Realism is magic

I’m a literature nerd, as I realise today. And an arts nerd as well. Have always been.

How do I know? It’s the way I go on about this painting or that book, for hours, as if people with job worries and child worries and health worries are dying to know why the dog is such a ubiquitous presence in Canaletto’s pictures. Yes, Antonio Canal (1697–1768), of the Venice and London fame. He’s got a man piddling against a wall right next to the canal grande in one of those panoramas – or should we say vistas of Venice? Made me think of Kolkata. No wonder: my mother saw the photos I’d taken of the backstreets (back canals? Bacchanals? Sorry, nerd joke) of Venice and said they looked just like the flooded lanes and bylanes of North Calcutta during the rains.

To return to the canine, Canaletto’s dogs litter his fantasy landscapes as well. And stray dogs seem to have been as common on San Marco square in Canaletto’s day as they were in Kolkata in mine. Rembrandt’s etching of the Good Samaritan from 1633 has a dog shitting in the foreground, right on the doorstep. All these dogs and dog-lovers of the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries make me thoughtful.

And the thought is spelt out in bold letters right on top of this blog: Realism is magic. I wanted to have that as my motto or my credo or whatever – where do all these Latin words come from? Ask a nerd. The first characteristic of this particular literary and arty-farty nerd that we’re talking about (ahem, there’s modesty for you) was that he fell in love with realism at an early age – shortly after Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum (1959) and years before Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981). In other words, I said no to magic realism and proclaimed – to myself – that realism is magic. At least all the magic that I needed. And it’s remained that way ever since.

I did not even realise that I was falling in love with Europe at the same time, because this is the continent where realism was born (leaving out palaeolithic cave and rock paintings for the moment), especially in the arts, visual as well as the plastic arts such as painting and sculpture – look at Greek sculpture or its Roman counterpart. Go to the Duomo di Pisa – the Pisa cathedral – and you’ll see in the murals near the altar how the Middle Ages are straining towards the Renaissance by becoming more realistic. And then there’s that explosion called the Renaissance, my favourite being the English one in terms of literature and the Florentine one in terms of sculpture and painting.

What did you say? Nothing? I distinctly heard you mutter: ‘Nerd.’

Realism is perspective, of course, which means geometry, will blow your mind to realise just how much! And then you’ll have to read about Brunelleschi’s two-point peep-shows and Masolino’s St. Peter Healing a Cripple (1425) and about Raphael, above all Raphael. You’ll be told that it took nearly 400 years to understand the intricacies of perspective – by which time you’d have landed among the Impressionists! And if realism is a flowering tree, then Impressionism is its cherry-pink-and-apple-blossom-white; Impressionism is the short and tantalisingly beautiful springtime of realism (which includes naturalism, of course, so far as I am concerned). Impressionist paintings represent the Europe that I fell in love with, coming from a land of symbolic and decorative art as I do, both highly stylised. I fell in love with the Europe where realism was king as well as emperor – with or without clothes, new as well as old.

The joke is that if you look at the best of Bengali or Hindi literature, especially in the prose form, especially the novels and the short stories from the first six decades of the twentieth century, you’ll realise that realism has been king in India too – but mainly in literature. Modern Indian painting made the transition to the abstract a bit too soon, I feel.

What? Have I finished? Yes, I am done, you can go and watch The Big Bang Theory now. But remember what I was trying to tell you: Delhi consists of nine cities built on top of each other, they tell me. Europe is just like that, only that all those cities seem to have survived, often side by side. You can visit them and compare the slightly pink Candoglia marble on the façade of the Milan cathedral with the white sang-i-marmar of the Taj Mahal, if you’re that kind of a nerd.

Which you’re not, I’m sure. So how come you read this blog to the end?

The very first blogger

The very first blogger was Love.

I mean that first love letter I wrote at the age of seventeen or eighteen to – we’ll let that be – in chinese ink, for God’s sake, with a sketch at the end of it like the illustrations to begin and close the chapters in an old Mitra & Ghosh publication. What did I think I was doing? Creating epistolary literature and ‘illuminating’ my manuscripts both at the same time? The lover and the poet? The poet and a novice monk out of Umberto Eco?

There used to be a large dose of asceticism as well as aestheticism in those analogue blog letters of mine, or should I say ours? After all, I’m talking about My Generation, about to disappear from view as if on a revolving stage. We were prudish too, hence no overt sexual allusions or innuendos in our letters. And yet sex used to rise like sap in those innocent scribblings. It was like W.B. Yeats the Irish poet going into the woods and crying out loud to get rid of his sexual frustration – as an adolescent. Same fellow would be writing the Crazy Jane poems later.

I couldn’t talk about what I really felt, in my very first love letter, so I talked about everything else – the parah or the block that we lived in, the city of which our parah was an insignificant part and I don’t remember what else. But I discovered the blog in the process, long before anybody had ever seen or heard of a PC – at least in Kolkata.

A blog is an oblique, crab’s way of approaching things. You watch a blog move and you’ll realise how naturally the thought runs this way and that, over this and under that, seems to go nowhere and then in circles – and still manages to do and to get what it wants, which can be food or sex or poetry. Blogs are insect life among the grass roots under the fallen leaves. Blogs are the biomass making up twelve percent of world literature.

Two of my girlfriends from the days when Muhammad Ali used to be Cassius Clay are still holding on to my first blogs, which they believe are love letters – as if every book were a love letter to the person named in the dedication.

In our days, love letters were the young man’s and the young woman’s first brush with literature – nothing adventurous like Hemingway going out and shooting greater kudu in Africa; maybe just that glimpse of the tiger in the reserve forest, of the lion in the game park, of literature in all her majesty yawning at the games that people play. Huh, Cassius Clay!

All literature is written as if a young girl were listening to it – like someone reading out Goethe’s Wahlverwandtschaften lying on a scented meadow in Falkau-Altglashütten in the Black Forest, while the girl chews absently on a grass stalk, otherwise stares dreamily at the silver fox farm on the opposite slope. Is she listening? And who cares whether Goethe wrote the stuff or I did?

All literature is narcissism – and that pond, that pool of water in which the poor fool saw his own reflection and fell in love with it, is the face of a young girl, a young woman, reading her first love letter – or what she thinks is the first love letter written to her, specifically to her. Let’s go back to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, if anybody still knows who the bugger is, or was.

Narcissus, totally in love with himself, was walking in the woods when Echo, an Oread or a mountain nymph, fell in love with him. Narcissus could sense he was being followed, so he cried: “Who’s there?” Echo only dared to echo back: “Who’s there?” When Echo finally told Narcissus that she was in love with him, Narcissus naturally told her to eff off – which left Echo heartbroken. She spent the rest of her days in lonely glens echoing her own sentiments and ours, I believe, in the process.

A blog is the echo that remains of all the unrequited love – for a girl, for a man, or even for art and literature –that life is made of and that we all carry in our hearts.