Ebb & Flow

The wildfire has burnt down refuges
after refuges, and nature has flown the ashes
astray, creating new stories. Standing
atop a pile of volcanic rock-dust, a seedling
seeks a poet’s pen to grant it
immortality; but the island is
sinking every hour, and raising its head back
in another.

Loving people is like that. There are days
when you’ve let go of those fires, those
sights and smells, and then the flood
comes, and you’re without
your buoying straw.

Eau de Human

The smog had blurred a winter sun for another day, claiming victory over the already defeated star as it hovered over the city like an old shawl that your grandpa refused to get rid of. Camaraderie of crows closely monitored us as we walked to and fro on a decaying rooftop, sipping whatever remained of a dying afternoon into our conscience.

This house was a stone’s throw from a popular city crematorium (even though popular is probably the wrong word to choose here). The double chimneys worked full-time to spill out blackish gray fumes that instantly joined their brethren in the smog colony, rejuvenating the sheath that obscured our sight.

Then it dawned on us : we were inhaling particles of the dead – people who were separate consciences a brief time ago, now reduced to dust and framed photos destined to slide further and further away from our living room-full of activities – were floating around in the air, hidden in plain sight – and we were taking them in. Did that mean that we were consuming their memories too? The lone kite (the bird) flying over us screeched, the noise that is distinctly theirs, even in the middle of a full-blown cacophony of buses, trams, taxis, bikes, cycles and pedestrians – and let us know that the answer wasn’t as simple as one might have thought.

Deprived from the sun, we returned with the dust of conscience on our bodies, the burnt fragrance of existence that were no longer mortal infinitely scattered on us like meteors on the lunar surface, Eau de Human as Debiroopa called them – into a conscience that was borrowed, into a world that was as fake as the assurance of living forever amidst humans. Behind us, the crows still cawed, gatekeepers of the dead as they were, that this too, shall pass.

Peeping clouds/Verandah atop a city

The normalcy of regular people is extraordinary. When you are amazed by the daylight tapering down to a feeble glow by four pm in the afternoon and wonder how the very same rays of light scorched you like an omelet a few months back, streams of people walk beneath your balcony to their destinations. Point A, point B, point C; what are our lives than scampering across from one misery to another, in search of that little smell of cheese called happiness? Creatures of desperation, we are, always in a pickle, always needing help, always seeking validation from others. You, poet, are trapped amidst these thorny bubbles. Let any of you touch them, and your reverie of a poem is over.

Between cities, clouds float in their usual randomness, sometimes swayed erratic by the wind, sometimes dragged by the ear by the vices of gravity and centrifugal forces. You’d notice them in their slow swim across the blue sky, as eccentric as ever. The cities under them, like the rivulets beneath your 50 square meter verandah, bicker and drown in rivers of hooch in meeting their targets.

If you are reading this, the clouds are listening into our conversation, peeping from the window. Escaping them is impossible.

Logical Operators

Let’s say you are an evaluator of relationships, and I
– an interpreter of memories. Would we be
together?

“Paris looks pretty at night” you whispered. I wondered
when you had gotten the time, since we made love
the whole day. I had forgotten you were a
trespasser, a stealer who dealt with
coincidences of
one-night stands.

Logically operating, I was still finishing my
novel; you were nowhere to be seen.
Lost in another mission, you, terrible
tourguide you, curried dream you,
destroyer of worlds you,
poem of poems you
had left me
in Paris,
searching.

The Tiger – reviewing John Vaillant’s terrific retelling of a primeval revenge tale

Fate can be a bitch, but, as Zaitsev, Dvornik, and Onofrecuk had discovered, it can also be a tiger.

“There are two categories of people when it comes to extreme situations,” said the leopard specialist Vasily Solkin. “One gets scared first and then starts thinking; the other starts thinking first and gets scared after the fact. Only the latter survive in the taiga.”

It is only in the past two hundred years—out of two million—that humans have seriously contested the tiger’s claim to the forest and all it contains. As adaptable as tigers are, they have not evolved to accommodate this latest change in their environment, and this lack of flexibility, when combined with armed, entitled humans and domestic animals, is a recipe for disaster.

John Vaillant’s ‘The Tiger’ is a story of multiple extremes clashing together into something bizarre, almost otherworldly confluence of events that reads like a thriller of tragedies. A conflict between multiple men and a tiger amidst one of the remotest places in the world – the Primorye, also known as Primorsky Krai – the easternmost area of the Taiga.

The entire premise sounds absurd. Primorye is the world’s absurdest place, an ‘arboreal jungle’ as Vaillant calls it, where the concoction of sea streams, pressure regions and other factors have given rise to a weather pattern and ecosystem that does not exist anywhere, and should not exist to begin with, and along with it has brought in flora and fauna endemic to this region. It is an island that belongs to another era. Ussuri Boars and Leopards coexist with Black Bears and Roe Deer. The Eurasian Lynx prowls alongside almost three hundred and fifty species of birds, all endemic to this region, all the while the geography changes from swampy ocean-sides to tropical forests to snowy mountain valleys. Amidst this unreal piece of pie roams one of the largest carnivores in the world – the Amur (Siberian) Tiger.

