Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Home Fire

Finished Kamila Shamsie's reworking of Antigone, Home Fire, last night. Because I didn't sleep well, I am still confounded by dreams and am only partially present inside my own body. What follows will reflect this state of mind and body.

(Note: this is not a review. It might not even be coherent).

I read this book more slowly than I normally would. These days, when I can barely hold a thought from the time I begin any action to when I finish it, many details remained vivid, not all of them visual (which is why it would be hard to recount them here; they often depend on how they were said). Shamsie has become very very good at this.

Shamsie has such a light touch with her storytelling - and this is a thing to be celebrated - but I've often felt disappointed, sometimes about specific things and sometimes that the writing fell short of her ambitions. I've wondered why that should be. Here, though, the foundation text by Sophocles, with the resonances accumulated by all the other versions (Shamsie acknowledges Anne Carson and Seamus Heaney but I read this, inevitably, also through Jean Anouilh) makes for an unshakeable foundation that holds Shamsie steady as she recontextualises the fundamental opposition of [any kind of] individual and the State, the State and its declared enemies,  of law and justice, of morality and pragmatism.

She gives Isma/Ismene, Eamonn/Haemon and Parvaiz/Polynices (who is only ever an already-dead body in other versions) entire sections of they own and these first three sections are the very heart of the book.

I did not realise this. I reached the end of the section titled Parvaiz and though I wanted to keep reading, I told myself that the best bits, the crucial encounter between Aneeka and Karamat (Antigone and Creon) needed my complete attention and a good chunk of time.

I'll just state very briefly that my first and continuous reaction to the Aneeka section was, 'Oh dear. Oh no. Why?' 

I should also say immediately that my disappointment was not a deal breaker, because what had gone before was so impressive and immersive that for the first time in the book, I was able to hold myself back and ask questions even as I was reading.

I don't have definitive answers, of course. Only Shamsie - and maybe not even she - knows why this section plays out as it does. My hunch is that all this time, Aneeka is seen through the eyes of all the people who love her most. And yet, through each person's eyes, though something new is revealed, much more remains mysterious. The moment that Shamsie entered Aneeka's mind is the moment we could reasonably expect to know this character at last. There would be no Antigone, whatever the versions are called, without the speaking, thinking, vocalised presence of this character.

Unfortunately for Shamsie, she steps into Aneeka's point of view at the moment when Aneeka is utterly disintegrated by grief at the death of her twin. She is confounded, the very manifestation of the phrase out of her mind and Shamsie attempts to chronicle this by a peculiar kind of fragmented narrative. Sometimes these are in the form of tweets or media reports; at other times, something that reads like a diary but cannot possibly be, because though it might be in Aneeka's voice, she is also present in these brief pieces of text in the third person. 

Because Shamsie takes away from Aneeka the power of speech, what direct speech there is is far from powerful. I don't have the book to hand as I am writing this, but when she speaks to Isma, she is petulant (Get off his shed, she says, I think); with Abdul, to helps her get out of the country and to Karachi, her conversation consists of telling him she knew before he did that he was gay. The point of this conversation is not what she says, but his confession and explanation for why he needs to make amends.

The only word of power uttered in this entire section - that I hoped would be the first part of the battle with Karamat (which was always the symbolic heart of the story) - is the word 'Justice' : her single word reply to a reporter asking her, as she leaves for her flight, what she hopes to achieve by going to Karachi.

Aneeka has lost her power of speech, upon which so much depends. But this is a novel and not a play, and in a visual world, we expect actions to speak louder: a gallery exhibition of images, each squeezing out a thousand words.

So that, when we reach the last fifth of the book and step into Karamat's point of view, we have plenty to see. Once again, we're watching Aneeka from a distance, through someone else's eyes, and this particular perspective is a shrewd, calculating one. What might have been simple acts of grief gain a certain political heft because it is Karamat who, representing the State, watches Aneeka enact an opposition that cannot be anything but hostile to everything he is.

