Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Stranger in my backyard


This is the tale of a stranger- she’s a perfect stranger to me at least. A defiant stranger who dared to trespass into my backyard. She came in the afternoon when the sands were boiling with heat, its muted hues glowing in the two-o-clock sun. She turned hesitantly towards the ocean, after all she didn’t know that two is the most awkward time of the day to come- the beach was completely deserted save cosseted couples strewn all around- in the shadows cast under rusted broken down joy rides, in the shade of fried fish stalls, between the fishing boats- lying down on beds of nets in the narrow gap. But she was no voyeur- as she walked self-consciously towards the shore, the angry stares scorched even more violently than the Madras sun did. But once he reached the shore, all doubts vanished, she forgot about the sun- which seemed to be walloping her with a red-hot whip, she forgot about the drops of sweat fighting low surface tension to cling to her skin, she forgot about the attention she was receiving- why would anyone walk without her shoes on- on a hot afternoon like this. And the shore isn’t exactly the cleanest area of the beach- your feet wont thank you to venture there barefoot, all kinds of debris was delivered to the loving lap of the beach by the persistently unbiased waves-bizarrely chosen refuse, the sea sure had an eccentric streak- banana skins, flower garlands from corpses, stray single pieces footwear (sandals, rubber chappals, a child’s shoe with red lights.) that had deserted unfortunate feet, and of course the ubiquitously present piles of dung- orange reeking masses waiting for waves to carry them away into the sea floor. She picked her way gingerly between these objects, wincing occasionally at the bite of tiny transparent crabs that scuttled up between her toes from small perfectly circular holes. But she was happy, she was perfectly deaf to her thoughts, the only sound that carried through were the waves growling gently in her ears, like a veiled warning- “Don’t get too close. You can’t even swim.”

But she didn’t care; her feet felt cool on the freshly wet sand that hungrily devoured the froth of the ocean to leave behind a lingering trace of foam. Sweat kept appearing and disappearing in a condensation- evaporation game between the sun and the sea- the breeze seemed to swallow those drops immediately after the sun commanded them to ooze out.

She had gone a long distance from Elliot’s, but she didn’t turn back to check, rather she looked forward. The colony of fishermen stood before her, their tsunami-reconstructed apartments- spanking new and tall besides the row of humble huts, their bright coloured fishing boats proudly bearing the names of the donors, the fishing nets hung between palm trees, the narrow gully of waste water that made its way quietly into the sea. She looked around at their leering faces in fear. They were men of the sea- the sea was their perpetual source of survival, their all-consuming sewer, their tolerant sanitation system, and their merciful cemetery. They were dangerous as dangerous as a tempestuous sea could get -these burly men in their lurid lungis fiercely proud of their tiny huts, their precarious lives, their perilous existence.

As she turned around in regret she shot a last look at the stretch that she hadn’t covered,would probably never cover- The Theosophical Society and the dense green foliage within its high walls fighting the infiltration of seaside weeds-their green lotus shaped leaves flapping in protest, the Adyar River mingling into a union with the sea with a joyous serenity that pierced her heart chillingly.

The towering hoardings on the beach seemed far away now like a distant haven of safety she was dying to reach- their smiling images were beckoning her forward – faster, faster, and faster. As she walked back, she smiled fondly at the footprints she’d made on her way forward- her large feet had made yawning cavities in the sand- her stride had been a forward thrusting motion that had the physical impact of a powerful punch- a punch in the sly face of alienation. Her footprints were so beautiful, she stopped to trace their pattern- they looked harmonious- a sinusoidal waveform flipped vertically in a right angle. He turned to gaze at the effect that both sets- from the forward and backward journeys- made together.

She staggered forward in surprise- the sea was obliterating her footprints gently wave after wave; and then a particularly resounding crash later they were gone.

The stranger sank into the sand, oblivious to the water entering her clothes. Her tears made ripples in the sea, ripples that distorted her reflected face. As the water engulfed her lovingly again, she spurned this wet embrace of consolation and walked away- still a stranger.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Harry Potter and the deathly hallows- hollow or what?

