Wednesday, 18 November 2015

What does one write about, this morning?

The auspicious Chhath sun has just risen. It’s sneaking into my drawing room, making itself comfortable on the sofa, touching the console’s marble and tapping its fingertips on the dried flower arrangement sitting in the corner. The birds have woken up too, to the sound of firecrackers going off in a nearby park, where a make-shift pool has been built for the blessed dip. Through the light mist that is typical of early winters in Delhi, I can hear chirpy school children crossing my window to go from the Press Colony to the main road bus stand; kicking pebbles, playing spit, pulling out leaves or swinging their oiled plaits. Some, of course, are dragging their feet and lagging behind. Sleep-lagged, perhaps, or with nothing new to look forward to in the day except for broken desks, torn books, dirty dark blue uniforms and truant teachers. They don’t even want to take their hands out of the pockets to wipe their noses … 

Another celebratory firecracker goes off in a distance, making the thin layer of holiday dust at Buddha's feet quiver with ecstasy. The Sun is being blessed with our prayers today. Or is it the other way around? It does seem a different shade of orange but that could be my imagination!

I have folded my legs on to the dining chair, tucking in the toes which are the first to feel the nip, and am looking around at a very still house. It seems to be resting, taking a breather and breathing in leftover lingering fragrances of cologne and baby talc, Bournvita and toasted bread, and half a tin of Cherry Blossom on each Bata shoe. Breathing in like me. The two hours of madness that every working morning means have melted into a quiet which usually spreads gracefully into every known and unknown corner of my house. And mind. Usually. 

Except, the bachelor neighbor is cooking his lunch and hitting the steel ladle on the thick kadhai with gusto. I’ve heard he’s taken to cycling early mornings. Separated by two backyards, can’t really sniff to tell what’s cooking out there. An infant is incessantly crying in the flat above his. This curly-haired boy has a very nasal daadi and I will hear her voice any second now, asking him Chhonu, kya hua, Chhonu? His parents must have left for work by now. But her house is not empty. 

My mind is empty but for one nagging wife - What does one write about, when there is nothing to write about?

I should probably finish the last two slices of apple on the black-and-white Melamine plate before me. That might help as I wait for answers. Or something, anything. They get brown with time, those slices, thanks to the iron. I will eat them soon, after forking the triangular banana corners which he’s lovingly left for me and certainly before the box of Khasta Rewri trying to seduce me with its gur glamour right next to the healthy plate. My uncle said they are from the best shop in Doon. One bite and I knew he wasn’t lying. I am so sure my dining chair can feel the weighty difference post Diwali. My belt most definitely can. Is it making a creaking, stretching, leathery sound? One can’t tell when the silence within the home is so loud. 

The firecrackers have stopped, though, and the birds are finally singing louder.  The fridge is going drrrrr-grrrr. The keyboard click-click. The brooming bhaiya is at it in the back lane, making piles of leaves where he should be, ideally, picking them. They still use wheelbarrows which must be extinct in many countries! Suddenly one day smoke will drift into my kitchen window. Yes, that’s when I know he has stealthily set fire to the small piles. I’ll have to switch on the noisy exhaust fan then. Oh, you missed hearing the doorbell ring when the newspaper guy came to collect his 250 a moment ago. Or the conversation which was all about safeguarding our respective ten-ners. It remains the same, you know, month after month, and I am not the one who gives in, mostly. I like change in my wallet. It’s good, nay great, for times when you are short of time…  

It’s funny to feel so free that you can hear the clock tick, when there is much work waiting to be done. Is this a kind of freedom? To just remain in one place, gently erasing from the mind’s eye all deadlines marked in red? Must be plain laziness, really, or shirking of duties, or mithai-induced lethargy. Blame it on the sugar, though I shrug to say I don’t know. One knows so little, sometimes.

What does one write about, when there is nothing to write about? Hm. I guess one just writes, you know, no matter how pointless the piece. 

Consciously Created Pointlessness... is quite freeing. I’ll have a khasta rewri now. And probably put my feet back on the ground, to get up and get set and get going. 


