Carols of Agons and Angsts – Prathap Kamath’s Tableaux: Poems of Life and Creatures

By Sandhya Pai

(Originally published in Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts)


“The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace / Something for the modern stage. . .” stated Ezra Pound categorically in Hugh Selwyn Mauberly about the direction poetry should take in the modern world.  Dr. Prathap Kamath’s second collection of poems Tableaux: Poems of life and creatures which has been published five years after his first collection Ekalavya: a book of poems (2012), captures the accelerated grimace of the present day quotidian realities by drawing our attention to a copulae of images and themes forming a staged tableau in a dense collage, as the front cover figuring Max Ernst’s Oedipus Rex signifies.  Reading Dr. Prathap Kamath’s poems, one recognizes a talent that is validly contemporaneous and justly polemic and yet retaining its universality and piquant popularity by not forfeiting fully “the obscure reveries of the inward gaze” for being just politically correct:  the reason why he is considered one of the promising young poets of India writing now in English.

If Ekalavya had hitched his wagon to the poetic skies, Tableaux helps him find a more solid terrain of rootedness and stability in the realm of poetry.  Subtitled ‘Poems of life and creatures’, the book containing 58 poems is divided into two parts titled Ex Nihilo and Anima, the first one dealing with the vignettes of contemporary world of agon and angst, polemics and poetics, while the latter explores the mysterious entelechies of the world of fauna.   Human life – its interiority and exteriority – and the world of animals, present the complementary duality of life.

Poetic creation is ever a wonder, its exact point of origin and the manner of its efflorescence baffling even the creator.  It seems to come ex nihilo, to the perplexed soul who suddenly sees himself a votary of words, pouring poetry from “a word-vessel”, emerging “a surfer on glassy seas bearing /a thousand suns in their bellies”.   There are several poems on the act of writing poetry in the collection, of being a poet, where he traces the trajectory from the genesis of a poem in a poet (‘The Lizard’) to his metamorphosis in the world of enticements and temptations (‘Tabloid becomes a Poet’) to his failings (‘Water’) and his savage attempts to scrounge for subject matter for poetry (‘Devil at Large’) and his insistence that poets remain on the solid ground of reality (‘Poets don’t allow poems to take an aeroplane’).  Even the dog is a poet, in his stillness, “musing only about barking, talking to the sea”.  Gone are the days when the poet remained “hidden in the light of thought, singing hymns unbidden”, of blithe, unseen skylarks, but now stands with his paws dug deep into the wet sand, carrying an ache for the vanished boats which have crept underneath his skin, even in his wakeless sleep.  Interestingly, the section begins and ends with poems on poets: the opening poem ‘Tabloid Becomes Poet’ setting the tone and the last poem ‘Poets don’t allow poems to take an aeroplane’ making a statement that poets “believe that poetry should stand firmly on firm ground”.

The poet may think that the poems come ex nihilo but there are several which are rooted in the contemporary Indian reality.  It seems as if mad India has hurt him into poetry.  The new India – of rape victims and rapists, beggars and waifs, squalor of suburbia, mindless accidents, and environmental issues: bursting dams, places denuded of trees in the name of development – sprawls monstrously cancerous in several poems.  “Visibility: an Indian Poem” showcases the three month old daughter of a seller of sea-shells on the beach, smiling toothlessly, throwing her limbs to the air. Her mother knows that “the future will hold brine in her cup” and covers her thighs and vagina with a rag.  The poet avers:  “For visibility is dangerous to them / Who are on the streets and behind / Doors on rusty hinges and shaky walls.” The short poem ‘Carpe Diem: very Indian’ reels in verbal montages of day-to-day tragedies which are fodder for the newspapers: endosulfan victims, children mauled by street-dogs, hanging of rape victims, farmers’ suicides.  The poet states: “It is cruel to flaunt your happiness, / in a world scrounging to hide its wounds”.  ‘Driven’ and ‘Of Chores and other Things’ distil the sorrow of rape victims. They project the calloused social mindset that accuses and alienates them, driving them to attempted suicide.  ‘The Tree’ that the poet has in mind is not the tree bearing trunk, bark, root, and other adjuncts, but one which is “a slogan that stood on railways to be”; which is “a question with an upright spine on highways to be”. . . thus the poet identifies the trees which have been destroyed in the name of mindless development.  Often the realities of the world around are presented vis à vis the workings of the inner mind, as in ‘Carpe Diem: very Indian’ and ‘Spiral Dance’ both calling to question, the workings of the conscience.  If the outer world of stark realities is portrayed graphically, the poems depicting a world within present a greater convoluted reality.  “On Dying” states that “I” shall regret only one thing, and goes on to unfurl a series of regrets.  But amidst these tragedies and regrets are some poems which demonstrate tenderness and nostalgia, respect and affection as in the poems courting Neruda-like titles, “To the very little one walking beside me on the beach road” and “I thank you for the five minutes.”

