Archive for May 12, 2011


http://www.hindu.com/lr/2011/02/06/stories/2011020650220400.htm

To present Manashi Dasgupta’s (1928-2010) legacy involves pulling together the academic, cultural and critical strands of a vision that cherishes friendship and intercontextual conversation. It is at this crucial interface, she suggests, that the democratic imagination must make interpersonal sense of institutions.

Dasgupta’s 1962 Cornell University doctoral dissertation brings social psychology to bear on what makes somebody seem interesting to others. She proposes that we imagine narratives about people we meet; perceiving a half-story leaves us intrigued and interested in the protagonist.

She argues (especially in Jiggasa 11:3.287-301, 1990) that we make friends where we find it possible, in principle, to initiate joint projects.

Dasgupta’s interpersonalist vision identifies a democratic, anti-hierarchical imagination as a prerequisite for modernity. The point is to fashion a friendship-based institutional format outside the patriarchal family paradigm.

The academic flows into the cultural in Dasgupta’s work.

Few of the friends who picked her brains, however, recognised that this was one of her ways of nurturing intercontextual conversations and thereby feeding the democratic imagination.

http://www.hindu.com/lr/2011/02/06/stories/2011020650200300.htm

Then in the space of weeks her marriage broke up and she discovered she had breast cancer. But although it might seem a wretched incongruity that such a full life should suffer such a swift fall, Rich’s own view is that it only made sense. ‘I smoked two packs of Newport Lights a day’, ‘I drank, a lot’, ‘I ate like shit’, ‘I worked out… hardly ever’, and thanks to a ‘high-drive, adrenylated job’, ‘mostly, I inhaled stress’. It is intelligent, articulate ideas like these that make for the attractiveness of Rich’s writing.

She also presents a grim picture of the American medical establishment. The history of her treatment abounds with dodgy diagnoses, overlooked symptoms, adversarial tussles with dispassionate doctors, who are too afraid of being sued to properly care. It is easily inferred from this book that market forces and health-care are a dangerous mix. Also, that while New York may be a wonderful place to be young and healthy, it is not so pleasant to be sick there, and dependent for support on a paid therapist. For Indian readers, this book should also lead us to appreciate better the personal touch of our own culture, the familial networks that we sometimes take for granted.

http://www.hindu.com/lr/2011/02/06/stories/2011020650160200.htm

Looking back, I think the writer in me was born somewhere in the dark interior of my ancestral house, about which there had always been a mysterious silence. Being the only male child in a joint family, I grew up lonely in the midst of unbelievable things. What moulded my childhood mind were stories of gods, goddesses and the dead, told at untimely hours, splashing and bathing in the tharavad pond; scenes of country oracles, or komarams; and sorcerers performing poojas and black magic.

Terribly lonely, also obviously scared, I developed a habit of talking to myself. Not just to myself, but also to trees, animals, birds – and, sometimes, to the ghosts and gods too. They were my companions then. It might be that those interior dialogues developed into my writings, be it poetry or prose. My writing still remains an attempt to come to terms with what otherwise appears indefinable in life. It’s all about relating what is within and without.

Poetry today is a form where boundaries are pushed to the point where readers are confused about why a particular work is judged to be poetry. For you, what defines a poem?

Primarily, it’s a feeling of being incomplete, together with an irresistible discontent, rather, disquiet, always growing within. Poetry, for me, is an attempt at overcoming the depressing human condition and giving a meaning to it. Devoid of this, even if a work of art is technically perfect, it will invariably be soulless.

If you had to deliver a sort of State of the Union address about the world of poetry, what would be some of your thoughts?

There’s something in poetry that doesn’t allow it to die. There isn’t any literary medium that has undergone as much misuse and abuse as poetry; still it survives. The most ancient of all human expressions, it’s still as fresh as something just invented. Poetry nowadays has almost become a personal medium. Often, it’s not the medium of the winner, but that of the defeated. At least like that, I think, it’ll continue.

Who are some of the poets who continually “speak” to you?

Those whom I read to recharge my writer-ly batteries include Kumaranasan, Vyloppillil and Edassery in Malayalam; Vacana poets, William Blake, W.B. Yeats and Wislawa Szymborska in other languages. I read Kumaranasan and the Vacana poets for the way in which they address the metaphysical dilemma; Blake and Yeats for their prophetic but simple articulation; and Szymborska for the dexterity with which she transforms a thought into a poetic experience.

Do you have a daily routine into which you slot in your writing?

I don’t have a routine. I can live doing nothing for days, I can work continuously for days without sleep. I enjoy unpredictability and believe that everything in my life is an accident; sometimes I even feel that becoming a writer was an accident.

