October 31, 2005

The Wild Indoors

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:57 pm by falstaff


Remember how, in the olden days, hardy, weather-bitten explorers would brave the arctic cold to go hunting for food? How they would wander all day in frozen and inhospitable landscapes, returning home at sunset with their fingers numb and their bones chilled to the marrow, only to sink gratefully into the comfort and warmth of their roaring hearths?

Okay, so I don’t remember them either, but I know exactly how they must have felt. Not that it’s cold outside. On the contrary, it’s a glorious Fall day – the sun is shining, the temperature’s a breezy 70 degrees (21 C), everwhere people are walking around in their shirtsleeves, smiles on their faces.

That’s outside. Inside, in my windowless cubicle, Winter rages unabated – freezing winds blow in every direction, I sit huddle up in my jacket, blowing on my hands every now and then to keep from losing fingers to frostbite. At any moment I expect little flakes of snow to come drifting down on all my files. I’m considering burning some of my case mat to start a bonfire, if only I could get my hands to stop shivering long enough to light a match. Climate control has struck again.

Don’t get me wrong. In general I’m quite grateful for temperature control. I’d just have been a little happier about it if they’d actually designed the system in my building for human beings, rather than simply ripping off the cooling system of the penguin enclosure from the Philadelphia Zoo. When you get to the point where the minute you exit a building you breathe a sigh of relief and take off your gloves, there’s surely something wrong.

At this point, one of you jobless wags is going to point out that if it’s really that cold in my office then I should be out in the afternoon sun instead of typing this stupid post. Well, let me tell you…hmmm…ummm…you may have a point there. Aargghh! I’m out of here.

News of the Day

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:01 am by falstaff

Finally, something more balanced than Fox News.

Autumn

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:08 am by falstaff

Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

– Rainer Maria Rilke (trans: Stephen Mitchell)

This has to be one of the best things Rilke ever wrote. What I love about this poem (and about Mitchell’s translation of it – for alternate translations, see here) is the bluntness, the uncomprising air of a stated fact. Rilke’s autumn is no season of mist and mellow fruitfulness, it is the beginning of an end from which there is no appeal. The very abruptness of the lines here (“Herr: es ist Zeit.”; “Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr. / Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben”) makes this is a tough, almost brutal poem, a poem of barrenness, a premonition of the coming winter.

October 30, 2005

The Bottle

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:29 am by falstaff

Where the darkness comes from he does not know. He turns in his chair, and there it is, a sort of heavy absence, like the static greasiness of the air before a storm. What is it Dickinson calls it? The doom’s electric moccasin. That is it exactly: the sensation of footsteps, unseen, unheard, drawing steadily nearer. He feels like a blunt weapon. He has a desire to measure himself against razors, to yield himself to their sharp-edged objectivity. He has a desire to be cold, steel-like, a jagged presence in a world grown acute.

That’s when he remembers the vodka. He bought it a month ago, for a friend’s visit. It’s been lying there ever since, unopened, nestled in the back of his underwear drawer, snug as an unhatched egg. A small glass bell of a bottle, its contents as clear and as liquid as silence. Forgotten like a mine, or an unexploded bomb.

He thinks of it now, the need growing stronger in his throat, corroding him like acid. Who would have thought that thirst could be so specific, so demanding – a petulant child. He tries to deny it. It does not do to give in to these impulses, it does not do to drink alone – that way madness lies. But there is something half-hearted in his denial, something very like defeat. He is like a man who braces himself against the seat of his car, knowing the accident cannot be avoided now, knowing that the weight of his will will not be enough against the driving engine of this urge. In the bleakness of his consciousness, the bottle becomes a talisman, a lamp to be rubbed, a friendly ghost to be conjured with. An irresistible sword set in an immovable stone.

