Monday, September 23, 2013

Five Reasons I Go on Walks

I will work late tonight. Today, in the day, as I stared at my to-do list, churning lists in my head, and going over endless futures too-quickly truncated by virtue of an attention deficit memory, all I wanted to do was go for a walk.

So come evening, I graded papers, wrote letters, and then, a-walking I went. 
I was accosted by Aravanis, striking looking transsexual women, who demanded money that I did not give. The one with the fieriest eyes stood her ground. She stared into my eyes, I into hers. She left. I sidled away.

I espied mannequins in saris with the pleats tightly in place over cold flesh, columns and columns of boxes made of aluminium foil, stacked on the sunmica and oil stained counters of CRP hotel, cane boxes by the dozen, electronic stores full of employees with eyes glued to the television, a discrete corner of a rundown building announcing "The Immaculate Centre for English Education", and a scary plastic rabbit with a wastepaper basket emerging from its distended stomach, looking out seemingly unseeing from the threshold of the Coronet hotel.

I saw a store called Eden selling its plants. Trouble in paradise much? I noticed a shiny Waterworks store that was the opposite of E.L.Doctorow's book about New York City in 1871. As hopeful as Doctorow is cynical, as flush with the marvel of modernity, as its eponymous book is sharply critical. 

And now I'm back, trying to make sense of this walk and other walks, because after all, nothing exists in real life unless written about now, does it?

In this quest for sense-making, I made a list. I like lists. This one is called "Five Reasons I go on Walks". 

(a) It is perhaps not incidental that I am also reading two books about walking. Teju Cole's brilliant, meandering, and yet very difficult to read book (also in New York City), "Open City" and Christoph Simon's "Zbinden's Progress". Both books are in the first person, narrated by walking protagonists. Cole's hero walks and narrates the city. Simon's Zbinden talks about walking. I must confess that as much as I would mildly recommend both, I will also confess to a caveat. The romance of walking, to me, is much more embedded in writing about walking than in the act of walking. Or in other words, one of my primary reasons to go on a walk (and really, no irony, pathos maybe, but no irony), is to write about walking.

For those attracted to said romanticism, I would highly recommend W.G.Sebald's "The Rings of Saturn". A year or so ago, in a very quiet cinema theatre in Madison, Wisconsin, I saw a movie inspired by this book. It takes viewers on a walking tour of Suffolk in the English countryside along the very same routes that Sebald's protagonist (himself perhaps?) takes. The movie was marginally haunting. But it took so much away from the inwardness of Sebald's walk. Suddenly the projection of his world was out there and it was so less promising than its description and its timbre in the author's head. Instead of his living, breathing view of the countryside, the movie replaced it with a ghost walking through a post-apocalyptic landscape. 

(b) On a slightly related, but perhaps completely unrelated note, am also re-reading David Foster Wallace's, I must relucantantly admit, rather lucidly brilliant commencement speech delivered at Kenyon in 2006. Read it for yourself. But here are a couple of spoilers. This is what he says about a liberal arts education.

"It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience."

And another; " to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out."

"It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

"This is water."

"This is water."

Sometimes I walk, just to drag myself into consciousness, into the present. Sometimes I walk to remind myself that my head hurts because I live in it far too long to do anyone any good. I walk to be aware.

(c)  One of Lydia Davis' stories reads thus:

Often I think that his idea of what we should do is wrong, and my idea is right. Yet I know that he has often been right before, when I was wrong. And so I let him make his wrong decision, telling myself, though I can’t believe it, that his wrong decision may actually be right. And then later it turns out, as it often has before, that his decision was the right one, after all. Or, rather, his decision was still wrong, but wrong for circumstances different from the circumstances as they actually were, while it was right for circumstances I clearly did not understand.

That's the end of the story. Yes. I know. 

A walk is like a short story. Like one of Lydia Davis' stories. It is inward and it is outward; it is that strange lucid world formed at the cusp of our seeing, feeling body and our rapidly firing sense-making synapses. It is our deepening present, it is our self-filled world, closer than ever before and yet strangely self-less.

(d) We live in times when points of view are being corralled into one camp, and one side. Danger abounds. Our histories are being compacted and our futures prepared. In such times of dense, thickening ignorance, I walk to remember difference. To see the city in all its manifestations, its variedly colored, aesthetically dissenting facades, and in its differential pasts and ongoing fighting presents imprinted all over its peeling faces. 

