Friday, June 5, 2015

For a Happy End

On 17th October last year, dad was admitted to the MC hospital for a probable infection. He had become extremely weak, foggy, sleeping 16 hours a day, and had difficulty recognising people and raising himself up from the bed without support. We were not unduly perturbed though. After all, it was the fifth time in the last twenty months, since his dialysis started, that we needed to take him to the hospital in similar bodily conditions. Each time, while he had gone in seemingly irreparable, he had come out fine, though further weakened and emaciated. 
This time however, on the very first day, he was shifted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) as both his blood pressure and sugar were sinking. He was put on a ventilator on the same day with artificial respiration, and started with heavy dose of broad spectrum antibiotics. He seemed to respond well, and two days later, he was taken off the ventilator. That evening, when I asked dad if he recognised me, he exclaimed, with a thin smile on his face, ”Quite well, Yasir Ali." As it happened, these were the last words that I heard from him. He went back into that foggy state two days later, and was put on ventilator again. We got fifteen minutes daily in the evening to see dad in the ICU. I went in there with fear and nervous anxiety. The sight was grislier each time. There were more tubes connected to him, face contorted, body bloated, and the whole countenance deathly pale. I prodded him, with increasing desperation and anger, getting usually an exasperated wheezing as a response.
A week into the ventilator, as we felt dad slipping away, and mom on the verge of a breakdown, I tried to initiate a straight-forward conversation with the principal physician. Do they understand what is happening? Have they seen any improvement over the last few days? Is there anything more that can be done technically, that is not possible in this hospital? Is dad suffering? Is he now on a path of no return now, and dying? Should we then remove the ventilator?
The physician was old and kindly, but insular to feelings. He assured me that they were doing the best that was possible anywhere. There was absolutely no improvement in dad’s condition but no deterioration either. They could not stop his treatment or take him off the ventilator. The purpose of medicine was to save lives. Stopping the treatment was wrong, ethically and legally. They still had hope and there were few more things that they wanted to try. 
I should have been happy about the outcome of the meeting. But it made me despondent. Dad’s body had withered and shrunken like a dead tree. When his eye lids were pulled up, there was no life left in his pupils. I felt it in my bones that doctors were giving false hopes and dad was dying. I wanted a way to reduce his suffering. And I was also worried, and ashamed to be worried, about the financial consequences of this long stay in the ICU. Till when would my insurance last? But then, could we really be sure that dad was irrecoverable?
Dad ultimately died one week later at home, barely three hours after he was taken off the ventilator at hospital and put on a bipap (a kind of portable ventilator with less support). Death is not a tragedy but an inevitable reality. But this was the first time that I had been through the process of dying. It was as if he had just drifted further in that deep sleep, and slipped into oblivion.
The man who had died was not the man I had known all my life. My father had left his feudal household and town when young in search of life and career. He was beholden to books and poetry and ideas, and had nurtured his mind with free inquiry. Friends, conversation and laughter gave his life colour. Freedom - physical, financial, intellectual, spiritual - defined him. Seeing such a fiercely independent, alive, non-conformist man die such an ordinary, degrading death broke me. Was this how we are all condemned to end?
Till I read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, however, I did not know that any alternative ending was indeed possible. But, clichĂ©d as it may sound, just there is an “art of living”, there may well be an “art of dying” as well.
In retrospect, the trajectory of my dad’s last two years, and further last three weeks, had a pattern that has become all too familiar in the modern context. In at least the more affluent classes of the world, a profound change has happened in the last fifty years - we live longer and die slowly.  
We have a great deal to thank modern medicine for extending the limits of mortality so significantly that we take much of it for granted now. Till about a century back, life expectancy was under fifty throughout most of the western world, while still being under thirty in lesser developed countries. As Gawande puts it, “It didn’t matter whether you were five or fifty. Every day was a roll of dice.” Mortality was common and sudden. A simple infection was enough to end you in a day or two. 