No, it is no use resisting. Maybe just one drink. He fishes out the bottle, places it (still unopened) on the table. He finds a glass, takes out the ice-tray, pries out a few cubes. He is like the priest to some pagan rite, laying out the accoutrements of the ritual, careful not to glance in the direction of the victim until the very end. The sharp crack as he unseals the bottle is like the breaking of some covenant. The vodka coils its way between the ice like some viscous serpent. He holds it in his hand for a minute, the glass cold to his touch, staring into it like a soothsayer into a crystal ball, seeking some shape, some sign.

The first sip tightens him, bares him like a fang. The drink is a mouth biting him back. He feels the slow warmth of it spreading through him, like the glow of a bonfire, fanning out across a plain of ice. He feeds the flame then, small, quick sips burning their way onto his tongue, down his throat. Only one drink, he tells himself. I must take it slow, make it last. But he goes on drinking.

One hour later he has turned all the lights out and is sitting on the floor listening to Beethoven’s Eroica. The slow movement swells. He tastes salt in his drink and realises he’s crying. The bottle is half empty now. There’s not enough left for another person. “Like my life”, he says, to no one in particular. Then he pours himself another drink. Might as well finish it now. Might as well get it done with.

When he wakes up the next morning, the ceiling seems very far away. He realises he’s lying on the floor. There’s a gushing sound in his ear, like a distant waterfall. He shakes his head to clear it, then realises it’s the tap in the bathroom. He must have left it running. He can hear the roar of its wounded martyrdom, protesting, nagging him. He gets to his feet slowly, his legs are trembling, uncertain. He staggers into the bathroom, turns the tap off. Stares at himself in the mirror. He looks like a wreck. His eyes are bloodshot. His clothes are terribly crumpled, his hair is a mess. His neck hurts from lying on the cold floor all night.

He goes back into the bedroom, pries the glass out from the corner under the bed where it has rolled. At least it’s not broken. The ice-tray lies in the centre of the table, a pool of dead water spreading around it in sympathy. The bottle stands next to it, upright, forbidding. In the daylight, it is a warning made tangible, like an emptied hourglass. He picks it up gingerly, throws it into the trash. His temples buzz like telegraph poles, waiting to transmit the day’s headache. He drinks water directly from the bottle – long, greedy glugs. He crashes onto his bed. Slowly, like a man a making his way through a tortured labyrinth, he falls asleep.

October 29, 2005

Nay sayer

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:36 am by falstaff

Friday evening. The start of the weekend. He heads home early, knowing the new Coetzee novel is waiting for him. A quick coffee, a moment spent re-arranging his blankets, and he slips quietly into bed (it is still 5 pm, but who cares) and opens his book. As he drifts into the deliberate flow of Coetzee’s prose (cautiously, feet gingerly testing the invisible rocks that lie at the bottom of the writing) an image comes to him unbidden (or at least not consciously sought) of a thin leaf trembling in the clutches of a slow yet mighty river, borne along helplessly and against its will. (Eliot writes: “I think that the river/ Is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable”).

He stares into the stillness of Coetzee’s pages as though they were water. As a face slowly emerges from their depths, the suspicion takes him that it is his own. He is taken aback. He starts away, then returns for a closer look. The man in the book (in the mirror that the book is) is older of course, more decrepit, yet the features are unmistakable. Here is Dorian Grey in reverse, the terrible visage of crimes he is yet to commit, of neglect he is yet to live through.

Unable to take any more, he shuts the book, lies in bed staring at the ceiling. What has happened to him, he wonders? Paul Rayment was knocked off his bike by a moving car, but what accident has he suffered, what terrible collision has left him crippled? For crippled he undoubtedly is, if only in a deeper, more inward way. Like Rayment, he is inert, stagnant. His entire self nothing more than a still puddle that clings desperately to the shrinking light of the day. He has never been like this before – he has always been strong, decisive, he has made courageous choices, he has broken away from the straight and narrow. His entire life has been a long sequence of unconventional, almost outrageous decisions, decisions that seemed inexplicable to others, but that he himself never shied away from. Why then is he now so hesitant to act? Why is he content to sit here, in this tiny room, doing nothing, trying to be nothing but what he already is, to possess nothing that he does not already have? Why does he not send the manuscripts that are piling up in his desk drawer to a publisher? Why will he not get his computer fixed, or go on a diet, or tell some woman that he loves her? Lines from Tagore come back to him:

