February 28, 2006

Hitting that button

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:47 am by falstaff

“I fell not only into the habits but into the moods of the student day. Every morning I was hopeful, determined, energized by the campanile bells and by the smell of eucalyptus and by the day’s projected accomplishments. On the way to breakfast I would walk briskly, breathe deeply, review my “plans” for the day: I would write five pages, return all calls, lunch on raisins and answer ten letters. I would at least read E.H. Gombrich. I would once and for all get the meaning of the word “structuralist”. And yet every afternoon by four o’clock, the hour when I met my single class, I was once again dulled, glazed, sunk in an excess of carbohydrates and in my own mediocrity, in my failure – still, after twenty years – to “live up to” the day’s possibilities.”

– Joan Didion

Do you ever get the feeling that your life is on perpetual snooze? That all you’re really doing is buying time, punching the clock that will let you go on the way you are a little longer, that will keep you from having to wake up to the reality of your days? And that death, by extension, would be just a really bad case of oversleeping?

Robert Lowell writes:

The man is killing time – there’s nothing else.
No help now from the fifth of Bourbon
chucked helter-skelter into the river,
even its cork sucked under.

Stubbed before-breakfast cigarettes
burn bull’s-eyes on the bedside table;
a plastic tumbler of alka seltzer
champagnes in the bathroom.

No help from his body, the whale’s
warm-hearted blubber, foundering down
leagues of ocean, gasping whiteness.
The barbed hooks fester. The lines snap tight.

When he looks for neighbours, their names blur in the window,
his distracted eye sees only glass sky.
His despair has the galvanized colour
of the mop and water in the galvanized bucket.

Once she was close to him
as water to the dead metal.

He looks at her engagements inked on her calendar.
A list of indictments.
At the numbers in her thumbed black telephone book.
A quiver full of arrows.

Her absence hisses like steam,
the pipes sing…
even corroded metal somehow functions.
He snores in his iron lung,
and hears the voice of Eve,
beseeching freedom from the Garden’s
perfect and ponderous bubble. No voice
outsings the serpent’s flawed, euphoric hiss.

The cheese wilts in the rat-trap,
the milk turns to junket in the cornflakes bowl,
car keys and razor blades
shine in an ashtray.

Is he killing time? Out on the street,
two cops on horseback clop through the April rain
to check the parking meter violations –
their oilskins yellow as forsythia.

– Robert Lowell, ‘The Drinker’

Sometimes it’s fun to just turn over and wallow.

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February 26, 2006

Baby Pictures / Next time, use the diaper on the other end

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:43 pm by falstaff

Okay, that’s it. I swear, the next time some stupid couple sends me a picture of their newly-born I’m opening it in Photo Editor, replacing the head with the image of a pool of blood and sending it back to them with a note saying “Here’s a picture of your baby. Headless.”

I mean, what is it with these people, anyway? If they want to be that most disgusting sub-species of all – proud parents – let them do it in the privacy of their own homes. Why should they assume that I’m going to appreciate having pictures of their little monsters foisted on me – that too before breakfast (gah!)? I don’t go around sending them pictures of disgusting things that come out of my body, do I? Well then.

At any rate, here are the Top Ten Ways to respond when someone sends you pictures of their baby:

1. “Ooh! That looks yummy! Is that marinara sauce? You must send me the recipe!”

2. “Isn’t she cute!! I specially love the way she screws up her eyes. That’s exactly the way her mother looks just before she reaches orgasm.”

3. “That’s terrible! I hope you’re suing the hospital for malpractise. Let me know if you want me to start a petition or something.”

4. “Nice. What breed is it?”

5. “Congratulations!! I took one look at the new bookshelf in the corner of that picture, and I just totally fell in love with it. It’s so GORGEOUS! Did you get it from Ikea? How long did delivery take? How much did it weigh?”

6. “ARE YOU CRAZY?! Sending out pictures of your child on the Internet like that – all unprotected and everything! Don’t you know how many viruses there are floating around on the Net. What will you do if your baby catches one of them through his picture?” (Hey, they just had a baby, how smart could they be?)

