Monday, April 29, 2013

Smorgasbord:Harsh Realities, Secret Lives Of The Brain, A Vintage (Imaginary) Friend

Parents grow old and die. Seven years ago when a close friend lost her mother, I confronted this harsh reality for the first time. Suddenly the loss of a parent didn't happen in distant homes but occurred in the life of a beloved friend, a contemporary. I talked about it with another friend, A, who shared my fear and incredulity and said, "I can't even begin to imagine a life without my parents. Aami tu bhabiboi nuaru!" She echoed my deepest fear and spoke words that I didn't even dare say out loud lest they came true. Last Monday when A was holding onto the last minutes of sleep at dawn and her mother was picking up laundry, her father began gasping for breath in the adjacent room. Within five minutes, their lives underwent a tumultuous and irreversible change. Without any preceding illness, his demise was a traumatic shock to the family he left behind. I couldn't bring myself to call up or visit A till quite late in the day. Her previous words came back to me in a rush. The world that she just couldn't imagine was here now and the reality of ageing parents gripped me with a new fear. Over the past decade, my parents had a few serious health scares and I had nearly lost my father four years ago to sepsis and multi-organ dysfunction. But with the grace of God and their own concern towards their fitness, they lead much healthier lives now. No one can change certain unfortunate realities of life, but everyone of us can spending quality time with our parents instead of being cooped up with our own little worries and busy lives, get regular health check-ups for them, oversee their diet and exercise, and let love and laughter resonate each day.
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I have been reading David Eagleman's "Incognito: The Secret Lives Of The Brain" and despite being well aware of the physiology of that three pound of neural tissue that runs our entire lives, the book provided entirely new and deeper insights into the amazing machinery that is the brain. Imagination, emotions, decisions, intelligence, identity, aspirations, ideas, problem-solving, attention, vision, the entire human physiology and the vast world of the subconscious; everything comes alive in the book. It is a humbling and staggering realization that our conscious selves isn't the centre of our existence, and is way off in a distant orbit. Most of what happens in our lives aren't done by conscious effort or generated on their own, but is a modulation of innumerable stimuli, past information and experiences stored in the brain that it throws up to our conscious realization, and we go "hey, I just had this amazing idea". Our flawless vision where nothing escapes our notice can surprise us with new revelations depending on what we tune our attention to. An engaging and unputdownable book.
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I found this old library photograph from the 60s on Flavorwire, and I just can't get over how awesome and cool she looks. I now think of her as a Nabokov-reading vintage librarian who is also my imaginary best friend!

Boo!

Yesterday I made an impromptu decision to watch Iron Man 3 in the afternoon, but in accordance with my habitual lateness was greeted by a full house. I had to settle for a very predictable game of ‘spot-the-daayan (witch)’ while sitting in the front row with a bladder full of Coca-Cola and extending my neck uncomfortably to accommodate the entire screen in my field of vision. There were three things that caught my attention: (a) the dazzlingly beautiful Huma Qureshi draped in size 12 dresses layered with pretty jackets, and sporting meticulously messy hairdos (c) the awkward moment in the 'hell' scene when a man standing behind the ‘daayan’ eerily resembled Narendra Modi in attire and looks (d) how for the umpteenth time in a horror movie a rational psychiatrist gets ruthlessly slaughtered by the very evil supernatural being that he refused to believe in.

It is this last plot stereotype in the horror genre that bothers and amuses me at the same time. I don’t believe in ghosts but at the same time don’t want to announce it out loud, just in case something pops up to prove me wrong. Maybe the childhood stories of ghosts, that my grandmother claimed populated her village in every shady nook and corner, got ingrained deeply in my psyche. The variety of the ghosts in her stories were astounding. There were ones that morphed into human form to steal and eat raw fish from boats of fishermen; a ten foot tall gentleman dressed in crisp white dhoti-kurta and giving Marfan’s Syndrome a complex while he roamed within the periphery of temples; a hairy, headless dwarf with bulging red eyes instead of nipples; haunted bamboos that lay innocently on the ground and flung high into air the people who leapt over them; cursed pots of ancient gold coins that brought ill luck and certain death to the person who accidentally dug them out in fields; a woman who wept and called out someone's name right outside their window at midnight; ghost ants that sneaked under sandals and led astray a person into dense forests where they preyed on their unsuspecting victim. I could just go on and on about that tiny village in my grandmother’s stories where colourful ghosts and witches outnumbered human beings.

