere to an important ritual -- drinking coffee together. Although all our detailed telephonic plans about the rendezvous revolved around that one action, due to an unprecedented set of circumstances we discovered that we didn't get around to reminiscencing over coffee at all. SD later pointed out that we did stick to one cliche however -- browsing and buying books.

Our usual spot for adda is college street where after browsing books at the numerous second-hand bookstalls, chatting with P.T. Kaku, climbing the stairs to Chuckervertty-Chatterjee and browsing books for an hour, we walk down to Food Station to share a pasta and drink the wonderful coffee that the place serves. However, this afternoon, bogged down by the heat, dust, sun, and humidity, generally depressed at the state of affairs, and feeling extremely lazy, we decided to go down to City Centre and pour our distress-stories over coffee for a couple of hours, exchange books, and return home. SD suggested going to this deli, and since I could kill for a cheese-cake, and SD had found out that this place served rather decent blueberry cheesecake, I decided to give it a try. It was while deciding the menu, that we strayed for the first time. Since we were feeling very hot, we ordered a ginger ale, saving the coffee for later. We then brought out the treasures from our bag -- I was carrying the Herriot omnibus All Things Wise and Wonderful for her, while she had brought The Inimitable Jeeves and Leave it to Psmith for me.

The cheque arrived remarkably quickly, and we then decided to check out the two big bookstores on the floors above. The classics section of Starmark is not exceptionally remarkable, but its merits were not completely overlooked by two young girls on that warm afternoon. There were two shelves dedicated to Penguin's children's classics, and a further two to Collins. I spotted a couple of Julian Barnes elsewhere, although The Sense of an Ending was conspicuous with its absence. I held the shiny copy of Arthur and George for a long time, having read from a dilapidated copy myself, before placing it back on the shelf, and walking back to the Penguin section. And then, on an impulse, I rapidly began to pull out books. Hence, most of the children's literature that I had read (sometimes in abridged forms) in school, were finally bought last week, on an unplanned book-buying spree. I owe two of my Burnetts, Kenneth Grahame, Anthony Hope, Andersen, Spyri and Kingsley to that afternoon.



While we were walking around the shop, SD and I discovered a box full of Agatha Christie. We made elaborate plans of carrying it away when no one was looking, and brought a chair to sit in front of it to guard it. Unfortunately, the chair was too rickety to withstand our ample physique, and the people probably suspected something foul, and we found ourselves constantly under the vigil of the workers. Damn.

At the Bengali section, I spotted Professor Shonku's diaries, and remembered the wonderful summer vacations when I would spend whole days reading one exciting adventure after the other set in far-off lands. SD bought the first installment of Professor Shonku and was in splits after discovering that his cat was called 'Newton'.

While getting the bill made, I discovered an entire children's literature section, with whole walls covered with Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl; of stories and adventures about witches, and treasure-hunters, and chocolate factories, of scones, and muffins, and lovable dogs, of little mice, and vacations spent in farms and following secret trails. I promised myself that someday I'd own them all. Beside this spread was another big shelf full of Nesbit and What Katy Did and Anne of Green Gables, and my heart leapt with joy. It was only with the prospect of visiting another bookstore, that I tore myself away from this shelf.

We were tired by the time we came down to Crossword. I was looking for a Penguin or Collins edition of Nesbit's The Railway Children. I located a copy, and we sat down on cushioned stools in front of shelves full of Christie. I was looking greedily at the omnibuses, when a person asked if we wanted some refreshment. I jumped at the idea of coffee while browsing books, but being very thirsty, we ended up ordering iced tea and lime soda. There went our second chance to have coffee that day. While waiting for our orders, we had strayed to the Bengali section, and my heart leapt for the second time that afternoon when I spotted Teni-da nestling beside the Shirshendus. SD hadn't read Teni-da, and I narrated how, when I was in class four, my second language teacher complained that I could score much better in Bengali if only I read as many books in Bangla as I did in English. Baba had then bought several books for me, along which came Teni-da. I procrastinated for months, but I finally warmed up to the exploits of the four boys. I laughed with them, had adventures with them, flew kites beside the Ganga with them, and growing up in a sad little town in North Bengal, painted this romantic picture of Calcutta which I have always believed in. Many years later I would be disappointed with Basanta Cabin when I would visit it with a friend, although Dilkhusha with friends after classes in the university would be rather enjoyable. I read and reread Teni-da throughout my middle school, and tried to tell the stories to my disinterested school-mates. They didn't warm up. So many years later, SD, my friend from the university did. That evening, I took out the copy from the shelf, held it for some time, opened it, read the contents page after so many years, turned to the first novella Chaar Murti and read out the first paragraph to SD. She bought the book, and I paid my little tribute to nostalgia.



Picture 1: Johannes Vermeer's Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, 1657--1659
Picture 2: Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot's Young girl Reading, c 1868

Reading List: September

September has been a curious month. I was predominantly unwell, went flaneuring in an alien city, changed cities on very short notice, finished work, lived through another birthday, and so on. Until I returned to Calcutta, I hadn't had enough reading done to pacify my poor battered soul. After home-coming, the debris of depression settled down, and I found myself craving for classic Brit children's litt. -- the ones I grew up reading. Not possessing all the Enid Blytons, I went on a random reading spree during the third week, until I collected my thoughts and settled down to more focussed, light, but beautiful reading. I'm sure the list will show the capriciousness.

1. Tintin the Freelance Reporter
2. Tintin in the Land of the Soviets -- Herge
3. Tintin in America -- Herge
4. Five on a Treasure Island -- Enid Blyton
5. Asterix the Gaul -- Goseinny and Uderzo
6. Aunts aren't Gentlemen -- P. G. Wodehouse
7. The Railway Chidren -- Edith Nesbit
8. The Secret Garden -- Frances Hodgson Burnett
9. The Inimitable Jeeves -- P. G. Wodehouse

I am reading Wodehouse again after so many years, and I can barely contain my excitement. My reading spills into my laptop, and every time I turn it on, it is only to watch Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry as Wooster and Jeeves respectively in the brilliant TV series. I'm also on the verge of taking out my copies of James Herriot, dusting them, and gobbling them up, and the only reason why I can still concentrate on my German lessons and 19th century social history is the promise of watching Christopher Timothy, Robert Hardy, and a dishy Peter Davison in the ubiquitous TV series All Creatures Great and Small, any time I want to.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Birthday of Loss

During our telephonic conversation today, A suddenly pointed out to me that when we were children, our grandmothers would give us fifty-one or a hundred-and-one rupees on every birthday, and as we would shyly take the money in our fingers, we would think how immense the sum was. But today fifty or hundred rupees is too little to even get us a decent pizza, let alone a proper lunch. He said how the cost of living had risen, and I pointed out how the value of money had lowered -- money being a microcosm for our entire value system. As I reluctantly turn twenty-four today, I mourn the loss of simplicity, innocence, values, the purity of love, and the uncomplicatedness of life. I don't want to sound lofty, but every day I regret the part of me that dissolves into the past, to be replaced by a more mature self that worries about bills, about keeping warm food on the table, about how the next book will arrive on the doorstep, and who will look after the elderly relative. Sometimes I wish I was young again, lying in green meadows with reckless abandon, and looking up at the blue sky with patches of white clouds -- luxuries which even as a lonely child growing up in the suburbs of North Bengal, I didn't have. Thanks to Anne, my imagination quite made up for it. Just as it is working overtime at this very instant, conjuring up images of scrumptious cakes and delightful wines in an imaginary homeland far away, that will remain ever elusive, and hence always starkly craved for.
After all, what is life, but a series of intermittently painful Sehnsucht?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Reading List: August

