Rain in the Cities

Cities have their histories, peoples, cultures, monuments. They have their unique, even overpowering, smells. They have their streets, planned or unplanned, neat or dirty, congested or empty, and so on. Another unique aspect of cities I’ve noticed is their relationship to the rains.

Mumbai, where I have never quite lived, and have never quite stayed away from for more than a year at a time, and where I spent a couple of years in the (then) quaint  IIT campus, has a very passionate love-hate relationship with the rains. June, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot [1], is the cruelest month (or half month) in Mumbai, as the city, just coming off a long summer, is at its sweaty worst, with humidity flying off the roof in anticipation of the rains; and if you travel in the local trains at that time of the year, there is only one predominant subject: baarish kab aayegi (when will it rain)? The anticipation of rain in Mumbai is like at no place I know of. Not even the farming villages very immediately dependent on the rains. Maybe it is because, while others are not quite sure, and hence are even afraid of anticipating, lest the rain gods take offense and disappoint, Mumbai is quite sure of the rains, blessed as it is with an abundance, every year. But that’s not all of it. In a city where every square foot seems to be exorbitantly priced and still occupied, rain is a respite from the sweat and the heat, and the sheer monotony of a clockwork industrial life.

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Mumbai – A wet game

The ending of the movie The Perfect Murder (1990 – Merchant Ivory Productions) captures the essence of Mumbai’s affair with the first rain — before the drains choke, and local trains stop functioning, and the low-lying areas are flooded, and roads are closed, and it’s already too much rain. The first rain is seen as the solution to all of the city’s problems (as they are the solution to the perfect murder in the city, in the film). The happiness on the streets is comparable to no other collective happiness (except for a cricket World Cup win for India, maybe), as the sheer numbers are on its side. But there is a sense of relief that really underlines the happiness. The megapolis needs the assurance that there will be water, and food, for the next year, just as a farming community in a village needs it, even more, maybe.

But while Mumbai was and is (and will be) my other home, always, the city where I grew up, Solapur, a city past its golden days during the heydays of cloth mills, now a sugar economy, has a very different relationship to rains. Solapur district is highly drought prone, and while keeping aside the irony of massive sugarcane farming in this belt, thanks to the Ujani river dam and canal networks, while the city remains thirsty through the summer months (center of the city used to have water supply once every three to four days, till the last year’s excellent rains in areas upstream the Ujani basin), rains are welcome just about anytime there. Only, one has to seriously redefine “rains”, especially if coming from Mumbai like areas of abundance. But the four months of monsoons transform the region like anything. Whatever little rain, the skies are overcast, temperatures are moderate, and there is never a chance of missing a day’s work due to rains.

The funny thing is, while growing up, we’d have schools being shut because of a passing showers, almost. That’s how rare it was to see rain. And for someone who’s grown up there, rain is always special. Even when one is locked into a room three days because of downpour (as I later experienced in Mumbai). Rain is the transformer. Not just for a week, but for the full season, even with little delivery. One doesn’t complain.

And there is Pune, my home for one and a half decade now. Pune is blessed with just about adequate rains, most of the years, and it is neither left dry nor is it flooded, except for the rare cloudbursts, combined with the (not so rare) unpreparedness of the local governing bodies. But lately, it looks like Pune is always waiting for the rains, just on the horizon. Pune’s monsoon has learned from its people: promising to come on time, and never managing to.

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View from Office. Post Pre-monsoon showers.

But when it does rain, Pune is a different place too — once the clogged drains are cleared up, a tad too late, that is. The outskirts, where hills haven’t been destroyed by buildings, turn lush green — an invitation extended by the Sahyadri ranges to all the people to come visit, because while there is a strange beauty to Sahyadri in the summers, with scorched red, bare tops, and a game of shadows in the valleys, the majesty of the ranges in the monsoons cannot be described in words.

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View from Lonavala hill top (stitched panorama)

It’s no wonder that the season of the rains kickstarts the cultural activities (including the festival of Ganesha, the loved deity in these parts) in Pune. It’s like the seeds of creation need the rains to begin sprouting. But, even for the increasingly IT-fied city, with indoor work with AC at full blast, the rains change everything. There is a smell in the air that washes away all the sins of the vehicular exhausts. There is green somewhere, if not everywhere, in sight. The commute is better (even if slightly longer in duration).

Lastly, I remember rains in the Silicon Valley. And the contrast couldn’t be more. There was no visible joy in the cold rains there, even with a long-running drought. Maybe the fact that one can’t walk into the rains and feel it on your bare skin, as it soaks into your clothes, that stops rain from being a kind of celebration that one is used to living in this part of the world. But I’d rather be here when it rains. And however cliched it may sound, enjoy them with a plate of hot bhaji and chai.


