Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Chopin for Cello

Who knew that Chopin could write for cello?

Over the last few days I've been listening obsessively to Chopin's Sonata for Piano in Violoncello in G minor op. 65, performed by Martha Argerich and Mstislav Rostropovich [1]. It's a gorgeous piece. The first movement (Allegro Moderato) opens on a characteristically Chopin-like note - a few soft raindrops of sound rippling rapidly into a deluge, the plunging, breathless momentum of that chromatic start broken not, as you expect, by silence, but by the sombre note of a cello that seems to insist, for a moment, on order. But then it too, trembles into passion, and what follows is fifteen minutes of music that is at once frenzied and lyrical, at once tender and ferocious. Heartpounding explosions of desire alternate with glimpses of pure song; time and time again the natural calm of the cello is betrayed by the piano's restlessness, and time and time again the piano itself is soothed, turns contemplative.

The second movement opens with a scherzo's natural staccato-ness, but hidden in its heart is a lovely melody, two minutes of lilting song for cello that hardly seems to need the piano's whispered encouragement. Then it's on to the third movement (Largo), a tiny gem that could have come straight out of Beethoven. Gone is the delicate intricacy one associates with Chopin - in its place we get a theme of simple yet stunning beauty, every note full and echoing, as if connected to some deeper, more fundamental sadness.

Finally, the fourth movement, Allegro, the piano sparkling, the cello humming like wings, the soaring energy of the finale rushing you breathlessly forward. One always knew that Chopin was a genius with the piano, but one never suspected he could write something so moving for cello as well.

[1] The latter, by the way, is apparently desperately ill in hospital.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Dearly Departed

It must be the week for pleasantly surprising award results.

The results of this year's Oscars are in, and they're nowhere near as bad as I thought they would be. Not only did Babel get the trouncing it deserved and Scorsese finally get (albeit too late and for too little) the acknowledgement he merits, but Alan Arkin won for best supporting actor (an outcome I hadn't dared to even hope for) and Pan's Labyrinth won three Oscars. I think I've finally figured out the deal with the Oscars. They're completely incapable of recognising genius, but when it comes to making distinctions between the good and the merely mediocre they do an excellent job. Now if only Ryan Gosling had won.

Meanwhile, let me also point you to Xan Brooks' delightful minute by minute coverage of the event - which includes such gems as:

Spielberg sports a non-committal smile and nods every now and then. He looks like John Redwood trying to sing the Welsh national anthem.

the response of Dreamgirls' Jennifer Hudson, which is purely hilarious. "Oh God," she screams. "Look what God can do."

Needless to say this raises all kinds of theological issues. Principal among these is that if God's greatest miracle is His ability to bestow supporting actress Oscars on losing American Idol contestants, then one wonders if He is using His time as wisely as He might.

So much better than watching the thing on television.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The girl next seat

Will someone please explain to me this curious male fascination with having a good-looking woman sit next to you on a flight? So many men I know, perfectly normal guys in every other way, get stupidly happy about the fact that their travel companion was young, female and attractive. They'll even gloat about it afterwards. The whole thing is practically an urban legend. (There are also, of course, the people who tell you that so and so airline is great because their hostesses are so much better looking - another piece of reasoning I've never understood).

It don't get this. For starters, it's not as though she's choosing to sit with you [1]. There isn't a separate check-in counter for the seat next to yours (Economy Class, Business Class, Falstaff Class) with a mob of women fighting to be first in line. It just happened that the next middle seat available was in your row. And even if it's free seating, she's probably choosing that particular seat because there's space in the overhead bin or because someone in front of her just took the last aisle.

And even if she did choose based on the way you look, what are the odds that she was thinking "Oh wow! what an incredible hunk of man-meat! Let me sit next to him and bathe in the aura of his magnetic sexual presence"? Isn't it more likely that she thought you looked too old / emasculated / gay to be much of a threat?

Plus it's not like you're in a relationship or something. Say she passes you your lunch tray. Say you exchange a few smiles. Say at some point you say "Excuse me" and pass her on your way to the restroom (there's an association of ideas you want!). Say you get lucky and she needs to be taught how to buckle her seat-belt. Say you decide to live dangerously and offer her your newspaper after you're done with it. It's not exactly Antony and Cleopatra, is it? I mean, compared to this, watching your clothes tumble in the dryer next to hers would be wildly carnal. And what are the odds that she's going to get off at the first stop-over and leave behind a little note with the words "We'll always have Seat 14 A and 14 B"?

In theory, of course, you could use this opportunity to start a conversation, dazzle her with your suave charm and secure both her phone number and the promise of a first date before the seatbelt sign went off. There are, I'm sure, people who can do this. But let's face it - if you're sitting there dreaming about the vagaries of a boarding card algorithm playing cupid for you, you're not one of those guys. Chances are, you couldn't talk your way into a woman's affections over a candlelight dinner with the mariachi singing softly in the background, so the combination of crummy airline food, turbulence and uncle-ji snoring on the other side of her is certainly not going to work.

But let's be optimistic. Let's say you get really lucky and your plane goes down over the Atlantic. You rise to the occasion. You help her with her oxygen mask. You comfort her. You get that floating feeling inside you and you convince yourself it's love, not depressurisation. Before you know it you're sliding down the escape ramp together and she's clinging to you in the lifeboat while the sharks gather and the waves seethe. It's like something out of a Tallulah Bankhead film. Only trouble is, there are two dozen frustrated men like you on this lifeboat, and chances are you're the only one with a good looking woman on his arm, so when the time comes to decide who gets eaten first, guess who they're going to pick.