The second section Anima has several species meandering at will through its pages. Marked for its condensed presentation, the animal poems remind one of the Movement poets, but the poet stamps the members of his poetic ark with his specific touch, as in the case of the ‘Cuckoo’ which reads like a riddle. Paraded methodically in alphabetical order, the ant, the bull, the cat, the cockroach, the cow, the crow, the cuckoo, the dog (making a dual appearance), the duck, the elephant, the eagle, the fish, the kingfisher, the lizard, the snake, the spider, the termites and the tiger – critters ranging from the infinitesimal ants and termites to the gigantic pachyderm have something in them that fascinates the poet.  The bull, the poet’s own birth sign, shows the polar ways of his living: “The first with balls / And the second without it”.  The tiger is a museum animal, a comic figure denuded of its ferocity.  Prathap Kamath’s animal world throws open eschatological questions, ascend symbolic and mystical heights, becomes vehicle of satire and concern, and offers tough conundrums to crack.  In these poems, myths are created, preconceptions are dismantled, and realities are plumbed. The elephant is a majestic animal that provides tail hairs to ward off the evil eye; it is the caparisoned chariot to the ‘proxy’ gods; but its “majesty of black curvaceous geometry” gives way to the gruesome spectacle of festering wounds under the rusty chains – the quotidian reality is never far away from the allure of the animal, and it is this element of contemporary concerns that riddle his thoughts that makes his poems significant and haunting.  An observant eye which goes on to capture the haecceity of the animal is evident in the poem ‘The Kingfisher’, where “the still blue flame . . . burning on pink claws”, a “practitioner of Tao”, hooks “the fish with no bait other than / the speed of landing and nature”. At times the animal world forms a backdrop to the human world (“The Termites”) and vice versa (“The Cat”). The variety and condensation in Anima is Hopkinsian, the tone is Dickinsonian, and the metaphorical rendering of the animals often Hughes-like. The ultimate effect transcends the influences to create a uniquely ‘Prathapian’ feel, much rooted in the terra firma of commonplace Indian experiences.

Irony, satire, whimsy, nostalgia, tenderness, sorrow, melancholy, morbidity, humour, awe and appreciation parade in variation throughout the collection.  The language parades chic and debonair in a top hat in certain places, suddenly appearing desi in a rakish turban knotted round the head: “whoknowswhat” (‘Tabloid becomes Poet’), “vrooms the animal” (‘Vroom’), “Chi chi” “‘Her man is her god’ we all know” (‘Ceiling fans on long stalks’).  To convey the ‘unconveyable’ precise nuance or meaning, he plays with the language in mad abandon: “The tree is a was that has left its abode in the mind” (‘The Tree’) says the poet trying to convey the absence of the tree; similarly, he is envious of the spider’s “world wide web-ability” (‘The Spider’). Coined compounds such as “fang-titillating”, “boulder-shooting” (‘The Dam’), “mind-earth”, “mind-sky” (‘The Tree’), “rain-petal touch”, “my sky-face” “ensign-large fingers” (‘To the very little one. . . ‘), “gleeful walk-ons, dark thought-scowlers” (‘Bibliophilus’) create graphic pictures in the mind of the reader.  Clichés are kept in abeyance, and certain statements convey profound truths in the most novel manner as in, “You are a definite article / In my sentences of truth” (‘The Spider’).  Images litter the poems variously and abundantly, but leaving a modernist mark in his poems are medical images of diseases, medical procedures and human physiology, rendering a starkness and contemporaneity to his poems.