PS: The ruminations were inspired by an unusually stoic driving by me on the roads today, as post the night rains, and with very very pregnant skies promising more, the atmosphere was calming my nerves. But rain has again decided to show Pune how it feels to wait, on the other side of a promised meeting.


[1] Someone who’s grown up in western India, April is a hot, hot month, with no respite from the heat in any form — no cold evening winds, no passing rains/showers, nothing — it’s very easy to misread T. S. Eliot’s “April is the cruelest” month, as something very literal. So while I paraphrase assuming a literal meaning, it’s anything but! Ref: (Quora: What did T. S. Eliot mean when he said that April is the cruelest month?)

Laughter Challenge(d) 

One thing that WhatsApp has done for me is that it has made me aware of a progressive loss of (what is generally called) sense-of-humor in myself. To be honest, it doesn’t feel like loss, really. But it does call for some thinking.

Humor that hits low is easy. Even lazy. It derives its power from deep rooted prejudices, casual (but caustic) stereotypes, and social power imbalances. And in turn, it ends up cementing those prejudices, reinforces the stereotypes, strengthening the unfair status quo — little by little, over million retellings, shares, chuckles, guffaws. It even takes sides, lazily, safely. It has the numbers with it and is proud of them. Almost to the point of arrogance. It looks away when it needs to. It’s lazily accepted, and it believes that acceptance sanctions its existence.

Humor that hits high is anything but lazy. Not many find it “funny”. Still less choose to laugh. It carries with it a risk — to relationships, to jobs, to life/freedoms in some places, even. It makes people uncomfortable because many a time it hits close to home. Sometimes it hits us, even. It demands introspection, not a reason why anyone would want a joke, right? Very few forward it because it makes others we love uncomfortable. It doesn’t bring in any change, at least not in the short-term. One reason being: it doesn’t go viral (for the reasons aforementioned), either in the traditional slow but sticky sense, or the modern fast sense, even if a short-lived one.

The thing about humor is that it is a communion of sorts. It binds people. It creates a social conscience. It forms a homogeneous group. Laughter is the price of entry, the only ritual — of belonging. More and more, I’m not willing to pay that price. Don’t get me wrong. I do want to belong. But not at the cost of changing myself — into something I don’t particularly like being. As George Costanza would put it: “It’s not they, it’s me”. At the end of the day, I like to look into the mirror and see there someone that I like. I’m selfish, that way, yes.

Yes, it means a lot less laughter. Everything has a price. But in my life, there is enough laughter to filleth my cup over.  I’d rather choose.

Maggie’s Plan (2015): Almost Works

I’m still chuckling, two days after watching the movie, at the situations in the movie. This is Greta Gerwig affair through and through. Yes, even with Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore around as a side-dish. But once again, Gerwig shows she’s made for this genre, like no one else of the generation. She just walks around being herself, and it’s more than enough.

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The plot is ridiculously facetious. Almost Woody Allenish in its “why can’t this happen” way? Hawke and Moore play caricatures of characters or archetypes. Hawke plays John, a professor of “ficto-critical anthropology”, is the archetypical mid-life crisis enduring trying-to-write a novel kind writer, with adequately dysfunctional marriage to the fiercely feminist professor Georgette, played by Moore, with two kids: a younger boy, and a teenage girl, who’s sufficiently quirky. While Gerwig plays Maggie, “a bridge between art and commerce”, as she describes her administrative job at a school where John has taken up a position as visiting lecturer.

Maggie wants a family, actually just a kid, and she is almost sure she wants it without a man, because she has a history of getting bored with anyone in six months max. And so her plan is to find a right sperm donor for a father, which she has found. Unfortunately, that plan is derailed by an affair with John, as John leaves Georgette, and has a daughter with Maggie.

The film cuts three years or so into future, and although it hasn’t happened in six months, as she feared, Maggie finds that the relationship isn’t exactly working, with John now “completely self-absorbed”, and her rescue mission is now turned into a something else altogether. Being Maggie, she comes up with an ingenious plan that almost works.

Maggie’s plan, however Allenish, tries to also be serious, and it’s never an easy thing to pull off. To her credit, Rebecca Miller almost pulls it off. The result is a very watchable, part funny, part introspective, untiring satire, that’s sleekly filmed, with pretty good dialogs, and some very good acting from all the three major characters. All in all, a good enough, but not great film that is still worth your time, and not very taxing, as a lot of good films that have come up lately are. If you’ve enjoyed Gerwig movies like Mistress America, or Frances Ha, you’d probably like this one too.


Quick Rating: 3.5/5.