It hardly seems worth it, does it? Personally, I'd rather get a scruffy twenty-something sitting next to me. He's less likely to have too much cabin baggage, less likely to be finicky or complain, and if I end up having to argue with him over something I have the comfort of knowing that everyone in the plane will be on my side.

[1] Though I have to say it would be convenient if airlines would let you select a seat based on the profiles of people next to you. That way, I could safely avoid all women of child-bearing age.

Saturday, February 24, 2007


People think I'm areligious, even anti-religious, but it isn't true. I'm as devout as the next guy (always assuming, of course, that I'm not standing next to the Dalai Lama). It's just that all these mass produced gods - Christ, Allah, Vishnu, Mammon - don't do it for me. My chosen lar is the heating system in my apartment [1].

Now you have to understand something. Most people have heating systems that are quiet and obsequious, like a well-trained butler or a ghost that sits in the corner, whispering to itself. Mine, on the other hand, combines the temperament of Zeus with the voice of a marauding lion. It grunts, it roars, it shakes its dreaded vents. Ambitious beyond its means, it seems to feel the need to compete single-handedly with global warming, and left to itself, will pour heat into the room until everyday metal objects start to shimmer like that guy in Terminator - not Arnold, the better one. No mere thermostat is going to hold this heating system in check.

What this means in practise is that leaving the heat on in my room is impossible. Every night I turn it off, and every morning, with a devotion the most pious pujari in Haridwar would envy, I leap out of bed, rush over to the temperature control, turn the heat on again, and stand with my arms raised in supplication before the vent until I feel the warmth of my lord's blessing flowing over me. 'Tis only when I have bathed in the divine radiance of this ersatz Surya of mine, that I feel capable of getting on with the rest of the day's rituals [2].

Then, yesterday, disaster. I come home from work and like a devoted son in a Rajesh Khanna movie, rush to the feet of my heating vent to seek its blessing. I turn on the switch. I wait. And nothing happens. Not to worry. Mumbling the sacred mantra Control-Alt-Del under my breath, I turn the switch off and turn it back on again. Still nothing. No anticipatory growl, no trembling of the walls. I feel like a sacrificial virgin stood up by her monster. I raise my hands up close to the vent to see if I can feel anything. Is that a whiff of warm air I sense? "If it be so / it is a chance which does redeem all sorrows". Nah! it's just my imagination. I try tweaking the thermostat control (not that those have ever worked, but you never know). Then I go back to the switch. I turn it off and on, off and on in quick succession, like a maniac with an Aldis lamp. No good. Three short off-ons, followed by three long, followed by three short again? Nope. I give rein to my inner caveman, try banging on the damn thing. Effect on temperature control? None. Effect on dainty, distinctly un-caveman like hand? Painful.

Okay, not to panic. After all, I come from a long line of do-it-yourself home repairers. Why, legend has it that one of my ancestors was even in the Mahabharat. He was the guy who fixed the plumbing in that house the Pandavas built - you know - the one where it looked like a floor but when you stepped on it it turned out to be water. With blood like that leaking through my veins surely I wasn't going to let one lousy thermostat get the better of me. "But you haven't got any tools" Day Falstaff (that wuss!) points out. Tools! I scoff back. I don't need tools. Give me a penknife and I could build you a space ship (if it's one of those swiss army knives with a corkscrew attachment I'll even serve you wine on board). This Billy Bob Thornton guy's got nothing on me.

So I proceed to dismantle the thermostat. This means I take off the top cover, expecting to be faced with a bristling mass of ingenious circuitry. Instead it seems that the entire thermostat consist of three wires, four screws, a small copper plate and a strip of metal that looks like someone started to bend it into a question mark then gave up half way. No wonder the damn thing doesn't work. I try tweaking the thermostat dial again, even though I can now see that it's not connected to anything. No click, no hiss, no crackle of sparks. I stare at the innards of my thermostat accusingly, hoping to guilt trip it back on. No luck. All right, that's it, this thing is clearly beyond even my astounding electro-mechanical capabilities. I'm calling for back-up.

While I'm waiting for the emergency maintenance guy to show I wonder if I've done something to anger the Heat. My heat, my heat, why hast thou forsaken me, I ask. I wonder if some sort of propitiary rite, some sort of hallowed libation is called for. I ponder the odds of finding a fresh coconut at 10 o clock at night in downtown Philadelphia. I try to imagine getting a heifer into my room and sacrificing it at the heating vent's altar. I suppose if I took out the bed it would fit. I could always sleep on the corpse of the thing afterwards. I've always wanted a couch done in calfskin, and there's something to be said for a piece of furniture that's both bed and barbecue (bean bags, it turns out, aren't actually edible).

Ah, a knock on the door. The professionals are here at last. Enter Friendly Emergency Repairman (FER). FER's first act on entering is to inform me that he's never worked in this building before, it's not his regular beat, he's just filling in for some other guy. Square of him, but does this mean he can't fix my heat? He'll try, he says, but first he wants to know where the breakers are. Huh? He wants to talk about surfing? Ah, the circuit breakers. Yes, yes, of course. How should I know? He's the repair guy. We proceed to spend the next five minutes searching my room for the circuit breakers, my giving him the "some repairman you are, don't even know where the circuit breakers are" vibe, while he gives me the "what sort of man lives in an apartment and never checks the circuit breakers? He must be gay" look. Eventually we give up. We can't find the damn things. FER then gets on with his work. It seems he doesn't actually need to check the circuit breakers, he just wanted to know where the things were [3].