1. My Mother's Lover -- Urs Widmer
2. My Father's Book -- Urs Widmer
3. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter -- Simone de Beauvoir
4. Quilt (Stories) -- Ismat Chughtai
5. Tess of the d'Urbervilles -- Thomas Hardy

I could have read much more this month, but frustration due to my current living conditions, colleagues who boss around by saying "He was borned on the end of September", and the discovery of the pleasures of the universe through travels with Doctor Who has slackened my reading. I do not regret the last reason, though. The others, however, drive me to the verge of homicide.  

Friday, August 10, 2012

die Sehnsucht

-- In books people make declarations of love and hate, they express their innermost feelings in fine phrases; but in life there are no significant speeches. What can be spoken is regulated by what can be done: if it 'isn't done', it isn't said.

-- The presence of a person is so complete, his absence so final; there seemed to be nothing between the two extremes.

-- If I love you, what business is it of yours?

-- Or, Cocteau's endearing version of Goethe's phrase, "I love you: is that any business of yours?"

-- And again and again I have to remind myself that the whole art of life is to lean on people, to involve oneself with them quite fearlessly and yet -- when the props are kicked away -- remain leaning, as it were, on empty air. Like levitation.

-- My darling. . . . How long is a day in the dark? Or a week? . . . We die, we die rich with lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have entered and swum up like rivers. Fears we've hidden in -- like this wretched cave. I want all this marked on my body. We're the real countries. Not the boundaries drawn on maps, with the names of powerful men. I know you'll come and carry me out into the palace of winds. That's what I've always wanted -- to walk in such a place with you. With friends on Earth, without maps. 





Image: Chagall's Song of Solomon

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Reading List: July

1. A Medicine for Melancholy -- Ray Bradbury
2. The Master and Margarita -- Mikhail Bulgakov
3. Metamorphosis -- Franz Kafka

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Star Gazing

One of the many regrets that have gnawed my heart since I was very young, was the fact that I couldn't name the stars in the sky. Growing up in India in the nineties ensured that one would live through regular power-cuts every evening. In that little town of North Bengal, every time we would have a load-shedding, I would carry a shotoronchi that was inevitably too big for me, and accompany my grandmothers to the terrace. Maa would follow, and if Baba was home from the office, he would come too. And then for nearly an hour or more, I would sit among the elders and listen to their gossip. When the conversation got too difficult to follow, I would lie down and gaze up at the sky. It was then, since I was probably three years old and learning the numbers, that I began counting the stars. My thamma had laughed once when she noticed what I was doing, and said that one could never count the stars. They would get mixed up in the head, and one would inevitably lose count. I persisted, however, with a nonchalance, believing that this was one action from which I had nothing to lose. Sometimes I would arrange them in my heads, making the stars fall into a pattern. However, the pattern would get muddled up after sometime. Nevertheless, I never gave up in frustration.

My relatives from Calcutta would often tell me about long nights of load-shedding during the summers, when everyone would go to the terrace. Sometimes, they carried camp-cots and slept under the stars. This immensely romantic image of sleeping unbridled under the stars appealed to me starkly with the pinning of forbidden pleasure -- Maa would never allow me to spend the whole night sleeping in a camp-cot on the terrace, under the stars. Hence I tried to squeeze the longing into the sixty minutes of lying on the shotoronchi staring at the stars and listening to the stories of thamma and didima. Huck and Jim's adventures, and Tom, Sid and Huck's adventures before that in the island, which had been my constant companion pre-adolescence, had made me pine for that freedom of spending the night, looking up at the sky and counting the stars.

The German word for 'sky' is Himmel. Phonetically close to 'heaven', this word, for me, has represented immense possibilities. In what would be my last German class for over a month, we were reading Brecht's Das Leben des Galilei. The third scene of the first act begins with,

Sechzehnhundertzehn, zehnter Januar:
Galileo Galilei sah, dass kein Himmel war.


kein Himmel? No heavens? I read on, intrigued. Galileo and Sagredo, wearing thick cloaks, on the 16th of January, looked at the sky through the telescope. The first thought that struck my mind was, how cold it must have been! When I went to Padua last autumn, it was full moon (kojagori purnima, back home). The moon looked like a golden plate which one could touch if one only strected the hand. I remembered Jibanananda, ironically noting that the jholshano ruti avatar of the full moon held true only in the west. Perhaps in that January night nearly four hundred years ago, Galileo and Sagredo too unravelled such wonderful mysteries in the sky.


SAGREDO. Aber das widerspricht aller Astronomie von zwei Jahrtausend.


GALILEI. So ist es. Was du siehst, hat noch kein Mensch gesehen, ausser mir. Du bist der zweite.


GALILEI. So wie der Mond leuchtet. Weil die beiden Sterne angeleuchtet sind von der Sonne, darum leuchten sie. Was der Mond uns ist, das sind wir dem Mond. Und er sieht uns einmal als Sichel, einmal als Halbkreis, einmal voll und einmal nicht.


SAGREDO. So waere kein Unterschied zwischen Mond und Erde?


GALILEI. Offenbar nicht.


SAGREDO. Vor noch nicht zehn Jahren ist ein Mensch In Rom verbrannt worden. Er hiess Giordano Bruno und hatte eben das behauptet.


GALILEI. Gewiss. Und wir sehen es. Lass dein Auge am Rohr, Sagredo. Was du siehst, ist, dass es keinen Unterschied zwischen Himmel und Erde gibt. Heute ist der 10. Januar 1610. Die Menschheit traegt in ihr Journal ein: Himmel abgeschafft.


. . .


GALILEI: Ich werde dir jetzt einen der Milchweiss glaenzenden Nebel der Milchstrasse vorfuehren. Sage mir, aus was es besteht!


SAGREDO. Das sind Sterne, unzaehlige.


GALILEI. Allein im Sternbild des Orion sind es 500 Fixsterne. Das sind die vielen Welten, die zahllosen anderen, die entfernteren Gestirne, von denen der Verbrannte gesprochen hat. Er hat sie nicht gesehen, er hat sie erwartet! . . . Sagredo, ich frage mich. Seit vorgestern frage ich mich. Da ist der Jupiter. Er stellt ihn ein. Da sind naehmlich vier, klienere Sterne nahe bei ihm, die man durch das Rohr sieht. Ich sah sie am Montag, nahm aber nicht besondere Notiz von ihrer Position. Gestern sah ich wieder nach. Ich haette schwoeren koennen, alle vier hatten ihre Position geaendert. Ich merkte sie mir an. Sie stehen wieder anders. Was ist das? Ich sah doch vier. [In Bewegung] Sieh du durch!