This is not to mock Rich — anyone with cancer might be so desperate — and indeed she chastises herself for the fact. Just as she chastises the ‘talk-show honesty’ of her generation (‘self-revelations about sex or degradation…but never venality or arrogance or the other, more banal sins that actually made us look bad’). But it is one thing to be perfectly aware of a shortcoming, and another to overcome it. The truth is that The Red Devil does feature a kind of talk-show honesty, where splendid insights are dragged down from their rightful pedestal and mixed up in the shallows, and where the aim is not so much to share one’s courage, as to have it confirmed. In the nicest and discreetest way, it is a showy book, one outstanding proof of which is that it reads like a novel. The dialogue is all within quotation marks, conversations are described in implausibly cinematic terms, and the love stories are weaved in like sub-plots. This ‘fictional’ treatment helps the book read easily, but it also hides the absence of real, helpful content, that a more mundane and less stagy style would not have been able to. To sum up, I think ‘ The Red Devil’ will have you genuinely liking and rooting for the author, but I doubt it will have you thanking her.

http://www.hindu.com/lr/2011/02/06/stories/2011020650190300.htm

I am hardly the performance poet, preferring to focus on what I express on paper rather than on the stage. I read a lot of poetry to myself, out loud, but that is because I enjoy how a piece tightens or releases my breath; I am interested in exploring that. My early readings likely had a performance aspect: I would look at an audience member at just the right turn of phrase, at just the right moment and make her feel exactly what I wanted to. That sort of attitude can easily corrupt, so I backed off. I want to vanish and be unimportant during a reading; so if the audience stays engaged, it is due to the poem not the poet.

I am some sort of a ‘reverse traveller’. I don’t move around to get inspired, but the other way round. I hear or read about a particular place and that stays with me. A year or two later, if that memory hasn’t left, I start making plans. The sort of poetry I prefer to write cannot be written on a tourist visa, so I much prefer to stay at a place for a month or two at a time. It helps me find stories I would miss otherwise.

Music is just another form of expression, another method of self-exploration. There are things I cannot express with poetry alone, so there is certainly an opportunity to merge both media. I haven’t been very successful at it so far, but I am trying. For example, right now I am working on a set of poems that will read in sync with a few Chopin nocturnes, the narrative, the punctuations, and line-breaks allowing the poems to ascend and descend with the music.

Absolutely. I find what I do as an engineer very challenging and enjoyable. Also, it pays the bills, allows me to travel on whim, and to take creative risks. I know there are writers who are inspired by poverty, but not me.

http://www.hindu.com/lr/2011/02/06/stories/2011020650040200.htm  Almost taking a hint from Pamuk, Hindi writers and those from other Indian languages made hay at the festival, speaking their language, their way. If Gulzar, Javed Akhtar and Prasoon Joshi had to host a session on Hindi film songs almost twice over, Mrinal Pande made her presence felt too. At the session, “Aisi Hindi, Kaisi Hindi”, she quietly tore into the host Satyanand Nirupam’s argument that expletives are a form of expression too! “People use ‘gaali’ when lacking words. An intelligent man does not abuse. He uses measured words. When a child picks up an expletive on the street, the mother always scolds him. If abuse were really a form of developing expression, the mother would have probably hailed the child!” Pande left co-panellists speechless and the audience clapping in appreciation.

http://www.hindu.com/lr/2011/03/06/stories/2011030650160500.htm

The literary café is the most exciting part of the biennial Jerusalem Book Fair. In this open, informal and civilised space — in fact, so civilised that it has a working coffee counter right next to a makeshift stage — take place the encounters with the literary giants of home and abroad. I was witness to one such interaction last week: The man on the spot was Britain’s foremost writer today: Ian McEwan, winner of the Jerusalem Prize, and the man who expertly drew him out, with an understated knowledge of literary technique and rapier sharp wit, was Meir Shelev, himself a renowned Israeli novelist.

He paid homage to other recipients before him, people who had “rearranged his mind.” The list that begins with the philosopher Bertrand Russell includes Simone de Beauvoir who provided special insights into relationships and Isaiah Berlin who had shown the “dangers of Utopia” as well as fiction writers Arthur Miller and Milan Kundera whose fiction “swayed and entranced him”.

From the prize itself to the city after which it is named was a natural jump. Shelev trawled out the not-so-complimentary reactions to Jerusalem of some famous writers. Herman Melville, on visiting Jerusalem, said that “Jerusalem is surrounded by cemeteries and dead people are its strongest guild.” Actually, though Shelev did not venture that far, Melville said much more and his descriptions would never make it to a tourist brochure. He thought that Jerusalem looks at you “like a cold, gray eye in a cold, old man……Stony mountains & stony plains; stony walls & stony fields; stony houses & stony tombs; stony eyes & stony hearts. Before you and behind you are stones.” Gogol was so affected by the city that on his return he burnt the second half of Dead Souls. McEwan agrees that the city has a “sense of echo” and could well destroy his novel in progress. Like a sudden journey, which can startle you with a new insight into life and make everything written earlier sound meaningless and trite.

