Reading can be dangerous. Nay, fatal.

Warning: This post contains hideous little-known secrets (redundancy is fun). Read at your own risk.

Going crazy on a Monday like every other day? Well, not any more. Read on, and you’ll finally find the courage (protip: look behind the sofa) to self-administer a full frontal lobotomy.

Mark Twain once famously said: Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint. A prescient man, Twain. But it’s not just the so called health books. Any book can prove fatal. Think: paper cuts. Ouch! Or even think of two-thousand page tomes classified as handbooks. You just have to drop (up) one accidentally on your head. And the rest will be an admixture of mangled anatomy and sad irony.

Read this. (Again, at your own risk.) The author here recounts several anecdotes confirming the dangerousness of reading. As you begin, you’ll see how The Brothers Karamazov is capable of inflicting more than just spiritual injury. And do have a look (or two, or ten) at the cartoon accompanying the article. Here it is for your viewing pleasure. Have a gander. And while you are at it, have a goose as well.

readingisdangerous.jpg

And finally, here’s a cautionary poem by Barbara Hamby titled Reading Can Kill You. Decide for yourself if she is half or quarter or three-fourths kidding.

Curiosity killed the cat, they say. I am beginning to wonder if Curiosity is a book.

So. The proof as you can see has long migrated from the pudding, and now rests squarely in this post. Like a wise person once said, the moral of Snow White is never eat apples.

(Originally written on 1 September, 2013.)

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The Non-Lucretian Atom

If you deconstruct Greece, you will in the end see an olive tree, a grapevine, and a boat remain. That is, with as much, you reconstruct her.
– Odysseas Elytis

The universe is made of stories, not of atoms. – Muriel Rukeyser

We are made of carbon and hydrogen and oxygen.
Primarily.
The oceans – of hydrogen and oxygen.
The air – of oxygen
(and nitrogen among other gases).
The stars – of hydrogen and helium.
And so we live.
To live,
along with water, and air and sunlight
(and food,
which again is carbon, and hydrogen and oxygen),
we need
dreams and hopes and love
(and a lot more).

I asked myself:
What are dreams and hopes and love made of?
I answered:
Life particles.

Don’t ask: Are you sure?
That question annihilates life particles.


Mostpeople. A collective noun.

Writing in his foreword to the first edition of Collected Poems, 1938, E. E. Cummings delineates a collective noun called mostpeople. What follows is an incisive characterisation of the group, which makes for a very interesting read. Coming from the poet who exhorted young people “to be nobody-but-yourself (- in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everything else…),” this excerpt is worth visiting again and again especially for its “we can never be born enough” declaration.

The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople — it’s no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves than the squarerootofminusone. You and I are human beings; mostpeople are snobs. Take the matter of being born. What does being born mean to mostpeople? Catastrophe unmitigated. Socialrevolution. The cultured aristocrat yanked out of his hyperexclusively ultravoluptuous superpalazzo,and dumped into an incredibly vulgar detentioncamp swarming with every conceivable species of undesirable organism. Mostpeople fancy a guaranteed birthproof safetysuit of nondestructible selflessness. If mostpeople were to be born twice they’d improbably call it dying—

you and I are not snobs. We can never be born enough. We are human beings; for whom birth is a supremely welcome mystery, the mystery of growing: which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves. You and I wear the dangerous looseness of doom and find it becoming. Life, for eternal us, is now, and now is much to[o] busy being a little more than everything to seem anything, catastrophic included.

On a related note, the “we can never be born enough” phrase reminds me of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem Breaking the Fast. There’s a line in the poem that haunts me in the best way possible. “Remember your deepest name,” Nye says. There’s something about it that harks back to the E. E. Cummings excerpt. Here it follows for your reading pleasure.

1.

Japanese teacher says:
At first light, rise.
Don’t hover between
sleep and waking,
this makes you heavy,
puts a stone inside your heart.

The minute you drift back to shore,
anchor. Breathe.
Remember your deepest name.

2.

Sometimes objects stun me,
bamboo strainer, gray mug,
sitting exactly where
they were left.

They have not slept
or dreamt of lost faces.

I touch them carefully,
saying, tell me what you know.

3.

Cup of waves,
strawberry balanced
in a seashell.

In morning the water seems
clear to the bottom.

No fish blocks my view.

Most people are just that: mostpeople. But your job here is to remember your deepest name.


The truth depends on ‘the view’.

Writing in the Introduction to Matteo Pericoli’s The City Out of My Window: 63 Views on New York, Paul Goldberger notes:

A view is like a mate: you must be sure you want to live with it, because you cannot really change it. And you have to be prepared for the fact that it may change of its own accord.