SAGREDO. Ich sehe drei.


GALILEI. Wo ist das vierte? Da sind die Tabellen. Wir muessten ausrechnen, was fuer Bewegungen sie gemacht haben koennen.


. . .


SAGREDO. Hast du allen Verstand verloren? Weisst du wirklich nicht mehr, in was fuer eine Sache du kommst, wenn das Wahr ist, was du da siehst? Und du es auf allen Maerkten herumschreist: dass die Erde einStern ist und nicht der Mittelpunkt des Universums.


GALILEI. Ja, und dass nicht das ganze riesige Weltall mit allen Gestirnen sich um unsere winzige Erde dreht, wie jeder sich denken konnte!


SAGREDO. Dass da also nur Gestirne sind! -- Und wo ist dann Gott?


GALILEI. Was meinst du damit?


SAGREDO. Gott! Wo ist Gott?


GALILEI [zornig]. Dort nicht! So wenig wie er hier auf der Erde zu finden ist, wenn dort Wesen sind und ihn hier suchen sollten!


SAGREDO. Und wo ist also Gott?


GALILEI. Bin ich Theologe? Ich bin Mathematiker.


SAGREDO. Vor allem bist du ein Mensch. Und ich frage dich, wo ist Gott in deinem Weltsystem? 


GALILEI. In uns oder nirgends.


I have often spoken about the wonderful fiery red Calcutta sky. I have spent nights staring up at the stars, sometimes burning my nightdress from the ash of the cigarette I was smoking, being so lost in looking up at the tiny dots while my neighbour's radio wafted abhi na jao chor kar, ke dil abhi bhara nahi in soft tones. The Delhi skyline is ugly. Here, the nightsky is red too, but it is artificial, and like most of the things in this city, full of pomp, and only for show.

After all,

Partir, c'est mournir un peu.
Scheiden tut weh.
Every farewell is a little death.   

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Open Sesame

Betrayals during war are child-like compared with our betrayals during peace. New lovers are nervous and tender, but smash everything. For the heart is an organ of fire.


My father had his birthday a few days ago, and for the first time in twenty-three years, my parents and I were in different cities on that day. As I was making the familiar long journey to class, I remembered how, when I was barely two or three years old, I'd eagerly wait for Sundays, because those were the only days Baba would be at home. I still remember how I'd leap with joy when Baba would say that the next day was a holiday because it was so-and-so. Every Sunday morning, I'd snuggle up to him, and we'd watch the Doordarshan-staple Rangoli, have luchi-cholar daal for breakfast, and then he'd tell me stories. I was three when Baba narrated Gulliver's Travels to me, and I could never get the size of the lilliputs right. When he told me the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, I'd cling to him in fear, afraid that Ali Baba would be caught in the cave and ripped apart by the thieves. He'd narrated the story in Bangla, and for a long time the phrase "chiching phaank" had mersmerised me. The magic continued when I grew up and read One Thousand and One Nights in school, and learnt the phrase "Open Sesame". How wonderful and romantic it'd sounded then--the hope that a cave full of riches would open if one only pronounced the name while standing in front of it.

Nowadays I feel helpless when I realise that even Baba does not have answers to my questions anymore. I had heard stories about how after I had barely learnt to speak, I'd point out objects in the room and ask him what they were called and why they were called so, and Baba, adding a dash of his imagination, would explain them all to me. Now, every time I have a heart break and call up my parents to ask them why people we trust the most betray us, and why is love so painful, they have no answers. The other night, a friend and I were comparing notes about our childhood, and we both accepted how strong a role the olfactory sense had played in our lives. Sometimes when I close my eyes, I can still smell the wonderful heady mixture of perfume and talcum powder from twenty years ago, that my father sprayed on his chest, and that I would smell when I would climb to him every night after he came home from office. When he'd visit Calcutta, I'd take one of his vests to bed and smell it and cry on it, because despite the repeated washing, the heady smell would remain, and that would make me miss Baba all the more. Nowadays when I open my parents' wardrobe here and rummage through the contents, I cannot smell the smell any more. I then feel a terrible pain inside, knowing that slowly, all the things I held dear is gradually slipping from me. Often I have this mental image of walking from the sunlight into a dark tunnel, and as I walk, the light behind me has dimmed, and there is no sign of light on the other side. I think, this is precisely what growing up means.    

Often these days, I think of the times when I first joined university. I was angry and exasperated at the poor administration, but now I often miss those days. After class, I'd stay back for hours in that long room filled with broken benches and read Divine Comedy before leaving for German class. Now I miss the hope and the anticipation of a bright future, that that solitary figure reading Dante on that broken bench believed in; the defiance that always accompanies confidence; of promises to oneself about things to do and dreams to fulfill; of the charm of innocent dating; of being simply haughty; and of not having every sniff and every word deconstructed and misconstrued till you gave in just because you were tired. As I walked down College Street today, I knew every thing around me had changed. The footpath was in a state of disrepair, and the person who stumbled upon the slabs of stones in her new spectacles was a different person from the one who'd bought second hand copies of the three books of Divine Comedy three years ago. Even P. T. Kaku, the ubiquitous Santa for all English Literature students had scarred his face after an accident. I'd planned this visit as a sort of farewell for at least three months or more (who knows), but I refrained from completing the walk down the familiar road. I turned back from the Coffee House because I didn't feel confident enough to walk further with my affected vision. I am now slowly learning that "open sesame" does not really open all doors, or heal all hearts, or cure all scars, or make parents young again. Sometimes, one just has to stop walking and accept that the familiar, reassuring smell is lost. Sometimes, as my best friend S says, one only has to wait and let oneself get accustomed to the pain. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Reading List: June

1. Nationalism and the Imagination - Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
2. Conversations with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Swapan Chakravorty, Suzana Milevska, Tani E. Barlow)
3. Murder in the Dark - Margaret Atwood
4. Rights - Petra Christine Hardt
5. The Yellow Wall Paper - Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Monday, June 11, 2012

A Conversation with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak


I was first introduced to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak as an eighteen year old in college while 'critically' reading Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. The book our teacher had asked us to refer to, contained essays by Elaine Showalter and Kate Millet, and ended with Spivak's 'Three Women Texts and a Critique of Imperialism'. The essay prompted me to buy and read Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea and unravel the hidden imperialist subtext at the heart of Jane Eyre's narrative of bourgeoisie female individualism. At the university four years later, I would revisit her demand for a geography of female sexuality in her writings, and her critique of western  models of class-consciousness and subjectivity ('Can the Subaltern Speak?'). Five years later from the time I read my first Spivak essay, did I get to meet the professor in person. On an immensely hot and humid morning in June, we were waiting at the Seagull Bookstore, which, as minutes unfolded, looked increasingly like a Foucauldian panopticon, but with the upper floors cut off. I was wondering at the possible tragic, or sardonic, or innocently humorous architectural implications, when Professor Spivak walked in.

