To youth, Time is akin to a huge transparent glass
through which he glimpses the vast panorama of the
exotic landscape of future. He looks forward to the
prospect of making the journey with relish and
enthusiasm. With the passage of time the transparency
gives way to opacity and the glass turns into a mirror.
It no longer lets you see what lies ahead, but only
reflects back the images of life traversed over the
terrain of boulders, the thickets and the slush-ponds.
There is a time for everything,
I can visualise a good number of my readers exclaiming with a little indignation and a lot of consternation at the sight of this dotted-line-followed-by-a-sign-of-exclamation-within-inverted-commas.
“It makes no sense,” many of you will murmur. But did I ever say it made some sense? You would agree with me that it was rather presumptuous on your part to think that it must make some sense.
“Moreover,” you will argue, “there ought to be a small beautiful heading in capital letters instead of this meaningless line which seems to say something significant but finds itself incapable of doing so. It stands like a dumb charade defying you to decode its message. A brainteaser, literally!”
So, you feel there ought to be a ‘small beautiful heading in capital letters’. Well, as to its dimensions, I think it is quite small. I could have reduced it further by bringing down the number of dots to two or three, but that would have marred its aesthetic appeal.
Yes, I believe my heading is aesthetically beautiful, whatever laws of aesthetics you may care to apply. It is CATCHY – otherwise you would not have been reading this article. It is MEMORABLE – you will remember it for weeks together when all the other headings read during this period will have been forgotten. It is SMALL – the smallness or bigness is only a comparative quality, as was proved by Beerbal when he drew a bigger line under Akbar’s original and thus made it look small. Place my title alongside of Fielding’s popular novel titled: The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of his Friend Mr. Abraham Adams, Written in Imitation of the Manner of Cervantes. The title of this novel reduces my own to lilliputian dimensions.
As to a heading being in capital letters it is altogether irrelevant to the present issue. Since no letters have been used the question of their being capital does not arise. If, however, you insist on capitalisation, please use a magnifying glass – my tiny dots would look formidable blobs.
The title of this article becomes all the more sweet because it seems to say much but prefers to remain silent. In other words it is suggestive. It conjures up different images in different minds. If it gives rise to no image in your mind the fault is not with the title, it should be looked for well-you-know-where.
Let me confess the reason for its charade-like brain-teasing quality. When I sat down with a pen and paper I had no idea what I was going to write about – to be frank I still don’t have – but it was absolutely necessary to write something at the top of the paper to make a beginning so that the words and ideas would start pouring in. At the same time I did not wish to confine myself to any particular topic. I wanted some lead, which would give the greatest latitude to my thoughts.
As a result I hit upon this dotted-line-within-inverted-commas. Now I am not tethered to any stake of a subject. I can talk about anything under the sun. I can sink to the remotest depths of past or can fly to the highest pinnacle of future. I can talk of Plato or potato, Porcupine sex or missionary position, a railway ticket or a game of cricket, my milk vendor or my vice-chancellor. What is more, if I like, I may talk of nothing – which I suspect some of the readers think I am doing. It is, however, more difficult to talk on nothing than to talk on something.
Other writers faced with the dilemma of making their essays readable when there is hardly anything to read give very glossy titles to their essays. The poor reader goes on gulping down the essay in the hope of coming across the thing which the title promises, but which he never finds, and ends up in disgust for having been cheated into a false bargain. This tendency of the writers is as deplorable as the behaviour of a coquette. She casts amorous glances and smiling looks towards the object of her flirtation and thus lures him into belief that she is ardently in love with him. The poor fellow is taken in. He does not realise that a coquette’s behavior is as remote from love as the possession of a lottery ticket is from acquiring the actual wealth. A lottery ticket, a flirt’s glances and a false glossy title belong to the same category. They all arouse false hopes and cheat the very person who patronises them.
This accounts for another reason why I chose the dotted-line-within-inverted-commas for the heading. It makes no promises and therefore cannot be held guilty of cheating anyone into reading this article. If you do so you do it of your own sweet will.
My last reason: this title gives me an advantage over a particular species of readers, popularly known as the headline readers. This species goes through an entire magazine within minutes by glancing over the headings and soon after launches a harangue over the contents.
This species is the greatest headache and the most abominable sight to a writer. A literary piece is invested with the essence of a writer’s thinking and observation of a lifetime, which the headline reader disposes of within two winks. Actually, this coterie is responsible for encouraging a writer to concentrate more on the heading than on the contents of his work.
By your patience, Reader, I am convinced that thou art not one of the species. Therefore let us proceed further. Where were we…Good Heavens! We are still talking about the title. This will lead us nowhere.
A proper article must have a beginning, middle and an end. (Aristotle says so, though of a different genre). I find that my article has a reasonably good beginning, though an unreasonably long one, but what it lacks precisely is the middle. Milton’s play Samson Agonistes too was accused of having a beginning and an end but no middle. That is a consolation. Apparently, it looks rather absurd. A thing, which has a beginning and an end, must have a middle. Not necessarily. All beautifully symmetrical women are perpetually bent upon reducing, if not annihilating altogether, the middle of their torsos. Their dream figure is: forty-twenty-forty. Figuratively, an hourglass or the mathematical integer 8 is their ideal. An Urdu poet, struck by the conspicuous absence of waistline in his beloved, remarked:
Sanam sunte hain tumhare bhi kamar hai,
If my article too joins the rank of those adorable specimens of femininity I don’t think I, or for that matter you, should have any grouse to nurture.
Now that we have assured ourselves of the beauty of doing without a bulky middle, let us proceed to its end. Moreover, they say, well begun is half done. Having done that half well, let us execute the other half with the same dexterity, if possible.
Had I been writing a play, instead of an article, I would have contrived to gather the entire dramatis personae together in the fifth act, and would have left them at that. I have always observed that the characters become extremely self-conscious of their roles at this stage of the play. Whereas they act consistently well in all the preceding acts, they look very clumsy now. The poor fellow (hero) is discovered to be the inheritor of a vast fortune – the long lost son of a rich landlord. The heroine sticks to him like iron filings to the pole of a magnet. The villain who had been incorrigibly villainous all through undergoes a metamorphosis of heart. He forsakes his past evil deeds and resolves to become good hereafter. If this does not happen then all of a sudden he loses all his malicious potency and stronghold over the hero and is killed by him. As a wag puts it, it is not the hero who kills him, it is the fifth act that does the trick.
Since there is no villain to be killed or improved upon, my task of winding up and taking leave of you is made all the more difficult. If our relations had been that of a recruit and an officer I would have just said ‘dismiss’ and you would have been dismissed from my presence. Had our relations been more cordial, say that of two lovers, I would have kissed you good night. Or, if we did not have the partition of this magazine between us we would have shaken hands like cultured westerners; or would have bowed gracefully with folded hands saying ‘Namaskar’ like polite Hindus; or would have waved ‘Al Vida’ a la sophisticated Muslims; or would have projected our tongues out like all pious Tibetans. Had I been driving a truck and you were in the vicinity I would have honked your attention to the legend painted at the rear of my truck: O.K., BYE-BYE, TA-TA.
Under the circumstances, since we cannot observe any of the fore-mentioned ceremonies, we shall have to content ourselves with a less formal farewell. I am fascinated with the phenomenon of antardhyan – a process of vanishing into thin air popular among the gods of Hindu pantheon. It is a pity this mysterious device is not known to us mortals, otherwise I shall very much like to resort to it at the moment, for, I suspect, some of you are feeling that the right time for me to have taken leave of you was before I launched on writing this silly-go-round. Well, tastes and ideas differ, and you are certainly entitled to your own, but don’t you think most of the articles that you read in magazines these days are no better than silly-go-rounds? I bluntly told so to a regular contributor to magazines. He challenged me to produce one. Here is my response to his challenge: a-dotted-line-within-inverted-commas. I am equally anxious to escape this silly-go-round. So, Reader, let us run before it is too late. Don’t look back. Leave it alone. So long, Bye.
A left-handed compliment is one of the few things I have never taken kindly to. For instance I do not like somebody telling me that I look smart on a particular day. On the surface there seems nothing wrong with the remark, but on second thoughts I am not so sure. For it clearly implies that I may look smart on that day, but usually I do not, which is by no means a pleasant thing to be told.
I don’t know how to react to a different kind of compliment that I receive most frequently. Hardly a day passes without my running into some friend or the other during my evening walks. He looks at the Alsatian trotting by my side, and from the sparkle in his eyes I know it is coming: “You have a nice dog.” A very flattering remark indeed! I dare say anyone would feel elated for the rest of the evening after having earned some such encomium – and my Peter is no exception. I always find him in high spirits after the event. I wonder whether his sole enthusiasm for the evening walk is not an excuse to fish out such compliments. I have often noticed that though he keeps nosing into the wayside bushes while I am walking alone, he joins me at once when someone greets me and pauses a while to have a little chat.
I don’t mind my dog being complimented. It would be unsporting on my part to bear him a grudge over this. What I do mind is thanking the other party for a compliment exclusively meant for someone else. Moreover, in a vague sort of way it also reflects that my dog is the only thing about me worth appreciating, which may be gratifying to Peter but hardly to me. Instead, I should be genuinely pleased if I could overhear one of Peter’s dog-friends complimenting him on having such a fine gentleman for his master. It is a pity that these affectionate creatures converse in a language that is not comprehensible to us; and affection, like love, if not expressed, is lost to all practical purposes.
What is true of love and affection is true of opposite sentiments. An unpleasant opinion about a person, if not expressed, is lost to oblivion. Nobody is a whit poorer for it. But people do often express such opinions unwittingly as I discovered one day to my own embarrassment.
One of my friends invited me to tea at his house saying that it was a get-together of some intellectuals, and that my presence would add variety to the gathering. It was the word ‘variety’ that irritated me the most. I am not particularly fond of being associated with that cold, dry, bespectacled brood of egoists known as intellectuals, but to be considered a foil for such company is difficult to acknowledge with grace. Certain things should better be left unsaid.
I grant that my friend may not have meant any offence. In all probability he may not even be aware of any impertinence in what he said, yet it revealed to me in what esteem he holds me. He considers me a fun-loving person, who occasionally puts in a witty remark on the current discussion, but who is, all the same, incapable of indulging in sober intellectual pursuits.