It rests upon the writer to make sense out of the world he inhabits.  As the bard of the times, he tries to make vineyards of the innumerable curses that this land is heir to. He has to find his idiom, image and language to convey this contemporary reality that eludes elucidation. But for those to whom poetic impulse is irrepressible, they will find a way to forge a poetic vehicle of their own.  And so like Jaroslav Seifert, our poet too cries, “Flare up, flame of words, /and soar, / even if my fingers get burned!” What Prathap Kamath says in his poem ‘That Dog is a Poet’, fits him to a tee: “He’s a poet out and out”.  For truly, Poetry becomes Prathap.


Book: Tableaux: Poems of life and creatures

Author: Prathap Kamath

Publishers:, Allahabad

First Edition: 2017

Price: INR Rs. 200/- ; US $15





That Dog Is a Poet



See the way he stands on his lean legs

motionless, forgetting his dogness,

only musing about barking,

talking to the sea.

His paws dig deep into the wet sand

as he watches the silky blue rippling blanket,

the sea, it’s so calm and silent today.

He’s a poet out and out.

See he wouldn’t wag his tail

to his master sporting sun-glasses

but would rather contemplate the lone boat

floating over the eastern side of the sea.

There is only one boat today;

where are the others!

He’d like to think about the others;

The others seem to have crept under his skin.

He carries an ache for the others

Even in his wakeless sleep –

And what a dog is he!

Stillness is all that he is.

While the whole world is in motion

reaching for each other’s throats

baring the teeth, tongues dangling,

that dog is all stillness

as though he knows, you see,

as though he knows.

You might even catch in his unblinking eyes

the hint of a contemptuous smile.



India and the ‘art’ of public asset maintenance


Our indifference to maintenance of public property outwits the very concept of rationality. Indians have scant regard for the proverbial truth, “Do it now and you’ll need one stitch. Do it later and you’ll need 9 stitches!” In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert M. Pirsig says, “ . . . maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself.” His statement on motorcycle maintenance holds good to ‘maintenance’ in general. He would say, “The motorcycle [maintenance] is primarily a mental phenomenon.” As a corollary, one might deduce that distortion of that mental phenomenon by one’s nature may adversely affect its realization too.  Put otherwise, an apathetic man would either make a mess of maintenance, or simply push the very idea under the carpet of his apathy. And if the man is the specimen of a society, then, he is a citizen of the land of apathy. One might wonder whether Indians’ apathy to the maintenance of their public assets is endemic to their nature!

Now look at the condition of our public roads, toilets, parks, conveyance and waste disposal. Though there has been a bevy of self-criticism in this regard down the years, nothing seems to have transpired. Public funds siphoned off for maintenance disappear through unseen drains. “Indian roads” have become a metaphor for impassable roads to the extent that automobile companies specially design vehicles with the power to endure them. We engage in the travesty of their annual repair only to have their bones bared in the next monsoon. Our parks are amply littered. Our public comfort stations are famed for their ‘aroma’ which their users seem to cherish with no complaints. We are happily used to shaky seats and torn berths in our public buses and railway coaches. Since this a geographically vast country, waste disposal is not an issue at all as long as the public roadsides are available for them. We would scarcely care to throw waste in a dustbin posted for it, just because we think “what is the difference!” We have no worries about our poor children studying under leaking roofs, or relieving themselves behind bushes because of  clogged toilets at the school. After all, aren’t we also known for our stoicism!

