Friday, June 29, 2007


Am off on a week long vacation to Oregon today, so blogging will resume only when I get back on the 5th / 6th of July.

I know it's hard, but try to miss me.

And meanwhile, here's some Tony Hoagland to keep you happy:


There’s Socialism and Communism and Capitalism,
said Neal,
and there’s Feminism and Hedonism,
and there’s Catholicism and Bipedalism and Consumerism,

but I think Narcissism is the system
that means the most to me;

and Sylvia said that in Neal’s case
narcissism represented a heroic achievement in positive thinking.

And Ann,
who calls everybody Sweetie pie
whether she cares for them or not,

Ann lit a cigarette and said, Only miserable people will tell you
that love has to be deserved,

and when I heard that, a distant chime went off for me,

remembering a time when I believed
that I could simply live without it.

Neal had grilled the corn and sliced the onions
into thick white disks,
and piled the wet green pickles
up in stacks like coins
and his chef’s cap was leaning sideways like a mushroom cloud.

Then Ethan said that in his opinion,
if you’re going to mess around with self-love
you shouldn’t just rush into a relationship,

and Sylvia was weeping softly now, looking down
into her wine cooler and potato chips,

and then the hamburgers were done, just as
the sunset in the background started
cutting through the charcoal clouds

exposing their insides – black,
streaked dark red,
like a slab of scorched, rare steak,

delicious but unhealthy,
or, depending on your perspective,
unhealthy but delicious,

-- the way that, deep inside the misery
of daily life,
love lies bleeding.



Then there was that song called "Two Trains Running",
a Mississippi blues they play on late-night radio,
that program after midnight called FM In The AM,
-well, I always thought it was about trains.

Then somebody told me it was about what a man and woman do
under the covers of their bed, moving back and forth
like slow pistons in a shiny black locomotive,
the rods and valves trying to stay coordinated

long enough that they will "get to the station"
at the same time. And one of the trains
goes out of sight into the mountain tunnel,
but when they break back into the light

the other train has somehow pulled ahead,
the two trains running like that, side by side,
first one and then the other, with the fierce white
bursts of smoke puffing from their stacks,
into a sky so sharp and blue you want to die.

So then for a long time I thought the song was about sex.

But then Mack told me that all train songs
are really about Jesus, about how the second train
is shadowing the first, so He walks in your footsteps
and He watches you from behind, He is running with you,

He is your brake man and your engineer,
your coolant and your coal,
and He will catch you when you fall,
and when you stall He will push you through
the darkest mountain valley, up the steepest hill,

and the rough chuff chuff of His fingers on the washboard
and the harmonica woo woo is the long soul cry by which He
pulls you through the bloody tunnel of the world.
So then I thought the two trains song was a gospel song.

Then I quit my job in Santa Fe and Sharon drove
her spike heel through my heart
and I got twelve years older and Dean moved away,
and now I think the song might be about good-byes --

because we are not even in the same time zone,
or moving at the same speed, or perhaps even
headed toward the same destination --
forgodsakes, we are not even trains!

What grief it is to love some people like your own
blood and then to see them simply disappear;
to feel time bearing us away
one boxcar at a time.

And sometimes, sitting in my chair
I can feel the absence stretching out in all directions --
like the deaf, defoliated silence
just after a train has thundered past the platform,

just before the mindless birds begin to chirp again
--and the wildflowers that grow beside the tracks
wobble wildly on their little stems,
then gradually grow still and stand

motherless and vertical in the middle of everything.

- from What Narcissism Means to Me (Graywolf, 2003)

Thursday, June 28, 2007

A joke in time, or nine of them

The world is alive with the possibility of obvious bad jokes. Seriously, everywhere I look these days there's a news story or a blog post that's just crying out for a wisecrack. Which is why every now and then I feel the need to share them with you. It's not good to keep these things bottled up, you know, you spend a lifetime repressing the urge to make that corny quip and before you know it you're voting George W. Bush to power.

One of the principal amusements of my life these days is reading the 'news articles' that show up every time I log out of my Yahoo Mail account (since I check mail roughly three times an hour, thus ensuring that I read the three mails I get each day within fifteen minutes of their arrival, this happens a lot). When they're not covering major news stories (such as, for example, Liz Claiborne's demise), or providing their daily report on the weather in Paris Hilton's head, these stories generally involve obscure news items that are surreal to the point of being funny. It's difficult to remember, sometimes, whether I read them in the Onion or on Yahoo! News. Obviously the actual articles themselves are a lot more serious than anything in the Onion, but this only makes the whole thing funnier. You keep reading the thing waiting for the punch line that never comes.

Yesterday, for example, there was a story about a guy who's started a dating site for farmers. So many agricultural jokes to choose from there. Like the one about the guy who was just looking to plough the field a little, you know, sow a few wild oats. Or the one about the guy who was tired of spending all his free time with his hoe. Or the whole "why buy a Holstein when Guernseys are cheap" philosophy of marriage. And don't even think about mentioning seed exchanges.

Today, there's a story about a dust storm on Mars. Apparently dust storms on Mars frequently end up covering half the planet. No wonder those little green men are always trying to invade earth. Just think of the amount of time they'll save on vacuuming.

In other other news, here's the Language Log on the various meanings of being a bong. None of them, amazingly, involving a penchant for sickening sweets or a love of soccer.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Go Johnny go go go

Have I ever told you about the time I took guitar lessons?

I was seven. We were living in Jaipur at the time, in a small white house that stood facing what must, now that I think about it, have been just a very large undeveloped tract of urban land, but that I liked to think of as The Desert, if only because it made the front yard so much more fun to play in, knowing that mystery and adventure and brave expeditions were just across the street. The guitar lessons were in a house about three blocks from our place, on a sleepy side-street - not much of a walk, but the longest distance my parents had ever allowed me to walk unattended till then, so an important step in young Falstaff's march into the great unknown.

The reason I was having guitar lessons was that someone (I can't remember who now) had gifted me a guitar, and after several weeks of hearing me play what I desperately tried to convince myself were the opening chords to Here Comes the Sun, my parents figured I might as well learn how to play the damn thing properly. So there I was, trudging off to my guitar teacher every afternoon, burning with the desire to make music.

