Category Archives: prose

Will be back soon: Gone Lookin’

Fear is a good thing[…]fear is what drives us to take risks and extend ourselves beyond our normal limits, and any writer who feels he is standing on safe ground is unlikely to produce anything of value.

– Paul Auster, “Invisible”

Dear Void,

I have felt fear this past nine weeks. A lot of fear. I smelled the sulphur breath of a dragon still many miles away but surely snorting in anticipation of meeting me. It was healthy until…

…I stopped writing every day. You may have noticed. The fear became stale and crippling. The sulphur had plugged my synaptic junctions.

My thoughts now stray so far that my hands are always playing catch-up without ever catching up.

So here’s a pensive pause.

I’ll miss looking into you, dear Void, but I need to look into finding fresh fear.

I hope you’ll miss me too.

I shan’t be long.

Love,
Sam

To feed on fresh fear
confidently go Pale Fish
to water’s surface

Pond (c) Sam Rappaz

Advertisements

Respectful & Necessary: India’s Daughter

I am posting this on March 9, 2015. A regular Monday. Rape is not just an International Women's Day issue. It is an everyday-of-the-year issue.

Death and Birth of Nirbhaya

On the night of December 16 2012 a 23-year-old woman, a medical student, was gang raped by 6 men in a moving bus in Delhi. She had boarded the bus with her male friend after watching a movie. There was no one else in the bus but them and a group of intoxicated men who were out for a “party”. An altercation between the woman’s male companion and the group led to his beating and her brutal rape. All the while the bus kept circling a strip of highway. The rapists then dumped her and her friend, naked, by the side of the road into the cold Delhi winter night. She died a few days later in the hospital of her wounds. The doctors were surprised that she had lasted as long as she had, given the extent of internal organ damage that she had suffered.

On December 17 2012 when the news started circulating about the horrifying rape and its shocking details young Delhi-ites took to the streets demanding justice for ‘Nirbhaya’, as the young woman was metaphorically named to keep her identity safe. Nirbhaya means “without fear”. The demonstrators cried for justice for rape victims, for equal rights and equal freedom for Indian women everywhere.

(c) Ramesh Lalwani CC BY-SA 2.0

(c) Ramesh Lalwani CC BY-SA 2.0

The fire spread to other major cities of India. All this is very reminiscent of chapters from our history books on the Indian Independence Movement, and it rightly should because we, Indian women, are still fighting for our independence from the Patriarchal Raj.

The controversial India’s Daughter

When I first learnt that the incredibly insightful documentary series, BBC4’s Storyville, will be premiering a documentary film-“India’s Daughter“-on the Nirbhaya rape case on March 8, to coincide with International Women’s Day, I was nothing less than proud. I was proud of being a citizen of a country which was open to unbiased documenting of an incident that had cast such bad light on its gender values for the world to see; that was mature enough to revisit the trauma, not to rekindle pain, but to educate; was unafraid to expose its weakness in order to give voice to its weakest. Having been a long time viewer of Storyville documentaries and appreciative of its programming quality I knew that the film would be well done (to say the least). I marked the date on my calendar, sent out a tweet about it as a ‘to whomever it may concern’ (as I thought it should concern everybody), and went to bed.

Over the next couple of days I picked up on some odd goings-on. I caught snippets of Twitter chat on…the idiocy of giving airtime to rapists…disrespect to society…the commercial interests of foreign channel…ban of a documentary…

No, it could not be!

Quick searches on Google and Twitter led me to these outrageous headlines,

Read article by clicking here.
Read article by clicking here.
Read article by clicking here.
Read article by clicking here.

My pride in my nation was replaced by bewilderment which soon gave way to anger. It seems we are not a rational country, we are an emotional one. The ruling party of India, BJP (which recently cut expenditure on its initiative for rape crisis centre by 92.6%!) was extremely annoyed by BBC4’s documentary and banned it from being aired in India.  The reasons for the ban against the film as a whole are superficial, ironically mocking their own logic:

“…rationale that the ban was in the interests of justice and public order as the film “created a situation of tension and fear amongst women” and the convicts would use the media to further his case in the appeal that was subjudice…”

(as summarised by the Editors Guild of India in its public appeal for revoking the ban)

If a convict’s statement of his innocence is considered to be true just because it was on television and on no other merit then  our Judiciary clearly doesn’t know how to conduct its business. I think it’s insulting and shocking that that is how much faith the Executive and Legislative branches of our government have on its most precious democratic institution. #JudgesAreNot Stupid.

As the ban was announced the public became aware of the aspect of the film that had stirred up the controversy: giving a convicted rapist (who was driver of the bus), Mukesh Singh, a public platform to profess his views on rape. If you thought that was soul cringing then how about dedicating film footage to the defense lawyers, (so-called) educated Indian men from higher social and financial classes, whose arcane ideas of female decency and role in Indian society weren’t so far away in their essence from that of the rapist’s notions. Now that struck a sensitive nerve. While many applauded the dissolution of the thin veneer of modernisation that Indian society boasts at any given opportunity, thousands took to online forums to voice their anger against the presentation of the film. The director of the film, Leslee Udwin fled the country in fear of arrest and BBC4 decided to air the film early (in the UK) on March 4 stating that the issue had been handled responsibly and refusing to bow down to external pressure. A BBC effigy was burnt in a protest in Varanasi, a sacred city for Hindus as a warning to BBC.

