Blogging is…

… as much an activity as it is inactivity. Blogs have no gist or substance. Blogs are pure style. Blogs are a fashion statement. Clear as mud?

Before anybody pipes up and complains that the fellow doesn’t even know the difference between a blog and a post, I do know that a blog consists of individual posts but I simply cannot reconcile myself to the idea of asking the unwary to look up my last post, which would be the b flat bugle call for the British infantry or the e flat trumpet call for the British cavalry, we ex-colonials know such things, don’t ask me how or why.

The kind of blog I write begins with a mood rather than a subject or a theme. It’s like music, really, the theme develops as you go along. It’s like going for a walk in a strange city, roughly in the direction of that funny sort of park or that crazy sort of building; what you see on the way is the real attraction & the real gain. You might even be going round in circles, so long as you are amusing yourself. And others. We meander to wonder & muse to amuse.

Otherwise bloggers & their readers are not very close. Rather like chance acquaintances who got to talking (at least one of them) on a train (rather than on a cruise ship, at a bus stop neither). The reader – like as not a chance reader who was googling something entirely different like Sex – takes the blogger for a crank or a nut, even a streaker, what’s this guy doing tearing his passions to tatters in public? Doesn’t the (blanked out obscenity) know that nobody reads a blog, or rather a post till the end, that most of them are just checking to see what kind of a wack you might be & whether you write better than them & whether you are funnier than them & the rest?

I blog the way one goes out for a walk and picks a posy for – well, a girl I used to know. In music, the notes come to the musician like little birds. In poetry, the words come like little birds and take their self-appointed place in the line of verse. In blogging, the thoughts do the same. It’s all a great coming and going of thoughts of the same feather & of different feathers & even borrowed feathers – a very lively scene. And then suddenly the calls of the words cease, everything falls silent, there is somnolence and the blog hardly stirs, but the meaning of it all dances like a mote in a sunbeam. Your blog has arrived, it has completed the four stages of its holometabolism, from embryo to larva to pupa to imago. Pupa is Latin for doll. The pupae of butterflies are called chrysalis whereas the pupae of mosquitoes are called tumbler – all the mad poetry of chance knowledge which is the modern world for me; it is also the world of blogging. Blogging is like scavenging the land fills of human knowledge & human experience. It is the recycling of all that is utilizable in human thought. Bloggers are the ultimate ragpickers of human existence, of human civilisation in the 21st c. Historians of the future will be turning to us for an explanation regarding how Donald Trump won the American presidency. “Cuz you weren’t lookin’,” we’re gonna say.

Otherwise I’m not a political blogger. I’m a literary, even a lyrical blogger, I’d like to claim (though no insurer is going to underwrite that claim). Blogging is my way of writing poetry without anybody noticing it; it’s like graffiti. I remember they’d just built the new Wallraf-Richartz museum near the Cologne cathedral and I’d gone to the toilet, which was dazzlingly new & modern & white, except that in one of the cubicles somebody had scribbled with a marker: “A museum of modern art without graffiti?” That is blogging for me. Blogging is like the scavenging peacocks of Gonda, Uttar Pradesh, India (back in the late ’seventies), birds looking like stolen bits of semiprecious inlay work from the Taj Mahal scraping garbage heaps for worms with their feet. That again is blogging. Watching it rain all day long in the Kolkata of my childhood. Hanging around the Ballygunge Railway Station level crossing watching the signals hang their heads. And much later in Europe, everythng packed and all ready to go for the holidays, the two big suitcases & the bag can go into the boot but where does the rest of the stuff go? Kasia is asking belligerently.

Into the blog, perhaps? I venture timidly.

The pity of it, Iago, the poetry of it

That’s what Othello should have said, like the rest of us, by which I mean Shakespeare’s readers & audiences four-hundred-and-thirteen years later. What Othello said was ‘but yet the pity of it, Iago! O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!’

Othello, Act IV, Scene I. Othello is still impressed by Desdemona’s needlework – ‘so delicate with her needle’ – and moved by her singing – ‘will sing the savageness out of a bear’; he admires her ‘high and plenteous wit and invention’. He has previously called her ‘A fine woman! A fair woman! A sweet woman!’ Has proclaimed that ‘the world hath not a sweeter creature’, one ‘fit to lie by an emperor’s side’. And yet he now intends to ‘chop her into messes’ for cuckolding him. Sound familiar? The fact that Othello the Moor strangles Desdemona can be seen as a crime passionnel as well as an honour killing. Isn’t that very much like our twentieth century or the not unsimilar one that followed?

