Teer-lil-lilli-dong: Chuck and Geck and Other Books by Arkady Gaidar


Who remembers Arkady Gaidar? At some point in my childhood, when the sky was full of stars, I happened to read the adventures of Chuck and Geck,  their long journey on the Trans-Siberian railway and on a sledge across the hoary taiga in search of their adventuring father.

It was probably the best children's book from the Soviet era: it found a readership across continents, and touched the hearts of many eight-year-old kids who lived in cramped Indian cities. Alongside heroes and villains of Indian and British-American persuasions, their good friends were the brave Chuck and Geck, Vasilisa the beautiful, Ivan the dragon-slayer, and Makar the unlucky Yakut. They dreamed endlessly as they stared across muddy roads and dusty alleys that they knew led to exotic lands filled with adventures: they talked to their friends in their dreams. It was such a good book written in wonderful prose, and beautifully illustrated in black and white.

Now that's all far, far away, and the eight-year-old children have all grown up. For those of them who are still alive, the Soviet Union has become a dull and disturbing subject filling many history books while the publishers of these wonderful books (Mir, Vostok, Raduga) have ceased to exist. Most of these children live like old people now: their adult selves uneasy with the horrors perpetrated in the name of communism; uneasier still, witnessing the way commodities nastily distort the dreams of the children they see around them.

But in the middle of the night, in the strangest moments of reminiscing childhood, those older children--the readers of Arkady Gaidar-- have curious dreams.

They dream of a thousand lives, they dream of lonely death. From the darkened hovels where they live in, from the smoggiest zones of some Indian city lit with a thousand neon signs, they dream of  strange loud bells ringing in faraway Moscow on a Christmas night. On a hot sweaty summer night, they smell the snow falling on the fir trees of the endless Taiga, and breathe at ease. They see the bear and the wold leap across their windows: they are not afraid. But as they drift off to sleep, they wonder: what do children read now?

For those like me still searching for the works of Arkady Gaider in the ether, here are the download links to three pdf files: three books from the forgotten master. It's still a great pleasure to read them, but ah, the pictures and wonderful illustrations, the dog-eared pages of a book thumbed breathlessly a thousand times, and the eight-year-old mind are badly missed:
Chuck and Geck
Timur and his Squad
The School

What exactly are you supporting?

'We can go back in time and look at people cheerleading the Iranian revolution or the Zimbabwean anti-colonial struggle or the ANC in South Africa or the Sandinistas or whatever political fight.  In all cases there is an understandable urge to side with the underdog.  But what was the outcome?  Why are radicals so quick to patriotically cheer on the latest thing, when we should be saying: '"Brothers and sisters in Yemen and Egypt and Algeria and Tunisia, watch out for the states in waiting, watch out for the 'popular resistance hero'.  Remember Mugabe.  Remember Khomeini.  The difference between a dictator and a democrat is only at the ballot box - the factory and the slum will not change.  The 'imprisoned opposition leaders' of today will be the jailers of tomorrow.  Stay strong.  You will need miracles, and G-d is not watching.  All the proposed solutions are lies!'"

 Perhaps it is too soon to say this (Mubarak may hold on), but the real enemy of those revolting in Northern Africa is the political opposition that is preparing to take power.  And when I say 'take power', I mean that in the most general way.

If/when a revolt appears where 'we' are, 'we' cannot fall prey to the indecency of waving flags and banners in support of whatever is happening.  Our task is to pee on the parade.  To say "No!  Push further!  The old world is not behind you yet!"  To point out the policeman with red and black flags.  To maintain our principles and avoid urgency, even when the situation appears to be moving quickly.

Remember every international revolt you've been excited about in your life.  Look at what happened after each of them.  What happened May, 1969?  What happened to your enthusiasm?  All of the doors that appeared to be open lead nowhere or were, in retrospect, closed.  The freedom fighters joined or became the government.  The political situation was turned upside down, the old leaders jailed, the elections became free (at least for one election!), and yet... wage labor, value production, the unending circulation of commodities and money, the reproduction of classes, all of this carried on without pause.  Why?
Does anyone believe the situation in North Africa is a revolt against capitalism?  If you do, do you think this revolt could lead to communism (or 'anarchy' or whatever you want to say)?  If you say no to either question, what exactly are you supporting?'