The key lessons that make India’s Daughter necessary

I didn’t want to enter the debate without first seeing India’s Daughter in its entirety since placing judgement on anything seen or heard out of context is much too similar to high school drama for me and I swore to stay away from all that the day I graduated high school.

The film makes a compelling case for facing the evil spread of the cancer that is gender inequality“.

Although it is the rapist’s voice that has stirred so much controversy making it seem as though that is what the documentary is all about it in fact makes up only for a fraction of the film. Yes, I knew beforehand what he could say in his defense. We’ve been given excuses for rape for a long time and they have come to be used as scare tactics/advice/disguise for misogyny: girl was “under-dressed”; was out late; was “mixing with boys” and other such banalities. So when I considered his statements they did not shock me. I was certainly angry. On the contrary I am surprised by people’s shock at Mukesh Singh’s unrepentant stance. Even those who have seen the documentary and reluctantly appreciate it seem to not understand the impact of the film.

Rape is about power, a misplaced idea of power. Power is the real source of the evil here, as is the case in many other circumstances. (I wonder how many people realize this.) Singh’s statements make this abundantly clear. He still feels powerful because he believes he is right. He believes he is right because we live in a society that propagates the same ideas. Society however does not condone Singh’s and his friends’ chosen expression of power (rape), which surprises Singh because he thinks he was acting within the rights given to him by society. That is a crucial message that hits home and makes the documentary necessary: Indian society as we know it right NOW gives POWER to men and not to women.

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

– Lord Acton

Also, I can’t imagine why a man who could indulge in such a heinous act would change his lifelong-held beliefs just because of incarceration. We like to think that if we caught sexual offenders, locked them up, sentence them to death our job is done.

So why should we hear a convicted unrepentant rapist?

Because the solution to making India a safer place for women is not by locking up rapists, it is EDUCATION ABOUT GENDER EQUALITY, and that is the primary lesson of India’s Daughter.

The other major lesson gleaned from hearing Singh speak his mind is that of a sobering reality that exists not only in Indian society but also worldwide, a message that is amplified by the point-counterpoint nature of the narrative. The realization came when I heard from his parents and also relatives of the other rapists: These rapists (or devils, demons, animals, scum as we usually refer to them) are PEOPLE. They are OUR people, born to ordinary folks and who were living ordinary lives. They weren’t born as sociopaths they were made into one. We use language to distance ourselves from horrifying acts and their actors. When we give dehumanizing labels to people we remove society’s culpability. We can then sit proudly in judgement of these “others”. I suppose here’s where many of the detractors of the documentary chime in: “Why does this animal need to be heard?” Because by calling him an animal and giving him a sub-human status we refuse to face the ugly aspects of our species-nobody is above or beyond evil. Scary? Yes, it is. Right now it is scary to be a woman. (What is scarier however is a moralizing government for a seemingly democratic country.)

The main question here is could we have learnt all this without Singh’s interview? Was his interview necessary? I think so. He is a concise representation of the mistakes we are making. Perhaps some of these lessons are out there in the obtuse reviews made my investigative committees and in court documents; social scientists’ theses; lost amongst the indecipherable shouting matches dubbed as TV talk shows; or even rant-y blog posts on the internet. How far and wide would these sources of information reach when compared to an hour-long hard-hitting documentary on cable TV? Let’s take into account here the populace that does not use the internet regularly for social commentary and relies on television for everything.

A lot can also be learnt from the delusional statements made by the defense lawyers (ML Sharma and AP Singh), that are anachronistic to the point of hilarity. Especially when paired with the liberal views of Nirbhaya’s parents (whom we would consider of being from a lower social class and “unqualified”), make for the disturbing realization that India’s gender equality problem is not class-based or educational degree-dependent. How many Indians believe that only poor, uneducated people rape; women are oppressed only in the lower classes of society? Prejudice doesn’t play favourites. We need to stop generalising about our societal problems.

It’s convenient to blame the British for everything

I am also happy to note that India’s Daughter does not generalise. People were certain that a documentary made by a foreigner would provide wrong and overly generalised inferences about the problems in India. The film makes so such claims. It does not spin the idea that ALL Indian men are misogynistic with rapist-like tendencies. Neither did I hear a foreigner’s view on the issue. The film has been produced for a TV show that has a dedicated following. I think if Udwin or the BBC wanted to make money off it then we’d have heard of them submitting India’s Daughter to film festivals. I find this argument highly ridiculous especially given how ubiquitous rape scenes are in Indian cinema. I learnt the word Balatkaar (“rape” in Hindi) synchronously as I learnt Pyaar (“love”).Where did I first hear the term “ Uski izzat loot lee” (“stole her honour“)? It was Indian cinema. There is even a wiki page dedicated to Indian movies ON Rape (which now includes India’s Daughter)! How many generalisations have we gleaned from these other movies and how much money has been made? How much of this went to the  supporting rape victims? Also, I don’t think Udwin, who has been a victim of sexual abuse, would make this film for commercial gain (Source: “India’s Daughter” – A Young Woman’s Open Letter to the Prime Minister).