What it meant was growing old was a rarity and a privilege. Old people occupied positions of high honour and prestige, and were treasured for their experience and wisdom. This began to change dramatically from 1930s onwards, with the average life expectancy steadily increasing globally. As a consequence, more than eighty years later now, in many developed nations, people aged more than sixty five now form more than twenty percent of the population. This is an inevitable condition for all countries, even ours, which boasts of a “young population” as of now. 
The dynamics of longer lives along with more mobility has meant that old age has lost its reverence and more individuals are living alone. This may seem an absolute disaster to family-oriented Indian lives, and a Western phenomenon. However, interestingly, cross-cultural research has shown that, East or West, given the opportunity, people have preferred to abandon the older way for the new. Family life may have suffered, but individual aspirations have got a new lift with this independence.   
This phenomenon of living alone, without kids, however starts costing us as we grow older, and gradual wear and tear of the body sets in. There is apparently no one reason, “no single common cellular mechanism”, why our bodies break down. But there is a common enough set of major/minor fixing of the body that almost everybody beyond a certain age goes through now - cataracts removal, false teeth, prostate, knee/hip replacements, dialysis, pace makers, et al. And as our physical and mental capacities shrink, we find it increasingly difficult to stay put and manage simple daily matters of living. Quality of life, as we know it, goes on a steadily downhill path.
Our experience of ageing, much more pronounced in the developed world, also shows that we have not accepted or adopted to these new conditions very well. In our long history of settled life, after all, this “new condition” is still not more than half a century old. Popular culture addresses it with plain denial, with attempts to negate all it’s overt manifestations in hair, teeth and skin. It feels so much better to declaim that spring of youth is eternal than worry about the ravages of old life. But this denial and not thinking about old age has ultimately led to creation of social and institutional mechanisms - old age homes, nursing homes, ICU support - that are medically designed and not keeping the affected people in mind. 
Nursing homes are the most representative of these institutions. They were essentially created to empty out the hospital beds since hospitals were unable to cope with the increased elderly who could not take care of themselves. Key priority was, and remains, safety of the elderly, maintained through a strict enforcement of well-defined rules and procedures. Gawande’s descriptions of these places - small, shared rooms with bare essentials, white-fresh linen, spotless corridors with sputtering, barely walking people, manicured lawns, precisely defined times and areas for sleeping, eating and playing - evoke the dystopian, depressing and ultimately totalitarian world of a Stanley Kubrick movie quite magnificently. Getting into a nursing home seems akin to losing all privacy and autonomy, and the likeness to prisons and mental institutions is rather hard to miss.
The end, when it comes, happens typically in forlorn ICUs in prolonged agony, whose experience Atul Gawande captures poignantly, “Spending one’s final days in an ICU because of terminal illness is for most people a kind of failure. You lie attached to a ventilator, your every organ shutting down, your mind teetering on delirium and permanently beyond realising that you will never leave this borrowed, fluorescent place.”
The premise of “Being Mortal” is deceptively simple, and addresses this modern scourge head-on - can life be lived meaningfully till the end, under physically and mentally dwindled circumstances?
To understand this book however, we first need to know something about the person behind it. Atul Gawande was born of immigrant parents, both doctors, in America. He is a practicing surgeon, and when he first started writing about his experiences, his fellow surgeons were disconcerted by his frankness. For one, he did not shy away from talking about his fears, anxieties, or even failures on the job. In one of his early pieces for New Yorker, he admitted to “nearly killing a woman on his operating table because of inattentiveness.” To his colleagues, it revealed too much about the uncertainties of a profession that usually has a God-like aura around its invulnerability. Philosophy and politics are his other interests, besides medicine, for which he has an abiding passion. He is curious with a healthy irreverence towards the omniscience of science and progress.
 “Being Mortal” is his fourth, and most ambitious, work so far. In this book, he turns the complex issues of ageing on its head by bringing the usually passive, individual subject at the centre. Although meticulous in his research, his primary method of argument is that of the narrative. It critiques the medical way of approaching old age, and says, “The problem with medicine and and the institutions it has spawned for the care of the sick and the old is not that they have an incorrect view of what makes life significant. The problem is that they have had almost no view at all.” 