Now FER gets to work in earnest. He takes off the (already loose) cover of the thermostat. He peers knowingly at its interior workings. He frowns. He rotates the dial of the temperature control. He frowns some more. "You know", he says, "this thing doesn't seem to do anything at all." I feel like one who smiles and turning shall remark his expression in a glass. "Has it ever worked?" he wants to know. I try to explain to him about how the cut-out never worked, how I would turn it on just long enough to super-heat the room, then turn it off again. It's like explaining some mystic aboriginal rite to a missionary. Here I am laying bare my deepest spiritual connection and this man is mentally filling out a report that says "Thermostat inoperational. Natives deluded and prone to strange fantasies". "Not to worry", he says when I'm done, with a there-there tone in his voice. I'll write you up for a new thermostat, the regular guys should be able to install it tomorrow." Wait, wait! Tomorrow?! SHOULD?! I'm living in an igloo here and they'll fix it tomorrow?! FER does a quick check on the temperature in the room with his nifty lazer thermometer thing-y and points out that it's 65 degrees in here. Okay, fair enough, but it could get cold. "You'll be fine", he assures me. Easy for him to say. As he's packing up his tools we chat about how bad this February's been. He tells me how his utility bills have been criminally high, but what can you do, with the temperature what it is you need to keep the heat turned up high. Not a master of tact, your average FER.

Of course, now that my heat's off for the night the temperature outside just has to drop below 20 degrees. It takes me twenty minutes to get up in the morning. I linger in my bed, wondering if my blanket will marry me if I ask nicely. I finally force myself out by thinking of all those Jack London stories about people who fell asleep and died in the snow. "Must keep moving" I mutter and drag myself up. Emerging from my cocoon I feel most unbutterflylike. The windows radiate cold. The keyboard sends little shivers through my hands. I type out this post with blue, trembling fingers, and then, just minutes before the regular maintenance staff's shift starts, I hear it. A distant rumble at first, then the long, long sigh of a tired old man, then, with the rattle of a throat clearing, the heat is back, filling my room with its blast.

Forgive me, o Heat, for ever doubting thee. Forgive me that I did, before the cock's crow, deny thee three times in the witness of others. Blow herald angels, blow thou triumphant trumpets and thee stereo - sing, sing! (cue: "I know that my redeemer liveth")

But errr...meanwhile, could you go away again until the repair guys have come and gone?

[1] 'Apartment' is an exaggeration. Room would be more accurate, pigeon-hole even more so. Still, I'm a big believer in the power of positive suggestion.

[2] This of course, is how this whole religion thing got started in the first place. Most early societies worshipped fire, and it's a well known fact that the real reason that guy left Plato's cave was because it didn't have double glazing. The more things change, etc.

[3] I wonder if this is some sort of social ritual among repairmen - checking out each other's circuit breakers. The way I can't walk into a place without going over the bookshelf. "Well, Mac, this is a mighty fine collection of fuses you've got here. Oh, and look, a 50 amp three incher! One of my favourites in college!"

Friday, February 23, 2007

You love me, you really love me

[complete list of winners]

Well, well, what do you know?

Day Falstaff is thrilled about this. Night Falstaff is wondering if he's the only one who sees the irony in spending a lifetime trashing popular taste and then winning what is essentially a popularity contest [1].

The key with winning things like this, of course, is not to let it go to your head. Five minutes a day of telling yourself "I'm the greatest! I'm the greatest!" and before you know it you're invading Iran or turning into Wordsworth or marrying someone whose name sounds like an underwear brand and then shaving of all your hair as a way of coping. As my namesake would say: "If I do grow great, I'll grow less, for I'll purge, and leave sack, and live cleanly as a nobleman should do."

Still, it feels like some sort of speech is in order (Shoefiend actually asked me for one). Something stirring and poetic. 'The blog was mine before I was the blog's'. That sort of thing. The trouble is, there's so little great poetry about winning. What can one say, after all? "Now all the truth is out / Be secret and take victory"? "Success is counted sweetest / By those who e'er succeed"? "Say nought the struggle plenty availeth"? "What though the field be won? / All is not won"? "The rest is cheerful music"? See what I mean?

At any rate: a big thank you to everyone who voted for me [2]. It's a great feeling to know that so many of you enjoy what I write. It's like my ego's been let out of the dark mines it usually slaves in to attend the company picnic. Tomorrow I'll probably go back to being insecure and depressed, but today is a good day.

I'd also like to thank (in no particular order) my parents, the Philadelphia Orchestra, Starbucks, the agent I may some day get, Franz Kafka, Anton Chekhov, all forms of dark chocolate, my advisor, Absolut Mandarin, the three and a half women who have ever smiled at me when I wasn't taking their photograph, Blogger (you are the wind beneath my widgets), Constantine Cavafy, the Indibloggies jury, heh heh and Zen for convincing me that this blogging thing may actually be worth doing, Humphrey Bogart, the folks behind the Yahoo News service who have provided me with so many things to make fun of, Salvador Dali, the sponsors of the contest (Black Panther, I love you, even though I have no idea what a gym kit is or what I could conceivably do with one), my fifth grade English teacher, Pablo Picasso, the geeks in school whose obsession with IIT-JEE convinced me I didn't want to be an engineer, Rainer Maria Rilke, Jacqueline du Pre, Mozilla, Lucky Gents Heir Cutting Saloon (my hair stylist), Netflix, the Van Pelt Library, Google, Anna Karina and the guy who gave me change for a 20 yesterday because really who carries around 4 fivers and is willing to part with them to a complete stranger?