If I may use a stage simile, to my friend I am comic relief in a grave tragedy. ‘It enlivens the atmosphere. It provides a respite from the mounting tension of the tragedy, but in itself it is unimportant. Its value lies in making tragedy bearable. It should never try to focus attention on itself and should remain subservient to the main plot. On the whole, its function is secondary, trivial, and its presence is tolerated so long as it remains within its limits.’ Now tell me if anyone would like to be this kind of a comic relief – a variety in an intellectual gathering. I wouldn’t for heavens! I prefer staying at home among my books and in company of Peter, who treats me with reverence and wags his tail whenever I condescend to oblige him with a smile. He does not consider me a comic relief nor regards me a man of secondary or trivial function. There are times when I feel like Voltaire: “The more I see of men, the more I like dogs.”
And to think that such misanthropic reflections emanate from an unwitting remark and a crude compliment! Dale Carnegie, the messiah of social intercourse, realized the enormous potentiality of a compliment and the hazards it may bring in the hands of an amateur. He went on to make a science of it. Now every Tom, Dick and Harry knows how to win friends and influence people by lavishing praise and showering compliments.
Only the other day I encountered a Carnegie neophyte airing her fresh acquired knowledge. She looked all right, though! With a studied smile she said to me, “Your style of writing is marvellous. You make everything look so funny and put it in such a casual manner…I wish I had half your charm.”
Let me make a confession. The occasions are rare when a woman discovers in me something worthy of her admiration. It being one of those rare occasions, I did not feel like letting it go just at that. I decided to make the most of it. I thanked her for entertaining such a nice opinion of my writings and asked her which of my essays she had read. She did not seem to remember any, but managed to add, “Oh, only the other day I was reading your article on the various oddities of various drawing rooms. The way you worked up your subject was really exquisite. It gave me many ideas to improve my own room.”
I have not yet grown into a voluminous writer and can fairly recollect whatever little I have written. I was at a loss which essay she was alluding to. On probing further, I was convinced that she had read nothing written by me. She knew me merely as ‘a chap who writes’. Her compliment was an exercise in the lesson she had read that very morning in Dale Carnegie.
Having surmised this much, her effort amused me. She must have realized that practice is more difficult than it sounds in the book. Her bafflement on being discovered reminded me of my own maiden attempt at the same game. I tried it on one of my professors who was known for his sardonic humour. I stopped him in the corridor and complimented him on having delivered a lively lecture on a staid subject. I told him that he had a way of making important things stick to memory. He cut me short with a blunt one: “Save your breath. I know it all. I, too, have read Carnegie.”
Ay, there’s the rub. Everyone seems to have read Carnegie. You cannot impress a person with your magic trick if he knows how it is done. You must look for a simpleton to be the audience in order to keep yourself in trim. It is comically wasteful when two persons knowing the tricks of the trade exhaust them on each other.
And please, do not go away with the impression that I am averse to receiving compliments. No, indeed not. I am yet to meet a man who turned his nose at praise. Despite the hollowness that is inherent in most of the compliments, I do like them. They make me happy, as fairy tales did in good old days.
My mirror has never flattered me. Look into it from whatever angle I may it invariably reflects a forbidding aspect. Neither for love nor for money would it present a passable countenance. The most exquisitely tailored suits or the pick of the gorgeous pullovers are reduced to hollow vanities when my mirror knows that it is I who am lurking behind the guise.
It is sheer exasperation to be made to look into it day after day. The time of shave is the time of ordeal to me. For those agonizing moments, when the daily ritual is being performed, I am a case for a psychopathologist. To keep my contact with the mirror to its minimum I soap my face without looking into it. But when I am obliged to confront it for applying the razor, it imparts such a mean glance to me for having defied it so long that I am tempted to look away and let the razor do its work. Alas, with what malignity it takes revenge on me and does not even flinch from drawing blood. It is a pity that with years of daily shaving I have not developed a reflex action for the movement of razor to avoid facing the mirror.
An acquaintance who was similarly sick of his mirror had resorted to a rather ingenious device. He used a convex mirror for shaving. Now the virtue of a convex mirror is that it exaggerates all features. It can make a Laurel look a Hardy. It can be instrumental in refining one’s sense of humour as it fosters the capacity of laughing at one’s own self. Besides, if you do not like your image in it you can always attribute the fault to convexity. Personally, I decline to be a party to substituting convexity to plainness. There is something mean about it. It is like using spurs in a battlefield where swords are to be crossed.
I have observed with astonishment how some of my friends never seem to grow tired of looking into their mirrors. Their fondness for the mirror brings to my mind the story of Narcissus, the beautiful Greek youth, who fell in love with his own reflection in water. Happy souls, this progeny of Narcissus, with whom beauty, like charity, begins at home! Every mirror smiles at them and generates all-round goodwill and cheerfulness.
And here am I condemned to bide my time with a second-rate mirror that insists on treating me at my face value without having respect for other virtues of head and heart. Petit Bourgeois! I entertained the suspicion that there was something doggedly evil, clinging like a curse, in the character of my own mirror.
It was in a way quite cathartic to my emotions when on a spring-cleaning day it slipped out of my hands and cracked itself into a radial symmetry, carving a cobweb pattern on the wooden frame. I gave a gratifying chuckle at its downfall, and stooped to have a last laugh at it. But, oh, the wretched avenger! What a ghastly look the cobweb sent back to me! I continued having nightmares for weeks together.
It was with high hopes bursting in my breast that I walked into a mirror shop. This time I was bent upon choosing the right one. After all one must devote as much care in choosing a mirror as one does in choosing a wife. Both of them are going to be life-partners. Many a fine gentleman continues to be bachelor for the lack of a suitable companion, and I wish one could devise a celibacy free from the tyranny of ungrateful mirrors too.
I was determined to carry home an amiable companion this time. The shop was full of mirrors on all sides – various shapes and sizes, all desirable in their own ways, clamoured for my attention. I find it somewhat vulgar to be looking into a mirror publicly; so I had to rely for my choice on the exterior and finger-crossed that the one I chose would behave itself at home.
Two mirrors, which looked alike, caught my fancy. The shop assistant seemed to approve my choice. I asked him to pack one of them. He was somewhat puzzled, and hesitatingly asked, “Which one, sir?” I assumed casual indifference, “Well, man, both are alike. Pack anyone. It hardly matters.” With a professional air the man explained, “Sir, they only look alike. They aren’t. One is genuinely aristocratic with a silver reflecting base and an imported Venetian glass, while the other is a cheap imitation with a thin coating of magnesium oxide under a sheet of fiberglass. There is no parallax in the first one while the second is likely to give a distorted image.”
So, that was the reason!
My last mirror was a catchpenny!
“Pack the aristocratic one,” I said decisively.
I sailed home with my new possession tucked in my arms. I looked forward to turning a new leaf in my life. The huge mass of inferiority complex that had accumulated within me I hoped to shed with the genial disposition of the aristocrat. I felt like a honeymoon sojourner who looks with fluttering hopes at his shy companion around whom are centered all his libidinous fancies. My pleasures were, however, short-lived. At home I was dismayed to find the aristocrat behaving in the same cheap manner as its predecessor did. As the days passed by and it showed no sign of amicability, I thought it prudent to develop a stoic attitude towards it. One can’t help one’s mirror.
For a brief spell of time my relations with my mirror grew cordial. That was when a certain young woman had caused me to understand that she was in love with me. I started spending more time in company of my mirror. I would prolong the moments of my shave. I would continue gazing into it even while soaping. I would scrutinize my face minutely for any patch of stubble growth that might have eluded the razor’s edge. I would continue caressing the fresh-shaved chin for quite some time. I lingered on while knotting a tie and grew fastidious about the right shape of the knot. I smiled into the mirror and found it reassuring when it smiled back to me. The dark complexion, which I had up till now considered a paternal liability, looked quite an asset. I seemed to have rediscovered that women have a weakness for tall-dark-and-handsome men. And whatever my shortcomings with respect to height and handsomeness they were amply compensated in complexion. The tint of my eyes which had been hitherto stamped as ever-fatigued, pale and sickly, gradually acquired the overtones of an absent-minded poetic gaze with a philosophic disposition.
Indeed, one of the virtues of being loved is that one comes to like oneself. By falling in love with me the woman made me like my other half in the mirror. However, as I mentioned, it was a brief spell. The woman ceased to bestow her affections on me as suddenly as she had begun them. I plead ignorance to the intricacies of feminine psychology. To this day it remains a mystery to me what in the first instance she saw in me worthy of her admiration and what subsequent discovery she made to change her mind. Besides the other after-effects that are attendant upon such acts of desertion, it left me more skeptic of my looks than I ever was.
My relations with my mirror came to their lowest ebb during the days that followed. It made no bones of being hostile to me and seemed to be bent upon extracting its pound of flesh for the good it had done me in past. An endless game of Jekyll-and-Hyde was launched. And whenever I was in no mood to meet Mr Hyde I would invite a barber for a shave, and thus give it a slip.
If there were dreams to sell,
“I’d buy that one; yes, that global one. I see it is named Around the World in Eighty days. I’d like to possess it with all its contents in place: an enterprising valet-cum-companion, a fabulous sum to spend, an Indian damsel in distress waiting to be rescued, and an immediate incentive to go around the world. I’m willing to pay anything for this splendid dream.”
“I’m sorry it’s already sold.”
“To Jules Verne.”
“He must have enjoyed it all his life, I believe.”
“No. He was not content with that alone. He bought a few more.”
“Well, some people do have the knack of buying. Lucky fellows! What’s that one – yes, the one with the lonely island? What a landscape! There’s someone over there – a lonesome human figure, the monarch of all he surveys. How does he happen to be there?”
“He is the lone survivor of a shipwreck.”
“Oh, how enchanting to be marooned on an island like that, to be busy collecting trinkets for daily use, and to hopefully look forward for some help to arrive. I’d buy this dream if only you add to it a female figure. This should make it more interesting. Make her another survivor of the wreck or an original native of the island. It’d be alright either way. I’m willing to pay extra for this improvisation. It’d certainly enhance the charm and grace of the original contents. Oh boy, is it also sold? To whom?”
“To Daniel Defoe.”
“With or without a female?”
“What a pity! Have you any more dreams of this kind?”
