Thursday, November 11, 2010

To J.M. Coetzee, Adelaide

Dear Mr. Coetzee,

Thank you for your insightful, albeit depressing, reply. May I suggest that you cease prying into people's Facebook profiles to scavenge all the little "notes" written to you? While I am extremely flattered by your attention, I cannot help but feel you lack a certain something called life. Nonetheless, you have done your duty by replying but that must needs elicit a few words from my end. As you can tell from the time I have taken to send you my response (in the context of an instant-coffee culture), I have put some thought into what I feel would be appropriate, so kindly bear with me.

When I first read your work (I believe it was Disgrace) I was amazed by the neatness and that keen piercing quality of your prose. Worry not, this is not just your ordinary fan letter, but I must be allowed to preface my interest. What soon attracted my attention, however, was your obsession with the self and the manner in which the written word could (or could not) access that self. To cut a rather long and untidy story short, I decided to follow my initial observation and I am glad to say you have not let me down on the "self department" yet. If in the future you become so affected by my casual notes that you choose to work against my thesis, I shall consider that rare praise. Thus you see my naivete, as you so endearingly term it, is not without its own history--and one that I am more than willing and capable of defending.

Now to come to the little matter of professional academics. May I remind you that you too walked the same path you believe I am walking, several decades ago. But this is not to remind you of your own failings. The poet can hardly be that cruel to her muse. However, you are not the first (and I sincerely hope not the last either) to warn me, and if I may be allowed a rather MTV-esque reply: I don't give a tiny rat's ass. Those musty corridors of canonical texts now unfortunately house you (I delightfully refuse to add "work") and would even you go so far to disparage yourself? Ah the flipside of being a Nobel Laureate. You may refuse to go where they praise you, but praise you they will. 

I look forward to hearing from you in the future, and something tells me I have punctured your ego enough to expect another reply. If you find some of what I have said too off the cuff, feel free to let me know. I am a graduate student you know, I can fake interest far more than you think a human being capable of.

Yours sincerely

Sunayani Bhattacharya

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

JMC, a response

Dear Ms Bhattacharya,

I received your rather cryptic, and I might add intriguing, note via this vulgar contraption called Facebook. I am still not sure what to make of either the strangeness of the mode of communication or your audacity, but I feel a reply is in order.

So you believe yourself to be one of the rare individuals to be investing your academic time in my work as you try and climb the precarious ladder of graduate school. I hate to be the one bursting your psychedelic fantasy bubble, but you are probably the one thousandth person to consider my work as suitable subject for study. Perhaps they did not warn you, but the others ahead of you in the field have not fared too well. I am not a kind muse. However, since for some perverse reason you choose to persist, I feel it is my duty to acquaint you with the imminent pitfalls.

When you so peremptorily suggest that "we" need to talk (a line, by the way that was last used by my ex-wife to inform me she had had just about enough of me) you have no idea who the "other" is in this dialogue. Nor may I add, you ever will. Your naivete might have been endearing a decade or two ago, my response too might have been more favourable. Today, however, I have seen too many of the likes of you to believe any good will ever come of it. What you will eventually produce (if anything) will be a naive mix of idealism and baseless logic, supported by arguments as strong as the various anti-war protests. Once you finish basking in your momentary glory, you will realise the futility of your work as you will be relegated to the musty corridors of teaching canonical literature. When (or rather, if) you do acquire the power to teach your "area of specialisation" you will be left spouting trite arguments following the latest theoretical fad. At the end of it all, when you can no longer hide your disillusionment even from yourself, you will be resigned to having spent the better years of your life wondering what made an old man's work so special without ever having uncovered their polyvalent layers.

If, after such persuasion, your enthusiasm remains vigorous, then I can only offer my sincerest condolences.



Sunday, April 04, 2010

tukro chhobi.

spotted in a shop display in chandni. a full length poster of greta garbo smiling coyly at another poster featuring sri devi. would have been less remarkable had it not been for the sheer strangeness of the expressions.

also near chandni. a shop claiming to sell "family planning appliances". featuring images of the aforementioned "appliances" that look disturbingly like instruments belonging to a torture chamber.

sunrise. over the dingiest parts near howrah station. followed by a dawn made more spectacular by the greyness of the city. the last of the electric lights struggling to compete with a foggy sun.

late at night, this time on the way to the airport. the old way, the one you had to take through the city before the coming of the em bypass. long before rajarhat. sleepers on the pavement, people coaxing a few more minutes of a faintly breezy night. late night classic bollywood on the radio.

