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.

Tools Are Us: aka “The Frankenstein Chronicles”

Louis Sullivan, considered by many to be the father of Modernist architecture, is attributed to be the originator of the phrase “Form follows function”, although the principle itself is quite ancient. Just like Architecture, and Industrial Design, “world wide web” has gone through waves of design philosophies, and thanks to Google’s groundbreaking clean design when it landed on the scene, that seemed to be following the modernist adage to the letter, look and feel of web-pages saw a major shift to more utilitarian design rather than (most of the times) one based on gaudy aesthetics (or anesthetics, really) that the early visual web (anyone remembers the grotesque Altavista and clone pages?) epitomized. But forgive me if I’m erring on (or overly simplifying) the web design history, as I’m sure I am, given that I’m no expert there (or anywhere). The point is, from Yahoo/Altavista to Google, and ironically from Google’s own (although acquired, not created) Blogger to WordPress (ha, couldn’t resist that!), and so on, blogs/webpages have been moving to a cleaner, efficient, functional designs.

Yes, there is a point that I’m actually driving at. We’ll come to that. Recently, Atul Sabnis at Gaizabonts, who has been responsible for many posts on this blog — by providing subject matter directly/indirectly — wrote a post (yes, Atul, I’ve been very careful with blog and post differentiation lately) which I read on my phone. Then, in the usual blogger’s spirit (a, no doubt, vanishing trait, for better or for worse), I wanted to comment on the post. Now, remember this: I’m actually quite used to browsing, even reading short-to-medium length pieces on my phone. And still, I found it not very easy to find a way to comment on this post. Also remember this: Atul isn’t exactly a “form over function” kind of guy, rather the opposite, and is much more likely than the average Joe (including yours truly) to choose templates with a consideration for things like “ease of doing comments” (ha! couldn’t resist that, either.) So I don’t think it’s a problem with that one template problem. Yes, I went and checked my own blog and a few others, just to be sure. Yes, it’s not very difficult to do, but the thing is comments section isn’t in the prime real estate of the posts anymore. They have been relegated to the afterthoughts section.

Sign of times, yes. The fact is, these days, most people do not read blog-posts on original blogs, but are led there from twitter/FB/. Which means that, a lot of time people comment right there, if they do comment that is — because not many have time to write comments these days (except for those who we wish rather didn’t have the time for that: a human derivative species identified with a mythical animal that has brain the sign of peanut and body the size of gorilla, whose name starts with a T). So much better to RT/forward, press the like/love button. Yes, I’m a bit of an old-fashioned guy in these matters. While FB comments are good to have, if the alternative is no comments,  the problem with them is that they are for a subset of blog readers. Yes, point could be made that it’s thanks to FB/SM that those comments are even made and/or visible to more people than would be possible in the pre-SM era of blogs. Fair enough. Still, I prefer those comments on the blog, where there is a common audience, possibly interested in those comments. But maybe that’s just me.



Our relationship with technology is interesting, to say the least. We crave for the fruits, however forbidden, but are always afraid that they may come with a hidden price-tag (or snake, to use well understood imagery). Scientists, especially those in love with gizmos are rarely presented as dependable, responsible, members of society. They are, at best mostly harmless geeks, and at worst blind-to-anything-but-the-possibility-of-innovation mad scientists who are tools at the hands of someone who wants to destroy something, or rule everything. Basically, unwitting, or uncaring agents of the power hungry. This, of course, gets worse if the object of their creation is capable of wielding power by itself (himself? herself? do anthropomorphic machines have gender?) and not through human proxies. That explains the obsession with the concept of Frankenstein, that has been portrayed in various incarnations, in popular literature (and even cultish, dystopian science fiction) and movies. We live in the dread of the Frankenstein. Even a more benign one, that may just take away our jobs, not necessarily our lives.


Still, we love tools that these inventors, technologists, mad-scientists invent. We adore them. We need them. But tools use us just as we are using them. They change us. Tools are like memes. They need to change us for their survival.

How we think, how we write, how we speak, how we express, this all is shaped by the tools we use. Even how we read, how we consume, how we listen. Between the stimulus and response is you, say some of the self help gurus. I agree. But sometimes between you and the world there are tools. And they change your response. They can even change the stimulus, in route, to get a different response.