7. “I loved the pictures of your baby. In fact, I loved them so much that I posted them on E-bay for you. You now need to send your baby special delivery to Mr. Elmer Fruitshanks in Boise, Idaho. On the plus side, did you know your baby was worth $ 8.99?”

8. “I don’t know. It’s cute, but what is it trying to SAY?? Where’s the urgency, where’s the PASSION?? What happened to the aesthetic rebellion that marked so much of your earlier work? Try again. This time use more blue.”

9. “Interesting. Just to put this in perspective, I’m enclosing a picture of a used condom. Which do YOU think is going to be easier to get rid off?”

10. “Thanks for your pictures. They were just the thing I was looking for. By the way, if you happen to be in New York next weekend, I’m giving a talk on the topic “Why Ugly People should not be allowed to Mate”. It would be great if you could attend. Feel free to bring the baby.”

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February 25, 2006

The Gathering

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:32 pm by falstaff

One by one, they gather around him, the old masters. The shuffling of their feet in the crowded room like the sound of papers shifting in a thin breeze. Their presence like a stifled cough.

They are all here – the grave and the shrill, the poetic and the profound, the daring and the sincere. Row upon row of them, forming a circle around his chair, enclosing him in their accumulated gravity.

Where have they all come from? Who has brought them here? And why? Or have they perhaps come unsummoned, sensing his need with an instinct for language as strong as a hound’s for blood?

He realises there will be no excuse now. No reason he can give, no way to blame his own reluctance on the lack of another. In their assembled faces he sees a judgement that contains both wisdom and sternness. From what these voices have to offer, he knows, there will be no reprieve.

And yet what is it that he is supposed to learn from them, exactly? What is their advice, their message? Do they even have one? Are they not, rather, a crowd of stamping feet, muddying the precious clarity of the still puddle that is his mind? A collection of clear, swift rivers, that, taken together, make one restless sea?

The high brows of the masters frown down upon him. Yes, it is true. This too is an excuse. The truth is he ought to be grateful for their presence, grateful that they are here for him. He tries to listen to what they have to say. As their voices fill his head, he can feel himself being not rewritten, but erased, as though the page of his thought were turning blank, its whiteness taunting him to start anew.

When he is sure that there are enough of them (or as many as he can bear), he stands up from his chair and says “Thank you for coming. I am deeply grateful to have you with me.”

People turn to stare at him. The librarian looks outraged, shushes him to silence. The books say nothing, their spines glowing softly in the ripened dusk.

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Random Thought # 461

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:37 am by falstaff

If there’s a Hell, does it have ushers?

“Good evening, madam, may I help you? Ah, yes, let me see now. That would be in the fourth circle, centre section. Walk up these stairs here – it’s the 214th row from the back, you’ll be next to that gentlemen with the leeches stuck all over his naked body. You’re welcome. Have an unpleasant eternity!”

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Pastoral

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:10 am by falstaff

You know that feeling when you’re sitting with someone you love on a quiet evening, by a fireplace, and you run your fingers fondly through her hair, feeling the smoothness of it, the familiar shape of the skull underneath, the remembered groove of the skin behind her ear? The way you let your fingers linger on nape of her neck and instant longer than necessary, so that that one moment of touch carries with it a lifetime of longing, of intimacy?

That’s how Christoph Eschenbach conducted Beethoven’s Sixth tonight – like the caress of an old friend. It was a fascinating performance – one that made up in serenity and languor what it lacked in momentum. Here was no surprise, no sudden lark of a note soaring high into the air, instead there was the sense of great calm that is nature’s, the sound of it soothing, almost consoling. As though Eschenbach, knowing full well that everyone in his audience would have heard the Sixth before, decided to bring out the nostalgia in Beethoven’s symphony, rounding out its edges, accentuating its curves, and giving it a sweet richness of tone. Tonight’s performance of that slow movement ranks among the finest I’ve heard. And if the other movements seemed tame in comparison, but that’s a small price to pay.

All in all, an interesting performance (it’s always impressive when you go to listen to a piece that’s almost hopelessly familiar, and come back with something, anything, you’ve not heard before). Plus there was the added bonus of a post-concert concert featuring one of the violinists from the Orchestra performing Beethoven’s Second Violin Sonata, complete with its Andante piu tosto Allegretto, a heartbreaking gem of a movement – one of Beethoven’s finest.

