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Paris, Mumbai, and the Rest of the World

Sometimes I feel words fail us more often than they help us. Then again, when words fail us, the shock makes us remember. So our counting isn’t exactly faithful. We need words to tell us that words have failed us.
#ParisAttack seems like a distant echo of what happened in Mumbai, circa 2008. In 12 days it would be a seven year anniversary of those dastardly attacks. Last Saturday, I was in Mumbai, at Gateway of India, opposite the iconic Taj, one of the prime sites of the 2008 attacks. It was the first time after the 2008 attacks which left Taj burning for hours, and those images haunting us for days, that I was there. Standing there, between the sea, and the heritage building, what struck me was that the world hasn’t changed much.

Mumbai, for sure hasn’t. The freeway, the flyovers, and the metro notwithstanding. I got a mochi to sew my floaters for mere 10 rupees (15 cents?). When I handed him a twenty, still a pittance, he looked at me wearily, nodded, and put the money in his pockets. I thanked him for not thanking me and moved on.

Mumbai is a microcosm of our world. Living shoulder to shoulder are richest and poorest people, plush office spaces and slums. You look outta window of your upper middle class friend’s place to see a row of makeshift houses. You take a ride on the new Eastern Freeway, and see dilapidated housing colonies, a reminder of Mumbai that was, that is.

I’ve never been to Paris. But Paris, people who have been there, seems to touch them in some ways. Especially the young ones. Strike that. The young parts of everyone. There is something intoxicating about a city with never ending night life, art, high culture, and a beacon of intellectualism — whatever the philosophies. Just like Mumbai.

And yet, there isn’t one Mumbai, one Paris. Mumbai has burned due to religious riots many times before 2008. Paris has had it’s share of race riots. They both have their de-facto ghettos. They both are microcosms of our world — opening up at seams to show an underbelly that’s not in line with the romanticism of the privileged. Blast or no blasts. Attacks or no attacks.

The fact is, the world is being hurt everyday on a scale not very different from from happened to Mumbai in 2008, or Paris today. Beirut, Baghdad, just today, for instance. They don’t move us the way a Paris does, a New York does, a London does, a Mumbai does. There is a point to ponder there.

Mumbai bleeds everyday. More people die of preventable diseases everyday, than terrorism on worst days. Our response to terrorism wouldn’t be effective till we let the world let itself down, every day. Day after day. And it doesn’t move us the way the prime time images of a terrorist attack do. No this is not about whataboutery.

In such times, the social networks light up. Out comes analysis. Out come the daggers. Cheap points are scored over corpses not even buried, or burnt.

We let the words let us down. We let the words let the world down.

May we learn to use worlds to heal. We owe that to the world.

We are the word. We are the world.


Of Slowness, in the Fast World

When someone says about a book or movie that it was too slow, I’m tempted to ask: compared to what? Is there a gold standard of pace for a book, or a movie?

“It is too slow” could well be a judgement on the one passing that judgement. It could just hint at our inability to concentrate, of our lack of patience, our fast shrinking attention spans. Stories have their own pace. Not all can be rushed. Fast paced isn’t necessarily good. Not all subjects can be handled at fast paced. Not many, even. Quickies may have their use, but to recall a controversial ad, asli maza instant nahin hota (the real pleasure is never instant).

No I don’t endorse slowness for the sake of it (although, neither do I criticize it). I’m not saying everything slow is wonderful. But what I am doing is questioning our collective clamoring for everything fast paced. We are, it seems, too bored of nuances. We have no interest in stories that one can’t “tell (it) and get over with, already”.

Long back, the Pune Times supplement of Times of India used to carry a small column by someone (okay hint, he was a bong), I’ve entirely forgotten about, but who I used to enjoy reading, once in a while. Incidentally, it wasn’t slow (who has time and space for slow column in, essentially, an ad supplement). And there is one particular piece of his that I still remember, or in any case the gist of it. He talked about how he noticed a road one fine day, in a way he hadn’t noticed before.

