Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Foreword to Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann

The story of Hans Castorp, which we would here set forth, not on his own account. for in him the reader will make acquaintance with a simple-minded though pleasing young man, but for the sake of the story itself, which seems to us highly worth telling-- though it must needs be borne in mind, in Hans Castorp's behalf, that it is his story, and not every story happens to everybody -- this story, we say, belongs to the long ago; is already, so to speak, covered with historic mould, and unquestionably to be presented in the tense best suited to a narrative out of the depth of the past.

That should be no drawback to a story, but rather the reverse. Since histories must be in the past, then the more past the better, it would seem, for them in their character as histories, and for him, the teller of them, rounding wizard of the times gone by. With this story, moreover, it stands as it does to-day with human beings, not least among the writers of tales: it is far older than its years; its age may not be measured by length of days, nor the weight of time on its head reckoned by the rising or setting of suns. In a word, the degree of its antiquity has noways to do with the passage of time -- in which statement the author intentionally touches upon the strange and questionable double nature of that riddling element.

But we would not willfully obscure a plain matter. The exaggerated pastness of our narrative is due to its taking place before the epoch when a certain crisis shattered its way through life and consciousness and left a deep chasm behind. It takes place -- or rather, deliberately to avoid the present tense, it took place, and had taken place -- in that long ago, in that old days, the days of the world before the Great War, in the beginning of which so much began that has scarcely yet left off beginning. Yes, it took place before that; yet not so long before. Is not the pastness of the past the profounder, the completer, the more legendary, the more immediately before the present it falls? More than that, our story has, of its own nature, something of the legend about it now and again.

We shall tell it at length, thoroughly, in detail - for when did a narrative seem too long or too short by reason of the actual time or space it took up? We do not fear being called meticulous, inclining as we do to the view that only the exhaustive can be truly interesting.

Not all in a minute, then, will the narrator be finished with the story of our Hans. The seven days of a week will not suffice, no, nor seven months either. Best not too soon make too plain how much mortal time must pass over his head while he sits spun around in his spell. Heaven forbid it should be Seven years!

And now we begin.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

What's happening?

Not so long ago, I was sleeping with the bedsheets rolled up into a pillow. What struck me, would give this blog another dig at existence. Looking often at the ceiling, I do what most self-proclaimed poets do to kill time. Imagine situations that will haunt me in dreams and further taunt to enlighten the public. Other's nightmares are manufactured like this. Unlike a good littérateur, I thought, I don't give enough updates about the universe I float in. Of hard-bounds and paper backs.

I happened to be at the recent Landmark sale where I picked up few books. Mostly hard-bounds. That has been the protocol for the book sale. Hard is good. Nevertheless, there were few paper-backs which got into the cart. This is the list of books.

Two Lives, Vikram Seth
Agent Zig Zag, Ben Macintyre
The Best American Poetry (2007): Various poets, literary giants, midgets and nobody.
Mother Tongue, Bill Bryson
The View from the Castle Rock, Alice Munroe
Loot and other short stories, Nadine Gordimer
Butter Chicken in Ludiana , Pankaj Mishra

My risks are really risky. So, I tend to go by the popular names in the literati, for my picks. Another definite yard stick is a Nobel Prize. Nadine Gordimer above. A writer friend of mine and I, have a pact to meet in Stockholm one day and throw open the banquet dinner at the Academy. I try in my small, nibbling ways. Chewing literature mote by mote. Our definitive plan would make a best seller. That's a different story anyway.

Among the listed loot, I have finished reading Two Lives. A really long book. But I never felt it, because of the flow in the story. I had to sit up for some chapters about Holocaust. And this is not the first time I have sat up to imagine the horror that's not described. This is a story of Seth's grand uncle and aunt, a German. She flees to England just in time to escape the deportation to the camps. The story goes back and forth, in letters, photographs and memories. Seth's description never leaves you time to turn the page.

Agent Zigzag, is the true story of a spy during WW II. I am half way through the book. It goes, more or less, in a chronological way describing the life of Eddie Chapman, the spy who works with Germans. He later turns into a double agent for Britain. What struck me is how personable and yet impersonal were the spy masters at Abwehr, the German counter intelligence agency. There could have been a greater description of the emotions of Chapman as a double agent. There are one or two letters written by the protagonist that throw some light. They bring forth the opinions of the spy on war, patriotism and on the times. Again, I should warn you, I am only a half way through the book. But I think I can conjecture about the style of writing. That it is drab and not much of a surprise.

