December 31, 2005

Sad old year

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:17 pm by falstaff

Cliche n. 1 : a trite phrase or expression; also : the idea expressed by it; 2 : a hackneyed theme, characterization, or situation; 3 : something (as a menu item) that has become overly familiar or commonplace

The trouble I have with New Year’s – in fact, the trouble I have with all festivals, special occassions, etc. – is cliche. Every year I make a sort of New Year pre-resolution – I resolve that I shall actually try to take this whole celebrating New Year thing seriously, I resolve that I shall make resolutions, shall shout Happy New Year loudly into the telephone everytime someone calls – even if it’s a wrong number. Every year I promise myself that this is the year I’m not going to be my usual curmudgeonly self.

Like any good New Year resolution, this one usually lasts till about 10 in the morning on the 1st of January. By that time the tiresome repetition of the old formula has begun to get to me (what was it Dylan Thomas said: “I have longed to move away / From the hissing of the spent lie….I have longed to move away / From the repetition of salutes”), I’ve got to the point where my instinctive reaction to people wishing me a “Happy and Prosperous New Year” is: “Why do you think that will happen? Where’s the empirical evidence?”

Holiday celebrations are not just cliched – which would imply merely creative exhaustion – they are actively anti-creative, that is to say they are built on the premise that traditions and formulas deserve to be celebrated. My problem with such Pavlovian glee is that it always seems to me to be a negation of the reasoning self, an insult to human intellect. We couldn’t possibly find the imagination or intelligence to connect to those around us in a meaningful way [1], every trite doggerel that rhymes ‘health’ with ‘wealth’ seems to say to me, we are not conscious beings in control of our own destiny, capable of making choices, we are merely conditioned systems of stimulus and response. This may very well be true, of course, but that’s no reason to flaunt or celebrate it.

The point is that by being anti-social and Scrooge-like on holidays I’m not simply being the bitter old man that I am – I’m actually striking a blow for the Dignity of Man, I’m trying to take back our rightful place in the firmament of thought. So there.

So if you really must, you and your disgustingly trite family go and have a happy and prosperous new year full of health, wealth and mocha cappucinos – just don’t tell me about it.

Notes

[1] People will tell you that the New Year’s and other such frivolous occassions are a great time to reconnect with people you’ve lost touch of. I’m all for that – it’s just that I don’t see how calling someone once a year and shouting Happy New Year at them and having them shout it back to you constitutes staying in touch with an actual person. I mean, my answering machine could do as much.

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Magellan didn’t have to deal with shit like this

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:03 am by falstaff

Will someone please explain to me what the deal with this whole jet lag thing is? All you have to do is tell someone that you’ve flown in from the US and the first thing they’ll ask you (often with real concern in their voice) is whether you’re over your jet lag. As though jet lag were some sort of debilitating disease – like chicken pox, or the bubonic plague. I’m almost tempted to say, No, I’m not actually. In fact, it’s now advanced to its final stage and my doctor says I only have another 48 hours to live. 57 and a half if you’re in Philadelphia. You’d better not sit too close. It might be catching.

Part of my trouble with this whole jet lag thing is that I have absolutely no idea what people are talking about. I mean, look, I’ve done my share of long-haul international flights. And sure, they’ve left me feeling tired and aching and a little disoriented – but not any more so than, say, a long day at office (yes, I DO know what that feels like, thanks very much). I certainly haven’t experienced anything that it would take me three or four days to recover from – I mean it’s just a long flight, it’s not childbirth. If anything, I usually end up getting more sleep on these long international flights than I do at home – simply because there isn’t really that much else to do. And okay, so maybe I’ll sleep a little longer than usual the first night I get in, but that’s about it.

When I tell people this they simply refuse to believe me. They look at me suspicously, as though I hadn’t flown from the US at all, but had simply been hiding out in my parent’s cupboard for the last 18 months (talk about coming out of the closet. heh.). They’ll quiz me keenly about when my flight left and from which airport and when it got here, as though hoping to trip me up on some detail or the other. When I finally manage to convince them that I have actually flown in from the US they’ll get even more suspicious – old rumours about how I have martian blood in me will resurface. You can see them wondering if they should report me to Military Intelligence.

At some point all this gets to me. I start wondering if there’s something wrong with me. I feel deprived. I consider writing to Continental Airlines pointing out that they never provided with the jet lag that was supposed to be covered in my ticket. I wonder if my inability to have jet lag is somehow linked to my inability to stay in meaningful relationships. Maybe the secret to a good marriage is the ability to feel really, really sleepy after a long flight.

I go look up Jet Lag in the Merriam-Webster dictionary [1], It’s defined as a condition that is characterized by various psychological and physiological effects (as fatigue and irritability), occurs following long flight through several time zones, and probably results from disruption of circadian rhythms in the human body. Hmmm. Maybe the reason I don’t have jet lag is because my usual levels of psychological disquiet and general fatigue and irritability are so high that a little more doesn’t really make a difference – the way you never find out when the sea gets flooded. Or maybe it’s just that I have really, really good circadian rhythms. Yes, that’s probably it. You hear that, baby? I got rhythm. And circadian [2] rhythm at that. Who can ask for anything more?

Notes

[1] My trusty OED is back in Philly.

[2] Isn’t circadian just a gorgeous, gorgeous word – Circe and Diana – what a combination!

December 29, 2005

Confession

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:31 pm by falstaff

This was not what he’d imagined death would be like. Not searchlights and barbed wire, not the loudspeakers blaring away in a hundred different languages, their message incoherent in each. Not these long lines of naked men who stood huddling into themselves for warmth because the fact of their deaths had turned their very skins into a memory that no one else could touch. Not the bitterness of this cold that seeped into you like a judgement, that echoed through the architecture of your bones like a great cry.

They shivered in it, these unfortunate men, shivered in the poverty of bodies grown slack with age, bodies whose shame they had long trusted only to the promised confidentiality of mirrors, so that to see their frailty so cruelly exposed here was to lose the will to look distance in the face. Some of the men were crying – coins of delicate silver falling from their eyes covered in blood. Others held their heads high in a trembling defiance. Terror hung in the air like smoke.

