Wednesday, August 29, 2012

In which she makes herself wildly unpopular

by refusing to participate in this revelry - so tasteless, so loud it hurts my eyes [can it, Baudelaire would know what I'm on about], ears and fingers - occasioned by the pronouncement upholding Kasab's death penalty. Let me state my position categorically, and then follow it up by trying to answer potential charges which might be levelled against anyone who, much like I do, holds these truths to be self-evident.

I don't hold with capital punishment. Sheesh, at this rate, this is going to be a damn tight, aphoristic little post (I've never done 'brief' well, as anyone who knows or has read me will know), so you're correct in assuming that there's more. Loads more. We still have to cover my incessant internal arguments - ah, the joys of having so many Harmonies to grapple with in this one lifetime - which see me alternatively baulk and physically cringe at injustices in every way, shape, and form; froth at the mouth with anger, despair and utter frustration at my own painfully obvious inability to 'fix' wrongs so much bigger than I, and dealing with the always conscious near-guilt of knowing that these things - losing someone in the attacks on Bombay or during the riots or the tsunami or insert-catastrophe-of-choice-here -  did not happen to me, which makes me analyse critically my  response to them and question whether I have the right to voice at all. I speak, therefore, for nobody but myself/selves, and dissociate from the wider debate on the politics of representation at play here. I try and put myself in those situations, and wonder if my - to some people's minds, perhaps - glib and self-righteous responses would not undergo a sea-change from pearl to bone, to reverse the bard's metaphor for time and what it can and cannot do to us, were I to be more, well, implicated, if you will. I can't, of course, give myself, or you as it happens, a definite answer on this front. I suspect the core of what I'm getting at - how I try and live my life - would mean that I'd still try and reconcile myself to this simple fact. Human life is arbitrary only in that it is something 'we' (and we only become 'we' post-facto, and can thus only formulate this in hindsight) didn't ask for. But we got it anyway. At which point, it is a moral imperative that we *not* - in no case. ever. - arbitrate that it be taken away. Also, what separates us, and this us~as~Indian State, from them (and you should know me well enough to know that this hated binary does NOT refer to any place or definite co-ordinate: it refers to the ideologies of hate that made certain people commit particular crimes)? They ravage. They destroy lives. Why can't we agree that this person, representative of these ideologies, is  heinous - indoctrinated/taken advantage of owing to his socio-economic position in the world's scheme of things though the case may be - but that we won't kill him, simultaneously? How can a country which came into being because an apostle of non-violence dreamed it - willed it, even - into existence still uphold a public and legislative morality which finds room in it for capital punishment?

And whence all this whooping and yelling for joy on bloody Facebook and other social media platforms, yo? The same jingoism you think is national spirit which leads you to post a "patriotic" song on Independence Day and then forget about your precious India for the rest of the year? If you don't live and breathe what it means to be a 'citizen' in the public sphere - whether it's on the roads, your local society, your ruddy university or workplace - every single minute of every single day, your creed is a hollow one, and I want none of it. What did you do when Bombay burned? How are you as invested as you seem to be in the death sentence passed on this idiot now?

You're going to say I'm callous. Or a left-wing-arm-chair-intellectual pontificating on something she hasn't 'experienced' and therefore does not have the right to talk about. Except, I do, you see. This, little, is my prerogative. I'm not keeping you here - I didn't bring you here either, you'll remember - so feel free to vent, be vituperative if you must, but really, just go away. Go celebrate. Leave me be to lament yet another wasted opportunity for us to show the world that we're more than the world's largest democracy; we're that much rarer and almost mythical beast, a humane one that values life. Even life lived badly.      

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

In which she thinks of Boulez and the War.

This post has been a long time coming, and now that I'm finally a) in possession of a working internet connection which isn't as mercurial as I am, b) relatively free-r, first draft duly out of the way, and c) in a position, slightly removed in space and time from the enormity of all I heard while away, I can actually posit an attempt to make the sounds cohere with what I know of life lived and life in the process of living. For the uninitiated, what I'm on about is this: whilst in London, thanks to the generosity of spirit of one I've long admired - my friend, my aunt, my lovely Farida - I was able to catch Bryn Terfel (one of the finest tenors alive today) in concert, singing a selection of opera classics, at the Royal Festival Hall. This was followed by an even more spectacular event. Aforesaid patron of the arts took me to listen to the most sublime programme I've ever been confronted with to-date. I saw a life-long hero, Daniel Barenboim (Why, you ask? Because alongside Edward Said, Barenboim came up with the East-West Diwan project where the idea was to use music as a means of conflict resolution: making musicians from Palestine and Israel come together to perform across their respective borders), conduct his East-West Orchestra as they went through Beethoven's First and Second symphonies, with Boulez's shattering Derive II separating the two. When Terfel sang Te Deum from Puccini's Tosca, I cried. I don't know what came over me (That's a lie: I've thought about it, and have decided it was the conjunction of the church bells, that tonal life-flow which is the majesty of a church organ, and the timbre of his voice as he plays that betrayer Scarpia; the resolution of the home phrase prised by the string section (reprised by the horns), which raises more questions than it seems to answer; I'm choking up as I hear it again right now - here: - listen, and you'll spare me the trouble of feeling too keenly to explain myself more clearly).

