Jun 30, 2011

On loving the Other

Of late I have been reading a lot of 'gay' literature – novels as well as essays – some as old as early 20th century and some quite recent. Most of it is interesting, some of it appears perennially outraged and detrimental to the cause it is supposedly espousing. All of it has one thing in common – the pain of forbidden love. The same pain that Alice Munro explored with such intuitiveness in Brokeback Mountain. 

However, i also realise it is not quite as simple as that. The pain also stems from the knowledge that for the rest of your life, all your social interactions, the labels being attached to your name, the impressions people form about you will largely flow from the single choice of how or who you chose to make love to. Anal and oral define you, not what skills you have, or what piano pieces you can play or which soccer team you support. If i was younger, i'd be full of anger. Now, i just feel sad. 

I came across this poem written by a 28-yr old gay crusader for a magazine. I liked its simplicity.

The Boy Scout Pledge
I Solemnly Swear,
Never to tell the Scoutmaster.
Never to tell the others. Never to let such
Knowledge leave this tent, Never to acknowledge you
Again, Never to tighten your handkerchief again, Never to
Look in your eyes again, Never to race soapbox derby in
The sand with you again, Never to read Whitman as you
Cuddle till you sleep, Never to creep, carefully to the lake
With you again, Never to take wildflowers
To your tent again, Never to cry for you again, Never to tie
Knots in each other’s hair,
Never to breathe your air,
Never to touch your inner thigh,
Never to catch your stare.
Never to be two boys together, clinging.
Never to dare.

By Michael Glatze


Jun 23, 2011

Notes on The Year of Magical Thinking

Disclaimer: Long, deeply personal post ahead.

There are some important books in our lives. Not all books we love fall into this category – only the ‘important’ ones. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (TYOMT) is an important book.

Reading it was a little like watching Peepli Live & Millon Dollar Baby or reading Moon and the Sixpence – all works of art that I believe left me subtly altered. Not happier or sadder, just changed like the landscape changes after the parking lot has been reduced in size to broaden the sidewalk. Perhaps that’s why my response to this book is so visceral, so urgent, so intimate. In writing this post I was aware of a feeling of self-consciousness that my response to it may seem maudlin, or extreme & melodramatic. Then I thought – aren't these useless labels which we use when we cannot bring ourselves to feel things the way the other does?

The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion's 13th book which she completed in Dec 2004 (in 88 days flat), 10 months after her husband, celebrated writer John Dunne, collapsed from a fatal coronary attack as the couple were having dinner. The suddenness of the incident, the suddenness of any deeply-felt loss, no matter how prepared we think we are, is what is expressed in the repeated refrain - “You sit down for dinner and life as you know it changes in an instant.”

John Dunne died in Dec 2003 while their daughter Quintana was in the ICU of a NY hospital fighting pneumonia and septic shock. The first half of the book is interspersed with references to her 40-years’ married life with John, and the present circumstances where Quintana suffers one setback after another. At the end of the book, Quintana is slowly recuperating. Yet, little did Didion know at the time she completed this memoir that she hadn’t seen the end of it all. Some 7 months after the book's release, Quintana finally succumbed to a last bout of fatal infection and died in August 2005. This is a difficult book to read because from the onset you are privy to a knowledge that the author is unaware of as she tries to cope with her grief. The reader reads every word soaked in the knowledge that Didion has suffered a double bereavement but Didion herself was not aware of that as she wrote TYOMT! I found this the greatest travesty.

To one who hasn’t read the book, it may seem that TYOMT is maudlin or a tear-jerker. Nothing can be further from the truth. Didion is foremost an essayist, not a novelist, given to writing precise, well distributed verbal arrangements that make their point strongly without betraying any hint of subjectivity. The temperature of her prose is always moderate, her tone composed and even, yet you know she is screaming. You know it because it is not possible to bear what she has borne and stay poised and articulate like she does mostly.

TYOMT may be read as a sort of warning, a handbook to prepare us for overwhelming grief – grief as opposed to sadness. As I was reading this book I remember thinking that how strange it was that the parents, schools and teachers who teach us so much about life, fail to teach and equip us to deal with grief – such a fundamental life experience. Such grief is always rooted in deep loss and though here, it is ostensibly the loss of a much-loved husband of 40 years, it could be the loss of your dog or the ability to sing anymore. Irreversible loss is loss after all.

One of the reasons I found her memoir compelling was because almost everything that Didion writes she did in the days following Dunne’s death, I remember having done at some point in my life. It is a strange mix of paranoia and superstition where you believe giving up your favourite food, will accomplish this, or not watching films for an entire year will accomplish that. I am sure such rituals of punishment are familiar to all of us. In Didion’s case they manifest in a slightly different manner. She refuses to give away John’s shoes wondering what would he wear when he returned. It is as if, by not entertaining certain unpleasant facts, she can avoid their eventuality. Almost obsessively she also avoids certain places and people, who she refers to as ‘vortex’, that she is afraid will trigger painful memories of John. This is the ‘magical thinking’ of the title – a clinical condition Freud refers to where we compulsively do certain things and avoid others to influence the outcome of a potentially hopeless situation .