You can say I am a sceptic in accordance with societal expectations of rationality from a well-read person in her late twenties; yet there is a part of me that gets intrigued by the thought of the supernatural. This duality of my (lack of) belief led to a humorous situation when I worked as an intern at the psychiatry out-patient department and was assigned the responsibility of taking up elaborate histories of patients and present a provisional diagnosis to the professor.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Solitude

It is a humid night and I am on page ninety-one of Pablo Neruda’s Memoirs reading about how in certain cases solitude is something as hard as a prison wall, “…you could smash your head against the wall and nobody came; no matter how you screamed and wept”.

My solitude is different; voluntarily sought, treasured and not centred on any void. My solitude is an escape. My solitude is essential; and I cling to it like the last drops of water at the bottom of the flask while stranded in a desert. My solitude is permeable, selectively by a selective few. My solitude creeps into little nooks of the day; discrete, pulsating nodes of life that puts together what existence undoes. My solitude is layered.

The first and obvious layer: There is reading in bed at dawn and just before midnight, a half hour each, that scrapes off otiose and rusted ideas, causes agitations and reverberations that accompanies the new, occasionally sparks off nostalgia and brings in the pleasant exhaustion of a working imagination. It is a sacred hour of lucent solitude. There is the quarter of an hour of leaning on the parapet of the roof, gazing at the flurry of activity on the streets and the quietude of the distant rolling hills that encircles the city. It refreshes perspectives. It is in the few minutes of coffee and crossword every morning. It is in the occasional driving around without predetermined destinations and secretly banking on serendipity and the delight of the unknown. It is also in the monotonous and meditative laps in the pool. There it is in the endless compiling, weeding out and re-arranging of ideas and memories during commute, fleeting between complete detachment and eager observation of the crowd around. It is in the quiet contemplation of the blur of trees, buildings, people, lives moving outside the car window. These habitual moments of solitude rejuvenates me.

The second and temperamental layer: I owe this to being an introvert, to an inherent preference for solitude. In the course of a busy day, in the midst of a bustling crowd, in the centre of activity or while meeting the unwavering gaze of certain eyes, I need a moment of my own to recharge, to regain composure, to think, to not think. It could be getting back to my room, sitting on my bed, eating a sandwich alone, leafing through a book or listening to my favourite music for a while before rushing back out into the world that “can’t stop talking” (from Susan Cain’s Quiet).

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Esoteric, Vaguely Cryptic Declaration of Shame

Do you know who is world's biggest idiot? You are reading her now.

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Just dangerous? A little and grossly misguided knowledge fucking stabbed my heart, stamped on it a zillion times, mutilated it to pieces and then torched them! I spent the longest and most torturous week of my life mourning over an imagined loss; alternating between starvation and binging on greasy food; battling with insomnia; making sweeping declarations to give up writing; and with a drunken night thrown in for the sake of conformity.

I'm (temporarily) euphoric about the falsity of my little knowledge, but at the same time want to tear my hair apart for the self-induced heartache that I put myself through. It is not funny even in retrospect and now I dread facing my sibling and closest friends, for they will slap me just as fast I had jumped to wrong conclusions!

Think of the biggest embarrassment of your life that makes you want to crawl into a ditch and die, then quadruple that feeling; that's how I feel now. Where do I hide? Escaping to the hills for the weekend.