Poetry without end rhymes or a pattern is like a wild horse. There are no rules at all. That is what people would make you believe. I look for an occasional rhyme, alliteration, metaphor, some familiar sound when I write. But modern poetry, apparently, is not just that. All this wisdom I get from The Best American Poetry, 2007. Here are the poets who have been published. I mean, unlike me. There are poems which make me wander in the empty space the writer leaves in the middle of a line. It almost looks like a "Fill-in-the-blank" section from school days. This particular poem was titled "Marriage" albeit with so many gaps. Anyway, I move on to further pages. Poetry published in "New American Writing" has both good and bad parts. I could see imagery relating to 9/11 and its after effects (Guantanamo, Iraq, Afghanistan) . Something about war is raging in New American Writing. Another piece with this tag is titled "Super-Clean Country" that ends up throwing "shit" at the readers. I understand that this poem is about covering up a scandal. But somehow it doesn't sit well with the setting. Some Post-Modernist shit I guess. I reproduce it here:

A Super-Clean Country

You(almost) never see it in public so
You have to conjure it up all day long
Drag it into every conversation
To flesh out the corporate picture.

It's an inevitable verbal tic -- wouldn't you say?--
For a super-clean country.

Holy shit, that shit's wack.
She thinks she's hot shit but she ain't dogshit.
There's nothing but shit on the internet.
Why are you so hung up on shit like that?
I got some good shit at home, some far-out shit.
You're so full of shit, you dumbshit motherfucker.


Bill Bryson amuses me with his opening lines. For example "I come from Des Moines. Someone had to." from the book "The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America". He has a touch of humor to the travels and even travails at times. Most of the traveling I do is from my arm chair and cot. And I am never bored when I am with Bryson. In "Mother Tongue" Bryson charts the story of the English language and inadvertently takes us back to the times of Middle England where people spoke differently within a small town's distance. The formative years, so to speak. It is amusing, informative, surprising and at times universal about where it all came from. I am past the mid-way mile stone and not out of gas (petrol) yet.

The rest of the books are yet to be opened. May be next year. Again, years pass by and some never get picked. Just like us who are trying to hitch a ride to Stockholm.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Demon's Poetry

Poetry could be about ordinary things. Ordinary doesn't mean banal and trite. Nor boring and unimaginative. Demon's poetry falls exactly within these four pegs. Banality, triteness, boring and unimaginative. Ironically, the magazine which publishes it is called Reflections. Their mirrored images are distorted and ugly. I can't comment on the actuality. Let's begin with the dissection of the poem or whatever has been published in its name. It starts like this

When we feel hot, we switch on the fan
When we feel cold, we switch it off.

He seems to have a utilitarian approach to poetry. Using every day objects in poetry is not a bad idea but functions of a fan, the switching on and off of lights doesn't seem poetic to my untrained eye. But he has more in the offing. He switches his visions on and off forcing me to sit in the dark and contemplate to become a psycho. It is a torture camp with repeated shocks. There might be myriad definitions of poetry but I am not sure if this has yet reached the people who define things. They might trash everything else to embrace this, for its clarity in being unimaginative. Why has he started off his piece like this? One may soon wonder. Is it a clever trick? Is there something more to this simple description of how a fan works, which my mind warps in trying to understand? Is he laughing at all of us behind this mirror? I reflect for long hours and conclude that I should be blaming my parents and teachers for not enrolling me in the right schools of thought.

In the first Four couplets (I regret to use a poetic term like this) the word "switch" occurs Nine times. Demon switches on and off various things as if he is testing, searching for any metaphors available in his daily life. He reaches to his mind finally and states that one cannot switch it off. It is always running. I wish he switched it off and saved a tree instead. As a civil engineer he is known for his strong sense of principles of structural design. No over designed elements. As if compensating, his poetry is filled with redundancies. One might say, brush off this nonsense. Take the intent of the poem. I am sorry, the intent starts only after ten to fifteen lines of these unintended. One gets bored of the setting as soon as they step in.

The next few lines concentrate on what our attitudes towards life should be. Why money and fame are not everything and other such self-help routines. He yaps all this for the benefit of adolescents who don't know what money is. I mean real money. Nor any fame. Their shot to fame is getting past the toughest exam in the country. Sure this is going to scare them off. The thing that is scary is not his poetry though. The possibility, that some one might emulate him in poetry and wreak a havoc.