gariahat more. just after sundown, when you thought the place just couldn't get more crowded. hagglers, stragglers. lights. shops. the works. and the sudden silence of the little lane that leads away from the madness. you wonder how.

pavement bookstalls. keen eyes (thank you. you know who you are.) spotting a second hand copy of sartre. first edition. also being offered nancy drew while looking for hegel. it is, after all, just words.

being nagged awake on sunday mornings. yes, this too is a luxury, sometimes sorely missed. the same sunday spent doing absolutely nothing. and the feeling of despair that settles at the pit of your stomach just when the sun goes down and everything starts gearing up for the working week.

running into old, old friends. ones you thought didnt exist any more. the sheer randomness of the conversations that follow. that leave you ruminating about the "good ol' days".

realising that you are getting on in years. you remember parks, places, rickshaw rides dating back to the 80s. also that those things dont exist any more.

being inside the eden gardens again, and remembering why you had thought of the fish-eye lens in the first place. witnessing water-pouch pelting. a noticeable lack in sportsmanship.

conversations. about anything. continental philosophy. dating bollywood films to the exact month. books. boka people. the city. the south of the city. life. love. ideas. and sometimes wondering why the wind has to start up only when you can see it from inside the shop.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

yet another year comes to an end, and yet again i realise i have precious little to show for it. i consistently remain my non-achieving self, and sit down once more to do a spot of stock-taking. you could also call this an escape-from-sop-writing, but then again, life is full of nay-sayers. 2009. one significance of it could be my 25th year of existence on this here our glorious planet earth. i mean, 25 years, a quarter of a century - it's gotta count for something, right? right? right. the last couple of years have been somewhat crazy, and this one tops the list. decisions that i was supposed to regret didn't bother me a tad bit, people i was supposed to forget i couldn't stop thinking about, and loves that were'nt supposed to happen just magically did.

special mention must be made of tampa. i hate that little town and i am bizarrely fond of it. if you ask me what i miss, the vote'll go to those breathtaking sunsets, to the funny sense of independence, to some very very good friends. but that little picture of the rain that still seems so very alien refuses to go away, and makes the whole sketch soggy. all in all, i have seen the beauty, and i know it had little to do with the place. with someone it was the best place on earth. at other times...let's just say, i'd seen better.

also, i doff my non-existent cap to a certain charles harpur from new south wales, australia. you're a boil on the face of poesy, your writing sucks from here to kamchatka, and you certainly could do with clearer paleography. but thanks to your reams and reams of nonsense, i get to go back to my home away from home. it would seem bad poetry does have it's uses after all!

kolkata. where would i be without you. i have tried and failed to understand what is in this strange city that makes me want to call it home. friends, faces, places, people yes. but just that something more that you suddenly get a whiff of while perched on a rickshaw, negotiating the lanes behind dakshinapan on a winter dusk.

remember the "just so stories"? just so.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

hegel, an attempt.

to begin with, hegel. i shal leave you to discover who is was (haha!) and what really was his philosophy, and right to the heart of the matter. in his phenomenology (the obvious lack of capitalization is not a bid on my part to imitate bell hooks. far from it. in fact i believe capitalization, along with most of the english language's other idiosyncrasies, has its proper time and place. it's just that i am lazy. now, to return.) as i was saying, in phenomenology, hegel employs an investigational approach that is now widely known (and mis-known) as the dialectical method. as kierkegaard puts it, this is to understand a position/phenomenon/concept etc. by examining difference. the object and the "not" object, "not" used only most loosely in this regard to express difference, oppostion. the self, then, for hegel can be defined only by looking at what is "not" the self, what lies outside the self, what is an "other" to the self. (again, please do me the honour of not taking a monologic view of "not.")

the logic of the argument becomes somewhat clear after one accepts the foundation of reason that hegel adopts. (although, i am sorry to say, the language remains stubbornly inaccessible.) consciousness, which is not yet a self, needs to become a self consciousness to indeed be called a self. hegel charts for it a logical progression, which is also, and here i believe necessarily, a teleological one. this "consciousness" first sensually perceives the "objects" that surround it. at this stage, it is not yet aware of its own subjecthood, let alone the subjecthood of the "objects." hence the terminology.

hegel argues that this process of perceiving soon exhausts itself and leads to an impasse. the consciousness can no longer be a passive observer and now feels the need to actively engage with the world/objects. for hegel, the form that this engagement takes is that of desire.

here i must make a note to avoid charges of oversimplification, and indeed, misinterpretation. although, i do not believe that a text can ever be "wrongly" read, but that is another story. anyway, what i wish to say is that i am indeed skipping over large portions of his thesis and presenting only the emaciated skeleton. just the top of the top of the iceberg. to learn more, please feel free to read the text.

