Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Favourite Christmas Movies

That time of the year has come and gone, and I am err... slightly late in this post. But since the yuletide spirit is technically extended throughout the holidays till the new year before it is bottled up again to be reopened during the next year Christmas shopping, I intend to go ahead with this post anyway. :)

When I think about Christmas movies, these are the ones that come to my mind. Being essentially calm and peace-loving by nature, I'm not incorporating films which have nasty gremlins or heavy fighting sequences in this list. I am elated simply to finally be able to make a list of favourite movies on a particular genre where I can neatly bullet and pinpoint the favourites and not have a broken heart over the ones I missed. No wonder I love the yuletide cheer!

1. It's A Wonderful Life (1946): Quintessential Capra. I know that my guardian angel is someone like Clarence Odbody who is reading about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn exactly when I am in one of my stickiest muddles. I do not know if it's a wonderful life, but if a confirmed skeptic like me feels weepy after watching this film, then it surely is a wonderful film after all.

2. The Bishop's Wife (1947): If for nothing else, then solely for the suave and debonair Cary Grant as one of the most attractive angels ever to be seen, and for his falling in love with the bishop's wife (Loretta Young) to show that angels too are not insusceptible to love. Oh, and intended footnote: I am disappointed though, on the film's celebration of the bishop's wife. Loretta Young stays pretty, cries a lot over her plight, and then when Cary Grant comes and takes her to one life-affirming, romantic situation after another, she giggles uncontrollably and moons over him. And, to add insult to serious injury, Cary Grant falls in love with such a specimen of womanhood. Oh the follies of men, and even angels!

3. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944): Colourful and vibrant, it's one of those feel-good movies which make you happy unfailingly every time you feel low. Judy Garland at one of her best (naturally), with the vagaries, comforts, innocence and beauties of provincial town life at the turn of the century. I watched it in technicolour, and you too should do likewise.

4. Miracle on 34th Street (1947): When I grew up, I just stopped believing in Santa Claus. It's just one of those things which you suddenly realise you don't feel anymore - like a cure - when you wake up one morning. But this beautiful, sensitive, heart-warming film which you watch when you've all "grown up" (and have a great life, very practical and all) wakes you up with a jolt at what you've been missing. This poster says it all. :)

5. Scrooge (A Christmas Carol - 1951): Yes, there's no Christmas Carol on-screen like the 1951 Christmas Carol (released in the UK as 'Scrooge'). And if you're lucky enough to snuggle up with your family on Christmas, this is the one to watch together after the sumptuous Christmas lunch.

6. White Christmas (1954): I could watch this film only for the Bing Crosby song sung at the beginning and feel nostalgic. But come on, it's Christmas and we have Rosemary Clooney who's not singing 'Mambo Italiano' but rather appearing docile and lovely. A classic entertaining, must-watch Christmas film.

7. A Christmas Story (1983): I am wary of the eighties (not particularly because I was born towards the end of the decade, but because I'm a heartless, mean, biased person). So naturally I steer clear of eighties movies. But then there are eighties movies and there is 'A Christmas Story', which after having braved a watch, I could sit down with it any day of the year and choose it over most nineties movies. Thoroughly fun, entertaining, and if you look closely a vignette of a time past - we just don't have families and moments like that any more. Anyway, no Christmas movie list is complete without this one.

8. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965): And you were thinking I wasn't going to incorporate any animated movies? 25 minutes of unadulterated Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Sally, Snoopy, Pig-pen, Scroeder, Patty and what more do you want? Re-quoting Lucy in a completely different context, this is the "Charlie Brownest" experience I've ever had. :)

9. The Snowman (1982): BBC's adaptation of Raymond Briggs's story touches the innermost chords of your heart and appeals to that part of you which you'd left behind while growing up. And to top it all, David Bowie introduces this otherwise wordless experience.

10. Love Actually (2003): I usually tag Love Actually with my favourite British comedies, but everything is so Christmassy about this film, beginning with the setting and the time-span. And what can be more fascinating than discovering and rediscovering your love over the holidays? "Love is all around" after all. (whatever)

11. The Holiday (2006): Another classic Christmassy-comedy spin-off with big stars. Thoroughly enjoyable to watch over the holidays and if you've had a bad year you'll find your sympathisers in Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz. Totally feel-good, totally worth it. Special mention: Kate Winslet's wardrobe and Hans Zimmer's music (why, naturally!).

So there we go, another year done and packaged to be scrutinised later. Having finished watching all the Christmas movies beforehand (another lesson learnt: keep the Christmas movies pending till the last minute. You won't have any cause for regret), I spent a dismal Christmas eve, watching a brilliant Angelopoulous movie (Ullysses' Gaze, 1995) which is so brilliant that it made me feel suicidal because of my mundaneness. Then P came along, swept me, and we had a rollicking Christmas. A week later, here I am, back on the couch, alone on New Year's Eve, reading a brilliant Calvino (If On A Winter's Night A Traveller), and tomorrow S and I will begin the year with a warm adda. To all my readers and friends (real and imagined), have a wonderful and bright New Year.
I don't want to grow up. I've grown up enough and it's time it stopped. The days merge into one another, especially during this not-so-winter solstice, when I can feel it inside me. I can feel all that I held close to me through the years slide out of me, never to come back. Those glorious years of childhood; the slow, reticent seasons - shy almost; those memories, those experiences. Life is getting too complicated by the day, and childhood and simplicity seems like a dream one had a long time ago, when one planned to stay up all night in the terrace to watch shooting stars; where winters crept in suddenly one morning when you couldn't see the garden wall anymore because of the fog; when it rained incessantly for days and you thought the sky would fall down; when summers meant long afternoons and mangoes. There was crotchet, grannies and knights-saving-damsels on the porcelain plates. And there was always glorious sunshine, exactly when you wanted it, how you wanted it.  

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What's in a Name, Really?

Nothing much, or maybe quite something. Totally relative and definitely not to be joked about. But then, how would the average Indian, especially the amazing breed called "Bangali" go about their daily fare without poking fun at the names of their brethren? My grandfather had first fashioned his surname into "Bonnerjee". My father readily adapted it, and I was obliged to follow. I am extremely ashamed to accept now that this surname has been a cause of trauma for me over the years. Why? Because the average Bangali thought it was funny that the mundane 'Banerjee' should be spelt with an 'o', forgetting their history lessons, that the first president of the Indian National Congress himself wrote it with an 'o'. Anyway, I was 3, in kindergarten, when the pin-pointing began. And if your first name is something as grand as 'Samraghni', you have to know that you'll be subject to ridicule for the rest of your life. Of course I didn't tell my parents. Of course I always bore it all; patiently telling them that yes it's spelt with an 'o'; it's the same as Banerjee; I don't know why I write it this way; my father and my grandfather before him wrote it with an 'o'; and I swear I haven't made a spelling mistake. As I grew up, I would inform people lightly about the historical figure, but of course I was labelled as precocious.