Another reason why the book resonated with me is because like Didion I usually feel compelled to ‘act’, ‘to do’, ‘to understand’ when disaster strikes. Not for me the passive mourning. The ‘act’ is the only means I have to thwart disaster, it is the last defense in a callous universe. If I can analyse the roots of disaster, I can prevent them and maybe crawl out of them. It is like asking your lover, without breaking down, as he’s about to depart forever, ‘What do you think are those three traits in me which would keep a man from returning my love?” This is exactly what Didion does in the year following John’s death. She pores over autopsy reports and previous health records, and reads up extensively to ‘understand’ why what happened to John happened. We are told that she had been taught from childhood to “go to the literature” in “time of trouble,” read everything she could get her hands on. The aphorism ‘Knowledge is power’ never had a more avid disciple than in Didion. Didion’s first instinct after John's fatal heart attack in their apartment had been to try and "master" the event by doing everything she could to understand it. If she could marshal the facts, then surely she would be able to explain them. As if the explanation alone would lessen the suffering; as if loss can ever be explained.

Later, attempting to understand her own response to grief – the sense of disorientation, the physical symptoms, the feeling of fading away – she refers to medical journals by eminent psychiatrists and even an early 20th century book on “funeral etiquette,” by Emily Post where people tending to those who’d suffered a loss should “prepare a little hot tea or broth and it should be brought to them . . . without their being asked if they would care for it. Those who are in great distress want no food, but if it is handed to them, they will mechanically take it.” Didion endorses this book because, as she says, “There was something arresting about the matter-of-fact wisdom here. [Post] wrote in a world in which mourning was still recognized, allowed, not hidden from view.” Today, we inhabit a world where it is ok to talk of celebrity break-ups and corporate bailouts but a social taboo to reveal the soul’s ravaged centre.

A good book is supposed to change something intrinsic about you. As I read TYOMT, I resolved I’d have to stop crying about the things I usually do – films, books, street kids, personal matters. Somehow, it seemed a travesty that my only response to grief had been saline water. As a reader, I owed it to Didion to stop them. Strange, but true. Every time I approached a section where I felt their threatening presence, I’d put the book aside and force myself to think of something else, like she frequently does.

Towards the end Didion writes that this is the first book she has written after her 1st one which Dunne had not seen and commented on in the draft stage, hence it felt like a kind of betrayal and she wanted to get it off her chest as fast as she could. As you read, it becomes obvious that wise and old and privileged with a great imagination as she is, Didion never really imagined life without John. This is not just about grief, it is also about marriage as it should be.

One of the things that she says and I nodded to fiercely was that grief is nothing like what you expected - “"Grief when it comes, it is nothing we expect it to be" - therefore, you can never be prepared. Grief is intrinsically tied to loss and we are powerless to sufficiently anticipate and replicate loss until we are actually ravaged by it. To know grief is to experience meaninglessness. No wonder she says, “Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”

How do you face life after you have witnessed meaninglessness? “You write your way out of it,” Didion once said. Perhaps, she is correct. In a world where nothing remains and everything is meaningless, perhaps it is our words that offer any hope of salvation.

Jun 20, 2011

"This happened on December 30 2003. That may seem a while ago but it won't when it happens to you. And it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you. 
That's what I'm here to tell you.
You see me on this stage, you sit next to me on a plane, you run into me at dinner, you know what happened to me. You don't want to think it could happen to you."

 'The Year of Magical Thinking' - winner of National Book Award, 2005.

Jun 12, 2011

On Poetry

I developed a taste for poetry rather late in life, despite having read it extensively as part of the curriculum in university. What I mean is – for recreational reading I’d always gravitate towards prose and not poetry. I rediscovered poetry during my stint abroad. I remember reading Deborah Ager and Michael Burch as the sunlight outsight the Union City library streamed over the pages of the hardbound volume.

There is quite nothing like discovering an unknown poem and sharing it with others (who , like you,  also enjoy poetry) and knowing that your faith in that piece of verbal wizardry was not misplaced; that even though salvation through words remains an illusion, they are our last defense against transience.  

We often disdain what comes naturally to us, so it is with poetry or music. Our grandmothers didn't  value the folks songs that were composed when they worked in the kitchen together or the lullabies they sang to their children and those of their neighbours. Those have been lost forever & the saddest thing is that those who composed them never knew their value.  But others did & therefore  those ancient tales and songs and poems remains alive even today.

So it is with poetry. You may dismiss it with a shrug for it comes easily to you, you may smile with disdain when you fail to gain anything from it. For you its meaning will remain forever obscure because it was never yours to begin with. You were merely the font it sprang from. Poetry always belonged to people like me and my friends who read it without seeking anything from it, who learnt to love it even when they didn’t quite comprehend it. 

