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The Anatomy of Pain

Thoughts on Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Before starting this post, I was thinking of calling it a review. But how does one review raw, visceral pain, and cold and deep wisdom at the end of it? Make no mistake about it, this is not a book. This is a slap. Directed at America, or the white-America to be precise, but it’s just coincidental that that is the target, because it could easily be a book about so many peoples, by so many peoples.

Typically, I’m almost prudish when it comes to handling books. And if there is one rule I never break, it’s “do not write/mark” rule. But two pages into Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book and I broke it. It ironic, because the book talks about violence against black bodies, among other things, and here I was, black pencil in hands, marking furiously over the white paper, underlining black characters, a sort of violence against a body of book. And yet, curiously, it didn’t feel like violence. It seemed like remembering, or rather a battle against forgetting — a great sin that the author talks about.

img_20160910_201919_hdrBetween the World and Me is a black American’s heartfelt letter to his son, about growing up as a black in white America. No I’m not going to write much about it because frankly, this small book is something that everyone should just go and read. I mean no one should need convincing that it needs to be read. It should be made a compulsory reading (I’m kidding of course, but you get it, I assume). Because it’s such writings, that have — if anything has it — a tiny chance at changing the world, in  tiny little way. Because, someone needs to make us look at all that we choose not to look at. It’s relevant for everyone. For black Americans, because really, it’s just so patently obvious; for white Americans (or as Ta-Nehisi Coates would say: “those who believe themselves to be white” Americans) because if he can’t reach them, no one probably can; by anyone really, born with privilege, because it’s only by reading something like this can you start seeing that invisible power and how it affects others; or without privilege, because there are lessons for them, a tiny bit of hope, and a lot of wisdom to draw from.

What is striking about The World and Me, though, is its expanse — on both emotional and ideological  axes. Early on, the author talk about his life as a kid growing up in Baltimore, in black neighborhoods. In that context, he touches upon his son’s disillusionment on hearing that Michael Brown’s killer cop will go scot-free. This is what he says:

I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.

That may come across as negativity, but as you read through the book, which pretty much sets to help his kid to “find some way to live within it all of it”, it’s as much about hope, and wisdom, and compassion, as anything you’d read before or after it. And the whole book is written with this unrelenting honesty, because, understanding is crucial to survival.

He’s scathing about America (and beyond a point, he doesn’t bother qualifying it as white America, because the America that he talk about, the one with agency is — and there certainly is no doubt in his mind — white America):

Perhaps there has been, at some point in history, some great power whose elevation was exempt from the violent exploitation of other human bodies. If there has been, I have yet to discover it. But this banality of violence can never excuse America, because America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.

And

But a society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can protect you only with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or succeeded at something much darker.

And much much more.

But it is not all bitterness. The idea is to understand, be aware, and yet survive, even flourish. To seek one’s answers, one’s way of “getting out”. And hence there is great introspection, within the dissection of all that’s wrong. And so he discusses the process of trying to find the “way out”, or rather a way from the streets he grew up with, full of fear (not just his, but everyone’s, even those with guns, and attitude), to the “dream” presented on the television where kids have mundane little problems to deal with.

But how? Religion could not tell me. The schools could not tell me. The streets could not help me see beyond the scramble of each day. And I was such a curious boy.

One answer for him was the very process of introspection, through putting on paper the feeling, observations, the whys …

Your grandmother […]  taught me to write, by which I mean not simply organizing a set of sentences into a series of paragraphs, but organizing them as a means of investigation. When I was in trouble at school (which was quite often) she would make me write about it. The writing had to answer a series of questions: Why did I feel the need to talk at the same time as my teacher? Why did I not believe that my teacher was entitled to respect? How would I want someone to behave while I was talking? What would I do the next time I felt the urge to talk to my friends during a lesson? I have given you these same assignments. I gave them to you not because I thought they would curb your behavior—they certainly did not curb mine—but because these were the earliest acts of interrogation, of drawing myself into consciousness. Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing—myself. Here was the lesson: I was not an innocent. My impulses were not filled with unfailing virtue. And feeling that I was as human as anyone, this must be true for other humans. If I was not innocent, then they were not innocent. Could this mix of motivation also affect the stories they tell? The cities they built? The country they claimed as given to them by God?