After a brief tete-a-tete with Samik da (we were informed that we went back to 1956, having first met at a debating competition. Professor Spivak was adjudged the best speaker, but Samik da's team had won overall) she begins her talk, first noting down the questions from the audience, and then addressing them.

In a talk titled ‘Nationalism and the Imagination’ addressed at the University of Sofia at Bulgaria in 2010, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak proposes “a multilingual Comparative Literature of the former empires which will arrest the tide of creolization of native literatures.” On being asked to elaborate on the concept of creolization of native Indian languages, Professor Spivak narrates an anecdote. She says that when she gave a talk at the Conference of Commonwealth Languages and Literatures at Hyderabad with Meenakshi Mukherjee, the talk meant nothing to the mostly-foreign audience. This only reflects how difficult it has always been to generalize concepts like ‘nationalism’, ‘borderlessness’ and ‘feminism’. She insists that rather than drawing on the affinities between pure generalization, comparative literature should be performed epistemologically, as a study of ‘creolization’; and the initiative of change should come from the academic circuit.

Édouard Glissant’s approach to the concept of Antillanité serves as an illuminating example of ‘creolization’. Glissant had questioned the concepts of language, identity, and history; and had rooted Caribbean identity as a multiplicity of ethnic and cultural elements, located also within the “Other America” – thus paralleling the history and culture of the Creole Caribbean and Latin America, and the plantation culture of the American South. The concept of the creolization of languages thus comes out of Africa. The idea that creolity brings in a kind of force because of the insertion of older powers, forms the crux of Glissant’s argument. The concept of ‘creolization’ in the Indian context however, is different from Martinique and the African languages. For example, at the other end of the spectrum lies the instance of Chandannagore. Formerly a French colony, Chandannagore is interested in keeping alive only a French of the France, rather than adopting the rich variety of French from its several former colonies. It is the principle of comparative equivalence that is being overlooked here. It is in fact necessary to acknowledge that other things can also occupy the unique place of one’s first language. If Chandannagore promotes a mere nationalism of the French of France, comparativism based on equivalence attempts to undermine this selfsame possessiveness, exclusivity, and isolated expansionism.

Professor Spivak cites an unusual example of ‘creolization’ as early as the 14th century, in Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia. It is written in Latin because it is about Latin creoles. Through this book, Dante tries to do what the missionaries did in Africa; he does not Latinize Italian, but recognizes Creole, and suggests “high vulgar languages”. Professor Spivak insists that although critics look up to this book as the beginnings of nationalism, it is much more about creolity.

She eventually offers Prakrit as an example of an alternate theory of creolity. If Sanskrit is the refinement of the natural language, Prakrit, then creole automatically comes first. One must not forget that the many mother tongues of Africa as well as India are not grammatised (Sabar is in fact, pre-refined Prakrit). When two people from one such community sharing the same language interact, they often do not completely follow each other. Unbound by grammar, each person brings in his own repository of vocabulary. Professor Spivak is interested in making a database where all these varieties can be documented.

On being asked about her opinions on ‘critical regionalism’, Professor Spivak cites the example of Kenneth Frampton (whose book "Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six points for an architecture of resistance" employs the term first coined by Alexander Tzonis and Liliane Lefaivre with certain differences), and calls him an “uncritical, idealistic, Heideggerean architect”. Nation-state boundaries are like polyptotons – Heidegger made a philosophy out of it – and often disputed. The Nepal-India border, for instance, has been addressed by the two nations by their politely refusing to talk about it. Professor Spivak insists that it is better to look at regions, rather than nation-states. Hannah Arendt has likewise suggested that the putting together of nationalism with the abstract structure of the state was an experiment having limited history and a limited future. If we accede to Jürgen Habermas’s insistence that we live in a post-national world, certain problems could be responded to with better insight. Organisations like SAARC and ASEAN, for example, could occupy themselves with questions of economics, rather than thinking about regional jurisdiction. In this way, they could introduce better policies relating to the prevention of rape, and awareness related to HIV-AIDS.

When asked about her idea of “home”, Professor Spivak located the idea of a “house” within a socio-economic background. She traced the evolving of the housing industry, especially after the distinction between investment and commercial banks broke down. Housing industry is in fact the biggest index showing the government’s progress because it is the biggest amount an individual releases into the capital. She ended the talk with a quote from Ulysses,
“What is home without
Plumtree’s Potted Meat?
Incomplete.
With it an abode of bliss.” 

In ‘The Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach’ (1845), Karl Marx says that, “The philosophers have only ever interpreted the world, the point however is to change it.” She teaches at Columbia University at New York City, and she teaches people in the interiors of rural Bengal and the Yunan province in China. Through her work, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak proves an exception to Marx’s assertion.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Magic Mountain

I have been up here for a long time, Mynheer Peeperkorn, for years and years - I don't precisely know how long, but they are years of my life, which was why I spoke just now of 'life' - and I shall return to the matter of 'fate' at the appropriate moment. My cousin, whom I came here to visit, was a military man, an honest and good fellow, but that did not help him - he died here, leaving me behind, and here I am still. I was not a military man myself, I had chosen  a civilian profession, as you have perhaps heard, a sturdy, reasonable profession, of which it is even said that it may bring nations closer together, but of which I was never particularly fond, I must admit. As to the reasons, I can only say that they lie in darkness, lie there together with the origins of my sentiments towards your travelling companion - and I expressly call her that to make clear that it would never occur to me to try to alter a legitimate state of affairs - with the origins of my sentiments with Clavdia Chauchat and of my addressing her with only informal pronouns, a relationship that is never denied from the moment her eyes first met mine and fascinated me - fascinated me in the most irrational sense of the word, you understand. For the sake of her love, and in spite of Herr Settembrini, I subordinated myself to the principle of irrationality, to the principle behind the genius of illness, to which, admittedly, I had long since, perhaps from the very start, submitted myself and to which I have remained true up here - for how long now, I no longer know, I have forgotten everything, broken off with every thing, with my relatives, and my profession in the flatlands, with all my prospects. And when Clavdia departed, I waited for her, just went on waiting up here, so that the flatlands is entirely lost to me now, and in its eyes I am as good as dead. That is what I meant when I spoke of 'fate', and went so far as to suggest that I might possibly have cause to complain about my present situation. I once read a story - no, I saw it in the theatre - about how a good-hearted young fellow, a military man like my cousin, by the way, gets involved with an enchanting Gypsy - and she was enchanting, with a flower behind her ear, a savage, mischievous creature, and he was so fascinated with her, that he got completely off-track, sacrificed everything for her, deserted the colours, ran off with her to join a band of smugglers and disgraced himself in every way. And after he had done all that, she had enough of him, and came along with a matador, a compelling personality with a splendid baritone. It ended outside the bullring, with the little soldier, his face chalky white, his shirt unbuttoned, stabbing her with a knife, though you might say she as good as planned the whole thing herself. A rather pointless story, really, now that I think of it. But then, why did it occur to me?