Thursday, 29 October 2015

The Poet in Vikram Seth's 'Summer Requiem'

It is that time of the year when brown leaves carpet morning walks, making us ponder on the fragility of life. Longer nights mean more time with one’s self and dark hours of contemplation in the undisturbed company of memory. Autumn is upon us and we sit surrounded by its moods. Vikram Seth’s poetry collection ‘Summer Requiem’ is not just a seasonally suitable book to read but one which makes the reader find herself somewhere within its folds of poetic musing, watching the orange dusk. Because ‘sombre thoughts become this hour, Hour of red copper, rust, dark iron’ (from ‘Summer Requiem’). 

The overarching idea in Vikram Seth’s poetry is that of transience – of seasons, of love in relationships and of life itself. We see the poet, at home or in the world, looking around at shifting scenes and poring within with thoughts of change, and even death. Observation and contemplation unite to create vivid visuals which add profundity even to the usual. And the poet? A man whose streams of thought, whether flowing backwards in time or surging ahead, seem poignantly lonely in a crowd. However, the low notes of remembrance of things gone by are in peaceful symphony with those positive ones reflective of acceptance of this very impermanence around; a flux which impresses itself upon the poet’s mind as he bids adieu to summer. 


Outside the great world’s gifts and harms
There must be somewhere I can go
To rest within a lover’s arms,
At ease with the impending snow. 
(From ‘Late Light’)

In the poem ‘Summer Requiem’, the poet knows that ‘I must forsake attachment.’ We wonder why. We see the world around him gradually turning leaden from rust, bringing ‘everything to a close’. It’s a closure to the day or to the season. And it seems the poet too has reached a finale in his life. He’s looking to be detached because ‘where the lock of longing was opened, There there will be a perpetual wound.’ 

A love lost, or one never found? 
I love you more than I can say.
Try as I do, it hasn’t gone away.
I hoped it would once, and I hope so still.
Someday, I’m sure, it will.
No glimpse, no news, no name will stir me then.
But when? But when?
(From ‘What’s in it?’)

A lover lost it is, then. Though not the love. How so? 

Caged’ describes the torment of the poet feeling ‘dispossessed’ with the partner while being still in love. A relationship bitter and ‘bent on staggering on’ with a perpetual question in the estranged poet’s head – ‘Why could this not wait till our love could die?’ Togetherness is not equal to happiness, and a string of communication lies snapped in ‘A Winter Room’ too. Reminds the reader of modern, urban relationships.

It is this that makes you sense the poet’s loneliness even in moments of richly described solitude.

My friends have left, and I can see
No one, and no one will appear.
This must be happiness, to be
Sitting alone with birds and beer.
(From ‘Evening Scene from my Table’)

The ‘must be’ in the third line marks a tentative insistence on being happy. He seems unsure if he prefers the company of solitude, even though this theme is recurrent. Is that why many poems contain references to muses, friends, lovers and memories, ‘gathered and scattered’? And, is that why there is a turning to Nature, a calming company to his musing soul, though reminding him continuously of his waning life? 


Vikram Seth is not a Romantic poet. While his sense of ‘I’ is remarkably real, divinity is not what he sees when he views trees and beaches, birds and sunsets. However, faint strokes of similarity can be seen between the poet’s and William Wordsworth’s relationship with nature. They both drew solace in its lap; learnt to value it when they were away from it. And as a result of this reminiscing, they both learnt to appreciate the role of memory. 

When, sniveling on my grieving knees,
I’d feed the College tortoise peas,
The torpid glutton, on the whole,
Poured balm on my afflicted soul.
(From ‘Fellows’ Garden’)

Just what a beautifully visual ‘One Morning’ reveals how ‘as I breathed the callous air, I lost the drift of my despair.’ ‘Red Rock’ describes that beach’s scene, the waves and toddlers and ‘Three dolphins ballet in the din, In bottle-nosed felicity.’ The poet wishes it would always be like this. But it cannot be this warm forever, can it? 

‘Next year I’ll freeze, though God knows where.
In Shimla, fingernumbed and scowling,
In New York on a chilblained street,
In London with the North wind howling
Or vile Vienna in the sleet.
Yet I’ll be warm wherever I go
If Red Rock burns beneath the snow.’

And that is the role of memory in ‘Summer Requiem’. It is ‘a poison’ that reminds the poet of the absences yet at the same time it makes him remember warmer, joyful times. Both triggered by Nature and calmed by it too. It is this theme that lends the book lush visuals, giving its readers ‘The sense of privilege’ that the poet himself felt in ‘Suzhou Canal on a June Night’.