Recently, the photograph of a couple of European tourists engaged in picking waste from roadside appeared in the newspapers. It also had in its frame wayfarers taking snaps of this mysterious act. I am sure these clicks had gone viral over social media, scoffing the conspiratorial act of the foreigners. We were always sure that the “white man’s burden” had been an imperialist strategy.

Romila Thapar’s The Public Intellectual in India

Thapar, Romila et al. The Public Intellectual in India. Ed. Chandra Chari and Uma Iyengar. New Delhi: Aleph, 2015. Pp. 170.

“People’s suffering must never be allowed to remain the silent residue of politics,” Foucault said in a press statement in 1981. It was his call to the citizens of the world to  confront governments who, through their deeds, are responsible for the suffering of the people. The people’s suffering are the outcome of human rights violation and exploitation by vested interests. But in what capacity does Foucault and his like keep calling upon societies and governments to rethink their positions and priorities? What gives his statement its ethical authority? The answer is, his being a public intellectual. All the same, upon second thought we may also realize that the concept of a public intellectual  is more taken for granted than closely delved into. India, with its rampant communal sectarianism and corruption-driven politics, is a country where ‘public intellectual’ is little understood and given heed to. Romila Thapar’s book The Public Intellectual in India is an admirable attempt to bridge this lacuna in the public consciousness of the country.

It is a compilation of seven essays on the eponymous theme by seven writers including Thapar, along with her “Introduction” and “Conclusion”. The six essays following Thapar’s are responses to the propositions she makes in hers, and each one is moored on a particular point of view. In the “Introduction” Thapar anguishes about the diminishing space of the public intellectual in present-day India. As a corollary, she also explores the change that has come over the public intellectual’s role because of the changed zeitgeist and attitudes of the power centres. She states, “Initially [the public intellectuals’] concerns were with establishing democratic functioning and respect for citizenship, ensuring human rights and social justice, and protecting the underprivileged and those on and below the line of poverty. Today the focus is shifting to questions of religious identity and assertions of those that form the majority community, deepening the demarcation between communities and weakening social justice and the institutions that sustain society” (xiii). The intolerance free thought and expression meet with these days from Hindutva forces is the major cause of her concern. According to her, the basis of the ideology of Hindutva is a by-product of the colonial project. However, this fact has been glossed over by its ideologues. She points to the growing cases of banning books and films in India in recent times. Many public intellectuals have succumbed to such intolerance manifesting in threats, and withdrawn into the silence of self-censorship.

In her essay “To question or not to question? That is the question” Thapar’s objective is to define the concept and function of the public intellectual: “Public intellectuals frequently concern themselves with issues related to human rights and to the functioning of society, such that it ensures the primacy of social justice” (1). A public intellectual would be a person who has a “recognized professional stature” and seeks “explanations for public actions from those in authority” (8). She takes an overview of the European ancestry of public intellectuals and then comes to the Indian referring to people from Socrates to Emile Zola and Buddha to Bulleh Shah of Punjab, till E.V. Ramasami Periyar of the modern times. She elaborates on the issue of intimidation coming from Hindutva groups and the consequent narrowing of the liberal space citing several instances. With reference to the eponymous theme of her essay, she argues that the important task of the public intellectual now is to enlarge the liberal space, non-violently overcoming the repression unleashed by reactionary powers.

Sundar Sarukkai, a Manipal University-based philosopher in his essay “To question and not to question: That is the answer,” explores the philosophical dimensions of Thapar’s poser. He links the faculty of questioning as well as of not questioning to that of the habit of doubting or not doubting. Sarukkai explores the history of doubt in the philosophy of foreign and Indian schools of thought. Methodical questioning is an attitude that is difficult to sustain because of the large amount energy required for it. Therefore, in order to live without having to raise questions on each and every doubt, we take recourse to the intellectual habit of taking for granted certain foundational beliefs in order to reach an understanding of things. Therefore, the public intellectual shall most effectively function in critically probing into such foundational beliefs that enable questioning as well as non-questioning, because such beliefs have the danger of turning into the bases of authority of all sorts.

