A land of leaning iceOff to Montana for a long weekend. Back on Tuesday. See you folks then.
Hugged by plaster-grey arches of sky,
Flings itself silently
- Hart Crane, 'North Labrador'
Friday, September 29, 2006
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Other fish in the sea
Yes, they actually say that. In so many words.
My friends are big on cliches these days. They seem to think that shopworn homilies are the best way to mend a broken heart.
The really scary part is that it works.
Lying awake in bed tonight, wondering where things went wrong between us, I start to think about fish. And the sea.
I think about the time we went down to Alibagh for the weekend. How you dragged me out to see the fort. How we walked back with the tide coming in around us, the water over our knees and rising. How frightened I was that we would drown. How much you laughed. Afterwards, your trousers clinging wet to your calves.
This is not helping.
Maybe if I tried counting fish jumping out of the sea it would put me to sleep. No, seriously. It's worth a shot.
Trying to conjure up the image, I realise I've never actually seen fish in the sea. Not once. Every time I go to the seashore there are the usual sights - children and lovers, seashells, a few colourful stones, the sand. And I've seen other, less ordinary things - a wooden idol floating in the electric blue waters off Vishakhapatnam, the driftwood of giant logs along the Pacific coast, seaturtles clawing their way out of the ocean in Orissa, ships stranded permanently in the shallows, the spout and tail of a whale. But no fish. Never fish.
I know that there are fish in the sea, of course, and that people do go out to catch them. Barechested fishermen ploughing their frail canoes into the teeth of the waves, sleepy catamarans, Hemingway and his old man. But these are more myths than people, distant, almost romantic figures, far removed from my life. I think I can safely say that nobody I know has ever gone out to the open sea to catch fish.
Fish, for us, comes from the market. If you live in India, you go to the smelly little bazaar where sharp-tongued old women haggle and barter their assembled wares. If you live in the US you make your lonely way down to the supermarket where rows upon rows of fish are laid out in neon-lighted sterile shelves, carefully maintained at the precise temperature that will make them look their most attractive. I personally never buy a whole fish anyway (I can't deal with the bones). I buy cans: cylinders of tightly packed flesh that you scoop out with a knife - tuna, sardines, mackerel, herring - all the usual suspects.
I suppose even these fish must come from somewhere. Someone must be catching them, delivering them to our doors dead and packaged. But perhaps it isn't lonely fisherfolk battling the elements, perhaps it isn't the delicate art of bait and lure. Perhaps it's greasy trawlers harvesting the waves with their nets. Fishing as mass-production and the death of dolphins.
I guess it matters whether you see the point of fishing as the satisfaction of hunger or the indulgence of a deeper craving for adventure. I'm just not sure we can always tell the difference.
(All this talk about fish is making me hungry. I think I'll fix myself a sandwich.)
The other problem with all these fish that come out of the sea, it seems to me (poking around in my refrigerator for mayonnaise), is that they're all alike. Well, at least the vast majority of them are. Think about it. How many of us can actually tell one tuna from another? And to how many of us does the difference matter? Is that what they mean when they say there are other fish in the sea? Not that you'll get other chances, but that every person can be replaced with another just like him or her? That the minute you catch hold of another fish to take the place of your old one, you'll never know the difference? And if that's all there is, this endless repetition, this grey sameness, then why let go of the first fish at all? What can you hope to gain? What do you hope to escape from?
But no, wait, there are other fish out there. It's not all tuna and salmon. There are the more colourful fish, the ones you see in documentaries about coral reefs, or in public aquariums. Living streaks of underwater paint, banded and speckled and gleaming. The kind of fish you have to go scuba diving on a clear day to see.
Except you don't catch fish like that, do you? They're decorative fish. You gaze at them in wonder as they pass you by and you want to protect their beauty, want to keep them from harm. You don't eat them.
Okay, so some people catch them and keep them in fishbowls inside their house, but they're either cruel or just plain fooling themselves.
Besides, some of those fish are poisonous.
So even if there are other fish in the sea, does it really matter to me, sitting here at my kitchen table, eating a tuna sandwich and feeling my bare feet grow cold on the marble floor, me with no boat or net to call my own, me with no means of reaching all these ocean dwelling fish except through the grudging agency of others and then without the chance to see them as they naturally are?
I wonder if I should take a vacation somewhere, maybe go down to a beach resort, maybe go diving, look for some fish.
What's the point? I can't even swim.
Categories: Fiction, Whimsy
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
Good. It's working then.
Now that we've got that cleared up, let me point you to the Asia Blog Awards site for the best Indian Blog for Quarter 1 2006-07 . Polling for the awards is now open (here), so you may want to go fulfill that inexplicable urge to vote for this blog that you should be feeling right about now. (What's that - you still want to vote for Jabberwock? Sigh. It's the promise of naked pictures, isn't it?)
Much as I'm tempted to make the case for why this is the right blog to be voting for, I'm constrained by two factors. The first is honesty. The second is that I have no idea how 'best blog' is defined. Each of the blogs in that list has a different approach, different emphasis, different appeal. Comparing them is an exercise in apples and oranges, and voting for the best one has the flavour of trying to pick the 'best' fruit (or the top 10 organs). And I have to say that I'm somewhat amused by the idea of blogging as a contest.
The point of that little holier than thou speech is to say that since all these polls are irrelevant anyway, you don't want to spend too much time agonising about who to vote for. Instead, your best bet as I see it is to just go vote for the blogs in the order that they appear in the poll, picking the one right on top (which, coincidentally, happens to be 2x3x7) as number 1 and so on.
And hey, if it means that much to you, I'm happy to write a few posts about cows.
 Isn't it wonderful that we now have quarterly results for blogs? I can see the analyst report now - "A slow down in the blog's first paragraph growth in the current quarter seems to be driven largely by seasonal factors. More worrying is Falstaff's inability to get to a reasonable bottomline, which makes us revise our earlier recommendation of hold..."
"Per me si va ne la città dolente,
per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,
per me si va tra la perduta gente....
...Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate’"
Translation (by H.W. Longfellow):
- Dante, Inferno, Canto III
"Through me is the way to the city dolent;
Through me is the way to eternal dole;
Through me the way among the people lost...