Quiet, Serendipitous Finds


The overcast sky, the wild wind and the long road seemed akin to a visual metaphor of the storm that had raged inside my mind since few days. It was nine in the morning and I was in IIT Guwahati, driving past a middle-aged woman, with dark and sturdy calves smeared in mud, bent over a bed of frail-looking yellow flowers that lined the campus road, plucking weeds and dropping them into the bamboo basket strapped on her back. Leaving behind a large, tree-lined pond and the morning rush of students cycling to their classes, I was soon out of the IIT campus.

My jethai (my mother’s elder sister) had accompanied me, but we drove in a secretly grateful companionable silence. The road was empty apart from a herd of goats that sat authoritatively right in the middle of it. I rolled down the windows to let the cold wind beat against my face and course their way throw my curls. Just as I was about to turn left on the Amingaon road, a huge Buddha statue with yellow robes and indigo hair caught my eye. It was set atop a hill a few hundred yards away on the opposite side. Why hadn’t I ever noticed it earlier despite taking this road umpteen times?
On an impulse, I turned right and towards the immense statue of Buddha that sat here in the middle of nowhere, so far away from the city. I stopped near three tiny temples which I had misjudged as the path uphill to the statue. We got out of the car anyway at the insistence of the priest who had come out on seeing us. I was hesitant as the only thing religious about me is that I religiously avoided any place of worship thronging with crowds and commercialized rituals.  But here we were the only visitors (don’t want to use the word devotees).
The priest told us that this was the Jaiguru Ganesh Mandir. My jethai was more pious than me and did the rounds of the Ganesha temple (where the idol was carved into the slope of hill that formed one of the temple walls), the Shiva temple and the Lakshmi temple.
I just stood there soaking in the quietness and serenity and watched the tiny shed next to a tree with red blossoms, a lone dove perched up on the dome of the Lakshmi temple and large boulders and trees that surrounded the temple. The priest wasn’t judgmental or inquisitive of my avoidance of worship, and came forward smilingly to hand me a sacred flower. I smiled back in acceptance. He directed us the way to the Buddha statue which we were told was located in the Assam Buddha Vihar.


Barely a hundred meters away, we drove uphill into a narrow path. On seeing two old cars covered with dust and grime and half-hidden in the bushes, I wondered if they were abandoned by their owners who couldn’t find any way to reverse and drive down the narrow curves of the path we were on. Chuckling at that possibility of my own car, I parked it and walked up the stone steps into what I assumed was a Buddhist monastery.
In her late sixties now, my jethai wasn’t keen on climbing too many stairs. We reached the verandah of what I still assumed to be a monastery and hence was on the lookout for meditating monks when a woman dressed in a baggy yellow kurta welcomed us with a cheery ‘namaste, please come in’. She dragged out a plastic chair for my jethai to sit in, and showed me the path further uphill to the ‘Bada wala Buddha, Big Buddha’. I walked on alone just as I heard the woman tell my jethai "I thought I was a tall woman, but you are even taller than me". The trail was relatively short and populated with bushes, boulders and red beetles.

The giant torso of the Buddha loomed into view soon enough. Even though it wasn’t as large as the one I had seen in the Tawang monastery, it still cast an imposing figure. There was a view-point that looked out into lush paddy fields, groves of coconut trees swaying in the brisk wind and the distant river. A pale sun shone through the clouds. If I had drove up alone and if I had a book with me, I would have stayed there the entire day.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Just An Old Song

आनेवाला पल, जानेवाला है
हो सके तो इस में जिन्दगी बिता दो
पल जो ये जानेवाला है

एक बार यूँ मिली, मासूम सी कली
खिलते हुए कहाँ, खुशबाश मैं चली
देखा तो यही है, ढूंढा तो नहीं है
पल जो ये जानेवाला है

एक बार वक्त से, लम्हा गिरा कही
वहा दास्ताँ मिली, लम्हा कही नहीं
थोडासा हँसा के, थोडासा रुला के
पल ये भी जानेवाला है

