Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Last Word

Isn't it interesting how some people just love to have the last word?

Take this woman who works at the check out counter of the deli where I pick up lunch from everyday. A standard conversation with her goes like this:

Check-out counter woman (CCW): "Here's your receipt. Thank you."

Falstaff: "Thanks"

CCW: "You're welcome. You have a nice day."

F: "Ya, you too"

CCW: "Thank you. You take care now."

F: *restraining urge to say "You too" again*: "Uh-huh"

CCW: "Goodbye!"

One of these days I swear I'm just going to keep answering her back. We'll probably stand around for hours exchanging pleasantries (shifting gradually from "You have a nice day" to "You have a nice night") while an endless queue of customers lines up behind us. I'm just curious to see how long she can keep it up, how many meaningless platitudes she can come up with. It should be fun.

More generally, of course, this whole last word business is one of the trickiest problems in human discourse. It's always hard to draw that line, isn't it - to know at what point to say "this person is just not going to get it, I've said everything I wanted to say and I think it's clear enough, I'm just not going to waste my time on this anymore". It's not so much that you want to win - it's more that you worry that the other person will think that he or she has won, that he or she has managed to convince you. That despite your best attempts they will continue to believe what it suits them to believe, never mind logic.

Not, of course, that all last-word one-upmanship is combative. The last word problem is true even of friendly / affectionate interaction. The "I shall say goodnight till it be morrow" problem. The 'waving-goodbye-who's-going-to-turn-away-first' problem. The 'he/she paid me a compliment now I have to pay him / her one' problem.

Somewhere out there, I'm convinced, there's a parallel universe where people have never learnt to break off contact. All through this alternate world, people are locked in endless cycles of praise or disagreement. Havesham-like bridesmaids are standing outside churches complimenting each other on their hairstyles and clothes, even as their dresses turn to tatters, and ivy starts to climb up their feet. Political leaders are planning counterstrikes to avenge strikes by other policitical leaders who were only trying to avenge strikes by the original political leaders, etc. (Fortunately, none of these strikes are actually doing any damage, because all the soldiers on either side are too busy saluting each other to actually fight). Love-struck couples are still staring deeply into each other's eyes and whispering "I love you", except that by this point it's more like they're screaming it in exasperation and occassionally hitting each other over the head with a blunt object to drive home the point. Proud parents are desperately thinking up stories to prove that their stupid tykes are smarter, cuter and more well-behaved than their neighbour's little tykes. Said little tykes are meanwhile beating each other up screaming "you started it!" "No, you started it!". The only people who are not going endlessly back and forth are the ping-pong players, who finished their game 29 years ago and are still waiting for someone to come along and give them their medals.

Sometimes I'm not even sure that's a parallel universe.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

If we had world enough: Opposition & Choice in Social Activism

(Warning: This is another one of my holier-than-thou, musings on life pieces. Just so you know.)

Scenario 1:

You're driving a friend back to her place. She tells you to turn right from the next intersection. You point out to her that turning right there will involve going miles out of the way and is the wrong way to go to get to her house. You're much better off turning left. She immediately accuses you of being opposed to getting her home. She wants to know why you have this discriminatory attitude towards her house. She says you have vested interests because it happens to be your car. That you're secretly planning to abduct her. Not once in all this does she tell you why she thinks turning right may the best way to go.

Scenario 2:

Your school-going nephew is setting up a stall in his school fete. He wants to make enough money out of the stall to buy the latest Playstation (or whatever other meaningless thing kids today crave). His big plan is to sell cars from this stall. His logic is that a) people buy cars b) people make money selling cars. What could possibly go wrong? He wants you to come stand in the stall and help. You point out to him that you don't think anyone is going to buy a car from a school fete. He wants to know why you're against his making money. He feels that you must not want him to be financially independent so you can keep him dependent on your for presents. He accuses you of being useless and unsympathetic to his cause.

Sounds ridiculous doesn't it? Yet these are exactly the kind of arguments I find myself repeatedly getting into on the blogosphere. Take a stand against reservations (because you think it's a meaningless measure that will not help the truly backward) and you're automatically elitist and unconcerned with the plight of the deprived. Criticise some feminist rant (because you think it's doing more harm to the feminist cause than good), and it's obvious that you don't wish to contribute to the fight for gender equality, that you don't care, that you think it's not your problem and that you probably don't understand feminism in the first place.

Well I for one am sick of it. So, three points:

1. Who's not for you is NOT against you

Silence is not consent. Inaction is not support. Just because you don't go out of your way to protest something doesn't make you culpable for it. That's just the kind of irrational guilt people want to thrust on you so they can manipulate you for their own ends.

The reality is that we're all implicated in a thousand social and political evils. Global warming, species extinction, destruction of biodiversity, poverty, AIDS, sectarian violence, genocide, rape, murder, illiteracy, malnutrition, gender equality, gay rights, abortion, nuclear arms - the list of causes that we could all potentially contribute to is endless. In an ideal world, of course, we would all actively seek ways to cure these ills, we would all be out there everyday trying to do our bit for the planet. Obviously though, that's not realistic. What we can (and should) do is prioritise - pick the two or three causes that we feel we want to fight for, and take active (or semi-active) steps to contribute to them. For all the others, we can only hope to give them our tacit support - signing petitions, voting for political actors whose view on these issues is consistent with our own, ensuring that we ourselves and those around us are not acting in ways inconsistent with our views on these topics. And that's it. This doesn't mean that we're condoning these problems, or that we're against the people trying to solve them. It simply means we're human and can only do so much.

That brings us to a second question, though. How do we choose the one or two issues that we do choose to support? Obviously, criteria for choice will vary, but I suspect a few trends may be general. First, we will tend to choose causes that influence our lives most directly, and where our own interests might conceivably be at stake. Second, we tend to choose causes where we believe we can make a real difference - either because there are specific things we can do that would seem to have real results, or because there is too little support for the issue and therefore our voice could make a much larger marginal difference. Third, we may choose causes where we believe that the leaders of the movement have a well-thought out, realistic plan that we approve of. If we happen to like the leaders of the movement, if we feel a sense of solidarity with them (even if our own interests are not directly at stake) so much the better.

Obviously, the factors above come together in some sort of notional weighted average, so that one may partially compensate for the other. So for instance, if we really have strong emotional reasons for caring about a cause then we may choose to set up our own initiative if we feel that current initiatives are rubbish. But the fact that we don't do so, doesn't mean that we don't care at all - it just means that we don't care enough to set up our own NGO - though we may well care enough to contribute if someone came up with a plan that we thought was worth doing.

2. Disagreement with means is not disagreement with ends

There's an even more pernicious version of the 'If you're not for us you're against us' formulation though. It's the 'If you're not for our specific proposal, you're against everything we're trying to achieve' argument. That's just silly. Agreement on ends does not guarantee agreement on means. It is not inconsistent to agree with what someone is trying to achieve but disagree violently with how they want to achieve it. In fact, that's a large part of the point of public debate. If anything, it's precisely the people who agree with your objectives who are least likely to be impressed by your good intentions.

Meaningful discussion of public issues doesn't just involve agreement on what the problem is, it also involves an objective yet critical evaluation of various availabe solutions. It involves asking the questions - will this work (why / why not)? Could it be done more effectively and efficiently? Is it ethical? What are the consequences it has for other people? How should it be communicated? Assuming it's worth doing, how should it be implemented? What factors will aid or threaten it? Details matter, and any or all of these questions could be the basis for criticising a movement or a point of view whose end objective you agree with. That doesn't mean you're against progress. That doesn't mean you're trying to sabotage the end-goal. It just means that you refuse to participate in a false solidarity that will involve you in a compromise that you're unwilling to make, or cause you to lend support (or seem to lend support) to a set of actions you don't agree with. And it means that you're interested in finding a real solution to the problem, rather than acceding to whatever incoherent rhetoric you might be expected to subscribe to.

3. The attention budget

You could argue, of course, that as long as the different means are non-contradictory, why bother to debate. Why not go ahead and implement both. This is the 'you agree to my proposal and I'll agree to yours' argument. The trouble is that political and social capital is rarely infinite. In most cases we have just enough resources, just enough energy, just enough momentum to implement one or two key initiatives at a time. Which is why it's so important that we choose wisely, prioritising the projects that will make a difference over those that sound nice but will achieve nothing. That is why we need to question the efficiency and efficacy of every action we take for a cause. Doing the wrong thing, or doing something that's ineffective is not costless. There are multiple opportunity costs involved: the cost of lost time, as we implement projects in sequence or wait for the results of previous projects to come in; the cost of lost resources - especially man-hours and socio-political support, all of which may take time and effort to replenish; the cost of disenchantment among supporters and loss of credibility among external stakeholders.

The analogy of a budget line is an apt one. Socio-political initiative is limited, which is why we must spend it in ways that maximises the total utility for the parties we are concerned with.