This view, if any, is governed, in the main, by the priorities of keeping the elderly safe. This sounds noble enough from the perspective of the care-givers. It is also given strong philosophical underpinnings by Maslow’s highly influential “theory of needs” that places safety and survival as the most basic of all human needs. Seen from the eyes of the people being cared for however, it reduces life to a ship whose moorings are forever lost from their hands. 
Karen Armstrong has shown, in remarkable books centered on religion, myth and spirituality, that human beings are a curious, meaning-seeking creatures. We often willingly forego “safety and survival” to do things that we see as larger than ourselves - nation, community, even small personal projects. This “theory of loyalty”, as also propounded by the philosopher Richard Dworkin, does not fit the mainstream narrative of self-interest guiding all our rational choices, and is thus looked upon with suspicion when it emerges in different forms.
In Being Mortal, Gawande argues persuasively that for us to retain meaning in our lives, we essentially need the freedom and autonomy to shape our respective stories. This comes out fundamentally in terms of choices that we leave for our elderly and sick, even as they rely more on their care-givers to perform basic functions.
As Gawande shows, particularly when it comes to treating terminally ill patients, the focus of modern medicine is persistently to do more - surgeries, experimental treatments, critical care - with the basic aim to avoid mortality. On the other hand, research shows that priorities of people with serious illness are much more than prolonging life, such as “avoiding suffering, strengthening relationships with family and friends, being mentally aware, not being a burden on others, and achieving a sense that their life is complete.”
This is of course a difficult argument to make, and can easily slip into asking for an “easy death” rather than struggle for “better life”. Gawande’s argument is more subtle though. It focuses on the softer aspects of critical care in which hard conversations, rational choice, and reduction of suffering have as important a role to play as the actual treatments – and where doctors help their patients interpret the choices they need to make. The choice is not between life and death. It is to do with prioritizing what is most important for the critically ill at the end of life, and choosing a better course.
And these are the kind of discussions that my father would have liked. When his dialysis started, we knew that time before him was finite. Dialysis is not a cure. It is only an artificial support that replaces what kidney does - remove waste and excess water from the blood. All that we understood was that this was the only option with dad’s both kidneys failing, and that people survive for years with dialysis. That it is but a minor distraction, and life would move on as usual.
But it all started falling apart from the beginning. Dad did not take very well to lying straight for four-five hours in the hospital, and have his blood flow through tubes to get cleansed. He was so tired by the time it ended each time, that he had to be literally carried up to our third floor home. He was no longer able to read, think, go out, and after some time, even sit up in bed without support. When the frequency increased to thrice a week, more than once, he expressed his frustration and desire to quit - that we of course never took seriously.
I believe that at that point, it would have helped if his doctors (along with family) were to have a frank discussion with dad on following lines. What are his most important priorities? How much is he willing to suffer for prolonging life? What would make living not worthwhile for him anymore?
These are difficult conversations, but Gawande shows, with both proven research and personal stories, that successful resolution of these questions have helped make end of life better. “Palliative care” is one of the specialised medical care that Gawande illustrates as one of the alternatives to improve quality of life in the end. Palliative care is a multi-disciplinary approach, with goals that are not curative but focused on relieving the patients of pain, tiredness, physical stress and making their lives as active as possible. It involves giving up aggressive treatment, and may seem to quicken death. But a landmark 2010 study for the terminal cancer patients showed astonishingly that those who saw a palliative care specialist “stopped chemo sooner, experienced less suffering at the end, and lived longer.” It surely does not result in dying in a diffused state on a ventilator.
In spite of having a strong western social and healthcare context, Being Mortal offers valuable insights for the world we are moving towards, and is deeply affecting and moving. It is a marvelous meditation on the limits imposed by the human body, and what social and moral pathways are required to address it. In spite of the deeply morbid and sometimes depressing subject matter, it ultimately has a supremely positive outlook towards the possibilities of life. 
Being Mortal also reminds us that our stories have to end well to be truly meaningful to ourselves. And this is a real possibility even in modern life.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Dirty War

