Friday, April 29, 2011

Reflections: Shadow Princess

To the uninitiated, Shadow Princess, is the third book in a series that fictionalizes some of the powerful, albeit, hidden personalities of the Mughal dynasty. The first two books - The Twentieth Wife, and The Feast of Roses, narrate the colorful life of one of the most influential and impressive women of the Mughal Empire - Jahangir’s twentieth, and most beloved wife - Nur Jahan (or Mehrunissa). In this third book, Shah-Jahan (Jahangir’s rebellious son) is the sovereign ruler of the Mughal lands, who is shattered at losing his dear wife, Mumtaz Mahal (Arjumand). He struggles to cope with his heartbreak, and diverts his sorrow to the construction of the most spectacular tomb for her - the Luminous Tomb (or the Taj Mahal). At his time of distress, he banks on his strong and clever daughter, Jahanara, an uncanny reminder of his wife. Shah Jahan’s dependence on Jahanara is so immense, that the pristine and loving bond between father and daughter gets besmirched due to treacherous rumors. Yet, the bond never wanes, and Jahanara resolutely stays by her father’s side, till his demise. Although Jahanara has receded into the shadows of history texts, this book pulls her out and spills out her story.

Although I read the first two books last year, I had no curiosity or interest in reading the third (and I think, final) book of the series. The deceit and greed of the Mughal time period tired me. I knew what to expect from this book - the repeat of events. Greedy Aurangazeb snatches the throne, imprisons his ill father and kills his brothers. History surely repeated in the Mughal dynasty. However, what re-piqued my interest was the last book I read - The Enchantress of Florence. Salman Rushdie’s descriptions of the Mughal era made me thirsty for more, and who else but Indu Sundaresan can deliver astounding descriptions of Mughal life.

And so, I grabbed this book. The writing quenched my thirst suitably - more than adequately. Almost beyond the point of satiation. I think Indu Sundaresan has mastered the art of writing about the Mughal era - her words are poetic, romantic, and extremely elegant and beautiful. Her florid writing seems to make any scene, even the most mundane, scintillating and interesting. This is partly due to the artistic and poetic touch she gives to every detail - be it a landscape, a person, a building, a tiny artifact. Particularly, her prose shines with the meticulous details she carefully and artfully uses to describe the Taj Mahal, and its construction. I am a person who usually never pays attention to details (well almost, never). I gather the big picture and then move on. But writers like her, kindle the romantic poet in the reader. The words make us skew our rigid (boring) perspectives just a little; to slant our eyes to see the cast of colors and shadows thrown by a plain oil-wicker lamp, or to squint at the afternoon sun lighting up a garden in a million different shades.

So yes, having dedicated a whole effusive paragraph to the writing, let me get to my quibbles. I hate that I’m starting to sound like a pompous, pretentious, know-it-all book critic, but I have to say that while the writing was impressive, it didn’t capture the characters or the story well. Jahanara was described almost identical to how Mehrunissa was. I find no difference between the characterizations of the two women - both were smart, strong-willed, beautiful, influential, and bold enough to go against tradition and create scandals. If at all someone clipped a section from one of the books and asked me to identify the woman being described, I would be at a loss. Almost all the characters had the same “voice” of the narrator - all their dialogues were erudite and poetic, and it was unrealistic to me. There was no distinct characterization, except probably for Aurangazeb; even Shah Jahan started resembling Jahangir.  This might partly be due to the domination of third-person narration in the book. This may have still not been problematic had the narration not focused excessively on the romantic details. The story itself was like a small fruit, sitting inside layers and layers of flowery, extravagant husk. For instance, the description of Jahanara walking down a corridor in the palace easily ran up to (and sometimes more) than two whole pages, while Aurangazeb’s final coup and displacement of Shah Jahan and his brothers, also comes to around two pages. Since there was so much narration and little dialogue or interactions in comparison, parts of the book sounded like a history text - a lyrical one, though.

Despite my quibbles, I surely appreciated reading about Aurangazeb and Jahanara. Until now, I hadn’t paid attention to the fact that Aurangazeb was a staunch Muslim, who went against the principles of tolerance and secularism that his predecessors had embraced. In stark contrast, Jahanara was ahead of her times, well read and balanced in her views. However, it is ironical that Aurangzeb, a man who was so steeped in social and religious propriety, committed categorically callous and amoral deeds by killing his own brothers and snatching the Empire from his ailing father.