Days rolled on. I think it was during my late teens that I first started telling people that my surname is 'Banerjee', reserving the 'o' only for official documents. Yes, it hurt. Bonnerjee was my identity, and when you change the name you've grown up in, you become the Namenlosen - the nameless. But I was tired of endless questions and pinpointing. And then came the final blow. I'd gone to the university to receive my MA Part II admit card which were being distributed two days before the exams on a half an hour notice. The queue was winding, the weather very hot and humid, and the temper was already rising. When my turn came, the man at the counter glanced at the admit card he was supposed to hand me, let out a smirk and said, "E ki, Bonnerjee? Hahahaha." Then he lifted the piece of paper, held it over his head, turned round in his chair, and addressed all his colleagues, loudly and in a tone of extreme mockery, "Bonnerjee! Ei bhai, dyakh, Bonnerjee! Jibone kokhono shunini baba, Bonnerjee!" All those government employees who come to office at noon and are always clueless when it comes to matters of work, looked at the sheet of paper, then at me, and laughed loudly. Well, bad for them, I wasn't 4 anymore. I said, loudly and clearly, with my voice ringing down the corridor, "Ota title. Banerjee r e variant. University te boshe achen aar W. C. Bonnerjee r naam shonen ni, eta apnader e murkhota promaan kore. Congress er first president chilen.Jaihok apnader she shob bole toh aar kono labh nei, shomoy noshto. Chi-chi jotto shob murkher dol. Ei College st theke beriye aro ektu uttore jaan. Dekhben ekta asto Raasta ache onaar naame." So saying, I snatched it from his hand, glared at all of them, and marched outside. My Maa tried to pacify me over the phone, saying that that could hamper with my results if not anything else(I had once pointed out to a teacher in class that she was wrong when she'd quoted Burns' "My love is like a red red rose" and tried to pass it off as Yeats. YEATS! I was well, duly penalised, come exams.). I told Maa enough was, well, enough. It was time I stood up against it. It's just a surname, and if you cannot respect the memory of the person who tried to make it famous, at least respect the person who still bears it.

Nevertheless, even after that, when people asked me my name, I spelled it with an 'a', until I finally asked myself, why? If people ask, I'll clarify; if I don't feel like, I won't; if they wonder, let them wonder; if they find it funny, well, I've been a source of some comic relief in their pathetic lives. I had been reading about a woman, my spiritual ancestor, and that was when I understood that I need not be ashamed of myself just because people are too ignorant. There's no need for me to resort to Womesh Babu's brilliance with politics, or Kanan Babu's brilliance with the way he wielded words (my grandfather, who was the editor of the Indian banking Journal among other things, and from whom I learnt the word 'juxtaposed' when 11, since he'd used it in a preface to a new edition in the 50s) every time some random stranger poked fun at my surname. People are what people do, not what their names are spelled as. She made me finally realise that I'm proud of my name, fricking proud. Both the first and the last name. And there's no reason to change it or modify it. I am Bonnerjee, with an 'o', and nothing can make me Banerjee with an 'a'. I just won't feel at home with that one.

And the woman who made me realise that is called Janaki Agnes Penelope Majumdar Bonnerjee. :)   

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Fraumünster's Church

At Zürich, we first went to the Fraumünster's Church.

Even before entering the city, the towers of Frau and Gross Münster could be made out from the distance. Earlier that day, we'd been up at Pilatus. The previous night, Switzerland had experienced its first snowfall this season, and the inhabitants of Luzern had come to the peak and basked on the glorious sunshine falling on the snow. A group of four people had carried their enormous Alphorns up the peak, and played them as a sort of invocation to the snow, the tune being called the "Waldecho" - a Swiss folk tradition, dating back to centuries.

We'd entered the city through the Altstadt, and as S crazily shot pictures of imposing towers and latest car-models, I clutched my camera and walked slowly towards the square. It was a Sunday, with moderately pleasant weather verging on the chilly, and the inhabitants were slowly venturing out to enjoy the evening. The river Limmat flowed gently below, and I carelessly clutched the banister while looking mesmerised at the church which rose ahead.

I've always had a fascination for small churches. Having spent seventeen years of my life in proximity to one, and a further three years of college life overlooking the tiny Victorian church next door, I probably cannot explain the strange thrill and melancholy that runs through me when I hear church bells ringing in a strange unfamiliar town. The Münsterbrücke (bridge) running over the Limmat separates Frau- from Grossmünster. Frau meaning "lady" in German, the church was once a medieval abbess with influential political power. During Reformation, its powers were dissolved, and having survived the centuries, it now serves as a parish church. In the later half of the twentieth century, Chagall had designed five stained glass windows, which though cannot be readily made out from the outside, offers a fascinating experience when viewed from the inside. Each of the windows depicts a Christian story. While this is the official history of the church, local lore says that King Louis II, who founded the church in 853 AD, had a daughter Hildegard. She was once visited in her dream by a stag, who had leapt across the Limmet and landed on the very spot where the church was later built. It had then dissolved into thin air. Taken as a divine intervention, she had urged her father to build the church.

It was nearly closing time when I entered the church. One has to walk past the wrought iron gates through the corridor with frescoes adorning both sides of the walls, and find herself in the hall, surrounded by the dazzling windows on all sides. If you face the windows and are rapt in admiration for them, then immediately behind you would be the chapel. There were a few people inside, some reading the book, some praying, some quietly sitting. I sat in a corner, for I don't know how long. I was taken back to my school days, which being a Roman Catholic convent, had a cozy chapel ensconced in the main school building, where we would often go and pray with our Sisters. There was another impressive painted window in front of us, and with the fragrance of the flowers, the whole atmosphere was rendered sublime. After a long time, I realised it was time to leave. I had some difficulty locating the exit, as often sensitive situations muddle my rational powers of thinking. When I did locate, I found the iron gates closed. I felt like one of the Von Trapp sisters, hiding in the convent from the soldiers, but I had to open it, as if a testimony to the changed circumstances. Out in the square, exactly opposite to the church was a statue of Hans Waldmann, the mayor of Zürich in the fifteenth century.

Photography is prohibited inside the church, and I support it. To me, it seems to protect the sanctity of something so precious, beautiful and personal, from the claws of populism. As I stood outside in the evening chill, I looked at the church and told myself, "You've come a long way, my lady."

St. Peter's Church

The Grossmünster church

Towers of the Grossmünster

As we were opening the iron gates, the tower bells started ringing. S and I stood on the square for a long time, and as they stopped, the bells from the Grossmünster from the other side started chiming. We held our hands together and began walking on the old cobbled streets.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

La Belle et la Bête

When I was in kindergarten, my Maa had told me the story of the selfish giant and his garden. I can still remember the days. I would come home by noon, and during the still afternoon, when Baba would be away at office, my Granma (Thamma) would be in her room, quietly reading the paper after her short siesta, and I would lie awake beside Maa who would be sleeping, looking at the slim book which contained the story. I had barely learnt to read, and I would form the words, not understanding all of them. I would imagine the giant living in our para, with his high-wall surrounding his beautiful garden. I believed that that was the phase when he'd put up the notice of "trespassers will be prosecuted", and so I had to play on the dusty road - which was really covered with stones just like in the story. Being a loner, I would patiently wait for the day when the giant would break down the wall, and I would creep in softly and play.