What is not 20th or 21st c. in that scene is precisely Othello’s regret: the pity of it, Iago. If Othello had had just a bit more of Hamlet’s equivocation, he might have killed himself instead of killing Desdemona. Let’s fantasize. What if Dreamworks had hired Shakespeare to make a film of the ‘American Beauty’ sort out of Othello? Wow, Desdemona in rose petals, Othello smoking marijuana. They’d have asked old Will to take a good look at Sam Mendes’ film, which would certainly have been to Will’s taste, I’m sure. ‘There’s enough there for ten plays,’ Will would have said.

And then they’d have asked him about the scene he liked best. ‘The plastic bag scene,’ Will would have said: ‘Give you the Swan theatre and the apron stage for that.’ Why? Ricky holds his camcorder in any direction on any subject and out comes the dance of the plastic bag; what’s so special about that? It’s the first half-metaphor Will has seen in a Hollywood film which is in effect a full metaphor – Will says. What’s a half-metaphor? ‘That’s what they’re calling an old trick of mine these days,’ Will says. ‘I’m sure you had to do Macbeth’s soliloquy about to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow in your secondary, didn’t you? Remember what I wrote? All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Now, how do tomorrows turn into yesterdays? By dying, they die. Death, dusty death – dust to dust returns. The funeral procession: do not all our days point the way to the inevitable end, are they not the mourners, the candle-bearers to our own mortality? I’m not here to give you an online correspondence course on half-metaphors – let me just remind you of what that Francis Thompson fellow phrased so surprisingly well some time back’ (actually a century & more). ‘Thompson wrote: “Turn but a stone, and start a wing!” Now, what do you start when you turn a stone? A bird? An angel? What you start is a half-metaphor.’

‘The true image, the poetic image, is like that,’ Will was being thoughtful now. ‘You have to start it, startle it, and it takes to wing. I don’t know how Sam Mendes did it, but he must have chanced upon that plastic bag blowing this way and that in the wind and the leaves following it around as if playing follow the leader. The rest is just asphalt and the brick wall, as bare as the apron stage. The dance of the plastic bag is the most beautiful thing he ever found, Ricky says. Also the most terrible, if he only knew, and as I have been finding out. That plastic bag represents all that is wrong with America, all that is wrong with your world, with your time. Your civilisation is drowning in it. It’s landing in the ocean where fish and dolphins and sharks mistake it for jellyfish and eat it and choke and die. And it’s an empty plastic bag. Four hundred and thirteen years later, you’ll find that plastic bag is all that has remained of American Beauty. The half-metaphor will have become a full metaphor by then.’

It was getting a bit heavy, so I had to ask something to change the topic. How did he manage to modernise his English? I asked W.S. He went into a huff: ‘I write Modern English.’ And then, after I’d soothed him: ‘From the books in the No Fear Shakespeare series, from somebody called SparkNotes,’ Will revealed. ‘You mean you read them the other way round?’ I quipped, trying to suppress a smile. ‘And what has been the proudest moment in your four hundred years as the greatest poet on earth?’ I asked. ‘It’s when the ELBS’ – that’s the English Language Book Society – ‘was selling my complete works in India – in one volume – for six rupees,’ Will declared. ‘I know,’ I said, ‘I bought one of those from the A. H. Wheeler stall at the Gonda railway station back in ’78.’

‘A. H. Wheeler? An Englishman?’ Will said.

‘It’s a hundred percent Indian company founded by a French author and an Indian businessman – a Bengali, by the way – back in 1877. They specialised in selling books at railway stations,’ I told Master W. Shakespeare, wondering what his reaction would be.

Will seemed pleased: ‘So you bought me from a merchant half a world away? At the back of beyond, as that Scott fellow would have put it? Boy, am I famous! To which happenstance do I owe this honour?’

‘They founded the East India Company, that’s your John Company, in 1600, when you were thirty-six years old. The rest is history, yours as much as ours,’ I said.

Where have all the poems gone

All Bengalis are poets, as we have seen. It’s a kind of adolescent disease which rarely lingers on into adulthood. Then there are those cases of late flowering such as the retired bank managers and government officers who begin to write poetry after prostate surgery; but they are like the flowering bamboo, which dies after it flowers – the habit, not the man! The question still remains, exactly as Pete Seeger put it back in 1955: Where have all the poems gone? Young girls read them every one. When will they ever learn – that it is hyperacidity that causes heartburn and so on.

My own poems, and Bengali poems at that, all forty-four of them, you’ll find put together a bit carelessly but handsomely bound, with a lovely cover designed by some young man who doesn’t know me from Adam but hit the spirit of those poems to a ‘T’ – things fit to a ‘T’, but can you hit them to a ‘T’? Who knows. Mine didn’t, one way or the other – I mean my poems and the Bengali poetry-reading public, no fit and no hit.