Will giving Singh a public platform encourage those who think like him to rape?

I don’t think it will; but ONLY when put in context of the film. When watching the film I realised that it is Nirbhaya who is the champion here and it is her life that needs emulating. The heart wrenching accounts from her parents and tutor paint a picture in such bold, resilient and joyful colours that Singh in comparison is a dull, ugly blotch. His act and his ideology pale into nothingness in comparison. The film crew have not been “disrespectful” as touted by many before the film’s release. They haven’t killed her memory. They have immortalised her achievements and her person forever. Even though there is quite a bit of eulogising in the beginning of the film towards the end we see Nirbhaya simply as a daughter who was taken away, in the most horrific manner possible, from her parents. She is the average Indian woman that we can relate to.

However over the past week we have just been hearing about Singh’s statements. He has received more publicity than ever before. If we were to believe that “publicity of rapist can entice rape” then the ban and the media circus that ensued has done more to further this cause (dubious as it may be) than the movie could ever have. Ironically the ban intended to protect our society has silenced the one who needed to heard the most: Nirbhaya.

Why should you want to watch India’s Daughter?

  • Because only by facing your biggest fears can you fight them.
  • To talk about things that make us most uncomfortable because that is how we tackle ignorance.
  • Because you need to know that every woman in India country is disempowered right now.
  • To realise that the ban is a myopic stand taken by a government that has essentially shot itself in the foot. (For more on the incredulous reasons given by politicians for the ban please read the op-ed piece (“BJP Government, Don’t Embarrass India“) authored by writer, ex-diplomat and politician Shashi Tharoor.)

It must however be said that India’s Daughter is by no means the BEST documentary ever made. It is certainly good. It is also not a piece of comprehensive investigative journalism. I don’t know if it was ever meant to be one. There are some open questions, which are best outlined in the article: “The Selective Amnesia Of ‘India’s Daughter’ – What The Film Conveniently Ignores!” by Dr. Shivani Nag.

Let us remember

Your parents remember you, Nirbhaya, in the name they gave you. They call you Jyoti, “light”, that was born to remove darkness from their lives. I use your name now because your parents think that you, as a person, should be remembered in as much detail as your death, if not more. You have achieved more than what your parents dreamed. You have brought your searing light to our entire society, to burn through prejudice and patriarchal interpretation of Indian cultural values. You have made me nirbhaya to carry your jyoti for the freedom of all women. I don’t know what you looked like and I don’t need to. I see your face in every woman. Those who have missed the point of the documentary on your life and death have missed the point of all revolutions: to depose oppressive ideas by public activism.

(c) Ramesh Lalwani CC BY- SA 2.0
(c) Ramesh Lalwani CC BY- SA 2.0

On rewriting inspiration

 When you ask me to revise a poem you ask me to meet again the Muse who seldom responds to invitation. She comes in suddenly through the door left open, announcing Her presence with words that have never sat together before. She says what She has to say and goes quiet; goes away or gets broken down into elements of the universe that I absorb without an intent.

Where am I to find this forceful genius?

I’ve been told to look for Her in spaces in-between words and lines, rhyme and rhythm, movement and breaks, language and sound. But I don’t find my Muse there; I find a key in a foreign language to a map that She drew.

Is She hiding in the white glow that lights my keyboard when I switch on my workstation? So, I should work and work and work on my verses. Or, is She in the deep breath that helps me ease into sleep? Then, I should breathe and breathe and breathe with my eyes closed to trick her into appearing. Perhaps it’s She who is the trickster: a mirage; a playful spirit that whispers in my ear. In which case I am cursed with the burden of loneliness.

With or without Her it seems it’s going to take a lot of time to re-see a moment that no longer exists, to re-write it in a way so that it exists forever.

 

I am beginning to grapple with the abstract idea of “completion” in creative writing which seems even murkier when talking about poetry. I read recently that “a poem is not truly finished until it has been seriously revised” and also “be wary of a poem that appears to be finished“. Statements that, as an amateur with 8 weeks of formal education in poesy, I find contradictory.
I need to also say that the poems you have been reading on my blog are not “seriously” revised. They have been written quickly, in a matter of an hour to a few hours if the form is tough (the Sestina, which is one of the hardest forms, took me about 12 hours). These poems are here more or less as they came to me. Now I am considering that all of this work here is a) probably unfinished, which is not a bad thing as, Da Vinci once said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned” and b) not good, trite, tripe. It’s making me question the quality of my natural skill for this art form. Though at present I am depressed by the thought, I am hopeful that I can see this as something to learn from; that all this self-doubt will make me a better writer and that it is a natural process. I hope it happens sooner rather than later because my Muse seems to have gone into hiding for fear that I will doubt Her every word and I cannot sleep because thoughts only She can give birth to have grown louder in my head in her absence.
I have received only love from this wonderful blogging community, for which I am immensely grateful but this post is not about  wanting an ego-boost. At this point I just want to learn from you, specifically about the role of revision in your creative process. Any and all thoughts are welcome from everyone, poet or not. Who knows who might be inspired by your comment!