Like a juggernaut he moves on after few sermons to comparing human mind to a computer. It appears that he revels, finds joy in whatever he writes about this analogy. He says there are many hidden programs running in mind just like in a computer. That's a shot in the arm.Then he goes on about algorithms, restarting, booting, rebooting and other PC paraphernalia. After leaving the reader in the trenches of this battle, he moves on to dispense wisdom about how to live life. Modern education, whatever it is, is unable to teach that elusive art of wise living according to the poem. There are lines about how to concentrate and meditate without any digression. It is a bawl of self help phrases in the poem. One competes with the other for its arbitrariness and placement. All in all, a muddled thought and reflection in a broken mirror.

Hauntingly the poem is named "Mind Control". I would never give my mind to his control. Neither should you.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

What's Human?

The start of a great idea happens on a blank page like this. You got to be blank to get that idea. How blank is anyone, by the way? Everyone has something going on in their life. A nagging trouble I mean. If not world politics, some local stories of unimportance. We can't get to a state of clean slate anytime. Then what's the point of this objective thinking. We can't get ourselves out of this muck of sensory inputs which pin us down to only a particular reference frame, may be a two or three for the intellects out there, but largely leaving us in quandary about the universe. About nature. About facts. Forget about Truth alright. There is disagreement on whether it exists as a singular or in multitude. There isn't any lab which would fix that. Not yet, I suppose.

Quandary as a child is an innocently cute act. You would get hugs and kisses from all the loved ones for the doubtful eyes you cast on any judgment. There is even an admiration about the various points of view you hold as a child, however stupid they seem to you now. I have seen parents getting together and admiring each others' children. It's a ritual of acceptance of their style of upbringing. As much as an architect seeking approval for the blue print he provides for a community hall. The blue print here is to understand this complex world which seemed too opaque to the earlier generations. To give them the benefit of doubt, I would assume that they had studied and determined the opacity of things. Their progenies would do the same. In different professions and of course expressing their helplessness in different gestures and mannerisms.

Objective thinking might require us to be insensitive, to keep cool, to be not affected by any emotions. I won't say a clean slate like mind. Just a different slate may be. Much like a dual switch between objectivity that doesn't hurt and a compromise that is life. I think irrationality plays as much role in life as rationality does. Between any two rational acts there may be countless irrational thoughts. Much like between two rational numbers there are many irrational ones. I am not sure if there is any single mind which hasn't even thought anything irrational before crossing it out as an impossibility. Our irrationality might be keeping us human in a sense. Could we tag beauty, love, hate, anger, contentment, pride, guilt and other feelings as rational? Is there a rational anger? There might be logical anger. Yet there might not be a logical love. May be a rational love? How insipid that would be? May be these feelings, call them irrationalities if you will, are as much needed as the bridges of rationality that we construct between truths or facts.

Cartesian thinking (originated from Rene Descartes) summed up in the phrase "I think therefore I am" is a very strong case for rationality. It led to successive thinkers to view the world in a Newtonian frame. That the universe is governed by definite laws. Without ambiguities. Then came quantum theory essentially multiple ( dual as of now) states of an object. I can't help notice the overlap ( of times but may be ideas too) in the rise and acceptance of Non-determinism and Existentialism in the Twentieth century. There might not be any connection but the irony of this overlap is interesting. In search for what's human and essentially for a purpose to our existence we have hit upon a quagmire of multitude. Confused multi-level parking lots. Each of us has a favorite spot there.

We stand on a slippery ground of rationality. And to hold ourselves together we need multiple supports. May be multiple constructs of truths. We might be accepting a few now, but what defines us as human would be an openness to accept others' truths. And this is a very difficult thing to do for collective societies.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Old System ( Saul Bellow)

(an extract)

And Dr.Braun, bitterly moved, tried to grasp what emotions were. What good were they! What were they for! And no one wanted them now. Perhaps the cold eye was better. On life, on death. But, again, the cold of the eye would be proportional to the degree of heat within. But once humankind had grasped its own idea, that it was human and human through such passions, it began to exploit, to play, to disturb for the sake of exciting disturbance, to make an uproar, a crude circus of feelings. So the Brauns wept for Tina's death. Isaac held his mother's ring in his hand. Dr.Braun, too, had tears in his eyes. Oh, these Jews—these Jews! Their feelings, their hearts! Dr.Braun wanted nothing more than to stop all this. For what came of it? One after another you gave over your dying. One by one they went. You went. Childhood, family, friendship, love were stifled in the grave. And these tears! When you wept them from the heart, you felt you justified something, understood something. But what did you understand? Again, nothing! It was only an intimation of understanding. A promise that mankind might—might, mind you—eventually, through its gift which might-might again!—be a divine gift, comprehend why it lived. Why life, why death.