As it turned out, nothing ever really came of those lessons. The trouble, I think, was that the guitar teacher and I had very different ideas about how these lessons were supposed to go. My vision of the whole thing was that I would go sit with him for oh, say four days, at the end of which I would be able to play everything that George Harrison could, and then some. His idea was more that I would spend a month picking up what he called scales (what was I, a fishmonger's apprentice?) after which, over the period of a few decades, he would slowly but surely teach me to pluck my way through Zindagi ek safar hai suhaana. If I ever succeeded in mastering this little number (an eventuality clearly so far in the future that talking about it was little more than idle speculation) he would then proceed to teach me 'Western Guitar'. 'Western Guitar' it turned out (when he finally deigned to demonstrate it to me) was not the clear tripping notes of Anji, but something that sounded suspiciously like it may have come out of a Shammi Kapoor film.

The guitar teacher's appearance didn't help much. Okay, so I was only seven, and my exposure to the whole rock star thing was fairly limited. The 60's were a decade like any other and drugs were those things people took to turn into skeletons on Doordarshan. I'd never heard of Jimi Hendrix. I'm not even sure I'd heard of sex. But for all my relative innocence I had a more or less innate knowledge that musicians were supposed to be cool. Especially rock musicians. Okay, so cool was defined by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel wearing old sweaters and faded jeans with the Manhattan skyline behind them, but it wasn't, even then, about the clothes or the hairstyles. It was about the intensity that seemed to radiate from these people, a sort of quiet otherworldliness that was an intimation of poetry. So different from this skinny idiot wearing formal trousers and a too loose t-shirt. It's possible, even likely, that this teacher of mine was a competent guitar player. But some intuition inside told me he wasn't a musician.

Most of all, though, it was the song that did me in. This Zindagi ek safar hai suhaana thing. It was my guitar teacher's favorite song, god alone knows why (sentimental reasons, perhaps? A failed romance? he looked the type), and so he naturally assumed that everyone else would share his enthusiasm for it. I, unfortunately, had never heard the song before (it would be many years before I would have the dubious opportunity of actually watching it on Chitrahaar or some equivalent thereof [1]) and found it fairly annoying the first time I did. By the time I'd tried picking my way through it with my incredibly uncoordinated fingers (which, of course, are the other reason why I'm not out there right now, giving Eric Clapton a run for his money), I'd developed a hatred for it so overwhelming that to this day it makes Greensleeves sound sublime by comparison. The worst part was that while my teacher was completely unable to teach me how to play the damn thing, he did succeed in putting the tune so firmly in my head that for days afterwards I couldn't think of any other.

And it wasn't like I could just drown it out with something else. The only music player we had in the house was my dad's beloved record player, and precocious little seven year olds with their grimy hands and clumsy liable-to-drop-everything fingers weren't allowed to go near that. So there I'd be, trying desperately to remember how Day Tripper started, and coming up with nothing but the old dim-di-dum dim-di-dum dim-di-dum-dum. Aaarggghh!

Eventually we shifted to a different house and the difficulty of finding a new teacher, coupled with my (by this point) total disinterest in the whole guitar thing, meant that I never went back to having music lessons again. The guitar stayed with me for another ten years, gathering dust on top of the cupboard. Every six months or so, I would take it down, clean it carefully with a dry cloth (in the process managing to raise a minor sandstorm in my room), strike a pose, attempt to play something (on the theory that in the last six months my fingers may have magically discovered how to play a guitar, all by themselves, and hadn't bothered to tell me), remember that I never had learned to play, and put the guitar back on top of the cupboard. Eventually, as I recall, we gifted it to a neighbor, but by that point it was really just taking up space that I needed for other things (read: books).

I sometimes wonder how things would have turned out if I'd stuck with my lessons. Admittedly I used to wonder this a lot more in high school and college, when women all around me were going gah-gah about guys who could play guitar and misguidedly ignoring the fact that I could quote Eliot by the hour and had read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books. Still, it's sobering to think that if it hadn't been for an uninspiring teacher and a painfully cloying song, I could have been rich, famous and dead of a drug overdose by now. Ah, the sweet regrets of youth!

[1] For those of you who've never witnessed this horror, or may have forgotten, here's a reminder.

Poem: Pencil

Night after night
I sharpen the thought of you
like a pencil
but cannot get the point
fine enough.

Night after night
the pain shaves me so exact
that I could blunt
at your slightest touch
break at your lightest word.

You could use me
as a weapon
if you wanted one -
I could draw blood for you
I could hurt.

Night after night
I lie awake
like a compass
dreaming of the directions
your words could take.

There you go. And please, no jokes about putting lead in your pencil and / or Eraserhead. That really will be the straw that breaks the Camlin's back.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Mimi Khalvati

Spent part of the weekend reading Mimi Khalvati's 1997 collection Entries on Light. Some excerpts:

Light's taking a bath tonight
in the sea's enamelled
blue-rimmed bath, lying along
its length. Hair submerged
thighs and belly in mile-long
strips showing through white
between limbs and fingers
bluer depths.

Light's closing her eyes
not once but twice - once
face up, once facing down
from her ceiling mirror.
In the rising steam, the longest
bath earth's ever seen, closing
her lid on sea and sky till only
mist and vapour stir.


I hear myself in the loudness
of overbearing waves, you
in the soft retreat, if-and-but
of defeated sighs, the tug
that gets me nowhere.
It'll never end. Sound
of the sea - still Sappho's sea -
the yes-and-no of lovers.

Inland, I dreamt of hearing
waves again but here
sea in my ears, watching reds
of life-jackets, blues
of a hull and sails, recapture
in the yes-and-no of my own blood
only the to-and-fro of our endless
drift - my bed a beach, you said.

Everything I ever said about you
was true; but trueness
in that tone and at that pitch
never helps. How could we help
having loved elsewhere too much
and I don't mean other lovers
but homelands, other cultures
pulling oceans in their wake?


On a diving-board, against
a centrefold of sky they queued:
eyes rheumy, hair plastered, scars
whitening under welts of pus
and queue there still as if
in the after-image, sparkling off
into scythes of light, were the gold
and ground of every plunging replay.