...All hope abandon, ye who enter in!"
Every time I read this, I think to myself - if you saw these words written on the gates to Hell, how would you know whether you were coming in or going out?
Meanwhile, if you're a Dante fan, don't forget to visit the Virtual Tour of Hell (link courtesy Guardian's Culture Vulture Blog). Good fun. And a great introduction to the basics of the Inferno.
Sunday, September 24, 2006
The Drowning Room
Somehow he struggles out of it, reaches for a chair. But the chair capsizes under his weight, and he flounders his way over to the table instead, its flat hardwood surface placid as a raft in the morning light. Clinging to it with both hands, his head barely above its surface, he wonders if he has the strenght to make it to the door. He doesn't dare risk it.
Again and again his chin slips from the edge of the table, plunging him into the emptiness below. He can feel his strength failing him, he can feel his nightclothes dragging him down. For hours he battles against the room, hoping someone will hear him, hoping someone will come. Then, exhausted, he releases his hold on the table and slips gently under. The last thing he sees are a his tennis shoes, lying submerged on the floor, laces floating.
Three days later they find him, drowned, his body washed up by the door.
Saturday, September 23, 2006
Didion on Cheney
"It was in some ways predictable that the central player in the system of willed errors and reversals that is the Bush administration would turn out to be its vice-president, Richard B. Cheney. Here was a man with considerable practice in the reversal of his own errors. He was never a star. No one ever called him a natural. He reached public life with every reason to believe that he would continue to both court failure and overcome it, take the lemons he seemed determined to pick for himself and make the lemonade, then spill it, let someone else clean up."
Nobody, just nobody, writes like Joan Didion. Her new piece in the New York Review of Books is a minor miracle of good writing - the work of a pen dipped in boiling acid that still manages to turn out the most glorious prose. If you ever need to define 'scathing' for someone, this is the article to point them to. Go read. Go read now.
Categories: CurrentAffairs, Links
Friday, September 22, 2006
A White Elephant
When the King of Siam disliked a courtier,
he gave him a beautiful white elephant.
The miracle beast deserved such ritual
that to care for him properly meant ruin.
Yet to care for him improperly was worse.
It appears the gift could not be refused.
- Jack Gilbert, 'In Dispraise of Poetry'
Gilbert is turning out to be my poet of the month, by the way. I especially love his shorter poems, the lightness of touch with which he manages to express a difficult idea, the almost Zen quality of his work. I'm reminded, some times, of Carver, only Gilbert is so much more concise.
This poem comes from the collection: Monolithos: Poems, 1962 and 1982.
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
In Dubious Battle
Kerouac writes: "I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion".
Not that we know nothing, but that we don't know enough.
P.S. If you can, go see Half Nelson. It's the closest you'll ever get to watching a 106 minute long R.E.M. song.
Categories: Whimsy, Universe
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
This isn't how he'd planned it. When work on the tower first began, he'd meant it to have just eight stories. That had seemed reasonable. He hadn't know yet what companies would be leasing out the place, but given the location he didn't think selling eight floors of office space would be too much of a problem.
Then, when they'd finished working on the scaffolding for the eighth floor, he'd thought, why not just add one more? Maybe they could put in a rooftop restaurant. Or lease out the ground floor for shops and shift the offices one floor up. So a ninth floor had been added, then a tenth, then an eleventh.
By now he had lost count of just how many stories the tower had. Every week he would visit the construction site and the foreman would tell him that they were done with the structure and were ready to start putting in the floor and walls, and every week he would decide to hold off on that and go one story higher instead.
The foreman had started looking at him as though he were mad.
Maybe he was. It was a little crazy to go on building this way. By now they were well past the point when he could even pretend that the upper floors would ever be used. In fact, they were unlikely to even be built, because money was fast running out. The first time they'd gone over budget he'd gone back to his loan company and managed to talk them into increasing their funding, but he didn't think they'd fall for that again.
He really should stop. It wasn't just the money. The workmen were beginning to complain about the height, and who knew if so tall a building was even safe? And yet every time he stood in front of the tower, staring up at it, he was overcome by its sheer potential, by the incredible possibility of taking it a little further, a little higher.
Who cared if the floors and walls ever got built? If anyone ever lived or worked here? Who cared if he ran out of money, had to abandon the whole project, spent the rest of his life in debt? At least it would always be here, this monument to his appetite, this glorious reminder of how high he'd wanted to go, how close to the sky he'd managed to reach.
Monday, September 18, 2006
Yes Your Holiness
The story so far:
The pope, delivering an address at his old University, decides to use a quotation from a discussion between a Byzantine emperor and a Persian scholar, on the theory, presumably, that any discussion of contemporary moral values most usefully begins by examining obscure conversations in the 14th century. Pop culture references from medieval arcana, the Pope thinks, will help the issue seem more immediately relevant, and besides, a dash of the old Paleologus wit is always good for a few laughs.
Incredibly, Islamic fundamentalists misinterpret what the Pope is saying! Even though he hasn't actually said that he agrees with the statement, even though he's just quoted it and then made no comment about it, they imply that he actually believes it himself. Who would have thought that Muslim fundamentalists would prove so quick to provocation, so blind to the niceties of deductive logic? I mean okay, so we know that Islamo-fascist rabble rousers have used jokes by obscure Danish cartoonists to trigger violence, but who would have imagined they would try something similar when the official head of a major world religion quoted anti-Islamic statements in dead earnest?
Having recovered from the shock of this entirely unexpected response, the Pope and his advisors now find themselves in a bind. The rabble rousers are demanding an apology. But how do you apologise for something you claim not to have said? The Pope can't say "I'm sorry I said Islam was a violent religion" because he's already said that he never said that. He tries to weasel his way out of it by saying he's sorry for the 'reaction' his words caused.
But the rabble rousers aren't having any of it. Never mind that the first time around they blithely ignored the fact that quoting a statement by someone else does not imply agreement with it. This time they're more than happy to split hairs, pointing out that the Pope hasn't actually apologised for what he said, which, of course, he can't because he never really said it.
Meanwhile, somewhere in a parallel universe, Joseph Heller is laughing himself silly.
The irony of all this: The point of the Pope's speech was apparently that we in the modern world tend to rely too much on reason.
