Monday, 19 December 2011

The One That Got In

(A short piece on Leftovers published under reader's submissions in The Rumpus, one of the top literary sites in the world.)

One would have had to lead as sheltered a childhood as Gautama Buddha to be oblivious to deprivation while growing up in India. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when I say leftovers aren’t a problem in my family. We finish what is on our plates and anything leftover is the next meal. But then we never start with more than we can consume. My mother, who never has to worry about leftovers, lives in a city that is thirteen hours “ahead” and a twenty-four-hour flight away from me. She, one could safely assume, has vastly different concerns. Grandchildren, weddings, rising prices, and the corporate-political nexus top the list. (Indians take pride in their general knowledge.) Maybe people and their concerns, despite geography and philosophy, aren’t so different after all.
Five years, four countries, three continents, and I am the one who has become most concerned with leftovers—the something that remains, that which is not used. What is left behind when we have established and dealt with how different we all are? What would Americans talk about if all pop cultural references were erased from their collective sub-conscience? Yes, imagine, not a word about or related to Star Wars. That has been my prime focus for the past year here. Depending on the company I am in, for example, at the local co-operative or among urban professionals, the answer ranges from very little to way too much.
My other preoccupation has been the things that are in surplus—things that are still left over when everyone has taken up their share or more. The one thing that seems to be inexhaustible, no matter how hard we try to expend (or ignore) it, is the kindness of strangers. Despite barriers of language and nationality it somehow keeps showing up. From the interiors of India to the shores of the Pacific Ocean there seems to be no getting over it.
That leaves us with the one other issue that dominated November but remains unresolved. How to cope with your family on Thanksgiving. On seeing all the articles one thought kept coming back: “If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies you will not find another.” Carl Sagan said that. At one point in time I used to think all Americans would be like him. All that is leftover from that time are some words.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011


Everyone, it seems, has written or is writing about Paris. Yesterday, at the local bookstore, as I browsed the travel section Paris it appeared was the place where most people wanted to be.  Will Self, in Psychogeography (the collection of his Psychogeography columns from the Independent, illustrated by Ralph Steadman), writes, “Tourism is a search for a place that will embrace you”. Paris, I concluded, is the place most people want to be embraced by. Will Paris reciprocate the gesture? Well, that’s an entirely different matter.

Regardless of the embrace or lack of it, all the books on Paris were about the authors' ‘Paris story’ and everyone had a story worth the telling. I, too have a Paris story. I think more than a single story. The closest to my heart are the ones where I walk into Paris that is right out of a Mavis Gallant story. The stories of Mavis Gallant, in my opinion embrace Paris. You can interpret this statement howsoever you want to.

As with every affair, bound by love or hate, it is the first memory that is indelible. That instance when you realize you have fallen in love, or in hate.

My first trip to Paris was marked by extremely propitious circumstances. A few days before the flight I got a call that informed me that the work I had been a part of had won a Gold Lion at Cannes. It was, but of course, exhilarating. But though I had been there to witness the work from its birth, to its growth and culmination. It wasn’t my baby. My name appeared on the certificate just because I had been there. That is how it is with awards. I, myself, laid to claim to it. So, the exhilaration was not for me but for the vindication of an undertaking that had been deemed impossible. That is a story best told on some other forum.

It should come as no surprise then if I say I too embraced Paris (and Paris returned the gesture) though it was a circuitous embrace with detours to Amsterdam, Germany and Vienna. All except the last not part of the initial travel plan. That is what ‘winning’ entails. And that is why awards, especially in certain professions, are so coveted. That is till one wins an award. After the ‘winning’ is done one can assume nonchalance and indifference to all the shenanigans. But somewhere deep down we are still a child dreaming of holding aloft a gleaming trophy, the proof of our triumph. Does the trophy change anything? The answer is a complicated yes and no.

On the evening before the flight back home as I walked along the Seine after all the winning and detours had been dealt with I knew life wouldn’t be the same the moment I would touch down. In just under a month of wandering the street of Europe, life, as I had known it had ceased to exist. As I type these words the enormity of it all once again overwhelms. How little it takes to overturn the apple cart?