Our lives, rushed and busy as they are, don’t leave us with enough time, it seems, to notice the scenery. So much so that, you could be driving on the most beautiful road, with your spouse, out to celebrate your first anniversary, and all that, and a slow driver in front, slowing you down would make you angry.

Move on, already.

We can’t live in a moment. When a beautiful moment is being extended by traffic, we see traffic, not the moment.

Milan Kundera in his comparatively less well known book, Slowness, serenades with this theme: slowness and memory. He deliberates on the issues of slowness, and speed, coincidentally, using the metaphor of driving.

[T]he man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instant of his flight; he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time; he is ousted time; in other words, he is in a state of ecstasy[…]

Speed is a form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man.  As opposed to a motorcyclist, the runner is always present in his body, forever required to think about his blisters, his exhaustion; when he runs he feels his weight, his age, more conscious than ever of himself and of his time of life.  This all changes when man delegates the faculty of speed to a machine: from then on, his own body is outside the process, and he gives over to a speed that is noncorporeal, non-material, pure speed, speed itself, ecstasy speed.

Have we, then, delegated the faculty of speed to a machine: the big bad machine that we’re part of, the modern living — career, and the monotony of fast-paced living? Kundera laments the loss of slowness:

Why has the pleasure of slowness disappeared? Ah, where have they gone, the amblers of yesteryear? Where have they gone, those loafing heroes of folk song, those  vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars?  Have they vanished along with footpaths, with grasslands and clearings, with nature? There is a Czech proverb that describes their easy indolence by a metaphor:  “They are gazing at God’s windows.” A person gazing at God’s windows is not  bored; he is happy. In our world, indolence has turned into having nothing to do,  which is a completely different thing: a person with nothing to do is frustrated,  bored, is constantly searching for the activity he lacks.

When we read a slow book, do we have nothing (better) to do? Do we perceive the slowness because we have lost the art of gazing at God’s window?

And more in the context of the current post:

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting.

A man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down.

Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace, as if he were trying to distance himself from a thing still too close to him in time.

In existential mathematics that experience takes the form of two basic equations: The degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.

This whole chain of thought started because of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. As I deliberated whether to pick it up, I chanced upon a review on goodreads. The reviewer said she was contemplating dropping the book just thirty odd pages into it because the narration was “unbearably slow” (her words, not mine). She ended up giving the book five stars and a stellar review. 

While reading it, myself, I kept on recalling Kundera’s words about speed and memory. Remains of the Day is a recollection of a bygone era. And how do you make someone remember a lost era, really remember, and cherish, and let it live as a ghost that much longer, unless one slows it down to a whisper, or its equivalent in speed. When a child throws a tantrum, we tell him/her that when you shout, you get attention of everyone for a moment, but no one remembers what you said, because it will be lost before you could even speak. When you whisper, by contrast, you may not get the attention of everyone, but those who will listen to you will listen to you with rapt attention till you’ve said what you wanted to.

When you tell a story slowly, unfold it gently, let it seep in into the very being of the listener, let it hang in the air, for the air is heavier than the pace of the narration, when you let it germinate in the mind of the reader … well, it seems you could lose a lot of readers. But whoever hangs around past those thirty odd pages, you’ve got them hooked. Invested in your painstakingly painted world. Spellbound. Enthralled. Mesmerized.

Ishiguro has managed that with The Remains of the Day. Maybe, like the bygone era that it depicts, where life wasn’t so fast, after all, was destined to be relegated to such memories, and that too, meant only for “those few amblers of yesteryear, those loafing heroes of folk song, those vagabonds who roam from one mill to another and bed down under the stars”, as Kundera puts it.

Those who don’t mind “gazing at God’s windows”. Those with nothing better to do.

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It’s Never Too Late

Sometimes you know you’ve been sitting on an apology for too long. You know it’s futile to even attempt one, beyond a point. Still, it’s important to apologize at a moment when you have the chance, when you have the required courage. You owe it to yourself. Apology is never futile.

It’s never too late for an apology, felt from heart.

Still, don’t wait for the never. It’s never too early, either.


