Infinity of Jest, Finitude of Grace

A major part of growing up is coming to terms with the fallibility of our heroes. Okay, make it “gradual erosion of faith in our heroes” or “being almost free from the belief in heroes”. The same heroes, or rather, the same faith in the existence of heroes, that was our ladder to adulthood, that sometimes we want to cling to, rather desperately. However, as we start seeing more and more shades of gray, the photographs of heroes in our attic start seeming gradually lackluster. And yet, curiously, even ironically, more real. As if, finally, we have access to the third dimension which, hundreds of two-dimensional projections were a poor substitute for.

Still, we’re never really free of belief in heroes, because, in a world ruled by chance and chaos, we need that straw to keep afloat. And so, when someone else tries to cut down our heroes to a size too small for a pedestal, we instinctively cringe; or — get angry, or combative, or even, dismissive.

David Foster Wallace (DFW), one of the best-known American novelists of our era, killed himself in the month of September, nine years back, a day after the date that no American will easily forget, two days after the World Suicide Prevention day, ironically. With DFW, one is never sure if the connections are tenuous or real. And I get a feeling, that’s exactly how he would have wanted it. Being sure would have defeated the purpose.

In last two decades, as I’ve struggled to make progress on my personal, non-professional, ambition of being a writer (or wanting to be a writer, to be precise), there are a few writers (and I’m really talking about fiction writers) I have looked up to. Umberto Eco, for instance, or Amitav Ghosh, Arthur Koestler, Orhan Pamuk, Hermann Hesse, Zadie Smith, Kamila Shamsie. The list is long, and not exhaustive. But if there is one writer who I’d have liked to be, one writer I’d have liked to write like (not exactly same, obviously, but you know what I mean), it’s got to be DFW.

I say this based, not just on his masterpiece Infinite Jest, but also his debut book, Broom of the System, or his unfinished symphony, Pale King, tied up into some semblance of a novel by his longtime editor and friend Michael Pietsch, and his Interviews with Hideous Men, and other short-story collections; I’ve read every word of Wallace with adulation. And especially with Pale King, I’ve cried thinking of DFW writing that, while feeling inadequate as a writer, and a human being, and killing himself, denying us all a lot more he could have produced, with his abundant talents, but above all, denying himself all those years of unlived life.

And so, when I read his longtime friend and competitor Jonathan Franzen’s piece “Farther Away” (from his eponymous collection of essays), dealing with, among many things, the death of David Foster Wallace, my reaction was almost visceral. In a sense, because, on some level, Franzen was right (if not on many levels, after all, he knew Wallace, I just read him). Especially when he says:

The people who knew David least well are most likely to speak of him in saintly terms.

And I got to know about that more when I recently read DFW’s biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. It talked of a Wallace that one would have a hard time imagining just reading his fiction — because that kind of understanding, that level of pathos, that kind of empathy, as exemplified by his writings seems incongruous with some of the aspects of his personality, especially the (lack of ?) personality ethic. Then again, it’s always a possibility. Growing up has taught us as much, if nothing more.

Still, Franzen’s writing about his self-confessed friend seems devoid of grace.

A bit of context is due for those who do not know the background. Jonathan Franzen and DFW shared a borderline healthy (or unhealthy, as you see fit) rivalry as writers. With Infinite Jest, DFW seemed to have pulled ahead into a territory that’s reserved for a few. Much of what Franzen writes about DFW seems to be weighed down by that enormity — and it’s almost like Franzen is angry with DFW because he basically cheated Franzen of a chance to prove he could beat DFW to it and more.

*

Franzen makes no efforts to hide his anger at DFW for killing himself in a hideous way:

At the time, I’d made a decision not to deal with the hideous suicide of someone I’d loved so much but instead to take refuge in anger and work. Now that the work was done, though, it was harder to ignore the circumstance that, arguably, in one interpretation of his suicide, David had died of boredom and in despair about his future novels. The desperate edge to my own recent boredom: might this be related to my having broken a promise to myself? The promise that, after I’d finished my book project, I would allow myself to feel more than fleeting grief and enduring anger at David’s death?