After those excruciatingly restless 6 hours were over, I just wanted to sleep, to stop thinking. Potter has always been given me hangovers throughout these 7 odd years- the 5th book was an exception. Every other time, the weight of what I read would sit over my consciousness smugly, haunting my dreams, creating tempests in my thought patterns, dulling my ability to focus, drowning my hopes - well, you get it, every kind of distraction. Of course, I'd be able to shrug it off after a week or so, and after LOTR I desperately wanted to shift loyalties. Tolkien's universe was unfathomably perfect, you can instantly recognize the glint of genius blinding you, it's slickness skidding you while you're on your way to unraveling the mysteries of his smoothly contoured terrain- after all it's got optimum quantities of drama, more depth, and a wider expanse of fantasy that breaches more and more limits as the plot unfolds. Rowling on the other hand made sure that the gates of her world stayed open to anyone willing to whoop with joy within those- mediocrity has its bright side after all. Basically all you need to enjoy Potter is the capacity to suspend disbelief, logic, and to overlook inconsistencies and constant swings in direction. The plot constantly threatens to spin beyond the realm of credulity, but Rowling's always managed to drag it back with a straightforward ease that's always managed to keep the reader in her place- twitching with anticipation.

In the beginning, I used to analyze HP to bits with my friends, but when all our hopes about carefully thought out predictions dissolved, we gave up. No I gave up. I gave up when I realized that Harry had stopped appearing real to me. Like every other HP fan what hooked me (I was never a sucker for fantasy) was the "Hey. It's me." moment that we experienced when we first met Harry (OK- or Ron or Hermione for that matter.) When I stopped seeing myself in him, when I couldn't understand their motivations anymore, it stopped pulling me along its haphazard course.

The seventh book is different. OK it s a typical potboiler. Perfect Ending. "What the heck" sequences that would make any other author blush about the weaknesses in her plot. Fantasy writers can get away with all this. I mean you're supposed to overlook (basic) defects in their craft because of the way they weave their magic carpet stories- spun in such a way we're transported from our reality.

I liked HP 7 in spite of everything because Rowling hasn't betrayed some basic principles of story -telling, a quality that's becoming rare in modern writers -most of them are bent on outdoing each other in writing stuff with the most shock value- under the mask of innovation.

She has stayed true to the spirit of story-telling in the following ways-:

a) make your protagonists lovable- shouldn’t the reader care about your central characters, their problems, understand what s troubling them and why, their dreams, hopes, fears, loves etc.
b) your character has a problem to solve, he might have a few conflicts to sort out. Ultimately, the reader should be persuaded to hang on till all this gets resolved.
c) But then the reader will get bored/stop reading if our hero finds it a little easy. Throw as many obstacles as possible in his path- physically dangerous stuff, emotionally disturbing realizations, mentally destabilizing discoveries, difficult relationships- the works. And when all seems lost, and our hero seems destined for certain doom, hey presto, he pulls out the last ace and triumphs
d) keep repeating all this nicely with appropriate style/structure/dialogue/description/characters/ACTION and you have a well-balanced story that makes you go "Aww. That was a brilliant tale." and then you flip back to the first page and...

While all these classic rules have produced clich├ęs (quite prominent in this series) opposites attract (Ron- Hermione) love can impart strength to perform miracles (Mrs. Weasley's impossible feat- "not my daughter you bitch!" lol.) overlooking opportunity right under you nose. ( "We might have had years together"- Harry and Ginny’s future. yuck!) And those typical "Whatever you've been searching for. It's there. It's always been there. You’ve been ignoring it all the while." epiphanies that occur to Harry whenever he struggles to crack some clues that lead to horcruxes, the perfect double agent (well he s elevated to saint status here. sigh. all the cards come crashing down together in one moment of truth. an explanation that leaves you wondering how she cobbled together this theory without planting any clues in previous books.) then the usual death-despair-revenge-healing-strength to overcome circle, and lessons about appearances and their deceptions. Certain exalted personages can have skeletons have skeletons in their cupboard as well- this doesn’t lessen our respect for them though the illusion of their impregnable perfection lies shattered. Rather, it lessens the foreboding effect of their enigmatic aura - makes the more human and easier to like. And the characters I’d dismissed lightly in the earlier books grow in stature, and some have managed to lessen my dislike for them. And then moral dogmas like loyalty, respect for life, the evils of prejudice, concepts of equality etc, which have been highlighted repeatedly in the series.

