Oxford, 2018

Oxford is one of those places I can never be lonely. My relationship with it has always had the magnitude of a romance. Now, however, it feels like thwarted love. It crowds out other thoughts, desires, it makes me ecstatic, yet breeds avarice.. It is a land that belongs only to itself, that swallows and then regurgitates people whose cynicism masquerades as enlightenment and whose brilliance wears common clothes.

I happened to smoke with a somber young man whose eyes conspicuously avoided me until he had reached the butt end of his cigarette. His dissertation was on the Anthropological Mechanisms of Epistemology, or something similar. He seemed very proud of how long it took him to say it. He had allegedly been falling asleep in the library, clutching two pints of Guinness, as he plodded on with his work. He was no more than twenty two, yet his pronounced nasolabial folds, sunken eyes, the thickness in his throat, and the disdain in his voice made him look ancient. I was both afraid and in awe. It appeared to me that he had become so wedded to his work he had become a mere  vehicle for its birth into the world. And indeed, many at Oxford are this way. This strange, quasi-religious self-sacrifice in favor of one’s own intellectual and academic pursuits is nowhere as pronounced as in this ancient town, and it makes me wonder where I stand on that spectrum.

I feel as though I have nearly transcended the crust of my unhappiness. Yet I am still asking myself, what does it mean to write, and consequently, what does it mean to live? Recently, I read Baudelaire’s Une Charogne, A Carcass, where he compares his love to a rotting carcass he chances upon during a walk. The poem itself gives one an eerie feeling, almost similar to that of the Book of Revelation. The truth weighs down the words, they press against you, like the whisper of a prophecy in a closed room:  “Et pourtant vous serez semblable à cette ordure/ À cette horrible infection/ Etoile de mes yeux, soleil de ma nature / Vous, mon ange et ma passion!” “And yet you will be like this corruption / Like this horrible infection / Star of my eyes, sunlight of my being / You, my angel and my passion!”

We will all, no matter how desperately we are loved, rot and retreat underneath the earth. Baudelaire, however, dwells on this consolation: “Alors, ô ma beauté! dites à la vermine/ Qui vous mangera de baisers/ Que j’ai gardé la forme et l’essence divine/ De mes amours décomposés!” “Then, O my beauty! say to the worms who will/ Devour you with kisses/ That I have kept the form and the divine essence/ Of my decomposed love!” He has cheated mortality with his art, his godlike power, his grasp of poetry, has allowed him to preserve the spirit of his love despite her body’s inevitable decay.

This is nothing new. We cling to the material, but the material never lasts, so we cling to the intangible in the hope that it will. We are tormented by the fact that what gives us the greatest joy now is finite, and so we give all we can to something greater than ourselves. In a way, every ardent student has had their own ghastly vision of a charogne, a carcass. A fear of absurdity, a fear that their talents and aspirations will prove pitiful in the grand scheme of things. The most anxious find themselves in the library with two pints of Guinness, chain-smoking intermittently. But must we really be motivated by fear? Is it not wonder that should spur our desire to explore the generations of wisdom before us? After some deliberation, I would say both.

Wonder is the catalyst, but there is nothing like fear to carry us safely through to the end.

 

 

 

 

 

Black Marigolds

 

“Even now
I mind that I went round with men and women,
And underneath their brows, deep in their eyes,
I saw their souls, which go slippng aside
In swarms before the pleasure of my mind;
The world was like a flight of birds, shadow or flame
Which I saw pass above the engraven hills..

Even now
I know that I have savoured the hot taste of life
Lifting green cups and gold at the great feast.
Just for a small and a forgotten time
I have had full in my eyes from off my girl
The whitest pouring of eternal light.
The heavy knife. As to a gala day.”

