Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Book Review and quiet wonderings about M Train by Patti Smith


The first Patti Smith song I ever heard was Gloria (in Excelsis Dio), on a cassette lying around my mums music drawer. I knew this song familiarly from our school’s annual Christmas cantata. Except Patti's was a ripped out version of the hymn where the part I could sing along to, mainly the lyrics Gloria (In excelsis deo) never appeared, no matter how many times my barely 12 year self patiently replayed it. Not even the Gloo-oo-rreee-aaa refrain I’d practiced in my falsified alto. And yet this strange, almost reggae like beat of rock n roll, stuck in my brain “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”



In later years, I learnt only stray bits of her more famous music (especially 'Because the Night’with Bruce Springsteen), but the song that makes me strangely like Patti smith is the fairly lesser known Constantine’s Dream. It reads like none I’d heard before; part memoir resembling poetry but mostly rambling prose, it wasn’t designed around a beat which automatically makes it an ear worm. If you listen to it 30 times on repeat, it probably wouldn’t be an ear worm even then.
All the beauty that surrounded him as he walked /
His nature that was nature itself /
And I heard him - I heard him speak /
And the birds sang sweetly /
And the wolves licked his feet,
But I could not give myself to him.



It follows course, then, that her book M Train (which after November last year, I re-read on a whim in one sitting last night) is the missing hymn from my childhood, song lyric, deep musing and an elegy to love and loss more than her songs were.

Don’t get me wrong; Patti follows no meter here either.
The book opens into minutiae and there it stays.
You follow her inside and out, sometimes in circles and sometimes on a roller-coaster sharp steep drop backwards while she details stories around coffee-swirling paper cups, deli sandwiches and encrusted soup bowls. Minutiae of your own life, perhaps, but Patti (meter-less mostly) remembers to mention in ending sentences, middle pauses and abruptly when she can that these may well be symbols of joy, or maybe neglect. Or could it all be, “A little jacking off, but mostly just work.”


You will resist the details of her life, until you will recognize and never be able to un-see that this book is a staggering tribute to time itself. 
Less a Didion like elegy and more a scrambling through Ms Smith’s personal drawers which hold mostly Polaroids, episodes of her sipping familiar coffee on favourite chairs rifling through memories, while taking a train back and forth between: old adventures with, her now deceased husband, Fred, to the more current crusade to find the best coffee beans in the world in a burlap sack filled shop, in Veracruz, Mexico, to playing chess with the slightly unhinged Buddy Holland.


Ms. Smith never travels alone. 
Always with her Polaroid camera, a book of the moment and through most part of M Train, a much loved and heavily mourned for black coat. The camera is employed to take pictures on the graves of authors and artists she’s loved: Plath, Freida and Diego, Akutagawa, Bolano, Brecht and Jean Genet. Reflecting none of the narcissism of appropriating the places we go to now, the celebrities we meet and document with our selfies and check-ins; this is a quieter, revered handshake with an artist she loves. A meeting made real to Ms. Smith only when captured on 24x36mm instant film and less when not.
Like Ms. Plath’s desolate grave (which Ms. Smith journeys to three times to get the perfect shot of in the winter), where 30 year old forever Ms. Plath lies as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. “I had an uncontrollable urge to urinate and imagined spilling a small stream, some part of me wanting her to feel that proximate human warmth. Life, Sylvia, Life.


M Train’s sentences are not constructed musings on everyday, chronological events as many memoirs tend to be. They're a gentle questioning of how even a Metro Card can be married to memory and of life and how it used to be. Most of all though, they're a swim inside a deep sense of melancholy, one you'll you want to join Ms. Smith in. Here napkins when burnt, resemble flora, “each closed like a fist, slowly reopening like petals of cabbage roses” and dirty streams become fairy-tale narratives, “a secret stream incandescent with rainbows, a mix of sun and petrol, skimming the water like weightless Merbabies with iridescent wings.” Ms. Smith’s world is on the surface resembling your own but somehow spartan, vastly different and shaped mostly by her.


The departure from Didion’s own poetic musings on grief is where Ms. Smith instead of being forbearing and stoic in her loss, writes if you let her, more of an instruction to life. This in its sheer,chilling simplicity is less rock-n-roll and more meditation, “The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there.


Through Tokyo, a secret Continental Drift Society in Reykjavik which later urged her to burn past communication, England, Mexico City, Tangiers and her new home , her Alamo, on Rocakway Beach, Ms. Smith carries with her, her constants. A deep, almost disturbing consumption of coffee, mostly consumed at Café Ino, a black coat, much loved, more frayed and eventually lost, pictures, a recognizable love for detective shows (even if they are re-runs) and her ability to see things which you may never look at: to record these and to glean from them a manual on how to overcome loss, how to dance in the snow and how to really live life with a constant soft movement. Forward.