But this, surely, couldn’t be enough. There were, also, predictably, reading. Although reading can take you either way.

Your grandfather loved books and loves them to this day, and they were all over the house, books about black people, by black people, for black people spilling off shelves and out of the living room, boxed up in the basement. Dad had been a local captain in the Black Panther Party. I read through all of Dad’s books about the Panthers and his stash of old Party newspapers. I was attracted to their guns, because the guns seemed honest. The guns seemed to address this country, which invented the streets that secured them with despotic police, in its primary language—violence. And I compared the Panthers to the heroes given to me by the schools, men and women who struck me as ridiculous and contrary to everything I knew.

There was also the questioning of non-violence of the civil rights movement, because:

How could they send us out into the streets of Baltimore, knowing all they were, and then speak of non-violence.

School, was obviously a part of the answer, but :

I came to see the streets and the schools as arms of the same beast. One enjoyed the official power of the state while the other enjoyed its implicit sanction. But fear and violence were the weaponry of both. Fail in the streets and the crews would catch you slipping and take your body. Fail in the schools and you would be suspended and sent back to those same streets, where they would take your body. And I began to see these two arms in relation—those who failed in the schools justified their destruction in the streets. The society could say, “He should have stayed in school,” and then wash its hands of him.

Then there was what Ta-Nehisi calls “The  Mecca” — the Howard University, where his idea of “black” world changed, enlarged. And he wants his son to know about it, because:

My work is to give you what I know of my own particular path while allowing you to walk your own. You can no more be black like I am black than I could be black like your grandfather was. And still, I maintain that even for a cosmopolitan boy like you, there is something to be found there—a base, even in these modern times, a port in the American storm. Surely I am biased by nostalgia and tradition.

In his mind, the importance of this stable “port in the American storm” cannot be emphasized more because, it is there that :

The black world was expanding before me, and I could see now that that world was more than a photonegative of that of the people who believe they are white.

And it is from this realization, comes a deeper, more profound, understanding :

“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons. There will surely always be people with straight hair and blue eyes, as there have been for all history. But some of these straight-haired people with blue eyes have been “black,” and this points to the great difference between their world and ours. We did not choose our fences. They were imposed on us by Virginia planters obsessed with enslaving as many Americans as possible. They are the ones who came up with a one-drop rule that separated the “white” from the “black,” even if it meant that their own blue-eyed sons would live under the lash. The result is a people, black people, who embody all physical varieties and whose life stories mirror this physical range.

Through The Mecca I saw that we were, in our own segregated body politic, cosmopolitans. The black diaspora was not just our own world but, in so many ways, the Western world itself.

And it’s not being anti-white, or anti those “who think they are white”.  It is not about black superiority. Rather beyond. Understanding the complex history of slavery, including that in black history which was less than ideal.

It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own especial Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness. And there was so much terrible out there, even among us. You must understand this.

This acceptance, this rite of passage, was just an extension of that “introspection”, taken from the personal to the race, one’s race, not the other.

The writer, and that was what I was becoming, must be wary of every Dream and every nation, even his own nation. Perhaps his own nation more than any other, precisely because it was his own.

I could have stopped right there. I was saturated. I was stunned. I was moved. I was taken on a whirlwind ride through the heart of pain. But I kept reading. Because, what else can one do, faced with writing of this caliber?

Of course, The Mecca, can enlighten, but the world is still the same world, even though you see it with different eyes. Later in the book, Ta-Nehisi talk about losing a friend to the machine — cops killing him, and getting away with it. The world changes slowly. Painfully slowly. Wounds open before they can heal. There is a lot of poignant writing about it, including his meeting with the friend’s mom, a successful Doctor. Her son, who could have possibly got into any college of his choosing, but chose Mecca, and was killed one day, as police tailed him, and shot him.

I asked [her] if she regretted Prince choosing Howard. “No,” she said. “I regret that he is dead”.

She said this with great composure and greater pain. She said this with all of the odd poise and  direction that the great American injury demands of you.

There is the realization, again, and again, that not much has changed, although a lot has:

And she could not lean on her country for help. When it came to her son, Dr. Jones’s country did what it does best—it forgot him. The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free. In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.

