Sunday, February 6, 2011

In Wait Till The Winds Blow...


It just took a while for me to know

The seed from the flower, the leaf from the tree

Time comes and it all has to go

From rain-drops into the ever-widening sea.

Then the winds came and took you away

It’s all quiet now, and I’m waiting somehow

Waiting somehow for the winds to blow again.

Time and space and eternity

Could not keep you close to me

Just as I try to hold it tight

Fizzle away the pearls of mercury

Gone away in search of another sunshine

My shadow it was that grew too cold

In certain bliss you kept me, till

This deep secret you had to unfold.

Then the winds came and took you away

It’s all quiet now, and I’m waiting somehow

Waiting somehow for the winds to blow again.

Getting Inside A Book, Or Getting The Book Inside Of You

It began with the God inside me. Or was it the God without?
Of little things Bigged and Big things belittled
Whispers echoing back as a cry or shout.

The 'surprised puff' : Estha - was he really my brother,
Rahel - my name, Ammu - mu mother?
It's been twenty-three years and I know I am not a murderer
Not of Sophie Mol's, not of Velutha's either.

I remember the boat-rides on the Meenachal
The history-house is not just my refuge or sanctuary.
I still hear Baby Kochamma calling out "Satan in their eyes."
Ayemenem - where I was taught : how to love and despise.

The monsoon breeze sprays the droplets on my face
I wake as 'The God of Small Things' drops from my hands
I wipe my face off the Delhi monsoon shower
Wait! was there a drop of the Meenachal on my tongue?

Nah! But that was where I came from - a couple of hours ago
Flipping the page of 'Saving Ammu' for the seventh time
I realise I'm a part of the book; and the book, mine.

Never before had I smelled the soil, touched the breeze or heard the making of pickles this way in any other book
It's not a story of them but a reflection of me.
It's become my Bible, my water, my food
It envelopes me, binds me from all,
Into its world I find myself fall.

Am I not that pink blossom
Betwixt those large lotus leaves
Elevating me to a retreat I always wished of...
Am I not that small hope on its cover -
The Goddess of Little Things....The Goddess forever?

The book has grown to take roots in my soul
The 'silver-thimble' sprouting from my body's bowl
Its verdant green spreads from the cover,
Grows on my wall and washes beyond my window.
I see my grim Delhi backyard transforming
To the magic land of Ayemenem.

Ah I hear mother calling...
A brief disruption; oh I'll be back soon
Time to devote to my own life's goings-on
Till then, The God Of Small Things remains my favourite.
It's been more than a book for me -
They are my philosophers, my guides,
My mirrors, my teachers, the leaders of my life.

So now I get up and walk to my living-room.
"Some guests have arrived," mother says, "bring out some snacks.
A family it seems - come let me introduce them to you -
Baby Kochamma, Rahel, Estha and Ammu."

Reconciling August and Agastya

English, August comes to you with the aura of something exotic, mystic, refined and mysterious, as the title attempts to make us anticipate. But it turns out to be just none of these. The title turns out to be as vague and ambiguous as the mind of the man whose different names are what the title constitutes.
The novel is a candid presentation of the mind’s battle with ennui and disinterest amid an acute sense of mental and physical dislocation. It is the twenty-four year-old Agastya’s (or English, or August) search for self-definition. It documents his quotidian routine of deathly boredom in which he searches for familiarity and a sense of rooted ness and continuity in his need for sex and marijuana, and his half-hearted attempts at maintaining a diary.
His boredom leads him to a state of suspension of body and mind – dislocation from everything around; crumbling of his resolutions: avoiding Vasant’s hazardous meals, but eventually getting used to it; a staunch declaration of abstinence from masturbation but eventually accommodating it in a mechanical and disinterested way as part of his routine. In his stagnating life in a remote and obscure part of India, called Madna, Agastya fights frantically to create some semblance of mobility through his dogged regimen of exercise which is the only ‘motion’/’activity’/’growth’ in his life.
The story is set at the juncture of the early 1980s, when the Indian social and intellectual ideology was poised at the brink of modernization with increasing influences of the Occult; where the acceptance of Americanisation was contentious among the varied sections of the urban Indian society, as exemplified through the characters of Agastya, Dhrubo, Bhatia, Renu, Neera. It was also the point where the Indian youth had begun to experiment in their sense of career direction and were ready to move out of conventional lines; yet not completely strong enough in their convictions as they continued to remain in the rut of the tested and tried – as realized by Agastya and Dhrubo by the end of the book.
Upamanyu Chatterji’s maiden novel of fiction is a stark representation of the stagnant nature of the Indian bureaucracy – taking a leaf out of his own stint at the Indian Administrative Service. While every generation is fraught with their own conflicts, Agastya’s began from the moment of his birth and christening. His own name, with its different variations, is an indication of his multiple personalities he deftly employs to suit the changing scenarios. This ambiguity is reflected from his background which is an amalgamation of cultures (which is also the cause of confusion for Agastya) – belonging to a Bengali Hindu father and Goan Christian mother. His confusion lies in his propensity to adhere to tradition as well as seek refuge in westernization as a mode of rebellion. This fusion is evident even in the way Agastya and Dhrubo use their language: “hazaar-fucked”, says Dhrubo on the opening page, as Agastya wonders at the panache of Indians to combine words and cultures – Urdu and American here. This inextricable enmeshing of cultures pervades the very sensibilities of Agastya who finds himself indelibly intertwined in the tangles of tradition and the modern: as the two sources who guide him through his tribulations are the Gita and Marcus Aurelius.
The discord between the urban and the rural is one of the major themes in the novel and the urban Agastya becomes the victim who finds himself anachronistically compelled to live in conditions utterly alien to him.
Madna is therefore a litmus test of patience for Agastya where he learns to deal with boredom and loneliness. The frog in his bathroom presents a somber parallel to Agastya’s life, being another lonely soul; stuck in the same place with lack of mobility and bleak possibility of escape. Everybody in Madna is hence, an island on their own.
The novel is riotously hilarious and offers a veneer of comedy through the mesh of Agastya’s befuddlement; but on close inspection we apprehend the earnestness of questions that cloud the young protagonist’s mind, thereby representing the larger questions arising in an entire generation of contemporary young Indians. The nature of humour in the novel is provided by Agastya – almost all of it emanating from his internal monologues and tacit unspoken retorts to almost everyone around him.
While Agastya may or may not have been able to record the anguish of his days as apprentice at the most esteemed job in the country in his diary, the novel does succeed in establishing the bildungsroman of Agastya. The entire length of the novel presents the dissension between his heart and mind which invariably pulls him in different directions leaving him to tussle with his fate that he himself had asked for. The novel shows him going round in circles, where at one moment he appears to be exhausted with his status quo and he raises expectations of taking the initiative to change it; yet soon enough loses momentum and succumbs. It is only with the relinquishing of his job in the end, that his final act of self-assertion takes place. Agastya’s act of renouncing the most prestigious job in the country, as well as his father’s legacy, is not just a colossal step in his life; but also ushers in the era of modern Indian youth finally crossing the barriers of the perpetuation of conservatism and imposed expectations. It is a coming of age for Agastya as he helps himself break free of his constraining position all by himself and with little help from those around him like Tonic, Pultukaku, Sathe, who set themselves as precedents.
The novel’s end is disencumbering not only for Agastya, but equally momentous for his close friend Neera too. Her losing her virginity, comes not only as a sense of relief for her, but also echoes the shedding of unvalued conventions a la Agastya. If Agastya and Neera felt disposed to embark upon uncharted territory, Agastya’s closest friend Dhrubo chose to resort to convention by giving up the newfangled life he had grown to excoriate. Agastya’s character evolves through the novel as by the end he is able to sift and sort out his priorities. His observations and metaphors throughout the novel are tinged with sexual and scatological perversity; yet I do not condemn him or attribute vulgarity toward his deeds because I perceive him as a prisoner of his circumstances. He does not unequivocally reject or rebel, but gives himself time to accommodate and adjust; thereby delineating his growth as an individual. He is essentially honourable in his thoughts and is on the lookout for a suitable outlet to translate them into noble deeds.

