Dec 21, 2011

As If ...

The only reading I’ve done this week is of tributes on and articles by Christopher Hitchens. One particular piece has stayed in mind. Almost everyone who knew Hitchens seems to unanimously nod their heads that the man was larger than life - everything about him vital, virile, articulate, bursting with energy, both pugnacious and kindly. That even esophageal cancer, one of the most painful forms of the disease, didn’t quite ‘do him in’ is a testament to the man and his almost God-like resilience. His literary output continued unabated, he attended parties (unless he was hospitalised) and till the end, he loved nothing more than a good conversation: "For me, to remember friendship is to recall those conversations that it seemed a sin to break off: the ones that made the sacrifice of the following day a trivial one." He also once said that smoking and drinking were stimulants in a conversation and he remained unapologetic till the end about both habits.

In one of his last columns Hitchens wrote, ‘Like health itself, the loss of such a thing can’t be imagined until it occurs.” Here he is talking about the loss of speech. When the radiation started, one day he discovered that his “voice suddenly rose to a childish (or perhaps piglet-like) piping squeak” and he was no longer “able to stop a New York cab at 30 paces” nor could it like before, “without the help of a microphone, reach the back row and gallery of a crowded debating hall.” Despite the casualness of his delivery, his words tear you.

I’ve been wondering, what made the man tick? Suddenly, two scenes came to mind: one from Polanski’s The Pianist and the other from Milos Foreman’s One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

One way of accepting life is to look upon it as a series of gains and losses: as Divine retribution and reward; sometimes deserved, often random. He didn’t really deserve to be kicked out of his job; she got what she deserved when she visited him; they really deserved to win the award - that kinda thing. What happens afterwards? What went on in Hitchens’ mind as the nurse left after injecting the last shot of the day, after the drapes had been pulled, and his last visitor left with hollow words of ‘let’s catch up soon’. How did he pull himself up, and fight his way to the table and struggle with the keypad to produce those glorious last articles? What stuff is man made of? I can’t presume what motivated him; such men are special. Genius always is. But for the rest, the antidote surely must be in a state of ‘As If’.

The people in the Kolkata hospital who went to get well and encountered a sickening reality, what must be going through the minds of their family? Life is not fair; that’s the single, indisputable reality of our lives. The world which we permeate has the power to shape us and unmake us. When this familiar, comforting world crumbles, all known edifices of honesty and kindness disappear. This is when it is important we create a state of As If: to believe that the number tattooed on your wrist, doesn’t make you any less human, any less an individual, than the German officer who looks at you coldly; to believe that the death of your child makes you no more responsible than God who didn’t listen to your prayers; to understand that irrespective of it being labeled a flower without roots, it did change you forever.

The two scenes below describe this state of As If. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve viewed these scenes over this year. Enjoy.


Dec 16, 2011

One Last Breath - RIP Chris

When certain events unfold, they say Nature joins in the mourning. Flowers bend their heads, birds forget their music, and the musk deer loses her fragrance. I'm sure something like that happened today, for as i suddenly looked up from the computer screen, i was startled by the darkness outside. Rainfall in December in Mumbai? C'mon! Then my eye caught sight of the news. Everything fell into place. Why not? After all, 2011 didn't spare many.

While I didn't always agree with some of his views, I couldn't help but be dazzled by the clear, cold logic of his reasoning; his wit; his unequivocal support for the values he believed in, and his unflinching commitment to calling a spade a spade, diplomacy be damned!

He was often in the news for his controversial views on Islamofaschism, his support of the invasion of Iraq, and his disbelief in God. I'd like to believe, the man possessed a heart too large and an imagination too liberal  to accommodate our puny definitions of God. In his own way, he was a greater believer than either you or me.

If you haven't read him before, this would be a good place to start: where he knew the end had begun. And yes, do please read this too: a smack reply to all those who offer glib platitudes in the face of cosmic helplessness.


