FT just announced their Boldness in Business Awards. Winners include Selco for CSR and Google for entrepreneurship Interesting comments on boldness vs. recklessness too on the site. Regardless of the obvious theoretical differences, the line between the two is very thin. I can’t decide which side I am on. Only time can tell.
Have you ever felt like there is so much inside of you that it can hardly wait to get out? That the voices in your head just wouldn’t stop talking? Constant travel, personal tragedy and changes in life have all been playing havoc on my writing. And when I have kept away from putting words on paper for so long, I feel bottled up. Like a stream boiling underneath a mountain ready to spring forth. Yet the stream has no clue how to be born. There are no how-to books for stream dummies. Should it be one angry swish from the weakest spot that would change the landscape forever? Or should it try different spots across the terrain, to possibly form a calmer landscape of intertwining little streams?
As my metaphor gets confusing, I abandon it for more practical ways to channel my writing. For quite literally, I don’t know where to start, there just seems to be so much buzzing around. I decide to pick up the first random book in my bookshelf for inspiration and follow its lead. Secretly I was hoping for Erich Segal’s Love Story which has been missing in action ever since we moved, which I had been dying to reread and also because I wanted to write about love (and I swear watching reruns of Sex and the City had nothing to do with it). As luck would have it, I picked up Shashi Tharoor’s Bookless in Baghdad.
How does a collection of random thoughts inspire one to write a coherent piece? Well, it can be interpreted as nothing but the license to write a collection of random thoughts, exactly what I was trying to prevent. Well, some days you just can’t seem to win. Or rather, no matter how hard you try to lose, you win.
How do you know you love someone? In the spirit of randomness, I will give you my answer without the explanation. The one that I recently figured out. If I had picked up Segal’s Love Story, I promise things would have been different.
If you can cross every mountain, swim every sea, just to see someone smile, that’s what they call love. If you can give up all that you held dear and fought hard for, just for a glimmer of hope that it might make someone else a little happier, then it must be love. But above all, if you can feel someone’s pain and someone’s joy as if it were your own, it has to be love. When a tiny tear tripping down his face pulls your heart apart and it wouldn’t stop hurting till his pain is your pain, his tears are your tears, you know. You just know. This must be love.
Where is that goddamn book? Have you ever wondered why people flock to fiction? Why writers write fiction and why readers read fiction? Why create a world of your own, not knowing whether anyone else would want to visit and if people were to visit, you are unable to dictate that they leave their baggage at the door? Why lovingly carve out characters when they may never meet a soul beyond yourself or your immediate friends, and even if your book were to be a best-seller, knowing that the characters you envisioned will never be met with the same love and care that you nurtured them with? Why spend hours scribbling word after word, sentence after sentence, and sometimes going back and editing so that the gaps your pen skipped because your mind glossed over, because it is too familiar or too painful, can be filled – not because your mind doesn’t want to skip it, but because you want someone else to understand it too. Precisely because of that. Precisely because you want someone else to comprehend it too, and feel what you feel, and connect at the most human, most basic level of all. And fiction gives us the façade to do it.
Which is why we read too. Reading is easier than writing, because someone has done the hard work for us. They have created the house, put the furniture in, and they are inviting us in. I need Segal’s Love Story because I want someone to tell me what I feel. I want to share without giving. I want to lose myself in an imaginary world, an alternate reality, as an affirmation of the reality I am living in. I want to take out just one aspect of my everyday life, and blow it up out of proportion so that that bit becomes the whole. Love becomes the world. Everything else fades into the background. And I am consumed by it. As is everything else.
I have a vague suspicion about what happened to Segal. While we were moving countries and houses as a consequence, for what seems to me the umpteenth time, Srijith had separated a pile of books. I come home one day to see three dismantled bookshelves, five hundred odd books strewn over the floor and a neat pile of about twenty kept away from the rest. They were to be sold!! What treason! He was destroying my home. Every nomad eventually comes to a definition of home. It is sort of ingrained in our human nature – the need to define a home, to identify a place, or sometimes a concept, or rarely just an abstraction where one belongs. I have a simple definition – home is where my books are. I guard them with an almost fanatic fervour. Imagine my consternation when I find that there are twenty books – twenty bricks from my home – about to be sold, handed over to another mortal for a few meagre euros. And imagine my disbelief, for I was unable to muster any other emotion, when I find among the doomed, Segal’s Love Story.
