Remembering mom and dad.
Two islands of memories
Kicking up the dust
Left the city
Leaving the life
Now I stand
In dirt and dust
Holding my breath
Holding my secret
One by one you left
You, then you
Now, on this cold early hour
Of the morning memories
I translate everything you were
Into everything you meant
I should not live in the past, they say
I should move on, they say
“Get a life you mean,” I sigh
Like a double sash round my waist
I encode what they say to me
I decode what you mean to me
Being an adult is a long
Arduous marriage to life
And a long arduous affair with Death
One more from the vault, slightly cleaned up but not too much, because dust too, is a memory.
An excerpt from Hadji Murat, in my view the greatest story Tolstoy wrote; but I’ll probably say the same thing about each of his The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Master and Man, Alyosha Gorshok, and Father Sergius.
“Butler also made the acquaintance of and became close with shaggy Hanefi, Hadji Murat’s sworn brother. Hanefi knew many mountaineer songs and sang them well. Hadji Murat, to please Butler, would send for Hanefi and order him to sing, naming the songs he considered good. Hanefi had a high tenor voice, and sang with extraordinary distinctness and expression. Hadji Murat especially liked one song, and Butler was struck by its solemn, sad melody. Butler asked the interpreter to tell over its content and wrote it down.
The song had to do with a blood feud–the very one that had existed between Hanefi and Hadji Murat.
It went like this:
“The earth will dry on my grave, and you will forget me, my mother! The graveyard will overgrow with the grass of the graves, and the grass will stifle your grief, my old father. The tears will dry in my sister’s eyes, and the grief will fly from her heart.
“But you will not forget me, my older brother, as long as you have not avenged my death. And you will not forget me, my second brother, as long as you’re not lying here beside me.
“Hot you are, bullet, and it’s death you bear, but have you not been my faithful slave? Black, black earth, you will cover me, but did I not trample you with my horse? Cold you are, death, but I was your master. The earth will take my body, but heaven will receive my soul.”
(Note: From Pevear/Volokhonsky translation.)
It seems to me that in her innermost thinking an Indian wife is always in a state of recoil from the husband, and the violent separation this recoil creates is a graveyard of unacknowledged questions between them.
Perhaps we need some sort of an evolutionary theory to explain how the situation has turned so dire. To that end, I suggest everyone should read the Book of Job. Even a short summary read on the internet will be enough, but pay attention to minor details. Go past what God did, and what Job did or did not, and watch what Job’s friends say. Keep your focus on Job’s friends.
What if Job were a woman and she were pressured to cease her resistance to the man, but she asks why anyway and refuses? Everyone around her would then accuse her of having done something wrong. But since man is not God there are no resets or pauses in her story. So her only recourse is to continue to fight the fight. All those around her, her friends included, keep shifting and changing the nature of blame on her but in their eyes she alone remains unchanged–unchanged in her condition that she must’ve done something wrong. Only those who remember the beginning–the beginning as in when Satan approaches God with a proposal that titillates God, only those who were present at this beginning will have the capacity to know the truth that it is they who are misguided.
So now, if you followed the logic above, it is clear that for the rest of us who were not present at the beginning, we only need to have the truth broadcast to us from whenever this beginning occurred. And guess what, that beginning lies in the sense of humanity within us. It really is true, all history that should matter for its lessons is within us.
Do you see how you don’t have to be anyone other than the better version of yourself to comprehend this simple truth?
To an old friend E.
Eleven years of soft smooth skin
Your hungry hands,
Still a friend.
Now this song
Why am I rooted in you?
Are you my country?
Are you my home?
One more from the vault, dated June 2008.
The other day I read this below in an article on ProPublica.org.
After Duckworth said, “My family has served this nation in uniform going back to the Revolution,” Kirk responded: “I had forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington.” (Amid outrage over the comments, Kirk apologized to Duckworth via Twitter.)
Reading the article reminded me of a C-SPAN program I saw way back in 2005. It featured Major Tammy Duckworth as a soldier wounded in Iraq war. I sat in front of TV, my attention riveted to the screen, a mix of intense emotions passing through me.
