Rounding off lives

“Sontag points to literature’s essential allure — the comfort of appeasing our anxiety about life’s infinite possibility, about all the roads not taken and all the immensities not imagined that could have led to a better destination than our present one. A story, instead, offers the comforting finitude of both time and possibility:

Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape. Alternatives to the plot ought to be felt up to the last moment. These alternatives constitute the potential for disorder (and therefore of suspense) in the story’s unfolding.


Endings in a novel confer a kind of liberty that life stubbornly denies us: to come to a full stop that is not death and discover exactly where we are in relation to the events leading to a conclusion.


The pleasure of fiction is precisely that it moves to an ending. And an ending that satisfies is one that excludes. Whatever fails to connect with the story’s closing pattern of illumination the writer assumes can be safely left out of the account.

A novel is a world with borders. For there to be completeness, unity, coherence, there must be borders. Everything is relevant in the journey we take within those borders. One could describe the story’s end as a point of magical convergence for the shifting preparatory views: a fixed position from which the reader sees how initially disparate things finally belong together.


The point Sontag makes is about the need for fiction to smoothly round off our lives without ambivalence about what next. Within the borders of a novel we experience a finality about our actions. But the other point she makes is about the complexity of our lives where every road taken has other roads not taken, where every life could have been different from what its present context and direction are leading to.

In fiction you enjoy the freedom of bringing everything to a close. In life there is no such certainty about anything. There is a coherence in fiction where everything is explainable in terms of what has taken place as events in the lives of the protagonists. Everything leads up to a denouement and the resolution of a conflict. In life there is no linear progression . Nothing flows from out of a patterned chain of events.

In the Indian epics Ramayana , the story proceeds on expected lines of a good triumphing over evil and in the end good triumphs over evil when the virtuous win their battles.But there is no finality about the end, which leaves you in a state of confusion. Why don’t the protagonist live happily ever after, one would ask but does not get a satisfactory answer.

In Ramayana the chief protagonist Rama punishes the demon abductor of his wife Sita and is duly crowned as the King of Ayodhya, having got her released from his confinement. But they do not live happily after. He leaves her in the jungle ,after a rumor hit the laity casting doubts about her chastity while in the abductor’s custody. And finally when they re-unite she enters the bowels of the earth and leaves him alone to rule the kingdom.

In this kind of story telling, ,art imitates life introducing the same ambiguity as in life, eliminating the comfort of a neat conclusion.


Door to door poet

Rowan McCabe is the world’s first door to door poet.He calls at homes and introduces himself as door to door poet. He does not sell them a ready made poem but collects enough stuff from their lives to make a poem and come back later to perform it.


What do you do with your massive trees
From a JCB at Glastonbury?
You build a fire outside your tipi.
That’s what you do with your massive trees,
Your massive trees at Glastonbury.

What do you do when the fire gets small?
Some chopped up wood you start to haul
‘Till the fire is burning tall.
That’s what you do when your fire gets small,
When your fire gets small at the festival.

What do you do when the logs burn down?
Try to drag them along the ground
To get them back where they begun?
You can’t, they weigh a fucking ton.

You get three Welshmen to grab the trunks,
Count to three in their native tongue,
Heave along your massive trees,
Your massive trees at Glastonbury.

What is door to door about the poet? He is collecting only the raw material for his poems from the ordinary lives of people. What does he give back to them? Much richer versions of their commonplace lives and events. Everything about a “door to door” activity is so mundane, so insipid but look at what he has made out of a perfectly commonplace event of a festival.

The poem above is all about a log fire in the Glastonbury festival. I love the irony running deep in the poem.

What do you do with the massive trees…./You build a fire outside your tipi.
What do you do when the fire gets small?/Some chopped up wood you start to haul

What do you do when the logs burn down?/Try to drag them along the ground
to get them back where they begun?/You cant, they weigh a fucking ton.

Love the interesting usage “where they begun”. Can one bring back the trees to their former positions where they had stood before felling? We can only destroy trees but cannot bring them back to life.

The aesthetics of ruins

A most exciting photo opportunity is of photographing ruins. Especially forts and erstwhile royal palaces. What we are photographing is an unbearable silence of the ruins , the absence of human activity that once pervaded a physical place, the loss of space from time. We have to capture a sadness that comes through from the absence of an entire group of people who once lived in these places,and their participation in the decline and fall of institutions, some times an empire , a kingdom, a fortified royal palace.

Basically we have to photograph an absence of people, not the presence of broken buildings. We have to re-construct history, an entire story of whatever had happened in these ruins.This we do not do by narrating chronological events but by invoking the imagination of the visitor by linking dead people and voices with the physical environs.

We also create an atmosphere of absence, accentuating the presence of inanimate objects like rocks, dead trees,broken walls etc. We underline the bleakness of the surroundings to bring out the futility of all human endeavor and the essential ephemerality of human existence.