And again, why these particular forms—these Isaacs and these Tinas? When Dr.Braun closed his eyes, he saw, red on black, something like molecular processes—the only true heraldry of being. As later, in the close black darkness as the short day ended, he went to the dark kitchen window to have a look at the stars. These things cast outward by a great begetting spasm billions of years ago.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Grammarian (by Christian Ward)

The logo on his bag says
Nantucket Historical Society, 2002
but his face shows no passing
of time; as if he just left a mould
and sits carrying out left-behind
instructions; circling the commas
scheduled for execution, sparing
a dash here, a parentheses there,
cleaning up the page like the way
he has organised his life. His glasses,
suit and umbrella follow subject, object,
verb. There are no adjectives
caught in his reflection. The world
is not a mosaic of memories, colour
and experiences but subjects, objects
and verbs, watching life only to correct it.

(Christian Ward is a London-based poet whose poetry can be seen in journals such as Fire, Other Poetry, Softblow and Mastodon Dentist. When not working towards a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing, he enjoys writing, films and reading)

Taken from the chapbook of Ward's poems brought out by Lily Press

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Internally Displaced People

The article is about Dantewada and the fight between Government of India and tribals for the control of the forest. Dandakranya , the heart of India with huge mineral wealth is a battleground between a Govt. and the people it governs. Arundhati Roy's interesting journey across this mineral belt.

There have been similar situations in the US, Australia and other colonial settlements where the indigenous people were wiped off the face of earth. They were less aware of their rights or they didn't have enough know-how of countering the gun powder. What's happening in Dandakaranya is a fight for the rights. The debate should throw open important questions as to the rights of adivasis and in general land reforms. We are heading towards the Zamindari system where a Sharad Pawar, YSR, CBN, Devegowda, own quite a piece of the Indian land mass.

An interesting article.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Poetry ( by Pablo Neruda)

And it was at that age ... Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don't know, I don't know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don't know how or when,
no they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.

I did not know what to say, my mouth
had no way
with names,
my eyes were blind,
and something started in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
that fire,
and I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
pure wisdom
of someone who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
the heavens
and open,
palpitating plantations,
shadow perforated,
with arrows, fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.

And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Destruction like never before

Humanity, like humans, changes its color under various lights. Set against an apocalyptic background what does it mean? Who would be the benefactor and who would be the victim of your humanity? I am not sure if we could be represented by just a single voice and single theory saying " Open the gates, save everyone".Like it happened in the movie 2012 I saw a while ago.

I've never seen anyone, either in movies or real life, have so many near misses as the main protagonist and his family in 2012. The introduction scene of the chemistry between the heroine and her second husband in a supermarket is worth a laugh. They are shopping for macaroni in a super market and this guy suddenly says "Let's make our own baby". And right when they start discussing what keeps them apart there is a fissure running right between them. Obviously, the universe got angry. CNN reports zero casualties later. That's another story anyway.

Let's focus. I see this is a much harder statement to make in the times of apocalypse, but I am mistaken. The hero and the family are so focused that they escape all the moving fronts of lava, oil tanks exploding, buildings falling over and guess what, they even knock off the head of the empire state building and feel good about it. Finally they have been offered a chance to be naughty with this whole apocalypse thing. As an Aerospace Engineer, I haven't seen a better propeller airplane in air-travel history. The flight is less turbulent than it would be in normal, non-apocalyptic times when the same obstacles are placed. The second husband, a doctor who has a few hours of flying experience with his wax wings completes this operation successfully. I was already amazed and felt safe for the protagonists. I realized they are never going to die.

The US president, a black man ( for Barack Obama) likes to stay back in the White House instead of boarding Air Force one and then onto a ship protecting everyone. A Nobel gesture. Except him, all the heads of the states of US-EU combine are there in the main ship. The other nine ships are filled with Indian and Chinese. All the European leaders rally behind the German Chancellor and she speaks for Europe in her grand English. Queen Elizabeth is seen hurrying towards the ship with two of her poodles.

Lot of rich and powerful get into the ship which is supposed to save the best in species and try to re-populate the Earth if required. There are animals too on this Noah's Ark but not enough room for other humans who clamor to open the gates. The protagonist and his extended family get into the ship. They had to. However, a tragedy strikes them when the door tries to close.The second husband tries some heroism ( which he shouldn't beyond the initial scenes) and gets stuck between the gears and dies. I knew, the stage is getting ready for the grand finish.