Jun 10, 2011

On MF Hussain, Fatwas & our Hypocrisy

So MFH is dead and the entire world has suffered a loss so severe that Sinhead O’Connor is now composing a follow-up to her 90’s hit ‘Nothing compares to you’. First, it was the Jai-Veeru duo of Anna and Baba Chaukanna who dominated the headlines for weeks and yday it was MFH & the shabby treatment meted out to him by the government, sundry Indians, & even the local milkman who refused to deliver milk at his doorstep. I watched the segment on 2 channels – Times Now and NDTV – and was astonished at the utter hypocrisy and cluelessness with which ‘eminent’ thought leaders lamented his passing away. I’m-still-sexy-at-60-Shobha De alleged that MFH ‘would have lived and worked for another 5 yrs but actually died from a broken heart’. Oh, what a shame! Pritish Nandy, Jatin Das, Shabana Azmi and every Lefty loony lamented the government’s treatment of MFH.

Now, the way I see it, there are 2 things we are discussing here – one, whether MFH deserved the treatment he got; second, whether the government failed in its fundamental duty to protect its citizens. On the first, all I can say is that any artist who craves unrestrained freedom of expression is living in a dream world. From Socrates, to Galileo, to Ayan Ali Hirsi, to Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen – they have all had to pay a price for the controversial and audacious rendering of their thoughts or creative process. Sure, in an ideal world anybody could paint, write or direct whatever they wanted but this is not an ideal world and parts of India & its citizens seem to belong to a different world altogether.

It is also juvenile to compare the fatwa on Rushdie with the protests and non-bailable warrant issued against MFH. A more apt comparison would be if Rushdie was a citizen in Saudi or Yemen or Iran or even progressive Egypt & continued to live there. He offended the sentiments of muslims and lived in a country where they constituted the minority. MFH offended he sentiments of hindus & lived in a hindu nation.

Furthermore, it is myopic to compare India with developed nations like the UK or the US. While I also appreciate their culture of pluralism and diversity, it is just not possible to replicate the same model with 1.5 bn people, most of whom haven’t been to school and don’t have access to two square meals a day. What plurality, duh?

Second, what was the government’s role? Rather, is there something more the government could have done? Definitely, yes. For starters it could have issued a strongly worded statement against the Hindu Right who were waging the protests against MFH; it could have arranged for security at his exhibitions. It failed.

I am also reminded of something that happened in Bengal when Taslima Nasreen sought refuge there in 2003 & the minority community erupted in violent protests. The Left was caught in a bind – they couldn’t go back on their secular credentials, yet they couldn’t isolate the minority community, their largest vote bank in rural areas. In the end, they asked Nasreen to leave and I supported that decision. The reason is because, I believe, the government’s first role is to maintain law and order. Sure, it should protect the rights of individuals but not at the cost of law and order. Not an ideal situation, but most often choices in life are not ideal. If Hussain’s presence in the country endangered law and order, then the government would be well within in rights to ask him to leave the country, which it didn’t do. MFH’s decision to leave was an independent choice which he made after due consideration of the situation.

Again, I’m not questioning his love for India or respect for Indian culture since that is not moot to the discussion here. I am not a gifted artist and it is not possible for me to comprehend or share his vision. But I do think it is irresponsible citizenship to blame the government for actually doing what it is supposed to do!

Jun 2, 2011

Damned if you wear, damned if you don't!

It is bad enough when people in India’s cow belt still talk of bahu, beti, cow and land - all in the same breath. What makes it worse is when people echoing the voice of a modern & emerging India exhibit the same feudal attitude, albeit in the guise of arguing in favour of women. It makes me see red. I’d rather live with the knowledge that I have to fight a posse of chauvinists than be let down by those who have always sworn by gender equality. Anil Dharker seems to be one of the latter.

While I wouldn’t care two hoots what our female badminton players wore on court as long as they returned home with a few medals, I find the Badminton World Federation’s (BWF) dictat that its female athletes ‘must wear skirts in all tournaments from June 1, 2011’ to ‘increase the spectator appeal of the game’ odious and personally offensive! As usual our Badminton Association of India (BAI) has gone about objecting this issue in a completely irrelevant manner, dragging in everything from our ancient kala, sanskriti to heritage and perhaps Hazare (who knows?). It has also aligned itself with those (Pakistan/Indonesia) who have equally loathsome ideas about what constitutes womanhood and how a woman ought to dress.

My problem is that irrespective of which side you’re on, no woman can emerge a winner from this argument. If wearing skirts and flashing panties won’t work, the BWF will probably insist next that its female athletes start posing topless on court to grab a few eye(balls). After all, it’s all in the spirit of the game.

The thing I find galling about Dharker’s views is that he seems completely oblivious to the fact that he seems to be endorsing a view where appearances make up for lack of talent; where commercialization needs to be promoted at the risk of sacrificing personal freedom; where our “athletes (should) at least look the part, even if they aren't quite the part.”

This is a defeat after fighting for over a century for equal rights, a defeat for the suffragettes, a defeat for those who were burnt at the stake at Salem, a defeat for those African girls who still bleed to death due to genital mutiliation, a defeat for those girl infants who are drowned upon birth in the remote villages of Rajasthan, as well as a defeat for all of us who struggle daily to instill in our daughters the wisdom that what matters is who you are inside, not the layers of pancake you can smear across your face.