Thursday, December 30, 2004

Tigers and Havens. Also, regretfully, Tsunamis

The night before we were due to leave on our journey, I managed not to sleep at all. I didn't think I was running out of time till it was 3.30 a.m. and I still hadn't packed. Not that there was much to pack -- clothes for five days, with an extra just-in-case set, and no need for formal wear of any kind. My approach to cold-weather clothing is to change only the under-layers so there wasn't much bulk. But I took an extra bag to hold the few gifties I was taking along for Christmas. That took till four and then there didn't seem to be much point in even trying to sleep then. So I made tea to fill into the two flasks we were taking along with us -- and by the time I finally got the proportions right, it was time to jump into my travelling socks and leave.

We set out at 5.45 a.m., in our friend J's Pajero, J driving. The fog (for non-Delhi-wallahs: this time of year the temperature hovers around the 5-9 centigrade mark and dense fogs swaddle the northern plains of India) was kind to us -- we had about 50 yards visibility and were soon speeding along. Nine-and-a-half hours later, speeding through squalid towns and hamlets, past brilliant yellow mustard fields, overtaking toiling bullock-carts and grossly overloaded lorries, scattering squadrons of monkeys foraging on the roads and catching fleeting glimpses of tall, graceful Sarus cranes with their neat gray bodies and long crimson necks, we were there.

J's uncle, Billy Arjan Singh, a legend in his own time, lives on the banks of a pale tan river (the Sohaili) that partly defines the margin of Dudhwa Sanctuary, partly winds through it. I had never met him before, but had of course heard of him. More specifically, I'd read of his extraordinary relationship with a tigress called Tara, whom he later successfully released to the wild. My memories were hazy and so, when I saw him, a dignified nut-brown man, seated at a tea-table, wearing dark-glasses and a plaid golf-cap, I didn't have expectations. Over the course of the stay, my impression of him changed to include what must have been his earlier self: a body-builder and a strong personality, the kind that's more at home taming big cats than tending to city-guests, yet warm and welcoming towards us.

He lives alone with a family of retainers to look after the house and himself. Tiger Haven is a collection of low, white-washed buildings constructed as the need arose, with an accent on functionality. In front of the house is an open yard, with a couple of tall ficus trees, bare-branched as it happened -- on account of the floods earlier in the year, said Billy -- but starting to fill out with leaves again. Beyond it, agricultural fields. There was a standing crop of bushy-headed sugarcane waiting to be harvested. Along the horizon, trees. To the right, a wattled-fenced area, with a thatched roof or two showing above the fence, where the staff live.

Amongst the first questions Billy asked us was, "Will you have a bath now?" It took me by surprise: later I realized that the question triggered a memory of arriving home to my mother whose first command always was "Have a bath!" -- regardless of whether I'd just returned from day-school or come home for the holidays from boarding.

In the event, we had tea first, sitting in the porch in front of Billy's room, with cake and cookies as accompaniment. I poured tea, pleased to see the silver sugar-pot rising up on four spindly little legs, like a very tiny, friendly lap-dog; the sugar scoop with its handle shaped like a hockey-stick, to commemorate a club trophy whose details were inscribed on the front and back of the spoon's bowl; and the milk jug with its beaded veil to ward off flies. All familiar, yet so rarely met with these days that it was like entering a fondly detailed Merchant-Ivory production. A peacock appeared, stepping forward in its tentative way, looking for a hand-out. One of the retainers fed it scraps of chappati, which it gobbled up with unseemly haste. In the distance, its more wary companions watched but did not approach.

E and J went up for baths while I tried to resist. The fact is, I don't like water and I bathe only when physical discomfort or fear of my mother's censure dictate that the time has come to face the inevitable. However, I succumbed later just before going to bed, using a bucket of hot water that had been thoughtfully left in the bathroom -- there's no running water, so hot or cold, supplies must be carrried up in buckets, except for the toilet, that flushed normally.

Pre-dinner, we joined Billy in his cosy drawing-room, a fire already crackling cheerily in the fire-place with its white-washed mantelpiece and the walls hung with photographs of Tara and the other felines who have enriched Billy's life. We watched a video film called "The Leopard Who Changed Its Spots" about the superbly elegant Harriet, the cat who preceded Tara and the one Billy named in a magazine interview as the one true love of his life. The narrator of the film was David Niven. Amongst the amazing footage shown, was an encounter shot in Sri Lanka, between a family group of wild boar and a stalking (unknown) leopard -- ending in a rout for the leopard! Two of the boars were apparently so outraged that a predator would dare to threaten their piglets that they just rammed into the cat, literally turning it upside down and sending it scurrying off with a decided kink in its tail!

The dining table was alongside the drawing-room, and we helped ourselves to food laid out on the side-board: deep-dish minced meat with writhing whorls of mashed potatoes artfully piped onto the top of it, two types of veggies, and fresh salad. For dessert, vanilla ice-cream, poached apples and Hershey's chocolate fudge sauce! If this is jungle-living, I'm pre-hooked.

Yes, there's electricity -- from a grand old generator thrumming in the yard, as well as from the Govt. The yard supply gets switched off around 10.30 p.m., after which there may or may not be enough juice in the wires to run the lights. By then, we were variously tucked up in our separate rooms, Billy downstairs, J in one of the rooms above his, E and me in the "guest" quarters a hop-step away. Billy's sister-in-law, who spends some part of the year at Tiger Haven sees to it that all the niceties are maintained -- bare floors are covered with warm dhurries, the cots are three layers deep in blankets, cotton-quilts and clean sheets.

We went into the sanctuary (or one of its relatives) on each of the four days of our stay. It was the wrong season for seeing animals because the grass is tall and the weather cold. But it was a thrill each time -- the sense of hidden possibilities lurking in every shadow, the silence, the soaring trees. There were spotted deer of course, and once a rather forlorn little boar shot across the road, as if forced to make an appearance just to prove that others of his kind WERE after all residents in the forest. We saw pug-marks -- tiger footprints -- here and there in the loose soil alongside the roads, and several very clear ones in the wet clay by the riverside at the Kishenpur waterbody. That's also where we saw swamp deer posing regally, multi-tined males posturing for the attention of a single female, in the great distance across the water. And a group of three barking (also known as muntjac) deer, a rare find these days.

E and I went for a three-hour elephant ride through the rhino-enclosure, with a six-year old baby elephant in tow because his mother (on whom we sat) wouldn't budge without him. His father was a wild tusker and already the little one had foot-long tusks. He had his own mahoot sitting on top of him, to control him. At one point, he was being encouraged by his mahoot to pick up a piece of plastic garbage from the trail we were on, and he resisted, first by refusing to do it and then by bellowing loudly for Mom -- who turned around immediately -- it was amazing, an animal of such size and bulk, swivelling around in the tall grass like a four-footed ballerina pivoting on one foot -- and bellowed back in response. After much thumping, clucking and coercing, we were headed around the right way again and once more on our way. No rhinos to be seen -- but the ride was dreamlike and magnificent, deep in the bosom of the forest.

There were water birds aplenty, a fishing eagle or two, black-necked storks and the dearest little jungle owlet, like a well-rounded stuffed toy, blinking at us from the safety of a tall tree as we picnicked near it on the last day of our stay. Billy's farm had a number of resident peafowl and jungle fowl, but also a charming shrike whom E was delighted to see because it is many years since he saw one in Delhi. Oh -- and a racquet-tailed drongo -- much to E's chagrin because we'd been told to look out for it on our very first visit to the sanctuary and yet when it finally flashed across our combined paths just as we were leaving Kishenpur, he looked the wrong way and missed seeing it altogether. The rest of us ribbed him mercilessly -- it is indeed a handsome bird, black as a moonless night, with the long split-tail that other drongos have, but embellished by two further, graceful extensions, ending in the rounded "racquet" from which it gets its name.

All through our stay, the conversation returned repeatedly to the crisis affecting the wild areas of the country and the world. Billy is a passionate conservationist -- but these words do not capture the man. He is bowed by his 87 years and needs a cane to walk, he's a little hard of hearing and says that his eyesight is diminished since he had cataract surgery. Yet he's lit from within, he's a furnace of idealism -- to sit in his presence is to be warmed by that rage to reach beyond the limits of one lifetime, to go beyond the ordinary boundaries of human endeavour.

I have a private theory that the reason so many millions of people are incapable of achieving very much during their lifetimes is their fixation on getting their daughters married. Look around and what do you see? People running around like witless little ants, either attending marriages, scheming towards them, recovering from them, scraping together their life's savings for them, murdering their unborn daughters to avoid them, or (worst case scenario) burning one daughter-in-law in order to procure another, more productive one. Whichever way you look at it, the relentless pressure to pound everyone under the mill of marriage seems to crush all individual initiative, all idealism, all creativity ...

Oh okay -- I'll stop my rant. It won't change anything, I know. Lemmings will be lemmings.

But Billy -- he's no lemming. He's a crusader, a fighter, an idealist and (this is how I see him) a sculptor. He sculpts reality around him, using the tool of his personal energy, to get others to do his will. He's a shaper of lives and destiny. He causes light to bend around him, he has gravitational weight. He has a favourite photograph he likes to show, of himself hugging Tara. The shot's taken from behind him, showing his back, with Tara's striped furry head cuddled over his left shoulder, and around his right side, her huge paw, holding him. What a guy.

Meanwhile, the tsunami.

We missed the news when it happened, hearing about it only Monday night, with the newspaper's arrival. My family wasn't in any danger, as the house is far from the coast, but of course it was shocking to imagine the colossal scale of the disaster. My cellphone lost its signal en route to Tiger Haven, so we were out of touch until mid-morning Tuesday, when I got a signal again. I really only caught up with my sister Geeta the next day -- believe it or not, she was actually at the seaside when the wave struck! They'd gone to visit their small beach-side plot on Sunday morning, she and my brother-in-law. They'd all felt a mild tremor in the morning but dismissed it. They were on the highway when the wave actually struck but had no idea that anything was amiss until they reached the turn-off to their property and were shocked to see a river of water flooding up the incline towards the highway ...