How did we get so damn old? I say to my joints and my iron coloured hair. Now I am older than my love, my departed friends. Perhaps I will live so long that the New York Public Library will be obliged to hand over the walking stick of Virginia Woolf. I would cherish it for her, and the stones in her pocket. But I would also keep on living, refusing the surrender my pen.



(Since all I have is a Kindle copy, got this pic from @mansipoddar)
                           
   
                                                               (This image from @spensieratadc on Instagram)



Thursday, 14 January 2016

To You, From Your Rock'n'Roll Band

(Back-story: This was a strange and difficult letter to write. Shreya, wrote to me asking me to help Mridul feel special on her birthday. Two years ago, Mridul lost both her parents on this day and it's never been the same. That part of her life, however, is fiercely hers, the sadness, the grief, the articulation of it, what to do with it and where to put it. This letter is the opposite of that, it's from 8 of her childhood friends, who each sent me a different paragraph on "Mridi" and how much they love her, so Mridul can decide how to hold all this affection in her arms, what to do with it and how to decorate the walls of her room with it.
Happy birthday Mridul, I hope the year shines extra special, just for you.)


To You
Mridi, Mridu, MAD, Mridul

If the eight of us sang together, and blindfolded you, would you be able to pick our voices apart?
Yes, we know you'll pick Sneha out before we even get to the "To You" of the birthday song. That's because she's always hitting notes higher than the rest of us while Shreya is indulging in the opposite- cushioning the song with her velvety alto. But would you be able to pick all our different voices out? 
Or would you forget the game midway and join in because there was never a song that you didn't like to sing along to?

Happy birthday beautiful singer, the great love of our lives and the girl who is the glue holding this group together. You, with the curls you spent adolescence warring against. Those midnight waves of ringlets book-ending your cheeks; lush, Shakespearean curtains existing if only to frame the stage for that famous smile, all teeth and slow- waltzing eyes. Mridi, you've been singing since we've known you, but there's no verse you've sung with as much grace, finesse and polish as you have these last two years.

We've made all executive life decisions together, like how low our school uniform belts could could go, how many tries we could get at career Russian roulette (cardiologist-architect-singer-actor- doctor), how many pizza slices we could eat at a birthday party and how many times we could get a subject wrong till we got it right? (Hi Calculus!).
Watching our friend these last two years, this beautiful, awkward, fuzzy caterpillar (oh come on, we were all fuzzy and beautiful for it), be forced out of her cocoon too soon as a fresh butterfly with soft, still-fresh pollen on her wings, was inexplicably painful. 
You see, while we're never prepared to handle grief thrown our way, we're especially ill-equipped to watch people who own pieces of our heart struggle with it. We can't rush into their lives or inside their minds and offer them quick, easy fixes like which outfit to wear for a social or how to study for a test or how to sit down on a chair until your heart stops hurting.
We are never really given the memo that the truly grown up part of growing up is having to do it alone, in a sharp-edged recess inside your body with space designed only for one.

So, darling Mridi, here we are eight of us (Shreya, Dolly, Himani, Sneha, Saloni, Disha, Anchita, Apurva) singing our lungs out for you, hoping that our voices, our cheering and manic applause make their way to your secret recess- where you're doing your growing up, alone.

Speaking of alone Mridi, do you know that the best kind of families creep up on you? That sometimes they're taken away when you're not even looking and sometimes they're given to you when you're too distracted to notice. Like Saloni who came into your life when you were both 6 months old, Dolly in kindergarten and the rest of us (like a too crowded rock n roll band) formed in class 7. And there we were, sorta like The Beatles, singing through school about the matching scabs on our knees, the patch-works on our sometimes freshly bruised hearts, our notes, our birthdays, our journeys, our triumphs and the bun-cholla we ate at lunch or the ice-cream we ate after. Do you know what superpower this gave us? 
(No, not flying, please put that cape away Saloni.)
It tattooed us together for life.
There's a famous story on medicinal rats which talks about how a mother rat was put into a different room and separated from her baby (and hooked onto an EEG monitor). Each time the baby rat was pricked with a needle, the mother's brain wave (in another room far away), flickered to register for pain. While science is writing papers and drawing up theories for that, here's ours: some ties simply run harder and deeper than distance.

