Saturday, September 27, 2008


"It's them."

"Their doing."

"Their fault"

"It must be."

"It has to be."

"It stands to reason."

"It's obvious."

"How else do you explain it?"

"How come they're not suffering?"

"When we are?"

"Why don't they help us?"

"We'd help them."

"Of course we would."

"In a heartbeat."

"But they're not like that."


"They're mean."




"You have only to meet them to tell."

"They want us to suffer."

"They're probably laughing at us right now."

"It's all part of their plan."

"It's a conspiracy."

"They're in league with each other."

"They're in league with the devil."

"How else can you explain it?"

"It's their fault."

"They're the ones who brought us to this."

"Took advantage of us."

"Cheated us."

"So now they're sitting pretty."

"While we suffer."

"The bastards."

"The bitches."

"Who do they think they are anyway?"

"We don't need them."

"What makes them think they're better than us?"

"Just because they're better off."

"Because they cheated us."

"Because we let them."

"Because we're too kind-hearted for our own good."

"We should show them."

"Hold them accountable."

"Punish them for their misdeeds."

"Run them out of the village."

"Burn them."

"Hang them."

"It'll serve them right."

"It's what they deserve."

"It's better than they deserve."

"Besides, it'll put an end to the trouble."

"Stop it from happening again."

"It's for the good of the village."

"It's Justice."

"It's necessary."

"Let's do it."

"I'll get the torches."

"I'll get the pitchforks."

"I'll get the rope."

"We're really going to show them now."

Note: This is a work of fiction. Any similarities to arguments living or dead are purely coincidental. Because, of course, mature, intelligent people would NEVER act like this.


Since there's apparently an epidemic of outrage going around (see here and here) I figured I might as well channel it towards something truly deserving of that emotion - this article in the NY Times about a decision by the town of Wasilla (under the mayorship of Ms. One-Heartbeat-Away-From-Being-President Palin) to charge rape victims for the cost of forensic exams and rape kits, because apparently the $ 5,000 a year expense of these kits / procedures was an unfair burden on the taxpayer.

That is so far beyond outrageous even I'm at a loss for words.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


It's been so long that the clocks have rusted. Shreds of time stuck between the cogwheel's teeth.

Spiders trace and retrace their paths across the doorway, as though unable to believe no one has returned.

A stone comes through the window, lies on the floor. Like a throat waiting to say something.

The dead man hangs from the rafters. His clothes rot and fall away, his flesh too. At some point, the bees discover the empty hangar of his skull and build inside it. The tip of the hive hangs down to his chest like a beard.

Slow armies of moss overrun the carpet. The couch is lost to a bombardment of mushrooms. Wallpaper countries peel from their maps.

Now that the window is filmed with dust, the light enters like a ghost, touching first one thing then another, leaving no impression.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Much Xanadu about nothing

"I'm starting to think something is just deeply wrong with the youth of America. First of all, a truly disturbing number of them are interested in writing fiction. Truly disturbing. And more than interested, actually. You don't get the sort of things I've been getting from people who are merely...interested. And sad, sad stories. Whatever happened to happy stories, Lenore? Or at least morals? I'd fall ravenously on one of the sort of didactic Salingerian solace-found-in-the-unlikeliest-place pieces I was getting by the gross at Hunt and Peck. I'm concerned about today's kids. These kids should be out drinking beer and seeing films and having panty raids and losing virginities and writhing to suggestive music, not making up long, sad, convoluted stories. And they are as an invariable rule simply atrocious typists. They should be out having fun and learning to type."

- David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System

Okay, so I couldn't find the nerve to get started on IJ, so I thought I'd build up to it and start with The Broom of the System instead (the book DFW wrote, no, PUBLISHED, when he was twenty-fucking-four. And the thing is 470 pages long. And all of it - so far - pure delight. Have I mentioned how much I hate this guy?), which I'm having a real lark reading, though it's also brought on an attack or two of deja book particularly with respect to this post. Sigh.