G says she saw water bizarrely fountaining UP out of the soil, as if the force of the wave first drove water into the beach, then surfaced some distance upland, where she could see it frothing out. She called the newspapers on her cell-phone, just as, on Marina Beach in the middle of Madras a wall of water crashed down on hundreds of morning walkers and fisher folk, dashing cars and fishing vessels against the walls of venerable old Queen Mary's College, where my mother did her BA.

G was unharmed, and so were the small caretaker family that lives on the plot -- they saved themselves by the simple expedient of running up towards the highway, rather than out towards the sea-shore to gawp at the odd spectacle of the sea withdrawing itself for over a kilometer. There was a good two hours between the quake and the strike -- if anyone had been alert, if only others had remembered those lessons we learnt in geography class of the typical warning sign of an impending tidal wave (the unnaturally receded sea) -- maybe thousands of lives would not today be lost, at least in India, Sri Lanka and Somalia, all of which had time to react.

It's going to be a long and terrible time, recovering from the disaster. For news, links and information, please visit Kitabkhana and Zigzackly, listed to the right.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

"EVERYONE"

Quick -- what kind of picture flashes in your head when you hear/see the word "EVERYONE"? This is a question whose answer interests me. Many years ago, I began to format my brain in order to ensure that I would ALWAYS see ... well, I'm going to delay my answer till I know you lot have given the matter just a little thought. If you feel like you can share your reponses in a comment. I'll say what my mental image is, in a comment, to start you off.

And in other news, I am going to be away from my cyber-post for six days (eeeeeeeek), starting Thursday the 23rd morning. I, E and a friend are off to see the Wizard -- he IS a sort of wizard, when you consider that he pretty much kick-started India's tiger conservation effort 'way back in the last century -- "Billy" Arjan Singh. We're spending Christmas with him and returning on the 28th. I am told there will be nothing to see in the way of striped carnivores and that it will be so cold in the shadow of the foothills that I may as well start regretting the trip right away. It's going to be a 10-hour journey by road, but since I am driving-challenged, I will be in charge of entertainment and light repartee en route. The car is a Paj and I can report from our earlier trip this year to the hills, it is a seriously comfortable vehicle in which to engage with the nation's highways.

Four amazing items seen on TV's Animal Planet recently -- honestly, is there ANY other channel worth watching? -- two on David Attenborough's programs and two elsewhere. From Attenborough's "Life of Birds" series I saw (a) an astonishing record of a British hedge sparrow couple's response to the all-too-human situation of marital infidelity. Here's what we saw: Mrs Sparrow has a lover on the side. We see her engage with her spouse and then, not much later, succumbing to the charms of Mr X. Mr Sparrow, initially appears to be unaware of Mr X, but then, in an astonishing display of conjugal jealousy apparently confronts Mrs Sparrow. There were no translators to tell us exactly what was said but the lady very quickly obliges her mate by ejecting the interloper's sperm!! The couple accomplishes this -- what shall we call it? Pre-emptive abortion? -- by the female presenting her rear end to the male, who pecks peevishly in the vicinity of her unfaithful bum, resulting a quick expulsion of a tiny white speck, which (we assume) the researchers have confirmed is Mr X's sperm.

This is not an isolated instance, but has been observed as typical hedge-sparrow behavior. Why? According to the researchers, the system ensures that the interloper can also be co-opted in the care of the young, because he thinks that some of them MAY be his. And sometimes they are. Meanwhile, he is free to form serious and meaningful relationships with other compliant females, who in their turn may entertain flings on the side ... The result is that the species as a whole survives better and the phenomenon is tolerated.

Attenborough (b) was about a species of hummingbird (alas, I didn't catch the name, and so cannot repeat it here) which lives in the high Andes. Like all hummingbirds, its extremely high metabolic rate, occasioned by the astounding speed at which its tiny wings whirr(could it possibly be 70 times a second? I think that's what I heard but it's really quite hard to believe), permitting it to hover, as it flits from flower to flower, requires it to feed practically continuously. But at night, there are no flowers open for it to feed from. Its solution? It goes into hibernation -- EVERY NIGHT!! Its pulse-rate, blood-pressure and breathing all but cease altogether. In the morning, with the heat of the sun, it gradually warms up and is soon off on its rounds again. I don't know about you, but this blows me away. Like I wrote to a friend immediately after seeing this, it's a trick I would gladly learn specifically to cope with international travel. Just check in, belt up and aestivate for 28 hours straight. Wake up in NYC and head straight for the nearest Haagen Dazs (sp?) supply station. Joy.

The other two films were about mammals. One showed a troupe of monkeys in Sri Lanka, macaques of some sort, but we began watching too late to hear their full name. They looked quite a bit like the familiar Rhesus in India, but their social life is remarkably different. I don't know if the film crew happened to encounter an exceptional group, but what we saw was a complete reversal of animal behavior as recorded in other films I've seen on TV. I'm cutting a longish story short here, but let's just say that it's fairly typical of simian life for an alpha male to dominate the community for a period of three or four years until a rival arises who fights him and takes his place. What we saw in this film was an alpha leader who apparently had wonderful social relations with his group, being deposed by a male who was not merely more aggressive but also (apparently) of a cruder mentality than him.

In other films of this sort (there was one about black-faced langurs in Jaipur, for instance), this is completely standard. After the old male is vanquished, all the females of his harem are subjugated by the new incumbent, raped and ravished, rendered pregnant and soon enough, everything returns to normal. But in this Sri Lankan group, the group was apparently outraged by the new alpha male. Not only did they seek out the body of the previous leader, who fell by the wayside and died, but, after engaging in what certainly looked like a quiet and dignified mourning ritual (they all sat around the body and some of the females wiped flies away from his face), but one by one they began to reject the new alpha in favour of the old one's loyal lieutenant!!

I realize that there are dozens of ways in which a film can be manipulated to show us what the film-maker want us to see in terms of an interpretation. All I can say is, the cinematography was non-intrusive and certainly appeared to be honest. Another astonishing sight we saw in this film was this group of monkeys foraging for food UNDERWATER. They swam and dove extremely well, and seemed completely at home underwater. It was an amazing sight -- I don't believe this kind of behavior has ever been seen before amongst primates (other than us, i.e.). Mothers with tiny babies just ducked underwater completely heedless of the fear of drowning their offspring -- who in turn seemed entirely unperturbed.

And finally, this evening, there was a repeat of a film about a monastery in northern Thailand where a group of monks has raised wild tigers whose habitat was being threatened by development -- and everyone is thriving -- the monks treat the tigers with an astonishing mixture of reverence and commonsensical love, and the tigers (ten, according to the film, and breeding successfully) responding with affection and calm, non-aggressive behavior. I hadn't seen the film before, but E had described it to me fairly thoroughly -- even so, it brought tears to my eyes (okay, I admit, I become a warm slushy puddle at the sight of animals looking happy), because it was just so unbearably beautiful. A vision of life as it so rarely is, with the monks practically aglow with this extreme demonstration of absolute compassion at work. And the tigers ... well they glow ANYWAY, don't they? Can't help themselves.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Spermicons

Okay, so this is something I thought was funny about four years ago. I may have been sniffing chocolate at the time. But I looked 'em over again today and thought ... ehh, they're so silly I might as well share 'em. I am not sure they'll look as god intended on different browsers/screens -- in particular, I have no idea whether Mac users will see something utterly weird and incomprehensible. Of course, it's very likely that they really ARE weird and incomprehensible -- for instance, even I cannot see the point of "Coiled Sperm".

Ah, the anguish of being a misunderstood artist.

SPERMICONS

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~O
(Basic Sperm)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~O
(De Gaulle sperm)


^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^O
(coiled sperm)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~@
(sperm attack)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~%
(sperm looking sideways over its shoulder)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~X
(cross (i.e., angry) sperm)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~:-)
(happy sperm)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~$
(mercenary sperm)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~$$$$$$
(sperm bank)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~BC
(old sperm)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ZZZZZZZ
(sleeping sperm)

Thursday, December 16, 2004

An Anti-Carol

In a fit of perversity brought on by having seen Maureen Dowd's post-Election version of the "Twelve Days of Christmas" once too often (a friend sent it to me by e-mail and this morning I saw it in the Asian Age), I felt compelled to write my own childish and mean-spirited version of the song. It's quite funny if sung, though. My family will attest to the fact that I CAN sing it and frequently DID on all those endless trips by road, all the way from Bombay to Madras, all those many years ago in the last century. Here it is:

THE TWELVE DAYS OF (ANTI)CHRISTMAS

On the first day of Christmas my true hate gave to me
... a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the second day of Christmas my true hate gave to me
... two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the third day of Christmas my true hate gave to me
... three flesh wounds, two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the fourth day of Christmas my true hate gave to me
... four warm beers, three flesh wounds, two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the fifth day of Christmas my true hate gave to me
... five rotten eggs! Four warm beers, three flesh wounds, two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true hate gave to me
... six snitches snitching, five rotten eggs! Four warm beers, three flesh wounds, two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the seventh day of Christmas my true hate gave to me
... seven ghouls a-gorging, six snitches snitching, five rotten eggs! Four warm beers, three flesh wounds, two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the eighth day of Christmas my true hate gave to me
... eight lawyers lying, seven ghouls a-gorging, six snitches snitching, five rotten eggs! Four warm beers, three flesh wounds, two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the ninth day of Christmas my true hate gave to me,
... nine beggars whining, eight lawyers lying, seven ghouls a-gorging, six snitches snitching, five rotten eggs! Four warm beers, three flesh wounds, two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the tenth day of Christmas my true hate gave to me,
... ten hags a-whoring, nine beggars whining, eight lawyers lying, seven ghouls a-gorging, six snitches snitching, five rotten eggs! Four warm beers, three flesh wounds, two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the eleventh day of Christmas my true hate gave to me,
... eleven muggers mugging, ten hags a-whoring, nine beggars whining, eight lawyers lying, seven ghouls a-gorging, six snitches snitching, five rotten eggs! Four warm beers, three flesh wounds, two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true hate gave to me,
... twelve hackers hacking, eleven muggers mugging, ten hags a-whoring, nine beggars whining, eight lawyers lying, seven ghouls a-gorging, six snitches snitching, five rotten eggs! Four warm beers, three flesh wounds, two brutal shoves and a gargoyle in a dead tree.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Return to Delhirium

One of the things I did while in Madras was attend one evening of the week-long Other Festival, a privately funded presentation of variegated performance arts. It's been on the events-calendar of the Southern Capital for seven years now and was the brainchild of a powerhouse of human energy called Ranvir Shah. Write that down: his name will one day be synonymous with many things cultural.