the way this desire is expressed by the consciousness is hardly a unique one, if you keep in mind the reactions of a very young child. (the analogy itself introduces further complications, but think of this as merely an example. it gets tiresome to keep typing "the consciousness." consider this my creative input.) the child desires the object that is before him/her, say a block of clay, and it manifests its desire by trying to consume/destroy the block. (again, not literally, please.) consciousness, too, desires an object and thus destroys it by consuming etc. after it has destroyed the first block, it must then transfer its desire to another object, which it must then destroy and ad infinitum.

the ability to express desire lets the consciousness know of its unique subjecthood. after all, it has identified itself as being "different" from the objects that it consumes. hegel grants the consciousness the status of a "self" consciousness, as it can now perceive difference. however, even now, this knowledge has no universal validity as the consciousness cannot find any external proof to confirm its unique existence.

the problems are obvious. and also, here the logic of the argument fails, and so hegel moves on. he then describes the meeting between two self consciousnesses. as kojeve says, let this be the meeting between the first two men. (oh sod off you feminists/gender equalists. too much work.) each self consciousness perceives the "other" as another self consciousness. the significance of the statement is that this "other" is no longer a mere object. rather, it is a self consciousness, much like the one that perceives.

this leads to the next impasse. self consciousness, in the hegelian frame of logic, needs to establish itself as unique, for it to have any validity. it needs to prove its unique existence. in order to do this, the self consciousness must be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice--it must be willing to destroy itself, its existence. paradoxical, yet necessary. after all, if you can't put your life at stake for the recognition that you seek from your "other," then that recognition cannot be of supreme importance to you.

now, like the one self consciousness desires recognition, so does the other. and so ensues the famous "battle unto death" described by hegel. both self consciousnesses stake their most precious possession--their selves--to win the most important battle. with both self consciousnesses engaged in this mortal combat (forgive the pun), the result is logically obvious. one of them has to win. the winning self consciousness is the master, says hegel, while the self consciousness that loses this battle is the slave.

here comes one of the crucial paradoxes. (what an idiotic statement. all of hegel's paradoxes are crucial. if they were mine then they would be just that, paradoxes.) in this battle to death, if one self consciousness dies, then it defeats both its own and its"other's" purpose. if it dies, it ceases to have an existence, and therefore no unique existence is possible. also, if the self consciousness dies (i.e. it is destroyed by its "other") then who is to provide the recognition that the remaining self consciousness seeks? with the "other" gone, the self consciousness can have no proof to validate its theory of unique existence and hence it is back to square one. so it is imperative for both consciousnesses to be alive. one the master, the other the slave.

apparently, the self consciousness that is the master occupies a superior position. it has engaged in a fight to death and has emerged victorious. it has reduced the "other" slavish self consciousness to the position of a "object" by expressing desire and consuming it. the slave self consciousness is bound to fulfill the desires of its master.

the slave, on the other hand, has surrendered its unique existence by succumbing to its "other." the defeat has resulted from a fear to sacrifice its existence, and so the slave self consciousness is, as the americans would variously say, a loser, a dipshit, a toolbox and many such choice terms of endearment.

however (the "aha!" moment, if you please), there are some problems. (there always are. c'est la vie.) if the slave self consciousness is indeed an object, then what is the worth of the recognition that it provides? what does the master gain by being recognised by an inferior "object"? nothing. the win itself sullies the proof that is sought. the master, very simply put, cannot overcome/transcend its position as it has achieved victory. but this victory is contingent. the master needs the slave to do the work of recognising, yet the slave's recognition is worth nothing. also, by virtue of its postion, the master is dependent on the slave for the fulfillment of the former's desires. bit of a quandry, eh?

for the slave self consciousness, now, there is a pyrrhic victory. (oh how the ghosts of the ancients refuse to depart.) it provides the crucial (!) recognition and so is conscious of the master's dependence on it. but here comes hegel's brilliant sleight of hand. the slave is close to nature through the work that it performs for the master. (nature a.k.a. the object world that surounds the self consciousness) it consumes this nature yes, but in the way of moulding it. the master, with its distance from the actual work, is incapable of directly influencing this nature. so the slave can see the products of its own work, and this reinforces its (guess what) sense of self. also, it has already experienced fear and defeat, so there is a possibility for it to transcend its present position and change. the master can only transcend through death. the master self consciousness cannot afford to change as that, in the hegelian argument, can only be toward a higher position and the master cannot attain a position higher than it already has.