Horizontal Immortality

Some people are good at making you think. Not because they say something special. That’s secondary. It’s because they say something that you will find worth thinking about. In that sense, they are made for you, in a very self-centered way of thinking. In the blogging sphere, the person who has given a lot of ideas for me to blog about, is Atul Sabnis (and I hope, I’ve also returned the favor in part, but I have long stopped worrying about symmetry in such matters — not everything has to be reciprocated, and sometimes just the action of graceful acceptance of a gift, intended or not, is itself a part reciprocation). I am sure you’ll find many posts triggered by his posts if you were to dig into this blog’s archive — no, this isn’t a trick to get you to read more on my blog, although, of course, I would not mind it.

Anyways, today Atul wrote about “cloning oneself “, and how that is not an answer to our problem of not being able to be at two places at the same time, because, we still won’t be able to share the experience. The clone isn’t us, and experience cannot be “had” like that. But that made me ask, suppose you could clone yourself, such that, you could actually have multiple experiences, and you were never constrained by time and space. Would that be an answer?

Immortality has been a major theme for humanity because we’re all afraid of death — most of us, at least. But while we want to turn back the clock in our cells, and experiment with immortality, one ideological opposition to immortality has always been that it will make life (more) boring, because so much of life’s excitement comes from the fact that it’s limited and uncertain.

Being able to indiscriminately clone oneself and with shared experience, a variation of Dark Lord’s Horcruxes (incidentally, even the Dark Lord is limited in number of those Horcruxes that could be made, as every division hurts him, metaphysically, if one can call it that — but that was Voldemort’s plan for immortality), is a kind of horizontal immortality. For what is the aim of immortality, but to have unlimited experiences? Does it matter, how long you live, if you can experience it all? Yes, one can’t experience all in the future, but as it happens, we experience just a tiny tiny part of the present, because we can only be at one place at one time. So if we can be at multiple places at the same time, we’re for all practical purpose experiencing it all.  And that means, we’re not required to choose what we experience. We are not worried about the fear of missing out, the dreaded FOMO.

What I’m also reminded of is Borges‘ story: Funes the Memorious, where the protagonist is almost paralyzed by the fact that he remembers every damn detail or everything he experiences. His problem was the opposite of the fear of missing out. It was the tyranny of not missing out on any details of a memory, even after trying. His memory is immortality in another dimension, that makes it impossible to experience anything, as forgetting is an integral part of experiencing — it’s another form of discernment, of choice, even if implicit, not explicit.

Someone whom I follow on twitter asked recently: is FOMO necessarily bad? By the nature of reality, we miss on almost all that’s happening around us, experiencing a pin tip worth of the complete ocean, at any moment. In a moment lives the experience of lifetimes, sliced across all living consciousness.

So why should we fear the missing out? Why fear something we can do nothing about. And for the same reason, why should we fear death, for we’re already missing so much, that death doesn’t change that significantly. Life, however, can change what we experience significantly (because it’s finite by definition). But life is a choice (implicit or explicit). This vs that. Here vs there. He vs she. Our values are derived from the fact that we’ve limited time, which we need to live to the fullest. So why wish that we didn’t have to choose? To choose is to live. And immortality, horizontal in time, or linear in space, makes choosing meaningless, and hence life meaningless. We shouldn’t wish to clone ourselves, for the same reason that we shouldn’t wish to live forever. Instead, we should choose what we can. We should live, while we can.

 

 

Just Living Should Be Enough

Just living should be enough,
many are not even that lucky
life, with all its troubles
heartaches and heartbreaks
lost opportunities
forgotten friendships
broken relationships
soured dreams

Just love should be enough,
a few manage even a glimpse at it,
forget a love that lasts lifetimes,
just a love that sets you aflame
on the inside,
and makes you alive, on the outside,
fleetingly, even,

Just a kid should be enough,
looking up to you,
trusting you,
emulating you,
loving you,
waiting for you,
when you enter
that door,
every day …

Just a job should be enough,
to put a roof over your head,
to put food on your plate,
to pay for things,
that money can buy:
education for kids,
medical insurance,
entertainment,
a bit of travel

Just a house should be enough,
just a loved one caring for you,
just a decent health,
just a few minutes a day to ruminate,
just a hint of opportunity, to go after
just the nature to calm you
just a cloud to give hope of rain,
just a silver lining
just the petrichor
just the rainbow,
without the mythical pot
at its illusory end

But we want it all,
and more,
forgetting the list,
as we ask,
for that
one
more
thing,
to make us happy.