Oh and did I mention that he's been my most loyal and consistent patron, having bought my work (paintings and drawings, i.e.) since the early eighties? Yep. Most recently, he commissioned a mural 90 feet long for an interior wall in his house, to be carved in granite by the stone sculptors of Mahaballipuram based on a design by me. On Friday I went over to examine the evidence and was most charmed: after three or four draft drawings, the final result is a discrete number of carved panels set in amongst unadorned grey stone blocks.

My motif, at Ranvir's request, was little cavorting monkeys and I set them amongst lily pads, with a few trailing fronds of some unnamed palm tree. Vikram Phadke, the interior decorator, was responsible for the placement of the motifs along the wall, which borders a long blue-tiled swimming pool. Sunlight entering the open-to-the-sky central courtyard, glances off the water and projects glittering reflections up against the granite. Meanwhile real monkeys cavort in the trees leaning in over the house from the streets around it. Glass doors ensure that nature remains at a discrete remove from the interior. Lunch was outstanding: vegetarian, Gujerati and yum.

Anyway, to return to the Other Festival, the piece I saw was by the actor Arjun Raina -- a highly effective solo performance with supporting media called -- oh darn, I've forgotten the name, but will insert here the next time I log in. But it was, loosely speaking, about call centres: a young man living in New Delhi who earns a living at night by calling US customers of a credit card company to get them to pay their dues. Raina describes his performance as "stand-up tragedy" -- though he might have taken the term a little further along its path and called it "sit-down tragedy" instead, since he is mostly seated. It was an hour of powerful evocation as Raina takes on various accents (well, Indian and Indian-American) and roles to tell a provocative and plausible story of cultural cross-connection.

Must stop here ...

[later today, back at base camp. I never seem to have much luck with those bold tags, huh? Well I think I've quelled 'em for the moment]

Okay, so the name of Raina's performance is "A Terrible Beauty is Born". If any of you get a chance to see it, you should grab it. I liked it as much for what it said as for its method which managed to be effective despite my low threshold for performances by Indians putting on American accents. Raina's accent is passable but if it had been better the piece may have been less effective. Some part of its effect lay in being somewhat rough-hewn. It heightened the impression he gave of being a man walking along the outer edge of an unpleasant new world, the one that's just beyond our doorsteps and will soon be (already is) inside our homes the first chance it gets.

Other culture-notes from Madras, now that I'm no longer there: it's a city where the Olde Worlde and the Industrial Revolution lie side-by-side on the mouse-pad of Today. Flower-sellers still go around door-to-door delivering their ration of strung jasmine chaplets to households which maintain a daily puja, while bare-chested priests ride about on scooters with their dhotis flapping about their legs, racing against moped-riding Brahmin ladies in their silk saris, dropping their long-plaited daughters off to college.

Every day I spend in my mother's house feels like a Japanese art film -- I have to call it a Japanese and not an Indian art film because my mother wears a kimono-like garment at the start and finish of every day and there are certain angles from which, framed in a doorway against the light, leaning on her walker, moving only slightly faster than the minute hand on my Swatch, I can just about hear the sound of a samisen(is this what I think it is? I mean one of those nasal-sounding instruments one hears exclusively in Japanese films). Indian art films move at a different pace. Just as slow, perhaps, but all the action is ultimately about reproduction. Whereas in my mother's world, the story is about fighting for dignity, just as any Samurai might, with every muscle straining and every nerve polished to a mirror-finish. One day, not very long from now, she will lose the fight. She knows this and so she fights ever more valiantly. That's what makes the film both sad and very beautiful.

Ah yes, and that reminds me of another cultural experience I had in Madras, courtesy my computer and a CD. While browsing at the local bookstore, an Amazon.com sort of place called LANDMARK, I came across what I took to be a CD of Mussorgsky's PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION. Hmmm, I thought to myself, THIS is apt! And so I bought it. I first heard PAAE as a rock album by Emerson, Lake & Palmer during the last stone age, and only later became a fan of the classical (original) version. I have loved it ever since but have never owned my own copy of it. Thinking I was remedying this situation -- and feeling pleased on account of the pictures up at MY exhibition -- I bought what turned out to be a DVD.

When I played it on my 'puter, ta-daaaaaa! Pictures. AND music. And very nice they were too. Some thoughtful and market-savvy person has apparently dreamed up the notion of music videos for classical music -- mind you, this can and has got out of hand, as I will explain in my next paragraph -- which results in being able to listen to Mussorgsky while watching various thrilling Russian scenes. One big complaint: Night on Bald Mountain is unaccountably NOT included. Grrr.

I went back and bought three more DVDs. One of them is by Yo-Yo Ma. He shows us, first, a Kabuki dancer and female impersonator performing while he (Y-YM) plays Bach's unaccompanied cello and second, while he plays the cello in NYC's Times Square like any ordinary busker, with the Torvill & Dean ice-dancing couple performing in a studio setting, interspersed with an actor presenting scenes from JSB's life. Hmmmmm. Well. What can I say? There's that word that rhymes with "twitch" hovering just outside hearing range. And yet Y-YM is SO earnest and SO talented ...

I shoulda just stopped while I was ahead, with the Mussorgsky.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Exhib Update!

Well the show opened last night and ... only 15 people turned up!! This would normally have been an unmitigated disaster except for the very pleasant fact that they all apparently loved the work and by evening's end, 20 pieces had been bought (that includes the three that were red-dotted in Delhi thanx to our friend Amro). So the gallery and I are feeling pleased -- though disturbed about the lack of attendance. Apparently it was a busy night on the social circuit (weddings, mostly. Now you know why I detest weddings -- they get in the way of all worthwhile endeavours, such as gallery openings). Twenty paintings out of the fifty (well, 49) on show represents a little over a third, so ... I'm happy.

Anyhow, I thought the most appropriate thing to share at this moment is the "concept note" I prepared for the show. Here it is (the name of the show is "YES" -- have I mentioned this before somewhere? It's been one of my themes for a long while, and is the name of one of the squiggle-paintings too):

YES An Exhibition of Prints and Collages by Manjula Padmanabhan, December 2004, ARTWORLD

The prints were made at Atelier 2221 in New Delhi, from mid-1999 to early 2003. Most of them are zinc-plate etchings with a small handful of lithographs. The crucial difference between graphic art prints such as these and commercial reproductions such as art museum posters is that prints are processed by hand in limited editions of usually between 20 and a hundred impressions while museum reproductions are printed photo-mechanically in the thousands. It is for this reason that prints have sometimes been called “multiple originals”. Despite the effort taken to ensure that each print in an edition is the same as every other, small variations inevitably occur. In that sense, each one really IS unique and original.

These etchings and lithographs were made possible because of the excellent facilities at Delhi’s Atelier 2221, owned by artist and print-maker Pratibha Dakoji. The great pleasure of print-making is that it permits an artist to multiply the effect of one piece of art over several different buyers. Since the cost of a print is usually considerably less than a painting or drawing, it is also a medium through which younger buyers and collectors can buy genuine originals without going broke.

My subjects for the prints are those that have interested me over the years – animal and human figures, depicted in a whimsical manner. There is frequently, in my work, a suggestion of stories, fables and myths underlying the images. But I did not have any particular stories in mind when I created these combinations of heads and bodies. I prefer to leave the viewer free to make up stories to suit the drawings rather than the other way around. These pictures don’t belong to any specific tradition or culture – yet they are recognizable as peacocks or women, cats or carpets. In my view, there is a global language, which most city-dwellers understand, of familiar shapes and forms. These drawings are visual stories told in that language.

The collages, on the other hand, arise from a completely different source. A better name for them might be “hybrids” or “squiggle-paintings”. I began working in the medium maybe a year ago, initially using the paint (a type of acrylic) directly on coloured foam-boards. I think of these pieces as celebrations of form and colour, only loosely related to objects in the real world. There are two or three basic themes. One, for instance, is the idealized sunset: a line separating two colours with a single element representing the sun or any other celestial object (e.g. RED FIELD, LINEAR MOONRISE). Another theme is of an object such as a head or a rock or even two rocks, filling the frame (e.g. ROCK, FACE, PIGEON). A third theme might be called “refraction” – one element, such as a line or a squiggle, is shown passing through some other medium, such as glass or water, and is transformed by it (e.g. GOLD RAIN, RED SHIFT).

A final theme, common to all these squiggle-paintings, is nonconformity. Despite the many repeating patterns of dots, squiggles and lines, not a single element is identical to the others around it. Similar but not the same – to me, this principle reminds us that we are all distinct individuals and ALSO part of a pattern. We ourselves are built from patterns of common elements (atoms and organic chemicals), yet the sum of our millions of tiny similar parts is utterly unique. There are many different patterns represented in these collages. Some are more regular and others are less so. In some, being irregular is the pattern! Looking for patterns, finding them and also attempting to break away from them – this is what I have enjoyed while producing these pieces and what I have hoped to communicate through having this show.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Yup, I'm still alive

For all those who may be puzzled about my silence in recent days ... well, I'm in Madras now and despite three computers in the house, am less than usually able to dial-up. My laptop caught a virus the last time I dialled up and I had to reformat the hard-disk -- which was okay and fairly painless but it's left me with an unwillingness to use it for dialling up any more. My sister's machine, the one I'm using now, is upstairs and hence not available to me on tap 'coz I'm downstairs from it. Also, she's a busy journalist and needs to use her machine a lot. My niece's laptop, which she very kindly loans me when I'm visiting, has developed a tic in Internet Explorer, so it no longer permits me to browse.