 

Sardines, Slums and the Sacred

When walking through the dark halls of the buildings, you could see the outlines of garlanded or framed photographs. The tall buildings rose high into the sky and were pockmarked by what seemed like hundreds of small dark windows, out of which leaned men, women and children. Hung diagonally across the windows were clotheslines with multicolored garments blowing in the breeze that carried the scent of the riverside shanties up to the people above. Children played with tools, wrenches. They had matted hair. This was the natural, visceral way of life. The elevator stank, the buttons had been punched out. They told me this was because the elevator was misused. From the banks of the slums you could see the high rises, the towers of the city, almost illusory. Sri Lanka’s tallest building, a futuristic monstrosity resembling Seattle’s space needle, could be seen in the distance. * contrast. The eyes of the men and women followed you as you drifted through the stained corridors, lingering. These were people who had been forcibly relocated, transferred to government housing after their illegal dwellings had been torn down. The tenants made up for the building’s drab exterior by painting the walls of their personal* apartments bright colors such as pink and orange, tempering the dullness of the stairway**. Cheap chrome-colored posters of flower arrangements or teddy bears were hung on the walls with blue-tack.

The first home we entered was that of a Muslim woman. She was wearing salwar and her dupatta covered her head. She invited us to sit one the couch, insisting she sit cross-legged the floor. Fascinated by the environment, the extraordinary of people crammed into such a small space, I asked her how long she had been living there. Ten years in the area, and three years in the apartment, she responded. I wondered how the couple was able to reconcile living a devout life with the chaos and the inevitably haram practices of those they lived shoulder to shoulder with. It wasn’t a problem, they said, because first and foremost, they were all neighbors. “When there’s a problem, we call our family and our neighbors, and our neighbors help us more readily than ever our own family.” It was their faith that taught them to live like this. Living in harmony was more important than extremism. “The Qu’ran said these days would come,” he said. I asked the woman what her greatest blessing in life was. She blushed. “My husband.” She was lucky to have such a caring and devoted husband who respected, she told us. ***

We left, moving through the dark corridors, weaving in and out of crowds of children with their arms linked. We arrived at the Buddhist woman’s house. We arrived at the Buddhist woman’s house. She grinned when she saw, exposing tiny white teeth and black gums. She had her baby bouncing on her hip, a big black mark on its forehead to ward off the evil eye. She welcomed us all inside, seating us on the plastic chairs in her living room. She hand her child off to the three other women/enumerators, who took turns rocking and kissing her. She sat and watched her mother with wide eyes. The woman was delighted to be interviewed; she was childlike in her mannerisms, fidgeting, crossing and re-crossing her legs. She told us she had grown up in a shanty on the banks below, until she and her family had been relocated to the government housing. She lived with her mother, who helped her take care of her child, as her husband was serving in the Sri Lankan army in Mullataivu. It was very challenging, sometimes, for her to raise her child without its father. Yet, she was grateful that she had such a loving husband, and a mother who helped share the burden of raising her child. Her faith carried her though her challenges, she said, acknowledging the framed photograph of the Buddha above the door. Everything she had learned she felt had sustained her. She enjoyed living surrounded by such an extraordinary number of people. She felt supported, surrounded by community**

We had to get an auto to go to the third apartment. We rose past row after row of government buildings, until we arrived in front of an even taller building. We took the stairs this time, side-stepping crinkled chip packets and discarded plastic bottles. When we reached the seventh floor, we could see a long strip of green receding outwards in the direction of the horizon. One one side, dilapidated little homes leaned against each other, surrounded by a perimeter of refuse. On the other, identical tall buildings rose high in the distance**

The Christian woman’s apartment looked out on this view. She was short and subdued, and she wore a red and blue floral print dress. She had an astigmatism, which gave me that the impression that she was looking right to my left as opposed to directly at me, and she sat with her hands in her lap as I asked her questions. Her daughter, a girl of about eighteen, stood shyly in the corner. She had been living in the area for about five years. Her husband was a cobbler nearby. Many photos of her children were placed all around the small living room, and in the center of the wall, at eye-level, was a large photograph of a wooden cross adorned with lilies. “My sons’ conversions is the greatest blessing; when I really felt God working in my life.”** Her two sons, both in their twenties, had been drug-addicts openly scornful of religion. She prayed for them everyday, and now they were both evangelists. The phrase “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” rang true for this woman as well; she was at peace peace with the inter-religious arrangement. She led a prayer cell group that met once a week, and the different faiths. Fear for her children**