Conversations: An Art of Learning

I’m not a huge fan of the Facebook Ticker, that annoying thing that keeps on posting you updates of actions of your friends, as if the news feed isn’t enough distraction in your life, anyways. Lately, though, I’ve installed a Chrome extension called Todobook. This turns your Facebook newsfeed into a todo list, and only after you have cleared it, do you get to read the newsfeed. That too for some grace time. The thing is, muscle memory trumps (no pun intended) you. So I still go to Facebook tab. And I am presented with a, sometimes empty, todo list instead. And so I look at the tickler. I know, it defeats the whole purpose. But I never claimed I’m perfect. Or any tool is perfect.

Long story short, I saw a friend reacting to a post by someone named Gauri Brahme, whom I did not know. The post was written in Marathi. And when I read it, my first reaction was “this needs a wider audience”. And so I asked for her permission to translate and repost it with attribution, which she gave pronto. As it happened, I sat on it for couple of days, which isn’t that bad, considering I’m an expert procrastinator. So here is the post. I don’t know whether I plan to translate every post in the series, as they come. But I’m translating (bit loosely, as is my habit) this one with the whole context.

 

Here is the original post, in case you read and understand Marathi. Translations can never be as good as original. But they can strive to be the next best thing. In any case, any shortcomings are mine alone. Here goes:


 

As it happens, both of our children are on the cusp of teenage. naturally, they are full of those questions. As parents, we are often challenged to answer the questions. After all, no one’s omniscient. Perfect parents are as much a myth as perfect kids. But many times, some answers manage to hit a bulls-eye, so to say. Sometimes in the flow of conversations emerge some interesting answers that the children can make sense of. I’m planning to jot down some such conversations, under “Conversations with Neel and Radha” series. At present targeting at least five posts. And if they help at least some other parents like us, with kids of that awkward age, teenage and thereabout, in their upbringing, even a little, I will consider that a success of these writings.

Conversations with Neel and Radha #1

 

Daughter: Mom, what’s a divorce?

Me: Divorce is a quarrel between a married couple, a mom and a dad for instance, that ends in a decision to stay in two different houses.

Daughter: But everyone quarrels, right? That doesn’t mean they go and stay in separate houses.

Me: Yes, but that’s when the quarrels end and are forgotten. Your dad and I, you and your brother, we quarrel all the time, don’t we? But then later we forget it all, and are all smiles. But sometimes people cannot forget their quarrels; cannot forgive one another. They can’t bear to stay together anymore. And so they decide to split up.

Daughter: But is that right or wrong? Why does everyone go silent at the mention of a divorce? Why does the atmosphere become so tense suddenly, when the subject crops up?

Me: How can we decide that? It all depends on the individuals, and the situation. Sometimes people make wrong decisions.

Daughter: But then how come they don’t understand (that they’re making a mistake)?

Me: It happens. Remember, you used to like those floral frocks till last year, but this year you only wear the jeans. We change as we grow older. Our likes/dislikes change. Situations change. It’s like that.

Daughter: Did you and Daddy ever think it — after a quarrel — that you should get a divorce?

Me: Many times. But it’s in the spur of the moment. It has never affected our friendship. We’re still each other’s best friends. So we can forget it all. That’s’ why we are together.

Daughter: So living separated is not a wrong?

Me: No, it’s not wrong. If you’re happy alone/separated, rather than unhappy together, what’s wrong with that?

Daughter: So why do they say divorce is bad?

Me: Again, who are we to decide what’s good/bad, right/wrong? It’s a personal decision. We should accept it. Many times we don’t know the full story.

Daughter: You mean, Prajakta should not feel sad when talking about her parent’s divorce?

Me: Of course she’ll feel sad. It’s only natural. Any child would want both their parents together. But when she tells you, you have to take care that your reaction doesn’t make her feel worse.  [Translator: Emphasis mine]

Me: It’s fine. Some things just don’t work out in life and it’s ok. Got it?

Daughter: Yes, got it.


Original copyright: ©गौरी ब्रह्मे (Gauri Brahme). 

आमची दोन्ही मुलं “Teenage” च्या उंबरठ्यावर आहेत. सहाजिकच त्यांना सतत “असले तसले” विविध प्रश्न पडत असतात. पालक म्हणुन आम्ही अनेकदा त्यांच्या प्रश्नांना योग्य उत्तरं देण्यात कमी पडतो. सर्वज्ञ कोणीच नसत.परफेक्ट किड्स जशी नाहीत तसे परफेक्ट पालक ही नाहीत. पण बऱ्याचदा काही ऊत्तरं जमुन जातात. संवादातुन काही गोष्टी उलगडत जातात आणि मुलांना थोडी फार पटतील अशी उत्तरं दिली जातात. आजपासून असेच काही संवाद “नील-राधाच्या गोष्टी” या सदराखाली इथे लिहीन म्हणते आहे. निदान पाच पोस्ट्स सध्याचे टार्गेट आहे. माझ्यासारख्या अनेक पालकांना, ज्यांना टीनेजमधली, अलीकडची, पलीकडची मुलं आहेत , त्यांना संगोपनात या पोस्ट्सची थोडीफार जरी मदत झाली तरी उद्देश सफल होईल असे वाटते.