So there we are. Limited access. Weird, huh? Two years ago, I'd go into shock if I couldn't dial up every half hour or so. And two years before THAT, I used to wander down to the local cyber cafe -- what my mother misheard and consequently used to call "The Khyber Pass", causing her friends to look at me strangely whenever I returned home, wondering how come I travelled so swiftly back and forth from Afghanistan -- all day long. But today, I'm almost calm about it.

Of course part of the reason for that is the continuing focus on my show. I was over at the gallery yesterday and am happy to report that all the pictures are framed and up on the walls. I think they(the collages) are looking rather sweet -- all the little ones are the same size, i.e., 12"x12", so they look like a sort of running border on the walls, just at head-height. The prints are mostly all on a wall to themselves and look rather sober and serious by comparison to the collages which I have started to refer to as "hybrids" and/or "squiggle paintings", take your pick. Both names are appropriate. They ARE hybrids in the sense that they are neither wholly collage nor really painted at all and they DO employ a large contingent of squiggles in various colours and textures.

The show hasn't opened yet, but a few reactions have been registered, mostly positive. There are five red dots up already! Nice.

And Hurree: yes, I blush and confess that a mere two days after telling you that I was still too repressed to allow you to visit for a viewing at my home, I DID allow Someone Else (who visits this blog) not only to view but to buy. Arrgh. Well there's nothing I can say in my defense except that there's a tipping point -- if I'm still technically "finishing" the work, I won't want to anyone to see it regardless who has come to visit. But past that point, gradually the veils begin to drop away and I am okay with it. Still, I should have signalled to you when I knew that point had been reached ... You are hereby free to whip me upto fifty times with a large soft feather(both peacock and ostrich feathers are good for this). Or deprive me of chocolate cake upto my next three visits at your home. Or both.

Three more days before the show opens. The gallery owners, Sarala and Bishu Bannerji are extremely friendly and seem almost as pleased with the work as I am -- which is unexpected, considering that, like most artists, I feel rather like a cat with kittens (funny how frequently I find analogies between myself and cats. Must be the combined influence of my sister Su's Siamese Callas and Hurree's marmalade Tiglath) when I gaze upon my stuff, now framed between black and gold borders, on the walls of their gallery. Anyway, they are the first gallery owners with whom I feel comfortable -- they seem to really enjoy dealing in art, even though they've had their share of burns from unscrupulous artists.

And so to close. I'm still doing some of my homework -- making up lists of names to send invitations to (yes, STILL! Apparently no-one comes anyway, but you've got to send the invitations out, even if they reach the recipients only on the day of the opening) and all the names of the items on view, plus prices and a bit of bio-data for myself. *yawn*

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

That Locked-Into-A-Shower-Cabinet Feeling

Every time I have an exhibition, I am amazed anew at how much hard work goes into a show. I don't know whether that's just because I haven't had very many. The one I've been preparing for, in Madras, is perhaps my ninth or tenth(I haven't been keeping track over the thirty-plus years from the time of the first one).

By hard work I DON'T mean the exhibits themselves but all the other stuff. The getting-the-work-ready-for-show stuff. The invitations. The guest list. The list of artworks. Recording the works on film (CD, now) so that I don't lose them forever in case any of them get sold. A brochure (I am not planning to print one -- I never have, so far. Too expensive. But there's got to be an "artist statement" accompanying the price list or else the reporters who wander in to stare uncomprehendingly at the work have no material to print up in their paragraph or two of press coverage. Left to themselves, they write descriptive passages such as: "There are some coloured patches on the walls") Just the sheer girding-of-neurons for putting the work on display.

Of course, I could greatly ease my burdens by choosing to have shows in the city of my residence. But that would be tooooo simple. So instead, I keep choosing to go ELSEWHERE, which involves not only packing the work but having to decide whether to frame the pieces before despatch or after. If before, it means that every item weighs three times as much as it might without the frame, and I increase the price of the work by the cost of the freight AND face the stress of traveling with large bits of unwieldy luggage. If after, it means shredding my nerves with tension, as the framing gets done in the five minutes between the time of my arrival in the city of the show and the show's opening. So far, I've gone for a mix of options -- framing some pieces before the show and others at the last minute, depending on size. For this show, however, all the frames are going to have to be done after arrival ... arggh. My nerves are pre-shredded.

Maybe other artists consider all of this as part of the territory of art. I feel towards it like a cat feels when it has been locked into a shower cabinet, with the hot water ON. But there's no option: if I produce work, I have to show it. The only artists who can get away with not having shows are those who are so successful that the world snatches their work wet off their canvases. And the route by which they get to be that successful is by having shows relentlessly, year in, year out, seducing reviewers, bullying patrons, bending over like contortionists until they reach the promised land of infinite saleability.

Meanwhile ... I've still gotta pack my pieces and fly away, on Friday morning. So far, I've got all the work completed -- aside from my prints, of which I will show around thirty pieces, there are 29 of my new stuff, what I'm going to be calling "hybrids" or "squiggle paintings" in my mission statement -- 24 in the 12"x12" size and five in the 18"x24" size. Their formal name is "mixed media collages" but so far everyone to whom I have said that has looked blank -- and well they might, because it doesn't say very much, does it? Neither does "hybrid" but at least it indicates the neither-fish-nor-fowl nature of the little critters and "squiggle paintings" give you a fair impression of one of their lead features -- i.e., very many coloured squiggles.

A few friends have been over to see them. Of them two have said they love them -- and one bought three right away! Of course I can only release them after the show but STILL ... it's very encouraging (oi, you! In case you're reading this, take a bow, please!). On the other hand, since this particular friend is an unusual person, unique in several ways, perhaps his tastes are a bit otherworldly ... ? Only kidding! Another friend, however, was disapproving. She felt I had neither explored the medium enough for it to be authentically funky, nor do the pieces have enough finesse to be fully valid as art.

She was frankly disappointed and we have spent a couple of hours trying to talk ourselves through this difficult patch. There are uneasy moments to be negotiated, like slippery patches of ice on the sidewalk, when a friend can't say she/he likes the work one has shown to her/him. On the one hand, I believe a friend has the absolute right to be unimpressed. On the other hand, the sense of having failed is usually painful to deal with. I can remember one moment, a very long time ago, when I had just finished a canvas -- it was still literally wet, and I was very pleased with it. It represented a distinct departure in style, something that I still think of as a turning point (it was aconceptual portrait of my niece, then about nine years old). But a friend walked in the door of my room that very morning, the first morning of its life, saw the painting, wrinkled his nose and said, "Yuck. Not good."

Oo!! That was hard. A punch straight to the SOULar plexus. He was being honest, but brutal too, under the circumstances. I never quite forgave him. It would have been okay a few days later, and perhaps in softer words. Or perhaps it would never have been okay ... I don't know. I am not particularly sensitive and react fairly cheerfully to criticism. But I have some issues with timing. In general, I avoid showing work when it is still in progress or when I'm trying something out for the first time. I really do hate being watched at work -- I don't even like to be asked whether I am about to start working on a drawing/painting -- it feels like ants crawling on the underside of my skull, yow. Just the thought of it right now is NASTY. Once I'm finished, though, I'm usually very calm and accepting of whatever people might say -- it's a bit like closing the door while changing clothes, but not caring if people boo when you come out wearing a glitter-bra over a khaki-coloured nun's habit.

Anyway, with the current work, I am happy to report, the issue of pain doesn't seem to arise. It's hard to say exactly why. Maybe it's because these things are sort of informal. Light-hearted. I am thrilled with them, but I realize there are many others who will not be. I know from my mother's reaction -- she saw four of the initial pieces I took with me to Madras on my visit of two months ago and said, "But where is the art in this?" -- that my friend of last week, the disappointed one, is not alone in her opinion. I am so sure of her motives however (I mean, I know that her disappointment arises from her desire to wish the best for me) that I can look upon her reaction as a kind of innoculation against all the rough moments that are the typical fallout of a show, even the low-key type I have. There will be annoying reporters and relatives who will look disturbed and long periods during which nothing at all happens except the thud of each minute following the next, with no new visitors and that cold, empty question hanging in the air: "Why don't I go home, drown my sorrows in KitKat and forget about being an artist?"

Ah well. More next week! The show is scheduled to begin on the 8th.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

... and in other news

Just because I've been in a creative frenzy doesn't mean that I've left off fretting about the US election results. And neither have several of my friends. Here are two thought-provoking links sent to me/us by friends:US Election Results 2004, by IQ and
Sorry, Everyone.

Two other friends sent longer documents, one of which is worded in the kind of paint-stripping language which isn't ideal for a nice little blog like this one(but I will send it along to those who ask politely for it, if they can assure me that under-age eyes will not be exposed to it). Here's the other one, sent by friends in Rhode Island:


California letter of Secession

Dear President Bush,

Congratulations on your victory over all us non-evangelicals.

Actually, we're a bit ticked off here in California, so we're leaving you. California will now be its own country. And we're taking all the Blue States with us. In case you are not aware, that includes Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, all of the North East States, and the urban half of Ohio.

We spoke to God, and she agrees that this split will be beneficial to almost everybody, and especially to us in the new country of California. In fact, God is so excited about it, she's going to shift the whole country at 4:30 pm EST this Friday.

Therefore, please let everyone know they need to be back in their states by then. God is going to give us the Pacific Ocean and Hollywood. In addition, we're getting San Diego. (Sorry, that's just how it goes.) But God is letting you have the KKK and country music (except the Dixie Chicks). Just so we're clear, the country of California will be pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, and anti-war.

Speaking of war, we're going to need all Blue States citizens back from Iraq. If you need people to fight in Falujah, just ask your evangelical voters. They have tons of kids they're willing to send to their deaths for absolutely no purpose. And they don't care if you don't show pictures of their kids' caskets coming home.

So, you get Texas and all the former slave states, and we get the Governator and stem cell research. (We would love you to take Britney Spears off our hands, though. She IS from the south, right?)

