Sunday, November 15, 2015

Pray for Paris

We live in a superficial, media-driven culture that often seems uncomfortable with true depths of feelings. It seems as if our culture has become increasingly intolerant of acute sorrow, that intense mental anguish and deep remorse which may be defined as grief. We want to meditate such sorrows away.” – Edward Hirsch.

Friday, 13th of November, 2015, a sad, severe attack in Paris, at Bataclan concert hall and State Stadium claimed promptly by ISIS caused the death of 129 people and many more injured. As the details emerged, the gruesomeness of the attack became known about how armed gunmen fired at innocent victims, young and old, without discretion. The parallels to 26/11 in Mumbai are uncanny, which left 260 dead. The perfunctory sadness shifted quickly to justifications, with something as silly as Hijab ban by noted Indian jurist and a journalist linking it to US action in Iraq. While both could be reason, they cannot be justification.

We quickly moved into the phase where Edward Hirsch mentioned – we want to meditate such sorrows away. This is sad. Worse than the contention why we in India should worry about it, which is exactly what west said when attacks happened in India. We cannot be parochial about loss of human lives, loss of human values and about human grief. The Guardian feared that this will give impetus to far right in French politics. The fact that from where The Guardian views the world, any position is Far Right, is immaterial. Sadder than the urgency with which we move to analyze the political or economic fall-out of the huge loss of human life.

It is criminal to consider Paris as any other city. It could be my hidden writer which thinks of Paris this way. Paris is a city of aspiration, of hope, of soul. Paris doesn’t inhabit the lesser world infected with its religious divisions and political astuteness. Paris has never followed the common wisdom and has therefore, not only been able to give us the legal system, but also the concept of Secularism. Paris in its outlook and fervor, escapes its political leadership, its spirit soars above the national polity. It levitates over the world in its own stratosphere of free and refined spirit. I have never been to Paris. I am also not a Geo-political expert. Someone threw it at me on Twitter, who himself is a software developer. I loved Paris from what I read about Napoleon, the rise and fall of French revolution, the birth of secularism and the writing school of Ernest Hemingway. It is, as the title of Hemingway’s Paris memoirs suggest, A Moveable Feast, a celebration which travels with you, wherever you go. This is the city where he wrote his truest sentences.

It is not a moment to indulge in seeking comeuppance or an oft-quoted term-Whataboutery, an attempt to contextualize the sad event. It is however not a time to laugh at, reason or reconcile with such buffoonery. It is this city which led the separation of church and state, which celebrated independent thoughts, individual dreams, and independent humane spirit of art, music, literature and all that is fine about human existence. It represents an idea, a spirit. Actor playing Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius says in the Ridley Scott Movie Gladiator : There was a dream that was Rome. I can only whisper of it now. Anything more than a whisper and the dream vanishes. It's so... fragile. The true glory of Rome is in a very fragile idea. Imagine a place devoted to the rights of the citizen. Where every free man has a voice. That was the dream... And I fear it will not survive the winter. Let's just whisper here, you and I.

I could also quote the same at this moment for Paris. Let us Pray for Paris, and let’s just whisper here, you and I. I am not expert, I have not even been to Paris, but I love the Idea that Paris represents. I stand with Paris as we cannot let that idea be cowed down to political mechanizations and the brute fanaticism. Ernest Hemingway wrote about Paris in The Moveable Feast, which I will share  in conclusion as it makes me imagine the great city under attack which I have never seen, and it gives me hope for the future. He writes,

“With so many trees in the city, you could see the spring coming each day until a night of warm wind would bring it suddenly in one morning. Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat it back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season of your life. This was the only truly sad time in Paris because it was unnatural. You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintry night. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen….In those days, though, the spring always came finally; but it was frightening that it had nearly failed.” 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Power of Prose - My Choice of Quotes from Classics.

Literature helps us interpret and understand life. It helps us tolerate the aspects of life which escapes our understanding. There are words which refuse to be fossilized. There are timeless words which breathes even when buried under the dark layers of earth. That’s what we call classic, which in terms of relevance and wisdom stays untouched, unmoved, unblemished by the cruel winds of time. You sit down with them, slowly move the dust on the surface and a shining, tranquil, splendid emerald appears like a crystal ball holding all the answers to the myriad questions life throws at you. Today, we often do not have time and patience to read these classics unless you are a writer trying to learn the craft or a rare reader of refined interest. Accepted, it isn’t easy love to live with, for these words need much more than fleeting flirtation to spell out their meaning to you.