I was recently reading an interview with the poet laureate, Kay Ryan. A celebrated poet, she seems in every way so different from me that I could not find even a shred in that personality that I could identify with. Yet I like her poems.
“A bitter pill / doesn’t need / to be swallowed / to work. Just
reading your name / on the bottle / does the trick./ As though there
were some anti-/placebo effect. / As though the / self were eager / to be wrecked.”
I can’t even put my finger on the sense of rhythm that I feel when I read it aloud. Yet it resounds again and again, as if a lullaby sung to make you think while you sleep. May be that’s why I like her – poetry is the song that connects. The equivalent of fiction where the author requires the reader to do a lot more of the work. Deceiving in the simplicity of words, disguised in the rhythm of a musical note, it makes us believe that we have heard it all before, but there is more. There is always more.
In any case, the point of bringing up the Kay Ryan interview was a specific discussion on how she does her work. She said her mind is a blank, an empty slate, most of the time. And it was so incomprehensible to me. My mind is always full. Overflowing is how I usually feel. And for a long time, I thought that’s how everyone feels.
It’s difficult to accept people who are different from you. Yet that is love. Ability to accept the difference. Not just accept, but embrace it. And never let it go. Never wanting to let it go. Flourish and let flourish. And not insist that the flowers that bloom need to be this way or that way, it will most probably bloom in an altogether different way.
I do not love Kay Ryan, well not in the socially accepted conventional sort of way that one reserves for the dearest in their lives; certainly not even the most touching of poetry moves me that much. The emptiness of mind discussion made me think of how difficult it was for me to accept that concept. How difficult it was for me to comprehend something that I had never experienced. They say that once your mind is stretched by an experience, it never regains its original shape. You cannot “unexperience” something, or “unthink” a thought. Yet there are concepts, which may be everyday realities to some, but are abstractions to me, because I can never experience them, and will always remain abstractions for me, because I will never be able to.
Yet one day I got over it. I woke up one morning, and I believed it is possible. My mind will always be overflowing, but perhaps it is a possibility, however rare and improbable, it is a distinct possibility that some people have blank slates for their mental states. Blessed are they, who can then choose, what to scribble on their fresh consciousness. Believing without experiencing, trusting without knowing, embracing without questioning, that must be love.
Srijith tells me he took out Segal’s Love Story from the pile before he sold the rest. I believe him.
Perhaps it has a lot to do with growing up. Does everyone go through all stages of life – childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, adulthood, old-age-in-denial and eventually old age? We all have pre-conceived, often romantic notions about each of them, no doubt augmented by fiction whichever media it chooses to be told in, yet I wonder whether we all experience them. Of course, none of us can stop the march of time, and physically we will all do the inevitable journey through our life cycle, yet how long each stage is depends on each of our lives – and it comes under constant pressure, with ever increasing life spans and changes in expectations across generations. The stage our parents experienced in their young adulthood (which is what I choose to call my current phase) is not what we experience. The stage our parents find themselves in now is not what our grandparents lived through. We have no precedents really. So do these stages of life hold any meaning, if there are no definitions to go along with them?
Till recently, I used to say, “When I grow up, I will become…“. Someone approaching the big thirty would have been considered quite grown up in almost all places, across all times, yet I think in my generation I am not such a misfit. To not have your life figured out by the thirties is not a disaster. But I have stopped saying, “When I grow up…“. Very recently. I wonder whether it is a reflection of my growing cynicism or just me taking responsibility for my life. Growing up is probably about realising there are many answers to a question and that one is not necessarily more correct than another. Growing up is knowing that you have to choose a path, in fact you actually have chosen a path, and there is no turning back. Growing up is feeling happy and contented in the landscape you see around in the path you have chosen, and in case it strikes you as not what you signed up for, may be doing something to change it.
I picked up Tharoor’s Bookless in Baghdad from my bookshelf for inspiration, yet I think this essay is as much about Segal’s Love Story, if not more. Guess it just goes to show that life may be a box of chocolates, but whether you decide to eat ice cream instead is entirely dependent on you.
I just read Albert Camus’ The Plague – Camus being Camus, I was ready for a slow read , but after part I (the book is divided into five parts), I could hardly put the book down. Consequently, I am done – in the literal sense of the word. But perhaps, not really. Even after starting on my next book, I feel my thoughts returning to the life and choices of the characters of The Plague.