Our fear of Frankenstein is both paranoid-ly unreal, and almost instinctively right. Frankenstein isn’t one machine turned rogue. Frankenstein is every tool/machine that changes us, by bits and pieces, even imperceptibly. It’s through us that tools rule us. By making us constantly aware of the here and now, social platforms are making us turn away from the sublime, and the timeless. By making us aware of the power of likes from complete strangers, social platforms are making us conform to the standards of faceless strangers. By making it easy to like a post, and harder to comment, blogging platforms are changing us into hit-and-run readers.

The lunatic is in the hall
The lunatics are in my hall
The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
And every day the paper boy brings more

— Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon (Brain Damage)

The Frankenstein is here, and now. And it’s us, not the tools and machines we invented.


The origin of the “Frankenstein” is curious. The first novel, by Mary Shelly, has Frankenstein as the creator of a “monster”, not the monster itself that it later started to be associated with – to the extend that Cambridge Dictionary has this entry:


something that destroys or harms the person or people who created it:

Example: “In arming the dictator, the US was creating a Frankenstein.” 

Wikipedia entry from Frankenstein (novel) has this interesting tidbit:

Part of Frankenstein’s rejection of his creation is the fact that he does not give it a name, which causes a lack of identity. Instead it is referred to by words such as “wretch”, “monster”, “creature”, “demon”, “devil”, “fiend”, and “it”. When Frankenstein converses with the creature in Chapter 10, he addresses it as “vile insect”, “abhorred monster”, “fiend”, “wretched devil”, and “abhorred devil”.

And so the nameless creature,  has actually managed to steal the identity of its creator, and in all probability will outlive its creator — who has become nameless, identity less. Because now the creator is any man, while the creation is Frankenstein.

PS: This curious inversion, is an apt parallel to what I said up there: “[Frankenstein] is us, not the tools and machines we invented”. Till I looked on Wikipedia for origins of Frankenstein, after I wrote those words, I was blissfully unaware of this inversion — I assumed that Frankenstein is actually a fictional monster, not its creator!

The Elasticity of Memories

We all love to tell stories. And by that I don’t mean to speak on behalf of the writers, clandestinely smuggling myself into the group. On the contrary, I’m speaking on behalf of us non-writers, wanna-be-writers, poseur writers — everyone who does not seem to have a blanket license to tell stories. Irrespective of such a license, if there were one, we all love to tell stories to right people, and sometimes to the wrong people, much to a mutual displeasure. Still, that urge to tell stories is one of the things that makes us human.

But what separates those who just tell stories from those who narrate, who mesmerize us with their accounts of everyday banality, who make us listen spellbound, who make us laugh out loud, who make us cry, who make us want to say: if only I could tell a story like that?

Do those who reuse their memories, their experiences — in their writings, or in conversations over coffee, or with friends/family, or during random encounters on long distance trains, or just to kill time while waiting at a queue — color their memories with different palettes? Are we, the others, mostly bad painters who can’t for their life find the right colors, the right contrasts, the right textures? Or are our memories dull to being with? Are they colorless, and what is needed is not faithful rendering of those grey memories, but a keen sense of coloring, of dressing up the ordinary.

Does it mean, then, that the honest story tellers are bad story tellers (unless they’re blessed/cursed with very colorful memories)? Of course, I don’t want to accuse the masters of being dishonest, but maybe they are a little generous with the shade card of truth. However tempting it is to use that accusation, though, when we look at our own stories that we tell, again and again, over months and years, we’d probably see ample evidence of that same generosity on our parts. Art of story telling is the art of ever-so-subtly changing the details, of making memories more interesting than they are.

A man can tell a thousand lies
I’ve learned my lesson well
Hope I live to tell
The secret I have learned, ’till then
It will burn inside of me [1]

Is that deliberate? Or is that automatic? And like a story changes when it moves from one narrator to another, over endless replays of the game of Chinese Whispers, doesn’t it also change when it moves from one audience to another, even with the same narrator? Is it because our memories are elastic, and we make out of them what we want to, without even being aware of that distortion — an act of a subconscious will? Or is it that our memories are so fragile that to arrive in one piece they have to patch and re-patch themselves, like the poor people have to patch their clothes, all the times, to stop them from opening at seams, and elsewhere?

It is not like it’s only an individual memory that suffers (or shares) this fate. Even collective memories are just a common denominator of our changing, elastic, individual memories, already morphed into a reality-inspired-fiction. The thing is, our childhood memories are folk lores that we collectively chose to retell, subtly manipulated by the keepers of those lores. The keepers who, thanks to their unquestioning love, typically are biased towards re-tellings that shield us. Try telling your mom that her  memory of some instance in your childhood is not faithful, and you’ll see a sanctimonious hurt that will be hard to heal. But what is a faithful memory? Is there such a thing? And if there is one, is it an exception or a norm?