All in all, an evening well spent.

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February 23, 2006

Tagging along

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:46 pm by falstaff

There’s this bit in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity where someone (finally) asks the narrator what his Top 5 records of all time are. Faced with this question, the narrator, despite having spent pretty much all his adult life creating Top 5 lists of songs / albums and being generally a total music freak, can’t for the life of him come up with a ready answer. The problem isn’t that he doesn’t have a Top 5 list – the problem is that he has too many, so that when the moment finally arrives, there’s no way he can fit all the deserving music into one top 5 list. It’s a hilarious scene.

That’s pretty much how I felt when I saw Shoe-fiend’s tag this morning. When you spend half your life thinking about books, it’s almost impossible to fit any coherent information about them into one tiny little book tag. It’s like those forms where they say ‘Tell us about yourself’ and give you all of two lines to fill out. That may be okay if you’re Paris Hilton, but for any real human being it’s almost impossible to know where to start.

Still, I’ve never been able to resist the temptation to talk about books, even if only through a random book tag, so here goes:

Total number of books I own

(Ah! That one I can actually tell you. Exactly. One of the benefits of being a hyper-anal control freak is that I’ve actually counted the precise number of books in my bookshelf back in India, so instead of giving you some general estimate I can actually do this right. Let’s see – that would be 618 books in India, plus 102 books here – making it 720 books. There. If you want more granularity, I can even tell you that these include some 178 books of poetry (127 in India, 51 here).

Oh, but wait, my friend R has a dozen or so of my books that I left behind with him when I moved out of Bombay. And I think M still has a couple of my books. And what about books that people have borrowed from me and not returned? Do those count? I have no real hope of ever seeing them again, but that doesn’t mean I’ve renounced my claim of ownership. But adding all of that would make it…Oh, dammit)

Say ~ 725 – 750 books. Not including text-books / management books of course (that’s work)

Last book(s) I bought:

Michael Ondaatje: The Cinammon Peeler

(suddenly realised I didn’t actually own that! Much trauma)

Eugenio Montale: Collected Poems 1920 – 1954

Last book I read:

Okay, first of all, you have to understand that I often read multiple books in parallel, so which the last book I read is depends on whether you measure by the last book completed, or the last book I started and have managed to complete. To eliminate such technicalities, the books I read over the last three days are:

Amitav Ghosh: Incendiary Circumstances

(See my review here)

Imre Kertesz: Fatelessness

(A glorious book – Kertesz is phenomenal in every sense of the term – except that every time I read him, I’m reminded of this line from a Ramanujan poem that talks about how his mother’s taste for bitter gourds reappears in his daughter’s craving for Dostoyevsky. That’s even truer of Kertesz, I think)

Books I’m currently reading

Cesare Pavese: Disaffections (Complete Poems)

(clearly, it’s Italian poet month)

Ismail Kadare: The General of the Dead Army

(I’ve never read Kadare – so figured it was time)

Joan Didion: After Henry

(Part of my long-term project to read through all of Joan Didion’s work over the next year)

Five books that I’ve really enjoyed or have influenced me

Right. Here’s where I just cannot bring myself to pick five books. So I’m going to compromise (i.e. cheat). I’m going to come up with five categories of books. Then I’m going to pick five books in each category. And if you think that’s unfair, you should come and see the kind of trauma I went through making these choices. I’ve spent pretty much the whole day agonising about them. Any more and it would be like Sophie’s Choice (ah, one more book sneaked in! No, no, that one doesn’t count.) [1]

1. Fiction

Franz Kafka: Complete Stories

(I don’t actually own this edition – more’s the pity – but have read pretty much all its contents)

Jane Austen: Emma

Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities

Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse

(This edition, unlike mine, has an introduction by Eudora Welty. Oooh!)

J. R. R. Tolkien: The Silmarillion

(I’m tempted to put this in non-fiction, actually)

2. Non-fiction

Henry David Thoreau: Walden

Friedrich Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil

(Nietzsche writes, speaking of the Will to Truth: “We did indeed pause for a long time before the question of the origin of this will – until finally we came to a halt before an even more fundamental question. We asked after the value of this will. Granted we want truth: why not rather untruth?”)