Right, now to go see about those troop deployments.


[1] Last heard, Night Falstaff was consoling himself with a half-empty bottle of scotch and the knowledge that 78.5% of the people who voted in the contest didn't think 2x3x7 was the best Humanities Indiblog.

[2] This includes those of you who voted for Momus. I'll be thinking of you when I finally kill myself while listening to Sinfonia Concertante.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


He is ready, he says.

To prove it, he blindfolds himself, takes his gun apart, reassembles it.

I watch the clockwork of his hands dismantling the familiar arguments, putting together the pieces of someone else’s death.

The parts fit perfectly. He is done in a minute.

“See!” he says, beaming proudly.

Guns are not countries.

[55 words]

Sunday, February 18, 2007

(Not quite) religious poetry

But now when I gaze
at the framed postcard
of Ganesh on the wall,
I also picture a rotting carcass
of a beheaded elephant
lying crumpled up
on its side, covered with bird shit
vulture shit -

Oh that elephant
whose head survived
for Ganesh -

He died, of course, but the others
in his herd, the hundreds
in his family must have found him.
They stared at him for hours
with their slow swaying sadness...
How they turned and turned
in a circle, with their trunks
facing outwards and then inwards
towards the headless one.

That is a dance
a group dance
no one talks about.
- Sujata Bhatt, from 'What Happened to the Elephant?'

[First published in Monkey Shadows (Carcanet, 1991); later included in Point No Point (Carcanet, 1997)]


On a lighter note, KM points to series of hilarious haikus and demands Haikus for Hindus. Well, you know me and challenges...(see the comments section)

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Non-trivial pursuit

Have you ever thought about the phrase 'pursuing a degree'. As in "Harry Wainwright is currently pursuing a degree in Diacritical Uncertainty from the University of That Little Bit of Florida That Doesn't Look Like your Appendix".

Isn't it a wonderful way of putting it?

What form does this pursuit take, one wonders. Is it a hot-footed chase after a delinquent qualification, complete with screeching tyres and pistol shots gone wild? "Calling all cars, calling all cars. Suspected PhD currently heading down Route 83 between Oaktown and Ashburg. Degree may be armed and dangerous. Pursue with caution." or "Quick driver! follow that dissertation!"

Or is it a more metaphorical pursuit - something out of Browning - a degree to be wooed and won over? Does one show up at the beloved qualification's door bearing bouquets of ideas, does one stand under its window on a moonlit night, singing citations till dawn?

Or perhaps it's a more zoological thing. The PhD not a malevolent or demanding intelligence, but a thing of nature, arbitrary, fickle. Must one wander through forests of regression, net in hand, seeking the butterflies of statistical significance? Must one sit crouched in a machaan over the dead horse of one's thesis topic, waiting for a contribution to emerge?

And is it really we who are pursuing the degree? Is it not the other way round? Are we not, Acteon-like, hunted by course requirements, hounded by time tables, laid low by committee? Who is the predator here, who the prey? Are we really the wolf that follows, and the degree the fawn that flies [1]?

Ah, the chasms that yawn beneath the most ordinary phrase.

(exits, pursued by a PhD)

[1] Bonus points for knowing where that particular gem comes from.

Friday, February 16, 2007

And speaking of incest...

You know, it just occured to me that in the litany of incestuous acts in literature (going all the way back to the Old Testament and the plays of Ancient Greece) I can't think of a single one that involves two people of the same sex. Think about it. Father and daughter - check. Mother and son - check. Brother and sister - check. But brother and brother? Mother and daughter? Even Turgenev's promisingly titled Fathers and Sons turns out to be depressingly non-sexual.

Incest, it seems, is the last bastion of heterosexuality.

I could argue that this is a reflection of the superior moral fibre of gay people through time. They may play for the other side, but at least they follow the rules. But that's obviously ridiculous.

What we have here, I think, is a grave lacuna at the heart of the literature that deals in taboo sexual acts. Why should straight people have a monopoly on this stuff? What we need is an all male version of Mourning becomes Electra, or a version of Oedipus Rex where Oedipus, returning from a foreign land a stranger, accidentally kills his mother and takes her place in his father's bed. The day we give homosexuality its rightful place in the canon of lyric tragedy, is the day we move closer to a more egalitarian society.

Where's Sophocles when you need him?

P.S. If you're wondering what brought that on - it's probably a combination of all this talk about incestuous bloggers and this lovely piece in the New Yorker by David Sedaris.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Uncut-est kind of all

You know the expression If you can't beat 'em, join 'em?

Well, since I don't have an earthly chance of beating Amit Varma in this Indibloggies thing, I figured I'd be proactive [1] and go over to the da...errr...Uncut side.

Besides, how can you say no to someone who actually invites you to pontificate about your favourite books / movies / music? (though, alas! without footnotes)

So, go check out the new and (hopefully) improved India Uncut site [2].

[1] It's been sssoooo long since I used that word. *sniff* Sometimes I miss consulting.