Nature does another thing, as summer bids adieu. It becomes a personification of the poet’s own being. Of a man believing he stands in his twilight, already. These collected poems thus become a continuous, and rather personal, contemplation of life and death.

Ageing … and beyond

There is a heavy note that lines the poet’s voice (say in the poem ‘Summer Requiem’) born out of a realization that ‘everything learnt has been trivial’. There is a coming to terms with the truth of life, that ‘Perpetual replacement is the only song of the world’. Of waking up one morning to see how …

My joints have rusted and my brain is lead.
I drank too much last night …
My love has gone. What do I have instead? –
Hot-water bottle, God and teddy bear.
I find I simply cannot get out of bed.’
(From ‘Can’t’)

As summer makes way for autumn, ‘The Yellow Leaves’ glint, making the poet wonder ‘What is this heaviness that won’t unclench my heart, My work by day, my spirit nightly?’. Life is ‘this ungiving game that waits till it or I am finished.’ The mood is somber, and death a constant unnamed refrain.

‘Alone, I wander where I choose,
And soon there will not be a me to lose.’
(From ‘Which Way?’)

The pathetic fallacy of watching summer turn to bitterness in his own being is unmistakable.

But a sense of hope twinkles …

In the ‘Summer Requiem’, you cannot separate the art from the artist. The poet is a part of his surroundings, almost one with them with his moods and memories. Like one organic whole.

Bright darkness is my comfort,
Dark daylight is my friend
And even I can’t reckon
Where I subsist or end.
(From ‘Bright Darkness’)

While there is a proclivity to harp on loss and disintegration, the reader cannot see the poet as separate from his landscape – and cannot see him dead and gone. Because that would mean the world collapsing too. Perhaps, the poet knows that. He wants to be. His memories of the summers gone fill his eyes, make faces appear, make him confess ‘To the Moon’ how ‘it gives me pleasure to remember and to count the stages of my sorrow.’ The voices in his head whisper in ‘Late at Night’ how ‘Live you must, for we must too, And we have no home but you.’ And he wants to house them. Resolves with ‘I must’ are oft repeated in his poems, even if it is that ‘I simply must get out of bed, And press that reset button in my head’ (from ‘Can’t’).

Shakespeare knew ‘The Readiness is all’. In the poet’s mind this idea resides, with the wish to ‘sleep dreamlessly’. This acceptance of change, of life’s flux by the poet adds serenity to his thoughts, even if a feeling of pure contentment seems to evade him, as yet. That there is a world beyond this empty one is what he wants to believe. And love in that world is what he is hopeful about. Death, then, is but one stop in the full circle of life. But till then, like in the ‘Parrots at Sunset’, he does 'give uncertain thanks, For the one world I’ll get.’ This book can thus be seen as Vikram Seth’s attempt to simply ‘turn the hourglass to re-sieve its sands, a fragile monument half-built by hands.’ 

A letting go and yet holding on…but not a swan song. No.

Somewhere in the valleys of interpretation that ‘Summer Requiem’ creates we find the poet wandering, and us readers wondering alongside. Thus luring us into shared intimacy with his mind, Vikram Seth in his latest collection of poetry traverses moods with soulful ease and unreels panoramas of landscapes – of change in both the outside world and the labyrinths within. While each poem stands apart from the other (and not just in rhyme scheme) one can choose to view them as a continuous contemplation of life and its vagaries, connecting birds with stars and themes with dreams as one reads on. 

Timeless poetry that you can turn to, again and again, to see something anew every time you do. 

'Summer Requiem' by Vikram Seth is published by Aleph Book Company, 2015.

[Review was commissioned by the publisher. Views are my own.]

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The very peculiar ‘Escape from Baghdad!’ by Saad Z. Hossain

The classic Reader’s Digest story ‘Stowaway’, about a teenager’s miraculous escape from Cuba in the wheel of a DC-8, was also called ‘Escape from Cuba’. Saad Z. Hossain’s ‘Escape from Baghdad!’ took me back many years, to Jorge’s disillusionment with Cuba because ‘the system takes away your freedom—forever,’ to the girl from California who said ‘You are a hero, but not very wise’ and to the narrator confessing ‘Even knowing the risks I would try to escape again, if I had to.’ By an absurdist twist of fate, with a mind tunneled on existentialist philosophy, these phrases come alive for Saad’s bizarre debut novel.