Strangely, though, this seems to be the only way in which Franzen seems to relate to DFW’s suicide — this being the only sympathetic interpretation in the article. Thus, subconsciously, elevating himself to DFW’s level — a boredom of the Titans.

That just sets a tone for a piece, that for every other distraction in it, is basically about DFW — and Franzen’s getaway to reflect on the relationship, in its glorious contradictions. But what is shocking, for a close friend of someone who’s grappled with depression all his adult life, and a very perceptive writer, to have almost completely ignored the elephant in the room.

In the summer before he died, sitting with him on his patio while he smoked cigarettes, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the hummingbirds around his house and was saddened that he could, and while he was taking his heavily medicated afternoon naps I was studying the birds of Ecuador for an upcoming trip, and I understood the difference between his unmanageable misery and my manageable discontents to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not. (emphasis mine).

The joy of birds? Really? And this, while he starts the paragraph with “he loved his dogs more purely than he loved anything or anyone else”. How can a friend miss the forest for the trees?

This is where it starts making sense, though:

The depressed person then killed himself, in a way calculated to inflict maximum pain on those he loved most, and we who loved him were left feeling angry and betrayed. Betrayed not merely by the failure of our investment of love but by the way in which his suicide took the person away from us and made him into a very public legend.

A cursory google search will give you some interesting figures (link):

  • In 2015 (latest available data), there were 44,193 reported suicide deaths.
  • Currently, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
  • A person dies by suicide about every 11.9 minutes in the United States.
  • Every day, approximately 121 Americans take their own life.
  • Ninety percent of all people who die by suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.

David Foster Wallace may have been a genius. But he was a part of those statistics. Just one in many. What’s more, there is a strong link between creativity and mental disorders, as discussed by Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene.

“We of the craft are all crazy,” Lord Byron, the high priest of crazies, wrote. “Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.” Versions of this story have been told, over and over, with bipolar disorder, with some variants of schizophrenia, and with rare cases of autism; all are “more or less touched.” It is tempting to romanticize psychotic illness, so let me emphasize that the men and women with these mental disorders experience paralyzing cognitive, social, and psychological disturbances that send gashes of devastation through their lives. [SNIP]

In Touched with Fire, an authoritative study of the link between madness and creativity, the psychologist-writer Kay Redfield Jamison compiled a list of those “more or less touched” that reads like the Who’s Who of cultural and artistic achievers: Byron (of course), van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Jack Kerouac—and on and on. That list can be extended to include scientists (Isaac Newton, John Nash), musicians (Mozart, Beethoven), and an entertainer who built an entire genre out of mania before succumbing to depression and suicide (Robin Williams). Hans Asperger, one of the psychologists who first described children with autism, called them “little professors” for good reason. Withdrawn, socially awkward, or even language-impaired children, barely functional in one “normal” world, might produce the most ethereal version of Satie’s Gymnopédies on the piano or calculate the factorial of eighteen in seven seconds.

In the years that I’ve read more and more about DFW, I’ve asked myself this: “would I be willing to host his demons, if that were the precondition of being the kind of artist that he was?” The answer is a rather quick and an emphatic NO. We lesser mortals, the statistically normal humans, are blessed with a missing bone. We wouldn’t know what to do with the demons. It’s not a kind of price one chooses to pay. It’s what one pays because there is no choice.

Later in the piece, Franzen tries to be more charitable:

That he was blocked with his work when he decided to quit Nardil—was bored with his old tricks and unable to muster enough excitement about his new novel to find a way forward with it—is not inconsequential.

Fiction was his way off the island, and as long as it was working for him—as long as he’d been able to pour his love and passion into preparing his lonely dispatches, and as long as these dispatches were coming as urgent and fresh and honest news to the mainland—he’d achieved a measure of happiness and hope for himself. When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death. If boredom is the soil in which the seeds of addiction sprout, and if the phenomenology and the teleology of suicidality are the same as those of addiction, it seems fair to say that David died of boredom.