A few years have passed since then. And contrary to my concern (in the lines above) life never overwhelms. Sometimes the sun refuses to shines outside the window, sometimes it never ceases to give it a rest. In darkness, as in light, we manage just fine.

And Paris. Well, Paris too goes on. People move in and out of its streets. Some devastated by its indifference, others glad for its transient embrace. They too, irrespective of their experiences, get on. We all live to see what the next day brings. For, when it comes to life there is only one reassuring constant– it goes on. Unmindful of any particular triumph or loss.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Dawn Goes Down Today


Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

– Nothing Gold Can Stay a poem by Robert Frost.

It took Robert Frost just eight lines to give us, what Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own refers to as "a nugget of pure truth". Etched in our memory, we wrap our minds around these lines and it seems we can fill sheets upon sheets of paper trying to fathom their depth. While Robert Frost needed only eight lines.

"Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting...Read it a hundred times; it will forever keep its freshness as a metal keeps its fragrance. It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went."
– Robert Frost, "The Figure a Poem Makes"

Robert Frost referred to poetry as "a momentary stay against confusion". He elevated poetry to the level of science– as both deal in metaphors. Then went on to say, "all metaphors break down somewhere". His philosophy, where doubt follows faith, and uncertainty follows certainty, is something that practitioners of Eastern philosophy, would totally "get" without the need for sheets upon sheets of paper.

Monday, 28 November 2011

New Learnings: Round 2

Some bits of advice picked up from here and there in the past year or so.
If you are serious about being a writer DON’T blog.*

Though this seems to go against the grain of what goes around as conventional wisdom these days– no truer words have been spoken. Pause for a moment and consider how many writers (meaning people who write books– fiction and non-fiction) have a blog. And by blog I don’t mean a website that has excerpts of their novels, links to their interviews or lists their scheduled public appearances, where they may sometimes write a paragraph or more on things of interest or some other mundane matters. But has anyone heard of a writer writing a blog to showcase, well, writing? Yes, writers do write for blogs of literary journals and magazines. But they are often published and well established writers, they get paid (that's why they do it to begin with) and not related to the issue under consideration here.

But one realizes the real wisdom behind these words when one considers what blogging does to writing. By that I mean the craft that goes into constructing a sentence.

As we are all strangers here we can be honest and acknowledge the undeniable truth: Blogging makes one get into the habit of, for want of better word, “lazy writing”. It makes writing seem way too easy because one is bolstered by the all too empowering belief that this is my blog and I can write whatever I want to, howsoever I want to. It is not hard to see what this leads to. The subject is “me” and the audience (sorry to burst the bubble) is also “me”. And the quality of the writing meh.

Then once the blog starts generating a certain number of hits one gets addicted, just like the seduction of  “likes” on facebook status updates, the craving for hits leads to the inevitable– trying to replicate the success of the one post that became "popular'" or what is more fastidiously referred to as playing to the galleries. And we all know how that story ends.

Yes, there are blogs that have transitioned into books, mostly because they had ‘x’ number of hits per day. A majority of the resulting books are found in the bargain section (the one that is way back in some dark corner) at the local bookstore just months after their release. However, there are exceptions to every rule, but in this case very few and very hard to find.

* A distillation of all that I have read in the past year or so. Online and in books.

Take care of your little notebook.*

Because your daughter may grow up to become Diane Keaton, who on reading the 85 journals mom wrote will write a heart-felt and moving memoir. 

That isn't reason enough?

Then I present *Charles Simic's essay in NY review of books: “If one has the urge to write down a complete thought, a handsome notebook gives it more class. Even a scrap of paper and a stub of a pencil are more preferable for philosophizing…”

I only refer to what the reviews says of Diane Keaton’s memoir ‘Then Again’. I have only read a few pages while browsing away the afternoon at the neighbourhood bookstore, as the building was conducting its annual fire-safety drill. It fell into my hands because after 3 hours of picking up a book at random and reading a random page I was not focusing; I didn’t even know where I was, let alone what I was doing.

Not focusing can free the imagination.

But To Do lists, especially if they belong to Leonardo da Vinci, are worth more than their weight in gold.

