Observations: My motley fools

For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?
– Jane Austen

 

PART I: Suspicion at first sight

I live on a street with five flat complexes, three in use and the other two almost constructed. Ours has the distinction of being the oldest and the shortest of all. The one next to ours is the biggest on the street and is not bad-looking. It has a grand compound wall and a stately entry gate. It even has 24 hour security. It’s incredibly royal when compared to our small, sporadically manned, dismal-coloured building.

We had moved into this flat during winter three years ago. Strangely, that same winter felt much darker and colder within the flat. I couldn’t understand it, but I didn’t mind it. I enjoyed the coldness and dreariness; they relaxed me.
So, during this time, I took to the habit of staring out my window for long durations. My room faced the east face of my neighbours’ complex (the aforementioned biggest one) and their parking cellar. Although a drab view, it was redeemed by several pigeon families that had colonized this aspect. Their antics never failed to amuse me.

As a few days went by, I caught glimpses of my neighbours. Most were middle-aged men and women who kept well-maintained cars. They dressed well and looked wealthy and desirable to me. At times, I spotted a handsome young man heading out in a grey hatchback. He always dressed trendily and listened to loud music; of what kind, I couldn’t tell you. He looked like a student of my age and impressed me terribly. I casually envied his car along with the freedom and wealth its possession implied.

But one morning, a few days later, my habitual survey of the east face left me slightly perturbed. Something was different today, though I wasn’t sure what. I scanned the entire face of the building, top to bottom and criss-cross. It felt like a larger-than-life ‘spot the difference’ game and I was as bad at this as I was with the one in the newspaper. I frowned and was in the act of turning away, when something stood out in the periphery of my vision. A brown hand. No, two brown hands.

In the window opposite stood a man, hands stretched diagonally above him on either side and gripping his curtain rod. He was wearing a white under shirt and had a sizeable paunch. His face, and only his face, was in shadow. From the way it was angled, he had to be staring right at my window, right at me. I managed a weak wave, but elicited no response. He just stood there (or maybe floated, because I couldn’t see his legs) and stared. Or slept; there was no way to know. I shut my blinds and withdrew. My room suddenly felt very stifling. I decided to go and chat with my mother for a bit. I bolted my room’s door shut when I left.

Part II: Strangest things

What started off as a puerile speculation soon grew to be a confirmed prediction. My neighbours are terrible people. At nights, the night watchman tends to doze off at times. He is a migrant from India’s North-East and works inhuman hours. My neighbours drive up to the gates at night and don’t get down from the car and knock/pat on the gates to wake him up. They don’t even call for him. Instead, they honk. In the dead of night, bang in the middle of a residential street, those barbarians honk. Not once, at that, but several times. And not one of them ever bothers to do this differently.

The mornings don’t disappoint too. They bring with them an elaborate spectacle. A lady, on her way out in a chauffeured Mercedes has the car stop by the gate. She exits the vehicle barefoot and saunters down to a tree along the compound. It is a big tree with a considerable circumference but otherwise unremarkable. I began to doubt my opinion on the tree though, after I saw the kind of fidelity it inspired in the woman. She stops in front of the tree and aligns her hands in prayer. Then, eyes closed and palms joined, she begins walking round the tree over and over till she halts at the end of the 21st round. She bows her head one last time, murmurs a tailpiece and gets back into the car, which promptly drives off.

But, the weirdest and surely the most alarming of them all was the man who shot at the pigeons. The balcony in my parents’ room affords a scenic view of the surrounding greens and neighbourhoods. Naturally, it also doubles as a pleasant spot to enjoy one’s morning coffee at. The sparrows’ chirping is louder and the peripatetic bees of the nearby hive make for a charming morning vista. So one’s cries of distress are redeemable when a neighbour begins shooting at the pigeons. Our intervention came later, after that day of disbelief. It was a short episode: loud consecutive shots out of nowhere followed by a pregnant silence. The awfulness of such silences lie in their unpredictability. One prays for them to end but fears how. In our case, the silence didn’t break at all for the day. It just dissolved into the night air and almost out of our memories. The next morning, we were back at the balcony, now our outpost. Our nerves were on fire as we lay in ambush; the slightest rustle drew shouts which were quelled just as quick. So when the neighbour came with his air gun and fired the first shot, our screams were heard even at the street entrance. He made a few threatening noises but ultimately, we proved too loud for him. His end has been quiet ever since.

What a motley crowd.

