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.
My night shall be remembered for a star
That outshone all the suns of all men’s days
Last weekend I went to Cambridge again and remembered two writers associated with the place who are very close to my heart. Samuel Butler whose novel The Way of all Flesh soothed my soul like nothing else could when I first read it. And Rupert Brooke, my forever crush and the love of my life.
I dreaded turning twenty-eight because I never wanted to be older than Rupert who was lucky in a way to have died young and thus remained forever twenty-seven – his poetry was one of the things that kept me alive during the years of depression. I am not sure anymore if I want to visit his grave at Skyros as I had planned to, once – I would rather remember him as a young man full of life, sitting on the grass beside Byron’s pool, throwing his head back and laughing, reading and writing in the shade of the Old Vicarage. Why did I write ‘remember him’ when I ought to have, when I meant to have written ‘imagined him’? Because Rupert comes across as more alive, more full of life than most people I see around me.
In The Way of All Flesh, young Ernest Pontifex reflects gloomily about death – he hates his overbearing family and equally dreads encountering his unpleasant grandparents in the afterlife. But methinks even the afterlife would be a delightful place if one could see Rupert there with a song on his lips and a twinkle in his spring-blue eyes, tossing his ‘brown delightful head / Amusedly, among the ancient Dead.’
Thank God for immortal poets.
Oh! Death will find me, long before I tire
Of watching you; and swing me suddenly
Into the shade and loneliness and mire
Of the last land! There, waiting patiently,
One day, I think, I’ll feel a cool wind blowing,
See a slow light across the Stygian tide,
And hear the Dead about me stir, unknowing,
And tremble. And I shall know that you have died,
And watch you, a broad-browed and smiling dream,
Pass, light as ever, through the lightless host,
Quietly ponder, start, and sway, and gleam —
Most individual and bewildering ghost! —
And turn, and toss your brown delightful head
Amusedly, among the ancient Dead.
I was lucky to attend a poetry master class on TS Eliot by Professor Belinda Jack last year, in which we had to write a poem with a sentence from Eliot’s poetry.
I wrote this:
At the Old Bodleian
This is where I want to be – At the source of the longest river
Here, at this desk, in this library
Surrounded by doors to other worlds, where
Time takes on the colours of all seasons.
At my desk though, time has no colour – It ceases to be.
Soon afterwards, I stumbled upon a series of lectures given by the Professor for Gresham College. Listening to Professor Jack is a wonderful experience, it is almost like sitting in the blissful silence of the Bodleian.
Though the ancient sage Ved Vyas was a virtuoso scholar who compiled the Vedas and who is supposed to have written a number of treatises on philosophy among other things, I like to think of him above all as the world’s first writer of metafiction. In the epic Mahabharata, Vyasa not only narrates the story of himself narrating the story to his divine scribe but also steps in and out of the narrative to advise his characters and even procreates some of them. This labyrinth of stories within stories within stories, the longest epic recorded in the history of humankind, is surely the epitome of metafiction.
Salutations to Vyasa on his birthday which is celebrated by students across India as a day of honouring their Gurus.
A Guru is much more than a mere tutor or instructor. The Sanskrit word Guru means one who dispels the darkness of ignorance. A Guru is one who shows the student the path to know themselves.
While I have been privileged to study from a number of excellent tutors, I have been blessed to learn from as many Gurus including venerable Professors and authors who illuminated my life from the pages of their books, starting from Vyasa to the Bard, the Poet, Nabokov, Barnes, Spark, Salinger, Coover, Barthelme, Gass, Scholes, Waugh… My Pranams to all of them.
This song has been stuck in my head throughout the merry month of May, ever since I spent a charmed afternoon watching a matinee performance of As You Like It at Corpus Christie College, co-directed by John Retallack and Renata Allen of the Oxford Playmaker and performed as part of the college’s 500th-anniversary celebrations. I had gone there expecting to watch a students’ play and came away enriched by a remarkable experience of great theatre.
The play was set around multiple locations around the college. The audience followed the scenes at the garden, the cloister, a cosy auditorium set up as the Forest of Arden, the college chapel and the hall. The cast consisted entirely of students and staff, and yet the play was nothing less than professional. Each actor lived their role on the stage as they emoted, fought, fell in love, fainted, philosophised, wooed, teased, hunted, dined, played the fool, sang and danced through the play. Orlando’s frustration over his life at the beginning of the play came through as earnestly as his devotion to his lady-love in the later scenes, as did Oliver’s cruelty and subsequent transformation. Both Rosalind and Celia had immense stage presence as well as the chemistry of devoted cousins whose lively dialogue was at the heart of the story. Touchstone was the star of the show, stealing every scene with her exuberant presence, whether it was grudgingly accompanying the cousins to the forest, leading the audience (sometimes literally) to the next scene, wooing an equally brilliant Audrey or kicking the simpleton William off the stage in a sequence of comic dance steps. The actors from amongst the staff were as effective – the genial Senior Duke and the wicked Duke Frederick, the devoted Adam and honest Corin could not have been any better.
All five songs set to music by Howard Goodall were rendered melodiously. Amiens cast a spell on the audience with her songs that invoked both the pastoral setting and the philosophy of the simple life. Every aspect of the play came together perfectly – the idyllic settings of Corpus Christie in spring, the lilting music, and the talented cast. The fourth wall was pushed aside regularly and deliberately to include the audience, as characteristic of the Bard’s comedies.
A very few minor quibbles. Rosalind and Celia batting their eyelashes to convey that they were falling in love appeared artificial, for the actors are naturally good without the need for histrionics. Jacques delivered his much celebrated lines beautifully but he was too lively, without the melancholy that marked the original character. Orlando could have attacked the Duke’s table brandishing a sword rather than a gun. But overall it was a magical performance which took the audience back in time to the Bard’s own theatre.