However, there were no tears when, at long last, I heard Barenboim and his people do their thing. No tears. Just infinite sadness couched in the sheerest ecstasy this side of morphine. Beethoven's first is a light, bright piece - thirty-odd minutes of delicious movements which stun you with their levity and affirmation of life. It is decidedly yellow. I tasted it, I know. The second, while still bright, has a moment of doubt, a profound questioning half-way through the third movement, which makes you stop and reconsider whether this brightness is a shade...contrived; whether it masks some shapeless, formless (yet) beast you cannot presume to know or name. It passes; resolves. Orange, I decide. Deeper and more organic, but nowhere near earth or root. That will come later in this cycle of nine. The piece I want to write about though, really, is the one that separated these musings on life and living which are the symphonies - Boulez's Derive II. I can preface what I'm going to say next by stating up-front that if you were to ask me whether I 'liked' this piece, I'd stare at you blankly, unable to muster an answer. What I can say, however, is that this is the most challenging piece of music I have ever been faced with as a listener. Challenging not just in its execution - I'm hoping you take that as a priori - but in its scale and scope to speak, to divulge, to scream. I can tell you that even without knowing a thing about either Boulez or his music (or music altogether), coded into this piece is the information that it *could* only have been created in a world which had known the World Wars. If it put me in mind of anything, it's closest ally (and other) in literature would be that much bandied (but shamefully misunderstood) movement known as the theatre of the absurd. Point and counter-point; instruments, sections even, running in diametric opposition in their wrought ascending and descending of scales, bringing to mind every trope you associate with western classical music - heck, you've just heard Beethoven's first a few minutes ago - and challenging you to dispense with it, only to put these tropes together again till they speak a new language, or the beginnings of one anyway: think of Coleridge. He held that to imagine was to think of a table, blow it to smithereens, and then reassemble another form from those particles; recycle, re-iterate, re-new goddamnit. And that's what Boulez does here. He's playing with the tropes of tonality whilst making coquettish overtures at a-tonality, the cheeky bastard! Forty-five minutes of this. I saw the audience at the Royal Albert Hall shuffle their feet. Check their phones. Even, gasp, send SMSs. But you have to stick with the metaphysical conceit to the end, if you want to *get* where Boulez can take you. I tried. I did. I don't think I'll ever be able to listen in the same way again.    

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Of dervishes and theses

Perhaps musings about theses written and dervishes whirling are, well, uncommon, and make for unlikely bed-mates, but that's exactly what you're going to get to-day. I've been in England, referencing my monstrous first-draft, and culling tons of new material besides, since June. The British Library, St. Pancras, is now officially my favourite playground in the known universe. As I keep saying to anyone who'll listen, if they'll let me pitch a tent in their courtyard, I'll consider myself the happiest bunny in the world (and that's an understatement, if ever I've erred on the side of less over more). Thesis dealt with, and London walked till my feet knew it better than my eyes and ears and fingers and tongue did, I left for Istanbul. Bear in mind that I didn't go there completely untutored: I've *known* the place before I ever set foot in it - or thought I did anyway - through vicarious traversings, readings and other suchlike. Bref, I've wanted to visit Istanbul forever and a day.

What I was confronted with upon encountering (and I use the word advisedly; for its connotation of aggressive head-on-ness) its lived reality, however, took my breath away. Evoking tropes such as, "we have a soul connection, do that city and I," or "it feels like I was born to tread those lanes which skirt the Blue," or "the Bosporus flows in time with the blood in my veins," while accurate, just won't do. Yes, I feel like the smorgasbord that is Istanbul from the third through to the twenty-first centuries has been one I've partaken of over several - each, even? - lifetimes; that I've never felt as content as when wandering across Sultanahmet and thinking, processing, coping with the onslaught that is the city's magnificence and digesting it into little bite-size pieces I feel I've already known, will always know, and all that jazz. But what really shocked me was the visceral-ness of my reaction to this place. I've loved cities before, but I don't think I understood what love was until I saw the dervishes whirl. Until I sat in the Blue Mosque past midnight, revelling in the beauty of the voices, the sounds at once alien and familiar, of the muezzin's cry. Having my breath taken away by the splendour that is the Ayasofya across the square - the Blue's template, muse, and most formidable rival and other. Thanks to a nifty little app on my phone, I managed to click and write up first-quick-edit-and-therefore-honest-to-goodness reactions to several places. Here, for your delectation, dear reader, are three.

