Monday, February 21, 2005

Invisible Cities - II

Calvino's fictional cities delve into the mind of each city that you and I have known or could have known from our personal view of immediate outside world. The personal account of your life could exactly sound like someone else'. Or the kind of experience and people that you met at first job that you had done in city C would sound agonizingly similar to some one else, if you shift the time a little bit. There must always be someone who fought your fights, cried your cries, dreamt your dreams and lived your life in some city that you think you lived and known for a lifetime.

I remember watching the movie American Beauty starting with a flickering mosaic image of the city populated by the affluent and the succesfull before it begins to tear down the beauty apart to reveal the ugly, it reminded me that it could have been another city I knew. Alright. Let's have Italo calvino's account of a few more cities:

...In Olinda, if you go out with a magnifying glass and hunt carefully, you may find somewhere a point no bigger than the head of a pin which, if you look at it slightly enlarged, reveals within itself the roofs, the antennas, the skylights, the gardens, the pools, the streamers across the streets, the kiosks in the squares, the horse-racing track. That point does not remain there: a year later you will find it the size of half a lemon, then as large as a mushroom, then a soup plate. And then it becomes a full-size city, enclosed within the earlier city: a new city that forces its way ahead in the earlier city and presses its way toward the outside.

If on arriving at Trude I had not read the city’s name written in big letters, I would have thought I was landing at the same airport from which I had taken off. . . . "You can resume your flight whenever you like," they said to me, "but you will arrive at another Trude, absolutely the same, detail by detail. The world is covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end. Only the name of the airport changes."

Eutropia (a "trading city") is made up of many cities, all but one of them empty, and that its inhabitants periodically tire of their lives, their spouses, their work, and then move en masse to the next city, where they will have new mates, new houses, new jobs, new views from their windows, new friends, pastimes, and subjects of gossip. We learn further that, in spite of all this moving, nothing changes since, although different people are doing them, the same jobs are being done and, though new people are talking, the same things are being gossiped about.

From their conversations which began from sign and sounds unintelligible to both, to perfecting each other's language, to the numbness of understanding through silence, Marco Polo the traveller and Kublai Khan the Emperor have sailed through a lot of cities.

Kublai asked Marco: "You, who go about exploring and who see signs, can tell me toward which of these futures the favoring winds are driving us." Already the Great Khan was leafing through his atlas, over the maps of the cities that menace in nightmares and maledictions: Enoch, Babylong, Yahooland, Butua, Brave New World.

He continued: "It is all useless, if the last landing place can only be the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us."And Polo said: "The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."

Here is my take on the cities I visited, the quality of which has nothing to do with Italo Calvino's class though:

I have had my fair share of cities. You leave a part of you everytime you move on to new destination, hoping you would find what you think you need! eventually. You might visit these cities at some point in time, hoping again to relive the life and time for a moment with a sense of detachment. But you find noone and the city which you thought you knew looks strange to you. Finally you come back to the last city on the stack to carry on with your life...Perhaps the city existed in your dreams or the people might be dreaming about you having a dream of this city the way it existed once...

Looking back I can see the trail I trod from the adolescent walkways in Cochin, to bangalore where the job hunters hopes, despair and celebrations were drenched in rum, to the long and sweltering bus trips to work in Chennai, to Chicago where everyone read something in the commuter trains and fridays were an onslaught of adrenaline, to NewYork where you find countless people and cars travel all over you and yet you can listen to the tireless voice of subway singer with his violin, to the laid back life in small town Pennsylavania and now in this aged, withering city of philadelphia.

This is the last part of my blog on Invisible cities, masterpiece by a writer called Italo Calvino. Please read the other part for a better start, if you have not done already: Invisible Cities - 1

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Invisible Cities - I

Sometimes you get hold of a book in one of those rare triumphs of neural probabilistic chances. Memory of the reading would make you realize the existence of a whole different set of tools to sculpt your concepts of this world and beyond, upon opening page after page. I have been haunted by the memory of such a book I read a long while back. It is titled Invisible Cities, written by Italo Calvino. A skinny book which condensed the experience of living in and sensing cities in abstract and revealing ways.

Since I am as fascinated by the metaphysics and architectures of cities equally or more as the nocturnal rodent, the cab fellows and the hitchhiking executives, I got hooked with the matter-of-fact, almost parable evoking but incisive visions set ablaze in the book. Each chapter unveils a different city as narrated in the conversation between Kublai Khan, the tartar emperor and Marco Polo, the traveller. Marco talks about the cities with such great tangents that would leave you gasp in delightful insights.

Here are excerpts of some of the "invisible" cities in the book:

The city of Armilla has weathered earthquakes, catastrophe, corroded by termites, once deserted and re-inhabited. It cannot be called deserted since you are likely to glimpse a young woman, or many young women, slender, not tall of stature, luxuriating in the bathtubs or arching their backs under the showers suspended in the void, washing or drying or perfuming themselves, or combing their long hair at a mirror.

The city of Zobedei has a tale of its foundation - men of various nations had an identical dream. They saw a woman running at night through an unknown city; she was seen from behind, with long hair, and she was naked. They dreamed of pursuing her. After the dream, they set out in search of that city; they never found it, but they found one another; they decided to build a city like the one in the dream. The city's streets were streets where they went to work every day, with no link any more to the dreamed chase. Which, for that matter, had long been forgotten. New men arrived from other lands, having had a dream like theirs. The first to arrive could not understand what drew these people to Zobeide, this ugly city, this trap.