I kept thinking that most of us, when overcome by feelings of disconnectedness from our surroundings, experience a sense of inner agitation, which is not that different from the experience of being a stranger. No matter how many years and decades go by, this feeling of disconnect, the inner agitation, doesn’t go away. It seems to persist, is still left dangling, in search of home. Where, then, is the home for this feeling, for this disconnect?
Those who saw “Conversations with Soldiers Wounded in Iraq” on C-SPAN (originally aired March 10, 2005, with subsequent repeat broadcasts–here’s a snippet of it with Major Duckworth in it) would likely have experienced a glimpse of very such home. In the video you hear how the soldiers very nearly died in the mess and blood of war, but listening and watching them still infuse a renewal of life into our experience. These soldiers speak of their experience without the melodrama and narcissism that a more self-conscious narrator, for example a modern day blogger, would fill it with.
To see what I mean, let’s start with a simple question: “Where were we on Nov 12, 2004?” Because on that day Major Tammy Duckworth, of Illinois Army National Guard, was on a free fall, her Blackhawk helicopter shot over the skies of Iraq.
From her own narrative of the events of that day, “It was actually end of the day, we’ve been flying missions across Baghdad, mostly transportation of equipment. Had a great lunch, bought some Christmas ornaments from the post exchange (it was middle of November). We were ten minutes from getting back to the base when an RPG shot by the insurgents hit the chin bubble (a Plexiglas window under the pilot seat of the Blackhawk.)”
She sat next to her husband with the C-SPAN interviewer. Her infectious smile, dark beautiful eyes and a gentle face would have you believe she may have just escaped with minor bruises.
Initial charge exploded between her knees and nicked one of the Blackhawk’s blades. Instantly they lost the electronics, and the Blackhawk started to descend. Tammy immediately attempted to land the aircraft, little realizing that she lost the foot pedals and her legs. The control panels were gone. When she woke up in the emergency room the right hand was broken. The last thing she remembered was that she saw that the grass on the fields, coming through the chin bubble as they landed, was about six feet tall and she remembered thinking, “Wow, that’s really beautiful green grass,” before she passed out.
Tammy lost her right leg. Lost her left leg below the knee to amputation. Her right arm bones were crushed and broken the moment the Blackhawk hit the ground. Doctors at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where this C-SPAN interview was taped, rebuilt the arm using metal pins and screws and grafted the tissue taken from her stomach.
And then there is Cpl. Michael Oreskovic – US Army, 23 years’ of age at the time of this interview. Lost his left arm from shoulder on: “Flopping around somewhere like a chewed up hamburger.” He went through eleven surgeries and was using a bio-electric arm.
This is a group of people who describe things that happen to them–such as ripped arms, detonations in front of their faces, warm blood pouring down their faces, soaking their clothes–with a gentle smile on their faces. Not a hint of self-pity, not a hint of a loss, just a strange serenity in their faces, a jaded tiredness but a permanent light in their eyes.
“Tough situations brings you closer.” He waits until the question is asked: “Was anybody else injured at all?” “Yeah, my squad leader died instantly.”
The casual approach, the self-effacing manner in which these soldiers speak is maddening: “Tying the shoes and pulling the zipper are the hardest things to do.”
There is not a hint of wasted thought, wasted emotion, in these soldiers’ thinking. Perhaps it comes from being so close to life and death.
It is almost as if in their gentle smiles this disconnect, this tin-box of day-to-day clutter in our minds that we call agitation, has found a home, and having found it, has disappeared.
Shouldn’t this be one such home, a home where life shines brighter at the sight of death that we should all be searching for and be striving for?
Now that the cascade of words subsided
It is quiet,
You are clear.
Now it would’ve been nice
You making coffee, I making
On million little things
Agreeing on One Big Thing
Such as: you and me, are one, are the same.
An old favorite of mine, from my own dusty vaults of crazy old days.
From an email exchange with Dachu (my brother), dated 6th July 2013:
Here is the first negative thought: I often recall that I feel immediately better when I leave things worse than I found them at first. For example, when I and someone start talking, it feels instantly better if I put him/her down with some discouraging or insulting remark.
