Monday, February 20, 2012

Das Bedauern

Herr Pachelbel, erinnert Ihr Lied mich an die schöne Tage und es macht mich traurig. Wir sind die bedauernwerte Menschen.  Seitdem haben wir neue Lieder gelernt, aber höffentlich erinnern wir sich an "Pachelbel's Canon in D Major" wieder zu spielen.

In a particular episode in The Wonder Years, the adult Kevin reminiscences about the pursuits we had given up when we were young simply because we were too lazy, or our developing ego - always ever so sensitive - was affronted. He recounts how he stopped taking piano lessons from Mrs. Carples mainly because he felt he could never attain Ronald Hirschmuller's expertise in Pachelbel's Canon in D major. He practiced sincerely for a couple of weeks only to discover that Hirschmuller was supposed to play the same composition too. The discovery stymied his own performance during the rehearsal, and he stayed away from the piano recital. The scene towards the end of the episode which has stayed with me was Kevin standing outside Mrs. Carples' lighted window as Canon drifted through the evening air. He slowly turned his bicycle round, and went home while his older avatar said, "I can never forget that evening... and sadly enough I don't know how to play that tune anymore."

Since then, Pachelbel's Canon has been the epitome of sadness for me; every time I listen to it, it reminds me of my regrets, all the missed opportunities, all the failures.

We have learnt and felt new tunes since, but we hope we could still remember playing "Pachelbel's Canon in D Major".

Saturday, February 18, 2012

"Among A Thousand Other Peddlers"

Sometime last week, my uncle had to be admitted to the nursing home because of acute chest pain. It was quite sudden. He had been complaining of the pain for a few days, and was being nudged to see a doctor. Maa first told me over the phone that he had been waiting for a long time outside the doctor's chamber. I was on my way to class on that dusty February afternoon, when the last dregs of winter had already been squeezed out of the day; and I imagined him sitting in a crowded corridor, clutching his chest. There was a sense of foreboding in the image, but I felt convinced that nothing could possibly go wrong.

I was in class when Maa called again and said that the doctor has asked him to get admitted immediately, that he was on his way home to get a supply of basic necessities before checking in to Apollo, and that Baba had already booked a ticket for the following day. It took me a long time to process the information, and the phone had disconnected by then. My teacher was asking me what I thought about a piece I was reading aloud moments before the call, and instead of answering in German, I mumbled "oui" and stopped. By the time my class got over, my uncle was still sorting out matters of business for the following days. So Maa urged me to go to my music class since I wouldn't get to meet uncle at the hospital that day anyway. For the next hour and a half, I sang in unison with a group of elderly ladies, most of them casting critical glances in my direction - like they always do - making trite comments on my sense of dress, and the altered definition of decency - like they always do. Except this day, I had transcended petty criticism. By the time I reached home at night, and after numerous telephonic conversations along the way, I had achieved a clarity regarding the situation, and had made plans for the following day.

The first thing that struck me about Apollo as I entered the main building at around nine the next morning, was the sign "No Flowers Allowed". Flower pots nevertheless made a visible presence outside the building. I made my way through the corridors, the interiors with its more than a touch of Foucauldian panopticon, the noiseless elevator, and then finally the third floor, my heels clicking so loud, that it sounded obscene; especially considering that the hurried roll of wheels had a nod of approval about them. The cabins have name plates outside, with the number and name of the patient. I passed a few, inadvertently peering to catch a glimpse of the patient, or of his/her visitors. The patient I was interested in was standing at the foot of his bed, alone, looking at the door, and I felt glad I was in early. The room was unremarkable, lemon-yellow walls trying to make a statement by not being pristine white. An unremarkable painting hung behind the bed, the television glared without any volume, and I settled down comfortably on the generous sofa. Snatches of Sylvia Plath was already coming to my mind, but having difficulty in remembering poems, they just lingered in the back-waters like a ghostly presence. I drew the curtains behind me to see what lay beyond, and was pleasantly surprised to see a terrace, the windows camouflaged to look like French windows. While uncle talked about everything other than his "condition", I let my mind wander on the aesthetic differences between the terrace and Hans Castorp's balcony where he and Joachim would lie half reclined, propped up by pillows and blankets wrapped with an expertise that only a dweller of the Berghof of der Zauberberg could master.Yet, the basic premise of both the terrace and the balcony was quite the same. Both extended and covered the breadth of the corridor, running parallel to it, although I was sure the doctors of Apollo, unlike Dr. Krokowski, would prefer the latter, and we were in no danger of being intruded from the terrace. I also noticed the differences between the nurses I'd read about, and the very young carers who'd come to "collect blood" (as they said) from my uncle. While Hans Castorp had a very efficient one who took his temperature and made sure he was taking the right medicines, these young nurses failed to locate a vein, but in the process spilled a lot of useless (and unnecessary as it was turning out to be) blood, and called it "a slip".