Here’s an example of the creative process of the great Walt Whitman,

Original Manuscript: To a Locomotive in Winter by Walt Whitman (1874).
Original Manuscript: To a Locomotive in Winter by Walt Whitman (1874).

Summary of the manuscript (from Boston Public Library)

Written in Walt Whitman’s own hand, this early manuscript version of To a Locomotive in Winter shows Whitman’s creative process as he revised and reworked the poem, changing words and even pasting paper overlays of new passages until he was satisfied with the result. This manuscript poem is dated February 23, 1874, but Whitman continued to modify the text and it was considerably altered when published in 1876 in Two Rivulets, a companion volume to the 1876 edition of Leaves of Grass. This poem was republished in the 1900 edition of Leaves of Grass, well after Whitman’s death.

Image Source and further details: Boston Public Library (CC BY 2.0)

The reward of just light and sound

We welcomed the new year from a chalet, looking over a vast valley sparkling with the fluorescent lights of alpine villages. We had the Milky Way above and its poor but deeply enchanting reflection below us. At midnight the villagers lit their fireworks and we opened our window to let in the sub-zero winds that carried the crackle and pop of communal cheer. We saw before we heard. We felt before we saw. We then turned out our lights to watch and listen.
There is something so poetic about seeing light suddenly emerge from darkness. It kindles an emotion of pure joy in me. I wonder if that is a remnant of my very first experience of light, as I emerged into it almost three decades ago.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Colour is the touch of the eye, music to the deaf, a word out of the darkness.

– Orhan Pahmuk, “My Name is Red

 

Entry for Weekly Photo Challenge: I consider this moment the greatest reward for not having subjected us to the tyranny of a typical "New Year Party".

What is an “I” in poetry?

Situated usually at the start to grab notice,
Undulating with the tone, a poem’s voice
Breaks in first, second or third but
Just so you know it is a mere toy, a ploy
Enacted to lull you into feeling. It
Can, based on timing, be real in
Telling what the poet’s being is dealing with.
Over the course of many hours of
Reading poetry with its personage deceiving
Oscillations of meaning occur, when
Both sides of the coin are considered.
Juxtaposing the “I” with you or “You” with the poet
Enhances the mirthful trouble of annotating
Convoluted thinking. The question, at last, I pose is:
Trust a poet’s biography or her verses?

unnamed
Day 3: Prompt-Trust; Form-Acrostic; Device-Internal rhyme

 

Since I started writing poetry, which was when I was may be 7 or 8 and I composed a little rhyme about the change in animal activity when winter is approaching, I’d always written in first person. I had also always written from my personal life. This is ironic because that first poem, which went something like, “Mr. *something* and Mr. *something* are running here and there; We see the  *something* collecting fruit and the fox behind the hare.” (yes, I have forgotten that rhyme and my cousin helped me with it), was written during my vacation in the boiling heat of coastal southern India. It seems that my very first ditty had nothing to do with my actual life. From then on, however, I wrote from what I was experiencing and my voice was always a defiant “I”. It was also how I interpreted others’ poetry. An “I” is always the person who wrote the poem.

Over the last few weeks my judgement has changed drastically. I now know that the voice of a poem is a “speaker” employed by the poet. It may be the poet’s actual being but in many cases it a fictional amorphic voice that a poet inhabits to speak of his/her experience as objectively as possible. It has helped me find better expression, delve deeper into my own psyche and importantly get my message on paper without the block that I face when trying to articulate my fears. There are of course many great confessional poets (Sylvia Plath for example) who have the tremendous talent and courage to paint their difficulties in true colours without having to rise above it. (I don’t think Sylvia Plath had a choice in that matter.)

My “I” is changing in its subject and its objectification. It’s allowing to me make characters out of my speaker, to approach poetry with an eye of fiction. I am also approaching my prose with an eye of a poet. I am used to cross-disciplinary scientific research and I’m surprised to have never considered such crossovers to occur also in the literature. (D’Uh!) Right now I am imagining you wonderful writers (who have learnt “how to write”) reading this post and smiling and shaking your head in a kind parental way. I am growing up. I am standing right now at the door frame of deliberate writing, next to my growth chart, and there is a new notch being added…I have grown an entire inch! How exciting!

However I think I’ll find that my family members will always be perturbed by any personal pronoun in an even mildly troubling poem. (Literary device? What is that? Is that something you can use to call us for free?) I suppose I would have to tag my poems as “fiction” as and when required to avoid some anxious messages from my mother. (I love you mom. I miss you.)

Meeting strangers on the Swiss rails

Here's my confession: I have travelled about 10 times around the earth on Swiss rails. Approximately 400,000 km. I have spent more time on these trains than I have with my friends and family. I can't go into the Whys and the Hows. It wasn't an easy life but it surely was an interesting ride.

I don’t drive. I have a driver’s permit, from India, but the day I received it my Dad told me that he would never let me take the car out. He feared that I wouldn’t be able to handle Indian traffic by myself, that I was too nervous. Also that the majority of the population behind the wheel is male and just seeing that I am female is enough for them to harass me. Thus, my license is now a decrepit old plastic card with my face on it, that’s turning white on the edges. It hasn’t seen the light of day in close to a decade. Practically speaking, I can’t drive.

