The Blossom on the Bough by Anne Dowden

Last year at the ISA (located in Amstelveen) I bought this second-hand book. The book was last issued from the library in 1995 and they had decided to part with it. I paid very little for it.

Firstly, I love botanical drawings. The precision with which they are made is stunning. My pictures veer more towards kawaii, anime, folk art, lacking realism and aiming more for abstraction, exaggeration (not as much as caricature) and sometimes color. Botanicals remains a field I am greatly attracted towards and can not replicate. I love the work of Marjolien Bastin and Beatrix Potter. In my dream house I often imagine a stark plain white wall corridor of botanicals ranging from the Mughal botanicals to the more modern works of Vera Scarth-Johnson, with a Bastin squirrel here and a Potter rabbit there, and at the end of the corridor you would find a cottage garden with a pond and warm welcome corners, and butterflies.

Secondly, what attracted me to this book were the library cards at the back. While studying in Delhi, in school, in college and at the British Council Library I remember using library cards. The stamp on the book a reminder of when the book was due but what I liked reading most (apart from the text) were the several names before me who had read the book, and my name and date there present with the rest, marking my place in the history of that book. When we moved to Dubai in 2004 I got a digitised card to the library and this sojourn with names I did not know ended, well almost, once I found a bus ticket in a book, a postcard in another, my mind trying to weave tales around these forgotten objects. When I chanced upon the website Forgotten Bookmarks imagine my joy and relief that there were other people like me.

I had written earlier about my love-hate relationship with electronic reading devices, I think this might well be one of the reasons the acceptance has been a hard one. Anyhow, I leave you to enjoy the pictures of this book, which has brought me much joy.

Anne Dowden’s The Blossom on The Bough 

PK after thodi si peeke

Have the reviews and counter-reviews for PK died down? Because, in that case, now would be a good time to write down my thoughts about the movie. For starters: I did enjoy the film and here I will try to delve a little into why I was motivated to do so, amongst usual blog-like meanderings.

On a side note (that did not take long), I have come to notice the stylistic aspects of Bollywood cinema: Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s opulent, colorful, glitzy sets, choreographed dance dramas, the earthy sounds of thumping dhol and bold matriarchs. The celebrate-your-Indian-family even outside India, Manish Malhotra-esque sob sagas, return of the prodigal sons of Karan Johar. The rustic, gutsy, dusty landscape of Vishal Bhardwaj, complete with ethnic sounds and dialogues, from globalize to lets localize. The friends, journeys, finding your own light in the midst of many others, the disco, urban accounts of the Akhtar siblings. The light-hearted, tropical, catchy beats, slick intertextual (references to other films) tales of Farah Khan, and, now I can add to that the social-phenomena-motivated stories of Raj Kumar Hirani. In a Hirani movie we must have a female media person, a down-to-earth funny hero who turns things around, a national chant for change and waltz numbers with scooters or cycles.

I enjoyed the meta texture in PK. For example, the picture of Gandhi only holds value when it is linked to economics; the only images – on calendars, notebooks, posters – are tossed away. While I’m no Gandhian like Hirani is, and I do understand the nature of currency and markets, I could see the inherent philosophical nature of that scene. That cultures develop to associate value to otherwise meaningless things – white for the bride, white for the widow – that it is indeed a human attribute to start constructing social rituals – it was intriguing, humorous, and ironical to watch it in the Indian context.

Jagat Janani, the meaning of that particular name intrigued me, who is Jagat Janani? Mother Nature or is this a reference to the Mother Goddess. She is female. In relationship to her is the alien character, a male, who questions the social formations – of religion and culture. The juxtaposition of the male as being otherworldly, and Jaggu as that which gives birth to the ‘jagat’ or world was quite a gripping proposition and if one were to explore this further I am sure we could work on a layered referencing to this within the text of the film. It is Jaggu who notices the odd one out in ‘her’ world, it is she who helps him understand strands (firki and otherwise) that PK has missed. And, above all it is she who is kind (gender trouble – ahem!). She is given an identity, a name by the ‘bad guy’ is this an urge to rethink (for who has dictated how the world should proceed) how we have thought and defined the origin of the world and the nature of living.