They need deep dedication, a profound passion and as Nietzsche would say, “one has to be willing to wash his feet and hands before sitting down to read such words.” They are glorious, majestic yet shy words. They need a lot of cajoling to open up, quite like the serious men who wrote them. They are playful as a child once they open and reassure us about life even in their sadness. These words are too shy, too proud, too taciturn to come knocking over your shoulders. They will sit in quiet dignity on your bookshelves waiting for you to pick them up. But when you are overwhelmed by life, they will leap towards you like a gasp of quick wind and grant you a rare breath of life. They come in many forms- floating between sparse, straight sentences on one side and vivacious, voluptuous words on the other, with masters like Hemingway one side and Joseph Conrad on the other end, sitting watchful, ancient as majestic knights

Still, we mustn’t lose out to the majestic words from the classics which have wings to help our souls soar above the squalor of daily lives like an eagle. Even when they dive deep into dark abysses, trust me, it is merely to gain a trajectory to scale higher. Recently I had read a lovely collection of quotes from some great books on Social media which made my day, as it did for many others. It was a glorious collection, but there were some misses which I felt could be added. I am hereby supplementing it from my own readings and it will lighten up someone’s day.



Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad: I heard a light sigh, and then my heart stood still, stopped dead short by an exulting and terrible cry, by the cry of inconceivable triumph and of unspeakable pain. ‘I knew it – I was sure!... She knew. She was sure. I heard her weeping; she had hidden her face in her hands. It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head. But nothing happened. The heavens do not fall for such trifle. Would they have fallen, I wonder, if I had rendered Kurtz that justice which was his Due? Hadn’t he said he wanted only justice? But I couldn’t. I could not tell her. It would have been too dark altogether.

The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth: We work in the dark-we do what we can-we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our art. The rest is the madness of Art.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: Where was Rudy’s comfort? Who was there to soothe him when life’s rug was snatched from under his sleeping feet? There was only me. And I am not too great at that sort of comforting thing, especially when my hands are cold and the bed is warm…I saw him hip-deep in some icy water chasing a book, and I saw a boy lying in the bed, imagining how a kiss would taste from his glorious next-door neighbor. He does something to me, that boy. Every time. It’s his only detriment. He steps on my heart. He makes me cry.

"There was an itchy lung for a last cigarette, and an immense magnetic pull towards the basement, for the girl who was his daughter and was writing a book down there that he hoped to read one day.

Liesel. His soul whispered it as I carried him.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte: Self-abandoned, relaxed, and effortless, I seemed to have laid me down in the dried up bed of a great river; I heard a flood loosened in remote mountains, and felt the torrent come: to rise I had no will, to flee I had no strength. I lay faint, longing to be dead.

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann : Nothing gladdens a writer more than a thought that can become pure feeling and a feeling that can become pure thought. Just such a pulsating thought, just such a precise feeling was then in the possession and service of the solitary traveler: nature trembles with bliss when the mind bows in homage to beauty. He suddenly desired to write.

Love in The Time of Cholera by Marquez: Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.

The Summing Up by Somerset Maugham: God is not so reasonable. He craves so urgently to be believed in that you might think He needed your belief in order to reassure himself of his own existence. …I cannot believe in a God who has neither humor nor common sense.

The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald: It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.

Her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened-then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther..And one fine morning- So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The Beautiful and The Damned by Scott Fitzgerald: Close together on the porch they would wait for the moon to stream across the silver acres of farmland, jump a thick wood and tumble waves of radiance at their feet.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die….It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched you into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.

Orlando by Virginia Wolfe: The sky is like the veils which a thousand Madonnas have let fall from their hair; and the grass fleets and darkens like a flight of girls fleeing the embraces of hairy satyrs from enchanted woods.

The man looks at the world full in face, as if it were made for his uses and fashioned to his liking. The woman takes a sidelong glance at it, full of subtlety, even of suspicion.

The Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway: You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.

When the cold rain kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person has died for no reason.

Notes from The Underground by Dostoevsky: She did not want me to go away without knowing that she, too, was honestly and genuinely loved; that she, too, was addressed respectfully.

I do not respect myself. Can a man of perception respect himself at all?

The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky: Those innocent eyes slit my soul up like a razor.

Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky: Pain and Suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart.

