Category: Musings

On Heroes

I was talking to an elderly lady whose late father had been an officer in the British Raj. In his library, she had come across a book about a certain Indian politician of the past century. She spoke highly of this man and assumed that he was still regarded as someone on a pedestal in India. Now I had grown up listening to several school speeches on his many virtues. The teachers composed and sang songs about his greatness. As idealistic undergraduates, we had once celebrated his birthday in the hostel. Roads around the country are named after him. My great-uncles named their houses after him. I had been repulsed reading the vitriol spewed on him by a foul-mouthed leftist poet who sang the praises of his contemporary leftist politician in the same breath. Then I had chanced upon the truth about both of these politicians who had been hailed as leaders in their time and wasn’t sure who was the worse of the two.

Naturally I did not mention any of this to the lady. I merely said that notwithstanding the ideals that fake historians had attached to his name and his many statues, everyone now knew who and what he really was and the chap who once had something of a halo about the very mention of his name, had very few fans left in the country. At which she looked nonplussed.

Reminded me of a poet who had been one of my heroes in a past life. I never cared much for his pedestrian prose, but his poetry had once connected to me like nothing else had. Through the influence of my Professors and classmates, I had come to see this poetry too for what it was. A few years ago, I used to attend literary festivals across the country just to hear him speak, though I stopped after the third one, having found that his interviews focused more on personal anecdotes rather than literary discussion, besides being tediously repetitive. Recently I was sitting in a pub with friends and someone mentioned that this poet was speaking at a venue a few hundred metres away. It didn’t seem relevant anymore, after being exposed to the work of a hundred other writers, better and greater than him.

It appears that there can be no heroes in the age of the internet.

The Lightworker’s Song

When this came up on my playlist today, I was reminded of M, a dear friend from Jordan with whom I share a mutual affinity for this song. We call each other lightworkers, though I have a long way to go to be called one, yet. As an empath, I tend to enclose myself in a bubble and block out the world to protect my energy. While she is an open, friendly soul radiating positivity and good vibes. Who warms up to everything and everyone around her, reaches out naturally to pick up and cuddle babies when she sees them, and who wouldn’t think twice before walking up to a stranger in trouble to offer help. She is a supremely talented writer and though her poetry does not rhyme it still feels like music, the words gushing forth like water from a spring, and reminds me of pearls scattered across the page.

I wish there were more people in the world like her. I wish I were a little (just a little) more like her. One of them real lightworkers.

A Song for Late Summer

This poem that popped into my mailbox today suited the season (late summer – early autumn) and the weather.

If space and time, as sages say,
Are things which cannot be,
The fly that lives a single day
Has lived as long as we.
But let us live while yet we may,
While love and life are free,
For time is time, and runs away,
Though sages disagree.

The flowers I sent thee when the dew
Was trembling on the vine,
Were withered ere the wild bee flew
To suck the eglantine.
But let us haste to pluck anew
Nor mourn to see them pine,
And though the flowers of love be few
Yet let them be divine.
T.S. Eliot

Burn the Television

“Human beings are difficult,” he goes on. “We’re difficult to ourselves; we’re difficult to each other and we are mysteries to ourselves; we are mysteries to each other … Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are?”
Amit Chaudhuri, Why television writing has become the new home of verbal complexity

A few months ago, I looked up Big Bang theory after a gap over three years and was unpleasantly surprised – The geeks have mutated into sad stereotypes, science references have made way for silly discussions on relationships, Sheldon has lost almost all the quirks which once made him unique and the subject of scholarly articles like this one –, Raj is made to link up with an older charwoman(!) and the humour completely lost in the transition from a well-written sitcom to an average soap. Reminded me of one of the best lines ever written in a self-help book – ‘Burn the Television’.

On Being Consciousness

” Their voices were melodious and unsentimental, almost to the point where a somewhat more denominational man than myself might, without straining, have experienced levitation.”
J.D.Salinger, For Esmé with Love and Squalor

We were talking about the song of Amairgen among other things in the pub, and a friend forwarded this to me soon afterwards. While the liberals oppose the teaching of Sanskrit in Indian schools, this happens elsewhere in the world.

On Superfluous Copy-editors

By “editor” I suppose you mean proofreader. Among these I have known limpid creatures of limitless tact and tenderness who would discuss with me a semicolon as if it were a point of honor—which, indeed, a point of art often is. But I have also come across a few pompous avuncular brutes who would attempt to “make suggestions” which I countered with a thunderous “stet!”
Vladimir Nabokov

I enjoyed this article in which the author refers to copy-editors as “irritating, pusillanimous time-wasters. Primitive, mindless creatures whose instincts drive them, antlike, to make slavishly defined changes.”

Two copy editors whom I worked with were all that and more – pathetic characters who tried to justify their work by mangling the prose beyond recognition and who took sadistic pleasure in making uncalled-for actual edits in the text, when all they had to do was simple proofreading for spelling and grammar. Thankfully my editor rejected everything done by the first, while the second still managed to inflict some damage to the prose in the process. Yet another lesson in publishing, to avoid superfluous over-editing by presumptuous copy-editors.

On the Construction of Characters

“I’ve been in love with you for weeks.’
There’s no such thing,’ she says. ‘It’s a rhetorical device. It’s a bourgeois fallacy.’
Haven’t you ever been in love, then?’
When I was younger,’ she says, ‘I allowed myself to be constructed by the discourse of romantic love for a while, yes.’
What the hell does that mean?’
We aren’t essences, Vic. We aren’t unique individual essences existing prior to language. There is only language.”
― David Lodge, Nice Work

How much more overtly metafictional can a novelist get? Though I enjoyed this snippet of dialogue, I believe that characters in literary fiction are more than constructions of language. They are real, so much more real than most people.