I tell stories from my past, often. And I’m sure if someone recorded and replayed them to me, I’d barely recognize the recorded memories.  But a retelling is not necessarily a better telling. It’s a telling that may show you in a better light, at the cost of the story that is too monochromatic. Do those who master the art of re-vitalizing memories put their stories before themselves? Does that selfless, and yet very selfish at the same time, act liberate their stories, and make them more charismatic, more alive? They probably do.

Meanwhile, those of us, who do not have that license to tell stories, must struggle with the banality of our retelling, and futility of our instincts for both authenticity and self-importance.  Like those wandering dervishes, we need to be the story we want to tell. Our memories are elastic enough to allow for that.

[1] Snippets from lyrics of Madonna’s Live to Tell.

The Illusive Cordon of Excellence


As an aspiring writer, your relationship with words is like a marriage struggling to keep itself afloat. There are good days, far and few between, long streaks of dismal days when you don’t trust the other. Although, in this case, one party can’t even claim sentience, the distrust seems mutual. And you tend, like in any strained relationship, to see yourself as the injured party, almost always. After all, words may not be sentient beings, but they hold an age whenever there is a conflict.

Sometimes I believe we kid ourselves that we choose words. If you look at evidence without the bias that comes with being human, you could quite easily argue that it’s the words who choose us. In his phenomenal work, the Selfish Gene, Dawkins puts forward a gene centric model to explain evolution better. Any meme could be seen as choosing the vehicles for their propagation.  The words choose us. We set arbitrary, and not so arbitrary (according to some of us, anyway) rules to restrict freedom of words. We believe we are enhancing the life of words. But more often than not, those rules end up hurting words. And then words revolt. They choose those who can break the rules, or choose rules that help them. Those who swear by rules are relegated to the forgotten footnotes of existence. While the words live on, way longer than any of us.

We live in a make believe word where writing can be taught. And yet, those who teach writing are struggling with it, just like the one who is learning. Maybe there isn’t anything more to it than practice, practice, practice. Then again, it’s not even remotely sufficient, just necessary. Or neither necessary nor sufficient. If we knew, all would be doing one thing. Thank heavens we don’t know!

Excellence, I sometimes think, is about hitting the target more often than others. Even masters come up with banal, awkward, even downright bad writing. And that assuming literary quality (and by extension, any artistic quality) is measurable, even partially objective.

The difference between good and bad writing — let me rephrase — the difference between good and the best of the bad writing, is tiny. To use a sports analogy, it’s the difference between good and bad timing. Between touching a line and missing a line. The masters seem to make the lines more often.

And yet, there is an endless playing field for those who can’t make those percentage, those cuts. Sometime, right in the middle of a mediocre field, one steps into the zone. Maybe by pure accident. Maybe, that day, the words decide to drop their defenses.  Even a strained relationship has its moments. That’s why we go on.

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.

Who Speaks for No One?

In the final chapter of his ground-breaking (for popular Science) book Cosmos, Carl Sagan asks Who Speaks for Earth, where he (if I recall correctly) wonders who indeed will speak for earth if a dispassionate extraterrestrial observer were to question our inane wars, and destruction. The title of the post is inspired from that, however it has no such noble aims. Quite the opposite.

Yesterday I posted about blogging in the absence of (quantitatively significant) reader base. Today, I read this (bold emphasis mine …)

Well, maybe [it] wasn’t for everyone. But didn’t everyone get everything? Hadn’t they had enough yet? Everything on earth is tailored for this everyone. Everyone gets all the TV programs, as near as dammit all of the cinema, and about eighty percent of all music. After that come the secondary mediums of painting and those other visual arts that do not move. These are generally just for someone, and although you always hear people moaning that there isn’t enough of them, in truth someone does all right. Galleries, museums, basements in Berlin, studio flats, journals, bare walls in urban centers—someone gets what they want and deserve, most of the time. But where are the things that no one wants? Every now and then Alex would see or hear something that appeared to be for no one but soon enough turned out to be for someone and, after a certain amount of advertising revenue had been spent, would explode into the world for everyone. Who was left to make stuff for no one? Just Alex. Only he.

That’s from the brilliant Zadie Smith’s last unread (by me, but not for long) novel Autograph Man. That’s the anti-Christ . And he is coming!