Dhruv Raina, a JNU Professor of Physics, in an article titled “Science and Democracy,” focuses on the “institutional transformation of science over the last couple of decades”. This has changed the relation between science and the public and also the critical discourse on science and society. Present-day scientific research is dependent on large scale funding and consequently has become subservient to the interests of the funding agencies which are capitalistic. This has shorn science of its erstwhile commitment to democracy and social welfare, and has thus “muted its critical voice”.

“Living between thought and action,” the fourth article in the book by Peter Ronald Desouza, probes into two of Thapar’s criteria for being a public intellectual, viz. her being an ‘autonomous thinker’ and her being an ‘advocate of social justice’. For this professor at CSDS, there exists a creative tension between these two entities. While the former is intellectual in nature the latter is ethical and proactive, and the public intellectual needs to maintain a precarious balance between the two. He examines his proposition in the light of the cases of three persons – Priya Pillai, a Green Peace activist, Yeshyahu Leibovitz, an Israeli professor, and Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi blogger killed recently by religious extremists. These are instances of public intellectuals who were put to severe tests regarding the two callings of a public intellectual referred to by Desouza. However, he laments the dwindling number of such people during these days of fundamentalist revival. There are many potential public intellectuals who have succumbed to its violent intolerance and withdrawn into silence.

Neeladri Bhattacharya, a professor of history at JNU, takes exception of Thapar’s tendency to celebrate the public intellectuals of the past who had been courageous enough to defy authority. In his “Framing a question: Questioning a frame” he argues for a critical reconsideration of the past instead of its celebration leading to a despairing over the ‘dismal present’. The last essay in the book “The Indian intellectual and the Hindu-Muslim trap” by the journalist Javed Naqvi suggests that the public intellectuals of present-day India should come out their trait of the ‘romanticizing of victimhood’. He also points out that because of the Indian dependency on the Hindu/Muslim binary, the graver social issue of the discrimination against the Dalits is sidelined.

The mind is dreaming



The mind is dreaming
Poor thing
It only knows that dream
Is the breath of life
The last cord of life
It’s clinging to
Clinging to
As if to a self-eating vice.
The pastures of the earth
Have dried out,
Its wells and springs
Have sunk and parched.
Like a man neck-deep in ice water
Seeking warmth from distant fires
To ward off death
It clings to dream.
It has learnt now to forget
Fears of loss and pains of want.
It has habituated itself
To the deserts of disillusion.
The mind is dreaming now
Poor thing
It only knows that dream
Is its last breath of life.


On dying  

I shall regret only one thing;

The books I could have read.

It means the birds I could have flown with,

The planets I could  have landed on,

The chasms I could have fallen in,

The lights I could have seen by.

I shall regret only one thing;

The places I could have visited.

It means the woods I could have slept in,

The cities I could have drunk about,

The faces I could have talked into,

The airs I could have flown through.

I shall regret only one thing;

The words I couldn’t have spoken.

It means the books I could have unwritten,

The truths I could have unbelied,

The thoughts I could have unlearned,

The dreams I could have undisbelieved.

I shall regret only one thing  . . .

Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman: How good is it as a novel?

How good is Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman (Madhorubhagan, 2010)) as a novel? Considering the amount of energy spent on the controversy it originated, this question may occur as redundant. Why take heed of a novel, even if to take moral offence of its propositions, if it is not good enough for serious consideration! Underground or substandard literatures abound in severer heresies and blasphemies. But who cares! So, Murugan’s novel’s claim to significance is undisputable, also given that even the learned judges of Madras High Court have attested to its noteworthiness in their eloquent judgement. Its literary merit has been endorsed earlier by the awards it had won during the time before the controversy erupted. That Penguin chose to publish its translation in English itself is enough to authenticate its merit. Therefore the original question might be discussed only on the slippery grounds of critical impressionism, and the bailout would only be the claim that all judgements are primarily cradled on personal impressions.