This talented young man put a young girl in an old-fashioned frock on the cover, with a large, male, butted, tattered and shapeless umbrella – unfurled – floating away over her head as if in a strong wind, in front of what looks like a waterfall of colours – autumnal colours, of the European kind – whereas the girl is unmistakably a Bengali girl. The girl and the umbrella are in black, as the rest of the cover, though the girl is already drowning in that deluge of colour. The back cover is just black, there’s only that umbrella floating away and taking all the colour with it, being the only object which is in colour. In colour? No, you see a bit of the front cover through the silhouette of that umbrella – computer trick? Computer graphics? I wouldn’t know. All I know is that this young man – whom I’ve only had the opportunity to congratulate on the phone – had wrapped my poems in a poem of his own, like a greeting or a salutation from one artist to another, across generations and continents and cultures. ‘I understand,’ this young man was telling me, and I’m sure he did, though I still don’t know how.

I wish I could tell him how those poems got written. They were mostly written during a series of holidays in Poland, mostly on the Baltic coast or in the Danziger Lakeland, in tiny beach resorts and fishing villages on the banks of tiny lakes. Bits of Poland are still like Europe in a dream, like the abandoned sets of old movies about war and deportation. Usually I don’t carry my laptop with me on my holidays, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t get up with the birds and have my first cup of tea – after which I have to write. As imperative as going to the toilet for me.

So I used to sit down somewhere on the wooden verandah or the wooden steps of the bungalow and open my notebook (ordinary kind, 0.0 version) and write – poems, in Bengali, about Bengal, about my mother, about the women in my life (beginning with the girls!), about the city that we Bengalis love to hate – Kolkata. I write poems only in rhyme and with rhythm, in the traditional Bengali manner. And I write them only in places with names like Pobierowo and Spore and Wiselka, about the craziest thing a Bengali can do.

What I didn’t realise was that this was about as close as you could get to Yeats’ (actually his wife’s) automatic writing. Those poems came over a number of years and a number of holidays and I added two leftovers from my early youth like village ruins for the others to land upon – but in the end they were like a flock of birds coming together and settling down to tell each other all about the pains and pleasures of migration in loud peeps and squeaks and chirps and trills. I could hear the words, I mean the birds flap their wings and preen their feathers before they found their place in stanza and verse.

I just had to arrange those poems and out came the most perfect circle – I mean a cycle of poems relating the story of my life as only poems can. Good friend of mine – again a young woman, at least compared to a Methusalem like me – prevailed upon a publisher friend of hers in Kolkata to bring out the slim volume which appeared and disappeared like a pebble in a pond at the next Book Fair, without a ripple. Except for the critic who noted that the poems dripped, oozed and squelched in nostalgia like wet shoes in the Kolkata rains – no, even that image is mine, we should leave the poor critic in peace.

In peace? Is that why I haven’t written a Bengali poem since? Did those birds flap their wings and preen their feathers for the last time? Did the whole flock rise like dust at the approach of the combined harvester-dredger of Time and float away towards the horizon like pollen in the wind, furling and unfurling in the intricate, billowing spacetime patterns of future intergalactic migration?

Why don’t you ask my critic.

All Bengalis are poets

Some of them only at heart, thank God. In Bengal – I can only vouch for West Bengal, India, and that too some decades back when boys used to start writing poems at around the same age that the girls started to menstruate. Writing poetry used to be a sign of male puberty – at least for a certain class and category of educated Bengalis, mostly of the middle class, I hasten to add.

In the country that I come from, there are always about a million exceptions to any statement that one might happen to make about anybody or anything. At times the rest of the nation – the silent majority – will stand up and nudge one gently and say: ‘Hey! What about us?’ And it will be similar to being nudged by an elephant, with the consequences thereof.

But ‘All Bengalis are poets’ is possibly one of those generalisations which can hold water for nearly all classes and categories of Bengalis – especially if we go back in history. This is a nation and a language which had little or no use for prose till the beginning of the nineteenth century. Before that – and for some time afterwards – even our lists of groceries or the washing used to be in rhyme. We spoke Farsi – a form of Persian – in court and used it on legal deeds and documents, until English took over. Otherwise even Bengali bawdry used to be in rhyme, women gossiping at the well or telling religious tales, ‘fighting’ poets who composed their songs ex tempore – but in rhyme – and sang them in the course of a musical debate – you name it. A nation that had learnt to live in rhyme. The Dutch missionaries of Serampore/Srirampur had to invent Bengali prose because they wanted to translate the Bible into Bengali – a task performed by William Carey in 1801.

You know when the Bengalis stopped being Bengalis and turned into the ‘baboos’ of the British empire, the rest of the less educated – because less anglophile – north Indian folk taking over all other tasks from the sepoy’s to the coolie’s? It’s when we Bengalis lost our taste as well as our capacity to rhyme. From a race of poets we turned into a race of clerks.

