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Tidings from Hebdomad.

6 Jul

Hebdomad, some of you will remember, is the blog I run on firstpost. It ostensibly belongs to one Ramachandran, and is doing reasonably well, thank you for asking. Neil Gaiman tweeted a post about his vampire sestina, which brought a skip to one’s step and a hum to one’s stats. He ignored, perhaps out of modesty, another fawning post about Sandman (his and E.T.A Hoffman’s). He was even gracious enough not to point out his sundry vampire-fic. Thankfully, comments folks were less restrained, and I’ve liblisted The Graveyard Book and reread ‘Snow, Glass, Apples’ (I realised half way that I had it confused with ‘Lady of the House of Love’, which is either a great compliment or a terribly trite comparison.)

All the gaiman geekdom, anyway, earned me the gig. Hebdomad lives, and the most recent post remembered the spirit of Michael Kelly, whom I debated across the writing of Chaosbogey’s Politics last year. I spent a week with the blues ladies, mourning Janis and Billie Holiday. The parent, beloved reader, assures me I ‘broke’ the Indian slutwalk story by writing it up in the early days of twitter hysteria.  Most of bogeydom will agree (all you lonely victims of my assorted rambles) that fashion isn’t my forte. To write said trailblazer, thus, I prudently chose silence and dipped into Dorothy Sayers. A few days later, on 13th June, I celebrated her birthday, and was vastly entertained to find she shared it with Yeats. And so we are led into a poem.

Time drops in decay

like a candle burnt out

and the mountains and the woods

have their day, have their day

what one in the rout

of the fire-born moods

has fallen away?

Tisn’t as happy a poem as I’d have liked. (‘A Coat‘)  Fitting, though, given the fate of slutwalk, a debate from which I’ve finally walked away. Or so I declared on bookslut, which is as good as any virgin’s oath. There is, I will admit, a post waiting in the wings should the blessed event come to pass, failing which it will go up on July 25th. Then I’m done, if only because scores of women have said everything I need to say, and done so far better than I ever could. For a sampling, here is Annie Zaidi, or Kuzhali Manickavel, or Nisha SusanKatha Pollitt wrote an eloquent (and global) love letter to the movement, giving it much needed Serious Feminist Cred. Also, since I quote from it so liberally in the ‘slut essay, this be the rest of Adrienne Rich’s poem:

The light of outrage is the light of history

springing upon us when we’re least prepared

thinking maybe a little glade of time

leaf thick and with clear water

is ours, promised us, for all we’ve hacked

and tracked our way through: to this:

What will it be? Your wish or mine? your

prayers or my wish then: that those we love

be well, whatever that means, to be well.

Outrage: who dare protection for their own

amid such unprotection? What kind of prayer

is that? To what kind of god? What kind of wish?

— Through Corralitos under Rolls of Cloud, IV.

That is that as far as news goes (oh wait, I moaned about my nose). This Saturday, I shall be doing a Peake centenary post, so do keep an eye out for some amusing verse.  Now, because this is bogey and I love you all so, I shall inflict upon you an ‘exclusive’ from the failed experiments of my writing life. The.. bile that follows was written in an aborted attempt at understanding economics as I was reading “The Relentless Revolution”. It is also why the first draft of that review concluded with this immortal line: ‘it is the purpose of histories to differentiate between porsches and potatoes.’ So now you know.

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Mirrors & Myths.

20 Jan

This is the creature there has never been.

They never knew it, and yet, nonetheless,

they loved the way it moved, its limber

neck, its very gaze, mild and serene.

Not there, because they loved it, it behaved

as though it were. They always left some space.

And in that clear unpeopled space they saved

it lightly reared its head, with scarce a trace

of not being there. They fed it, not with corn,

but only with the possibility

of being. And that was able to confer

such strength, its brow put forth a horn. One horn.

Whitely it stole up to a maid- to be

within the silver mirror, and in her.

— Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, II-IV.

One of the great truths about a reading life is that timing matters. When you read something is almost as important as what you read.  Last year, I finally gave up my old standby of reading books in one sitting. What had once been an intense and freewheeling experience was now diffuse and overwhelming. This I justified in many ways: diversity, deadlines, multiple bibliographies, a brain that can never be satisfied with only one of anything. The truth was I simply couldn’t read the way I had all my life any more. It was no longer about the reading, it became about the writing.  To write, one must compress, paraphrase, and excerpt like a librarian on pills. This is as often exhausting and dull as it is exhilarating and refreshing, and books lost their hold upon me.  My nose for them was all nostril and no flair. Where once I had anticipated reading, I now planned it; and in the crossfire I abandoned my visceral love of a good story, the very reason I began this whole writing shebang in the first place.

