Beginning at the beginning

August arrived on my calendar of chaos with the memories of an end and a beginning. An end on August 3. A beginning on August 15. A death. And a life. Each year, the end precedes the beginning, which is laced with the end of its own, the end of its several ends. Like every year, I mourn an end, the end. And thank heavens for a beginning, the beginning. The beginning that lives on…The beginning that’s still breathing, breathing in, breathing out, each day, every moment, though still not aware of the deeper purpose, the sublime meaning, the higher end. A beginning that’s still grappling with an end, one end that ended many means, too many ends. A beginning that’s still trying to make some sense of the big, bad world that the earth transformed into on the day of the end. It was one end too many…

A pilgrimage…

I, the beginning, am on a personal pilgrimage to Aligarh, the Mecca of education that made and unmade me (It taught you things you needed to unlearn, and didn’t teach you stuff that’s a sin not to have learnt. It taught you how ‘not to be’ more than ‘how to be’). You are travelling by road. It takes two hours to reach there, but, since you survive an end on the road (a gruesome end, a bloody end; I’m not afraid of death, but my idea of death doesn’t include having been shredded into smithereens, giving a tough time to your kith and kin to collect your last remains), you reach in five hours and thank heavens for that. Your ‘loved ones,’ assuming you to have ‘met with an accident’, sleep peacefully, only to be shocked to see you alive in the morning. The night there is heavy on you. A leaf from your diary is a testimony to yet another night you spent wide awake — A strange vagueness of thought and purpose gripping you hard, a strange thought playing in your head, a vague, unfamiliar stirring causing a havoc within: “Where do I go? Where do I keep going? What do I do? What do I keep doing?”…

It’s 4.45 am. The city seems to be fast asleep. The muezzin’s azaan wafts across the city’s sleepy visage: Assalato khairun menannaum, assalato khairun menannaum (namaz is better than sleep, namaz is better than sleep). The faithfuls, alas! are way too fond of their sleep to shake it off and step outside the comfort of their bed at such an hour. I’ve been lying in bed, but haven’t been able to sleep a wink: I can scarcely sink into sleep if I’m not sleeping in the familiar comfort of my bedroom — this is worse when I have to live out of bags and suitcases, I just CAN’T sleep.
Tossing and turning in bed, I am seized with an urge to pray. (My faith, since the end, has always been flickering, but now I am beginning to believe, again). Even as the thought of going to the mosque, kneel down and prostrate strikes me, I ‘m wondering if the God I had so gladly forsaken ( or vice versa) would embrace me? Would He forgive my enormous sins that weigh my soul or would He turn away His face, ignoring the effort I take to walk all the down to the mosque — tucked away between narrow lanes, into the heart of a colony, which shows little signs of being awake? Would He be angry that I am dictated by “sudden urges” to pray, and have not made it a practice, making it a part of life — namaz, after all, is one of the most five tenets of Islam, the four others being tauheed (faith in One God)zakaat, (charity), roza (fasting) and haj (the holy pilgrimage to Mecca). Here, I want to put on record that I have never worn my religion on my sleeve and don’t approve of people making a spectacle out of what should be a private matter in the individual domain. Prayer is only a form to bring the Created closer to the Creator. A prayer should never be reduced to empty chants, devoid of any inner connection, devoid of any sense of the divine communion.
When I enter the mosque, I delude myself with the thought that maybe I’m getting closer to God, that may be He is watching me. I also thought that may be because I have been too grounded (literally) and rooted to the soil( not quite literally) that I’ve often failed to look up above in the sky, but how can the sky not see the creatures crawling in earth’s skin? As I enter the mosque, I think of a divine communion, though my mind is eternally on the mundane — breakfast, driving down city streets, my unfinished book, the incomplete poem, and other similarly ridiculous thoughts to think in a mosque.
The mosque, large and spacious, is almost deserted. There are barely ten people, and I, like a child, seem to be chuckling to be one of them. I notice I am the only clean-shaven, boyish looking man in the congregation — rest all sport beards, flowing, swinging across their chest as they recite the holy verses. In the second row, there is a small boy, taking a nap on the prayer mat. He must have been dragged out of his bed, I surmise. The prayer ends and the imam enumerates a whole host of things that he seeks divine blessings for: world peace, health, happiness and welfare of all the people, success for the youngsters, and raahe mustaqeem ( the right path) for those who have been led astray by the evil. A chorus of “Amen” resonates in the near-empty sanctum sanctorum of the mosque after imam’s each line.
When I had stepped inside the mosque, it was dark, but when I stepped out it was the light of daybreak that welcomes me. Have I travelled from darkness to light? I don’t know.
As I stepped out, a rag picker had begun his day. He is rummaging through a heap of poly bags, biscuit and wafer wrappers, torn pages of newspapers. He is looking at a scantily clad woman in The Times of India, oozing out from its dirty surface in the crackling early morning haze. A biker treats himself to an empty road — driving past me in tearing speed, his Yamaha roaring off along the deserted stretch. As I walk along, I catch a few glimpses of faces in the windows that have begun to open in the multi-storeyed apartment buildings around me. A new day has begun…