Our last stop was the Hindu woman’s apartment. The doorway was framed by golden tassels, and the interior was the bright, warm, pink so particular to the third world. The vibrant colors were made even warmer by the yellow light from the lamps on either side of the small living room. On the walls hung photographs of Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and wealth, and Ganesh, the god of *** in golden frames. Right next to the, set off to the side, was a small photograph of the holy family. It was given to her by her father, who regularly went to the shrine of **

She was dressed in a loose dress with orange and pink flowers her two gold chains tucked into the neck. She wore glass bangles and a large red boot between her eyebrows. She had deep dark circles that threw her black eyes into relief, a trait she had passed a onto her son, a quiet boy about twelve who hovered around her. She had two children, a daughter and a son, but she took care of her sister’s children.

Neighbors, after the war. People living so close together. A mere twenty minutes, half an hour to the city. They all had great esteem for their husbands, their families. To them, everything came from God. Harmony among people who lived like sardines. Perhaps living in such proximity helped them understand. Physical closeness eventually transforming into emotional closeness. Man liveth not by self alone but in his brother’s face.

“Through all this ordeal his root horror had been isolation, and there are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one.”

Purgatory and the Third World – Lanka

It is hard to forget the boys with the bloody eyes and the beggars. Your heart has to break regularly in order to take in the contrast, you cannot drown out the misery with the raging music of eros. I understand now, that that breed of loneliness is a resistance to the natural way of life — man must be sad, it is when we resist that we feel lonely, because we falsely put stock in false remedies we think will cure us. We refuse to let ourselves get accustomed to this eternal, persistent, pervasive sadness. What Joe was talking about was not getting used to the feeling of continued resistance. If you allow yourself to triumph against the great noise it is no longer a weight on your head but a catalyst for sacrifice in a multitude of forms. But this is daunting in itself.

India as purgatory, the corroded gold in the purifying fire.

In the morning we worked for the impoverished on the fringes of the country; and in the nighttime we threw our heads back for absinthe shots and danced in the courtyard of an old dutch hospital that had been converted into a bar. The duality, the dichotomy.

The men who were standing on the back of the garbage truck, and when he flew off the back of the truck and had to gather his trash amidst the trucks passing while his friends snickered. This has got to be the collective sadness of the whole world.

The beggar sitting outside food world, and the poor boy with Down’s syndrome who was constantly shooed day. Places of eating.

“Our aim is the acquisition of knowledge,” states Stephen Dedalus in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”

entry 3 – on identity. on performance. on posterity. on writing.

Writing can be a dangerous thing. It has a habit of feeding our revisionist-history-fantasies: we write what we remember, and conversely, we remember what we write. In retrospect, life is so much tidier; we view our loved ones and our enemies with the blurry lens of nostalgia for the past. Looking back, I have felt affectionately towards enough people to make a few generalizations. People I thought were extraordinary, people who moved me, people I could stare at for hours in a state of unadulterated adulation — all I have now are little scraps I’ve written about them, the soft skin of eyelids and the curvature of cheekbones, wrinkled furrows between brows, how they said the word “sure,” while barely moving their lips apart..

Writing presupposes a well-examined life. Yet sometimes, the impulse for well-being, the impulse for honesty supersedes the sense of duty towards the Other. “I despise the trafficking of intimacy,” Leon Kass once told me emphatically.

These three elements — identity, performance and posterity — are interconnected, and their intimate relationship astounds me every day. When you write about someone, especially in the wake of a decisive event, your feelings are so colored by emotion. You think mostly of their beauty and grace; their good qualities rise to the surface like floating debris.

Byron, when reflecting upon the Second Punic war, recalled the incident of two men named Nero – one became one of the most infamous and despised profligates of history, and the other was indispensable in ending a war that would have wiped out the western world. Thousands of years later, it is the former that is remembered.  “Such are human things,” resigns Byron.