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Finding My Way Back

Stage 1: Denial, Dread and Depersonalization

Last week saw the decapitation of a precious and stubborn hope; a void so sudden and utter enveloped me that all I could do was roam around the rest of the day in denial. Everything felt surreal. There I was unable to fathom what just happened, remaining motionless in the wait that someone would wake me up from the bad dream, and all the while watching myself run errands, laugh out loud, discuss weekend plans and being as normal as I can be. There wasn't anyone I could talk to about it without hearing a stock pile of advices.The hurt was overpowered by the fear of slow passage of time, the long days where I would walk alone without the crutches of  a hope that I had grown so accustomed to.

Stage 2: Anger, Apathy and Absent Physiological Needs

I felt ashamed of seeing only what I wanted to see. I felt angry about trapped in a vicious cycle. I felt stupid about giving away an organ as vital as the heart to someone who hadn't even noticed it. I was livid about the wasted years. I cringed remembering everything I had told him. I lost the motivation to write as everything I ever wrote had the subtext 'I hope you read me' for that particular reader who no longer existed. On an impulse, I announced the discontinuation of this blog. I looked listlessly at the pile of books on my bed that I had been so excited about reading not so long ago. Insomnia came in, and so did an involuntary and absolute shut down of hunger pangs for a couple of days.

Stage 3: Niagra

I decided a good cry would just get that hassle and pent up unrest out of the way. Alone in my room, the tear ducts remained unresponsive till I said out loud what I had heard. I woke up on a wet pillow.

Stage 4: Manic Overcompensation, Gluttony, Bad Decisions and Neon Lingerie

It seemed downright idiocy to sit at home even on Sunday night, crying my eyes out about a person who wouldn't know or care two hoots about it. I gathered the essential ingredients-a funny sibling, fun friends, my favourite black dress, red lipstick (a first)- and was out for the night. I hoped to fool the mind by simulating happiness (I emphasize that this has been a low phase in my life). I delved into sinfully rich desserts at my favourite café; splurged on objects like neon-purple lingerie, a hamper of chocolates, clementine shampoo and blue cat earrings at the mall; upped triglyceride levels by emptying plates of buttery prawns, spaghetti and an entire pizza; broke the self-laid rule of being an abstainer and sneaked in a bottle of red; and followed it up with a movie marathon where my companions and I muttered abuses every time the word love cropped up. The diversionary tactics worked and exhaustion brought on some much needed sleep that night.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Joan Didion


I don't know what I think until I write it down.” (So true)

“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” 

“A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.”

“That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.”  

“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life is the source from which self-respect springs.” 

“I closed the box and put it in a closet.
There is no real way to deal with everything we lose.” 

“Water is important to people who do not have it, and the same is true of control.” 

Smorgasbord:Weekend Read, Orange Afternoons, Jethro Tull

My reading life covers a broad spectrum of fiction and negligible non-fiction that includes only biographies. I read purely for the joy of discovering new stories and newer insights, and the continual amazement of how words can be stringed together to evoke varied emotions. But i want to do a little more than flip pages to find the next twist in the tale; and want my reading to enhance and diversify my perspective of the world around me. I want to develop critical thinking and form sound opinions of my own rather than inanely agree to those of others. Not long ago it was a painful realization that i had only inserted 'packaged opinions' in my mind. Writing (or blogging) had changed that as I can gather and give some shape to my thoughts when I write them down. Despite the participation in numerous debates in school, I am unable to formulate convincing arguments and raise essential questions about the things I read and hear. So this weekend, two decades late into my reading life, I have picked up 'How To Read A Book' by Mortimer J.Adler in the hope of getting more out of the books I read and increase my curiosity and understanding of a variety of topics.
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Nowadays, between four and six pm, the day takes on a warm orange hue. Outside my window, the leaves are yellowish-green and the warmth encompasses the red-brick houses too, converting their shabbiness into a rustic charm. The faces in the crowd has taken on the warm sheen of freshly baked biscuits. The sun lingers in the sky suffusing it with orange arteries and the impatient sliver of  a pale moon is already visible over the distant grove of trees. A pair of crows fly soundlessly, spiralling around the coconut tree adjacent to the window. Somewhere just beyond my field of vision the cuckoo melodiously leads a noisy lot of birds. I take in the unassuming and quiet beauty of this orange day; and you come in and reverberate in the sudden tranquillity of my thoughts.
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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Dylan & Pablo


