Sunday, 9 December 2012

A Note to End the Year

Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now–As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It, by Craig Taylor.
I will pick up any book that begins with a quote from Invisible Cities.

The perfect autobiography of a modern city narrated by its residents, of all manner and persuasion. This book is such a delight to read. All the sounds and the voices, all the commotion and the activity of a city have been captured in a book. In the tradition of oral histories, men, women, immigrants and natives talk about their lives– they rant and they praise. The one thing central to their stories is London. The cast of characters and the narrative that swells with each new chapter is a good representation of the ever changing and ever chaotic nature of modern cities– the reason for 'their instant magnetism' (in Jean Baudrillard's words).

But what makes the book riveting, and pertinent for even those who do not reside in London, is that it is a book about people. They may appear to the world as the street sweeper, the investment banker, the taxi driver, the manicurist, the teacher, the mother or simply the voice on the Underground (subway train) but behind each of these impersonal categories lies a human being. Each and every one of them has a unique experience of life, and they have opinions and ideas too. Something that a world so caught up in defining and refining the differences between "us" and "them" often chooses to disregard. People don't fit or stay within neatly demarcated categories and neither is any one person representative of anything other than herself (or himself).

Every city should have such a book dedicated to it. But for that every city would need someone like Craig Taylor, someone who can make people from such diverse walks of life open up and talk. More importantly someone who is willing to listen. If we too would sometimes stop and listen to people, and not judge them by our preconceived notions or hold them hostages to the job they do, maybe we wouldn't need to "learn to be empathetic". It is a notion worth considering.

I had decided to save the best for last. This book, the people in it and the thoughts that stay with you even months after you have read it are a blueprint (if not the blueprint) for finding a way out of the miasma generated by the shrill noise and harshness that surrounds us. A world where differences of ideas, opinions, and even belief is no longer a matter for debate, but worthy of final judgements– often the judgement being that the one who differs from us has a lesser (or no) right to exist.*

Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and repeat once a day, “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.**” A calming, humbling and inspiring note to end the year.

An interesting question posed by the book is who is a Londoner? For how long does one need to live in a place to feel one belongs there? Craig Taylor himself is a Canadian living in London. I'd say if you are able to name the Tube lines represented by the colour bands on the cover then you are a Londoner, no matter where you maybe living now.

Afterthoughts on Book: Part 17
*Acknowledging that 6 billion people will not think and feel the same way about everything on this earth doesn't mean every little thing is up for debate. But it is worth considering that we choose not to engage with people with differing opinions and dismiss large populations as ignorant and intolerant. But what does that make us?
**Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Monday, 3 December 2012

Nobody's Fault But My Own

It is time to set adrift another year on the nebulous realm of memories. And like any other event in life that involves letting go off and moving on this too comes with its own set of rituals, or perhaps you'd prefer the more rational sounding term processes.

First, we begin by owning up and accepting all that has been done, undone or not done. We begin by telling ourselves whatever we choose to term as a success or a failure is, "Nobody's fault but my own.*" In a time and age when the genes we inherit to the kind of society we live in at some point or the other stand accused for every little thing that comes or doesn't come our way, the one thing that can liberate us from our self-created labyrinths is to accept that it is, "Nobody's fault but my own." That way no mountain of fear seems insurmountable, nor any ocean of doubt unfathomable.

For the one thing we can be almost certain of is our own heart and our own mind. We may depend on and even be aided by the support and kindness of others. But all that is essential and important lies within, it must emanate from within. Searching for it elsewhere is futile and will only lead to disappointment. Being responsible– accepting our part in the whole is therefore paramount.

Depending on your disposition you may find this 'gospel' to be bleak or liberating. However, no matter how we perceive things – upon contemplating water we may either be overcome by a fear of drowning or the thrill of surfing the waves but neither contemplation encompasses water in its entirety– similarly all our perceptions are subjective and partial. That's why taking reigns of the thoughts, emotions and actions that originate from within us is essential. And that applies to not just acknowledging all that is beautiful and wondrous but also accepting all our faults and frailties.

Perhaps it is time to bring back the capital 'I' as a symbol of responsibility, as a symbol of possessing a backbone, that one essential anatomical feature that no human can borrow from another.

I end the first part of the ritual with two songs – two hymns, if you will.

Here's Led Zeppelin with 'Nobody's Fault But Mine', a hymn worthy of frequent contemplation.
Here is Beck with his meditative song, '*Nobody's Fault But My Own'.