Like Count Almasy's Heredotus, if there would be only one book which I would be allowed to carry with me for the rest of my life, and die with, it would possibly be The Magic Mountain. It's been a year since I read John E. Woods's brilliant translation for Alfred A. Knopf. I remember my AC was whirring that afternoon when I opened the book and read about Hans Castorp beginning his journey - just as it is whirring now. It's only ironic that I still do not possess the single most important book of my life. On a sad, humid summer afternoon, while thinking of creoles and southern plantations, and dreams and races, someone writes to you about a man scribbling on the walls of Saint Petersburg because he had a story to tell, and he didn't have paper to write it on. For no apparent rhyme or reason, you move west, and are suddenly reminded of the rarefied Swiss air, of a humanist professor and a young, inexperienced man. Now you'll know that every time you think of Margarita, a completely different story will also come to your mind, vying for remembrance. Of that sad, humid, summer afternoon, and of letters written.

The passage quoted above is one of my favourites from the book. I'd copied it down in my diary while reading, and have revisited it innumerable times.

Friday, June 8, 2012

"Kiss me and you will see how important I am."

Friday, June 1, 2012

Reading List: May

1. When we were Orphans - Kazuo Ishiguro
2. The Two Sisters - H. E. Bates
3.Collected Stories - Beryl Bainbridge
4.The Awakening - Kate Chopin
5.Nocturnes - Kazuo Ishiguro
6.The Visit - Friedrich Duerrenmatt
7. Come and Go - Samuel Beckett
8.Arthur and George - Julian Barnes

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Der Büchermensch

In meinem Kurs habe ich eine neue Bekanntschaft gemacht. L kommt aus Mexiko, obwohl er in dem ganzen Suedamerika gearbeitet hat. Nach der ersten Woche habe ich ueber ihm in dem Internet erforscht. Ich fand, dass er ein beruehmter Buchkritiker und Journalist ist. Regelmaessig haben wir uns ueber verschiedene Bücher aus der Spanischen Literatur unterhalten. Er hat mir eine kleine Geschichte erzaehlt. Als er an der Universitaet war, wohnte ein oesterricher Student bei ihm, der spaeter ein beruehmter Politiker in Europa wurde. Der Oesterreicher nannte den Mexikaner ,,Büchermensch", weil er zu viele Bücher las. Der Büchermensch spricht Spanisch, Englisch, Deutsch, Franzoesisch, Italienisch, Portugiesisch, und Latein.

Nachdem meine Magisterpruefung vorbei gewesen war, hatte ich in ein Heft geschrieben, welche Bücher ich lesen moechte. Meine spanische Liste war am kuerzesten, weil ich zu wenig über spanische Literatur wusste. Ich hatte nur ein paar Romane von Garcia Marquez und Vargas Llosa gelesen, und auch ein paar Gedichte von Pablo Neruda. Aber nachdem ich ihn kennengelernt habe, ist die Liste spanischer Bücher am laengsten geworden.

Wir sprechen auch über Europaeische Musik. Früher hatte ich einpaar Musikstücke von dem polnischen Komponisten Zbigniew Preisner gehoert, und sie haben mir sehr gut gefallen. Aber ich konnte nicht genug Musik von ihm finden. L gab mir alle Alben von Preisner. Er empfiehl mir auch die wichtigen Autoren aus der Tschechischen Republik, weil ich den tschechische Autor Milan Kundera besonders mag.

Ich habe mich bei ihm für seine Empfehlungen bedankt. In einer Mail habe ich ihm erzaehlt, mit was für Problemen wir hier konfrontiert sind, naemlich uns fehlen die noetigen Bücher. Es war eine heisse Nacht, und ich schrieb über meine Kindheit. Ich erzaehlte, wie ich in einer kleinen Stadt aufgewachsen bin. Die Stadt hat nur einen Buchladen und die Menschen waren zu engstirnig. Ich schrieb wie ich nach Kalkutta kam. Am naechsten Tag kam L auf much zu, und bat mich meine eigene Geschichte zu schreiben. Er sagte, dass ich eine interessante Geschichte habe, und ich muss sie schreiben. Als ich nach Hause zurückkam, sah ich eine Mail, die er mir schichte. Er schrieb, dass er eine verborgene Schriftstellerin in meiner Erzaehlung entdeckte. Sie versucht, zum Vorschein zu kommen und ihr eigenes Leben zu leben. Er schrieb, dass das Talent nicht nur ein Privileg, sondern auch eine Verpflichtung gegenüber anderen Menschen ist. Man hat die Aufgabe die anderen Menschen an seinem Talent teilhaben zu lassen. Diejenigen die talentiert sind, müssen ihr Talent weiter entwicklen.

Garcia Marquez schrieb in einem Buch, dass die meisten Geschichten von Liebe und Willen handeln. Die Geschichten die uns sehr gut gefallen, sind eigentlich unsere eigene Geschichte. Auf der anderen Seite sind die Geschichten, die wir am besten wissen, eigentlich unsere eigene Geschichte. Diese persoenlichen Geschichten sind die moegliche Quelle für andere Geschichten, Romane und Gedichte. Meine Lieblingsautorin aus England Virginia Woolf hat auch ihre eigene Lebensgeschichte als Stoff ihrer spaeteren Schriften benutzt. Die geniale brasilienische Autorin Clarice Lispector hat auf gleicher Weise von ihren Lebensgeschichten als Quelle Gebrauch gemacht. Der portugiesisch  Autor Fernando Pessoa hatte unter 150 verschiedenen Namen in verschieden Schriebstil über sein Leben geschrieben.

Als ich an der Universitaet war, inspierierte Feminismus mir sehr. In einer anderen Mail schrieb ich, wie ich in meinem eigenen Leben mit Feminismus konfrontiert war. Ich erzaehlte, wie schwer er mir fiel, weil meine Ideen nicht zu meiner Umgebung zusammenpasst. In seiner Antwort empfiehl L mir in eine grosse Stadt zu gehen. Wenn ich vielleicht nach New York umziehen, werde ich mein eigenes Leben leben koennen. So war es mit der sehr begabten Autorinnen wie Sylvia Plath oder Carson McCullers oder Anne Sexton. Jede war talentierte aber auch depremierte Frau, die aus kleiner Staedten kam. In New York haben sie den Weg in ihre eigene Geschichten gefunden und sie geschrieben.



Wir dürfen nicht vergessen, dass Reisen nicht nur eine Szene wechsel bedeutet.

Foto: Frida Kahlos Tagebuch
Quelle: Flavorpill

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Nocturnes

Late one night, nearly ten years ago, I discovered that the Calcutta night sky is fiery red. Disregarding the mundane laws of optics, I had stayed up all night on the terrace marvelling at the sky, at the stars whose names I would never learn, and looking down at the sleeping North Calcutta para. I have been nocturnal as long as I can remember. Growing up in a little town at the foot of the Himalayas, where people were more diurnal in nature, I would read till late at night by the light of my night-bulb. By the time I moved to the city, the night-bulb had been replaced by a more luminous light. Yet there would be nights when I would switch off the lights, go to the terrace, and sit there, imbibing the faint sounds, and weaving stories out of them. My septuagenarian neighbour would sleep with the radio on, and the faint notes of vintage music would waft in the autumnal night air. It was then, just as I was beginning to stay alone, that I began to associate music with the night.