It is 1849 in the Southern reaches of Texas, and Captain White is on a civilising mission as he interviews the Kid for his army. He tells him about the "godless mongrel race" of Mexicans who had gone back on every signed treaty. Mexicans were beastly people with no industry, government or religion. Elucidating on these  "degenerates" who were unfit to govern themselves, he tells the Kid that "enlightened Mexicans" were already asking for American intervention on their behalf. By the time Captain is finished with his high minded pitch, the Kid, nobody's fool, is ready with his own set of questions.

"What about a saddle?
You don't have a saddle?
No sir.
I thought you had a horse.
A mule.
I see."

Cormac McCarthy has always had a great ear for the dialogue, with humour coming from seemingly nutty conversations. This interview ends with the recruitment of the Kid with the promise of a horse, saddle, rifle, clothes and potential new farmland once Mexico is conquered and brought under American sovereignty.

That this "civilising mission" will end in disaster, either for the conqueror or for the conquered, is never really in doubt. In "Blood Meridian" however, these dialogues may seem a respite from the thoroughly bleak world that McCarthy creates so successfully.

This is the world of a rag tag band of murderers, who have been contracted to "protect" the Southern, border towns of America from the marauding bands of Apaches. There is a price for each dead Indian, measured in scalps and paid in hard cash. And every scalp counts, with neither age nor gender hindrance in cost or conscience. At the center of this band are two pivotal men - the Kid and the Judge - who provide the vital force to the novel.

The Judge is a heavily built, bald man, with not a single hair on his body, a veteran of Indian hunting expeditions. A complex and voluble personality, he is a man of science and reason, highly learned in both religious and secular literature, who enjoys liquor and dancing. He has a deranged, but highly developed, sense of morality, and spends considerable time philosophising about, when not actually, committing the murders. The Kid is his alter ego. Less than seventeen, of slight build but with large hands, he has fought his battles in streets and bars where knives and pistols come out in lost card games. His motivations, as in the conversation above, are apparently plain in terms of "gainful employment".

To the Judge's penetrating eyes however, the two are not very different, and when they meet years after they participated in unmitigated slaughter, he asks, "Was it always your idea that if you did not speak, you will not be recognised?"


McCarthy has always depicted the Southern rural landscape - the prairies and mountains and rivers and horses and wolves - very evocatively, embedding it in his sparsely peopled novels as an intrinsic character. In "Blood Meridian", this imagery gets transformed dramatically. In the prairie of blood soaked marauders, there is sand and grit and dust, with blood colouring even the sunrises and dusks. As he writes, in a numbing passage,
"In the morning a urinecolored sun rose blearily through panes of dust on a dim world and without feature."

The darkness is unremitting throughout, with passages abounding in death and squalor and debauchery. But this misery and violence is described with precision and detachment, but without sorrow or sentimentality. And humour, in rendering all the violence meaningless, is quite inimitable. One of the first street fights of the Kid is over crossing a thin plank, surrounded by mud and grime, to, of course, avoid muddying themselves. By the end of a short, lightly provoked, vicious fight, as both the survivors lie belly up in a pool of blood and mud, you wonder and chuckle about the stupidity of it all.

The capacity of the marauders, particularly as they become more and more adept in killing, to ruin any place is singularly striking. This is true not just for their victims, but their hosts and contractors as well. When they enter the city of Chihuahua after their murderous campaign, they are given a hero's welcome. As McCarthy describes in characteristic graphic prose,
"Small boys ran among the hooves and the victors in their gory rags smiled through the filth and the dust and the caked blood as they bore on poles the desiccated heads of the enemy through that fantasy of music and flowers".