Sunday, September 17, 2006
I imagine two people sitting across the table from each other, staring at the letters in front of them, realising they have run out of words.
Poetry Month 2
Elegy for Joseph Brodsky
In plain speech, for the sweetness- Ilya Kaminsky from Dancing in Odessa
between the lines is no longer important,
what you call immigration I call suicide.
I am sending, behind the punctuation,
unfurling nights of New York, avenues
slipping into Cyrillic -
winter coils words, throws snow on a wind.
You, in the middle of an unwritten sentence, stop,
exile to a place further than silence.
I left your Russia for good, poems sewn into my pillow
rushing towards my own training
to live with your lines
on a verge of a story set against itself.
To live with your lines, those where sails rise, waves
beat against the city's granite in each vowel, -
pages open by themselves, a quiet voice
speaks of suffering, of water.
We come back to where we have committed a crime,
we don't come back to where we loved, you said;
your poems are wolves nourishing us with their milk.
I tried to imitate you for two years. It feels like burning
and singing about burning. I stand
as if someone spat at me.
You would be ashamed of these wooden lines,
how I don't imagine your death
but it is here, setting my hands on fire.
For once in her short life, singing
Each time I keep it simple, sort of innocent- David Petruzelli, from Everyone Coming Towards You
if by innocent you mean it never happened -
the club's owner a friend of her father's,
the patrons part-family and part-regulars,
though mostly the latter. At 9:30, waiter
catch meaning in the ruins of ashtrays
and glasses seem to challenge girls
with their clinking, and everyone talks
as if they knew exactly where they were.
Back in her dressing room, I sit with her
while she impatiently goes over the lyrics,
studying this or that page as if trying
to pin down what the taste from her cigarette
reminds her of, and getting no further
than deciding I shouldn't be here,
yet softening her left cheek as I kiss her
and leave. Few have heard her before,
and no one will know if she cuts her set short
or whether she's good enough to be
invited back, though she will never be
invited back. But every table is taken,
and from the rear I always imagine
the moment the lights go, and the way
they take voices with them, even the ones
who say they'll return. And now it's just her,
which means a single light on her face,
and a voice that isn't sure how much she wants this;
doesn't know how long I want it to go on.
The Weight of the Inside of the Body
- Saskia Hamilton, from Divide These
It is a good thing to be in the vestibule.
The draft from the front door,
the hall lamp hanging from the ceiling, unlit,
the mind before it enters the house
of tenuous relationship, of starting,
of settling, of keeping still.
Ten crazy minutes when it almost worked:
from bedtime crackers, Sam and I segued
to playing, singing terse Cole Porter songs
(Cole smiling cross-legged on the frontispiece,
queer and dapper; married, as I am),
and Ben, who can't bear eighth notes poorly swung -
an amateur musician, nearly pro -
laid off his book and sat down at the keys.
I swept and scooped our son across the floor
while gender-bending lyrics, sotto voiced.
Then Ben stopped playing, taught me how to lead
left foot, right foot, til our feet agreed,
"Night and Day", "I Happen To Like New York."
- Jenny Factor, from Unraveling at the Name
Friday, September 15, 2006
The 2006 Booker short list
Of the shortlist, the only book I haven't read is the Matar (I'm two thirds of the way through the Hyland - review on Momus soon). Of the rest, my pick for the prize would be the St. Aubyn, though I'd be perfectly content if either Grenville or Waters were to win.
Personally, though, I find the real value of the prize is in the longlist, which every year provides an introduction to books and writers I'd never read before and probably would never have come across otherwise. Last year's finds included Ali Smith and James Meek's People's Act of Love. This year, St. Aubyn has already made it to my list of authors to read more of, and I hear good things about the Claire Messud and the Jon McGregor. *rubs hands in glee*
Oh, wait! I'm not supposed to be reading prose this month.
Update: My review of Hyland's Carry Me Down here.
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
But the morning left little to be thankful for. In the heart of every man who stood waiting in line was the grudging knowledge that summer was coming - a few days of warmth and the epidemic was sure to get them too. They had been granted a reprieve, no more. Unless this new vaccine worked. That was their only hope now. And even that was a bitter hope, for it was a sad thing to think that they would be the last survivors, and to them would fall the almost impossible task of rebuilding the human species. Still, it was something.
The line outside the hospital was long and slow. It took almost three hours before those who had joined the line on the road outside were ushered into the head doctor's chambers. This was the only room in the entire complex, indeed in the entire city, that was still heated. After the news of the epidemic had hit, city planners had realised that future supply of fossil fuels was uncertain, given that there was no one left to operate the oilwells, so it was better to preserve what supplies of these fuels they had.
The men entered in groups of ten, their faces flushed with the sudden warmth of the room. Their relief was short-lived however: the white coated attendants serving them worked efficiently, and it was only a matter of minutes before the life-saving needle had been plunged into their arm and they were being ushered out into the cold again. As they walked out of the room, the men stared at the rows upon rows of vaccines stacked in a corner of the room, transparent ampoules that held salvation sealed within them. They looked so fragile, so tiny, that the thought in every man's head as he left was the same: What if they should run out?
In fact, they already had. When the supply of vaccines, rescued from faraway research labs at great cost of life, had finally reached the hospital, it had soon become clear that there would not be enough to service the entire population of the region, not even after the elderly and the disabled had been denied. The physicians overseeing the program therefore decided to inject all the women of the region with the serum (on the theory that with the population of the species severely depleted, the ability to bear children was crucial and had to be preserved), and give whatever was left to the men. At first there was discussion of selecting the finest specimens from among the men, but this soon proved impractical. To begin with, it was hard to decide on what basis the 'finest' were to be chosen. Some people argued that those with the finest intellect - the most intelligent, the most educated - must be saved, so that the great store of human knowledge could be preserved. But defining what parts of human knowledge were important and which were not proved problematic. Did poetry matter? Did quantum physics? Did history? Others argued that given that life in the coming decades was likely to be extremely harsh, it was better to save those with the most physical strength, since they had the best chance of survival.
There was also the issue of how such a selection was to be implemented. If the men found out that only some of them were to be saved and the others to be condemned to certain death, they might run riot and attack the hospital. Who knew what damage that might cause? No, letting the men know that a selection was being made was not an option.