Since we get New York, you'll have to come up with your own late night TV shows because we get MTV, Letterman, the Daily Show and Conan O'Brien. You get ... well, why don't you ask your people at Fox News to come up with something entertaining? (Maybe you should just watch Crossfire. That's a really funny show.)

We wish you all the best in the next four years and we hope, really hope, you find those missing weapons of mass destruction.
Seriously. Soon.

Sincerely, California

Thursday, November 11, 2004

BEING AN EXHIBITIONIST

Ever since I returned to Delhi from Madras, I've been whirring like a bumble-bee, producing exhibits for an art show I expect to have in Madras, in December this year.

I'm going to be showing two types of work: one, a series of etchings (including a couple of lithographs) and the other, a series of small collages in hand-made paper and acrylic paint. The show will be held at ARTWORLD, a pleasant family-owned gallery, run by Sarla and Bishu Bannerji.

I've shown the etchings before and so am not terribly worried about how they will be received -- I know they are at least competent at the level of drawing. It's the other ones, the collages, that will represent very new work for me and I am curious to know how they will be received.

My work is normally easy to recognize for what it is -- as an illustrator, I tend toward black-and-white line-drawings, clearly representational, with decoration worked into the clothes and background. My etchings are an extension of this work. Most of them feature figures of people and animals or combinations thereof.

The new collages, however, are explorations in colour and texture, almost wholly abstract. I began playing around with hand-made paper about a year ago, entirely because I happened to visit a wonderful store filled from floor to ceiling (well, okay, not QUITE the ceiling) with thrilling colours and textures of paper. I have always had a lurking fondness for pure colour-fields, and have always liked the early cubists for their starkness and purity. Of course the sad (and obvious) feature of their work is that once you have seen one all-red painting, you've pretty much seen every all-red painting: the surprise -- the "hook" -- that type of art uses can't be repeated very often before becoming repetitive.

In my current work, I am not pretending to any terrific new insights -- truly, all I have is bits of paper and some paint, combined together in very simple arrangments -- but I've had so much delight making these pieces that I feel the need to share them. This is, for me, a sharp departure from the way I normally work. Perhaps because of my years as an illustrator, when I draw, I am usually very concsious of how the result will be interpreted by another observer -- an illustrator NEEDS to be conscious of the third-person perspective, because the usual purpose of an illustration is to augment or illuminate (literally -- the word suggests the meaning of "bringing light to") some other thing, most often a piece of text.

While working on my etchings, I continued in the same basic vein, though I was no longer embellishing some text. I was amused to see the images that emerged. There is a range of familiar themes -- people of one sort or another, slightly stylized and in some cases distorted -- presented with an edge of whimsy: the bull with the man's head and the dogs with bird-faces; the carpet-couple and their trio of child-rugs; the faintly smirking lioness; all in clean lines on plain paper. I could not break myself of the habit of drawing with unseen observers hovering just behind my shoulder so in a sense, when people respond to my work, I half-anticipate whatever they might say.

With the collages, by contrast, I cannot sense any presences beside me. I am alone and playing with the paper, feeling almost surprised to be reduced to this child-state of pleasure. I smile when I have cut a broad stripe of knobbly turquoise blue and placed it hot against a dense, fuzzy black sheet, shot through with wriggling bits of satin thread. It is a very simple pleasure, completely unrelated to the very familiar pleasure of completing a drawing while knowing that it is, for its type of drawing, accomplished.

There is a certain undeniable sense of ambition and conquest in the second pleasure, an element of competition (i.e., with other talents and forces in the world). With the first there can't be anything but just my own, private, inarticulate delight. There's no way to share it -- like (for instance) the wholly internal pleasure of ice-cream -- except by inviting someone else to try it, and to HOPE that they will experience the same pleasure ... There is, after all, no way of knowing for sure.

Each time I have completed a piece -- most of which are small: 12 inches square -- I stand back, trying to imagine if anyone else, seeing it, might get the same pleasure as I do when I look at it. So far (since I haven't shown these pieces to more than a couple of people) I haven't had much to go by in the way of response. The few people who have seen these new ones have said they like them, but then, since these respondents have been my close family, I don't really expect objective responses (though they would FIERCELY deny any partisan feelings!!). I am not very hopeful, but at the same time, I am undeterred. How odd it is, and how different from my usual working methods, to be unconcerned what the observer -- The Observer -- is going to think! Is this it, then? Is this what it feels like to be an artist?

I will eventually post pix at my currently defunct Magnoliazone web-site, whereupon I will also post a link here to the site.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Waking Up To Reality

It's almost a relief. All these weeks of suspense, imagining there was a chance that the Democrats could win the US presidential election when the cards were stacked so heavily against them, have now ended. We can resume life as we know it, extracting tiny scraps of meaning from the great blocks of brutishness and stupidity that surround us.

I will admit that the early hours of Wednesday were grim -- it was awful to see the numbers crawling up, never quite crossing the mark and then ... ahhhh. Knowing that Bush actually won the popular vote this time makes it all the more disheartening, though, like I said, it's a weird kind of relief, a negative relief. It's better for those of us who believe in freedom, democracy, human dignity, respect for all living things, respect for the planet, to KNOW the truth about the rest of humanity, than to live in ignorance of what the majority of our species is like. It helps us to be on our guard and it keeps us alert. It makes it impossible for us to pretend that something like a single election in just one of the world's nations -- even if that nation is the most powerful one, currently -- would be enough to turn our species off the lemming-path it is currently racing along.

So after an initial morning of melancholia, I have slipped back into my normal life -- as, I am sure, have most of us. No doubt the Republicans are wriggling about in their pleasure-palaces, like leeches in a blood bank, feeling obscenely thrilled with themselves. But they're on the same planet as the rest of us, and when their shameless excesses rebound on everybody, they will suffer too -- EVENTUALLY.

This is cold comfort, of course. But what else is there to think about now? After all: if you and I can afford to spend a small part of our lives on the internet, surfing non-essential websites such as this one, it means, most likely, that we spend only the tiniest part of our working day fretting about environmental and political realities. By contrast, there are millions of fellow-humans for whom there is no stepping back from the crisis -- they do not say, "Oh, things are bound to get worse!" because for them there is nothing worse than what they live with TODAY.

So it occurred to me, as I fretted in my genteel, armchair-ridden way, that there's no genteel approach to solving the world's problems. The day will come when there will be no armchairs, and no leisure time, not even for the wealthy. This is already true in some parts of the world, but until it's true for everyone, the chances are ... we'll do what we can to maintain the status quo to suit wherever we're at.

This is a bleak thought, yes. But I was thinking about the Black Death today (there's a sort of reason for it -- I mean, aside from the Republican victory -- some months ago, I posted small note-papers in different rooms in the house, with historical events listed per century on them. It's supposedly a method of remembering what happened in which century. Today, standing in the 1300s, which happens to coincide with the kitchen, I caught a glimpse of my note-paper, peeping out from behind a shelf-door, where it had been hidden for some months) and I was thinking about the almost inconceivable horror of those times: the darkness of ignorance competing with the nightmare scourge whose cause and remedy were to remain unknown for countless decades ahead.

Quite possibly, we are sliding towards another type of cataclysm, along different lines perhaps, but surely just as horrific. Knowing this may not save us from the slide. Then again, maybe we can become more conscientious about conserving those things that are good and worth saving so that whenever next humankind heaves its way up out of the slime again, our era will be interpreted accurately. Books, I think, are the best way to preserve a record of what we have known of reality -- I don't think electronic data will be retrievable as readily as books.

Stone would be better, of course, but a trifle bulky.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

FEMINALIEN

A young M.Phil student has made my work the subject of her dissertation. We corresponded by e-mail earlier this year and met a couple of times. Last month, she was kind enough to send me a CD containing the dissertation. I can't tell you its title or her name yet but will hope to, some time in January next year. For the purposes of this post, I'll refer to her as "M.Phil.". And yes, it's all been rather fun.

She's focused specifically on two stories from "Hot Death, Cold Soup" -- the title story and Stains -- and on "Getting There". It was particularly satisfying for me to see a close reading of GT. At the time I wrote the book, I had hoped it would be picked up for its comments about feminism and the protagonist(i.e., myself)'s difficulties in relation to the movement at least as much for its description of my ill-fated trip to Holland.

Alas, with reviewers like Anita Roy dismissing it as "chick lit"(though I think she meant it as a compliment), there wasn't much chance of that -- it got its scattering of chuckles and raspberries, before being forgotten. I felt suitably put in my place. My editor did try to warn me that the book would do better if positioned as a "novel", but I couldn't stomach that idea. The whole point of writing the book (for me) was to produce a sort of confessional, even though it's a very mild one as confessionals go. No way I was going to pass it off as fiction!

So it reached the market looking neither like a novel nor a panties-off memory-download. I hated the cover (a cheap rip-off of an Air France ad) and felt that the publisher (Picador UK) had lost confidence in the book, which in turn meant that I lost confidence in it myself. I wished -- and STILL wish -- they had agreed with me, that one of my drawings on the cover would have made all the sense in the world. *sigh* The book wouldn't have done any better on the market, but at least it would have looked stylish or, next best, weird.

Given this history, it is certainly VERY gratifying that someone has bothered to give the book serious consideration. M.Phil's point of entry is feminism, an ideology that she subscribes to and has made the focus of her work. My initial response to her, when she wrote to say she was going to be looking at my work through feminist spectacles was that I don't call myself a feminist any more, which may make it rather difficult for her to proceed. But she persevered. The result, I think, is quite interesting.

I continue to maintain that I'm not a feminist while M.Phil. believes, regardless of what I say about myself, that my work is surely irrigated very liberally by streams of feminist thought. And yes, I would agree, it is. Does this mean I can never cease to be a feminist? Or are we allowed to switch off our ideological orientation in mid-life? And if we do, does that mean we are doomed to drift, rudderless, through the rest of our lives? Or that we cannot be trusted to maintain any set of deeply cherished truths? Or is it possible to find other, equally great or greater, truths in mid-life (and beyond)?

I don't know.