Digested Thoughts: It was interesting to read about Princess Jahanara, and the construction of the Taj Mahal. Indu Sundaresan’s writing is always a treat, but I wish the lovely writing was wielded to give more depth and flair to her characters and the historical events. 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Reflections: The Enchantress of Florence

A man with cascading yellow-colored hair, donning a multicolored leather coat, strides confidently into the lavish court of the great Mughal emperor, Akbar. He calls himself by many ambiguous names, charms the emperor with his wit, his pleasing scent, and his mysteriously magical stories. At a time when the Emperor is longing for company, and for intellectual discussions on religion and life, the questions of which were stirring his soul, the yellow-haired man makes himself the Emperor’s listening board and confidante. He soon earns the name, “Mughal of Love”. Yet, Akbar’s mind is not at peace, for this strange man was slowly unwrapping a story about his grand-aunt, Babur’s bewitchingly beautiful sister, the supposedly banished princess, the enchantress, Qara-Koz. The implications of the story were profound - it meant that the strange man in multicolored clothes, bearing an Italian name, could be a half-Mughal. The weight rested on Akbar to cull the truth from the story.

The book is no doubt, alluring. It crafts an incredibly imaginative story, combining fact with fiction in a way nobody would have previously considered. The woman who was cast away from the Mughal lineage finds her way to Florence, Italy, after passing hands from the Shah of Persia, who had earlier captured her and her sister as conquests of war. This enchantress, Qara Koz, lights a flame within the hearts and minds of the people of the Mughal land. Merely through a story, whose truth nobody could ascertain, the persona of the enchantress creeps into people’s lives, making them curious, cautious, anxious, jealous, suspicious, and venomous. A mere wisp of a thought floating from a story, had the power to corrupt and fascinate. The Emperor is however, obsessed. He passionately adores his grand-aunt, completes missing gaps in her life and personality, and gives life to the figment of his imagination. To him, she soon started to exist in life, much like his other imaginary, but most beloved wife, Jodha.

This, in essence, is the main take-away from the book. Akbar’s imagination, and the will of his thoughts were so strong and vivid, that he could give life to a fragment of his thoughts. Reality blurred with illusion, the boundaries bled into each other and reversed roles. That which is real, fades away in the background, while the illusion, comes alive. It might seem silly and hallucinogenic, but that’s how most of us live our lives. We selectively snatch aspects of reality and ignore several others. We form a cohesive story out of the little bits of reality we piece together, extend and complete the missing pieces with a favorable, imaginative bent. Once the will of our imagination solidifies, we become blind to reality itself. This is how half-baked, rigid opinions are formed, and then stagnate, impervious to any form of rational intrusion. This is also how  most of our likes and dislikes of people are born.

Surely interesting. However, as an anticlimax, Rushdie’s words were not as layered or deep, and I didn’t  have to wait till the end of the book to glean this. The symbolism or message, so to speak, was obvious from the first few chapters of the book. I relished these initial chapters, and even thought so far as to consider this as one of the best books I would read. But, a huge but at that, I was disappointed. The story meandered far too much. It was convoluted and bizarre, but didn’t convey much, or so I think. There was plenty of potential in the initial part of the book - wonderful questions on God, Religion, reality and the Human Ego, that Akbar muses on. But sparing a few wise sentences, none of the questions were developed or integrated into the story.

The book also hints at the need for tolerance between cultures. The story highlights Akbar’s tolerance and openness (specifically, between the East and the West). Akbar viewed the integration of new ways of thinking and living to be paramount for the development of the human race. Rushdie fabulously portrays Akbar’s progressive attitude. His personality was sketched well, and the Mughal Empire was tantalizingly described and brought to life.

I never thought I would say this, but Rushdie’s prose was a delight to read. I finally understand why he is extolled for his word-plays. His sentences are simple, yet complex, sparse, yet lush. Although I lost interest in the story, I latched onto the book to read the prose. Of course, I also harbored some measure of curiosity to learn how the story ended, if at all Rushdie had a surprise waiting there. But there was none, or so I think. I can never be sure after reading Rushdie’s books.