-- From the Letters Journal 

"Made in USA" tear gas cannister used by the Egyptian police on protestors. January, 2011.
Image source: crisisofcivilization

Blue pill, red pill

"[Y]ou are a slave... born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind. Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back.

You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I'm offering is the truth. Nothing more."

Good and bad. Evil and lesser evil. Blue pill and red pill? Damn them all.
They aren't real choices. Cut out the hyperboles and the symbolisms: it isn't, and never will be, a choice when you've to decide between two, only two. It's a choice when you've the option to choose out of the many, and then decide you won't be having a pill. There are a multitude of truths, and they come in more colours than in a rainbow, and are more complex than a pharmaceutical choice.

No Birds This Winter

Once upon a time, in times such as these, migratory birds used to come to this city. You could see them everywhere: around the marshes and ponds, the grassy fields where kids used to play football, atop the branches of the trees struggling to breath in these confused, confused spaces of mud, grime, and concrete, fleeing from the harsh winters of the north.

The birds have stopped coming to Kolkata city once these spaces have disappeared. And in the few places that are left; the birds have stopped coming.

Yesterday, I was at the National Library, and after few hours of reading, I decided to visit the Zoo all of a sudden. There were the usual crowds, the hawkers selling badaam, the monkeys crying for attention, the tigers and lions sulking in their dark cages. The last time I visited the zoo was in winter, years and years ago. Now, Bengalees in stiff-necked sweaters and jackets, a pleasant wind from the north, mufflers on kids running around with balloons, reminded me that winter was 'officially' here. I watched a few couples smooching on the benches; I walked past a few old men who had wandered into the zoo like me, aimless and undecided about what to do next. But I missed the birds of my childhood memories: free uncaged birds from distant lands who once came to this city and the zoo to revisit life. What is it about, what is in the air that makes me feel so nostalgic? Everything around me now seemed to wear a melancholy look: and there were no free birds about this winter. Or perhaps, I had failed to spot them...

Time to remember Johnny Sokko and his flying robot

We came into this world when all the old and serious ideologies were either dead or had transformed themselves into churches with their own fine-combed distinctions. We were to learn it later. We came into the world of a post-liberalisation India long before when Remo Fernandes and Juhi Chawla danced their hats off and told us to stick bottles of Lehar Pepsi up our butts, and forget everything. The TV was then a blue tube enclosed in shutters and standing on wobbly legs: the thunder cats quivered on the screen as a light breeze shook the antennae on the terrace. But smart and feisty Johnny Sokko ruled our world, fighting monsters, godzillas, and evil scientists with a violence that always seems to attract children.

"Robot, robot", I used to whisper earnestly to the invisible matchbox tied to my wrist with a string. It was always the Johhny Sokko watch. "Grrrr" went the robot and "Swisssh!" he fired a missile off his gingerly fingers. He always used to grow new fingers. And then there was me playing the robot. And me was not alone. It was we who played the robot.

I did not know then it was a Japanese TV series of the sixties run twenty years later in a country that was "closed", and where the children were getting used to a society that did not know where the hell it was going. It still doesn't know. Neither do we know what happened to that confused childhood that was severely constrained in space and time by aliens of the bad planet of the adults. But as I write these lines, I know that in a way it is that which keeps us going. We're all tied to our times, but there's always a magic watch summoning us through the hazes and mists of the knowledgeable world, through serious and complex analyses, to a time when imagination represented what we are, and what we will be...

Ah, I'm stoopid philosophising again.

Vague traces

Vague traces of childhood return to haunt. You feel miserable and low.

You sit for hours looking at the blank pulse of the electronic screen, addicted to shifting words and misshapen soundscapes. Images watched with red, listless eyes. You know there's no changing the past. The past decayed, and then melted away. The present is an empty waiting for the correct words to form. And no matter what old Althu said, even the future doesn't seem to last forever.