Between the ages of 17 and 30, I would have definitely described myself as a feminist, even though I was starting to fall off (as described in GT) the platform in my mid-twenties. By my mid-thirties I was uncomfortable being included in feminist forums, but was still okay being connected with Kali for Women, the publisher who brought out "Hot Death ..". By that time, in 1996, I was 43 and had confessed to Urvashi (Butalia, co-founder, with Ritu Menon, of KfW) that I no longer called myself a feminist. She said it was all right, she didn't mind(though I think Ritu may have). I felt guilty: I was and still am very grateful to Kali for publishing my stories and I continue to think that the printing of Hot Death was easily my most pleasurable publishing moment. Nevertheless, even at the time it came out, I think it may have been more honest to say that I was actually uncomfortable being FEMALE, not just a feminist.

This is a statement that I make with boring frequency even though I know I'm never taken very seriously. It's an irritating statement, because it's like someone saying she wants to run away from her own shadow. It can't be done -- and that being the case, it makes much better sense to enjoy what there is, than to be forever trying to run away from it. I know this. Still and all ... I run.

It's not that I'm interested in becoming or being some other sex(once upon a time there were two sexes, then three, then some time in the eighties it was reported that there were seven recognized sexes -- sexualities, perhaps is the better term -- but now, news just in from the front suggests there are at least thirteen. And growing). All regardless -- and perhaps because I am routinely asked to participate in feminist programs or co-opted for inclusion as a woman-artist or woman-writer (I turn down most invitations of this sort) -- I find myself butting my head against the familiar old walls, finding the familiar old bumps and bruises.

Speaking to M.Phil and reading her dissertation brought all the territory up once more. Once more the lurking, whisper-in-the-gut guilt -- there's a sense in which being a lapsed feminist is like breaking a sacred trust -- like saying "I don't believe in fairies!" out loud, and immediately flashing mental video of Tinkerbell, fluttering in distress ...

I believe that feminism is an ideology which works very well -- is perhaps crucially important -- for young women. Given the tough options life offers them, it becomes really useful to have something gender-specific to hang onto, to believe in and to build confidence. It's later on that it becomes harder to believe seriously in the idea that men and women are on a par or that there's justice and fair-play in the world.

Those of us (women) who have relatively pleasant and stress-free lives, when we look around -- how is it possible to ignore the wretchedness of other women's lives? How is it possible to sever the link between their female condition and their fate? I mean: is it possible to maintain the view that men and women "can" live as equals when we can see that equality between the sexes is by no means the norm anywhere in the animal kingdom, including amongst our species?

I have for a long time toyed with the notion that the problem (i.e., MY problem) with feminism lies in the defining label -- that is, the word "feminism" is what bothers me. It suggests that it's specific to women, whereas perhaps -- and this is only a trial-idea -- a better term would be one that suggests a grand general freeing up of humans from the trap of their birth-condition so that they can achieve whatever is the maximum of their potential. Or at any rate, just be happy.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Regarding Patriotism

A recent e-friend sent me an essay he wrote in 2002 called "On Patriotism". He was responding to the then-crisis of the Indo-Pak stand-off at the borders in late spring. Reading his essay reminded me of my own bleak thoughts on the subject:

For some years now, it's been clear to me that patriotism is no longer a worthwhile ideal. More destruction and grief is sponsored in its name, more envy, greed and vanity, than anything else. Most of us are brought up to feel an automatic devotion to the flags and anthems under which we are born, and most of us respond with warm loyalty. I wasn't any different when I was a child, but I grew up outside my country. I can remember the sense of pained shock and disbelief I felt when I returned at the age of eight -- nothing I saw around me conformed to my ideal of a country that I could feel proud of, or love.

Today of course, what I'm questioning is the need to feel those kinds of emotions at all, in reference to countries. We make a mistake, I feel, in thinking of countries as people. Assigning them personal pronouns and ascribing emotions to them merely distorts our understanding of what they are: groups of humans collected under a banner, in a particular geographical location. When we make countries into people, we set ourselves up for feeling emotional about them, as if they were our parents or our enemies. But they are nothing of the sort. They are figments of the collective imagination, merely a means of organizing humans into groups, quite often arbitrarily. Many countries are populated by several different ethnic groups, even though the governments of most nations try to put forward an image of homogeneity or choose one group over other groups as being the most representative.

Patriotism is a false ideal. Unlike (say) love or devotion to our parents, or the desire for food, there's nothing natural about patriotism. It's something we have to be taught, which we would never learn on our own without specific prompting. Its aim is to inspire loyalty in individuals so that they will act in the national interest when called upon, rather than in their own interest or in the interest of something larger than a single nation's or individual's needs. Most of us are brought up to relate to Our Country as if it were a benign parent, yet as adults we're surely aware that there's very little confirm this status.

Mostly, what we learn to understand as we grow up is that Our Country is US -- we make it what it is by our pattern of voting and tax-payment. If we're conscientious and if the machinery of government works smoothly, we can ensure a tolerable standard of living for ourselves. Most often, though, we discover that there's no special mystique to citizenship: however much sentiment we load onto the plate of patriotism, it can just as easily be tipped up and replaced by despair or contempt following a change of government. Contrast this against feelings towards parents/family -- whether we love them or hate them, there is an internal stickiness to familial bonds that can't be erased by fiat. They can't be forged artificially either: it has surely happened often enough that a person is brought up out of contact from his/her biological family and finds, when united, that sharing DNA isn't enough after all. It's like missing something crucial like a tongue or a retina at birth -- even if artificial substitutes can be constructed by medical science later on, the nervous system will not have developed a vocabulary of comprehension. An artificial eye (even if such a thing existed) could only work on someone who had already learnt to see.

I believe that the effort of instilling patriotism is a little bit like attempting to install a sense organ -- such as an eye or a tongue -- for which there is no corresponding neural network in the human brain. Many of us are conditioned to believe there is, so we can fool ourselves into responding emotionally to claims upon our patriotism but the fact that some people can transfer their allegiance to other countries and to other ideologies suggests that the same is true for all of us.

Consider for instance the way that the patriotic citizens of all the various countries on this planet appear to feel equally passionate about their nations' history/geography/culture/biota: how do we make sense of that passion? How is it possible for every citizen to be right? Either everyone is equally deluded about his/her own country's virtues or there are real differences in the physical and cultural assets of nations, yet everyone is brought up to be blind to the assets of all other nations save their own. Either way, there is self-deception.

I can remember, for instance, feeling so vain to know that I belonged to the nation that housed the Taj Mahal! But over time, as I met the citizens of countries that housed (say) the pyramids or the Golden Buddha, or Mt Everest or the Great Barrier Reef ... well, the preciousness of my national asset seemed hard to maintain -- not because it was less or more, but only because it seemed rather the same. There's no way I can decide whether or not the Taj Mahal is more precious than the Great Barrier Reef or the Great Wall of China. So I would rather avoid the whole business of feeling proud or not-proud -- after all, how can I lay claim to the beauty of the Taj? It's just a coincidence that I happened to be born whithin the geo-political entity that contains the monument. It really owes nothing to my efforts or even my ancestry. I can admire it and enjoy it, I can be astounded by the craftsmanship that went into it -- just the same as I can enjoy the Sphinx or the Great Wall -- and that's about all.

It would be so great if, wandering the globe, we could all be enabled to think: there's our Sphinx -- our Machu Pichu -- our Easter Island -- our golden marmoset -- our Grand Canyon -- our Emperor Penguins -- everything belongs to every one of us resident on this planet and we can all rejoice equally in all of it.

Of course, in the real world, what matters is economic rather than cultural assets. If we as a species could pool the world's resources of petroleum, wood, water, agricultural land and all the rest, PERHAPS we'd have made the first true step towards unity, peace and international understanding. Then again, if we really did pool our resources, if we really did dole out assets on an equitable basis so that no nation or ethnic group had a greater share of the pie than any other ...

*sigh*

Wouldn't last a decade, would it?

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

An Elegant Darkness

Back in the capital. My final night in Madras was spent speeding my way through a novel called "A Dark-Adapted Eye" by Ruth Rendell writing in her persona as Barbara Vine. R.R. is best known for her carefully crafted murder-mysteries, but I've never managed to get into any of her books before. Maybe I've just never tried, or maybe the ones I've dipped into previously haven't had quite the quality of highly polished, finely tuned intrigue that this one has.

It begins with a situation in which a family of three, a daughter and both her parents await the hour of a relative's death. My first assumption was that all three were conspirators in a murder, because the narrator tells us that there's only one situation in which we can know the exact moment down to the minute of a person's death-to-be. Ah yes, I say to myself, it's going to be one of THOSE books, in which a whole family is party to a ... then I realize I'm wrong. It's no mere murder that the family is silently awaiting the exact timing of, but a hanging. The father's sister is a condemned woman. The narrator's voice, belonging to the to-be-hanged woman's niece, allows us to share the singularity of such a situation and with this introduction leads us step by gentle step down a cold and tragic path.

The quality of this book lies in the exquisite care with which the characters are drawn and the astonishing complexity of a plot that appears at first glance almost pitifully obvious. Since we know without doubt that a violent crime has occurred as a result of which a woman is hanged, what remains is to understand the nature of the crime and the background to it. It is an unusual entry point to a murder mystery -- because there seems to be no mystery. And yet ... there is. Not only is it one that makes for compelling reading, it remains a mystery right till the very last page. And perhaps even beyond it.

The story is located in a small village in England and much of the action takes place during the war years, between the first and second, then into the second and ending somewhat after it. The exposition of the plot takes place at a slow but exceedingly precise pace, like a highly detailed tableau in cross-stitch. We are introduced in pairs and groupings to the members of an English middle-class family, with care taken to show to what precise degree each one is set off from their preferred locations on England's social scale and why. The story centres on two women, the aunt who is hanged at the beginning of the book, Vera Hallyard and her younger sister Eden.