But here again, even at his charitable best, Franzen cannot accept DFW as just one in those thousands, who kill themselves, unable to cope with chronic depression. Occam’s razor asks us to pick the simplest explanation. Franzen, on the other hand, comes up with a twisted logic of “phenomenology and teleology of suicidality (sic) being same …” He wants to be fair, to his friend and competitor. But what is fair about dissecting a dead person who cannot question anything, even the reason (or unreason) he chose to be dead over being alive. Franzen, one suspects, would have taken the deal, demons and angels together, if it were on table, but is angry that it’s not on the table.

It’s this tone deafness of the article, even when he has access to the big picture from a close distance, that has kept me from reading Franzen’s fiction all these days since I read this piece for the first time. I know that’s not a right response. And that I’m doing a Franzen here, trying to read a betrayal in a survival strategy. Maybe, I lack the grace too.

It’s probably unfair to expect authors to be better than us in empathizing with others — yes, even those authors whose writing seems to overflow with empathy. Because, writing, above all, is a self-serving exercise. But, it does seem rather strange, that someone who understands motives and motifs, can open themselves to a charge like that, by being so transparent (if they were actually — daft otherwise). And yet, it takes a kind of courage to open one’s heart, with all its pain and anguish, even at the risk of sounding insensitive. Franzen has displayed that in abundance.

*

Ironically, the grace I was looking for, in this context, came from a this piece:

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.” It is clear that taking the Big Dirt Nap was already very much on his mind when he delivered the 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College:  “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms nearly always shoot themselves in…[sic] the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.” After the antidepressants and electroshock therapy had failed, I guess he assumed he had nowhere else to go, and succumbed to Entropy.

I say ironic, because, this wasn’t written by the author of Gravity’s Rainbow, and an early influence (that DFW went to lengths to deny) on DFW, Thomas Pynchon, that reclusive writer who’s avoided the eye of the media religiously, and successfully. This was a parody piece published in Salon, as a spoof Pynchon piece, now unavailable (I had to dig up this passage, which I remembered vaguely, from the Internet Archives WayBack Machine snapshot).  Many fell for it. Including me. Because it seemed like something that had to be written, about DFW. And what better person to write it, but Pynchon, a father figure that DFW consciously, and consistently, disowned. For death makes all amends impossible from the one who has died, leaving those who are left behind, to forgive, and forget, magnanimously. Because they’ve still got that one thing the deceased doesn’t have: a chance to make things right, even if unilaterally, and marginally. It’s what grace demands.

Maybe, there is no Infinity of grace. Maybe, the celebrated authors, who we assume, have been given a special x-ray vision into people’s souls, are as blind with petty human emotions like anger, and pain, as the rest of us. Maybe grace is finite. And one has to find it in a fictionalized parody alone. Maybe, in reality, grace is a price too steep for even the Titans to pay.

*

“Dhoondh ujade hue logo me wafa ke moti. Yeh khazane tumhe mumkin hai kharabo.n me mile”

(Search the pearls of loyalty in those who have lost everything else, for maybe there, in the broken men, you may find those treasures)

That’s a loose translation of a couplet from Ahmad Faraz’s ghazal. But that’s incidentally what Infinite Jest is all about, among other things. Maybe the Titans are too upright to expect grace from. Maybe, we’re cursed to find it only in those we shy away from. And definitely not within.

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The Narrative Games

There are stories all around us. Not all are interesting when one tells them, but when they are unfolding before you, they manage to hold your attention.

Last week, I was traveling back home, from a business trip when I witnessed a story. I boarded the flight and sat down in my aisle seat on the left half. A few minutes later, a couple with two very young kids arrived. The mother sat in the half of the row in front of me, with two kids on either side. The father took the aisle seat on the right.