Second example, whenever I see a group of young people talking, or even anyone talking and laughing, I feel like saying something to dampen the mood, and tell them they are all living in a fantasy world and they should get real. When children are playing I almost always feel better if I curse them and tell them to keep quiet and go inside and stop making noise.
Another thing I feel most satisfied doing is when someone talks to me, smiles at me, I keep a firm expression on my face, and look at them as if they are making a fool of themselves, and by not smiling back at them, I can show them who has the upper hand, me or them? Definitely I have the upper hand.
And the most satisfying negative feeling that immediately gives me much pleasure is when someone calls me and I don’t pick up the phone, even though I can see their number on my cell phone. I wait and wait and then quickly go to voicemail to check their message. And then I conclude they are good-for-nothing fellows, whoever they are. Anyone who calls me is lower than me and I will sweat them out. Emails are better. I will read their emails over and over again without responding. Actually I don’t delete them, but keep reading them but I won’t respond. This way I can show who is the boss. Definitely I am the boss.
And I had also discovered that I can comment on blogs of my friends by using a name that no one recognizes, like timbuktoo or something. I just cannot tell you how low these people are who write blogs, and how superior my viewpoint is, I just cannot.
A few days after Mumbai attacks in November 2008 (26/11), still recovering from what we all saw on live TV, I kept thinking that these verses are what Kasab might be saying to himself while he and his fellow terrorists went on a 4-day killing spree, while keeping their cell phones on.
“Chikna, chikna,” the words the Senior Inspector Mahale used to describe Kasab, stuck in my mind.
I remember reading one of the hotel guests (someone from somewhere in Europe, I think) making a point about how the hotel staff didn’t even hesitate to give them their personal money from their wallets, and remember seeing the hotel guest moved by it and thinking to myself, “How patronizing…”
And I was aghast at the ceremony-like flurry of social media. Everywhere on the internet Indians tweeted, shared, and blogged this days-long murder as though they couldn’t keep their eyes away from it.
Indian TV networks covered it from every angle possible, and I cursed at myself, seeing myself as one of them, “What animals!”
A sort of helpless anger at all that we saw on the television, and on social media subsequently, still remains. Remains relevant.
Dear India, Dear Friend
At last the time has come
For me to take you in my arms
So handsome, so beautiful
So chikna that I am
Here my sweet one
Drink this Glue
So thick, so good
A Hindu Glue
A Muslim Glue
We are Hindus and Muslims First
Cops and Security Second
Don’t let them confuse you
With calls to sanity
Don’t let them break you
With urges for clarity
It is what it is
So why…? Unnecessary…!
Here you are
Let me take you in
Let the comfort of my squeeze
Strike you like a gentle breeze
There you are
Let me sleep you in
The slithery slumber
Of your tri-color Tradition
Of your Endless Argumentation
How sweet it is
To make ourselves
See how proud they make us
Saying even amidst Death’s bullets
Our hotel staff bestowed their wallets
How bright are our youngsters
The tin box sloshers, the tweeters
How final is the love between us
How narrow is our vision
Sleep, my Elephant friend
The Dragon is still
Far and behind
Let me try this one, she said,
“…can I do this by my own…?”
Pushing him away
Twist on her lip,
“I look …..y,”
Nearly taking it off
Color of his heart,
Stood by the door,
Almost sitting down,
Almost saying out loud,
“Will she say yes, or no?”
An old poem.
Chaya Babu interviewed me for India Abroad magazine, appearing in February 13, 2015 issue. An excerpt:
How did you develop him [Arya]? Does your personal experience inform his character?
…I started to become more and more sensitive to secrets, or what I thought were the secrets that men have in their heads. By that I mean that, growing up as a male in Indian society, there are so many things you experience and do–like sometimes maybe you’re an abuser, maybe you’re a molester, maybe you’re the creator of all these things that another part of your brain is looking and saying, ‘Well, that’s not right.’