The music of the film is lovely. I have enjoyed each song on the track, the robust Rajasthani sounds in “Tharki Chokro.” I was repeatedly reminded of Parineeta while listening to the numbers – “Chaar Kadam” like “Piyu Bole” and “Bhagwan Kahan” like “Raat Hamari” and when I was looking up information about these two films I found that these songs shared the same music director Shantanu Moitra, same lyricist Swanand Kirkire and in the case of “Chaar Kadam” and “Piyu Bole” they were sung by Shaan and Shreya Ghoshal. Quite the coincidence!

As expats, and migrants, we meet Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, who are mistaken as Indians, or (unfortunately) clubbed together as Indians. Sometimes, (again very unfortunately) the larger section of the populace misses the point that these are countries with varied cultures, influences and they have rich, heterogeneous heritages. This point gets beautifully put across by Sushant Singh Rajput who plays such a subtle and lovable role. An Amitabh-loving, Urdu poet, studying, working a part-time job at the embassy, humorous, shy, well-mannered, respectful, what a wonderful way to re-think the manner in which we perceive. Finally, who betrays is not so much the guy who we have been taught to suspect but our own narrow-mindedness. Perhaps, it is naïve to think this way, maybe the third generation of Indians (for this is an Indian film) post the independence have softened their views on partition, however, and as part of that generation, and the descendant of grand-parents who have lived through the living nightmare that 1947 was, maybe it is time for a rethink. And, if we as human being lose the ability to challenge and question, to learn and move on, then maybe this “gola” is truly “lul.”

The question of religion or the religion question, whether within – worship the small idol, or the big one in the temple, is “daan” a fees, of gurus and their gyaan, or between religions – Hindu and Muslim is a tricky one to handle – given the matchstick-striker ratio that operates within the world’s largest democracy. To the credit of Indian cinema and Bollywood, it has addressed these issues in a manner that has been ‘acceptable’ – here acceptable means getting released with least (sort of) amount of disarray within makers of the film, audience and censors, here least is used in a rather liberal (sort-of) fashion – Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995), Shyam Benegal’s Mammo (1994), Aparna Sen’s Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002) immediately come to mind but I am sure there are many more. PK offers a critique of religious dogmas, giving a bitter spoonful with ample gloss and sugar. To make such a film you need a decent amount of conviction in what you want to say and how you want to say it – any imbalance could spell disaster. PK manages the tight rope well with the message of a direct contact with the maker and no wrong numbers.

I don’t view PK as a catalyst to change; I view it as the start of a conversation, quite in the manner that 3 Idiots and Taare Zameen Par required for us to at least glance at the education system that we have been put through. For change to come through it will take something far more intense, radical, and even bizarre, in the meantime, “Dil ko behelane ko Ghalib yeh khayal achcha hai.” For all the movies you could have made Mr. Hirani – you made a good one.

Links
Why is Bollywood film PK controversial? by Vikas Pandey
Parineeta (2005) – the movie
PK (2014) – the movie

YouTube has an extensive collection of “Making of PK” videos – a must watch if you want to see how the movie comes together.

Winter Sun and Yellow Things

Those who read this blog regularly know my fondness for Amstel Park. I have befriended each hidden corner, nook and cranny, secluded benches and ponds. I have read under its trees, played hide and seek between its bushes, ran through the maze, broken ice on its neglected fountains, eaten ice cream, bandaged scraped knees, criticized the name ‘midget golf,’ hugged the rabbits, patted the pigs, clucked with hens, balanced myself on the train tracks, exchanged intelligent conversations, random ramblings, drunken songs and dragged branches home.

To you Amstel Park: “Acquainted with the Night” – a poem by Robert Frost published in 1928 in his collection West-Running Brook

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
A luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

—-

The big yellow table with two chairs in Amstel Park look like something out of a Vincent van Gogh painting. They will be placed in Dam Square on May 4th and 5th. The table and chairs symbolize the Freedom Luncheon or Vrijheidsmaaltijd, which will be served to hundreds of tables in the city. The table was conceived by artist Arne Hendriks. Hendriks views the table as “an instrument of solidarity.” The table is designed by Stichting Stadshout. The wood used is a 155 year old beech. It sticks out, the yolk yellow in the middle of murky green.