Novel though it is, a clash of thhe kind between Antigone and Creon, Aneeka and Karamat, cannot be conducted through actions only. Ideas are central to this battle and they needs words. Shamsie's dialogue through the book is sharp, quick and supple in its ability to be wry and witty and to cut when necessary.

Sadly, Aneeka and Karamat never talk in person. Shamsie outsources to Eamonn and Isma what Aneeka might have said to Karamat. And their words, though they find their mark, are softened by the characters they are. We never do find out what Aneeka's idea of justice actually is - beyond that the law and justice are not the same thing and that the UK must allow her to bring Parvaiz's body back to he can be buried with his mother.

This, really, is what makes Home Fire merely a very good book when it could have been great, even brilliant. 

Not ending on that note, however. It also occurs to me that though Aneeka may not have been the one to articulate all of the arguments in opposition to Karamat's stateist position, there is nothing inaccurate in the way Shamsie shows a more diverse, multi-directional critique of power.

__

I cannot help mentioning that I look for and invariably find a particular thing - I hesitate to call it a tic -  that Shamsie has in all of her novels. Some years ago, it would cause me to roll my eyes a little bit, but now I found myself recognising it here with a kind of affectionate amusement.

No, I am not going to tell you what it is. 

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Eunice de Souza: 1940-2017

Eunice de Souza died on the 29th of July. She would have been 77 yesterday. 

It was early-ish morning when I got the news and soon, as happens, twitter and my mail box were busy with sharing memories, photographs and of course, poems.

There have been some lovely, sharp obituaries - sharp in the sense of having in common with Eunice, her cool self-possession and absence of humbug. I'm thinking, especially, of Rochelle Pinto's tribute in Scroll. It's striking how many writers Eunice has taught, and how unforgettable she has been to others who have only a slight relationship to poetry or literature.

I was not among her students, but when I was at Sophia SCM, nearly all of my Bombay friends had until very recently, been in her class. This next sentence will make no sense to nearly everyone reading this, but if there was, as we were discovering there was, a Jeroo type, there was, as surely a Eunice type. 

Anyway. 

So there have been tributes. Though I didn't know her personally, I knew her through her poetry, anthologies, and academic writing. So I have contributed to this tide of thoughts on Eunice de Souza:

The Hindu's Mumbai edition has a full page tribute in the form of poems and brief notes by ten poets, and I am among those.

There's also a short essay on Raiot

I would like to read something by someone on her relationship which animals which, as many know was deep and lasting; but I feel there's more to know.


Monday, July 03, 2017

Nine: Man at Work

A couple of weeks ago, when my mother was looking through an ancient box of unsorted photographs, she put aside some she especially wanted me to see. Of these, I picked a few to scan. Rather rashly, I put them ALL up on twitter and then swiftly changed my mind and deleted them all.

This one, though, I want to put up. It's my dad at his desk at Geoffrey Manners. This was probably shortly before he got married; we're uncertain of timelines, and because there's no one left who can answer the questions we now have, we just have to speculate. I am not certain this is 1968, but my mother thinks it probably is.


If I cared enough about history, personal or general, this would matter. I care more for memory, though, and for that purpose, this works just fine as it is. There are clues, tantalising enough, in the posters at the back, his clothes, hair.

What I really want to know is, who took this photograph and why was my dad pretending the photographer was absent? Also, why was this photograph put away in a small envelope along with other photos we've never seen, among my dad's things?

Once again, there'll never be answers to these questions.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Tipping the Scales

In some old photos, I do not recognise my mother. This is how we come to live in the present: when today's person is not adequately signified by the image from then. 

In one, she has long hair and it is dyed an unreal black. Her spectacles are large and round and she carries an unrecognisable amount of fat on her body. In the photographs of that time, she will have been around 50. I remember the health crises she had been through - an hysterectomy, malaria following blood transfusions, severe hallucinations caused by some medication not prescribed by the surgeon, but administered by some nurse on night duty.

She emerged from it, I think, undiminished. 

