Monday, March 18, 2013

Black Pearl

"Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti" said my cousin.

And with that I will pause to set up context. I am told interruption is the thing, these days.  I am told that, you dear reader, are not likely to be interested in what I tell you, unless I tell you why I am telling you what I am telling you.

I shan't  - been a while since I said that (which is smugger than last season’s 'always wanted to say that') – protest, saying the context is invariably such a flimsy apology. You know that. And a concise explanation of context does not do justice to my usually cosmic intent. Now, having anti-sold well enough, I will appear to yield.

One of the many reasons why I liked Manu Joseph's 'The Illict Happiness of Other People' is the depiction of the anguish of the weak and not-so-smart Thoma, who desires, among other things, appreciation. He nurses the ambition of being a writer, but is terrified by the problem that 'even writers need to know facts' - which is precisely what he (one) desires to escape from, when he seeks to become a writer.

If appearance is, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable from being, then who wouldn't desire knowledgability over the effort of having to know? The clumsy disproportionate spots of knowledge from which we draw our ideas about ourselves and others and let them influence ‘life’ is presented very well in the novel.

And the two particular spots that are mentioned in the novel are these: by some stroke of chance, Thoma happens to know what KGB stands for and what Pele's name is. And throughout the novel he imagines and hopes for the world to arrange itself in a manner such that this special knowledge of his is culled out and he is celebrated, applauded, admired and loved for it. 
Needless to say, as is the case with all art, we have to take this and apply our own personal distortions to enjoy it.

It just so happens my spots of disproportionate knowledge were rather exactly tallying with the ones here. This brings us back to my cousin.

He was the intelligent elder brother whom many of us cousins were in awe of, or uncomfortable with, depending on how old we were. I guess I was too young to feel threatened and don't feel like using the rest of this sentence, ambitiously trying now to analyze my feelings then, with an inflated sense of retrospective wisdom.
He had travelled to my southern city for a remembrance ceremony of the grandmother we shared and/or to take part in an annual quiz contest in my school. This quiz had achieved a smidgen of a cult status – or so I was asked to remember by seniors and teachers who spoke much of the days of yore in the later years, infecting us with nostalgia for times we hadn’t experienced personally.
“That’s what the KGB stands for” he said after I failed to answer his question asking me to expand it.

Even back then, I was knowledgeable enough to not ask him what KGB was in the first place. So I was charged only with not knowing a Russian tongue-twister of an expansion - just about reasonable ignorance for a six year old. And yet, it was knowledge to be awed by, when possessed by a sixteen year old.
Thus, in some obscure part of all the knowledge out there, I had jumped a decade. And there began (dishonesty alert – when are things ever this dramatic) a school career of reasonably successfully quizzing.

This was not without the discomfort of feeling like a pretender – a purveyor of trivia with seldom the deep underlying knowledge of anything. But we are never truly persistently plagued by anything, are we? We take the feeling under our wing and survive with it, rather effortlessly. Today I am gainfully employed and I blog.
Now back to my school; I was –atleast in my batch and a couple on either side – kind of the notable quizzer. This was seldom openly acknowledged – to my satisfaction, that is. Except once.

The chemistry teacher, who also doubled as the school's quiz-man, used to assemble the entire high school in the auditorium once a week and conduct general quizzes. He was also a regular quizmaster in the city – and a relatively classy one if I may say so myself – who was often invited to conduct inter-school squizzes.
Once, I was scrawling through a quarterly exam, racing against time, as is my wont. This chemistry teacher arrived at the exam hall and walked up to his fellow teacher who was the invigilator.  She then called me out to the corner of the room – I could hardly afford to have my train of thought broken when waxing eloquent in Tamil on Tagore (once again, dishonesty alert, as if I’d remember).
I went to the huddle, not knowing what the issue was..
“Is Pele’s name Edwin Arantes do Nascimento or Edmond Arantes..?” he asked in a whisper.  He looked like he was in a tearing hurry to fact-check before he was off to conduct a quiz elsewhere.
How charming it is for an adult’s vocation to legitimately foster an interest in trivia for its own sake – I think today.
As my classmates scratched measly pen on paper I answered him instinctively, without yet fully grasping the sense of fraternity : “Edmond”
“Yeah, that is what I thought. Thank You. Sorry to disturb you” he said as the invigilator smiled as if she was also glad to be of assistance.
Then as he left the hall and I returned to my desk moving on from the brief pride of being the go-to person for the town’s quizmaster, to the pride of the Tamil prose in my unfinished Tamil paragraph praising Tagore- whom I had not read.
Then it struck me. And I raised my hand
“Shh!” she (must have) said and came close to me and whispered, “what?”
“It’s Edson….not Edmond”
“Oh..ok” she said, as she evinced an earnest interest in this sort of thing, though I knew even back then, that she would never become like her friend, the quizmaster.
“Run run..” she said
I tore out of the exam hall, ruffling a few fellow Tagorebluffers’ attention. And out in the sun I saw he walked far ahead already. I sprinted towards him.
“Sir..” I cried out as he stopped and turned and I caught up.
“It is Edson…. Edson Arantes..”
“Ah yes…” he said with an expression of relief and satisfaction.
We were the only two out in the open in the large expansive school, which is eerily people-less during class-hours.

“Thank you very much…now get back to your exam”

I did.
And if I remember right, I did top the class in that paper.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Aurobindo on Indian Poetics

The vital law governing Hindu poetics is that it does not seek to represent life and character primarily or for their own sake; its aim is fundamentally aesthetic: by the delicate and harmonious rendering to awaken the aesthetic sense of the onlooker and gratify it by moving and subtly observed pictures of human feeling; it did not attempt to seize a man's spirit by the hair and drag it out into a storm of horror and pity and fear and return it to him drenched, beaten and shuddering.

Certainly poetry was regarded as a force for elevation as well as for charm, but as it reaches these objects through aesthetic beauty, aesthetic gratification must be the whole basis of dramatic composition, all other super-structural objects are secondary. The Hindu mind therefore shrank not only from violence, horror and physical tragedy, the Elizabethan stock-in-trade, but even from the tragic in moral problems which attracted the Greek mind; still less could it have consented to occupy itself with the problems of disease, neurosis and spiritual medicology generally which are the staple of modern drama and fiction.

An atmosphere of romantic beauty, a high urbanity and a gracious equipoise of the feelings, a perpetual confidence in the sunshine and the flowers are the essential spirit of a Hindu play; pity and terror are used to awaken the feelings, but not to lacerate them, and the drama must close on the note of joy and peace; the clouds are only admitted to make more beautiful the glad sunlight from which all came and into which all must melt away.

It is in an art like this that the soul finds the repose, the opportunity for being confirmed in gentleness and in kindly culture, the unmixed intellectual and aesthetic pleasure in quest of which it turned away from the crudeness and incoherence of life to the magic regions of Art.

- Aurobindo
Hindu Drama
Kalidasa- Essays and Translations