Paris in the rain

Saturday, January 10, 2015, I was to be in Paris for the day to meet poet and translator Marilyn Hacker. I had many questions about her experience with the ghazal and ghazal poets; she was generous enough to offer her day to me. On Monday 5th I booked my tickets to travel by the Thalys by Wednesday the 7th – Paris was not the same. Two hostage crises bolted through the city.

I stuck to my decision to travel. On the Friday – 9th – a day before my travel my friend asked me, “Why are you putting your family through this, traveling to Paris now?” I wanted to calm her fears. But I don’t think I was able to. I just could not think of anywhere I would have rather been than in Paris. That somehow the terror, fear, the tendency to self-preserve would not, and could not hold me back. Indeed I could have rescheduled but I did not want to. I wanted to meet Marilyn. I also wanted to see Paris, like when you approach your friend to hold her hand, to let her know she will be okay when things go wrong, not just in the summer when the air is crisp and flowers are in bloom, but in winter when it’s cold and the body struggles to stay warm. The combination of these two interwove to help me make my decision.

It was an unusually gray and stormy day. The Thalys had delays while the wind waged its battle I prepared my questions. Within me was this surging tide to go forth, to ask, to inquire, while this emotion presented itself there was also this ‘manthan’ (inner churn) – poetry in the midst of turmoil. Agha Shahid Ali toyed with the takallhus Shahid – witness and beloved. Marilyn had written that her name was not as meta as Shahid’s, when the jokes on Marilyn came out she left the room. Kashmir. Palestine. Poetry. Paris.

Online I read articles on the cities of the world and the need of the hour being introspection. Why indeed is the second generation of migrants turning elsewhere to answer their religious and cultural quandaries? Have the countries they were born and brought up not nurturing? Or had they been brain washed? Was there another kind of schooling that created the other kind – this kind – what kind? There is no straight forward answer. God needs protecting. Caustic, sarcasm, dripping ink in pen, then blood, lots of blood, blood everywhere on the pages, on tables, the floor, oozing from wounds, the American ghazal – of Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, Aimee Nehukumatahil talk of wounds, of hurt, Rich even says the way in which we murder is not the same anymore. Who is the gazelle today? Who the hunted, who the prey, who the hunter, who the almighty, Agha Shahid Ali “By Exile” wrote exiled by exiles, is this what is left of us? Birds fly over the landscape — Mahmoud Darwesh had asked where do birds fly after the last sky? Where do they go from here? And who are they? What hurts their heart? And what sort of God needs protection that too from creatures as fragile and faulty as us humans?

Bambi was sleeping on my bed when I left. He had kicked the duvet off, it half-covered his thin frame. His mouth was open. I could see his chest heaving steadily. His eyes twitched just a little. Was he dreaming? Would he ask for me when he woke up? Or would the iPad and Skylanders distract him enough for him to forget me just that bit – his forgetting me would hurt me. Ostriker had written in her essays in The Mother / Child Papers (1980) about birth and war time, the poignancy of the words raise a lump to my throat and I swallow it back with bad train coffee. The last time I was in Paris I was pregnant with Bambi.