My neighbours and their complex seemed designed to confound me. Their complex has two blocks on either side of the parking cellar’s entrance. These blocks are linked by a wooden walker’s bridge that subtly arches over the driveway. Yet, not once have I seen one neighbour cross the bridge and meet another neighbour. However, I did spy a female neighbour hurl insults and allegations of theft at a young and skinny adolescent girl in the parking lot. From my understanding, the girl presumably worked as the neighbour’s domestic help. After the girl had left for a vacation of some kind, the lady discovered a theft at her house. Maybe it was money, or jewellery; I did not know. Whatever it was, the lady was loud and livid with rage. It was only when she began to recycle the insults and accusations did I realize she was putting up an act. In fact, the neighbour was mighty pleased with herself for unearthing the theft. Under the theatrics, she boasted of this and praised herself constantly. Finally, she threatened the girl with broken limbs should she return and exited my line of sight. The girl stood with her head bowed for a long time after the neighbour left. The show was over. I don’t know what happened after that.

Part III: Tailpiece

Even today, I don’t know a single neighbour personally. Hell, I’ll be damned if I’ve ever seen one eye-to-eye in the past three years. I don’t know them but I can testify to their awfulness. I haven’t seen them but I have witnessed their failings. I’m sure they haven’t seen me, apart from the faceless man who may or may not be staring into my room. They’re strangers to me, complexes apart. Yet, I am positive I hate them. Maybe it’s how they cycle through an assembly line of watchman replacements every year or how not one bothered to react when our complex had a fire break out in it. I don’t know why I hate them but I just unambiguously do.

Is that okay?

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Poetry: The path a path takes

But then who could you count as reliable who could not manage a stave or two of The Waste Land?

– Imperfect Recall, Christopher Hitchens

It is true
That movement is traceable
And has an origin.
Yet, one’s origin
Is invariably the end of another.

Like a flower in endless bloom,
In the moment the petals wilt,
The new ones are born again.
Though the flower forever lunges forward,
It never quite is alongside Time.

Such is the world we live in:
A complex web of action
With inevitable reactions,
Where every action
Is also a reaction
To an action prior.

Think about it.

Even Birth, that most initial
Of beginnings, the most prior,
Is but a reaction
To Attachment and Attachment,
A reaction to circumstance.

It may seem futile, being pieces
In a puzzle but never
The puzzle itself.
But, futility is a conclusion
We must all be resigned to.

Musings: The impotency of water & what it portends

If you base medicine on science, you cure people. If you base the design of planes on science, they fly. If you base the design of rockets on science, they reach the moon. Cars drive. Computers compute.
It works, bitches.
               

 – Prof. Richard Dawkins
(when asked to justify the scientific method)

Here lies my case: as a species, we share an immense susceptibility to fantasy.
This is why sensationalism is rampant in today’s reporting. Nothing grabs eyeballs better. Except, perhaps, mysterious little North Korea and its chubby head honcho.

Consider this:

In the summer of 2016, my father visited a few farmers’ collectives. He went to survey their opinions on an upcoming hydroelectricity project. Despite the project’s benefits, the farmers expressed immense dismay. Further inquiry revealed the reason- the farmers strongly suspected that the hydroelectricity project would diminish the water’s ‘strength’. They thought the water would lose its fertilizing power. They lamented the supply of impotent water to the farmlands. 

This might seem like a hilarious anecdote at first. A fond memory of the naivete of the country folk. Look closer, however. It is evidence of the susceptibility I mentioned earlier. We imagine explanations where we lack them. We prefer fantastic conclusions to obvious natural reasoning. Conclusions that satisfy our ego. Adapting these to fit the limits of reason is thought inconvenient. Science is declared ‘limited’ and ‘incapable’. Fantasy suffices, then suffuses,

If you haven’t observed this already, you’re either a part of it or have entirely escaped it. The latter is highly improbable.

This susceptibility is toxic, tantalizingly so. It provides a widely accepted alternative to logical thinking. Science is not malleable. It is impersonal and people hate it for this apparent coldness. Science paints a picture of their lives they cannot digest. More edible and tastier alternatives are sought. Cue: innate susceptibility. Unlike animals, we evolved an intelligence that can imagine. Not just adapt and grow but imagine. We can ask the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘why nots’. This makes for a very potent stew.

Where science proves inconvenient, where it proves harsh- we ignore it. This baffles me. How can one ignore science as if it were a choice? If the rock above one’s head falls, it will hit- regardless of whether one sees it coming or not. Where one’s personal ideas are rubbished by science, one worries. One escapes from its constraints, sailing the ship of imagination. We invent ideas and create explanations that please and encourage. Entire industries have developed around this- religion being the most formidable.