Digested Thoughts: It is worth reading the first 100 pages of the book - for the clever writing, and the threads of wisdom and wit. Beyond that, I found the story stretched out and without much meaning. Qara-Koz’s tale was enigmatic, and incestuous. I don’t understand the need for, and the import of the latter part. So, in comparison to Rushdie’s other works, I would rate this book as surely not as interesting or deep. If you’ve read this book, please share your thoughts and educate me on the other aspects I’ve missed. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Reflections: Madame Tussaud

Madam Tussaud’s wax exhibition has earned exceptional fame and praise for over two centuries, that it is now regarded as a Hall of Fame.  I have given a thought or two about this successful entrepreneur who skilfully brought the art of sculpting to mainstream entertainment. But I had no idea this person lived during the tumultuous time of the French revolution. It is fascinating that she both survived the terrible upheaval, and also successfully established her trade from France to England, to now all over the world. If her wax museum is still uproariously popular all over the world, it is a testament to her sharp business acumen and unrelenting ambition. For these reasons, Michelle Moran’s historical fiction on Madam Tussaud's life during the French revolution promises to be an interesting read.

As expected, Moran defines Madam Tussaud (or Mademoiselle Grosholtz before her marriage) as a fiercely ambitious and determined woman. Her uncle took her as an apprentice and trained her in sketching and wax-sculpting, and with his help she ran a wax exhibition which displayed life-like models of the royals, politicians, noblemen, and philosophers. She focuses her life on improving and popularizing her wax exhibition, constantly innovating and exploiting people’s innate curiosity of celebrities and their life. When King Louis XVI and the Queen Marie Antoinette visit her museum to view the wax models of  the palace, and of themselves and their family, they are so impressed by Marie’s (Madam Tussaud's) talent, that they invite her to teach wax modeling and sculpting to the King’s pious sister, Princess Elisabeth. Marie is thrilled at the publicity and recognition her exhibition elicits due to this offer, that she eagerly takes it up to teach the Princess, despite the growing unrest and frustration of the people towards the royals. In fact, some of Marie’s friends are openly against the King and the Queen and are plotting a revolution to bring about a constitutional monarchy.

Moran makes it seem like Marie’s support and sympathies are with the Royals, due to her close friendship with Princess Elisabeth. The King and Queen are shown as earnest nobles who were cast in an unfortunate light due to rumors and ignorance. My quibble is that I don’t understand this perspective; I failed to get an objective and complete picture of the Royals. The ostentatious nature of the royal life comes through Moran’s prose, and the reader can sense Marie’s slight disapproval of their high-handed nature and pampered life when her own family struggled to put food on the table, yet it isn’t clear why she still sympathizes with them. To justify it to her friendship with the Princess was not entirely satisfactory to me. Perhaps she thought the punishment meted out was far more severe than what they deserved and was therefore sympathetic?

While the revolutionary “rationalists” had good ideas and principles on equality and liberty, history tells us that this plan went awry and they turned into barbaric murderers. Moran describes the morbid and grisly crimes that were perpetuated by the very same rationalists who condemned the Royals for their mistreatment of the masses. Marie was forced to make death masks (wax models) of several prominent non-patriots (the ones who favored the royals). She was given the grim task of using their severed heads to sculpt masks that served as warnings to people, and reminders to progeny. It is hence understandable that Marie was repulsed by the revolutionaries, but I would have still appreciated more information on the Royals, their various deeds which incited the people, and the reasons for Marie’s support towards them.

My second crib with the book is that Marie’s character was quite flat. Moran brings forth her shrewdness, feminism and ambition, showing how she risked her love and her own life to remain in France for the sake of her exhibition and her mother. But there was no character development beyond this determined facade. Marie’s passion and her struggles through the “Reign of Terror” don’t have any soul to them. It felt like Marie was simply narrating the French Revolution, rather than her life during the revolution. Although the book was 400+ pages, I felt there was so much more missing about Marie, in terms of her personality. I was especially disheartened that the last pages of the book were rushed, and important parts of Marie’s life were condensed to a couple of sentences. I felt more satisfied with the epilogue than with the entire book. That's not a good sign.
Digested Thoughts: The book holds promise, but it was a disappointment to me. However, there are plenty of rave reviews for it on Amazon, so my point view may just be a quirky rarity. My main disappointment is that none of the characters were well-defined. Marie didn’t come alive as a person. She was portrayed as a cliched ambitious woman, and didn’t have a distinct personality of her own. I can’t come to terms with Marie’s superficial recounts of her struggles and her unfortunate task of molding severed heads. I understand that Moran wanted to signify Marie’s strength, resolve, and her numbness towards death and morbidity, but it wasn’t executed well. Due to this, I found the writing to be abrupt and without much feeling. But I did learn more about Madam Tussaud, her life, and the French Revolution than I remember from textbooks, so I’m glad for the learning experience. 