Vaillant narrates a story that took place here in the late 1990s when a seemingly unheard of event happens – a tiger kills a man. The man in question, Markov, was a known poacher and Taiga-native in the truest sense, living vicariously amidst and off the tundra. He, like his peers – is in the truest sense a scavenger – and like most in his territory, his decisions are also dictated by money and hunger. His death breaks the seal of an unsaid commitment between the world of humans and the world of tigers – an oath of mutual respect that both parties have adhered to since the beginning of their co-existence in the Primorye.

The one certainty in tiger tracks is: follow them long enough and you will eventually arrive at a tiger, unless the tiger arrives at you first.


While investigating, the paltry team of rangers and trackers put together by Yuri Trush, the head of the local squad of an anti-poaching unit known as Inspection Tiger, an organization created by the Russian government to combat the black-market trafficking of tigers and tiger parts, soon encounter scenes that are unlike anything else they have seen. An animal, hellbent on revenge, at the point of starving itself and injuring itself while exacting it on the person involved – looks surreal, almost out of the lores that depict the tiger as a magical creature, an entity not of our realms but beyond it.

The Tiger, or Amba as it is called by local Udege and Nanai people, is a creature of reverence and an existence in the top of the food chain. Lores are there that depict it as a force that is not to be dealt with head-on, but rather experienced from afar, offered to, and never stolen from. Trush’s team first tries to understand the tiger’s motive for killing Markov, and conflicting stories emerge; some say Markov killed a cub, and the mother took revenge on him thus; some suggest that Markov was actually trying to kill and poach the tiger – in post-Perestroika Russia, illegal poaching with the Chinese have boomed to astronomical levels – and only ended up being killed himself; a last thought was that Markov had stolen from the tiger, a deed deemed more dangerous than anything else in this world of primal rules and regulations.

Their investigation runs into walls again and again, and the tiger’s unpredictable behavior does not help. We get glimpses of the rage boiling inside a tiger when it is exploited with; this tiger tracks down Markov’s smell to things he had barely passed by. A timber camp is attacked and stuff that had little to no importance to any animal are mauled and destroyed, even at the cost of (later found out) injury. This viciousness startles everyone, even Vaillant, who tries, like Trush and the elders of the region – to find a reasoning behind such errant behavior.

Things take a dark turn when the tiger kills another person, a young person who was forced to go to the Taiga to check on his traps during the curfew imposed due to the tiger. The stories unfurl, the Tundra bares its fangs and then out comes the apex predator, confronting another, newer specimen, armed with rifles and snowmobiles, their history suddenly clashing again after years of silent coexistence. And after finishing the book, I came away sad – the tiger wasn’t the villain anymore. It was a supernatural being, a primal entity reduced to memories of teeth and skin and nails and bones by zeal of humans who were protecting their own kin.

Yet, the tiger had won – even after it was dead, killed by Yuri Trush and his motely crew, a mini-catastrophe later – in proving that it was still at the top of the food chain. The others were at its mercy, even in death. Trush returned to the snowy abyss with a heavy conscience of putting a wounded animal down; and fully knowing the reason for its rage, something that even he could not dismiss. A sanctity had been lost, and everyone paid dearly. This is their story. A story of anger and sadness, shaped in bullets and bites of revenge.

Recommended.

Additional Reading : 1 2

Vaillant, John. The Tiger (Vintage Departures) . Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Thanksgiving

Bright promises are meant to blind you into submission till your tongue
is tired of complaining to your heart. Your soul meanders, gets slapped
by the same people, yet goes back to them for
validation;

There’s no end to this Tartarus, for it is shaped like your desires.

Awkwardness drowns your screams, and people walk past you like you’re
modern art on display – indescribable, insufferable, insurmountable,
incomprehensible.

Idiots on thrones laugh while you’re lost inside a maze. “Come back later
for your prize” booms on the mic, but the carrot on the rope has
Rotten.

‘A House for Mr. Biswas’ – Naipaul’s heroes that go nowhere

There is, in some weak people who feel their own weakness and resent it, a certain mechanism which, operating suddenly and without conscious direction, releases them from final humiliation.

Naipaul, V.S.. A House for Mr Biswas (Picador Classic) (p. 106). Pan Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

A character lives and dies by its creator’s pen. The sharper the focus, the minuter the details about him/her come out – and in the end the pages form a story of coherence, of relatable fiction and non-fiction parallel universes. V.S.Naipaul, in his relentless fervor to one up the British who for several centuries subjugated and humiliated Indians and Africans in many parts of the world – wields a pen whose nib he continuously sharpens – lest it lose its edge. His characters are hence ruthless in humiliation, devastating in denigration of values and ultimately hopeless in their road to self-redemption. A man true to the era he grew up in, Naipaul’s heroes live a scattered, meaningless life and die early, even before the reader had time to pick up the pieces to coagulate into something.


And Naipaul is not going to help you. He’s equally ruthless and equally out of time, though he will put the stories in front of you to make your own way around them.