The story unfolds in Gazaliya, with the blood of the Iraq War on every door and guns going off in every street. Dagr, a former university professor, and Kinza, a thug, are trying to escape undead to find the bunker of gold (‘maybe it’s filled with 72 virgins too’) in return for smuggling out safely their captive, Captain Hamid, the star torturer of Saddam Hussein. Private Hoffman, a corrupt US Marine, is helping them. But as Baghdad turns to bloody dust, they find themselves in the eye of a chaotic plot, twisting with unexpected turns. Every informant, including an Old Man who has lived for centuries, is looking for these ‘three petty thieves’ who chance upon a Druze watch which is ‘doing something’. Teeming with finely etched characters who add to this cauldron of terror, death, comedy and insanity, the reader, like the main characters, finds it impossible to escape this peculiar world.

A very peculiar world, actually…

Like mtabbag simach, an Iraqi fish delicacy, each layer of the plot pushes us into another till we are left wondering on unsteady ground – Can Hoffman indeed be so stupid? Is Mother Davala a witch? Kevlar? A boy cut into 17 pieces and alive? What flew out of the urns? The Lion ‘has been fighting this war for a millenium’? Did this scene of action in the ‘witch house’ actually occur or is the character imagining it? What all are we imagining?! Oh dear, Plausibility has been hit with a grenade! 

And the very next moment, the real story amidst the madcap events crawls upon us like poisonous smoke. The poignancy of Dagr’s loss of family and of a past erased forever, the Shi’a or Sunni or Coalition issues, the imam being Al Qaeda, ‘stolid Iraqi soldiers debating whether to shoot or salute’ civilians, interrogation torture methods tested on mentally ill, bumbling American soldiers in their Humvees … the reality of the invasion of Baghdad has a conspicuous presence. So …

‘It was not certain who was who anymore, which camp, which informant, how many dead in each family, and by whose hand.

We oscillate between the possible and the impossible at the speed of a machine gun, through scenes as visual as would make you feel you’re watching a movie in 3D! Because fantasy, mythology, mystery, history, satire and parody are expertly brought together in this novel. This is done not just for entertainingly hooking the reader, at which the book soars anyway! For discerning eyes, and this is why I loved Saad’s work, ‘Escape from Baghdad!’ becomes a spectacular literary member of war literature which marries the Post-War nihilism of Existentialism with the uncomfortable laughter of Black Comedy to create a landscape which delights and depresses, both. 

The quiet notes of Existentialism

Existentialism, simply put, says the world is meaningless. After all, see how “unfair” it is – war, disease, death, catastrophe! Anything can happen to anyone, and it takes a tragedy to drive in the reality of this meaninglessness. It confuses man with this absurdity. There is despair, a hopelessness which comes when one’s identity is broken down. (The crisis, as we call it.) But then, the philosophy also says there is anyway no meaning in the world beyond what meaning we give it. And so each individual, not society or religion, is responsible for giving meaning to his life, by living it passionately. Thus, the most important consideration for individuals is that they are individuals, conscious beings and not labels, albeit loose in a universe empty of real meaning. No one can escape this. 

Escape from Baghdad!’ is rich with this philosophy, reminding us of Vladimir and Estragon from Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’. ‘Someone had taken a gigantic brush of whitewash to their past’ and so the characters in Gazaliya are ‘stuck in a piece of circular fate’ now, ‘Cut off. Unmoored…flounder purposeless’, despairing …

No happy endings for us I suppose.’
‘Look around. No happy endings for anyone. Not for a long time. Not ever again, perhaps.’
‘What makes us go on like this, I wonder?’ Dagr said. ‘Day after day this whole damned mess.

The truth of the New Baghdad was that ‘freedom had a price, as the Americans loved saying’ and everyone, including The Lion, ‘seemed to want to escape, to retain a sense of purpose’. But then comes this conversation between Dagr, Hamid and Kinza…

And how do we get out?’
‘We don’t worry about that, Hamid’
‘We don’t worry’, Dagr said, ‘because we won’t come out’.