Friday, April 15, 2011


I don’t know about the rest of you, but I find Yahoo’s headlines and local news to be quite entertaining, even if they are not really of much substance. I usually click on links that flash “10 home remedies for headache and beautiful skin” or “The top 10 cleanest cities in the US”, or “The 10 highly safe neighborhoods in the US”. Once in a while, I’ll be tempted to read about the 3 year old who saved her mother, or the 10 year old who threw herself in front of a truck to save her little sister. And every time, I’ll be surprised by the breadth of scintillating news that Yahoo rounds up.

This morning, I found an irresistibly plaintive news flash - “Bullied child gets plastic surgery”, and the picture of a cute little, freckled child smiling at me. I had to read the story:

At the end of it, I was shocked. Beyond belief. Honest to God, I did not find anything wrong with the kid’s ears! I am out of words to condemn such perpetuation of vanity! Maybe it isn’t vanity - perhaps it is the pressure to conform to standards of acceptable beauty? I understand the pains of being bullied, but for ears that stuck out a little? Really?! I ADORE such ears! And know quite a few (kids and adults) with those Simba-like ears, who lead content, confident lives.

I don’t want to judge and jump to conclusions - but was this the right approach to save the kid’s feelings and development of positive self-esteem? Cosmetic surgery - the panacea to body-image related self-esteem  and confidence issues? And to instill this in a 7 year old, who is soon going to enter the inevitably harrowing years of adolescence and has to cope with teenage insecurity? At 14 she may think her nose isn’t perfect, or her skin isn’t flawless - what is her solution going to be? More surgery? Such stories once again point to the western world’s vain illusion of a perfect body, and its stubborn obsession with it.

Besides, bullying never stops in life. One can’t “escape” it by altering one’s body - over and over again. Children should be taught coping strategies that reaffirm their worth, despite minor external quirks. I may be wrong, but from the video I got the sense that the mom was more insecure and harried than the child. There are ways to focus on brighter, positive aspects of the child, and to channelize the child’s growth in constructive ways that establish confidence and security.

Encourage her talents, support and help improve them, make her feel valued for possessing those talents, let her qualities and traits build her confidence, reinstate that external appearances do not make one’s personality or success in life. But be empathetic all the same. I know that brushing away a sensitive issue like this by waving it off stoically won’t work. Be creative and explore ways in which the kid can feel all the more beautiful and confident - compliment her often, get her flattering clothes, a nice hair-cut. Teach her that she can use little cosmetic accessories to express herself. But don’t magnify a quirk in front of her impressionable mind and innocent eyes into a horrible humiliation. That’s a terrible, irrevocably bad example to set. The more I think of it, it’s the mother’s self-esteem/insecurity issues that are being acted out on the daughter. I am aware that every mother loves her child and would do anything to protect the child. Although well-meaning, sometimes, mothers do make mistakes and put their child under an unnecessary knife.

I’m not arguing that cosmetic surgery is never an option. Cosmetic surgery is a blessing for children born with  cleft lip/palate, or those who get disfigured from accidents, suffer burns, etc. Although one can still argue that cosmetic fixes aren’t necessary, I don’t think it’s fair to let the child (or adult) deal with so much pain, if surgery is a viable solution. One should know where to draw the line - as always.

In this world of needless vanity, a time when anyone can be made to look good with fashionable clothes, fitting hair-cut, and skillful make-up, this story is a striking example of the kinds of values being passed onto the next generation.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Face Behind Words

Do you judge a book by its cover?

I know, I know. The politically right thing to say (especially if the “book” in question is actually a person), is “No, of course not. I remember an incident from Mahatma Gandhi’s life when......”
Yes, true. There are intellectuals and humanitarians who have waxed eloquently and articulately on how constraining, judgmental, irrational, and rash our views are, if they are formed primarily on the external impressions of a person - how one looks, dresses, talks, and carries themselves.