It is useful," Leonardo wrote, to "constantly observe, note, and consider."*

He filled over 13,000 pages with his observations and drawings that range from grocery lists and household expenses to compositions of paintings to detailed anatomical drawing and engineering inventions. He seamlessly glided from one topic to another often within a single page

It seems he could not focus on a single thread of thought. By not giving his complete undivided attention to one thing he was able to pursue everything, so to speak. Or conversely, he could focus on one thing so completely and so exclusively to all the rest that he could carry more than one thought in his head. His knowledge was not limited by fields or boundaries. That made him a genius.

*Robert Krulwich, in this piece, asks us to join him in slipping into Leonardo’s mind for a moment. How will we do that? All credit to learning number 2: Leonardo’s well taken care of notebooks.

Read Darwin, Marx, Joyce, Freud, Einstein, Benjamin, McLuhan, and Barthes.*

Curiosity. Across disciplines. About many things. About any and everything. That my friends, is not just the code that opens the gates to the world inhabited by Leonardo da Vinci, or the world of creativity in general but also the code that opens the secret pathway to a life well lived.

* Charles H. Traub, The Education of a Photographer

The future is not uniformly distributed.*

Thanksgiving weekend brought up a host of images of deprivation from around the world with the tagline­, “Consider how blessed you are. Be grateful. Walk a mile in their shoes” or something to the effect. My first thought: People who can barely walk tall in their own shoes should not even consider trying to walk in other people's shoes. Especially, if they have no idea to whom the shoes in the photograph belong.

It also reminded me of Good Will Hunting (again). The scene in which Sean MacGuire (Robin Williams) says to Will (Matt Damon),
You're an orphan, right? Do you think I'd know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you?

Books too aren’t of much help beyond a point. No, you can’t understand anyone unless you begin with trying to make sense of yourself.

In any case, you can spend an entire life without having a clue about yourself or the world in general. It is not just plausible, but possible. And as far as I can tell what many believe the short cut to a life well lived.

But there are always those who want to know.

Kurt Vonnegut said: Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be. So that gives us someplace to begin this journey of trying to discover ourselves.

But if you are able to make sense of what you are and who you want to be and you realize that it is something that no one else ever was or wants to be. Take heart. For the future is not uniformly distributed. There is space for multiple stories, each with their own specific plot lines and unique endings.

What an uplifting and liberating thought! The future is not uniformly distributed. Everything is possible. All at the same time.

* From an interview with Tom Waits in The Guardian. Oh! Yes, I do consider him a sort of modern day prophet.
New Learnings round one can be found here.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Faith versus Rock

Some days back I wrote a post on my experiences with blogging, especially the one outcome that I was always certain was inevitable. Any human with half a brain knows that when people have access to stuff, which is offered for free, they resort to what we shall euphemistically refer to as ‘lifting’. As in lifting stuff and taking it for their own. As they cram their pockets with free stuff, a corner of their eye is on the look out to ensure nobody catches them while they are at it. That is because deep down in their heart they know that what they are doing is not “right”. Some unnamed and hard to pin down fear nags their conscience but something much more audacious holds that fear by its neck and twists it till it submits. Or dies.

However, I neither care for the fear nor the audacity. For a human being, even though we like to believe it is so, is not perfect– nor the pinnacle of evolution but just another organism that has to constantly evolve and improve itself in order to survive another day. In fact, the one thing I do care for is that millions of years from now when the sun will be a dying star, humans, as we exist today with all our illusions of grandeur and superiority, will not be the most "advanced" form of life on earth. And if some way into those million years even if the entire human species dies out, something not too hard to imagine given the way we are headed– each and every one of us as dead as the dinosaur, the universe will be indifferent.

So, how does it matter if you– yes, I am addressing you– pick up "free stuff" from my blog, embellish it a bit, add your name at the top and even get published in a national weekly. It may make you feel good about yourself– your friends may call you "awesome"– but you know what– it won’t make you immortal, no, it won’t even make you "world famous" in India. And frankly my dear let alone the universe, or the world in general, or the “world of art” that you desperately seek heck! even I don’t give a damn!

However, why is faith hanging in the middle of the first line? Yes, what about faith? If hope– in the perfectibility of humans, one of the reasons for the ‘why’ of art– is a thing with feathers, then what is faith– it has a song– does it too have a wing– and a sting? I know Emily Dickinson said that about fame. So what do we have to say for faith?