Now, none of those adjectives are appropriate. Her hair is mostly grey and cut elegantly short. After a cataract surgery, she doesn't really need spectacles but wears reading glasses - because she reads a lot - for most of the day. But the most dramatic change is in the weight she has lost. There is no one who has not remarked on it. Even people who meet her for the first time must know, if they are observant, that her blouse gapes at the neck because of sustained weight loss; that that lifted arm - all bones followed by sagging flesh released by poor muscle tone - is unusual. 

Sometimes she is diminished. At other times, her energy is remarkable. As it is at this moment, when the rains have come and the skies are cloudy. She is tied to the seasons more than anyone I have ever known, animal in her response to the air and temperature.

All this is on my mind constantly; but recently, I run over and over a thing she said to me: When she was getting her tests done before her hysterectomy, she remarked to the surgeon on her weight. He said to her that she should be glad of her extra fat; that he recommended to patients that they put on weight before a surgery so that the body would withstand the weight loss that would follow.

I think of this even as I refuse to weigh myself any more, even as I monitor my mother's weight every week, as I do her blood pressure and sugar more frequently.

It's been three years or more since I stopped colouring my hair - my mother's generation dyed theirs - a thing that I didn't do, anyway, for more than one resentful year. I've been putting on weight and I don't care beyond a point. I mark my months with the migraines that tell me I'm approaching menopause. I have accepted and welcomed my middle years.

I am welcoming them slightly differently than my mother did. Hers was attended by health crises; I hope mine won't be. But in the matter of weight, I am coming around to the view that some padding is essential to see me through the later years. Like an animal, I accumulate fat against a time when I will need to spend it.

Perhaps I will be unrecognisable in photographs in the same way that my mother is now. I'm told I still look exactly as I did when I was a teen. This must be rubbish, but it gives me a glow of satisfaction. I wonder at it and I wonder what I will feel when that no longer is true. After all, I seem to be falling in with nature's plans with equanimity. 

Friends will say - I know this - that this is all very well, but I could do more to take care of myself: above all, in the matter of exercise. They are right. I know it. I know it even as I postpone morning yoga to the evening, and the evening's to the next day. As I excuse myself from that walk because they're burning leaves, the path is broken and stony, because sewage overflows nearby and it is disgusting. I'm getting good at excuses but that doesn't make them plausible. My friends are gentle and I am glad. I would be a sledgehammer if I were in their position. 

So here we are: one person making peace with old age and another welcoming middle age.

*

Very serendipitously, on my twitter TL, this poem by Jane Hirschfield: 'The Weighing'.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

JH Prynne: 'Moon Poem'

Moon Poem
JH Prynne

The night is already quiet and I am
bound in the rise and fall: learning
to wish always for more. This is the
means, the extension to keep very steady

so that the culmination
will be silent too and flow
with no trace of devoutness.

Since I must hold to the gradual in
this, as no revolution but a slow change
like the image of snow. The challenge is
not a moral excitement, but the expanse,

the continuing patience
dilating into forms so
much more than compact.

I would probably not even choose to inhabit the
wish as delay: it really is dark and the knowledge
of the unseen is a warmth which spreads into
the level ceremony of diffusion. The quiet

suggests that the act taken
extends so much further, there
is this insurgence of form:

we are more pliant than the mercantile notion
of choice will determine-we go in this way
on and on and the unceasing image of hope
is our place in the world. We live there and now

at night I recognise the signs
of this, the calm is a
modesty about conduct in

the most ethical sense. We disperse into the ether
as waves, we slant down into a precluded notion
of choice which becomes the unlearned habit of
wish: where we live, as we more often are than

we know. If we expand
into this wide personal vacancy
we could become the extent

of all the wishes that are now too far beyond
us. A community of wish, as the steppe
on which the extension would sprinkle out
the ethic density, the compact modern home.

The consequence of this
pastoral desire is prolonged
as our condition, but

I know there is more than the mere wish to
wander at large, since the wish itself diffuses
beyond this and will never end: these are songs
to the night under no affliction, knowing that

the wish is gift to the
spirit, is where we may
dwell as we would

go over and over within the life of the heart
and the grace which is open to both east and west.
These are psalms for the harp and the shining


stone: the negligence and still passion of night.