Obstinate are the trammels, but my heart aches when I try to break them.
Freedom is all I want, but to hope for it I feel ashamed.
I am certain that priceless wealth is in thee, and that thou art my best friend,
but I have not the heart to sweep away the tinsel that fills my room

The shroud that covers me is a shroud of dust and death; I hate it, yet
hug it in love. My debts are large, my failures great, my shame secret and heavy;
yet when I come to ask for my good, I quake in fear lest my prayer be granted.

What is he afraid of?

Or is he afraid at all? He holds the word in his mouth for a moment, testing its weight as though it were a pebble, small and smooth. Is that what is wrong with him? Is it just that he has lost all his confidence? He spits the word out. No, he is not afraid. What he is experiencing is not fear, but reluctance. In Franny and Zooey, Franny says “I am not afraid of competing, I am afraid that I will compete”. That is it, exactly. He has not ceased to believe in his own abilities, he has ceased to believe in his need to have abilities, ceased to believe in himself as a person who has the right, or the obligation, to have needs. What he has lost is not courage, but will. To desire happiness for himself is an arrogance he is no longer capable of. In the world as he sees it now, the need to insist upon his own presence seems childish, an exercise in mere attention seeking. He has no illusions about justice, he no longer believes that there may be things he actually deserves. If he refuses to act now, it is because he has a clear vision of himself and all his desires as trite and laughable.

But so what? What if ambition makes him ridiculous? Is this inertia, this sitting around, waiting to be murdered by Time, any less absurd? Is his refusal not merely a form of juvenile obstinacy, a different way of insisting upon his own independence? Is the problem not perhaps that there are no truly unconventional choices left for him to make, that no one would question or doubt any action he were to take now, no matter how bizarre? Like a climber who has reached the summit of his rebellion, he has nowhere to go but down. Could it not be that in denying choice itself he is trying once again to astonish and puzzle, seeking attention for the things he does not do because he can no longer get it for the things he does?

Or is he just making too much of this? Isn’t all this gloomy philosophising simply the effect of reading a dark and thoughtful book? Is his life really that stagnant? He reads prodigiously, he goes for concerts, movies, plays, dance performances, he travels, he has a widening social circle. Most people would say he leads an active and interesting life. He would say it, has said it, himself. (A line from Eliot returns: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”). Is he imagining it then, this void he feels? Making it up, because he must either believe that his life is somehow incomplete, or be left with no reason for living it (it’s possible; he has great faith in his imagination, it’s the one thing he still prides himself on). And what if he genuinely is unhappy, is discontented? He is not old, he has made no decisions that cannot be revoked. Even if this vertigo of ambition is real, could it not be simply (that most ludicrous of epithets) a phase? Perhaps he is like a cyclist who, having pedaled furiously for a while, is now cruising along on the momentum of his past; perhaps when the pace of his journey slows sufficiently, the motivation to pedal will return. Is this then, the final indignity – that even his thoughts of being ridiculous are ridiculous themselves?

Or is this, perhaps, what satisfaction feels like? Could it be that this lethargy he feels, this weariness, is actually just a form of contentment? Perhaps the only form? What does it mean when you can think of nothing your life lacks but feel that there should be, must be something it does? Like an amputee, imagining pains in a leg he no longer has. What if this state, this slack restlessness, this blankness of having nothing left to prove (no, that is not quite correct – it is not that he has nothing left to prove, it is just that he has no one left to prove it to, and no real need to prove anything anyway) is happiness?