For the uninitiated, The Plague is an account of life in Oran, a city in Algeria that finds itself, rather unexpectedly, in the middle of a deadly epidemic. The book follows the reactions of various individuals as well as the collective, as they progress through the various stages of the plague. I am not sure I would call it an existential classic, but it definitely does a phenomenal job of examining the absurdity of life, its irrationality and human reactions to anything that they have no control over.
One of the emotions that Camus paints beautifully, especially in the early stages of the plague, is the feeling of exile. The town walls have been closed and almost all means of communication have been stopped. Telegrams have become the only means of sending and receiving messages of any sort.
“Creatures bound together by mutual sympathy, by flesh and heart, were reduced to finding the signs of this ancient communion in a ten-word dispatch, all written in capitals. And since, as it happens, the forms of words that can be used in a telegram are quickly exhausted, before long whole lives together or painful passions were reduced to a periodic exchange of stock phrases such as “Am well”, ‘Thinking of you’, ‘Affectionately yours”.
We don’t need to imagine a plague to appreciate the gravity of the message. Perhaps it has been exaggerated by the unusual circumstance, but it is hard to deny that this is increasingly relevant in our interconnected global world. Far from isolation we are, you might say. But then reducing exchanges to stock phrases must be all too familiar. Loved ones who knew every aspects of our lives are reduced to being recipients of abstract accounts of general happiness, on account of the distance that separates us. Friends are emailed that all is well and that the summer is bright. For, after all, how much distance and isolation can you conquer with a message, no matter how much it is filled with love?
Which brings me to abstraction. To not experience something is to, in a way, alleviate it to a level of general abstraction.
“He tried to put together in his head what he knew about the disease. Figures drifted through his head and he thought that the thirty or so plagues recorded in history had caused nearly a hundred million deaths. But what are a hundred million deaths? When one has fought a war, one hardly knows what a dead person is. And if a dead man has no significance unless one has seen him dead, a hundred million bodies spread through history are just a mist drifting through the imagination. The doctor recalled the plague of Constantinopole which, according to Procopius, claimed ten thousand victims in one day. Ten thousand dead equals five times the audience in a large cinema. That’s what you should do. You should get all the people coming out of five cinemas, take them into a square in the town and make them die in a heap; then you would grasp it better.”
Even after reading the book, the whole concept of the plague remains an abstraction to me, the removed reader. Just a means to understand the message, the object that is separate from the idea. And as long as I haven’t felt it, seen it, heard it, touched it, it will remain an abstraction. As will most things in life, some pleasant, some unpleasant. Such is the blessing of life, though perhaps one less acknowledged.
Tarrou, undeniably one of the more interesting characters in the book, notes in his diary:
“Question: how can one manage not to lose time? Answer: experience it at its full length. Means: spend days in the dentist’s waiting room in an uncomfortable chair; listen to lectures in a language that one does not understand, …”
If we want to save time, and if doing unpleasant things seem to stretch time, why don’t we do it? Sure, you can appeal to the conventional wisdom that the time you have is constant – 60 seconds is 60 seconds no matter what you do. But then, I could argue that fragmentation of time itself is artificial and really, just a convention. When you wish you had 48 hours in a day, you don’t wish for 48 equally fragmented segments of time, but that you could achieve double the amount of whatever it is that you wish to achieve in 24. The end goal is not to save time, but really to have the perception of saved time. Then why not do something that manages not to lose time, especially when it is so obvious and easy?
Paneloux, the priest, no less of an interesting character, first thinks of the plague as punishment from God. Towards the later part of the book, after coming in direct contact with the disease, he delivers a controversial sermon, where he claims in effect, that there is no middle way – either you love God, or you hate God. Either you accept or you reject. Or more eloquently,
“When innocence has its eyes gouged out, a Christian must lose his faith or accept the gouging out of eyes”.
In other words,
“If a priest consults a doctor, there is a contradiction”.