But some people are truly the same - in and out. They are so incredibly transparent and frank in everything about them, that you sometimes wished they surprised you now and then. However, I hardly meet such confident and genuine personalities. Due to my belief that human beings are inherently “good” or “nice”, and that they are exceedingly complicated, I never ever judge anybody based on my first impression. I think Shrek nailed it when he calls himself an onion - he succinctly conveys my meandering thoughts which obviously lack the vivid imagery and punch that an onion brings to mind. Everyone has multiple layers of themselves. Individually, no layer gives a complete picture of the person. Although there may be a few rotten (or unpalatable) layers to a person, on the whole, I believe that the composite is hardly ever completely corrupted or foul. Every person has at least one shred of “good” or “pure” layer in them, and I try to focus on that part of the person. Many disagree and tsk-tsk at my idealism, but despite several unkind experiences with people, I still maintain this stance.

Anyway, I have as usual gone astray from the point of the post.

In this electronic age dominated by the internet revolution, it has become even more complicated to understand a person (or most of their layers), from what and how they choose to project themselves through Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other online media. Scholars have aptly named our Internet persona as our second-life. The Internet is a favorable portal through which we can adopt any number of avatars as our alter-ego would like to manifest.

Such online profiles fire an irresistible curiosity in me. It is in my nature to want to analyze people, deconstruct them, and fit them back into cohesive segments that logically point at their behavior, motivations, thought process etc. Yes, I am a “psycho-nerd” as my husband calls me. Besides, there is this little part of me which is curious about the role of intuition and gut-feeling - haven’t you ever wondered how a person would look based on their voice? Oh, that’s such a favorite “hobby” of mine - it encompasses all possible permutations and combination between faces, names, voices, words, and personalities. I convert basic human curiosity into a profound detective work ;). In the online arena, since I like to read blogs and people’s thoughts, I usually (involuntarily, most of the time) start collecting bits and pieces of clues that trickle out of the posts and begin my jigsaw puzzle, eking out a few “assumptions” here and there to fit some corners.

Sometimes, I come across blogs that move me, awe me, or well, revolt me, that I instantly let down my guard, don’t pay heed to my “layer-theory”, and immediately put a face, and a personality to the words and thoughts. Reading just a few posts gives me the assured feeling of knowing the person so well that I can mentally extend the missing layers and construct a picture that fits my model. The surprise is that, no new post will ever contradict my model. If there are contradictions, my mind rationalizes it, justifies it, and I invent new, unknown layers to this persona. I am mostly blissfully unaware of reality, for I have hardly met or interacted with people whom I get to know only through their blog. I smugly thought a blog - a medium which allows one to express their thoughts (being higher-order stuff and all that), was the “purest” filter in the online world to give us a real peek into the person behind the words.

Nope, not really. I never learn that words are - just words, to most people. Even if there is no pressure to write those words down, even if the written word is supposedly more powerful and "straight-from-the-heart". It is indeed easier to type these days than to talk to people. Just as how the words that float so smoothly out of many a mouth should be passed through multiple sieves before trusting those casually thrown out morphemes, it is necessary to take the impulsively-rattled-out words with a grain of salt. 

One can be the most astute, razor sharp, analytical philosopher who can dissect arguments and articulate brilliant theories in their blog, but that doesn't necessarily translate to how well this philosopher applies their skills to manage their life - one can't be shocked if this philosopher were to act in the most irrational manner possible in their own life. Similarly, a person who seems generous, empathetic, sensitive, and intelligent, need not be compassionate or altruistic all the time, or even at the most crucial of times. Their traits are mainly in principle, in theory, in random shapes that form words. Everyone does indeed have their multiple layers, which no abstract medium can faithfully help us get to know.

For instance, what would you, kind reader who has waded through my post and got to this point, assume of me? Among other unmentionable expletives, a chatterbox, a rambling, incorrigible talker, perhaps? Haha. I am incorrigible yes, but surely not a talker, unless you dangerously let loose an interesting point of view in front of me.

It takes years of direct, face-face, real-life interaction with a person to unearth most, if not all, of their core "layers". The complexity of human beings will never cease to surprise me. Nor will my thrill and suspense of putting together a face from a voice, or a voice from a face. Even if I have failed almost all the time.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Reflections: How I Became a Human Being

Mark O’Brien fell victim to Polio at a very young age. Since then, his condition only kept worsening, despite his lingering childlike hopes. His spine curved, the muscles in his limbs atrophied, and his lungs deteriorated, making him dependent on an unwieldy iron lung (a respirator of sorts) to breathe. Mark was shuttled between hospitals and his home for the predominant part of his childhood and teenage years. But his burning ambition to be independent and to make a living on his own, drove him to pursue admission into University of California, Berkeley’s Undergraduate Disabled Students’ Program. After much struggle, he got in and successfully graduated as an English Major. Having a penchant for literature and writing since his early years, he converted his interest into his livelihood. He worked hard to establish himself as a freelance writer and journalist. More importantly, he toiled all his life to establish himself as a human-being - a person worthy of love, respect and regard. Mark’s memoir is much more than inspirational to me - it is a touching account of what Independence, acceptance, and respect in society means.

