Thursday, 22 March 2012

Today I Am Wise

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself
– Rumi
(Click on the picture to enlarge and read.)
This post is a culmination of ruminations that can be found here and here.
As it happens often when you open a random page of a well loved and much read book it pithily lays bare the path out of the labyrinth that you had been spending months (if not years) trying to decipher.

In another life I worked in the development sector. It is no secret. Nor is it a matter of pride– or embarrassment.  Like so many other things in the world it just is. Leonard Cohen, in a brilliant interview in The Guardian said, “All I have to put in my song is my experience.” Similarly when I say, I left the development sector and found the path to true virtue (I make no claim to be virtuous though I hope to get there), it is based purely upon my experience.

In an attempt to reach the kernel of ‘why’ I felt discomforted in the ‘company’ of ‘organized do gooders’ I may have written what could amount to a decent sized thesis. Though I could summarize it in these few word– Doing good* for the sake of feeling good about you. Intentional acts of kindness performed in the belief that by being charitable one is not just good but somehow better than other living beings that inhabit this planet. That was something I couldn’t abide with. Because Intentional Virtue is not Virtue.

The picture above is from The Tao Speaks: Lao Tzu's Whispers of Wisdom, adapted and illustrated by Tsai Chih Chung, translated by Brian Bruya.

*The good is italicized because like all value judgments what is good is not only comparative but also established by people living in a particular time and age. That is why morality is a double bind and also one of the fiercest and most destructive constrains devised by man.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Three Poems, One Art

 Or You May Leave a Memory, Or You Can be Feted by Crows

Last night we sat talking, as it happens ever so often when the rain refuses to abate and all life and meaning gets erased by the sight and sound of water. From water we came, and water shall obliterate us. But in the meantime we talk– about art. For when life all around us seems to be going down the drain, art is the tiny straw that one clings onto in a desperate attempt to keep one’s head above the raging waters. Nietzsche said we have art in order not to perish of truth. I would like to say after we had been talking for hours the sun broke through the clouds and once again it was glorious spring. But the truth is there is only snow and rain. And the forecast for the next seven days is equally grim.

But we continue to keep talking about art. Sometimes late into the night, sometimes via email. Is it a comfort to know that you too are not waving but drowning? We keep repeating the same things– our sacred chant. Few words suffice– craft, judgment, sanity, fun. However, three poems would be, perhaps, even more eloquent.
In My Craft Or Sullen Art
By Dylan Thomas

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labor by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.
After Arguing against the Contention That Art Must Come from Discontent
By William E. Stafford

Whispering to each handhold, “I'll be back,”  
I go up the cliff in the dark. One place  
I loosen a rock and listen a long time
till it hits, faint in the gulf, but the rush
of the torrent almost drowns it out, and the wind—
I almost forgot the wind: it tears at your side  
or it waits and then buffets; you sag outward. . . .

I remember they said it would be hard. I scramble  
by luck into a little pocket out of
the wind and begin to beat on the stones
with my scratched numb hands, rocking back and forth
in silent laughter there in the dark—
“Made it again!” Oh how I love this climb!
—the whispering to stones, the drag, the weight  
as your muscles crack and ease on, working  
right. They are back there, discontent,
waiting to be driven forth. I pound
on the earth, riding the earth past the stars:  
“Made it again! Made it again!”

You May Leave a Memory, Or You Can be Feted by Crows
By Dick Allen

Three years, Huang Gongwang
worked on his famous handscroll,

As he put successive applications of ink to paper
over the “one burst of creation,” his original design,
it is said he often sang like a tree frog
and danced on his old bare feet.

One day, he adds one hemp fiber stroke,
the next a moss dot.

What patience he had,
like a cat who comes back season after season to a mole’s tunnel.

Honors may go to others.
Riches may go to others.
Huang Gongwang has one great job to do.

And he sings like a tree frog,
and he dances on old bare feet.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

In My Mother's Garden: Part 2

When I talk about birds in my mother’s garden people often imagine a rambling old bungalow set amidst acres of land. So I always end up measuring out the few square feet with my hands: slightly broader than this dining table but much smaller than this living room. The thing that most people seem to overlook is that birds don’t need huge swaths of land; they get by with much less.  Especially birds in the city.

