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.