Notice that this issue of a 'budget constraint' is closely linked to the 'choice of causes' mentioned under point 1. If effectiveness is one of the criteria by which people choose social programs to support, then programs that can demonstrate that they have a clearly thought out action plan will, ceteris paribus, end up attracting more support. This in turn will make their chances of success greater, thus attracting even more support and setting off a virtuous cycle. By contrast, movements where so called leaders can do little more than offer vague platitudes and general exhortations, will be seen as not worth investing in, even by people who implicitly care about their aims.

Again, you could argue that this is unfair. That you should evaluate social causes on the basis of the seriousness of the problem, not the ease of the solution. There are two problems with this. First, it's pretty hard to find a basis on which to choose between social causes based purely on the merits of the problem. Is the AIDS epidemic more concerning than rape? Is education more important than choice about abortion?[1] The second problem is that it's just naive to expect people to go out of their way to think through possible solutions to every problem and then pick the one they want to pursue. Realistically, there's a market for social attention, and causes that compete most effectively in that market, that do a good job of 'selling' themselves and generating support and buy-in from well-meaning citizens, are the ones that will win out. The rest will just not get solved. And the faster champions of a particular cause realise that, the quicker they're going to be able to solve the issue they're concerned with.


[1] Of course, there will always be some people who will have strong emotional reasons for preferring one cause over all others. They're what I could call cause-loyal consumers. My point is that those people are going to support you anyway. What you really need to do is build alliances with people who don't think that this is the one and only issue in the world, and convince them that your cause is where their contribution would deliver the most value.

Monday, May 29, 2006

The War of the Poets

Via the New York Times, this link to a fun contest that pits two poets 'against' each other (well, not really, but you know), giving them an inspiration for a poem and 15 minutes to write the poem in. Good stuff. Aristophanes would have been so proud.

The inspiration for the first contest was Elizabeth Bishop's paragraph about how poetry is an unnatural act. You can read the final poems on the contest's website. I thought Moss's version was interesting, but Muldoon's was crap (it wasn't a bad poem, exactly, it just had almost nothing to do with the inspiration).

Never one to give up on a challenge, I figured I'd try my hand at it too - obviously, I have no way of proving that I wrote this in 15 minutes, so you'll just have to take my word for it*.

Poetry is an unnatural act

Like sodomy.

Both impress by inflicting pain.
Both are concerned with the penetration of life,
With the forcing of one's emotions
Onto something external -
Whether page or ass.

Both are acts of desperation
Perpetuated by aging, lonely men
Hungry for love
Who seek innocence by betraying it,
Achieving climax in another's tears.

Both are misunderstood.
* To be honest, it was probably more like 16 and a half, but I'm giving myself a little leeway for the fact that I was in the middle of lunch when I started thinking about the 'topic', and it was only some five minutes later that I thought - hey! maybe I should try this. So the actual writing of the thing probably took about 10.

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Sunday, May 28, 2006


Imagine a jigsaw puzzle of, say, 10 million pieces (or equivalently, 10 identical jigsaw puzzles of a million pieces each). Each piece is a perfect square, 1 cm x 1 cm, and all the pieces are completely blank, except that at the back of each piece there is a serial number. Imagine that this entire puzzle is to be contained in a frame 50 m long and 20 m wide. Imagine that a man starts to work on this puzzle when he is still a teenager, carefully selecting each piece before he fits it into place (since all the pieces are identical, the serial numbers are irrelevant - he makes his 'choice' of which piece to fit independent of them). Say it takes him a minute to decide which piece to fit next. Working an average of 10 hours a day - corresponding to a 12 hour work day with breaks for coffee, lunch, etc. (but taking no time off for weekends or holidays), it would take the man almost 46 years to complete this puzzle. At the end of that time, he would have created an original work, an arrangement of the 10 million pieces in an order that, on a purely statistical basis, would be unlikely to have ever been or be replicated by anyone else, even if there were, say, 6 billion other people working on a similar jigsaw puzzle. This would be his masterwork, the one thing that was truly and inalienably his own, the one thing that made him unique.

And yet, to an observer, it would be utterly indistinguishable from the 6 billion other such jigsaws being assembled all around him.


Next, imagine a game of scrabble where all the tiles are blanks. What word would you choose to place on the board first, assuming you were the first to move. What word do you think your partner / opponent would choose? How would you respond to him or her? What words would you never use? What words would you have to?

And when the board had all filled up with these imaginary letters, and no further words were possible, how would you score the game, given that blanks are worth nothing? Who would you say had won?


Imagine that we return to the jigsaw puzzle. Except this time the pieces (still blank, still numbered on the reverse) come in three different shapes, and can be combined only in certain ways. Moreover, there is no frame now, just a flat, limitless surface on which these pieces may be arranged.

You will say that this is no longer a jigsaw puzzle, but a game of building blocks, because the puzzle can now take on (within the limits imposed by the symmetry of the pieces) any shape the man chooses. This may be true, but the man does not see it that way. He is not looking to create a shape of his own, he is trying to discover the right shape that is hidden in the puzzle and that he knows exists though he does not have a picture of it (the game is borrowed from a friend, who has thrown away the box it came in and which contained, it is rumoured, an illustration of what the completed game should look like). This is the challenge the game has set him. That is the challenge he has set himself.

How is the man to proceed now? Suppose he lays out the game (taking, once again, a little under 46 years) and he gets the shape wrong. How would he know? Would someone tell him? And even if they did, could he correct the game once he found out? Could it be that just rearranging a few of the pieces would set it right? Or would he have to start all over again? (And would he have the time to do this? And how would he know how to get it right the second time around?)

Most importantly, though, where should he start?


Imagine a game of chess. Imagine that all of the pieces move the way they do in a standard chess game, except that it is not possible for any piece to retreat - a piece can move forward or sideways (forward implying, of course, towards the opponent's side) but not back. The only way that a piece can go back in the direction it has come from is to switch allegiance - go over to the enemy. An infinite number of such acts of treachery are allowed, however. Each piece can prove turncoat as often as it chooses, and at any point in the game - its change of side is to be negotiated between the two players any way they choose.

Is there a way to win this game (assuming that both players are playing to win)?

Next, assume that we add a further twist to the game described above. Assume that the rules of combat are reversed - that the objective is to not land in a square that is already occupied by an opponent's piece. This is a game of avoidance. Any piece that lands in a piece that is already occupied is removed from the board.

Is there a way to win this game?


Finally, back to the jigsaw puzzle again. A smaller puzzle this time, say only 100,000 pieces. All perfect squares, 1cm x 1 cm, a frame of 5 metres x 2 metres being provided. Only this time the pieces are not blank, but every piece is a very marginally different shade of blue. The pieces are not numbered or marked in any way, and the player can tell the difference between each piece only through visual inspection.

Obviously, it is now possible (at least for a careful observer) to tell all the different arrangements of the puzzle apart - because each will have its own distinct colour scheme. How is the man to go about his task now? Should he strive to discover a pattern in the colouring or create one? Should he try to match shade to shade, so as to produce an even gradation of colour (and if so, in what direction) or should he seek to dazzle by contrast? Should he use the fact that he now has only 1/100th as many pieces as he had earlier to spend more time making the decision on each piece (potentially spending as much as an hour and forty minutes on each one)? Or should he try to stick to his normal pace, and give himself the option of starting over (up to a maximum of a 100 times) if the puzzle doesn't come out right the first time?

Say he does the latter. How is he to compare one arrangement to another? What criteria is he to use? How is he to remember his prior arrangements well enough to be even able to compare?

And suppose that he does manage to do 99 of these arrangements, and decide, by some means which one of them was the best one. Unless it happens to be the 99th arrangement, how is he to reconstruct, exactly, the one that he preferred?


Saturday, May 27, 2006


(This is the second story that I submitted for the e-author contest.)

He is halfway to his office, walking along peacefully, when he first notices them. The windows. Watching him, staring at him. Not people in the windows, you understand, but the windows themselves, their hollow, malevolent eyes tracking him as he passes by. The vacancy of their apprehension frightens him, the way their shadowy pupils accept his image and release it, without comment, not even bothering to pretend that he has made an impression. His reflection sliding easily off the world. Here and there, it is true, a pane will wink at him coyly, the sunlight in its eyes dancing with amusement. But for the most part the windows are dull, zombie like, their eyes those of a creature who comes alive only at the sight of prey.

There is no way to avoid them, of course. They are everywhere. He can feel himself being watched, can feel their scrutiny closing in on him from every side. This is how a goldfish must feel in its bowl. He lowers his head, walks on, his eyes glued tightly to the sidewalk. Perhaps if he does not return their glance they will lose interest in him. He can still feel their eyes boring into him though. They are not giving up.