Friday, 23 November 2012

At the heart

Make the best of what you have– My mother
We’ve all heard that one. The one in which the hostess welcomes the photographer by saying that I love your photographs, you must have a really good camera. At the end of dinner the photographer returns the compliment in the same vein by remarking that I loved the food, you must have a really good stove.

Some of the most memorable meals that I’ve enjoyed have consisted of no more than 5 simple ingredients, often cooked on a ‘primitive’ wood burning stove (called chulla in Hindi). In hostel we would cook a sumptuous feast of Maggi (a brand of instant noodles) and toast on a small electric heater. You get my point, don’t you? 

A thing is memorable and enjoyable in itself, and not because of how it was produced. * Also if we all had a chulla and 5 simple ingredients we won't necessarily end up with a memorable or enjoyable meal.

Even if you have the exact same camera as Henri Cartier-Bresson it will in no way guarantee that you’ll be able to take pictures like him. Till you don’t have his eye, his intellect, in fact, till you are not Henri Cartier-Bresson himself, I am afraid you can only attempt to copy his style but in no way can you become him. The camera won’t be of any help. Just as any person with oil paints, brushes and an empty canvas can’t become Van Gogh. Or just learning the ability to read and write won’t make you Shakespeare. 

Do not confuse the mere possession of tools with the actual skill. And never underestimate individual genius. No matter how hard society in the 21st century, that counts social media as its crowning achievement, will try convincing you otherwise. Most importantly, if you have the talent and the inclination, make the best of what you have. Even if it is only a “shitty” cameraphone.

* Any person earning a living as a creative will concur. No one is interested in what you ‘suffered’ during the creative process. If the end result is good, and you manage to become famous, then your suffering will make a good anecdote. However, in time of struggle what you suffer, you suffer alone.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Under the Sweet Chestnut Tree

Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;

So begins H. D. Longfellow's poem 'The Village Blacksmith' one oft-remembered by people of a certain age in the UK as a poem they've learnt in school. While the poem is more about impressing the fact that "at the flaming forge of life/ Our fortunes must be wrought;", for me it ends at the first line itself. For when one begins to contemplate the spreading chestnut-tree neither fortunes nor the flaming forges of life manage to get a look in. The tree with its gnarled, twisted, sinewy trunk, big enough to hold a handful of people, is a world in itself– far-removed and well-beyond our clamour for fortune or our desire for happiness that's dependent on (if not a prisoner to) a certain definition of fortune. Now if only children in school were taught a poem about that.

Alfred Joyce Kilmer rightly observed, "I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree", so lets speak of poems no more. Instead here are two poignant quotes about trees: the first in which the tree is I and the second in which the tree is the other.

"I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet."
— Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar 

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves...

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life... 

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts...

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness." 
Excerpts from Hermann Hesse, Bäume. Betrachtungen und Gedichte (Trees: Reflections and Poems)
And here you can join Asha in 'A November Evening Prayer' – a benediction to trees. The tree in the first two photographs is the oldest tree residing in Kew Gardens.

Monday, 19 November 2012

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

Watercolour pencil on acid free paper

(Gardens in the UK are spotting record numbers of waxwings. They are immigrants from countries further north who'll spend the winter here feasting on the ripening berries. And like many people on reading this news the first lines that came to my head were– I was the shadow of the waxwing slain– from 'Pale Fire'.)

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff––
And I Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.
And from the inside, too, I'd duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I'd let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!

First paragraph from 'Pale Fire' a poem of "heroic couplets, of nine hundred and ninety-nine lines divided into four cantos",  by Vladimir Nabokov. From his novel 'Pale Fire: A Poem in Four Cantos by John Shade', which is essentially a novel about a poem. All 999 lines can be found here.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

At home

Many of my friends have taken up farming. For the last couple of years, since daybreak, they can be found harvesting crops on the facebook news feed. Late at night they are still at it– watering their strawberries and milking their cows. They exhibit such dedication and diligence that sometimes I almost wish they do take up farming for real. But out there in the midst of mud, weeds and pests life doesn't obey a series of random clicks.

My herb garden is shutting down for winter while the spring bulbs are out, for now gently rubbing their eyes open in the soft soil moistened by the morning dew and rain. A few pots of tomatoes and green pepper, some herbs, some salad leaves that is all that this balcony buffeted by the winds from the Thames allows as far as edibles go. Rest are all hardy perennials, battle scarred but unmindful of rain, sun or cold. And there is also that one moment of indulgence– a fast spreading jasmine that in summer opens a fragrant pathway to dusty memories and if you happen to walk barefoot you can almost feel the earth scorch your feet even though the temperature outside isn't even in the twenties (degrees celsius).