Who're today the visual merchandiser, the TV actor, the PhD aspirant (teacher), the air force cadet, the IPR Lawyer, the journalist, the MBA student, the MD student and Accenture HR manager, were all once grubby kids sharing dreams and ridiculous code names made up so they could talk about boys they had rabid crushes on (remember Dhinku?). And this means Mridi, that even though we're not in a classroom anymore, we still know exactly what you're going to say next, or what parts of a joke will make you roll your eyes or when in an awfully long story you and Sneha will lose interest. 

So, this is what we want you to do the next time you feel you're living in and continuously dusting a gigantic house of your own grief. 
Pick up a pen, and paper and write in your awful handwriting, boldly

F.L.A.M.E.S

Then think of the first boy you met in your day and play the game with his name. Once you're done take your arms and fling them towards opposite sides of the room like you're mid-scene in a Bollywood movie and announce something ridiculous, even if there's no one in the room. Head over to your bookshelf and pick up that gigantic book with the faded pale yellow cover- Linda Goodman's Love Signs- only to discover what you know, that beautiful Saggitarius girls get along best with other fire signs (Leo, Saggi, Aries).
Then stand up and picture all of X1Arts facing you, walk up to the centre of the classroom and sing out loud your favourite song from 13 goes on 30, "Why Can't I". 
Wait for applause once your performance is done and then tell all the girls , like you did some of your own friends that a transgression made on their bodies is never their fault. Ever. And when there's pin drop silence, like there was that day when we had this conversation, take a deep breath and smile at the revelation which will come to you like the winter fog: slowly, densely and then all at once -- inside you live all of our memories, our stories, struggles and strengths. You can bury your face in them when the outside everyday becomes too fluorescent and harsh. We placed these inside each other for safe keeping and for when we were too far away to give a hug. Gather these memories and all the everyday's you've lived so far and use them as your compass, armour and blanket.

They mention often that grief comes in waves. It washes over you like the ocean, never fully and never really done. Which also reminds us to tell you, so does love, forgiveness and happiness. Let each clean you, wash you and soak you from head to toe, so you can start again, knowing that there's another sunrise on the horizon and mermaids, jellyfish, sea-horses and mysterious, magical creatures of the sea bed, underneath. 
Happy Birthday Mridul.


Your Family,
Shreya, Dolly, Himani, Anchita, Sneha, Disha, Apurva, Saloni





                             (The day Mridul and her friends all became Prefects. Pic shared by Shreya)


                                          (A collage of the 9 friends. Picture shared by Shreya)


(To You is a letter writing project I started because there are not enough letters and love going around. If you have something to say with love-- for your ex girlfriend, you current husband, pizza (promise not to make it cheesy), your landlord who let you skip rent or even Ryan Gosling-- I'll write that letter for you. The love letter can go with real names, back stories, as many pictures as you like, aliases and even super powers.
The final letter will be up on my blog and a copy will be handwritten and posted to you or to an intended recipient. Kisses on the envelope only on my discretion. Give me a shout at: kakulgautam@gmail.com )




Sunday, 27 December 2015

To You~ 23 and a few minutes to go.

(Back-story: After an unplanned hiatus, it only seems right that I return to pending letters. To everyone whose letters are still undone, I'll make my way through and back to you. The below was a request sent to me by 23 year old Diksha, who on her birthday wanted to write a letter from her all knowing future self.
Anyone who knows me, knows how time-capsules are one of my favourite things, so here you go, Diksha, Happy Birthday- 24 is one of those golden years. Live it up.)

To You
23 and a few minutes to go Diksha,

Birthdays are tricky animals. 
At first, you want to roll around the floor with them just feeling that special sense of joy radiating out of your being, because it is the day you were made. The day you first said, "Hey world, how's it going?" and the first time you did something that changed everything else. They're the one day in the year which is the peak of a mountain-top, when you want to look both at what lies ahead and the distance you've covered. Some people get whiplash from all the looking, others just fall over.

But I know you'll be okay. You've now done this for 23 years and that should make you an expert at birthdays. 

What can steady you through the day, is our collective wisdom, which I'm about to dispense. Happy birthday you stone-cold fox.

1.  Breathe- This year promise yourself that you will not freak out, or obsess over the shadow of a pimple or what an extra 3kgs might do to a picture. Do not hyperventilate. The pimple will go. The kilos will move up and down as the years go by. Neither has anything to do with how beautiful you look, and you're going to survive it all. Even the wind chill. I promise you.