How has he not noticed them before? He has been walking this route for four years now. He looks up, studies the faces of the people going by on either side. They don’t seem to have noticed. Could it be that he’s imagining it? He risks a quick glance. No, there it is, that window was staring back at him, no doubt about it. Could it be that this has always been true? That he simply hasn’t noticed it, till now, because no one ever mentioned it? He thinks of all the years of living near windows, playing under them, dressing and undressing behind them. Could it be that all this time he has been watched, observed, spied on? He can feel himself beginning to panic. He needs to get behind his desk and think this over. In his haste, he starts across a street and almost gets run over by a cab. The driver shouts something rude at him. He steps back onto the sidewalk, shuts his eyes. Get a grip, he tells himself, just get a grip.

In office, things don’t get any better. The office is open plan and his desk faces out of a window towards the building opposite. The building and its windows. With his new consciousness, he can feel them watching him, like patient monitors. He can’t bring himself to work. Every time he tries he is aware of them, aware of their scrutiny, like an itching in his hands, the prickly feeling you get when someone is looking over your shoulder. At some point in the afternoon, desperate to meet a deadline, he shifts his desk around, turns his back to the view. His co-workers stare at him. Never mind. This way at least they can’t see what he’s doing. The prickling sensation has transferred itself to his spine now, but he manages to ignore it.

The trip back home is a nightmare. Everywhere he looks the windows leer at him, only now, in the dusk, their gaze has the greasy feel of a shared secret. Somehow he makes it to the refuge of his apartment, draws all the blinds, throws himself down on the sofa and pours himself a drink. After a while it occurs to him that the blinds are too loose, that the window could still peer in on him, so he brings a roll of duct tape from his toolbox and tapes the blinds firmly to the glass. The strips of black tape look like blindfolds.

The next two days are just as bad. Now that he has got over his initial shock at the discovery, he is able to handle it a little better, by Friday evening he can even feel a certain nonchalance growing in him, a faint defiance, like the contrariness of a man who walks about whistling in a prison yard. But the fear is always with him. He feels naked, exposed. The windows’ constant spying is like a physical presence around him, limiting him, closing him in. He sees windows he’d never noticed before, secret windows, hidden away behind trees or in the corners of buildings, watching him stealthily. By the time he gets home every day he is worn out with the effort of always being aware of what he does.

Hasn’t anyone else realized this, he wonders? He spends long hours of the night on the Internet, searching for references to the conspiracy. ‘Spying’, he types in, ‘secret scrutiny’. And Google comes back with news articles about phone taps, about access to personal records, about government intelligence. But nothing about windows. Can it really be that no one has noticed this? Is he really the first? That Saturday, he goes to the public library to look for books on windows. Even here the enemy finds him, the skylights narrow into deceitful little slits, peer down at him, trying to figure out what he’s trying to do. He hides in the aisle between the bookshelves (where they cannot see him), reads. But doesn’t find what he’s looking for.

Ten more days of this and he’s a nervous wreck. His work is starting to fall critically behind. One day he doesn’t even make it to office. He makes the mistake of looking up at an office block as he’s crossing Broadway and the windows glaring down at him make him lose his nerve. He sits down on the bench in the island in between, stays there, staring up at stories upon stories of livid pupils. Only when evening comes and the windows grow dark and the lights come on behind them does he realize that he’s been sitting there all day. Only then does he make his frightened way home.

Soon he stops going to office entirely. By this time he has put a double layer of brown paper over all his windows, but he still feels as though he’s being watched inside his own house. He decides to minimize movement. He disconnects his phone (he doesn’t need it now anyway), moves all his stuff into the kitchen (where there’s only one small window to deal with). He spends long hours sitting on the floor behind the counter, absolutely motionless. If only he can make them forget about him. If only he can lose their attention. But there are always bathroom breaks, and every time he goes out – to the supermarket, say, or the liquor store – they locate him again, his image leaping back into their greedy eyes, a memory regained.

The money in his bank account starts to give out. The bills arrive in his mail slot and end up in an unopened pile by the door. He knows it is only logical that this should happen – he’s not working, they must have stopped paying his salary by now – but something tells him there’s more to it than that. It’s the windows. They’re punishing him for being onto them, punishing him for trying to get away. He wonders what to do. Should he report them to someone? Who? Who would listen to him? The enemy’s cover is too good. They would think him crazy.

After a while, he decides to get rid of his apartment – he can’t afford the mortgage payments anyway, and it is a step towards getting his life back. He goes onto the Internet and finds himself a small sub-let. One room, four flights up, no elevator. Cheap. No windows. Just the thing he’s looking for. He sells all his furniture and electronics, uses the money to settle his outstanding bills. He is starting to feel alive again. For the first time in weeks, he shaves, trying to ignore the resemblance the mirror bears to a window. He sells the apartment. To do this, he has to take down all the brown paper and tape. The sight of the windows emerging coldly triumphant from underneath sickens him. The person he sells the house to looks out of the window and whistles. “Great view”! He shudders.

Slowly, he arranges his life around the fact that windows are to be avoided at all costs. He doesn’t have the nerve to go to office anymore, any office, but he still knows enough about the market to be able to pick investments, so he gets in touch with a few former clients, calls in a few favors, and starts up his own tiny advisory service. On the Net, so he doesn’t have to go out. He signs up with a delivery service for groceries – it’s a little expensive, but at least it makes him feel safe. He swears off the vodka. When he wants to eat ‘out’ he orders in pizza, or Chinese. Once in two weeks or so he has to leave the house and go outside, and that’s still hard. But otherwise he’s beginning to feel normal again.

Nervously, tentatively, he tries talking to his friends about what he’s discovered. Discuss it with them, ask them if they’ve noticed too, maybe even warn them. This doesn’t go so well. The handful of them he finds the courage to talk to refuse to believe him. A couple of them just laugh, assume he’s joking. He manages to convince a third that he’s really serious, and she tells him he needs help, he should go see a shrink. For days she badgers him with phone calls, messages. Eventually, he stops taking her calls, blocks her id on his mail.

Pretty soon he doesn’t have any friends left, because having friends means meeting up with them off and on, and he can neither go out nor supply a reason they would understand for refusing to. Fortunately, he’s never been a social person, so this lack of companionship doesn’t really bother him. Still, he wishes he could talk to someone about the windows. He sends out a few feelers on the Internet, but the only responses he gets are from religion freaks and new age junkies. The usual crackpots. He decides to forget about it, deal with it himself.

A little over a year after he first noticed the windows watching him, his life is truly back on track. The investment advice business, fuelled by a few lucky deals he’s managed to pull off, is going well. So well, in fact, that he gets invited to a conference of small scale financial advisors. His instinct is to refuse, of course, but it’s an important conference, a chance to network with some key people, a real opportunity. I can’t let this thing take over my life, he tells himself. He’s been feeling better the last few months anyway. Even his trips out have been more positive – he can still feel the eyes of the windows on him, of course, but he’s learned not to flinch away from them now, learned to pretend that he doesn’t know they’re watching. It’s only a two day conference. He can handle that much, surely. He accepts.

This is a mistake. He realizes it the minute he steps into the gleaming lobby of the hotel and finds himself surrounded by windows on all sides, their mouths spreading open in a wide smile to see him this vulnerable, this deeply in their clutches. He has forgotten how insidious, how lurking they can be, living his sheltered life away from them. He considers turning around and going back, but he is here now, other people have seen him, to leave would be to do irreparable damage to his reputation, undo the work of so many months. He grits his teeth, looks pointedly away from the windows, beaming as they are with unholy sunlight. I will make it through this, he tells himself.

All day, at the conference, he is on tenterhooks, casting nervous glances at the windows around him. It has occurred to him that if they plan to get him this is their chance. He knows he is never going to make the mistake of coming to a conference like this again – and presumably, they too, would have figured that out. So it’s now or never. By the time the first day ends (he gets through it somehow, taking no part in the discussion, offering no opinion unless he is asked and then mumbling something incoherent) he has a headache. Determined to stick with the conference program, he goes down to the bar with a bunch of other delegates. While they talk shop and crack the usual jokes, he drinks steadily. It has been a while since he has touched alcohol. He really needs it today, though. By the time the gala dinner is served, he is drunk. He knows that he should stop drinking now, but he is seated facing the window and it occurs to him that he is not used to sleeping in the same room as a window anymore. He gulps down glass after glass of wine to steady his nerves.

At three o’clock that morning, the staff of the hotel, responding to calls complaining of loud screaming and the sound of breaking glass, break open his door and find him crouched in the corner of his room furthest away from the window. He is naked. He is trembling. His body is bleeding from a hundred tiny cuts. There is glass scattered all over the room. In his panic, he has smashed all the panes with his bare hands.