Dec 3, 2011

Notes on Great House

I’ve never fought an impulse to abandon a book or film simply because it was wrapped in a brocade of endless gloom and grief. Nicole Krauss’ Great House is an aberration. I wanted to read this book when i learnt it was one of the finalist's in the 2010 National Book Awards, and also because her first work had swept me awayOf course, grief is as distinct from sadness as french fries from potato wedges. But Krauss’ Great House really tested my limits because despite the shining luminosity of her expressions, there were sections when I felt compelled to put my book down and move on to a James Patterson thriller! The reason I mention this at the onset  is because this is not a book most people will enjoy.
Does that mean I don’t recommend it? If you have an ear for music, if you don’t mind solitude, and if you are not impatient with those who couldn’t make it to the finishing line, read it. You will discover an author whose sheer mastery of emotions and language will leave you blinded. After Arundhati R0y’s God of Small Things, I have rarely come across such aplomb & aptness in language. Try this: "In life we sit at the table and refuse to eat, and in death we are eternally hungry."
Like its delightful predecessor, Great House also revolves around an inanimate object and reveals how the lives of separate people in diverse locations are tied together through this object. In the former novel it was a missing manuscript, here it is a mammoth desk: “an enormous, foreboding thing that bore down on the occupants of the room it inhabited, pretending to be inanimate but, like a Venus’ flytrap, ready to pounce on them and digest them via one of its many little terrible drawers.
The story is told by four narrators – Nadia in NY, Isabel in Oxford, Arthur in London & Aaron in Jerusalem.  
Nadia, a writer, begins the story by recounting how the desk came her way. She addresses her story to a silent witness who she calls ‘Your honour’ and whose identity is only revealed in the final pages. We learn that she was left the desk by a young Chilean poet named Daniel Varsky who was leaving for home and needed a place to store his furniture. Soon afterwards Daniel falls a victim to Pinochet’s murderous regime and the desk remains with Nadia. Despite its foreboding presence, she forms a strange attachment with it as she continues to write at the desk. She remains unmarried and detached from any real human connection, and the desk and her brief encounter with Varsky seem to be the only milestones in her emotional landscape - "I'm embarrassed to say that my eyes actually filled with tears, Your Honour, though as is so often the case, the tears sprang from older, more obscure regrets i had delayed thinking about, which the gift, or loan, of of a stranger's furniture had somehow unsettled."If there is no great exhilaration in her life, there is also no deep sorrow. Until the day Leah Weiz knocks on her door claiming to be Varsky’s daughter and requesting the desk back.

The next part of the story is told by Aaron, the recently widowed father of Dov, who he addresses through his monologue. Aaron is in fact the single character in this book who seems intent to redeem himself, who is aware of his severed connection from his own blood and is desperate to find common ground again with Dov. His anguish, his fury, his sense of utter desolation that no matter how hard he tries, he cannot scale the impenetrable wall that Dov has built around him, comprise some of the most beautiful sections of this novel.
We next meet Arthur Bender, who has only recently discovered (while caring for his Alzheimer-afflicted wife Lotte Berg) the extent of the secrets she kept locked within her self during their long marriage. It is in fact Lotte, who’d given the desk to Varsky.  As these stories unravel, you realise neither Dov nor Lotte nor Nadia are ordinary people who look for and cherish concepts like stability, love or happiness. They are consumed by memories of a loss so immense that it makes it difficult to stand straight afterwards. Yet, what is truly painful is Krauss’ intuitive understanding of the unhappiness that falls upon those who are attached to these broken figures. As Arthur describes his long marriage, we realise the long periods of uncertainty, the endless doubts, and the effort required to silently accept the whims and silence of Lotte without ever voicing what it must’ve cost him to live like that. In many ways, Arthur reminds me of Tagore’s Nikhil from Ghare Baire.
The fourth narrator is Isabel, a student at Oxford who falls in love with Yoav Weisz, Leah Weisz’s brother. Like Arthur and Aaron, Isabel too soon discovers the pitfalls of caring deeply for someone whose entire life is in the thrall of something greater than himself – in this case the siblings’ unusual and disturbing closeness, and the presence of their domineering father George Weisz. George is a famous antiques dealer who specialises in restoring old pieces of furniture looted by the Nazi’s to their rightful owners. Needless to say, George wants the desk. As George explains his peculiar occupation to us, we seem to glimpse what lies beneath Krauss’ magnificent meditation on loss and grief.
George Weisz says, “Bend a people around the shape of what they have lost, and let everything mirror its absent form." His words are at complete odds with our commonplace understanding of grief and loss. We think (that’s what is taught and  that’s what we witness in most around us) that time and life are the greatest healers; that with time, it is possible to overcome, or at least noticeably ‘move on’ from the epicentre of one’s great loss. This may be true of most. But the reverse is also true – that there may be some who simply do not have this faculty of self healing; who stand rooted in the quicksand of their loss and defeated by time; there is a kind of soil which no matter how much you water or fertilise, will yield no fruit. And this brings us to, perhaps, the book’s great existential question – if such loss is a definite possibility in one’s life, how does anything really matter? How do we lend meaning to the concepts and constructs that are purportedly meant to make life meaningful?
According to Joan Didion the answer lies in writing: ‘you write your way through it’ she prescribes of crushing grief. Krauss is far cannier and offers nothing. There is no hope, no comfort, no light at the end of the novel: just shattered glass.
As I read Great House I found myself impatient to see how the 4 stories would come together. Readers who expect neat endings will probably be a little miffed at Krauss for the manner in which this is done. I think this is also a deliberate ploy on her part because to search for meanings and connections in a merciless existential universe is perhaps as futile as trying to comprehend God.