2.  Let time take time- As it will, whether you meddle with your overthinking or not. But things always work much better when left to their own device. Remember that you've survived, grown and evolved through every mini-crisis that threatened to stop life mid-dance. And this year when a crisis comes around, as the sneaky bastards tend to, acknowledge it and do what you must. 
It will leave and you'll be better for it (also see above: pimple)

3. 24 means you don't have to be 18 anymore: Or 17, or 16. Let algebra be a distant memory. The bullying and cruelty of school can stay there. You shook it off like a gazelle does water after its swim is done. Droplets flung far away and off your beautiful life and body, so you can trample shrubs, traipses through forests and live a beautiful gazelle year. Keep your neck tall and proud, they say it gives you a better outlook. Also, a success of your life will be made even if you struggle with math.

4. Boys: Liking them gets better and liking them gets worse. But take warm comfort in the fact that everyone around you, even the self-assured 28 year olds, those in steady relationships and those blazingly single- neither of them have a clue of the future, of what's to come and whether they're equipped. Take heart in the fact that who you love, will always be just who you love, that will not be the saviour or wreckage of your life (unless you let it).
Oh, and trust me that the boy who today makes your heart feel like a knotted, wet, wrung out shirt, will soon not even cross your mind, until you hear an old song and smile. 
Old songs carry most of the weight of our memories. That's something you should know too.

5. The things you will do: Will make and unmake you in bits, kneading you into new shapes every year. Cocoons that you'll have to burst out of and places of rest where you must stop for a while. So choose them wisely. Always say yes to travel, but know that the most important journeys are often just the ones you take inside. Laugh like you want to, in a twisted grimace if you must, anything which sets you apart from that same non-smile called the pout which everyone from 14 to 41 year olds are doing today. Set yourself apart Dee, you'll understand in a few years why that is the biggest weapon in your arsenal.

6. On being sad:  I remember the last few years and our struggles with depression. I remember friends who didn't understand and those who thought you were self-indulgent. And I can tell you now, that the only one whose judgement and understanding of what you're going through counts is you. So read every book you can, smile every chance you get, dress up, buy minion cakes for your birthday, hoard colourful stationary, make blanket forts out of your 5 year old self's minnie mouse quilt, remind yourself of that winter in Canada and the first time you let a snowflake turn to water on your tongue. Your body is your refuge and your fortress. Holding more answers and wisdom than you know. Fold into your own body when things get too dark, it's where you've always stored the light. It is your surest cure.

7. On love: Oh, the things I could tell you and the things I know. 
Like how much of it you've already got, how much of it waits for you in the future. How kaleidoscopes of butterflies will synchronise somersaults in your stomach, how you'll carry the heat of the inner core of the earth in your round cheeks and how when you're in it you will swear you're moon-walking on a higher frequency (like dolphins), hearing sounds and seeing things your friends just don't. The trick (and I'm not allowed to reveal details from the future: it is the first secret to time travel) is to live out your life like a designed for success supernova would. Those who are always craning their necks trying to spot the alien attack are the ones who most often miss it.

(Side note: No one is out of your league. So those dreams of kissing Chris Evans may not be totally make-believe.
Aside to the aside: Disney songs are always right. Keep a few on shuffle in your iPod. No one has to know and they always do the trick.)

Happy birthday you eerily beautiful, strangely stubborn and deliciously brave girl. 
Your 24th year is a gorgeous, rainbow striped, unicorn shaped piñata. Take a stick and smack it at its core.

Love,
Your future self.


                                                  (One of my fav street art images by Martin Watson)


(To You is a letter writing project I started because there are not enough letters and love going around. If you have something to say with love-- for your ex girlfriend, you current husband, pizza (promise not to make it cheesy), your landlord who let you skip rent or even Ryan Gosling-- I'll write that letter for you. The love letter can go with real names, back stories, as many pictures as you like, aliases and even super powers.
The final letter will be up on my blog and a copy will be handwritten and posted to you or to an intended recipient. Kisses on the envelope only on my discretion. Give me a shout at: kakulgautam@gmail.com )

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Words. Strange & Otherwise. Part- IV

Instagram killed the blogpost.
(These past months I've spent more time on @hyperbolemuch than this blog.)

I haven't written here for almost 6 months now, and while I'm now working on all the lovely pending To You, letters, this one was just quicker to put together. As with my earlier posts volumes one, two and three , here is a collection of my favourite sentences. 
Sentences which are almost human when stripped away from stories and left standing by themselves. A few are knock-kneed sure, but well-intentioned humans.  Some have been picked because the words are like fairy lights when strung together, others for the wisdom they're bursting with and all because I love them. 
Which means you shouldn't question any, 
Do I question your lovers?

I've also added a link to each sentence, so you can buy the book if you'd like. There's poetry here too, because I find it creeps into most prose. Especially when someone is really looking.