You realise that 'justice' you'd learned about in school and the academy has nothing to do with right or wrong. It is just used to justify the arrogance of power. Once you kept asking yourself why. Now you don't. The same goes with 'freedom'. No one learns freedom by rote and you cannot do a thing. Just watch the whole thing happen, just stand there firm, bleeding deep inside. If someone asks, tell them freedom cannot be had through rations.

It's just like you to find a spot like this. Here you've already failed your own dreams once. You won't probably qualify for other dreams the next year either. Your skepticism will be construed as conspiratorial. You'll just provide them with some information and emotions they can never process. And you'll be back here in two years' time saying "Yes, I'm fine, thank you..." to someone or the other, when you didn't mean that at all.

But you'll never forget. Like stale tea from inside a thermos, believe me, you'll be okay.

If someone is still listening to this rambling talk, here's an old favourite song of mine, sung before it got famous, and the singer was still nineteen.

The oldest game

Choronzon: "I am anti-life, the beast of judgement. I am the dark at the end of everything. The end of universes, gods, worlds … of everything. And what will you be then, Dreamlord?"

Dream: "I am hope."

-Choronzon and Dream, playing the oldest game, in A Hope in Hell (Sandman #4).

Constructions of History

"The constructions of history are comparable to military orders that discipline the true life and confine it to barracks. On the other hand: the street insurgence of the anecdote. The anecdote brings things near to us spatially, lets them enter our life. It represents the strict antithesis to the sort of history which demands 'empathy,' which makes everything abstract."
- Walter Benjamin [The Arcades Project]

The best way to organise ebooks, notes, & references for your PhD

Surely, I do not mean "the" best way. The best way is for you to find out, one and/or the combinations that suits you the most.

Here, I share the best way that works for me- a technological noob on the humanities' side, who doesn't know and doesn't have time to work and think over complex codes that make your work really easy. I'm a lazy bug who for some strange reasons has to complete a humanities thesis in the space of a year. (If you're only looking for the best software to manage your ebooks, close your eyes, and download Calibre. Though with it, as with any other, you have to spend hours attaching tags to the books and files you once stored in different folders. And if you really do have the time to systematise your study, I suggest you can use the quotation manager TextCite, and make a good use of its category functions to organise your reading notes.)

My intention here is different. I am disorganised to the extent that the effort and time that goes into my attempted writing of a PhD dissertation makes it impossible for wander beyond my writing, for the time being, or to systematically organise my ebooks for purposes other than that of writing. So what I tell you here might come of help if you're working against a deadline, and your technological capabilities like mine doesn't go beyond a little typing skills in MS Word.

The sublime object of Bibliography

For some time I have been looking for a way to refer to my modest collection of about 10 GB of ebooks in pdf, html, djvu and other formats; about 5GB of journal articles and randomly scribbled notes in MS Word. And I've been trying to access these for the last two weeks to write a chapter of about 20,000 words, and the footnote entries stand as of now at 178, with a book or an article to cite for most. I had to do this following one of the the humanities styles listed by the Chicago Manual of Style, and I found the manual entering of citations is really a pain in the ass, especially when you've to concentrate on the writing, and at the same time, look for the obscure useless book stored somewhere in your hard drive that you've read and which exists for no worthy purposes beyond the cursory citation. This made me look for two things: a organiser of ebooks and articles that is (and importantly) a bibliographic citation manager. Like an idiot, the first thing I turned to was EndNote.

Managing Citations and the complex world of Citation Managers

After playing with EndNote for a week, I realised this was not for me. It's expensive: from where does a third world 'researcher' procure $ 300, and pay additional shipping charges, apart from the why of it? And perhaps with the reasons to do with its price, EndNote's interface is confusing for the uninitiated (read someone whose university doesn't have a commercial tie-up with the company). Another of my objections is that EndNote created more problems in terms of storage, unless you constantly upgraded your stuff. Even without upgrading, EndNote sucks. For example, if you've a desktop running on Windows XP with Word2003 installed, and a laptop with Windows 7 with Word2007 installed, and use a USB stick between the two for small file transfers, there's no simple way to migrate your bibliographic data, insert and cite (their 'Cite While You Write' function) from the same EndNote file in which you've once stored your citations. And after an endless session of scanning their tutorial videos, their forums, and googling solutions as how to get rid of the "invalid class string" message that appears every time I try to insert a citation from EndNote to Word, I decided that I had enough.