[2] aka The Coven of Incestuous Bloggers

O well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i’ the gains;
And now about the cauldron sing,
Live elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Love Sonnet to a New Post

When, in disgrace with Orkut and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my sitemeter;
Trouble other bloggers, crave replies,
Fisk Paul to be blogrolled by Peter.
Wishing myself like to one more rich in prose,
Features like his, like him with links possess’d,
Wanting this man’s template, that man’s jokes;
With what I most enjoy commented least.
Then, in these thoughts at myself griping
Haply I think of thee, and then my state
Like to a million monkeys at daybreak typing
Writes Shakespeare, or something approximate.
For thy sweet love conceived so perfectly maddens,
That then I scorn to change my site with Scott Adams.

With apologies, obviously, to William Shakespeare. Part of this contest (hat-tip Neha, whose own contribution to the contest is not to be missed).


Meanwhile, over at Slate, Robert Pinsky compiles a set of poems about sex, proving that Valentine's Day can make even respectable poets act like hormone driven school boys. I couldn't help but think of an episode Stuart Dybek relates in the latest issue of Poetry:

"In college, the first love poem that I felt written, not for me exactly, but directly to me, a poem I memorized in the way that as a child I'd memorized other love poems - "The Highwayman" and "The Raven" - without realizing that's what they were, was a poem by Auden from a set called 'Five Songs'. Coming from the erotic tradition of Buddy Holly, I must have needed that transition of song. The Auden poem made its own melody:

That night when joy began
Our narrowest veins to flush,
We waited for the flash
Of morning's leveled gun.

I found it in Sound and Sense, the text for the first lit class I took after dropping out of pre-med. I still recall the essay I wrote in answer to one of the questions: what is "the flash of morning's leveled gun"? I said it might be an orgasmic spurt, and received a deserved F, accompanied by the admonition, It's tougher to write something beautiful than to be a wiseguy."

Monday, February 12, 2007

Up, up and award

As you probably already know by now, 2x3x7 has been nominated for a couple of Indibloggies. Not that I have a ghost's chance of winning. I'm like one of those films with subtitles (the pretentious French kind, NOT the Babel kind) that the Academy includes in its list of Best Pictures only because the alternative is nominating Mel Gibson. Still it's nice to be nominated. I'd ask you to vote for me, except I figure you either will or you won't and if the last 625 posts haven't made up your mind either way, this one is unlikely to.

I have to say I'm a little conflicted about the whole Best Humanities Indiblog thing. It's not just that it turns out I'm competing against myself (since Momus got nominated too) making me feel like a motivational lecture run amok; or the fact that being called the Best Humanities anything brings back memories of the days when 'Humanities' was a euphemism for 'can't do math to save his life'. It's more that the category seems to have two very different kinds of blogs mixed up in it - creative writing blogs (hi, Shoefiend, good to see you in there) and review blogs (including Prufrock, Chandrahas and Amardeep, all of whom I read avidly) and I'm not sure how to compare the two. I feel like I'm trying to choose between writing with cheese on a blackboard or sprinkling chalk on my sandwich.

All is not lost though. The folks at Flog the Blog assure me that they're commited to including me in their awards, and with 2x3x7, Momus and Poi-tre to (sorry, BM) I figure I have a pretty good shot at beating Amit Varma for the Dilip Kumar award. All I need is a couple of posts about cows...

P.S. It goes without saying (at least it did so far) that if you're one of the people who nominated me - Thanks. You probably won't be rewarded for it in the next life, but at least the coffee will be hot where you're going.

The Island

[Second of my submissions to the Caferati contest]

He was walking by the shore when he saw the bottle, green wink of glass amid the jostled crowd of the waves. He had to wade out to get it, trousers rolled up to his knee, seizing it as it eddied at the edge of the turning tide, as if hesitating to commit itself to the reach of the land.

It looked like something out of a dream, or a book of fairy tales. A green bottle, label free, with a slip of something white inside. For a while he tried to uncork it, but the salt water had caused the cork to bloat and eventually he had to break the neck of the bottle against a rock to get to the message. It hurt him to do this. It felt like ingratitude.

Inside, on a ragged scrap of paper were the words “HELP ME! I’M STRANDED AND ALL ALONE. PLEASE HELP!”. The writing was poorly formed, as though written by someone whose strength was ebbing. Something dark and a little runny had been used for ink. Possibly blood. Possibly shit. There were no coordinates, no other information that could help pinpoint where this message had come from.

He stood on the shore and stared out at the horizon. Where in this whelmed and restless expanse of the world could he be – this soul crying out for help? After a while he threw the scrap of paper aside. It didn’t matter anyway. He himself was stranded, marooned on this island of his own, awaiting a rescue he knew better than to expect. Even if he knew where the message came from, there was nothing he could do to help.


It's turned out to be quite an operatic weekend.

Saturday was spent listening to Gluck's Iphigenie and Tauride (in a lovely Gardiner conducted performance) - which turned out to be a sweetly rewarding experience, despite the terrible travesty of its plot. And then today I attended an intimate little performance of Verdi's Macbeth by the Center City Opera of Philadelphia.

It was an intriguing performance - making up in charm what it lacked in power. I suppose the best term for it would be an opera reading. It was held in this smallish studio in the basement of the Kimmel Center, meaning a piano instead of an orchestra, and a lot of fairly quaint stage directions, with the singers entering from behind the audience and walking down the aisles, singing. The whole reminded me, in a way, of the Ramlila performances I attended as a child. One missed Verdi's orchestration, of course (with only a piano he begins to sound suspiciously like Puccini), and it was a little bizarre to see people reading from the score while they sang, but the singing was generally good - I thought Banquo (Jorge Oscasio) and Macduff (Daniel Holmes) in particular were excellent, as were the Witches, who had a nice Mother, Maiden, Crone thing going on; and Lady Macbeth (Lori Lind) did an admirable job despite having a bad case of the sniffles. Overall it was about as pleasant a way of spending a Sunday afternoon as I can think of.