If fear is the root of all evil in humans then shall we say faith will deliver us from evil. Amen.

Well, I won’t be found lighting candles to celebrate the good I see in my fellow beings anytime soon. But I am certain I have enough faith in myself to fly off and away even if it is only to alight on the nearest shrub. However, do I too have a sting?

There’s much ado about the rock. Hard, insurmountable, immovable, undefeatable– in short, it is impossible to get around a rock. The rock lies in the middle of the path and all we can do is look at it in fear and awe. Helplessly. Does one go forward with faith or submit to the rock?

While we are stranded lets play a game of ‘rock, paper, scissors’. You laugh in astonishment. Rock, paper, scissors isn’t just a mindless game one plays to control a car full of nieces and nephews or to kill time in between gossip sessions in the hostel. Wikipedia tells me that the game dates back to the Chinese Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) and now is a part of programming competitions for algorithms. And if anyone plays real time strategy games they know how important it is to have a modicum of skill in this seemingly simplistic game. For how does one choose if one has to make a choice between two things that appear to be equally good?

If you have played this game you know the possible outcomes are:
Rock blunts or breaks scissors: that is, rock defeats scissors.
Scissors cut paper: scissors defeats paper.
Paper covers, sands or captures rock: paper defeats rock.

I always choose paper. For I am willingly to risk getting cut but I shall always overcome the rock.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

On Books

This year there has been just one post on afterthoughts on books. It is not for the lack of reading. On the contrary, this has been a very good year for books. But to have some afterthoughts one needs to wait for a sufficient amount of time and see if one has any thoughts on the book. Sometimes it is difficult to even recollect the plot of the book. But with age this is becoming a rare occurrence. Lets just say one has become more discerning in choosing what to read. There is no pressure to read something just because the entire world and their aunt is reading it. In fact, that is often a good reason to give the book a miss.

Then there are those books that are never far, within reach by the bedside, and alive in the mind. A cursory but perceptive glance at the blog will yield the favored authors, if not the names of some of the books themselves. There have been times when one has found it easier to give up on a friendship than give up on any of these books. In any case, if a person does not appreciate ‘To the Lighthouse’ at a young age then it holds very little hope for any kind of meaningful relationship in the any kind of future.

Had there been an axe handy, a poker, or any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it.

One vividly recollects that strange emotion that gripped the heart when one came upon this sentence on the first page of the book itself. An emotion so rare that one can still find no words to express it. It was akin to something felt a few years ago on reading the first lines of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’,

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

And it takes one all the way back to the first day of summer vacations when, as a young girl, one read the words, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.*” The same indescribable emotion gripped the heart and one had to, but naturally, stay up all night to find out more about Manderley and the dream. That too was a good year for books.

Then there are those other books that may never get mentioned on the blog but hold a similar grip on the heart.

The much battered but even much better loved ‘The Art of Looking Sideways’ would feature close to the top of the list of books you wish you had if you were shipwrecked on a deserted island. The book is a peek into the inner workings of a super creative mind. It demonstrates the basic truth about creativity– it is a way of life. And yes, it subsumes everything; the eyes, the ears, the hands and the imagination all align in the pursuit of creative excellence. The mouth too has a role to play. It keeps silent for if one is creatively inclined there is no need at all to shout so from the rooftops.

‘The Art of Looking Sideways’ was one’s first and most formative education in visual intelligence. Some years later when well past midnight one sent Darth Vader shopping for books, the depth and impact of that education was realized.

Another is ‘The Way We Live’, though it may not figure on the above mentioned list. For it is very heavy and if one is given such a huge weight allowance then one could carry a few more paperbacks and feel that much less lonesome on the deserted island. But ever since it has been a part of the family 'The Way We Live' has taken the place of what people refer to as ‘comfort food’. Especially on days when one is inclined to say to the world at large,
Society, you're a crazy breed.
I hope you're not lonely, without me.**

Ironic as it may seem but looking at pictures of the way we live actually makes one empathize with one’s fellow beings. Every image in the book breathes. Every object in every room– its colour, shape, place, and use– holds up a mirror to people’s most intrinsic ideas, beliefs and hopes. Every year, as one gains newer perspectives into life, the stories behind the images too evolve, and one begins to see a bit differently. Perhaps even a bit better. Therein lies the comfort.