Robert Graves: The White Goddess

(have you ever had that experience where you read a book and it tells you what you’ve always known but never managed to verbalise? This is a book that sends shivers down my spine)

Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

(You knew this one was coming, didn’t you?)

Colin Wilson: The Outsider

(Wilson’s book figures here only because it dictated so much of my own reading when I was 20 / 21; as a book that influenced my life, it’s hard to overlook)

3. Poetry

T.S. Eliot: Collected Poems 1909 – 1962

(one of the five first books of poetry I ever bought. And perhaps the only book where I can recite some 80% of the contents from memory)

Derek Walcott: Omeros

(Walcott is so relentlessly magnificient)

Sylvia Plath: Collected Poems

(I know, I know. Talk about being predictable. But this is Plath, after all)

Rainer Maria Rilke: Ahead of all parting – Selected Poetry

(I never entirely appreciated Stephen Mitchell’s translation until I read some other version of Rilke and realised how terrible they were by comparison)

Arun Kolatkar: Jejuri

(Finally, finally, an international edition. Thank you Amit Chaudhuri. If you never read any other Indian poetry in English, you must, simply must, read this one)

4. Plays

William Shakespeare: The Complete Plays

(There is no way I’m going to pick between Shakespeare. I mean okay, so you can safely take out Merry Wives of Windsor and Love’s Labour Lost and stuff, but you can’t seriously ask me to choose between Lear, Hamlet, Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Henry IV plays. I should say, though, that I’m fundamentally opposed to Shakespeare’s Complete Works editions and don’t actually own one. I believe in buying the plays individually. I don’t understand how anyone can read one of these massive monster editions. )

Tennessee Williams: The Glass Menagerie

(“I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion”. True beauty is always this fragile, this helpless.)

Samuel Beckett: The Dramatic Works

(Again, I can’t bring myself to pick one. And besides, with Beckett, you could argue they’re not different plays at all, just one play endlessly repeated so that it’s different each time)

Sophocles: The Theban Plays

(By rights, this should be in poetry. But whatever)

Oscar Wilde: The Plays

(The genius of being perfectly trivial)

5. Others

Art Spiegelman: Maus

Goscinny and Uderzo: The Asterix Series

(I couldn’t skip this one. What if the sky fell on my head?)

Barbara Minto: The Pyramid Principle

(There isn’t a day goes by when I don’t wish more people had read this book)

Richmal Crompton: The William Series

(How many books can give you the same amount of pleasure whether you read them at 8, 18 or 28?)

Agha Shahid Ali: In Memory of Begum Akhtar

(This one for purely sentimental reasons – I personally think it’s one of Shahid’s least accomplished books, but it’s the one book of poetry we had lying around the house when I was a kid, and it set off a chain reaction that is still going)

Books I plan to buy next

(aka, the contents of my Amazon Wishlist)

Alexander Pushkin: Eugene Onegin (the Nabokov translation)

Constantin Cavafy: Collected Works

(I’ve read this, of course, but think it’s important to own them. What if I suddenly get the urge to read Cavafy and the library is shut?)

Donald Justice: Collected Poems

James Merrill: Collected Poems

(I should emphasise, that I tend to buy only poetry now – novels I typically just issue out and read. Mom, Dad – you can go back to breathing now.)

Books that caught my attention but I’ve never read:

Soren Kierkegaard: Either / Or

Saul Bellow: The Adventures of Augie March

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Tycoon

Rabelias: Gargantua and Pantagruel

(A book which I own as of January this year, but haven’t read yet)

Turgenev: First Love and other stories

Books I own but have never got around to reading

Thomas Paine: The Rights of Man

James Joyce: Finnegan’s Wake

(well, technically, I’ve read the first four pages some three times. That’s about how long my nerve holds out)

Vaslav Nijinsky: The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky

John Dryden: Collected Works

Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie

People I’m passing this on to:

No one. (Yes, the buck stops here). If you’re reading this and enjoyed it and feel like you want to share your own list, consider yourself tagged. I’m not going to pick on anyone in particular. Though if you got this far, I’d love to read what you come up with, so don’t feel shy about adding your own name to the comments section of this post.