The problem I have with opera adaptations of Shakespeare is that I always end up missing the words [1]. The trouble is that Shakespeare himself is so fundamentally operatic that even Verdi's histrionics seem like a let down. Take the scene where Lady Macbeth learns that Duncan is coming to visit. Verdi gives her a stunning aria here, but no soprano, however fierce, is ever going to be able to match the sheer bloody-mindedness and exquisite frenzy of:

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry 'Hold, hold!'
Oooh! Now I want to go read all of Macbeth again.

Meanwhile, tomorrow, to round out the trend, Scott Joplin's Treemonisha. Who knew Joplin wrote opera?

[1] Actually, I have the same problem with ballet versions of Shakespeare. In Midsummer Night's Dream, in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's poetry outdoes all dance.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Stay back Moses

Gabriel hated detention. It was such a bore, sitting in an empty classroom, completing some mindless task. And it wasn’t his fault anyway. It was that prig Michael, with his shining metal ruler and his Monitor badge. He’d been asking for it. But Mr. Jaweh would never punish Michael. Oh no. Michael was Mr. Jaweh’s favourite. So it was Gabriel who’d ended up staying back after hours, copying “Thou shalt not throw chalk in the classroom” five hundred times. What a pain.

By the three hundredth line, Gabriel was drowning in boredom. He needed a break. He didn’t dare move from his chair, though – if Mr. Jaweh caught him he would have to spend a whole week scribbling out some stupid edict or the other. Staring at the lines laid out before him, ten to a page, Gabriel had an idea. Why not make up his own lines? Like “Thou shalt not make love to a goat”. Or “Thou shalt not bathe Mr. Jaweh’s beard in gasoline and set fire to it”. Staring at the words on the page, Gabriel felt a moment of panic at their terrible finality. Then he chuckled. This was fun.

Ten minutes later, Gabriel heard footsteps. Mr. Jaweh must be coming to check on him. With desperate haste, Gabriel tore the pages with the offending lines from his notebook, slipped them under his desk. When Mr. Jaweh had gone (having scolded Gabriel for writing so slowly) he slipped them out from their hiding place, put them away in his bag. It was strange though. He could have sworn there had been three pages but now there were only two. As he went back to work, he wondered, idly, where the third one had got to.

[One of my three entries for the Caferati Flash Fiction contest (where, as usual, I won nothing - I don't know why I even bother). The second tomorrow. The third at some undefined point in the future]

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Walking on eggshells

Do you ever get the feeling that walking home with eggs in your hand makes you more vulnerable? As though you were somehow implicated in the eggs' fragility?

Like yesterday. There I am with a half dozen super-special nature brown organic eggs [1] in a shopping bag and suddenly I'm imagining accidents everywhere - speeding cars at every crossing, a bus ploughing onto the pavement, my feet slipping on a patch of ice. It's as though I'm haunted by this vision of my body and the eggs both lying broken on the sidewalk, my blood mingling with the spilled yolk.

This is why I don't make omelettes.


[1] I'm not, in general, big on the whole organic thing - but the only eggs available in a half dozen pack at my local grocery store are the la di da organic ones. And buying twelve eggs for one person (me) seems like bahut nainsaafi. Oh, for the good old days of walking down to the khokhawalla at the corner and saying "do ande dena". (though to be fair, even he used to give me pitying looks).

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The dolphin torn, the gong tormented sea

There is a point in Debussy's La Mer where, for a moment, the stage is transformed into the deck of a storm tossed ship. The violins panic like oarsmen, the cellos flounder, the bass growls like the sea. Roused from the deep, drums batter against the prow. The blast of the trumpets is a shrill, shrill wind, tearing the masts of the silence. The seats of the auditorium rise row upon row, like a great wave, towering above the struggling orchestra. The flutes cry out for mercy and the conductor, like some dishevelled captain, gesticulates wildly, trying to control the fury of the tempest, his instructions lost in the music's roar.

The hallucination passes, the scene grows still, you remember where you are. But the blood still pounds in the seashell of your heart, and the song on your lips tastes a little like salt.


An incredible double bill by the Philadelphia Orchestra tonight. Debussy's Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune and La Mer, followed by seething and boundless energy of Schubert's Ninth.

There's just something about Ninth Symphonies, isn't there?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Hum Log

After months of assidiously avoiding any and all references to Aishwarya Rai on the blogosphere, I was finally tricked into reading the latest about the Rai Bacchanalia by this post over at Amardeep's (is nowhere safe). Apparently, Ms. Rai, demonstrating a marked inability to tell wood from the trees has been going around betrothing herself to the local flora [1]. The Ent in me is horrified. Inflicting cruelty on movie star's sons is one thing, torturing genuine life forms is something else. Trees may not be able to talk, but they aren't dumb, you know [2].

Resisting the urge to make jokes about how trees are peepul too, or to conjure up visions of Ms. Rai and a tree running around Mr. Bacchan, or to point out that with her thespian talents and his personality the happy couple will probably be breeding dining tables before they've been married a year ("Darling, I think it's time we talked about having a second sofa, don't you?"), let me say only that I'm intrigued by the particularly unflattering view of the Fates that this bizarre practice (which I, obviously, had never heard of before) seems to imply. I mean think about it. There's this dread and awesome force that governs the universe, turns the planets in their courses, scatters the stars like so many pistachio shells, and yet apparently it can't tell the difference between a man and a tree. Here's the fate that governs all things and not only does it fall for the first trick in the book, but (given that this is apparently a traditional rite) continues to do so time and time again, for centuries. Not very bright, this evil fate.

