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Saturday, April 14, 2018

The good--and guilty--citizen

A WhatsApp message makes the rounds, asking you to join a candlelight vigil protesting the brutal rapes in Kathua and Unnao and asserting that #thisisnotmyindia. I am held up doing my job, sitting in on student presentations while a part of me chafes, wanting to be where many of my friends and fellow citizens are, holding placards and melting candles, trying to find hope in collective presence. I do not make it to the event, and a part of me shrivels a bit in an unavoidable guilt, while the rest of me tries to make sense...of the need for visible assembly, of the necessity of being seen as part of a group that refuses to be silent, of what we achieve through marking our outrage and articulating our refusal to be implicated in the actions that give rise to it.  I want to be there for all those reasons, and I want to be there to gain a bit of strength from the sense that we share the sense of outrage, frustration and are all overcome with a sense of helplessness while wondering how (if at all) we can identify the ways in which our ways of living, speaking and thinking are responsible for the state of affairs. To sing "Hum honge kamiyab" in chorus uplifts one even in sadness; it gathers the slim shards of hope and ties them into something that glitters, however faintly, in the darkness.

These repeated manifestations of inhumanity shake our belief in practically everything that we are told society, community, religion--humanity itself--and all other forms of organization stand for. The horrors that our species perpetuates on others who are more vulnerable or different are beyond comprehension--or so we tell ourselves, knowing, somewhere deep inside, that they are completely comprehensible if the mythic logic of "received humanism" is thrown aside. So we rush to tell ourselves--and each other--that this is the kind of thing we will not stand for, or be identified with. We rush to stand out and apart from the perpetuation of such horrors so that we are not tainted by the guilt that must wash over all those that remain safe, all those who can go home in the secure comfort that It Will Not Happen To Them. We all share the guilt of the survivor.

And as we flail about in desperation, trying to see what we can do to not only feel less guilty but to stop the things that make us feel guilt--poverty, social injustice, violence against children and other vulnerable beings, war, cruelty to animals, growing mounds of unrecyclable plastic, environmental degradation--it is the symbolic solidarities of marches and candlelight vigils that work to throw us a lifeline, a promise and a hope that other worlds are possible.

What is the narrative of the nation we would fashion for ourselves? Considering, of course that we even buy into the notion of nation (I for one do not but must accept the reality that to some extent nation and state are intertwined and while one be uncomfortable with the former one has to live with the latter as a unit of governance and civic management). Is it possible to grasp the strands of that narrative--of young women who find their future in impossibly hopeful ways, of children who beat all odds to rise above domestic cruelties and deprivation, of people who make space for others to find happiness and fulfilment even as they find their own--and weave it into a strong enough yarn, a rope, that we can hold on to? And then, perhaps, to draw out a somewhat tired metaphor, it can become a fabric that we are comfortable enough to clothe ourselves with.

And then there is the complexity of everyday life we have to deal with. This is so many ways feeds the guilt. How do we eat our breakfast (sometimes spoilt for choice) when we know that for so many, hunger is the only certainty? How do we get into the car--or bus, or cab--when we know that mobility of any kind is a distant dream for such a large percentage of our population? How do we find satisfaction in our work when we know that for a majority of people in the world, it is not satisfaction or success, but just existence, that makes work necessary.

And then there is the guilt of knowing that even thinking about these things--in these ways, in this space, in this language--is a consequence of privilege.

So we take to the vigil, the march, the petition, the rally. These are ways out of the sometimes paralysing effect of solitary thought. When solidarities lead to conversation, they can also open up pathways to change, however small, however narrow. And even as we shore up these energies for the big changes that we'd like to see happen, we can go back into our everyday workspaces to work on the small changes that we know can happen--being fair and open with people we interact with, using less plastic, not littering on the streets, treating animals humanely,...you get the drift.

Good citizens (of the world, not necessarily the nation) can do with some guilt. But perhaps we need to temper it with a measure of doing, in both symbolic and material ways.


Saturday, February 24, 2018

An unoriginal soundtrack for my life

I’m in the car with my niece, and we’re listening to one of my playlists. It’s a song from the late 1970s, Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, and she sings along to the words, which edge from slow to fast, from somewhat reflective to belted out, all the way to the plaintive last line. She stops, suddenly, and says, “This is kind of pathetic, that I know all the words to songs from my parents’ generation!”

Our musical memory is inextricably associated with the context(s) of our lives, the people who come and go at different points, the places we are in when we listen to something or the mood that specific songs and tunes link us to. Even after the incidents that gave rise to those moods are long forgotten, the sense of feeling lingers, and comes alive each time we encounter the tune. If my young companion’s parents listened to Led Zeppelin when they were dropping her off to school every morning, the song gets imprinted in her mind in a way that is difficult to erase. It probably gets intertwined with other childhood tunes that she may have clamored for, even as she protested the confusing rhythms of “Stairway”, a song that lacks the repetitive sing-along quality to which very young children respond. It becomes a difficult-to-forget strand in the soundtrack of her kindergarten years.

So… if I were to pick a tune for every decade of my life…or maybe every half-decade of my life, would I be able to build a playlist that symbolizes my journey in some way, that captures the dominant mood of different periods? It could be a story, however partial and incomplete, or then it need not be one. We know that there is an impulse to narrativize our lives, to make sense of the randomness of birth, existence and death in some manner that imposes order, that draws a line, however wavy and discontinuous, from one event to the next. Music helps add a layer of spice, a tone, a sensation, a colour, that makes the ordinary somehow more bearable, putting it into a frame that lends memory a shade of specialness. And of course, we are coached into this mode of thinking as we move from movie theatre to television screen, our anticipation stoked by drum rolls and weeping violins, sadness, fear and happiness called into being by the background score.