In the watchtowers above them, the guards seemed indifferent, even bored, their faces set in a permanent scowl. There was nothing new for them in this sight, and they thought of the souls of men as so much laundry – white trembling shapes to be pinned to the skyline and left out to dry. They held submachine guns in their hands and cigarettes between their lips, and their pitiless faces seemed in stark contrast to the feathery white of their uniforms, its starched wings curving out in perfect arcs on either side. Only once, when one of the waiting men seemed to stray away from the barely moving line, did the guards show a reaction, swivelling their guns towards the man in a quick, threatening motion, shouting something incomprehensible at him and ushering him back. The message was clear. Try to leave this line and you would be shot.

But what would it mean to get shot if you were already dead, he wondered? Would it hurt? Would it be fatal? Is it even possible to die a second time? Is death an infinite sequence then, with each death taking you further and further away from life, like points on a line that, having once interesected life, now moves away from it forever? What was going on here? What did all this mean? Could these guards be angels, he thought to himself. Could this be heaven? Surely not. Am I in hell then? Wouldn’t they tell you before they sent you there, wouldn’t they want to rub it in? Give you a long sermon gloating about the enormity of your sins and how it was too late to do anything about it, lingering lovingly over the details of the punishment to come? Surely you weren’t expected to figure it all out for yourself – just land up this way, unannounced and minus your clothes, waiting patiently for someone to let you in. It was all too preposterous. Besides, Hell was supposed to be hot, not cold. So what was this place?

He considered asking the people standing next to him in line, but a few initial hellos had been met with incomprehension, and he realised that neither of his neighbours spoke English. It figured, he supposed – what with all the people dying every minute all over the world it wasn’t exactly surprising. He tried to recall the little Spanish he’d learnt at high school, then gave it up as hopeless. He tried peering down the line to see if he could spot someone more familiar, someone who could perhaps understand him – but the faces of the men in this line had already taken on the gray anonymity of death, they had blurred like newspaper photographs, so that it was difficult to tell one man from another.

At least he wasn’t hungry. He wondered if the processes of digestion and excretion still applied to him. He tried to sense his bladder but all he could feel inside him was emptiness – not hunger, but a hollowness complete in itself, as though someone had scooped all the insides out of him and left this outer shell behind. That’s all we are, he thought to himself, walking eggshells, just waiting to be broken.

Three hours later (if time could still be thought of as passing in this place) the end of the line became visible – it was a squat, gray building, like a large shed or a barrack, rising out of the mist. When he finally reached it and stepped inside, a guard ushered him towards a table where a clerk sat on a high stool, a large register open before him. “Name?”, the man asked, with the brisk officiousness of clerks everwhere. “Occupation?” “Date of Death?” “Place of death?” “Age at time of death?”. The thin scratching sound of a pencil scribbling in his answers. He was confused now. Shouldn’t the clerk be looking him up, instead of asking him for these details? He supposed this information would be passed on to those concerned. Maybe Death was like a bank, you took in all the day’s deposits and then reconciled them in the back office.

When the clerk was done he handed him a slip of paper with a 12 digit number on it, and shouted “Next!” while waving at him to move on. There was a door on the other side. He walked through it and found himself in what looked like a dentist’s office. Two labcoated assistants took the slip of paper from him, ushered him into the high chair in the centre of the room, strapped him in. For a moment he just sat there in silence, then, just as the questions in his mind were forming themselves into words, there was the clang of a machine and sharp, sudden pain sizzled up his arm. He cried out, his eyes clenching as he tried to overcome the agony. So it was still possible to feel pain after you were dead, he thought as his mind finally cleared. That was useful to know. He looked down. The twelve digit number from the slip of paper had been branded into his forearm. For the first time since he had died and come to this place, he felt truly afraid.

Shown out of the branding room by a guard, he found himself in the largest waiting room he had ever seen. Miles and miles of wooden benches stretched in every direction. Under the high, dimly-lit ceiling the silence echoed without aid from human voices. There was the fug of eternal waiting, of flights delayed forever, of trains that would never, ever arrive. As he sat down on a cold bench, it occured to him that the whole room looked vaguely like one of those stark churches he had seen on a trip to Austria, except that the place of the crucifix had been taken by a clock whose hands at stopped at midnight.

Every now and then a number was shouted out over the PA system in this room, and somewhere in the distance a wan figure would stand up, shuffle his way out. It didn’t take much to see that the number of these calls was far exceeded by the number of people coming into the waiting area from the branding room, so that the number of people in the waiting room was constantly increasing. Were there some who never got called? he wondered. What if he was one of them, what if he had to spend all eternity on this wooden bench, like a common tramp, sleeping fitfully on its hard surface – or rather trying to believe in the possibility of sleep, which is the only belief still possible for those who have died.

It seemed like forever before his name was called; no, it seemed like an instant. It was difficult to judge in this place, where nothing happened. Can time be said to pass if nothing changes, he wondered, is there time in the empty forest before the tree falls? He didn’t know. His brain felt fuzzy, out of focus. He moved towards the exit (there were no signs to guide him, but some instinct told him where it was) knowing only that almost anything would be better than getting stuck in this place.

At the exit, he was met by a couple of guards who confirmed his name, then whipped a hood over his head, and led him away. He went stumbling down invisible staircases, was dragged along passages that he recognised from their smell and from the constant sound of water dripping somewhere in the distance, so familiar from his nightmares. When the hood was taken off him, he found himself blinking in a tiny cell, its space almost entirely taken up by a large table at the other end of which sat the Questioner. He didn’t know how he knew he was the Questioner – he just did. He wasn’t dressed that differently from the other guards, but there was something about him, an air of authority, the sense of invisible threads of command spreading out from him to the others, like strands of some malign cobweb. He didn’t look particularly threatening – he looked bored, and therein lay the secret of his menace.