After that, of course, there is no place to go but the institution. Not that it really matters any more. After so public a breakdown there is no way he is ever going to get work as a financial advisor again – his career is over – and he might as well be in the institution as anywhere else. It isn’t a bad place, either, the institution. The grounds are quite nice, and once they have understood that he is only dangerous if he is around buildings (and that he isn’t suicidal anyway) they are happy to let him wander about where he wishes. There are high walls around the institution so you can’t see any outside buildings, and (more importantly for him) they can’t see you. The institution’s main building itself has windows, of course, and this is a problem, but they manage to find him a room which has only the tiniest skylight, and he can always just walk away from the building and hide himself behind the trees if he wants to leave the windows behind. Besides, those little white pills they give him every morning have a calming effect on his nerves, so he’s less jumpy around windows anyway.

The company is a little trying, of course. All sorts of madmen – troubled souls whose minds have long abandoned their struggle with reason. Still, months of living with the threat of the windows bottled up inside him has got him used to little company, so he doesn’t really mind. Besides, it feels good not to have to keep the facts secret anymore, good to be able to tell people the truth even if the people listening are only lunatics and can’t understand what he is saying. “The windows are watching us all the time.” How wonderful to be able to say that out loud and not have people stare at him in shock, but rather nod understandingly, as if they accepted what he was telling them.

The person most interested in what he has to say is the Doctor. The Doctor is a frail, slightly graying man, who meets with him twice a week to talk about the things he knows or (and the Doctor is quick to emphasize this) thinks he knows about windows. The Doctor listens very carefully to what he has to say, but in the end dismisses all his beliefs as so much paranoia. The Doctor says it is all his imagination, that windows are lifeless and neutral, that he has only to learn to trust them again and then everything will be fine.

At first he thinks the Doctor is deliberately trying to mislead him. Maybe it is all a plot to lure him into a false sense of security, and then betray him at the critical moment. Perhaps the Doctor too is in on it, or no, no, perhaps he is just an unwilling dupe, perhaps the windows have got him fooled too, as they have everyone else. No, he will not go near a window, not touch one, as the Doctor repeatedly urges him to do. He will not fall into that trap.

But slowly, as the weeks pass, doubt begins to grow in him. What if the Doctor is right? He is a doctor, after all, he should know about these things. What if it is he, and not the Doctor, who is the true dupe? What if he really is just imagining it? His mind jerks violently away from the thought. If that is true it means that he has destroyed his life for nothing. If that is true it means he has gone mad. And he is not mad, of course. He is the only sane one here.

And yet. His thoughts keep coming back to the possibility that the Doctor might be right, like a dog circling, warily, some dead animal. What if windows really are harmless? Call it not madness, but a mistake, an error of judgment. What if he is wrong?

Slowly, little by little and with the Doctor’s help, he forces himself to face up to the windows, look at them, through them. His fundamental suspicion of them remains, of course, but he begins to think of them as weaker, more subservient. Not the mighty overlords he once imagined them to be, but sad, silly creatures, hyenas of light, who will harm him only if he shows cowardice. It does him good to think this. Soon, he is able to ignore the presence of windows around him. A little while more and he is even able to walk towards a window to get a better view through it. They move him into a special room, one with a tall window, so he can be challenged more. He doesn’t mind.

Touching a window though, making actual contact with it, remains beyond his power.

One day he wakes up and the sun is shining through his tall window. It is late. He must have overslept. Surprisingly, nobody has come to wake him. That has never happened before. He stares at the window, glowing golden with the morning sun. It looks so harmless, so innocent. For the first time in almost two years he finds himself looking at a window without thinking of it as an evil presence, out to do him harm. He struggles out of bed, walks over to it. It seems so clear, so guileless. A little voice in his head cries out that it is a window, an enemy, but he manages to silence that voice. He considers touching the window. He finds less resistance to the idea in his head than he had expected. Slowly, hesitatingly, he extends his hand, places it lightly upon the pane. Nothing happens. The surface of the pane feels like a skin of smooth whiteness pressed against his fingers. He feels a sudden joy blossoming inside him. So the Doctor has been right all along! Windows can be trusted! How foolish he has been! In the exhilaration of the moment, the obstacles to getting his old life back seem surprisingly slight. He can go back to living his regular life. There will be some questions of course, and some initial trouble – he might have to accept a job that pays less – but he will explain to people what happened to him exactly as he now comprehends it, and they are bound to understand. He has been needlessly paranoid, but that is over now. He is ready to start living again. He is ready to trust the windows. In his excitement, he presses himself to the window, leaning his weight against it as if to hug it in glee. The window, left unlatched, swings open.

By the time they get to him, he is dead, his spine broken in three places by the fall. Above him, the window hangs open, its clear surface laughing in the late morning sun.


Friday, May 26, 2006

A superior amusement

Poetry. Some days you just drown in it, as into a broad and rolling river. The poems dart by you like fish, big and small, their scales glistening in the morning sunlight, the trout-like leap of the image as it hovers a moment in the air, knifes back into the text. Now and then you reach your hand out to catch one, and sometimes your clutching fingers come away empty, and sometimes your raise the poem you have picked up into the air, admiring its beauty even as it struggles in your grasp, desperate to break free. You let it go, of course, watch it vanish in the schools of poems that have floated past you. And you let yourself sink deeper into the rush of it, and you feel yourself being ever so gently carried away.


We are always
really carrying
a ladder, but it's
invisible. We
only know
the matter:
something precious
crashes; easy doors
prove impassable.
Or, in the body,
there's too much
swing or off-
center gravity.
And, in the mind,
a drunken capacity,
access to out-of-range
apples. As though
one had a way to climb
out of the damage
and apology.

- 'Carrying a Ladder'

Kay Ryan first. Her sparkling new collection, The Niagara River. Each poem polished to delight - the quicksilver rhythm, the deftness of the imagination. They are all like this: bite-sized lines flecked with the most unexpected of rhymes, the central conceit a sweet, sometimes sad tune, made dazzling by the breathlessness of Ryan's improvisations. Etudes of words balanced just this side of cleverness, that side of profound. There's a playfulness to Ryan's poetry, but it's a serious playfulness. Consider:

It's hard not
to jump out
instead of
waiting to be
found. It's
hard to be
alone so long
and then hear
someone come
around. It's
like some form
of skin's developed
in the air
that, rather
than have torn,
you tear.

- 'Hide and Seek'

A marvellous book.


Even more delightful though, is Ryan's essay in the May issue of Poetry. Ryan's central thesis is that at it's heart, poetry is precocious and hilarious, a sort of sublime nonsense, what she quotes T.S. Eliot as calling "a superior amusement". Ryan writes:

"I have always felt that much of the best poetry is funny. Who can read Hopkins' 'The Windhover,' for instance, and not feel welling up inside a kind of giddiness indistinguishable from the impulse to laugh."

She then goes on to clarify:

"I do not want to suggest in any way that...poetry is something silly or undangerous; it is great and a causer of every sort of damage. And I do not want to say either that the poem that prompts me to laughter is silly or light; no, it can be heavy as a manhole cover, but it is forced up. You can see it would take an exquisite set of circumstances to ever get this right."

And finally:

"If this strikes you as nonsense, it is. Something nonsensical in the heart of poetry is the very reason why one can't call poetry 'useful'. Sense is useful; you can apply things that make sense to other circumstances; you can take something away. But nonsense you can only revisit; its satisfactions exist in it, and not in applications. This is why Auden and others can say with such confidence that poetry makes nothing happen. That's the relief of it. And the reason why nothing can substitute for it."



The other day Prufrock Two pointed me to an article by Jai and Nilanjana in Business Standard listing the top reading picks for the summer. It's a nice article, and added several titles to my already groaning reading list for the coming months, but I couldn't help noticing that it didn't have a single volume of poetry. Oh, I know, I know, no one actually reads poetry, and anyway, you can never get any decent poetry in Indian book stores, so I'm not criticising the article (really, Jai, I'm not), but still.

Here then, for what it's worth, are four recently published books that I strongly urge you to read if you can get your hands on them:

1. Louise Gluck's Averno

I've always found Gluck's work a trifle inconsistent, but I have to admit that at her finest she's easily one of the best poets writing today. And Averno is a superb collection, meditative and moving (an extract from which, along with my comments on the book, can be found here).

2. Robin Robertson's Swithering

Surrounded by trees I cannot name
That fill with birds I cannot tell apart

I see my children growing away from me;
The hinges of the heart are broken.

Is it too late to start, too late to learn,
All the words for love before the wake.