PS: old you it won’t be pretty!

On the Write Path

This blog has never had a huge following. It’s both by design and accident.

Design, in the sense that, the blog author has resolutely resisted any suggestions or instincts to increase the reach of the blog, or its influence. The kind of things the new media lives by, for mostly the right reasons.

Accident, because the blog author wasn’t born a particularly talented writer. He just loved to write from the time he remembers. And to read what he writes. Yeah, that’s kind of conceited. But what the hell.

Now the blog has reached an existential fork where there are two alternatives: to continue writing without much of a readership, or to take active steps to increase readership.

There is of course a third-fork — to stop writing, but given how vain and conceited the blog writer is that’s not even an option.

WordPress is an excellent blogging platform. One of the reasons, is that it tells you a lot about what is resonating with whom. The stats are quite thorough that way. I know people who publish posts only in specific time windows because that’s when they (know they) get maximum hits. It’s funny how this new media has made writing just like Bollywood music/movie. If you miss your window, you’ve missed the bus.

It does raise questions about the intrinsic worth of your produce (or creation if that sounds too marketplace). If your writing can’t survive being presented to the world at the wrong hour, or minute, why exactly should it be considered of value (and for those friends I’ve no doubt about the value of their content)? [The concept of] value, said Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged, presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what?

There is a parallel, but related, unending discussion that I’ve been having with multiple people, like a low intensity war fought with different people at different times, but logically the same one, where I’ve been told: “If what you are writing is good, more people should see it, which means, it’s upon you to make sure that happens”.

The problem is, everyone in the web 2.0 world thinks that what they’re writing is good, and that more people should see it. And that it’s their duty to make sure it happens.

And so are born repeated plugs, you scratch my back I scratch your back (reciprocat-ry follows), hash tag overloads, invitations to “like” at one end, and conscious efforts to increasing klout, tailoring content to suit your readership, following and engaging the ‘right’ people (not because you like what they share, but because you want to increase your influence/reach), etc at the other end.

My most loved piece on this blog, by far, going by the stats, is a parody/rebuttal of a post in India Ink, NYT, “Why I left India (Again)”. That happened because a couple of influential twitterati shared the link. You should write more of this, said a well meaning friend. But seriously, that was hardly a piece that could satisfy one as a writer. On the other hand I have written a few posts on this very blog which have made me feel satisfied, at least in the sense that they have made me feel I’m on the right path, the write path. Many/most of those haven’t registered any heartbeat on the stats-o-meter.

Take the road less taken, says the pseudo-Frostian advice by consensus. In all probability, the road less traveled is a lonely road. It goes to nowhere. Those who take it rarely get to tell their stories. And maybe that’s why, most don’t take it.

So what will I do? Will I take the sane advice by infinitely saner-than-me friends and change course, or continue on the road to nowhere? Join the highway, follow the rules, and wait for a roadkill, or be the roadkill in a godforsaken part of godforsaken woods?

Does writing have value outside of its readership? But more importantly, in the current context, does a writer need readers to write? Do they matter? Will I write if I’m the only person reading? Does it feel good when your writing reach more people? Hell, yes, right? Not any people, but the kind of “imaginary audience” you had in mind when you wrote? Isn’t writing also a way of touching upon other people in some way? But if the road to that changes the very journey, is it worth it?


Here is what I will change. Over the next few weeks (not sure how many), I will do one thing differently. I will control the inner-critic (starting today, with this piece). I will post more often, more regularly (I’ve been told this is important to increase readership!). It won’t be pretty. But survival is rarely pretty. And for this blog, it’s come to that. For this blogger, it’s come to that, or so all the leading indicators say. And in that process of staying afloat, maybe I will prove to myself, that I am on the write path. Or, maybe I’ll see you in the woods someday?

Et tu, Atticus?

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has been in news, mostly for non-literary reasons. There is the controversy around it being just a rejected first draft of what finally became her only published work, “To Kill a Mockingbird”. There is a controversy about the way HarperCollins got the rights to the book (if it is not a draft of TKMB, that is). And so on. I was in two minds about reading the book, given that it could well have been an exploitation of an author who is not in a state to make the decision, but I knew that I was going to read it eventually. I did it way before eventually.

I’m now ambivalent about what I think about it! Or maybe not.