Friend, disconnected …

The past comes back to stake its claims on you. It doesn’t matter if you’ve moved on. You cannot move where past cannot reach you. Because past is within you. Any effort to part with the past is counter-productive.

Social networking has made it easier to connect with ghosts from past. But those ghosts don’t necessarily make good companions. It’s hard to relate to them, especially if you aren’t the same you. Which you rarely are.

I have — just like you or most of us — nominally connected with hundreds of such ghosts on Facebook. I have debated whether to accept the friend requests with many I don’t particularly know anymore. “But that is the idea, to know them again!”, some will say. Some, who are optimistic. Some who are kind, generous. Unlike me. I’m highly pessimistic, and indeed snobbish, when it comes to people. Or myself. I’m certain if they don’t get on my nerves, I will on theirs. And so I’m careful about who I call a friend. And I only, really, stay in touch with friends.

Till, one not so fine day, I hear about the death of one, who I used to be friends with. He was the Dill (To Kill a Mocking Bird) for us; me and my sister. He used to come visit his grandfather who was our neighbour, on Diwali or summer vacations. Typically, both. He was (and I almost wrote is, which would have been true till a day before) the most innocent guy I knew, then. And not many I have met later in life can compete with that, forget about bettering it.

Sachin, my childhood friend, passed away yesterday. I last saw him maybe fifteen years back. Or even more. I last talked to him about five years back, after a gap of ten odd years. That was the only contact outside facebook I had with him over all these years (and on facebook, also minimal, mostly he liking or commenting on a post or comment). There wasn’t much to talk, beyond asking what some common acquaintance was doing, where we are working, and the like. We made vague plans to meet up. I knew I wasn’t serious. The years had put a gap between us that I didn’t quite believe we  — or rather, I — could overcome.

I learned of the news from a common friend today. The first thing that came to my mind is, maybe I should have believed that we could fill the gap, and insisted on meeting him. I wished I knew how to borrow a belief.

I’m terrible with deaths. I don’t believe in the rituals post death. Death is a wrong time to be rebellious, to be aloof, to be yourself. People who love you, depend on you to not be stubborn. They want to see you going through the motions. I’ve disappointed people close to me because I don’t know how to go through the motions. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean it disrespectfully — going through the motions, not in this context! They must have their use. Closure needs an algorithm. If we can’t write one, we catch on to whatever is known to have worked for someone, anyone. I have a, even if short, list of apologies I could never offer. I could never gather the courage, once the moment had passed. And when you haven’t found closure, that moment flies by you as you mourn torturously, alone, having abandoned the healing that mourning with a group may offer.

I remember so many stories. I know when I will next meet some of my cousins who know him, or our common friends, we’ll share some of those stories. And Sachin will bring a smile on our faces, again, after all these years. And in those stories, in that borderline laughter, I’ll find the only partial closure that’s possible for someone like me who is closure challenged.

RIP Sachin. You’ll always be remembered fondly. And while I will try to avoid tears, and fake a sense of normalcy by going through another set of motions, as a weak substitute, a part of me will always mourn for you. I didn’t exactly have you in my life in all of my adult life. But do pass on the shared innocence, in the hope that I find a way to reconnect with some ghosts from the past before they actually become just that.

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Atheistic Revelations

Religion is on rampage in India, and in much of the world. And I don’t mean to single out any religion. It’s just a matter of opportunity, not will.

Technically, that’s not correct. It’s men who profess to believe in religion who are on rampage in India, and much of the world. This includes rank and file believers on the ground, or religious leaders. But no one is ready to excommunicate these people from their religious order, so religions will have to bear a brunt of the wrath of those who are on the receiving end. It’s only fair.

Atheists are under attack everywhere. And in most of the so called civilized world, even the law is not a refuge for them. The thing is, as a believer of x religion, one can go out and say things about y religion, and law would probably save their rights to even bigoted speech, especially since one can claim that x religion holds it as sacred belief.

I think the time has come for atheists to declare themselves as a religious sect and publish their (un)holy books, and claim special status from law, just like any other religion.