I am always interested in issues surrounding one’s identity - how identity is felt and worn by an individual, how this gets perceived by society, how society’s perception feeds back and tinges one’s awareness of their identity, and then the ways in which one chooses to project it. Mark’s words are full of these identity feedback loops, and the title of the memoir fittingly describes his angst. In an Utilitarian sense, a disabled body screams of “low-utility” in every segment of society - professional and personal. Mark’s battle, and that of several others, is to go against this stream of thought in a society that is Utilitarian at its core. It is shameful that people who can’t contribute to society in the same ways as able-bodied people, are indeed regarded a little less human, and are afforded less humane treatment. Starting from the ways in which one looks at such a person, to the conversations (if at all) they have with the person, they are made to feel so different as to not even think of belonging to the same class of species. Mark’s memoir is a plea to correct political policies that doom the lives of disabled people suffering such indignities to their identity, wasting away their lives and minds in institutions and hospitals. The US has come a long way with its Disability Act, but many other societies still live in the dark.

There are three other aspects of this memoir that really touched me (some of which I have already stressed before)

1. The misconception surrounding independence and incompetence
When physically challenged people talk of their desire to be independent, they are often misconstrued as being in denial, and not facing reality. True, the extent of independence and privacy that they can hope for is different from what an able-bodied person can experience. But by independence, they mean the right and freedom to express themselves, choose between options, decide for themselves, and control the directions of their life as much as they can. The unfortunate misconception that a crippled person faces is that of mental incompetence. People hardly want to ask permission, or provide choices to a person in a wheelchair, who projects the image of helplessness and physical incompetence. Our animalistic brain assumes that a physical challenge equals low brain power. To break such stereotypical molds, we have several highly accomplished scientists and artists who repeatedly assert that the physical state is no reflection of the agility of the mental state. It is a fatalistic approach to keep dictating the lives of those with a severe physical disability, using the insensitive argument that they anyway have far too few choices in life to contend with, and heaven forbid, they shouldn’t be hoping for more.

2. Bravery versus fearlessness
Mark’s memoir is extremely honest. He cringes when people call him brave, probably because the word discounts his struggles, fears, and frustrations, and seems to put him in an uncomfortable spotlight that emphasizes that he is not “normal”. But, I liked a definition of bravery that he eventually comes to accept. Bravery doesn’t mean fearlessness. Bravery is when you decide to do something, despite the fear it causes you. This applies to everybody and to most of our actions. We constantly fight against our fears, to rise above it, and accomplish that which we really want.

3. The Disability spectrum

Everyone is “disabled” to some extent, in some form or the other. No one is perfectly able-bodied or able-minded. But all of us crave for love and acceptance regardless of the condition of our body or mind - acceptance is vital in the basic hierarchy of human needs. It helps to connect with this primal need for acceptance when we consider people who are shunned due to their physical state.

I will end with one of Mark’s poems about his breathing through an iron lung:
Grasping through straws is easier;
You can see the straws.
“This most excellent canopy, the air, look you,”
Presses down upon me
At fifteen pounds per square inch,
A dense, heavy, blue-glowing ocean,
Supporting the weight of condors
That swim its churning currents.
All I get is a thin stream of it,
A finger’s width of the rope that ties me to life
As I labor like a stevedore to keep the connection.
Water wouldn’t be so circumspect;
Water would crash in like a drunken sailor,
But air is prissy and genteel,
Teasing me with its nearness and pervading intensity.
The vast, circumambient atmosphere
Allows me but ninety cubic centimeters
Of its billions of gallons and miles of sky.
I inhale it anyway,
Knowing that it will hurt
In the weary ends of my crumpled paper bag lungs.