There is a powerful sense of place and the author's absolute understanding of social niceties pickled in time, even as she reveals them in transition. Whereas our murderers of today are often presented as psychotic freaks, the woman at the heart this story is neither a psychotic, nor a freak. Just an unfortunate being, trapped in the amber of her situation, unable to break out of it, unable to bear it. In her desperate condition, we might all glimpse a mirror of so many familiar family situations -- the kindly uncle who slopes into alcoholism, the beautiful cousin who throws away all her chances for a worthless swain, the chance encounter that reveals a vast clanking machinery of hidden passion that was undreamt of till that moment.

It's not the kind of book that will be found in bookshops, but it was in the British Council Library in Madras -- and that, of course, was why I HAD to finish it all in one desperate day, ending bleary-eyed but hugely satisfied at 4.15 a.m.! Fortunately my flight was scheduled for the afternoon and I had 12 hours left in which to gather my wits and return to Delhirium.

Ah yes -- and I also managed to visit my favourite little bookshop, the well-loved, the one-and-only GIGGLES of Connemara Hotel. The owner, Nalini Chettur, is famous for her ability to assess a reader's tastes, always managing to offer up delicacies for each individual's reading needs. She does a great line in coffee and conversation too, so I came away from my encounter feeling well-stuffed besides being laden down with EIGHT books. Two I have despatched without much amusement, but they were ones that I asked for, not offered by Nalini: ARABAT by Clive Barker and ERAGON by Christopher Paolini -- the latter was much vaunted, as its author was 15 when he wrote it. However it doesn't(I'm still reading it) hold my interest, despite a fetching dragon on the cover. The former, about a young girl's adventures in a mysterious OtherSpace called The Arabat simply didn't(I've stopped reading it) hold my attention beyond the first six chapters being neither magical nor well-written enough for me. *shrug* Guess I don't share tastes with the millions of readers who made this a coast-to-coast bestseller in the US.

The others are much more promising. Two by Henry Petroski, who writes marvellous essays on design: SMALL THINGS CONSIDERED and PUSHING THE LIMITS; a Desmond Morris with all the usual pop-sexy trivia: THE NAKED WOMAN; Umberto Eco with ON BEAUTY; MAY CONTAIN NUTS edited by Michael Rosen, a compendium of USAnian humour pieces and THE FULL CUPBOARD OF LIFE by Alexander McCall Smith about our favourite Botswana Detective, Mma Ramotswe. I will report on them as I read 'em, though of course the Eco and Morris are really sort of picture books and won't yield much in the way of reading.

And as for Bartimaeus ... not now, Kato, not now!

Friday, October 22, 2004

Gator Grabbing

Well today I picked up a Nalligator. Yep. A two-year old female, all of two feet long, with the dearest little paws and diminutive ridges all down her scaly back and a smooth-as-silk underbelly and the tiniest, darlingest wee set of razor-sharp teeth you ever saw ...

Yes, it's true, I am a gator-grabber. Actually, a general reptile-fancier, though I'm not brave enough to go running after wrigglies in the wild. But show me a hand-reared, farm-bred beast and I'm ready to place my extremities at risk -- because, of course, there IS no risk, with a friendly, attractive handler standing around, holding the beastie by its neck and tail before placing it carefully in my hands.

This interesting event occurred this afternoon at Madras's Crocodile Bank, a well-known tourist attraction started by Rom Whitaker and his (ex)wife Zai. They also started the equally well-known Madras Snake Park. I've been to the Croc Farm before and watched the snake-venom extraction and gawped at their (now) 16-foot Salt Water Croc, the largest of the world's crocodillian (sp?) species some of which grow upto 25 feet. But this was the first time I ever had a hands-on encounter. There was a rather fetching Green Iguana too, with skin the colour of moss and the texture of a very sturdy foot-scraper. I would have liked to get up close and cuddly to the gharials but our charming guide, a personal friend of my niece's, assured us that despite their impossibly dainty-looking jaws -- they look like a pair of pencil leads equipped with double rows of inch-long sharp white teeth tacked onto standard-issue crocodillian head and body -- they can do damage when provoked. Of course, human beings are not their average prey so they'd much rather run and hide when faced by one of us, except when defending a nest, whereupon they might stand their ground and wave their snaggle-toothed snouts threateningly in our direction.

While we watched, we saw a wading bird -- a Lesser Heron, I think -- actually snatch a fish out of the water not five inches away from a lurking gharial. And what did our ferocious aquatic predator do? Nada, that's what. No wonder they're on the endangered list! They can't even confront a Lesser Heron, for gosh sakes, how will they ever face the challenge of sharing a planet with the Supreme Predator of All -- i.e., us?

While at the Crocodile Farm, it was hard to ignore the several herds of Supreme Predator Familiensis. I have grown so misanthropic that when I see children dangling close to crocodile-pits, my one instinct is to push them in. Words such as "culling", "extermination" and "triage" come to mind -- nasty words, such as might be encountered only under extreme conditions like war and genocide -- but when one witnesses the rate at which our species is reproducing, surely we have to realize that these ARE extreme conditions? Catastrophic reproduction, spreading squirmy, greasy human duckweed across the face of our once beautiful water-planet ...

Okay, time to stop. Gotta suppress my demons and go to sleep -- ah, speaking of demons: I did promise to write an appreciation of BARTIMAEUS didn't I? But not tonight.


Sunday, October 17, 2004

BLOGGING ON

For the past week, I've been in Madras in the bosom of my family. I do love being 'home' -- it isn't home in any sense except that my Mother lives here and also in the sense that I don't have any other plausible base -- but I am also strangely transformed when I am surrounded by my nearest and dearest. For instance, I found I couldn't blog while I was sharing this room with my sister and niece, even though we are all self-contained and have no difficulty leaving the others alone while we pursue our various private obsessions. I could, for instance, play URU's expansion packs while my sister complained about my lack of manners/taste/sense -- but blogging? No, I couldn't do that.

Lots of interesting things seen and done. It is so curious to be immersed in multiple streams of consciousness. For instance, in the past week, one of the on-going stories concerns a young first-cousin-once-removed (i.e., the offspring of a first cousin), a girl. There's a long, complex story involved but this week's episode saw this eighteen year-old of divorced parents choosing to leave the comfort and security of her grandparents' home to live with her largely-absentee (so far) mother. What has amazed and saddened several observers is that by doing this, the girl seems bent on destroying her chance at going to college (the grandparents begged of her to wait till she'd got a degree before leaving their care -- she'd already had one month in the hostel, and had started attending classes) in favour of a mother who has never been able to hold down a job and who has no independent means of support. Yet from her point, this lady is her MOM and certainly in the eyes of most outside observers, a mother's bond with a child can never be substituted by any other agency, however well-intentioned.

Of course there are many more twists and complexities, but at the heart of the story is the question: is a parent/child bond really all that sacred? Is there too much sentiment riding on these issues? Of course each individual will have his or her own perspective, based on his or her own experience of life. My own view is that the girl is making an idiotic mistake but then ... that's just me. I find emotional/sentimental resolutions unnerving and irritating, but apparently most humans thrive on them.

Another weird point that I find myself contemplating when I am surrounded by family, and thus living in a psycho-social bath of personal-histories streaming away on every side -- couplings, recouplings, replications, terminations, renewals, reversals, tragedies, triumphs -- a rather unfortunate thought keeps recurring: that at least from the point of view of the traditional world, having daughters really IS a drag. Isn't this a ghastly realization to have? But really, when I hear several variations upon the theme of people who beget daughters, then keep them contained in tiny, air-tight containers, then shatter into vicious little fragments when the daughter -- god curse her hormones! -- succumbs to evolutionary forces and gets preggers ... well, from the point of view of such people -- who represent apparently the over-whelming mass of the world -- a daughter is a blue-chip liability. But it's not because of anything inherently nasty about the female condition; it's the inability of human society to cope with the realities of reproduction. A very carefully plotted, cunningly maintained and ferociously defended form of extreme stupidity.

Aside from these disturbing ideas ... I can report that the most interesting read I've had in a while has been the first two books of the BARTIMAEUS TRILOGY, by Jonathan Stroud. Utterly delicious. When I am feeling strong enough (in a day or two) I will post a long appreciation.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

A Minor Whine

The other day, I took a short walk out of the gated colony in which I live, to the nearby market. As I approached the back-gate, a man passing within a few feet of me, turned his face to one side, away from me, and spat.

Let me be clear: I knew he wasn't spitting AT me; he was small-built and spare, shorter than me, wearing a workman's grimy pajamas and thin vest, dark-skinned, black-haired, moustachioed. He might have been a carpenter or day-labourer. Such a person, typically, is brought up to feel he doesn't have the right to look directly at someone like me, and so he doesn't. Yet I knew that the spitting action was in some way related to my presence on the street, because it's a gesture I've seen many times: a quick, sideways voiding of bodily waste, by men and sometimes women too, who spit as an instinctive response to feeling discomfort.

It's really not a big deal, because it happens all the time. The only difference, perhaps, on this occasion, was that I was still under the spell of New York. I had not yet zipped up my custom-designed invisi-lenses which protect me from sights I'd rather not see while out on the streets here. So I noticed the gesture more than I normally would, more than I WILL, in a few weeks from now, when it will have become so routine that I will no longer pay attention to it. It got me thinking about the way it makes me feel to know that my sheer presence can cause another human being to feel the need to void a little body fluid.

It was not because of anything particular in my personal appearance -- actually it probably had very little to do with me personally. It was a generic response to something unfamiliar or unexpected. Maybe my presence there on the back-lane, en route to the back-gate took that young labourer by surprise. Maybe my hair was a little too short or my blouse a little too bright a shade of red for his taste. Whatever it was, the sight of me triggered a response. I am sure the man would be astonished to hear that I (a) noticed his action (b) thought twice about it. Because another feature of the exchange, if I can call it that, was that it was supposed to pass unnoticed. I don't believe the labourer intended me to notice his action, and it's even possible that I'm simply over-reacting to something that had nothing to do with me. He had a need to spit, I happened to pass by at that precise moment, and so when he spat, I imagined it was on account of me.

Except that it happens routinely. At any time, when I am walking around in a public place, it can happen that someone passing by me -- a cyclist, an autorickshaw driver -- turns his head to one side and spits.