He sits at the window, staring out over the empty streets of the city, trying to organise his own thoughts. Slowly his mind refocusses on the book, slow tentacles of curiosity curl their way towards him, he can feel himself been drawn back to the narrative. As he thinks of the book again, the temptation to think of himself in fictional terms becomes stronger, he begins to imagine his life, past and future, as the plot of some larger novel. He is young, he has said, he can change. But what if the book of his life has already been written elsewhere, and what he holds in his hand is only the published version, impossible to rewrite, impossible to alter. Is that not the real source of his ennui, the rationale for his disquiet? Not that he cannot change his life (that would be a relief to know) but that he can and mustn’t. Is he not simply waiting for time to come and take these choices that are offered him out of his hands? Is that why he finds it so difficult to believe in an alternate reality where he too has settled into the coma of domestic bliss, where he has become like everyone else? Is his abiding conviction that he will end up alone and (probably) bitter, not in itself a form of fidelity?

Perhaps this is how a character in a book feels, seeing the plot carry him forward, knowing that there is no escape, intuiting already the bitter end that is to follow. One thing is for certain, there will be no happy endings here (this is Coetzee after all), no blessed reprieves. The thought is comforting – he does not think he could deal with the violence that such happiness would involve.

All this talk about the book has turned his thoughts to writing. He can feel the urge to write slowly taking hold of him, can see the phrases, obedient like legions, starting to mass into their own formidable army. Writing is the last form of magic he permits himself (“Now my charms are all o’erthrown,/ And what strength I have’s mine own,/ Which is most faint”), his only mode of hope. In the absence of his laptop, he picks up pen, paper. He sits down at his desk. He begins to write.

October 28, 2005

I, Robot

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:52 am by falstaff

Coming to work today, it occured to me that there are two kinds of people in the world – those whose work could easily be done by robots and those whose work couldn’t. (well, okay, so there is a third set of people like me who do no work in the first place, but we’re a dying breed).

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all the annoying and irrelevant people I have to meet every day – people who wait tables, work at check-out counters, sit at security desks, answer phone calls, clean offices, run countries – were to be replaced by machines in the next 50 years? I might actually start to believe in the human race again.

October 27, 2005

Sounds off music

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:04 am by falstaff

When are people going to figure out that all you really need to be a good concert audience is to be quiet? Not to shuffle your feet around or adjust your seat noisily. Not to open and close opera glasses with a snap. Not to whisper sharp little critiques into your neighbours ear while the orchestra is playing. Not to make out as though the future of planetary procreation depended on it. Not to entertain your four year old. Not to drop books / programs or anything else that will hit the floor with a resounding thud or a reverberating clack. No, not any of those things. All you need to be a good audience is to bloody well SHUT UP!!

I mean okay, so maybe there are cultures where coughing loudly through the entire first movement is a sign of appreciation. Perhaps there are planets where devoted aficionados spend days, nay, weeks, finding the one lozenge wrapper that will give the perfect crackle when it’s opened in the middle of the adagio. There may even be some remote corner of the galaxy where no opera is considered a success unless at least a dozen children cry out how bored they are in the course of it. But where I live, music is not a participatory sport.

How would all these candy-munching, face smooching, child trawling visigoths feel if we came and did the same to things they (presumably) care about? If we sought them out in the privacy of their sordid back-seat assignations and played Beethoven loudly in their ears just as they were getting past second base. If we went along to their labour rooms and stood around pointing and making loud comments through the entire performance? If we made them sit and listen to the William Tell overture every time they unwrapped another toffee? If all they want to do is munch and kiss and accidentally drop things, why come to a concert, why not just stay at home and watch Monday night football instead?

What amazes me about these people is the precision with which they always manage to come in at exactly the moment where the noise they make will be most easily heard. It’s almost as though they have their own little score with all the best interruption points marked. So the orchestra will spend five minutes building into the sort of triumphant crescendo where you can barely hear yourself breathing – and no one will make a sound. But let the music descend to a single sustained note on the flute, and suddenly everyone will need to clear their throats or lean back in their creaking seats. It almost makes you want to jump up and ask if there’s an axe-murderer in the house.