Most of my favourite associations of the nocturnal with the musical have been in autumn and winter. Monsoons meant being locked indoors with power-cuts, and I had learnt to equate the sadness of confinement with Sultan Khan playing the Desh on the Sarangi. Etta James's Stormy Weather, listened late one night a couple of years later, would take on a completely different meaning. And on one late autumn, I listened to Bach's Mattheus Passion for nights on end from Martinstag until Christmas, relentlessly repeating the aria Erbarme dich, mein Gott. The seductive strawberries, cherries, and an angel's kiss in spring sprinkled in Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood's Summer Wine made the long, heady, summer nights only that much more palpable and alluring.

Nights make one unapologetic and reckless, inducing a certain amount of flair and a debonair defiance. When Frank Sinatra sings
We'd be sharing love before the night was through
Something in your eyes was so inviting
Something in your smile was so exciting
Something in my heart told me I must have you
he makes sure that these two lonely people are strangers in the night. For Ella Fitzgerald it's only the Blue Moon that would shelter the heart-broken. For, the days and the seasons of the sun are for the boisterous achievers; the nights are subtle.

Like O. Henry's short story, I have often wondered about the voices of the cities I've lived in or visited. On that bright afternoon when I was sitting at the Piazza San Marco, I heard a local band play Vivaldi's Four Seasons. By late night, after most of the tourists and the workers had returned to the mainland, I imagined that the music that would live on in the alleys of Venice would be, however, of an immigrant softly playing the Godfather theme Speak softly love on his accordion, and a distant, discreet splash of a gondolier as he maneuvers on the canal. Although Audrey Hepburn's Sabrina had written to her father that she could hear la vie en rose being played one night at Paris, the song that kept playing in my head when I had reached my hotel on the outskirts on the city, past midnight that autumn (yet again), was Sarah Vaughan's 1954 version of April in Paris with Clifford Brown on the trumpet, one that goes on for eight minutes. Ella's I love Paris every moment of the year is just so diurnal; like those souvenir shops near the Eiffel Tower that only attract tourists. As Paris sunk in, the song that haunted my mind more starkly was Rod Stewart or Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong crooning The Nearness of You. The version would depend on the Paris sky that night.       

While driving through Tuscany late one full moon night, I hummed Killing me softly with his song (Roberta Flack's version of course), Don Mclean's And I love you so and Starry starry night, Nat King Cole's Unforgettable, Mme. Edith's non je ne regrette rien (and quite meant it), Eric Clapton's Wonderful Tonight, and rested my tired but contented mind with Doris Day's version of When I fall in love. I rediscovered Lara's Theme from Doctor Zhivago in the heart of Schwarzwald when my friend and fellow flaneuse found a wooden jewellery box which played the theme when its lid was opened; and the beautiful fall colours reminded me of Clapton's soulful Autumn Leaves.

Yet there are quiet nights, when you turn off the lights and listen quietly to Chopin's Preludes; you think of such people as Rosemary Clooney and Fred Astaire; you travel with the rhinestone cowboys, with Bobby Gentry, Glenn Campbell and Paul Anka; dream about Jamaican sunshine, of the Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte; and know that the lady in you is a tramp, true-blue Lena Horne style. You move from Julie London's Days of wine and roses to Cry me a river, and end with Around midnight; twirl around with Mary Jane Carpenter, and travel to the top of the world with the Carpenter siblings. On certain nights Kenny Rogers willingly agrees to be 'the knight in shining armour' to his Lady, and Perry Como catches a falling star while being a Prisoner of love. On some nights you listen to Marta Sebestyen crooning beautiful songs in a language you do not understand, and marvel at la mer, or finally accept la tourbillion. You listen to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, are wooed out of your comfort zone by Beethoven's 9th, and seek respite in Connie Francis singing Die Liebe ist ein seltsames Spiel because Billie Holiday just sang I'm a fool to want you. For nights, like Chopin's Nocturnes, are ubiquitous, come rain or come shine, and despite Al Bowlly singing Guilty of loving you the nocturnal will never be acquitted of their clandestine addiction  

At dawn a few days ago, I was in the twilight zone between sleep and awakening. I did not want to rise and greet the glaring sunshine, and my mind suddenly crooned after many months,
I thought that love was just a word
They sang about in songs I heard
It took your kisses to reveal
That I was wrong, and love is real.

La vie en rose? Really?



Picture: Marc Chagall's le violoniste bleu

This post also appears in The Seagull School's blog

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"I don't know if you or I exist, but somewhere there are poems about us."
                                                        - scrawled on a bathroom wall of a cafe in Austin, Texas, documented by Linh Dinh

If music be the food of love

I believe that every book has two stories to tell - one that is written, and the other that precedes its being read, and includes the circumstances of procuring the book. In my case, often this second story is as interesting as the first one.

S and I met each other during our first year at college. She was outwardly reticent, and inwardly, rather strange. For example, if I would miss a class, and would ask her for the class notes, she would promptly take my copy, sit down, and copy down the notes in her spindly handwriting. At other times, she would force me to watch a film, the CD of which she would bring and forcefully thrust into my bag. Now we weren't as good friends then as we are now, but I rather liked this strange girl with her strange antics. I was only starting out as a film buff, and she would force me to watch a particular film, and I had to text her that very night to let her know how I 'liked' it (there could be no other response). It was our first winter in college, and I had borrowed Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago from the library, bought a Dairy Milk chocolate, returned home in the afternoon, buried myself under the blanket, and began reading. The next day she saw my book, and insisted that I watch the film before everything else, the CD of which she'd carry the next day. Carry she did, and she kept texting me that whole evening, forcing me to watch the movie. I still remember that night six years ago, when I finally texted her at two in the morning, having watched through the three CDs, and sat for a long time in a daze letting it sink in. She had replied to my copiously emotional text with only a smiley.

Even after six years, Doctor Zhivago has remained a very important 'text' for both of us, and though our roles have mostly reversed (I insist on her watching a film, and she delays the act infinitely), our devotion to the film has remained unchanged. Suddenly on some ordinary night I would think about the Urals in spring, and my mind would play the tune of Lara's theme; or, S would have her periodic philosophical bouts when she would rediscover her favourite music, unearth Lara's Theme, and remind me about it in a text. By now I have realised, that certain music, like certain books, never really leave you. The notes travel even when one does not have access to music, playing its refrain in the mind.

In the heart of the Schwarzwald we chanced upon an epiphany together. When S and I had been travelling in Europe, we didn't have any music with us. S couldn't bring her ipod as I wasn't carrying my laptop, and it wouldn't have any other source of charge. The little music I had in my cell phone wouldn't quite suffice because of the poor battery, although we did listen to Vivaldi's 'winter' all the way from Padua to Venice, heads bent, ears taut, as only one earpiece could be assigned to one person. That would probably be the only phase of my life when I didn't have a perceptible exposure to music for such a long time (the Waldecho at the Alps is another story). Towards the beginning of our journey S had said that she craved to hear 'Lara's Theme'. I would try to hum it to myself during the long journeys by road.