Knowing replay is not countless
that water and its breaking
close on a lap behind them
was it for this that they
showed no mercy, shrieking, shoving
the weakest from the highest board
clowing about with variants
on the perfect fall from grace?

Wanting nothing less than a commandment
for themselves to hurl, shatter, resurface
into their features, for this they held
nose and breath, plummeting faster
than the speed of sight, fell and kept on
falling until, in the last recall
higher than the highest board, they froze
in that blue inhuman air.
Actually, had a gloriously poetry-filled weekend - spent much of it horizontal in the grass under a great spreading tree reading, in sequence, Mimi Khalvati, William Meredith, Mark Doty and Lynda Hull. Life is very, very good.

P.S. This is probably as good a time as any to express my appreciation for the folks at Carcanet. It's very rare to be able to pick up a book of poems, any book of poems, from a publishing press, secure in the knowledge that it'll be worth reading.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Hard to believe I was ever that young whelp

"Nothing to say, not a squeak. What's a year now? The sour cud and the iron stool. (Pause.) Revelled in the word spool. (With relish.) Spooool! Happiest moment of the past half million. (Pause.) Seventeen copies sold, of which eleven at trade price to free circulating libraries beyond the seas. Getting known. (Pause.) One pound six and something, eight I have little doubt. (Pause.) Crawled out once or twice, before the summer was cold. Sat shivering in the park, drowned in dreams and burning to be gone. Not a soul. (Pause.) Last fancies."

- Samuel Beckett, Krapp's Last Tape

2x3x7 turns two today.

I considered writing a post about it, then figured I couldn't do better than direct you to this most glorious and ineffable of all birthday poems.

Well, sort of.

Saturday, June 23, 2007


Someone is shooting hoops in the courtyard next door. Two or three people, from the sound of it. From where I sit, on the other side of the wall, I cannot see the players, only the ball soaring into the air again and again, awkward with gravity, trying to find the mouth of the basket to succumb to. Like someone fumbling towards speech, trying to put into words the beauty of this summer day.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Value of Bad Reviewers

Thank God for Manohla Dargis!

Here I was trying to decide whether I wanted to watch A Mighty Heart or not, and unable to make up my mind. After all, it's directed by Michael Winterbottom (good) but stars Angelina Jolie (bad). It's bound to be tragic and mournful (good) but in a sentimental, idealistic way (very bad). How to decide, how to decide?

And then Ms. Dargis comes out with a review praising the film and my decision is instantly made. Manohla Dargis liked it - therefore it must be avoided at all costs.

See how important bad reviewers are.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

You can't touch this

Via India Uncut, I come across this article about high schools in Mumbai banning holding hands, touching, etc. between students. Go read. Then answer the following question - between Mr. Rustom Kerawalla and Mr. N. Shah, who do you think never managed to get a date in high school?

These restrictions are ludicrous. It's not just that they won't work, or that by pushing things underground they reduce the opportunities for supervision. It's almost as if these people want their children to grow up with issues [1], want to create a generation of sexually frustrated men and women who have been so deeply programmed to define members of the opposite sex purely by their gender that they end up acting like they were visitors from another planet.

And what's with all this "this is not the proper time" business anyway? I would have thought that high school was the perfect time to be obsessing about relationships and sex. You've got plenty of free time, few (if any) responsibilities, a large pool of potential partners, all with pretty much similar motivations. You've got the hormones. And it's not like you're learning anything useful anyway. All you're studying is a lot of superficial gobbledy-gook, most of which you're never going to need again in your life and won't remember even if you do. Much better to be spending your time flirting with other people, falling in love, getting your heart broken and emerging from high school bitter and disappointed with relationships and ready to dedicate yourself to truly meaningful things like academics or poetry (clearly, I speak from experience). If you're looking for 'unhealthy' behavior, what you should be paying attention to is IIT coaching classes. A bunch of young men sitting around bragging about solving difficult problems from Irodov when they should be out in the beautiful world comparing penis sizes. Personally, I'd rather see the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness than by organic chemistry.

The trouble, of course, is that eventually people who spend their entire time in school just studying will wake up to the pointlessness of the whole thing. By the time that grim realization dawns, though, it's going to be too late for them to do anything about it themselves (by this time they're married, have had kids, etc.). So instead of doing the decent thing and running off with their secretaries, what they will do is sublimate their mid-life crises into silly rules for high schools. It's a vicious cycle.

If you ask me, what we need is to make dating a compulsory part of the school curriculum. Kind of like the whole prom thing, except with grades. After all, sooner or later, everyone's going to have to go out on a first date, so they might as well be prepared for it [2]. Students could practice things like picking the right restaurant, making small talk, managing the whole 'is it drinks, is it dinner' thing. They could do practicals in class. They could take each other out as homework. Before long, coaching classes would open up. Brilliant's would print a 4,397 page tutorial to help you practice dating. Fathers would shake their heads in disgust at Junior's report card, and say, "what is this? A D in pick-up lines! A D! I'm ashamed to call you my son". Mothers would say things like, "There you are again, wasting your time with these stupid physics books. You know Mrs. Aggarwal from 39B? She was telling me how her son is going out with two girls at the same time, and he's even got to second base with one of them. And he's just 15! And look at you! Sitting there, studying. Think about your future!" It would be all the things SUPW should have been, but wasn't.

Meanwhile, if you're one of the unfortunate kids stuck in one of these pathetic schools, try and look on the bright side. You probably haven't realized it yet, but these new restrictions represent a great opportunity. They mean that you can seamlessly blend the two great themes of adolescence - rebellion and sex. In the old days, if you tried to get a girl to make out with you, you were a sleazy horn dog. Now you're a committed revolutionary, dedicated to the subversion of a tyrannical system, and any woman who refuses is a fascist pawn. Go ahead. Be a revolutionary. You have nothing to lose but your clothes.