Sundays were my favourites. Baba was home, and we would spend the mornings together, watching cartoons that Doordarshan aired after their staple Sunday rangoli. That was when Baba had told me the story of Gulliver's Travels and I would spend long hours deliberating exactly how small the lilliputs were, taking my tiny finger as the standard size. It was around that time that I had watched Disney's 'Beauty and the Beast', and by some curious penchant of the child mind (especially mine) to muddle up details, I would eventually grow up to equate the Giant with Belle's Beast.

Yes, as one who doesn't know me personally would've guessed by now - I love fairy tales. Especially at 23, my love for these stories is a testimony to my inherent romantic nature (oh my giddy aunt!). But on a serious note, I would happily trade a magic realist book I own for a good, hearty, old-fashioned fairy tale, with cute princes who have no function other than to look good and be oblivious to the world around them, while inspiring, beautiful young maidens face all travails and hardships for the sake of love.

During my 1st year at the university, when I was neck-deep with reading "important" texts, A, my German teacher was making us read and do exercises on the Grimm Brothers' tales. For me, it was a revisiting of the genre after a long, long time. A, self-confessedly a Disney fan, had also made us do exercises on 'Beauty and the Beast', tactfully translating it into Die Schoene und das Biest, the German of Madame Beaumont's original  La Belle et la Bête. We had to decide which fairy tale was our favourite, and I had made A make an exception in my case, by allowing me to speak on two of them as favourites. Those evening classes after a day of fruitless (and mostly thankless) struggle at the uni, was a respite for me. I had spent long hours deliberating whether to speak on Aschenputtel (Cinderella) first, or on Die Schoene und das Biest. In a fit of enthusiasm, A had also distributed her copy of the Disney classics, but somehow, by dint of the disadvantages of circulation, I never found myself with the CD. That was what had prompted me to finally procure Jean Cocteau's 1946 cinematic version of La Belle et la Bête a couple of years later. With days before my M.A. finals, I'd caught a short glimpse of Cocteau breaking the proverbial fourth wall, and writing about children and fairy tales before the opening credits of the film, before straining my eyes forcefully away from the screen and back to Derrida's concept of decentering.

I finally watched the film last week, and I've been enamored, to say the least. M. Cocteau diverges noticeably from Mme. Beaumont's version. He introduces Jean Marais as Avenant, Belle's suitor, and at the last scene, Avenant, while attempting to steal from Diana's Pavilion, is struck by Diana's arrow and transforms into a beast, while the real beast wakes up as a charming, suave, dainty-legged Jean Marais. There are other slight deviations such as Belle's family, after losing their fortune, continue to live in their mansion, while in the story they move to a farmstead; and Belle, in the story actually has three brothers, while M. Cocteau cuts the number down to one. Nevertheless, these slight differences do not mar the perfection of the film. Josette Day is resplendent as Belle, and her kindness oozes out of the frame and strikes the viewer. Crammed with beautiful gothic set pieces, stunning avant-garde costumes and striking make-up for the beast, La Belle et la Bête creates a haunting surrealist image. Belle's sleepy village town is continuously contrasted with the Beast's sweeping bravado of a castle, as if driving home the fact that he belongs to a different world (and to make the difference more physical and palpable, the Beast says in the scene that the time in his world and Belle's world is different).

One of the primary reasons why this tale is a perennial favourite is definitely because the Beast is a "different" fairy tale hero. When I was young, the very romance of a kiss transforming an ugly beast into a handsome prince was what had appealed to me. But what M. Cocteau shows, and what is at the heart of this tale, is that the Beast is not merely ugly or ruthless. He preys, but he suffers (the scene at dawn when he's covered with blood and Belle confronts him); he loves, but he is helpless; he is kind, and he is tolerant. Therefore, the transformation of the Beast at the end into handsome Prince Charming is a disappointment for the viewers, who have watched with rapt awe, the empathetic scenes between Belle and the Beast. One is thus little surprised when one learns that during the film's screening in Paris, Greta Garbo had reportedly cried out, "Give me back my beast!" after the transformation. As a justification of his vision, Cocteau had written, "My goal was to make the beast so human, so likeable, so superior to man that his transformation into Prince Charming would be for Belle, a terrible disappointment and would oblige her into a marriage of reason."

Lest we forget in such theorising, La Belle et la Bête is, despite everything, a sublime poetry in motion; an alluring and delightful excursion into the dreams and fantasies of one's childhood. Made in the immediate aftermath of the World War II, it offered French (and eventually world) cinema audiences what it most craved - sheer escapism, blessed relief from the painful memories of the Occupation and the penury of Post-war austerity.

I have tried to make a collage of portraits from the film. I'm sure it won't be half as enchanting as the cinema itself.


Monday, December 12, 2011

"Infinitely Calm"

My high-school Bengali teacher had first referred to Rilke's The Sonnets to Orpheus while teaching us a Bengali poem. Unable to find any collection by the poet in Siliguri, I had read some random poems by Rainer Maria Rilke while in college. Recently I discovered a whole bottom shelf at the MMB library dedicated to Rilke's works, and to my delight, most of them were beautiful bilingual editions. I have since been borrowing them and reading them in between other serious readings, moving slowly from the German words to the English translations.

I'm sharing some poems which I liked best, here. They have been taken from the 1906 edition of Das Buch der Bilder, and translated into The Book of Images by Edward Snow in 1991.



Who is there who so loves me, that he
will throw away his own dear life?
If someone will die for me in the ocean,
I will be brought back from stone
into life, into life redeemed.

How I long for blood's rushing;
stone is so still.
I dream of life: life is good.
Has no one the courage
through which I might awaken?

And if I once more find myself in life,
given everything most golden,--
then I will weep
alone, weep for my stone.
What help will my blood be, when it ripens like wine?
It cannot scream out of the ocean
he who loved me most.



I would like to sing someone to sleep,
to sit beside someone and be there.
I would like to rock you and sing softly
and go with you to and from sleep.
I would like to be the one in the house
who knew: The night was cold.
And I would like to listen in and listen out
into you, into the world, into the woods.
The clock shouts to one another striking,
and no one sees to the bottom of time.
And down below one last, strange man walks by
and rouses a strange dog.
And after that comes silence.
I have laid my eyes upon you wide;
and they hold you gently and let you go
when something stirs in the dark.



How everything is far away
and long deceased.
I think now, that the star
whose brightness reached me
has been dead for a thousand years.
I think now, that in the boat 
which slipped past
I heard something fearful being said.
Inside the house a clock
just struck...
Inside what house?...
I would like to step out of my heart's door
and be under the great sky.
I would like to pray.
And surely one of all those stars
must still exist.
I think now, that I know
which one alone
has lasted,--
which one like a white city
stands at its light's end in the sky...



Solitude is like a rain.
It rises from the sea toward evening;
from plains, which are distant and remote,
it goes to the sky, which always has it.
And only then it falls from the sky on the city.

It rains down in the in-between hours,
when all the crooked streets turn toward morning,
and when the bodies, which found nothing,
leave each other feeling sad and disappointed;
and when the people, who hate each other,
have to sleep together in one bed;

then solitude flows with the rivers...



And you wait, await the one thing
that will infinitely increase your life;
the gigantic, the stupendous,
the awakening of stones,
depths turned round toward you.

The volumes in brown and gold
flicker dimly on the bookshelves;
and you think of lands traveled through,
of paintings, of the garments
of women found and lost.