(c) Jeton Bajrami from Flickr. CC-BY-NC-ND2.0
(c) Jeton Bajrami from Flickr. CC-BY-NC-ND2.0

I use public transport unless someone is kind enough to drive me to the place I wish to go. When I moved to Switzerland I realized immediately that I was in a privileged position. The standard of transportation facilities in this tiny country that has just 8 million residents is remarkable. The country runs on time (and on money), like no other place I have ever known. I had never before understood punctuality in its intended meaning until I started using Swiss public transportation, which is ‘Be on time indicated or get punched in the gut for missing the meeting.’ If the bus is to arrive at 8:04 and the driver sees you running towards the bus stand 20 meters away at 8:04 he’ll not wait for you. You are late! He will not wait because it is disrespectful to the people in the bus who were on time. He is doing his job by following the rules but you still feel like punching him. In these ways I learnt what it means to be Swiss – orderly, law-abiding, disgruntled by the system at times but still proud and very much adherent to the social norms.

My personal and professional lives in Switzerland were at two ends of the central railway line. I bought the GA/AGGeneralabonnement (de) or Abonnement Général (fr) – the brilliant and expensive travel pass for residents that let’s one use any mode of public transport to go almost everywhere in Switzerland. Some premium mountain passes and tourist traps are not covered but the GA holders get a discount. If used regularly the holder comes out the winner. The GA/AG card also lets one experience and appreciate (after a while) that those who hold this pass are under a self-imposed gag order. Also the reason why I call the GA the GAG pass. They usually take fixed lines at fixed times and hence there is no talking or ooh-ing or aah-ing. They work. Or sleep. Or catch up on the news. If a ‘foreigner’ or a teenager or a tourist is seen yapping away on the phone or chatting loudly about the beauty of the Swiss landscape during rush hours then s/he will be stared at. That’s the rudest thing to happen to you in a Swiss train: the Swiss death stare. I know because I have done it. I  have tried using my mind to get the person sitting opposite me to shut up, and it’s almost always failed.

The times I took the train outside of the main GAG hours (yes, that’s what I am calling rush hours) something remarkable happened. I ended up conversing with interesting strangers and also noticing the strangest of behaviours. If you, the reader, are from any other country you’d probably think I am making an Alpine mountain out of a Marmot hole. But you’d be mistaken. It’s normal in your part of the world to talk to people sitting next you in a bar or a bus or a plane. It is not so normal here. Swiss people respect privacy above all else. Why else do you think there are so my famous people living here? Along with the tax benefits they get anonymity. I feel oddities should be recorded. So here’s my collection of the best meetings I have had on the Swiss trains,

 

Never judge a book by its cover

I read, more than most but less than some. If I know I’ll be out of the house for more than 2 hours then I carry a book with me. I take books to weddings. It is no surprise then that I read on the train. It’s a normal habit. A lot of people read on Swiss trains. Nothing extraordinary. Except, the books I have read has led some very cool people to talk to me. The first book is Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk. It is one of the best memoirs I have read. I was so engrossed in it that I was unaware of a very handsome young man who’d been staring at me (and the book) for a while. When I looked up he had the broadest smile and told me how much he loved that book. He went on to suggest Snow by the same author and we had a very brief chat. It isn’t a ‘Wow! That’s such a cool story’ story admittedly . But it was the first time a stranger had spoken to me in a Swiss train. Until then I had always felt a little out-of-place and rather oppressed by the silence. I was too mindful of the social protocols and was always on edge. That man broke a stereotype for me that day. I began to relax more.

Some time later when I was reading an Indian author (I forget whom) a South Asian gentleman who was seated opposite me introduced himself. He wanted to talk about the book and the author. We started chatting easily. He was clearly a very well-educated man who knew his books. We started talking about movies based on books and then he asked me if I had seen (this was a few years ago now) Game of Thrones. I said no but that I’d heard of it. (HBO right? I love HBO.) He went on to tell me about George R. R. Martin and The Song of Ice and Fire. I wasn’t convinced, since I hadn’t read a fantasy novel since the Harry Potter series. He insisted I read it. I did and fell in obsessive love. We kept meeting on the train, we had the same hours it seemed and we started talking about new books, movies and TV shows. He introduced me to Anime, to the great Hayao Miyazaki. I would have never known the wondrous beautiful world of fantasy art if it wasn’t for him. I still can’t believe that this one stranger has unknowingly made my life so much richer. I am more open to new genres of literature because of him.