Here goes. Not necessarily a reflection of my musical tastes, then or now, though I must confess to periodically drawing upon these songs when I wish to disappear from the present into the self-perpetuated fiction of an idyllic—or at the very least, meaningful--past.

Pre-memory: when images are born in the act of re-telling. Athai adi, methai adi
My father’s youngest sister was a college student, unmarried, still living at home when I was born; she often talks about how she played a major role in caring for me as an infant. This was a song that she says she sang to put me to sleep. I now suspect it played more to her fascination with Gemini Ganesan than anything else!

The Disney years, when you wish upon a star and the bare necessities! For no reason other than the fact that movie memories give us a timeline of our lives just as well as anything else. Even though Pinocchio was released more than two decades before I came of film-going age, it is very much a part of the ongoing Disney magic of the late 1960s, when television made the “Wonderful World of Disney” a part of the after-school milk and cookies routine of a large swathe of children growing up in North America. Maybe it irreparably damaged our aesthetic sensibility and our ideas about the world, something that took many years of a critical liberal arts education to undo, but there’s no doubt that those princesses (and the occasional lost-in-the-jungle waif) made winter afternoons in cold, cold Calgary a little bit warmer.

It wasn’t long before long-haired teen idols replaced Mowgli and the Monkees’ Daydream Believer introduced me (with those seriously inane lyrics) to the delicious unhappiness of adolescence. This, mixed in with the dreaminess of Shashi Kapoor in Likhe jo khat tujhe made one want to grow up quickly and join that romantic adult world.

The 1970s were dominated—and animated—by a growing unease with the world, the conviction that we could change things with our words and ideas, our moods reflected in (at different stages) the work of The Beatles (Across the Universe), Bob Dylan (Tambourine Man)  and Joan Baez (Love is just a 4 letter word) , with a little bit of rising feminism thrown in with Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman”.

In the 1980s, subversiveness came in a variety of forms, from Michael Jackson who exploded on to the scene with Billie Jean, to Annie Lennox and Eurythmix, but I stuck with the old sounds of Al Stewart, and his Year of the Cat, and John Lennon’s new partnership with Yoko Ono (Watching the Wheels). But then how could I forget, a live concert with one of my all-time favourites, Simon & Garfunkel, whose Boxer never fails to move me.

By the 1990s I had entered my 30s, and was beginning to be consumed by a sense that I still hadn’t found what I was looking for… and listening to U2 did put me in the zone. This was also when Disney re-entered my life through my children’s listening preferences and thus began another cycle--of being introduced to sounds through other tastes.

This is what led to my discovery of Cold Play (Kingdom Come remains my favourite) in the early 2000s. And later in this second decade of the millennium, the discovery of a completely new sound, Sufi music and Farida Khanum, Coke Studio and fusion of all kinds, young people making music that crosses borders and mixes moods. 

There are of course some songs that run through all decades, that calm me, centre me, and give me a sense of self. Here’s just a few of those:

Kurai Onrum Illai by M S Subbalakshmi
Amazing Grace by Il Divo
What a wonderful world by Louis Armstrong


 I haven't included Abba here, even though they were a big part of our college sensibility in the late 1970s...but I have to say, Thank you for the music.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Buttered toast and Betelgeuse

The slices pop up from the toaster with a ding! My tentative fingers pick them up, one at a time, and drop them on the plate before the heat signal can travel from my skin to my brain. They need to cool, just a bit, just enough to acquire a hardness that won't give when the butter is spread over the surface. Golden, salty butter. Kept out of the fridge just long enough for the knife to cut through the smooth yet firm rectangle.

I move the knife horizontally across the fat brick of butter, gathering a thin layer that curls over the finely serrated blade to form a small ribbed cylinder, like the ones in the silver dishes in fancy hotels. Impressed by my unexpected artistry, I place it carefully on a slice and watch as it yields to the warmth, its butteriness oozing slowly over the golden brown surface, sinking into the pores. I quickly spread the rest, realizing that I haven't waited long enough and that the butter will soon disappear into the bread, visible only as a dull shine.

"I want to see the butter," he'd say, as he waited for the toast to cool before spreading a thick layer. Sometimes he'd add a dollop of ketchup.

Buttered toast and tea was a 4 o' clock routine that my father rarely missed, when at home. He took pleasure in making the tea himself, milky and thick, topped with an extra spoon of malai. I'd watch him, faintly disgusted by the malai (I was obsessive about straining every bit of it out of my tea and coffee) and remonstrating with him about the amount of butter on the toast. He paid no attention, focusing instead on enjoying the moment and all it contained.

January brings with it the bittersweetness of remembrance. One smiles at memories, grateful for their abundant presence, but sadness at the absence of those that played a role in generating them.

Orion and his belt. Image: Wikipedia
Like walking on the terrace at night. A keen star gazer, my father mapped the skies for me, pointing to Rohini--"that's Betelgeuse, the reddish one," he'd explain--at the far end of the long constellation of Orion, and then showing me the Belt, three stars strung across Orion's middle. Later my daughters were made familiar with the same stars and shared his excitement over expected meteor showers, lugging mats to sleep on the terrace and keep their eyes open for falling stardust. Never mind that most nights the clouds and the diffuse city lights masked whatever showers there may have been. The sense of anticipation was infectious.

Like going to the station to pick up arriving relatives. I do it out of habit fed by expectation but for him, it was an extension of his own fascination for travel. He would walk the length of the platform waiting for the arrival of a usually-late train, stopping to buy the latest South Central Railway timetable and a newspaper, as if the book tucked under his arm wasn't enough reading material.

It's coming on ten years now. The loss has lost its sharp edge, its contours now diffuse and soft, evoking gratitude rather than regret.