The final solution the hospital committee struck upon was this: there would be no selection. Instead, the shortfall of vaccinations would be made up by identical looking vials of the flu vaccine, of which large quantities were available. The two sets of vaccines would be handed out at random, with no way of telling who was getting a genuine vaccine and who was getting a placebo. When summer finally arrived, those who had got the true vaccine (about one in six) would survive. The others would die. No one would ever know about the deception (the members of the hospital committee members swore not to tell). Those who died would simply think that the vaccine had not worked in their case. Those who lived would think they had got lucky. They might even believe that they were special somehow - perhaps they were stronger or better fitted for survival, perhaps they had been chosen by some supernatural force. Either way, it would give them an extra edge of self-confidence in the bleak years ahead.
Meanwhile, outside in the street again, the men who had had their vaccinations stood around in groups, looking around anxiously for the first signs of thaw and mentally preparing themselves for the task of staying alive.
P.S. Inspired by watching Gela Babluani's brilliant 13 (Tzameti) - take my advice and don't view the trailer or read about the movie. Just go watch it.
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
talking on their cellphones.
Also, holding hands.
Monday, September 11, 2006
Say you love me
"I am haunted
by the feeling that she is saying
melting lords of death, avalanches,
rivers and moments of passing through.
And I am replying, "Yes, yes.
Shoes and pudding."
- Jack Gilbert, 'Say you love me'Categories: Poetry
Saturday, September 09, 2006
Watching him draw further and further away, she felt a perverse determination to linger. Why should she let herself be stampeded by him? No, she would take her time - staring into the shop windows, stopping to haggle with the roadside vendors - he would just have to wait for her to catch up. And serve him right too. The thought of him standing on the sidewalk, annoyed and impatient, sent a small frisson of mischief through her.
Just then, she noticed a pair of the most exquisite shoes in a shop display. She just had to go in and try them on. Instinctively she turned around to call to him, ask him to come back, then realised that he was already too far away for her voice to reach. For a moment she hesitated, then, with a shrug of her shoulders, walked into the shop. When he discovered that she wasn't behind him he'd come back.
Coming out of the shop fifteen minutes later, she realised that he hadn't shown up yet. She'd been so busy looking at shoes that she hadn't noticed. Where could he be? Was it possible that he still hadn't noticed that she wasn't following, that he was still striding along with that purposeful, intent look of his - getting further away from her with each step? Surely not. Maybe he had realised that she had fallen behind and had decided to stop somewhere on the side of road, at a cafe perhaps, and wait for her to catch up. Yes, that made sense. She walked along the sidewalk in the direction they had been headed but there was no sign of him anywhere. Could he have stopped in a shop as well, could she have passed him by without noticing? Unlikely. He hated shopping. Besides, surely he would have been keeping an eye out for her. Where could he have got to? If there was some specific place they had been heading for she would have gone there, but today was their first day in the city, and they had decided just to ramble through the streets at random. He could be anywhere.
Could it be that he'd got mad when he realised that she wasn't following and had gone off somewhere in a huff? The more she thought about it, the more that seemed like the only logical explanation. The gall of the man, to abandon her so! And in a strange city too! She could feel her temper rising. Well, to hell with him then. She didn't need him. She would go see the city by herself. Give both of them a chance to cool down. Yes, that's what she would do. It occured to her that this would be the right time to go see the museum that she'd been keen on and that he'd refused to go to. That way, things would actually work out for the best. She stepped off the kerb, hailed a taxi.
Leaving the museum at closing time she suddenly realised that she had completely forgotten the name of the hotel they were staying in. It was a small hotel, a bed and breakfast really, and it had this exotic local name that had clean slipped her mind. She'd never had a good memory for this kind of thing. It was the kind of detail she trusted him to remember. She took a cab to the locality she remembered it being in, and spent a couple of hours wandering around the back streets, looking for something that looked familiar, asking shopkeepers for directions to every inn, hotel and pension in the area, but she wasn't able to find the place. Finally, exhausted beyond all measure, she checked into another bed and breakfast, ate a hasty but delicious dinner up in her room, went to sleep.
Waking the next morning she tried to think of ways to get back in touch with him. How to find out the name of their hotel? She went down to the reception and borrowed a listing of hotels in the city, but none of the names struck a bell. She decided to call their travel agent back home and find out what hotel they were booked in (she'd make up some explanation), then realised that it was Saturday and they would be closed for the weekend. She called her own house and checked the answering machine remotely, thinking he may have left her a message knowing she would check, but there was nothing. Maybe he was still sleeping. It would be just like him to have used the opportunity of her absence to get wildly drunk. She called back and left her own message on the machine, spelling out the name and address of the hotel she was staying in, so he could get in touch.
Having exhausted all immediate avenues of reestablishing contact, she lounged about in her room, waiting for the shops to open, then went down and bought herself some new clothes and basic cosmetics. Then, having eaten a filling brunch, she set out to explore the city on her own once more. After all, they were only here for a week - there was no sense wasting a perfectly beautiful day moping around in her room. It would all get sorted out by nightfall. Meanwhile there was so much to see.
When she got back to her hotel that night, tired but happy, the first thing she did was to ask if there were any messages for her. There were none. She felt surprised. Why had he not tried to get in touch with her? Could something have happened to him? For the first time since they had been separated she wondered if his disappearance could have been involuntary. What if he'd had an accident? What if he'd been mugged or killed? She sat in the hotel common area reading through the English dailies. No mention of any American being involved in a mishap. Still, if he hadn't got in touch by Monday she would call the embassy. Meanwhile, she called home and checked for messages again. Only her own message, and one from his mother. No word from him. Maybe it hadn't occured to him that they could communicate this way. Yes, that must be it. She still felt a little uneasy, but a half-bottle of chardonnay combined with the memory of the hectic day she'd had soon allayed her fears. Her last thought before she drifted off to sleep that night was: at least I'm enjoying myself.
The next day the cycle repeated itself. Again, there were no messages for her, again she went out and wandered through the city, taking in the sights, again she was a little dismayed at dinnertime but managed to drown her worry in good food and alcohol. The important thing, she kept telling herself, was to have fun - this was the only vacation she was going to get this year, and sooner or later this mysterious separation of theirs would get sorted out.
