A recountal of a pointless hopeless train of thought...

Location: United States

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Atlantis, the lost continent of my childhood

In the beginning as far I can remember, the lush green strip of land was ensconced by the Arabian Sea and a thin river line that was lost into an estuary. A billion species of life thrived in the tiny whirlpools. Sunshine fell on the flowing waters in every fissure.

When it rained, the natives who lived in the shanty could see the silver lines of thunder afar and scampered to bring the cows and kids home from the field and the wantons of country roads. The wind wove a symphony across the countless coconut trees that arched over the white and golden sand dunes. Folks called the place as island, with no name, perhaps to remind the sovereignty of the land that leant over the timeless ebb and flow of the ocean.

That was when I used to visit my grandparents' house during our summer vacations. We, the boys from city found our space and deflated the overcrowded time from our senses in the island. The travel included trekking by bus and ferry boats. The folks in the house had to paddle across the stream for everything that they ever needed, and every household had their own boats. The nights were dense and we could see each others faces in sepia sitting across the kerosene lamps for dinner. Eight siblings and dozens of grand kids thronged the spacious and benevolent home during those unforgettable times. If I close my eyes, I could still see the shimmering torch lights of solitary pedestrians on those rugged paths by the river and fisher folks rowing by.

It must be right after the famine, my grandfather and his brothers left their misery to follow a dream of a piece of land to call their own. I never asked him to chronicle the events or timeline. The state of their lives was similar to that of during the great depression in America. They had nothing and everything to fight for. The island was waiting for them to build the Promised Land, and the earth was nubile and feisty. He ploughed his way and unleashed raw power of farmer and fisherman to build the house, cultivate the land and build boats to fish with a lot of camaraderie with his brothers and natives.

As kids, we spent the summer vacations in exhilaration, playing on top of the piles of coconuts and grains; canoeing up and down streams; gathering around the table where everyone assembles for the dinner. My grandfather looked like Odysseus who just came home to Ithaca, having done his journey.

I spent a lot of time with him listening to his monologues on movies he watched from the country movie theatre or the quality of carpenters who worked on his many boats. He also spoke about the murderous sea storms and fights among fisher folks who haunted the evening taverns with nonchalance. He was the Santiago from Old man and the sea who came from the sea with the biggest fish I could ever imagine sculling the boat from the horizon. He was not weary.

I imagined his journey to the island was similar to the great farmer’s walk along route 66 to California during the great depression. Their subsequent rise and fall were beautifully captured in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath(1939). The novel began with the description of the conditions in Dust Bowl Oklahoma that ruined the crops and instigated massive foreclosures on farmland. Steinbeck did not introduce any character in the outset, a technique that he employs to juxtapose descriptions of events in a larger social context, with those specific to the Joad family. Tom Joad hitched a ride on his way to California and the many hardships and travails to survive. It captured the essence of human struggles and the promise of the mother earth and eventual alienation while in pursuit of common ground.

It’s not that the life in the wild west in Americas and that in the Indian tropical lands were same, but at a deeper level, they all had everything in common - the prototypes of life and the living.

I never asked my grandfather about his journey, rather I was basking in his days of glory then. But then things took a different course ever since he folded his self into retirement. My aunts were all married off and had bigger issues in life and kids to gather around, my uncles vanished into the crowds in different parts of country and outside in search of jobs.

The society itself was undergoing the customary changes as always has been. The deluge of foreign money and pomp of gulf country residents rolled over the spirit of the land. The old house was abandoned and the grandparents were transplanted to the new house built near the freeway and surrounded by walls. The rain, the wind and the waves from the ocean were shut out for the rest of their lives.

Grandma died first and grandfather followed her soon. Even the new house looks so old now, occupied now by one of my uncles. He might probably visit once in a while from Dubai where he found a job. The dilapidated and moth ridden old house is probably biding the last moments of its existence before it is smashed down, probably to build a concrete warehouse for fertilizers. Now that the island has been named and electrified.

Atlantis, the lost continent is considered to be the source of all Religion, all Science and all races and civilizations. As we enter the third millennium, the Age of Aquarius its discovery is deemed to cause a major revolution in our view of the world and of both our future and past. I found my Atlantis in that island a while ago when I was a kid. The hearts and minds of the dwellers who built a brave new world over there, though lost would still speak to you if you listen. That this world can still be mysterious and beautiful if you can spare a moment to grasp.

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

- Ulysses, Alfred Tennysson

Friday, May 06, 2005

Love in Chicago

Evening drifted alongside my meanderings in downtown chicago. The dusk kept the city in an imaginary scaffolding and I listened to the voice from across the seven seas. The voice lingered long after the beer froth and the frolic were over in wacker dr and Clark n Lake street, and still it lingered.

The house of blues was bracing up for another friday night.

Poplars sprang at the other end of city. They were looking upwards for starlings and in midway of the ascent. Lake michigan was like a huge drop of tear that fell ever so slowly as if time was suspended for a while...

The last train was rattled out of its torpor at Howard. Evanston was still a few miles away. I slumped back to my seat, tried to remember the subway singer's song... It must be Gibran who walked past the door to the adjacent car. He seemed to be returning home to May Ziadeh. She could be Hannah or S, waiting for the prophet.

The breeze from Lake michigan began to stir the night.

Back in my studio apartment phone calls, emails and messages buzzed. It rained here. She said it rained over there too. The night and day were strangely enigmatic to let ourselves pass it over.