On the way to the play, I was reading my textbook in which Professor Waugh elaborates on how ‘‘all the world is not of course a stage’ and ‘the crucial ways in which it isn’t’’ (Waugh, P.4). But the play restored a gentler, simpler world on the stage. A world in which life was lucidly defined in black and white and despite the Bard’s caution that ‘most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly’, people still believed in friendship, true love, and happy endings. The effect was rather overwhelming. When the play concluded with drinks and cheers to Corpus Christi, I wanted, like the others in the audience to congratulate the cast, to greet the Professor whose guidance was visible throughout the performance and hang out with my classmates in the audience. Instead I left quietly, unwilling to break the spell around me, hoping to hold on to the enchantment for a few more hours before the grey post-postmodernism of real life took over.
‘I liked your first story better.’
His spring-blue eyes that froze into icicles
at the mention of philosophy and high art,
they thaw, bloom, widen and mirror the skies
at the mention of simpler tales.
‘That one sounded accessible to all’.
His laughter echoes the birdsong,
that I try in vain to record every morning.
Some things cannot be captured in pixels
or even words, some moments are better lived.
I don’t tell him that the stories write me.
It is not as though I have a choice.
But all the same, I listen to him laugh,
as I do to the birds, with placid joy.
(7 April 2017)
An asylum seeker about to migrate to another country: “The undiscovered country from whose bourn, no traveller returns. For so long it has beckoned me. This cliff upon which I stand today, this has been my little nest egg that I had tucked away for the future, my plan B. This little Himalayan town is the polar opposite of others, them where they go to renounce the material world for the abstraction, the endless light of an eternal life. Here where I stand, a poor priest once jumped into these swirling waters where the three mighty rivers merge into one. He was reborn as an emperor, they say, wealthy and handsome, kind and wise, surrounded by good family and friends, replete in the sixteen blessings of life. I too should like to return, someday. To the quietness of the leafy lanes that I have loved, the peace of mild blue skies, the unfailing joy of birdsong, to the hallowed libraries that I have seen, the blessed classrooms where I have been. To voices raised in laughter, to silent warmth of friendship, to glances, handclasps and words of love. In those moments, I remain. To them I will return someday. In another name, with another face.”
A watching stranger: “I see her from the bathroom window. Where have I seen her before? She stands close to the edge of the cliff. The wind blows the hair across her face so madly that now I see her, now I don’t. Hers is that sort of face which once seen, remains imprinted in the mind, as it has remained quietly somewhere within mine. Was it on that winter morning–maybe five, six years ago? The mass of humanity among the bright pink and yellow canopies, the overpowering smells, the muddy taste of cardamom tea in clay cups and the annoying anchor woman who was drooling over me so much that I had to shield my eyes by focusing on the audience. I knew my lines so well by then that I did not have to think too much to speak, and then she came in, midway and left early. I have seen her somewhere else too, recently. She is edging closer to the cliff. Stop, wait, don’t! It will get better, I want to tell her. Please wait. I open the window and shout, willing the wind to carry my voice across the river. She looks serene, hands clutched on the iron railing, eyes focused on the crystal waters. I suddenly remember where I had seen her last when with a graceful movement she steps over the rail. Suddenly she looks up and catches my eye as she glides like an angel into the streams the waters of which are bursting forever upon the rocks like fragments of stars. Unable to do anything else, I wave.”
On a sunny winter morning around five years ago, I listened to a young writer read. He was not conventionally handsome, but had a benign aura about him that few people do, a serene presence which radiated goodness. He spoke poignantly about his book, conveying intense emotions that sounded purer for the directness and lack of sentiment. I read his book soon afterwards with a great deal of pleasure, a meditation on the self in times of trial.
A few weeks ago, I had to look him up for a project and was shocked – His face had weathered a few decades into a collage of wrinkles and dark shadows and messy grey hair. His voice likewise was slower, as though worn with time and life. He could have passed for the father of the bonny lad whom I had seen five years ago. Only the kind expression remained. It sat sweetly on that once-seraphic countenance, which now invoked a crumbling sepulchral cherub in my mind.
My project done, I might never see him anymore, not even in Cyberspace. But I will read his book once more, those lines of achingly beautiful prose and reflect on his words about the changing seasons, the passing of time, and the meaning of life, and perhaps I will weep when I read, in a moment of shared humanity that I will sense across the printed page.
On a cold afternoon at Rewley House, this agent approaches me and my classmate with a broad smile.
‘So, what do you write?’ she asks us warmly.
I give her a thirty-second elevator pitch on something I am working on, and mention that it is metafiction. Accessible metafiction, I want to qualify my statement. Because as a reader and as a writer, I believe in telling a story first and telling it well – ensuring that my characters are beings who breathe in the world inside the pages and who take their own decisions, irrespective of what my plot outlines want them to do. I also believe that the novelist’s pleasure of playing with the form is worth only if it reflects in the reader’s experience of the book. Above all, I believe that any story worth telling must reach out and speak to any kind of reader. All fiction is metafiction, at one level. I want to tell her all this, and more.
But she looks away at the sound of the M-word. I blink and when I open my eyes, she has vanished. I spot her at the bar at the far end of the room and wonder if she had been real.
I am reciting a poem to a blue-eyed Adonis
as we walk briskly through a busy London road
The snow on his brown hair flecked with gold
is stardust in the light of the street lamps.
‘That is beautiful’ he says when I finish.
The stars above cannot be seen for the clouds
and yet they are there, each one
of them twinkling like the snowflakes
that surround us, so bright
the darkness of a winter evening seems daylight
They continue to shine and remain suspended in the air
around me for hours afterwards
I soak in their warmth, of the crystals of light
The raw material of art and literature.
12 January 2017