For the last few years, no matter which tiny spot on the globe has been called home, farming small spaces has become a part of making it feel homely. It isn't an obsession, nor a matter of aesthetics. It is simply an attempt to keep the most engaging and rewarding of all conversations going. The conversation between humans and nature. The conversation in which one feels most at home.

Here's Daniyal Mueenuddin's poem, 'Trying Tripe'. A poem about memory, and farming. Published in (the superb) Granta 112: Pakistan

Three months this man’s been off the farm –
go back now, back to diesel, earth and pumps.
Sugar cane I planted has come to term,
and now I count the stalks, the germination.
One clump is a penny, one row,
running, I will sell it for one dollar,
this field buys an olive suit, numerous books
boxed and mailed back, a knife I saw and craved;
along these fields, maturing silver trees
become lunch one afternoon in Rome,
a sweating wine, the restaurant Archimedes
(I chose it for the name, the Screw
of Archimedes in Nefwazi’s Perfumed Garden,
tantric afternoon of love, seeping,
like this cream afternoon of mine.)
Lunching alone, what to do but get soaked again
in memory. Riverine prodigal heart,
I have spent whole countries on a woman’s youth –
England, where L. is everywhere, like ash at nightfall,
and all the towns, pirate torching youth.
In Rome, slightly drunk, I order tripe,
wash it down, furry, valved and strange.

Monday, 5 November 2012

The blue air, the yellow trees

(The trees in the photographs are Poplar not the Beech trees mentioned in the poem below. That brings me to another favourite autumn painting–  Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873) by Claude Monet.)

Although what glitters
         on the trees,
row after perfect row,
        is merely
the injustice
        of the world,

the chips on the bark of each
        beech tree
catching the light, the sum
        of these delays
is the beautiful, the human

body of flaws.
        The dead
would give anything
        I’m sure,
to step again onto
        the leafrot,

into the avenue of mottled shadows,
        the speckled
broken skins. The dead
        in their sheer
open parenthesis, what they
        wouldn’t give

for something to lean on
        that won’t
give way. I think I
        would weep
for the moral nature
        of this world,

for right and wrong like pools
        of shadow
and light you can step in
        and out of
crossing this yellow beech forest,
        this buchen-wald,

one autumn afternoon, late
        in the twentieth
century, in hollow light,
        in gaseous light. . . .
To receive the light
        and return it

and stand in rows, anonymous,
        is a sweet secret
even the air wishes
        it could unlock.
See how it pokes at them
        in little hooks,

the blue air, the yellow trees.
Excerpt from "Two Paintings by Gustav Klimt", a poem by Jorie Graham. The painting being referred to in this part of the poem is Klimt's Buchenwald (Beech Forest) 

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Other Autumn

Watercolour pencil on acid free paper
For most of us, people who have grown up and are living in Indian cities, autumn as a season exists only in the imagination.

The complete post and the rest of the album of illustrations are here.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

A Yellow Rose

(Since the past week has been one of cognitive biases and illusions– mirrors and ink– it was but natural that when I would open the book of the master's poem it would simply place in front of me a yellow rose.) 

The great Giambattista Marino did not die that afternoon, nor the next– he whom the combined spokesmen of Fame (to borrow an image dear to him) had proclaimed the new Homer and the new Dante. The silent and unalterable event that was now taking place was truly the last of his life. Crowned in glory and long life, the man was dying…A woman has placed  a yellow rose in a vase. The man mutters to himself the inevitable lines that at this point, to tell the truth, he finds a little boring:

                          Garden’s purple, prairie’s pomp
                          Yellow yolks of spring and eye of April…

It was at that moment that the revelation took place: Marino saw the rose, the way Adam must have seen it in Paradise. He sensed that it existed not in his words but in its own timelessness. He understood that we can utter and allude to things but not give them expression, that the proud tall volumes that made a golden shadow in the corner of his room were not the world’s mirrors, as his vanity figured, but simply other objects that had been added to the world.

     This realization came to Marino on the eve of his death, as it had perhaps also come to Homer and Dante.

       – A Yellow Rose by Jorge Luis Borges, from 'The Maker'. Translated by Kenneth Krabbenhoft.

