Sunday, 27 June 2010


As the dark clouds gather, threatening thunder and rain, we talk about Cambodia. Not that there was rain when we were in Cambodia, far from it. But rainy afternoons when all one can do is watch the water colour the landscape makes the mind meander and Cambodia may just as well be where it may choose to roam.

We say yes, let’s talk about Cambodia. But let’s not talk about the shoot. At least not the producer. And absolutely not about the National Geographic photographer. And we agree not to. But let’s talk about the shoot. You know the shoe shine boy and the ladies with their babies. Oh! Yes, yes, we remember. But let’s not talk about ‘channeling Steve McCurry’: the little lama with the index finger close to his lips, the girl with the blazing eyes and pink headscarf. And we laugh. For we remember the book and the “inspiration” for the photographs. But then we also remember the airport where we saw the book. So, she says, let’s not talk about the airport. The military men with steel in their eyes. We say almost in unison, this is no afternoon to talk about military men and airports! And there is silence. We remember but choose not to talk about the military, or the history and even those other photographs- black and white and chilling. For what can one add to all that has already been said?

Then he says remember the sunrise over Angkor Wat. Again there is silence. By now the rain like silver sheets is busy obliterating the beautiful watercolour that it had painted just a few minutes back. Cold, dark lines of grey on grey. We remember Siam Reap and the trees that are taking their time to shred apart, stone by stone, what was once the pride of the Khmer rule, unlike humans they lack both pride and perhaps also a heightened sense of purpose.

We might as well talk about the Foreign Correspondence Club and that lunch, which we know, even though we may not want to, we always do end up talking about. She says, hope the crab tasted good because everything else, to be honest, was unpalatable, But the mention of sea food has already transported us to the Russian market in Phnom Penh; the humidity and the overpowering smells. Unmindful of the rain she opens the windows. But we are already talking about Phnom Penh and of course, the Russian market.

However, we know that the discussion has been salvaged. For we shall talk about Mekong and Tonle Sap- the beautiful water bodies. The boat cruises, the Japanese tourists, the monks and the sunset, the butterflies and the children. Once we get to the children, Cambodia will overwhelm our hearts. And soon we shall run out of words. The children of Cambodia leave such an enduring impression.

So we did talk. It hasn’t rained in two days. The sky is an astonishing shade of blue behind puffed up white clouds.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

The Cannonball Tree

The Dutch are pragmatic, the English are self-deprecating, the Americans are “awesome” and Indians, well, Indians are officious. The above characterization is based on random observations of people and has never (almost never) been empirically proven. Though in the case of Indians the observation has been long and hard. And considering how the population at large aspires for a government job, very nearly true.

There are other observations too. In India, when someone says they love gardening they don’t mean they bend down on their knees and slog away come rain or shine. Or for that matter revel in the joy of watching a seed sprout tiny tendrils that would go on to become something truly beautiful. There are other miracles they prefer like the ones that turn a gerbera into a sunflower when it’s in a vase on their dining table. Actually what they mean is that they love the fact that they can afford someone to come 3 times a week to take care of “their garden”.

Also in India when they call a housing complex green, they don’t mean “green” in the environmentally-friendly sense. No, they don’t even mean it in the sense of the building complex having a park. They only mean that something green in colour maybe a few bushes or a few trees can be found in the vicinity.

While we are on the word park, it often means a patch of grass, there maybe some neatly pruned bushes, but what’s more important is the paved jogging track. Who said anything about the park in a city being a bio-diverse landscape with different species of native trees and plants, and birds, not to forget the odd wild mammal? Do you think you are living in London? Anyway we have “enough” National Parks in the back of beyond to spend our vacation at. And malls to spend our weekends in.

So, if you spot a cannonball tree that has attained its true majestic glory in the heart of Mumbai– don’t get excited. And don’t even think of taking photographs. There will always be some man who’ll come up and say, “Don’t take pictures. You are not allowed to take pictures” A tree can be easily ignored, and almost as easily chopped down. But the opportunity to extract a fine (should it be 50 or 100 rupees), especially where none exists, isn’t easily found. For what are rules– but made by humans like us? Did I tell you that Indians are officious?

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Some rain and a million thoughts

Rain by Shel Silverstein

I opened my eyes
And looked up at the rain,
And it dripped in my head
And flowed into my brain,
And all that I hear as I lie in my bed
Is the slishity-slosh of the rain in my head.

I step very softly,
I walk very slow,
I can't do a handstand--
I might overflow,
So pardon the wild crazy thing I just said--
I'm just not the same since there's rain in my head.

The Rainy Day by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Oh, Gray And Tender Is The Rain by Lizette Woodworth Reese

Oh, gray and tender is the rain,
That drips, drips on the pane!
A hundred things come in the door,
The scent of herbs, the thought of yore.