In ‘A House for Mr. Biswas’, Mohun Biswas, the titular character, meanders around the void that is his life. What does he really want? He wants an identity. He wants independence – from his family, from his in-laws, from his religion, from people who are overtly friendly and increasingly acerbic to him – from his wife and children, at times, from his places of work. He paints his way to his married life, and that vortex that sucks him in are the Tulsis whose magnanimity gradually ebbs and flows through Mohun, and ends up shaping his life more than his own family. Juxtaposed, all of these feelings end up shaped like a house, and like the miserable idiot he is, Mohun ends up trying more than once, and like his efforts, comes up short in multiple occasions, failing spectacularly short of lidding up the cavernous pulpit of self-wallowing that he had built around himself with every passing incident.

It is not my intention to review literature in today’s light, because of the very fact that they represent a narrative of the time that they have been created; in the passage of time, things that were deemed alright may sound ghoulishly horrible today; yet – we should take these journals with the garb of the very time that defines them. A House is filled with women characters – Mrs. Tulsi included amongst them, who are relegated to glorified domestic helps, from browbeating other men to beating their children to preparing food under the houses and being ridiculed for trying to start their own business – women in this novel pull the strings, but the threads are not enough to topple any of the stronger, fleshed out characters like Seth or Mohun Biswas or Owad or Ajodha – for that matter. Even the mighty Mrs. Tulsi is second fiddle to Seth in the first few chapters, and in the end a specter in the background to Owad – a woman in constant ailment, craning from one strong man to another. Naipaul invests little time with them and moves ahead with Mohun Biswas. In today’s experimental, liberal literary norms, this omission would have been fatal.

I strongly feel that this book is fifty pages too big. There are situations that does not require delving into, or fights that do not require describing, or feelings that nobody cares about – yet Mohun and Naipaul sticks to them and makes us go through that tedium. At times I felt like quitting, exhausted of yet another quarrel with Shama, yet another tete-a-tete with Anand or yet another ‘oil barrel’ jibe. Thankfully, most of the book is immensely readable, and the exploration into Mohun Biswas’ carefully constructed demise, like the house he eventually died in – sucks you in like the lure of milk and prunes for children – and the promise of someday getting to eat real ice cream and not something that tastes like rust.

Biswas dies not in vain but his death in the house goes in vain. Naipaul’s heroes are like that. They can’t figure out what they really lived for, even after their death – and they have to be satisfied with whatever they got. That is the post-colonial realism that has been handed to us for generations, be it in Port of Spain, or in Kolkata.

Recommended, though with an asterisk. Read if you can finish it.

Naipaul, V.S.. A House for Mr Biswas (Picador Classic). Pan Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

Third Home, through the Komorebi

The two or three days in the month of Kartik that hosts KaliPujo, Diwali and Bhai-Phonta have always been the peak festive season for me. Every year, from the hullabaloo of putting up lights around the house to bursting crackers and cursing people who dropped chocolate bombs from the safety of their rooftops to hapless people walking below, to traveling early morning to Kolkata to get Phonta’d – a mixture of ghee, kajal and sandalwood paste to be javelined onto your temple – to bursting the second or third round of aatishbazis with the gang at maternal uncle’s place – these used to be the festivity at the Banerjees and the Chattopadhyays and the Mazumdars for as long as I have known them.

In 2015, I was spending my Diwali eons away from both the places I called home. Same happened in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. By the time we came back this year, the pandemic had robbed the chance of a family get together. People I held near and dear were sick, or dying, or both. Both Debiroopa & I wanted to just lie down and close our eyes and wish for this year to pass – and for Diwali we wanted nothing else but to be close to our parents.

We were both out in the evening of Diwali, however – on another errand, but Debiroopa’s old school-para was reason enough for us to take a stroll through the neighborhood, revisiting old steps, tracing back the city that we both saw wither away in front of our very eyes. The lack of people outside presented a perfect opportunity for both of us to see the city with empty pandals – and the lack of cracker-busting, Diwali bloomed with lights of earthen diyas and bright saffron marigold garlands. I was transported to a different world as the kid inside me jumped from one window and balcony to another, to see people offering prayers to Gods and Goddesses of fortune and prosperity – with lit up diyas guiding the way, candles marking the end of a household – telling me that the pristine things in this world were always fruits of labor and love and not artificial imitations.

Later that evening, we stood at the rooftop and saw at least forty paper lanterns. Most of them never got past a couple of blocks. Some, fleeting at first, slowly descended towards us and landed nearby, their flames gone – like the extinguished souls this year. But there were more of them bubbling up, like life that never stopped, life that ebbed and flowed, even in a derelict city like this.

Diwali had returned, claimed lives and souls – and trapped me again firmly in that bubble of lights and diyas and paper lanterns. I wasn’t complaining this time, even though I was away from my two homes. For I was in my third.

Buyer’s Remorse?

Reverberate your life until
the crums that once were dreams
fall off like dandruff.

You don’t live for them anymore.

The diary you had now is an
ocean of vague language. A city
is not your home, nor the

500 square feet meat grinder
you spend your nights in.

People have goals like they have
children – a careless checkbox
ticked. Voila!

We all end up in the same
gutter where the unfinished buildings
are eventually thrown to.

Expecting otherwise is a sin.