There's also, of course, the wonderful fact that the people who come up with these rules are so closed to the idea of homosexuality that they refuse to acknowledge it exists. Ironically, this means that if you are interested in people of your own sex, your life just got easier. With public displays of affection banned, there's less pressure to conform to heterosexual stereotypes and since it's unlikely that the authorities are going to pay much attention to touching / contact between members of the same sex, you're not going to be inconvenienced in any way. Plus there may be some perverse satisfaction in knowing that heterosexual couples have it as bad as you. As Nadya Labi points out in an article in the May issue of the Atlantic (only available to subscribers, I'm afraid), gay life flourishes in Saudi Arabia, despite it being punishable by death, because in a country where being seen in public with a woman you're not related to can get you into trouble, it's normal to see men spending all their time with men. And since all sexual activity is proscribed and invisible, there's much less social conditioning towards being straight. Sometimes irony is such a delightful thing.

P.S. I just realized that I titled this post with the lyrics from a MC Hammer song. Who am I? What have I done with the real me?

[1] Though to be fair, anyone who goes to a high school called Vibgyor is going to have issues anyway.

[2] Otherwise you end up with people (like me) - who can solve differential equations in their sleep, but get all awkward and nervous at the very thought of asking a woman out.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Fighting Trim

Scenes-we'd-like-to-see dept.

Preparations complete, Rambo readies himself to fire. His biceps glisten with sweat, his face is grimy with dirt. A long coil of cartridges wraps its way around his chest like a sleeping python. He hefts the two machine guns in his hands, pauses a moment to get his balance, then starts to shoot.

In front of him, the foliage erupts. Leaves vanish as if snatched away by an unseen hand, branches explode and are flung high in the air. The firing seems random at first, but every bullet in that deadly barrage of gunfire has its intended target. The massacre is merciless, unstoppable. When the guns are finally empty and the echo of their pounding has died away among the trees, Rambo looks at the results with satisfaction. There it is - a perfectly trimmed hedge.

Rambo smiles. He loves gardening. It's the one bright spot in his retirement. He puts the guns away, then reaches for the flame thrower.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

As odd as wearing shoes

Okay, so I know that two posts in a row linking to stuff I've put up elsewhere is just plain lazy, but it's been a long day and I'm too tired to write.

People who don't read much poetry are always telling me how they've tried but just don't get it - how it seems nice and all, but very distant from their lives. Every time I hear this, one of the first poems that comes to mind is Gregory Corso's Marriage - reproduced here on Poi-tre. It's a hilarious and whimsical poem, but it's also a poem that manages (at least for me) to reflect so many of my own anxieties, quirks and experiences, so that reading it is like seeing myself in a comically distorted mirror.

These are the thoughts of all men contemplating marriage in all ages and lands. Enjoy.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Out Stealing Horses

That's where I've been.

(And please, no Nakul jokes.)

It's a scary thing, but I find that sitting down to review a novel means that I actually get more out of it than I would otherwise. It's as though having to say something about it forces me to think more carefully about what the writer was trying to say, makes me look for connections to other books / poems, helps me to go beyond the mere fact of how I felt about the book to articulate what it was about the book that I liked or didn't like.

Ah, the examined life.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

A turn for the verse

Okay, so this one has been a long time coming.

Many people believe, I know, that I spend all my time reading books, watching movies, attending the occasional concert, and, most importantly, blogging about all of the above (taking the occasional break to fantasize about Nakul and Sahadev in bed). This is not true. Given the inordinate amount of time I save by not having either a job or a love life (and being an insomniac), I also manage, every now and then, to scribble a poem or two.

For some very important reason that I can't seem to recall just now, I've always been a little wary of putting any of these poems up on my blog. Maybe it's because distance is something that's so much harder to achieve in poetry. Maybe it's what R.S. Thomas calls an "impulse to conceal your wounds / From her and from a bold public / Given to pry". Or maybe it's just that they're not particularly good poems, and it's much easier to sit on your high horse and criticize other people's poetry when you don't have to acknowledge that you can't do better yourself [1].

At any rate, I've decided it's silly not to toss in the occasional poem or two, specially since this blog represents pretty much the only opportunity to have them see the light of day, and ending up alone at 50 with 3,000 poems on your hard-drive is even sadder than being the kind of emotional fuckwit who puts poems on a blog.

So I'm likely to be posting poems every now and then from here on. As I said, they're ordinary-verging-on-bad poems; actually, they're what I think of as one-night stand poems - the kind of poems you get all excited and intense about when you're writing them (usually late at night) but find really hard to respect the next morning. It's almost certainly self-indulgent of me to post them, and you'll probably hate them and stop reading this blog and I'll have to lure you back with theories about what the infant Krishna really had on his lips when his mother thought he'd been eating butter, but what the hell, here goes:

These poems

These poems are not thin enough
to be beautiful:
they do not hold themselves proudly,
curve in the right places,
stay poised in a crisis;
do not conform
to some stereotype of what
a poem should sound like.

Too plain to be cared for
and too simple to be ugly
they are content to play
second fiddle, step aside
for beauty when she arrives.

In the bar, at night,
they are never the ones
standing on the table,
singing along at the top of their voice;
rather they are the ones
who sit patiently in a corner,
waiting to be noticed,
listening sympathetically
to a stranger
and putting a hand on his arm
just to show
they understand.

They will be there
if you need them, though.
You have only to reach for them
and they will open to you like a book;
will sit alert by your bed all night,
ready to protect or console.

They will allow you to be selfish,
will allow themselves to be used
as mother, sister, friend;

they will always be faithful
to the love you never gave them.

[1] Not that I think being a good critic and being a good writer / artist are necessarily connected, but still.

Friday, June 15, 2007


The tap in his bathroom won't stop dripping. It goes on endlessly, repeatedly, drop after drop, mindless as a metronome, relentless as a clock. He lies awake for an hour listening to it drip, trying to out think it somehow, knowing that if he can manage to ignore it once, just once, he will stop noticing it altogether. But the sound of every drop reaches him clear as a bell, like the voice of some clerk running down an endless list, ticking things off. In vain he gropes in his head for some thin thread of sleep that will unravel his consciousness, blank out his mind. But all he finds is the regular, unnegotiable 'tip......tip' of the tap.