I see the pool out in the grass,
A bit of broken glass;
The red flags running wet and straight,
Down to the little flapping gate.

Lombardy poplars tall and three,
Across the road I see;
There is no loveliness so plain
As a tall poplar in the rain.

But oh, the hundred things and more,
That come in at the door! --
The smack of mint, old joy, old pain,
Caught in the gray and tender rain.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Woman on the Edge of Time

Woman on the edge of time by Marge Piercy (1976)

Parallel universes: universes that are separated from each other by a single quantum event.

Parallel universes exist. This I know because in another world there was once a dinner party. The wood fire warmed the room. From the hooks at the fireplace hung two pots of spicy baingan bharta and palak ka saag. All part of our vegan feast prepared by S. Though he did laugh at the fact that he was cooking Indian food for us.

The giant ficus plant that concealed the bathtub from the rest of the room, every now and then, dropped a yellowed leaf. We sat around the wooden dining table, eating, drinking and talking. Roaming from the coast of Brittany to the mountain villages of Uttarakhand. Then M said, “Lets play a game. One by one we shall talk about a book we have recently read or are presently reading.” And we said how does the game go. And she said, “That’s it. We talk about the book we have read or are reading.” And everyone laughed. But what a game it was! What a treasure it revealed.

This could have been another one of those stories that I conjure out of nothing. However, I have that book in my hands. So it was real. But that dinner party appears to exist in a time and age far removed from present reality. So, did it really happen? Or, was it just a dream? Well it was simply an excursion into another world.

Woman on the Edge of Time also deals with such an excursion. Its main character Connie is poor, Hispanic, abused, labeled a sociopath and incarcerated in a mental asylum. But she is “receptive” to Luciente and the people of Mattapoisett living in 2137. People from a future world that would cease to exist if Connie isn’t able to change things in her present. Connie’s struggle to not get forced into a brain control operation mirrors the struggle that every human, with varying intensity, undertakes. The struggle against oppression. The struggle for beauty and truth. The struggle to exist. And that is what the story is about.

How one reads the story and what one takes away from this book depends largely on what one believes: on one’s ideological position. For this book challenges ideas regarding gender roles, racism, imperialism, consumerism, science and technology, and environment degradation. Is Connie insane or a victim of gender, ethnicity and economic disparity? How does one even define sanity? Can we truly have a society where everyone is equal no matter what gender, ethnicity or class? What would that mean for the one thing that sets women apart from men: childbearing? Is more science and more technology really our hope for salvation? At a more simplistically level, is all scientific research really guided by idealism? Is the agrarian, communal, gender neutral life of Mattapoisett the utopian just and equitable world we yearn for? Or is the totalitarian dystopia, the alternate that Mattapoisett is at war with, and Connie accidentally stumbles upon, our future reality?

“We can only know what we can truly imagine. Finally what we see comes from ourselves.” *

It is often said that another world is possible. And it is often found that those who utter these words do so because they clearly see all the injustices that persist in our world. They see and feel them so clearly that in some other world they, immobilized by grief, horror and lack of faith in humans, would accept things without questioning. But instead they are often the most hopeful people. They think that change will come because they believe in the essential goodness of humans. And even if they fail, in the end they triumph simply because they tried. But above all they are truly happy. This I know because in another world I had dinner with them.

*Luciente to Connie in Woman on the Edge of Time.

(Afterthought on books: part 14)

Friday, 4 June 2010

Stories from the sea

Father And Child by William Butler Yeats

She hears me strike the board and say
That she is under ban
Of all good men and women,
Being mentioned with a man
That has the worst of all bad names;
And thereupon replies
That his hair is beautiful,
Cold as the March wind his eyes.

A Tale by Louise Bogan

This youth too long has heard the break
Of waters in a land of change.
He goes to see what suns can make
From soil more indurate and strange.

He cuts what holds his days together
And shuts him in, as lock on lock:
The arrowed vane announcing weather,
The tripping racket of a clock;

Seeking, I think, a light that waits
Still as a lamp upon a shelf, —
A land with hills like rocky gates
Where no sea leaps upon itself.

But he will find that nothing dares
To be enduring, save where, south
Of hidden deserts, torn fire glares
On beauty with a rusted mouth, —

Where something dreadful and another
Look quietly upon each other.

Behind, perhaps, let the sea blow… by Carlos Barbarito

Behind, perhaps, let the sea blow.
Let some word blow
outside every destination of slime, rust.
Perhaps ointments from Avicenna,
forests of embraces,
crops, swarms, humid implications.
Or, perhaps, the same.
It sits up. It gets dressed. It goes.
The grass stands up again.
At his step everything seems to find
inside itself a certain form of calm.
It can’t be a great distance
- he thought.

© translation: Brian Cole