07 August, 2015

Leaves of grass

It was June or July in Calcutta. 2008. I think a part of me still walks around Camac Street in the sweltering heat of a tropical summer, talking glibly of Geurnica, Guevara and Gandalf. It was a time of peace, of dregs of schoolboy humour and many farewells.

We had gone into Pantaloons, you and I, where I could afford to only glance at the Adidas and Nike racks. With an air of appraisal, considering which one to purchase. I couldn't have afforded a single thread. I had left behind thankfully the gaggle of the rest of the chaps with their back-slapping and bonhomie and cricket scores. They would all still be there the next day, the month, the year.

What I did buy, with some prize money that some high-school competition had favoured me with, was a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Why that American poet? Maybe a part of me was wishing to be close to that country, where my best pal since middle school was going for college. A part of me maybe wishing for something far, far removed from this city that I had anchored myself to for the next foreseeable years. The city where once, suddenly now in the past tense (!), we would spend our schooldays traipsing about, bending rules and breaking curfews, entering the girls' school in the next block under the flimsiest of pretexts or being idiot savants steeped in colonial public-schooling at the British Council Library (more idiot than savant, any day).

It was suddenly going to be very grown-up in Calcutta, I realised, after this high school business was finally over. And very solitary Calcutta. A part of me wishing that I had done more and spoken less, had more choices than to stay on in this city that I loved and hated in the same breath. It would be many years until that starry-eyed kid would be hammered enough on the anvil of mediocrity to realize "wishes are like dishes - they both need doing."

The sun was scorching outside, and the stark blinding light through the shop windows cast refraction shards of molten fury on the ceramic tiled floor next to the bookshelves. All show, no business. But on that day, the boy still clung on to the rhetoric and the sound and the fury. Clung on to the last iota of stubbornness, that this was not it, that there was another chance to battle and best that mire of mediocrity.  Inscribed the date onto the first book he had ever purchased with money other than his parents'. Spent the rest of the prize money sending chocolates to his best bud's sis. Considered it a deed well done, straight out of his Bogart-addled teenage.

And in the years that would follow, trudging along a path trodden into mud by my city's countless nameless, faceless others, that book and that day would be a gentle reminder that there remained a path less taken. That lilacs still in the dooryard bloom'd.

 The pages turned yellow very soon, as is wont to happen with Indian reprints. And now it sits somewhere in my parents' flat back in that city, nestling against Nineteen Eighty-Four and Gorky's Mother. I did not bring it with me when I made the journey to Whitman's land. It was needed no more.

15 June, 2015

On roads re-taken and (Sal) Paradise lost

Watching On the Road on Netflix reminded me of the book, when I first read it. A sweltering Calcutta summer of 2009. When the world was young and so were we and so was love, lust, innocence and nonsense and art and all other demons and their angelic brood and the sheer idiocy and naive bravery of dreaming dreams untainted by the grey arsenic of reality.

They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!"
Now in a sleepy evening half the world away, after lifetimes have passed and boys become men and girls become women and lovers have loved and parted and shouted and suspected and screwed and bled and avenues broadened and schools reopened and bro-codes broken and funerals attended... I learned to finally outgrow my Sal Paradise and outlive the magic heroism of shambling after my Dean Moriartys.

At a certain age, one begins to judge the childhood heroes (pointless as it is, a necessary pointlessness, if one is to "grow up"), and question their methods for madness, their wisdom for cunning, their laughter for mockery, their deeds for debauchery. At that age and point in life when you can choose whom to smile at stars with, and whom not to, unfettered by whatever claims the past may have - the cavalier promises and musketeer posturing. And that is when you begin to realize: That some things define who we are and what we stood for, once, before the anvil of Life hammered out the wide-eyed idealism with heedless hedonism, cheered on by the spotlit crowds awed and adulating the hurtling spectacle of impulse and gratification that is now you.

It is a strange path today, taking these stumbling steps to be what one was in a life-age past. But it's worth it -- the steps lead back to a world that was cleaner, maybe a mind quieter, and rooms emptier (but again, cleaner) and with something dangerously approaching a conscience. It is always worth the effort, I am told. And then the calm eyes, balm on soul scorches. Whispers in the depths of darkness. There is always hope. Become who you once were when we met in a sweltering summer in 2008. Come back before home stops being home.