In other news, the latest edition of the Guardian Poetry Workshop is out, and features a bunch of poems in response to Coleridge's Kubla Khan (a poem I must confess I've never personally managed to get too excited about; it's all right, I suppose, but if I want trippy dream sequences I'll stick with Rimbaud, thank you) among which a familiar name puts in an appearance.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Spoof vs. Spoof

Burn After Reading

We all know how a spoof is made. You take a collection of familiar genre tropes and exaggerate, exaggerate, exaggerate. Then exaggerate some more. You inflate the familiar until it turns into farce. You use characters who are caricatures of familiar stereotypes, you develop a wildly improbable storyline, you put in dialog that is totally ridiculous and then have your actors deliver it with a straight face, you add all the usual sound and light effects only you turn them up a notch or two to make them more obtrusive, you pick a handful of classic scenes and parody the heck out of them. Most of all, you get rid of any and all traces of real emotion, never allowing your main characters to experience anything as laughter-killing as pain, loss or grief. And you throw in a feel-good, happy ending, where the good guys triumph and the audience is never allowed to seriously contemplate the consequences for the bad guys. And if you do this all right you get a movie that will have the audience doubled over in their seats, clutching their sides with laughter.

The trouble is, the Coen Brothers know how spoofs work too. These are the guys, after all, who made The Hudsucker Proxy. And it would seem they're bored of it. Which may be why, true to their contrary nature, they've now decided to turn all the rules of spoof-making on their head.

Because Burn After Reading isn't so much a spoof as it is an anti-spoof. The logic of the film is simple - what if, instead of making everything over-the-top, we spoofed the genre by making everything under-the-bottom? What if we deflated the storyline, filled the movie with characters who, though a little quirky, were recognizably ordinary, even banal, and ordinarily unhappy? What if instead of exaggerating the usual sound and visual effects we played them absolutely straight, perhaps even a little understated, but used them for scenes that were entirely mundane? And what if, instead of the usual good vs. bad fairy tale, we had a story about petty, not-nice people who all came to a more or less sticky end? Wouldn't that be funny?

Whether or not you find Burn After Reading funny is, I suspect, a matter of personal taste - I chuckled quite a bit through the film, but I'm a card carrying member of Misanthropy Inc., so that's not surprising. What the film undeniably is, though, is ingenious - a film that pushes the boundaries of what comedy is and what it means to spoof a genre, while managing to get in a bunch of nice little jabs at contemporary society. Compared to much of the Coen Brothers earlier work this is a fairly bland film, but the blandness feels deliberate, even ironic, as though the filmmakers were parodying their own parody. Burn After Reading isn't one of the Coens' best films [1] (I would place it somewhere between The Man Who Wasn't There and Blood Simple), but like those films it is the product of a bizarre and relentlessly off-beat imagination that takes almost sadistic delight in subverting the familiar, and has therefore the magical quality of being both a parody and a true original.

[1] There are several problems with it - a slightly too contrived plot, some hammy acting, the Brad Pitt character is all wrong, and the ending feels too rushed.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


"Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set to table on a roar?"

- Hamlet Act 5 Scene I

There was a time, in the mid-90s, when every time I walked into a bookstore I would ask if they had a copy of Infinite Jest. At first this was because I actually wanted to get my hands on the book - I was going through an intense Joyce phase at the time, and from the reviews I'd read DFW sounded like the logical progression - but after a while it became my preferred way of testing how good the bookstore was.

I'm not sure that any bookstore in Delhi actually passed that test [1] (I have a feeling the Book Shop in Khan Market did) but I never did get around to buying a copy of the book back then, and even though I do have it sitting on my bookshelf now (having picked it up at a used book sale a year ago) I still haven't got around to reading it.

This may explain why, hearing about DFW's suicide last night [2], my first reaction was one not of shock, but of guilt - as though by being too lazy to read his opus I'd let him down. But that's not what I wanted to write about. I'm trying to explain (to you nominally, but mostly to myself) why it is that though I've read so little of Wallace's work - just a few essays here and there - the news of his death yesterday filled me with such a sense of loss. I think I mourn Wallace not for who he was but for what he represented - something large on the landscape, either giant or windmill. There are some books that are so ambitious, so massive, that they exercise upon us a kind of gravity, loom over our imagination, draw us into their shadow. War and Peace is like that, and Ulysses and A la recherche du temps perdu. And for me, growing up in college, trying to expand the horizons of what I was reading, Infinite Jest was like that too. So it's sad to have to say that it's taken Wallace's death to get me around to reading it. Though I suspect that's true for a lot of us.

All of which makes me wonder whether bookstores in Delhi (or elsewhere, for that matter) have begun stocking Infinite Jest yet. So do me a favor, will you? The next time you're in a bookstore, ask them if they have a copy. And if they don't, ask them to get one. It's the least we can do.


[1] It wasn't just a either-they-have-it-or-they-don't test, you understand. There were all sorts of subtle gradations. Like if they didn't have the book but had heard of it. Or they hadn't heard of the book but at least they didn't need me to spell infinite jest out for them, or didn't take me to the sports section to show me other books on chess [3] - something that happened more often than you'd think and always made me want to hit the salesperson on the head screaming "It's Shakespeare! you idiot".