Friday, 26 October 2012


"And this, Lily thought, this making up scenes about people, is what we call "knowing" people, "thinking" of them, "being fond of" them!"
– Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse

Our story is noble and tragic
As the face of a tyrant not fun not for everyone
No drama or magic
No detail of what we’ve done
Can make our love pathetic

And Thomas De Quincey drinking
Opium poison sweet and chaste
Went dreaming to his poor Anne and listened to his eyelids blinking
Let it pass let it pass because everything will pass and be effaced
I will be back not yet erased

Are hunting horns whose sound dies in the breeze 
Guillaume Apollinaire, Cors De Chasse (Hunting Horns). This translation is from The Paris Review No. 202 Fall 2012

You may have heard of a cognitive bias called frequency illusion– the illusion in which a word, a name or other thing that has recently come to one's attention suddenly appears "everywhere" with improbable frequency*. Even if you haven't heard of it, I am sure you must have experienced it a number of times. 

Considering that the human brain seeks patterns everywhere, this isn't much of a surprise. After all most human learning depends upon it. Whether all human brains seek the same pattern is a completely different issue. When coupled with the recency effect, a cognitive bias that inflates the importance of recent stimuli or observations, this illusion gets magnified. We end up becoming more aware of things we heard most recently when they come within our sphere of attention again. Coincidentally.

Well. I have been working on an essay for some time and now everywhere I go (and by that I mean in the virtual world) words seem to appear calling out to me, "Look at us. We can be of help." It is slightly unnerving, though mostly thrilling. But most importantly reassuring that my brain is active.

However, the world of words is also an illusion of sorts. One can get trapped in it. Look at all the people in India  (they like to 'think' of themselves as the intelligentsia I am sure) who wrote reams upon reams against the recent people's movement against corruption– they were appalled that all people weren't like them and the revolution appeared to be nothing like what they had read in some books in college. Imagine! Many of the protesting, unwashed masses had never read a word and could articulate their anger only in coarse, pithy slogans. And still they were angry enough to take to the streets.

Real life has a knack for mercilessly crushing all illusions.

It reminded me of a segment from 'The Daily Show' in which Jon Stewart talked about how people keep mentioning the importance of satire, for example during Nazi Germany and he ended the segment with the words, "Yeah! They really showed Hitler, didn't they?" Words for all the power we bestow on them, for all our illusions about them, are simply squiggles on paper– transcribed guttural sounds.

And just when seekers of immortality look at words– that they have read or that they think they'll leave behind for perpetuity– death clears its throat and with a small poof blows all illusions and biases away. At such times the first thing that we lose, no matter how beautifully people have written about death in countless books, is our ability to come up with adequate words.

Afterword: What about the essay? As Mavis Gallant said in the introduction to her short story collection, "Stories can wait." And I'd like to add, even if some of them end up never getting told, lets for once dispel with this false pretense, life will still go on. Regardless.

*Wikipedia. Also known as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

London Fog

View across the Thames looking towards Greenwich.

What it looked like a few weeks back. One can see not just Greenwich Park and the Observatory in the background but much beyond almost to the outskirts of London (yes, if only I had posted a high res picture).
 Looking towards the City that is the one square mile that has been the financial centre of London since Medieval times.
Looking towards the City on a clear day (10 days back). Seen here are not just the iconic buildings (Gherkin but also the red train waiting at the station.
This is Canary Wharf. Home to all the big, bad financial institutions– banks, trading companies, rating agencies– you name it– they are all there.
Canary Wharf and the City and everything else on a clearer day.

London fog also known as the pea souper was a mixture of smoke from millions of chimneys and the mists and fogs of the Thames valley. These days the fog is predominantly mist, it still has traces of smog though nothing compared to what it was like in the late 19th century, for chimneys and chimney sweeps have long since been consigned to the pages of history. Though considering that they have been replaced by millions of cars I wonder how much has the air quality changed?

Here's Charles Dickens describing what it must have been like in the days when soot and sulphur dioxide filled mist descended upon London.

"Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time — as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look."
Charles Dickens, Bleak House (chapter 3)

And here is Dickens Jr. (son of Charles Dickens also known as Charles Dickens) defining the fog in
'Dickens’s dictionary of London, 1892-1893 (fourteenth year): an unconventional handbook.' for any and all enthusiasts of Victorian London.