The Insulted and the Humiliated by Dostoevsky: She shed no tears, did not answer my questions, and quivered like a leaf on a tree when she heard Alyosha’s ringing voice; she glowed like a sunset and flew to meet him;

I often weep perhaps. I’m not ashamed to own it, just as I’m not ashamed to own that I once loved my child more than anything on earth.

As it got darker my room seemed to grow larger and larger as though walls were retreating.

I miss out here some lovely prose which comes to my mind like The Razor's Edge of Maugham, Lord Jim of Joseph Conrad and some more, from contemporary literature, but maybe next time. Feel free to share your own favorites.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Writer as Conscience Keeper

Art without purpose is nothing but debauchery. Every piece of good literature should serve one of the two purpose- soothe the senses, clarify the social questions. As of now, in India, we consider writer returning the awards to a government which they do not like as a sign of something of an act of bravery. The fact remains that anything can only be returned to the one who has given it in the first place, the Akademy was constituted as autonomous body, probably has missed out the notice of eminent writers. Also if intent was to embarrass a government, they also missed out on the right target, which should be the government which failed in protecting the citizen, the government which holds law and order responsibility. 

But then author as conscience keeper of the society is misuse of the authority a writer has over words. Since I,as a writer, have a right over print space, I declare that I am an enlightened being, more sensitive, more rebellious than ordinary mortals. 

Writing doesn't make you conscience keeper of the nation, it sometimes merely makes you opinion builder, a suave peddler of prejudices. What makes you a true social light is whether you have the guts to fight war like Hemingway, to bleed like Fitzgerald, to challenge like Dinkar, to laugh at hypocrisy like Harishankar Parsai, to build your house on slopes of Vesuvius like Nietzsche. 
A writer or an artist should have the courage to fight against the forces which are impossible to fight. It is almost homeopathic protest, without risk of side effects which authors are undertaking. Why protest state for murders neither perpetrated by, nor condoned by the state? If the malaise is with society, why not fight it there? Why not do a protest with less press and more potency? Just read 'Submission' by Michel Houellebecq last week. Courage is what stands out, just as the word Negros used in The Great Gatsby, the writer uses the word Muslims. He doesn't hide the word, isn't scared of penning his fears. He treads the lines where the individual touches the society, and does it adroitly without apology. It is book deserving full review which I'll do next week. In the meantime, we should ponder, if we have people who live as fully and as deeply to be entitled to not only write about it rather to self claim the right over lives and thoughts of those who can't write well. Do we as writer have courage to live, which is the only thing that entitles us to write and take position.  

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Holy Cow!! Indian Media and the Reporting of Riots

A man walks into metro station, shoot himself. The story is a footnote on some inside pages of the newspaper. Even if someone reads it, it is security lapse which stands out. The dead doesn’t evoke attention, let alone sympathy. Without personalization, it is a lame news.

I am not a journalist. I am not even a student of journalism in proper sense. If I go by the wise words by Anne Lamott, and analyze the reports, the intent and interest of the journalist stands open for scrutiny. A murder in Dadri, sad as it is, outcome of rumor or fact, is reported way differently from the way, the gory murder of a reporter in same state or killing of a soldier in same state is reported. Annie Lamott tells us that we need to be presented with the actors in a story with human perspective, that what they were as human beings, beyond a statistics or a name.

We know the man murdered in Dadri was doing errands for the village, a soft-spoken man, who, with hard work did well to place his kids in life. One of his Sons is in the Airforce, an important point. For instance, with OROP and multitude of voices supporting soldiers on Social media, story gains interest with some soldiering brought into picture. Therefore, an unfortunate car accident is a prime time story, operative word being the victim as a war veteran. Rhetoric rise so high in the skies that the truth is barely visible. A perfect piece of journalism, and there is no dispute with it, except that the same perfect journalism is so selective that it seems biased. Why nobody wrote that Tuktuki woke up every morning, dreading her walk to the school through the roads, full of potholes in the middle of monsoons? That would have helped readers, miles away, look her as a little child that she is and empathize with her, worry about her.

What do we know about the soldier who was killed in Meerut? How many kins he had? What occupation his father pursued? Which school he studied from, under what conditions? So a serving soldier is reduced to mere crime statistics. One is always tempted to compete on numbers, 300 dead in Mumbai vs. 12 in Malegaon, which is an erroneous argument. The value of a human life is much beyond the statistical number it adds to. So I take the soldier from Meerut and put him here as contrast.