[2] If I weren't so shocked I'd be tempted to make that old joke about how Post-modernists don't die, they deconstruct.

[3] I suppose I should be grateful they didn't think I was asking for Infinite Chest. I hate to think where that would have led.

Faraz - IV [Aaeenaa]


Tujhse bichara hoon to aaj aaya mujhe apna khayal
Ek kataraa bhi nahin baaki ki hon palkein to nam
Meri aankhon ke samandar kaun sahraa pee gaye
Ek aansoo ko tarastee hai meri takreebe-gam.

Main no ro payaa to sochaa muskara kar dekh loon
Shayad is bejaan paikar mein koi zindaa ho khvaab
Par labon ke tan-barhanaa shaakhchon par ab kahaan
Muskarahat ke shigufay khand-e-dil ke gulaab

Kitna veeran ho chuka hai meri hastee ka jamaal
Tujhse bichara hoon to aaj aaya mujhe apna khayal

- Ahmed Faraz
English translation (mine):


Separated from you, I turn to myself:
Not a drop to moisten the eyelids here.
What deserts have drunk the sea from my eyes?
My sorrow thirsts for a single tear.

Unable to cry, I try and smile instead
Does a dream survive in this lifeless form?
But nothing will bloom on these barren lips
No flower of smile, no rose of warmth.

Life's beauty lies ruined; there's little left.
Separated from you, I turn to myself.

Note: I know the translation isn't entirely accurate, but in the trade-off between a literal translation and one that retained the rhyme scheme of the original I went with the latter. I don't think this version takes anything essential away. In any case, the focus of these posts is supposed to be Faraz's poems (in the original), not my translations of them.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Landscape with Rowers

Unhurriedly; that is how
they approach: 8 rowers,
even further inland

growing into their mythology:
with each stroke still further
from home, rowing with all their might;
growing till all the water is gone
and they fill the whole landscape

to the brim. Eight -
rowing ever further
inland; landscape in which there is by now no
more water: overgrown
landscape by now. Landscape,
rowing ever further in-

land; land
without rowers; land by now over-

- Hans Faverey, from 'Chrysanthemums, rowers'

[translated from the Dutch by J.M. Coetzee]

I've been working my way through the Facing Pages series from the Princeton University Press (a collection which includes Johnson and Gander's translation of Jaime Saenz's The Night, selections from which can be found here). It's an interesting series, though so far it's served more an an introduction to poets I'd never heard of than anything else (which, I guess, is the point).

The poem above comes from a selection of work by 20th Century Dutch poets called Landscape with Rowers, a collection that also includes Hugo Claus's 10 ways of looking at P.B.Shelley.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Sympathy: A Parable

Long ago and far away, a beautiful young woman was thrown into prison by the Evil Emperor for refusing his advances. All day this young woman would stand at the window of her cell, which looked out on a busy street, crying out to passers by for help. And the sight of her face, beautiful and tear-stained, peering out through the bars, moved all who saw her, man or woman, to pity.

But what could be done to help her? At first the young people of the Kingdom organized secret rallies to call for revolution, plotted the overthrow of the Evil Emperor and the release of all the young women (for there were others, of course) rotting away in his dungeons. But the Emperor soon got wind of these plots and had the young people executed.

After that, the good people of the Kingdom, though genuinely compassionate about the young woman, decided to keep their support at a purely symbolic level. It was clear that there was no way they could actually better the young woman's lot - real change was impossible, or had to depend on the softening of the Emperor's heart, which came to the same thing - but at least they could offer her their moral support.

One day, a traveling poet came up with the perfect expression of that support - the gift of a single white feather, slipped into the young woman's window, as though to say: "We wish you flight".

His simple gesture captured the public imagination. Soon, no one would pass beneath the window of the young woman's cell without stopping to hand her a feather, assuring her of their goodwill and their support for her cause. Street hawkers patrolled the nearby corners, ready to supply moderately priced feathers to those who had not brought their own. The Kingdom's bird population started to decline. The symbolism of white feathers was quickly forgotten (white was so boring!), and a competition to offer the most exotic feathers began. Peacock and quetzal feathers became common sights in the local markets, and one rich merchant even claimed to have found the feather of a Phoenix. But whatever the source of their offering - whether ostrich or sparrow - the people of the Kingdom were proud of their gesture, proud of their defiance of the Evil Oppressor, and of their sensitivity in offering the poor imprisoned woman their emotional support. They would stop by her window, offer her their little token, and then go home to their comfortable beds and sleep the sleep of the righteous.