#नीलराधाच्या_गोष्टी

लेक :आई, डीव्होर्स म्हणजे काय?
मी: डीव्होर्स म्हणजे भांडण. एका आई आणि बाबाचं भांडण होतं आणि ते वेगळ्या घरात रहाण्याचा निर्णय घेतात, तेव्हा त्याला डीव्होर्स म्हणतात.
लेक : पण भांडण तर सगळेच करतात. पण म्हणुन काय सगळे वेगळ्या घरात नाही ना रहायला जात?
मी : हो, पण नंतर भांडण मिटत सुद्धा न? मी, बाबा, तु, दादा भांडतोच की आपण सगळे. पण नंतर भांडण मिटवुन हसायला लागतो. भांडण विसरतो. काही लोकं त्यांची भांडणं विसरुच शकत नाहीत, एकमेकांना माफ करु शकत नाहीत, मग ते एकत्र राहु शकत नाहीत, म्हणुन मग ते वेगळे रहातात.
लेक : पण मग हे चांगलं आहे की वाईट? डिव्होर्स म्हणल की सगळे एकदम चूप का बसतात? इतका टेन्शन का येत वातावरणात एकदम?
मी : चांगलं की वाईट हे आपण नाही ना ठरवु शकत. ते त्या त्या व्यक्तीवर आणि परिस्थिती वर अवलंबुन आहे. कधी कधी निर्णय चुकतात.
लेक : पण मग ह्या लोकांना कळत नाही का, की ते चुकीचा डिसीजन घेतायत?
मी: नाही समजत. तुला नाही का फुलफुलांचे फ्रॉक मागच्या वर्षी खूप आवडायचे. पण या वर्षी फक्त जीन्स घालते आहेस. आपण वयानुसार बदलतो, आपल्या सवयी, आवडीनिवडी बदलतात. आजुबाजुची परिस्थिती बदलते. तसच असत हे.
लेक: मग तुला आणि बाबाला नाही असं वाटलं कधी? की भांडण झाल्यावर डीव्होर्स घ्यावा?
मी: अनेकदा वाटलय. पण आमच्यातली फ्रेंडशिप संपली नाहीये. आम्ही अजुनही एकमेकांचे बेस्ट फ्रेंड्स आहोत. त्यामुळे भांडण विसरुन आम्ही पुढे चालायला लागतो. म्हणुन एकत्र आहोत.
लेक: पण म्हणजे वेगळं रहाणं यात वाईट काही नाही.
मी: वाईट काही नाही. एकत्र राहून दुःखी राहण्यापेक्षा वेगळे राहून सुखी रहात असतील तर काय हरकत आहे?
लेक : मग डिव्होर्स वाईट अस का म्हणतात सगळे?
मी : चांगलं, वाईट हे आपण कोण ठरवणार? हा त्या व्यक्तीचा निर्णय आहे आणि तो आपण मान्य करावा. अनेकदा आपल्याला संपुर्ण परिस्थिती माहीत नसते.
लेक : म्हणजे प्राजक्ताला तिच्या आई वडिलांचा डीव्होर्स झाला आहे हे सांगताना खर तर वाईट वाटायला नाही पाहिजे.
मी: तिला वाईट वाटणारच ग. कुठल्याही मुलाला त्याचे आई आणि बाबा दोन्ही हवे असतात. पण हे तिने तुला सांगितल्यावर , तुझ्या रीऍक्शनबद्दल तिला वाईट वाटायला नाही पाहिजे , याची काळजी मात्र तू घेतली पाहिजेस. तिला वाईट वाटण हे सहाजिक आहे , पण तिने हे तुला सांगितल्यावर तु अस काहीही बोललं नाही पाहिजेस ,जेणेकरुन तिला अजुन वाईट वाटेल. It’s fine. Some things just don’t work out in life and it’s ok. Got it?
लेक : ह्म. Got it.
©गौरी ब्रह्मे

Of Poignant Writing and Ethical Dilemmas

Book Review: Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman

Some books reach you entirely unexpectedly. Typically, I remember who recommended me books. Typically I don’t casually put a book on my reading list. But for life of me, I cannot remember where I picked up this recommendation. My best guess is, it was someone on twitter, with generic recommendation. Anyways, long story short, I picked it up a few months back, and have been moving through it leisurely, intentionally, savoring the not-so-short stories one or two at a time, to avoid saturation, which is a real risk with this collection. And it’s easily the best book of stories I’ve ever read.