This is my plea- don’t look away. However bleak or cold reality may be, it is the only thing there is. Nothing else exists and in nothing else, will you. We must desist from buying this inherited delusion of convenience. Science cannot be disposed of. Its laws have preceded us and will go beyond us. It is why we are here- products of evolution. It is immune to us, just as it must be. For if left to us, scientific law would be an awkward and insecure apology incapable of deciding what two twos must equal; let alone what flies, what swims or what does both.

Scientific law is inevitable and ubiquitous- the only law that needs no constitution. The entirety of the solar system and all of the galaxies- each bigger and hotter than the other, spread over an endless space, have been unable to achieve the most momentary suspension in the laws of the universe.

How can you?

Thoughts on Murakami’s Norwegian Wood

norwegian-wood-cover

 

Hailed as Murakami’s defining novel that had become so popular in Japan that it forced him to retreat deep inside European retreats in Greece and Italy, it somewhat came as a surprise that I read Norwegian Wood so late in my career as a reader of fiction.

I bought it at a tremendously discounted price at Mumbai’s glorious Flora Fountain and started digging into it on my bus ride back home. It strung strings deep, deep inside. That’s the beauty of it, Toru Watanabe is so ordinary and plain that there is some of him inside each one of us, though I can’t be bothered with alcohol and women in the same way.

I am sure the book is autobiographical to a large extent (a point heatedly debated by Murakami) but my point is, which work of fiction isn’t? After all, fiction is fragments of reality, sometimes a few, sometimes several, woven together using the threads of imagination. The proportion between the real part and the imagined part varies, but the underlying composition is the same thus making way for genres in fiction.

It was three quarters an hour past midnight earlier today when I had promised myself I’d read just a chapter and then sleep. I slept at a quarter to five in the morning, after having finished the book. In that time, I had read the book cover-to-cover, re-reading several parts of it and just, on the whole, had let myself be swept away by Watanabe’s endearingly dispassionate detachment. It is addictive, this book, one of the few where you can open any page and read till any other, and still walk away with a lot of understanding and clarity. No wonder it swept the Japanese youth off their feet back then, no wonder it propelled Murakami to such stardom.

As to my thoughts on the characteristically cryptic ending- all along, for Watanabe, the memory of Kizuki’s death-by-suicide haunts him, leaving him convinced that death is but something you wake up and stare at everyday and not a distant harsh truth as often misconstrued. He is, however, convinced that it is an invisible face that Death has and not a living, breathing and dying one. To me, Naoko is the death Watanabe refers to, the death that is a part of life, the death we nurture by living our lives. She is always there- teetering on the edge of the wall separating the existing from the existed, a place Watanabe unknowingly gets sucked into because of his love for her.

Till the moment she passes away, Toru always had death with him in the form of his memories of Naoko, giving him that detachment from life in general on account of his pull towards something that was dying.

Which is why, in the end when Watanabe calls Midori and doesn’t know where he is, it represents that he is unfamiliar with the concept of life wholly devoid of death’s baleful gaze. Midori represents that spark of life which is the only thing that can light Watanabe’s way out of the dark tunnel of the dead and the long gone.

Norwegian Wood will always hold a special place in my head- it was every bit more magnificent than I had ever expected it to be. It was as naked and simple as life generally is- no grand plots, no groundbreaking ideas and other such things. It’s beauty lies in its honesty and in its lack of internal bias or favour for after all, the mills grind slowly and steadily for us all.

 

 

A Mirage Called Ego.

Recently, my cousin and I decided to assign each other a writing exercise wherein we’d pick a common topic and write whatever story germinates from the idea of it.

The topic we had picked was a grandfather clock and below is the story that struck me when I contemplated on it:

 

Sleep. In the eight years that she had lived, sleep was the one thing she had never experienced, or rather, had never remembered experiencing.
Insomnia, the doctors claimed. Fancy excuses for staying awake, her weary old governess dismissed.

But from what she had heard and read and seen of sleep, she found the lack of it not as perturbing as she thought it would be. For sleep was nothing but a transcendental state of existence where you could walk in your dreams. Sleep, as her governess had once wisely educated her, was when all the information swirling around inside the head came to rest down on the nerves and from there, be absorbed into them and flow straight into the brain which consequently ensured that this information stays remembered.

But all of this was too scientific for the girl. Too technical.