Notes

[1] Books within each category are in no particular order

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February 22, 2006

And the rain it raineth 32.65% every day

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:43 pm by falstaff

What’s with all these ‘chance of precipitation’ percentages you get in weather forecasts nowadays? Remember the good old days when the day was going to be either ‘sunny’ or have a ‘chance of rain’ or ‘light showers’ ? So much more evocative than saying 20% or 30% or 40%. I mean, back then you could stand in your window with your jaw tightly clenched and watch the rain pouring down and take pride in the fact that you were living through an honest to god ‘Thunderstorm’ – no, really, look, it said so in the paper. Now you’re just another in an endless series of statistics – just some poor, lonely 80% stuck inside your apartment.

I mean to begin with, what are these numbers supposed to mean anyway? Is 30% probability high? Is 40%? Look, I’m as good with numbers as the next guy, but do you really think I want to spend precious minutes of my day trying to weigh the actuarial pros and cons of carrying an umbrella?I mean okay, so if I were trying to forecast the yield of rice in Western Punjab or something, I could see how % chance of precipitation would be useful, but I just want to know if there’s a chance I could get wet, for crying out loud. What do I need the stupid weather forecast for if I’m going to have make up my own mind anyway? It’s the certainty one read weather forecasts for, the blithe arrogance of voice that proclaimed that the day would be sunny, and brooked no dissent. Never mind if it actually turned out to be the rainiest day of the year, and you got caught in a downpour and your favourite coat turned into the pelt of a mangy hyena – at least you had someone else to blame. “But the newspaper said it was going to be sunny”, you could plainitively bleat, and the day’s scapegoat would be duly slaughtered by those around you.

Now, of course, the decision’s left up to you. Oh, you can still claim that the weather forecast gave you misleading information, but that’s like saying you thought there were WMD’s in Iraq – the responsibility’s still yours. This means you have to agonise over it. All those old phrases about pessimists and optimists and glasses full and empty come back to haunt you. Is a 10% probability of rain reason to carry an umbrella? Am I just being paranoid? Maybe I’m obsessive compulsive. Maybe I’m going to end up like Jack Nicholson in that movie. Or worse, like Jack Nicholson in that other movie. Or like Jack Nicholson in that third one. Or like Jack Nicholson in real life! Help!. See – all that trauma just because some snivelling Princeton graduate of a copy editor decided to save 6 characters of type in the weather column. Was it worth it, I ask you?

The worst part about these percentages is the sense of hope they give you. I mean in the old days it would just say ‘Rain’ and that was it. You would stay home. You would make yourself some cocoa. You would bring out the little solitaire table and your deck of cards. When the sunshine came beaming through your window you would smile and shake your head. You weren’t going to fall into that trap, no sirree, you’d read your weather forecast – they weren’t going to get you that easy. When the whole day passed and it didn’t rain at all, you’d tell yourself you were being prudent. Why take a risk with your health? Better to save it for a rainy day. Or whatever.

Now, though, it says 80%. Which means (you do the math at your usual lightening speed) that there’s a 20% chance that it won’t rain. You decide to think positively for a change. You look scornfully at people wandering about with umbrellas – why is everyone so pessimistic these days, you think to yourself. After you’ve finished changing out of your damp clothes you brood over the injustice of it all. It could have stayed clear and it didn’t. This is no longer just about the weather – it’s about your personal bad luck. Things never work out for you, do they? You must have done something to deserve it. You feel vaguely guilty for not making that 20% chance come true.

People who like these percentages will argue that it gives you more information. Fair enough. Let’s say you really want to build a full-blown economic model to help you decide whether you should wear that raincoat / carry that umbrella. Would just telling you the probability that it will rain be enough? What about the probability that there’ll be a gusting wind and the rain will be coming at you horizontally and you’ll end up getting drenched anyway? What about the probability that your cheap import of an umbrella will choose the one moment when the rain is pouring down heaviest to get blown away or bent out of shape? What about the probability, that you’ll step out of your door and stand there for the next five minutes cursing your umbrella because it won’t open. What about the probability that the person you’re having dinner with will not bother to bring her raincoat and so you’ll have to do the chivalrous thing and give her yours (MR are you listening?)? What about the probability that just as you’re getting to office all dry under your umbrella and congratulating yourself on having read and correctly interpreted the 60% chance of rain, some speed demon of a bus will go through a puddle and drench you through and through? If you really want me to figure out whether it’s worth carrying an umbrella or not, how about giving me some of the facts I really need, instead of this one piffling number?