There was a reason they were stuck in this perpetual cycle of escalation’, confused ‘whether they were coming or going’. All of them know there is no use ‘to an unending life when one is forced to run and hide and fight continuously for every breath of air’, but every character in the book is fighting for that breath, and in doing that giving meaning to an otherwise hopeless life falling apart around them. Dagr and the Druze show that angst:

Reality isn’t there anymore. What do I have left?’, Dagr said.
‘You have no hope then?’
‘Hope? Not that kind…What’s the point of running now?

In the final scene of action, Hamid speaks:

The normal controls of society are gone, and then you realize that you don’t have to take their shit anymore.’
‘Whose shit don’t you have to take anymore?
Everyone’s shit. Your teachers, your boss, your banker, the bill collector, the cop, the army. It’s all gone now. No more parents. We’re free.

Free of social baggage and labels each character, no matter how minor, becomes an existentialist individual. Despairing, yet forcing meaning into his or her life. There is no Godot to wait for here, where life is like a toothpick on the road and to keep alive the point. All everyone seems to be following is their dream, simple yet as unreachable as ‘the old dream of the alchemists…

Does this insistence on living constitute their freedom then, their real “escape” from Fate and rising above it, like Sisyphus? Saad Hossain, by adding that telling exclamation mark in the title, is ordering his characters to keep on trying to escape. Except, where to?

The loud laughter of Black Comedy

It’s a war. We kill you. You kill us.  Who cares? The important thing is to have a sense of humour about it. When we were bombing the Kurds, do you think they were crying like babies?’

Saad Hossain does not give you the privilege to ponder on the philosophical alone. He makes his story provoke discomfort too, through Parody and Satire, enough to make you want to ask him like Xervish, the scared boy ‘How can you joke about this?’ And he does that by making light of dreadful subjects – of war, terror, violence and death. The opening lines of the book see Kinza saying for Hamid, ‘We should kill him, but nothing too orthodox’. The tone has been set! 

Death is so commonplace, so usual, that ‘the neighbourhood had suddenly realized that they had been bombed and were going through the usual reactions: disbelief, anger, exhibitionist wailing.’ There is an easy-going attitude towards killing and a mockery of death, even as the characters try their best to survive. While suffering is not trivialized, ‘colossal stupidity of plans’ of attack, comic armours, mock-epic scenes of combat and larger-than-life episodes of heroism mark the narration, making the characters seem like actors fittingly in a Theatre of the Absurd. 

You think logic operates anywhere in this entire fucking circus?’ Private Hoffman’s questions near the dangerous climax, while hatching a plan which ‘involved rope, a belt, scotch tape, nails, a Swiss army knife – a plan of such genius that it could not help but succeed through sheer chutzpah alone.’ We know the answer by now.

A not-so-flattering portrayal of the American presence in I-Raq adds to the humour, leaving even the 600-years-old Mother Davala ‘bereft of speech’. In the book, ‘Saddam is dead. We are ruled by American sheikhs now.’ Of course, Saad shows us the consequences of war on their psychologies too. But, showrooms are being ‘mistakenly raided’ as bomb factories and subsequently being looted, nursing homes are being converted into triages, dim-witted, doped soldiers are at high-level duties showing-off by giving a higher body-count, and ‘uncouth Americans’ are at every corner in the road. The American hunt for WMDs continues in a world where ‘weaponized laundry detergent’ is a plausible object to their phobic brains! Says Sabeen, a crucial character in the second half of the book:  

What kind of person makes up ridiculous lies about a random country, invades it, destroys all its civil institutions, brands all its citizen terrorists, causes a civil war, and then pretends everything is alright?’.

Perhaps, therein lies Saad’s subtle political comment, albeit tip-toeing, for does he not say in this book itself that ‘in passing judgement, in executing that judgement, you become tainted yourself’? 

‘Stranger things have happened …’

…in the real Iraq of our world map, perhaps. 

Escape from Baghdad!’ is an exhilarating depiction of what those things could be. As if they were the Djinns of Solomon, Saad Hossian has commanded various literary elements to create a landscape of ‘eerie darkness’, to show ‘the depths to which the world was deeply fucked up beyond the patina of normality that coated most lives.’ You finally put down this book, feeling a numbness – from all the laughter it generates and from a realization that it is our own gravely terrifying reality we are laughing at.

An outstanding book for all kinds of readers! 

'Escape from Baghdad!' by Saad Z. Hossain is published by Aleph Book Company, 2015

[This review was commissioned by the publisher. Views are my own.]

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