                       ~ from White Stones  (1969)

*

It isn't night; there's no moon to speak of, either now or when the sun's done for the day. This is in lieu of a post I ought to have made on the 21st to [celebrate] another year of this blog.

I thought I was good at remembering dates. Apparently age diffuses ability in addition to all else. Let's call it a kind of wandering at large.

There are times, not regular, when certain poems seem to be a sort of augury or a point of reference - something you'd stick with blu-tac on a wall or the side of a cupboard, so you can remind yourself of something as you come and go. 
 
Some years ago, that poem was (still is) Pessoa's poem '6 September 1934'. That poem made my mother cry for me, I don't know why. Swar took a photo of it immediately she read it.
 
Now, I believe I will need to find a place for this one somewhere unhumid, visible and unassailable. Will I take the Pessoa down? You have got to be kidding me. I need those cold, empty hands available at a moment's notice.
 
*
 
At first I wrote two lines of my own, after I copied the poem. Then I felt miserly and ungrateful, and therefore all of this.
 
It only remains for me to say to those of you who still visit, read, return, browse and comment despite my loud silence, 
 
Thank you!




Monday, March 27, 2017

These are my Important Thoughts as March Ends

- Capitalise random Words (that noun capitalisation is Germanic).

- Pista ice cream: used to hate it but crave it now for its pastel visual qualities. Will probably continue to hate it if I ate it.

- "Today will be Muggy. Followed by Tuggy, Wuggy and Thuggy."* (RIP Pete Shotton)

- My mother calls the flowering shrub caesalpinia by a name with more possibilities - sisylphenia. I imagine somee tireless but hopeless plant creature pushing nutrients up to the very top so they will bloom into flowers, only to have them drop off. No, that doesn't really work, does it? Okay, then - Sisyphus, Sibyl and their sisters walk into a bar...

...Fine. I'll stop.

- Someone is Mountain View, California has just been spending LOTS of time on my blog. This is not a Thought, is it?

- Notice how I said nothing about Important?

- I sleep best in the early morning, but when I am awake before dawn, that's the part of the day I like best.

- My supposedly retentive memory cannot hold a thought from one room to the next. When I return to the first room to retrieve the thought, I have another, freshly-minted one waiting for me.

- I should probably stop thinking aloud in public places.

__

*A weather report by John Lennon in their school days. From my unreliable memory of a bit in Pete Shotton's book, The Beatles: In My Life. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Derek Walcott

RIP. 

Last night on twitter, there was a lot of poetry and quiet celebration, because 87 is a good age and Derek Walcott has left behind poetry that matters. And plays.

Aisha said on twitter that it's impossible to read The Prodigal in pieces and in principle I agree, though I've personally never read it any other way, not having the book.

So here's my favourite portion from it* [from here]:

Reading the extracts from The Prodigal, I'm struck by how lightly Walcott carries off the high tone - that exultant register where it's possible to sustain the use of adjectives and make it seem necessary and just right.

And of course, among the peripatetic wanderings, there's the interrogation of age and what is allowed to oneself and what the testimonies of art amount to - 'no History left, just natural history'. Of this natural world, Walcott turns out to be a masterful historian and maybe the art of being that poet is testimony enough.


__

* Since I can't copy paste, I ought to have typed it out but I'm too lazy.

I ought to warn KM though - there are a lot of lizards scattered through these poems, okay?

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Letters to a Young Farmer

Via Michael Pollan on twitter, these interviews with some of the authors of an anthology called Letters to a Young Farmer.
One of the major themes in your letter is the idea of pursuing diversity and complex relationships. Why is that important?