The one good thing about these % things (I have to admit) is that they give you hourly forecasts, so you can really plan your life. What you want to go for dinner NOW? Are you kidding me? Didn’t you see that the chance of rain just quadrupled from 5% to 20% two minutes ago? I’m not going out in that!

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February 21, 2006

Bhishma Redux

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:09 pm by falstaff

Right, now for a spot of mythological revisionism.

STATUTORY WARNING: If you’re one of those people who get all devout and uptight about the Mahabharat and feel that all mythological icons should be respected and worshipped and stuff – DO NOT read this post. Or, rather, read it (it might clear your sinuses) but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

It has long been a theory of mine, that Bhishma (or Bhishm, I’d rather not put in these irritating a’s at the end) was gay [1].

Here’s the official version of the Bhishm story (or at least the version as gleaned from Irawati Karve’s Yuganta, the TV version of Mahabharat and Amar Chitra Katha) [2]. He’s a prince of Hastinapur who discovers that his father has the hots for some fisherwoman, except said fisherwoman won’t sleep with him unless he can guarantee that her offspring, and not Bhishm, will become king. Bhishm, hearing of this, not only renounces the throne, but, to put the matter to rest forever, takes a vow of life-long celibacy. So committed is he to this vow that even when the welfare of the Kaurav empire requires that a heir be produced, and Bhishm emerges as the logical sperm donor for this enterprise, he refuses to father a child and safeguard the empire, thereby setting of a chain of events that leads inexorably to the split between the Kauravs and the Pandavs and the great war that was fought between them. In this war, Bhishm is originally the leader of the Kaurav forces, and proves an almost insurmountable opponent to the Pandavs, until they use the fact that Bhishm will not fight Shikhandi to defeat him. Bhishm will not fight Shikhandi, we are told, because Shikhandi used to be a woman and Bhishm does not fight women. How chivalrous! How noble!

If you think about it for a minute, this story doesn’t really hold water. First, the bit about Bhishm being this chivalrous old world type is a little hard to buy. I mean, remember, the whole point about the Amba thing was that he went around abducting these women so they could marry what’s his name and keep the dynasty going. And then he wouldn’t do the square thing by Amba. Hardly what you would call a chivalrous act. If he was willing to drive Amba to suicide when she was a woman, why not be prepared to kill her when she’d been reborn as a man? More importantly, this is the same Bhishm who did nothing, if memory serves, when the whole Draupadi striptease thing was going down. Surely allowing a defenseless young woman to be stripped naked by a hundred horny men is a lot less chivalrous than killing one former woman who’s attacking you in battle. At this point, Bhishm apologists will argue that the Shikhandi thing was just an excuse, that Bhishm just chose to die. Or that it was his way of atoning for the one wrong he ever committed. But that just feels too easy.

As for the Bhishm’s great vow – even that, when you think about it, seems problematic. Are we really to believe that a young man (a prince no less) would not just give up his rightful throne, he would give up on sex for the rest of his life just so his father could sleep with some woman? And in doing so, give his consent to a request that went against every established precedent of primogeniture? Was such an extreme vow even necessary, you might ask? Could he have bargained for, and got away with less? And why go on with the vow when it clearly made no sense for the empire? When Satyavati actually pleaded with him to renounce it? The traditional version of the story will argue that this was a great and noble thing to do, but it’s always struck me as being unbelievably obtuse. It’s not just that it was bad policy for the state, it’s also that, in refusing to break his vow, Bhishm actually overturned the code of patrilineal succession – neither the Pandavs nor the Kauravs were related by any ties of blood to the original line of the kings of Hastinapur (though they were, of course, related to Satyavati, so that succession, amazingly, had become matrilineal – so much for patriarchy!). Think about the codes that the Kshatriyas lived by and ask yourself if that isn’t extreme. Think about the fact that is a man who wouldn’t fight a woman after she’d ‘turned into a man’ but was okay with letting the succession of his kingdom pass out of his father’s bloodline.