The Blue Mosque: It's amazing how these stories set in stone speak in colour, texture, and elastic time The process of semeiosis which makes them mean continues to resound, as though from beyond the pale. The playful artists of yore even slipped in owl eyes for me to see. The Blue Mosque tastes like orange in my mouth. Is it plenitude?Giving, dropping because it is so laden, that the motifs bespeak? And the crowds? Is it glorious for or despite them? Do they matter? Did they ever? Was this popular enough, even then, for them? Perhaps even this carpet dust outdates some countries; and still people come here and talk of Angkor Wat and Vietnam...the red brings out the blue; the blue the red. Gold for everyone, and then the rest.


Topkapi Palace: Lots of little fragments which, rather surprisingly, appear to add up to some kind of whole: sumptuous, lascivious, exploitative and cruel in its education and preparation of concubines and slaves for the delectation of Sultans. Is it as fine or quietly grand as many of the palaces back home? As opulent, dwarfing and intimidating as some others? Not always, not everywhere and in every aspect, but it is simple to see from this point in time and space the commonalities shared/inbred/borrowed/forced upon both cultures. This last, brought home by sitting afore the Diwan-I- Humayun; the Diwan-I-Khas equivalent; wondering whether they would trade their kaftans for my angarkhas.

And then, there was the Ayasofya: This place reeks of continued transferences, which derive from the same fount: the work initiated at the start of its creation. I was overwhelmed when I entered it - in good Christian tradition, clearly it was meant to dwarf me,humble me, show me my place as a speck of sand and remind me I had no business aspiring to beach-hood. But as I sit on its marble floor - cracked, uneven, smoothened by centuries of usage underfoot - I see it better; learn it in my mind and eye. The stained glass calligraphy, Jesus and Gabriel mosaics transposed in the Kuranic ethos and tradition, Christ as pentekrator-emperor of this world, and the eight holy names and shields of Islam, make utter and complete sense. Mainly, because they are here together. Because they exist in, dare I say it, harmony. Because the mosaics may have lost their faces, but they kept their soaring wings. This place is a wonder, a paragon of unity in disparity. No mystery about it - if it was once a church and then a mosque, now, in its avatar as a museum, it is both, and more than both, simultaneously. It reinforces, in it's beguiling and utterly unpresumptuous humanity, this sceptic's faith in mankind. 

True to my word (whenever I feel like it) since I promised you dervishes as well, you'll get them here. I'm neither religious nor particularly gobsmacked by the esoteric - not often, in any case. However, witnessing the Sema ceremony of the order of the Mevlevis, those followers of Rumi (and through him, Shams-i-Tabrizi [aside, read Elif Shafak on them: she is my favourite female writer alive today, and that's no small praise], of course) was unlike anything I've ever done before. I thought I knew what music~message congruency meant. I clearly didn't, prior to that night. The beauty of the Sheikh's voice made me want to cry - hold it close to me, so I could live enveloped in its warmth and obvious passion. He invites one to surrender, and for once, ungrudgingly, you do. Then come the dervishes. The 'ne' introduces the spirit of animation - literally breathes life into proceedings - and then it begins. They salute each other, and they whirl. On the spot, for the worlds they are in and of themselves, and then around each other, for what rotates must also revolve, if the universe is to perpetuate itself. The aspect of the hands is just so: one raised heavenward, to receive from the cosmos. The other, palm down, to give it away. Nothing kept for the vessel, the conduit: the death of ego. I think it more telling that I wasn't moved to tears. Merely deafening silence. Then, when they stopped, being able to finally breathe again, in the wake of a dam-break, my mind was filled with phrases, attempting to comprehend what I had been privileged to be part of. The one I remember, the only one worth keeping I suspect, was a paradox born out of their movement meeting the discipline of their philosophy - the dervish's is a controlled abandon. Not an abandonned control, which is something quite else. But how can abandon be controlled, you ask? Go watch the dervishes, I reply.