Back to work

On your way back, you survive another close brush with death. On the highway, your car slips on the liquid charcoal (thanks to road repairs) and rams into an auto. Thankfully, there is no speeding heavy vehicle behind, else it would have hit your car, turning you into another statistics of people killed in road accidents. Luckily enough, you survive, living to tell the tale. Things are back to normal, again. It’s the same routine work, again. You are happy to be back to the same rigmarole, to the familiar rut. You don’t complain when you are stuck in traffic for hours on end, you don’t feel anything when you can’t drive more than 20 kmph, when you can’t even crawl. You smile at the simpering, uncouth bastards that seem to abound on the roads of the city you love so much… And you just go on…surrounded by the daily tragedies and triumphs of the city…And sunk in your own…

Flagging off a new journey…

I have been like a derailed train. Like a lost track. For long. The destination still eludes me. But I keep taking the journeys. It’s yet another Independence Day, which is also my birthday. On the day, I suffer from withdrawal symptoms. I want to go away, far away, from everyone, from everything. I think of some couplets by Ghalib (Forgive the poor translation):

Rahiye ab aisi jagah chal kar jahan koi na ho
Ham sukhan koi na ho aur ham zabaan koi na ho.

(I shall go now and live at a place where no one lives
Where there is no one to talk to, to speak your tongue none.)

Bedar-o-dewaar saa ik ghar banaayaa chaahiye
Koi hamasaaya na ho aur paasabaan koi na ho

(A house with no doors, no walls should be built
There shan’t be any neighbour, to watch over no one)

Pariye gar bimaar to koi na ho timaaradaar
Aur agar mar jaaiye to nauhaa-khwaan koi na ho

If you fall sick, no one shall look after you
And if you die, to cry there shan’t be anyone.

On the day, when ‘freedom’ floated all around, I wanted to run away…not because I am an escapist, but I could see no reason to celebrate..I could feel the end watching over me, smiling at me…I did scribble a few lines to present myself…lines which I had thought could be parts of a long poem (it’s actually in a ghazal form)…the poem that remains incomplete to this day…

Aaj phir aasman choo jaane ko jee chahta hai
Aaj phir lahron se lar jaane ko jee chahta hai

Pharpharata hai umeedon ka tiranga, dil ko
Raqs dil khol kar kar jaane ko jee chahta hai

raqs: dance

Kab talak maange madad khud se twarruf ka koi
Khud hi ab khud mein utar jaane ko jee chahta hai

twarruf: introduction, khud: self.

I set out on a new journey, flag off a new beginning. I am born anew. And am looking at the old world, with a new worldview. I am hoping that all that keeps me going remains around. I am hoping that all that keeps me ticking keep me, well, ticking. But at the same time I know that there are some certainties and certitudes in life you would be a fool to take for granted. I am only way too aware of the transient nature of human happiness, the impermanence of things: All things must pass, everything must end. The only enduring things are love, compassion and kindness. May love live forever! And may forever be long enough!

Life goes on

It’s not my end yet. And I go on, breathing in, breathing out…In the days to come, I will just go on, as life does, go on until the tryst with my end…when death puts full stop to life…


Review: Nocturnes

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Faber & Faber
pp.221, Rs 499

Music, like love, is a many-splendoured thing. And failures in both can make for many-layered, nuanced, heart-warming tales. Nagasaki-born British writer Kazuo Ishiguro’s debut collection of short stories, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, is a musical soiree of sorts, a meditation on failures in both music and love.

The stories, written in first-person narratives which form parts of an “organic” whole, strum together a symphony of unrealised aspirations, unfulfilled desires and diminished dreams. They speak of missed opportunities, second-best alternatives and unhappy endings. The stories unfold a conflict between the might-have-been world and a world that is, something which Ishiguro had explored in his 1995 novel, The Unconsoled. The landscape of human failings, after all, has been Ishiguro’s favourite leitmotif for long.