My final story is my most special. One Saturday morning I was stretched out on an empty seat in a largely empty train with Moab is my Washpot by Stephen Fry. fry_moabAn elderly Swiss gentleman walked by looking for a vacant four-seater. I suppose he wanted to stretch out too. I straightened up when I saw him but he moved by too quickly to have noticed. I kept the book on the serving table and was rummaging through my bag when I heard, “I know this man”. I looked up and it was the old man. He said, “I know this man who wrote the book. Stephen Fry. Funny man.” He asked if he could sit down and I couldn’t have been happier. I think he saw that he had shocked me with his confession. He introduced himself and went on to tell me that he had been in London for many years where he had the opportunity to work with Mr. Fry. He told me that he charges £10,000 per talk in a scandalised tone. “Such a smart man.”, he said. Yes, indeed. All I could do was nod vigorously trying to soak in every bit of information. I now felt so close to Stephen Fry. I was star struck.
Then the conversation went on to our daily lives and he happily spoke about his life in Switzerland, his social work,  his love for the quiet life in Bern and his distaste for the big money and bad service in Zurich. He bought me a coffee from the mobile snack bar! That one coffee has meant more to me than so many fancy meals in fancy places here in Switzerland. It was a random act of kindness shown to me by a Swiss stranger. A couple walked by whom he happened to know. They joined us. He introduced me to them and then I let the three of them catch up. I read for the rest of our journey together. Soon it was time for them to leave and as he departed he apologised for not having spoken to me more. I hope we meet again someday. There is always so much talk about this country being unfriendly to immigrants and passing right-wing laws. Whenever I get offended by such propaganda, the black sheep and crow ruining the pure white Swiss cross, I remember this elderly Swiss man and I reason my way out of generalisation.

 

SBB: Swiss Bafflement Bonus

A Swiss rail staffer who worked the mobile snack bar would always stop by my seat, blocking the path for those wishing to move around. He’d want to exchange pleasantries with me loudly to the annoyance of others. I would get the stare. At some point he’d leave and I’d cower inside my book and smile weakly at my neighbours. (He he. Sorry. He’s a friendly guy.) I guess he saw me frowning too often and decided I needed a friend. I can’t understand why else he’d do it!

 

The iPad guy

There was once a man on the SBB CFF FFS
Who loved to show off I must confess
He’d buy all Apple products in triplicate
And take off the dust jacket for effect
He’d then proceed to sit next to you
And open his bag as if on cue
He’d put one iPad on the ground discreet
Then wait for you to kick it with your feet!

Every time. Every single time I have met this man he’s done this. I have seen all the upgrades of the iPad at my feet. I couldn’t help but tell this tale poetically.

People never cease to amaze me!

(c) Sam Rappaz
(c) Sam Rappaz

 

I didn’t think I could ever put a positive spin on my lack of independent mobility. For a while I have been telling people that using public transport keeps my carbon footprint low. What it actually did for me is keep my human footprint really high. I would have never guessed when I first came to this country that the one place I would meet people not affiliated to any part of my life would be the one place that has no address, is regulated but sees no boundaries and all the while is very Swiss. It has been all about the journey.

Note: I was approached by the wonderful people over at meetingsbooker.com to write a post on my favourite meeting place. The Swiss rail stories seemed like a perfect idea. They are all true. This is not a sponsored post and all views are my own.

On why poetry could save me

There are moments in life, rare ones, when you feel utterly connected with the inanimate. You cannot believe that something that can’t move, is as still as that pen that refuses to write your words for you, has moved you. I had one of these moments last night. I didn’t go looking for it but this journey that I am on led me to it. Sort of like when you turn a blind corner and a lush garden in bloom with all your favourite flowers meets your unfocussed eyes to make you suddenly aware that you had been walking with a purpose. The air becomes still and the moment is etched in your mind with a smile that surprised even you. Then come the tears almost instantaneously, tugged by the engine of this thing that is not moving but is slowly gaining momentum. How are you not transported then to another realm of consciousness? How are you to resist the implication of these connections? It is all inevitable. It happens because the black on white speaks of all the grey in you and what is dead in terms of life is more alive than all the real you see.

Thank you Mary Oliver for a poem that may just have saved me,

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognised as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Copyright @ 1986 by Mary Oliver. First published in Dream Work, Atlantic Monthly Press. Reprinted in New and Selected Poems, Volume One, Beacon Press.

When I see my portrait

Laura Zimmermann is a talented Parisian artist whom I know because of good fortune: One of my husband’s best friend had the good sense to date her or we would have never known this outwardly shy but inwardly bold and resolute young woman. She also has the distinction of being the only vegetarian French person I know. She’s more than an acquaintance. She attended my wedding in India in 2013. But sadly, due to logistics and lifestyles we have been just Facebook friends in reality. But all that changed quite suddenly.

I realised that she had painted me from a photograph, which she took at the wedding in India. I happened by it as I was scrolling aimlessly though my Facebook feed and it took me by surprise. This event by itself has mitigated most of my general disdain for sharing in social media. I told my husband about the painting and we decided to contact Laura through her man and ask if we could purchase it.

We have had two weddings, Mr. Pink and I; one in India and one in Switzerland. The wedding in India was with a heavy purpose, and not at all legally binding (hence we had the Swiss wedding). It was a religious ceremony and I wanted it done so as to introduce him to my culture and people in the most hectic, time-consuming and fun way possible. What else is India if not hectic, time-consuming and fun? Though we have thousands of beautiful photographs from both the weddings we didn’t have even one picture of us blown up and framed. In fact I have printed out just one photo on a normal A4 hi-bond paper in postcard format to put in a frame that could accommodate a picture much larger. Contrary to Beyoncé and Jay-Z we are lazy in love.