The Questioner read out his name. He nodded. Suddenly a searing light was switched on right in his face, the pain of it slicing cleanly through his eyes. “Right”, the Questioner said, “get on with it. Tell us the truth”. “About what?”, he asked, bewildered and in pain. “About yourself, your life”, the Questioner answered, “look, we know you’re a miserable sinner. We know you’ve committed adultery and murder and all those other sins. So don’t waste our time. Just come clean now and it won’t go too badly with you. Try to lie to us and we will have to hurt you. You don’t want that.” “But, but, I don’t understand, who are you? What is this place? Am I in hell?” “No, hell is what’s waiting for you when we’re done with you. We’re the angels of Death, we’re here to get you to make a full confession of your sins before we send you through. But no more questions. Tell us what we want to hear or else. Now, how many people did you murder in your time on earth” “Me? Murder? No, no, I didn’t kill anyone. I never even tried to harm anyone. Look, there’s obviously been some mistake, I – ” A stabbing pain in his left hand cut him short. He looked down and saw that one of the Questioner’s assistants had tied a rusty thumbscrew onto his little finger, and was turning the handle to screw the point deep into his flesh. As he watched, he gave it another turn and the agony shot through his arm afresh. He tried to scream, but no sound came out. A thin pool of his blood was forming on the table, trickling through the cracks in the wood to the floor. He couldn’t believe this was happening. He looked into the faces of his interrogators and saw no mercy there, only the jaded professionalism of men grown tired of repetitive work.

Perhaps he should just tell them what they wanted. In the stare of those eyes, he felt a deep sense of guilt swelling in him. Perhaps, after all, he had harmed someone, had killed someone. Something inside of him protested against this thought. No, no, he was innocent, this was all a mistake – he had to hold on to that, had to convince them that they’d got the wrong person. He gritted his teeth and prepared himself for the pain to come.

He didn’t know how long it was before he opened his eyes and found that he was out of the cell and lying in a white hospital bed. Every inch of his body screamed with pain – he looked down and his hands were bandaged stumps, and he couldn’t feel his right leg. He heard a bell ring somewhere and started in fear. What have they done to me? he thought.

The next time he regained consciousness, a kindly bearded face was peering down at him. “Congratulations”, it said, “you’ve made it! A little rest here and you’ll be all set to enter Heaven.” “Heaven”, he said, “I’m going to Heaven?”. “Indeed you are”, the doctor said, for it was now clear that that was what he was, “where else could a fine, pure person like you go?” “But the Questioner? The cell?” “That’s all over with”, the doctor said, brushing it aside lightly, “a mere formality, in fact. You’ve lost a leg, I’m afraid, and your hands will take a long time to heal, but your bones will mend eventually and then we’ll fit you up with a prosthetic and you’ll be on your way. It’s nothing really, just a quick pit stop before you head out into eternity”.

“I’m so relieved. I knew it was a mistake all along. I kept telling them that but they wouldn’t believe me.”

“Mistake?”, the doctor said, his eyebrows rising, “No mistake – that’s just standard procedure. You have to go through the angels of Death before you come here.”

“But they tortured me, they did terrible things to me, you see yourself the wounds I have”

“So? There’s nothing new in that. How would they find out whether you were innocent or not unless they interrogated you?”

“Shouldn’t they know already? Don’t they have records, couldn’t they look them up to see if I’ve been a good person?”

The doctor laughed. “I see you’re still labouring under the old human misconception that we watch over you while you’re alive. We do nothing of the sort, of course – just think of the logistical difficulties of it – monitoring 6 billion people all the time. Besides, it’s inefficient. Why go to all that trouble when we can just question it out of you when you get here?”

“But what if you accused someone of something they didn’t do and they were so terrified of you that they admitted to it? I know I almost did.”

“Weakness of character. Lying to the Angels of Death. All serious flaws I’m afraid. Look, okay, so maybe now and then we’ll get someone who’ll confess to something they didn’t really do and will end up going to Hell when they deserved to make it to Heaven. So what? Heaven’s pretty crowded anyway – they’ve got so much more space in Hell. It’s not like a few less people up here is going to make a difference.”

“So you mean that’s all it comes down to – all those prayers and things we do down on Earth have no meaning – it’s all about what you say in that interrogation cell?”

“Pretty much. Though, of course, there are parts of the ritual that are useful to us. The Angels of Death introduced the whole concept of confession to help them in their work, for example. They find that people who’ve been schooled in it will tell them what they want so much more readily. It makes their job a lot easier, and they’ve already got too much of a backlog. But enough talking. You should rest now. In a few days we’ll be releasing you and then you can be happy forever and forget about all these sordid little details. Goodbye. I’ll see later. Oh, and congratulations once again.”

Watching the doctor leave, he sank back onto his pillow, lay staring at the pearly white ceiling for a while. Then he raised himself on one arm and looked at the ward around him. There they lay – the blessed – laid out in their beds of wretchedness, swathed in bandages, each man bearing bravely the wounds that had won him his place in heaven.

December 28, 2005

Don’t worry, I’ve got it all on tape

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:28 pm by falstaff

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was this thing called the audio tape. It was a strange looking device – metaphor turned to machine – two toothed spools held together by wafer thin tape, turning in perfect unison like the engines of some fate in which good and bad were equally balanced and wound tightly together. In the world of the audio tape there was always yin and yang, Side A and Side B; you couldn’t skip straight to the good stuff – you had to go endlessly back and forth, sometimes falling short, sometimes overshooting, before you found that one perfect instant that you wanted to be at. It was hard to believe that this clunky, plastic rectangle contained the voice of the Gods. Hard to believe that what those slow mill-wheels were grinding out was, in fact, Music.

It wasn’t the greatest way to listen to music – the sound quality was often poor, the tapes themselves were notoriously prone to damage – they would thin out with wear or get damaged in the heat or sometimes the tape would get crumpled and the whole thing would jam and you’d pull the tape out of the deck and there’d be the long trail of the ribbon hanging out of the tape like entrails. But there was something deeply visceral about it, something intensely physical in the way you could jam the tape into a cassette deck, slam it shut, push play and watch the cogs starting to turn, the music flowing forward, outward. Plus it was a great way to carry music around – you could hardly slip an LP player into your pocket and walk around listening to music on your headphones.

The truth is, I belong to a generation that grew up on cassettes. Sure, my parents had an LP player when I was a kid and my Dad had this cool collection[1], but by the time I started buying my own music cassettes were the way to go. I got my first walkman when I was 11, and I was 19 before we had a CD player at home, so pretty much all through my teenage years, tapes were the only form of music I collected.