“I’m afraid you’re late. Only recently I exhausted my stock of such dreams. There has been a big rush. Some insisted that they should not only have a woman as a second survivor but their sweetest sweetheart. One of them wanted both his wife and his mistress to be there; he said his wife cooked well. A few others wanted to be marooned with all the necessary articles of daily use, not willing to forgo even a toothbrush. Some insisted that they should not be made to wait long for the rescue party. It’s difficult to find a variation on this theme, but if you are too keen then trust to time, I may fish out one for you. Meanwhile, have a look at this one. Don’t you think the giant among the tiny creatures is a fascinating sight?”
“Magnificent! Look, they shoot their tiny arrows at him in vain. Their best archer’s range does not exceed the height of his knees. They are plotting to tie him down with their feeble fibres. The giant smiles. He has lifted a few of them on the flat of his palm. He looks familiar to me. Isn’t he Gulliver?”
“He is. Jonathan Swift owns this extravaganza. But do not linger any more on these grounds. There are better prospects. Look over there.”
“Why are you dumb?”
“My goodness! It is stupendous. It has no bounds of time and space, and claims the entire cosmos for its theme. Aren’t the two fair creatures the parents of mankind in their pristine grandeur? It seems to be the Garden of Eden hanging with a golden chain from Heaven and surrounded by chaos. I cannot see through the chaos, but I understand that in its lowest recesses the mighty Satan reigns supreme. It must be a very rich man to own this celestial vision. What did he pay for it?”
“The labour of his life time and his precious eye-sight.”
“Good God! He richly deserved it. Your tone suggests you hold him in high esteem.”
“Who wouldn’t? He left a work that posterity will not willingly let die.”
“I hear you had another favourite before him. To us, his dreams are a perpetual source of woder.”
“Talking of William I am sure. Yes, he was my favourite. He was loyal to me and respected me. He often visited me and grew so familiar here that many visitors to this realm mistook him for me and worshipped him. He guised my gifts in the royal robes of stage-craft and spiced them with grandiloquence, and presented them to mankind for their profit and pleasure. He stands a symbol of my golden days…”
“I share your sentiment. Excuse me, that fresh dream is dazzling my eyes. It seems to be of recent origin. It looks almost Miltonic. It is indeed a pleasure to watch a naked couple running around in rain with ecstasy. I’ve seen enough of love-making between suits and skirts. It is sickly now to have even a glimpse of flirting going on in drawing rooms. Oh, the two are going into a hut made in the corner of a garden. May I follow them and have a closer look at them? Please…”
“Sh-h-h. Wait till that bunch of grey-haired gentlemen clears out.”
“Why, what’s wrong?”
“They object to it being displayed so openly.”
“How absurd! Why should they impose such ridiculous conditions? These nincompoops should not be allowed to prowl around the premises of this sacred realm. I don’t think they do more than window-shopping here. They are bankrupts. You should place a warning board outside: Out of bounds for the magistrates and the self-styled Moralists.
In any case what specific objections do they have? Should men not dream such naked dreams? Perhaps they think that since Freud has enumerated the various sex symbols men should dream only symbolically. An ordinary man dreams in symbols, but surely a genius should be allowed to dream un-symbolically and to narrate it without resorting to a wink. If he enjoys a sensuous dream let him write about it with passion. I am glad you gave that dream to a man who made no bones about it. Many more must have been tempted by this dream before Lawrence, but they dared not own it. Let me know how you pick out a genius and reward him with a brilliant dream.”
“They are such meek souls. They respect me, they adore me. Some of them are so attached to me that they live alone by me. I do my best to gratify their demands.
An average man is usually satisfied with small doses and does not tax me much. He has enough to occupy him in the world. In a sense he is afraid of me. He is afraid of his leisure hours, which is the time for my visit. To avoid me he joins the crowds in clubs and cafes and keeps himself on tenterhooks all the time. He’s afraid of dreams and of dreamers. Since he is in majority the very act of dreaming is held sacrilegious. I leave him alone. It lessens my burden. I have to be at the command of a person who devotes his precious hours of leisure to silence and solitude. I have to provide him with a constant supply of thoughts, dreams and visions.
“Sometime back I was too much taxed by a group of Romantic poets. They were never content with my supply and they hungered for evermore. They grew so attached to me that some of them felt lost without me. Two of them started moaning when they sensed my absence. William sought solace in ‘obstinate questionings of the mind’, while Coleridge felt widowed indeed. He could still see the beautiful sights of nature but he could no longer feel them. It may sound discourteous to you but I must say I am not sorry for him. He tried to gain my favours by underhand means. He consumed opium and forced me to dance attendance on his whims and fancies. I weaved wild visions for him, but I left him at the first opportunity that I found. He thought he had discovered all my ins and outs, and he began unveiling me. He expected me to serve him rather than himself worship at my altar. Moreover, I cannot keep on flaming myself for seven or eight decades. I was ever a warm companion of those who perished early in life. They had no occasion to complain against me, reaping rich harvests in the shadow of my affections.”
“I gather that you have exhausted your store of best dreams and are holding now a grand clearance sale of some second rate stuff. Our choice has been constrained to only less damaged themes. O, Supreme Imagination. Tell us, what’s left there for us now?”
“These are harsh words typical of young men who trifle with me in the first flush of their youth and then forsake me to pursue their materialistic ambitions. You underestimate the potentialities of my realm. I have yet such fantastic dreams in my possession that before them the ones that mankind has already dreamed shall look like the shadows of cobwebs. It is I who am afraid that soon man will lose all interest in visiting my realm.
I have been a voracious reader all my life, and worse, a compulsive buyer of books. I believe I buy, on an average, two books when only one gets read. Perhaps an overestimation of my stamina and capacity.
I owe my disposition of buying books to a chance quote on The Thought for the Day: a book worth reading is a book worth buying. I came across it at an impressionable age and took it too literally converting the thought for the day into a liability of a lifetime.
My modest middle-class dwelling started proliferating with books. Eyebrows were raised. Space crunch was cited. It reached a point when all eyes followed me like that of the sailors who accused the Ancient Mariner of killing the albatross and hung it round his neck. My albatross was my books. The joy of bringing new books home was somewhat clouded when one wondered where to accommodate them.
The process had started tentatively with an improvised shelf nailed to the wall. When it started spilling over a three-tier rack was introduced. Subsequently more tiers were added till they groaned under their own weight. Then a glass-paneled almirah show-casing its contents was brought in. Then another… . I find myself in the predicament of a man who can afford to buy a car or two but has no space to park.
I can conveniently divide my personal collection of books into a binary: the books that have been read and the books that are yet to be read. I like to call them the ‘brides’ and the ‘virgins’. Virgins on my shelf tend to outnumber the brides betraying my zeal over my vigour. Obviously, it is easier to buy books than to read them.
Fresh virgins remain prominently displayed in the front row with the gentleman’s promise that as soon as I am done with my current read I would turn to them. I would eye them for weeks with affectionate anticipation. As weeks turned into months they induced a feeling of guilt laced with helplessness. As the months turned into years I would archive them to a relegated corner lest their presence lie heavy on my conscience. Over time the corner became a wing in its own right looming over the bridal beauties wrapped in their smugness.
One characteristic of the virgins on my shelf is that they are all thick-waisted tomes. One needs guts of a kind to delve into the depths of their folds to discover their ever-elusive G-spot. For each such tome one might as well enjoy the company of a quartet of slim sexy volumes. They offer variety – the ultimate spice of life! And if you are not really pleased it is not much of a loss. You just shrug it off. A tome can’t be shrugged off. It commands commitment which in today’s hectic schedule is a hard commodity to come by.
Not all of them are sumo giants, though. Some are slick handsome editions gifted to me by my friends who know my fondness for books and are glad that they don’t have to think twice what to gift me. Trouble is their gift-list rarely coincides with my wish-list. I thank them for their thoughtful gesture and routinely add the new arrivals to my harem of virgins.
There is a sudden spurt among the inmates of the virgin wing when a book fair is in town. The sprawling premises, the plethora of eye-catching titles, the tempting bargains, all lead one to buy them by the bagful. With passage of time only one or two get read the rest join the company of the virgins. Even after decades of experience I am none the wiser for it. One reason could be my implicit trust in a real life truism that every virgin is a potential bride. That keeps me accumulating them while I can. With my self-persuasive logic I try to rationalize: a man is known not only by what he reads, but also by what he intends to read.
Some long standing virgins on my shelf have turned into chronic spinsters. There seems little prospect of their being read now. They carry the seal of classics on them: Joyce’s Ulysses, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Galsworthy’s Forsythe Saga, Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, Seth’s The Suitable Boy et al. They all suffer from congenital obesity. Amartya Sen, who always looked very promising when I bought him with the aura of a Nobel attached to him, invariably failed to engage me. Too abstruse, too convoluted! Not in my league, I sadly concluded. There he stands, among the virgins, as if a bride!
The virgins are all merit-worthy. After all that’s why I bought them in the first place. They come with formidable credentials flaunting the tags of Classics or Nobels or Bookers. Tags may induce me to buy them, to bring them home, but may not always entice me to get intimate with.
A book may remain a neglected virgin on my shelves for years, yet I turn extremely possessive when a casual visitor to my place shows interest in her and wants to borrow her for a hurried honeymoon. Denying access to her vehemently, I tell him, “Lay off, man! She’s my virgin, not a street hooker for anyone to divert himself with.” Come to think of it I am equally possessive of my brides as well. However, if I were to choose between the two I would rather part with a bride than with a virgin.
There are quite a few books on my shelves that defy the categorical distinction between brides and virgins. They are the half-read books. I initiated the intercourse with them but finding it a chore rather than a pleasure put them aside with the vague hope that I would consummate the act some other day when I am in a more receptive frame of mind. Over the years, however, I have noticed that I rarely, if ever, go back to an abandoned book. I may revisit a bride, I may shack up with a plump virgin, but an abandoned book remains a persona non grata.
Whenever in past I picked up a half-read book I faced the dilemma of whether to start it all over again or to continue it from where I had left it last. In either case I felt that I should have gone the other way round. That reaffirmed my resolve to let the quasi-virgins be.
I often get visitors who marvel at the number of books on my shelves and ask with a skeptical awe, “Have you read them all?” It’s a rhetorical question rather than a genuine query. It implies if you have read so many books how come you are a mere college lecturer and not a sought-after sage or a consultant at UNESCO.
What did Big Ben say to the leaning tower of Pisa?
“If you have the inclination, Honey, I’ve got time.”
Big Ben possesses both time and inclination on its person ever since it was discovered to have a tilt of its own. Thus the dalliance between the two monuments is rendered redundant. I, too, have become my own Big Ben. Inclination I always had, now after retirement I’ve got all the time in the world.