It makes you wonder how gullible the forces of the supernatural really are. Will they believe just about anything? Can you fob Death off by telling him "My soul's in the mail". Can you avert the watery grave by saying "Don't call me - I'll call you". If disaster stares you in the face, does it help to shout "Look! Behind you!" Is dodging misfortune as simple as giving it a fake e-mail address?

Is this why the Gods get happy when you offer them prasaad, and don't notice that two minutes later you're snacking away on it yourself? Is this why one tiny black mark, easily washed away with diluted soap solution is enough to ensure that malign forces don't notice how beautiful the baby is? Who would have thought it? The Evil Eye - with perspicacity of Lois Lane.

Personally, I think we don't use trees as proxies anywhere near enough. Think about the possibilities. Don't want your son to wreck your car when he's learning to drive? Get him to practice on a tree instead (oh wait, is that why traffic in Delhi is the way it is?). Hate having to break in a new secretary? Install a shy little cedar outside your office and bawl it out when it doesn't take dictation properly. Want to invade a country but are worried what people will say when thousands of your soldiers get killed and there's no end in sight? Just plant a bunch of trees in the desert and when they wither away for lack of water describe it as an "intelligence failure". And why bother with stem cell research when you can make path breaking medical discoveries with saplings?

Me, I'm off to ask that thornless honey locust outside the library if he's willing to be my advisor.


[1] Okay, okay, I realise I'm probably the last person on the planet to learn of this.

[2] I have to say that being married to a family of trees would probably be fascinating:

"No, no, this box really is a family heirloom. That's no ordinary sandalwood, it's Shankar Mama"

"Packed? Why, of course my trunk is packed."

"That's my cousin Percy. He's, you know, that way. I mean, he's into wood peckers."

"Don't be silly, Marge, of course she's not a natural blonde"

"So he says to me, 'Take a bough' and I say..."

"The trouble with this younger generation is that they've lost touch with their roots"

"I don't like that Harold much. Nasty, sly, deciduous kind of creature he is."

"No, no, I've put that all behind me now. I'm turning over 12,689 new leaves."

"Yes, that's right. We're all so proud. It's a real feather in his nest"

"'You're my prisoner now, Captain' said Long John Silver Tree, 'and begads you'll be planking the walk before the day is through'".

Monday, February 05, 2007

Sticking to your gums

Did you know that chapsticks have no adhesive properties whatsoever? No, really, none.

So there I am with an envelope to gum and what I think is a gluestick in my hand and I'm applying coat after coat of the stuff to the flap and wondering why the damn thing won't stick even though by this point the paper is all greasy with it. And then a faint hint of aloe mixed with vanilla makes me realise that it's a chapstick I've got hold of.

You know how when one was growing up there were all these kids who thought it was really clever to write 'Open With A Smile' on the flap of the envelope. Usually with the I in the smile converted into a little smiley? Well, this one's now Open with an extremely well-moisturised smile. Gah!

I guess it could have been worse. I could have ended up gumming my lips together. [1]

[1] Many people would claim, of course, that this would be an improvement.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

A Country Cracked from Side to Side

Another day, another film. Just got back from watching James Longley's Iraq in Fragments, which is among the nominees for this year's Academy Award for Best Feature Length Documentary. A three part film, Iraq in Fragments tells the stories, in sequence, of an 11-year old Sunni boy in Baghdad, the growing Shia unrest in Najaf and Nasiriyah, and a Kurdish family in the North. It's a visually stunning film, and a considerable cinematic achievement, combining brisk, almost chaotic editing with breathtaking use of colour and a flair for the dramatic. The last section in particular looks like every frame could be an award winning photograph all by itself.

How insightful the film is as a documentary is another matter. Longley's decision to let the film reflect the chaos and incoherence of Iraq as it exists today, rather than trying to draw out a consistent message, is a bold one, but it leads to a film that, true to its name, is fragmentary and somewhat bewildering. The film has the immediacy of lived experience - nothing is explained, no facts are double-checked, no stories followed back or forward in time - it is as thought the viewer had been plunged deep into the intimate heart of Iraq and had just enough time to gather a few quick impressions and opinions, before he was whisked away. This makes the film exciting to watch, but it also makes it frustrating to think about. The fact that in all but the second section Longley chooses to go micro, focussing on particular individuals and never really drawing back to look at the big picture, only makes this sense of fragmentation more severe.

Two things do emerge consistently. First, the unsurprising fact that many people in Iraq really, really hate the Americans. Time and time again we hear people proclaiming that the coming of the Americans may have helped get rid of Saddam (which they see as a good thing) but on the whole, it's made things in Iraq worse. It's not hard to see where this idea comes from. As Longley faithfully portrays, Iraq's cities have been turned into battlefield. In Baghdad, as the film shows, tanks and humvees ply the streets while helicopter gunships roar through the skies. In a scene from the Shiite south in the second section, two old men sit smoking their hookahs and complaining about the US, their conversation punctuated by the sound of gunfire and explosions.