I think in general, when it comes to the idea of a man, especially an Indian man, I see him as riddled with all these conflicting personalities. So I thought I’d take that and go through these varieties of personalities or roles that a man such as Arya would go through or create in others, either by committing acts of violence or simply being a part of the kind of society I’ve mentioned.
Do you feel there was a very narrow Indian narrative that’s put forth in mainstream publishing?
Yes, there’s a lot of stereotyping that goes on, but I don’t see that as anyone’s fault. I think that everything that comes to the surface has to be very easily touchable and accessible; if you have a stereotype, it’s easy to grasp. If you have an oily-haired person coming from South Asia, that’s an easy image to visualize. But if you want to dig deeper into how the person feels, if you have an image of a brown-skinned person, a human being has a very difficult time getting past that and reaching into that person’s psyche or emotional state.
Not discriminating is an acquired skill; it doesn’t come naturally. But great societies make that a part of life, helping everybody acquire that skill. I think part of growing up in India is that no one acquires this; no one has a humanistic approach.”
The Caravan–October 2014. Three Telugu Poets: Siva Reddy, Varavara Rao and Ismail.
For most Indian readers in English, contemporary poetry in Telugu lies below the horizon, its existence sometimes reported but never directly encountered. But even from this very small sample of the work of three Telugu poets, translated by the novelist Raj Karamchedu, it’s clear that this is a field as exciting as any other in Indian literature. Whether it is Siva Reddy’s poem about two human subjects and a burrow, Varavara Rao’s remarkable poem about speaking corpses and deaths in police custody, or Ismail’s unforgettable image of a real turtle inside a well and a metaphorical one inside the human mind, here are voices, images, rhythms and metaphors that proclaim a burning faith in the power of poetry to both reveal and imagine the world afresh.
Sometime in the middle of 1978. Old city of Hyderabad burned with Hindus and Muslims killing each other, and the police killing everyone.
Early May 2003. “Characters should behave unaware of the future that lay ahead of them, and it is in this mystery that life wades forward.” I wrote down something along these lines in my notes after copying it from Gary Saul Morson’s “Narrative and Freedom” book. These were my early notes. I needed to write my book. I had no choice. I felt I will have no future if I didn’t write it.
October 2009. Browsing on the net, I discovered “Rahasya Vaana” poem by Kalpana Rentala on her blog. With a naive boldness that comes only from remembering amateurish skills of younger years, I decided my Telugu is good enough to translate her poem into English. A day or two later, found out one Afsar and his poem “Kondaru Snehitulu…Nanna…Oka Artharaatri.” Soon I learned they are of one family. A month or two later all three of us are talking about starting a Telugu publishing company.
November 2010. Saaranga Books. “Aneka.” Months of toil by Kalpana and Afsar. Still more months of near-anal persistence by me for a certain look and feel for the book.
September 2014. “All Things Unforgiven,” the final shape taken by those early May 2003 words. Yes, we all did behave unaware of what the future lay ahead of us. And so when Lev Grossman, the New York Times’ best-selling author of “The Magicians” trilogy, led us—I and four other debut novelists—onto the stage at Brooklyn Book Festival in Brooklyn, New York, this Sunday, Sept 21 2014, for a brief moment these past eleven odd years replayed in my head and I smiled inwardly.
I am not at all glorifying this moment. I believe publishers like Saaranga and writers who publish books are everywhere, and there’s nothing special about them. Still, I am writing this note now because in the book “All Things Unforgiven,” a school-boy named Arya walks back from school to his house in old city on the day of the 1978 Hindu-Muslim communal riots. And that boy came alive in the book extract I read onstage after Grossman introduced me to the audience. This was the extract I read to the audience.
As Arya approached the intersection, which was already crowded with people, he saw, coming out from the narrow lane on the left, a stream of bicycles, rickshaws and auto-rickshaws; evidently all the traffic had been diverted from Charminar.
Across the street, on his right and ahead of him, stood a small mosque and near its entrance stood a group of four or five men, all with their white prayer caps on them. It appeared as though they had just finished their prayer and were standing at the junction talking among themselves.