That evening at Druber, I was tired and cold. I had had a long conversation over the phone with my parents and it had made me sad. I was walking outside this cuckoo shop, looking at the beautiful but abandoned surroundings, when I heard S calling me frantically at the top of her voice. I rushed inside and found that she was holding a wooden jewellery box. She looked at me, opened the lid, and said, "It's playing 'Lara's Theme'. I have been wanting to hear it, remember? Listen."

It would turn six soon, and we would be standing in the cold, outside the shop, watching the figures dance as a hundred odd cuckoo clocks chimed in unison.


Friday, May 11, 2012

The Mad Woman's Stew

Dying is an art. 
Like everything else,
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I have a call.


I live in a morbid fear of death. Not mine; when it comes to self, I've always believed death is liberating; "Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one's head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forget life, to be at peace." However, being a true hypocrite, I am afraid of death when it concerns people I love.

J. M. Barrie had said, "Young boys should never be sent to bed. They wake up a day older." And I believe that parents and grandparents should never grow old. The true tragedy of life is not lost love or unfulfilled dreams, but senescence. People grow old, people die, and there cannot be anything crueler than this basic truth. The string of hopelessness and failure they leave behind seep into the lives of people they love. The empty seat at the dinner table not unoccupied a few days ago, is a morbid reminder of how one day a person just ceased to exist; one day a person woke up and found himself transformed into a giant insect; or woke up, left the body behind, and transpired into thin air. When I'd first read Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, I'd wept like a baby. Like a morbid person, I'd learned the lines,
"For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire's return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share."
and I'd recite them to myself and shed copious tears. Yet, till then I'd never experienced death from close quarters. But of course, like one of Buddha's fables, there is no escaping. As I grew older and learnt about heartbreak, I also learnt about the vulnerability of the people I love. Since then every day has been a struggle. The realisation that the grandparent with whom you've spent every single day of your mundane life, would one day feel pain, hard physical agony, would cease to exist, gnaws at your mind. In a moment of introspection you realise that you'd probably never spend so many years of your life with another living soul as you had with him/her, and that person was decaying even as you practiced your artificial laugh with your artificial friends.You realise that the parents who have been your only support system will one day degenerate. After that, you will not have anyone in the world who'd selflessly think about your welfare. Being an orphan is a state of mind, a realisation that grows with years, from a feeling of extreme desolation. Because, frankly, there is nothing called love. There is ownership, and there are the innumerable demands that this ownership entails. It teaches you to be dependent on other people, on emotions, on the belief that you need another soul to cling your useless life to. It makes you act according to its expectations; to mourn; to pick up the pieces again; and to go on with life as if nothing happened, as if there was an emptiness which has been cross-stitched. And this is what disturbs me.

I hate death, I hate blood, and I hate pain, because these make me realise how vulnerable I am; how dependent I am upon these very few people of the ueberfuhlte, heartless world; how I have to, must react to these emotions; how I must let my selfish, voluntarily-elected-useless-everyday life be affected by them. Literature is useless. It gives you an impossible picture of a world that doesn't exist, that never can. I read literature because I cannot spend my days lying flat on the bed, staring at the wall above me. After sometime I will have learnt the exact shapes of the crevices. I read literature just to kill time, to let a tiny part of me be fooled by the grandeur of its false promise.



I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my eyes and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)


The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,
And arbitrary blackness gallops in:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.


I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed
And sung me moon-struck, and kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)


God topples from the sky, hell's fires fade:
Exit seraphim and Satan's men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.


I fancied you'd return the way you said,
But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)


I should have loved a thunderbird instead;
At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Reading List: First Quarter, 2012

When my university exams ended on mid-June, 2011, I decided to inculcate a habit of writing down all the books read (and also films watched) every month in a diary. Adding to the list after reading every book motivated me immensely to plunge into the next one. On New Year's eve, I discovered that I had read 56 books from June through December (some titles reread after years). The reading pace has slackened slightly this year primarily due to work and other distractions, but I am still keeping a steady pace. Even as I maintain my physical diary, I have decided to copy it online, primarily in a bid to inspire me even more, and partly to show-off to my imaginary, non-existent readership. Since the first four months of the year have passed already, I am compiling my list into a quarter. Cheers to the printed word!

April, 2012


1. Memories of my Melancholy Whores - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
2. The Hour of the Star - Clarice Lispector
3. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - John le Carre

March


1. Goodbye to All That - Robert Graves
2. Confidence - Henry James
3. The American - Henry James
4. Loreley - Heinrich Heine

February


1. Collected Short Stories - Truman Capote
2. The Glass Harp - Truman Capote
3. Breakfast at Tiffany's - Truman Capote
4. Amader Bari - Chhanda Sen*

January


1. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler - Italo Calvino
2. A Year in Provence - Peter Mayle
3. Daisy Miller - Henry James
4. Selected Stories - Henry James
5. The Little Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I also read the bi-monthly editions of the Bengali journal Desh.

*This book was kindly lent to me by my wonderful German teacher. It is written by her sister, solely to preserve the stories of their family for the future generations. I was given privy to the late nineteenth-early twentieth century world of an illustrious family in North Calcutta; the food they so happily shared; the music they lent their voices to; the people who walked out of the pages of history and got a more human form inside the walls of their house; of love and warm familial feelings that survived when most other material things didn't. The book is, naturally,  not available for sale, and was circulated only within the members of the family.




Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Una furtiva lagrima

Gregory Rabassa, whose translations - I'm told - is as good as the law, and can be bought with eyes closed, and who did not translate my copy, talks about Clarice Lispector as "that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf." At once I have visions of a temptress in black and white, who despite the monochromes spills lascivious colours into the umgebung, and who simultaneously writes down frantic snatches between drawing out puffs of smoke. Being a libertine and erudite together is unorthodox; and so is poverty that is not poor, as Mme. Cixous would point out. But a lot of what Marlene Dietrich, Virginia Woolf, and Marilyn Monroe represented, was unorthodox, innit? As I struggle to write about The Hour of the Star moments after I shut the book, I wonder if I could reproduce Lispector's (or is it the narrator's?) every line and pass them off as my very own condition-of-existence.

As for me, I'm only truthful when I'm alone. When I was a little boy I thought that from one minute to the next I could fall off the face of the earth. Why don't clouds fall, since everything else does? Because gravity is less than the strength of the air that keeps them up there. Clever, right? Yes, but one day they fall as rain. That is my revenge.