Fogs are, no doubt, not peculiar to London. Even Paris itself can occasionally turn out very respectable work in this way, and the American visitor to England will very probably think, in passing the banks of Newfoundland, that he has very little to learn on the subject of fog. But what Mr. Guppy called “a London particular,” and what is more usually known to the natives as “a pea-souper,” will very speedily dispel any little hallucination of this sort. As the east wind brings up the exhalations of the Essex and Kentish marshes, and as the damp-laden winter air prevents the dispersion of the partly consumed carbon from hundreds of thousands of chimneys, the strangest atmospheric compound known to science fills the valley of the Thames. At such times almost all the senses have their share of trouble. Not only does a strange and worse than Cimmerian darkness hide familiar landmarks from sight, but the taste and smell are offended by an unhallowed compound of flavours, and all things become greasy and clammy to the touch. During the continuance of a real London fog – which may be black, or grey, or more probably orange-coloured – the happiest man is he who can stay at home."

More on Victorian London can be found here.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Two Books: One fantastic, one frivolous

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by Katherine Boo

For me, this is the book of the year, and undoubtedly the best book written about contemporary India. If I were still in the habit of recommending books I would say read this book. If you’ve ever read the words India’s growth story then this is the story of the people who are fueling India’s growth: The sweat and bones on which India’s growth pyramid will be built.

A couple of days back, a young Indian journalist, on twitter: Finally read Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers. So well written but its just another 'life in an indian slum' plot. What next?

That in a way encapsulates the popular attitude towards not just the people living in the slums, but also good writing. Both are transient. We need to quickly move away and onto whatever’s next.

Two reasons (for sake of brevity) why this tweet caught my attention.

Firstly, “the plot” is the real life of people (some living, some now dead) of Annawadi, the slum that everyone who flies into Mumbai can see from the airplane window. It maybe far-removed from what we’d like to consider reality, but it isn’t make-belief. All the events, people and their names in the book are real.

Secondly, what next? Well, how about instead of tweeting inanities spend time on a ‘story’ with dedication and tremendous humanity as exemplified by Katherine Boo. Or, perhaps show a little empathy, if humility and kindness are hard to muster.

In passing, I’d like to quote the last few lines from the Author’s note:

“In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of the mutually supportive poor community is demolished. The poor blame one another for the choices of the governments and market, and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.

It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in undercities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blistering hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be–…

If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?”

That’s a question we need to ask more often. Read the book, not just for the people in it but also for the person who wrote it.

Here is an interview with Katherine Boo where she talks about, among other things, the dilemma of writing about poverty.

The Marriage Plot – Jeffery Eugenides

Firstly, I am grateful to be in a city with great public libraries. In a perfect world books would be freely available to anyone who desires to read them and one would never need to buy a book, until and unless, one really loves it or wants too. Also the books that get over-hyped in the media are generally not worth their attention or our money. If you combine the two facts you’ll understand why governments are so eager to shut down public libraries.

Secondly, now it’s crystal clear why American adaptations of ‘great British novels’ are, as they’d say in this part of the world, a complete cock-up.

Thirdly, were Jane Austen’s books simply about the ‘marriage plot’? W.H. Auden in his “Letters to Lord Byron” summed it up the best:

"You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of 'brass*,'
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society."

How much has the economic basis of society changed since the times of Auden and Austen? Even in this age of feminist-era heroines, despite the availability of separation and divorce as an option, have our expectations from relationships or basic desires undergone seismic transformation? For many women, in many parts of the world, marriage still remains a high-stakes game.

Most importantly, Jane Austen's heroines, for example, are such well articulated characters, they display real emotional and moral depth that makes us care about what happens to them, despite the differences in our circumstance. That's something Jeffery Eugenides seems to have overlooked in his limited reading of 19th century literature.

(Re-)Read Austen or Auden instead. Their complete works are available in a library near you. Did I tell you I am so grateful for public libraries?

*Brass in informal English means money or cash.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Yet another post on J Alfred Prufrock

 ...since it is October, and Autumn's here.

Consider the words:

 I have measured out my life with coffee spoons

What do these words, presented in this sequence mean to you? Over the past few months I have seen these words appear and then re-appear in various contexts but almost never in the context that T. S. Eliot was alluding to in his poem, 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'. In the majority of cases these words were used to denote a feeling of contentment, even camaraderie– moments spent with friends and coffee; an image of happiness that our generation has inherited from what many consider the epitome of friendship, the TV series ‘Friends’. I’d like to reserve my opinions on the dysfunctional people who were ‘Friends', or the absurdity that was their friendship, and keep them to myself. Though the line being discussed in its original context, now that I think of it, could be argued is quite an apt description of the facile nature of human relationships that the TV series depicted.