Arya then saw children, mostly girls, playing in front of the shops, jumping up and down a raised platform. A sudden feeling of nearness towards the children rose in his heart. “Don’t you know it is dangerous to let the children out here, into the open like this, at such times?” he was about to ask someone, but instead something else attracted his attention.
In the adjacent meat shop, through the gap between two large pieces of meat that were hanging by metal hooks, he saw a swinging movement of the shop owner’s arm. With a large black meat cleaver in one hand he cut the meat in rhythmic movements as he deftly moved the pieces sideways and around with his other hand, at the same time saying something to the man by the side of the shop. Next to the man there were three or four older men, also with white prayer caps on them, sitting in plastic chairs, talking something.
Arya was transfixed by these views. “Look how they go in and out of the streets, sit on the chairs and stare at the people, as though out here on the street is their living room, while I am afraid,” he thought. He kept looking at one side and the other, mesmerized by the boldness, by the indifference, and by the fearlessness in all that he saw around him. Once again, the same intense feeling of kinship with everything in these streets rose in the boy’s heart.
He crossed the junction, and going through the traffic that kept on coming from the narrow lane on his left, he turned his head over his shoulder, to see who else was going in his direction.
From the group that was standing in front of the mosque, one of the men stared fixedly at Arya for a few moments, and without taking his eyes off him, spat to his side.
Suddenly Arya became conscious of several eyes staring at him, and an awkward feeling of embarrassment rose in him. He wished to run away, to go near someone or something that was familiar. Still fixing his eyes on Arya, the man removed his cap and, now appearing more menacing, pushed his shirtsleeves up, and spoke to the others, without turning to them.
“He is looking at me thinking if I am a Muslim or a Hindu,” thought Arya, now feeling apprehensive at his circumstance, forgetting his earlier pleasant feeling. “They are talking among themselves, planning to come after me from both sides.”
At once all the faces on the street appeared the same to him, with the same menacing, calculating, fixated look on him, with the full knowledge of how to cordon him off, and how to frighten him. He looked away from them, and shifting his school bag from one shoulder to another, increased his pace. But the heavy bag kept swaying and kept hitting his thigh with a thud, and when the sound of the tiffin box lid breaking open came from within, he slowed down, perspiring and excited with a feeling of terror and shame. The consciousness that his fear had a terrible hold on him disappeared, and in that place now he felt the whole fear itself. The boy could not be sure if the ground was giving away beneath him or whether something unpleasant had begun to churn in his stomach. He slowed down further, and with a defiant expression on his face, through the spectacles that were becoming all misty and kept slipping down his nose, he looked back.
Contrary to his expectations and fears, he saw nothing that moved toward him. There were no crowds that were violent to be seen. He felt flushed. Becoming aware of the pulsations of blood flowing rapidly into his ears, making them swollen, itchy and tingling, he continued along that road, and was seen turning the corner onto the street that brought him nearer home.
And these are the pictures. And yes, I still believe one should write as though the characters should be unaware of the future ahead of them. That’s the only way to be truthful to the moment we are in.Aleksandra Pickering This article was originally published in Saaranga Magazine.
Going through my notes, it is clear that I am inspired significantly by literary criticism. George Steiner, Richard Blackmur (R.P. Blackmur), John Bayley, Edward Wasiolek, R.F. Christian, Richard Gustafson, Gary Saul Morson, Bakhtin, Lev Shestov, James Wood, and a few others (Robert Alter, Lionel Trilling, Jan Fokkelman on Old Testament, to name only a few of the others). In fact I do not believe there are any better studies on Tolstoy than the two books, one by John Bayley and the other by Richard Gustafson.
I didn’t exactly read everything these critics wrote, but there’s something of a glorious celebration of human condition in these writers. Reading their critiques taught me immensely about writing. Not the craft and technique of it, although that too, but the instinct in me to love the character in literature was definitely created by these critics.
I think it was Steiner who said somewhere, perhaps in his “On Difficulty,” that in great literature the writer accords a certain sense of privacy for the characters, and that the greatness of the work has something to do with this.