They are followed through the streets by trumpeters and drummers, women fall over and touch them as if they are saints, and lavish parties are given to celebrate their homecoming. A month later, when they leave, with another "contract" in their bags, gold had run out, stores had closed, boulevards deserted and young girls kept indoors. McCarthy writes laconically, "...not even a dog followed them to the gates".

Running through this meanness and violence is the central concern that is probed with urgent inquiry - why do men kill? Most animals kill to eat, or to defend. Men kill for various reasons, mostly for money or food, but also in passion, fear and prejudice. What lies underneath is what psychologists and spiritualists call, peculiarly, "animalistic self", that lies dormant with desire to destroy and kill. But there is, of course, nothing "animalistic" about it. As the Judge argues persuasively, it is all too human. After all, the ritual of sacrifice, animal or human, is as old as the civilisation itself - with evidence of scalping found even in 300,000 years old fossils.

And it is all rooted in the need for the thrill and gamble of sports, the desire to beat and pin down the other. In the Judge's formulation, "War" is the ultimate sport of life and death. It is not about pride or honour. Honourable men die sooner in wars. It is about the kill.

It is also enticing to see, in this mad story, madness of a whole nation, built through aggressive expansion by settler colonialists. As the settlers expanded towards the West from the tiny Eastern settlements, these new men usurped land, created industries, and developed and sustained mythologies of free enterprise, race pride, and dignity of labour.

"Blood Meridian" is a dark, disconcerting novel, apocalyptic in scope, and written in fantastic, lyrical prose. McCarthy's style is complex, situated in the here and now, but with cadences of religious literature. I have read nothing quite like this, and doubt if anything comparable is there in all of literature. This is a great, must read, novel, which works at all levels, and which will sustain for all ages.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The ecstatic holy fools - Part One

The windows are shut, and "Haq Ali Ali" inhabits the car and it's occupants completely. As I peer out, things seem to move slower than usual. The people on the road have acquired both a new gravity, and at the same time an intense fatalism in what they are doing. I see their expressions clearly; with their bored, intent or plain vacant eyes. I close my eye lids slowly, as if on weed, and feel a strange lightness come into my heart with current flowing through whole of my body. The moments of spiritual ecstasy may, in most cases, be nothing more than this - a general feeling of ease when an essential goodness seems to overflow without any intercession from reason. At least for these few moments, I see greater clarity and purpose than what the reality warrants.

As the Sufis would say, this is seeing from the heart's eye.

For a host of South Asians, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has long been the face of Qawwali, the ecstatic Sufi music form. Its lyrics are characterised by love poetry addressed to the Divine or His earthly intercessors, and it is sung in a uniquely stylised and rhythmic form of Hindustani classical music. In the shrines of Sufi pirs, where it has been performed at least since the fourteenth century, it frequently, even today, induces some of the listeners to dance ecstatically and go into trances or what is termed as "hal", where they achieve the desired spiritual communion with God. These highly conspicuous men, dishevelled, dazed, and as if stoned on very potent drugs, are the darwishes or faqirs, sometimes tied to the shrine, sometimes wandering restlessly from one place to the other. And they are part of the larger body of Sufis, who embody the inner dimensions of Islam. 

Sufis have long represented, what is termed, as the "soft" face of Islam, not always positively. Some modern commentators venture so far, perhaps misled by the excesses of the Persian poets, as to characterise them as secular torch-bearers and free-thinkers, who have gone outside the fold of their traditionally "hard" Islamic core. Many Muslims, both modern and orthodox, also associate Sufism with obscure and superstitious practices of saint worshipping, devotional Pir cults, magic, miraculous cures, and wild parties of singing and dancing that verge on heresy. Most have long held Sufism, with it's attendant beliefs, to be primarily responsible for Muslims not taking their rightful place in world history. 

To be sure, Sufis are profoundly religious, and, by and large, very devout Muslims. Since at least the ninth century, Sufism has existed alongside the more normative, scriptural Islam, and exerted tremendous hold over it's followers all over the Islamic world. Who are these men, who sing and dance in mad abandon, and are still apparently of very strong religious orientation?