And then sometimes when society is being way too crazy one simply reaches out to Saki. And that’s how the light gets in.

*From Rebecca a novel by Daphne du Maurier
**Society a song by Eddie Vedder (Into the Wild)

To the Lighthouse a novel by Virginia Woolf
One Hundred Years of Solitude a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher
The Way We Live by Standford Cliff, Photographs by Gilles De Chabaneix

Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Human Seasons

Spring 2011
Autumn 2011


                  Four Seasons fill the measure of the year;
     There are four seasons in the mind of man:
He has his lusty Spring, when fancy clear
     Takes in all beauty with an easy span:
He has his Summer, when luxuriously
     Spring's honied cud of youthful thought he loves
To ruminate, and by such dreaming high
     Is nearest unto heaven: quiet coves
His soul has in its Autumn, when his wings
     He furleth close; contented so to look
On mists in idleness—to let fair things
     Pass by unheeded as a threshold brook.
He has his Winter too of pale misfeature,
     Or else he would forego his mortal nature.

The Human Seasons a poem by John Keats.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Bird Hours

These are a few minutes of the many, many hours I spent watching birds over the last few years. Just outside the window or out and about the trees near wherever I lived.

Click on the image to expand and read this e-book.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Fall, leaves, fall

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.

– "Fall, leaves, fall" a poem by Emily Jane Brontë.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The squirrel friend of mine

There is always a squirrel on a tree. In our move from house to house, from one far off town to another, after all the boxes had been unloaded, after all the rooms had been explored, one would go out into the ‘lawn’, which was often a rag-tag mix of some old trees, a patch of grass, some ‘borders’– everything generally unkempt and in a mess that in a mater of weeks mother would turn into a garden of many delights. And from somewhere within that ragged patch a sharp greeting would sound, “chip, chip, chip” with the “p” often sounding like “ch”. It was the squirrel on the tree.

Calling out, perhaps, to me. Though anyone who has lived through summer in India knows the call is far from a greeting and more of an alarm.

In probably 6th standard, all those who have Hindi as a subject, read a story called Gillu Gilhari (gilhari being the Hindi word for squirrel) by a famous Indian poet Mahadevi Verma. The story is wondrous and even though one doesn’t remember anything about it, except for the fact that it is about a squirrel named Gillu, one is sure it must have been magical to have left such a deep impact that till today every time one sees a squirrel one’s mind automatically calls out, “Gillu gilhari”.

Which is often followed by Mrs. Lahri calling out, “A–, prastut panktiyon ka bhavarth batao (explain the meaning of the following lines).” But that is the subject for another post.

Coming back to the squirrel. Years later, even now when all our boxes have been unloaded and one surveys the view from the large double glazed windows, for where is the luxury or time for gardens, especially when one is, every few years, packing and unpacking boxes that slowly decrease in numbers*. And sure enough in the tree outside there is a squirrel. Often not as chirpy as the childhood one but more than matching in daring what it lacks in the sound department.

One is astonished to realize: How little it takes to experience the joy of being at home.

*it's the result of learning, accumulated over the years, to carry along only that which one needs the most. Also in part a result of learning to appreciate, what Pico Iyer discussed in, The Joy of Less.

The squirrel in the photographs who consented gladly, or at least stayed still long enough, for its portrait to be taken is a resident of my mother's garden.

This post is the result of a comment on the blog from another fellow friend of the squirrel. You can visit her blog of many delights here.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Who can live like the flowers

                      It was wrong to do this," said the angel.
"You should live like a flower,
Holding malice like a puppy,
Waging war like a lambkin."

"Not so," quoth the man
Who had no fear of spirits;
"It is only wrong for angels
Who can live like the flowers,
Holding malice like the puppies,
Waging war like the lambkins."

"It was wrong to do this," said the angel a poem by Stephen Crane

Monday, 17 October 2011

While you were stealing

By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the most bitter. - Confucius

The Ugly
It starts innocuously. They casually take the links and repost them, without acknowledging let alone thanking you. Then they innocently re-tweet your words without mentioning it. Then they inoffensively post links of your blog to facebook without informing you. Then they blandly start writing posts that are suspiciously similar to something you had posted earlier. But that’s ok. It’s a fluke, you say. It’s even possible that the 100 monkey syndrome is an undeniable reality. What one monkey sees a 100 times, monkey inevitably imitates.