July 8th, 2003
It is not a story of characters where it is clear immediately who is in the wrong, with dark evil intentions and good intentions. No. It is the story of helplessness in the face of one’s own inaction, one’s own inability or (something else) to be so clearly and boldly good or evil. (And later on realizing that one cannot be so boldly good or evil forever. One relapses.)
July 9th, 2003
The two most important acquaintances a human being will identify, overall, is first God–or an idea close to that–and second, the fellow human being. Of God, one has scriptures and tidings of the institutions to fall back on. Of the second, most humans are limited in their understanding to their [own] experience. To understand from a point of view of a [another] human being, the point of view which is wholly outside of one’s [own] real experience is not an easy quality to achieve. It is not a skill. It has something to do with Tolstoy’s view of humanity.
It is striking to me how the basic ideas were already in my head so early on. And they never really changed in the published version of the novel, even after a decade.
I wrote down that phrase, “gradual process of enrichment,” in my notes on June 27, 2003 in quotation marks, forgetting to write down where I copied it from. Dad had passed away a few months earlier. That was just about the time I had decided to write a book, which eventually ended up as All Things Unforgiven, and now, after eleven years, the monkey is off my back.
When parents die, they do so as a final act of teaching their children what love is. If you are a man, by which I mean if you are not a woman, then you are that unfortunate species left out of the possibility of physically giving birth to another human being, which, I am convinced, is the only way to know what love is. And so it seems particularly true that this final act of the departing parents is especially targeted towards their sons, to teach them the ultimate lesson of what it means to love.
That was how I felt then. That feeling only intensified over the years.
Anyone who lost their parents can do this mental exercise. Pause whatever you are doing. Imagine your departed folks. Doesn’t it feel as though you are walking around like a million dollars have been stolen from you, feeling cheated, not angry, but merely having been cheated, by those who passed away?
And then there are these scribbles, from the same notebook.
When you walk on the streets, the life that you encounter is utterly self-conscious-less. The force of life with people, the buzz and their stolen glances of your presence is a full force that thrusts upon you without any, I mean any, none, of the self-consciousness that one individual may feel when he/she is alone. A book should lift this individual from such self-consciousness and place him in the midst of life.” –June 27th, 2003
Youth: “a certain straightforwardness” (Dostoevsky)–July 8th, 2003
Dostoevsky seeks; Tolstoy presents.–August 8th, 2003
I think I like this exercise of opening up my notes to others. What’s the point of keeping them away?
Some essays appeal to the literary critics and some other essays appeal to the artist. Saying it is not taking anything away from the critic, but it’s a different kind of pulsation. For example, when you read War and Peace you will feel that you’ve just listened to music. That music is not in the sentences or in the words or in any memorable phrase that sticks out like a favorite tune. It is in the way the world in that book breathes, you can almost hear it come alive, expanding and contracting, collapsing, sometimes like a beast, sometimes like a concert, sometimes like loneliness and some other times, well, some other times, like standing under a sky with stars in it. In that sense I think a musician, an artist who creates music, is somehow privy to some things that a novelist struggles to achieve. Here are Rosanne Cash’s words from her brilliant essay Don’t Fact-check the Soul in The New York Times:
But with or without prescience, considering only the hard-earned craftsmanship of songwriting, as I get older I have found the quality of my attention to be more important, and more rewarding, than the initial inspiration. I’ve found that the melody is already inherent in the language, and if I pay close enough attention to the roundness of the vowels and the cadence of the words, I can tease the melody out of the words it is already woven into. I have found that continual referral back to the original “feeling tone” of the inspiration, the constant re-touching of that hum and cry, more important than the fireworks of its origin. I have learned to be steady in my course of love, or fear, or loneliness, rather than impulsive in its wasting, either lyrically or emotionally.
This maturation in songwriting has proven surprisingly satisfying. Twenty-five years ago, I would have said that the bursts of inspiration, and the transcendent quality that came with them, were an emotionally superior experience, preferable to the watchmaker concentration required for the detail work of refining, editing and polishing. But the reverse is proving to be true. Like everything else, given enough time and the long perspective, the opposite of those things that we think define us slowly becomes equally valid, and sometimes more potent.