(d) At day's end, the fury of all my unfulfilled worlds presses down upon me. It is a strange, tense, weight. This world is strange; its sins accumulate. Things reach howling, searing pitch by end of day. How can they not?How after all can one manage days of of searing loss, of scouring desire, of bottomless and savage cruelty day after day? It all happens around us, and in the happening we erode. So every now and then, when it all feels too much and the external pressure far outweighs my internal resistance (and yes, I've drawn borders between myself and the world. Lacan was right.), I go for a walk. 

Monday, September 02, 2013

On drama and life

Stories in a Song

Last weekend, Bhoomija Trust and Evam Entertainment brought to Chennai the 85th staging of Sunil Shanbag's "Stories in a Song". I have a critique. I have an analysis. I have detailed notes. But I would just rather throw them all to the wind and tell you that none of these can adequately represent what this production brought to an unfortunately sparse audience at the Music Academy. Not in a long time have I had initial skepticism and my nitpicky detail-ripping tendencies thrown awry by the sheer force of unbridled joie de vivre. They sang, they danced, they nearly caused me to burst a ventricle in my fast beating heart.

Over two hours, this production pranced through episodes of musical history in the subcontinent, unearthed through research into oral and written historical archives and then reinterpreted as slices of musical life. Over two hours, singers, dancers, and actors whirled through a Sufi shrine, a Lucknowi mansion, a music studio, a colonial house, and a tawaifkhana (in simplified terms, a brothel, but then not quite just a brothel). They performed stories of change, of love, of improvisation, and of adaptation. And the voices, oh the voices. Such melody, such force, such talent. Such musicality.

The production began with the inside of a dargah, a Sufi Islamic shrine. A covered tomb arose in the centre. Three musicians graced the right of stage. I awaited the simulacrum of Nizamuddin. And I was not disappointed. Five women in buttercup yellow dupattas wafted onto stage singing praises of the season, namely spring or Basant. And then unfolded through a qawwali the story of Nizamuddin Auliya and Amir Khusrau. Of an episode during the course of their friendship, and a tale outlining the vicissitudes of sorrow and joy. One must sorrow it claimed, but one must also be equally open to joy. For happiness will come uninvited; in the wind, in the air, in song, and in spring.

This is the only plot spoiler I'm willing to offer, the rest will have to be empirically experienced.

At the beginning of the performance, the director Sunil Shanbag explained the ethos of this production, a collaboration between himself and the musicians and composers Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan. This production, in his explanation, is meant to showcase the hidden stories behind forms of Indian music, folk and otherwise. It is a laudable and beautifully executed effort. The performers were fantastic and to them goes all credit for holding together the songs in these stories. Of particularly noteworthy mention are Namit Das and Ketaki Thatte; sheer magic. Nishi Doshi as Bela made me wonder how I do not know anybody called Bela, and how everyone should know someone called Bela; besides Bahadur's love interest that is. The episodes chosen are telling; they showcase periods of intense change, issues of difference, and questions of cultural encounters. The forms of music chosen; qawwali, kajri, nautanki, Hindustani classical to name a few offered a marvelously robust and sublime sense of the musical landscape in these parts of the world. A special mention is due for the accompanists who were seemingly effortless in the jumps they made between myriad musical and life forms.

Here is the small puzzling gap though, the gap between what a work of art says it does and that which it does. At the beginning of the production, one expects stories and a historiography. What one gets is the poignancy of body, movement, and voice. This is an intensely visceral production and the viscerality overpowers the text. It's all sinew. And in contrast, the stories in the texts appear sparse and patchy. The transitions are abrupt and some of the tellings themselves expose a misplaced nostalgia and a rudimentarily purist version of an undiluted, popular, heartfelt past. They render neither its protagonists, nor their lives, anything beyond caricatured carriers of a vanishing history. Also, one deduces a rather reduced version of various "Indian" classical music forms; the production veered geographically northward and seemed to be dependent on the repertoire of its composers and performers rather than on a representative notion of Indianness.

These critiques aside, what the production does tell us is perhaps far more important than the selectivity of the histories it channels. Some days I walk through life to my own background score. I expect backup singers and full orchestras. And I am renewed. Stories in a Song is my story as much as ours. It says that everyday life can only be redeemed through song and dance, and we are only possible as singing and dancing subjects of our own lives. And for this, bravo.