The finish is equally jaw dropping and let me put it straight, the gates open and the sky is clear. A new world map is drawn. Himalayas sink to zero and there is a mountain range near Cape of Good Hope and the captain of the ship informs "That is why, it is called Cape of Good Hope, sir". Supposedly, a deep statement. Anyway, the movie closes with the protagonists kissing and me walking away contemplating how fate can leave a bruise with a kiss in the form of 2012.

Tsunami in Telugu film songs

The Tsunami that hit Asian Coastlines in 2004 left a tragic mark on many lives. How a great tragedy affects us is truly a difficult thing to assess.The physical loss of property is minuscule compared to the effect on the minds and hearts of people. Nevertheless, Time, the great healer helps us in moving on. The memories of the loss remind us of how deep a tragedy it was. These are scars that time leaves on our body. Each scar is a story in itself.

One of the many after-effects of this tragedy is the absorption of the word "Tsunami" into various languages. It is being used to refer to something big and of the scale of a Juggernaut. This seems to be unstoppable. Telugu film industry, which is located much interior from the coastline has been an indirect victim of the great tragedy. The dialogue writers wait opportunely to increase their vocabulary and leave ugly stretch marks on the scenes. The song writers are not behind. They have their own thing going on using the T-word liberally in the item songs and other inanities.

Who writes these things?Do they break their nibs after finishing such a song? They certainly have broken the neck of the standards.

(Please excuse me for not quoting any evidence, but trust me I have heard this in lot of songs written down during the last five years. Do look out for such patterns in the movies/songs you watch/listen)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Songs of life

William Blake, the 19th century poet from England collected his poetry under two titles - Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Both these had poems on similar subjects but with different take and thoughts. I am not sure if these were separated by time. Innocence when he was young and Experience at a later stage. The reason for my uncertainty is Blake's enormous amount of intuition even in his youth. He was gifted with a strong sense of imagery that he even had visions before he wrote.

Talking about imagery, Wordsworth left on me a lasting impression. In "Daffodils", his timeless piece there is an eternal reserve of nectar for me. There may be many great appreciations written for this poem but the fact that it stood the test of time is a measure of its travel. Generally, when I write something out of the box, i.e., my brain, I tend to go back to it with almost a phobic diligence and see where, I mean exactly where that magic happened. Then I ponder how it happened and the question why it happened is for my Freudian friends. But what did wordsworth do after he wrote this? Did he take that casual walk in the park after a great accomplishment? I don't know. But he must have felt so much joy that he could kill himself. A sense of fulfillment that, "Yes, exactly, this is it. I was here for this and now it's done". However, he stayed on till today.

Another poet who has a two-line intrusion into my life is Keats. When I was in high school there was not a single piece of his. Agreeably,I found out later, he was too romantic for that age. Love for us was only talking to girls and that too plain-speak. Poetry was beyond the curriculum. Anyway, moving on. The two lines are

"A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness;"

This is the start of a long, long poem called Endymion which today people would not be interested to read unless there are good grades at the end of the tunnel. And the length was often the reason why I never ventured into anything beyond three hundred lines. I don't remember any of it now except the two lines. My father, who has this occasional jog into the English poetry boulevard, introduced me to some of the beautiful English poetry during my high school when I pretended that I could read poetry. Nevertheless he explained to me what it was, at least what his idea about the piece was. He would often with joy share an anecdote about how as Economics students they had boring classes and they used to stand near the window of the literature class to hear the Professor go on and on about Endymion. And arguably, he spent two weeks appreciating "A thing of beauty..". Not the whole thing, just the two lines.

Once upon a time, summers in Hyderabad were enjoyable. Especially the nights which used to be a lot cooler were perfect pretense for a digression into English Poetry. I would bring some of the old books which weren't sold and weren't eaten away by worms and start reading.My mother would bring me some snacks to eat and sit next to me to admire my parrot-like reading of those big English words. She always likes to see me speak in English and which I don't do often at home, even now. Reclining in his easy chair (which he still uses) my father would correct my pronunciation and explain the meaning of a phrase and occasionally recount an anecdote from his college days. How he used go onto the hills around his village herding the cows with a Shakespeare's book in hand and then read, whatever he read in that solitude. And now I get, why the intensities of experience are different between our two readings.Back to the summer night in Hyderabad now: We always read the same set of poems. At some point I had all those poems by heart and could quote from them. We didn't need books after that. We would just sit on the shores of a still pond of Poetry and admire the reflection of timeless imagery.