By Monday, the days had settled into a comfortable pattern. She spent her days wandering through the bazaars and visiting the medieval ruins, then at night she had dinner by herself. She considered calling the travel agency again, but the whole thing was too embarassing. She decided against calling the embassy as well. After all, nothing had really happened - it was just a silly little miscommunication - hardly the kind of thing you wanted to get the embassy involved in. They would think her neurotic. Better to let the thing sort itself out in its own time.
On Tuesday, she decided to go out for dinner, selecting an intimate little cafe not too far from her hotel, sitting at a table by herself, taking a book along to read by the candlelight. This soon became part of her pattern, though she chose a different restaurant each night. A couple of times men approached her, noticing that she was alone. She felt vaguely flattered by this, but turned them down politely - she was enjoying the experience of dining out by herself too much - it was something she'd never done before in her life. Certainly in the eleven years they'd been married she'd never been to a restaurant on her own. It was thrilling to be able to pick exactly the dishes she wanted, without having to worry about getting something that he might like to share, thrilling to be the one tasting the wine to see if it was good, thrilling to be the one handing out the credit card at the end. These evenings out alone left her so flushed with joy that when she got back to the hotel she even forgot to ask if there were any messages for her.
Now and then, usually over breakfast in the mornings, it occured to her to wonder what he was doing in the meantime. Was he having as good a vacation as she was? She imagined him going frantic trying to find her in the city, imagined him running to the embassy, to the police, and felt a pang of guilt. But then she thought, no, if he was really looking he would have found me by now. More than likely he's happy to be rid of me and is it living it up - probably there's a lot of alcohol, maybe there are even other women. She felt hurt and bewildered by his betrayal, by his callousness in not having contacted her yet. Still, she must be fair. Maybe he had been looking and hadn't been able to find her. After all, she hadn't been able to get in touch with him either. And she had tried. She wondered what he thought she was doing.
At any rate, now that the ten days they were here for were almost over, the answer was simple. She knew the date and time of their flight back home. All she had to do was show up at the airport, her backpack of new possessions with her, and they could return to New Jersey together. How much they would have to say to each other on the flight! What a story they would have to tell their friends back home. The very thought of that airport meeting made her smile. It would be like Casablanca, only in reverse. They would never have Paris.
But when the day arrived, he wasn't there. She sat in front of the airline counter for three hours, waiting for him to show up, but there was no sign of him, and when she finally asked the woman at the counter there was no booking in their name either. Had she remembered the wrong day? She could have sworn it was today - after all they both had to be back at work by Monday. Could it be that he'd gone home early, frantic with worry at her disappearance? But why cancel her reservation? And if he was home already, he would have got the message she'd left him. Surely he would have called.
The woman at the counter was looking at her impatiently. She realised she was holding up the line. She thought about going back to her hotel and trying to call him at home, perhaps coming back to the airport tomorrow to see if she'd got the wrong date. But she was here now, ready to fly out. She asked the woman at the counter if there were still seats available on the flight. There were.
Reaching the house, she could see immediately that no one was home. The lights were all turned off, the windows closed, the blinds drawn. In the gathering dusk, the house looked strangely ghostlike. She paid the taxi, then entered the house, setting her backpack on the stairs as she wandered into the living room. She checked the machine, hoping to hear his voice, but was disappointed. Desultorily, she flipped through the post, then went over to the bar and fixed herself a drink. Tired with the long flight, she sank into an armchair, kicked off her shoes, sipped her vodka slowly, thinking about the week gone by, their sudden separation. It seemed so strange to think that it had all started because she'd ducked into a shop behind his back to look at some shoes. The whole thing was bizarre. They'd had fights before, of course, but this was different - there was no acrimony here, only a sense of something disconnected. She wondered where he was now, but the thought passed through her mind idly, tinkling about in her head like a shaken ice cube, then melting away. Sitting there, in the almost dark house, she thought about the vacation she'd had without him - the choices she'd made, how alive she'd felt. Draining her drink to the last drop, she got up, went over to the kitchen sink, rinsed the glass clean. For a moment she stared at the red light of the answering machine, winking at her. Then, moving as briskly as she could, she went and picked up her backpack, slung it over her shoulder, walked out of the door.
Praising the mutilated world
And, of course, if you enjoy hear poems being read aloud (even somewhat badly), you simply have to check out Poi-tre (shameless plug, I know, but it was just too apt to resist).
Friday, September 08, 2006
Blind man's bluff
Such an innocent sounding question that. So casual, so by-the-way. Like a gently tossed grenade. You smile. You say something like "Of course!" trying to drag out the words while speculation spins in your head like a roulette wheel. It's probably a new hair style, you think. But it could be new nailpolish. Or new glasses. Or just glasses (did she wear glasses before?). Or a new dress. Or new shoes. Or a new purse. Or a new outlook on life. Or maybe it's a trick question and there's nothing different.  Hell, it could be anything. She's still waiting for an answer, looking increasingly sceptical. You hazard a guess. Obviously, you get it wrong, thereby proving that your relationship / friendship is nothing but a hollow shell, that you neglect her, take her completely for granted, and don't appreciate her at all. I mean, how could anyone NOT see that she was using a new shade of mascara.
I don't get this. I mean, who in his right mind spends time memorising the colour, length and shape of hair of all the women of his acquaintance. What do I care if your hair is short, shoulder length, waist length, ankle length, third-vertebrae-counting-from-the-tip-of-the-coccyx length? Or whether it's straight, wavy, curly, or fluctuating sinusoidally? I don't even know what a split-end is (though I've always imagined it as a Hydra like creature - you know - Hercules the mighty Hairdresser's trying to give you your fortnightly trim, but every time he cuts a hair two new ones sprout up in its place), so there's no way I'm going to notice if you got them fixed.
You'd think women would be appreciative of the fact that one could see beyond the way they looked , that one didn't think of them as over-excited mannequins, that one actually cared about their opinions more than about their hair. Yet we continue to be haunted by this obsessive need to pay attention to appearances, to notice, to compliment .