I’m thinking of a fictional trial set in not so distant future, involving an adherent of atheism who claims that his religion requires him to say things that he’s being prosecuted for:

Prosecutor: Can you tell us what is your religion?
Atheist hero: Atheism
Prosecutor: That’s not a religion
Atheist hero: It is. As per the Xth amendment of the constitution of out country, atheism has been granted …
Prosecutor: Okay. So you do believe in existence of God?
Atheist: No
Prosecutor: (with an “I got you now” smile) And you said this, in your statement, that “God said to me, it is the need of the hour to …”
Atheist: Correct.
Prosecutor: That’s contradicting what you just said.
Atheist: No. I do believe that God said that to me.
Prosecutor: A non-existent God?
Atheist: God’s existence doesn’t depend on my belief.
Prosecutor: Then how do you know it was God who said that to you?
Atheist: Because he said to me, “I’m God, and I have chosen you to say this to the world, because, I’ve lost my faith in anyone who professes to believe in me”
Prosecutor: That’s absurd
Atheist: Why?
Prosecutor: You can’t claim to speak in the name of God you don’t believe in.
Atheist: Actually I do. My religion needs me to. Please refer to exhibit 13 …

And so on …


‘Writing’ Again …

It’s been a while since I ‘wrote’ with a pen and paper. Sometime back, a friend sent me a hand-written note by actual, physical, post (courier), and I have been recalling my days of communicating over the slow-net ever since.

Recently, I cleaned my old Parker pen, and although I still don’t have a good quality ink in it, it’s working like it used to. Without fuss. I’ve forgotten how to write pages after pages on a paper, without endlessly rewriting sentences, as typing on computer allows. This is just a beginning to the journey back home. Of course, I don’t see this as anything other than a ode to nostalgia. I can’t even finish a blog post length piece on paper, and I don’t intend to go back to writing on paper primarily, ever. But it would be good to see what the restrictions of the medium do to my writing, after all these years of using a different medium.

And Atul, do send me your postal address. One of these days, I’m writing back. After these baby steps, I feel confident …


To be continued …

PS: While you wait for the full post (bit of vanity is the only thing that keeps us part timers going, so let me believe this) also read something Atul wrote on same theme: Paper & Me.


The Streets That Won’t Take Me Home

I’ve followed these unending streets
searching for their destination
but they run longer than our years
I’ve searched on
for that one illusive ally
in this stranger of a town

I’ve waited a lifetime
demystifying the labyrinths
to find a way back home
in vain, I see
those streets, they have
closed the ranks

8868: Energy Express

I’ve looked up to the skies
I’ve searched for rainbows
through my misty windows
the condensed droplets
ready with their promise
to multiply a rainbow
into million tiny ones
but I just need one

To believe in you
in your love for me,
no, it’s not reciprocation
that I look for
you cannot reciprocate
to everyone
with their contradictory loves

And so I roam
these treacherous streets
following the your echoes
distant in time and space
for I know
I will find home
where I find you

Image Credits: Atul Sabnis (flickr) (blog) (photo blog)

Idea Credit: Ek Akela Is Shahar Mein (Gharonda, 1977) (First stanza)


Court (2014) – A Study in Realism

I couldn’t catch Court in the theaters, for the two weeks or so that it managed to be around, despite all the acclaim abroad, and all the good reviews. When I finally did manage to watch it, it wasn’t a surprise that it didn’t last longer than it did. That’s obviously not a comment on the film, but rather on the viewers. I don’t think I even need to explain it, especially for those who know my views on movies.

It’s not an easy movie to review. Because Court is not many things one is used to expect from the medium of film, especially an Indian film. The film has a very simple storyline. It’s about an old lok shahir (people’s poet/singer, literally), who is picked up on frivolous excuses, and is effectively being silenced by misuse of the powerful machinery of the state — and its lethargy. The particular case at the center of the film is a case involving an alleged abetting of suicide of a sewage cleaner.

Narayan Kamble, the accused, played with gusto by Vira Satidhar, is alleged to have performed a song next to where the diseased sewage cleaner lived, with lyrics that provoked all sewage cleaners to kill themselves, in an act of protest. The case drags on, at a snail’s pace, with witnesses not turning up, trails pushed to future dates.