Economists, and modern city life, have for long conditioned us to believe in the primacy of self-interest in everything that governs our life. We all want a well-paying job, a swanky 3-BHK apartment, and the next new VTEC engine powered car. We are all "rational" creatures, yes. But ten thousand years of human history of settled life tells us that we are much more than that. We also have a deep yearning for the presence of sacred in our lives. We want meaning, real or created, in the absence of which we can quickly fall into despair. Albert Camus was quite right to postulate the problem of suicide - whether to live without hope or divine order - as the one governing the most fundamental of human conditions. 

Mysticism, as an internalized form of religion, has offered sacred meaning of life to many without the entrapment of external ritual or doctrine. All major religions have this branch that is slightly tangential to the majoritarian discourse, and which, even while appropriating the core doctrines, makes the religion more accessible and attractive to the commoners. Mystics bring interiority into religions, which get typically hijacked after brief early creative periods by literalists and dogmatists, who place far too much emphasis on ritual purity, outward piety and "correct" behaviour. Hindus have had their Bhakti saints, Christians the desert fathers of the East, and Muslims their Sufis.

Sufism is thus a form of Islamic mysticism, in which believers seek communion with God within the framework of Islam. The core of Sufism is in the idea of abandonment of man by God, and a fierce longing to be reunited with Him. It originated in the eight century as a reaction against the obscene wealth and splendour of Umayyad Caliphs. The first Sufis were pure ascetics who discarded all material attachments and led intense, lonely lives, committed to meditation of God. Hasan al-Basri, the patriarch of Muslim asceticism, for instance, was a witness to the Umayyad conquests, and was distressed by the hypocrisy he saw between the professedly pure ideals of Islam, and the very material richness that adorned the Caliphs. He, and the other early ascetics, essentially, in protest, withdrew from the world they saw as profane.

Extremely individualistic and interesting, there is nevertheless an undercurrent of great sadness in these early mystics. They shunned family life, preferred celibacy, lived with minimal material goods, and advocated strict renunciation of the world. An early ascetic Fudayl reflected this aversion of people when he proclaimed:- "When night comes, I am happy that I am alone, without separation, with God, and when morning comes I get distressed because I detest the view of those people who enter and disturb my solitude". The most significant early influence was from the Christian ascetics living lonely in the mountains of Lebanon and Iraq, with Jesus being the ideal ascetic. The patched woollen cloak that they wore as an emblem of their poverty, wool or "Suf", gave this set of ascetics the distinctive name of Sufis. 

Rabia al-Adawiyya (d.801), the woman saint from Basra, perhaps made the most fundamental early contribution to the doctrine of Sufism when she introduced the idea of "selfless love" into the austere teachings and gave Sufism the hues of true mysticism. Once, in the streets of Basra, she was asked why she was carrying a torch in one hand and a ewer in the other, she answered:-
"I want to throw fire into Paradise and pour water into Hell so that these two veils disappear, and it becomes clear who worships God out of love, not out of fear of Hell or hope for Paradise." This was love for love's sake, without any expectations of rewards, in this or the afterlife. Paradise and Hell are thus ultimately Created entities, designed to keep oneself away from the divine. This quite delightfully made afterlife irrelevant, even while not denying the existence of it.

Post Rabia period, the ninth century, saw perhaps the most original and creative period of Sufi thought. It established the basic set tenets that governed the later, more systemized orders. Dhu'n-Nun (d. 859) brought love of life and created beings into the realm of Sufi thought, from it's renunciation by the earlier ascetics. He wrote short, charming poems about the "rustling of the trees, splashing of the waters, voice of the birds", in which he sensed a unity of all of God's creation. His writings impressed a generation of later medieval Persian poets with it's baroque imagery and deep devotion. 

