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)