Another couple of minutes later, boarded a girl who had the window seat in the same row, on the father’s side. The boarding was almost complete by now, and the attendants were getting ready for the safety drill. For a few mins, it looked like the middle seat next to the father was going to be unoccupied. Everyone put on the seat belts. Just then another (very good looking, incidentally) girl boarded, the last one to board, and took the middle seat. The father who had gotten up to give her access, quickly sat back into his seat, not looking at his wife, who was trying to get his attention.

Soon, the plane started taxiing to the runway, and the status quo was maintained for a while. But as soon as the plane took off, and the seat belt sign was off, though, the mother got up, and so did the father, as if on cue, and they exchanged seats. In a few minutes, she had gone off to sleep in her new seat.

***

There are of course multiple ways to interpret this simple sequence.

1. The simplest: the mother got jealous, and didn’t want the husband to sit next to a very attractive girl.

2. Mother was feeling sleepy, and the boys were not sleeping, so she decided to let the dad take up the duty of putting them to sleep.

3. The boys wanted their dad to be next to them.

4. The mother thought that the father, who was a heftily built man, was getting uncomfortable in the aisle seat, especially considering the person next to him was a girl.

5. The father, and not the mother, initiated the exchange because he thought his wife was getting uncomfortable with him sitting next to a (very) good looking girl.

6. The mother thought that the girl in the middle seat will be more comfortable with a woman being next to her, because, she herself would have been more comfortable that way, having listened to horror stories of girls being molested on planes, buses, trains.

7. The father, the mother knew, is a molester, and she’s really trying to save the girls from his prying hands (or trying to save her husband from the consequences).

***

I’m sure we could keep on coming up with multiple such reasons or their variations/combinations. But do we? Or do we (or rather, our minds) lazily pick up the Occam’s razor and select the simplest interpretation?

I think the storyteller’s role becomes crucial here because his/her job is to steer the reader/listener to a particular interpretation. Of course, there are lazy story tellers, who will pick up the simplest of sequences themselves (like yours truly here), in the hope that the readers will instantly pick up the “most obvious” interpretation, and thus believe the narration very much like real-life, aka, realistic. But is realism just the “most common” or “obvious” view of reality? Because if that’s what story-telling does (and here, I cannot but use examples of writers like Chetan Bhagat, and many “romance” writers who are popular currently in Indian writing scene) then art is basically majoritizing  of narration, and hence just reinforcing the norm (not ethical, but statistical) as the only reality worth talking about.

This is where the interesting story tellers come in. Either as writers, or film-makers. Some of them give us enough extra slice of reality to subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly — something that propagandist story-tellers fall into, even though they’re going beyond the norm) nudge us to a different reading of reality (for instance, I’ve also tried to nudge you into a specific interpretation by adding “not looking at his wife”, when in reality, since I was in the next row, would have found it difficult to make that claim with certainty), forming a different interpretations of the actions of protagonists, for instance, by giving us enough glimpses into the minds of the characters, say, or painting the relationships between principal characters with a fine brush. While some, want to go beyond even that nudging and give you enough contradictory seeming clues to put the burden of interpretation on you entirely (David Lynch? Pynchon? Wallace?).

Then there is another category of story-tellers who provide you enough clues, but also some misleading clues, although, they want you to solve the puzzle. There is an answer they want you to have, but don’t want to let it be too obvious, lest the fun is lost. But these story-tellers, are also a little afraid that the listener/viewers/reader will entirely miss the point and come up with a different interpretation based on the clues that they pick up. Someone like Nolan, for instance, who ended up explaining his intended interpretation of Inception.

The thing is, there are so many stories and so many interpretations. And one way to look at our evolution as readers/watchers is to evaluate the complexity of the chess game that one is able to play, at the level. Then again, profound can be captured simply. So one can’t have a hegemony of complexity of narration.