- 'To my daughters, asleep'

Okay. I'll confess it. I'm obsessed with the man. Reading Robertson is like reading a combination of Heaney and Ondaatje with a touch of Hughes (Ted, not Langston) thrown in for good measure. His new book, Swithering, has the obligatory nods to Greek myth - a long, somewhat macabre poem about Actaeon, and another one that riffs on the Actaeon legend, making Actaeon a boy growing up under an emasculating mother, plus some nice takes on the Proteus story. But it's the other, more intimate poems where Robertson really shines. For one thing, he has a great gift for description, an ability to bring an image vividly to life. Take this description of a buzzard feeding on a dead rabbit for instance: "she breaks in / flips the latches / of the back, opens the red drawer / in his chest, ransacking the heart". Plus which, Robertson has this ability to balance realism with abstraction, to conjure with the images of the everyday till they become just transparent enough so you can dimly see the shapes of a deeper truth behind them. In a poem called 'La Stanza Delle Mosche' (literally The Room of Flies) Robertson sits writing at his desk while flies buzz in the air around him. He writes: "They drop on my desk, my hands / And spin their long deaths on their backs / on the white tiles, first one way / then the other, tiny humming tops that / stop and start: a sputter of bad wiring / whining to be stubbed out". Lovely.

Or this:

Her long body in the spangled shade of the wood
was a swimmer moving through a pool:
fractal, finned by leaf and light;
the loose plates of lozenge and rhombus
wobbling coins of sunlight.
When she stopped, the water stopped,
and the sun re-made her as a tree,
banded and freckled and foxed.

Besieged by symmetries, condemned
to these patterns of love and loss,
I stare at the wet shape on the tiles
till it fades; when she came and sat next to me
after her swim and walked away
back to the trees, she left a dark butterfly.

- 'Swimming in the Woods'

3. Kay Ryan, The Niagara River.

I just talked about this one above, so I'll say nothing more. Except to add this one further poem:

The bird
walks down
the beach along
the glazed edge
the last wave
reached. His
each step makes
a perfect stamp -
smallish, but as
sharp as an
emperor's chop.
Stride, stride,
goes the emperor
down his wide
mirrored promenade
the sea bows
to repolish.

- 'Chop'

4. Dean Young's Elegy on a Toy Piano

Whether or not you find 'The Windhover' funny, you're going to be hard-pressed not to laugh out loud reading Dean Young's Pulitzer prize nominated new collection. I've blogged about this collection before, and included some extracts from it, but I don't think they quite capture the spirit of the book. Maybe this will:

Like deaf mutes in airports selling cards
saying they're deaf mutes, the avant garde
sold poems saying they're poets.
Or everyone's a poet. Or what's a poem?
Or die whitie die. Or representation =
kapitalism's whore. Meanwhile someone
messes up a bunch of packing instructions
and that's pretty avant garde. Someone else
writes about smacking a deer with his car,
feeling kinda bad, and that's not avant garde
so off to Russia, here's your carbine.
But then a whole class of poets
gets out of going to Russia through connections
and bands together to form the Academy of American Poets
to protest high dry-cleaning costs.
Then someone comes up with a book
that's not even in words, publishes
20 copies on butcher paper and burns them
and that's so fucking avant garde,
the sea floor rises 10,000 feet
and becomes a desert, perfect
for a school where the poet slash
critic slash professor says, Take off your clothes,
and when the students take off their clothes,
shouts, Too late! Wreck subjectivity!
Too late! The blood of Walt Disney
is on your hands! Explode syntax
allude to the renaissance metaphor
is fascism memory is a lie.
Too late too late too late.
Roses are blue, the quality of mercy
is chow mein, first thought butt-shake.
See this shoe? It's a text.
- from 'Whoz Side U On, Anyway?'


Hopefully the socks will help it escape

Q: What would you do if you had a foolproof invisible cloak?

A: Leave it behind the first time I put it in the dryer.

P.S. Re: the subject of this post. Those of you who watch Seinfeld already know what I'm talking about. The rest of you don't really deserve to get it, but read this.

P.P.S. Sure it's invisible. But is it wrinkle-free?


Thursday, May 25, 2006

Good news and bad news

I have good news and bad news.

The bad news is: remember the Oxford Book Store Contest? Well, as predicted, they rejected my entry outright (it didn't even make the shortlist). So much for my career as the next Raymond Carver. You can see the stories that did make it here. [1]

The good news is that this means that you, dear Reader, can now enjoy these stories from the privacy of your own domicile, since I'm no longer constrained from putting them up on my blog. The first one follows below. The second one should be up in a couple of days. Enjoy [2].

[1] I, in true great-artists-are-never-appreciated-and-besides-these-grapes-are-sour fashion, feel, of course, that my not winning the contest is a gross travesty. I'm planning a letter to James Meek on the subject of how prize juries are all wankers.

[2] Do me a favour. Spare me the "why did you send this one? Frankly, your other stories are so much better" line, will you. Please. I'm just not in the mood.


The Operation

Lying motionless in his hospital bed for weeks, he felt himself going thinner, more insubstantial. As though day after day more of him were being left behind, misplaced; the way Mr. Nair in bed number 6 had misplaced his wristwatch, the way Mr. Mehta had lost his briefcase.

His name was the first to go. The nurse at the registration counter took that. With the efficiency of long practice she relieved him of the familiar arrangement of its letters, not even stopping to glance at it as she replaced it with a single initial. That was all he was now. Kumar, J. The heading to a chart of numbers that rose and fell with painstaking regularity. Nobody ever called him anything but Mr. Kumar or Patient Kumar now. Nobody needed to. He knew some of the other patients resented this, insisted on being called by their full first names. He himself was grateful for this partial anonymity, as though by quarantining him from his name the doctors had protected that beloved word from being infected with his disease.

His appetite was the next thing he lost. He woke up one morning to the familiar smell of over-boiled eggs and felt gingerly within himself and found that the desire to eat was no longer there. The staff at the hospital didn’t like this much. For a while they mounted a valiant search for his lost hunger, sending nutritionist after nutritionist to make careful enquiries into where it was last seen, what it looked like, etc. until he felt almost guilty for not having taken better care of it. Eventually, they resigned themselves to its absence though, and a bottle was fitted to his arm, to drip liquid sustenance directly into his veins.

The next to go was shame. The skin he had always assumed to be a part of his body turned out to be little more than an alien covering, a presence wrapped around him. Hardly a week had gone by before it erupted into angry sores, the very rawness of its protest robbing him of all comfort. Struggling to deal with its insurrection, he learnt to distance himself from it, so that seeing it naked and exposed he felt no shame, only the embarrassment of one who sees a stranger being humbled. He felt a great deal of sympathy for his body now, watching it waste away under his gaze, but he saw himself only as a witness to its deterioration, not as a participant in it.

The last thing he lost was interest. For months he kept careful tabs on his own condition, forcing himself to listen carefully when the doctors spoke about him – sometimes to him, sometimes using him as an exhibit. Medical terms he had never heard before became a second language to him, he followed every twist and bend in his case with the intentness of a teenager riding a roller-coaster, sure that in the end it would all make sense.

Finally, though, the futility of it all came home to him. The pointlessness of hoping for a real answer. The doctors could not tell him what he really wanted to know because the doctors did not know themselves – all this technical gobbledy-gook they spouted, all these diagnoses and prognoses and critical conditions were just the words they used to disguise the simple fact that in the end it was all up to chance. He learnt to pay less attention to them, and finally, no attention at all. Like someone who listens, head bowed, to a priest reciting the morning prayer, going through the ritual of it because it has to be done, but thinking, meanwhile, of other things, he learnt to nod along to the liturgy of the daily rounds, all the while planning the thousand little subterfuges by which he would trick himself into getting through the day.

That’s why when the operation was first mentioned, he didn’t even notice. It was a while before he realized that the doctor was waiting for him to say something (his participation in these discussions was usually not required) and had to collect himself and ask for the point to be repeated before he could answer. The prognosis was not good, he was told (he had heard this before) they had decided that it might be best to operate. They wanted to know how he felt about that. Operate? He asked, what did that mean exactly? A long description followed – the gist of which (as he understood it) was that they would slit his chest open and try to cut away as much of the growth inside as they could. It was a long shot – the odds were not good – but it was his only chance.

He thought about what Sita would have said to this. Let it be, she would have said, at least have the courage to die with dignity, instead of exposing yourself to the humiliation of being cut open like some rotten fruit. But there was no dignity in death. He knew that now. He supposed she did too. He didn’t seriously expect that the operation would work, but it was a change, something to pass the time, and as for the humiliation and the pain, well, what would you call what he lived through every day? He looked up at the doctors, who were watching him anxiously. Yes, he nodded slowly, I’ll have the operation.

After that the tempo of his life changed. For months now he had floated in a haze of sedatives and tests that proved inconclusive, now the date of his operation became an anchoring point, one that all his other activities aligned themselves to, like iron fillings drawn by a magnet. As the day drew nearer, the preparations for the operation blurred the emptiness of his existence with activity. He was shaved, prepped, a battery of tests were done on him, a small flock of papers made it to his bed for him to sign. There were decisions to be made (it had been so long since he had made any), the seriousness of the procedure forcing the hospital to officially acknowledge, for the first time, his mortality (they called it the ‘event of his death’ as though it were to be some sort of formal occasion) – though the social worker who came with the forms still spoke of it disparagingly, as though death were some poor relative who had come to pay a visit after the official visiting hours were done. For the first time in months he felt a sense of motion, of progress, and though he was careful not to allow himself to hope, he couldn’t help but feel a mounting enthusiasm for his surgery - an excitement that was tinged with anxiety, true, but excitement nevertheless.