And boy, did I collect them. It wasn’t just that I bought an insane amount of tapes – it was also the number I recorded off other people – making copies of tapes they owned (remember high speed dubbing?) or, in those later years when CDs were around but I couldn’t afford them, taping them off other people’s CDs. Even today, some 60% of my tapes are copies – mostly scratchy, poor quality recordings that the intensity of my adolescent years and my urgent hunger for more music turned into the most sublime sounds in the universe. I craved for those tapes like I did for nothing else on the planet (except maybe poetry anthologies – but that’s a different post). , I connected to them in ways that only a heady mix of hormones, innocence and a deep, abiding boredom with school work can make possible. Other guys my age were obsessing about women, I was chasing after recordings. Every new tape that got added to my collection was a conquest, a rite of passage, a notch on my musical gun. Just the thought that I had a recording of Mozart’s Piano Concertos 1, 2 and 3 waiting for me back at home was enough to keep me blissfully happy for weeks.

Okay, so it wasn’t the kind of collection that was going to give the HMV archives a run for their money or anything. Even at its peak I doubt it was more than a couple of hundred tapes, which is not much, considering the amount of music I carry around on just my iPod. The point about it, though, was that it was a COLLECTION. Every one of those tapes had meant sacrifice and effort, every one of those tapes came packaged with both the exhileration of discovery and the crushing risk of disappointment, of loss. I had an emotional bond to each and every one of them, the way I don’t have to my collection now.

For one thing, this was back in the days (high school, college) when money was a real constraint – so that the purchase of every cassette was a decision to be pondered and debated, and involved the kind of hard choices one never thought to find outside William Styron novels. Many’s the time that I’ve lingered in a music store, looking longing at the recording of a Beethoven Piano Concerto or a Schubert Symphony, and then choosing something else, but promising in my heart that I would come back as soon as I could to rescue them from the shelf[2], if only they would be faithful, if only they would trust me (how does the Tracy Chapman song go: “I’ll vow to come for you / If you’ll wait for me”). And surely it was part of the glory of the music, part of its pathos, that it came at the cost of movies left unwatched, samosas left uneaten, masala chais left undrunk.

The other thing that made those tapes so precious was that in the world before Amazon and music mega-stores [3] good music (especially good classical music, or good jazz) was often hard to find. You couldn’t just go online, scroll through a bunch of recordings and pick the one you liked best. A Berlin Philharmonic / Karajan recording was a serious windfall – and just the mythic hope of finding one would send you back to the Music Store at Khan Market again and again, like a deep-sea diver combing the sea-bed for doubloons. So that there was a real sense of achievement in finding a truly good recording and being able to show it proudly off to your friends (read: the three other people in the world who were as besotted with music as you were – everybody else had long since given you up as terminally wierd).

Finally, there was the very fragility of the medium, its manifestness. This wasn’t some obscure series of electronic impulses hiding deep in the circuits of your iPod (forgive me, O Venerable One, Thou knowest I do love thee and would never compare aught to thee, save to Sing Thine Praises!) , this was music as tangible as it could get – all it took was a keen eye and a little imagination, and you could actually read the music right off the tape, you almost didn’t need a player.

Perhaps part of growing up is betraying the things you love most dearly, about leaving them behind and pretending that you’ve moved on to something better and trying to ignore the ache in your heart that tells you that it doesn’t matter if you have – to let go of something or someone you love is always a loss. Over the last five years I’ve focussed mostly on building my CD collection, and when I moved to the US 18 months ago, I decided that there was no way I could carry my tapes with me, so I bought CD versions of the ones I absolutely couldn’t live without (my Dylan albums, for instance, or that fiery recording of Menuhin playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto) and put all of my tapes away in shelf and left them behind. It was a tough decision, a hard goodbye, but, I convinced myself, an unavoidable one. Conscious of my guilt, I convinced myself that it extended only to abandoning my tapes for a little while – I would return, I told myself, and they would still be here.

But treachery breeds further treachery, and to accept one blow is to make yourself strong enough to bear the next one. Staring at the shelf of cassettes lying open before me today, I finally had to admit the truth to myself – I was never coming back. Too many of those tapes were now duplicated in my CD / electronic collection, too many of them had sound too faint, too scratchy, too coloured by static for me to ever listen to them with anywhere near the joy I once brought to them. I love each and every one of these tapes, but the world has moved on, and the time has come when I must let at least some of them go.

I started by setting aside the ones that I absolutely could not give up. My Miles Davis albums, the complete set of Sony Jazz Classics that I bought when they first came out in India, the Beatles Live at the BBC, tape upon tape of Zakir Hussein and Vilayat Khan, Tracy Chapman singing Let it Rain, that version of La Boheme I sat up all night recording and then kept falling asleep in office the next day, a mixed Jazz tape my ex-girlfriend gave me – that sublime recording of Ella singing I ain’t got nothing but the blues, the Reality Bites soundtrack, Dylan – Street Legal, Time out of Mind, yes, even Love and Theft. Oh, and that recording of Simon and Garfunkel a record shop owner in Jaipur made for my parents back in ’87. The tape that defined poetry for me before I knew what poetry was.

Right. Still about 50 tapes left. I harden my heart – pick a few that I absolutely need to save, decide to let the others go. There’s some good stuff here – my first ever Chopin tape (the kind of ‘best of’ tape that I’ve come to abhor – but still); the Doors; Indian Ocean’s Kandisa, with its memories of WIMWI; Haydn’s Die Schopfung, badly mutilated by scratches on the CD it was recorded from; a recording of Beethoven’s 9th by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Riccardo Mutti conducting. But there’s a point beyond which I have to stop deluding myself. There’s a line that has to be drawn and this is where I’ve chosen to draw out. Better to get this over quick. Better to rip the bandage off and get rid off it before the numbness can turn to pain. Let these words answer for what is done, not to be done again. Let the judgement not be too heavy upon us.

This is not a blog post. It is an apology pretending to be one. It is a ritual meant to propitiate whatever dieties of music may be watching this trespass against their defenseless children. It is a requiem for the death of that part of me that could never have been so practical, so sensible, so ruthlessly logical. For the part of me that could never have sat thus in judgement over my own past. It is a Kaddish for 3,600 minutes of music that once helped me keep sane, that helped me grow into the very adult who is now discarding them. It is an apology. It is not enough.

Notes

[1] It was a nice-ish collection and I had some fond memories of it, but I was always a little puzzled by the depth of his obssession with it, the lengths he went to before he finally gave it up. I think I’m beginning to understand how he must have felt.