PS: There was another colleague traveling on the same flight who was seated in my row, but in the other half. He was trying to tell me something when the couple boarded. I asked him today, after writing this, what was it that he was trying to tell me, and he narrated this:

“The guy (the father) was very frustrated with his child’s tantrum, and he picked him up and told him “if you don’t shut up, I’ll throw you out of the window”. Anyone wants to go back to the list for a different interpretation, with this tidbit? There is also very interesting takeaway, in all this: the narrators miss many stories as they concentrate on one. In a perfect symmetry: where the reader/listener ends up walking away with just one interpretation.

 


Picture Credit: Atul Sabnis of gaizabonts.

From: https://www.flickr.com/photos/atulsabnis/16043765717/in/album-72157650244516635/

Incidentally, there is a small story of the book too: read on the photo page. Atul is a story teller in various mediums.

 

 

 

 

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.

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

The Annus Horribilis

The thing about years is that we tend to make a big deal out of their starting and ending. When those markers are actually just conventions. So we’re really celebrating conventions. This time around, we’re actually cursing an almost arbitrarily demarcated time period because a lot of bad things happened in that period. Like Brexit. Trump. Parting of David Bowie and many more singers, artists. We all know the list,  and there are a lot of things that don’t make it to the list, depending upon where you are, who you are. In areas of the world, every year for last few years has been a annus horribilis. Countries are losing battles with internal strife, religious orthodoxy, even secular statist ideologies, economic crisis and so on. If you’re celebrating on the eve of a beckoning  new year, you’re probably already luckier than a lot of people in the world.

So let’s just let 2016 breath its final breaths, and lets also acknowledge all good that  the year may have given us,  too. I’m sure there will be a list of that too, if we just think a little.

img_20161231_175050

The Last Sunset of 2016

Personally, this year has been not significantly different than last few years. And it’s a good thing. I was able to read a few good books. Discovered a few new authors worth following. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for instance. Or Ursula K. Le Guin (unbelievable that I waited all these years), Claire King, Eli Shafak, N. S. Madhavan, Thomas Mann (again, all these years!). I had a conservative goodreads reading challenge of 18 books for the year. I did 24. This year, the good thing is I actually read a few more than last year when I mostly heard them as audiobooks. I got back into reading long-form articles, and non-fiction. I reviewed a decent number of books, movies on my blog.

Which brings me to this blog of mine, which definitely did better this year, although the most important category for me remains a concern — not a single fiction piece. But reviews, poems, and a few rambling pieces on random subjects. Still a good year. I’m still floating after all these years. That’s not at all bad, is it?

I discovered (in the sense that I finally started getting them) a ton of Jazz artists (still, mostly, those from the classic era — like Jaki Byard, Joe Henderson,  Horace Silver, Roy Brooks, Nat Adderley). It was a good musical year, especially with Apple Music coming to India at a very affordable rate. Also, rediscovered the penchant for old hindi songs of the golden era, as my six year old got interested in them. Memories of generations now passed on the second time – a testimony to the timeless quality of the era. Also, a bridge across generations, as my father and my son have a common musical memory.

In all fairness, I’m going to think of 2016 as another year that gave some, and took some. Like any year really. See you in the next arbitrary time slice. With more fiction, hopefully. For what we make of an year, is partly up to us.

 

The Thin Ice of American Dream

Dear America,

I guess you’ve realized by now that the rest of the world cares far more about you than you do about it. Yes it’s unrequited love on most part, except for the cases where it actually has seemed like getting reciprocated, only to find out in due course, that love isn’t same as being used. Our dear neighbor, for instance, knows how that feels. Being used, being owned. But then I digress.

You must be wondering, in those few moments when your narcissism is dampened by some internal crisis — everyone is supposed to have those, right? — what have you done to deserve this interest? On a remote chance that you actually have wondered, let me spell it out for you. Again, I not being you, I could actually be wrong. But let’s use the trick that one uses while watching movies: suspended disbelief.