Then, before he was quite prepared for it, the day was upon him. Two white-coated attendants stood by his bedside, a stretcher on wheels ready between them. As they lifted him onto the stretcher, he imagined how light he must feel to them, the cage of his bones almost empty. He thought of how they had told them in school, all those years ago, that birds had hollow bones. He wondered if his own bones had grown hollow now, so that his skeleton was little more than a network of badly connected pipes. It certainly felt that way.

As they wheeled him out of the room, he felt as though a great weight had been lifted off him. He tried to imagine what it could be, then realized that it was simply the bed sheet that was no longer covering him. The thought of how weak he had grown shocked him. The air on his exposed skin felt cold, almost accusing. For the first time in a long while he thought about the robe he was wearing, the way it hung entirely open in the back, displaying his buttocks to anyone who happened to look. The thought of his nakedness, so taken for granted back in the ward, returned to mortify him. He tried adjusting the gown around himself, but he was too weak. He tried signing to the attendants who were taking him, but they didn’t pay him any attention. He noticed that they were constantly looking away, almost as though they were intent on not seeing him. Realization flooded in. He wanted to smile, wanted to laugh out loud at the foolishness of his vanity. Nobody wanted to look at a dying man. Nobody wanted to see this diseased, wasted flesh of his. Everywhere they took him, people would no sooner catch a glimpse of him than they would look away. His condition was a better guarantee of his modesty than a dozen bed sheets, a dozen tightly arranged gowns, could ever be.

As they glided through the busy corridors of the hospital, he found himself staring at the row of lights on the ceiling, the neon tubes that sped past him like rungs of some electric ladder that he was rapidly climbing. How strange that we never notice ceilings, he thought, though they are always above us, always hanging over us, their whitewash cracked and peeling. We look ahead, or to the side, or down, when we walk - we notice walls and floors and doorways – but ceilings always seem to escape us. Perhaps, he thought, it’s because ceilings are so unremarkable; one ceiling is almost exactly like another. If he survived the operation and had to make his way back to his ward on his own strength, with only the ceilings to guide him, could he make it back? The idiocy of the question made him smile.

The men with the stretcher didn’t notice him smiling (what would they have thought if they did?). From his horizontal perspective they seemed very far away, almost like a different species, larger than life. This is what the angels must look like, he thought to himself, this is how distant they must seem.

Ten minutes later he was in the operating theatre, the great light overhead shining down on him like a constellation, the surface of the table cold and hard under his back. There were more of them now, these white clad super-beings; they had even hidden their faces behind masks of gauze. Judges should wear masks like that, he thought to himself, so that when they pronounced sentence, no one would know who was speaking, and the infection of revenge wouldn’t take hold. With the light shining bright in his eyes the figures above him lost their identity, became little more than outlines, a multitude of reflections bending over him, a single, anonymous being multiplied many times by some imagined mirror.

One of the super-beings was talking to him now. It was a woman, her hair tied up in a small explosion of plastic. Her voice was soft and comforting, like a warm towel. She asked him how he was feeling. He wondered how he was supposed to answer that. She didn’t seem to want a reply though, she went on, briskly, efficiently. In a minute she was going to put a mask over him, she said. No need to panic. All he had to do was take deep breaths and count to ten. It was just medicine, an an-es-the-tic (she pronounced the word slowly, stretching out the syllables), it would ensure that he felt nothing. Did he understand?

He nodded. But inside him an urgent panic began to take hold. Not feel anything? But how would he know that he was still alive then? What if they put him under and he died? Would he feel that? What if he didn’t feel himself dying? What if he never even found out? Surely a man was entitled to know these things. The conviction grew within him that awareness was a very important gift – not a thing to be given up lightly. After all, what else did he have left, except his consciousness?

The lady with the soft voice was back. She was holding something large and rubbery towards him. It was the mask. It was too late. He felt the mask slip easily over his nose, sniffed the beguiling sweetness of it, felt it constricting him, binding him. This is how a dog must feel on a leash, he thought. His mind rebelled against the mask’s confinement, searched, in vain, for the bodily strength to pull it off. The lady was asking him to breathe and count to ten. He wondered what she would do if he refused, if he simply held his breath. What would they do? Would they let him go, accept this last minute decision of his not to have the operation, even in the face of their assembled presence? Or would they simply hold him down and keep the mask pressed to his nose and watch him writhe and struggle until he could hold out no longer and inhaled deeply and floated away into the neverland of sleep they had planned for him?

No. Resistance was useless. And silly, besides. After all, thousands of people went through surgeries like his every day; if they didn’t see any reason to object why should he? He steeled his nerve and took a deep breath. 1, 2, 3. The smell of it so cloying, so rich in the sweetness of its deceit. 4, 5, 6. The lady with the soft voice was smiling down at him, trying to look encouraging from behind her mask. 7, 8, 9, 10. Right.

He was still awake. The realization of this arrived in his brain at the same time as it filled the operating theatre, so that the shock in one was perfectly reflected in the silence of the other. Surely it isn’t supposed to work this way, he thought. Shouldn’t I be unconscious by now? What’s going on here? He could feel the uneasiness in the room around him. “The patient’s still conscious”, someone remarked, his voice weary with displeasure. The lady’s face disappeared; he could hear her fiddling around with the instruments behind his head. Then her face came back. Was he feeling sleepy at all, she wanted to know. He smiled and shook his head.
This was a lie. The truth is that he felt exceedingly sleepy – waves of lingering tiredness ebbed and flowed within him. It would have been easy, in fact, to give in to them, except that it felt like surrender, and the thought of being entirely at the unknown’s mercy frightened him. So he fought the drowsiness, riding above it the way a surfer rides a wave, moving from side to side to keep from getting trapped in it. If he didn’t tell the lady all this it was partly because he didn’t have the strength left to put all this in words, and partly because he knew what her answer would be – she would not understand, she would urge him to let go, to give in. And that he was not prepared to do.

Meanwhile, a hurried conference was taking place between the doctors. He turned his head to watch. Phrases like ‘unexpected resistance’ and ‘enhanced dosage’ floated back to him. Then the soft-voiced lady was at his side again, making some adjustments to the equipment, then offering him the gas mask. Not to worry, she told him, as she slipped it on. This happens sometimes. Just breathe nice and deep, and we’ll have you out in no time.

This time the smell of the gas nauseated him. The drowsiness was stronger now. It felt like a blanket, smothering him. He fought for consciousness desperately, closing his mind over it like a boy closing his fist over a small coin, unwilling to let go. He could sense the fingers of the gas plying at him, feel the soft seduction of their promise. And he knew he had to resist.
…9, 10. The silence in the room was longer this time, more shocked. The eyes of the doctors stared at him from over their masks in frank disbelief. The soft-voiced lady had turned pale. In her voice, when she spoke now, there was an anxiety barely held back, as though she too were struggling to keep control of herself. Was he still not feeling sleepy, she wanted to know. He shook his head, though the effort, taking away from the single-mindedness of his defense against sleep, cost him a lot. She stared at him in open bewilderment.

Another huddle of doctors, the voices louder this time, more frantic. “Impossible” “Medical marvel” “Never heard of such a thing” “How can this be?” The words filtered slowly into his head. And a new feeling seeped in with them – pride. He was holding out against them, he had them foxed. He had not thought this was even possible. Had anyone ever managed this before? Perhaps he was the first. The thought put new strength in him. “Can’t take the risk of administering any further; I’ve already given him more than I should have”. This from the soft-voiced lady. So he was safe. For now.

A few more minutes of whispering, and then one of the doctors came over. “Do you still have sensation in your body?” the doctor asked. He shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t know. The doctor pressed a hand to his side. “Can you feel my hand against your side?” He could, but the touch was very faint, as though it were coming through a dozen sheets (Wasn’t there a fairy tale like that?). He wasn’t going to admit to it, of course, that would only make them give him more of the vile anesthetic. He shook his head. “No feeling, absolutely none?” He shook his head again. No. None.

Another whispered discussion, though this time the relief in the room was palpable. The doctors had found an answer, an explanation; they were happy. One of the doctors still held back. “But he’s still awake”, he said, pointing to his face, his eyes. He was overruled, the eagerness of the doctors to get on with the operation almost unseemly, like the haste of priests preparing for an important sacrifice. “Patient response satisfactory” he heard the soft-voice lady say. Another doctor said something about “some sort of freak hysteria”. At any rate, the white coated figures were soon back in their places. Someone placed a cloth lightly over his head to keep him from seeing. Then the surgery began.

