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I sit across from you.
Often wondering to myself,
If you saw me?
You were always with her.
The woman with red lips.
Or was it a gaudy lipstick?
Were you with her
Or were you just friends?
Did those lips paint yours red too?
The red paint
Brought dread in me often.
He used to wear it sometimes.
My father would make me let
Him paint mine red.
How do I tell you this?
How do I come and sit next to you?
How do I tell you to save your pink from her red?
Red has always scared us.
The Great Punjab Hotel, Bombay.
This building is my favourite building so far. I’ve seen the other old ones and the others with rounded corners as well but, this building is just so beautiful that every time I go past it, I cannot take my eyes off it. Mind you, I’m no architecture geek or even an enthusiast but, I think time has made me one. Or rather, incidents have made me one. The thing about history is that traces of it that can be seen live are in the form of buildings, some as beautiful as this one.
In the more modern or Euro-fetishised ways, this building won’t stand a chance at even being compared with those pseudo-Athenian buildings (like the exhibition hall on the same road as this one) but, its more about what they talk about. This building, I think sums up what I love about Bombay and what I know Bombay to be. It is old, decaying and untouched in places and still stands in a glory that is unfathomable. The kind of old that Bombay has spells more starkness, more reality than other monuments or buildings in other cities one has seen before. Old here is real. Its dusty without any need for a refurbishment or any plastering for the eye. Old here exists as it is irrespective of the fact whether the eyes that glance at it are really looking or are just closed.
The picture’s from one Saturday when the entire day was spent walking in town with the heart leaping with joy at the sight of every old building – be it the Fire Temple at the end of the road or the library across and also ignoring the fact that I cross them every single day. I remember spending more than an hour sitting at the bus top right opposite this building. I really do love everything about it – the giant and old (not necessarily decorated) facade, the many balconies with each room, the blue plaster on each balcony, the singular wooden chair in each balcony as if there would never be 2 people sitting there!
The one piece of news that’s making the rounds internationally this morning is the death of Robin Williams. Reading about his death, the only thought that came to me was how well fitting was his death into the cliche – a comedian succumbing to depression – the contradiction innate to human life. For someone, who really doesn’t keep herself updated with news around Hollywood or Bollywood, it came as an utter shock (another typical reaction, I’d like to believe!) that someone with a persona or rather, image like Williams succumbed to depression of all things. Yes, alcoholism and other addictions are common weaknesses (if not vices) of people in such fields but, there is always some sinisterity and mystique built around deaths such as Williams’.
While reading an old interview of his, where he is known to talk more in detail and lucidity about his battles with addiction and depression as opposed to an upcoming film, I came across these lines of his on the American grief industry
“I think people want it. In a weird way, it’s trying to keep hope alive.”
What he points out to is the difficulty and weirdness that comes with mourning in private or experiencing grief in private over a public figure. I believe what he says here, however, doesn’t only apply to public figures in their most literal interpretations. The way with grief is such or has been experienced in such a fashion that tends to dissociate the deceased’s public and private existence – reducing the private side to a glorious myth which then gets transferred to the public.
I cannot speak for others but, I know for one that even the way the Indian society deals with grief is similar to an industry that seeks to ‘mythologise’ the dead. Ignoring all ideas about death and the afterlife or any theories on reincarnation, the Indian way of looking at the mythology of the dead resonates with the proverb of hanging a garland over the picture framed and hung on the wall. That is to say that the grievers tend to make an altogether rosy image of the dead. Not that it is a bad thing, one can always understand it as looking at the glass as half full. However, what I find intriguing is the different attitudes with which people treat or react to different types of death. That is to say, the dead is perceived as it is if they die old and have seemingly lived a full life. If, however, one dies at an age or stage of life which is perceived by the masses as young and (an) unfulfilled (life), There will always be a mystery around relatively young deaths.
What drives people to glorify the dead only of course, after one dies, is seemingly difficult to point out. Is it the prospect of their own death looming someday that scares them or retribution? Or is it the fascination of stories? Who knows!