But we did not lose the habit. We kept writing poetry, some of it fairly passable – we’re not talking about the established poets, Tagore, or the Kallol poets, or Shakti-Sunil’s ‘hungry’ generation. We’re talking about what the average Bengali churned out under the double pressure of sexual frustration and the remnants of a Victorian morality reinforced by Hindu edicts and ideals.

Your average Bengali still churns out bad poetry by the ream. But in the Bengal that I remember, poets used to chase readers/listeners as persons of African origin pester white Caucasians to buy their worthless gewgaws on Spain’s sunny Meditteranean coast – a racist image if ever there was one, but have you noticed how all racist images are somehow heartbreaking? And we’re out here to break some hearts for poetry and the poets, if only of Bengal, in case you hadn’t noticed.

My youngest brother – who is no longer with us but is guffawing from Heaven, I’m sure – my youngest brother and I were once talking about Bengal and Bengali poets on the phone, he in Ottawa, self in Bonn. My brother was an extraordinary lover of Bengali poetry – and of Bengali literature as well, his knowledge of such things being even more extraordinary than his love, if possible.

Oh, now I remember! We were talking about my poems – at my age? ‘Isn’t it funny?’ my brother was saying: ‘Writing poetry is perhaps the most difficult form of literature, and that is why it is completely useless, completely worthless, it has no market value whatsoever.’ Which makes it a labour of love per se – I joined. You can as little put a price on a poem as you can put on a kiss – I said. I thought I was being poetic. Eh? my brother said, puzzled. ‘What are you talking about? And what’s happened to your syntax?’ The same that’s happened to my poetry – I told him.

And then the two of us came up with this image to define the Bengalis’ very special relationship with poetry. Suppose you chance upon a poetry festival in Kolkata. You’ll find a hall full of people and a scared, seedy looking person sitting on a broken chair in the middle of the dais, glancing this way and that, as if looking for some means, any means to escape the ordeal. Ah, the amateur poet! you’d say to yourself. Another case of stage fright. To have to read out his poems in front of this kind of an enthusiastic audience, intense, emaciated, unshaven, bespectacled, some of them even clutching notebooks which they seem to have brought along with themselves – maybe to note down things, names of poets and lines from the poems and so on. No wonder the poet, poor fellow, is scared – you’d be saying to yourself.

And you’d be wrong. The hall is full of poets all waiting for their turn to go up on stage and give of their best, read poem after poem until they are dragged down or shot down – as in a Western saloon. While that scared, seedy looking man sitting on the broken chair in the middle of the dais is the only listener and an unwilling listener at that, one who has either been abducted or bribed into coming to the poetry festival.

You’d slowly close the door behind you, after you, and jump into the next tram – people have been known to throw themselves under the tram after attending poetry festivals in Bengal.

I’m exaggerating, of course, but we Bengalis are poets, you forget.

Love & Sex

I’m learning how to give catchy titles and keywords, see? Just imagine: you walk up to a desultory group of completely unindividuated men and women making small talk at a party, and ask them what they’re talking about and one of the ladies looks at you archly and says – love & sex. Bet you won’t walk away!

Funny thing is that if she’d said ‘Love’, or one of the men had said ‘Sex’ – with a grin – you’d have taken it for a joke and walked away. So my lesson is, your lesson is, if you want to get the attention of the women as well as of the men, never talk about the one or the other – love and sex, I mean – but about both – love and sex, I mean – see how clever I am? See how fast I learn? You’ve got to repeat the keywords as many times as possible – love & sex e.g. But that brings me to another thought.

Love and sex, men and women, Venus and Mars, women give sex for love, men give love for sex – that’s when I thought, why don’t we divide the world up into two countries, one for the men and the other for the women, with proper trade and diplomatic relations? The currency of the women’s country would be Love, a ‘soft’ currency. The currency of the men’s country would be Sex, a hard currency approved by the World Bank and the International Amatory Fund and trading well from New York to Shanghai.

The problem will be that men hold all the reserves of Love that the women want and vice versa – it’s as if the currencies had got mixed up in some way. So the only way to fix the problem is this slow transfer which has been taking place for ages, men have been exchanging Love for Sex and women have been exchanging Sex for Love, for centuries…

The joke is that Sex is found in abundance in the women’s country whereas Love is a rare commodity in the men’s country. So the men have always been getting more Sex for Love and the exchange rate has been getting worse and worse as the centuries roll by.

‘How much Sex do I get for my Love?’ the typical – male – question at the border. ‘What’s the exchange rate today?’

‘It’s a great day for poets,’ the dealer said. ‘They’re exchanging sex only for poetry today, just words, can you imagine?’

Yes, but keywords, I felt.