so it is the slave, ultimately, who has the upper hand, and what hegel stops short of advocating, is a passage through slavery for all men. because only after a self consciousness has been enslaved can it then hope to overcome its position of disadvantage and attain a higher position.

i shall not venture into how the unhappy self consciousness comes into being, partly owing to ignorance and mostly to lack of desire. the final solution (funny, innit?) hegel proposes is that the self consciousness becomes only too aware of its unique existence and now desires an unification with "god." (too problematic to define. bugger off.) however, it also realises that it cannot ditch its unique self consciousness (then the whole project fails, non?) and so is rendered unhappy. here hegel, i am sorry to say, fudges and decides that the only way out is for there to be a "priest-like" self consciousness on whom the unhappy consciousness can dump its material glories, achievements, desires and be free for some holy fun and games.

you thought this was bad? just you wait.

an attempt, part 1

there must be a way to end my madness. put an end to it. end it. caput. finit. callitwhatyouwill. now, if you have a modicum of intelligence, you will ask me, define "madness." i understand your lack, hence i shall expect nothing from you, but will rather place the question myself. the madness, dearly beloved friend of mine, cannot be defined. at least not to you. and in reality, even to myself. because, you see, you poor besotted fool, to embark on any such adventure, i must first establish what i mean by myself, since i speak of "my" madness. as you are well aware (of course you are not, but i shall do you credit by assuming you possess such obscure knowledge), the bid to define the self has been the defining quest for western philosophy. so while for "me, poor man, my libary was dukedom enough," the journey is an attractive one, i cannot presume to even begin to have the answer.
this is not leading us anywhere, is it? in fact, i will be the first to admit that the question itself has by now been lost in this definitional banter. hence let me begin anew. or rather, let me rephrase. how do i establish the self that is at the present continuous moment experiencing a phenomenon commonly known as madness? (yes, i understand there are obvious problems with the statement/question itself, but such is the nature of language. to survive outside it is not possible, and so we make do with what we have.)
the self, then. who am i? now you are thinking, "what?! after all this rather derridean phrasing, this is what she wants to uncover? ah my pauvre deluded ami, the this that you so casually dismiss is the crux of the matter. and i will be damned if you can even begin to confront it.
let's try. i know, i know. asking to much of you, but just try not to fal asleep. okay? simple enough? here is what i shall do: given the obvious lack of knowledge on my part, i shall make a very feeble attempt to outline the theories of a few major philosophers. now by no means is this an exhaustive understanding. in fact i shall choose only certain very restricted points of view and present the case from there.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

her story

The city was wet. Rain drenched. Buildings stained by the downpour stared out of their tired windows. Soggy streets. The last of the raindrops clinging to the sodium rays of the vapour lamps. Slowly, she walked back home. Through streets that were more a part of her than most things. But tonight the city wasn't on her mind. Tonight even the rain couldn't invade her thoughts. Tonight the rain water in the cracked concrete didn't reflect the storm in her eyes.
Tonight she could only think of him. Of his eyes, and the way he looked at her. He was an alien in her city. Lost, feeling out of place. But she did not see this all at once.
All she saw were his eyes.
"You want to tell my story? Why? Why would you?" She couldn't tell him. She sensed he wanted reasons, logic even. She had none. Facile, convinient answers that would have fooled anyone else. But she couldn't lie to him...

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

sex with books

there is something almost insanely comforting about a good library. especially one where you know your way around. the huge stacks, the numerous rows of books, the silence that surrounds it all...a touch of magic is as close as i can get to describing it all in words. and when you touch the spine of those books, so patiently waiting for the day that some starving soul will pounce on them and thank the heavens for their existence. or even for the day when that very same soul comes across a long lost friend. a familiar face. a challenge. relationships that require total commitment. a book knows when it is scorned and it will return the favour. a book knows when it is loved. actually, i have no right to put it simply this way. because you, you too will know when the book rejects you. oh, they are not all good books. like you are not all good yous. but mostly we lie in the various shades of grey, a little bit of good, a little bit of bad, a little bit of a mystery. and when you find the one you want, when you finally touch the book that almost calls out for attention, then the magic begins all over again. a moment of trepidation as you open the book and read the first few sentences. will this work? will this not? a gentle dance of courtship. a bit of back and forth, a few flirtatious smiles, the frisson of sudden, unexpected brushes...and then imagine the afternoon. one sensuous pool of liquid time as the glorious afternoon drifts by. and you contemplate in your mind as you realize, damn right, high theory does turn me on!!!