A critical judgement on a novel’s generic “goodness” would be conditioned by the reader’s aesthetic expectations and also by his/her criterion of its significance. I shall base my judgement here on Murugan’s novel in the light of two criteria, one aesthetic and the other, its significance.  I limit my aesthetic criterion to its unity of impression or effect, and my criterion of significance to the  relevance of its theme.

I believe that One Part Woman is an instance of technical failure. That is, it would have been much palatable aesthetically had the author chosen to weed out its redundant and fortuitous passages. Because of their presence the novel reads as disorganized and insufficiently processed. Its readers would have felt impatient with the digressions he resorts to from the moment Ponna begins her fatal journey to the temple at Chapter 22 till the narration of the ‘climax’ she and the novel reaches at Chapter 32 with her falling head over heels for her god/paramour. This journey is the turning point in her as well as the novel’s life, and the novel has reached this point after convincingly building upon the circumstances that have led her to this juncture of moral compromise. This is when the spectre of logorrhoea possesses Murugan; it seems that his need to increase word count overcomes his sense of narrative economy. This malady grips him at a time when he has pushed the reader to the acme of suspense so much so that his/her yearning for relief from its tension is at its peak. Now, the only thing the reader would want to know is if she actually succumbs to the call to mate with a stranger. But Murugan makes you feel as if having to stand waiting in front of the loo for the insider to get out (and it seems he would never) with your bladder full to the point of bursting. Or was Murugan just yielding his sense of proportions to the market needs of the publisher? I prefer to believe in the latter reason. Thus, the novel falls short of delivering its aesthetic promise because of this avoidable clumsiness of craft. Its translated version cannot be evidenced for the quality of Murugan’s language, though Anirudhan Vasudevan, the translator, needs to be appreciated for encasing it well into the English idiom. Murugan’s eye for the details of agrarian rural life and culture is commendable and happens to be the saving grace of the novel.

Murugan’s motivation to write the novel seems to have been more to cash in on the sensational ritual that had supposedly existed at the Tiruchengode Ardhanareeswara temple  than on representing the existential agonies of childlessness. The latter, though a universal theme and has caused agony of varying kind and degree contingent on its socio-cultural context, is clichéd as a subject for a contemporary novel unless some peculiar effects of its validates its selection for novelistic treatment in the present. Thus, for instance, it may be evoked to consider the problems of asexual surrogacy which is a contemporary reality in the wake of scientific invention. This factual base in reality is necessary for treating a social subject in a novel that makes no claims of being a fantasy like Harry Potter. Therefore, the thematic significance of One Part Woman should be grounded on the historicity of the said orgiastic ritual that licenses Ponna’s deviation into adultery. Murugan had reportedly written a preface to its original version in Tamil claiming that he possessed documentary evidence of the said ritual. (Interestingly, Penguin did not include this preface in the English translation.) However, he failed to produce the evidence at the peace meeting initiated by government officials at Thiruchengode consequent on the agitations against the novel. The judgement of the High Court assumes that Murugan was coerced into making an apology at the meeting by the violence taking place because of him. However, there is no denying the fact that the practice at the temple in which childless women mated with strangers for begetting child had not existed in the modern times. It has been anachronistically thrusted on the fictive events located in the 1940s in the novel. That which provoked the protests is the author’s unsubstantiated claim regarding the practice’s existence in the novelistic time of 1940s. This might be compared to a situation in which a novel claims within a realistic framework that sati (banned in 1861) was being practised in the mid twentieth-century Kerala or Tamil Nadu with public sanction. Only Murugan’s claim is worse considering the slur it castes on women’s morality. It would have been a greater artistic challenge for him to frame the ritual in his novel within  its original historical context. But he chose the easier way by cheating on the reader’s trust in his claims.