It’s strange. I give you that. From the vantage point of any neutral observer from distant lands, the choice you have today is curious: xenophobia, racism, sexism, authoritarianism, pathological dishonesty, every-kind-of-bigotry, combined with the exact same virtues of capitalism — incompetent fool inheriting wealth and using every trick in the book to serve self-interest — on one end; and systemic corruption, political establishment at it’s ugly best,  a will to get power-at-any-cost, on the other end. Yes, I give you, that the choice is not pretty.

And consider us, sitting outside. A part of us should ideally be saying: “God knows, they deserve Trump. Why should only the rest of the world suffer? Let ’em Americans suffer a bit too. Or a LOT”. But seriously, you know what, we still wish you well. I know you’re baffled about that, so let me, as I promised I would, help you with that.

For the greater world out there – especially the non-European world, which you guys fondly call third world, and which you guys sometimes bomb into the stone-age, in an effort to make lesser humans there understand the value of western democracy, which is on trial today (or tomorrow, for I still haven’t adjusted my mind clock to account for your DST); America is land of dreams. I know, I know, it’s not your fault, that we choose to believe in a myth that you beamed into our bedrooms, via your terrifically talented media, that sold us this post-racism, post-sexism, post-feminism, post-religion, post-xenophobia, land of equal and abundant opportunity, where everyone has a chance to move up, and reach the top. You even had a serial about a white guy with a white girl adopting two really cute black kids, and another one about a quaint little town of Rome, Wisconsin,  where an ethical and upright white police chief, a Jewish defense attorney, a black public prosecutor, a white judge, all lived happily ever after, dealing with issues of prejudice, and ethics, and morality, and religion with adult, almost saintly, composure. You had your legal dramas, where the underdog won, more often than not.

You had your first amendment holding up a mirror to the third world, which could not even dream of that. You had your non-hierarchical, talent always prevails, kind of corporate setup with written ethics, and all. You had your diversity programs, and anti-hate-speech laws, and what not. You made us believe, that maybe, just maybe, it’s possible to create just societies by creating right legislature, and by making sure it’s enforced correctly, by sticking to democracy at all cost, because, in the end, it will help in the triumph of the right (not the political, or religious, just the right), and the just.

And for this, we looked away when your foreign policy made sure that much of this dream is denied to parts of the world where your “strategic defense interests”, or oil, or ideological interests, mandated you to start and sustain wars, which your non-privileged foot-soldiers fought, while the privileged dunked drafts and became Presidents, and trumpeted glories of American penchant for freedom in the larger, third-world. When your unholy alliances supported or replaced with another/worse dictators, provided weapons for most wars fought anywhere on the earth, killed unarmed civilians and tagged them “collateral damage”, supported dangerous religious extremists/terrorists, supplying them with  weapons and intelligence, all for balance of power in your civilized world, then killed some of them and made America safe again. We looked away, because, in this seriously screwed up world, we needed to believe in a myth, to survive, and to become better.

If you should go skating
On the thin ice of modern life
Dragging behind you the silent reproach
Of a million tear stained eyes
Don’t be surprised, when a crack in the ice
Appears under your feet
You slip out of your depth and out of your mind
With your fear flowing out behind you
As you claw the thin ice

The Thin Ice, The Wall* by Pink Floyd

Today, you’re an inch away from taking away even that myth. So you see, why we care?

We care, because we don’t want the thin-ice to be broken, and for us all to fall into an abyss from where there is no return. We care, because we want to believe, that a better, more equitable, more just, more humane, less suspicious, more embracing, world is possible, if we all, to borrow Rushdie’s words, concentrated a little. But then again, don’t let our expectations of you hold you back from the path of self-destruction. Maybe we need to see that abyss under the thin ice, and to find new beacons, more worthy of that title. Maybe you showing the world your real heart is what the world needs — for its been blind to it so far, despite all you have shown us. Maybe you need a president that truly symbolizes you. Maybe you really need Trump.

With Love,

from the-third-world


[*]: Not that Wall

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.

***

img_20140921_150651

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:

Frankensteinnoun 

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!

Atheistic Revelations

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so on …

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.