It’s through all that, that he has to find his answers. And pass them on to his son. Hoping they would fit, at least partially. This book, is that labor of love, of knowledge, and understanding, of pain and suffering, and of surviving, when even the bare basic survival seems like a challenge. I cannot think of anything that I should have been reading in those times when I was reading it. This has to be read. These excerpts cannot do justice to the book. This commentary is superfluous. He has to be read. Maybe, then, the “dream” would be less harsh for others. Maybe, we would see more of hell around us. Maybe, we will learn to be better humans. It’s a tall ask. But so was starting where Ta-Nehisi started and to write this book.

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Friends 2.0

Sometimes I wonder if social media only friendships (as in friendships formed on social media, based on common interests or appreciation of “web personality”, without meeting the person for any significant amount of time) are a lot more brittle than those formed in real life (and extended on social media, after moving away due to compulsions of life — relocation etc). I seriously hope it ain’t so, but a few examples do seem to hint at that.

I say I hope it isn’t so, because over the last few years, my most cherished friendships are formed, and sustained primarily online. I have met some of these people once or twice, if at all, that too in socially awkward (like a lunch with a bunch of people I’m meeting first time, and even most of the people are meeting each other for the first time). In such situations, people are cautious, guarded, and generally not themselves. Yes I’ve talked to some of them on chats/calls for extended time, I know a lot about their lives, probably more than I know about some other IRL (in real life) friends.

I took to Facebook way before many, at least back home (before that there was Orkut, of course). What I liked, above all, was the non-demanding nature of the medium (then). It wasn’t a big deal. Not many were there. Those who were there, didn’t check it every now and then, and responded at leisure. It was not the tyranny of casual responses then. Along the way, apart from getting back in touch with older school/college friends, I also discovered new friends (not just on FB, but through FB many times, as blogs were discovered, people were noticed thanks to common commenting patterns on a friend’s blog, and so on).

But while, it’s been mostly positive — in terms of finding new people who you can connect with intellectually (primarily) and emotionally (to the extent that one can in online only relationship), this journey has also highlighted the pitfalls of such relationships. Mainly, the lack of strong emotional base that comes naturally to old style friendships/relationships. Of course, I don’t want to generalize. And it’s not like it’s guaranteed in old style friendships. Just as without emotional bonds, intellectual bonds are weak, not being able to connect intellectually, does strain emotional bonds as well, many times. So if your relationships are bounded by “availability” of like-minded friends (and I don’t mean your copies, but those you could connect with, and sustain a level of interactions with — both intellectual and emotional), you are at a loss too: the very reason that the online relationships look so tempting, in the first place.

One things I’ve observed (and I’ve seen others express similar thoughts) is that in web-social situations, we’re often a lot more aggressive, a lot less forgiving, a lot more reactive. Again, on average, and there are notable exceptions (those, I feel envious of, in a positive sense). This could be side effect of a more “cerebral” level at which these interactions happen (and I’m conscious that many lament the exact “lack of” intellectual content in some of these forum — but that’s really noise that any big enough gathering is going to have, and in the end, we hang around because we see the enriching conversations or interesting pointers, and so on). On the Internet, it seems, belonging to groups (liberal/conservative, and hundreds such schisms) is a peer-pressure equivalent. In old style relationships, many times, it doesn’t matter. And so one doesn’t need to prove one identifies to this/that ideology, this/that political thought, and so on. But on FB/Twitter, and such platforms, it almost isn’t optional.

The other problem is the offense. Offense has always been subjective. What your best friend, or a younger sibling can get away with is very different from what others could, but in web-social situations, in the absence of strong emotional bonds, there is very little “credit” in anyone’s account. And you never know when you’ve done an over draft. And god save you when that happens, because rebuilding those bridges becomes herculean in an online only relationship. It’s like, you suddenly realize, the person doesn’t know you at all. And then there is that reactive sense of being betrayed, almost. The thing is, you almost don’t have non-verbal cues to help you, and words are bitches, when they know you need to rely on them alone.

Add to that, the ease of ending the 2.0 relationships — unlike the old world ones, where one is bound to bump into a person, and look into their eyes, or forced to introspect, to doubt one’s hard stance. In web-social situation, it’s so much easier. You stop acknowledging the person. It’s like a break-up with a text message, and better (in a warped sense, really), because you don’t have to deal with what that does.