Here is to the walks in soliloquy and the love of my life, the five disjunct stanzas:

Hannah loved her prophet
from a distance so far that
her love was a kind that
propped the stairway to heaven.

Poplars remember our love
sometimes cut between
weed grown fences and the backyard
time wept and rotted.

My desire has the wings of a sad albatross
on its solitary flight across
windswept islands and seven seas.

Your love makes this life lighter
so light that things stay afloat
about me and this world.

You and me - the space in between,
thinking of life. love is like night rain
we pass over it by sleep.

- Spring 2000

Monday, May 02, 2005

The comical unfunniness of being

In one of those epiphanies in my life, I was struck by this vision: the vision of an almost comical inevitability of the tragedy of our everyday lives. We wallow in the instant need of responding to external and internal stimuli, that the response itself takes a tangential ride from the original stimulus. Attempts to gain a supposedly broader and deeper perspective to evaluate and approximate are fraught with a curious mix of the sublime and the ridiculous. You may think of this whole affair of living life as something which is fundamentally funny.

This reminds me of a book I've read sometime back, when towards the end the protagonist of the story looses his weight totally, stays suspended upon the sky of his hometown. From that vantage point he could watch the town unfolding its vignettes of human follies and cruelties afflicted upon themselves and others. The behavior patterns have become so predictable, that the more he watched, the less he became amused and he started losing the point of it all. The reality of it all became surreal or meta-real (if there is such a word).

Alain Resnais' movie, My American uncle (1980) is a celebration of this vision. Probably, the best commentary movie ever made. It does not delve deep into the human psyche or questions of the soul, it simply juxtaposes a few scenes and conversations from the everyday lives of three highly motivated and extremely mixed-up persons.

They are René Ragueneau (Gérard Depardieu), a successful textile company executive who is suddenly faced with the loss of his career; Jean Le Gall (Roger Pierre), an ambitious politician with a desire for total power, both private and public; and Janine Garnier (Nicole Garcia), Jean's mistress and a would-be actress who makes a noble sacrifice only to find that, like most noble sacrifices, it's a self-defeating gesture. While their actions and motives are being commented in the background, parallely a discussion on human behavior and the functioning of brain is going on with Dr. Henri Laborit, a bona fide behavioural scientist, who formulated his theories of biological and emotional triggers. You could find Alain Resnais himself, interviewing the doctor.

While the characters in the movie are going about living their lives, Dr. Laborit is the author. The doctor, one of the people responsible for the development of drugs to control the emotions, is the wise, literate, unflappable host, and My American Uncle is the show. (Remember the Ed Harris' role of director in The Truman Show?). Of major concern to Dr. Laborit is the manner in which people inhibit their primal urges to dominate their landscapes and everyone around them.

Gerard Depardieu portrays René, a good, practicing Catholic, a stalwart fellow who has left the family farm to make a career in industry, who has a decent wife and family and an unquestioned faith in the future, a fellow who is, in short, totally unprepared for the stresses and strains when they come. Being a civilized man, René doesn't fight back. He develops ulcers, a perfect disability for a man whose hobby is haute cuisine.

Jean, the politician, doesn't hesitate to leave his wife and children when he falls in love with Janine, but all the time he's living with Janine he is plagued by kidney stones. When Jean's wife comes to Janine and says she's dying of cancer, Janine sends Jean back to his wife, only to learn later that she's been tricked. Emotional blackmail is the common currency of their lives.

Miss Garcia is charming as the spunky, seemingly independent Janine, whose finally acknowledged fury with her lover brings the movie to a liberating conclusion. Even Roger Pierre's Jean, the only character in the film who is essentially nasty, is comic in the righteous way he attempts to justify self-absorption.

While the motives and behaviors of the characters are being mercileslly dissected, Resnais romps home the poignancy of his futile findings when towards the end. Dr. Laborit demostrates his theory on behavioral patterns on Laboratory mice followed by the violent transgressions between Rene, Jean and Janine into the physical and mental boundaries of each other. The experiment may be summarised as the following: Consider two mice in a cage separated by a wall and subject them to electric shock seperately and then take the wall off. In the first instance, the mice fought against the contours of the cage and finally resign to their fate, but when they were left together, they invariably ended up hurting each other.

Dr. Laborit contended, that the stress and strain can elicit such behavior in humans as well and we find the fictional characters in the movie obliging. Amidst all these Resnais toys with the concept of "life is elsewhere" with the mythical character of american uncle who is as elusive and hopeless as any other symbol of redemption.

This is not a fact finding film, but a deeply involved, comically empathetic narration on the pathos and bathos of human lives. Resnais has achieved such mastery over the medium that his freehanded use of soap opera, docudrama, personal reflections, dreams, commentary and sometimes flooding surrealistic thought processes unleashed on the engaged and involved audience make a powerful statement:

- that after all human behavior isn't quite as mysterious as we like to pretend it is and that, most of the terrible things that happen to us need not be inevitable and eminently avoidable. Alas! if only we knew how blind sighted we have been.

*Note: I watched this movie nearly about 12 years ago. So I had to rely heavily on NY Times review of the movie for the plot and other details. However the views are entirely mine and also the fact that Resnais had made such an unforgettable impact on my movie sensibilities that I feel relieved to be able to unburden my thoughts now. If and when I watch it again, I might want to revisit this review, but so far unsuccesfull. The movie is a must watch.