I am by and large happy with the view from my window balcony. The view is of a public park. So there are some constant fixtures in the view, but the scene does change every time I look at it. And these changes too aren’t anything that’d raise my hackles, they are more along the lines of change is constant dictum. Among the constants are the two banyan trees at the top and bottom right corners of the park. At the bottom left corner is the yellow flame tree that is a feast to the eyes when in bloom. At the top left corner is a small building that is supposed to be a library, but is not functional. There is a well-laid walking track along the boundary and the center of the park, giving the track a look of an addition sign inside a quadrilateral. In the four pockets enclosed by the tracks, there is a play area for kids with a couple of see-saws, a slide, a couple of swings. Just beyond the walking track along the boundary, but within the park’s compound wall are concrete benches on all sides.

Among the non-constants in the park are of course the people. Evenings are the most active times, with people jogging and walking, children playing, and the more adventurous ones hanging from the aerial roots of the banyan trees. Little girls often skip with their skipping ropes, their pigtails flying in the air. Holidays see a different kind of activity. Last weekend for instance, a bunch of children had a merry picnic under one of the trees. It was a lovely scene. And sometimes when the watchman forgets to close the gate, a cow or two will saunter in and lay down peacefully under the banyan tree. It all looks idyllic.

Yes, I like this view. It gives me things to think about. When I am dithering over something, I come and stand in the balcony and just stare ahead into the park. I don’t claim the park gives me answers, but the mind does welcome this break from all the simmering in its own stew. If this park could speak, it would be my ideal springboard. And I suspect, a very good story teller.

This view — it’s all quotidian. No frills. It’s like coming home to your favourite person and telling them all about your day.

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“Iparis-rev don’t look for any aesthetically interesting composition. I don’t see beauty, I see narrative,” said Matteo Pericoli of one of his illustrations. He was talking of Lorin Stein’s view “A view from 62 White Street” which was on the cover of The Paris Review’s 2011 summer issue (pictured alongside).

That word — narrative. I love that, and see that in my view too.

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In The City Out of My Window, Pericoli talks to 63 New Yorkers, whose views he has drawn. And it comes as no surprise that in talking of their views, these people inevitably reveal as much about themselves as they do about what they see from their windows.
To wit: Here’s what Derek Bumel has to say.

At dawn, a mockingbird; in the morning, a chugging truck unloading parcels; at noon, the television downstairs; in the afternoon, muffled shouts from kids playing next door; at dusk, a car alarm; at night, police sirens; then stillness.

And here’s Ben Sonnenberg:

For the twenty-seven years of our marriage this has afforded us sunsets that on some days are spectacular, on others merely beautiful.

With such evocative and tender descriptions (and not to forget, Pericoli’s illustrations), reading this book is like standing right next to these people and staring out of their windows, leisurely taking in every single thing on view.

Of course, this standing by the window and staring out isn’t just that. A lot of it is abstract and philosophical, and Achille Varzi captures it when he talks about his view.

There is always an inside and an outside. And there is always a boundary separating the two, even if we pretend otherwise. Sometimes it is as thick and stubborn as a brick wall. Sometimes it is as thin and immaterial as the visual field, or the limits of our imagination. I often wonder: Does it belong to the inside or to the outside? Is the boundary between me and the rest of the world a part of me, or is it out there? I don’t know the answer. But I love my window and keep looking at its glass, for it reminds me that the question is an important one.

+++
It’s a lovely day today; neither sunny, nor cloudy, and there’s a gentle breeze. I think I’ll go give my view a visit; I’ll go for a walk.

Image source: The Paris Review.

Originally written on September 20, 2013.


There’s a thing we all share

And the poet brings it to light. His words — sometimes a quiet affirmation of realisation; sometimes a joyous cry of awakening. But always universal. A parochial poet may well be an oxymoron.

Antonio Machado. Prasoon Joshi. Two men. Different eras. Different lands. Different tongues. Speaking the language of human spirit.

See for yourself.

Here’s Machado. (b. 1875, Spain. d. 1939)

I thought my fire was out,
and stirred the ashes…
I burnt my fingers.

And here’s Joshi. (b. 1971, India)

Aye saala
Abhi abhi huaa yaqeen
ki aag hai mujh mein kahin
hui subaah main jal gaya
suraj ko main nigal gaya

— Roo-ba-roo, Rang De Basanti.

Here’s my translation of Joshi’s lyrics from Hindi.