Second, the film highlights, I think, just how much the mess in Iraq is an administrative failure. If the people of Iraq are unhappy with the Americans, it is not out of some sort of Islamic idealism, certainly not out of loyalty to the old regime - it is because their day to day lives have worsened with the coming of the US invasion - law and order has broken down completely, cities are in shambles, unemployment is rampant. Longley doesn't quite explicitly say this, but it's not hard to see looking at the disillusioned faces of the young men in this documentary, hearing their stories about the absence of jobs and the pointlessness of schooling, where the next batch of terrorism recruits is coming from.

Not that there isn't hope. Iraq in Fragments ends on a note that is hopeful, if guarded. Longley shows footage of an election in the Kurdish provinces, where a voice exhorts the people to vote, telling them that their vote in the ballot will be worth more than thousands of bullets for the propagation of Kurdish interests. We see the shoving, chaotic lines outside the polling booth, we see the woman handing out the ballots helpfully telling everyone to vote for number 130, since he's the Kurdish candidate. The flowers of democracy blossom in the Kurdish spring, though whether they will bear fruit remains to be seen.

[Cross-posted at Momus]

Dreaming Lhasa, Ranting Man

Went for a special screening of Tibetan feature Dreaming Lhasa last night. It's an interesting film, though (fittingly enough) one fairly conflicted about its own identity. At its heart, it's an exploration of the Tibetan struggle for independence from China and the lives of Tibetan refugees living in India. As such, it explores the familiar themes of exile - memories of one's homeland, the quest for identity in an alien world - spliced together with vignettes of the atrocities being commited by the Chinese authorities in Tibet. All of this is moving purely for its genuineness, and the film serves as a guilty reminder of how overlooked the cause of the Tibetan people is internationally.

Dreaming Lhasa's central achievement is that it manages to show, somewhat gawkily, not only the long-suffering dignity of those committed to an endless fight for their homeland, but also the way this dream of Lhasa permeates a younger generation of Tibetans - these young people hang out in night clubs, play rock music and pool, exchange e-mails with their friends in the US and dream of going there sometime themselves, and yet when the demonstrations calling for a free Tibet go out, there they are in the front ranks, waving their candles, shouting with the rest. There is nothing particularly astonishing about this, and the film does tend to wax a little too nostalgic, but its affective purely because of its genuineness.

All of which makes you wonder if the film maker's wouldn't have been better off making a documentary. Instead we get a cliched plot, complete with a film-maker from New York, an ex-monk on a mission from his dying mother, an entirely implausible love interest and scene after scene that has been put together for the sole purpose of giving expression to an idea or a point of view. It doesn't help that the acting is definitively amateur; the two leads aren't so bad - Jampa Kalsang manages his role as the questing monk with economical competence, and Tenzin Chokyi Gyatso has her moments of inspiration, and is beautiful enough so that you don't notice the rest - but if you're looking for anything above the level of high school theatrics from anyone else, forget it. Much of this is deliberate: the cast of the film was selected for authenticity rather than experience, and includes former resistance fighters, leaders of the Tibetan government in exile and even the Dalai Lama's personal driver, so it's a little unfair to judge them on the merit of their thespian talent. The trouble is that the film seems unable to make up its mind between being authentic and being cinematic, and ends up lost in an uneasy compromise between the two.

Take this Karma person, for instance - the young film maker from New York, making a documentary about the Tibetan exiles, and searching for her own identity as a Tibetan in the process. Aside from the fact that everything about her is a cliche, why, exactly, is she part of the film at all? Only because the producers needed to raise money from the West and so needed to have a character that Western audiences could relate to? Karma's romance with Dhondup is one sustained false note from beginning to end, and her assistance in his search is largely illusory - there's really very little the two of them do together to find the man Dhondup is seeking that he couldn't have done just as well by himself, much as the movie tries to convince you otherwise.

I see why the producers chose not to make this a documentary, why they felt the need to include Karma - it doubtless increased the visibility of their film immensely, and attention, more than anything else, is what their cause really needs. But it's still sad to see the integrity and dignity of this potentially beautiful film sacrificed to the political need for quick publicity. The real poignancy of this film lies in seeing statesmen like Phuntsok Namgyal and Tsering Topgyal having to put on make up and mouth inane dialogue just so the world will finally listen to them.


The other exciting event of the screening was that I got buttonholed at the door by an irate 50-something who ranted at me for five minutes about how pathetic young people these days were. I mean, okay, so he had a point. It was an on-campus screening of the movie as part of a series of films dealing with human rights issues from across the globe, and there were about 15 people in the audience, about 4 of them under 40. Still, as I repeatedly (and unavailingly) tried to point out to him - I was there, so there wasn't much point haranguing me about it. And anyway, my youthful good looks notwithstanding, it's been years since I was an undergraduate, so speaking of them as 'my generation' makes no sense. None of this got through though - I got five minutes of accusing stare, coupled with questions like "What do you people do on Saturday nights anyway?" and "How can you not care about these issues?" Talk about blaming the choir.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Drowned

We come into the world weightless. Swimmers slipping into the water, our eyes tightly shut. In the world, but not yet of it.

For a split second there we are still bouyant, still capable of flight. For a moment we could still rise and get away.

These are the things we are never told.

This is what the placenta is for - to keep us anchored to the earth. This is why the nurse or doctor or midwife will hold us carefully tight until we have taken our first breath, have opened our lungs to the world and been drowned in its gravity.

This seems cruel, I know, but it is for our good. Left to ourselves we would run out of air before we had drifted away completely, we would discover too late our absence of wings. The fall would be severe.

Yet this is why we bawl, why we cry. This is why, as children, we love balloons, remembering what we could have been.

It is not the womb we are trying get back to. It is the sky.