One of the reasons farms have gone to mono-speciation and segmentation and segregation is forced simplicity. But as we know, ecology is not simplistic; it’s complex. You can either have simplicity and externalized cost, which are simple in the short term, or you can have complexity and not have externalized costs, which takes a long-term view.
I don’t want to make it sound like if you go to diversity, it’s going to be simpler or better, but in the holistic scheme of things, it is simpler and better. You don’t have to have a refrigerator full of pharmaceuticals; you don’t have to take the pesticide exam and be certified as chemical applicators; you don’t have to have a door on the farm with padlocks on it so nobody will get in there and eat something. When you embrace ecological and financial diversity on your farm, in my view, you’re embracing actually a simpler life than trying to fight against nature every day by being simplistic.
Joel Salatin, whose words quoted above, talks about instant gratification, and says, "You’ve got to give it a go for 10 years. And you can’t Google experience", which is true; but he seems to think only Millennials are susceptible to the lure of having everything at the touch of a button.

I don't know what everyone's beef with Millennials is. Do the rest of us not want things as soon as they appear? Do we not borrow against the future to pay for what's new now? And really, whose fault is this encouragement of instant gratification?

If anything, it's the Milennials who realise they've been bequeathed a world that's an utter disaster. They're perfectly aware that it's down to them to make all the sacrifices their parents and grandparents refused to. And they're the ones going to be left holding the toxic baby they've been handed. If they want an occasional bit of instant gratification so that they know what it used to feel like to have it available all the time, I don't blame them.

I mean, don't confuse millennials with hipsters, okay?

As another contributor, Nancy Vail says, "Embarking on the path of farming is an act of hope in a time when there’s so much that we could despair about". Such an un-hipster life-choice, no?

All that said, I like the idea of combining Rilke with Fukuoka, so I support the idea of this book. If only I could find someone to buy it for me. 



Monday, March 06, 2017

Flummoxed

A character has arrived and I ask him his name. He says I can call him what I like. Insists on it, even.

I am flummoxed. This is so much pressure, this business of naming.

Once I used to have lists, back when there was another male - a real, live one - to be named. Now I have nothing. 

What if I string syllables together and come up with something ludicrous just because this character is only in my head? What do I do with my resistance to ordinary names? How many syllables in a name tip it over into pretentiousness? Do I name this character after I get to know him better? Does that mean people - even not-real ones - ought to grown into their names instead of just being given one, and which they, all their lives long, try to inhabit without awkwardness?

I have so many questions. I should begin making a list. (Of questions; not names).

So far, this character seems unfazed. Will report progress if there is any.

 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

'Treatise on Hank Mobley' - Sean Singer

Treatise on Hank Mobley

   - Sean Singer

Mobley talked about revolution.
Asterisk, palladium, forever unjaded.


He talked about two lives—the one we learn with
and the one we live after that.


Mobley slowly moped,
as if he was impersonating himself


in order to annihilate it.
Mobley referred explicitly to everyday life,


“I put my heavy form on them, then I can
do everything I want to do.”


Think of Leeuwenhoek,
smaller and upside-down


through his own lens,
to capture the place as a sound,


yet in making that sound,
tightened the grasp on the material


that supported his question.
Mobley talked about what is subversive about love.


When the door to a room closes,
the light, orange as a feather, under.


Mobley was positive about the refusal of constraints.
Strung out, his rung in the ladder broke, as


anyone who can swing can get a message across—
People who talk about revolutions


and not these things
have corpses in their mouths.



(from Guernica)

*

Checking my feed reader after ages, I saw a poem by Singer in someone's rather long post about books they've blurbed. There were these lines: 'Become Ashtabula, taxonomic, a burned running, a fur peeling, a pure feeling, an orange./ Become an admirer.'

So I went looking for more poems. And up here's one of them.

*

Been feeling partially synaesthetic since my three-day migraine last week. I can't remember when I last had one that was so very bad/intense. I felt a little shifted, displaced in my head and body. Maybe I'm imagining the synaesthesia - okay, I definitely am - but I want to mix things up, tangle all the signals and make a mess.

I am also in the grip of spring fever. I know autumn is the more fashionable season but here, spring is autumn with a newer sun: the leaves are falling and scrunchy and things smell dusty and - all right, instead of fruit and harvest there are flowers and drunken bees and new leaves so green you want to say tender again and again but only secretly and to yourself so no one accuses you of not even being ironic.