These stories — of failures, constraints and limitations – are about musicians on the verge of losing their moorings, or finding it only to lose later. They are about the once-have-been and would-be greats in music, about partings and reunions. From the piazzas of Italy to Malvern Hills, it is the passage of time that is at work: while it has dethroned many greats like Tony Gardner, who is only a pale shadow of his glorious past, it holds out a hope for the struggling saxophonists and guitarists who are raring to make it to the “big league”, but are crippled by their fates and circumstances.

Replete with a sense of regret and repentance, these stories speak of compromises one has to make on the course of chasing one’s dreams, of the circumstances that make one settle to, in and for certain things, places and individuals.

In Ishiguro’s deft hands, these stories take the form of mystical musings: his characters’ crooning glory or the lack of it strike a right chord with the reader, who is only too aware of “the way things work” in today’s world. The way Ishiguro brings about his characters’ inner conflicts and tensions, delineates the dynamics of their relationships and creates a sense of sympathy with them, it makes you feel as if he can get a peek into his characters’ soul and psyche. The world of these musicians trying to get a foothold, make their mark, is only too familiar for Ishiguro. While he revisits the same in Nocturnes, he does this in a way that enables you to derive a heightened sense of pathos.

In Crooner, Janeck, a guitarist, performs with several bands at Piazza San Marco in Venice. At one of those performances, he comes across a legendary musician, Tony Gardner, whose relationship with his wife of 27 years is on its “last legs”. In a desperate bid to win her back, Gardner seeks Janeck’s help to serenade her from a gondola. It only results into Gardner’s despair.

“I’m no longer a major name. Now I could just accept that and fade away. Live on past glories. Or I could say no I’m not finished yet… I could make a comeback. But a comeback is not an easy game. You have to be prepared to make a lot of changes, some of them hard ones. You change the way you are. You even change some things you love,” says a despairing Gardner, who has to eventually let her go. “She needs to get out while she has time. Time to find love again, make another marriage. She needs to get out before it’s too late,” he says.

The idea of “changing” oneself in order to achieve success, stardom or celebrityhood reverberates in the title story, which finds a struggling saxophonist agree to undergo plastic surgery to get rid of his “loser ugly” face. It is here that Tony Gardner’s divorced wife, Lindy, resurfaces as she is also undergoing a surgery in Los Angeles. The narrator has been driven to the edge by his wife, Helen, who has left him for a millionaire, but she wishes him well and even convinces the new man in her life to come to her former husband’s rescue by paying for his surgery. But the narrator of the story is not quite convinced if that would prove to be the perfect route. Lindy, to him, epitomised “everything that was shallow and sickening about the world”. It is a world of “vacuous” celebrities where people with “negligible talent” are felicitated with awards and honours, where success stories are spun out of the absolute failures. As for the narrator, he doesn’t want “any doors opening for me other than ones that opens because of my music”.

In Come Rain or Come Shine, 47-year-old Raymond, an English teacher by profession, visits his college mates, Charlie and Emily, who are married and living in London. But their relationship has hit a rough patch and Raymond only becomes a tool to bring them together. A series of burlesque events follow when he opens Emily’s diary in her absence, which sees Raymond walk on all fours in the drawing room to give the impression of a dog rummaging through the room and destroying the pages of her diary.
What has put Charlie and Emily’s relationship on the rocks is the latter’s unrealistic expectations: “She thinks I’ve let myself down. But I haven’t. I am doing perfectly okay. Endless horizons are all very well when you’re young. But get to our age, you’ve got to…get some perspective,” says Charlie, who cheats on his wife to be with a woman who helps him bring out “the other me, the one that has been trapped inside”.
Emily, his wife, describes her dilemma as: “It’s hard to know where to settle. What to settle to.”In Malvern Hills, a young man who dreams to be a great singer-songwriter, visits his sister Maggie who lives with her husband Geoff in London.

He meets a middle-aged Swiss couple, Tilo and Sonja, who are musicians themselves and perform as duo at hotels and restaurants. Their lives, however, hit a period which makes them uncertain of their future. The stories in Nocturnes are joined together by an emotional umbilical chord, by virtue of being ruminations on music. And almost all these stories end on an unexpected, melancholic note. There are no predictable endings. But then, when it is Ishiguro, expect the unexpected.