The Emperor, of course, knew all about these seditious feathers. In fact, it was he who had given the orders for his guards not to interfere. After all, what threat could a whole mountain of feathers be to him? Besides, his spies were watching the young woman's prison window at all times, taking careful note of who gave her what, and marking those whose gifts seemed particularly expensive, so the Emperor would know whose property to seize the next time his personal coffers ran dry.

And what of the young woman? At first she was touched by this show of solidarity. She even imagined the feathers might help her escape - Daedalus-like, flying away on freshly made wings. She soon realised, however, that this was impossible. The bars across the window were still there, for one thing, and besides, there was no way to patch these separate feathers together into a proper set of wings. They were discarded feathers, moulted feathers; in other words, mere fluff.

So she watched in discomfort and then despair as her tiny cell filled up with thousands upon thousands of loose feathers. She took to separating out the ones that looked the softest, piling them up in an impromptu bed, and slipping the rest out from under her door where the guards took them and sold them back to the street hawkers who sold them, in turn, to a new batch of pilgrims. But the young woman didn't know this. All she knew was that it was lovely, when the night came, to sink into that heap of feathers. She felt so comfortable lying there that after a while she no longer bothered to stand at the window and call out for help. A few months passed and the people forgot all about her. But she didn't mind. She had enough feathers to last her a lifetime, and there were still a few people for whom the feather offering had become an act of faith, so that they kept bringing her feathers, even though they no longer remembered what the gesture was supposed to mean.

As for her imprisonment, she wasn't sure she minded that anymore either. After all, if they were to release her, where would she go? And the cell didn't seem so bad, now that it was lined with all these wonderful feathers; in fact, it felt positively luxurious. Hardly like being in prison at all.

Optional reading: William Butler Yeats - On a Political Prisoner

Poetry that matters

"America's metaphors have become strained beyond recognition, our nation's verses are severely overwrought, and if one merely examines the internal logic of some of these archaic poems, they are in danger of completely falling apart," said the project's head stanza foreman Dana Gioia. "We need to make sure America's poems remain the biggest, best-designed, best-funded poems in the world."

FSM bless the Onion

Faraz - III (Ab ke rut badalli to)

ab ke rut badalii to Khushbuu kaa safar dekhegaa kaun

ab ke rut badalii to Khushbuu kaa safar dekhegaa kaun
zaKhm phuulo.n kii tarah mahake.nge par dekhegaa kaun

dekhanaa sab raqs-e-bismal me.n magan ho jaaye.nge
jis taraf se tiir aayegaa udhar dekhegaa kaun

vo havas ho yaa vafaa ho baat maharuumii kii hai
log to phal-phuul dekhe.nge shajar dekhegaa kaun

ham chiraaG-e-shab hii jab Thahare to phir kyaa sochanaa
raat thii kis kaa muqaddar aur sahar dekhegaa kaun

aa fasiil-e-shahar se dekhe.n Ganiim-e-shahar ko
shahar jalataa ho to tujh ko baam par dekhegaa kaun

- Ahmed Faraz (text courtesy urdupoetry)

English translation (mine):

If the season changes, who will watch fragrance on its journey?
Wounds will sweeten the air like flowers, and no one will see.

Watch: the dance of the wounded will hold them entranced
No one will turn to look where the arrow came from.

Whether it’s desire or faith, it’s the wanting that counts –
People will see the fruits and flowers – who will notice the tree?

We are lamps that burn by night, why should we worry
Whose destiny the night was and who shall see the dawn?

Come, let us stand on the ramparts, watch the enemy approach
When the town burns, who will see you there, on the balcony?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

This day that year

I can't remember now why we were going drinking. After all, it was Tuesday night, the middle of the week, and I don't recall there being anything to celebrate. Still, there we were, four of us crammed into a rickety cab, making our painfully slow progress from Nariman Point to Bandra.

Somewhere around Prabhadevi, I get a text from heh heh (who is still at work in BKC and is supposed to join us later), saying that a plane just flew into the World Trade Center. We figure it must have been a small plane, one of these silly four seaters. We wonder how dumb you have to be to hit the WTC. I mean, it can't be that hard to miss.

Then, around Mahim, another text. Another plane just hit the WTC. Oh, come on, what are the odds? Clearly heh heh is screwing with us. Some sort of stupid joke. And to think we actually took him seriously the first time.