While TKMB is a simple, morality tale, with clearly defined hero, with Go Set a Watchman we get the grey shades of reality. In a sense that’s to be expected. The former is first person narration of Scout, a young girl learning right and wrongs from her perfect father, the latter is the reality couple of decades down the line, told in third person, with the girl a young women now, living in a big city (New York), and in a position to be much more objective about her hometown, and her family.

Spoilers ahead!! Although they’re really not spoilers if you have been reading at all. Everyone knows the central revelation of Go Set a Watchman. But let me retract a bit.

A few years back, I wrote a blog post about moral authority. In it I mentioned that Atticus Finch is my idea (or rather, an ideal) of the model parent, a moral authority figure. I’m sure I was not the first one to say that. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been the last one, if this book wasn’t published, that is …

This is what I said about Atticus:

Atticus is in so many ways a father I’d want to be. Arch-liberal, understanding, clear in his thinking, gentle, approachable, trusting, always there when needed and yet ready to dissolve in the background when not needed,  never over-reaching or over meddling.

And yet, and yet, Atticus is the moral compass. By walking the walk, the unglamorous ‘right’ walk, the everyday, non-heroic walk, he is setting an example for his kids to follow.

Nearly two thirds into Go Set a Watchman, there is nothing to contradict that. Then comes the shocker. Atticus, the same Atticus who epitomized “equal rights for all, special privileges for none” in TKMB, is a closet racist, a white supremacist.

Listen, Scout, you’re upset by having seen me doing something you think is wrong, but I’m trying to make you understand my position. Desperately trying. This is merely for your own information, that’s all: so far in my experience, white is white and black’s black. So far, I’ve not yet heard an argument that has convinced me otherwise. I’m seventy-two years old, but I’m still open to suggestion.


“Then let’s put this on a practical basis right now. Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”  [..]

“Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?”

Of course, there are different ways to look at this.

One: the two Atticus are different characters. After all, these are two different books. The outcome of trial of Tom Robinson, for instance, is different in two books. This also seems to go with the theory that this one is just a draft that eventually became TKMB.

Two: Some events in two decades changed Atticus. Although the novel doesn’t give us enough to understand such a drastic transition. Which gives us:

Three: Atticus was a closet racist all along, and fought for Tom’s rights because of his ideas of justice wouldn’t allow an innocent man to be hanged/punished for something he didn’t do.

It’s this three, which is most troubling to accept for fans for TKMB, going by the reactions and reviews. How could Atticus, the paragon of virtue, of justice, deny a whole race something while he’s ready to put his career on line to save one from what is just an end result of a systemic injustice propagated in the name of the same beliefs (of superiority of one race)?

A big part of growing up is about coming to terms with the idea of many in one. One doesn’t need to look beyond our own forefathers, to understand that it’s possible to be extremely just in one sphere, and to be unjust (through their actions/beliefs) in another. So in that sense it’s hardly a surprise. And yet it’s a letdown of sorts.

What is disappointing about Go Set a Watchman, is its ending, which didn’t seem to live up to the conflict. Scout is almost apologetic of having judged her father, after a less than convincing post-facto defense by his brother, Dr. Jack Finch. Yes, I’ll come to that. Because that’s the real point of this post — a natural followup to that post on moral authority.

The question is, what happens when you grow up with an infallible moral authority figure, to learn one day that it was based on a projection/part information, or a lie, or a contradiction? Scout says it better than I could:

I believed in you. I looked up to you, Atticus, like I never looked up to anybody in my life and never will again. If you had only given me some hint, if you had only broken your word with me a couple of times, if you had been bad-tempered or impatient with me—if you had been a lesser man, maybe I could have taken what I saw you doing. If once or twice you’d let me catch you doing something vile, then I would have understood yesterday. Then I’d have said that’s just His Way, that’s My Old Man, because I’d have been prepared for it

The truth is, looking up to an unfailing moral authority can stunt your growth (and this is exactly the logic used by Dr. Jack Finch to convince Scout that this was necessary to cut the moral umbilical chord that was binding her to her father, but it doesn’t cut …) as an independent, moral authority. And in that sense, it’s better to have the moral authority in your life to be imperfect, for even you to see, as you grow up, that this is not all. That your conscience is your own, in the end. And you need to work to that, all your life.

Final verdict on the book: a nice read as a companion to TKMB, but nothing you’d regret not reading. On some levels, it is more nuanced than a morality tale that TKMB is, but it has neither it’s energy, or it’s lyrical flow. It seems like the first draft refurbished into a novel for a quick buck. But it’s still an interesting read, more for ruminating on the lines of this post. I’m not complaining. Although I’d give it maybe 2 out of 5 on pure literary merit.