This past month I have set about trying to recover some of that lost stardust. I read mountains of fiction, usually the most regulated commodity on my reading lists. As with any reader, fiction is my confectionary: curative in small doses, addictive in large. I watched even larger doses of television, to tide over days when the very sight of a book gave me the hives. I did freelance work that was more about a good pitch than a good tale.  I even went dancing. In all, I got me a life. And I detested it. The book that drew me back from the abyss (read in one sitting) was Reckless, by Cornelia Funke. A few weeks later, happily ensconced in my library, I am wondering why this little book managed what so many others could not.

Funke’s ‘Inkworld’ books were skilled at world-building and clumsy with plot; Reckless, weirdly, inverts this equation. The story races along, while the ‘mirror-world’ is drab and populated by stock fairytale types: witches, dwarves, unicorns, fairies, shape-shifters.  The dominant races- humans, and stone-people known as Goyls- are at war. This is the world that Jacob Reckless, our hero, ventures into at age 12. He slips between the worlds for another dozen years; a famous treasure-hunter in one, an absent brother in the other.  Finally, Jacob’s worlds collide, his brother is attacked by Goyls, and Reckless begins. If fur turns to skin, and skin to stone, what remains?

Reckless is an experiment in the tradition of Through the Looking Glass, though it sorely misses the wit and invention of Carroll’s classic. There are no March Hares and singing walruses to be met here, nor do the unicorns declare children to be fabulous monsters. Mirror-worlds have spawned into an enormous sub-genre in recent years, and Reckless is a solid (if not incandescent) sample of the trope. It served, anyhow, to draw me towards an ancient trail, and the road to sanity was littered with glittering mirrors.  Everywhere in my reading, I saw magical mirrors: Denethor’s Palantir; The Mirror of Erised; Lady Shalott, whose mirror crack’d from side to side; Despair of the Endless, locked in her hall of mirrors. Perseus, who turned Medusa’s gaze upon herself; Narcissus, who taught humanity to glance askance. There are enough of them scattered about to garner Diana Wynne Jones’ attention in her Tough Guide to Fantasy Land:

Mirrors are somewhat infrequent, despite the fact that glass is used for windows. Many of them are made of polished metal and are the property of rich people and Enchantresses. Where mirrors exist, of whatever material, they are not commonly used for combing hair. They will be employed for Prophecy or Farseeing, or, less frequently, as the way from our own world to start the Tour, or simply for travel. Glass mirrors are almost exclusively used as a device for spotting Vampires or other Enemies in disguise.

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Field of Magnetic Impulses.

12 Jan

I would like to be Mercutio. Among his virtues, I admire above all his lightness, in a world full of brutality, his dreaming imagination- as the poet of Queen Mab- and at the same time his wisdom, as the voice of reason amid the fanatical hatreds of Capulets and Montagues. He sticks to the old code of chivalry at the price of his life perhaps just for the sake of style but he is a modern man, sceptical and ironic: a Don Quixote who knows very well what dreams are and what reality is, and he lives both with open eyes.

Italo Calvino, A Hermit in Paris.

My debt to Italo Calvino, my shameless plagiarising of his device, will be obvious to anyone who has read The Castle of Crossed Destinies. Over the years, I’ve borrowed many things from him, not least my stock response on dates and parties to nerd ice-breakers such as who is your favourite Shakespeare character? and Don’t you wish some sidekicks would kick their principals off-page? What’s good for Calvino is certainly good enough for me, despite (or perhaps because of) my own lack of opinion/knowledge when it comes to the Grand Bard of Almighty Lit.

I read Castle to write a college-application essay back in high school, and it was my silver lining across a shabby six months. I was supposed to read If on a winter’s night.., which I gave up speedily enough. Castle I could begin to fathom, and I read the book like a talisman across the exam-onslaught that is 12th standard. The only chemistry I remember is my attempted synthesis of the periodic table and sundry arcana.

It was much later I read his description of the calculation behind that collection; in Memos he calls it a “fantastic iconography”, his use of the tarot-imagery within it a “machine for multiplying narratives”. What struck me then was the dexterity of the text, how every story could fold into any other, creating new polarities, new points of tension, alternate realities.

In years since, I continue to drift to him when I need someone to remind me of literature’s redemptive power.

 I’ve dipped into most of his books, but the only ones I claim to understand are Castle and (hopefully) Six Memos for the Next Millennium.

I don’t think I’ll ever “finish” reading Calvino. I don’t think I ever want to.

The artist’s imagination is a world of potentialities that no work will succeed in realising. What we experience by living is another world, answering to other forms of order and disorder. The layers of words that accumulate on the page, like the layers of paint on canvas, are yet another world, so infinite but more easily controlled, less refractory to formulation. The link between the three worlds is the indefinable spoken of by Balzac; or, rather, I would call it the undecidable, the paradox of an infinite whole that contains other infinite wholes. A writer- and I am speaking of a writer with infinite ambitions, like Balzac- carries out operations that involve the infinity of his imagination or the infinity of the contingency that may be attempted, or both, by means of the infinity of linguistic possibilities in writing.