Reality continues to ruin my life


“Reality continues to ruin my life.” The picture of a little girl in a pink frock opening her bulky school-bag had carried this caption. And it felt as if no other caption would have suited the littlun’s plight better than it. The oppressive school-bag loaded with A4-size texts and note books was, no doubt, the nemesis of the girl’s otherwise idyllic life. Without its burden on her tender spine, as she trundled along the dusty road to school, life would have been as good as a sweet dream for her despite the daily grind of the school. But reality will have its way. No avoiding it, even in early childhood. And ruin life it will, not only for the little children, but to the children of all ages. To me, to you and to all the citizens of the world of latent dodgers of reality who carry within them the dream of a peaceful, uterine existence.

Reality is that burden we carry on our backs, destined to carry, on the road of life. Anything that feels as a burden, something we would like to get rid of at the earliest opportunity, may be called reality. Only its form changes, its weighty nature remains. Always in life we have the feeling of having a burden on our back. Burden may materialize as too little wealth or too much of it, or pain, disease, failure, fear, want, dissatisfaction or whatnot. Hence, even if the little girl’s books have been replaced by a little pc tablet, she might still have the burden of examinations, marks and the anxiety of not getting covetable rewards contingent on the outcome of examinations, to carry on her back. Which would be a more critical burden as things stand.

But if everyone were licensed to withdraw into their little homes of burdenless comfort, what will come to the world? Who will till the soil and sow seeds and reap the grains that make our grub? Well, how at all will we grab our share of the means for existence in a world of competition (another reality!) unless we too justify our share by sharing also the burden of toil that takes to make it? So, isn’t the school-bag a symbol of the equipment we all have to carry to till the soil and reap the grains of existence! There seems to be no space for doubt. Man, you have been celestially cursed to live by the sweat of thy brows. No escaping that weight that will wring precious brine out of your scorched bodies.

So what will come to our dreams? Will we never have it except in death? Gloomy thoughts. But no. There is a career in being a hardcore professional dreamer. You will not have to carry any burden (read as work). Actually, your only action will be a public demonstration of your happy, burdenless existence, which may be achieved by performing dances of happiness or meditations or simply not sticking on to anything the way burden-carriers live their lives. And pave the way for poor reality buffs to attain some vicarious weightlessness through their primal propensities to mimic you. That is, be a Buddha or an Osho, or a Krishnamurthy, not to name any living gurus or market-savvy godhumans. Not all will have to die on cross. The only happy challenge for such a one will be to never deviate into a craving for the burden of reality.







Julio Cortazar’s “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris”


Argentine writer Julio Cortazar’s story “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris” evinces his genius for unveiling the hidden order and connections between things. As you go on reading, magical realism would throw little, delightful surprises at you. At the end, you realize that its finely knit embroidery is a shroud spread on a saddening tragedy of life.

The story is a letter the caretaker of a house in Buenos Aires writes to its landlady called Andrea, who is on a sojourn in Paris. He seems to be too guilt-ridden about intruding “on a compact order, built even to the finest nets of air” the house exudes. He is too reluctant to change even the position of a tray on the dining table to make it more convenient for his personal use, out of fear of disturbing that order. But soon he reveals that, however, the purpose of the letter is not to share this feeling, but to tell her about “the rabbits.”

The rabbits are not what Andrea (or you the reader) might expect. They are the tiny rabbits the letter-writer is wont to vomit now and again. He had been facing this problem for some time. But he had hitherto kept it as a secret. At his own house he had a set up in the balcony to keep them in flowerpots nourished with cloves, hidden from the eyes of the others.  He would leave them there, one at a time for he vomited a rabbit only once in a month or so, and would go about with his normal life. When the rabbit grew up, he would make a present of it to a certain friend of his, who believed that growing rabbits had been his hobby. But at Andrea’s house the event grew more frequent, and in a short period he had about eleven little rabbits at hand. In order to hide them from Sara, the maid and only other person living at the house, he kept them closed inside a wardrobe in Andrea’s bedroom which he had been using for himself. He fed them with cloves, and let them out in the room only during nights when Sara was asleep in her room. At dawn he put them back in the wardrobe. But, at the time he was writing the letter, the issue had gone out of his hand. The bunnies had by then grown too big to be contained in the wardrobe; they had eaten up or destroyed all the valuable books inside the wardrobe and also the chair-covers, the rugs and whatnot. He ends the ‘fatal’ letter disclosing that he had been now driven to take the ultimate step to get rid of them for good. But that can’t be done without also getting rid of himself, right? Therefore he says that the following morning people at the street below the balcony would be busy removing the body other than those of the rabbits, which too would be lying scattered around but not much noticed.