But it is Eliot and his words that I often come across and thus often think about.

A lot about the poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is and can and must be debated and disputed and discussed, but this is one of the lines in the poem that, in my opinion, there can be no ambiguity about. Especially, given the context in which it is uttered.

For I have known them all already, known them all—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
    So how should I presume?

And if I were to quote the entire poem then only one wordy question would remain: Has ever such a direct and unambiguous reference been made to the sense of ennui that results from the disillusionment that is modern society? To the abysmal emptiness that underlies most social interaction. I have known them all– the listless conversations, the bland coffee, the dull gestures, the fake smiles– the mere consideration fills one up with a sense of, well, ennui.

But in the past few months whenever I have read these lines they were being used to connote something quite the exact opposite of ennui. I am quite positive if I’d have put the question to them not one would have said that the line had been used to indicate that they were bored. Or prove how banal their daily existence was. Or how dreary social conventions are.

Isn’t it incredible how when a set of words is removed from their intended context then they can come to mean almost anything? They can justify any belief, falsify any fact, and muddle even the simplest, clearest of all logical premises.

I know, you’ll argue, using Eliot out of context isn’t such a big deal. We liked the line, remembered it from college days. And heck! We like to toss it around when we want to feel all literary and cool and young– Oh the irony!*

*If at one level (considering that time and space and narrative isn't always linear in Eliot's poems) J. Alfred Prufork isn’t a middle-aged man confronting his mortality– the poem even begins with a quote from Dante’s 'Inferno'– then I am afraid I too may have misconstrued Eliot.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

In Between

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, 
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. 
– Hamlet Act 1

The complete post and photo album is here.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Fragmentary Blue

Why make so much of fragmentary blue
In here and there a bird, or butterfly,
Or flower, or wearing-stone, or open eye,
When heaven presents in sheets the solid hue?

Since earth is earth, perhaps, not heaven (as yet)--
Though some savants make earth include the sky;
And blue so far above us comes so high,
It only gives our wish for blue a whet.

Fragmentary blue, a poem by Robert Frost. 

While for a physicist blue is the colour of light between violet and green on the visible spectrum, to a believer the vast blue sky is a glimpse of heaven. Blue doesn't exist in itself. Neither does heaven. Both are a result of perception and longing. 
In eight pithy lines, using blue as a synecdoche, Robert Frost shows how human perception and longing are the basis of all meanings. We can't know the complete truth, but only fragments of it.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

At the bird feeders

Bird feeding is perhaps one of the most economical and rewarding of all methods to observe wildlife. Putting out a little food and water is an invitation enough for birds to come calling. And the diversity of birds (and insects) in the neighbourhood is a good indicator of the 'health' of the environment.

However, the path to hell is often paved with good intentions so a word of caution. While a bird feeder can range from a dining plate to a hanging coconut shell, be aware that a dirty bird feeder is a breeding ground for disease. Clean the feeder as often as you clean your teeth– at least once a week. Also while DIY feeders are a celebration of human ingenuity, it is high time that we stop using (let alone reusing) a plastic water bottle and calling it eco-friendly. There is nothing "green" or sustainable about that.

Don't treat birds as a dustbin to discard stale and rotting food. Just like excess of bread and other processed foods like biscuits and chips aren't good for human consumption, similarly they aren't suitable for birds. During breeding season they can prove to be disastrous to the survival of chicks. Buy a bird guide. Get to know your future guests. Find out what they like to eat. Learn their names. Be considerate. Be polite.

The complete photo album is here. The bird feeders in the accompanying photographs are from Kew Gardens.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Book of Rain

Mumbai, London, Seattle and the one thing that brings them together is rain.

In the past few years more than a fair amount of rain has fallen into my life. And I have had more than a fair amount of time to watch the world go by through rain splashed windows.

Here is my book of rain.

Monday, 3 September 2012


"There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting...The degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting."
Read the complete post here.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Did you take your vitamins today?