Not that women are the only ones guilty of this kind of attention seeking, of course. Watching La Moustache the other day (it's a brilliant film, btw - like watching a French version of Murakami) made me think about the fallacy of assuming that just because someone loves us or is interested in us they must be paying close attention to every detail about us. The movie itself is more concerned with the question of whether the main protagonist actually had a moustache in the first place, of whether he's just hallucinating, but I kept thinking - so you shaved off your moustache and your partner didn't notice. So what? Is your facial hair really so important a part of who you are that her blindness to it makes you doubt her feelings for you?
Now if it was something truly important that the other person didn't notice - Like say, you were sitting in a coffee shop reading Dancing in Odessa and your boyfriend / girlfriend walked in and didn't ask you who this Kaminsky person was and what the poems were like - then you'd have a real reason to be upset. But all this pettifogging about hair and clothes and 'look' is so redundant. It always reminds me of those 'spot the difference' puzzles they used to print in the papers - you know the ones where you'd have two drawings of this guy standing on the deck of a ship and in one the island would have two trees and in the other it would have only one and there'd be some 22 other such differences and you were supposed to spot all of them. And all the while what I was really interested in was - why was this guy out there on the ship in the first place. Why was he staring wistfully towards this desert island with its one / two trees, with his cap / hat pulled down low over his eyes. Had he signed up with the Navy to get over his heartbreak? Was there someone on the ship looking for him and was he trying to avoid letting them get a good look at his face? Here was a man living through an intense and suspense-filled moment; who cared whether the funnel of the ship he was on had one stripe or two.
 A classic double-barelled question that - confuting the issue of whether she looks fat with the agency of the dress in achieving that effect.
 People who say women don't enjoy quizzing don't know what they're talking about. Women, in my experience, are natural quizmasters. They secretly hope you'll manage to figure out the right answer, but meanwhile, they love watching you squirm.
 In my younger, more naive days, I once made the mistake of telling someone I was dating how I wasn't interested in the way she looked. I wasn't with her because I thought she was good looking, I said, I was with her because I thought she was intelligent and interesting and funny and because we had so many shared interests. I spent the next fortnight having to apologise.
 Obviously, you shouldn't even think about offering honest criticism. Make an articulate case for why you don't like it (whatever it is) and you'll immediately be accused of having a negative attitude and being dismissive of everything she tries to do - all of which is linked, of course, to your own male insecurity which makes it impossible for you to celebrate a woman's achievement (said achievement, being, of course, her new earrings).
Thursday, September 07, 2006
The life academic / I know what you didn't do last summer
Why, then, does there continue to be a glut of fresh Ph.D.’s? It isn’t the pay scale, which, with a few lucky exceptions, offers the lowest years-of-education-to-income ratio possible. It isn’t really the work itself, either. Yes, teaching and research are rewarding, but we face as much drudgery as in any professional job. Once you’ve read 10,000 freshman essays, you’ve read them all.
But we academics do have something few others possess in this postindustrial world: control over our own time. All the surveys point to this as the most common factor in job satisfaction. The jobs in which decisions are made and the pace set by machines provide the least satisfaction, while those, like mine, that foster at least the illusion of control provide the most.
Afternoon matinees, we meet again. Team meetings, deadlines, adieu forever.
Tuesday, September 05, 2006
On being a victim
What frightens us about these situations is the knowledge of our own vulnerability. What if we cried out and no one listened? What if the person who wronged us couldn't care less? What if we were the ones who ended up being abandoned, ended up alone? Better to put a brave face on the whole thing, to preempt being let down by others by letting down ourselves.
Sometimes we say "It's okay, I understand", not because we truly understand but because we are too frightened to reveal how bewildered we are. Pretending to understand denies the other person power over us, makes us look less helpless, more in control. Sooner or later, we come to believe it ourselves.
Believing it ourselves requires having an explanation though. Which is why we now have to take the questions we were too afraid to ask and find answers to them on our own. This sounds harder than it is. Driven by our need to find reasons for everything, we move easily from the plausible to the certain, selectively finding 'evidence' for whatever theory happens to appeal to us. This sort of rationalisation not only gives us a basis for the understanding we have already laid claim to, it is also a wonderful way of occupying our time - numbing us to the emotional reality of the hurt and helping us experience a sense of self-efficacy based on our 'superior' powers of observation and thought. And if the explanations we come up with happen to be the ones most flattering to us, so much the better.
This, incidentally, is where faith comes from. God is an attempt to justify the unfair.
And should evidence contrary to our theories arise, we deal with it by positing a special relationship between us and the person who has wronged us. "Nobody else understands him / her the way I do" we tell ourselves. This not only lets us ignore what everyone else is saying, it also creates a special bond between us and the person who mistreats us - a bond that compensates for the relationship we thought we had. This is the love of the oppressed for the oppressor - every slave knows his or her master's needs better than anyone else. And believing in this unique connection allows us to look down on other people, to return scorn for their sympathy, disdain for their support. It is the armour in which we fight against the hands reaching out to help us.
People who have a real connection understand how little they really know about each other, how different they are and how poorly they understand those differences. It is what keeps them interested in each other. People like that don't need to rationalise.
When we finally get around to forgiving the other person it is because we wish to establish our own dominance over them. Forgiveness is a claim - it not only suggests that we have enough emotional distance from the situation to be able to forgive, it also implies that the person we are forgiving cares about us enough to value our forgiveness.
Sometimes we choose to be the bigger person simply because we need to feel bigger.
Sometimes dignity is just another cop-out.
And sometimes the opposite of all this is true and the other person really is sorry and we really do understand and really could forgive, only then we go read Kierkegaard or Greer and we think maybe we should be asserting ourselves more and we refuse to trust our instincts and end up alone and unhappy.
Only thing is, you end up alone and unhappy anyway. At least this way you have the satisfaction of knowing you fought back.
P.S. Don't ask. Let's just say it's been that kind of day. The beginning of a new term always gets you asking the big questions.
Categories: Life, Whimsy
September is poetry month
I'm older and less judgemental (if not wiser) now, but every now and then I feel the urge to return to those days. It distresses me that I don't read enough poetry, especially enough contemporary poetry. Think about it - with prose, I'm half way through the Booker long list. With poetry, I've barely read a single book published in the last 12 months.