Wait, a third message. The Pentagon this time. Ya, right. Like all of a sudden planes in the US have started to plough into buildings. Just like that. See, that's the trouble with heh heh. He doesn't know when to stop.

Five minutes later we walk into the restaurant and there it is, on the TV screen, that indelible image of the two towers billowing smoke. Wait, you mean heh heh wasn't joking? What the fuck? As we settle into our chairs the news shows a replay of the second plane hitting. Holy crap! That was a full-sized Boeing. Look at the explosion. It's amazing the towers are still standing. What are they saying - can anyone make out? Wish the folks at that table would shut up. Is this for real?

For the next two hours, working our way through copious quantities of beer and biryani, we watch the news. We see the towers come down. We see the footage from the Pentagon.

Someone on another table gets up and tries to change the channel. Apparently his favorite TV show is on. The manager politely tells him to get lost.

Does anyone we know work in the WTC? What firms have offices there? We should call someone and check. Hello? Hey, it's me. Have you seen this? Dude, it's fucking unbelievable. Listen, do you know what firms are in the WTC? Any I-banks? Check online, na, if you're near a computer. What's that? Merril? And MSDW? Are you sure? Any others? Okay, let me know if you hear anything. Bye. Merril and MSDW, apparently. Do we know anyone there? Who did they hire this year? Last year? Didn't P---- join them...but wait, he's in London, isn't he? The folks in New York would know. Someone try calling them. No answer. The lines must be down. Shit.

So how long do you think before the US starts bombing the crap out of the Middle East? A week? Two? Man, this is going to make getting a tourist visa so much harder.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Obligatory Shortlist Post

So the Booker shortlist is out, and as usual I find myself wondering whether a quorum of monkeys throwing darts couldn't have done a better job of picking the deserving books. I've only read four of the six books on the shortlist - I can't see myself reading The Northern Clemency (700 something pages about the Thatcher years? No thanks) and I haven't managed to get my hands on the Ghosh yet - but of those both the Grant and the Adiga absolutely do not deserve to be on that list, not at the expense of Netherland and The Enchantress of Florence (I'm not saying the Rushdie deserves to win or anything, only that it's a better book than the other two - NOT a high bar).

I'm particularly pained about the Adiga, not so much because I thought it was unreadable, but because coming so soon after the shortlisting of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, its inclusion means that for the foreseeable future we shall be plagued by this this-should-really-be-an-essay-but-no-one-would-read-that-so-let-me-make-up-a-few-wooden-characters-and-call-it-a-novel school of writing. Even as I write this someone is doubtless hard at work on next year's nominee - a novel about a 'typical' young woman growing up in the 'real' India, told as a hyper-erudite first-person confession to a visiting Martian - secure in the knowledge that as long as you give a few media interviews emphasizing how your book offers an 'alternate' perspective someone, somewhere is bound to find it insightful.

Of the books now on the shortlist, my pick would be the Toltz, though as I said, I haven't read the Ghosh. The book I'm really looking forward to reading, shortlist or no shortlist, is the Berger (which seems to be unavailable in the US at this point - at least the library system doesn't have it), though next on my list is A Case of Exploding Mangoes, which, now that it hasn't been shortlisted, I actually have high expectations from.

Faraz - II (and a bonus Faiz)


Vo chaand mera ham safar thaa
doori ke ujaar jangalon mein
ab meri nazar se chhup chukaa hai

Ek umr se mai maloolo-tanha
zulmat ki rahguzaar mein hoon
mai aage badhoon ki laut jaoon

Kya soch ke intezaar mein hoon
koi bhi nahin jo ye bataye
main kaun hoon kis dayar mein hoon.

- Ahmed Faraz

English Translation (mine):


That moon traveled with me
in this barren forest of distances
now it's hidden from my sight.

For ages now, I, sad and alone,
have walked in darkened ways.
Shall I go on, or return?

What thought makes me stay?
There is no one here to tell me
Who am I? What is this place?


Khaamosh ho kyon

Khaamosh ho kyon daade-jafaa kyon nahin dete
Bismil ho to qatil ko duaa kyon nahin dete

Vahshat ka sabab rozan-e-zindaa to nahin hai
Mehero-maho-anjum ko bujhaa kyon nahin dete

Ek ye bhi to andaaze-ilaaje-gam-e-jaan hai
Ay charah-garo, dard badhaa kyon nahin dete

Munsif ho agar tum to kab insaaf karoge
Mujrim hain agar hum to sazaa kyon nahin dete

Rahzan ho to haazir hai mataa-e-dilo-jaan bhi
Rahbar ho to manzil ka pataa kyon nahin dete

Kyaa beet gayi ab ke 'faraz' ahle-chaman par
Yaraane-qafas mujhko sadaa kyon nahin dete

- Ahmed Faraz
English Translation (mine):

Why are you silent?