While some stories are hungrily devoured, not giving the characters a rest nor the plot, there are always those that are meant to be savoured one page, one instance at a time. Memoirs are such. They are meant to be enjoyed gradually, like sipping wine and reveling in the slow warmth that the liquid releases once inside the mouth.
Pamuk’s memoirs in ‘Istanbul’ of his having lived the city, identifying the characters of Istanbul as a collective entity rather than a sum of masses is what is the most striking style of writing. From what I believe, writing comes out best when it comes not from a superficial, pseudo-academic understanding of the subject, it being the city here but, from living the subject. One must note here that I do not, in any way, intend ‘living the subject’ to be a deeply philosophical insight but, merely as the writer’s style to note the simpler facts about the subject as opposed to glorifying the external. For one to write a more honest account like Pamuk’s, I believe one needs the time and openness to experience and immerse oneself in the colours (might be grey!) of the city one wishes to write about. Then, there’s also the fine difference between letting the city naturally, gradually, inundate the writer with its pace on the one hand and the deliberate attempt that many mistake to be natural in order to ‘save’ time and believe themselves to have experienced the city. Maybe the latter is the first step towards the former, more nuanced style of writing. However, I do believe that it is the ability and openness of one to really ‘see’ things that bring out such memoirs. Probably, its this slow-cooking of observation and experience because of which Pamuk’s analysis always has a lasting impression on the reader.
Anyway, the point behind this post isn’t to analyse the entire memoir on Istanbul but, to merely record the connection I draw between a part of Istanbul (both, the city and the book) and a poem I recently re-read. This is a poem by Omar Ali, who generally wrote poems on Bengal, reading which again today reminded me what Pamuk calls Huzun in Istanbul. This poem called ‘The Lonely Man’ is, in my opinion, one of those literary pieces that aren’t meant to be analysed from a strictly academic understanding (I’m sure they still will end up doing that!). Instead, Ali’s writing is meant to be just read and without any ‘expert’ analysis, the reader can understand what was meant to be conveyed lies in the simple words he uses. Reading the poem, all I was left was Pamuk’s huzun, re-emphasising the beauty of honest expression. Read for yourself-
He was sitting alone:
with a tear – stained face.
I asked him: why?
He looked at me silently
and kept quiet.
I asked him again: why?
again he looked silently
into my eyes
and said nothing.
Then he got up and went away
leaving behind his silence
The scariest and most depressing thing that I’ve seen till now? When people’s desire to live succumbs to the pressures of circumstance. When they start accepting themselves as part of a certain category, a group, a type. When they lose their ability to fight, to question their ‘fate’.
I realise it was this that made me squirm in the face of norms. I didn’t know that then that tug in the stomach, that unnatural feeling like I didn’t belong stemmed from this inability to compromise with what’s ‘given’. I remember a friend (and the family often) once asking me the reason behind my inability to stick to one thing; specialisation and shit like that and wondered whether I was scared to accept that I can be a know-it-all in one compartment. But, I realise today its not that. It is fear but, fear to be run over by that kind of mentality, fear to become close minded and not be able to see and experience the expanse of the universe. Even as I write this, I feel sad, a pain in my chest for those who refuse to accept that they can change their ‘category’, their ‘type’.