There's something about Macabéa, the protagonist. When you read about her, you cannot imagine that you were capable of such pity. Our generations have learnt to distill the pity of war before being born. Pity and sorrow for a fellow human, is what Rodrigo S.M., the narrator, calls a luxury. Macabea is oblivious to her unhappiness, the innocent victim of life, as opposed to her narrator who is only too alive to his failures, and sadly knows too much. He writes about the tragedy of being alive, and the comedy and farce of existence; Macabea lives through all of them, without realising them at all, and despite myself, I think about Borges; Jorge Luis Borges, whose writings are omni-present, beyond creation, floating somewhere in the universe, in the worlds of Tlon and Uqbar. Nevertheless Rodrigo paints no idealistic picture, and though the image of Borges looms at the back, the imposing features do not make an entrance into the poor, bedraggled, TB-infested world of Macabea. And if the disease makes one think of the naive but gallant Hans Castorp, and the brave Joachim, Rodrigo would pen an ironic utterance on his protagonist's behalf, contrasting the rarefied air of the Zauberberg, with the slums of Rio. 

This story takes place during a state of emergency and a public calamity. It's an unfinished book because it's still waiting for an answer. An answer I hope someone in the world can give me. You? It's a story in Technicolor to add a little luxury which, by God, I need too. Amen for all of us.

L is a Mexican who wrote down the name of Clarice Lispector in a little piece of paper in black ink and bold letters, with a few other names, and then pointed to her and said, "Read her, it will change your life." There is something about appearing as a lost, unhappy soul even among friends that invites concern, but A hora da estrela was perhaps the best advice in a piece of paper I've ever received. Frankly, there's nothing life-changing about the 75 odd pages of the book. After you spend a long day working under the sun, and then seek refuge in a corner of a dark cafe, with the drone of the AC beside you affirming your views on the futility of love ("Sex is the consolation you have when you can't have love"), the last thing you would want is a printed word confirmation of how life sucks. The Hour of the Star does that unflinchingly. It reminds you yet again, how every story ever written in the world is one of affliction. Moments before Macabea died, she learnt how unhappy her life was without her knowing it, how deprived she had been without her realising it. Just as she loses her innocence, she dies. The Prince of Darkess won. Finally the coronation. My friend S tells me that life, not death, is a great leveler. Rodrigo says, death is an encounter with oneself... The best thing is still this : not to die, because dying is insufficient, it does not complete me, I who need so much.

Precisely three weeks ago Mahashweta Devi told us that every individual's fundamental right is to dream. Today Clarice Lispector, through a book for which she had envisaged thirteen titles, told me about the right to scream. I have not tried it yet, but tonight I know about my luxury of life, my luxury to mourn, and to feel sad. With it, the luxury of singing the blues, of swooning on listening to Chopin, of the allegro and the aria, and of understanding this story as the imminence in those bells that almost-almost ring. Clarice has walked a long way from Ukraine, the neighbours of the land of green plums, to the rugged ridges of Brazil, and reminds us a little of Herta Mueller's hapless and struggling young people. Like Virginia Woolf who could be Lily, and Clarissa, and Mrs. Ramsay all at once while being Orlando for four hundred years; like Marlene Dietrich, the angel and the devil together; like Elizabeth Bishop, friend, translator-translator, lover; we all intertwine and flip through the pages of this book, with Macabea, who is not us, but whom we want to tuck in bed, and give hot soup, who breaks our heart with her innocence and who dies in silence. Una furtiva lagrima, or a furtive tear. 

And now -- now all I can do is light a cigarette and go home. My God, I just remembered that we die. But - but me too?! 
Don't forget that for now it's strawberry season.
Yes.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Toilets, Love, Triangles, and Ideologies

I have a theory. I find that when my life suddenly gets very busy with activities that I hadn't initially planned to do, my mind goes blank for days on end, and I find it difficult to make an intelligent conversation. When someone asks me what I am currently reading, and though at other times I could go on about the Henry James in my bag, and the bad article in the Desh that kept me up the previous night, on these days I go completely blank, give a vague smile, look as if I couldn't hear well, and make a clumsy exit. I cannot even decently excuse myself. Later, fraught with shame and guilt, I try to assess the situation. On one such event, I devised the theory. It is during these periods of apparent dumbness that I am in the middle of ideologies. It is like the toilet model of Zizek. The moment you flush the toilet, you are in the middle of ideologies. Before that your existence was determined by the shape of the toilet - flat back, hole in front, being visible so as to examine worms if any (this is strictly the description of the German toilet bowl, and no double entendres intended whatsoever); bigger hole at the back and the capability of vanishing immediately (the French toilets); floating in the water (America) and so on. Now, if the shape determines the ideology of the culture, signifying the habits they indulge in (examining worms, denial, or indifference), the moment the toilet is flushed, the predominant structure of ideology is flushed with it too, and the person is in a curious state, when he can continue with the embedded culture of his toilet, or might embrace a new one for the day until he goes to toilet again. similarly, I realised, my clumsy conversations - when not especially dictated by the sex and attractive quotient of the person I'm having the conversation with - is between ideologies; the one that existed before I got too busy to sit back and think, and the one I'll presumably follow once I've settled down with the flow of life.

Every time Maa and I have a quarrel, we stop phoning each other. However, a complex system, other than just refraining from the phone calls, is often at work. Despite being angry with Maa, I feel a desperate urge to share a juicy bit of gossip with her. Until I do that, i feel restless. So I start looking for substitutes. I try confiding in my 89-year old grandmother. But she is rather hard of hearing, and as I am trying to tell her about a cousin and her date, she tells me about the price of dhyanrosh at Bhowanipur market (it's one of her obsessions - checking the market price of vegetables at all markets of Calcutta, as printed on the paper). Maa, on the other hand, needs to vent about the acquaintance whom she ran into at the market in Siliguri. Since she has obhimaan, she will not call me. She tries telling Baba who is not interested. I try calling Baba up and telling him about the cousin; he says he's not interested. At last, after two days of waiting, hoping the other one calls first, one of us dials the number, the other one picks up, and after a few seconds of obhimaan related accusations, then laughter, we finally indulge in soul-baring bitching and exchanging notes. This system has been repeated time and again over the past six years, and I have discovered a semiotic triangle that correlates to the culinary triangle modeled by Levi-Strauss. Confiding in Thamma, is like boiling while cooking. The latter needs a receptacle, and hence is not a natural culinary method. Thamma cannot decipher the depths of my thought as dhyanrosh and jhinge crop into her mind, and hence is not natural. Confiding into Baba could be associated with roasting meat. The latter is a natural culinary method, and is associated with men in many cultures. However just like my disinterested father, meat can lose some parts when exposed to the fire, and thus signifies destruction and loss. But confiding into Maa, is like smoking meat. It takes more time than roasting because we have our feelings to resolve before picking up the phone. It is rather natural, but involves the phone as an outside agent like dhyanrosh and jhinge, and makes it somewhat akin to boiling. Other methods of confiding can also be situated within this triangle. Confiding in friends will not elicit the same reaction as confiding in Maa, because the former will demand a lot of footnotes. That could be like grilling, a method which involves placing the meat closer to the fire than roasting (ref: Baba, who's not interested at all).

Of course, the associations are not completely perfect, but it's not completely dismissive too, innit?

This is disgusting.