Bayezid Bistami (d. 874) was the first to describe the mystical experience in terms of the image of the miraj, the heavenly ascension of the Prophet. He was also the first to describe mystical intoxication in it's ultimate experience of "fana" or annihilation of the self. This was the state of complete immersion in the divine in which no trace of the ego remained to separate the Human from the Divine. This was the ideal of divine love and intoxication subsequently sought by both liberal orders of Chishtiyas, as well as ecstatic sufi orders of Qalandars and Malamatis.

These early pioneering ascetics are rounded off by the enigmatic figure of Mansur al-Hallaj, the Persian mystic, who was sent to the gallows for uttering the apparently blasphemous cry, an'al-Haqq, literally, "I am the Absolute Truth". This has been compared for its roots with Upanishadic "Aham Brahma Asmi", though historical evidence is tenuous at best.  Hallaj's death became a symbol for mystical reunion with God for Sufis. It is ultimately with the death of man, both literally and metaphorically, that he reunites with God, the Ultimate reality. So, the biggest celebration in any sufi shrine even today is the death anniversary of the Sufi Pir, "Urs", literally "marriage with God".

The basics of Sufi doctrine - renunciation, poverty, love, recollection, death - thus got defined in these early centuries. How these beliefs became systemized and entered into the everyday life of common Muslims is what I would cover in the next part.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Terrors of the Self

David is an American boy, who has reached the age, but not quite the self sufficiency, of adulthood. He is living in a country home in the south of France. It is late evening, he is drunk, the countryside is still with the stillness that only countrysides have, and his soul is in torment. He narrates us the story of his doomed affair with Giovanni, an Italian immigrant, in Paris.

The story is short, but the wounds it left on his insides are enduring. For us, the readers, there is nothing to learn but this. Human beings are frail creatures. Made of tissues and bones, which cut and bruise easily. With souls that get scarred by the very people and their faiths that are meant to protect them. And, a happiness felt in the bones is more real than any artificial construct of it.

David left Giovanni, his friend, his lover, his soulmate perhaps, alone precisely when Giovanni needed him the most. Giovanni had just been kicked out of his low paying but sustaining bartender job, after he rebuffed the sexual advances of his predatory boss. The boss felt compelled to humiliate Giovanni, accusing him of theft and ingratitude publicly before firing him. Giovanni came back crying into the arms of his reluctant lover in the small room, which was the abode of these two penniless immigrants in Paris.

Giovanni sees David as the last hope in a hopeless world, and the only recourse in a "dirty world" filled with "dirty bodies". David feels the burden of his salvation acutely, and resists with his full might. He wallows in the guilt of Giovanni's profane touch, a man's touch, and loathes the desire he feels towards him. Giovanni sees a future full of hope and happiness. David sees an impossible future without the accoutrements of the American, and admittedly most of modern world's, version of family happiness that he has grown to long for - a woman to go back home to, babies to rear, continuity of the family name. Above all, he risks losing his manhood in his own eyes.

So, David does what he has to do, and deserts Giovanni for Hella, his on and off mistress and fiancé, just back to Paris after "discovering" herself in Spain. And it destroys the lives of these three inter-connected lovers irrevocably.

Giovanni's room is a compressed masterpiece of repressed sexuality and desire. James Baldwin, black, gay, American, evokes the city of Paris in dark, wonderful hues. And he makes all his characters come alive with seering intensity. We see them making mistakes, and committing worst of follies, but we still empathise with their actions and only pity them. Because he makes us see the internal logic of their motives, however warped it may be. No one has written about shame, guilt and fear about one's own sexuality with the interiority that Baldwin does. This novella remains as refreshing and relevant as it was half a century back when it was published.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A caterpillar's life

A caterpillar is crawling on a crowded floor. Uncertain and fearful, it eyes a way out of the hurried boots that surround it. I am reminded of the half squished beautiful violet green fly that I had seen few days back on my way to the canteen in office. I am terrified of the fate that befalls this one caterpillar. Suddenly, as if miraculously, comes a newspaper delicately handled by a ruffled hand, the very hand of God to the caterpillar. The caterpillar swivels itself into the paper and is deposited carefully on a leaf to live another day.