Most of the time, it's true, I screen it out of my mind. I'm sure that's a much more practical response. But this morning -- like I said, I wasn't wearing my mental shields -- I noticed and reacted (privately) to the incident. I mean: whether or not the gesture is aimed AT me, surely it has to remind me that I am not a valid or acceptable feature of the environment in which I live? Surely it is a hostile act?

The moment the exchange occurred, I became conscious of a number of things: that I was bigger than the man; that I occupied the middle of the lane; that I walked with the confidence of someone who felt it was my right to be in the middle of the lane, while he sidled along the margins; that very likely, in his view and in his society, women ought to walk with their heads modestly covered and perhaps their faces averted from men; that women over a certain age should not go around in bright red clothes; that women who don't wear clear and positive marks identifying their marital status (as I do not) are to be considered suspicious, and very likely of shady character; yet on the other hand, my gait and confident presence suggested that I could only be a resident of the colony, and therefore a member of that class to which this labourer would feel himself bound to show respect; that I live in a city where the overwhelming majority of my fellow citizens do not recognize me as being a member of their tribe, but an outsider in some fundamental way. An outsider to their idea of a decent and normal world.

It is very disorienting to return to what is supposed to be 'my country' and yet feel so utterly distanced from the people around me. Or -- to immediately amend that statement -- it ISN'T really disorienting at all: it is the norm of my experience and I usually don't notice it, or pay attention to this sensation, because it would take too much energy to keep on and on noticing it, and the only reason (I think) I reacted on this occasion is that I had just returned from being a foreigner in another city, where, by contrast, I felt entirely comfortable. No-one paid the least attention to me: I was neither more nor less visible than anyone else on the streets. What a privilege it was, to be invisible!

-- uh-oh -- the power's gone! Gotta post and exit --

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Return to Nude Elly*

*That was a favourite joke of mine, back in the days when I indulged in uninhibited, unprotected e-chats at the public boards at Rediff. The lively web-rats there would snuggle up with "ASL pliz?" and I would rattle back with: "43-F-Nude Elly" (I WAS 43, eight years ago) -- and that would crack them up coz they refused to believe that such dinosaurs could ever be found waddling about cyberspace and then they'd want to know where in the universe Nude Elly was ... I just told them to say it out loud.

Anyway, so here I am, returned after six thrilling weeks amongst the skies and scrapers of NYC.

Flew back on the national carrier. I wish I could report that it was really no different to any other airline -- because I like to be loyal, and one of my good friends is a top exec -- but ... it isn't. Never mind the behind-the-times seats (what??!! No bendy flaps on the head-rests? No foot-rests? No in-seat video screens? And NO, I was flying Economy, just like the rest of the cattle, on BA last year), what was not acceptable was the crust of dirt that lined the joint of the floor with the wall of the aircraft. No aircraft, however third-worldy, needs to actually LOOK dirty. I am sure they are all equally disgusting if picked apart with a fine toothed comb, but I am no fine-toothed comb, and I rarely notice dirt unless I trip over it. This was of the 100% can't-miss variety.

Not only that, but a passenger two seats ahead of me suddenly leapt up in the manner of a young woman who has been accosted by an animal I will only refer to here as a C-Roach(because I hate to acknowledge their existence). I mean, I guessed from the way she became briefly airborne what her problem was and then, a moment later, heard her exclaiming to her equally young companion -- they were both in their early nineteens, I'd guess -- "Did you see the SIZE of the thing?" No other creature elicits such a response, so I KNEW. Another passenger, sitting in the seat in front of theirs began swatting at the ticketless traveller with a newspaper, and apparently succeeded in subduing it with extreme prejudice. Then a senior airhostess sauntered by and when the girls (Indian, but UK-based, from accent and acreage of skin on view) complained about their six-legged companion, had a hearty laugh! The young passengers were NOT amused and demanded change of seat, restitution of bug-free rights, ticket-refund, etc.

Aside from this, there were no incidents worth reporting. Oh a passenger appeared to have lost his wife to the Shopping Arena, during the 20 minute stop-over in London -- but I didn't hang around to witness the resolution of this situation, because by then one of the child passengers with an over-active voice box was experiencing a major seizure and it took all of my energy to tune out the sound. I read somewhere that a baby crying is second only to a jet-engine taking off in the decibel department and it was certainly easy to believe. There's a lot of money to be made for the inventor of a device that mutes the sound of a crying infant -- I have in mind a sound-proof globe that fits over a child's head, with a safety light to alert the parent to the fact of a crying fit in progress -- after all, there may be, in rare cases, some genuine reason for the vocalizing.

Seven hours later, I was back in the capital city of our glorious republic. The immigration process has been speeded up and customs is no longer interested in laptops, so it was a mere 40-minute breeze-through to the arrival lounge where E was waiting to collect me. My cell-phone had chirped to life the moment I turned it on in the Immigration Q -- and we'd been chatting about how long the baggage was taking to appear. Oh what a relief not be on the US cellular networks, bleeding dollars with every second of phone-time! Really, someone should rescue the World's Only (remaining) Super Power from the clutches of third-rate cellphone service providers with their year-long contracts, inflexible payment options and scanty coverage.

Ahh ... but that's all behind me for the moment. Hello Hutch! Goodbye Sprint! And goodnight to you all, goodnight.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

SCENES IN A BASEMENT

Last Friday I was invited to watch a rehearsal of BARBARA BUSH NEVER SLEPT HERE, a play written by David DeWitt, directed by Jim Bracchitta. The reason for the invitation was that Paul Knox, who directed the reading of my play The Mating Game Show at Salaam the previous week, is producing the show.

It was a fascinating and very rewarding experience, of which I will only be able to reproduce the least flavour because I'm a bit sleepy and as always, I'm writing this at dead of night. It felt almost better than seeing the staged play – which I'm going to miss, as it will open on the 7th of October and I'm leaving NYC in two days.

Part of what made it so thrilling was that before the rehearsal began in earnest, small groups of actors worked on isolated scenes. I don't know how much work had already been done on those scenes, but for me, watching them completely ignorant of their place in the larger narrative and unaware of the how's and wherefore's it seemed to me that they were being shaped right in front of my eyes – from collections of words and meanings into bright, taut, tight images, like turning the focusing ring on a camera until every line of a picture is sharp. Two women, one mature but still young (I think her name was Shiela) and the other middle-aged (Patsy), discuss an incident involving a man whom they both know, while also discussing Patsy's passion for politics.

I had no idea as I watched this scene rehearsal, what the context of the scene was, or who Patsy was – because of the play's title, I assumed (wrongly) that she was meant to be Barbara Bush – except there seemed nothing in the dialogue to support that idea, so after a very short while, I dropped it. The actresses, Pamela Dunlap and Alice King, performed their duet of thrusts and counter-thrusts almost like a piece of music. It was a very short scene and yet within the space of four runs, they had brought it out of the flat page into three dimensional space, just by varying their intonation and patterns of stress.

A couple more scenes were rehearsed on their own and then it was time to start the run-through. Here I must pause to describe the location of this rehearsal. It was in the basement beneath a room which was being used as a gallery. The show on the walls of the gallery was called The War Room, and featured three wall-sized canvases painted in shades of gray about the conflict in Iraq. In the display window were four life-sized manniquins dressed in identical (well I didn't look at them very carefully) black burqas. The basement looked very much like basements tend to look, i.e., like a bunker that has not yet recovered from World War II, but this one was also strewn with various oddments of domestic life – bits of furniture, kitchen equipment and the like. It was not immediately obvious to me whether these items belonged to the basement or were props for the play – most, it turned out, certainly were.

Aside from me, the audience for the rehearsal included the playwright, a photographer (alas I don't remember his name), Paul, and Jim the director, a rather beautiful young woman (Dyanne Court) with a glorious mane of auburn curls hanging down her back who was the stage manager and another young woman (Makiko Suzuki) neat and precise as an origami crane, the set designer. Also present were the lighting designer (Brian Aldiss) and the sound designer (Bart Fasbender).

The play is, at one level, about the events surrounding the return of a middle-aged man to the small town of his youth, after a career in politics. At another level, it is about the sparks that human beings give off, whether they want to or not, as they brush against one another in their various passages through life. At another level, it is about the lives of politicians and how the crucible of a healthy democracy must always – surely! – be its small towns and dusty by-lanes. At another level it is about the difference in the strengths of men and women, the different ways in which their ambitions shape their lives, their relationships, their moods. It is a thoughtful play, drawing on character-vignettes which were recognizable but didn't feel tired or clich├ęd. I think what I liked best about the script was its under-stated artistry – a cool normalcy, without bright lights and loud drama, yet eloquent, smooth and provocative.

It was also, in a sly and appealing way, a bit like a crochet-hook poked into the substance of daily affairs on the eve of what seems likely to be a fateful Presidential election – fateful not just for the US, but for the whole planet – digging up sharp, spiky, spicy comments about the current political situation without engaging in direct attacks or praise.

Having heard the smaller scenes, it was an especial delight to see them now patted into place like the final pieces of a jigsaw – suddenly understanding the meanings of those colours and shapes that just a half hour ago seemed to belong to some very different picture. Each of the characters – there was a young couple too, on the verge of marriage – created a precise reality of his/her own just by the way they moved their bodies or inflected their voices.

It seemed to me that what they brought to their performance was not merely their interpretations of these particular roles but also a life-times' worth of observations of others around them and of themselves. When the director asked them to look for a slight variation of one mood, they were able to look within themselves, like an embroiderer seeking in her basket for yet another version of almond green, then spoke the same lines with the altered emphasis. The point is, they had a palette of experiences rich enough that when asked to look for variations of expressions, they could comply. It was just so satisfying (and for me, also envy-inspiring!) to see that process of bringing completion to a text so that it was no longer merely words but became a shared - though fictional - memory of something vivid and memorable.

The play will be performed at Baruch's BERNIE WEST THEATRE, produced by Circle East Theatre Company, during the month of October this year. If anyone wants more in the way of contact information, they can post comments here and I may be able to rustle up some answers.