PS: The cover of the book throws a curious coincidence. The titles of the two books are of similar form (To/Go Kill/Set A Mockingbird/Watchman). Hinting at the first draft published at book theory, again. For all you know, it’s settled now, already.

PS2: I wonder what would have Gregory Peck done if he had to act in the movie on Watchman? Would he, like Jody Foster in Hannibal case, have refused to portray an Atticus 2.0 which completely wiped out the 1.0 version in couple of paragraphs?

Unbearable Heaviness of Being – Life in the New Web

Umberto Eco, that brilliant Italian intellectual who writes medieval whodunnit (or rather whytheeffdidtheydoit) mysteries on weekends, when he is not teaching, or writing papers/books on semiotics, or cultural commentary, or non-fiction books on some obscure subjects, once said in an interview:

I have a secret. Did you know what will happen if you eliminate the empty spaces from the universe, eliminate the empty spaces in all the atoms? The universe will become as big as my fist.

Similarly, we have a lot of empty spaces in our lives. I call them interstices. Say you are coming over to my place. You are in an elevator and while you are coming up, I am waiting for you. This is an interstice, an empty space. I work in empty spaces. While waiting for your elevator to come up from the first to the third floor, I have already written an article!

Okay, so we’re not exactly Umberto Eco. And even before we begin, we should forget about writing an article while waiting for an elevator, but surely, there is something to take away from those words. Time, the currency that we can’t buy, is precious. But if we use those empty spaces well, maybe, just maybe, we won’t need to buy it. Right?


Enter web 2.0, and the onslaught of claims on our time. There is facebook with notifications — a friend has commented on your status, another friend has just posted her vacation pics, another intellectual friend has that insightful article from New Yorker maybe; there is Twitter — the latest #hashtag, the news you lived without for all of your life before twitter was born (you didn’t even know about that for a long time), or some mention by someone; there is WhatsApp, with never ending jokes and forwards, telling you you have a hundred unread messages; there is gmail, that long time darling we ditched the moment facebook dazzled us with all the attention; there is tumblr, instagram, quora, foursquare …

Then you have the ever-increasing list of things-to-do in some app, articles to read in Pocket, watch-later list of youtube videos, wants-to-read list in goodreads, nevermind the pinterest boards that are a visual representation of probably-never-to-be-realized-aspirations …

Those interstices that Eco talks about are fast filling up. We’ve given it a nice name: social. Somehow it seems better than to sit in a room, alone. “Go out, do something”, our moms used to say when we did that. Now moms are busy liking the social exploits of their sons and daughters. But I digress (Maybe Nicholas Negroponte  can write “Being Social”, as a followup to his excellent book: Being Digital).

Those interstices …

Some years back, I used to ruminate when I walked or drove or sat waiting for someone to turn up somewhere. Most of that was actually quite banal. Okay, maybe all of it. But then I should be pardoned to think, that somewhere in those thoughts, were the germs of some of the creative writing I did back then, definitely at a rate far surpassing the current, and possibly quality (the non-existent can’t have a quality, so definitely-maybe?).

Now, I have audiobooks with me for such instances. I consume. Yes, probably the world is better off without more mediocre writing. But imagine Eco filling up those interstices with Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, or audiobooks.

Slowly, and surely, many of us are turning into full time consumers of media. When blogs came on the scene, everyone turned producers. For a brief period, the web seemed like turning us into a society of (albeit virtual) prosumers. The mirage was too good to last. Now we consume each other’s vacation photos. And yes, produce those, too. So maybe, fundamentally, nothing’s changed.

Those interstices …

They are filling up. And maybe it’s not such a great thing, after all.

We need those empty spaces.


PS: I did write this piece (I don’t know what else to call it?) in an elevator. While it was stuck and jammed. And there was no data signal. Okay, maybe I just dreamed it. Still …

PS2: I don’t know about the revolution, but this will be tweeted. And it will fill up those interstices. For you and me.

Why Are You So …

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Why are you so offensive?
Why are you so stubborn?
Why are you so angry?
Why are you so emotional?
Why are you so intellectual?
Why are you so restless?
Why are you so sulky?
Why are you so verbal?
Why are you so silent?
Why are you so sarcastic?
Why are you so cynical?
Why are you so trusting?
Why are you so self-satisfied?
Why are you so unconcerned?
Why are you so concerned?

Why are you?