“Friend, my enemy, I call you out. You, you, you there with a bad thorn in your side. You there, my friend, with a winning air. Who pawned the lie on me when he looked brassly at my shyest secret. With my whole heart under your hammer. That though I loved him for his faults as much as for his good. My friend were an enemy upon stilts with his head in a cunning cloud.”

“I love you so much I’ll never be able to tell you; I’m frightened to tell you. I can always feel your heart. Dance tunes are always right: I love you body and soul: —and I suppose body means that I want to touch you and be in bed with you, and i suppose soul means that i can hear you and see you and love you in every single, single thing in the whole world asleep or awake” 

“We can catch buses and count our change and cross the roads and talk real sentences. But our innocence goes awfully deep, and our discreditable secret is that we don't know anything at all, and our horrid inner secret is that we don't care that we don't.”

“It snowed last year too: I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea.”  

~Dylan Thomas 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Watch Out For What You Wish

How can I be sure of what I might want a year from now, when I seek a million different things every day? Not long ago I had the good sense to finally accept the fluidity of my thoughts and desires that refuse any stagnancy. I am also aware that getting what one wishes for doesn't always guarantee happiness.

I grew up cursing the dust, smoke and blaring noise of vehicles; I detested the hectic buzz of cities where everyone was in a hurry and longed for the slow and meditative pace of life in the hills or a quiet village. In my relatively short life, I had already formed opinions about what is ideal and lying in a patch of sunshine and reading, dipping my feet in the silken sheet of a river at sunset, and long conversations by the glow of a kerosene lamp were prerequisites of it. I would like to mention here that the books that I read in the formative years of childhood were of the likes of Heidi (with its mountains, stern but kind-hearted grandfather, ruddy-cheeked children, goat cheese and a bed of hay), Anne of Green Gables (trees, brooks, books and conversations), My Family and Other Animals (Corfu and its glorious flora and fauna, and its quirky inhabitants) and stories of Rudyard Kipling and Ruskin Bond (with his turtles in a shallow pond, leopards and foxes in dark forests, haunted houses standing alone atop hills, old widows who had a treasure of stories to tell, deodar trees and yes again, the mountains). And then there were my father's stories of growing up in his village where he swam in the Brahmaputra, and was surrounded by people and surroundings so idyllic that made hardships and poverty not just bearable but tackled with an optimism. I craved for such a life, surroundings that provided a premise for stories to occur.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Dear Jesus, Do Something


Dear Jesus, do something.

Maybe the only thing that hints at a sense of time is rhythm; not the recurrent beats of the rhythm but the gap between two such beats, the gray gap between black beats: the Tender Interval.”  

In spite of everything I loved you, and will go on loving you--on my knees, with my shoulders drawn back, showing my heels to the headsman and straining my goose neck--even then. And afterwards--perhaps most of all afterwards--I shall love you, and one day we shall have a real, all-embracing explanation, and then perhaps we shall somehow fit together, you and I, and turn ourselves in such a way that we form one pattern, and solve the puzzle: draw a line from point A to point B...without looking, or, without lifting the pencil...or in some other way...we shall connect the points, draw the line, and you and I shall form that unique design for which I yearn.

When we remember our former selves, there is always that little figure with its long shadow stopping like an uncertain belated visitor on a lighted threshold at the far end of some impeccably narrowing corridor.”