Monday, 23 May 2011

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec (1975)
On the last day of our first time in Paris I sat on the grass watching the lights turn on the Eiffel tower noting down all that I observed. But as it was our first time in Paris, I was easily distracted. Observations of the yellow lift going up and red lift coming down are punctuated by recollections from the days before. Dotting the margins are words, sounds, scribbles perhaps inspired by Paris, or perhaps by Vienna, our previous destination. My attempt to note down the “non-touristy” details of life in Paris was naturally not the intended kind of success. Had I put thought to it my choice of place would have been much more conducive to the task at hand. Though I suspect watching Paris with “non-Parisian” eyes would have still lead to certain unintentional biases. But then, can one ever really observe a space in time in its totality? Can we ever exhaust– as in–describe everything?

On Saturday at the neighborhood bookshop my eyes caught a slim volume in a white and grey cover. A year before I was born, George Perec set out on the quest of the “infraordinary”: the everyday, or as he puts it, “what happens when nothing happens”. For three days, in a square in Paris, he sat behind Cafe windows making a note of “that which is not noticed, that which has no importance”.  He progressed from strictly visible things, to conventional symbols, to slogans, to objects, to the color of things, to buses going back and forth, to gestures and conversations between people, to dogs running, and pigeons flying all at once across the square, to people carrying things, to the Japanese tourists in buses, and the apple green Citroen van.

However, even though he is sitting in one place, every coming and going of people or buses and cars, even within the field of his vision, which in itself is limited, is marking the passage of time. Every event, or rather nonevent is altering that which is being observed. From merely observing things before his eyes Perec moves on to noting the differences: what has changed from one day to the next? Though seemingly nothing has changed, in essence life has moved on.

This unimportant, humdrum nothing that we barely record is what fills up our days and years. However, when we start focusing attention on these nonevents they become unreal, almost surreal, and even poetic. Here’s a random sample:

A bird settles atop a lamppost

It is noon Gust of wind A 63 goes by A 96 goes by An apple-green 2CV goes by

The rain gets fierce. A lady makes a hat with a plastic bag marked “Nicolas” Umbrellas sweep into the church

Moments of emptiness

Passage of a 63 bus

The resulting effects of attempting to exhaust, or observe in totality a place, can range from mere unease at the near impossibility of the task being undertaken to an overdose of reality, which in turn may alter our understanding of the nature of reality itself. Leaving us with a sense of melancholy that comes with the acceptance of the fact that what we consider to be extraordinary is merely a collection of ordinary acts. And that something will always remain indescribable no matter how detailed our observations. Even when we think nothing is happening time is taking away second after second from our lives.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Do look back

It is mandatory to keep moving on. For life is elsewhere and that elsewhere is somewhere in the time yet to come. Or is it? There comes a moment when one realizes maybe this is all that there is to it. At times that moment comes more than once in a lifetime. So, sometimes, especially when the mind has taken leave even though the rest of the body is immersed in endless work, one needs to stop and look back. Here is one such occasion from the not so distant past.

One rainy day at Hyde Park seven young people, lets call them friends, were brought together by randomness of fate and contrivance of chance. Caught in the oft-cursed ‘unpredictability’ of the London weather they sat and sipped their coffees and beers. Casting desultory glances at the ducks in the lake while mouthing customary inanities that pass as conversation these days.

The lake framed by the dark clouds, the trees gently persuaded by the wind, the raindrops softly passing by-the intricate play of nature fell apart before this unappreciative audience. The words framed within neat categories, the gently falling level of the beer in hand, the softly approaching time to get up for a refill-this intricate balance of social convention was silently appreciated by all. Maybe more so by the one sitting alone at the table by the window. Lets call him the old man in the grey coat.

He could be seventy or eighty years old. The point being of an age when no one especially not the individuals concerned care much for years and birthdates and time. Or even for how they look or what they wear. At least that is how it seems to people who are young and by that I mean not yet thirty. So let us not get into descriptions and just call him the old man in the grey coat. There was nothing exceptional about him (again I mean from the point of view of the abovementioned youth) except that on that one evening in Hyde Park he happened to be listening to seven young people blow words in circles in time. And not even notice the years fall by.

For today you are twenty-eight and the next thing you know you are thirty. “To have reached thirty,” Reginald* said, ‘is to have failed in life.” And anyone waking up on the fateful day to acknowledge the agony of turning thirty would, if they have any enthusiasm left for life, wholeheartedly endorse his sage words as they watch their world rapidly turn to a miserable shade of blue right before their eyes. But one has to live to be thirty to experience this brutal truth, which can’t be revealed to the innocent youth. And since our friends are young and carefree and not yet thirty let us let them contemplate their half full glasses.

Instead lets turn our attention to the old man in the grey coat who has lived more than twice that fateful age. But showed no sign of wear and tear to those who cared to look. Finishing the last of his lukewarm coffee he got up to leave. Then stopping by their table he softly said, “Do not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many.” And silently slipped away into the gathering darkness. Almost unnoticed.

Seven days later no one remembered the old man in the grey coat's words except for an old man sitting down to write the story of his life and a young woman celebrating the thirtieth year of her life.

(For Mr. Jamshed Mirza living somewhere in London. Maybe we'll meet some evening in Hyde Park.)
 *Reginald on the Academy a short story by Saki.

First posted titled as 'People you meet in Hyde Park' here.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

A memory

Four ducks on a pond,
A grass-bank beyond,
A blue sky of spring,
White clouds on the wing;
What a little thing
To remember for years-
To remember with tears!

A memory a poem by William Allingham.