And then all at once you know: that was it.
You rise, and there stands before you
the fear and prayer and shape
of a vanished year.



Slowly the evening puts on the garments
held for it by a rim of ancient trees;
you watch: and the lands divide from you,
one going heavenward, one that falls;

and leave you, to neither quite belonging,
not quite so dark as the house sunk in silence,
not quite so surely pledging the eternal
as that which grows star each night and climbs--

and leave you (inexpressibly to untangle)
your life afraid and huge and ripening,
so that it, now bound in and now embracing,
grows alternatively stone in you and star.



Whoever you are: in the evening step out
of your room, where you know everything;
yours is the last house before the far-off;
whoever you are.
With your eyes, which in their weariness
barely free themselves from the worn-out threshold,
you lift very slowly one black tree
and place it against the sky: slender, alone.
And you have made the world. And it is huge
and like a word which grows ripe in silence.
And as your will seizes on its meaning,
tenderly your eyes let it go...



School's long anxiety with time slips past
with waiting, with endless dreary things.
O solitude, O heavy spending on and on of time...
And then outside: the streets flash and ring
and on the squares the fountains leap 
and in the gardens all the world grows wide.--
And to go through it in one's small suit,
so unlike how the others go and used to go--;
O wondrous time, O spending on and on of time,
O solitude.

And to look far off into it all:
men and women; men, more men, women
and then children, who are different and bright;
and here a house and now and then a dog
and soundless terror changing back and forth with trust--;
O sadness without reason, O dream, O dread,
O depth without ground.

And so to play: ball and ring and hoops
in a garden that keeps softly fading,
and to brush sometimes against the grownups
blindly and wildly in the haste of tag,
but at evening quietly with small stiff
steps to walk back home, your hand firmly held--;
O ever more escaping grasp of things,
O weight, O fear.

And for hours at the huge gray pond
to kneel entranced with a small sailboat;
to forget it, because yet other, similar
and more beautiful sails glide through the circles,
and to have to think about the small pale
face that sinking gazed out of the pond--:
O childhood, O likeness gliding off...
To where? To where?

It is to Rilke that I turn, on this unusually foggy morning. To me he remains the poet of memory, of childhood, of leave-taking and looking back; sometimes the poet of night and its vastnesses, the poet of human separations, the poet of thresholds and silences, and especially of solitude in its endless inflections. His play of images (and so rightly brought about in this book on images) is a way of thinking, and the small cluster of motifs yield paradoxes of life viewed and grasped, possessed and relinquished, lived and imagined, sacrificed and transcended, undergone and belatedly understood. As he himself said in a letter, "I fear in myself only those contradictions with a tendency towards reconciliation..."

Picture: Marc Chagall's Le Violoniste Bleu

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What Happens When A Book-cum-music Lover Listens to Bach While Shopping

So Max Mueller Bhawan is organising their annual library clearance sale and today was the first day. My past experiences have taught me to queue for such an event at least an hour before the gates are opened. I was planning for this one for days on end - ever since J, the librarian told me about the "tedious" process of stacking the books which they intended to "discard" through the clearance sale. I decided to overlook the obvious misnomer, and started hoarding up money; making plans of queuing and jumping queues; snatching up books if it came to that; NOT indulging in books which I wouldn't have time to read within the next five years; still saving enough money for my monthly online-and-college-street book bonanza and so on and so forth. And then I overslept.

I woke up in a state of irritation at the realization that I would never be in time now. I never give up on my morning ritual of reading the paper while sipping tea, or of making compromises on shower-time. Hence for me, a day that begins late, continues to run late. Therefore while the sale began at 11 am, I started from my place at a quarter to noon. And, to top it all, I had to go to College Street first. After what five years of university education on literature has done to me, I'm trying to undo it all, and go back to my passion for literature during my pre-lapserian stage. This winter I'm devoting myself to Dickens. Partly because it's the old man's birth bicentenary next year, and mainly because the man's such a fricking good story-teller! He is the absolute best company during the lovely (and lonely, sigh) winter days and nights. And trust me, David Copperfield is the best Christmas book ever. His very own Christmas-books come a close second to that one. I've already started rereading my Oliver Twist. Martin Chuzzlewit is the only Dickens I don't possess, and since all of Martin's brethren and uncles (what? Pickwick couldn't possibly be his brother, no?) were bought from humble, friendly book-shops on College Street, I decided to take this re-route - for old times' sake - and not order a copy on the net.

Some great woman must have said someday, when having suffered for bad choices at the face of serious decision-making, that "When in a state of emergency, think with your mind and prioritize." After waddling through jam-packed streets, I reach College Street to find the shops closed - apparently a union strike (yes, even post May 2011 they have those occasionally). After calling up S - the staff at the shop where I'd placed my order and who'd promised me to get the book today - and making him say "sorry" a hundred times or so for not informing me the decision taken by their union "at the last moment" in the morning, I finally set sail for MMB at 1.

At twenty minutes past 1, I lunge for the door of Berlin (fancy name of a room at MMB), library books in one hand, bag slinging dangerously on another shoulder. I enter as if I've won a marathon, look around, see a couple of people and near-empty tables. Perplexed, I let my mind clear by itself and then rush to the first long table. I poke A, who was there obviously before me, and ask her what happened. "They were here at 11. They took every thing worthwhile." I let out a groan. I have never been personally acquainted with "they", but if I do, with God as witness...

J emerges from under the table, looks at me with mild scorn and puts on the music. And there, it was there and then mon ami that I was floored. Forty minutes later I would finally ask J what he was playing, and whether it really was Bach as I had imagined. He would say that it was Bach's "Christmas Oratorio", ushering in the Christmas spirit. But then, at that moment, my mind went numb for some time; after five minutes it had cleared itself of every useless emotion, and with a focused gaze I made my way to the tables.

Two hours and three trips to my car parked at the bend later, I had bought - Der Brockhaus' encyclopaedia  on 'Geschichte' (history); Der Brockhaus' encyclopaedia on 'Kunst' (art); a pocketbook on Marlene Dietrich; Kleine Geschichte des Films (a short history on films, from the beginning to 1960); Cambridge companion to Bachmann, Duden and Oezdamar (women writers and national identity); Geschichte von das Leben im alten Rom (a history on the life of ancient Rome); a book on Reise nach Polen (Poland); 'Kunst und Mythos' (Art and Mythology); 'Was Verspricht die Kunst' (What does art promise); 7 issues of the magazine 'Kafka'; 4 issues of 'Art and Thought'; 6 of Der Spiegel. I was given 2 books containing postcards and two huge posters - one of a church in Cologne and the other of the port in Hamburg with the old Fachwerkhauses on the background - for free, for my enthusiasm.