I once had a conversation with a boy who wanted to be a movie producer. Although the creation of film was the driving impulse of his life, he discounted his dream profession saying it wasn’t “noble.” Not as noble as becoming an ER surgeon, or a human rights lawyer, conspicuously saving lives. Yet, arguably one of the greatest figures in American literary history, the Nobel Prize Winner Saul Bellow’s recipe for a life well lived was a “strong sense of nobility,” coupled with the “fierce accumulation of knowledge.” Bellow also believed that the writer is always a moralist, no matter whether they ascribed to a particular creed or not. Albert Camus similarly spoke of the communion with the other, and the enormous responsibility an author has towards posterity and his contemporaries, to tell the truth. George Orwell believed that no matter what, a writer always had political motive, and if he did not then he was not serious about his craft. These people were not

Writing must come a place of honesty. It must come from deep inside the self, from a feeling of unity with what is ambient; one must be moved. Everything else is sophistry, complete artifice. My thoughts are so raw sometimes I feel like I ought to cloak them in sterile intellectualism for fear that they might appear offensive naked. It is inevitable that we want what we create to be beautiful, but I believe originality comes unsought when the creative impulse is pure. The pain of love becomes very familiar; its very much like the pain of loss — almost a fear. A fear of obscurity coupled with a desire to preserve the significance of our experience. I was told by a friend that the way in which I interact with the world is very experiential. The word for “crisis” in Chinese is the same word for “opportunity,” in particular, “dangerous opportunity.” And I suppose that is true in a sense. Every crisis has the capacity to be redeemed as an opportunity for discovery. *

As for performance and its implications, I believe it relies heavily on pride. In the Catholic faith, pride is seen as the greatest vice. “Pride cometh before a fall,” has been my mother’s, my grandmother’s and my great-grandmother’s perennial precaution. The strength of the ego and its reflection in matters of duty and love is enough to poison them. Yet, some performance sometimes is inevitable. Complete sincerity is impossible.

As I have grown older, I have done things I never imagined I would. Sometimes unfortunate, foolish things. Yet the growth that follows them, the ensuing period of self-reflection and recalibration allows me to view others with a closer, more intimate eye.  Not that one should go around seeking vice for the sake of personal growth or ‘enlightenment,’ but I believe compassion can be born from one’s faults and flaws.

Almost always, curiosity — another vice in the Church — spills over into other areas. I have always wondered whether people who are born to write have to sin — how else are they to create their villains? If the best writing is based on deeply-felt personal experience, how do you imitate complexity in your work without having lived it? How can you write about envy, sloth, lust, violence, deception, infidelity, etc., without having had some personal dialogue with them? To understand a human being is to understand and acknowledge all of these things. In the Bible it is written that “understanding will never bring you peace.”

Perhaps it is all an attempt to stave off, to repudiate obscurity. To gather up fodder, material to resist the pain later on. There are few clear moments; life is sadness. When I think of my Papa’s few, thin wispy strands of hair and his neatly filed fingernails, his grey chest hair peeking out of his shirt, his organs slowing down in contrast to that great brain.. it is the performance that kills me. Having to prove yourself, justify yourself more and more. There is inherent hypocrisy in old age, because in old age it is harder to keep up your postures and even harder to defend them. The one thing that prevents life from coming full circle is memory. Life is sadness, yes, but people are too weak to be our vessels from which we can seek truth — where is this all going? It is all too complicated to sum up neatly. The righteous struggle of every man cannot be reduced to platitudes.

The world is so tumultuous; Man needs order. Aging, death is not the destruction of order, because that would presuppose that human life by virtue of existing represented order. I do not believe this is true, for so much of life involves grappling with unseen forces. The Law is given to us, and we aspire towards it in this life. Death is not the destruction of order but a means towards its ultimate consummation.

 

Reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Barely two days after alighting on Sri Lankan soil for the first time, I attended a camp for young people promoting religious and ethnic reconciliation after the war. “You’re going right in the deep end,” I was told with a laugh. The camp involved a group of about fifty young people ages eighteen to twenty-eight, who had come from all over the tear-drop shaped island, including metropolitan areas like Kandy and Colombo, to Jaffna and Batticaloa, home to farmers and fishermen. It was structured around various seminars relating to how to react in the aftermath of the war — the importance of perspective, the root of fighting, how to build trust.