Why are you silent? Why don't you praise injustice?
Wounded, why don't you bless the executioner?

Your solitude is not some prison chandelier
Why don't you put it out? Extinguish moon, stars, sun?

This is another way to cure life's sadness
O, doctors! Why don't you increase the pain?

If you are just, when will your justice be done?
If I am guilty, why don't you render punishment?

If you're a highwayman, take both my money and my life
If a guide, why don't you tell me where this road will end?

What has come over this garden and its inmates, Faraz,
Why don't my friends from prison call out to me?

Two more Faraz poems. To really appreciate the latter, of course, you have to read it in the context of this Faiz ghazal [1]:

Be-dam hue beemar dawaa kyon nahin dete
Tum acche maseeha ho shifaa kyon nahin dete

Dard-e-shab-e-hijra ki jazaa kyon nahin dete
Khoon-e-dil-e-vahashi ka silaa kyon nahin dete

Mit jayegi makhlook to insaaf karoge
Munsif ho to ab hashra uthaa kyon nahin dete

Paiman-e-junoon haathon ko sharmayega kab tak
Dilwalon, gareeban ka pataa kyon nahin dete

Barbaadi-e-dil-jabr nahin 'Faiz' kisee ka
Voh dushman-e-jaan hai to bhulaa kyon nahin dete.

- Faiz Ahmed Faiz

[1] that I'm afraid I don't have the energy to translate. Maybe some other day.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008



Jaao ki mujhe yakin nahin hai
tum abke gaye to aa sakoge
dahleez se ek kadam utar kar
vo rahguzar muntazir hai
jis par jo koi chala gaya hai
kadmon ke nishan biccha gaya hai
furqat ke diye jalaa gaya hai.

- Ahmed Faraz

English translation (mine):


Go for I do not believe
that once you leave you can come back
one step beyond the threshold
the road lies in wait
on which whoever has passed
has spread his footprints, has left
the lamps of absence burning.

It's been more than two weeks since Faraz died (NY Times obituary here) and I've been meaning ever since to blog about it: one can't, after all, let the death of one of Urdu's finest poets pass unmentioned. I finally decided (partly because I couldn't find any translations of his work in my library) that the most effective way to pay the man tribute was to try my hand at translating some of his poems (what was it Auden said? "by mourning tongues / the death of the poet was kept from his poems").

P.S. I plan to try translating some more of Faraz's work in the weeks to come, so feel free to leave comments to this post with a) death threats for mauling his poems or b) requests for poems you'd like to see translated (preferably with a link to the original in english / devanagari script)

Monday, September 08, 2008

What is, and is not, poetry

Feeling too lazy to blog, so in time-honored 2x3x7 tradition shall take the easy way out by:

a) Pointing you to post where I've left a blogpost's worth of comments, specifically this post by Rahul that Space Bar pointed me to.

b) Posting random poem that I've decided to discard (remember this):

The Boat at Dawn

Like a hand prodding
at the surf, trying to nudge
the ocean awake;

or a dog pulling
at its chain, sensing the sun
about to break in;

or a phrase repeat-
-edly mouthed, as though the sea
were a new language.

Friday, September 05, 2008


Grief too is a kind of affirmation. You have to be alive, and very brave, to mourn for those you love.

Shostakovich understood this. That is why in quartet after quartet, symphony after symphony there is that moment after the storm when the instruments lift their weary voices and start, reluctantly, to sing.

[inspired by this & this]

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Five hundred word exercises

In other news, I've been trying my hand at a few of the Flash Fiction prompts that zigzackly has up on the Caferati QuickTales LiveJournal site - see here and here.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Five Finger Exercises - Part II

[continued from here]