He storms into the bathroom, wrestles, for the third time this evening, with the faucet. Straining at it with every ounce of strength his 30 year old arms can muster, teeth clenched with effort. No use. The tap does not give at all, it is shut as tightly as possible, and still the water keeps leaking. He goes back into the bedroom and looks at the clock. 1 am. No chance of getting a plumber at this hour. He opens the cabinet under the washbasin, hoping to find a valve he can turn off to cut the flow of water to the tap. It'll mean bending down and reopening it every time he needs to use the sink, but it's worth it. He finds the valve, but it's rusted solid, won't budge an inch. Probably never been used since the damn thing was installed, way back when.

He emerges from under the basin, turns on the tap, washes his hands. Then tries shutting it again, thinking maybe this time it will close properly. He waits for the leftover drops to clear. No, it's still dripping. He tries forcing it again. Nothing. In frustration, he slaps his hand against the faucet assembly, hoping that will shake something loose. He feels like screaming at the basin, yelling "stop! stop!" at the top of his voice. But the walls are thin and the neighbors might hear.

The faucet continues to drip, insolent, uncaring.

He goes back to bed, puts a pillow over his head like a character in a cartoon. He feels suffocated by this but he needs to block out the sound. It doesn't help though. He can still hear it. He realizes that he's listening for it now. He realizes it's in his head, a steady tum-tum beat, insistent as a pulse.

Another hour passes. He's sitting up in bed now, listening to the drip. Every new drop feels like a weight added to his helplessness, a further weakening, a small infinity of waste. It makes him want to tear something, protest in some way. But he knows the drip cannot be answered.

At 3 am he thinks, to hell with the neighbors, rummages around in his CD case, puts a disc on the stereo. The sound of AC/DC singing 'You Shook Me All Night Long' fills the room. It drowns out the dripping tap. He draws a deep breath, sinks back into bed in relief. Three minutes later, with the song still screeching from his speakers, he falls asleep.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Brothers in Arms

Salacious-musings-about-the-Mahabharat department

The thing that's always puzzled me about the Mahabharat is why Nakul and Sahadev are in there. I mean, it's not like they actually do anything. My knowledge of the epic is admittedly sketchy, but as far as I can remember they never kill anyone important or say anything profound. They're as useless as a client team on a consulting project. Even relative losers like this Ashwathama dude are more critical to the overall story. Nakul and Sahadev are the R2D2 of the Mahabharat, only less funny.

My conclusion thus far has always been that they're straight men, included in the story to make their older, more successful brothers look good by contrast. It wouldn't do, after all, to have all the Pandav brothers be supernaturally gifted - it would strain the veracity of the story (ok, so we're talking about an epic where children learn to execute complex military maneuvers while in their mother's womb, but never mind). So you add in Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and everyone can think about their idiot younger brothers and relate.

Thinking about it though, it occurs to me that maybe the whole point about these two is that they're not straight men. Think about it. You've got these three hulking Kunti-putras, all strong, virile young men, and not one of them has the slightest chance of ever ending up in a relationship - Bheem is a neanderthal, Yuddhishtir can't tell a lie (which means the first time she asks him how she looks it's all over) and Mr. Oh-master-I-can-only-see-the-eye-of-the-bird Arjun is precisely the kind of sleazy jerk who keeps his eyes firmly fixed at a point south of your neck. Plus which they all still live with their mother. What self-respecting woman would date guys like this?

What, then, is a sexually frustrated mythical character to do? Enter Pretty Boy 1 and Pretty Boy 2. After all, every superhero needs his sidekick. Look at Achilles. Look at Batman. It's obvious when you think about it - Nakul and Sahadev are comfort brothers - sexual paramours generously provided by Kunti to keep her sons in good fighting trim. It explains so much doesn't it? The whole house of lac thing for instance. I mean, why would you go into a house made of a substance that melted and dripped when heated unless you were looking for some serious S&M? And the whole Draupadi thing. Think of it as one woman among five men and you have to wonder how come they didn't kill each other. Think of it as three couples with a lot of partner swapping and it's happy families all over.

At this point you're probably thinking, but wait, wouldn't that be incest? For starters, notice we're talking about a bunch of people who spend pretty much their entire lives trying to kill their first cousins (an ancient Vedic tradition now sadly lost to us), so you could argue that having sex with your brother is relatively tame by comparison. More to the point, though, notice that technically Nakul and Sahadev aren't related to the other three at all. Different mother, different father(s). So no problem there.

In Vyasa's original text, as I imagine it, this role of the two 'brothers' no doubt received a lot more attention. There were probably long descriptions of the duo's special...errr...talents and steamy scenes depicting their interaction with the Kunti-putras. Later versions of the text have, obviously, censored these out (along with anything else that smacks of homosexuality [1]), leaving us with these anemic, mild mannered younger brothers who just don't seem to fit in. Such a shame.

[1] I'm unconvinced, for example, that the Bhagavad Gita is really about Arjun's reluctance to fight the Kauravas. Consider the history of Arjun and Krishna together, their closeness, the way they go around setting whole forests on fire, the alacrity with which Krishna agrees to be Arjun's 'driver'. Look at the stock picture of the scene, with Arjun kneeling awed but also hesitant in front of a Krishna who stands upright, facing him. Read all that stuff about wanting action without fruit of action. Ask yourself whether anything in Arjun's character has suggested any reluctance whatsoever to go into battle, and then think about what else Krishna might be asking him to do that he might have qualms about, especially out on an open battlefield with all his family and gurus watching. Do I really have to spell this out for you?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The dailiness of weapons prescribed upon our bodies

Two poems you should read today:

The first Mahmoud Darwish's 'Don't Write History as Poetry' via Poetry Daily

The second Jeffrey Skinner's 'I've been working on the Railroad' via Slate

Oh, and if you're one of those people who believe good things come in threes, you could also check out Josh Wallaert's whimsical and enchanting 'Company' over at Agni Online.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Good, the Bad and the plain Dumb

Okay, so I may have finally watched the worst Western ever made.

Set in the snowbound mountains of the semi-old West, The Great Silence is the story of what seems like the entire male population of Northern Utah, who have had a price put on their heads (presumably on account of their wooden acting and god-awful fake american accents) and are now being mercilessly hunted by a gang of...errr...make that one ruthless bounty hunter. Into this mayhem of gunsmoke, desperate men and overacting women in low-cut dresses, comes Silence, a grim-eyed, steely jawed gunfighter who shall prove the champion of justice in this wild and barren land, wreaking six-shooter havoc on the evil bounty hunters [1]. Silence's general motto is to shoot first (though always in self-defense - a trick he manages by letting the other guy point a gun at him and then beating him at the draw) and not talk at all, which seems like a pretty cool idea until you realize that this means that bystanders have to fill you in on the story and explain what Silence was trying to say or do - all in the most grotesquely self-conscious dialog since Ben Hur. This is worse than a Spaghetti Western. It's more like what you end up with when you get a trained pasta chef to make grits.