You could argue that it was a question of personal honour – even though a fairly idiotic type of honour. But notice that to overcome the problems this vow of his caused, Bhishm had to essentially set up a whole bunch of fairly dishonourable acts. There’s the whole Amba story, for one. Plus you now have a set-up where someone who’s virtually an outsider has to be brought in to impregnate the queens of Hastinapur. So that the kings of Hastinapur are now effectively children born out of wedlock and fathered by a man who was also born out of wedlock. So much for family honour!

Here’s what I think is really going on.

Let’s start with Bhishm’s birth. The first thing we’re told about him is that his mother tried to kill him when he was a baby. If that won’t guarantee that you’re going to grow up having issues with women I don’t know what will. The next thing we know, he’s back as the prince and heir to the throne of Hastinapur, and pretty much the first thing he does is go and vow to have no children. And remember this is in an age when there’s no birth control, so no children pretty much means no sex. How unbelievably hard would that be for a young man to promise (and for what?) – unless he was homosexual, in which case it would be a really convenient way of getting permanently out of all this fathering princes for the kingdom nonsense. It’s not even like his father seriously proposed this to him – he went out and found the fisherman in question and pretty much browbeat him into accepting this vow. What an unbelievable masterstroke for him. How he must have laughed his head off – not only does he get out of doing something he doesn’t want to do, he becomes a hero for it!

The rest follows easily enough. Every time the situation demands that Bhishm breaks his vow, he falls back on this notion of honour, simply because it’s easier to use the vow as an excuse than to make the point that he simply doesn’t want to. As for Shikhandi – that’s the most obvious bit, isn’t it? All this woman turning into man stuff is so much gobbledy-gook. Shikhandi’s simply a former lover of Bhishm’s, one who, for whatever reasons, has gone over to the Pandav’s side and who Bhishm will not attack because he still thinks of him as a ‘woman’ that is to say, as a beloved.

Obviously, there’s no way I can prove this is true (anymore than anyone can prove it was false – if anything, we KNOW that Bhishm never slept with a woman). Nor am I a major Mahabharat scholar. I just think it fits the facts of the case so much better than the traditional explanation that it’s at least worth thinking about. For all you know, that might even have been the original version of the story, and it’s only centuries of intolerance and silly prudishness that have distorted it to produce the tale we now know.

Notes

[1] If you haven’t already figured this out from reading my blog, I’m a strong supporter of gay rights and of ‘non-traditional’ sexual preferences in general. So when I say I think Bhishm was gay, I absolutely DO NOT mean that as being denigrating – if anything it would raise my respect for him considerably. Then he wouldn’t be some clueless old fraud, he would be pretty much the smartest person in that whole story.

[2] Obviously there’s a lot more to the Bhishm story, but this is the important stuff.

[3] N.B. If you want an even more fun hypothesis you can go the Terry Pratchett route and argue that Bhishm was really a woman. But that’s a whole other post.

[4] Oh, and what about all that stuff about him lying on a bed of arrows? Talk about phallic symbolism.

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February 20, 2006

The discontent of our winter

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:36 pm by falstaff

Winter arrived yesterday. Like mislaid baggage. Or a schoolbus you were hoping you’d missed. I stepped out of my apartment building and the cold slapped me in the face like an indignant mistress*. Every breath I took was like gargling with razors. Compared to this my refrigerator is a warm, fuzzy dog. Half way down the block I realised that these things gnawing at the side of my face were really my ears – I didn’t worry too much about them though – it was clear they’d be falling off soon.

The trouble with my body is that it has a fundamentally imperialist perspective on blood circulation. It recognises that it needs all these distant, foreign parts, all these far-flung colonies of toes and fingers, but it figures you’ve got to give the natives the minimum possible otherwise they’re just going to get uppity. So on even the mildest of winter days my hands will habitually be the kind of temperature that’s guaranteed to make marble shiver. Worse, my jaw will freeze up till I have the diction of a neanderthal with too tight braces. “Aw won ko-po-ke-kho” I’ll say, pointing desperately at the board, and the helpful lady behind the Starbucks counter will stare at me like I’m speaking Gagauz for a minute or two before the light of realisation dawns in her eyes and she goes and fixes me a Mocha Frappuccino to make me feel better this sub-zero morning. (You should see the hurt in her eyes when I finally manage to explain to her that I want a cappuccino, not a frappuccino – like, how was she supposed to know that I would want HOT coffee when the temperature was just 0 F outside).