"A caterpillar is letting itself down on a thread, twirling slowly like a rope artist, spiraling towards his chest. It's a luscious, unreal green, like a gumdrop, and covered with tiny bright hair. Watching it, he feels a sudden, inexplicable surge of tenderness and joy. Unique, he thinks. There will never be another caterpillar just like this one. There will never be another such moment of time, another such conjunction. These things sneak up on him for no reason, these flashes of irrational happiness. It's probably a vitamin deficiency. - Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (2003) 

These caterpillars are from Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai. It is purely due to a lack of effort that at the moment I am unable to call them by their given names. That is my one failing. Even though for years I have been captivated by caterpillars. As proof I present a post I wrote sometime back.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The Inconsequent Wild Roses

The complete photo album is here: Wild Roses

Henri Rousseau, the French painter best known for his paintings depicting elaborate jungle scenes and exotic landscapes, had never visited a jungle. In fact, he never left France. His inspiration came from illustrated books of famous expeditions, the botanical gardens of Paris and stuffed wild animals in the museums. Also perhaps, a desire to escape the banality of modern existence. In his living years he was ridiculed because his jungle paintings were 'mere' fantasies without any regard to geography or even a sense of proportion; his 'exotic' imaginings. Even though he steadfastly described himself as 'one of France's best realist painter'. These contradictory reactions to his art were precisely the reasons why he became famous after his death. His paintings are beautiful for not only what they depict but also for what the particular manner of depiction evokes.

In India the jungle of our mythologies and bedtime stories is more real than the one that is a short train ride away. The peacock after pecking at the open garbage dump, may settle for the night on the Neem tree in our suburban neighbourhoods but the one that dances underneath that flowering tree with parrots and bulbuls next to a stream overflowing with lotuses is more alive to our senses. We have no desire to see because we know how it feels. At times it seems even our perceptions are preordained.

The first word that comes to mind when confronted with the English landscape is agreeable, even polite. However, some miles down, one often comes upon a dramatic dialogue between the lone tree and the raging winds. For a few moments even the sheep look on in suspended animation. The woods here have been called tame*. There are no tigers coughing at twilight, no cobras coiling in the shade of the banyan. But to a child's 'alluring eye' as Louis MacNeice writes, they are 'a kingdom free from time and sky'. Only to appear tame again as the child grows up– each moored to a village with its 'inconsequent wild roses'.

In all the instances mentioned above to my mind's eye the most alluring is the moment when the wild rose becomes 'inconsequent'. How and when and by what alchemy does this transformation transpire? What catalyst, what reagent is at work here? And in the end result if something is gained, then what is lost?

Henri Rousseau's jungle paintings are here.

*Woods by Louis MacNeice

My father who found the English landscape tame
Had hardly in his life walked in a wood,
Too old when first he met one; Malory's knights,
Keats's nymphs or the Midsummer Night's Dream
Could never arras the room, where he spelled out True and Good
With their interleaving of half-truths and not-quites.

While for me from the age of ten the socketed wooden gate
Into a Dorset planting, into a dark
But gentle ambush, was an alluring eye;
Within was a kingdom free from time and sky,
Caterpillar webs on the forehead, danger under the feet,
And the mind adrift in a floating and rustling ark

Packed with birds and ghosts, two of every race,
Trills of love from the picture-book---Oh might I never land
But here, grown six foot tall, find me also a love
Also out of the picture-book; whose hand
Would be soft as the webs of the wood and on her face
The wood-pigeon's voice would shaft a chrism from above.

So in a grassy ride a rain-filled hoof-mark coined
By a finger of sun from the mint of Long Ago
Was the last of Lancelot's glitter. Make-believe dies hard;
That the rider passed here lately and is a man we know
Is still untrue, the gate to Legend remains unbarred,
The grown-up hates to divorce what the child joined.

Thus from a city when my father would frame
Escape, he thought, as I do, of bog or rock
But I have also this other, this English, choice
Into what yet is foreign; whatever its name
Each wood is the mystery and the recurring shock
Of its dark coolness is a foreign voice.

Yet in using the word tame my father was maybe right,
These woods are not the Forest; each is moored
To a village somewhere near. If not of to-day
They are not like the wilds of Mayo, they are assured
Of their place by men; reprieved from the neolithic night
By gamekeepers or by Herrick's girls at play.

And always we walk out again. The patch
Of sky at the end of the path grows and discloses
An ordered open air long ruled by dyke and fence,
With geese whose form and gait proclaim their consequence,
Pargetted outposts, windows browed with thatch,
And cow pats - and inconsequent wild roses.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Light and Darkness

Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it. ― Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man

The photo album is here: Light and Darkness

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The Woman Who Stares at Birds

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you. – Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil 
While the first part of this aphorism, perhaps, is a caution to activists of all manner and fashion, it is the second part that I can attest to. For I have stared long at birds, and the birds have stared back at me. Though in 99% of the cases it is the birds that have noti
ced me first, what with me being nothing but a clumsy ape.