Dec 1, 2011

On the badminton court

His eyes focused on the black mole on her right foot - vivid, familiar, and enticing as always. Despite himself, he looked for the blisters which he knew had long healed. He daren’t look up for fear the others would see his eyes. He sat with his head bent, looking intently at the white hospital tiles, seemingly mesmerized by the pattern of 4 regular white squares interspersed with a lone brown; couldn’t wait for the entire ordeal to be over, and had it not been for her aging parents, the years that stretched between the two families, he doubted he’d be present.

It was strange but not once did he feel like touching her, that familiar pull to thread his hand through her thick hair & pull her close; or run his thumb over her lower lip with a slowness that’d made her gasp and look at him pleadingly. That there would ever be a time when he could resist reaching out and pulling her close, was something he’d never imagined. The touch was all they’d ever had; when the words had betrayed them, it was their skins that spoke eloquently; in her small cluttered apartment, on his terrace, in busy airports, and cramped changing rooms – they’d allowed the madness to overpower them and left traces of a love that had stopped breathing a long time ago. 
Yet here he was once again after a gap of seven years. Seven long years of  a furtive peace and thankfulness that he’d finally found someone else who didn’t make him feel haunted all the time; someone who didn’t always expect the world of him. Now, those seven years had come to an end – in a dirty hospital room where four patients struggled for an elusive peace and privacy.
 Suddenly he arose and went over to stand beside her. As he looked down at her sunken cheeks, the sharp nose that he’d loved to tease her about, he wondered at the stillness that emanated from her. It was difficult to remember her without her nervous tic of pulling at the ends of the shaggy bangs that framed her face, to see her lying still instead of pacing restlessly, fuelled by nervous energy as she puffed on one cigarette after another. In all the years that he’d known her, he’d never seen her still. Now her chest was still; all was quiet within. The stormy turbulence of 33 years had finally ceased. 
He sat down and couldn’t help his eyes travelling over the familiar mole once again. Her toes were unpainted – a sight as alien as her lying on the bed without trying to cram all her thoughts into a babel of incoherence. She had abhorred make-up, but nail polish had been her single vanity.  Crimson, orange, pewter grey, and green – he’d reserved his usual scorn for them, but had secretly smiled at her exuberance.  
Almost immediately his mind jumped to a particular evening they’d spent in a small hotel in Rishikesh. They’d travelled all the way from Hardwar where she’d had much fun floating the diya and flower baskets in Hadki Paori in the Ganges. Her squeals, her radiant smile, her childish excitement, the glow from the hundreds of diyas floating in the water, it was one of those rare moments when everything came together and was perfect. Later at Rishikesh, she’d taught him how to paint her toes. Despite his complete disinterest in the beginning, he’d soon come to enjoy it. It was in keeping with so many other things he did because his initial reluctance would soon be overcome by her enthusiasm. None of the other women he’d known, and there had been quite a few, had come so unfettered, so free. He still remembered the evening they’d first had sex.
You’re losing weight! are you fine? 
Hey..hi…I am good. 
No, I am good is no good. It is I am fine or I am ok. 
Oh, I forget, you’re the English major. 
It’s not that, at all. I am good sounds pompous. Let others decide if you’re good or bad. Smile
You’ve known me since you were a kid. Am I good or bad? 
I think you’re very good. You’re the best. Shy smile
Slow, lazy smile. Silence. Pinches her cheek.
Do you want me to pick you after college tomorrow? We could go pick up those goldfish for your bowl. I spoke to a guy at Manish market and we could check him out. 
Flushed. You did? !! Of course I’d like to go tomorrow. Does he have the Indian variety or the Turkish? I have read that the Turkish ones learn to emote with you orer a period of time while the Indians are just dumb. I want the Turkish ones. Buuuutt, wont it be rather far for you to come all the way to college? I could meet you at the park? 
Look, I just said we will check out what he has. I have no idea if they come from Turkey or Syria! And, if I said I can come, it means it’s no problem. Unless you have a problem with me picking you up? 
I was only thinking about you. Why do you get so easily irritated with whatever I say? 
I don’t. You imagine it. 
Why are you so silent? You want me to leave? 
No baby. Stay. Just some things on my mind. Thinking. 
Tentative. Have you been thinking about me? 
Do you want me? 
More than you know. 
If I were to take you home now, you know it’d lead to hanky panky? 
Laughing aloud. Yeah? And then what? You know I can’t give you anything. That works for you? 
It does. 
I don’t understand you….really I don’t at all. How can it work for you? How can you be so flippant? Voice rising now. 
I am neither deaf nor flippant. You don't  understand me, how can you even begin to understand my love? It doesn't matter.