Those who arrive at Thekla can see little of the city, beyond the plank fences, the sackcloth screens, the scaffoldings, the metal armatures, the wooden catwalks hanging from ropes or supported by sawhorses, the ladders, the trestles. If you ask "Why is Thekla's construction taking such a long time?" the inhabitants continue hoisting sacks, lowering leaded strings, moving long bruses up and down, as they answer "So that it's destruction cannot begin."

All I could do has been to feature the excerpts from his book. Each chapter is extremely short and the brevity of which demands the reader's involvement to such an extent that you end up adding on to your own meta-city to the reading which I will attempt in the next blog.

*Calvino belongs to the OULIPO(Ouvroir de Littérature Informatique Potentielle) genre. It is a group of writers, logicians and mathematicians whose primary objective is the systematic and formal innovation of constraints in the production and adaptation of literature (they also define themselves as rats who themselves build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape). The Oulipo believe that all literature is governed by constraints, be it a sonnet, a detective novel, or anything else. By formulating new contraints, the Oulipo is thus contributing to creating new forms of literature. What more noble cause in the art of writing?

You would find adaptations and assimilation of engineering, mathematics, tarot card reading, astrophysics, computing concepts and anything that lends cognitive appreciation of structures, mental and physical in the ambit of these writers. George Perec and Raymond Queneau are other major writers of this genre.

I would have to mention about two more cities and the final conversation between Marco and Kublai in the second and last part of this blog.

This is repost with some edits.
* Official explanation for the OULIPO movement.

first rain

It rained in the morning
clouds stay dark still
I breathe the damp air.

Oh! how it reminds me
the scent of soil after first rain
from my tropical land.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

The short lasting moments in life

Watched the movie Raincoat the other day. The twist at the end owed it to O.Henry's "The Gift of Magi" - the endearing story of Della and Jim who were in an exalted state of affection for each other, set out in their own selfless ways to make each other happy. Della Counted her dollar and dimes again and again to think of the right gift for Jim. She finally settled for a platinum chain for his watch he inherited from his father. How would she buy it? She sold her long cascading hair. When Jim came he popped his little present - a Comb Set for her hair which he bought in exchange of his gold watch!

It is a simple plot and an emotion captured in a single twist. To carry that the spark to a full length movie would be too much to ask. However Raincoat is exploring a much more delicate and deeper sense of life in a familiar situation. Manu (Ajay Devgan), still grappling with the reality of his shattered dreams, hopes and desires afetr the love of his life married to another and left his small town. He is making a trip to the city to seek help from his friends and old class mates to find a steady income. While visiting the benefactors on a rainy day he finds his way to his lost lover with a borrowed raincoat.

Thats where the story is paused and the viewers are given a closer look at Manu going through the lingering grief and despair. The narration is woven back and forth to portray his state of mind. Neither he, nor she expressed their true feelings for each other. Instead they kept lying about their misfortunes. Like the blurb of the CD says, to love is to lie. At the end they part realizing how much they care for each other. O.Henry twist is helping Rituparno (the director) to provide a logical end for the movie.

Losing one's love is painful. Revisiting it will be excruciatingly painful. Rituparno tried to capture the emotion close to the heart and the translation for the most part came through. The fact that he used the old fade-in fade-out technique tells me he narrates the story on another plain besides progressing with the story.

The movie for some reason reminded me of one of the stories in Primo Levi's book "The Periodic Table". The book has chapters titled after 21 chemical elements. Primo himself was a holocaust survivor owed his life to his university credentials in Chemistry. This chapter titled Zinc he spoke about his times when Germany was at the threshold of the worst crime against humanity. But I am digressing here. The story is about Rita his class mate who he wanted to get close but never dared to yet. She was plain and mysterious and the mix attracted him. He prepared brilliant conversational openings mentally and at the decisive moment put it off the next day. Partly because of lack of confidence and deep-rooted shyness. He tried to sit right next to her but she would never notice him. He felt frustrated and challenged. At that period he was desperate and thought of himself condemned to perpetual masculine solitude, denied a woman's smile forever which he needed as much as fresh air.

One day during the laboratory class, he found her working on Zinc Sulphate, the same as his assignment. The opportunity presented itself to take the first step. He noticed the book Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann in her bag. He asked about the book on tenterhooks to hear her opinion. Contrary to his expectation she was more interested to know how far the romance between Hans, the protagonist and madam Chauchat would go and she skipped the theological and political discussions in the book which was so fascinating for him. But he nevertheless got a start and learned a lot about her. That her father was poor sickly store keeper and she worked part time and went on a bicycle to deliver and collect payments, the thorny and difficult path to university degree was the only way to get out of her misery from childhood.

His zinc sulphate ended up in bad shape, but he did not care. It was late and he asked her to let him walk her home. It was dark and her house was not near. The goal he set for himself was objectively and incomparably audacious. He hesitated and felt like standing on burning coals. Finally, trembling with emotion he slipped his arm into hers. She did not resist, nor did she return the pressure, or pull away. He felt exhilarated and victorious. It seemed for him that he won a small but decisive battle against the darkness, emptiness and the hostile years that lay ahead.

A long time back I remember walking my class mate to the bus station from college which was a mile away. I was in a similar state of mind when I thought of "brilliant conversational openings", the books, songs, movies that she was interested in, to talk to her. But most of the time, we spoke only a few things, mostly on exam dates or missed assignments. Did I like her? Yes. Did she like me? I don't know. Should I have talked to her what I felt? How would I tell her if I wasn't sure exactly what I felt? Looking back it was an enchanting age to cherish.
In sum the short moments in life can have a lasting impression like in Primo Levi's case and short revisit can be even more poignant and compelling as shown in Raincoat.

Saving the World!

It came about in this way. During the children's revolt of the sixties and the seventies, I was just old enough to understand what t...