I have had the pleasure of watching house sparrows flock to the seventh floor ledge (barely broad enough for a human to stand on) in our apartment in Bombay. On the tiny balcony in London a bird feeder secured by a shoelace and a few tall plants were invitation enough for the robin, the blackbird, the wren, the great tit and the blue tit and its brood to come visit. The spotted woodpecker to was, well, spotted.

But, yes there is one thing that attracts the birds to my mother’s garden and its vicinity– the garden is allowed to run a little wild. There are a variety of plants, many of them have been around for years and many like the tulsi are allowed to go to seed ensuring that there is plenty of food for different kind of birds, the creepers aren’t trimmed and thinned too often ensuring bird have places to gambol in. And so the birds come.

The point being a bit of water, a little something to peck on and a safe place to perch and preen on is all that the birds look for. And like the merry ramblers of yore, once their few needs are met, they stick around and sing a little song or maybe even share a tale or two.

In My Mother's Garden: Part 1 is here.

Afterword: The Neem tree in the second last picture was planted by my mother in the common area opposite her house some 15 years back. At that time people would look at it and shake their head and mumble, "Wouldn't grow, soil too arid, too many termites, Neem trees don't grow in this region (??) and so on and so forth." However, neither the tree nor my mother seemed to be listening. Today the tree not only gives shelter to a host of birds but seems to be growing so rapidly that its top few branches have to be trimmed every spring as they touch the overhead high-tension wires.

Birds in order of appearance: Brahminy Myna, Black Redstart, Indian Robin (male), Oriental White Eye, Common Myna, Purple Sunbird (female), Red Vented Bulbul, Common Crow, Ashy Prinia, Jungle Babbler, Tailorbird, Little Brown Dove (Laughing Dove), Rufous Treepie, House Sparrow (male)

Friday, 9 March 2012

Light Constant

Last years flowers sit in a mason jar by the desk side. A drop of sunshine falls on the elegant decay and fractures into tiny fragments. For a brief moment in time bits of light get caught between the frail stems and the brittle petals. Everything is subsumed by this burst of light and matter.

It is 1988. Miquel Barceló is in Africa. It is his first trip. In his studio in Mali he is studying light. He is drawing shadows. “The light in the desert is so intense that the things disappear, and the shadows are more intense than the things themselves…What isn’t has more intensity that what is. Because in Africa light isn’t colour. Light is much more stronger than colour. Colour is almost corroded by the light.”* In the night he paints the river. Scratching the paper to obtain the effect of light reflecting from the water. The foam still white in the thick African night.

Barceló is concerned with the passage of time.  The tomatoes, the melon, the skulls, the river, his friends– time spares no one. Each is captured in a state of inevitable transformation. In his studio back home flowers placed in a jar are slowly decomposing over time and the consummate artist doesn’t miss a thing.  Back in Africa the elephants herd is slowly moving towards the river while the skulls in the studio, with their motionless eyes, wait for the sun to go down.

Afterword: Einstein's theory of relativity states time and space aren't as constant as they appear. The only true constant is the speed of light. Time can seem to run faster or slower depending on how high you are, and how fast you are travelling. That's bad news for those who own a penthouse.

*‘The earthly cycles’ by Enrique Juncosa (An essay from Miquel Barceló: works on paper 1979-1999).

You can see Miquel Barceló's art at his fan site here. To see his paintings from Mali click the year 1988 and scroll down the page.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Solitary People

Some people are so used to solitude with themselves that they never compare themselves to others, but spin forth their monologue of a life in a calm, joyous mood, holding good conversations with themselves, even laughing. But if they are made to compare themselves with others, they tend to a brooding underestimation of their selves; so that they have to be forced to learn again from others to have a good, fair opinion of themselves. And even from their learned opinion they will always want to detract or reduce something.
Thus one must grant certain men their solitude, and not be silly enough, as often happens, to pity them for it.

From 'Man Alone with Himself' by Friedrich Nietzsche.