Over the years, I’ve resigned to suddenly losing a friend 2.0 to a misunderstanding that can never be explained, as it gets worse with explanation. Of offending someone with no intention and again being totally, completely, powerless about conveying to that person where you were coming from; of thinking you know somebody to realize you don’t, at all, really. The only antidote, is to meet those 2.0 friends you care about, whenever possible. Spend face to face time with them, preferably not in gatherings. It is not foolproof. But nothing is. It’s just that when you spend half-an-hour with a person, you know a lot about them that you don’t in online interactions for months/years. It builds the credit that friendship really needs. It comes in handy, in conflicts. The second is to be aware of the limitations of the medium, and be careful in dispensing, and be magnanimous in accepting. Okay magnanimous is too big a word. But you get it, right? Be a little more forgiving, and expect a little less forgiveness.

As it happens, this last is relevant to every relationship. 2.0 or not.

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We, the people

 

Our religions are tolerant, we're intolerant
Our religions are spiritual, we're materialistic
Our religions are forgiving, we're vengeful
Our religions are dynamic, we're stuck
Our religions are unbounded, we're parochial
Our religions are open, we're closed
Our religions are liberal, we're conservative
Our religions are giving, we're hoarders
Our religions are magnanimous, we're small minded
Our religions are frugal, we're ostentatious
Our religions are humanitarian, we're fundamentalists
Our religions are egalitarian, we're hierarchical
Our religions are about living, we're about words
Our religions are the best we wanted 
To be, and could never be
And then, 
We are proud of religions
We hate religions
We love religions
We blame religions
We thank religions
When we should be
Looking
At what we are
And what we should be






Rosshalde: Portrait of the Artist as not-so-young Man

July 2016 was a rare month when I read two (great) German authors side-by-side. One was Mann, who’s Magic Mountain (his first for me) I read (or rather heard) in parallel with one of my all time favorite authors, Hesse. There is a temptation to compare them which I’m going to entirely forgo, because it’s a futile exercise.

9782253013570-us-300I picked up Rosshalde five years back when I was in San Jose, California, on a work trip. I had managed to steal some time to visit a lovely bookshop: Recycle Bookstore. Now, any amount of time is less in this den, with its cute black cats, and its bookshelves stacked all the way to top with all sort of used and new books, and its super friendly staff/owners. But there on one of the shelves, this one peeked at me, and I bagged it without a second thought.

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For five years, then, it sat on my bookshelf. Unbelievable, given it’s a Hesse, but then I guess the time was not right. Or ripe. In fact, in this time I  read two more of Hesse. Then suddenly, few weeks back, I picked it up. These days, I consume books mostly in the audiobook format as that goes very well with compulsions of life — commute, walks, chores. So the time for reading paper books is really hard to find, and that’s so unjust when books like these that need to be read, and digested, and returned to.

Rosshalde is probably not as celebrated as some of Hesse’s other works. No one had recommended it to me. I picked it up without any prior “ideas” about it. Maybe that’s why it worked. But really, if you ask me, it worked for me because this one reminded me of his another not-so-celebrated book: Peter Camenzind (which I reviewed quite some time back), which, like James Joyce’s Portrait of the artist as a young man, deals with the “making” of the artist, really, not the craft, but the “mind” behind the craft, as it takes shape. Rosshalde, is like a sequel to that — the mid-life crisis of an artist, who struggles to come to terms with the mundane existence beyond the successful career.

 

Deriving from his life, to what extent I am not sure, Hesse paints for us the canvas of the bleak emotional life of a great artist trapped in unhappy relationships, trying to break free, but held back by his only emotional bond — with his younger child. This simple story is deceptively deep, and warrants a great deal of rumination. Johann Veraguth, the protagonist, is a painter who has achieved success, and fame, but is estranged from his wife, and his elder son, and resigned to a loveless, dry life, with only his work to escape to. When his friend Otto visits, he seems suddenly alive, again. We’re reminded that he is capable of human relationships, and simple pleasures of life. But even that lightness of being is temporary, and as the surface is scratched, oozes out the pus, baring for his friend the empty inner life of the great artist. And it’s this exploration that makes Rosshalde so poignant, as he tries to take control of his life again, but not everything goes according to plan. Rosshalde is filled with pathos, of pain, longing, tragedy, but, also of acceptance, and redemption.