Weekends generally require a rendition of Auden, with special emphasis on "working week and Sunday's rest". Its a balmy evening in Brandywine, Amherst. Returned back from Boston the day before, still some stuff left unpacked. The Auden ritual has been observed. Why do I do this? This following of ritual, as a blind tribute to lost years, lost words. A man of habits mayhaps, just like the British with their morning tea and a newspaper, followed by elevenses and whatnot.

23 February, 2015

Musings on homecomings

 I have not yet decided when to go home this year.

 Which makes me think of what life is going to be like - a sense of acceptance of  gradually being a stranger in one's own city. Hometowns, like much of life, moves on. The roads where one played on bandh days, the maidans of mud-splattered soccer, the schools where one walked in and grew out of, the cafes where you loved and lost, the books you read and re-read.
 All those places are not vacant, waiting vainly for the return of some prodigal son. There are, and always will be, the next batch of loud voices and bright eyes, those same old phrases on young lips, the songs and the sunshine. Same as before.

 By the steps of the same narrow bylane, a group with a guitar, a bandana and a Guevara T-shirt. Nothing's changed, not even the rhyming nicknames even.

 And I will see my nephews and nieces in discordant step sizes. It seems that only yesterday I was getting them to say "bye", and now they are fiddling with iPads, joining cricket coaching, reading Potter and whatnot. With the polite smiles at this stranger that suddenly blusters into their familiar lives, one they have to call "uncle/kaku/mamu", one they have to be extra-nice to because of ... just because he comes so very seldom.

 And the ones I will not see again. Last year took way too many. Some of course pushing 80, not entirely unexpected. Some far less, hard blows and unexpected. Four times, four lives that had, in ways large or small, shaped me into what I am. The voice over the telephone made steely with the effort of not betraying a single tremor. The facts. The hour, the day, the nursing home.The contrition. The vast distances palpable. The finality.

It is of course very natural. This sense of observing the lives back home in these discrete steps. Both the ones that are growing up and the ones that have passed away. It just makes you grow up, if the anvil of life hadn't hammered the child out of you by now. It makes one think of chicken stew made just so by aged but imperiously self-sufficient hands, of gestures of generosity so great and all-encompassing as to defy utterance, of lives and times that can flicker out with a sense of finality that is deafening.

It makes you wonder, I suppose, on many things in the grey light of a half-dawn, or the soft limned shadows of a snow-crusted evening. Of what life is, what it should be and where it is headed.

03 January, 2015

old jokes, new year

The same old jokes, the reassuringly never-changing one-liners and ribbing.

That's what the New Year should be about, at this time of life I think. That the best parts of yesteryear remain as constant as ever. And the new things ring joyfully close to the old cheer, which gives more a familiar welcome from the sameness.

 We have become resistant to change, at some deep level. As a generation. Or rather, this coterie from my generation.

21 December, 2014

with a little help from my friends

I traveled to New York last year for Christmas. Spent it with some very old friends. And a schoolboy's cavalier little promise of meeting in the Big Apple came true was made to happen.

Shall be doing the same thing this year. In a country too new to grow roots in already, this seems wonderfully like the beginning of something that could grow into a tradition. And we need tradition to call it home.

But that trip is for next week. For the here and now:

Driving to Cape Cod to catch a sunrise in 4 hours with my roommates. Then a quick peek into Boston. Back home and a short stint at the lab, as planned.

That gives me Monday to get into the groove of things (neural networks are temperamental creatures) with work, do the last minute reshuffling of packed bags. And then the bus to NYC. Sinatra.

The first time I visited that place, it was all the movies and the music and the aura. And a meetup that was also a 5 year promise being kept..
 But this year, it would be the friends. Growing into a tradition swiftly, one hopes. And long, long talks over good food and good cheer. It's strangely reassuring to know that your friends are looking forward as well to this very day, with as much bated breath as you. Maybe I am not as much a Lone Ranger thingy as I project myself to be, on an overdose of Aragorn. After long hours, strange paths, bitter winters, bitter words and bitter endings, after the flotsam and jetsam of my diligently burned bridges leave behind only the sick smell of charred conversations, after the sour turns bitter... who better to cast aside all this and talk and talk till the stars fade and the eastern sky blushes like a desert bride with the ones you grew up with. After all, I do get by with a little help from my friends.

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