Okay, so sometimes you can’t help stuff. If you need to sneeze or cough, there isn’t really much you can do about it. But at least people could keep their lozenges and stuff unwrapped and not eat things during the concert that make noise (I’ve actually sat two seats away from someone who brought pistachio nuts, pistachio nuts! in her purse). And at least they could have rules about not bringing in kids below five (or ten. or fifteen.). And why can’t concert theatres have a special soundproof box or something for people who know they have a cold and are going to be coughing a lot?

Personally, I’ve decided I’m going to write a symphony. It’ll be called Falstaff’s Symphony in F Op 1 SUNS 2 (SUNS stands for Some Unpronouncable Naming System) and will be scored for two dropped programs, two cranky brats, one horny couple, two ringing cell phones, four TB patients, a doddering old lady who sings along to everything, and lozenge wrappers. What’s more, when they finally perform it, I will sit in the front row with a violin and play single notes on it every now and then just as a random disturbance. Let’s see how they like that.

October 26, 2005

Tremors

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:57 pm by falstaff

Have you ever had one of those mornings where you wake up and feel that the room is shaking around you? Not a violent trembling, you understand, just the thinnest of tremors, subcutaneous, as though your bed were the flank of some great animal, quivering in exhaustion.

In moments like these you look to objects for verification. Are they shaking too? For a moment it’s hard to tell. You manage to imagine that there is a real earthquake happening. Suddenly the walls seem to close in on you, the ceiling becomes your enemy. You jump out of bed. As your feet touch the icy stillness of the floor you realise that there is no earthquake. The world is perfectly still. It is all in your head.

Could it be that fear, like some seismic force, lies at the very centre of all existence? Could it be that our lives, so solid-seeming, exist only on a thin fault-line of hope? Or is this purely physical? Some coincidence of muscle and bone that leaves you shivering like a leaf?

Dickinson writes:

IT was not death, for I stood up,
And all the dead lie down;
It was not night, for all the bells
Put out their tongues, for noon.

It was not frost, for on my flesh
I felt siroccos crawl,—
Nor fire, for just my marble feet
Could keep a chancel cool.

And yet it tasted like them all;
The figures I have seen
Set orderly, for burial,
Reminded me of mine,

As if my life were shaven
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key;
And ’t was like midnight, some,

When everything that ticked has stopped,
And space stares, all around,
Or grisly frosts, first autumn morns,
Repeal the beating ground.

But most like chaos,—stopless, cool,—
Without a chance or spar,
Or even a report of land
To justify despair.


So much for imagined earthquakes. For real ones, there’s Mastercard. And links to organisations you can give to here and here.

One good turn-off

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:02 am by falstaff

Yesterday’s post about book snobs (coupled with Veena accusing me of being the biggest snob of them all – such praise!) made me think about this incident from 6 years back.

FLASHBACK WARNING!!

The setting is the IIFT campus in Delhi. Falstaff (looking visibly thinner! Sigh) has just got done with his WIMWI interview, and is hanging around waiting for a friend to finish so they can go grab lunch. As the scene opens, a Gorgeous Young Woman (GYW) comes up to Falstaff and strikes up a conversation about his interview, hoping (no doubt) to pick up a few tips for her own [1].