Why was I watching it in the first place, you ask? Because it stars (and this is what makes the grown cine-fan in me want to break down and cry) Klaus Kinski and Jean-Louis Trintignant. That, to me, is more star power than Ocean's 13.

And what a sheer, senseless waste of talent it is. To be fair, Kinski does fine as a deranged psychopathic bounty hunter (aptly called Loco) - it's a role the man could sleepwalk through, and he delivers a performance that looks like a poor man's version of his role in Cobra Verde [2]. Trintignant, on the other hand, is hopelessly miscast as Silence. I mean, seriously, who makes a film with Trintignant in it where the man gets no dialog and is expected to stand around looking lethal (which, in his case, mostly means looking unshaven). Aaargghh!

[1] Why the gang of 'bandits' don't just kill off the bounty hunters (whom they seem to outnumber 10 to 1) is not clear. There's some talk about it ruining their chances for an amnesty, but such scruples don't seem to stop Silence much, and besides, you can't tell me that they couldn't just have the bounty hunters 'disappear'.

[2] This, of course, has its own problems - mostly because the plot repeatedly involves people believing Loco when he says he'll let them live and then being surprised / betrayed when he kills them after all. Never mind that you'd think they would figure this out eventually, can you seriously imagine anyone in his right mind taking one look at this man and thinking "he seems like a regular guy, I think I'll trust him with my life". Come on.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Microwave Dinners

Have you ever considered how unfair the movies are to microwave dinners. Anytime you see a character in a film eating one it's a sure sign that he / she has hit emotional skid row, is depressed and lonely and living out an empty meaningless existence [1]. Maybe they've suffered a bereavement and haven't found the mental strength to get over it. Maybe they're just losers who can't get laid. At any rate, it's pretty clear that microwave dinners are cinematic shorthand for a meal worse than death.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not a fan of microwave meals. (No, mom, I don't eat them all the time. Honest.) But I can't help feeling this is being a bit hard on them. They have their uses, you know. They're quick and convenient and while it's tempting to think of the alternative to an instant meal being delicious pasta made with interesting sauces, served with delicately chilled white wine and followed by a delectable little souffle, the simple truth is that most of us don't cook that well. I'll take grilled chicken breast and mashed potatoes over charred vegetables and partially cooked rice (which is the best I can manage in five minutes) any day of the week thank you. And I mean, the companies that make these things sell millions of them everyday. You can't tell me that there are millions of people staring into their dinners and realizing (often to the plaintive though inexplicable sounds of jazz) that they're in deep existential crisis all across the country every day of the week.

So here's the scene I'd like to see. Hero walks in from a day at work, all excited because he's managed to get his hands on, say, the new Haruki Murakami novel. Suddenly he realizes that he hasn't thought about dinner. He could go out and eat but that will take ages. He could try to cook something, but that would also mean significant amounts of time in the kitchen, plus given that his head is all full of Tokyo diners and conversations about jazz (he's read the first chapter of the book in the New York Times) he'll probably mess it up. In desperation, he opens his freezer and smiles with relief. Yes, he still has a microwave dinner in there. He pops it into the microwave and starts on his book. Five minutes later the microwave beeps. Two minutes after that, and in between chapters, he whisks the tray out and grabs a fork. He eats absently, barely looking at his food (except the occasional glance when his fork doesn't come up against anything solid). By the time he's done eating he's already on page 46. Throwing the tray away he sighs with contentment. That was efficient.

It's only in the middle of chapter 9 that he remembers that he shouldn't have thrown the fork away.

[Based on a true story]

[1] Though usually in a spotlessly clean kitchen. Which is the other thing I don't get. What sort of psychopath eats a microwave meal for dinner, but takes the time to polish the knobs on his / her microwave?

Friday, June 08, 2007


She likes her coffee sweet. Very sweet. Three sachets of sugar at least, four if it's a grande. It makes life difficult, this habit of hers, especially in cafes like this one where they give you the sugar with the coffee instead of placing a bowl of it on the table. She has to ask for more, has to explain that she wants not just one more sachet but two or three. The waiters always look at her as if she's crazy. She used to find this embarrassing, even tried going without the extra sugar a few times. Now she doesn't care.

Friends who know of her sugar addiction ask her why she drinks coffee in the first place. Why not go for something less bitter, they say, like tea or hot chocolate. She shakes her head at them. She tells them she needs the caffeine to keep her awake, but this is a lie. She drinks coffee because it is coffee, one of life's fundamentals, as integral a part of being a grown-up as owning a car or falling in love. She wouldn't give up on it for anything. Never mind that she doesn't like the taste. Drinking anything else would be a cop-out.

Besides, it isn't sweetness she's after. It's bitterness, it really is, the dark, distilled flavor of a disappointment that everyone shares. It's just that she likes hers sweet. She knows it doesn't make sense when she puts it in words like that, but it's how she feels. It's like the people who read classics in their abridged versions, or fall asleep at the opera. Experience matters even if you don't enjoy it. It's all about being there.

No one else will understand, of course. That's why she's taken to drinking coffee alone - just to avoid the questions, the comments, the stupid jokes. That's why she's sitting here, Friday night, table for one, reading her second hand copy of Madame Bovary. This is not a time or a place where people are alone - all around her the tables are occupied by couples out on dates, or small groups of friends inaugurating the weekend with laughter - and she feels people stare at her, with that mix of curiosity and compassion we reserve for those whose motives we do not understand. Occasionally she feels the eyes of some man watch her speculatively. She is not unattractive, she knows, she could get a date if she wanted to. But it would mean explaining about the sugar in the coffee, would mean being thought either foolish or sentimental or both, and she no longer has the strength for explanations or for being misunderstood. So she just sits there, book in hand, discarded sachets of sugar scattered across the table, tasting the sweetness of her black coffee and wondering what time the cafe closes.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Laundry Room - Alt Take

Shit, she thought, as she opened the door of the dryer and saw the pink stains on her clothes, he'd done it again. Put the coloreds in with the whites. Even though she'd told him repeatedly not to. This is why, she told herself, one should never trust a man to do the laundry.