—-

A long-winding dark bent wooden staircase curled up three floors to her small door; Marilyn opened it with a warm and gentle smile. Her office-living areas were covered in books. On the prayer stand open was the Arab to French dictionary, we both look at it, I tease her, “Is this what you have been worshipping Marilyn, have you done your hundred Bismillahs?” She laughs, “Oh yes I’ve been praying to irregular verbs.” She makes me coffee upstairs in her kitchenette with a Lebanese flag, over buttery croissants and raisin rolls we discuss ghazals. Her mind is sharp, wise, knowledgeable, a polyglot; she switches from Rumi, to Darwesh, to Ghalib, to Mimi Khalvati with such ease and grace. Somewhere my own ideas stretched, some modified, and some get fortified. While I start to understand Shahid better, women and the ghazal remain deliciously complicated. As a researcher one tends to be clinical about the work we study, for the artist it is more organic, natural, and inexplicable. She talks about her inclination towards anonymity, the idea to remain unknown – nameless, her last poetry collection was called Names (2010), she does not use the takallhus sometimes she alludes to it but most of the time she drops it. She says she enjoys doing that. It is fun to work with forms, to see how it functions, how far you can go with it, how much will it stretch. The ghazal becomes play-doh in my head and I start imagining what color it would be. I ask her how she knew about the ghazal, it was through Adrienne Rich, and Shahid, about Shahid she says, “He was very loved.” I can imagine that Shahid in his living room surrounded by his friends reciting poetry while the fragrance of a good rogan josh wafts from the kitchen. We discuss the differing styles of Shahid and Roger Sedarat. We analyze what it means for me an Indian living in Amsterdam to come to Paris to talk about an Arabic but more Persian-Urdu poetic form with an American-Jewish female poet, we notice the irony of it, also noting of how people and forms travel.

Marilyn takes me out for lunch to her neighborhood café. Where we meander away from the ghazal to nation states, and borders, and Paris, her reason to live in Paris was that she kept coming back to it and one day she decided to stay, she liked it there, her life, the book stores, the ability to have several literary options at her doorstep and the fact that she had studied French Literature in her youth. We talk of Beirut and our experiences with the city. She talks about Mosul and Syria.

I leave her apartment at five. She gives me her new collection of poems – with new ghazals – A Stranger’s Mirror (2015) – it is not yet in the stores, and she insists that I would understand it. I accept it. She gives me another book for Bambi. It is The Honey Hunter (2013) by Karthika Nair and Joëlle Jolivet; it is set in the Sunderbans, close to where I was born. I think of Bambi, and home, Marilyn smiles at me like she knows what I am thinking.

I go to the North Bank and walk along with the Seine towards Notre Dame across the bridge of locks, it is teeming with people professing their love, kissing, locking their locks, I pray for the bridge to hang on to its knobs and not collapse under the weight of too-much metal. The Seine looks angry. The sky is dark gray. The gothic elements of the cathedral look menacing. Every store, each corner has signs for Charlie. The air is somber.

I arrive at the station early. The taxi driver from Notre Dame to Gare du Nord tells me that on Sunday the 11th there will be a big demonstration to show solidarity and unity for Charlie. He says it is important to show it – that through this demonstration people want to stand together for Paris. He grew up reading Charlie’s newspaper and he could not believe what happened in the last two days, he says he has lost his ability to react, “Charlie was always poking fun at everyone, even himself, and I grew up reading his pages, this is my Paris, these are people from my childhood.”

It is pouring. The rain – “Even the Rain” (thank you Rafiq Kathwari for a poem I carry with me everywhere) – I am soaking wet. The Gare du Nord station is cold. There is police and military everywhere. I have to sit there and wait. Gare du Nord is no waiting room. But I have Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) for company. There is a lover’s tiff in the station, it gets physical, the military officers step in, it is like a dance, the officers don’t really do anything, but they watch, they don’t say anything, they observe other people watching the couple, the couple, the officers movements are orchestrated, slow and mindful in comparison to the fighting fish who seem random – jerky – slowly as the couple moves away, the officers move as well, their faces are expressionless.

The train back to Amsterdam has police doing checks – they are still looking for the girl my co-passenger informs me, she also points out — good thing you do not look like her despite your dark hair. I nod, not saying anything; I try to make my face expressionless. I don’t think I am good at this. For the rest of the journey I remain buried in Kureishi. By the time I reach home – it is the middle of the night, stillness, Bambi is in bed, Purab’s waiting. The day drains away in the shower, steam, quiet, words forming, Seine curling, qafiyas, radifs, buttresses and mornings. They always come. Like the radif. Somehow even when the sun does not shine, the day starts, life moves.

Is my uneasiness nurtured or organic?