So Saturday morning, with the long weekend ahead of me, I decided it was time I expanded my poetic horizons, and I went out and borrowed 16 volumes of poetry, all published in the last 5 years, from the library. I've only got through some ten of them so far, and I was a little bored with some of them, but here are some extracts (and more will doubtless follow):
the air is awful,
it's true, a companion
tensions, sad after-
and to breathe it
as we do
in the short run
have to feel that somewhere
of at least one well-known
spring a sparrow
as if tethered to a stone,
to add even
a single feather
to the sky.
- David Rivard, 'Wednesday in September' from Sugartown
Kenyan stamps on blue tissue - the usual pregnant arrival of words.
Always a marvel with facts and specifics, she notices things
no one else notices, then shares them with a practical generosity.
You might as well know this.
And after she says she's grown fat on chocolate, outlines a day
of clinical work and tells of a hippo, the green mambas in the yard,
there is something else. A woman in labor. Undilated and staring
into the eyes of something, she arrived alone from the village.
No supplies in the cabinets, no time and two hours of one ruptured dirt road.
They carried her to the Jeep, knew they'd never make Migori before she collapsed,
then how stunned we were to find the road repaired! the ruts filled in, tangled
roots and rock removed, smoothed over. They made it in forty-five minutes,
delivered the woman and her child and afterward asked when the road was restored,
how, by whom. Why had they heard no shovels, no singing?
The nurses shook their head then, the hagglers in the market shrugged. At dusk
they turned the Jeep for home, lurched back onto the road and you must know this -
She writes of the endless ragged tracks, the old sprawling scar, and how for two hours
in silence they labored their way back, each star beating down.
- Rebecca Wee, 'Ajabu' (Magic) from Uncertain Grace
Sometimes one of the twins dies
in utero, without his mother
ever knowing she'd been twice blessed.
Hungy for life, the living twin
will absorb his double and, growing,
compress him until all that's left
is a tiny shape made flat, a silhouette
of the life it once contained.
While the one child is born pink
and howling into his parent's arms,
the other remains a faint imprint
barely visible in the translucent web
of amniotic membranes - a fetal hieroglyph.
Some people believe twins have
only one sould between them.
If that's true, how many
of us are born half -
ignorant of our paper twin, the ghostly
shroud of an other self,
the blank page onto which all
our imagined lives are written.
- Peter Pereira, 'Fetus Papyraceous' from Saying the World
What the scale tells you is how much the earth
has missed you, body, how it wants you back
again after you leave it to go forth
into the light. Do you remember how
earth hardly noticed you then? Others would rock
you in their arms, warm in the flow
that fed you, coaxed you upright. Then earth began
to claim you with spots and fevers, began to lick
at you with a bruised knee, a bloody shin,
and finally to stroke you, body, drumming
intimate coded messages through music
you danced to unawares, there in your dreaming
and your poems and your obedient bloo.
Body, how useful you became, how lucky,
heavy with news and breakage, rich, and sad,
sometimes imagining that greedy zero
you must have been, that promising empty sack
of possibilities, never-to-come tomorrow.
But look at you now, body, soft old shoe
that love wears when it's stirring, look down, look
how the earth wants what you weigh, needs what you know.
- Rhina P. Espaillat, 'Weighing in' from Where horizons go.
Monday, September 04, 2006
The joys of intellectual debate
I will tell him without explanation that his review was full of clumsy errors. Your intelligent readers will find them easily.The sheer idiocy of this is staggering, as is its petulance. And to think this is a man who teaches Philosophy at Harvard. Shudder!
Wills has the perfect response:
Chest-beating as argument. How manly.P.S. See also Martha C. Nussbaum's review of the book (hat-tip: Uma)
Sunday, September 03, 2006
Why do I hate photographs of myself, you ask?
Because they strike me as being too deterministic a form of evidence for my tentative, even circumstantial presence. Records of a permanence I neither feel nor aspire to. That I was in such a place and at such a time means something, the photograph suggests, and this is almost never true. My being there is usually a matter of coincidence and serendipity, sometimes it is the result of casual choice - all other narrative is convenient, but false.
Because I'm tired of the way people are always smiling in them. Or trying to. As though life were inherently happy. As though this were our 'true' face. Or as though the fact of having this role of the lens' object thrust upon us, of being forced to step out of the stream of our life and assume this fake pose, were pleasurable in itself and "cause enough / for calling up that spot of joy". Who exactly do we hope to fooll by this? Personally, I'd rather see pictures of people crying. If you're trying to figure out how beautiful someone is, that's the right way to do it. What was it Emily Dickinson said? "I like a look of agony / Because I know it's true / Men do not sham convulsion / Nor simulate a throe".
Because photographs limit and circumscribe. Because they are an insult to both memory and imagination, as though either needed the help of some piece of printed paper to perform its office.
Because they will insist, like spoilt children, on their own version of things, as though accuracy really mattered in something so trivial as an individual's life.
Because every photograph is a lie. When you see a group photograph you think: the people in it are together, they are having a shared experience. But this is not true, because each person experiences the moment in his own way. Ask the people in the photograph about the day it was taken and each one of them will have a completely different set of memories, and none of their versions will be exactly right. The photograph is simply a brazen attempt to hide this lack of connection, to put a brave face on the irreconcilable differences between us. A desperate attempt to pretend that we have something in common.
Because photographs are two-dimensional. Any real record of the past would have to include so much more. Not that one instant only, but the moments that came before and after. And other things. The smell of the freshly mown grass, the distant noise of the traffic, the feel of the sunlight on your skin. What person A was thinking about, what person B was feeling. The warmth of these bodies - their heartbeat, their breathing.
Because photographs are a claim: one that I have no wish to make. They are flags planted in history, an attempt to claim a certain handsbreadth of the past for our own. As though it was possible for the past to belong to someone. As though such ownership were valuable.
Because photographs are symptoms of the worst nostalgia of all - the nostalgia for memory. Where does it come from, this desire of ours to remember and be remembered? Why do we want to be unforgettable? What good will it do us to think or know that people will remember us even when we are no longer with them? And do we really believe that this picture, this foolish little image, will do the trick for us, grant us immortality?