We see the caterpillar from the eyes of this monk, who rescued it. It is not just an insect that is there to support, improve or hinder our existence. It is a moving, feeling being with it's own life rhythm, busy in slithering, foraging, reproducing and perpetuating itself.

In fact, the long shots of moving, throbbing life, of trees swinging wildly, of rain lashing the Mumbai roads, of the sea that lies beyond, all of it inhabit the worldview of the monk. He sees himself connected to everything around him in the minutest possible ways in all his actions and their consequences. It makes him look rather like a speck on a large wall, much less than the transient, but individualistic, beings we feel ourselves to be. But there is also grandeur in this vision, which places him firmly in a chain that starts and ends in infinity. To bring this vision, to take his eyes, and bring out its inner dimensions through the landscape is what Anand Gandhi does in this breathtaking segment of Ship of Theseus.

Thus, while the images are hauntingly beautiful, they are indelible because they impinge on our souls, wrestling with deeper questions of ethics and morality, and create huge craters where our hearts lie, making the whole experience maddeningly exhilarating.

With all three stories, Anand Gandhi makes you want to believe in the grandeur of life. Of possibilities of change and renewal within the narrow confines we lead our lives.

Thursday, June 27, 2013


Not very long back, perhaps even today, when foreign reporters visited North Korea, they were taken through a guided tour of the "achievements" of, no not the country, but the GBL. The Great and Beloved Leader, as Kim II-Sung perhaps christened himself, was the war hero, the helper of the peasants, the builder of dams, the leader of armies, the hope of the working class, the eternal leader. Songs were sung about him. Symposiums were held celebrating his very many political and intellectual achievements. Anybody who had slightest of doubts about GBL's greatness was deemed a traitor. In the meanwhile, the country lived on the edge of fear and insecurity, held massive military parades and kept one of the largest standing armies. No doubt all of it helped conceal the massive under-development, corruption and sheer ruthlessness of GBL's regime. Even self proclaimed leftists felt his fat neck to be a constant provocation in need of a bullet through it.  But why all this song and dance about a man dead and gone in a land far and away? Because we have our own GBL in the making, variously called NaMo and Feku, who is being propped up by a relentless marketing machinery to be the saviour that India has been waiting for the last millennium. And we would have been terrified by the prospect of his homecoming, if we did not know that India is bigger and older and more diverse and secure than North Korea or Gujarat. We should perhaps only be amused, but then how can you be before an Indian elections?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Cold beauty

Last weekend, as we sped through the road from Chirag Dilli to Panchsheel, leaves were coming off the trees in a torrent. The road shimmered with bright golden yellow leaves, noon sun lighting them up like fluorescent bulbs lined up to welcome us. With a cold breeze washing up my face and wiping off some of the pain and tiredness that I had felt all through the week, I grew into a marvellous and delicate mood.

This mood was subsequently destroyed quite abruptly when I read the news about the battering to death of an auto rickshaw driver by couple of drunken youth in the early hours of the morning. All because the driver scraped past their Innova, which they had parked alongside the petrol pump, besides which one of them was puking off the excess liquor. So, they stopped the driver, got him out, and then battered his head with bricks to make sure he dies. I felt anger and disgust in equal measure.

These feelings of ecstatic happiness and unmitigated hatred are not uncommon to the denizens of Delhi. In Mumbai, in my limited experience, these feelings are usually muted and absorbed by the sheer madness of the city. You would see fights in the local, even women tearing each other apart, but the inhumanly fights and rages are not seen. It makes Mumbai, without doubt, a more civil, real city, but does it make it happier as well? Where are the spaces to relax or places to see without hounded by a persistent stream of noise? Or, even time outside commuting between home and office, to search for them?

Mumbai provides a living to a lot of Indians, but takes life out from their lives. Delhi is chaotic, cold, violent, almost a strange modern village, but also provides far more moments of sheer joy and ecstasy to those who seek them.