Questions were asked such as “What is a fight?” “What is a disagreement?” “What are the reasons behind bloodshed?” These discussions were lead in part by victims of the war, from both the Tamil, Muslim, and Sinhalese sides. You cannot move on and forget the past; the wounds that have developed within people don’t just vanish, especially if they are not addressed or legitimized, they insisted. The only way to move on is for people to obtain justice. Fighting can be a way for society to move forward. It is a person’s human right to speak out against whatever oppresses them, to react. But the way in which this reaction manifests itself is of the utmost importance. An older Tamil woman in a striped shirt and skirt stood up and told the audience that these young people were the future — this was the generation that would help restore Sri Lanka.

What struck me most after hearing that, is how much affirmation I have taken for granted. I have heard the phrase “Youth are the Future” declared with brazen self-assurance countless times, in auditoriums, classrooms and playing fields since I was a child. But I have never heard it while sitting among young people who have had the burden of witnessing their families and their country ravaged by war and racial violence. The Sri Lankan civil war lasted nearly thirty years. To many, the years up until thirty are considered the prime of one’s youth. Thirty is the age my mother was when she gave birth to me. She had lived an entire life before then, and she would recount the stories of her past with gratitude and tenderness. Many Sri Lankans, however, particularly in the rural areas in the North and East, experienced their childhood, their youth, their old age, alongside the jarring sound of detonating bombs and gunfire.

The speaker who most captivated me was a man who had joined the LTTE as a youth, the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam, a militant organization based in the North and the East that fought for Tamil rights. After the war severed him from his family, he was completely bereft of any comfort or love in a country tearing itself to pieces. His story was not what struck me, but the fact that he was unable to finish it, breaking down in tears and retreating back into the group. He bent over the chair with his face in the palm of one of his hands, the other hand clutching a paper airplane. His, expertly folded, had flown the farthest out of the entire group.

The discussions to follow throughout the next couple days involved spreading the messages of Truth, Reconciliation, Mercy, Peace and Justice. Some examples brought forward, involving the detrimental nature of violence on the part of the LTTE, made him visibly uncomfortable, almost defensive. He still harbored a strong sense of filial piety for the organization, that resonated with some sense of belonging. The motivation for such camps, such exercises, is partly a reaction to that phenomenon. What makes a man, abandoned as a child, decide he wants to join a guerrilla group that repays blood with blood? And even more remarkably, what makes that man later turn to religious freedom reconciliation efforts?

Some would say that there is a yearning in all of us for the divine, a hole, a sort of pocket tailored into us by our Omnipotent God that can only be filled with worship. In countries like Sri Lanka and India, rife with scenes of devotion — temple offerings, masses, the call to namaz — this is easy to believe. The Romanian sociologist Mircea Eliade and his contemporaries believed that once a man discovered religion, once he became a Homo Religiosus, he was forever changed — he could never go back to a life separate from the metaphysical. There seems to be great evidence for this In Sri Lanka, a country where there is still great reverence for the sacred despite the opposing efforts of modernity.

At lunch one day, the question was brought up of whether violence against another is every truly justified, in response to the former LTTE member’s decision to join their forces years ago. We decided that that was not the most pressing question, rather, to what extent is a person, having suffered to such a degree, deserving of compassion?

As I observed the young people, I saw that they were genuinely invested in peacebuilding. The second day, a puppeteer came to lend a visual perspective to the issue of religious freedom. He split up the campers into groups of four, instructing us to put on a play relating to violence in Sri Lanka. I watched as twenty-eight year old men and women painstakingly glued yarn onto wooden ladles, and cut dresses out of cardboard as if clothing their children. Their performances were thought-provoking, often a combination of Tamil, Sinhala and occasionally, English. They touched upon the difficulty of harboring so many different creeds underneath one flag, political violence and corruption. One particularly memorable play discussed Buddhists who were disturbed by music from the mosque, and Muslims who were disturbed by music from the Buddhist temple —  sounds of the sacred clashing.

