Pathologies of Postmodernism

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 behind me shoved past casually breaking the queue. She was followed closely by her friend who had been behind her, a pleasantly plump German woman with wavy hair and merry eyes who aggressively cut ahead of me in the queue to grab a plate, in an almost reptilian reflex action. I debated quietly whether to point out that they were breaking the queue, and then did what the head Professor would have done – ignored it. Even though it made the difference of a fraction of a second, the incivility was rather irking and out of place in the setting. 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.

A Student’s Prayer

May God protect us both (My Preceptor and me)
May God nourish us both
May we work together uniting our strength for the good of humanity
May our studies be luminous and purposeful
May there be no animosity between us
May there be peace (in the divine), peace (in the environment), peace (within the self)

From the Taittiriya Upanishad.

I think of my Gurus – Mentors, Professors and Teachers who have influenced me, with immense gratitude and respect, when I chant these lines every morning.

The Darkness that comes with Spring

I have always loved the spring, and not only because of the usual things that everyone associates with the season. In Chennai, we don’t even have proper spring. The weather is sweltering hot all the year. One can just about make out the pleasant nip in the early morning air change into a warm current as the months move from Jan-Feb into March, and suddenly the summer takes over the city with its blazing warmth. But I used to watch out for the flowers – the golden Indian laburnum, the pale pink powder-puff flowers and my beloved flame of the forest that would cover the city in orange and gold well until July, sometimes even August. Spring to me was special because it heralded the long vacations that started in April, and my birthday. Once upon a time, spring was my favourite season, because it held the promise of everything.

That was before the darkness seeped into my mind. During the years in which I was seriously depressed, I hardly cared about the season – I cared for nothing except leaving the hellhole that was Trivandrum. I don’t look back at those days but when I hear that city mentioned, I just feel immense gratitude that I don’t belong to that place, that I didn’t grow up there and that I would never have to live there again. Because should such a condition were to ever arise, I would die, literally than live in that sick place.

But now, even when I have a tiny place in Chennai that I can call home, I am not immune to the darkness. I realised it this spring – as the flowers commenced to bloom all around the gardens and squares that I pass on the way to the office, I felt my mind wilting until it finally shrunk into itself, and closed out. That cold sorrow which is not born from any particular grief filled me and I began to weep through the evenings. I was in denial for weeks. I had survived depression once, even written a novel about surviving depression – about which I get odd emails every now and then from people who say that it has given them hope. How could I get depressed again? I tried some of the newly sprung portals like your dost which counsel people on mental health issues and found that they were too cold, corporates set up to harvest profits from the many banes of the present age. Finally after crying loudly and uncontrollably from eight in the night to two thirty in the morning, I logged into my University’s nightline help service, and found solace, a kind of peace, which was followed by a few weeks of intense reading of fiction, some old favourites (Nabokov, Spark and Barnes), some authors for the first time (Coover, Barthelme, Barth – where had they been all my life?) and the darkness slowly receded. Perhaps it was also because the spring was gone by then.

Once upon a time, I loved spring like everyone else. Now every year as the season seems to descend upon the earth like blight, I begin to see why Virginia Woolf took her life in springtime.

July Challenge: A post a day. The Student’s Life

The AtoZChallenge on favourite authors that I commenced in April 2016 remains incomplete. I had not realised when I started it that it would involve reading a number of new novels, re-reading several old favourites and reflecting upon the times when I had read them first, and musing about how my concept of favourite authors have evolved and changed over the years, especially the past two years. While I will return to the remaining five authors (From the letter V onwards, a half-finished post on Vonnegut awaits in the drafts), I have decided to challenge myself to write a post a day throughout July – about books, the writing life, and of course metafiction. I don’t plan to spend more than fifteen minutes per post.

My first post in this series, on the student life.

‘One who is diligent and unswerving in effort as the Crow,
as focused as the Crane, who sleeps as little as the Dog,
who eats sparingly and who is celibate and shuns worldly thoughts,
These are the five signs of an ideal student.’

In my undergraduate engineering years, I had this verse in Sanskrit pinned on the wall above my bed in the hostel room. I had just survived the first onset of depression which had darkened my life from the age of fifteen and remember very little of those years, except the mist and the mountains covering the college, the wind which sounded like a person – murmuring, howling and sometimes just talking in a monotone that filled the ears as one walked through the large open fields to get from the classrooms to the library, and sitting in the library, filling up books with notes on microelectronics and communication theories. I remember picking at the hostel food and working my way through the nights fuelled by black coffee, Marie biscuits, and a paracetamol tablet every two hours to beat the exam fever. I suppose I met all five of the criteria in the verse for I topped the college. Then I stepped out into the world, landed a great job in a hellhole of a place Trivandrum and fell again into the darkest period of depression for the next seven years – that is another story.

But to return to the verse. Diligence and focus are essential for any student, qualities which are easier to cultivate when social media is deactivated and the internet connection is switched off for good measure. I am an insomniac and have always been averse to material things. However, to eat sparingly – I am not sure if that is good advice. As someone who doesn’t really enjoy food and thinks cooking is a waste of time, when I first started living alone I tried taking small quantities of simple vegetarian food and promptly fell sick for a long period of time before finding out that most of my problems were related to the diet. It is easy to be a student living at home or in a hostel, where everything is taken care of but to study while managing a house and a more than a fulltime job – thousands of people do it rather well, and I found out the hard way that a proper diet is of utmost importance in order to do it.

Sometimes even the ancient sayings need to be tuned for the times.

A Play for the Spring: An Enchanted Afternoon at Corpus Christi College

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.

A Moment of Birdsong (Poem)

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‘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)

When postmodernism tends to realism: Island City (Mini Review)

Though these are films on two very different themes, the film Island City reminded me more than once of Party, Govind Nihalani’s brilliant adaptation of Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play which explores the role of the writer as artist and activist in a shallow, self-serving society. Both films constantly make the viewer pause to think and reflect on the questions raised by the premise.

Island City is a thought-provoking exploration of urban loneliness, conveyed through three loosely interconnected stories. The corporate employee in an Orwellian setup who is desensitised to obey any instruction unquestioningly, the suppressed housewife who chooses the lead character in a schmaltzy television soap over the tyrannical man of the house, and the blue collar worker who finds love in an unexpected place which proceeds to render her life bleaker than before, come from very different backgrounds, but their lives are equally affected by the impersonal hollowness of life in a city. Though the stories are set in Mumbai, these are universal tales of present times which could have played out in any city in the world.  The boundaries between fiction and reality, as well as technology and human emotions, blur and eventually dissolve at the end of each story, leaving the viewers with a paradox: despite the images of absurdism and black humour, the film comes across as more real than surreal, reemphasising that we now live in a post-postmodern world.

The other side of the page (Poem)

17125772_1856826804602918_4981282162000003072_nThe grey snow was crisp beneath my shoes.
From within the penultimate pages of a book
I had strayed into a cold world beyond
this side of life.
I watched the characters whom I’d followed
fight off the ghosts who closed upon them
like memories.
I watched them both return to the story,
vanish in a haze of fog
while the sound of words on the page
subsided into silence.

I stayed.

(October 2016)