And why not tell her about it, she thought, as she took the clothes out of the dryer and put them in the basket. He must have noticed the stains when he took them out of the wash. Couldn't he just have put them back to wash then? Or at least told her that he'd made a mistake. Why just put them in the dryer and say nothing about it? Did he think she wouldn't notice?

The dryer was empty now. No sign of whatever red or pink garment had dyed the other clothes. Of course. After he realized what had happened he must have sorted them out and put the offending cloth in with the other coloreds. What a child he was sometimes.

She emptied the other dryer. Blues, greys, greens. Nothing red. But there had to be, didn't there? She riffled through the pile again, carefully. Nothing. She stood back, looking puzzled. Had she missed it? Had he put it in the with the whites after all? Was it still in the first dryer?

She went back to the dryer, bent over, peeked in. Empty. As she stared into it, though, she noticed a thin trickle of red running along the back. It seemed to be coming from the top of the dryer. She straightened up and stared at the top dryer. The indicator showed it was empty, but the door was shut. Maybe someone had left their clothes in there? Maybe they were leaking? Though if they'd been in the dryer they shouldn't still be wet. She looked around. The laundry room was empty, as it usually was at this time of the night. She opened the door of the top dryer, peered in. Then she began to scream.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


There's an open air screening of a film just below my building. I'm not sure what they're showing but it sounds overwrought and old-fashioned, one of those kitschy period dramas harking back to a time when women were women and men wore leotards. Strains of rousing orchestral music waft to my window. I can't make out the dialog from up here, but I can hear the sound of the voices - the plaintive cry of the distressed damsel, the snarl of the villain, the jaunty bravado of the hero. They tell me all I need to know.

It's a thin crowd out there. Fifteen, maybe twenty people. I wonder if they see me watching them. I stare down at them as they sit engrossed in their film, the light from the screen making their faces flicker like pale moths. It's like looking down into a cathedral, or like shining a flashlight into a very dark well, the beam of it dancing over a school of very small fish.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Laundry Room

There's something different about the laundry room tonight. Something deliberate, almost propitiatory. As though I were a priest performing some sacred rite in this sanctum of white, glass-faced gods.

It hits me as I start to load the clothes into the dryer. No one else is using the laundry room! I don't mean just that there's no one else here, putting their clothes into the machines or waiting for them to be done. I mean that they're all empty - the washers, the dryers - all waiting with their mouths open, staring vacantly at each other.

This has never happened before. There's always someone else. It's a big building, after all. Even when I'm down at 1 in the morning (trying to avoid the long waits for the dryer) there's always at least one other load of clothes being processed. But today there's nothing. That's why it seems so eerie in here. It's the silence, the complete lack of any mechanical noise. As though the air had returned to some earlier innocence.

I tell myself it's not surprising. It's summer after all, most students have gone home. The building's almost empty. Besides it's a weeknight and it's late. Still, there's something sinister about the quiet. As though I were the last person left alive in the city. Perhaps even in the world. All of mankind wiped out by aliens or disease or some other unknown calamity and here I am, with my thin sheet of fabric softener and my cheap plastic basket, doing laundry. Seen through the lens of this apocalypse my actions seem useless, absurd. The last doomed gesture of civilized man. This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with five quarters rattling in a slot and Permit Press turned off.

I'm being silly, I know. But something about the blankness of this suddenly unpeopled room makes me want to stay here, waiting. As if the room might disappear behind me if I went away now. I pull a chair from the corner, sit down. I'm not sure just what I'm waiting for. My dryer cycle to get over? Someone else to come and relieve me? Stranded in my vigil I watch the one running dryer, the metal cylinder turning and turning endlessly while my clothes, trapped inside, assemble and disassemble, rise and fall. A collection of images, vaguely human-shaped, flickering behind the glass.

Ogre Shmogre

[minor spoilers]

The trouble with making fun of cliches is that if you keep doing it long enough you end up becoming one yourself. That, at any rate, is the Evil Fate that seems to have befallen the Shrek franchise, whose third outing is every bit as banal and predictable as the Disney features it attempts to lampoon. Oh, Shrek and co. are still trying to be as non-Disney as possible - fair damsels are still kicking ass; fairy tale characters are still making wisecracks and the hero is still, well, an ogre - but the point is that they're trying to be non-Disney, it's not coming naturally. What was fresh to the point of being revelatory in the first Shrek film now feels old and used. It's not just that the jokes in this new film are thin on the ground, it's also that you can see them coming seven leagues off.

Which is not to say the new film is entirely without merit. There are a couple of hilarious scenes (involving some old rock favourites) and an amusing take on the Arthur legend, complete with a New Age Merlin (though curiously missing the sword in the stone); but the plot is flimsy to the point of incoherence, the dialogue trite, the jokes forced and the ending about the lamest thing in animation since Bambi. If the seven dwarfs were still around, they'd be walking around singing "Ho hum! ho hum! once more to work we come".

Worst of all, hard as they try to deny it, the scriptwriters have turned sentimental on us. The original Shrek film had genuine Attitude [1], this one feels like the work of middle aged suburbanites trying desperately to be cool. There's a point in the film where the young Arthur runs from Shrek shouting "Help! Help! I'm being chased by a monster trying to relate to me". We know exactly how he feels. When you get to the point where the most threatening thing the hero of a fairy tale is faced with is imminent fatherhood, you can't help wishing that you, too, were Far Far Away.

Hopefully, this is the end of the franchise. If I have to sit through an hour and a half of Shrek Four: Toilet Training I swear I'm going to have to go find the old torch and pitchfork.

[1] yes, with the capital.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Lover of Ghosts

"True love is like a ghost; everyone talks of it, few have seen it."

- La Rochefoucauld
He no longer fears the darkness. Ruined castles, haunted manors, even the sudden scream howling out of the night - all these hold for him no terror. Having seen the real thing, having experienced its absolute power, he no longer fears the apparitions of the mind, its shadows, its superstitions.