Then they start taking photographs that would be failed photocopies, if only they had not been so busy unsuccessfully trying to replicate the subject, the frame, the composition, the colours: that reflection, those trees, an entire facebook album on autumn. A photo here and an image there would be coincident, maybe even inspired, more likely derivative but entire albums; that’s taking inspiration a little too far, no?

But that’s the ugly side of life, not just the internet. We constantly experience it in some form or the other. We all are also to a large extent defenseless against it. And as with everything else in life, in this too it is the motivation and the intent that is paramount.

So, what motivates people to copy? With links, it’s often simply to be able to say they saw it ‘first’ and pretend that they still are ‘cool’ and ‘in’: in short the same petty emotions that motivates high school kids. That’s especially true for posts on facebook. But in some cases it is something slightly more pathetic. It’s the vampire syndrome: feeding on someone else’s lifeblood so that they may live to see another day.

But one can take heart from the fact that they must not be getting much sleep at night.

The Bad
Some students in New York took excerpts from my rant on an article on Hindi movies in the Guardian and used it as an ‘Indian’ point of view while discussing the overdose of ‘unreality’ that is Indian (Hindi) cinema. They somehow failed to note down my name and referred to me simply as “He”. Even after it was pointed out that they had made an erroneous assumption regarding my gender they failed to make amends. In their defense, it was most likely an inability to ‘see’ and read. While they were overdosing on cinema and Bollywood dreams, I had unfortunately pointed out something quite mundane.

Then there are those who use IP blocking services to troll the blog going back and forth through the posts. Who are they? Well, I’d just say:

You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand with nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks they really found you

Bob Dylan, It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

The Good
In the early days I posted some sets of photographs on Flickr and a few days later got a mail. My Amsterdam and London photographs were to be a part of Schmap iphone travel guide. It signified all that is good about the social media.

Mr. Pritish Nandy on seeing my photographs for the first time via a tweet (he didn’t even know my name) said, “You are a very good photographer. Never doubt it.” It’s been some years since. It still feels good.

A blog post I wrote on protests among urban Indians, in particular ‘Meter Jam’, generated a lot of discussion online, another on walking in Delhi got posted in Down to Earth, a post on the dark side of  ‘pub bharo’ and the pink chaddi campaign got published as a letter in Tehelka. The posts on books, poetry, movies, Joan Eardley, Emily Dickinson, Billy Collins are helping some students with their term papers, I suppose from the views they generate: though I must add what Dr. Malvankar remarked in the first year of graduation itself, “She writes very well, but her answers will not get her many marks in the exams.”

Most importantly despite being separated by age, nationality, culture, time zones, I have met people who wept at the arboretum, felt akin to the winter bird and had empathy for the worried cows. They were almost like me! That has been not just the good but also the best part.

In The End
There’s a famous scene in Good Will Hunting where the grad student Clark, regurgitates text he has read in some book while trying to embarrass Chuckie, a construction worker, before some girls in a bar only to meet more than his match in Will, a college janitor and the main character in the film.

Will: See the sad thing about a guy like you, is in about 50 years you’re gonna start doin' some thinkin' on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One, don't do that. And two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fuckin’ education you coulda' got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.
Clark: Yeah, but I will have a degree, and you'll be serving my kids fries at a drive-thru on our way to a skiing trip.
Will: [smiles] Yeah, maybe. But at least I won't be unoriginal.

That brings me to the final point. This blog isn’t about me, in as much as any novel isn’t about its writer or any photograph isn’t about the photographer. By that I mean the “I” in the blog posts often isn’t me. The “you” most definitely never is I. And the ‘they’ in this post are all people I know.

So, how does someone justify co-opting someone else’s unreality?