Now that the opportunity to put up a memory worth adorning our naked walls presented itself – in acrylic on canvas, no less – we couldn’t just let it pass. I found it rather poignant that it also happened to be the first original painting we decided to invest in. Not to mention it made us feel extra good to show support for an independent budding artist.

They came by one Sunday afternoon for an Indian lunch and to give us our painting. From when Laura unveiled the canvas from its bubble wrap cocoon to now, this very instant, I haven’t been able to get away with just a momentary glance  at it. It draws me in and each time at first I look at it as though it wasn’t me in it. This wasn’t a moment from my life. There’s something calm and content about that woman. Something angelic and reassuring. That’s not how I remember feeling at the time. All I seem to remember is the stress and the need to satisfy everyone else’s needs; to make sure none of the Europeans fell sick from all the Indian food and that none of the Indians felt abandoned because of all the Europeans at the wedding. That’s what I remember…at first.

Memory is a tricky thing isn’t it? It’s interesting how I forget that actually during the three days that the wedding celebrations lasted, on the inside, I was content and happy. I was satisfied with my life decision; happy about the fact that I was allowed to marry my true love despite him being of another race/religion/nationality; reassured by the presence of hundreds of well-wishers; calmed by the knowledge that I didn’t have to hide my relationship status anymore from anyone and finally I did feel united with the universe. All the elements that we were exchanging with our immediate surroundings, all of which came from the inception of the universe – cycled through planets, asteroids, plants, animals, people, dead relatives – were with me that day as I vowed to be married to my man not because a legal authority demanded it but because I needed my people to know, acknowledge and respect him as my chosen one. Everything was with me and within me as I made that decision known and I was radiating with everything.

I look at the painting again.

Memory is a tricky thing indeed.

Yes, the woman she has painted – THAT woman – is me.

Thank you Laura for helping me remember.

Painting by Laura Zimmermann
Painting by Laura Zimmermann. Photo of the painting (c) Sam Rappaz
Also, Laura is a wonderful photographer. I have used some of her images in a post that has won a blog contest. Read it here. 
Please visit Laura's website to see more of her brilliant work inspired by the people in her life and those she has met in her travels around the world. Link: http://laura-zimmermann.com

The Do that I Do that I Do so, well?

My café au lait which is too foamy for its own good sits hissing by the side while I silently waste my time on Twitter to find out what’s more important than Djokovic winning the Australian Open. People are sharing their blogs, inspirational quotes and there are other bits and bobs on there which on a better day I would have cared to click on. Not today. Today I am feeling admonished by my coffee: with every shush and hiss I can hear it tell me that I haven’t felt the need to “create” today. I knew this day would come, that ‘one day’ which can, depending on context and point-of-view, mean realisation of a dream or a nightmare.

So I open my WordPress Editor, switch on a playlist of one of my favourite contemporary Indian (pop and film) music composers; mildly surprised by how much his recent music is sounding like Christian rock, and here I am. The coffee is being drunk and heavy silence is being shut down by my long-lasting Logitech speakers. Today has not been a great day, so far. The scansion of my poem ‘A common love‘ failed and what I first “felt” I was writing in blank verse turned out to be in blah verse. Scansion? Blank verse?

Scansion: breaking down of poetic verses into stressed/unstressed syllables then grouping the syllables into a ‘foot’ (trochee, iambs etc) and then checking if there is a regular pattern to how the feet appear in each line which gives us the meter. The whole thing adds to how one perceives/hears a poem and can either exemplify a poem or destroy it based on the prowess of the poet. Scansion is of course based on interpretation and how one hears the syllables.

Blank verse: (preferably) non-rhyming, iambic pentameter, has emotive foot substitutions, with mid-line caesuras for added effect and interesting enjambments. It is probably the most sophisticated form of English metrical poetry.

This was my first formal attempt at writing anything in blank verse and I am not presumptuous enough to think that I would succeed; that in a few hours I could go from an amateur poet to writing like that Shakespeare chap or that Milton fellow. No, of course not. The other voice in my head is chuckling as I type this…because I “felt” I could do it. I stuck to the right syllable count and there are some interesting mid-line caesuras and enjambments (or so I believe). But I don’t have the iambic pentameter down. Will I ever? I. NEED. TO. have it down in less than 48 hours as that’s when my assignment is due.

Did I tell you that I am scientist? I have had an almost purely technical higher education. The last time I studied ‘art’ in any seriousness was NEVER. English was considered a fluff subject and social sciences a necessary evil. These seemingly innocuous subjects could pull down one’s GPA. The glorious GPA. In India we called it the total percentage – an oxymoron for a generation of, well, morons. Eat facts; Purge facts. The assimilation and digestion of these facts was encouraged just far enough to answer the “application-based” questions in the annual nation-wide central board examinations. I was inculcated into this band of buffoonery early and it’s not like I had a choice. No one ever has a choice in these matters.