It is remarkable that Mark kept breathing and living despite his numerous existential questions and frustrations, until his lungs finally gave in. Jessica Ju’s interesting documentary on Mark’s colorful life won an Oscar in 1997. It is heartening that Mark did eventually get recognized as an interesting human-being worthy of getting to know.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Recording Moments in History

Being vaguely aware that I have something called a blog, where I write about this and that every now and then whenever I fire up my laptop and shush him away, for the very first time in history, my husband burst into an excited exclaim as I started furiously spitting out my previous post, wearing a heavily contorted expression on my face.

“Are you writing about India winning the World Cup in your blog?!”

Not sure if it was my serious expression that clued him in.

Since I have certain mild feelings of guilt at shouting, “No!! Get Out”, and since I can’t erase his deflated, crest-fallen expression and constant whining about my lack of sufficient enthusiasm and excitement about India’s win, I am dedicating two sentences for him.

Yaaay, we won!! What a miracle that we could see and share this historic moment of triumph and pride!

The Me in Me

Like a graceful bird cutting through the sky, the thought gently glided by and perched firmly onto my mind, fluffing and wrapping its gossamer wings around me. Now, I constantly feel the feathers hugging me; a shivery flutter of reminder at times, and at times a warm shawl tugging at my neck. Having sensed this presence growing heavier on me in the last several months, that I can no longer ignore or shrug it away.

Feeling the contours of this thought, I recognize its familiarity and ingrained truth. It doesn’t feel like an epiphany, for there was no bolt of realization that pierced me. The thought steadily took form and alighted on the right part of my mind at the right time, goading me to face the truth that I have stopped being “me” to someone very dear.

Having pondered for inordinate amounts of time on what constitutes the self, the core of an individual independent of the body, I have come up with numerous theories. I have always looked at myself and have been able to connect with that “inner me”, to justify these theories. But I have never tried to verbalize, in precise words, in terms of traits and characteristics, who this “inner me” is. However now, when you, the very person who felt and knew “me” even before I became a complex mass of cells and developed any semblance of awareness of myself, accuses me of changing, bemoans the loss of the “true me”, and no longer wants to get close to this “different” me, I am forced to try and find words to make sense of this conundrum when “I” no longer am "me"  to someone.

I have been told (in not so many words) that I have changed in many ways - the way I look, the way I dress, the way I talk, the way I behave, the way I act, and the way I think. And they are all true - I have indeed changed in all of these areas. I have to concede that you're making a genuine and valid point about “me” not being “me” anymore. Besides, it is true that the above attributes are the main identifiers of a person, or a personality, and it’s dubious for one to assert that they are still innately the same despite all these changes to their external and internal self. But how can I grasp at that fuzzy feeling of identity choking my guts, how should I yank it out and show it to myself and you, and say - “Look I am the same!”

Change is an unavoidable consequence of life. I tell myself that although I have indeed changed, it is more of an evolution, even an improvisation. True, I haven’t “improved” in so many aspects, and have surely fallen back on many, but I realize that my changes were with the aim of bettering myself and my survival. Isn’t such a betterment of myself a good thing? I remind myself that I worked hard to discard some stubborn old ways and pushed myself to the edge to develop vital characteristics - such as a thick skin, and the ability to talk well, talk right, and talk smart to the right people at the right place, at the right time. And yes, my thinking process has changed in leaps and bounds, thanks to my books, my education, and the cherished people around me who have prodded, kindled, probed, hammered, and stretched the limits of my thinking. It follows that my behavior, actions, and speech have accordingly reformed.

In essence, I have been growing, experiencing, realizing, evolving, and maturing. I tell myself this is part of life. I am glad that I could shed off the persona of the painfully shy, wide-eyed, all-trusting, guileless eighteen year old. Yet, you, whose love and approval I value and crave so much, remain stuck in the memories of the eighteen year old and the three year old, who saw the world in black and white, and regarded the virtue of unquestioning obedience as the mantra of life. I don’t know how to make you see me, as I am now, and as I have always been - connected to you.

Whimpering on this side, I want to argue that the core of my interactions, my love, affection, and concern for you have never changed. But the arguments are endless. Like the old philosophical riddle of the sock with a growing hole - I don’t know if the several new pleats of yarn that are stitched in to patch my old holes will make me a brand “new” sock. Can I hang onto the last frayed thread and still claim - I am the same old me? Or can I argue that no matter what type of different yarns I am weaved in, no matter the colors, the patterns, my blueprint is always the same - I am still a sock. The sock you knit. Of a certain structure, and of a certain purpose, and that will never change.