Just like people have different motivations for imitating others, other people have different motivations for not being like anyone else. Sometimes the motivations of the two sets of people overlap. Often they don’t. Somewhere overhead swings the sword of Damocles called mediocrity.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Black bird

Jet-lagged, heavy head, I wake up and try to concentrate hard– where am I? The room seems unfamiliar. The sheets, the duvet, the curtains are all white. Then it comes to me. I am some hundred miles away from home. Home? Wherever that may be? Light filters through the curtain. Did I sleep right through the afternoon to the next morning? The clock by the bedside issues a little tick-tock. It is 9:00 PM!

A bird calls. It isn’t even 12 hours since I got off the plane. The bird appears to whistle a little tune. Here we are. And so it begins. The bird on the trees somewhere across from the patio sings a slow, melodic song.

I recollect the opening bars. The mind clears. A blackbird sings in the dead of the night. And for the next few years it will sing from the rooftops, hiding in the hedgerow, while looking for grub among the decaying leaves, from trees across the patio, in summer, in autumn, in spring. A blackbird will always sing.

Monday, 3 October 2011

The Playlist

Come down now, they'll say 
But everything looks perfect from far away 
Come down now but we'll stay*

There is a playlist for riding the Amtrak past gigantic warehouses and grain silos, past the heap of crushed metal and glass– junked cars and computers, with barges going up and down the rivers, bridges with arches and bridges suspended by cables, the red and white oldsmobile waiting for the green light, the far away solitary house winking through the clouds, the cows out to pasture, the kayaks out in the lake, the cyclists scrambling up the hill, the horses running in the fields, the Canada geese grazing on the golf course, two pink plastic flamingos seeking company out in the yard, the man and boy walking to the quayside, the yarrow flowering by the rail side; yellow, white and pink, the grasses going to seed, the petunias, blue and white, tumbling down from baskets, hanging from lampposts, in one town and then the next and then the next and so on, the waves trying to outrun the train collapsing in exhaustion just short of the tracks, as another train rumbles by with carriages marked Vancouver and Santa Fe; the bald eagle completes a circle and starts to circle again. The sun goes down, the clock reads 8:30 PM and home is not yet within sight but not that far away. The songs have come to an end. And one presses replay.

Yes, there is a playlist made for every such train ride. Each song a perfect story to accompany the sights. Each playlist made to order for each and everyone. It makes one wonder, why don’t more people take the train in America?

Oh, what melody will lead my lover from his bed?
What melody will see him in my arms again?**

*From the song 'Such great heights', as sung by Iron and Wine.
**From the song 'Cliquot', by Beirut.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The coming storm

In some subway
In some town off the road
In some autumn afternoon
The rain dribbles on
Wet coats, the sheep huddle closer
Boats argue. Rising waves are impenitent.

Wordsworth wanders: lonely. A cloud swarms with intent.
Walls begin to speak. The storm is imminent.

Friday, 23 September 2011

One life, three poems

From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were — I have not seen
As others saw — I could not bring
My passions from a common spring —
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow — I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone —
And all I lov'd — I lov'd alone —
Then — in my childhood — in the dawn
Of a most stormy life — was drawn
From ev'ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still —
From the torrent, or the fountain —
From the red cliff of the mountain —
From the sun that 'round me roll'd
In its autumn tint of gold —
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass'd me flying by —
From the thunder, and the storm —
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view —

Edgar Allen Poe, "Alone", written when the poet was only 20 years old.

                When I talk to my friends I pretend I am standing on the wings

of a flying plane. I cannot be trusted to tell them how I am.
Or if I am falling to earth weighing less

than a dozen roses. Sometimes I dream they have broken up

with their lovers and are carrying food to my house.
When I open the mailbox I hear their voices

like the long upward-winding curve of a train whistle

passing through the tall grasses and ferns
after the train has passed. I never get ahead of their shadows.

I embrace them in front of moving cars. I keep them away

from my miseries because to say I am miserable is to say I am like them.  

How I am, a poem by Jason Shinder.
Copyright© 2005 by Jason Shinder. First published in The American Poetry Review, November/December 2005.

                              An open door says, “Come in.”
A shut door says, “Who are you?”
Shadows and ghosts go through shut doors.
If a door is shut and you want it shut,
     why open it?
If a door is open and you want it open,
     why shut it?
Doors forget but only doors know what it is
     doors forget.
Doors a poem by Carl Sandburg, from The Sandburg Range.