As a lover of words, someone who experiences life largely through conversation, it was difficult to relinquish control and attempt, with clumsy hand-motions, to begin a friendship without them. I found however, that this was not so bad, as sometimes, when there is no common language, you relinquish your pretensions. It is a sacrifice for both parties, a challenge. You communicate instead in smiles and nods —  the face is the canvas, the channel of expression. Human emotion and the way it is manifested through gestures is a universal language in itself.

To establish a real, authentic human connection with someone whom you disagree with or cannot comprehend is no trivial thing. Such things require time, emotional investment. “People want to mind their own business while others are fighting,” said one of the speakers. Biology can identify organs, psychology can diagnose trauma, Medicine can cure illness — this has been established. But unless there is a sense of communion unhindered by prejudice, no true healing can occur.  “Results are the fruit that tumbles on the ground,” was one of the most significant messages of the camp. The analogy suggests that things that have fallen for a while have the capacity to rise up again; the fruit sprouts and grows, just as the future redeems the past.

 

belonging

I am coming home soon. Even though I am supposed to be home here in India, I am anticipating my return to Rockville. As a person who, now more than ever, lives in limbo between two cultures, I ascribe no concrete sense of belonging or comfort to either of the two countries between which I vacillate. In fact, although I’ve lived there my entire life, the overwhelming majority of the United States is as foreign to me as the subcontinent.

When I think of America and the sense of “home” it evokes, naturally I think of my neighborhood. Completely unremarkable, ensconced on the fringes of D.C., its more refined and worldly cousin, Rockville can boast of nothing besides the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife are buried in St. Mary’s cemetery up the road.

But I have grown up there. I am acquainted with the streets, the street corners, the landmarks, the parks, the park benches. I have spoken with the Albanian barista in the town center about his favorite black and white films, and the neighborhood drunkard, a native Aborigine, about his long-lost wife in France.

Perhaps I have such an affinity for the place because it is the one place I’ve truly explored firsthand. Of course, one could say there’s hardly much to explore, and they would be right. By “Rockville,” a city of about thirty-five kilometers squared, I mean the Town Center, the Metro, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Glenview Mansion, and the handful of streets that make up my neighborhood.

My grandmother sometimes sees me sitting quietly, deep in thought, and comes up to reassure me: “Don’t worry,” she says, “You’ll be back in America soon. I know you miss home.” But she’s mistaken. It’s not America I miss. Even “missing” it seems like a stretch, an indulgence. I try to tell her, to explain my relationship with my hometown, but to no avail. “No, no, don’t worry,” she insists, “ I understand. I had to leave India for three years once to live in England. It was miserable.” She can’t grasp what I feel, perhaps because her sentimental notions and reflections have so long been shunted aside in favor of real, practical concerns; “the meat and potatoes of life.”

I am a little galled. I’m not pining for America, as a whole, and all that it represents: its almost offensive cleanliness, its insularity disguised under the names of “independence” and “privacy.” No. Of course it is a human thing to yearn for the opposite of something when that something can become overwhelming, like how I do sometimes yearn for the clean marble of the twin sinks in our upstairs bathroom, when I stumble into the bathroom here and see streaks of mud on the tiles and a cockroach darting from wall to wall. Yet, there are times when I wish for the eclectic noise of the unwashed, unnamed masses on the streets to fill our Rockville house when it is sunk in silence during the winters.

But I am not an All-American woman. America, unadulterated, amorphous, isn’t what makes my heart tick.

A sense of belonging, particularly to a place, I believe is overrated. One never truly belongs anywhere; indeed we do not even belong on earth for longer than a few decades, until we return to the dust. If everybody truly belonged where they ought to, wholly and without anguish, the world would be organized like a filing cabinet. What’s more, is that we probably would not have art, as the best art, the creative impulse is largely born out of a sense of displacement and dissatisfaction with the state of the world as it is; there is a desire for more. That is why I no longer cleave to either India or America, in their vast, individual sense. I love them for what they’ve taught me, for the light they cast on each other. Bangalore is mine, India is not. I do not mean to limit myself; I am sure that as I grow I will become better acquainted with both of these countries, but it is unlikely that any place be ever be so close to my heart as these two cities.

Rockville has held my family in its hand for nearly twenty years. Bangalore for fifty. That is no small thing.