I tried Zotero for a few days, the free and open source add-on for the Firefox browser. While it worked good for synchronising notes taken from the web, there was no going beyond the proverbial Firefox way of crashing. I usually take a long smoking break when my favourite Firefox crashes, but this was a bit more. Zotero crashed everytime I tried to append a pdf ebook to it from my hard discs, and a number of times, without any provocation. I almost got lung cancer!

And for a day and two after that, I tried using Mendeley. As an offline and web-based hybrid citation manager, Mendeley too was free and excellent in terms of its management of books, articles, and citations, and the way it effortlessly scanned my library and fetched names, etc. off the files, and also made the insertion of citations in Word very easy. If you're planning a shorter work (let's say a journal article), Mendeley should be the obvious choice. For longer works though, I'm skeptical about Mendeley on two counts. One, synchronization between the offline version and the online Mendeley account of yours takes hours, especially if you live on slow internet connections in the southern hemisphere. Two, its free online storage capability is only 500 MB (you've to pay to "upgrade" your storage), which plays one of the older tricks of proprietary software industry's money-making.

It was at this point, I was on the verge of frustration, and almost decided to go back to the manual entry process in MS Word. I was and am wary of open source: who doesn't know that what the geeks call "really simple", really requires hours and hours of unfruitful scripting for the technologically incompetent such as me? But I thought I would try at least one. And I'm happy that I did, I found one that didn't make me look back.

I found JabRef . And my ecstatic advice to you: If you're looking for one that makes your work easy, try JabRef- the best bibliography manager for the present. The best thing for JabRef is that it easy for the first-time user and uncomplicated. It takes at the most 10-15 minutes to learn. Moreover, it is consistent than EndNote, or the word citation manager that comes default in MS Word 2007; it is so because the techies say JabRef is based on BibTeX. And finally it always free to try, and improve on (if you are into coding), because it is open source.

How JabRef works

Once you download and install it, you open JabRef, create a database, and click the green (+) sign for a new entry. (BTW, you have to have Java installed on your computer. If you don't have it, get it from here).

There appear simple fields to insert your bibliographical data and linking facilities to either files in your computer or on the web. It's really that simple! And this YouTube video below explains most of the rest:

I found out that I can easily customise on the input fields for the bibliographic entry. And if you require more variations on the Chicago style using JabRef, they don't come by default with the JabRef software. But you can easily download an excellent plug-in (developed by Juan Jose Baldrich) called "Chicago Manual of Style export filters" (check here for the English version). Download the plug-in and install it in the following steps:
JabRef>Plugins> Plugin Manager> Install Plugin
Once you've installed the plug-in, you can export your entire bibliography (or select entries) in a rich text format (.rtf) file that opens in MS Word with your citations arranged according to your preference following the Chicago manual.

Also if you're lazy like me to desire a set of insert buttons in MS Word that automatically insert a citation, or create a bibliography on the document in which you are working, you can do that with JabRef. For that, you just have to install two other pieces of free software: the basic version of a word-processing package called MikTeX (available here) and the Word-integration software called Bibtex4Word (available here). The developer of Bibtex4Word has put up a very comprehensible step-by-step installation instruction here, and you can refer to it if you have problems installing. (As I've found out, with JabRef running, Bibtex4Word works perfectly with Word 2003 and Word 2007). Again the chicago style doesn't come by default, but you can download it (and numerous other sytles) off the MikTeX site by going through the following steps and choosing:
Your Computer's Start Menu>All Programs> MikTeX>Maintenance>Package Manager> chicago or chicago-annote (you find these by scrolling down the entries on the left side of your screen). Select chicago-annote and click the install (+) button.