When I prod my earliest memories of being in an “educational” institute in India I invariably come up with the scene of the annual parent-teacher meeting that was scheduled for the day when the final examination results was announced. I mean literally announced. We would enter our classrooms to find a list of names chalked out on the main board along with their respective total percentages. These were ‘The top 10 lists’ that went viral before such things were ever conceptualised. I say chalked out because for scores of children not seeing their names up on the board made the classroom feel like the scene of a murder investigation: their dreams and hopes had been killed off by the notorious evil of intense competition that they were somehow complicit in and their futures now being reevaluated and investigated in detail by persons of higher authority. Oh, the trepidation. Have you ever seen a six year-old have insomnia and indigestion because of stress? Please visit India in April and you’ll see millions of them.

In one of those evil annual meetings, when I was about 8 years old, in a prestigious school in Delhi an English teacher changed my life. Yes, we start learning early in India. I was distraught that I had placed 2nd or 3rd in the class and had missed out on the first place because of one percentage point or less. My teacher who smiled and handed my report card to my mother (who was very happy and proud of her child) looked at me with concern. She congratulated me on my rank and told me that I had done exceptionally well. She told me she was very happy with me and that I was an obedient child and very intelligent. The whole while I was looking at her wondering where I had lost marks that has costed me the rank. I wanted to see the other report cards. I am not good with praise so I was happy to have some critical points to mull over in my eight year old brain. She could sense, I think, that I wasn’t reassured by her generous compliments. Then she said something that pulled me out of my abysmal state with such force that I have over the years abstained from venturing into that dark cave of self-criticism and if I ever happened to find myself suddenly in that chasm then I would have the torch of her words to guide myself out:

She said, “Sampoorna. Always compete only with yourself.

Back then the biggest mystery of all to me was: How had she known what I was thinking? It’s obvious now that she was a good teacher who knew just what to say to make sure her student didn’t end up killing herself over that chalk outline. Perhaps what she didn’t know was that with those words she changed my approach to my education. (This time without the quotes.) I will never forget her, those words and that moment.

I have always loved science and have made a career out of a passion. But I have loved English and the social sciences too and it was probably because of my fourth-grade teacher’s wise words. I did well enough the latter subjects to keep my GPA high but did not go into them so deeply that it excluded me from the current generational agenda: Only Engineers and Doctors Allowed! That rant deserves its own post. However I competed with myself to know more about everything. I no longer looked for a blackboard, even a metaphorical one. I haven’t done so in a very long time. In the process I ended up having an illicit love affair with questions such as, “What is humanity?” and thinking thoughts way beyond my curriculum and career path such as , “Without language we would never have realised that we all have the same questions.” I can go as far as to say that my teacher’s wisdom has led me to be the mixed by-product of societal expectation that I am: neither an engineer nor a doctor but somehow both. This blog is also an extension of that self-competitive state which I would now rephrase as self-discovery. I am learning as much about myself as you are about me.

And now, how come a scientist ended up caring about scansion, blank verse, poetry? Because competing with oneself means learning constantly and creating something everyday. I am no longer planning and doing experiments but that doesn’t mean I don’t have an original thought to put to paper. And that brings me to my dismal day which somehow this post has redeemed. The itch to scratch out verses is returning. The evening is still youngish and I need to retry writing blank verses. I seem to suck at it but heck, who’s keeping scores?

Today's Daily prompt helped give direction to my thoughts: Teacher's Pet

Thinking briefly of poetry at 2 am

29 January 2015

2:19 AM

Dear Void

Are you able to sleep? I am not. I am here and awake and about ready to have an epiphany that I know will not come. Words are coming out as though they are the impatient commuters on the Swiss SBB CFF FFS rails; they have to get somewhere and get there on time. I don’t know where I’ll end up at the end of this ‘stream of consciousness’- type of writing but I hope it’s somewhere good. Somewhere more sleepy. Is this what happens if you read too much poetry? I am imagining writing a poem as a tribute to Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree. I want to make it about my home city in India. An ambitious project but the seed has been sown.

I will arise and go now, and go to Bangalore
       And a small lodging build there, of brick and concrete made;

And so it begins. That was the easy part and it helps that out of Yeats’ 26 syllables in the two lines I had to change just 8! A cheat you say. Yes, you are probably right. I will attempt the rest of this challenging accentual-syllabic poem tomorrow and see how far I get. That poetry class is paying off dear Void.

Now moving on to the poem that has haunted me ever since I read it:

(An excerpt from)
Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain–and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped by eyes, unwilling to explain.

To me this is about depression and every time I read it my heart gets heavier. Damn you Frost! Damn you!
I don’t know why it should affect me so. I am not depressed, or am I? I am awake after all at some ungodly hour.

The winds are blowing heavy outside and the snow is orange under the streetlight. Switzerland can get mighty quiet. No person, no life in sight. There is naught but the brief howl of the wind as it gushes down the streets and around the buildings.

This blogpost now finally makes this space a personal blog. A place, to store my brain leakage and, then in a few hours when I wake up (ha!) to come back to be astonished and then embarrassed. I am sorry for you dear Void. You’ll be hearing a lot more of the post-midnight me. At least until I find something to put me to sleep. Poetry is not helping!

Here’s a random thought:
The first time I heard about the Oxford comma, which was here in WordPress, I thought it was a metaphor for the fleeting pause that is higher education in the larger academy of life teachings.

Hm. Eyes feel sore. Bed. Now.