As one looks back at the curve of life’s graph it precipitates a pattern: the play-centric boyhood gives way to the libido-driven youth, which in turn paves way for the job & family-oriented middle age that brings one to the threshold of sunset years. At the onset of the seventies one finds oneself saturated with life. The gusto of games of the younger years, the crazy courting of carnal pleasures of youth, and the manic pursuit of material wealth in the middle-age gradually slide into the album of memory. One has to discover a new agenda for this phase of life.
By this time the cravings for food, sex and money are minimized. A kind of life-weariness seeps in. The sages of yore classified it as the sanyasashram when one renounces the attachments and retreats into remote mountains to focus on God and prepare oneself for the hereafter.
For most men old age is the time to listen to theological discourses, indulge in the group chanting of devotional songs, busy oneself with the inane rituals of prayer and worship, tune in to religion-toting channels, pore over scriptures, and lead a temple-centric existence to improve the prospects of soul in after-life. But one who finds all these activities an anathema what does he do?
As a natural corollary of the ageing process physical and material obsessions are passé. Quite early in life, say in my mid-twenties, I had given up on God and spirituality under the tutelage of Russell and Nietzche. This was firmed up later by Osho, Dawkins and Hitchens. I always enjoyed reading Templeton awardee Karen Armstrong, though couldn’t ever bring myself round to endorsing her case for God.
I have always been an avid reader of books. Somehow the exigencies of life prevented me from devoting as much time to it as I would have loved to. Post-retirement this inclination found full indulgence. I surrounded myself with books. Buying books online and getting them delivered at home I consider a great boon of our times.
My choice of books is by and large dictated by the reviews that appear on the weekends in the newspapers or in a journal like Biblio. The recommendation of a like-minded friend helps. The book-club that I am a member of prescribes one book to be read and discussed in its monthly soirees. The announcement of a literary prize, or even the short-listed entries, invariably prompts me to go on a shopping spree. Poring over an absorbing book, I consider the acme of happiness in this phase of life.
Apart from books I listen to music, mostly classical instrumental. The strains of Sitar, Sarod or Santoor reverberate in my modest dwelling at all times of the day. A fairly good collection of audio CDs hobnobs with the books on literature and philosophy on my burgeoning shelf. TV is another source of entertainment when cricket and tennis tournaments are around. National Geographic and Discovery channels provide a fascinating window to the world at large. Films too are a welcome diversion, both on the TV and in the neighborhood theatre. And then there is the computer that is an outright time guzzler.
Reading books, listening to music, watching TV, surfing net, at times I get the uncanny feeling that instead of being a participant in life I have become a spectator of life. Much the same way as an active sportsman takes up coaching or turns into an anchor when his hectic days are over.
It all started with a twelve-year old boy reciting a poem on the podium and getting a book as prize. The poem was Lucy Gray, the boy was me, and the book was a Collection of Quotes. Little did I know at that time that it would become the cornerstone of my subsequent love for literature and philosophy. After six decades I still cherish the book as a reservoir of wisdom culled from an eclectic mix of poets, statesmen and thinkers.
It comprised of the profound insights from the ancient prophets and philosophers through the centuries right up to Churchill, Shaw and Russell. Over the years I have added new quotes by scribbling on the margins or by simply resorting to cut-and-paste. It has become a kind of scrapbook. It may look somewhat clumsy and tattered, but it carries an updated version of the best that has been thought. So Plato, Homer and Shakespeare now have the mottled company of Osho, Dalai Lama and Dawkins.
The quotes in the book were arranged topic-wise in the alphabetical order. The maximum entries were under the head Love, followed by Life, Death and God – the perennial concerns of mankind. I have a theory. Just as a man is known by the company he keeps, the books he reads and the jokes he laughs at, a man betrays himself by the quotes he relishes. So here I am as refracted through the prism of my preferred quotes.
As a callow youth I was all for ‘All mankind love a lover’; ‘It is impossible to love and be wise’, ‘Love is a thing you don’t save for a rainy day’; ‘The heart that loves is always young’; ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…’; ‘To see her is to love her, and love but her for ever.’ Like all aspiring lovers I shared the fantasy of Omar Khayyam: ‘A book of verse, a jug of wine, and thou beside me.’
Two jilts later, the complexion of the favourite quotes changed to: ‘Frailty thy name is woman’; ‘’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’; ‘No one has ever loved anyone the way everyone wants to be loved’; ‘Our best love-affairs are those we never had’; ‘Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.’ It became more cynical with passage of time: ‘Love is sentimental measles’; ‘For heaven be thanked, we live in such an age, when no man dies for love, but on the stage’; ‘Love is the dirty trick played on us to perpetuate the species.’
God seems to bring out the most profound and poetic observations made by man since the dawn of civilization. So much has been written around this topic that it seems to have reached a saturation point. All the superlatives are exhausted when enumerating His virtues: all-knowing, just, benevolent, compassionate, ‘the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.’
Perturbed by his countrymen’s lack of faith Milton decided to write an epic to ‘justify the ways of God to men.’ Others have chipped in with varying hues of conviction: ‘God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and the circumference nowhere’; ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport’; ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him’; ‘If triangles invented a god, they would make him three-sided’; ‘God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh’; ‘I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time’; ‘God is a lie told by so many and so often that it is taken for truth’; ‘Surrender to God is surrender to ignorance.’ And the succinct: ‘God is delusion.’
The amorphous nature of life spawns a trove of aphorisms: ‘Human life is
but a series of footnotes to a vast unfinished masterpiece’; ‘Life is a
jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box’; ‘Life is a math class; solve
one problem, get another’; ‘Life is a handful of short stories
pretending to be a novel.’ And let the last words on the subject rest
with the Bard-upon-Avon: ‘Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale vexing
the dull ear of a drowsy man,’ and ‘Life is a tale told by an idiot,
full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’
An Indian Dystopia
The gene-pool of Tarun Tejpal’s novel The Valley of Masks (2011) is indeed very deep and vast. Among its literary ancestors can be counted such formidable names as Plato’s Republic, More’s Utopia, Butler’s Erewhon, Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Levin’s The Perfect Day, Zamyatin’s We, Rand’s Anthem and a host of others.
One man’s vision of an ideal society, a utopia, can be the nightmare of others is a strand that runs through the western literature. Dystopia, as it is popularly known, is a genre by itself. It is usually, if not always, placed in future. Advanced technology reins supreme and is concentrated in the hands of the state. Individual liberty is curtailed for the good of the commune. The state uses the carrot-and-stick policy to make its citizens fall in line. Variations on sops offered and punishments meted out form the warp and the weft of the sundry narratives.
Tejpal is the first one to present an Indian version of a dystopia. He sets his commune in a remote and inaccessible bowl of a valley sheltered among the high snowy cliffs of the Himalayas. The first pilgrims, 111 in all, both men and women, led away from their village by their charismatic leader Aum to this ‘promised land’: ‘a place that had been carved by angels.’ ‘…they knew, beyond all doubt, in that strange mix of pride and humility that surges in the finest of the species, that they were truly the chosen.’ (p.65)
And thus ‘began the slow journey to complete equality, consummate oneness.’ ‘In his boundless wisdom Aum knew the great undoing of the human race was its vanity. Its individualism: its selfishness and its greed. It had to be excised. We knew the axiom. To wish to possess is to be possessed.’ (p.23) The tone, the syntax, the phraseology, the catechistic mode, the aphoristic style, all adds up to project the gravitas of a scripture. Whereas the dystopias in the West are socio-political commentaries on the state of affairs, Tejpal’s novel adds the dimension of religion to the genre. Aum’s uncanny resemblance to prophets like Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad, treated as demi-gods by their devotees, is a scathing indictment of the most populous religions of the world. Right from Aum’s prophetic conception to his birth, his precocious childhood, his discourses, people seeking miracle cures which he declined to perform, saying, ‘A true master is a mender of souls, not a juggler of ailments’ (p.56), one can’t help identifying him with one or the other icon. Aum is an amalgam of all the cult-figures rather than the replica of a specific one.
Each religion is the lengthened shadow of one exceptionally gifted man. A handful of committed apostles carry out his message and his vision forward. History’s exigencies lubricate the movement. The misplaced zeal of the subsequent missionaries and their flawed outlooks inject the rot in the institution. With passage of time the current practice has only a faint resemblance to the original. Also, the evolution of thought over time makes the pioneer’s ideology look utterly dated. All this is tellingly brought out by Tejpal’s tale when one of the prominent helmsmen, the great Tragopan, banishes another promising helmsman Horned Owl, stabs the Gentle Father, appoints Golden Oriole as a figurehead, tantalizes the protagonist with the promise of a raise in the hierarchy, and sets one brother to spy on another to further his ambition. The genes of Macbeth and Julius Caesar are patently discernible.
From Plato onwards the idea of the abolition of family, of disowning personal assets, of avoiding emotional attachments, has been the staple theme for an alternative society. Sex was always considered a great subversive factor that had to be regulated. In Plato’s Republic an annual mating festival was held for a fortnight and the guardians were to mate with their partners by a draw of lots – not for pleasure, but as a state obligation to provide the nursery of future guardians. In Tejpal’s Valley the carnal festival goes all the year round for the male members while the women have no choice but to submit themselves as the receptacles of seed. The resultant child’s father remains anonymous because the mother mates with many. The mother-child bond is eliminated as the mothers breastfeed the infants randomly.
The basic tenet of Aum’s teaching is that the root cause of all the evils in the world is vanity: me, mine, myself. To be free of this evil the first step is to abolish personal mother and personal father. The second step, from which the novel gets its title, is the abolition of the personal face at the age of sixteen. A skilled ustaad puts a new face through a sophisticated process of micro-surgery on each individual on the threshold of adulthood.
The protagonist records his agitated mood on the occasion: ‘I simply could not staunch the dread that filled me at losing my face forever. Never again would I look in the mirror and see myself. Just as I did not know who my father was, and could only guess at who my mother was, I would slowly forget what I once looked like.’ (p.67) When the operation was over he was curious to see the change. He asked the ustaad, “Do you have a mirror here?” He said, “Fool. Just look at me.” (p.70)
Everyone in the Valley has the same face, the same mask. No mother, no father, no face of your own; the next step is no name. Each neo-initiate is given a number, a combination of alphabets and numerals that has its own elaborate rationale. As one rises in the hierarchy of the commune, from Wafadar to Pathfinder to Helmsman to Gentle Father, new numbers befitting the new status are given.