Once done, you can integrate JabRef with MS Word to seamlessly insert your citations in your manuscript, and to look up ebooks, articles, and links inside the same window. It really saves time; believe me!

Eternity, Bathroom, Smoke and Spiders

"Men always represent eternity as an incomprehensible idea, as a something immense- immense! But why should this necessarily be the case? Imagine, on the contrary, a small room- a bathroom, if you will- blackened by smoke, with spiders in every corner."

   -Arcadius Ivanovitch in Crime and Punishment.

Being Caliban

'Why do you read Western theory and literature?" he asked disapprovingly, looking at the books on my bookshelf. I was shocked: this was the first time I had come across such reverse Orientalism; albeit a politically-correct one.

We were having a rather irritating debate on 'continuity' and 'rupture' two days after that.

This young French anthropologist was trying to say the more things change, the more things remain the same. Yes, I said, but it depends on the position in time, space, and culture that you belong to, or assume. To an epithelial and alien anthropologist watching earth over an alien telescope for ten thousand years, it's the continuation of a species over numerous insignificant events. To Foucault, the Islamic 'Revolution' of 1978 in Iran was a rupture.

We differed sharply on the question of 'choice'.

He said: The middle classes largely control what is called 'culture'. They are to blame for consciously choosing on every point on shopping malls, consumerism, cars, and everything that goes with the logic of the market: they consciously choose that everyday, every moment, when they share small bits of power against the relatively powerless.

I said: The middle classes, at least here, are now primarily shaped by social conditions that make them devoid of 'history' in the older sense. Apart from those rooted to older ways of tradition (those disappearing ones who still preserve the classical educationist's vision of, say, listening to Mozart and speaking the Queen's English measure meticulously on a Nesfield grammar book), most ape and synthesize according to local customs and cultural moorings (for aping is also an act of synthesis) the products spawned by what Adorno and Horkheimer had simplistically tried to pin as the "culture industry".

The question of blame be better left to those higher-up in the fields of concentrated power —those running, funding and controlling the globalised networked shows of power and domination. An individual belonging to the middle classes can only be criticised when he is aware of the range of possibilities that constitute his 'choice'. I don't blame a person for buying a branded jeans from a supermarket; I criticize him for not knowing that jeans is the fruit of sweatshop slave trade. And I, specifically blame him when, for example, he pretends to ignore that the person sitting next to him has fallen sick and needs taken to a hospital. That is, he can be explicitly blamed only when he's aware of the choice he is to make as an individual, and then choose the ethically wrong one... I was going on to speak of Max Stirner's view on the topic, but then I stopped talking all of a sudden.

I found out that I was rather rude when debating with him, and I wondered why was it so. I'm usually not that rude, and I've been a patient debater in other situations, more disconcerting and hostile. What was it that had unsettled me? And then I remembered his question.

'Why do you read Western theory and literature?" he had asked.

The question was sickening. And I couldn't answer him without being angry; angry at him for being a white man with a not-so-innocuous question. A long time back in the university, a professor had told us: 'There's a Caliban somewhere deep inside you. You'll always find him when time comes."

You can't answer the question without being Caliban. Prospero's spirits hear you and yet you need must curse!

I pay out my line

"The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand, you must see your left hand erasing it.

Impossible of course.

I pay out my line, I say out my line, this black thread I'm spinning across the page."

- Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin, 2000.


A young couple pose for a photo in front of
Jinshui Bridge in Tian'anmen Square, Beijing, on March 23, 2009.

Student protestors struggle with soldiers from the Chinese Army,
the PLA, at Tian'anmen Square, on June 3, 1989.

Both the pictures share two common features: youth and Tian'anmen Square.
No points for guessing the difference.

Incidentally, this month marked the 20th anniversary of the Tian'anmen Square Protests.
Mourn. Celebrate. Remember.

(Pix Credits: The first is from The China Daily, a showcase of photographs by 100 photographers, part of the 'Chinese Revolution's 60 years celebration that is coming soon. The second is from the Asian history section of About.com which records the butchering of student protesters by the PLA. )

'Any Where Out of This World!'