This one does strike a deep melancholic chord.

 

 

 

 

A Strangeness In His Istanbul

A Review of Orhan Pamuk’s “A Strangeness in My Mind”

It’s no secret that Pamuk’s infatuated by his city, Istanbul. To be fair, infatuation is a wrong word — It doesn’t last decades, even years —  love bordering on obsession probably is more apt. What else could explain his ode to the city, Istanbul: Memories and the City, intertwining personal history, with the streets and shops, the sights and sounds, of the city, loving tribute to a city he grew up in? And yet, being the story-teller that he is, his non-fiction work about the city doesn’t do justice to the city, as it’s preoccupied with how it affected him, growing up.

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It’s been over a decade since he wrote that one, though, and a perfect time for a sequel of sorts. And so we have :  A Strangeness in My Mind, a love-story on the surface, but really a tale of the city, which just refuses to become a backdrop to an engrossing story of Mevlut — from his small-town beginnings, to a drop-in-the-ocean existence in a metropolis bursting at the seams; underlined by his strange love that lasts a lifetime, and his travails, his naivety, and the tragedies that punctuate his life with a deadpan regularity. Through all of it, the city keeps on raisesing its head, both figuratively, and formatively (through mosques, and houses, and skyscrapers) every now and then, as Pamuk moves Mavlut’s story along with the story of his beloved city.

While Istanbul (the non-fiction), is more interested in the spaces, and the temperament, and the overwhelming feel of the city, and that too, for someone living on the more Europeanized side of the Turkey’s cultural fault-lines; in Strangeness, Pamuk takes more interest in the evolution of the city from the point of view of those on the other side of those fault-lines: the peasants, who flocked to the city in search of opportunity, the daily-wage earners, the communists and the Islamists, the housewives, and the uncles, and the mothers, and the customers, and the religious gurus … It’s a vibrant picture of a city that Pamuk painted gray in his earlier work. Not that gray is used sparingly here either.

Mevlut comes to Istambul, already a dauntingly big city for someone coming from a village, and watches it grow to a megapolis, transforming people around him, in more ways than he could have imagined; while he tries to hold on to a trade that’s already on the decline (a boza [a fermented drink, possible etymological origins of the English “booze”]  seller), even in his father’s time. Mevlut, who finds his love-of-life, thanks (!) to a cruel trick played by a cousin, never really comes out the trumps in life, which isn’t that unexpected knowing Pamuk’s fatalistic view of existence (at least what comes out as one, from his books), where happiness is always fleeting, and melancholy (or huzun, as his other Istambul book educates us about) enduring; with his quintessentially un-heroic (but also un-villainous) characters. But as he struggles with, and then begins to accept the whole existential strangeness, inside his mind, as exemplified by his tortured love/life story, and outside — in the streets, and back-allies of the ever changing city. In Istambul (the  non-fiction), Pamuk tries to capture “hüzün” of the city in words, and images. He almost succeeds. But here, he paints with it, and it’s hard to miss. If one goes back to the “Memoir” now, one would get it right-away.

In terms of the narration, Pamuk resorts to a mix of third person narration, with the multi-narrator technique that he so well employed in his best book to date: My Name is Red. That technique, in its measured application, works very well for this one too, as it gives a glimpse into more lives, more point-of-views, and builds a context to assess Mevlut’s struggles, and tiny triumphs. And Pamuk is in fine form here, with a countenance  of a test match specialist batsman who is reassured that time is on his side. Which means, for many, it is too slow for their comfort. Not me. I like books that water the plant, and wait patiently, for the bloom to come. And if you have time too, then Pamuk is enormously rewarding. The hüzün and the grays not withstanding.

 

 

 

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A Wound from a Dream

[From Prem Gilhari Dil Akhrot प्रेम गिलहरी दिल अखरोट by Babusha Kohli बाबुषा कोहली]

स्वप्न में लगी चोट का उपचार
नींद के बाहर खोजना
चूक है

होना तो ये था
की तुम अपनी दिल की एक नस निकालते
और बांध देते मेरी लहूलुहान उँगलिओपर
मेरी हँसली पर जमा पानी उलीचते
और रख देते वहाँ धूप मुठ्ठीभर

हुआ ये
की जीन परबतों पर मैंने तुम्हारा नाम उकेरा
वहांसे बह निकली कल कल करती नदियाँ
और मेरी गर्दन से जा चिपकी कागज़ की एक नांव

It’s futile to try and heal
a wound from a dream
when one is awake

What if
You had plucked a nerve from your heart,
tied it over my bleeding finger,
wiped dry the tears from my collarbone
and sprinkled fistful of sunlight there …

But,
from those mountains —
where I had carved out your name —
came rippling down the rivulets,
and left behind a crumpled paper boat,
on the nape of my neck.