It's easy to forget the world, draw up a chair and watch things grow.

*

Memo to bite my tongue.
  

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Queue tale

My stuff is getting billed. There's some mix-up about one of the things, so we're just standing around waiting.

From behind me, a voice says, "You've stopped dyeing your hair. It looks good - suits you."

It's a male voice. I turn around. No one I know - a short, paunchy middle-aged man in specs with grizzled hair. I slowly look at him, not quite up and down, but with a curl of the lip.

"Can I say the same thing to you?" I ask.

A look of some delight and a lot of confusion. "Of course!"

"Good," I say and turn back to the counter, where, thankfully, things have been sorted out and billing has resumed.

After a moment, he speaks again. "I'm sorry if I intruded into your private space."

"Thank you. You did."

I leave without looking at him again. I feel more angry than witty or triumphant and later I wonder at how easily I let that anger go just because I remembered that he apologised. Then I feel a bit annoyed at myself.
 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Like Bellow's Herzog

These days I feel like Saul Bellow's Herzog. I compose letters and mails to people in my head and - this goes without saying - I never send any of them.

When I do send a mail to a person on my ever-growing list, it never turns out the way it exists in my head. It shrinks, becomes more mealy-mouthed and conventional, more stripped of warmth and intent. Anyone reading such a mail would naturally wonder why I bothered and very likely ignore it.

I choose to think this signifies something. A retreat. A re-gathering of resources. Perhaps. 

See Bellow's lines:

"Not able to stand kindness at this time. Feeling, heart, everything in strange condition. Unfinished business."

Yes, let's call it unfinished business. For which withdrawal and disengagement is necessary. Or, at any rate, an absence from being everywhere, in order to be only within myself.

 

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

'The ancient story of the sun going down': RIP John Berger

The year begins with the ending of a rich and productive life. John Berger, who died yesterday, was 90. 

As 2016 ended, I said to myself, 'At least this isn't the year John Berger died.' As 2017 begins, he has.

And yet, I don't feel the shock and grief that many deaths the previous year brought. I feel gratitude for his work, for his clarity and compassion and for his quest to live and write ethically.

There are many, many things about his life and work that is easily found on the net, so I won't link to anything.

Instead, here's a poem:

Each Pine at Dusk

John Berger

Each pine at dusk
lodges the bird
of its voice
perpendicular and still
the forest
indifferent to history
tearless as stone
repeats
in tremulous excitement
the ancient story
of the sun going down

*

Okay, that was meagre. To fill it out, I will (naturally) need to talk about myself. Of being a very young 21 and encountering Ways of Seeing as a bunch of cyclostyled (yes!) excerpts at Sophia. Though I had already begun to train myself to see visual media more critically, it was Berger who was the first to thoroughly train my eye to work in tandem with my mind.

Then there was Once In Europa. It's a book to re-read today, for sure; but when I first read it, I was editing my first (and only) 'feature film, in Bangalore. We worked in a room off the projector room; the corridor outside was populated with monkeys; the manager of the state-owned theatre found it hard to believe that a woman was a director but frankly incredulous when he found that the editor was also a woman. We stayed in a clean lodge somewhere in Seshadripuram and I discovered a part of Bangalore through sitting and standing in buses to and from Jayanagar.

It was in this month and half (or however long it took) that I was reading Berger, in the few in-between times that were all we had before exhaustion and sleep took us. I don't think there were any even slight parallels between the world of the book and the life I was reading leading. And yet, it is in the dna of my poetry; I'm not sure how, but I know it - and Berger - is.

In recent years, when my mother's reading has outpaced mine in a way that still astonishes me, I've given her his books and she has devoured them. I have, perhaps, been more sceptical of his recent work (that A to X book; what is it with Berger and letters of the alphabet?) but I would never deny the power of his early work.

I need to look for his films now (Ways of Seeing is available on YouTube, by the way).