[2] I once bought a recording of excerpts from Swan Lake which I didn’t really want only because it was sitting on a shelf in this tiny little electronics shop, between a recording of fifteen different version of the Macarena, and something called Get Down And Party 2. I figured the owner had simply been misled by the fact that the tape was called The Dance Album and couldn’t stand the thought that someone might buy it expecting dhinchak beats. I figured it was up to me to keep Tchaikovsky safe from such cretins.

[2] I still remember flying to Singapore when I was in college and being completely blown away by the HMV store on Orchard Road (?). Ah, the joy of being that young, that naive.

December 27, 2005

In Between

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:58 pm by falstaff

Dawn finds me 30,000 feet over the Atlantic. The horizon is a parabola of fire, the air is the thin blue of freshly laundered sheets. On the screen above my head this plane is a tiny butterfly, flirting with the snout of Scandinavia.

Rubbing my eyes open, I put on my headphones, tune the in-flight entertainment system till I find a channel that sounds promising. Jazz. Monk’s Blues. Monk and Coltrane, day and night, earth and sky. I hang suspended in the betweenness of things, trapped between these two continents of my self that stare at each other across a sea of stereotypes. It occurs to me that I am not simply travelling between cities – I am making a journey from one way of life to another. The change is there already, in the very language I hear spoken around me, the accents at once forgotten and familiar. This is not a trip, it is a voyage, an expedition into lands grown the more treacherous for not being entirely unknown. To revisit the country of my upbringing is to revisit my assumptions about whom I have grown up to be.

The significance of this visit – which has lain buried under the logistics of check-in, security, boarding, beverage carts – is beginning to dawn on me, its thin, cold light streaming through my window. This is not just another vacation, a voice in my head screams in panic, you’re going home! I wonder if I went and asked the pilot nicely he would consider turning around and flying us back to Newark. Or failing, that, maybe I could just not get off the plane when we get to Delhi. Just keep sitting here. This seat’s not so bad. Okay, so they designed the legroom with a one-legged dwarf in mind, but otherwise it’s kind of comfy. The screen tells me that the temperature outside is -72 F. I try to imagine how cold that is. About as cold as loneliness, I figure.

I change audio channels. Frank Sinatra comes on, singing the theme from New York, New York. If I can make it there / I’ll make it anywhere. I laugh delightedly, causing the couple sitting next to me to start in surprise. One of the best things about being a pessimist is that things always turn out so much better than you thought they would. I bury my nose into my Murakami, tell the hostess when she comes that I’ll have idlis for breakfast, not the french omlette, and settle back to enjoy the rest of my flight.

What if this trip back turned out to be a lot of fun? This is a possibility that I’ve never considered before. I mull over it happily for a while, then the optimism tires me out and I fall asleep again.

December 26, 2005

Ye of little faiths

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:50 am by falstaff

The trouble with most religious observances, it seems to me, is that they’re not distinctive or outrageous enough. Some of them, it turns out, might actually make sense! That’s no good. I mean, sure, we live in a fast-paced world and all that, but that doesn’t mean we can afford to have our rituals and superstitions be practical – where’s the faith in that? How are you going to prove that you’re a true believer if the actions you take to demonstrate this to people aren’t at least somewhat wrong-headed and inconvenient. You might as well claim that checking mail is an act of pious devotion.

Take this whole vegetarianism thing. Say you see someone eating a soy burger at a fast food joint. It could be that he’s Hindu or Buddhist or something and doesn’t eat meat. Or it could be that he’s a heart patient, or on a diet. Or it could be that he’s just read a lot of Shelley. Or maybe he had his taste buds shot off in Iraq and now actually likes soy. Or perhaps he’s just from California. The point is you can’t really tell, can you, so that if you are a Hindu there’s basically no point in giving up steak because no one’s going to think it noble of you anyway.

The whole point of all this religion mumbo-jumbo, after all, is that a) it sets you apart from everyone else and lets you turn up their nose at them and call them things like infidel behind their back (or, if you’re a bona fide Ayatollah, to their face) b) it gives you an excuse to pick fights with total strangers and c) it gives you the opportunity to act morally affronted at regular intervals thus making everyone around you feel bad about themselves and putting them on a guilt trip that you can use to get things out of them later.

It follows that to make a good taboo work, you need to pick something that’s commonly used, entirely unobjectionable but not too inconvenient to do without (you don’t want, for example, to go around making essentials like fire or clothing or cappucinos taboo). Something like blow-dryers, say. Or forks. Picture yourself calling the waitress over in a restaurant, fixing her with a mournful stare, and informing her in a wounded voice that there are four forks on this table and you, as a devout Falstaffist consider forks to be the embodiment of Lucifer and so would she be so kind to remove them, and oh, could she also get you a new glass because your fork was touching this one. Or jumping out of your seat when the hairdresser starts blow-drying your hair, and grabbing a hairbrush and holding it in front of her crying “Get thee behind me, Satan!”. Those are the kind of religions we need more off. Not the kind who go around slamming airliners into buildings, but the kind who consider ringing cell-phones blasphemous or believe fervently that to talk about your child at any point before he / she is 18 years old is to call down the blistering wrath of the Gods on his / her head.

Oh, and special days – how could I forget those. If you really want to grab attention, what you need is a religion where the 25th of December marks the death anniversary of your greatest prophet and is therefore a day of silence and mourning. Think what fun that would be. You could walk / drive around the city wearing black and looking glum, depressing the hell out of everyone else. If someone said Merry Christmas to you, you could turn around in shock and burst into tears and cry “How could you? How can you be so cold, so heartless? Don’t you know our Great Panjandrum died today?” You’d be in all the papers. Civil rights groups all over the country would take up your cause and argue that being happy on Christmas was a sign of ethnic bias. Any office that put up a Happy Holidays poster in a public area would be considered a hostile work place.

If you really wanted to take this argument to its logical extreme you could decide to make a colour taboo. Say blue. That way you could object to the sky, argue that it offends you, refuse to leave your home on days when it’s clear. If the people you work for try to fire you because you only get in to work maybe once in eight days (obviously this won’t work with UK weather) you could accuse them of discriminating against you because of your religious beliefs and either keep your job despite doing nothing or get paid hefty damages.

