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.