Sunday morning found us in Skaneateles, in the 'Sweet Pea' room (I kid you not) at a bed and breakfast called the Hummingbird's Home. It's a quaint little place, its decor all porcelain and lace doilies, with the kind of pre-World War II ambiance that not only makes you feel clumsy just looking at it, but also makes you wonder if the hostess is going to offer you some homemade wine and whether there's someone digging the Panama canal in the basement. As it turned out, though, our hostess's cooking was unexceptionable, if a trifle elaborate (you have to understand that breakfast, for yours truly, consists of two handfuls of cereal in a bowl of cold milk, and that's when there's milk in the house, otherwise I just pour coffee over my raisin bran; so the combination of artfully arranged watermelon slices, a spinach and egg quiche, three kinds of toast, tea, coffee AND orange juice AND chocolate cake at the end seemed a bit much [1]). Our companions at breakfast were a middle-aged couple who had driven ALL THE WAY from Cortland (thirty five miles away) and who, on learning that we did not, in fact, plan to spend the day in Skaneateles itself, but instead planned to venture further west wondered whether we were planning to go as far as Auburn (six miles away), shaking their bemused heads at the impetuosity of youth when assured that we did, indeed, plan to go that far. They were quite sweet, really, except that their conversation tended to center on a) gardening and b) dogs / cats and since both MR and I live in apartments (well, MR lives in an apartment, I live in a room) and neither of us has pets we didn't have much to contribute.

In any case, by 8.30 we were on the road again, heading first west and then south along the length of Cayuga Lake. Late morning we stopped at the Taughannock Falls State Park, where we took a desultory walk along a mostly dry river bed to the falls themselves, which may be quite impressive when there's actual water in them, but shrunk as they were to what Auden would call a "soodling thread" they proved to be quite the damp squib (in more ways than one). From there we travelled to the town of Ithaca, so I could feel suitably Odyss-ian and MR could eat at what our guidebook described as the "finest waterfront restaurant in the region". Four wrong turns, three different highways and about 12 miles of unnecessary driving later we finally managed to get to the address where said restaurant was supposed to be, and discovered it had been replaced by an Enterprise Car Rental. Not to be disheartened, we proceeded to drive along the waterfront anyway, seeking an alternate waterfront eatery on the principle that if we went they would have built it, and ended up on a dirt road that led to the Ithaca Farmer's Market. Here we wandered among stalls selling samosas, felafel, sushi, spring rolls, cambodian noodles and other such traditional delicacies of the region, before finally settling on a lunch of garlic and mozarella flatbread followed by freshly squeezed lemonade.

Lunch over, we decided to pay a visit to the Cornell campus, and ended up at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. It's a nice, compact museum, with a permanent collection which, if not exactly breathtaking, is fairly respectable, and includes a splendid Chirico, a magnificent Hassam, a bizarrely un-Hopper like Hopper, pleasant minor works by Constable and O'Keefe and a startlingly lifelike John De Andrea. More interesting, however, were the special exhibitions - which included a set of prom night photographs of high school students by Mary Ellen Mark and, most memorably, an exhibition of the multimedia work of Marc Swanson including the fabulous Killing Moon as well as Always and Nothing. Delightful stuff.

From Ithaca, we made our way further west (making a quick stop at a coffee shop, where the combination of good espresso and the guy sitting by the door reading Spinoza restored our faith in the place as a University town), to the town of Watkins Glen and the southern tip of Lake Seneca, where we proceeded to find a shady spot by the azure waters and lie down in the grass to read, our idyll broken only by the presence of two dozen boats, a hundred or so people and the sound of Pearl Jam blasting from a nearby radio. Fortunately for us, the lake was only a few feet deep off the shore where we were, so that the boats were all parked about a hundred meters out in deeper water, like a haphazard necklace strung across the lake's throat, with the people walking to and fro between the boats and the land like so many swim-suited Jesuses.

An hour or so of relaxing by the lake and we were ready to move on, this time to begin an impromptu little wine tour of our own. I didn't know this when we decided to go there, but it seems the Finger Lakes region is wine country; what's more they seem to produce mostly white wine, particularly Rieslings, which I dearly love. It isn't quite Napa, of course, but it's fun going from winery to winery, trying out an assortment of dry whites (and struggling to distinguish one from the other - a sommelier I'm not), and some of the wines were genuinely quite good. I particularly liked the Glenora Pinot Blanc, which struck me as being both subtler and more satisfying than most of the other stuff I tasted, though again, I'm hardly an expert.

Sated with tastings, we headed back to Skaneateles, and our table at the Elderberry Pond restaurant, just managing to make their last seating at 7.30 pm (ah! the simple country life). Food here was only averagely good, and I seriously doubt that any part of my shrimp and scallop pasta included fresh seasonal ingredients grown on the farm; still, the wine (another Riesling - this time a Thirsty Owl dry) was nice, the bruschetta (see previous post) delicious, and the experience of stepping out of the restaurant to see hundreds of stars twinkling above you sufficiently novel to make the evening worthwhile.