In the process I am most certain we have gazed a bit into each other too.

I can almost see the question form on your lips, “And what have you learnt?” I could counter with a question of my own, “Does every life experience need to end in a lesson learnt?” For if we gaze, howsoever briefly, into the human world learning– as in acquiring knowledge or skills– wouldn’t be our shining beacon. Though for a bird acquiring knowledge and skill is often a matter of life and death.

But staring at birds has made me realize a few things about birds and about humans. Birds aren’t indomitable. Their life too is all about struggle and adaptation. No less than the life of any human. Their songs may appear to be joyous and rapturous, even effortless, but like any artist they are almost killing themselves to produce beauty: Pouring huge amounts of energy and a collection of past experience of generations to distill a few notes of sheer brilliance.

If we could suspend our arrogance, our sense of superiority, for just an instance then perhaps happiness would not be a pursuit. Nor the end point of all our pursuits.

The Birds: Painted Stork, Purple Sunbird and a very wet House Sparrow.

Also would like to add that the facebook page will feature more photography while the blog will feature longer writing pieces.

Friday, 3 August 2012

To whomsoever it may concern

Four years and 300 plus posts later the blog now also has a facebook page. Maybe you'd like to come by and say hello:
Thank you all for stopping by, reading and commenting. It has been hugely encouraging.

Monday, 23 July 2012


I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.*

Almost three years back I did a post on clouds, which has gone on to become one of the most visited posts on the blog. In part, it is because of the poem by Billy Collins. In part, because it alludes to Constable and his masterly cloud studies. Also, I hope, in part, because of the photographs that accompany the text. But mostly I think it is because it concerns clouds.

Weather, as the stereotype goes, is one of the things that people in this part of the globe are most obsessed with. Or more specifically the presence, or the fervently hoped absence, of clouds.  And as with all stereotypes people here sometimes confirm to it too. The operative word being sometimes, not all the time. Especially, at times like this when the summer is said to be the wettest in recorded history. Though most of the time they wax eloquent about it all– the raging winds, the falling rain, the wandering clouds, the cornflower blue skies– in pictures, and in words.

Cloudy. The word often refers to things murky, obscure and difficult to understand. In primary school the water cycle, the originator of clouds, was one of the easiest ways to understand the interconnectedness among all things on earth. A simple diagram with a few squiggles and arrows was all that was needed to make clear one of the most irrefutable truths about all life.

*From The Cloud, a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelly. The complete poem is here. Shelly's sentient cloud is a pleasure to behold as it moves along its earthly journey– from birth to death to renewal, constantly transforming itself and all that it comes in contact with.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Of all the streets that blur in to the sunset

Of all the streets that blur in to the sunset,
There must be one (which, I am not sure)
That I by now have walked for the last time
Without guessing it, the pawn of that Someone

Who fixes in advance omnipotent laws,
Sets up a secret and unwavering scale
for all the shadows, dreams, and forms
Woven into the texture of this life.

If there is a limit to all things and a measure
And a last time and nothing more and forgetfulness,
Who will tell us to whom in this house
We without knowing it have said farewell?

Through the dawning window night withdraws
And among the stacked books which throw
Irregular shadows on the dim table,
There must be one which I will never read.

There is in the South more than one worn gate,
With its cement urns and planted cactus,
Which is already forbidden to my entry,
Inaccessible, as in a lithograph.

There is a door you have closed forever
And some mirror is expecting you in vain;
To you the crossroads seem wide open,
Yet watching you, four-faced, is a Janus.

There is among all your memories one
Which has now been lost beyond recall.
You will not be seen going down to that fountain
Neither by white sun nor by yellow moon.

You will never recapture what the Persian
Said in his language woven with birds and roses,
When, in the sunset, before the light disperses,
You wish to give words to unforgettable things.

And the steadily flowing Rhone and the lake,
All that vast yesterday over which today I bend?
They will be as lost as Carthage,
Scourged by the Romans with fire and salt.

At dawn I seem to hear the turbulent
Murmur of crowds milling and fading away;
They are all I have been loved by, forgotten by;
Space, time, and Borges now are leaving me.

Limits, a poem by Jorge Luis Borges (From The Self and the Other)
The sign in the last photograph roughly reads," Those who have a strong desire to reach moksha will find the path (anyhow)".