People are always showing me old photographs of someone I used to know (or someone they claim I used to know) and saying "Remember him?" I usually don't. And the reason I usually don't is because in all likelihood the person either bored me or irritated me, or, at best, I never got to know anything about him except maybe his name and so there's really nothing to 'remember'. It annoys me to know that I'm expected to remember such people, and it frightens me to think that they might still remember me (or rather, that they remember the version of me as I was then; no, actually, the version of me as I was then that they subjectively saw). The few people / places / times I do remember I need no photographs to remind me of. In general I find the 'if you can't remember it, forget it' rule a good one. That way the memories I keep are the ones I truly value. Remembering isn't cheap, and it shouldn't be.
And even if you want to cling to some memories (and which of us doesn't) why make them public? Why create this common vision of the past, instead of keeping your own unique and inaccessible version of yourself? I hate photographs of me because they deprive me of the right to control my own memories. You know how in the old days when a king died they buried him along with his household and all his worldly goods. That's what I'd like done with all my photographs - bury / burn them with me when I die so that afterwards there's no proof left of the fact that I ever existed. 
I hate photographs because they assume that the purpose of life is to establish your presence in the world. Personally, I'd rather establish my absence. After all, if people notice you're not there, it means they miss you.
I hate photographs because they make me look involved, and therefore culpable. Because every time I look at a photograph of me I know that some day, in some way or the other, someone will use it against me.
"Preserve your memories / they're all that's left you" Simon & Garfunkel sing. Can you imagine what that would be like? To have got so old, so tired, that you could neither see nor imagine any future, that you no longer cared about the present and couldn't remember the past with any clarity; that you had no inner resources left and had to turn to these tiny coloured bits of paper to keep you going. And even then all you'd have would be a lot of fake images from times you probably regret and certainly can't change. Isn't that a terrible thought?
To hell with bookends. Personally, I'd rather fall off the shelf.
P.S. Of course, the real reason I hate photographs is because they make me look fat. But you don't think I'm going to admit to that, do you?
 Besides, if there is an afterlife, I'd like to show them around - just think what fun it would be to meet up in hell with the people who forced you to look at their baby pictures, and spend all of eternity showing them the 1,350 pics of your trip to the Smoky Mountains
Update: Here's Margaret Atwood, from her new collection, Tent:
No more photos. Surely there are enough. No more shadows of myself thrown by light onto pieces of paper, onto squares of plastic. No more of my eyes, mouths, noses, moods, bad angles. No more yawns, teeth, wrinkles. I suffer from my own multiplicity. Two or three images would have been enough, or four, or five. That would had allowed a firm idea: This is she. As it is, I'm watery, I ripple, from moment to moment I dissolve into my other selves. Turn the page: you, looking, are newly confused. You know me too well to know me. Or not too well: too much.
Categories: Personal, Universe, Rant
Friday, September 01, 2006
Do not trust eyes
I've seen the film, and have a vague memory of the song, though I can't say that I was blown away by it. Still, I've never been one to refuse a challenge - which translating Gulzar into English certainly is - specially not when it can be used as an excuse for a blog post. So here goes.
Here are the original lyrics of the song as per Chronicus Skepticus (any cribs you have with them to be please directed to her):
Nainon ki mat maaniyo re, nainon ki mat suniyo,Here's my straight-up, free-verse translation (where I try to be reasonably true to the original):
Nainon ki mat suniyo re
Naina thag lenge
Jagte jaadu phukenge re, jagte jagte jaadu
jagte jaadu phukenge re neenden banjar kar denge
Naina thag lenge
Bhala manda dekhe na paraya na saga re
nainon ko toh dasne ka chaska laga re
Nainon ka zehar nasheela re
Baadalon mein satrangiyan bonve bhor talak barsaave
baadalon mein satrangiyan bonve, naina baanvra kar denge
Naina thag lenge
Naina raat ko chalte chalte swargaan mein le jaave
megh malhaar ke sapne bije hariyali dikhlave
Nainon ki zubaan pe bharosa nahi aata
likhat parhat na rasid na khaata
saari baat havaai re, saari baat havaai
Bin baadal barsaaye saawan, saawan bin barsaatan
bin baadal barsaaye saawan naina baanwara kar denge
Naina thag lenge
Jagte jaadu phukenge re jagte jagte jaadu
jagte jaadu phukenge re neenden banjar kar denge
Naina thag lenge.
Do not listen to eyes, do not obey them;
Do not listen to eyes,
They will deceive you.
They will blow dust in your days, waken you to magic;
They will blow dust in your days and make sleep a desert.
They will deceive you.
The eyes do not care whether friend or stranger,
The eyes have a taste for biting,
And their venom intoxicates.
Sow rainbows in the clouds and they will rain till sunset,
Sow rainbows in the clouds and your eyes will drive you mad.
They will deceive you.
Wandering in the night, your eyes will bring you to heaven,
They will sow a monsoon of dreams, reap a green vision;
But one cannot believe the eyes,
Because there is no accounting for images,
And their promises are mere air.
And when the monsoon comes, without clouds, without rain,
These clear seasons of the eyes will drive you mad.
They will deceive you.
They will blow dust in your days, waken you to magic;
They will blow dust in your days and make sleep a desert.
They will deceive you.
And here's a more free-flowing, 'poetic' translation, in the form of a (slightly abbreviated) villanelle:
Do not trust eyes, they are not what they seem.
If you believe in their magic, you will be had.
They’ll blow dust in your days, make a desert of your dreams.
Is he friend or stranger? Why, what does that mean?
They bite where they like and their venom drives mad,
Do not trust eyes, they are not what they seem.
They’ll seed sleep with monsoons, reap a vision of green,
Sow rainbows in clouds just to make you mad,
Blow dust in your days and make a desert of your dreams.
They’ll promise you heaven, for a change of scene,
But you’ll get nothing in writing, so don’t be too glad –
Their promises are air – they are not what they seem.
And when the monsoon comes, without clouds, without streams,
The clear seasons of your eyes will make you sad,
Will blow dust in your days, make a desert of your dreams.
Do not trust eyes, they are not what they seem.
No short cuts to success
I hope he makes it. But I can't help wondering - if he doesn't, could we say he'd fallen short?
On the other hand, he must be the only person who can set a new world record and then go around feeling about two feet tall.