(This game was a lot of fun the last time around so here it is: If you have a life question, you should pick a number between 1-20, then the quote against that number is the answer to your question.
If not you've met a sentence I love: say hello, and smile). I'll let you read now.

*****

1. "The only interesting answers are those which destroy the questions.”
~ Susan Sontag

2. “If I had to sum up what he did to me, I’d say it was this: he made me sing along to all the bad songs on the radio. Both when he loved me and when he didn't.”
~ Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation

3. Come to the orchard in spring.
There is light and wine, and sweethearts
in the pomegranate flowers.

If you do not come, these do not matter.
If you do come, these do not matter 
~Rumi

4. "Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why."
~ Kurt Vonnegut

5.“What I want to write about today is the sea. It contains so many colors. Silver at dawn, green at noon, dark blue in the evening. Sometimes it looks almost red. Or it will turn the color of old coins. Right now the shadows of clouds are dragging across it, and patches of sunlight are touching down everywhere. White strings of gulls drag over it like beads. It is my favorite thing, I think, that I have ever seen. Sometimes I catch myself staring at it and forget my duties. It seems big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel.” 
~ Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See

6. “For a long time, she held a special place in my heart. I kept this special place just for her, like a "Reserved" sign on a quiet corner table in a restaurant. Despite the fact that I was sure I'd never see her again.”
~Haruki Murakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun

7. “The answer is not coming. I have to find an arbitrary point inside the spell of waiting, the open absence, and tear myself away. Leave, with no answer. Move on to the next question.”
  ~Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers

8.“Paper is the strongest material in the world. Things under which a mountain will crumble, you can place on paper and it will hold: beauty at its most intense; love at its fiercest; the greatest grief; the greatest rage.” 
~ Nadeem Aslam

9. " Being with you and not being with you, is the only way I have to measure time."
 ~Jorges Louis Borges 

10."I thought I understood it, that I could grasp it, but I didn't, not really. Only the smudgeness of it; the pink-slippered, all-containered, semi-precious eagerness of it. I didn't realize it would sometimes be more than whole, that the wholeness was a rather luxurious idea. Because it's the halves that halve you in half."
~ Like Crazy (This isn't a book but a movie I really, really love and can't recommend enough).





11." I want to read poems filled with terror and music that changes laws and lives."
~ Leonard Cohen.

12. "The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot."
~Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

13. “The night you gave me my birthday party… you were a young Lieutenant and I was a fragrant phantom, wasn’t I? And it was a radiant night, a night of soft conspiracy and the trees agreed that it was all going to be for the best.”
~ Zelda Fitzgerald, Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda

14.“He wanted all to lie in an ecstasy of peace; I wanted all to sparkle and dance in a glorious jubilee. I said his heaven would be only half alive; and he said mine would be drunk: I said I should fall asleep in his; and he said he could not breathe in mine.”

15. “I felt a heat containing the colors of autumn. The dark stone in my heart pulsed quietly, igniting like a coal in a hearth. Who is in my heart? I wondered.”
~ Patti Smith, M Train

16. "You exist by your smile and your presence. You exist for your joys and your relaxations. You exist in nature. You are part of the glittering sea, and part of the luscious, well-nourished plants, you are wedded to the sun, you are immersed in timelessness, only the present counts, and from the present you extract all the essences which can nourish the senses, and so the nerves are still, the mind is quiet, the nights are lullabies, the days are like gentle ovens in which infinitely wise sculptor’s hands re-form the lost contours, the lost sensations of the body. The body comes to life. Quests, pursuits of concrete securities of one kind or another lose all their importance. As you swim, you are washed of all the excrescences of so-called civilization, which includes the incapacity to be happy under any circumstances."
~ Anais Nin, The Diary of Anais Nin

17. “He was becoming unstuck, he was sure of that - his bones were no longer wrapped in flesh but in clouds of dust, in hummingbirds, dragonflies, and luminous moths - but so perfect was his equilibrium that he felt no fear. He was vast, he was many, he was dynamic, he was eternal.” 
~ Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

18. " Aey Junoon-e-Ishq Bata Zara
Mujhe Kyun Tamasha Bana Diya"


~ Faiz Ahmed Faiz (I apologise for not translating this, but there's no way I can without butchering it. For those interested in reading more- try Google translate for an indicative meaning).

19. "I will remember the kisses, our lips raw with love, and how you gave me everything you had and how I offered you everything that was left of me."~ Charles Bukowski

20. “That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every word, all of it.”
~ Joan Didion, in her essay Goodbye To All That