Will I blame it on capitalism and form a shitty theory like that? I don’t think that I want to
Without all the fanciness of education and scholarly privilege, the most basic of childhood experiences will tell you the (un)importance of sexuality as something that should publicly define one. Theroux in one of his books had described the Indian society perfectly for me! Paraphrasing the same, he’d called the Indian society comprising of frustrated and closeted people who truly exist/live behind closed doors. Pardon the drama but, reading that always gives me the image of a throng of people, dressed exactly the same walking with their heads down but, their faces covered with the ‘Anonymous’ Guy Fawkes masks. The mere functioning in the society has been reduced (god knows since when!) to the mere appearance and the need to conform with what is the collective right or the moralistic Indian way, the truth (even if the damned statue of truth, sach ki moorti, itself has been blindfolded, who cares, right?). However, in the behind-closed-doors way of functioning, one thing that was made clear long ago; sex is something we all indulge in but, that is only for those tied in the holy relationship of a marriage and anything else outside is not acceptable! Where this clearly laid the understanding that sex and sexuality are private matters, people were left gaping and political parties petitioning against an actress who expressed her understanding of premarital sex being fine! Oh, how that led to all aunties getting into relentless gossip sessions, seemingly uncomfortable with the audacity of the actress and the uncles to ‘respectably’ glare at the television sets while the news anchors went bonkers talking about the controversy. For us, its okay to have teasing sex scenes in cinema but, otherwise in ‘reality’ such (read: the ones open about sex) people are those belonging to the scarlet category. No morals, for sure! Even though I can go on and on about how this reflects the understanding of what we perceive sexuality to be and whose sexuality wins the power battle, I’ll state the relevant inference I draw from these point- the fact that the contradictions of Indian society can be seen in the fact that while it is not okay to talk about sex, or had it been possible for the thought police, even to think about pleasure and sex; it is important for the same aunty jis and uncle jis to know about one’s sexual orientation. If one truly believed in the idea of sex being personal/privatte, shouldn’t sexual orientation be left just as it is, personal choice?
Raised in the grand and free democracy that Indians call India, I assumed from all this education in school etc., that sexuality is something personal, if one may please that is. And, no, I do not think that its a completely Westernised thought and the Indian culture is about something more reserved. Reserved and dignified, we are? Then, that does call for one to live the kind of life one chooses to live? No, not talking about Sen’s development is capability but, the old man isn’t all that wrong, is he? Maybe a little vague for the Science and Maths crazy country of mine but, well all the acharyas and saints also did occupy physical and philosophical space here, all right!
So, is Indian culture/existence all about fear? Fear of loss of power? Are we homophobic simply because we’re forced into the complacence of the behind-closed-doors way of life? And that’s why, as Foucault pointed out, we termeverything alien to the routine as insane? Simply because it challenges the social structure of power and masculinity?
There are so many hypocrisies that are part of the Indian experience that most, if not all, have succumbed to these norms and kept their seething angst inside. This itself, in my opinion is another way of living hypocritically. On the other hands those like me who choose to be too vocal about their beliefs (ideals, for some) and constantly question (be it their own parents) the validity of the norm/custom, we are not really appreciated, to say the least.
In class we keep on talking about the semantics. The other day, there was a lecture on the different ways in which Ravana has been depicted in art. Religion giving me the kicks, ignoring one of the usual migraine attacks, I went for this lecture. The venue was one old gallery by the name of No. 1 Shanthi Road.
The lecture was by Dr. Paula Richman and bits of it (as she ‘unofficially’ stated) can be found on YouTube.
Anyway, the reason for my writing this post was the Tibetan art on display at the gallery. Due to lack of space and time, I could not speak with the artist. The artist was a young girl who had come all the way from Tibet in order to spread the word about the individual stories of the Tibetan freedom struggle. The world knows very well about the Tibetan struggle for freedom against the Chinese government. But, this knowledge or awareness gets limited as a knowledge of the collective, ignoring the individual stories that form the collective.
She had depicted individual narratives of self-immolation by many Tibetan people as a sign of protest, on pieces of paper with burnt edges, using ink and water colours for the narrative.
One narrative that particularly captured my attention was that of a 20-something man who immolated his body for freedom and his corpse was then taken away by the Chinese government. The artist had depicted this man’s story/struggle painting the Chinese government in the shape of a black/dark grey cloud with a few hands visible in the mass, taking away the corpse by way of a scarf/banner of dark(black)-ness. While the cloud was up in the sky, the ground showed the candlelight vigil of the other Tibetan people demanding the return of the corpse. The artist had painted the vigil as being conducted by many differentiable individuals painted white in colour.
Think my fascination with this particular piece is due to the constant questions of citizenship that keep on buzzing in this head. The constant questions around whether democracy is a farce, whether we truly are multicultural, whether we truly are cosmopolitan, easily got translated in this narrative. Goes the WikiLeaks way questioning the legitimacy of the state when it’s operations are no less discreet than the mafia, if one may please?