I was reading Truman Capote's short stories at that time, and as uncle was asked to get ready for his Angiograph, I turned the pages to the story I'd read midway before class the previous day. I've always thought that there is a certain lightness involved after one sells one's dreams; a relief if the dreams were turning out to be a burden against which one had to weigh oneself every day. Estelle however, returned from 'Master Misery' every time after selling a dream, richer by a few dollars, but crumbling inside. I felt sorry for her. Although she acknowledged that life was nothing overtly philosophical, but a dreary everyday routine, where one would not be missed if one failed to wake up from bed, she still clung to the hope that her dreams had fed her with, and those that she had sold. In the lemon yellow room of the nursing home, the images floating before my eyes were vivid, colourful and full of vigour - people floating through the air, wearing wreaths, stretching and swooping to the melodious tunes of an instrument playing in the background...

I was home for lunch when Maa called me to say that the doctor hadn't found any blockage whatsoever, and the pain could thus be attributed to something minor. The extended family had begun celebrating, and by the time I returned to the nursing home, I found the room look like a veritable family gathering, turning the quiet, sunless, rather Lenten corridor into a republic of Carnival. I took the opportunity of the presence of the crowd - now agitated by the poor service of the authorities to provide with proper food for the patient (another difference, I mentally noted, with the Hans-Joachim situation) - to slip out and walk through the building, walking down the stairs, where busy people rushing to and from more important work wouldn't mind the loud clicking of my heels. At the ground floor, exactly opposite the elevators, I noticed a mini-temple, with an imposing statue of a god, and devotees, prostrate, in various stages of prayer, making ardent appeals. They were visitors who had relatives inside the numerous corridors and rooms and cabins; and I noticed that the donation box, placed in front of the deity was overflowing with 500 rupee notes.

Picture: The Dance by Marc Chagall

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Menace Called 'Babies'

I'm writing this post from Guwahati in a state of utter exasperation. A couple of days ago I travelled to Shillong, and the journey itself was something that I'll never forget. I do not like babies and I have no qualms about it. They make too much noise for starters, and have a complete disregard for everything else. As it happens, I was bombarded with babies of all stages of neonatal growth, during the flight.