And then people say that religion isn’t relevant in our times.

Prospice

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:57 am by falstaff

Fear Delhi? — to see the fog outside my plane,
Feel airconditioning in my face,
When the announcements begin, and the captain explains
We are nearing the place.
The seat that won’t incline, the cabin too warm,
The limited leg-room;
Here he comes, the Steward with his immigration forms,
We’ll be there soon:
But the journey won’t be done when the terminal’s attained:
There’ll be long hours in line,
Then a battle to fight ere our baggage be gained,
And that’s if we’re on time.
I was ever a frequent flier, so — one flight more,
I can make it, I can last!
This movie is really crap, I’m tired, I’m bored
And time barely creeps past.
Come, let me taste the whole of this meal – I fear
It’s at least two days old,
Bear the taste of it, wash it down with beer
Though it’s greasy and cold.
For sudden the landing gear is released
And the plane descends
And the babies that scream, and the aunties with their ‘Beta, please”
Shall dwindle, shall end,
I shall change, get rupees for my dollars,
And arrive at Arrivals,
I shall proclaim my destination, by a taxi-driver be collared,
And pray for survival.

(with apologies to Robert Browning)

P.S. In case you still haven’t figured it out – I’m headed for Delhi this evening, spending the Winter break there. Now I know what Persephone must have felt like.

December 25, 2005

The Yuletide Spirit / I wish I had a river

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:32 am by falstaff

I love Christmas. It’s the one day of the year I allow myself to indulge in self pity. Not that I don’t indulge in self pity on other days, but I do it covertly, and with a sense of guilt. It’s only on Christmas that I really let myself go.

The thing about feeling sorry for yourself is that, like most indulgences, it must be partaken in moderation. It’s like gooey chocolate cake – take too much of it and before you know it your ego will have bloated and you’ll start taking yourself seriously and then you’re really have reason to feel sorry for yourself (thus setting of a vicious circle). But the occassional orgy can be stimulating, and besides we’re allowed to not have fun sometimes.

Christmas is a great day to be feeling sorry for yourself for a number of reasons. First, it’s always a holiday and it’s followed by a bunch of other holidays so that there’s no risk of your having to distract yourself with work or chores or anything – you can sit back in the luxury of your home and get a full day’s worth of moping done. Second, it’s the one day in the year when the whole world will cooperate with you, help you feel even sorrier for yourself than you already do. Total strangers will wish you on the street – ‘Merry Christmas’, ‘Happy Holidays’ – thus rubbing salt into your wounds. Parks will be decorated with streamers and lights, buildings will be swarming with wreaths and mistletoe, everywhere you go you’ll hear some nauseatingly saccharine jingle saying something about snow and sleighs and reindeer. What better setting to feel all blue and melancholy? Third, Christmas is always cold; if you’re lucky, it’ll be snowing or raining or something, so that the sky will be overcast and the day will look gloomy enough to match your mood, and at any rate there won’t be any way that you can go out and get some sun and generally forget about your troubles; even better, all cafes and shops and restaurants will be closed, so that you’re pretty much going to have to sit in your room alone. which makes all the moping you have to do so much easier. Finally, Christmas is a great time for special food treats – so that when you get to that point in your depression when you want to fill the hollowness of your life with food there’s a wide variety of rum cakes and chocolate cakes and pies and other such delicacies to choose from.

So anyway, here’s what my annual gloominess mudbath looks like. First I’ll wake up really early in the morning and go out in the biting cold and wander about in the residential areas staring at all the houses where people are still asleep, having partied late on Christmas Eve, and will wake up to family and presents and an afternoon of mellow togetherness. I’ll stare at all the christmas lights burning palely in the daytime because no one has got around to turning them off yet, and it’ll make me think of my own life.

Then I’ll go to office and check mail and confirm what I already know – that no one has written to me today because they all have a life. Next I’ll go back to my apartment and listen to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio – a Christmas ritual, please note, that I’ve had to invent, not having any other Christmas rituals that I can indulge in. After the Oratorio I’ll move on to other Choral pieces – paying special attention to Mozart’s mass in C and Schubert’s Lazarus. At some point in the middle of this I’ll have lunch, which I shall take great care to make as unappetising as possible (undercooked pasta left to go cold was the menu last year, if memory serves) so that I can then assuage my depression with half a pint of the chocolate ice cream I had the foresight to put by last night. To convince myself I’m bored I will take a nap in the afternoon. If I’m still feeling somewhat shakily cheerful, I’ll call a friend who I know is going to be busy, listen to the merry sounds of the party behind her as she tells me she can’t talk now but she’ll call me back tomorrow. That should be enough. More choral music, then, in the background, while I read poetry – Tennyson’s In Memoriam sounds like a promising bet this year; though there’s really nothing like Shelley for these occasions – Julian and Maddalo, for instance, or Alastor. Maybe King Lear if it’s snowing outside. Let’s see.

Somewhere around my seventh cup of coffee I’ll switch the music to Jazz. Miles first, say Quiet Nights followed by Kind of Blue. Then, with a subtlety Machiavelli would have been proud of – Louis Armstrong – a few cheerful little numbers and then that glorious trumpet solo on Swing Low Sweet Chariot that will leave my eyes blurry with tears.

Of course there’ll be long periods in between when I’ll simply sit there staring into space, thinking about all the things that are wrong with my life. If I’m feeling in a particularly inspired mood I’ll think about the future, make it as dreary and hopeless as I can. On a really good day I can actually move myself to tears, just imagining how pointless and tragic the rest of my life is going to be, how terrible a waste of those adolescent years that my self-pity alchemises easily into ‘the promise of my youth’.

At the point in the evening when the few people still left in my building (almost everyone has gone home. Sigh) are getting dressed up and going out to socialise I’ll go do my laundry. I’ll wear my most faded sweatshirt, my most frayed jeans. As I head down to the laundry room with my bulging bag of clothes, I’ll think of myself as some sort of cut-price Santa Claus. Other people get presents, I’ll think, all I’ve got is soiled underwear.