I don’t like this absolute soulless evil vs. pure good conflict. Voldemort and his gang are made to look worse than the Taliban (an ideological intolerant tint to his personality and actions?) or Idi Amin. I mean you can’t go all the way to create the archetypal despot. Grey shades work best.

Right there might be a million things that are wrong with this book, but it's kept me engrossed till the end, and I couldn’t have created something as absorbing. So it's been one heck of a journey for this gritty woman, she’s worked quite hard for all the media attention, money, glory she’s earned. It’s difficult to end a story of this kind (Hmm. When Most of you fan base is made of kids) on a satisfactory note, tie up every loose end, complete every character's journey-but she’s done it. Not spectacularly, not stylishly, not reasonably, not admirably, but creating a climax that makes you want to cry and laugh at the same time, say “Oh. How wonderful” and “How lame” together, an ending that makes you go weak in the knees yet leaves you capable of a hollow laugh at its predictability, and corniness.

Well, ok why should I spoil this moment with feeble criticism? I’ve grown up with this book; I’ve read its last installment two days after the crushing realization that I’m 19. This thing is supposed to be a vital part of my childhood- the bouncy excitement of the sleepless nights-before, the reading marathons on the three release-days (5,6,7) that always exasperated my parents, my disillusionment and the distance that crept up, only to be replaced by reassuring comprehension, And the numbed heady silence that follows the last page…

It’s been quite a journey for Harry as well. And quite a story.

End of story.



Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Fool- Patrick Henry Pearse.

Since the wise men have not spoken, I speak that am only a fool;
A fool that hath loved his folly,
Yea, more than the wise men their books or their counting houses or their quiet homes,
Or their fame in men's mouths;
A fool that in all his days hath done never a prudent thing,
Never hath counted the cost, nor recked if another reaped
The fruit of his mighty sowing, content to scatter the seed;
A fool that is unrepentant, and that soon at the end of all
Shall laugh in his lonely heart as the ripe ears fall to the reaping-hooks
And the poor are filled that were empty,
Tho' he go hungry.

I have squandered the splendid years that the Lord God gave to my youth
In attempting impossible things, deeming them alone worth the toil.

Was it folly or grace? Not men shall judge me, but God.

I have squandered the splendid years:
Lord, if I had the years I would squander them over again,
Aye, fling them from me !
For this I have heard in my heart, that a man shall scatter, not hoard,
Shall do the deed of to-day, nor take thought of to-morrow's teen,
Shall not bargain or huxter with God ; or was it a jest of Christ's
And is this my sin before men, to have taken Him at His word?

The lawyers have sat in council, the men with the keen, long faces,
And said, `This man is a fool,' and others have said, `He blasphemeth;'
And the wise have pitied the fool that hath striven to give a life
In the world of time and space among the bulks of actual things,
To a dream that was dreamed in the heart, and that only the heart could hold.

O wise men, riddle me this: what if the dream come true?
What if the dream come true? and if millions unborn shall dwell
In the house that I shaped in my heart, the noble house of my thought?
Lord, I have staked my soul, I have staked the lives of my kin
On the truth of Thy dreadful word. Do not remember my failures,
But remember this my faith

And so I speak.
Yea, ere my hot youth pass, I speak to my people and say:
Ye shall be foolish as I; ye shall scatter, not save;
Ye shall venture your all, lest ye lose what is more than all;
Ye shall call for a miracle, taking Christ at His word.
And for this I will answer, O people, answer here and hereafter,
O people that I have loved, shall we not answer together?


Sigh. This was supposed to be a post about what turning 19 means to me. All that occurred to me was one of my favourite poems (by an Irish nationalist.)

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Ultimate Rupture

The shreds of my Torn Canvas have finally disappeared under a deluge of thoughts. Thoughts that have burst out in a torrential stream after being repressed for so long. With the gurgling sounds of this cascade, I can hear the melancholy notes of a song. A song of deliverance for a part of me that has been caged . A song of wistful farewell to a part of my identity that will now sink into eternal obscurity. A song portending a split that has always been on the cards- the cracks aren't visible anymore. The rupture is complete. Between the expectations from a not-so-distant-anymore destiny and the fears of a crushingly unavoidable fate. Between whispered words of faith and harsh tones divining certain failure. Between cold reason and my inner voice. Between buoyant hopes and sunken fears.
Yes. The rupture has happened. The rupture of the rhapsody that is me.
I can finally see the torn out canvas shreds floating serenely on this river-cleansed of its paints. A blank canvas again- but how did it become whole? . In a trance, I lift my brush again. The ghosts of washed-out colours don't leer at me mockingly from the faded canvas.