Every night while her governess slept, the girl awoke from her feigned sleep. She used to hastily stuff the blankets with pillows which vaguely resembled her lithe eight year old figure and slipped out of the room into the Mansion.It was a busier night than usual at the Mansion, she observed as she skipped around. She patted the armchair on his arms and waved at the lamp. She greeted the wall by trying to hug him and the couch by jumping onto him from behind. The closet groaned in discomfort when her door creaked open in the wind. The girl got up and shut the door for her firmly, all the while growing increasingly curious about the excited buzz all around the house.

“Mrs. Closet, do you know what is up with everybody? Why are they all so excited and loud tonight?”
“Oh little one, it is a matter that is best left unexplored. Thank you for your help anyway, but it is now time for me to sleep!”
But just as the girl had spun around to walk back, the closet said in a hushed voice, “Little one, whatever you do, just don’t go to the corridor on the second floor.”

“Why not?”

But the closet was already fast asleep or pretending to be fast asleep.

“Stop, quick one, stop!” cried the steps as she ran up them.
“Oh, hello there Mr. Steps! What can I do for you?”
“Just don’t climb any further, o quick one, for on the floor above, The Lord of Us All stands tall and awake.”
The girl grew wide-eyed in wonder. Her pudgy stub of a chin quivered in excitement as she contemplated on what Mr. Steps had just said.

“Don’t fret, Step! I would do just about anything to meet the Lord of You All.”

And saying so, she scampered up the steps, turned a right, ran straight and turned  a left and lo! Before her lay the now infamous second floor corridor. It was a peculiar inclusion to the mansion, for it led nowhere and had no rooms alongside. Its far end was always shrouded in darkness and there was just one window.

Although she had never visited the corridor before, she was familiar with its door. The door was an old and bitter fellow. Broken and cracked in many places with rot all over his wood and rust over his knobs.

His only claim to significance was being the door at the entrance of the study but now, he had not even that for he was replaced with a fresher and sturdier one, rendering him purposeless and bitter.
He was placed instead at the entrance of the second floor corridor, which had once been an impromptu smoking chamber. He was always muttering to himself and cursing at all that walked past. On many an occasion, he refused to let stray smokers or kids playing hide-and-seek out of the corridor just for the sadistic pleasure of it.
He reveled in the discomfort his creakiness caused everybody and made it a point to be as creaky and creepy as possible.

But the girl was familiar with all tricks, and greeted him by roughly twisting his rusty knob and pushing him wide open.
The door let loose a roar of displeasure and screamed in his rickety voice, “You insolent little rodent! You brat! You will pay dearly for your insolence, you will pay so badly, so heavily. Mark my words!”

But the girl was already inside the corridor, ignoring Grandpa Door (who had fast shut himself) and walking briskly towards the moonlit dead-end.
As she neared the pale moonlight, she could feel a presence and something else about it that she couldn’t quite grasp.She could make out a vague physical shape and what struck her immediately was the imposing height of this figure. Whoever he/she was, the girl knew within that they had to be old and very tall.

DING DONG. DING DONG.

The midnight chimes resonated through the corridor, giving the girl a start.

It’s just a clock. An old grandfather clock.

The girl couldn’t contain herself any longer. It was this ancient and weary timepiece that had had all her friends on tenterhooks. She swelled up in anger, balled her fists and stomped right up to the clock.

“Look Mister, I don’t know who you..”

“Aaaaahhhhhhhhhh!” yawned the grandfather clock.

He was tall and very old, built of sturdy wood. His wood was dark and very plainly designed. The golden pendulum kept moving steadily, hypnotically.
He spoke in a raspy and gravelly voice, “What brings you here, child?”

“I’m here to find out who you are and why my friends are scared of you. You shouldn’t scare people, it’s a mean thing to do!”

The clock stood silent, scrutinizing the girl. He wasn’t used to being spoken to in this manner.

“Why don’t you respond, Mr. Clock? Who are you? Why are you the Lord of Them All? What’s so special about you?”

There was a soft creak as the rotten door stood himself up straight, “He not only is the Lord of Us All, but the Lord of Everything. Including you, o insolent one.”

The girl’s teeth were clenched and her tiny stub of a chin was quivering as she turned around to face the door. Her body was stiff and her chest was puffed up in rage as she boldly announced, “This old clock is not my lord. He’s just another person living in this house, but he most certainly isn’t some big Lord!” Her mouth was an angry pout as she gazed daggers at the door.

The floorboards creaked as they spoke, “Young one! Such courage is admirable but alas, youth lacks the wisdom to recognize without fault where it must be employed!”

“Youth lacks the wisdom and depth to reconcile itself with reality”, continued the Clock. “In a world far removed, isolated from all that is ordinary, sits your age- choosing to imagine the extraordinary and bemoan its absence rather than experience the ordinary and live with it.”