The pain was immediate and excruciating. There was a quick stab of it first, piercing his side, followed by a regular metronome of agony, as though he were been sawn in half. It was a good thing for him that his face was covered, otherwise someone would surely have seen him blanch. As it is, it was all he could do to keep from crying out, biting down on his own lips to keep the scream from escaping. This was what he wanted, he reminded himself, the pain was important, it was proof that he was alive. Consciousness itself was pain. It would be easy for him to stop this, easy for him to shout or raise his hand and have them put an end to his suffering. But how would that be different from that other option, that other surrender, the one Sita would have wanted, the one that would allow him to escape life itself. No. He would not, must not give up on this now. The pain made the tears trickle from his eyes. He gritted his teeth and held on.
And so it went. As the doctors pulled and struggled to get the cancer out of him, to rid his frail, wasted body of the evil that had taken hold, he fought his own battle, struggled with his own anguish. As the storm of the operation pitched and tossed the battered ship of his body, he wrestled with this other enemy, locked away in a secret hold, the agony an arrogant intruder that he pinned down again and again, trying to make it surrender. His was the real fight, he wanted to tell them. That thing they were cutting out of him was only a symptom. The real disease was here, in the mind – the fear of pain, the temptation to give in, to give up. Those were the things he needed to be cured of.

After a while the pain grew quieter, gave way. Was it the anesthetic taking hold? Or was it that the main part of the surgery was now over and the rites of closing up seemed like pin-pricks to one who had borne so much worse? Or perhaps, (could it be?) his mind was really winning? In the battle between will and instinct, the mind was finally having its way?

It was a long, long time before the hands working away at him finally came to a halt (the procedure was supposed to be two hours long, he remembered them telling him; it felt much longer). There was no agony now, just a terrible raw ache in his side. The towel placed over his face was lifted. The soft-voiced lady peered down at him, starting a little in shock to see his eyes staring back at her, the blood on his lip. Did she understand what he has just been through, what he had achieved? He wanted to tell her. Wanted to say, I can feel! I felt it all! I survived! But his mouth felt too dry, too hollow, and his lips, when he managed to touch his tongue to them, tasted of salt. She nodded down at him anyway, her eyes kinder, more understanding, now that the big light over the operating table had been switched off. “It’s alright”, she said, “the operation was a success. You’re going to be alright.” He nodded. He wanted to tell her that he knew that, that it was he who had made that happen, but she had already turned away. He lay back on the table waiting for them to come and fetch him. With the great light off, he realized he could finally see the ceiling of the operating room. It was a beautiful, pristine ceiling, a ceiling of pure scrubbed white. He smiled. Then, as the clatter of the stretcher was heard in the distance, he shut his tired eyes, and finally, after so long, allowed himself to sleep.


Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Washing my hands of it all

The warm water reminds me each morning
that I have nothing else alive near me.

- George Seferis


Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The fault, dear Brutus

People are always complaining about how politicians are so self-seeking. I've done it myself. Thinking about it though, it seems to me that this is the wrong criticism to be making. That in fact, politicians are supposed to be self-seeking, that's why we have democracies in the first place.

Think about it this way - suppose we actually had a bunch of leaders who were entirely selfless - whose only aspiration was to dedicate themselves to serving the country, and then pass on power to others just like them. Assume for a moment that we could identify these leaders with complete certainty. Why would we need democracy then? Absent mala fide intent, we could just leave these benevolent leaders of ours to run the country for us, couldn't we? Okay, so we'd still need to tell them what it was we wanted, but we could just do that through opinion polls - we wouldn't need any actual power over these people - we'd just tell them what we wanted and if enough of us wanted it or were okay with it they'd go ahead and do it.

Well, not quite. Actually, they'd be able to do better. To the extent that the common people don't know what's good for them, these leaders could actually make decisions that would, in fact, be in the interest of the general good, even though the population in general couldn't figure them out.

The problem is, I think, that we've got so used to celebrating democracy, that we've somehow convinced ourselves that it's the best system of government in every way possible. That's simply not true. The fact is that democracy is neither particularly efficient or effective as a system - it's inefficient because democratic decision making is a far more time taking process than centralised decision making, it's ineffective because decisions have to be reduced to the lowest common denominator. There's fairly good reason to believe that, absent self-interest, a quorum of relevant experts could do as good, if not better, a job of running the country as a government by the people and of the people.

The rub is that self-interest is never absent. That's why we need democracy. Not because it's the super-optimal system of government, but because it's the only system of government that will safeguard us from the misuse of power, that will ensure that we can keep the incentives of our leaders aligned with the our own interests, that will limit the harm that the government can do [1]. That's why we're willing to live with the inefficiencies and headaches of democracy - because it mitigates downside risk. If we could have a government that was for the people without being of the people or by the people, we would choose it in a heartbeat, it's because that's not possible, because it's an all or nothing deal, that we choose democracy [2].

How then do we deal with value-destroying yet populist measures like reservations? Certainly not by appealing to the enlightened nobility of our politicians, because it doesn't exist. The real need here is for voter education, not for pointless discussion with politicians. In the end, every democracy gets the government it deserves [3]. If it is really true that people are going to be stupid enough to vote for this government because they went ahead and gave them some entirely meaningless sops, putting in place measures that cost the government nothing (no matter what it may cost the country) and provided no benefit whatsoever to the truly underpriviliged, then all the Karan Thapar interviews in the world will not make the government change its mind. Why should they, if they can get votes so easily?

What we need then, is a way of communicating to the truly underpriviliged why this measure is meaningless for them, and why, if they really want to see their children do better, they need to reject this kind of populism and demand that the government take action where it's really needed - in primary education. No politician in his right mind is going to go against the will of the people. What he can and will do is try to mould the will of the people so that he can get the maximum votes with the minimum effort. The point of public debate is not to change his mind about this - the point of public debate is to ensure that the people understand how he's trying to dupe them and don't let him get away with it. How that's to be done, of course is beyond me [4] (you didn't really think I was going to have a solution, did you?) but as we bemoan the stupidity of reservations, it's a point that I think is worth keeping in mind.

P.S. Forgive me. It's been that kind of a day.

[1] The obvious analogy is with shareholder rights. No one seriously believes that the shareholders can run the company better than managers, but limit the power of shareholders over managers and you end up with Enron.

[2] This, of course, is why all those silly debates in high school about whether India should have a dictatorship never got anywhere - because one side was arguing what dictatorships could do, and the other what they would do.

[3] That's not strictly true, of course. Every country gets the best of the alternatives on offer that it deserves. You need to add a secondary assumption which says that if an issue is important enough to a sufficient number of people, there will be a political party representing that interest group, for the free market analogy to hold. But that's not too drastic an assumption.

[4] Though one would imagine that the press has a big role to play. Which is why the decline of newspapers in India is such a blow - we bloggers can have all the intelligent discussions we want - it's the mass media that matters.

Categories: ,

Singh-ing in the reign

Okay, I've pretty much sworn not to blog any more about this reservation thing because I've pretty much said all I had to say on the topic already (see here and here) and I haven't heard any arguments that lead me to think I need to reconsider my position.

Despite that, I can't help linking to the blithering idiocy of this interview by Arjun Singh which I'm sure you've all seen already, but just in case. It would be hilarious that a cretin like this is the minister for education, if it weren't so incredibly tragic.

Here's the question I wish Karan Thapar had asked Singh: If there's no point debating something after it's been passed by the parliament because then it's a given, and there's no point discussing future actions of parliament because the issues are still being looked into and no final decision has been reached, then when exactly are public issues to be discussed? Or can we take it that public debate is no longer a luxury that the Government of India wishes to engage in?

Categories: ,

Monday, May 22, 2006

After such reviews, what forgiveness?

You know how I said the Da Vinci Code wasn't going to be entertaining? I was wrong. I haven't watched the film, of course, but the reviews alone have handed me more laughs than all of Jim Carrey's movies. Combined.

First there was A.O. Scott in the NY Times. And now, defending his title as the snarkiest of them all here's Anthony Lane's review in the New Yorker.

It's not the funniest Lane review I've read. Or even necessarily the nastiest. It's just that I love the way he doesn't even pretend that this is a movie that may deserve to be taken seriously. It's like he knows before he even buys the popcorn for the show that he's going to take it to the cleaners and he spends the entire movie just thinking up the best one-liners that he can. And boy, does he come up with some good ones. Do not read this piece as a review. Read it as what it is - a rant. And a nasty and therefore entirely enjoyable rant at that.


Sunday, May 21, 2006

Where should we go for dinner?

"So, where do you want to go for dinner?"

"I don't know. Wherever."

"Still. Where?"

"I don't know. You decide."

"There's this new Chinese place I've heard good things about. I thought maybe we could try it."

"Really? Where is it?"

"Somewhere in Manayunk"

"That far away!"