GYW: “Did they ask you any Math?”
Falstaff: (Sure. Want to go in the back and practise multiplication?). “No” (Ah! Falstaff’s being his usual eloquent self we see)
GYW: “So what did you talk about?” [2]
Falstaff: “Oh, nothing much. You know. This and that. The usual.” (Give her an answer, numbskull) “Let’s see. We talked about poetry for a while”.
GYW: (in panicked voice)”Poetry?! Are you supposed to know about that?”
Falstaff: “No, no, it’s just that it was on my form, that’s why. I hardly think they’d require a background in poetry for an MBA admit, do you? Ha! Ha!” (though come to think of it, why not? Bakul, are you listening?)
GYW: “Oh, are you interested in poetry then?”
Falstaff: (smirking. Is a fish interested in water?) “Oh, you could say that, I suppose. I dabble in it a bit” (note to OED editors: dabbling is now defined as staying up night after night spending hours on something)
GYW: “So what did you talk about in poetry?”
Falstaff: “We were talking about Ghalib, actually.”
GYW: “Ooh! Ghalib! I just love Ghalib! He’s so exquisite.”
Falstaff: “Yes, he is, isn’t he.”
GYW: “I think the Ghazal is such a passionate form of poetry. I just love Urdu poetry.”
Falstaff: “Yes, I’m quite fond of it myself.” (Take deep breath. Push luck) “So, do you like any English poetry as well?”
GYW: “Some. I haven’t read too much.”
Falstaff: (smiling indulgently) “Who would be a poet you like, for instance?”
GYW: “Well. I love William Blake.”
Falstaff: (Wait. This woman a. Likes Ghalib and Blake b. Is HOT c. May be coming to WIMWI! See what Santa brings you if you’re good.) “Really!! So what poems of his do you like.” (kicking himself for not having read the Four Zoas that fifth time)
GYW: “I really like Songs of Innocence. There’s that poem in there about the Lamb, I don’t know if you know it.”
Falstaff: (with the air of an astronaut who discovers halfway to the moon that his fuel gauge isn’t working) “Ah, yes. Songs of Innocence. Yes, they’re not bad (further note to OED editors. Not bad is now defined as make you want to tighten the tie around your neck and hang yourself from the nearest rafter) But have you read some of his later stuff? The marriage of Heaven and Hell? Jerusalem? The Four Zoas? That’s what I’m really into.”
GYW: (looking puzzled) “Oh. No, I haven’t read any of those. To be honest the only Blake I’ve read is the one about the Lamb. And the one about this little black boy. And wasn’t there something about a Tiger.” (You don’t say. You’re sure you’re not confusing him with Winnie the Pooh, by any chance. Aaargghhh!!!)
Falstaff: (to sound of heart shattering like glass under a bulldozer) “Ah, well. There you go then. So anyway, we talked about poetry for a bit. In the interview. Oh, and I think that’s my friend coming out now. I’ve got to run. Did you have any other questions about the interview? No? Best of luck then” (Have a nice life!) “So nice meeting you. Bye.” (exits, running).

Sigh. And then I wonder why I’m still single.

Notes:

[1] This was the first time it occured to me that having privileged information might make you more interesting to women. It’s an idea that’s left its scars.

[2] Why do people ask this? It’s ridiculous that people think they can get useful information from the experiences of people totally unlike them. People are always asking me, for instance, whether I studied word lists in preparation for CAT. I didn’t, of course, but my point is always that the fact that I didn’t doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t. It’s all a function of where you’re starting from.

October 25, 2005

Five Finger Exercises

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:52 pm by falstaff

A while back I’d blogged about people writing fifty-five word stories and how I thought that was too easy. Now it seems someone’s come up with the idea of writing fifty-five word poems, so figured I’d try my hand at it at as well.

Here are three fifty-five word poems:

i)

A poem in fifty-five words
You say.

Why fifty-five?
I wonder.
Why not sixty?
That way we could usurp the clock face,
Make time a part of our calculations.

You shake your head.
Fifty-five.
You insist.

Very well.
I sit at my desk
Sharpening words like pencils
Counting one
For every year of my life.

ii)

I strip phrases from this poem
The way the Fall,
Impatient of poetry,
Tears leaves from summer branches.

Will beauty survive
The death of its colours?

All that remains
Of the poem I meant to write
Is the shorn defiance of these lines
Rising like branches
To where
Your understanding waits,
Treacherous as a sky.

iii)

A fifty-five word poem
Ain’t easy, you know.
No time for slow
Introductions, no lengthy proems,
You can’t to-and-fro ‘em
That way; you gotta make it flow
Right from go –
You gotta show ‘em.

Better recheck it
To make sure
You’ve got the right amount;
You’re no Becket
Just an amateur
Writer who can count.

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