By the time the dinner hour comes along, I’ll be tired. All this self-pity will be starting to weary me out. But I’ll persevere. I won’t have to cook again, because I’ll have made enough in the morning to have left-overs – this will make it doubly depressing – not only because I’m eating left-overs, but because as I heat them in the microwave I can think about portion sizes and how difficult it is to cook for just one person, which will lead logically to the fact that I’m alone and am going to stay that way. I’ll pretend that this crummy spaghetti I cooked for myself is actually a TV dinner. I’ll wear my tightest T-shirt and sit slumped in position to emphasise my paunch so I can convince myself that I’m fat (not a hard thing to do, btw). I’ll listen to every version of Ellington’s Solitude that I own. Finally (and this is the piece de resistance) I’ll go to bed EARLY, thus putting the official seal on the pointlessness of my existence.

I’ll probably wake up all cheerful tomorrow, of course, but as Scarlett would say, “Tomorrow is another day”

Meanwhile, if you’re one of those people who haven’t seen the light and are actually trying to enjoy today (and yet, for some obscure reason are actually reading this on Christmas Day – loser!) – Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Bah Humbug.

December 24, 2005

Yes, but where is the heart?

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:12 am by falstaff

People ask him if he’s going somewhere for the holidays and he says, “Yes, I’m going back to India, actually”, adding “for three weeks” if he wants to keep the conversation going. He would like to say he’s going home, but something about putting it that way, saying ‘home’, makes him squeamish. The word tastes wrong somehow, like too-sticky candy.

What is home anyway? How do we define it, locate it, pin-point it on a map? The OED says: A dwelling-place, house, abode; the fixed residence of a family or household; the seat of domestic life and interests; one’s own house; the dwelling in which one habitually lives, or which one regards as one’s proper abode. Trust a dictionary to say everything without telling you anything. What if you don’t live with your family, what if nothing in your life is fixed and you survive from one nine-month lease to another? What if you have no domestic interests? And what the hell is one’s proper abode? Come to think of it, who even says abode anymore, except the people who translate B-grade Kung Fu movies?

Is home where the people most dear to you live? Then, yes, he is going home. Or is home the place where you live yourself, the place you are most comfortable in, the place that all the activities that matter to you are centred around? Then no, he is not going home, he is, in fact, leaving home and going back to a country that he will wear awkwardly at best, like a coat two sizes too small, his shoulders hunched into a shape that is no longer his. Or is home merely another name for a remembered childhood, the places you are nostalgic for, the city and the locality you grew up in, its markets and monuments and streets? If the quest for home is merely to follow the spoor of a wounded memory back through the undergrowth of time, then surely the search ends only in the womb. But no, even by that definition he is not going home, because in the time he has been away the world has changed – people have shifted, old buildings have been torn down and new ones put up in their place – home, like the river, is never the same.

“Home, where my thought’s escaping / Home, where my music’s playing / Home, where my love lies waiting / Silently for me”. How many of those criteria does a place have to meet before you can call it home? What if each one of those places is a different place – is it possible to have multiple homes? And how is it possible to be both on vacation and at home at the same time? When did home become a tourist destination?

What was it Tennyson said? “all hath suffer’d change:/ For surely now our household hearths are cold, / Our sons inherit us: our looks are strange:/ And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy”. He wonders idly what a lotus tastes like.

Home is the place you belong in. The formula offers itself eagerly, shouting its message at him like an urchin with a newspaper. Belong in, belong to. For a moment he is tempted, then he shakes his head. No, that would just begin the cycle over again. One would have to ask: where do I belong? Who do I belong to? And the same doubts, the same questions would raise their heads. Besides, he does not want to ‘belong’, he wants only to own. He does not really desire to be loved or protected or advised – he sees these things at best as minor inconveniences and at worst as insults – he wants only to love, to protect, to advise. The inconsistency of this stand does not escape him, but it comes back, in his head, to the idea of virtue. If caring for others is a virtue, then surely by caring more for them then they care for us, by being more virtuous than them (is God a relativist, he wonders, does he grade on a bell curve?) we do them a disservice. These are weighty matters.

How do other people do it? How do other people say words like home and love and good and wrong and happiness so blithely, never pausing (it seems to him) to think exactly what it is they mean. Can it be true that the unexamined life is the only truly happy one, that life itself is the one gift horse you should never look in the mouth?

Where is home for him?

What if there isn’t one? What if home is only an idea in his head, a fantasy, the colour of grass on the other side of the fence. What if home is truly a mythic place, like Neverland, or Narnia, or Oz. Yes, like Oz. What if Kansas no longer exists and at the end of all these sunlit roads there is no ‘whiz of a wizard’ but only a wrinkled and ineffectual old man? Does he really need a home? If homesickness is only a kind of gravity then surely there is some velocity at which it is possible to escape it, to leave it behind forever. Can he not find that velocity?

Ships need anchors. The phrase hangs dripping in the air above him. Do they really? What happens to a ship that simply stays in deep waters, is it possible to survive only on stars, on directions? Is it possible to make the ship your world, or to build the world on your ship? Why this fondness for maritime metaphors anyway? Does that itself not betray a certain restlessness? Ships need anchors, yes, but they need anchors that they can retract easily into their own bodies, that they can carry away with them when the leave. An anchor left behind is no use to a ship.

If the longing for home is a kind of gravity, he thinks, then perhaps we are its satellites, falling always towards it without getting any closer. The image pleases him, because it suggests both loss and loneliness of being apart and the ferocious maintenance of one’s own identity – forces centripetal and centrifugal.

Very well then. Yes, he is going home. He is just not sure that he will get there.

December 23, 2005

At the Inn

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:28 am by falstaff

Now that Megha has officially decreed the season for Christmas posts, open, I figured it wouldn’t do to be left behind. So:

It was a cold night. The wind came howling out of the North like a ghost unleashed, its chilly hands cutting through the clothes of the travellers like some malign fate. And the trees, knowing that resistance was useless, bowed their heads in submission, and prepared to wait out the darkness. It was a gesture the land understood – this land surrendered, this land whose people bent lower each year under the weight of a suffering as nameless and ungraspable as the wind. Above the traveller’s heads the sky was as clear as if tears had washed it; the stars shone like a million tiny insults, pricking the night’s composure. It was not a good night to be out.