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A disclaimer here. I’m not that much into short stories (or not-so-short one’s for that matter). So one will have to take this contextually. But at the same time, I must add that I don’t read a lot of short stories because they don’t engage me much. However, only couple of stories into Binocular Vision, I was craving for more. And I was wondering why I had never heard of Edith Pearlman. Or to borrow words from Ann Patchett’s glowing introduction to the volume:

“To that great list of human mysteries which includes the construction of the pyramids and the persistent use of Styrofoam as a packing material let me add this one: why isn’t Edith Pearlman famous?”

Or as famous as she should be, given the quality of the writing. Maybe I’m just trying to cover up my inadequacies by asking why I hadn’t heard of her. And I’ve no pretensions of being a great reader who knows every good writer that is there. Still someone so good …

Binocular Vision has a lot of recurring themes. Many of the characters are displaced Jews. Many children are precocious, on the spectrum, geniuses with language. Many women characters are emphatic, strong, independent. There are themes of love (or “ordinary loves”), loss, loneliness, displacement/re-settlement, and understanding, and remembering. The stories are set in different times, sometimes covering different generations. There are stories of old people, of young people who cannot fit in, of children’s eye view of the world around them. But the most striking thing about the collection is how ordinary the people with these extraordinary stories are. There are no hero figures to look up to with awe. There are no easy answers. There are not too many resolutions even, just as there really never are in life — too many I mean. And maybe that’s why, the stories are as much a slice of life as you could ever hope to get from a piece of fiction.

Another thing that one can’t miss about the collection is how precise her language is, and how rich and yet not ostentatious her vocabulary is. It’s just that there is the right word used when it needs to be used. Not to impress. Just because it is there. It has to be there. I can’t remember another book that I read recently where I had to lookup the dictionary so much, and yet didn’t get a feeling of it being anything other than strictly necessary. The language is both precise and poetic at the same time:

There were black-bellied hibachis on some of the porches. It was the era of hibachis. It was the era of consciousness-raising. The previous year our third grade had been told that women could be anything they wanted to be. We were puzzled by this triumphant disclosure; nobody at home had hinted otherwise. It was the year of war protests and assassinations. Hubert Humphrey kissed his own face on a hotel TV screen. There were breakthroughs in cancer therapy.

It’s writing like this that makes me aware of my inadequacies, because, even to tell you about her writing,  I need to borrow her words.

One of her characters, Val, is a governess, and there is a dialog when in a new family the kids ask her to tell them a story:

“You do tell stories; your résumé said so.”

“Well … mine aren’t exactly stories.”

“What, then?”

“Interactive dilemmas. Together we invent situations that require resolution. Then we invent some resolutions. Then we choose among them, or don’t.”

Or earlier in the same story, has this expression : “Case Histories of Ethical Dilemmas”.

What better description of Edith Pearlman can I give? One has to borrow from masters where it suits us.

Finally, among these case histories of ethical dilemmas, how does one pick up favorites? There are just too many to talk about. The very first story, Inbound, sets the tone for what’s to come — a story of a precocious child who gets lost on the streets during a vacation. Then there are three stories, starting with “If Love Were All”, featuring the same central character, in different places during the world war II. They could have become a novella on their own. But Ms. Pearlman is not interested in any of that, and the third of the series, The Coat, leaves you flummoxed. Then there is “Home Schooling”, a poignant tale that the poignant quote above is taken from. And there is playful but touching “Girl in Blue with Brown Bag”, and finally Vallies, about Val and her stories of ethical dilemmas, that comes a complete circle.

This is a rich, engaging, beautifully written, book of stories. Why it should not be read is one question I have no answer for.


There are tons of quote-worthy quotes, that one could fill up a book, but here are a few, just for you to get the flavor:

  • Whenever she was bent over her work, her shoulder-length hair, abundant but limp, separated of its own accord and fell on either side of her neck. We settled down on our chairs with sandwiches and books, our presence unacknowledged. We understood that absorption, not indifference, made her ignore us, just as we understood that our father’s sudden explosions were disease, not rage.
  • She meant to slip away as she often did at parties, fearful that she was restraining people ambitious to be elsewhere.
  • Every death foretold your own—there would be something to learn.
  • Those mothers of ours, full of understanding for their patients, were helpless when their own offspring gave them trouble. Then they became frantic kid sisters, reaching for the phone.
  • “Hypocrisy is the first step toward sincerity,” Milo had written

On Melancholy and Poetic Prose

Sometimes twitter throws at you something which suddenly makes all the garbage there inconsequential (including garbage one contributes to), even an okay price to pay for sublimity.