Found this gem thanks to a lovely rendition by Rasika Duggal on a charming Youtube channel: Hindi Kavita

Special thanks to Atul Sabnis of Gaizabonts for assisting with “उलीचते”. I went to him with what I thought was the word, and what I thought was the meaning, and he went through hindi dictionary to find it out for me. Such is life with friends.

 

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To Tale or not to Tale

Is it better
to let a tale
be left untold
if telling it will
leave a scar?

Or is it better
to tell it
to a point
where the pain
of withholding
is no more severe
where it doesn’t exceed
the pain
about to be unleashed
by the tale

But if you kill a tale
before it’s told
to the last dot,
what you killed,
is it even the same tale?

Then again,
isn’t every tale incomplete?
because a complete tale
will never end
branching off infinitely
lingering on,
meandering,
pausing,
in a borgesian eternity

Can a tale be retold?
or is it reborn,
every time someone
attempts to retell?

Do you own the tale
you gave birth to?
or does it own you?
does it see you as a medium
and nothing more?
and when it dictates
do you rebel,
put your foot down,
and make it mend its ways?

Does it play you
as you play it in your mind?
does it try your limits?
or do you, test its?
and when,
the negotiation is over
and you lie down
happy, and tired
does it lose sleep
over its future?

Or does it believe
in its immortality
because unlike you
it knows,
it is created
from the same magical dust
of the remains
of the echoes
from that day
in distant future
when the first tale
was let loose
to enjoy its moment
of eternity?

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The Song of Tomorrow

I

We’re ashamed of our imperfect bodies,
but never, of our penurious souls,
our ill-gotten wealth,
or even how, we don’t care, anymore,
about where we’re going,
what we’re doing,
and what we’re not doing,
the thoughts that we think,
the dreams that we dream,
and the dreams that we don’t
anymore,
because someone told us
it’s too late for all that
that
we’re too old
but we’re never too old
to look at our bodies critically
to worry, to argue, to fight
about all that should have ceased
to matter
long ago

II

Age was supposed to be a two way street
of losing some agency, some agility
some enthusiasm, some urgency
but gaining wisdom, patience
weaker eyesight, but better vision
of knowing when to let it go
being immune to the petty
but, lately, the street
seems to have turned one-way
we worry about wrinkles
and grey hair, not grey matter
and slowing metabolism
and lost muscle tone …
accumulated years
as if, they are a liability
not an asset

III

We could just as well
replay the notes
in the back of our minds
our memories, weak as they may be
hold on to those notes, and chords,
and strange rhythms
our memories are darker,
but richer than of those
just starting their journeys;
our notebooks
messy and yellowed,
our maps, personalized
and dated

IV

But, we just want to go back
and re-live the same life
as if maps are enough
to move across space and time;
maps just reassure us
of a possibility of finding
that which could be lost
but lost, it is not, what we are searching
it’s just frozen, irrevocably
and that’s a good thing
for, when we try to thaw it
it always crumbles —
the moment time is turned backwards

V

The best way to preserve maps
is to never use them
and keep them folded
in the glove compartments,
in the old wooden cupboards
or just tucked somewhere
in the attics …
then they become records
of things worth living for, once

VI

We’re ashamed of our imperfect bodies
instead, we should be ashamed
of trying to go back
as if there is nothing
to go forwards, marching
into yet uncharted lands
with a calm acceptance
of disappointments on the way;
for our memories are rich with ‘em
that we still tell the tales excitedly
is the testimony to those maps
which we want to destroy, unwittingly

VII

The young, they need a lot more
to go on
they are building
the wall of memories,
don’t envy them that
you have tasted it all,
and more,
now you need less, and less
because you know the paths
that lead to dead ends
secret paths to sanctuaries,
you’re not worried about
getting lost
about being around
and being relevant
of sanity
of pimples and Ayn Rand