The Carpenter knew this, but he did not know what to do about it. It was too late to turn back now, they had come too far, had wandered too long from place to place, looking for shelter. The truth was, he had not thought about this moment when they were setting out, had never really considered how he would deal with it – the idea had come to him from somewhere that it would all be taken care of, that somehow shelter would be given, and he had simply accepted it, the way a starving man will accept a coin from any passing stranger, and never stop to question where it comes from or why it is given. It was beginning to dawn on him now that this hope of his had been a foolish one. He told himself that the fault was not his, that it was the coldness of the innkeepers, this winter that had settled in the hearts of men as much as over their houses, that was the problem. But try as he might, the guilt would not go away.

It was the guilt that had melted his eyes into a cry for sympathy, so that they were like the light that lives unfrozen in the centre of icicles, like droplets of mist trapped in the heart of a snowdrop. Something small and trembling in those eyes betrayed his soul to you, told you that under the proud demeanour of this hardy workman, lay the heart of a man grown desperate, a man whose very deference was a cry for help. As he knocked on yet another door, it seemed to the Carpenter that the sound of his hand beating against the weathered wood echoed the sound of his own heart, a hollow sound, the sound of something calling that does not hope to be answered.

At the seventh knock, someone answered. The door opened just a crack, offering little more than a tantalising glimpse of the living warmth within, an eye peered out. “What is you want?”, a voice said. It was in a hurry. “Shelter for the night”, the Carpenter said. The door opened a little more, but only a little. Both eyes were visible now – they scurried between the Carpenter and the woman standing a little behind him, shockingly pregnant. “That your wife?” the voice said. “Yes. She’s with child and needs to be indoors. That’s why we need the shelter”. There was a moment of silence as the men hardened themselves for what they knew was coming, having rehearsed this same scene many times, with other wanderers, other innkeepers. “We have no room”, the voice said, “I’m sorry”. “But my wife, she’s too weak, she can’t go on any further”. “I’m sorry”. “Isn’t there some place you could give us? A vacant passageway perhaps, or a place by the stove? Anything, we’ll take anything”. “Look, I’ve already told you”, the trial in the voice turning to anger now, “I’ve no room. I’m sorry if your wife is having difficulties, but you should have thought of that before you brought her out travelling like this, shouldn’t you? and her with child and all. It’s not my problem – I have an inn to run and we’re full up and I’m very busy so why don’t you move along and let me get on with my work. Goodbye”. The door shut. For a moment, the Carpenter just stood there, the silence falling around him like snow, blotting the footprints of those words from his heart. Then he turned wearily back to the road, heading out to the next inn, the next rejection, the next defeat.

Behind him, the innkeeper’s wife was asking her husband who it was at the door. “No one, my love”, the innkeeper said, “just another of those indigents. Yes, another one. Makes it the fourth this week by my reckoning. There seem to be more of them every year, don’t there? Jobless wanderers who think that just because they can’t solve their own problems it automatically becomes the world’s responsibility to solve them. I suppose the cold brings them out, like cockroaches. I don’t know what the world is coming to. This one had a wife too – with child, just imagine. How people in their position can even think about having babies I don’t know. Still, it’s no using trying to talk sense to these people, they’re like animals, they just breed and breed and don’t think about the consequences. Oh, I turned them away, of course. Told them we had no room. No point wasting time on their sort, specially not when we have those special guests staying the night. They’re rich men, I tell you, they’ll pay handsomely. Which reminds me, did you get the lamb done yet? Well, hurry up, woman, hurry up. It’s almost supper time and they looked like they were hungry. What have you been standing around talking to me for, if you haven’t got that done. Go to, go to.”

Two rooms away, three men sat in companionable silence, staring into the fire of the single thought that danced between them. They were tough, weather-beaten men, men who had travelled a great distance, and who carried the weight of their journeys in their bearing, men whose very faces had wrinkled into maps, so that the country of their grief was both immediate and unreadable. They were men hardened by anticipation into expecting little, so that they seemed alien to the room they sat in, alien to its comfort, like figures cut from rougher paper, and pasted clumsily on to the scene.

But just because they had come not to expect luxury, had learnt how to live without it, did not mean they did not appreciate it when it was offered. As they felt the warmth of the fire settle on their shoulders and sipped the wine the innkeeper had brought them (assuring them that it was ‘the very finest in my humble home, O reverend sires’) they felt a soft glow creep into their bones. At first they were suspicious of it, tried to resist it, as though it were a spy sent to find them out, to weaken them; but soon, seeing it meant them no harm, they gave themselves to it willingly, sank back into its cushioned solace. And when supper finally came, they tore into the lamb hungrily, greedily, devoured it, asked for more and when the meal was done, made loud proclamations about the excellence of the cooking, which made the innkeeper’s wife blush with pleasure in the kitchen and put fresh glee into the innkeeper’s heart as he contemplated the tip that was sure to follow.

Three hours later, one of them, the youngest, waking with the kind of thirst that only too much cheap wine can cause, stepped out to smell the clean, cold night air, hoping to clearing his head. For a moment or two he walked around in the clearing, slapping his arms to keep the cold out, muttering about the winter under his breath and seeing his breath mist as it left his mouth. Then he saw it. He stood staring at it for a whole five minutes, his mouth open, not even noticing the cold starting to take over his extremities. He even considered pinching himself. Then he ran inside and started to shake the others. “Wake up”, he said, “you’re not going to believe this”.

Endnote:

The thing that’s always struck me as strange about the whole nativity sequence, is not that Mary and the infant Christ end up in a manger, but that the Magi don’t seem to do anything to help them out of it. I mean, think about it. You’re a Magi. You’ve made this great journey to see an infant who you firmly believe is the Messiah, the Once and Future King and all that jazz. When you finally find him he’s stuck in a manger somewhere, it’s the middle of the winter, it’s freezing cold. Do you try to get him to a better shelter? Do you get him and his mother extra blankets, make arrangements to have them safely escorted from the manger the next day? No! you just hand over a bunch of unpronouncable and frankly useless gifts, mumble a few prayers and take off. Some welcome into the world that is. I mean the kid could have caught pneumonia or something. Bloody stupid lot they would have looked if their Saviour had died of a bad case of the sniffles before he got around to sacrificing himself on the cross to redeem the sins of all mankind. It kind of makes you wonder what the Magi were smoking, doesn’t it? I mean all this new star in the sky stuff. I don’t know – did they have LSD in 0 AD?

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