“Visibility”, Six Memos for the Next Millennium.

Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino’s final book, is a catalogue of virtues he would like to see preserved in our millennium. It was intended to be a manual for future generations about the nature of writing: as a skill, a vocation, an enterprise. Hold steady to these questions, he tells us, keep faith in the maelstrom of your world; if these should die the world shall be a fell place indeed. He completed five of the planned six lectures: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity. Of the last, Consistency, we have only the hints he buried across the span of his literary career.  Calvino was a prolific writer, and fans will know that the concept of “masterpiece” is redundant when it comes to this master of the fable. Calvino’s gift is the vignette, his best work evokes snatches of illustrated tapestry. This is the Calvino of Italian Folktales and Cosmicomics: ironic, precise, detached. Calvino, in his fiction, is an avatar of the weaver Arachne, announced with a faint cackle and the crinkle of old paper in the background.

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Playing Cassandra.

28 Dec

A Year in Reverse, Part II.

(Part I was Deluded Democracy, about elections around the world.)

The first of these.. snippets is a dismembered essay I wrote for popmatters back in February. That essay makes less sense every time I read it, and I’m hoping the remnants of it will fare better. Another essay that would’ve made it into this series is Of Nativity, where my allegiance to Frantz Fanon was recorded for posterity to note. It has already found its way onto this blog, however, and that’s that as far as introduction goes.

Playing Cassandra.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a woman of demonstrably diverse talents. If she should want to find conventional employment, one would assume it would be a fairly easy process. Bait and Switch is a detailed exposition into why one would be wrong. In it, she goes undercover again, as she did in Nickel and Dimed, this time in the very white collar world of PR and marketing. Excluding the publishing world, she starts the book applying and searching for marketing/PR positions promiscuously, sans moral qualm and geography. Her single string is income level, yet she spends the rest of the book upgrading herself in vain. 

I read this book amazed at the ‘transition’ industry unemployment in America has spawned, converting desperation into dollars. By synthesizing selfishness with self-help, Corporate America seems to have learnt how to systemically shed people while simultaneously convincing them it’s their own fault they’re out of a job.

Ehrenreich describes her steady line of career coaches offering contradictory advice on the basis of loopy personality tests, one of whom hilariously advises her to work on her writing skills. She negotiates the catch-22 of “appropriate” attire for corporate women (simultaneously professional and feminine, without being either threatening or provocative), encounters the evangelical Right, and discovers the new workforce makes the people it retains as miserable as the ones it fires. Several of the people she networks with are employed, but desperate to find alternate employment: either because they are underemployed and dissatisfied, or because they are stretched far too thin compensating for fired colleagues. Apart from time and energy, she ultimately spends $6,000 on her job search: money spent on coaches, resume-checkers, job sites, networking “clubs” and “events”, bootcamp (essentially group therapy), a wardrobe consultant, a “professional development seminar” until, finally (and fittingly), she is offered the chance to pay someone to employ her.

Mervyn Peake, Mad Hatters.

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Deluded Democracy

23 Dec

A Year in Reverse, Part One.

Over the next week, I shall be putting up collections of things I wrote this year that haven’t made it to this blog yet. Pre-bogey readers, all ten of you, will remember I blogged for Himal SouthAsian earlier in 2010, and these were mostly written to that end. They are ‘political’ reportage, if you will be generous with your definition. Mostly, I talk about news I find interesting. This year that happened more often than is usual, as Chaosbogey’s Politics will tell you. Here is me covering other elections from the year.

The second part of the reversal was Playing Cassandra.

Antique Wine in an Antique Bottle.

June, 2010

The recent demolition of the West Bengal CPI (M) in Calcutta municipality elections brokered many fates. In a country where some form of election is a daily occurrence, municipal elections inevitably get the short shrift. Not so here.  Newspapers and pundits portend that it marks a turned tide, that 2011 assembly elections shall see the party in the bay rather than in Bengal. Writers’ Building (in Calcutta, even administration must have a booksy air) might finally see new occupation: Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress.

Writers Building

The party in present form is evidently just the Lady, a few trusted deputies, and her unwavering agenda of uprooting the CPI (M). One wonders how this party will cope with the delegation of government. To the facile observer, Banerjee’s Didi might echo that other formidable and self-reliant Lady CM: Mayawati’s Behenji (even their honorifics collide). An important difference remains. Mayawati has had spells of power to considerably enrich herself, while Mamata is that rare mystery: an impecunious politico. She is currently Union Railway Minister, an easy route to padded bank accounts. Perhaps her restraint was just prudence: what is a ministry compared to the treasury of an entire state? Will she stay uncorrupted by power once her crusade is accomplished? It is a wager Bengal appears willing to take.

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