VIII

You know
that, some relationships never last
some people you thought
you cannot live without
never make it with you
meaningfully far,
and you still survive;
you know how to pick up the pieces
to stash the hurt,
to nurse a wound,
to weather the storm
that cliches are underrated
that everyone changes
including you
and that,
it’s a good thing
after all …

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Thoughts on Harmony

The other day, a friend, who has a good ear for music, in fact a connoisseur of Indian classical music, was commuting with me in my car. Normally, I am alone when I commute, and so I listen to audiobooks on my way. That’s pretty much how I’ve got any reading done at all, over the last few years. If one can call listening to audiobooks reading. There I go again.

So that day, instead of putting on the audiobook that I was reading, I decided to play some music. It could be pretty darn disorienting for someone to listen to Pamuk somewhere on the 133rd page of an extremely slow paced book. But then again, since I don’t listen to lot of music in the car, except for some bollywood numbers that my kid enjoys, or when I’m suddenly left with no audiobooks in the queue due to bad planning (which is, to be fair, not that seldom), right in the middle of commute. Now this friend of mine is little picky when it comes to music. So current Bollywood was ruled out. What I had besides that, were a few of my cherished Jazz albums. Couple of Mingus ones, and Coltrane.

lovesupremeSurely, I reasoned, no one can mind The Love Supreme? I mean, isn’t that a confluence of all that’s good about music? Like harmony, dissonance, melody, all employed to investigate spirituality.  I mean, it never occurred to me that it could just be my blind love. But later that the day, my friend commented that it was cacophony.

 

 

 

Yup. C.a.c.o.p.h.o.n.y. Something that dictionary defines as : “a harsh, discordant mixture of sounds.”

That got me thinking. Dissonance by definition is discordant, right? But harsh? And how much of discordance separates orchestrated/controlled dissonance from cacophony?

So I looked at the whole dissonance affair a bit. In a wikipedia article I found two very interesting bits:

In music, even if the opposition often is founded on the preceding, objective distinction, it more often is subjective, conventional, cultural, and style-dependent. Dissonance can then be defined as a combination of sounds that does not belong to the style under consideration; in recent music, what is considered stylistically dissonant may even correspond to what is said to be consonant in the context of acoustics (e.g. a major triad in atonal music).

[snip]

Most historical definitions of consonance and dissonance since about the 16th century have stressed their pleasant/unpleasant, or agreeable/disagreeable character. This may be justifiable in a psychophysiological context, but much less in a musical context properly speaking: dissonances often play a decisive role in making music pleasant, even in a generally consonant context – which is one of the reasons why the musical definition of consonance/dissonance cannot match the psychophysiologic definition. In addition, the oppositions pleasant/unpleasant or agreeable/disagreeable evidence a confusion between the concepts of ‘dissonance’ and of ‘noise‘.

From Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consonance_and_dissonance

So while, objectively, dissonance is discordant, when one listens to musical dissonance, the perception can very from pleasant to unpleasant. From beautiful to harsh. Indeed, cacophonous.

But that’s not all that I wanted to talk about, because that’s not all that came to my mind as I kept thinking about it — about the inability of my otherwise well ear-trained friend, to perceive the beauty, the progression, the poignancy of that (in my mind) superlative piece of music.

Indian classical music doesn’t much concern itself about harmonies. Sometimes when I think about it, I find it rather strange — something as refined as Indian Classical Music never exploring (at least seriously, to my rather limited knowledge) harmony. Indian classical music is predominantly individualist! So while it is ready to shade the dependence on melody that any early musical forms have, it tends to keep the supremacy of the lead singer/player intact. There is singer or principal player, and there is accompaniment/rhythm section. In modern times, there have been many experiments to explore harmony. Shakti comes to mind. But somehow, if you compare to either Western Classical (which has almost no improvisation) or Jazz (which is highly improvised — a property it shares with Indian Classical), on the complex harmony scale it seems to be just a hesitant attempt (and they had John McLaughlin!).

That really led me to another thought lane. Growing up we’ve heard a lot in school books about “unity and diversity” and later on about syncretic culture, and various castes/creeds living “in harmony”, and so on. Are we romanticizing it? Is this harmony basically just an illusion at worst, and “live and let live” at best? Is this harmony like the polyphony in our classical music, where there is one primary citizen, and the rest are there only to “support in every which way” that primary citizen, so to speak?