After all the rupture has happened. The rupture of the rhapsody- that was me.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

A Terminated Flight.

The plane gleamed like a white bird with folded wings, poised for flight, but bound to the earth by invisible chains. I waited in the sun, not noticing the sweat leaking hesitantly through every pore of my body. Sweat drops are like secrets, they are held back just to whet your curiosity, to tease, to kindle interest, even though you know they are going to pour out stream by stream anyway. But After five sticky hours of an extremely uncomfortable journey to Delhi, you stop noticing. You stop noticing the air conditioning in the lounge, the coolness of iced tea, the heat of the airline bus that glides through to the waiting plane, and you top noticing the sweat staining your “airport clothes”. Even after the skies were let open to be swept by the winds of liberalization, and the “aam admi” getting to fly and all that, the Indian mindset of dressing formally for airport trips (even to receive people!) was still firmly in place.

A huge white guy, fat, with small eyes and a large nose smiled at me, his double chin wobbling as he did so. “Hot here isn’t it?” His skin was red with the heat and he kept fanning himself with the TOI. I couldn’t place the accent, it seemed American, but I wasn’t sure. He was wearing a loose checked shirt and shorts, quite visible among the sea of full sleeves, ties and the mass of neatly pressed clothes. I surprised myself by smiling back at this stranger; his genial voice and warmth were hard to brush off. “It’ll be more sweaty at Chennai. Have you been there before?” “No…” “It’s an interesting place, you should explore it thoroughly to…. are you going there on business?”

He grinned guiltily as he glanced at his clothes, “Yeah business, I may not look like that, but.” He grinned widely. ‘I’m staying at …” his face scrunched up in effort as he strained to remember, “Fisherman’s cove. I’ve been told it’s very nice there.”

I nodded. “It’s got great sea food, do you like sea food?” He brightened as he heard this, and he leaned forward to hear me better as I continued. “You know, if you really want to experience Madras, you should get into the heat, dust and sweat of the roads and absorb the noises, the smoke, the sights. You should try the buses, sit on crowded beaches, take a walk in the Theosophical society, and eat in cheap local restaurants.” He laughed out loud, “Ah, the rapturous songs of a home bound bird, eh?”

“Yes. It’s my hometown” I replied as we boarded the flight. “I’m going home.”

I didn’t get to see that foreigner again, we were separated by he probably never got out of the air conditioned confines of fishy cove, to do what I’d suggested. As the flight took off, I wondered how he knew I was going home. Was it my palpable enthusiasm about extolling the virtues of my city to a visitor? Was it the excited tone of my voice?

As I settled into my window seat, book (the portrait of a lady) in my hand, I tried not to think of home, it was only 150 minutes away now. But Isabel Archer’s methodically messed up life failed to hold my interest for more than half an hour. As I looked out at the sunset, I asked myself, “What does home mean to me?”

Home was where I could wear my ugly fluorescent pajamas without feeling conscious, where I could eat with my hands without attracting attention, where I could sleep naked and not care, where I could take one hour baths in the winter without freezing, where I could go to the toilet without slippers, where I didn’t need to think twice before opening the wash basin tap, where I could forget that unwashed clothes existed, where I could wash my hair with shikha where I didn’t have to make decisions that ate away into my day at college (when do I wash my clothes? Do I need to wash these clothes? How many more times can I wear this? When will it be warm enough to take a bath?) OK, all this is keeping with the discomforts of a busy frantic demanding college life in a desert. What was home to me after cutting through these layers of superficial comforts? Home was where I could just be.

“Could you close the window please?” the guy next to be snapped his sleepy eyes ha;lf open, irritated by the rays of the sun that peeped in through the window.