Yes, the story is a puzzle thrown at your face, however delightful it is. It may not take much time for you to solve it with the most easily available key of a symbolic interpretation – that the bunnies represent the skeleton every man keeps guarded in his cupboard of civilization. But would that suffice? Doesn’t the story point at something that defies interpretation, an ever-evasive déjàvu? Isn’t the tragic feeling at the end evocative of a cruel sneer at the puniness of human existence? Or would it only merit a mischievous chuckle of yours?


Peter Matthiessen’s Absent Snow Leopard

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A reading of Peter Matthiessen’s famed travelogue The Snow Leopard  (1978) impresses an overwhelming sense of the absence of the known. His journey through the snowy terrains of the Himalayas seems to have been to see the snow leopard. But, he never encounters a real snow leopard. However, his friend George Schaller, a naturalist and partner in his journey, gets a glimpse of the evasive cat. A glimpse, yes, just in order to attest the reality of this animal in its habitat. Schaller is an acclaimed zoologist, so his identification of the glimpsed animal cannot be erratic. The snow leopard exists after all, but does it for Matthiessen? For him, the eponymous creature is a phenomenon of thought, a ‘thought leopard.’ Like the impending presence of the mythical creature Yeti, the snow leopard too lurks in the unknown waiting for that accidental time when it would make its glorious appearance. But that never happens.

Ergo, what is most remarkable of this book are its thoughts. Thoughts fill the vacuum present. The throbbing silence and snowy vastness of the mountains engulf the narrator as well as the reader. I feel the coldness of the rocks; my hands and feet go numb. The blood faces the horror of coagulating in the cold. The very sky becomes a layered roof of translucent ice. Could physical reality be so utterly motionless! Only the warmth of thoughts can set in a thaw upon the frozen mind. The meditative stillness of the Dolpa region on the Tibetan plateau becomes an ‘objective correlative’ for the cogitative existence of the snow leopard.

And Matthiessen’s thoughts are the true springs of life energy. He has been a Zen Buddhist by choice and had come to Tibet in search of his distant metaphysical home, the places were Buddhism had taken roots and flourished. He is not entirely unsuccessful in fulfilling his desire. He reaches his destination, the Crystal Monastery at Shey Gompa in Dolpa and meets its Lama Tupjuk. But did be actually find his home there? No, because the home he has been searching was, in truth, a home of the mind; an ideal home nowhere to exist but only in the mind. So he contemplates incessantly on his religion, its history and philosophy. Buddha is not out there, but in the chant Om Mani Padme Hum he frequently spells or refers to; the chant itself being the ephemeral self he seeks to find upon the road of his faith.

Throughout the trek, Matthiessen is assailed by the painful thouhts about the tragic end of his wife Deborah Love. She had died recently of cancer, and he had been at her bedside when she breathed her last. The solitude of the altitudes does not free him from the thoughts of his once bitter-sweet love/Love. They used to seek together for highs on drugs; now on the Himalayas, he prods among the frozen bushes for shoots of cannabis. He would drowse his aching memories in a glass of country arrack.

Peter, how lonely you have been over the snow-drenched rocks with Deborah’s specter dogging your steps. She haunted your mind every now and then pushing you into the throny alleys of guilt; your relations had soured towards her last healthy days. Memories of your children and home in distant America overcame you consequently, unleashing your spirit which you wanted to tie down to your spiritual pursuits. Wasn’t it from her spirit that you were fleeing into the folds of the Himalayas? Wasn’t it she you have been searching in your perilous journey across the chasms of the peaks. Wasn’t she your snow leopard, your absent known?