It is not, with him, a question of belief. It is a matter of need. When the day returns, he wanders through the sunlight like a man saved from a most exquisite drowning, like a man reluctant to commit himself to breath.

He eats little, talks to no one. The horror stories he picks up in bookstores seem phoney, feigned. He attends matinees like seances, sitting in the back of the movie theatre, watching the images dance on the screen. The stories themselves mean little to him; he is seeking a mirror for his own feelings, that expression of the face, that look in the eyes.

But it is all false, false! He is like a man who stands outside the window of a closed shop, his hands against the glass, trying to imagine some violence that would let him in.

When they say he looks haunted he laughs.

They have begun to be frightened of him - the children, the young women. They are startled by the intensity of that presence, those dreadful eyes. They dare not approach him, do not know how. He for his part finds them too fleeting, too grounded in the here and now. They do not interest him.

When he thinks back on that night the vision appeared to him, he curses himself for turning away from it, for running away. How petty his fears seem now, how banal this life he sought to keep safe.

Unable to sleep, he wanders the corridors of his building, searching for some whisper of that other existence, that deeper thrill. Unaware that in the haze of his search he himself has become so fearful a specter, that no ghost dare come near.

Weekend Poetry

Feeling too lazy to blog, so here's a selection of poems that I read this week:

You can tell from across the intersection
who's listening to a love song:
windows rolled up, eyes shut to the red light,
heart idling a little too high - like that woman
in the soundproof studio of her Mazda,
swaying, shaking a moan out of her hair, mouthing
reckless stanzas she really needs
for him to know.

Anyone else can see he isn't there, that he left
early by another route and is skirting
this crossroads of Main and Easy Broad -
A horn startles her, and she
steadies her face, shifts, turns
down the long, thin road toward tonight,
that place where she'll wear her ache like a small
accessory, an edgy brooch
or silk scarf the color of his eyes.

Well, go on, cast the first laugh, but,
after the crushed orchid of the slow dance
and the duet of the shaky ceremony,
have you ever slipped into a love song
anything but alone?

Haven't you had your own episodes
of Ella, lapses into Janis, Top Hit
spasms of honesty speeding away
from the one you loved?
You've never been willing to say
what you've been willing to sing.

Even last night, sunk
in a soft, late chair, you chose a chanteuse,
and, gazing in the mirror of her burgundy voice,
you believed each trompe le coeur she made
with a handful of rhymes and the frank
companionship of a sax.

You wanted to let love have its way
with your words. You wanted to
drown out the bitter
medicine of the moon and jilt
the careful silence, embracing

the naked cry
shameless in another throat.

- Lynn Powell, 'You don't know what love is' from Zones of Paradise

I have seen the arrested shrub
inform the crag with grief.
Lichens crust the rocks with red.
Thorns punctuate the leaf.

Sorrow is not a desert
where one endures the other—
but footing lost and halting
step. And then another.
- Heidy Steidlmayer, 'Scree' in Poetry

(see also, Mary Jo Bang's 'You were you are elegy')

After the drowning
the calming waters come
closing a whole that never
Why not take the Champagne flute
dip it in the salty cold
and drink a toast
to all
that never was

- Nikki Giovanni, 'After the Drowning' from Acolytes

Saturday, June 02, 2007

By Belenos! & Billions of Blue blistering barnacles

Okay, will everyone please leave my favourite childhood comic books alone.

First we have this article on Tintin in last week's New Yorker (not available online, sorry), where Anthony Lane points to a body of scholarly research (yes, you heard me right, scholarly research) which examines Tintin in the context of Freud, Derrida, Sartre and others, and comes to the conclusion (among others) that "the jewel embedded in the title of 'The Castafiore Emerald' is, in fact, Bianca Castafiore's clitoris." I mean seriously, wtf? [1]

And then you have this stupid controversy about Asterix being too 'monocultural'. It's enough to make you wish that the sky would fall on our heads.

Seriously, people, grow down!

[1] You have to hand it to Lane though. Who else could write a sentence like "Jean-Marie Apostolides, who states that the hero of the early stories 'annihilates himself in the absolute' which may be another way of saying that he keeps falling through trapdoors."

Friday, June 01, 2007

Out of Order

It's scary how a quick trip back to India can be a major setback for my ordering skills [1]. Three weeks away and I've already been reduced to that state of barbaric bumpkinness where you have to be asked whether you want that with black or pinto beans.

Like the trip to the Starbucks yesterday. Having finally got to the counter (after the lady in front of me had spent a quarter of an hour agonising over the major life decision of what to order - because you know what they say about latte in haste repent at leisure) I not only failed to place my order in the fifteen word, no-pause-for-breath, rapid fire that is the mark of the true Starbucks connoisseur, I actually had to be asked what size I wanted AND (oh, the shame!) ACTUALLY FORGOT to order non-fat. Talk about senility.

And let's not even mention my visit to the local Subway. That's just too embarassing. Let's just say that there was a point where the woman behind the counter asked me what I wanted on my sandwich and I actually paused to think about it. I suppose it's only a matter of time before I have to start wearing a tag around my neck with my name and address so when they find me wandering around in the park muttering 'jalapenos...and olives...and, uh, those green things' they can take me by the hand and steer me gently home.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go practise saying "6 inch chicken teriyaki on Italian Herbs & Cheese with Provolone" very rapidly in the mirror. Wish me luck.

[1] Rapid-fire ordering, is of course, the mainstay of all civilised society. Doctors in the US routinely test reaction time by shouting "what kind of salsa" in their patient's ear and checking how long it takes him / her to respond [2]. In the Wild West, I'm told, belligerent cowpokes now challenge each other to quick order contests, with the most fearsome subslingers being capable of ordering a complete sandwich (with drinks and a side) in a fraction of the second. "What was it killed him, doc?" "I need to get my scales to be sure, Sherrif, but I'd say it were a 6'' tuna on rye. Got him plumb between the eyes too." "And him not even packing any mustard. The goddamn bushwhacker".

[2] All except the sadists, who can't get over the thrill of hitting the patients knee with a hammer.