The next day - Monday - was relatively uneventful, and involved driving back to Manhattan, making a longish detour into the exotic wilds of the Bronx where we discovered a little known civilization called City Island whose inhabitants make good seafood, and then driving out to Long Island where, driven by visions of shadowy woodlands and quiet walks by the sea, we made our way out to Fire Island. This didn't quite work out, though, mostly because thanks to a process of decision making too complicated to explain we ended up catching a ferry not to Sailors Haven as we had planned, but to a place called Cherry Grove, which, it turns out, is not a part of the National Park service but a predominantly gay residential community, the touristy bits of which are way too touristy for yours truly (I'm up for many things, but dancing at 5 in the afternoon to that Ketchup song is not one of them) and the residential bits of which were, well, a little too residential. At least the beaches were nice.

[1] And that was just the first day. The second day it was fruit salad, french toast with peaches and almonds and sausages.

Five Finger Exercises - Part I

Just got back from a long weekend in the Finger Lakes region of upstate NY - a weekend of classical music and shimmering blue lakes, with a few sips of white wine and a smidgen of art thrown in for good measure [1].

The trip began on a high note (literally), courtesy of the Skaneateles Festival - the last concert of which we drove up to catch [2]. It was, in many ways, a magical evening. There was the setting, to start with: an immaculately white three-storey farmhouse, with the orchestra seated on the porch, facing a semi-circular terrace (complete with a marble balustrade) with chairs for the audience, and behind them, three steps below, a lush green lawn sloping all the way down to the glistening waters of the Skaneateles lake. The whole scene could have come straight out of Henry James (or at least the Merchant-Ivory version of Henry James). And later, when the sun had set, the stars crept into the sky like so many students come to listen to the music with their standing-room-only passes, and when the music stilled you could hear the crickets chirping in the countryside around, the sound a gentle metronome, as though an orchestra of ghostly cellos had decided to join the performance but didn't know the notes.

The performances themselves were good, if not particularly inspired. Given the open-air setting the acoustics were a bit iffy, and I couldn't help feeling that the soloists, though perfectly competent in their own right, didn't really work well together. It didn't help that all three pieces being performed were well known to me - it's hard not to compare what you're hearing to the recording of the piece in your head, even though it's manifestly unfair to use Pierre Boulez's renditions of Stravinsky or Anne-Sophie Mutter's performances of Mozart as a benchmark.

Still, it was quite a program. The first half provided an interesting contrast by bringing together Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks with Bach's Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, the juxtaposition being interesting not just for the banal fact that Stravinsky is explicitly paying tribute to Bach, but for the way it highlights two very different forms of propulsion. Stravinsky's rhythms are unmistakably his own - the pounding tempo, the heart-stopping pauses, the agile, consistently surprising beat - so very different from the mathematical perfection of Bach's flowing counterpoints; yet both share an ability to quicken one's pulse, a sense of something driving and restless and unstoppable, an energy that is pure momentum.

But the night really belonged to Mozart. The Sinfonia Concertante is an exquisite piece in any case, but something about the outdoor setting enhanced Mozart in a way it didn't the others. Both Bach and Stravinsky sounded, if anything, a little out of place in the open air, as though their music truly belonged in a chamber and remained uneasy about being transplanted into this new setting. Mozart, by contrast, sounded as though the music, in being released from the confines of the usual walls, had come into its element. (Auden writes: "he wrote to play while bottles were uncorked / Milord chewed noisily, Milady talked"). Those glorious melodies had the room to soar in, those cheeky allegros could run rampant in the wind. I imagined the music floating out over the lake, caressed by the waters, its faint lilt making itself heard to some listener on the opposite shore, it beauty haunting, intuitive; and it seemed to me that this was what Mozart truly deserved, to be free among the world and under the stars, so that even the ambient sounds - a shout from a passing boat, fireworks over Skaneateles village - seemed not so much interruptions as organic parts of the piece itself (the fireworks, in particular, worked well with the flourishes of the final presto), and the music like some dream of harmony, holding the summer night entranced.

So all in all, it was a marvellous concert, and easily the highlight of the trip (well, for me, at least - I suspect MR was more taken with the bruschetta we had Sunday night).

[More on the rest of the trip to follow]

[1] No, SB, this is not a short trip bristling with disasters. The most scary thing on this trip was the sight of MR trying to eat crab legs.

[2] Okay, so I admit traveling some 250 miles out of the city (350 if you consider I was coming from Philly) to attend a concert is a little excessive, but they were playing Stravinsky, after all. Plus, well, the concert was listed in the New Yorker, so how could we not go?