Travelling with parents is not easy. Especially when you are an independent-minded adult with a history of living and travelling alone, and your parents are prejudiced, finicky, middle-aged people. I had planned to steer clear of them days in advance and had consequently e-booked my separate window seat. During the time at the airport before check-in, I didn't pay much attention to my surroundings as I was beginning a new book, and hence wasn't really suspicious of the alarming number of babies being carried around everywhere. It was only when I had comfortably seated myself and was mentally deciding whether to order a coffee or save on the caffeine-intake-percentage of the day, that the first blow hit me. I didn't even turn to see how old it was. I was made aware of its strong timbre and pitch. It went on, right behind my right ear, and then another one, from somewhere in the back, followed suit. Then it seemed they were on a duel, trying to outdo one another in tantrums. After what seemed a cruelly long time, the second baby stopped, having accepted defeat. My right ear had nearly lost its function, and I decided to turn back to place my well-practised steely glare on the baby and the parents who apparently knew nothing about child control. My practice was lost because the baby was turned the other way towards its opponent, and the parents seemed to be proud of their toy and were strutting it like a peacock in the other direction. The baby began again, and I tried to play mental scrabble, which got jumbled up when the mother tried cooing it by singing - hold your breath - "Why this Kolaveri di?" Of course I was scandalised. I have since then been trying to decipher if it is absolutely necessary to confront a baby with the existential angst that is Kolaveri di. The baby however, didn't seem to be as disturbed as Meursault and continued its cacophony. At length I turned to my book and the words which first met my eyes were -

"Siddhartha had one single goal - to become empty, to become empty of thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure and sorrow - to let the Self die. No longer to be Self, to experience the peace of an emptied heart, to experience pure thought - that was his goal."

I closed the book, and amidst all the din I nodded off to sleep.

Oh to think that that would be the end of my tryst with babies! But that wasn't to be. In Shillong I was romantic and cynic, homesick and nostalgic by turns, and staying in a cottage overlooking the Wards Lake, I had forgotten about the experience. We catch our return flight from Guwahati, and having come here a day in advance ("to be on the safe side" to quote Baba), we decided to visit the Kamakshya temple. I will not even go into the effort I took to get up early in the morning after a long and bad night and to meticulously perform all my beloved ablutions to show that I was being a dutiful (and eager) daughter (yes, I intend to write my memoirs someday and incorporate all this). We reached in time and stood in line, and I nearly let out a scream when I saw that the person standing in front of me had a baby in his arms. It was wriggling and squiggling and writhing and kicking and climbing and throwing things all around. Then it had the gall to slip out through the metal grill and slip in again. There was a severe space crunch - of course - and that baby used all of us standing nearby as branches to climb the tree that was its father. The next step was inevitably throwing the flowers on young women's heads (sly!) and pulling dresses. I still kept my temper. Then as the queue moved and the space crunch became severe while entering the cave, it bellowed out in the most furious of noises I have ever heard. Its father tried ingenious tricks but nothing helped. It went on and on, and suddenly before I was aware, there were babies all around me howling and rattling their lungs out. I asked aloud why do parents have to carry their "little" babies all around and not just deposit them somewhere for safe-keeping. Of course I wasn't answered but glared at. Being a young spinster and all, looking all fashionable and all, commenting on babies and all. This went on, and as if to avenge themselves on my remark, a lady behind me with an arse-fixation, grabbed the one in front of her (mine, that is) and started yelling, "Go ahead, girl!" I was so infuriated that I wanted to hit her. I just hissed, "Don't touch me or push me. I'll move only when the queue does." The baby behind her grinned at me and I glared back. This continued till it was all done, and when I emerged, I got scared at my own reflection. Maa, who wasn't with me during the adventure, asked me if I had been wrestling inside. I gave her a wry smile and muttered about wild babies and barbaric mommies. She missed the point.

The thing is, I'm not an avaricious or compulsive hater of babies. I have been fortunate to meet some cute, cuddly, friendly, ones who didn't throw such tantrums and were mostly what one would call "good". But the majority of the species is rueful, wrathful, conniving, and definitely not innocent. I love childhood, but my favourite part of the phase begins when the child enters the age of comprehension. If I had my way, I would keep them locked up till they were old enough to understand instructions and respect them. If you think I'm cruel, clip my wings; but thank your heavens that I haven't intended ants to carry them away in their baskets. In my neat spinster world, there is neither the time, nor the inclination for such (in reverence for a polite word) neo-natal sentiments. I am dying to return to my city tomorrow and meet my lovely spinster friends, and over coffee, check-out young good-looking men, bitch about the menace that is babies, and discuss at length on how sex is over-rated.