Video: This is just one cantata from what I heard today.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Of Vampyres and Such Others: Please Let The Right One In

The part 1 of the last installment of Stephanie Meyer's "vampire saga" 'Breaking Dawn' was released last week, and this post can come at no better time. I am no crazy vampire aficionado. Like any other lover of literature and  motion pictures, I read Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' for the first time in middle school. Roughly a month ago, I stumbled into Francis Ford Coppola's take on the novel and I felt a strong urge to read the book once again. So I unearthed my worn out Penguin edition (from a time when Penguin books didn't have such fancy covers but was a modest white and orange) and finished reading it within an evening. To be honest, I have read the entire 'Twilight saga' and possess all the four books (In my defence, I say that they were graduation gifts). Yes, in the beginning I too was extremely err... "fond" of Edward Cullen. I went to great lengths to get the movies, but within a month the obsession had died down, and what remained in its place was a massive sense of wonder at one's own level of stupidity, and a scorching anger that can only be directed towards a writer of bad fiction and a maker of bad movies.

Anyway, this post is not about denigrating the Twilight movies or books, although I may drift towards it at times. This post is about another "vampire movie" (to put it cheaply) and a marvelous, heart-rending one at that.

With a brief invocation to 'Nosferatu' (both the 1922 silent era film and Herzog's version ), I plunge into this beautiful film - and possibly the best 'Vampire' film I'll ever see. Let The Right One In is a Swedish film by Thomas Alfredson.  It centres around two twelve years old children, a boy and a girl. Oskar comes from a broken family and is regularly bullied in school. It is in Eli, the vampire, that he discovers the beauty of friendship and the first flush of romance. The film has absolutely no cheesy dialogues ("The lion fell in love with the lamb" and so on). When Oskar discovers that Eli is actually a vampire, he asks her with fright and concern mingled in his voice - "Are you a ... vampire"? Unlike Edward, Eli doesn't rant ("Say it, say it out loud"). Unlike the entire gamut of vampires in the Twilight saga, who are either preying beasts with the gift of speech or expressionless pasty-faced moving zombies with avowed interest in animal blood, Eli cries every time she preys. The scene when her guardian finally offers her his own neck, and she sinks her teeth helplessly, striven by hunger, is a masterpiece. Later, she would enter Oskar's room and spend the night beside him, knowing that she has devoured the only family she had and is beside the only person she cares about in the world.

However, there is yet another reason why I was able to identify with Alfredson. The director has himself acknowledged that he is not very well conversed with the conventions of vampiric lore, and has gone beyond them to creat this masterpiece. As a layman on the genre myself, this struck a chord. Of course he couldn't do away with the obvious sagas. Hence Eli sleeps in her bathtub in the daytime, covered, and avoids the sunlight, which according to vampiric lore, burns a vampire. (I cannot help but go back to Meyer's ridiculous twisting of the myth by making her vampires sparkle - ha! - in sunlight. How convenient!) Again, Eli tells Oskar that she has to be invited into a new place. When Oskar refuses to do that and tells her to just come in, blood spurts from Eli's face and Oskar goes back to his words. The pristine white of the snow that predominates the Swedish landscape offers a chilling contrast to the blood and gore that undercurrents the theme of the movie. The acting of the two children (Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar and Lina Leandersson as Eli) is beyond belief, especially if you have been tortured by the Twilight acting. Yes, it is undoubtedly very different from Klaus Kinsky's or Max Schreck's Count, and the primary reason is, while the viewer fears the Count, (s)he pities Eli. The last scene when Eli, inside a box for safe-keeping against daylight, taps "kiss" in Morse code and Oskar taps back, is  massively sweet and innocent.

This is not a review by any means. But I'm glad I watched the movie and I would love to read the book from which it has been adapted. I can now pretend that I leaped from Bram Stoker to Murnau/Herzog to child-vampire saga with no trace of the Twilight taint.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Here I am.
I have taken buses to places I was sure I had been to before, only that I hadn’t remembered.
I have shared spaces with people, with whom I otherwise wouldn't have.
I have lived one life and let go of many more.
After all, as Tony Morrison said, “A dream is just a nightmare with lipstick.”

Photo: Outskirts of Lyon, Rhone-Alpes, France. October, 2011.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"My darling. I'm waiting for you. How long is the day in the dark? Or a week? The fire is gone now, and I'm horribly cold. I really should drag myself outside but then there'd be the sun. I'm afraid I waste the light on the paintings, not writing these words. We die. We die rich with lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we've entered and swum up like rivers. Fears we've hidden in - like this wretched cave. I want all this marked on my body. Where the real countries are. Not boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men. I know you'll come carry me out to the Palace of Winds. That's what I've wanted: to walk in such a place with you. With friends, on an earth without maps."  - The English Patient (1996)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Day the Music Died

I was told never to trust technology with all your heart, and I have been heeding this advice, and have been wary of technology in all shapes and sizes since I got my PC in middle school. But nine years later I got my Laptop, and with frenetic Googling, Facebooking, films and songs downloading and God-knows-what-sins-else, my Laptop became my closest friend. I kept my darkest secrets within her and my most humiliating failures; my memories of yore, which travelled all the odd 700 kms from a mutilated and monstrous Hard Disk of a PC in Siliguri, to the sleek echelons of this Laptop. She was a witness to the follies of the men in my life, and laughed with me as I laughed at them. She supported my crazy frenzy for the motion pictures, for the printed word, and especially for music, until one day, one biliously sunny, repugnantly macabre day, she... died.

She died, yes, and though she had the heart to leave my secrets spilling in ever-so-many documents and obsessive collection of films intact, as if a testimony of solace, she took with her my 40 GB of music. On the said (adjective-splattered) day, I switched her on and off for a number of times before I smelt a rat and my heart skipped a beat (odd combination. Happens precisely when you discover your computer is raving in a diseased mind of its own). When she finally showed herself, evidently sick, I ignored her pleas, and went on with my work, until I realized that I needed music to -- well, you don't need music for a reason! You just need it, silly! And then, right there and then, I discovered that it was gone. My music, my soul, all 40 GB of glorious notes in all forms, languages, moods, emotions, thoughts and memories had just vanished. Poof! By a malaise of technology.

For two days I shed copious tears; traveled with my sick companion through the length and breadth of the city, hoping to make it revive, squeeze from its crevices the remnants of music, hoping to recall myself what my favourite tracks could have been. Apparently, racking my memory to recall 40 GB of love seemed as futile as pumping the Laptop for them. Since then, I know what it means to live in the "Sound of Silence". (Question for thought: Did Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel know what it means to have "darkness" as your best friend when you've lost all your music simply because of a fluke of technology and you were stupid enough not to keep a backup of your posessions? No, they didn't. And neither did Dustin Hoffman/Benjamin Braddock.)

Now I have my Laptop back, shiny after getting it formatted, all the documents stored in the relatively "safer" (I cannot use that word now without being a cynic) options, and all the films stacked in soulless DVDs. My songs folder is empty, and I need time to grow it back. I possibly cannot bring back all the titles I posessed the last time, simply because I cannot remember, for the life of me, what it stored. But as I stare at the empty drive, it looks like a new page turned, a blank sheet eager to be written on, eager to begin everything anew. With my life itself taking a new turn now post-university, I fervently refuse to believe Milan Kundera when he says, "We can never know what to want, because living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives, nor perfect it in our lives to come."
No Sire, not now, not today.

Au revoir. I have a new Laptop to befriend. Bis dann.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Moon River, wider than a mile,
I'm crossing you in style some day.
Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker,
Wherever you're going I'm going your way.
Two drifters off to see the world.
There's such a lot of world to see.
We're after the same rainbow's end--
Waiting 'round the bend,
My huckleberry friend,
Moon River and me.

- Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)


Friday, May 20, 2011

It isn't as if while I have been away, I have involved myself with an intense ritualistic worship of the academics. With barely seventeen days away to Sodom, and me having done nothing notable in the intervening period between this and my last post, there's no use in pretending to be away from Blogosphere still, in an attempt to study.
When I'm going to hell anyway, why not do it with panache?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Esther has some necessary exams to take (yes, those unnecessary evils!) and might be off the exciting world of blogging for a while. Of course, she can't wait to get back, but till that happens, take care thou virtuell world!

Oh well, since it's me, I just HAVE to wrap up in style and panache. So here's a favourite song of mine. We can never do without the turbulence in life. Whether in the air through the puffs of our cigarettes (image supplied by an acquaintance during a perfect-smoke-ring-making competition between us at near midnight in Park Street in not-very-recent-history), or through the smoke rings of our muddled minds, le tourbillion is here to stay.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Sickness, Blues and All That - consummatum est

Or so I hope.
When he came back from the States after the exchange program got over, due to the unhealthy lifestyle he had indulged in the past six weeks (or so he told me), this acquaintance of mine fell grievously sick. Days of horrendous pain, and medical tests later, he was informed that he had a problem in his gall bladder (he did tell me what the exact problem was, but my memory has been failing me) and that he would have to do without the organ. He was also told that the operation would take place the very next day. When we made our first acquaintance one year and three months later, I inevitably ended up talking about my favourite books during our very first conversation. Nothing like books to fill up the awkward pauses, nothing like 'em to judge the other person. I still remember the thread of our conversation. When I began talking about the last book I had read (Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing), he began, "Well, I'm not much of a reader of fiction. But the last book I read was Camus's The Outsider.

-- Oh, I read Camus on the 18th of September, 2008. The book kept me up all night. 

[I have an uncanny habit of remembering the precise date, time and circumstances of every affecting book that I read for the first time, or hear a moving piece of music, or watch a brilliant movie.]

-- Hey, you read the book on my 21st birthday!

-- Hey, I read the book on the eve of MY 20th birthday!

-- Some coincidence, sharing birthdays, considering we bumped into each other in the class only a couple of weeks ago, and this is our first proper conversation... Anyway, I read the book on the eve of my operation.

-- What operation?

-- Gall bladder. Had to get it removed. Thanks to a diet solely composed of burgers and beer.

-- You do not have your gall bladder? Doesn't it affect you?

-- Well, I'm supposed to lead a comparatively austere life than the one I'm leading now... Anyway, you deviate. So, I go to the OT, having read Camus's Outsider, and not having slept a wink. And then, halfway through the operation, I wake up and feel the pain!

-- WHAT?

-- Yes, apparently, the anaesthetics didn't work. ** I woke up during my numbness and I felt the pain of an operation. To be specific, I felt what it feels when someone penetrates four metal rods into your otherwise benign and barren stomach. It was like the beeps of some meters. I could hear the voices of the doctors. I could feel the pain. It was more like the infinite roots of a sinusoidal curve with the x-axis and the pain points are the roots. I felt I was dead where all that I could think of was Nothing Else Matters. I really aint no Shelley and hence this was the best way I could describe my experience in brevity. I tried to console myself with the saying that “the pain of the mind is much more intense than the pain of the body” and since I experienced the former the latter was just a passé in that very mind of mine. But all in all I am repentant for not remembering the integral part of the eternal sunshine of my otherwise spotless mind, Let it Be…

[** Here, I admit, I have forgotten the exact words A told me. So I have lifted from his blog, from the entry when he had blogged about the experience (for obvious privacy reasons I'm not pasting the link to his blog here). Hence, the authenticity remains.]

For the past three weeks (gosh, it's been three weeks already?) since I’ve been sick, this conversation has been coming back to my mind, though it has been nearly two years since it first commenced. I try to imagine how A must have felt when he woke up to that sensation, Camus's Outsider brandishing in his mind. What I would like to think about A, would be that he finally took stock of his situation, relating the episodic significance of waking up at the middle of an operation to the trials and misses of his life. Although, once released into the bright flippant world outside, he did not take long to go back into his former flippant lifestyle, I wouldn't grudge him this much glory of finally acknowledging responsibility for his own life.
I couldn't read much during my indisposition. So, I propped my laptop on my bed, switched on the player, and listened to Maggie Gyllenhall reading Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. Having fed myself on all the available videos of Sylvia Plath reading her poems (check out Youtube pronto, if you haven't heard these yet!) as well as her interviews, I found it difficult to relate to Maggie's voice as Esther (she says, 'Ester!' ). Nevertheless, I rose and fell, cried and smiled as the words rolled on, became chapters, and reached the end. 

With great sorrow I discovered that I didn't have any P.G. Wodehouse audiobooks (having always disappoved of the idea, believing that books ought only to be read, just as music ought to be listened and films to be watched). The Vicar of Dibley proved an indelible companion during the recuperation, and through my dazed mornings, A's preoccupations with Meursault occupied my mind as much as Geraldine Granger ("I am not a lunatic. I have the psychiatric report to prove it. A slender majority of the panel decided in my favour").

Having resumed my classes at the university since, I am desperate to venture back to the "normal" life again, sans waking up to pains in the middle of the night. Need more Wodehouse and a large box of Belgian chocolates before that (notwithstanding that doctor's advice on abstaining from the latter, please).

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Sickness, Blues and All That - II

Ach. (Err... that is the Deutsch way of saying 'Ah', as in 'Ach so' is a knowing 'oh, ok'.)

I should have known that when I started blogging on being sick, I would continue doing so, until I actually became better. So I have come back with a second installment on being sick, being blue (I'm not supposed to be pink, what with all the pain and all. How unfair!), and all the others. This morning, as I was ruminating on bed with the pain, I thought, why not map the entire pain-process, with all its pros and cons (or cons, mostly. I would need a lot of imagination to talk at length on the pros, though).

1. The first thing that this pain is making me forgo - and making me hate it all the more - is my missing out on all the bada khana. A kiddo from the para has his birthday, the son of another acquaintance has his thread ceremony, and I'm missing out on all that, because I'm lying in bed with pain, and being fed on second-hand stories of how exotic the food was. humph.

2. The book on the shelf beside my bed is making mad gestures to attract my attention. I make an effort, get up, clutch it, mouth-watering, lie down, flip open, and there, all's over. The letters get up from the pages and start a savage dance, so much so that, not only can I not make out a single word, but I am rather flummoxed by the moves. I quickly shut it close.

3. I absolutely cannot sit down to watch the telly. The most engaging of movies are failing to prolong their effect on me, and I have to close the window of the player even though I see Jeanne Moreau provocatively jumping into a lake late at night while returning from a play by Strindberg; or rapidly click 'pause' while watching a pair of glasses made to dance magically by the wind on a tablecloth in a restaurant terrace. How tragic.