No I’m not an expert on music. Anything but. Nor on culture, on Indian culture, even. And these are just threads that were started in my head as I pondered over that confusion, that judgement of cacophony. It made me wonder, are our ears not trained for harmony, much less dissonance? Are we too individualistic a culture (with exceptions like Bhakti/sufi traditions, and many more, I’m sure) to really appreciate harmony and dissonance? Is what we believe to be cultural harmony just disjoint themes playing together, oblivious to each other, or just tolerant to each other’s existence, but not playing towards a common goal, a larger polyphony?

I would like to believe it’s not so. For how would Europe, a much closed mono-culture, have developed both the appreciation and repertoire for Jazz and Western Classical Music, with harmonies at their core?  With Jazz one can understand it a bit, because Jazz did not originate there, and it was more of melting pot effect that it got adapted. But what about the stupefying harmonies of the classical masters?

And what about dissonance? Is it really anti-thesis of harmony? Or does it actually complement it. Our present day culture seems so much closed to any dissonance — not just musical. Did we reach here because decay or because it’s just a logical progression of an emphasis on one superior culture/idea/religion/race/tradition? Is our instinctive rejection of dissonance as noise/cacophony just a result of the internalized belief in fake harmony?

All these questions! And for all you know, it could just be my undeserved reverence for The Love Supreme. I sure could be little less touchy about it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Coffee Time

I love the aftertaste of coffee. Okay, let me correct that, because for a filter-coffee-fanatic that I am, the prefix may be redundant, but not for the rest of the world (and for that so-called coffee loving culture called American), it seems. And one must say “filter coffee” when one means coffee – the real thing, not the abomination that you get when you force hot steams through burnt coffee beans; or worse, the so called “decaf” anti-coffee; or worse still, green coffee. Or that counterfeit coffee also called “instant coffee”. You get the drift. Yes, I’ve been called a coffee snob. Not just once or twice.

That said, I’m going to say coffee, taking umbrage in the famous Humpty-Dumpty’s contention:

When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.

So back to the point. I love the aftertaste of coffee; of good, not too sweet, not too bitter, well brewed, well blended (the traditional two tumbler method) with milk, coffee. That slight bitter aftertaste of coffee is something akin to an aftertaste of a torrid affair that, you knew, was too good to last, but still wouldn’t mind going through again, and again; because, well, that fleeting state-of-mind, that moment of being-in-it completely, is in the realm of the best that life is gracious enough to let us experience.

Yes, it’s probably just a chemical locha, but so is infatuation. And wars have been fought over the latter. No one complained then!

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The thing is, however much I try, I cannot get that from any other coffee preparations. The organically and shade-grown, purest breed fed-on-real-organic-grass horse-shit manured, sun dried, moon exposed, slow and mildly roasted, freshly brewed, super-gourmet, with pristine lineage, and all that jazz coffee (but finally brewed in a couple of mins, and sometimes using excessive force) doesn’t give me even a quarter of that, which I get from my locally bought, non-premium Arabica blend (50-50 Peaberry-Plantation, because I’m too lazy to try out the optimum ratio) brewed with a standard south Indian drip method, and a little bit of time, and care. And I still get called a snob! Go figure! Okay, lately I acquired a manual Burr grinder, but …

The south-Indian style coffee making does exert its price. For one, it’s not instant. Those old enough to remember the brief stint of the MR Coffee ad featuring Malaika Arora (and Arbaaz Khan was it? I, for one, never noticed): asli maza instant nahin hota (the real pleasure is not instant). One has to worry about the freshness of beans, how much you heat the water, how much you pack the coffee powder, what sort of milk you use, how well you can mix/aerate the piping hot milk and the decoction without letting it go lukewarm, and so on. Then, it doesn’t stay hot for long (unless, I’ve been told, you use Chicory, which, being an alleged purist, I do stay away from, if there is a choice). It doesn’t scale well. Add to that the post-operative care of the apparatus. But then again, torrid affairs come with a cost.

For me, this affair has now spanned more than a decade. And that bitter aftertaste lingers on. After every consummation.

I’m telling you: there something about kaapi