And that’d been it. Not a word was exchanged & after a while, she’d beckoned to the waiter, paid the bill, gently taken his hand and brought him to her tiny apartment. He was in a daze, it was as if he was looking at her from amid dense fog.  She’d caught him completely by surprise and the pleasure of her hands as they worked their way across his body, was a feeling he had never forgotten. 
Yet, that was not when he felt protective about her. That had come much before. 
She’d been three when their family moved to the quarters below in the steel township managed by the company their fathers worked in. Their fathers were colleagues and she’d soon become his sister’s best friend. The 12 years that separated them ensured she was never anything more than a pesky nuisance, a precocious girl with stubborn ways who always borrowed his cassettes without seeking his permission. He’d hated that about her. Later when they were married briefly, she’d raid his clothes.  He pretended to be angry and smiled at her mockingly, but deep down he was always oddly touched. In the end, she’d been the one who protected him, not the other way around. Though, all he’d ever wanted was to shield her. 
Ever since the incident on the badminton court. 
During the summer holidays, the badminton court became a beehive of activity. Boys and girls of different age groups congregated there since 7 in the morning to make the most of the outdoors before the heat became unbearable after midday. While the older children played their game, their younger sibling sat on the clubhouse steps under the shade, enthusiastically cheering and clapping for their older siblings. She’d always be there with his sister. 
He must’ve been around 16 then when the incident took place. He’ was engrossed in the game and was startled to hear a loud wailing. He looked around to find her rooted to the middle of the sun-baked cement court on her bare feet, wailing loudly as the heat scalded the tender insides of her bare soles. She’d sauntered over to him to tell him she wanted to go home and had forgotten to wear her sandals. Instinctively, several of them had rushed to pick her up, but by then blisters had covered her tiny pink feet. As he carried her inside, he’d been aware for the first time in his life, of a feeling of absolute terror, terror that he was solely responsible for something infinitely precious to him. Mingled with this terror was the awareness that he would do anything to protect the little girl in his arms. Never again had he experienced that same tenderness, that same terror for anybody else again in his life. 
It had always seemed odd to him that she had no memory of an incident that was so deeply etched in his consciousness. Often when he worked late, he’d stand quietly for a few seconds in front of the bedroom door, at daybreak, or after a night when he’d promised to be at home with her; he’d stand there with a sore conscience knowing she had finally fallen asleep with disappointment in her heart. He couldn’t even begin to count the times. At last his tired feet would remind him that he had to go inside and he’d press the door handle which he knew would creak halfway down. And she would wake up, look at him with sleepy eyes, more angry than hurt, until he slipped under the duvet, snuggled up to her body and felt its stiff resistance melt. But she wouldn’t give in. She’d quietly turn he back to him. And then he would stroke her more, kiss and nibble at her, be her servant until she was sitting on him, no longer the queen in her slumbers, but purring and moaning, wanton and offended at the same time. 
Later, lying beside each other in the darkened bedroom, he’d often recount the day on the badminton court. The script never changed and she’d fall asleep in his arms almost immediately afterwards. Now, he wasn’t so sure how much of what he remembered of that incident and used to tell her was actually true, and how much he’d made up to please her. Like she always assured him, it didn’t matter.