4. I cannot use the head-phone while lying sideways on bed, so my favourite music has to be played out loud, and at the mercy of the whole family. For example, after I had listened to Vai Vedrai, and was lying rather listlessly in bed, I decided to croon the Italian lyrics, especially the lines, "Follia/ Del uomo senza driturra vai/ Follia/ Del guerrier senza paura vai", when I lingered on the third Follia (it's more like fohl-llea. Oh and listen to the song by Cirque du Soleil if you haven't already. Highly recommended.) the family came running, sure that I was wailing in pain. So much for my privacy.

5. I'm missing out on most of the exciting online action, because the pain isn't allowing me to sit with my lappy for a longer time.

6. My cell-phone is in the silent mode and lying somewhere in the room. Once during the day, I get up and retrieve it, and discover scores of missed calls from unknown numbers. I'm sure the callers are all my secret admirers who are worried about me after having heard about my present state. I am heart-broken that I have missed all the calls, and I know not (yet) the identity of the callers.

7. The pain gives me a vivid imagination - sometimes too vivid to be entirely intelligible by the family. When the worst spasm that I've had till now suddenly ceased, I felt this calm around me, which seemed entirely orgasmic (now I know that it is a paradox. See, I cannot possibly explain what it feels like when the pain gives a respite). I realised, I just had to explain the family - who were poring all over me, as if I were a specimen - how it felt now. So I said, "It's over. It's stopped. ha ha! Just like it happened in Berlin. When the Russian tanks came in. When it was all over. When the continuous grenade and bombing during the last days had become a way of life, like they showed in Der Untergang, and then when it stopped and there was this sudden infernal silence all around. It feels just like that." For a split second I do not understand why the family isn't smiling or nodding their heads in unison. Then suddenly the octogenarian grandmother says, "Oh my God! The pain has affected her head!" I lie down. Back in the bed. In utter exasperation.

8. By a curious grown-up understanding, my dog is not with me now, and when the pain gets unbearable, I close my eyes and imagine what she would have done had she been around. Of course she would have cried buckets. But she wouldn't have left my side thinking that if she did, I would pop off that very instant. I'm sure she's confident by now, that when she comes back home, she'll find everyone mourning over my dead body. Ah, I miss my dog.

9. By a curious understanding, my pain has given everyone the license to discuss in details and with great seriousness my toilet habits. Of course they have no spark, and though the idea of peeing out a stone seems exciting enough, and the fact that the pain won't subside until the stone has actually made up his mind (of course it's a him! Why else is it such a sadist?!) on coming out into the big bad world, no one is really dwelling on the inconvenience all this is causing to the "patient".

10. To divert my mind, I'm thinking up hilarious incidents relating to my friends or my dog, and narrating them to the family. The mother is scandalised, and she says, "What is wrong with you? Only just now did you have that terrible spasm, and now you're joking about so-and-so?" I turn to her and say, "La dolce Vita, Maa. La Dolce Vita."

Ok, I have used up my entire spasm-and-pain-free break blogging, with frequent break-within-breaks to rest still more. I intend to hit the bed soon, before the pain gets the better of me. Till I feel like coming back to the virtual world again, au revoir.

Before I go, I need to say this. Yesterday I read only a part of this brilliant essay, and I hope to go back to it once I feel better. A phrase from it, however, has stuck out to me from all the jumble of words, and it reads "being loved". Now that there are so many people out there who are drenching me in love, this time I have finally begun to realise and appreciate it - from the Mother, who is feeding me, to the anxious Father, who is trying his best to look calm, to the dog, who is kept a couple of kilometers away, and is crying buckets for her sick mommy, to the best friend who is phoning and texting regularly, to all the acquaintances dropping a message or sparing a moment to think about me. If the pain has made me realise and appreciate the love, then I guess, I'm grateful for it.

Oh, and the patient would be really glad if (many typos notwithstanding) this blog induced some laughter into your day. La Dolce Vita, remember?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sickness, Blues and All That - I

The Particular Girl is grievously sick, and too weak to blog. And to add insult to serious injury, she has NOT lost her mind and sense of humour despite the atrocious pain, while the people all around seemingly have, while they are fretting over her. Now, when will people learn to appreciate the little things of life even in the midst of crisis? Just yesterday, as I was limping to get my USG done (another horrendous experience, and the doctor had absolutely NO imagination, and sense of humour whatsoever), I couldn't help but marvel at the wonderfully glorious sunshine outside, and the quiet of the afternoon. Of course, no one else seemed to notice, and I was about to swerve and say, "Hello? Now who's in pain here, huh?" But I saved it all for a later time, when I would doubtless feel more laconic.

The unimaginative doctor tells me to drink "6-7 liters of water". How preposterous is that! Currently I am dousing myself in hundreds of medicines, one post-lunch, two post-dinner, a half post-reverie, a quarter post-semi-drowsy-state, three-at-a-go before formally hitting the bed, and two more if "the-patient-has-been-mischievous-enough-to-skip-a-dose-or-postpone-the-meal-or-delay-the-rest." Well then, you get the general picture.

One consolation comes from the revelation that beer is supposedly an "excellent diuretic" or so the boring doctor says without the slightest spark in his voice (really!). While I hail "Das Bier" in the cheeriest possible tones, the mother looks disapprovingly, the father apologetically, and the doctor crossly, further clarifying, "That also doesn't happen to be our culture. So you just have to drink gallons of water." I was about to thrust my tongue out to him in vengeance, but checked myself just in time for a sudden spasm. Nevertheless, the vindictive bitch got into work, manipulating the emotions of the father in her favour, narrating how das Bier is cheaper than packaged drinking water in Deutschland, how it had replaced water during an epidemic hundreds of years ago, how a "good" (read: Deutschen brand) Bier would do her much better than gallons of boring water, and voila, the father is swayed! Waiting for the first crate to reach home soon. (hic! Or no hic!)

I have been changing my posture continuously in the hope of finding a more congenial one, where the pain will be lesser, but apparently that isn't helping much. Guess I just have to lie straight in bed. Boring as that may sound, I am trying to make the best out of it, in terms of the care and concern that friends and family are oozing over me (truth be told, I could do without the sympathy, though, and all that, "You can't live alone like this! See? This is what happens" crap). A bit of compromise for the greater good, eh? Till I make a full recovery and come back hale, hearty and wiser, I proclaim my intense and utter revulsion towards stones of all kinds - and I could employ the choicest cuss-words before you could say the s-word.

Ahh, that's what medicines do to one. No offense meant! Au revoir, and hey, pray for me!

Friday, March 4, 2011

To Dream and to Write

Hanif Kureishi's excellent article on being an author in the Zeitgeist, writing for a living, and footing bills with the commission! One of the best reads I've had today (notwithstanding the fact that all that I did read today was Dryden's Essay on Dramatic Poesy and few very sensational news items from a newspaper which makes a living out of sensationalism). To know what Kureishi thinks comprises the "art" of writing, one has to access The Independent Books website from this link, published at a day when Kureishi confesses (in another place) how he has enjoyed the performance of his My Beautiful Laundrette at the Stag in Victoria, London.

Gosh, I sound like a reporter now! Have to work on that.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Eternity and a Day and Lightness

Every year, when the air is drenching of love, and red hearts seem to be nearly everyone’s favourite motif; when people are busy professing their love or breathing a sigh of relief at not having to buy another mindless expensive gift for the betrothed; or a certain breed of people complain both at the show of love, as well as the lack of it; I stand up and tell my acquaintances (or whoever cares to listen, in a true-blue Joel Barish style), “This is a holiday invented by greeting card companies to make people like us feel like crap. I do not believe in Valentine’s Day.”