Yo, mate!*
Only now do I believe
there’s a fire somewhere in me.
It dawned, I am burnt
I swallowed the sun clean.

There’s a beauty in such aha! moments when you connect two dots that are but one. It’s understanding. And it’s insanity.

*Yo, mate! ≡ A joyous expletive. ≡ Hot damn!

Originally written on April 10, 2013.


On telling a story

All stories have long been told. That did not stop Shakespeare from telling his. Nor did that stop our modern literary heroes from telling theirs. Shakespeare and all our heroes told their stories in the way they best could, and that made all the difference. The human condition in a myriad of tautologies has been at the heart of every story ever told. Sometimes we connect with the storyteller’s unique spiel, and that exalts and cements her position in the world of letters. And rightfully so. For it’s no mean task to tell a story.

We travel. Cross yawning stretches of wastelands. Those in the east, head west; and east lures those in the west. We keep walking. Searching for something. That something that’s undefinable in the storyteller’s lexicon. “Voice, “ they say. “Structure,” someone else helpfully offers. No, that’s not it. “Pedants!” you cry, and keep looking for that elusive something because giving up is not an option. You had the choice to go live in a swanky high-rise on level with the city’s skyline. But those heights were sandpits to you. Instead, you chose to live in your head. Sometimes you jest; you say, “I like living in my head. Saves me the rent money.” And they look at you askance wondering exactly how many kinds of crazy you are.

I had half a million words, but it wasn’t a story,” wrote Jean Auel. That’s our conundrum too, and we nod our heads in agreement when we read that. But when you were busy writing those half a million words, some other things were happening. Your hair was turning grey. People you once loved, found your head too odd and cramped for two, and they walked away to better living conditions. One day you open your eyes to the world, and see these changes. Maybe you take them in your stride, or maybe they hit you like two tonnes of bricks. In any case you get back to your words. The image of a lotus leaf begins popping up in your head every now and then. You open a window in your head to let the world inform you and your words. You begin to understand you have to be in the world and yet not of the world, to write of the world, even if it’s about your singular world. And then you also begin to understand your singular world is a misnomer. You reach out, to those like and unlike you. Your head, which was once cramped for two people, now has place for tens of different worlds.

A million words. That becomes your motto. You keep writing. At times you write a brilliant sentence. At times a whole paragraph dazzles. But it’s still not a story. And you are fine with it. You go back to your books. You read them again, and again, and again. You beg, borrow and steal new ones. By and by, those who were once your heroes, become comrades. You realise you no longer have to cross treacherous mountains and dangerous oceans to get at that undefinable word in the storyteller’s lexicon. You realise the word is right within you and that you discern its meaning. The word reads: truth. Your truth.

You now write with your truth guiding you. You write your best sentences. A story begins to crystallise. Your story. A story that despite having been told before, still needs to be retold. Because it comes from a place of truth. And that alone will give the story a beauty that will sustain women and men just like you.

Originally written on March 15, 2013.


The Good Word

Annie Dillard wrote in The Writing Life about a photographer who used to take some of his photographs to an old, respected photographer seeking the latter’s opinion on his work. He did this for several years. The old man, after having studied the novice’s photos used to arrange the photos in stacks of two – good and bad. And he noticed that in the stacks there was one particular photo that he placed in the “bad” category every single year. And here’s how this progresses in Dillard’s own words:

At length he turned to the young man: “You submit this landscape every year, and every year I put it on the bad stack. Why do you like it so much?” The young photographer said, “Because I had to climb a mountain to get it.”

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There is a scene in the movie In Bruges that pops up in my mind every now and then for no great reason. The lack of a background story doesn’t do any injustice to the tenet here, so here is my description of the scene.

Two men (Colin Farrell and Brendon Gleeson) are visiting Bruges. Out sightseeing, Gleeson wants to go up a tower. Farrell doesn’t and is content with taking in the sights and sounds of people milling around on the cobblestone streets about him, for he has something else weighing on his mind.

“What’s up there?” asks Farrell, clearly displeased at the prospect of climbing winding steps of stairs to go atop the tower.

“The view,” replies Gleeson.

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And this one comes off the top of my very groggy head. I forget the reference, but someone once asked a famous nonfiction writer about the necessity of the existence of the creative nonfiction genre. The writer replied (and I may be paraphrasing), “Because nothing like this exists.”

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In my mind, I see these three notes somehow tying up together. I am hard pressed to put my finger on a single word to describe what they represent, but it’s something about life, the human spirit, the urge to create against all odds, hope, dignity and such.  Maybe ineffable is the word I am after.

Originally written on February 12, 2012.