But that’s not the worst part, of course. The worst part is when you finally get back to your house and pull off gloves-hat-scarf and sink into the warmth of your chair, and your nerves, having watched the action thus far from a numb distance, decide to bestir themselves and join the festivities. So for the next ten minutes you discover what an ice cube must feel like when you drop it into your drink. You thaw. You melt. Your ears feel like they’re on loan from an elephant for the sheer radius of the pain. You decide feeling is overrated. What’s wrong with having just four senses anyway? You try to tell yourself that the fact that you can feel the pain is a good thing – it means you haven’t, as per your earlier hypothesis, got frostbite. This makes you think of amputations with a certain tender fondness. You wonder if you’ll still be able to listen to your iPod if your ears really do fall off.

It’s just when you’ve finally got yourself acclimatized to the room that you open the refrigerator to make yourself some hot chocolate and realise that you’ve forgotten to get the milk.

The thing I really hate about winters in the US is their deceptiveness. I mean, at least back in Delhi** when it gets really cold, the days look appropriately glum. The sky glowers at you, the streets put on their drabbest, most faded colours. Any sunlight that actually puts in an appearance has the decency to look suitably sheepish and abashed – like it’s only there because your mother knows its mother. But here you take a look out of the window and it’ll be a joyous and cheerful day. The sky will be the most glorious azure. The sunlight will have that blonde, beaming look of hostesses on television quiz shows. You’ll stand at the window like some mouse staring at a piece of great, golden cheese. You know it’s a trap, but you think to yourself, “just a little nibble of a walk” and you step out of your house and the cold grabs you. Is that fair, I ask you? Shouldn’t consumer groups be doing something about this? Shouldn’t the surgeon general’s office be sending up planes to write warnings across the sky in big white letters. Shouldn’t days like yesterday come with a little tag that says ‘do not remove under penalty of law’?

What price the sunny side of the street if you’ve still got wind chill?

Also, forgive me for being anal, but is anyone up there looking at the calendar? I mean, it’s February people – the days are supposed to be getting warmer, not plunging towards absolute zero with all the grace of a Russian submarine. I’ve heard of better late than never but this is just plain ridiculous.

Thanks a lot, weather gods. Next time, use Fed Ex. At least that way we’ll get our Winter on time.

*Not that I’ve ever had an indignant mistress, of course. Apparently you need to be rich enough to buy diamond necklaces and the like to have mistresses. If you’re just a poor PhD student and can’t afford stuff like that, all you get is the indignation.

** Contrary to popular rumour, there is, of course, no such thing as a Bombay Winter.

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Sometimes I almost wish I were wrong / who’s your doggie now?

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:03 am by falstaff

A couple of weeks ago, in comments to a post about the whole Danish cartoon thing (a comments track that I never managed to keep up with – sorry!) I expressed my horror at discovering that India actually had laws (laws, mind you!) that allowed people to be prosecuted for actions that give offence to religious sensibilities. My argument was that this was absurd, because (among other things) religion was fundamentally illogical (or rather infra-logical) anyway, so there was really no saying what might constitute an offense against it (my comments to that post have a longer discussion of this). You could effectively throw pretty much anyone in prison by arguing that he / she had insulted your religion in some way or the other.

Then today morning I see this post by Uma talking about how a journalist got thrown into prison for submitting a story about the name of a film-star’s dog, because some zealot somewhere found the story offensive. Doesn’t that sound like something out of a Kundera novel? The scariest part about the whole thing is the way the newspaper report Uma links to tippy-toes around telling us what the article actually said or what the name of the dog was that gave such offense – presumably for fear of having more of their reporters hauled off to prison. So much for freedom of the press.

Meanwhile, if someone does know what the alleged name of the dog was (even if it turned out not to be true – and I wonder if it became not true after the original article got published) would you mind telling me? I don’t read the ToI in general, but I’d love to know. And if it offends some random fanatics out there, so much the better.

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