It’s then that Court really starts to take a grip, when it starts peaking at the lives of those involved in the case — the lawyers, the judge — and in the process it exposes the central irony:

Vinay Vora, the defense lawyer, (played perfectly by Vivek Gomber, who is also the producer of the movie) comes from a rich Gujarati family (his father tells his friend, in an offhand, yet boastful manner, this whole building is owned by us), plays bepop in his car, socializes with other rich and privileged in exclusive places where world music is played live. He is representing a rebel poet, a man of the masses, and presumably against all the decadence of the system that makes it possible for Vinay to have his privileged lifestyle. While, the prosecutor, Nutan — not even sure this name is used in the movie —  played quite competently, by Geetanjali Kulkarni, comes from a typical middle class background, is representing the system — the same system which is keeping her in shackles. Her life is typical urban middle class working woman’s life: working, traveling in local trains, going back home to cook for her husband and kids whom she also has to serve the dinner (while they watch TV, and won’t move an inch to help her in any way whatsoever).  She is the victim of the system she is defending, in the hope of an unlikely promotion. And she is so entranced in the system, that she doesn’t realize the contradictions in her positions on issues (assuming she has a consciously held positions).

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A scene in particular got me almost angry, where Vinay Vora is shown picking up wines and expensive cheeses in a gourmet shop (while Chopin’s Waltz in E flat major plays in the background), the scene is close to two minutes long (I counted), with just him shopping alone in the store. Where is the editor, I wanted to shout. And yet, as the time passed, I realized that this wasn’t an oversight. This was intentional, just as the agonizingly slowly vanishing shot of the emptying courtroom as it’s supposed to close for the summer vacation (70 seconds long, with last 20 odd seconds of blank screen after the lights are off in the courtroom). The slow pace is intentional, nay, essential to the narrative. For the story enfolds outside of the courtroom, outside of the main narrative. And it is no story at all, it is what the story does to you, what it makes you see, even what it makes you see makes you think.

But there is a story that unfolds in the courtroom too. This, mind you, is not a glamorized courtroom drama one is used to watching on screen — be it Bollywood or Hollywood, films/TV. What is there, instead, is everyday reality of courts. An almost unconcern with what is being debated, decided. It’s a matter of fact portrayal of the banality of the faceless power that could make or destroy lives. It tires you down. It frustrates you. It makes you despondent. It enrages you. And you’re not even the one whose life is in the balance.

Court is a kind of movie that every Indian should see, because it is an antidote to all the glossy, dreamy kitsch that is Bollywood’s staple, because it is a microcosm of India that we don’t want to be reminded of, especially we the privileged. And yet Court is a movie that barely lasted two weeks in theaters. Even that was a miracle. That says a lot about us, not the movie. Our privileged, protected lives, apparently are so full of stress that all we want from movies is a release, a cheap climax. Anything that makes us think, at the end of our labored days, deserves to die an unglamorous death.

That Court has to die to make space for Bajrang Bhaijans, is the tragedy. Ironically though, it’s what Court prepares you for, in the 115 odd minutes it takes from you. Especially, because the judge in the movie is us, as the last few minutes of the movie reveal. Those who have seen the movie will know what I mean by that.

Direction: 5/5 (Kudos to Chaitanya Tamhane !!!)
Acting: 4/5
Cinematography: 4/5
Script: 5/5

Overall: 5/5

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Living Up To

David Foster Wallace, that enigmatic genius who mesmerized many with his stupefying, and brilliant book Infinite Jest (my very short review here), struggled with the weight of its success (literary, mainly) for the rest of his life — not a very long life after that point, owing to his tragic suicide. That struggle may well have contributed significantly to his suicide, by many an accounts.  

Thomas Pynchon, one of the early influences on Wallace’s writing, and an enigmatic/cryptic force himself, had this to say in a moving obit to Wallace [Edit: Dammit, see the PS]:

I wish he had spoken to me, or I to him: I could have offered him some fatherly  advice on the futility of competing with your younger self: every review of every novel I’ve written since Gravity’s Rainbow contains the phrase, either explicitly or implicitly, “not as good as”.