By an inane mechanism of my mind, I can never isolate Valentine’s Day from this film.  The action of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind takes place around this time - agreed, but it has little to do with this day in particular, and in retrospect, the first time I watched it was not on Valentine’s Day, but on a rather dreary December night. It had promptly blown away the detritus of a rather dull evening and I couldn’t sleep a wink. I got up the next morning only to watch the film again, and get lost in the labyrinth of neorealism and memory/imagination/erasure that this film takes you into. Having watched the film so many times since then, over the years, and quoted, requoted and misquoted it, writing a “review” for it now would be laughably absurd. So let’s just say, that having watched it for the umpteenth time this Valentine’s Day, and letting my mind go rococo with it (yet again), I decided to finally let go of myself (and though a fortnight has passed since the hullabaloo), write about it (though about what precisely – about the film, or my experiences on watching the film, or uncannily relating it to St. Valentine’s Day, I know not yet). 

Strangely, I know that, I can never re-attach the broken pieces of a vintage vase and pretend that it never broke, but I find myself unable to throw it away either. It lies somewhere in the corner of my house, and I run into it from time to time - much like the memories Joel and Clementine share of one another. An acquaintance of mine had once quoted (while we were walking along the footpath of Shakespeare Sarani, discussing the film and suddenly discovering ourselves in front of the Sri Aurobindo house), “All problems of existence are essentially problems of harmony.” As I looked up to the leader’s formidable poster looming down upon us, I wondered, can a spotless mind ever stay eternally bright? Without any warning, it had promptly begun raining then, and in the rush to find a shelter, I relegated the question to the back of my mind. It came back to me late that night, when I contemplated that the kaleidoscopic walk through the various stages of romance and reality that this film takes one into, only proves the existence of the film’s emotional core, and the truth of this statement. 

My newest friend, Friedrich Nietzsche, whom I have brought tiptoe from my German library to my personal study-table, features prominently in the film. Mary (Kristen Dunst) quotes from her Bartlett, the quintessential Nietzschean quote, which forms the basis of the film. “Blessed are the forgetful for they get the better even of their blunders” suggests the importance of the idea to affirm one’s life even in the face of great difficulty. Having found my way through the maze that calls itself ‘memory’ and ‘mind’ in this film, I could finally point out the four affirmation theses derived from Nietzsche’s writings and employed in the film - affirming one’s life necessarily involves denying and forgetting certain aspects of life and of reality more generally; when one can, one ought to affirm even the painful aspects of one’s life, for denying reality is a sign of weakness; to affirm certain moments in one’s life is to affirm the whole life; one ought to affirm life as it is lived in the present, and resist the temptation to evaluate the moment with reference to some general standard derived from either the past or the future. Though it bears the tendency to be irrevocably verbose, the four theses capture provocative but nonetheless genuine insights about the importance of affirmation in life and love. The fourth thesis contains a recommendation from Nietzsche that we resist the natural and strong urge to impose such a framework on either our lives or our philosophical thought. Resonating with Emerson’s notion, the film shows the multiple ways in which Clementine (and sometimes Joel) embodies this call to resist consistency and embrace the present moment. Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence presents a model of affirmation which surfaces in the film through the affirmations we see in the “okays” exchanged by Joel and Clementine in the final moments of the film.
Joel: I don't see anything I don't like about you.
Clementine: But you will! But you will, and I'll get bored with you and feel trapped, because that's what happens with me.
Joel: Okay.
Clementine: Okay… Okay….
The couple’s readiness to say “okay” in light of the knowledge that any attempt at a new relationship is surely doomed, is a testament to their courage, their wisdom and their love. Such a miserable outcome for the couple is wholly compatible with their final affirmation, made while aware of the dark future that lay before them, provides a joyous finale to what becomes one of the greatest romantic movies ever made.  

I can perhaps never talk about love and eternal recurrence without Milan Kundera prodding me at the back of my mind. What Identity explores, is the question of human identity and whether it is possible for lovers to understand each other in a world that is forever trapped on the level of the physical and the shallow. Joel and Clementine’s predicament can be relegated to quite the same emotions. However, The Unbearable Lightness of Being challenges Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence, positing the alternative, that each person has only one life to live, and that which occurs in life occurs only once and never again — thus the “lightness” of being. In contrast, the concept of eternal recurrence imposes a “heaviness” on our lives and on the decisions we make (to borrow from Nietzsche's metaphor, it gives them "weight".) Nietzsche believed this heaviness could be either a tremendous burden or great benefit depending on the individual's perspective. When Einmal ist keinmal (once is nothing), encapsulating “lightness,” the concept is well expressed in what Kundera writes in the book: “what happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all.” Following this logic, life is insignificant, and decisions do not matter, and are thus rendered light, because they do not cause personal suffering. Yet the insignificance of decisions — our being — causes us great suffering, perceived as the unbearable lightness of being consequent to one’s awareness of life occurring once and never again; thus no one person’s actions are universally significant. This insignificance is existentially unbearable when it is considered that people want their lives to have a transcendent meaning. 

Somewhere deep inside I know that the predicament faced by Joel-Clementine and Tomáš-Tereza are quite similar, but their outlooks are the opposite. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a perfect movie about love’s inevitable perfections, and even someone as pessimistic as me doesn’t see Joel and Clementine as repeating the same mistake again and again. Optimism is justified because the couple’s memories of each other went deeper than Lacuna could ever reach, and thus, post-erasure, they are still in a position to genuinely benefit from their shared past and some knowledge of their previous mistakes. However, hope is warranted primarily because of a beneficial therapeutic transformation achieved in the course of Joel (self-consciously) undergoing the memory-erasure procedure. In other words, the unusual opportunity offered to him to relive and rework the past puts him in a better position to recognise both Clementine’s actual worth and the reasons why his own psychic limitations had previously led him to distort her nature and her importance to him. Joel’s conscious absorption into Lacuna’s process of erasure and the trip to the past it allows, gets him to see that Clementine’s real aid comes in the form of a partner who can help mend him rather than simply to inject the much-needed sunshine. As they go through the assorted memories of both their relationship and his childhood, we see her as teacher and guide, directing him to adopt a healthier and more mature perspective on his life, his limitations and his love for her. The significance of it all lies only in their personal lives, and in their being. In their life-times they get another chance to verbessern (make better) the mistakes that they had made. If only Tomáš had not been obsessed with the vertigo he describes as “the desire to fall”, against which "terrified" he continuously defends himself, he would definitely have stumbled upon the “metaphor” of love. Just as Kundera writes, "Two people in love, alone, isolated from the world, that's beautiful." And that alone is important.

I’m quite sure by now that I wouldn’t have referred to Kundera at all this evening, if my father wouldn’t have called me up and brought up the sudden discussion on The Unbearable Lightness of Being. A post on love by an acquaintance, my toying with Eternal Sunshine and an animated telephonic conversation later, comes this bizarre post. It is surprising enough that a staunch cynic like me is ranting about love. I guess I’ll just go back to my Lolita now.