All religions hedge themselves against the skeptics who question the wisdom of the master by promulgating Blasphemy Laws and invoking Inquisition to punish heresy. The protagonist in his ardent phase writes: ‘There is one great mine of truth and wisdom, and the master has found it for us! You discover the sun once, you discover the moon once, you discover gravity once. Then you move on, taking it as a verity. Only fools keep looking to find what has already been found… The truth has already been discovered for us. We have only to follow it and celebrate it. Not rush about all our lives, looking for something that is right in front of our eyes.’ (p.82)
On the eve of his anticipated death he pours forth the distilled essence of his ruminations in the last line of the novel: ‘Doubt. That should forever alternate with faith as day does with night.’ (p.330) It almost sounds like a moral tagged at the end of an allegorical fable. The meta-scientists JBS Haldane and Karl Popper would readily endorse the view that Doubt is the bedrock of scientific and progressive outlook that widens the horizon of human knowledge, while unquestioning Faith leads one to a cul-de-sac of regression and stagnation.
Tennyson in his poetic way expresses the quintessential truth when Arthur on the eve of his departure tells Sir Bedivere:
‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.’
From the unflinching faith of the protagonist in his neophyte years to his perception of the warped mindset and the inhuman treatment meted out to the vulnerable denizens of the Valley forms the plot of the novel. Thus the narrative provides a double perspective: From Aum’s enlightened viewpoint the criticism of the outer world, and from the protagonist’s disenchantment with the Valley’s ‘theory and praxis’ the flaw in Aum’s vision. The bleakness of the Valley’s disciplined ethos and the joyous glories of the outer world frame a riveting binary.
‘In the world out there men were continually sick with sentimentality. For their children, their parents, their spouses, their lovers, their friends – some in a vague, weepy way for all living things, plants, animals, everything. The world out there was full of faux masters who actually encouraged such foolishness in their flock. That bred a weakness that pulled away from truth. In this they were aided by a culture that celebrated sentimentality. Men could not see for the tears in their eyes. They could not speak for the lump in their throats. It was a strategy of enslavement. For the sake of sentiment, a man will abandon the true path in the blink of an eye.’ (p.88) That the passage can be later looked upon as a critique of Aum as a ‘faux master’ is too obvious an irony to be missed.
In the concluding phase of the novel, when the protagonist has escaped from the Valley and immersed himself in the humdrum existence of the outer world, he dwells on the simple pleasures of life, the magic moments that make life worth living: laughter, song-music-dance, making love to one’s sweetheart, joy of playing with pets…facets of life that were at a premium in the Valley. He goes lyrical over a cup of tea: ‘I don’t drink it the way everyone here does. I take no sugar, and I don’t taint the dark hues with even a drop of milk. When I look into the cup – allowing the sweet steam to scale my nostrils and caress my eyes – I can see in the rich translucence moving mysteries and hidden stories.’ ‘I pour the tea and it jumps and spits. Before taking a sip, I inhale its aroma. The ginger is deliciously pungent…I love the way it hits the roof of my mouth and roars through my nostrils.’ (pp.3, 10)
Laughter and high-pitched exclamations fascinate him. ‘This is what enchants me the most about the men of this world – their gift for merriment at the oddest hours, in the oddest situations. Easy ribaldry and empty laughter. Among my people it was a dire sign, of emptiness, of foolishness. To say something that meant nothing, that was only intended to provoke amusement, showed a loss of compass. With the Wafadars even a smile was a weakness…When I see a man laugh, I see him radiate light…between unthinking mirth and unsmiling wisdom, I know which I would pick.’ (p.12)
The noises of the city spellbind him because he ‘comes from a country of deep silences.’ The plethora of reading material available he finds most compelling. ‘…that men write so much! In so many tones and voices, espousing and denouncing, celebrating and lamenting, agreeing and contesting – with such passion and feeling, such wit and intellect, with such cartwheel of prose, such somersaults of the imagination. It is not as if we lacked in passion, but ours was a straight-flying arrow. Here it is an exploding bomb, the sound and light and shrapnel flying in every direction.’ (p.9) The double perspective, of the Valley and the outer world, precipitates an array of insightful thoughts garbed in the most axiomatic phraseology in the book.
The novel carries in its DNA the genes of all the utopias, dystopias, futuristic fiction and science-fiction dotting the history of human imagination; the genes of all the cult figures that have mesmerized humanity since the dawn of civilization; the genes of all the experiments in commune living over the centuries; the genes of all the alternative societies conceived by intrepid thinkers; the genes of edifying scriptures in all the languages; the genes of the great Indian epic Mahabharata; the genes of Japanese martial-arts; and the genes of several literary doyens. Gene-pool is my term for what T.S.Eliot called tradition and Julia Kristeva calls inter-textuality.
The Legend of Pradeep Mathew
‘The style is too rambling, the thesis unclear, and the language falls into the formal and vulgar…in places it is interesting, in places it is rubbish…the author goes off the topic a lot…brimming with cockeyed theories…anti-patriotic rantings of a drunk… gutter journalism at its worst…the story, like the man himself, seemed to forget its point…a book that rambles and has no conclusion…it was strange to share his warped thoughts and guess at which bits he made up.’
I could have written any one of those comments. But what do you do when the author anticipates you and disarms you with such self-deprecatory remarks, uttered through various characters, scattered all over the text? Well, you join in his humour.
At the outset a conundrum is placed as the epigraph: 'If a liar tells you he is lying, is he telling the truth?' That sets the tone of the narrative. Much that follows is a blend of truth and lies which defy sifting. Real personalities hobnob with phantasms and historical milestones meld into make-believe happenings. These Pirandellian ambiguities keep the tale oscillating between what is real and what is made up.
Let’s begin with the title. A ‘pony-tailed Chinaman’ is a Sinhalese expression for someone gullible. The said oriental will believe anything. Chinaman is also the name of a ball delivered by a left-arm bowler turning in or away from the batsman; a lethal delivery. 'Is this a story about a pony-tailed Chinaman bowler? Or a tale to go tell a pony-tailed Chinaman?' As it turns out it is a bit of both. Like the wedding guest in Coleridge's lyrical ballad we are under the spell of the greybeard loon and cannot choose but hear his improbable tale.
The novel falls in the genre of quest-centered tales: a search for the Holy Grail or the El Dorado. A much feted sports journalist, W.G.Karunasena, assigns himself the task of making documentaries on outstanding cricketers of Sri Lanka. He is fascinated with Pradeep Mathew’s achievements as a bowler. As he probes into records he discovers they are blanked out with an uncanny deliberation. That goads him into unraveling Mathew’s mystery ‘on the pitch and off it’ as the mission of his life. A fortuitous cache of footage of matches in which Mathew had figured and interviews with people who had anything to do with him help him in piecing together the man.
Mathew appears as a maverick both as a man and as a cricketer. He was ambidextrous: bowled left-arm spin and right-arm pace; opened batting as well as bowling; could mimic any bowler; his repertoire included the flipper, the googly, the leaper, the floater, the darter, the lissa, and above all the double-bounce ball that spun twice; walked when he snicked and didn’t appeal on a bounce catch, much against the wishes of the management; called the Skipper a prick and the Captain a cunt; moody, immature and foolish; wrote poems to his girl-friend; blackmailed the MD of SLBCC; masqueraded as another player in many a match; didn’t listen to the coach – said he had his own; got into a brawl in a pub; and then disappeared without a trace. WG’s dogged pursuit to trace him forms the skeleton of the plot.
The skeleton is fleshed out with anecdotes, eccentric characters, unscrupulous politicians, gifted sportsmen, ambitious maidens, homosexual pedophiles, corruption in polity and sports, assassinations and match-fixing, cricketing controversies like chucking and sledging, arcane calculation of Duckworth-Lewis on a rain-shortened play, long power-cuts, ruminations on life’s ironies, and all this peppered with witticisms and wise-cracks galore. Historical landmarks provide the backdrop for the unfolding of events: the long drawn out civil war, Sri Lanka winning the World Cup in 1996, an assault on the Indian Prime minister for sending the Peace Keeping Force et al.
In the midst of all this hurly-burly is silhouetted the portrait of a marriage. WG, a Tamil sports journalist who slides into alcoholism, is married to Shiela, a Burgher whom he had seduced away from her boyfriend. They have a son, Garfield, named after the West-Indian cricketer Sobers, not the cat of the comics. WG’s character is defined by his relations with his wife, his son, his friend and neighbor, his weakness for drinks, his brilliant career as a sports journalist, and above all, his obsession with spotlighting the genius of Pradeep Mathew.
Following in the footsteps of Omar Khayyam he extols the virtues of liquor as a great anodyne to the distressed soul. ‘Alcohol has enhanced my life and the world I inhabit. It has given me insight, jocularity, and escape. I would not be who I am without it.’ ‘Alcohol strips my mind of noise and helps turn my thoughts to words. It keeps me smiling and guarantees me a dreamless sleep. It stops me from thinking of things that thought cannot cure.’ It takes its toll though. The doctor shows him a 'yellow card' which means that ‘if I behave myself, I may not have to miss any games.’
In a first person narrative whatever else may happen to the protagonist he cannot write, ‘and then I died.’ But this is more or less what happens here. At the end of chapter three Close of Play, he writes: ‘Mark my words, as a writer and a lover of sports. This story shall be finished. It is indeed possible to score a late goal in extra time, to land a knockout at the end of the 12th, to hit a six off the final ball. And I, W.G.Karunasena, husband of Sheila, father of Garfield, champion of Pradeep Sivanathan Mathew, am, without doubt, the man to do it.’
In the next chapter Follow On we learn that he is dead and his posthumous script is doing the rounds of the publishers with little prospect of success. The first person narrative continues with the sports journalist replaced by his musician son who, eight years later, takes upon himself to continue the mission of his father to find Mathew. Earlier we had the father’s perspective on his good-for-nothing son, ‘lazy useless fucker’; now in a role reversal we have the son who has done exceedingly well in life, ‘I have nothing to do and plenty of money to do it with’, commenting on his father, ‘The Thathi I knew was a foul-mouthed, argumentative prick.’
The search and the mystery, the leit-motifs of the novel, continue. It takes Garfield to a small town Pukekohe in New Zealand, where he has short-listed thirty-two probable Pradeep Mathews. As he goes about meeting all those characters a string of delightful cameos surfaces. But the success eludes him. He is on the verge of giving up. 'What more can I do other than head home, clean up the book, and try and get it into print? I don't think Lankan publishers are all that picky about books that ramble and have no conclusion.'