However, the city’s preoccupation with religion does not get to him. Ever the outspoken rationalist, he proclaims his atheism and the absence of any divine force dictating the affairs of men. “Most things that happen in life are random. You may not have been born if, say on one evening in 1948, your mother had decided to stay in and wash her hair instead of going out to a party where she met this nice young man.” Much in the same manner, he proclaims, the novel is constructed of a series of coincidences that enable the interaction between characters and move the action forward. When the conversation turns, as inevitably such conversations turn nowadays, to the issue of the survival of a novel, McEwan offers an irresistible rationale for its survival: “Human beings are social animals, profoundly curious about each other’s lives.

The novel is a kind of higher form of gossip and is sustained by our curiosity about others. It satisfies our gossipy instincts. Jane Austen was the greatest and most gossipy of novelists.”

But it is of the novella, a form with which he has had “an enduring love affair,” that he talks enthusiastically. It is this genre that he enjoys most; even On Chesil Beach is only 39000 words long; it enables the writer to move the story ahead at a tremendous speed, leaving no place for sub-plots. In a way he is a miniaturist: a confined place — whether in space or time — seems to bring out the best in him, the little visual detail, the description of every half-movement, the cranking up of the literary tension, bit by bit.

He likes gaps between books, he “tries to let some life go by.” As he said in an interview some time ago: “I’m very cautious about starting anything without letting time go, and feeling it’s got to come out. I’m quite good at not writing. Some people are tied to five hundred words a day, six days a week. I’m a hesitater.” When he does start writing, it is a tentative process – putting down fragments¸ introducing characters to see what they would do. He is elated by surprises, the surprise of a particular adjective appearing before a noun or a character making a sudden move; “in fact”, he says, “a character should surprise you.” As one would expect, McEwan writes down ideas, images, and phrases as they come in a spiral notebook. He relates how once, when writing notes in a café, he lost his notebook, leaving him with a feeling of tremendous loss. Until one day, eighteen months later, the notebook landed, in a brown envelope, with a thud on his doormat. On re-reading it, he discovered that it did not contain a single worthy thought!

http://www.hindu.com/lr/2011/03/06/stories/2011030650030200.htm

I wondered aloud if the pen, like the camera, was also a torch. He wasn’t sure of it. But the question of desire remained – of camera and pen as tools of desire. I was reminded of a line by Robert Bresson, about how the art of cinema is to “make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen”. I concluded: reality is blind, but so are we. Unless we are able to “in-see”, to use Rilke’s word, and lighten up the invisible. Not in order to strip what is invisible, but to illuminate its hidden-ness.

As we walked our different ways, I recollected the lines from one of his remarkably simple poems, which captures the friendly otherness he exuded in conversation:

We walked together.

We did not know each other.

But we knew walking together.

Later in the evening I met James Kelman. I had heard him read from his controversial Booker-winning novel, How Late It Was, How Late, with the same amount of passion with which he must have written it more than a decade ago. The novel became infamous as the great “f-novel”, irritating many including Martin Amis. But Kelman’s supposed nonsense with language is strictly no-nonsense, depressing, dismal, dark and full of the drudgery of working-class life. His prose, defiantly introspective and interspersed with slang, counters the grammar and phonetics of the English language he learnt to resist.

I caught Kelman, walking alone, a little lost, near the music-stage area. I told him I found the repetitive expressions in his prose an unavoidable technique for registering troubled memory. I mentioned Jacques Lacan. Kelman had read Freud and was interested in psychoanalysis. We discussed the disturbing, neurological phenomenon of the unconscious, where it draws upon the mode of insistence to relive certain traumas, and manifests itself into pathological repetition. Kelman saw vulgarity critically: as a burden for the poor, the wayward and the out of place, for whom cursing and cussing are part of a life which is thrust violently upon them. Kelman wouldn’t abandon that language to gain any other literary merit. His alert, vagabond eyes, and his smoky, alcoholic voice, meant what they said. He didn’t mince words: “We were told to look down upon our own culture and eulogise everything British. You couldn’t stomach it, could you?” He didn’t. The seat of his passions unseated elite, literary appetites.

To hear Pamuk is to hear a naughty and candid adolescent in the heart of an exquisitely thoughtful man. He talks without airs, and with a moving honesty. Hearing him is an undetectable process of learning about the art of writing. Pamuk called the advent of literature in his life as a growing illumination of the “dark corners” of his mind. I thought of the relationship between darkness and the unconscious. That brought certain preoccupations of all three writers together. It reminded me of Kundera’s quoting the Czech poet Jan Skacel: Poets don’t invent poems / The poem is somewhere behind / It’s been there for a long time / The poet merely discovers it. Writing, Kundera explains, “means breaking through a wall behind which something… lies hidden in darkness”. In that sense, writing, like cinema, reveals to us our existing, human possibilities.