The Samskara of Being

Samskara according to Hindu karma is the performing of one’s duty of cleansing the soul. In ‘Samskara’, the novel by U.R Ananthamurthy, he gives the epigraph as “A Rite for a Dead Man”. While the novel is about the various profound issues of existential paradoxes and the inherent contradictions that plague the human soul; I would like to dwell on the significance of samskara in the context of Hindu ethics.
Sanskara or samskara is derived from the root-word ‘samsk-‘ from which also comes samskrit/Sanskrit. Sanskar in the Indian moral philosophy stands for the ethics of right conduct in the public domain. Such a life would be commandeered by staunch idealism and indomitable will of abidance to the right path in terms of words, deeds and thought. The revered sages of the Indian lore are the precedents that parents list out to their progeny ever since they start acquiring the powers of understanding. Leading a virtuous life is the goal of every being. Yet, it is a quality left much coveted and aspired for.
What then is virtue? Is it the ideals of non-violence and truth that Gandhi professed; the adherence to celibacy that sages keep to; the swallowing of anger and containment of desire that Buddha discovered; or compassion to the subaltern as Mother Teresa practiced? Undoubtedly yes. But then how many Gandhis, sages, Buddhas and Mother Teresas has civilization produced? Does virtue then, become a quality unattainable to the masses? Should virtue, as a characteristic, then be ousted from the human domain?
Being strictly virtuous is an impossible project for humanity. We don’t need an anthropological or psychological survey to inform us that desire, lies and deceit are inherent features of the human psyche. Why then this façade of purity leading to an epidemic of hypocrisy? The example of Praneshacharya from Anathamurthy’s ‘Samskara’ presents the quintessential moment of self-realization for all of us as we experience the unmasking of ourselves through the experiences of Praneshacharya. The novel is not about the fall of the paragon of virtue; but the coming to fore of the essence of being human. If the so-called vices are to be abhorred; yet are constitutive of the being of every human individual; the scheme of its banishment becomes a futile venture and makes a mockery of human limitations. Praneshacharya’s acts of transgression thus signify the fall of virtue as a human construct; for, if after committing the acts of ‘sin’ as he comes to condemn himself for; yet tries to appraise the motivations of his deeds, just as we would do, it signifies the fallibility of virtue. In contrast, Naranappa, who is in the eye of the storm and the subject of controversy facing excommunication, in an ironic reversal, comes forth as being virtuous in the true sense for the stark forthrightness of his acts and words. This character is replicated in Mahabala in the novel. These characters function for the questioning of virtue as that unattainable element in the quest for which characters end up losing their virtues.
Thus, virtue should me made more accessible to human beings. Purity and merit should not be estimated in the degree of goodness that one possesses; but rather in the quantity that one gives out. Salvation lies not in the samskara of one’s soul; but the ability to incorporate and integrate the vices of one’s nature with the understanding of how it is an inextricable part of the essence of one’s being, and to accept it yet balance it so that it is not inimical to others around one. It is by such an assimilation of the anomalies of one’s being, that human nature triumphs over virtue.