Why does life have to be this way? You are looking out of a tiny window, straining hard to find answers for the troubling ruins of your life in the sunsets outside, but the rest of the world in a perennial state of indifferent slumber, and they force your window shut, so that they cant continue sleeping, and you get pulled down into their depths of inertia as well. I pulled down the shutter miserably, and then started eating. The best thing that can be said about airline food is that it takes your mind off other things.

Why do I say madras? The name was changed when I was six or so, and I had had no trouble adapting to it, unlike my parents who inevitably revert to madras. What I feel when these slips happen is what a parent would feel like when he uses a long forgotten nickname of his child by mistake, instead of his proper name. (I remember calling my sister by a string of nonsense syllables, something like “bush-um-bull-um” which was an accompanying tune whenever I pinched her cheeks, I’ll never forget the frosty expression that her face wore when I did it in front of her play mates, and the affectionate memory of her pet names just withered away in a cold death then.) Except that he is no longer a child, and the cold sting of his angry glare will tell you that he doesn’t want to be reminded of the helplessness of his naked childhood. Madras was an embarrassing alter ego, a sickening epithet, and an awkward ghost from the past that brash young Chennai wished to bury.

“Look outside” the excited scream of a child in front made me open the window, and I gasped as I leaned out. This was Chennai, at 16,000 feet away, it looked like a bejeweled bride.

I tried to make sense of the islands of sparkling light and darkness, was it the sea set against the rest of the city? No it couldn’t be. It was just that the part of the city that was throbbing with life shone against the land like diamonds scattered on black velvet. Roads gleamed like rivers of gold, headlights inched across tiny glowing ants, and skyscrapers twinkled like stars in the night. Which part of Madras was this? Sometimes the dots of lights seemed to grow larger, as if we were growing closer to the ground. As I stretched my neck to see better, I realized that this glorious view had been blocked by black clouds floating across the sky. Ironic I thought. Clouds of distance-separation- absence- longing- homesickness and painful alienation had blotted my relationship with my city. Alienation was a cruel word; it made me feel like my love affair with this place was nothing more than a series of one-night stands. How well did I really know Madras? The intimacy that existed seemed to be nothing beyond physical familiarity; it was like making love to a stranger, where your knowledge of the other’s body is the only thing that brings you together. This time, it’ll be different, I vowed to myself. This holiday will be different. I’ll no longer bury my estrangement issues under the cover of my lazy routines at home. I’ll enter the Damodar Gardens and walk around in the shadowy light of its perennial dusk, contemplating the twists of fate that made sure that I never entered the restful canopy of The KFI school. I’ll hitch a boat ride across the Adyar right till the last stretch of the estuary where the theosophical society stood magnificently with its aged dignity intact against the sea, the sand bars, the lagoon and the sea gulls. I’ll get on to the 29C at the smelly terminus and travel all the way to Perambur and back to savour the sights that my favorite bus offered. I’ll take catamaran rides from fishermen and watch the sunrise against the Bay of Bengal. I’ll travel to Mylapore in the first 29C of the day (4 am)and drink the freshest cup of the best filter coffee in the world. Some things don’t change- I consoled myself. Chennai or Madras- there are some treasures that haven’t been ravaged by the relentless march of this ruthless invader- time. I’ll make my peace with my hometown in these timeless realms. I swear I will.

I willed the twinkling dots closer, as if I had a premonition… maybe their smiles held secrets.

I opened my eyes to the wild rocking motion of the plane; it was swaying like a sinking ship in its last desperate moments. A voice, from a seemingly large distance cut through the noises of fear and horror in the cabin. “We are experiencing turbulence, please fasten your seat belts. We will…” the voice died along with the light in the cabin as the plane plunged into the dark depths below.

The diamonds of light got closer and closer, those dots got more fuzzy as they approached, the way tears on a beloved’s cheeks sparkle in a blur when you pull them closer into a hug. Madras was pulling us closer into final fatal embrace.

But this wasn’t death. I have been dead to Madras for a long time. I’d been alive only in a collective dream I had shared with it. Dreams filled with sand bars, mylapore mornings, beach sunrises, Damodar Garden- dreams not yet realized, sights not yet seen, visions not yet attained. And will never be.

No. It wasn’t me who was dying.

A briefly glorious flight that had died mid-trajectory. The wings of a dream had been crushed forever.