"It's not THAT far - we've got the car, after all, it's just a fifteen, twenty minute drive, tops. It'll take us that long to find a parking spot somewhere downtown."

"I guess. I don't know. Oh, look, they're starting again"


"Wasn't that wonderful!"


"I just love Kodaly, don't you?"


"Did you hear that long organ solo at the end? So grand, so stirring"

"Yes. It was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. So where are we going for dinner?"

"I thought you'd decided you wanted to go to the Chinese place."

"I hadn't decided. I just suggested it. I thought it would be nice to try out a new place. And we haven't had Chinese in a while. Besides, Mariana said it was the best Chinese food she'd had in Philly."

"Who's Mariana? Is she the one you were helping with her paper last Sunday? When you couldn't meet me for lunch?"

"No, no, that was Walter. Mariana's the one in my cohort - you remember - we met her at that party..."


"So anyway, the point is we don't have to go to the Chinese place. I just happened to think of it, that's all. We can always go somewhere else"

"Yes, let's. I'm not really in the mood for Chinese food anyway."

"Okay. So what are you in the mood for?"

"I don't know"

"You must have something in mind."

"Not really. You suggest something, na"

"I already did. You didn't want to go there."

"Oh, come on. Don't be like that."

"Like what?"

"Like that."

"Look, I'm not being like anything. I'm just stating fact. I suggested a place. You didn't want to go there. Now it's your turn to come up with a suggestion."

"Don't be upset. If it really means that much to you we can go to the Chinese place. I don't mind that much. I just think it's far."

"I'm not being upset. Look...hey wait! Isn't this where our car was supposed to be?"

"It was 17th and Sansom, I thought. This is still 16th"

"No, no, I'm pretty sure it was 16th. Oh, god, I hope it hasn't been towed."

"Are you sure? I could have sworn it was the 17th."

"No, no, it was the 16th. Don't you remember that Pizzeria over there. How could they have towed it? I put more money in the meter than was necessary. And the sign clearly says it's free parking after 8. What the hell."

"You want to just walk down to 17th and check?"

"What's the point? I'm sure they must have towed it. That is, I hope they've towed it. I hope it hasn't been stolen. Oh dammit! I should call and check. Can you see a number on any of these boards?"

"Well, it can't harm, can it? I'll just go down and take a quick look, shall I, while you look for a number to call?"

"Ah, here it is. Right. Wait, where are you going? Don't go wandering off by yourself like that. If you absolutely must go to 17th street I'll come with you. I just think it's a waste of time. I know it was right here. Hello? Hello? Damn, they've put me on queue."


"I don't understand it. I could have sworn we'd parked on 16th."

"I told you it was 17th. You wouldn't believe me."

"Ah, well, at least we found the car. So, what were we talking about?"

"We were trying to decide where to go for dinner. You were sulking because you wanted to go to that Chinese place that your friend Mariana recommended."

"Oh, for Heaven's sake. I don't give a damn about the Chinese place. In fact, I absolutely refuse to go the Chinese place. Now, can we please figure out where we're going instead."

"I know. Why don't we go to that Mexican place where we went for our first month anniversary."

"We never went to a Mexican place for our first month anniversary. You know I don't like Mexican food."

"But, of course, we did. You cribbed, as usual, but we finally ended up there. Don't you remember. They had those singers who wandered from table to table singing old Spanish songs. It was so romantic."

"It sounds terrible. But this never happened. You must be confusing me with one of your ex-boyfriends. As usual."

"Yes it did. Of course it did. And afterwards, one of the singers came up to me and gave me a rose and told me he thought I was beautiful. And you got all upset about it, and you were so mean, said he'd probably been out herding cattle for too long. You even refused to leave a tip. We had such a big fight about it. We almost broke up. I think you're just blocking the whole thing from your memory."

"Whatever. Even if there is such a place, I'm certainly not going there again."

"Okay, then, you pick some place."

"How about that desi buffet place?"

"What, and eat cold, greasy samosas and half-cooked naan? You're kidding me."

"Where then?"

"How about sushi?"

"We could. Except I'm really hungry. Sushi's not going to be filling enough."

"I know. Why don't we go to that Italian place?"

"Which one?"

"The one where they have that awesome marinara sauce."

"The one in Manayunk? But I thought you said Manayunk was too far."

"Are you going to start that all over again?"

"Okay, okay, let's go to the Italian place."


"It's shut."

"Oh, dammit."

"Why would they close so early?"

"It's not that early, you know. It's almost 11."

"Yes, but it's Friday night. They're supposed to be open later on weekends."

"That's Saturday night, I thought."

"Friday night too."

"Well, anyway, what do we do now?"

"I don't know. You want to try your Chinese place after all?"

"I thought you hated the idea of Chinese."

"I didn't hate it. I just thought it was far. But now that we're here anyway."

"Besides, I'm sure that'll be shut by now as well. Everything will be shut. This damn one horse town."

"So what do we do then?"

"Let's head back to town anyway. Maybe we could get some pizza. I'm sure some pizza place somewhere will be open."

"Pizza! Yuck! All that gooey cheese and stuff. Who needs that."

"Well, what are we going to do then?"

"Why don't you come back to my place. I'll rustle up something at home."

"With your cooking? No thanks."

"Smartass. I think I have some instant Chinese stuff. And I bought this amazing chilli soya sauce from Trader Joe's the other day. And we could open a bottle of wine."

"Oh, so NOW you want to eat Chinese."

"No, I don't want to eat Chinese. I'm just trying to come up with the best alternative open to us right now."

"Ya, right. And whose fault is that anyway? If you hadn't been so damn indecisive, we could have gone straight from the concert to the Chinese place and had a perfectly good dinner. Instead we're going to be stuck eating some sort of ramen crap, all because you couldn't make up your mind."

"Okay, for one thing, it's not Ramen crap, it's a perfectly good Hakka noodle mix. Plus, I don't see why you're blaming me. If you hadn't been so insistent that we go to this stupid Chinese place, despite the fact that I didn't want to, we could have decided on some other place a lot earlier. And who came up with the idea of this Italian place, I'd like to know. It's not like you were particularly full of suggestions. Besides, what really cost us time was all your stupid paranoid belly-aching about your car being towed away, when all the time it was just where I said it was."

"Okay, okay, so I was a little confused about the car. At least I remember who I have dinner with where. And don't go mixing dates with you up with dinners I've had with my ex-girlfriends."

"Dammit, we did go to that Mexican place. Look, if you're going to be like this, I'm not sure I want to have dinner with you at all."

"I'm not sure I want to have dinner with you."

"Great. Now that we've got that sorted out, I'm assuming you'll be kind enough to drop me off at my place. Or if that's too much trouble, just get me back to downtown and I'll catch a cab."

"Oh, I'll drop you home. I don't want to waste some poor taxi-guy's time while you try to 'decide' what route to take home."







"What you doing?"

"Nothing much. You?"

"Nothing much. Did you eat something?"

"No. I'm not hungry."

"Ya, neither am I. But you should eat something you know. It's not good for you."

"Maybe I'll have some ice cream later."

"You can't have just ice cream for dinner."

"Why not? I've done it before."

"It's not healthy. What flavour is it?"

"Double Fudge Brownie"

"Oooh! my favourite!"

"Yes, I bought it thinking we'd have it the next time you came over."


"Ya, well."

"Look, don't eat just ice cream. Come over and I'll make you something. I won't try to cook, I promise - I'll just follow the instructions on the packet."

"I don't know. It's late. What flavour did you say the noodles were again?"

"Teriyaki Chicken."

"Hmmm. No, better not. I don't want to put you to any trouble. I'll rustle up something."

"Like what? I've seen your fridge, you know. There's nothing worth eating in there. Look, it's no trouble. I'm not sleeping anyway. Just come."

"You're sure?"

"I'm sure."

"Hmmm. Okay then. Listen, I'm sorry about earlier today."

"Me too."

"I don't know what got into me. I acted like a complete jerk."

"Ya, well. We both behaved like idiots."

"So I'll come over then."

"Yes, come."

"You realise this means we're going to have Chinese after all?"

"Yes. I know. I know. See, you always manage to get your way with me."

"Oooh. Is that a promise?"

"Idiot. Just get here soon, okay. Meanwhile I'll figure out how this damn thing gets made. Oh, and honey?"


"Bring the ice cream."

"Of course. See you in a bit. I love you."

"I love you too."


P.S. Since people are always accusing me of writing stories about sad, depressed people all by themselves, I thought I'd try something different. The result is a little, well, twee, but I figure variety is always a good thing. Today a couple. Tomorrow, who knows? An entire cricket team, perhaps?

P.P.S. Please, please note tag saying 'fiction' above. Not only am I not dating someone, but to the best of my knowledge there are no amazing Chinese places in Manayunk either. (That said, I do think the organ solo at the end of Kodaly's Missa Brevis is pretty impressive).