Last Over, however, is yet to be played. More deprecatory comments about the contents and the style of the book follow: 'The book is gutter journalism at its worst' and 'antipatriotic rantings of a drunk'. The dialogue between Garfield and a potential publisher is hilarious. The book is taken to shreds. 'Get rid of the unbelievable stories.' She mentions one of the more believable parts of my father's book. 'That is 100 percent bullshit.' 'One more thing. The Ending.' 'What about it?' 'To put it bluntly, it sucks.' During this near farcical tête-à-tête a compromise formula emerges. 'Cricket non-fiction is a small market. But true fiction on the other hand…'
'What's true fiction?' He raises the question like Jesting Pilate two millennia ago, and like him wouldn't stay for an answer. Fiction is aptly defined, elsewhere, as a lie that tells the truth. Come to think of it the entire corpus of literature, mythology, scriptures and history can be slotted in this category.
The upshot is that all the names in the book are either altered or deleted or concocted including that of the author, the protagonist and the title. 'Can we finalize the title? The Book That No One Will Read. Boring. Revenge Of The Chinaman. Sounds like a Bruce Lee. Shades Of Brown. What? Konde Bandapu Cheena. A pony-tailed Chinaman…'
The probable names for the main character are considered and dismissed: 'Vinothan Karnain? Nope. Charlie Jeganathan? Nope. Sanjeewa Amarasinghe? Can't be a Sinhala name. Juarangpathy Jeyarajasingham? Sounds stupid. Pradeep Mathew? Who's that? I don't know. I just… Try it.'
So that's that.
Shehan Karunatilaka's Chinaman resembles the canvases of Pieter Bruegel that are crowded with ordinary folk engaged in day-to-day activities of life. So much seems to be happening on the scene that one is tempted to go over the details with a magnifying glass. The exercise yields a rare connoisseur’s delight.
Of the various figures of speech the most popular among the writers are simile and metaphor. A simile is an expressed comparison, while a metaphor is an implied one. ‘She is as beautiful as a rose’ would be a simile, ‘She is a rose’ is a metaphor. Both draw upon a comparison of two things of two different categories. Thus ‘Sonu was as tall as Monu’ is not a simile, but ‘Sonu was as tall as a lamppost’ is.
Don Marquis thinks ‘publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.’ The ingenuity of the simile, invoking a rich visual image of a soft petal floating down the yawning abyss of the Grand Canyon waiting for the futile prospect of hearing an echo, conveys the poet's despair at the tepid response to poetry.
To assert the importance of advertising in business a telling simile used is: ‘Doing business without advertising is like winking at a girl in dark; you know what you are doing, but nobody else does.’ When Brendan Behan was irritated with critics he compared them to ‘eunuchs in a harem: they know how it is done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.’ A vivid visual image, exaggeration, wit and humour are the ingredients used in the similes quoted above.
A simile can function as a mini drama arousing suspense and expectations before spelling out the resolution. Look at this one by George Burns:
To me, funerals are like bad movies. They last too long, everybody is overacting, and the ending is completely predictable.
Somewhat amused, we are curious to know how the funerals are like bad movies. Follows the resolution: they last too long, the rituals seem to go on and on; all those assembled feign grief hamming like amateur actors; and all the proceedings are completely predictable including the lowering of the coffin into the grave or the lighting of the pyre, followed by taking leave of the bereaved family.
Shakespeare’s sonnets, poems and plays abound with metaphors. When Macbeth mourns the death of his wife and ruminates on the brevity, uncertainty, and meaninglessness of life, he soliloquizes:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
It is poetic passages like these that raise the status of Macbeth from a murderous villain to a tragic hero. The imagery of life as a tale is used in yet another play, King John:
Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale,
In As You Like It, Shakespeare uses the imagery of theatre to pontificate on life:
All the world’s a stage,
All poets use metaphors in varying degree, but the most prolific of them is Robert Frost. He turns practically any commonplace activity into a metaphor, be it a fork in the road faced on a morning walk, a country boy swinging on birches in his backyard, a traveler stopping by woods on a snowy evening, or two neighbours mending a wall between their farms. “There are many other things I have found myself saying about poetry,” writes Frost, “but the chiefest of these is that it is metaphor, saying one thing and meaning another, saying one thing in terms of another.”
An allegory is an elaborate extended metaphor wherein characters, events and settings represent abstract qualities and in which the writer intends a second meaning to be read beneath the surface story. Thus, allegory sustains interest at two levels: the surface narrative and the underlying implied story. Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress/i> allegorizes a Christian’s journey through the City of Destruction (worldly allurements) to the Celestial City (posthumous entry of soul into the Kingdom of Heaven). He carries a heavy bundle (his sins) on his back, he struggles with giants (doubts and temptations), and he is guided by a map (his Bible). Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner can be read as an allegory of sin and redemption. A rich work of art, however, can suggest more than one allegory. Whether the author meant it or not is considered irrelevant among the literati.
From the more recent times one may include Orwell’s Animal Farm/i>, Golding’s Lord of the Flies and the entire corpus of Absurd drama. It is very difficult though to maintain a one to one correspondence at great length. Quite often either the surface story ruptures or the symbolical meaning breaks down.
Man, since time immemorial, has been using this allegorical device to impart moral lessons. Morality Plays of medieval times and Christ’s parables in The New Testament/i> carry out this agenda. And when a moral is conveyed through the animals as characters it becomes a Fable. Aesop’s Fables, Kipling’s Just-so Stories,, and Panchtantra Tales are some of the best known examples. All the cunning foxes, wise owls, silly asses, shrewd hares, inventive crows, mischievous monkeys, persevering tortoises, wily wolves and goofy lions that crowd the fables are carriers of profound human truths.
Just as an allegory moves at two levels, so does a parody. It is a composition that ridicules another composition by imitating and exaggerating aspects of its content, structure, and style, accomplishing in words what the caricature achieves in drawing. A parody is enjoyed best when you are familiar with the original and keep on making the comparison between the present text and its model.
“In their poetry,” Johnson says of metaphysical poets, “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons and allusions.” He didn’t much approve of the fashion, though he does admit that, “if their conceits were far-fetched, they were often worth the carriage.”
Let’s go then, you and I,
Etherized is a typical lexicon of modern times where a patient lies anesthetized upon the operating table. This kind of imagery could not be conceived by the Romantics or the Victorians what to say of the earlier generations. Similarly, W.H.Auden’s poem The Unknown Citizenier is steeped in contemporary reality using state of the art vocabulary. It is an obvious product of post-Freud, post-Darwin, post-Marx, post-World-Wars of a highly organized society. It is still a pre-TV, pre-internet and pre-cellphone era which would spawn its own imagery and metaphors in the new generation.
Similarly, Greek myths are a rich source of metaphors: Narcissus stands for self-love, Sisyphus for compulsive futile endeavour, Tantalus for want in the midst of plenty, Tithonus for a longing for death, Cassandra for dire prophecies, Scylla and Charybdis for equally hopeless alternatives. The catalogue could be stretched to any length.
Elsewhere in the novel when I wanted to highlight the chastening effect of Shelly on the unruly household, I wrote: ‘In her person the id of our family had acquired its superego.’ This as anyone can see is post-Freudian jargon that was not available to the earlier authors.
Though my novel is replete with too many intertextual allusions, including the title and Botticelli’s paintingThe Birth of Venusi> o on its cover, I shall refer to only one more. I quote: ‘A lighted candle between us, we sip our coffee. Her hair loosely done, her face aglow with love made barely a few minutes ago, and the candlelight creating a chiaroscuro effect, she looks a Rubens retouched by Rembrandt.’ The allusion to these two European masters raises the picturesque merit of the scene. Rubens is known for the sensual quality of his portraiture of women, and Rembrandt is a master of light and shades. Only an imaginary combination of the talents of the two would do justice to the electrifying effect that Sherry produces with a candle in front of her. None of my Indian readers caught the richness of this simile. It took a French critic to appreciate and highlight this sentence.
Complexities of science (structure of atom, double-helix of DNA, spatial dimensions of receding galaxies, black holes, dark energy etc) pass over my head. I am overwhelmed. Even though I don't understand much of it, I am impressed and feel awed by the leap of human imagination. I trust the scientist and his expertise. Failure to grasp the intricacies I attribute to my limited IQ and lack of effort and motivation.
The discourses of godmen and preachers underwhelm me. I get the feeling I am being taken for a ride. The preacher looms as a glib talker who takes advantage of my perfunctory acquaintance with scriptures and makes me look an ignoramus. His pseudo arguments and obscure quotes irk me.
The mainstay of all discourses is scriptures, which derive their authority from God and are therefore question-proof from mere mortals. Most scriptures are embedded in hoary past when man had barely learnt the charisma of language and had yet to discover the felicity of the written word. All religions vie with one another to push the antiquity of their scriptures. The presumption is 'the older the text, the more authentic its message.'
'In the Rig Veda one finds the earliest phase of religious consciousness where we have…the outpourings of poetic minds who were struck by the immensity of the universe and the inexhaustible mystery of life.' (Radhakrishnan). Not only the Vedas, by and large it is true of all scriptures. That scriptures are poetry is readily conceded. And poetry is best enjoyed with a 'willing suspension of disbelief'. (Coleridge). Magic, miracles, supernatural phenomena and super-being too need suspension of disbelief for their full impact. Poetry and miracles impart immense joy to mankind. But to make them the cornerstone of metaphysics and ethics is a grave blunder.
Scriptures are the inventive product of the enfant terribles of mankind. They are suffused with fabulous imagination and are rich in poetry, but short on reason and lacking in conviction. They are replete with tales of virtue rewarded and vice retributed. The world-view offered therein is simplistic and full of clearly outlined binaries: black-and-white, good-and-evil, flesh-and-soul, earth-and-heaven, man-and-god etc.
The scriptures alternate between two posthumous scenarios. One threatens me with the wrath of God and an eternal damnation of my soul; the other sings hosannas of His compassion and the lure of perpetual bliss in His backyard. Karma leading to successive births is the oriental version of the same old carrot and stick syndrome!
At my Boggle threshold, 'the point at which the mind boggles' (Haynes), both, the preacher and the scientist, stop making sense to me. But I trust the scientist while I find the preacher dubious. The scientist wears the aura of profundity while the preacher seems enveloped in a haze of verbosity. He is trying to con me having conned himself in the first place.