Melancholy, the rethinking of the disaster we are in, shares nothing with the desire for death. It is a form of resistance. And this is emphatically so on the level of art, where its function is far from merely reactive or reactionary. When, with a fixed gaze, melancholy again reconsiders just how things could have gone this far, it becomes clear that the dynamics of inconsolability and of knowledge are identical in function. In the description of the disaster lies the possibility of overcoming it.

From W. G. Sebald, Die Beschreibung des Unglucks (1985), trans. Louis Klee.

I found this thanks to a tweet by  (strong recommendation to follow if you are in love with words), and have reread it a few times. Recently, thanks to couple of excellent twitter feeds, I’ve been reunited with poetry — in the sense of reading poetry to be precise. Although I’ve scribbled a few bad to okay poems (most of those posted to this blog), I’ve never been into poetry that much. Read a few urdu shaayari, in the adolescent years, when everyone reads it. Tried to read Wasteland multiple times, always got lost in its labyrinths, and gave up eventually. Read bit of Neruda, a bit of Anna Akhmatova, bit of Wisława Szymborska, bit of this and that, took a few random trails down the Wandering Minstrels (wasn’t there a poetry site with this name — one with random poetry hopping function for a serendipitous meeting with a poem, a tinder for poetry really?). But I’ve never read the classics, nor can I claim to be a good reader of poetry.

And yet, I’ve yearned for the poetic writing, the kind that comes naturally to some writers. It’s more common among the fiction writing, but sometimes even non-fiction surprises you with that fluidity, that poetic flow of prose, that innate rhythm, that poignant dance of thoughts. It blurs the borders between prose and poetry. And what remains is an almost visceral understanding of thoughts. It’s to that aim that I keep on dabbling with writing, despite all the evidence to the contrary. And it’s because of that, that when I see it, I pause and marvel, and cannot help but share it. God knows there is enough there already that even unearthing some of it might be worthy enough use of a lifetime.


PS: Wandering Minstrels is still there, only as a blog now, with all the archives too! You can check it out at : http://wonderingminstrels.blogspot.com/. Oh, yes, there is still the random hop button, too.

PS2: Melancholy, the subject of the excerpts, is really the rarefied essence of most great art, isn’t it? I mean, to use Tolstoy’s take on happy/unhappy families, in this context, all happy art seems to be same, but there are a thousand shades of the melancholy that make art that dabbles in melancholy so different, almost every time.

Minting Words

I am reading Junot Díaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” (a fascinating book, at least what I’ve read so far — I’m about half done). Actually I’m not reading reading it, but rather listening to the audio-book, but these days I call it reading, without any loss of generalization, as we say in mathematical proofs. Anyways, the point is, I came across this interesting bit:

So furious and so unrelenting, in fact, was La Inca’s pace that more than a few women suffered shetaat (spiritual burnout) and collapsed, never again to feel the divine breath of the Todopoderoso on their neck.

I was struck by this concept of spiritual burnout, and was impressed that there is a word in some language for such a concept. And so I searched a bit. Only to find that most links are throwing me back to Junot Díaz’s use. So very likely he just made it up. Not that I’m complaining.

Thing is, if there can be physical burnout, why can’t there be a spiritual one? Yes, spirit is supposed to be indestructible, and all that, but it’s only in the context of a living being, with physical body, and brain, that spiritual really means anything. Right?

As for the word itself, maybe that is a not made up by the author. And language scholars may actually dig it up, and I could see it’s etymology. Freshly minted or not, some words are worth a rendezvous.

 

Notes on Ijaazat (1987)

Growing up, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to good Hindi films beyond the usual masala mix. I remember watching Shabana’s superlative performance in Arth, on a bad VHS tape on a borrowed VCR/VCP (it was a rage those days, to borrow it from the Video store for 12 hours, mostly night hours, and watch 3-4 films back to back, and return it all early morning). I remember Nasir’s nuanced portrayal of a visually impaired man in Sparsh. I remember Anupam Kher’s stinging rage in Saaransh. All these films I watched for the first time with not a lot of understanding of films, but their almost visceral quality meant I didn’t need a lot of it. It was almost instinctive. Then there were a bunch of light but meaningful, semi-realistic movies directed by one of the three talented directors : Sai Paranjape (Chashme baddor, Katha), Basu Chatterjee (Rajneegandha, Piya ka ghar, Choti si Baat, Baaton baaton mein),  Hrishikesh Mukherjee (too many to name). And so on.