“But behind everything ordinary, there is always something extraordinary, Mr. Clock. Behind the honey we cherish is the extraordinary story of the honey bee’s travels and travails. Behind the water we drink is the extraordinary fact of minuscule orbs fusing in multitudes to bring to life the very source of life.

Ordinary is but a direct consequence of the Extraordinary, for without the latter, the former ceases to exist, to operate”, said the girl. She had sat herself down and on her crossed legs lay her loosely clasped hands. Her black hair hung behind her face as she gazed at the clock, relaxed and confident, polite but irreverent.

The steady tick-tock of the clock punched through the silence that curtained the room after the girl spoke. The floorboards and the door were paralyzed with wonder as the clock stood tall, contemplating and understanding.

At long last, he spoke, “It pleases me that someone as young as you is capable enough to recognize the process behind the ordinary world and all that is worldly and ordinary. But tell me, little one, have you understood what the Extraordinary is?”

“No. I have been searching for it, trying to isolate it, but to no avail.”

The clock coughed- dry and gravelly, before he spoke again, “Before you, right now, stands the Extraordinary. I am it. I am the Extraordinary!” exclaimed the clock suddenly, possessed by a sudden fervor.

She still sat unabashed but gazed at the clock with more curiosity and puzzlement. “I’m sorry”, she said. “I still don’t see the Extraordinary.”

The clock drew himself up with a huge breath and exploded into explanation, “Don’t you see, little one, don’t you see the evident? I am Time! I measure all, control all and kill all! I am the Master the universe itself hurries to answer! I am the beginning and the end of all, the very fabric of existence! I lend definition to all just as I erase all, I protect all just as I expose all and I create all just as I kill all! Nothing escapes my gaze as age is common to all and all that exists must age! And therefore, I stand here- the Perpetual Counter, the Eternal Overseer. I am Time. I am all. I am the beyond. I am the Extraordinary- the cause behind all that is ordinary.”

The girl slowly turned her head away from the clock, her eyes lingering on him for a moment thoughtfully before they followed suit. She stared outside the window, elbow on her thigh and head perched on her fist. Her stubby chin was even stubbier now that it was pushed upward by her fist, making her face look all the more intense and at the same time, child-like.

“But Mr. Clock”, she said, still staring out the window, “You are just that. A clock. You have been built by the hands of men and designed for the eyes of men. Your purpose is to display time, in all its accuracy and continuity. But you are not time itself. For if I bring my fork and fork those clock hands off of your dial, you will not be able to display time, but time will not for a moment cease flowing. Its perpetual nature will not for a moment change nor will its ubiquity for a moment stand masked.” She turned to face the clock, eyes burning with the fire of discovery. She stood up, head cocked to one side, hair thrown over her back and hands balled into fists. She stood with her legs slightly spread apart, staring back at the clock with a sneer. “You are nothing but a mere display, a common tool, with millions like you over the world. Your capability is and will always be the display of time and never will it be possible for you or anyone like you to transcend this limitation.”

The clock seemed to grow smaller as she spoke, with her voice hitting stronger and stronger notes as she continued. “In this house, perhaps you are the only one of your kind- old, wise and strong for which, I respect you and encourage others to do too. But this house is but an insignificant dot in this world, for the world is vast. And because all the residents in this house recognize the universal importance of time and its subsequent realities, they were beguiled into respecting you, you who happen to be a mere
representation of time. I ask you, Mr. Clock, are you too not affected by the passage of time? For I refuse to believe when you were built anew, the designer saw fit to use chipped and cracked wood in your construction. Therefore, it stands to reason that the Mills of Time have ground you down too, over the years, just as they have ground all that exists and existed.”

She tapped the floorboards with her foot and patted the wall with her hand. She walked towards the door, which swung open without a word. She walked to the far end of the passage and turned to look at the clock. Illuminated by the pale moonlight, he stood tall once more and ticked steadily, as he had been all his life. However, his ticking seemed to have new energy and his countenance seemed in possession of new strength- a new awareness had crept through him.As the girl skipped down the stairs, not a word was spoken. The silence prevailed as she walked across the hallway back to her bedroom. As she opened the door to the bedroom, she encountered some resistance from the door.

“Little one, you have been awake all your life, while we slept through ours. Now that you have awakened us, it is time you slept.”

“Door my dearest, we are all awake, at all times. It all just boils down to what extent we are awake and more importantly, to what it is that awakens us.”

She kissed the door goodnight and crawled back into her bed and lay under her blankets, feeling warm and snug.

It was perhaps the soundest sleep she had feigned in a long time.