The biggest drawback of scriptures is that they are insular. They can't be tampered with and as a corollary can't be improved upon. They are hedged by laws of blasphemy which brook no dissenters. The moral code of a defunct society is imposed upon the present generation. A well-organized clergy thrives on perpetuating an archaic vision enshrined in their holy books. Miracles and supernatural events that form the staple fare of scriptures keep the laity enthralled.
In my novel The Fourth Monkey, which dwells on the conflict between mysticism and skepticism, the protagonist listens to a discourse on Gita. He muses, and I quote: 'It eludes me why the modern man is always advised to live by the learning contained in the Gita, the Upanishads, the Tao, the Torah, the Gospels or the Sharia. Granted there are some nuggets of wisdom in them, but there is lot more of dross too. For the lesser mortals it is not easy to sift the two. They simply quote the scriptures and damn one another for falling short of the obsolete code. They ignore the evolution of human thought over the millennia. They stick to the nursery-rhyming folk-wisdom enshrined in the moth-eaten papyrus of the sacred texts. Knowledge cocooned against inquiry in the wrapping of divine truth is the biggest pitfall. Man must constantly engage himself in reassessing the validity of inherited knowledge. Otherwise, his learning curve would resemble a circle, a cipher.' (p.296)
Science, on the other hand, is open-ended. The current hypothesis holds good only till a better explanation turns up. No theory is sacrosanct: an ugly fact is sufficient to demolish a beautiful thesis (Huxley). No one ever has the last word. No one enjoys the immunity from interrogation. There are no holy cows.
Evolution is the current touchstone of human understanding. It envisages that right from cosmic bodies, diverse life forms, and social mores to cultural matrices, everything goes through a process of gradual change. Nothing ever remains static. Scriptures deny this basic tenet of human thought. They harp on the immutability of the divine revelation and insist on faith, blind one at that, in the face of reason which is the greatest asset that Life, from amoeba to man via dinosaurs, has honed over eons. Anyone who undermines reason commits the secular equivalent of blasphemy.
Future is to a child what a blank canvas is to an artist. It is a potential masterpiece – an epitome of the best he can imagine. It is rich with promise surpassing in grandeur and beauty all the existing ones. This is what makes childhood fascinating. An aura of future glory surrounds the child like a halo. His dreams know no bounds. There is little of past to put curb on his imagination. In his fancy he associates with gods and supermen and undertakes the most hazardous adventures for small stakes. The strangest deeds are possible in the head of the dimpled darling.
I guess my childhood fancies were as fascinating as that of anyone else. Hindu mythology was the first to fire my imagination. What a heterogeneous congregation of deities was there on Mount Kailash! The most colourful of them was of course Shiv Shankar. The entire paraphernalia about him was impressive: cobras round his neck and arms; a third eye on the forehead; a new moon adorning his puffed hairdo from which sprouted the Ganga like a geyser. The poison, derived from the churning of the sea, stored in his throat making his body blue all over; his weapon a fierce-looking trident; and his fondness for ‘tandav’, the earth-quaking dance of destruction, added to his awe-inspiring image.
In direct contrast were the lovable exploits of child Krishna. His birth in a cell in Mathura; his father carrying him over to Gokul after getting over the fury of flooded Yamuna; his pranks on milkmaids; his encounters with various demons in disguise; his genial treatment of Sudama; his diplomatic role in the battle of Kurukshetra – all cast an enchanting spell on me. I could quite appreciate Meera’s mystic devotion to this naughty god of the magic flute.
However, the god who fascinated me the most was Hanuman. There was something comic in this monkey-humanoid and yet he commanded veneration. His ability to fly was the best thing about him. It enraptured me to imagine Hanuman leaping into the air from the southern tip of India and fly over the sea and then land on the shores of Lanka. A second flight to bring the medicinal herb to restore Lakshman to life was visually more satisfying. He struck a grand pose in carrying the crest of a hilltop on his palm, the other arm balancing his mace on his shoulder, a majestic tail curled stylishly on his back and thus negotiating the air at the level of clouds. How it thrilled me to listen to a description of this kind from the panditji who held a daily session of Ramayana in the month of October in our neighbourhood!
The thrill of crowding the imagination with such strange gods was increased manifold when I could see them on the screen. Mythologicals were a great favourite with me in those days. I readily identified myself with the child heroes like Prahlad, Dhruva, Eklavya, Abhimanyu and Luv-Kusha. Their dignified gestures and self-assured dialogues transported me to the realm of utter joy and happiness.
Shades of the prison-house, however, began to close upon the growing boy. The world of gods started looking a little too remote from the day-to-day existence. The gods appeared inaccessible and living in a world where human beings were not admitted. They gave way to mortals possessing god-like qualities, superhuman in many ways yet fallible like the rest of us.
In my teens I was exposed to English literature. The stories of Sinbad the sailor; the travels of Gulliver in the land of Lilliputians and that of the giants; Robin Hood clad in greens with bow and arrow and a bugle; Tarzan roaming around in woods eating fruits and herbs, dressed in a loincloth and swinging on the creepers from tree to tree: this was a world full of immense possibilities. It belonged to the good and the brave. The wicked had always to lick the dust at the end. There was no question of the good coming to grief.
Around that time a new avenue was opened for my fancies. The market was flooded with cowboy and supermen comics. I grew fond of Captain Marvel who was a fifteen-year old lame news-vendor but could transform himself in the twinkling of an eye by simply uttering SHAZAM. He looked most handsome in his trim red-and-yellow outfit and in his ability to fly. The settings for his adventures were mostly cosmic like inter-planetary wars or some threat of annihilation to the earth.
It was extremely satisfying to see our planet being represented in the universe by such an accomplished figure. In the fifties newspapers and magazines were full of the talk of Flying Saucers and UFOs. They lent a kind of credibility to the most fantastic of Marvel adventures.
A formidable proportion of contents in my school-bag used to be cowboy comics. There were many minor heroes who all looked alike, dressed alike and more or less behaved alike. They were one and all expert horse-riders, wearing broad-rimmed hats, carrying automatic revolvers which they shot from their hips, some of them carried looped lashes which they could use in many exigencies. They were sworn enemies of all gangsters and other bad characters. They had an uncanny sense of smelling out such rogues. Some names still linger in memory: Roy Rogers, Buck Jones, Lash Laurie, Hopalong Cassidy, Lone Ranger etc.
I outlived this phase only to find myself in the imaginative world of Alexander Dumas and Walter Scott. The Knights of the Round Table, their duels on horsebacks with long piercing lances, their iron masks, the long swords, the castles, the beautiful damsels in distress and the swash-buckling trio of musketeers filled my post-comics years.
And then I found more earthly things for my imagination to dwell upon. They were the days when our cricket team invariably put up miserable performances in international matches. A thought of defeating MCC or Australia or the West Indies was considered beyond the pale of possibility. ‘Cricket is a game of chance’ was often quoted but the chance never erred in our favour. I would avidly listen to the radio commentary often missing a heartbeat or two when Merchant, Mushtaq or Hazare were at the crease. Each boundary they scored was a matter of personal triumph to me. A fall of Indian wicket was a matter of personal gloom. It was on such occasions that my imagination would run riot.
I would imagine myself occupying the crease and hammering the bowling of those menacing pacers. I wouldn’t leave the crease till I had scored a double century or had overtaken the record of Hutton and Bradman. Most of my scores would come from fours and sixes. And then I wouldn’t think of getting out by being bowled or caught, I would rather be stumped or run-out or hit my own wicket. There is a certain tragic grandeur in getting out in this fashion after a tall score. I would imagine my team in all sorts of tight corners from which recovery would sound no less than a miracle – and I would do it. Not only with a bat, I had visions of conjuring tricks with the ball – and a hat-trick was the least to begin with. If my imagination could have its way all the record books would have been altered beyond the scope of further alteration.
In my fancy I assisted not only my cricket eleven but the hockey team too and the squads in Davis Cup and Olympic events. To watch an Indian gaining world honours in sports was the acme of my ambition. In this respect Wilson Jones in Billiards was the only one to make my dream come true. When he remained unbeaten in his maiden venture at the world billiard championship my joy knew no bounds. To this day I hero-worship the man, though many others have joined the pantheon of numero unos.
I was fond of reading books on India’s struggle for freedom. The names of Gandhi, Bose, Nehru, Patel, Bhagat Singh and Azad made my blood flow faster in my veins. It was somewhat dampening to my spirits that India had won freedom without my participation. I almost wished that the freedom had been delayed so that I could contribute my mite. A free country was less exciting to my adolescent mind than a country struggling to overthrow the yoke of a foreign rule. I felt the golden era of heroism and bravery was over and that I was growing up in the penumbra of its shadow. The task of making five-year plans successful was too timid and mundane to the mind of a lad who had all along in his fancies associated himself with the exploits of gods, demi-gods, super-humans and extraordinary mortals.
With lapse of time the fancies grew more prosaic. The clouds around my head grew thinner in the scorching sunshine of reality. To dream became a luxury that I could not afford in the midst of my preoccupations as a man of the world. The other day I was surprised to catch myself dreaming in the broad daylight.
I was standing at a bus-stop on a blazing afternoon watching the crowded buses whizz past me as if I was invisible. And then I dreamed of a partially empty bus, bearing the board of my destination, stopping gently next to me, allowing me sufficient time to get in and sit down on the only vacant seat before accelerating. In my more fanciful days I would have just uttered SHAZAM and flown like Captain Marvel across the breadth of the city.
Complexities of science (structure of atom, double-helix of DNA, spatial dimensions of receding galaxies, black holes, dark energy etc) pass over my head. I am overwhelmed. Even though I don't understand much of it, I am impressed and feel awed by the leap of human imagination. I trust the scientist and his expertise. Failure to grasp the intricacies I attribute to my limited IQ and lack of effort and motivation.
My favourite pastime is to sit idle and to indulge in reveries. The moment I stretch myself in my relaxing chair and the slant of my spinal cord coincides with the inclined backrest, an ‘open sesame’ is conveyed to the cerebrum. The floodgate of recollections yawns wide and memories of all shades start flitting past me. I relive those hours vicariously that I had already lived in substance. I enjoy living my experiences in retrospect more than undergoing them for the first time. In fact, I wait for the present to turn into past before I am able to enjoy it. I do not like things in the making. I never visit a workshop of any kind lest it should hamper my appreciation of the finished product.