That got me thinking. In a sense, it’s a good problem to have, right? You already have a massive work out there, in the prime of your life, written, published, validated, celebrated. I mean, many if not most struggling writers (extrapolate this to anyone in any creative profession) would love to be there. I know I would. And I’m not even a struggling writer. I mean, I would even be ready to exchange my place to be a struggling writer. But that’s besides the point. 

David Foster Wallace

So back to the point, isn’t that what most writers would settle for? But, apparently, if you’re tipped to be in the league of champions, you don’t think that way. And if you’re already in the league, like Wallace was, you would probably trade real immortality for one more work that creates bigger ripples in the pool of literary world. Just one more. And then … 

Part of the problem is, of course, that that’s never a real trade on offer. The only immortality on offer is through your legacy. And your legacy is not your bestest. It’s your latest. And hence the imperative to live up to, if not surpass, your best work, every time. A kind of monkey in the room that would make living hell for almost anyone. Even someone as obviously gifted as David Foster Wallace. 

This term, living up to, is a very curious term. I first came across it way back in my formative years, from my cousin/friend Mahendra. Those were the days, when email was not an option, at least not for most, including me. And we would make do with the three P’s that most long distance relationships/friendships predicated on: pen, paper, post.

And boy, did we write? In those days prior to availability of instant communication, that delay — between one person writing, posting, the postal delays, the other person writing … — it made all the difference. It gave one time. It took away the pressure that availability of instant replies brings with it. It also made one treasure the process of writing. The overheads meant one wanted the communication to be worth the wait, the delayed gratification.

Again I digress. But Mahendra, in one of his letters — not sure if he remembers — wrote that when writing (to me, I’d like to remember, he said, as that strokes my vanity) a letter, the pressure of “living up to” contributed to delays in responding. It didn’t sound right then, given that I was at an age when it didn’t matter to me — living up to and all that. One wrote, one read, one got ideas, one wrote … There was so much to respond to, that the thought of “living up to” never bothered me. But now, years later, I see that. I think once we think those golden years (twenties typically) have slipped from our fingers, we start measuring everything. Living up to becomes natural. Inevitable, maybe.

There is possibly another angle to why I didn’t feel that need to live up to the level of communication. Maybe I was just responding, and wasn’t really driving, or starting the communication, generating new threads. So obviously my cousin, who I greatly looked up to, had to take lion’s share of that. And that’s why he felt that, even if mild,  pressure to live up to.

It’s not at all strange that when we’re young we don’t typically have these notions (except for those ahead of the game). Because we think the best is yet to come. That a dud here, a wasted opportunity there, hardly matters. We know there will be better days. That we’ll live up to our dreams of ourselves sooner than later. But as the sand starts slipping through our fingers, we start looking back. Because the reassurance is not in the future, but there, in the past. And we want to beat that ghost of any semi-success in the past, because, what’s the point of life if the best is already back there?

Back too Wallace, though, I’m not sure he was anywhere close to that point. Not when you think of his output after that, even if it’s not in one fictional form where he probably wanted it (I can’t comment on his last, posthumously published book, as I’ve not yet read it). But when one has a crowing achievement that makes everything look pale by comparison, what option does one have but not to live up to it? It’s curious that one of the kings of American writing, should name his last work in progress The Pale King.

My heart shudders at the thought of that terrible terrible waste, in pursuit of that obsession with living up to. And yet, if not for it, we wouldn’t have a lot of great literature. Or art. And much more. Still, I’d rather have seen Wallace alive, and kicking. One can’t have everything, I know!

PS: Dammit I was fooled. That’s not Pynchon. I had seen it long back on Salon, and believed it. It was a spoof (in fact the Salon link in my bookmarks does not work now). Serves me right! When one can’t find references, one should smell there is something wrong. Anyways, it was a supremely well done joke (and I’m not saying it just because I was fooled by it). You can find the full text here.