The past few weeks I have been toying with the idea of getting an e-reader. Many of the books I need for my research and some of the books I want to read are located in and sold from places where shipping and handling charges are way over the price of the books themselves. I do understand the price of transport and duties; my interests though have weighed towards my meagre pocket as a PhD student. Selfish indeed!

When the newly launched Amazon.nl promised a ‘cheap’ Kindle Paperwhite via Amazon.de they got my attention. I realized, still the kit would land up being 145-euros-approx. If I signed up for a particular credit card I would be spared 30-euros. A concept I find disturbing and problematic. That I don’t subscribe to the idea of the credit card also adds to my dismay. How on earth am I ever going to keep track of the endless paper trails I drop each time I say yes to possess? What a tangled web we weave when we try to …. (apologies to the Gods of rhyme) try to live (albeit stylishly) within our means.

To add to this – I romanticize the physicality of books. Mea culpa! Sitting in the metro for long hours I often read, or look at the covers of books people are holding, fingers wrapped around paper, eyes darting, some slowly, others fast, a twitch of the lips, a gentle smile, a furrowed line in between the brows – I look for these signs. The language of these books might be different, the topics similar or dissimilar to my taste but in those rare quiet moments I feel a camaraderie. A kinship for those who seek stories and meaning; for those who travel via books in an inexplicable way travel together. E-readers (hence referred to as ERs), indeed, as well denote readership but in isolation, there is no cover peeking through gripped fingers. Thus, offering a privacy that crushes my romantic voyeurism.

ERs, as the publishing industry will argue, works besides and not as a binary opposition to books. Is this how selling out begins? I wonder what happens to the weight of books, carrying Shakespeare’s Sonnets back and forth to university my shoulders ached, my neck struggled, when I downloaded it on to the Kindle app on my phone it seemed to me that I belittled the text. My body asked me to shut up and accept the easy reading of the pixels, wasn’t the backlight in some of these readers meant to delay the formation of cataracts? Despite this, my heart rebels. Is there a strange value in physical weight? (What would the pundits of fashion say?).

I am not allergic to technology. At one point in time in my life I actually studied code (I know – it went the same way as Law School – that is for another day). I am fond of Apple products. I enjoy my HP laptop – bulky and old it has brought me great comfort. I play Candy Crush, and Candy Crush Soda. I blog. I have enjoyed my Moleskin notebooks as well as my Notes app on my iPhone – then why indeed does my heart ache just that bit more when it comes to ERs? And here is the epiphany I came to this morning while dusting my shelves – Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter jutted out – it was a book that belonged to my grandfather, later to my aunt, and then it came to me as I studied Literatures in English. Sons and Lovers, Mill on the Floss, Wuthering Heights, Complete Works of Saki, that old withered copy of Treasure Island that belonged to Purab when he was a wee lad, thumbed down and stained. And, as I touch their spines I feel connected. Odd that connectivity is enabled by technology yet these placid pages are not connected to any hyper networks, or are they? These books had lives, and were part of the lives of people I no longer have with me and of time that has passed.

I remind myself – besides – and not against. How many more shelves will I build? Roughly each wall in my house is either covered in bookshelves or relevant art. Will I be the last generation to appreciate the physical nature of the textbook? I run my fingers on Bambi’s Mercy Watson books, how he loves them, how he pours over his Grapes of Math – like I did – over Grapes of Wrath. I would hope not. But who knows – I am human – and only time holds answers. The knot remains so. As our receptionist shares with me an old volume of the photographs of the American Civil War, I appreciate what I have now – the cusp at which I find myself. Here and there. I gravitate towards that balance I need to find between my nurtured uneasiness and the organic path of publication evolution. Wish me luck.

Though it is not a binary opposition – for more information: click here

Edited to add: With the new billing options turns out Amazon will not allow me to buy certain e-books. I found the June Jordan collection of poems Directed by Desire on Google Play. Just for 7-euros, that too. Looks like using the computer via apps might give me the multi-platform flexibility I need. If you have any ideas / suggestions on this please email me or add to the comments section.

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