The book reaches its epitome of eloquence in Rieux’s thoughts, almost towards the end of the plague, when the town had begun rejoicing over the imminent freedom from pestilence:
“But what had he, Rieux, won? All he gained was to have known the plague and to remember it, to have known affection, and to have one day to remember it. All than a man could win in the game of plague and life was knowledge and memory. Perhaps that was what Tarrou called winning the game! But if that is what it meant to win the game, how hard it must be to live only with what one knows and what one remembers, deprived of what one hopes. ”
Perhaps the book was an allegory on France’s Nazi occupation. Perhaps it was a fictional account crafted as a medium for exposition on the absurdity of life. Perhaps it was meant to exposit and acknowledge the sterility of life without illusions. Perhaps what I had read from it was nothing which the writer intended.
Does it matter really?
Paul Graham has an interesting essay – Startups in 13 sentences I particularly like the one about “Don’t give up”. It’s surprisingly true of most professions – you will eventually succeed, sometimes just through sheer perseverance. However, sometimes it is better to give up, and the trick is to know when to give up and…
I wish someone would pierce a dagger through my chest
Pull it in and out and then a few times more, and more.
I wish I would dip myself in oil boiling in a pot on a raging fire
To feel myself melt away from the reality of worldly life.
I wish I could be trampled on by the wildest of the beasts
And be made one with the earth that rests beneath their feet.
I wish there would be a whirlwind that lifts me high into the sky
Just to swirl me round and round till there is nothing left to be.
I wish they would tie my limbs and pull them apart from east and west
Till I break down into a million pieces never to be put together again.
I wish I would jump from atop the highest mountain into the deepest abyss
So that all that remains would be the memory of what once was.
I wish a smaller pain would be mine than that that haunts my burning soul
Anything else but the deep dark abyss that is my heart’s eternal home.
There is no better reason to get out of a blog rut than a tag by a good friend. Thanks Chakli! Here are the rules of the tag –
Get the book closest to you. Open the book to page 123.Count to line five. Write the next three lines. Tag five people and acknowledge the person who tagged you.
I have a pile of books next to me, from the weekend shopping spree. Books are marginally cheaper in Johannesburg and I don’t need a better excuse. I pick the one on top and here we go:
“Well I wouldn’t. The less each group knows of the activities of the other, the better. But you are perfectly aware of that – you are. Particularly in the matter of recruitment to proceed outside. The people I work with won’t deal with that. There are others. She must have been with them – perhaps all these years and we didn’t know it.”
Reading three lines of a book can be frustrating. I can only guess it is about Apartheid. It is from the book My Son’s Story by Nadine Gordimer. Here is a synopsis of the book from Amazon:
Highly praised as a literate goad to South Africa’s conscience under apartheid, Gordimer here delivers her most perceptive and powerful novel in years. The story of a man’s evolution as a political activist and the toll it takes on his family and on him, it is also a picture of a marriage and of an extramarital affair, set against a backdrop of daily life in segregated South Africa, even as the winds of change begin to blow. An exemplary husband and father, a pillar of rectitude in the black community, Sonny is dismissed from his teaching job after he leads a political protest. Imprisoned, on his release he becomes a leader in the revolutionary underground; at the same time he is swept into an affair with a white woman, a worker in a human rights organization.
The intertwined events that lead to the breakup of Sonny’s family and the tragic end of his high hopes and ideals are partially narrated by his teenage son Will, bitter and cynical over his father’s marital betrayal. The novel is eloquent in its understated prose and anguished understanding of moral complexities in a land where blacks keep “rags . . . on their persons as protection against tear-gas as white people carry credit cards.” Tightly focused and controlled, expertly plotted, the narrative is replete with ironies; the tension increases almost invisibly, until the unexpected, jolting denouement. In the end, Will resolves to record “what it really was like to live a life determined by the struggle to be free.” Which is exactly what this book does, honestly and memorably
And now it’s my turn to tag!
Picture: Pillars of the South African constitution from the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg
Spring issue of Paris Review has an excellent interview with Ishiguro.
Random books from my library are now online, thanks to librarything. Not particularly useful, but staring at my books helps my homesickness when I am away from home..
An interesting study from DDI on career transitions – Making a step up in your role has quite a personal impact – but are the individuals sufficiently prepared? If not, how can they prepare for it and how can organizations help them? It is worth downloading the pdf.
Leveraging ideas claims that Twitter suffers from its own branding. I am one of those who has been doing the”Should I twitter? Should I not?” dance for a while. The post hasn’t convinced me one or way or the other, but it did give a push – interesting perspective.