I don’t question the findings. I question the positions powerful people take. Politicians have their motives, whether it’s the one who makes televised visit to the place, claims the man was killed because of his religion, a trouble which one could totally have avoided if police has given 12 minutes to his infamous brother. He doesn’t even pretend to be bothered about loss of human life unless it belongs to his religion. That is the reason, he wasn’t there in Meerut or Kolkata to stand by a little girl, but he is there at Dadri, hailed as a great Muslim voice.

My trouble is with journalists, the opinion makers. The way debates are done, Op-eds are written indicates that either journalists are not having enough time to take what can be termed as considered view or are lazy to do the study to take an objective position. I will put forth some points in the backdrop of the current case.

  • There was no mass Hindu uprising, violent or otherwise urging people to rise and kill beef-eaters. There was no religious sanction from some Hindu high priest for the killing, not even from low priest like the Maulvi offering bounty on the head of Danish Cartoonist. Rowdy elements got together to kill the poor man. They are the same anti socials who would laugh at a Pandit and his dhoti and given a chance, would steam and smuggle old temple idols for profit.
  • I don’t go with the investigative culture minister, who speaks with authority, and claims that there was no planning for the murder. Well, Mr. Minister, the man could not have accidentally come in the way of blows by the rowdies, and killed himself. No Sir, the man could not have been so dumb, in spite of being a Muslim. The minister has no business on commenting on the legalities of the case. His job is to ensure independent probe and offer comfort to the grieving family which is in pain (well, actually it is Home minister's job, though comforting the aggrieved family could be his job as MP of the area).
  • The media projects this as if it has something to do with the religion, although they denounce the very idea, almost as an after-thought, towards the end of the program. Religion is a very dangerous device in the hands of unsteady minds. It takes a mind well-steeped in logic to dabble into religions without endangering the civilization. Let us not use religion so lightly.
  • Political mud-slinging is disgusting. BJP stands up as a defender of Hindus and Owaisi jumps in a defender of faith. The awkward efforts are on to somehow implicate the prime minister of the day. People demand comments from the PM. Sad as it might be, it is death of one person, of whatever religion, and PM has to comment on it. Well, expectation is not entirely unfounded when the PM is tweeting birthday wishes. But the game is not about the expectation, game is deeper and devilish. When law and order is state subject, why bring in the center and leave the state smiling obnoxiously, with its long nose upturned in derision at the disgust of the common people. In debates, media almost seem siding with the state government- the prime culprit in cornering the center. AAP, of course has jumped into it. Commenting on every national and international affairs has suddenly become important thing for this CM of a glorified municipality of Delhi, odd that the same man evaded questions on national and foreign policy when he was a candidate for national elections. Now, he is suddenly much aware of everything and of all the CMs of India, you can count on him to comment on anything where the PM is even fleetingly implied as implicated. That enhances and uplifts Kejriwal's stature and equals him with the PM as an opponent.
  • If all fails, attempts made to somehow link killing to Beef-ban and thereby implicate the center. Well, as much as BJP might want to take credit of (which actually they ought not), Beef ban is already there in all states but for five, BJP or no BJP. It was not enforced in UP post the formation of new government at the center. Even in J&K , Beef ban has been there since long, since the times of Dogra rulers. Media ought to introspect when they project Beef ban as a litmus test for democracy. Since when the killing of a mute animal become the sign of freedom of expression. Being insensitive to the plight of animals being slaughtered to serve the slavery of the tongue is the vortex of confused idealism. Same people who cry hoarse daring hindutva-brigade claiming to have eaten beef, go about and feed stray dogs in public places, feeling angelic as if white wings had suddenly grown around their beautiful shoulders. Do we want to say that since BJP government came, and since they imposed beef-ban, these loonies became protector of law, the village Batmans without appropriate dress and the car and went to kill people who had anything to do with beef? There is stringent anti-drugs law, when did we hear of someone killing a drug dealer in Punjab. Actions of criminals cannot define the actions of a state.

I would only submit that we as readers must not be carried away. Newspapers trade in tragedies. We find survival in hope as individuals. Therefore hope we must. And when the dailies tell us we are all doomed, let us take it with a pinch of salt and if they insist, noisily, throw your hands up in despair, exhale and whisper, “Holy cow” and walk away. That is important for our sanity as an individual and as a society. Religion is too deep and too sacred to be made the subject of primetime debate and to be left in the hands of ill-educated fanatics.

Cheeky Quotes