Monday, 19 September 2011


The song outside the window is familiar. There is only one tiny bird that can sustain such a long and complex song– after all it is the most complicated song performed by any bird. The females of the species must be complimented on their exceptionally high musical standard and the near impossibly perfect singing ability they seek for in their future mates.
The song of the winter wren brings back memories of another wren and a poet who once wondered, "is my... verse alive." Her poems not only breathe but are daring, original and melodic just like the song of the wren.

We have had a new visitor to our garden; the few pots on our second floor apartment for us are our ‘for the time being’ garden. Blue tits and great tits visit our bird feeder daily. And the chaffinches too come by to meditate upon life, universe and everything. While the blackbirds have occasionally felt compelled to put in a show. But this new visitor, diminutive with its tail cocked upwards, has recently started stopping by once every few days to skip up and down our Fuchsia ‘Mrs. Popple’. And without disturbing a twig leaves as it came - very quietly. For a bird that’s supposed to have an ‘astonishing loud song’ for its size this one for the time being seems, regretfully, to have nothing to sing about.

But I write about our honoured guest because it always symbolized for me someone who famously described herself as "I am small, like the wren, and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur, and my eyes like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves." Scholars have debated these few words ad nauseam. What did Emily mean by ‘like the wren’? Theories have filled many books lining the libraries of many colleges. Probably many scholarly careers have been celebrated and ruined just by ascribing some appropriate or erroneous characteristic to the bird of choice - the wren.

So, here I sit on an exceptionally cold December morning watching our little wren move from twig to twig and I too recall some more of Emily Dickinson’s words:
Shall I take thee, the Poet said
To the propounded word?
Be stationed with the Candidates
Till I have finer tried –

The Poet searched Philology

And then about to ring
For the suspended Candidate
There came unsummoned in –

That portion of the Vision

The Word applied to fill
Not unto nomination
The Cherubim reveal -

The Winter Wren's inimitable musical repertoire can be sampled here. It is magical!
First posted as  The Wren, Mrs Popple and Emily Dickinson.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Thinking, Tangling Shadows

Thinking, tangling shadows in the deep solitude.
You are far away too, oh farther than anyone.
Thinking, freeing birds, dissolving images,
burying lamps.

Belfry of fogs, how far away, up there!
Stifling laments, milling shadowy hopes,
taciturn miller,
night falls on you face downward, far from the city.

Your presence is foreign, as strange to me as a thing.
I think, I explore great tracts of my life before you.
My life before anyone, my harsh life.
The shout facing the sea, among the rocks,
running free, mad, in the sea-spray.
The sad rage, the shout, the solitude of the sea.
Headlong, violent, stretched towards the sky.

You, woman, what were you there, what ray, what vane
of that immense fan? You were as far as you are now.
Fire in the forest! Burn in blue crosses.
Burn, burn, flame up, sparkle in trees of light.

It collapses, crackling. Fire. Fire.
And my soul dances, seared with curls of fire.
Who calls? What silence peopled with echoes?
Hour of nostalgia, hour of happiness, hour of solitude.
Hour that is mine from among them all!
Megaphone in which the wind passes singing.
Such a passion of weeping tied to my body.

Shaking of all the roots,
attack of all the waves!
My soul wandered, happy, sad, unending.

Thinking, burying lamps in the deep solitude.

Who are you, who are you?

XVII (Thinking, Tangling Shadows...) a poem by Pablo Neruda from: Twenty Love Poems And a Song of Despair, (1924).

Sunday, 11 September 2011

there's a bluebird in my heart

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I'm not going
to let anybody see

For most Indians the first bird that comes to mind when someone says bluebird is, but naturally, the peacock. For me, the bluest of blue Indian bird is the Indian Roller. Just a flash of its wings and even the dullest, most drab and monotonously brown landscape gets drenched in a shade that can't be called anything but brilliant blue. However, the blue bird in my heart is a much more diminutive one– but it can sing and it feeds hanging upside down. Who would be so hard-hearted to not allow such a little blue bird into one's heart? And then sometimes the bird in my heart isn't blue at all. It is red.
And here is *Charles Bukowski reading Bluebird– the poem that started all this rumination about birds in the heart. Blue and otherwise.