"This life is a hospital in which each sick man is possessed by a desire to change beds. One would prefer to suffer by the stove. Another believes he would recover if he sat by the window."

- Baudelaire, 'Any Where Out of This World!'

"Remember When"- Sharing is Caring

In this world of webs, deceptions, and sickening credit-carded entertainments, and where strangers walk the nights of the ether in their wakeful solitude, it's rather strange that the act of sharing survives. It's made up of one of the oldest and noble human sentiments that made us humans, and it's still the only act that makes you feel alive, at least on the net.

Sharing. An act of courage and extreme gentleness that survives the hostility of governments, and other rabid censors of free expression.

Imagine a world without the silent uploader, her pirate eyes alight with the warmth of the incandescent cathode ray screen, spending sleepless nights to share a movie, an album, a book she knows you're sure to appreciate.

Imagine a world without the patient seeders on the portals who seed and seed for years, risking their systems to known armadas and unknown hostilities, and planting new trees of hope in every island of a recalcitrant computer connecting to this nether regions.

Or imagine a world without trees.

Yes, trees and photosynthetic life forms and images that survive and blossom inspite of a million leeches who've never bothered to put a decent "thank you" comment on a post. They nod in silence, share light and oxygen, lifting their branches and leaves up into the ultramarine sky and breathe life everywhere, and right now, as you're reading this, they weave life in all its varieties.

Listen carefully. Let me whisper it once more in your ears. "Sharing is caring."
And gentle reader, remember it well.

What follows is a Not-Copyright Comics on the "piracy" issue by Dylan Horrocks, a wonderful artist from New Zealand:
(Click on the image for a better view)

Miraculous and sacred stoopidity

Growl! I received that mail for the umpteenth time! Earlier I had it from MBAs, corporate executives, NGO scions, smart-ass journalists, and from postgraduate people whose CVs exhibit a dose of 'liberal humanistic education' comprising Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Marx, Foucault, and also all that post-colonial shit.

After a never-ending list of people it is forwarded to, you get to see a picture of a grim-faced deity (I guess of Tamil origin) and a message drafted and highlighted in red and blue by someone who hadn't learnt elementary grammar in primary school.
Class 1 Officer of Indian government received this picture and called it 'junk mail', 8 days later his husband died. A man received this picture and immediately sent out copies...his surprise was winning the 10 crore rupees & promotion in job

T. Ratan received this picture, gave it to his secretary to make copies but they forgot to distribute: she lost her job and he lost his family.

This picture is miraculous and sacred, don't forget to forward this within 1 days to at least 20 people. Do Not Forget to forward and you will receive a huge surprise!!

My usual response had been:
I happen to be an atheist, and I don't believe in luck.
Please refrain in sending me these kinds of stoopid messages in the future, or you might make your goddess really angry. Thanks :)
Or sometimes I had come out sarcastic:
I had lost my brand new Nataraj pencil last week. A Persian god and a Scandanavian god appeared in my dream, and asked me to send it to you and ten other stoopid people who believe that they'll have a box of crayons soon by forwarding this mail.

Don't ignore this mail, or the wrath of 10, 000 Tibetan and Malaysian gods will fall on you. Amen.
But these deeply religious and mortally afraid people have refused to relent. I wish I could send something materially hard (like a bamboo with nails sticking out of it) to the original sender of this mail, without hurting his religious sentiment, so that the person could shove it up his ass, and stay put in religious serenity. Things like that are not possible in a secular state of things, I know. But the wish grows stronger by the day.

Nowhere to go

And in another land and time, a Marmdadoff tells a schismatic student who might not be Raskolnikoff:
"Can you understand, sir, what it means to have nowhere to go to? You don't? Don't realise that yet?"

Writing is a con

Any child can see that the map is not the ground. You cannot make a “reliable” map. A map, like a scientific theory, or consciousness itself, is no more than a dream of control. The conscious mind operates at forty or fifty bits a second, and disorder is infinitely deep. Better admit that. Better lie back and enjoy it—especially since, without the processes implied by it, no one could write (or read) books anyway. Writing is a con.