At Gwalior fort I tried to invoke the historic imagination focusing not merely on the ruined buildings but on the bleak landscape, the empty silent pathways, the terrible isolation that one experiences in the air. One would experience such isolation anywhere in a historic place, coming as we do from a totally different cultural milieu from that of the ancients who had lived there .

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Birds eye view

On a lazy hot afternoon stand on your balcony and observe life as it passes on the road below. You are not a bird from the tree but on a tree level with human eyes that can focus down on the tops of vertical walking things. You see seeing groups of people as a single presence doing their bit for their human drama. You are the cinematographer that can document their lives for a brief while from the vantage of your balcony. The advantage is they appear to you horizontally interacting with each other without the interference that your own presence in the same plane of existence may cause. For example the same people are sitting in your sofa and you click them doing something from your position on another sofa and you miss the way they interact with each other , the eye contacts that pass through them and bounce off their bodies.

Will literature continue to exist ,even if it is no longer available in physical form?

How do novels, plays, or works of music exist? Consider the Iliad. The original copy of the Iliad was lost long, long ago, yet the Iliad continues to exist through its copies. If all original-language versions of the Iliad were to disappear, leaving only translations, one would assume the Iliad would continue to exist. What if all copies of the Iliad in any language and in any material form were destroyed, and we were left with nothing but the memory of the Iliad? Would it then cease to exist, until someone (presumably with photographic memory) decided to write it down again? What if all memory and knowledge of the Iliad were erased, but copies still existed, lying around in old boxes where nobody remembered them? Would it still exist if this were the case? How can we conceptualize the existence of things, like an ancient epic poem, which exist in physical form yet are not dependent on these forms?(Ask Philosophers)

I have a feeling that a great work of literature like the Ramayana,the Hindu epic penned by Valmiki continues to exist ,not because it exists in a physical form but it has taken hold of the consciousness of people over centuries.The original epic in Sanskrit does exist but the work lives more in the shared conscious of the people.Not many would have read the original epic but everyone in the community lives the epic,so to say,in the way it has shaped the lives and thoughts of people over time. Ramayana is by any standards great literature,not always in the form it was originally conceived but by the way it has influenced life,dealing with universal truths that remain relevant to all times.

Literature is not merely self-contained fictionalized accounts of people written in a distinct style pleasing to the discerning reader.It is part of the consciousness of people,a living document that does not disappear over time but stays close to the minds and hearts of people, whatever be the state of the physical form in which it exists.

The Golden Rule of justice

The Golden Rule, at least in its usual formulation, would seem to be problematic in cases of justice. If a judge were to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, then they would probably never sentence anybody. A teacher couldn’t fail a student who tried very hard because, presumably, that teacher (at least as a student) would have preferred a barely passing grade if they had tried very hard. (Ask Philosophers)

My own problem is on a different count : it is not the compulsion to do unto others what you would have them do to you but merely a sneaking suspicion about the process by which I arrive at the truth, the verification of it to rule out the possibility of a possible ineptitude or human limitation in deciding the guilt. For example I am not a murderer and cannot be one by my nature and there is no chance of others deciding my guilt on this count but if I do murder despite my essential nature,I would not expect others to show a lenient approach to me .Consequently ,according to the golden rule,I would not show any leniency towards others in my judgement of others who have committed murder. But my problem is how do I reasonably make sure that the process by which we have arrived at the conviction does not suffer from an infirmity and consequently if I award ,in my capacity as a judge the extreme form of punishment ,say death ,am I not doing to others what I will not like others to do unto me?

In the golden rule it is assumed that the guilt is established and only the punishment is to be awarded and the judge should put himself in the guilty one’s shoes while awarding the judgement-a sort of empathy. But what if the guilt is not conclusively established or the process followed does not automatically establish the truth and if we do not take into account this infirmity a serious miscarriage may ensue?

In staff disciplinary cases I have followed the practice of awarding a punishment that does not cause irreversible harm to the guilty but leaves room for him to appeal and have the decision reversed at a later date by calling into question the procedures followed in the determination of guilt.

Beauty in art and nature

Does beauty in nature conform to the known and accepted aesthetic principles of color,balance,texture,symmetry,harmony etc.?

Actually we do not see such principles in application in nature.For instance does a painter paint bright green foliage against deep translucent sky as we often see in the summer sky, without playing down the blue of the sky? Yet this is what we see and enjoy in nature. The combination of colors in nature is dynamic and relative to the time and space of the moment.A painter cannot achieve the same beauty if he does not employ the commonly accepted aesthetic principles of color combination,color texture,contrived color effects, creating an ideal artistic space which can be appreciated by the  human mind.
The “combo” effect of several elements present in the beauty of nature cannot be reduced to the enunciation of a few principles as  in art.The beauties of nature are something we  all enjoy without the need to break them down to a few principles of critical appreciation.