My interest in the future is only to the extent that I consider it a prospective past. And, therefore, the hours too remote from now are, for all practical purposes, useless to me. I look at them with suspicion. They usually turn out to be altogether different from what I had anticipated. The hours to come are not reliable and they are rarely faithful to one’s expectations. With all fondness one entrusts a cherished dream to Future, but when the hour of fulfillment arrives, it invariably gives a slip – the wretched infidel! And I am particularly sensitive to infidelity, whether it is manifested in human relations or in a metaphysical phenomenon like Time.
I leave the Future alone and am content to be with my Past. It does not alter; it does not betray me. After howsoever a long time I may turn to a bygone event, I still find it there as I had left it last. My heart is surged with the pleasure of recognition. I caress it fondly till it slips down the heap of other events to rise again when I wish it to.
Thinking of the days that are no more is like passing one’s time in the personal art gallery. One recognizes the portraits, the landscapes, the close-ups, a few diffused abstracts and the sundry eventful etchings. Each canvas brings in its wake a host of associations and along with them all the finer shades of emotions ranging from pathos to comic frivolity. In a corner keep lying the blank canvases waiting for Future to impart shape and meaning to them, but they do not interest me. I am all for the coloured ones.
I am always glad to meet a queer fellow. The more unusual his habits, the more I like him. And though I may have had only a brief encounter with him, I am conscious that he has given me pleasure for a lifetime. More contacts with him serve to emphasize some of his features or put a dash of colour here or a slight alteration there. These talking, moving portraits are delightful company in solitude. They emerge only when I like and vanish without the least show of grudge when I dismiss them.
Sometimes, when I am presently talking to a person, his portrait rears itself up in my mind and then I indulge in the fascinating hobby of comparing the portrait with its model. This exercise leaves the portrait a richer and a fresher possession. Though, not always! At times it spoils the original and superimposes a new impression which has some superficial resemblances with the last one. I can’t make out much of these portraits, and the loss is certainly mine. Besides spoiling a portrait of my collection, it perplexes me and leaves me disillusioned. I cast a doubtful glance at other portraits. Are they also vulnerable? What has happened to their originals? Have they ceased to resemble the impression I have retained of them? The thought is forbidding. I cling to the rest of them with a rare jealousy: I don’t want you to change; for better or for worse I like you for what you are; I want you to be what you were when I met you last, please!
The landscapes are better in this respect. They are not easily subject to alteration. When I see a familiar landscape in a new light and compare it with the one I already had in my collection, the comparison enraptures me. There is no superimposition and no alteration. It is entirely a fresh one to be juxtaposed by the side of the old one. Often it arouses in me the interest of completing a series of such landscapes: the same shape and contour of the land against a setting sun; below a thunderous cloud; after the showers; covered with a heavy layer of snow; in the light of a hazy autumnal afternoon; that is, at different hours of the day and under different weather conditions.
Recollection of events interests me in another way. I evoke some episode in its entirety, and amuse myself by imparting a slight turn to events in the beginning and then recreate an altogether new superstructure of happenings that would have taken place because of this turn. It is remarkably entertaining and instructive. How one thing leads to another! How fondest of hearts grow alien to each other because things happen one way rather than the other! How man plays into the hands of circumstances! In spite of all the big talk of free choice and free will, how easily is man moulded like a lump of wax! On such occasions I lose myself into a maze of metaphysical speculations and am good for nothing for quite a while.
Besides portraits, landscapes and events, I possess a few close-ups too. A quiver at the corner of lips, slight flaring of nostrils, an involuntary movement of eyeballs, a raise of eyebrows, a flutter of tearful eyelids, a blush all over the cheeks, a self-congratulatory smile: once some such act is snapped it becomes a cherishable treasure. These little momentary acts convey much more than a whole volume of words could ever hope to achieve. They need no adjectives; they are spontaneous and absolutely genuine. To be indifferent to them is to miss the essence of human behaviour. A curious feature of the close-ups in my collection is that I can not trace them to their owners. I am primarily struck with the emotion betrayed by that extempore gesture and only secondarily by who did it.
Recollections of all kinds get enwrapped in an aura of romance with the passage of time. All crudities and frayed edges are shorn off and the moment is retained as an artistic composition of a superb finesse, having the Aristotelian virtues of a beginning, a middle and an end. An event which in past brought tears to the eyes now merely makes me sober, and the one which excited a loud guffaw of laughter brings an imperceptible flicker of smile on the lips.
One of the charms of growing old is that one automatically grows rich in past. With every hour that is lived, the store of hours that one may call one’s own is enriched. The experience that every single hour snatches from eternity adds colour to the individual. The running sands of time cast shadows which are inscribed in the wrinkles, scars and greying hair.
Dark crescents below eyes always fascinate me. The darker they are or have a number of concentric semi-circles overlapping one another, the richer is the personality in my esteem. Presence of a dark halo below eyes lends another dimension to the individual and makes it obvious that the person owns a sensitive soul, a brooding intellect, a sensual nature, and besides has the guts to indulge in his whims. These half-moons below the eyelids are the privilege of one who has thought, felt and seen the vagaries of life, and preserves the mementoes of his intrepidities in this visible form. In fact, every wrinkle, every scar on an old man has its own tale to tell. It is for this reason, if for nothing else, that an old timer elicits my best respects and incites profound wonder in me.
It has been a constant tickler to my fancy to imagine Tithonus – the unfortunate paramour of the goddess of Dawn, who had beseeched Zeus to grant him the boon of immortality but had forgotten to ask for perennial youth. Inevitably, he became older, greyer and febrile. He longed for death. I wonder how Tithonus, the grand old man of Greek mythology, would have looked with the weight of thousands of years preserved in his flesh and bones!
Cultivating a sense of kinship seems to be a vital part of the process of growing up. From the moment a child betrays the potentiality of producing some recognizable sounds, he/she is coaxed into uttering such words as ‘mama’, ‘chacha’, ‘baba’, ‘booa’ etc.
These words are particularly coined to facilitate a child who is in the initial stages of his semantic adventure. The repetition of a drawn out lingering syllable makes it easy to pronounce, and what is more, imparts a kind of delight to the novice. He relishes uttering the words just for the fun of it. They sound nice to him and do not call forth much effort on his part, though he may not have the faintest idea what they signify. Once he has learned to identify different individuals around him with these words he has been automatically introduced to a web of intricate relationships.
Why is it that we Indians insist so much on starting a child’s process of gaining familiarity with the world in terms of this elaborate structure of complex relationships? It must be confessed that our sense of kinship is more pronounced as compared to other civilized social groups. Whereas most of them make do with ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’, we are resolved to specify the exact relationship which these words leave so vague. We must make it clear whether the person addressed as ‘uncle’ is the brother of our mother or the brother of our father; and if the brother of our father, whether younger to him or elder. Similarly, the husband of our mother’s sister is to be distinguished not only from the husband of our father’s sister but also from the rest of the consanguinity of uncles.
These relationships are observed not merely within one’s own family, but are extended to the entire neighborhood. It is quite usual to come across many families who live in adjoining houses maintaining such pseudo bonds. The children of one family address the father of the next door children as ‘chacha’ or ‘tau’ depending on the algebraical sign of plus or minus before the age difference of the two fathers. In fact all the friends of one’s father attain the status of ‘chacha’ and the friends of mother that of ‘mausi’, thus emphasizing the essential spirit of brotherhood prevailing among friends.
Unfortunately, instead of maintaining friendly relations between brothers we insist on having brotherly relations with friends. Perhaps at a petty level it does not matter much, but we have extended the frontiers of kinship to international level. We have failed to maintain friendly relations with our brothers and were severely rebuffed when we tried to be ‘bhai-bhai’ with a lotus-eating neighbor.
We are perhaps the only people who have holidays set aside to celebrate the fraternal bonds between brothers and sisters. ‘Raksha-bandhan’ is one of our important festivals. The markets are flooded with chintzy wristlets known as ‘rakhis’. The entire populace rejoices with a childish enthusiasm over this annually recurring event. A similar festival ‘Bhai-dooj’ is again observed after Diwali.
Our efforts to inculcate an undue reverence to these natural bonds have had a reverse side-effect. Our pet abuses consist of insinuating allusions to incestual relationships. Every conceivable tabooed coupling between a man and a woman provides the motif of an average Indian’s emotional outbursts. The sure way to insult a man is to make a sly reference to his sister or mother. Even being called the brother of a man’s wife – ‘sala’ – has acquired the overtones of an abuse.
In an average Indian family the relation between a boy and a girl, if they are not actually related, is virtually recognized as brother and sister. Everyone recognizes how false the situation is, yet they all keep up the appearance. Most courting is carried on under the guise of this pseudo-relationship, and causes a vague kind of embarrassment to everyone when it results in marriage.
Amusingly enough, no specific word of address is current between a husband and wife. No ‘honey’, ‘darling’ or ‘sweetheart’. Such words of endearment are considered vulgar display of affection in public. Just ‘listen’ or its impersonal equivalent functions as the conversational link between the couple.
Most spouses refer to each other as ‘Munna ki amma’ or ‘Paploo ke papa’, or in the absence of children as ‘Chintu ke chacha’ or some similar indirect relationship. In a few advanced families husbands may address their wives by their names, while even there, pronouncing husband’s name is nothing short of sacrilege. Very often comic situations develop in families where the husband’s name happens to be that of an article of common use. The poor wife has to devise a nickname for the article in order to avoid using her husband’s name.
Besides establishing relationships with people around us, we tend to include even animals and inanimate objects. It has become common to call the river flowing past one’s town as ‘maiyya’. The Earth, our nation, the river Ganges, and the domestic animal cow, all enjoy the status of mother. Similarly, moon is the undisputed ‘mama’. One can understand the cow and river and earth being called ‘mother’ – a symbol of life-nourishing source, but to hear smallpox referred to as ‘mata’ is somewhat baffling. An outbreak of smallpox is considered by superstitious Hindus as manifestation of a visit by mother-goddess. Any medicine taken to counteract this visitation is looked upon with horror and is believed to be followed by the wrath of the goddess.
We have an innate desire to live in this universe as a part of the cosmic fraternity. Anything which does not fall into the pattern of this concept upsets us. Perhaps we have yet to learn that we can live cordially, surrounded by numerous objects, without being intimately related to them.
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