Fiction as a mirror

Pure fiction (as against formulaic genre writing) is a many-dimensional mirror. In its quest to reveal some aspect of the truth, it also gives glimpses into the writer’s worldview and ideology, their backgrounds, writerly influences, their vision and sometimes into their very soul. As fragile as they are, writers are also brave enough to share their work which reflects them to a great extent. A poet friend once told me many years ago, that she was apprehensive of sharing her poems with her family, lest they read her through the lines. In this context, writers like Alexander McCall Smith, RK Narayan and Eva Ibbotson to name just a few come across as not only good writers but good human beings for their work exudes the human values of kindness, hope, a vision of human nature as being the same everywhere around the world and a tendency to look for the good in everyone and everything. A radiance of positivity pervades their books, which uplifts the reader.

Sometimes I have wondered if the opposite were true. Is it the negativity within the writers themselves that leads them to portray the bullies, bastards and bitches of literary fiction? One often comes across criticism on Nabokov for his portrayal of Humbert Humbert. But as charming as the prose was and as much as it seduced the reader, Lolita was also a meditation on morality, seen through the distorted lens of an unreliable narrator. Nabokov makes it clear that he has no sympathy for HH, whose remorse leads to an attempt at redemption that is far from achieved. Likewise in the novels of Agatha Christie, which are studies in human character, and all of which converge to the defeat of evil and the prevalence of hope for the conventionally good characters. Selfishness, pride, envy, lust, greed and a host of negative emotions have been explored in several major novels like The Magus, The Secret History and Gone Girl, again to name just a few, but the moral voice of the writer comes through implying that they are aware of their character’s fallibilities and do not condone them. Even Katherine Dunne’s brilliant Geek Love with its dark premise and darker characters was at its core a story about family dynamics and filial love.

I was acquainted with a woman since the past few months who writes dark fiction, stories in which the narrative voice seems to endorse the criminal characters, making heroes out of them. She has grown more and more unlikeable since I first met her at an informal writing group which convenes in a little cafe on the weekends. Her face grows openly dark with displeasure when someone else is commended for their work. She hides her successes from those she considers competitors, fearful lest someone else may get something better than what she has, and is quick to make patronising remarks putting down others, sounding as though she were ill-wishing them. Calculative in every conversation, always trying to judge, assess, hit back when there is no need for animosity. I’m very ambitious, she said to me once with an expression similar to the doll in Child’s Play, that it appeared that she would not hesitate to incite someone to crime if it were to profit her in some way. She reminded me of a schoolmate K who at the age of twelve was deliberately mean and spiteful to those of us who got full marks in everything. But such negativity that people try on spew on others only goes back to the senders, three times over.

In academics as much as in creativity, a competitive spirit will hamper the end result while also stunting the soul. Just as a student’s goal should be to comprehend their lessons and score the maximum marks that can be scored without an unhealthy desire to get ahead of everyone else, every writer should know that all writers walk their own individual paths, at their own pace. The world needs all the good books that it can get, and there is always a way for any writer to self-actualise themselves in whatever way they wish to, without having to compare themselves with others and running imaginary races. As a teacher once mentioned in a theatre workshop, competition vanishes in the face of excellence.

On the Protocols of Queues

I was in the queue at the lunch buffet when the waitress pointed us to the plates placed most inconveniently in the middle. As everyone moved there, the curly-haired American lady A behind me shoved past casually breaking the queue. She was followed closely by her friend who had been behind her, a fat German woman L with a perpetually smug smile plastered on her face who aggressively cut ahead of me to grab a plate, in a reptilian reflex action. I debated quietly whether to point out that they were breaking the queue, and then considered stepping ahead myself saying with a smile that I had been waiting in the queue. Even though it made the difference of a fraction of a second, the incivility was irking and out of place in the setting. However, to react to people who act on their reptilian instincts would be to lower oneself to their level. Besides each time a person acts from the reptilian instinct, it takes away part of their creativity. Indeed, it is not surprising that both of these rude women are mediocre writers in terms of both style and substance. I finally did what the very English head Professor with immaculate manners would have done – ignored them. And then it struck me that I had never ever seen an English person break a queue. Orderly queues are one of the things that I admire about the English.

On the banks of the Cherwell

At the Cherwell boathouse, I sat on a rough bench facing the river and stared into the green waters. It was a fifteen-minute walk from my college room, a very pleasant walk through a treelined path with the boughs overhead making a wide canopy through which the sunlight fell in cool green beams on the ground. It reminded me of one of my favourite places in literature, the world between worlds in The Chronicles of Narnia, which, as we all know, is one of the most beautiful metaphors for a library.

I had booked a punt through the college site, and then cancelled it at the last minute. One look at the boats and I was glad that I had cancelled it. I would have looked like a fool trying to handle the punt by myself. But I felt a deep sense of peace sitting there watching the ducks float past. The summer crowds, mostly students and locals from their appearance were a jolly lot, floating across the river in laughing groups, the little boats swaying. The background sounds blended into the silence and I sat there in peace, contemplating the last two years and the darkness that had threatened to seep again into my mind in the spring, among other things.

I remember someone’s quote that happiness was a library and a garden. Which is true. But to sit by the banks of a river in silence gives something more valuable than happiness – tranquility. Watching the placid green waters of the Cherwell (which the college warns is infested with water-rats, among other things), I felt an immense sense of peace.