All this was a backlog, mostly, that I cleared up before moving on to more contemporary movies. Meaning, these were the movies already released before I started watching movies (before I was 10 years old, as well). Then there were directors I grew up with, who made meaningful cinema, that I had started to understand more and more, thanks to a lot of decent movies already consumed — people like Govind Nihlani, Tapan Sinha, Ketan Mehta, Shyam Benegal, Jabbar Patel (Marathi, mainly). And of course, there was Gulzar. A poet/writer turned director, who gave us a bunch of fine films. But for some reason, his one movie that has really stayed with me was Ijaazat.

I don’t recall when I watched it first. Definitely not when it came out in theaters. I was 11 then, and the movie wouldn’t have made sense. But few years down the line, I caught it on another marathon VCR session, when some of my elder cousins were visiting. And the timing was just right for me. Given the times, and the place, the movie seemed progressive to me, with two female characters who were strong in their own ways, and with non-conventional relationships, and open discussions about love, an almost poetic portrayal of love, longing, acceptance, and limits of it all. (If you haven’t watched Ijaazat, stop right now. For one, you should be watching it. Plus, there will be enough spoilers, and enough assumptions)

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I will not even say that Ijaazat was Gulzar’s best film, but for young people in that era trying to get a sense of love, it was a fascinating movie, for it’s time, at least. And yet, when I look back at it now, I’m tempted to re-examine/deconstruct the movie (always a bad idea).

One of the questions that has bothered me all these years is – why is the character played by Anuradha Patel named Maya? I mean, a free-spirited girl has to have a name that signifies unreal/illusory? Is it a subconscious belief of the writer that such a girl has to be illusory? Contrast it with the names of the other two main characters: Mahender and Sudha. More earthly, not philosophical.

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Ijaazat, if you look at it from this angle, is a story of a typical Indian man (because make no mistake about it: while Maya is atypical Indian women, Mahender is a typical Indian man) who wants exotic girlfriend and settles down for homely wife, due to social factors. I know that’s very reductive. Because, Mahender wanted to marry Maya, but at the moment of decision, she is nowhere to be traced. But consider this, for five years, he has stretched the engagement with Sudha, and it’s clear to everyone she’s not his first choice. And still, when his grandfather picks up a wedding date like rabbit out of a hat, he goes ahead with the marriage because he can’t trace Maya. Now let me get this straight, if he could have traced Maya, she still wouldn’t have married him, being a free-spirited crazy feminist. What then? Was he just waiting for her ijaazat to get married to Sudha?

Its clear to both Mahender and Sudha, and also to viewers, that it’s a marriage of convenience.  And still they go through it, and try to make best of it. But it’s no wonder that it cannot survive the return of Maya. And when she does return, cracks do start appearing, especially as her presence is there even in her absence. And Mahender is not content with the convenience. He wants it all. The homely wife and the exotic girlfriend. And so he is even ready to impress on his wife what Maya is, and what she means to him. Trouble is, the relationship is not at that level of maturity to really survive that. And Mahender has made no real visible efforts to insure that level is reached, or even attempted. For him, it’s something that just has to be.

Another scene I want to deconstruct is the one before the climax, when Mahender is updating Sudha about what happened after she left him, about Maya’s death. I wonder if Maya’s end is symbolic of something? Free-spirited girl, riding a bullet, being killed by a scarf getting into the spokes? Just accident as usual? Or something more? I leave it to you to decide for yourself, but I smell a big rat. Besides, what was the need to kill Maya? To get sympathy for Mahender, who couldn’t choose between contradictory wishes (Grandfather’s wishes, his vow to his wife, his love for Maya), needed a redemption, I guess. But why? Because, and that’s where we come to the climax, Sudha needed to be able to ask him his “blessing” for her new life, and to be able to touch his feet (seriously, in the same film that has Mahender living with his girlfriend, an ultra feminist?) while doing that. For her to ask his Ijaazat, she had to forgive him first, and what better way than portraying poor Mahender who lost it all to accidents and misunderstandings?

Ah, that’s a load off, that I’ve been carrying with me for god knows how long? Because, while I completely loved the movie, the multiple times that I have watched it, some things have always nagged me. And now I realize that I had fallen for a stylized patriarchy. You guessed it, this was targeted for 8th March, but lazy me couldn’t finish it in time. But while I call out its latent patriarchy, I must applaud Gulzar for creating one of the most fascinating female characters of the era, even if named Maya. So, let’s raise a toast to this conflicted film, and to all Mayas, and Sudhas, and to a world where Mahenders would be strong enough to make their decisions without being constricted by their umbilical chords.