- M. John Harrison (what it might be to live in viriconium, 2001)

Quotes from "Upside down"

"Today, there are certain things one can't say in the face of public opinion:
* capitalism wears the stage name "market economy"
* imperialism is called "globalization"
* the victims of imperialism are called "developing countries," much as a dwarf might be called a "child"
* opportunism is called "pragmatism"
* treason is called "realism"
* poor people are called "low-income people"
* the expulsion of poor children from the school system is measured by the " dropout rate"
* the right of bosses to lay off workers with neither severance nor explanation is called "a flexible labor market"
* official rhetoric acknowledges women's rights among those of "minorities," as if the masculine half of humanity were the majority
* instead of military dictatorship, people say "process"
* torture is called "illegal compulsion" or "physical and psychological pressure"
* when thieves belong to a good family they're "kleptomaniacs"
* the looting of the public treasury by corrupt politicians answers to the name of "illicit enrichment"
* " accidents" are what they call crimes committed by cars
* for the blind, they say "the unseeing"
* a black man is "a man of color"
* where it says "long and difficult illness," it means cancer or AIDS
* "sudden illness" means heart attack
* people annihilated in military operations aren't dead: those killed in battle are "casualties," and civilians who get it are "collateral damage"
* in 1995, when France set off nuclear tests in the South Pacific, the French ambassador to New Zealand declared, "I don't like that word 'bomb.' They aren't bombs. They're exploding artifacts"
* "Getting Along" is what they call some of the death squads that operate under military protection in Colombia
* "Dignity" was what the Chilean dictatorship called one of its concentration camps, while "Liberty" was the largest jail of the Uruguayan dictatorship
* "Peace and Justice" is the name of the paramilitary group that in 1997 shot forty-five peasants, nearly all of them women and children, in the back as they prayed in the town church in Acteal, Chiapas, Mexico."

[Upside Down, a primer for the looking glass world, Eduardo Galeano (2000: 40)]

Utopia, toothache, and Orwell's diaries

Nearly all creators of Utopia have resembled the man who has toothache, and therefore thinks happiness consists in not having toothache. They wanted to produce a perfect society by an endless continuation of something that had only been valuable because it was temporary. The wider course would be to say that there are certain lines along which humanity must move, the grand strategy is mapped out, but detailed prophecy is not our business. Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness.
- George Orwell ['Why Socialists Don't Believe in Fun,' Dec, 1943]

I have recently come across a wonderful online project that blogs live entries from Orwell's diaries, seventy years removed in time.

The act of putting up Orwell's personal notes in a real time cyberspace blog creates a strange of contemporaneity, and simultaneously, makes us feel less solitary in an acutely amnesiac world. You see nesting storks, goats on a mountain climb, carcasses of dead donkeys, herons, ibises, and also meet interesting ordinary plain people in Morocco whom the world has forgotten, while the news of the fall of Barcelona comes in.

A few centuries back, this man would have been one of the most famous prophets, and probably crucified, burnt at the stakes, his limbs torn apart, etc. The greatest and wickedest discovery of the previous century, though, was that the integrity of a person can reduced to cinders if you're capable of desenstivising minds to make all words inane and unrecognisable. We lack the training and the circumstances to feel and caress words and feelings, and we've been trained to unlearn our social memories by our gods and masters. But journeying with Orwell is more than a pleasure. It's delight in the sense that words only can convey.

If anyone is interested, here's the link to the Orwell Project.

There is a crack in everything

The anthem concludes:

Ring the bells that still can ring 
Forget your perfect offering 
There is a crack, a crack in everything 
That's how the light gets in. 
That's how the light gets in. 
That's how the light gets in. 

- Cohen ('Anthem,' The Future, 1992)

Slumdog, caramba, and an old ad jingle

In the search for superlatives, the limits of sense and decency have long been passed. Did you ever think a person living in the Mumbai slums could be so lovingly called a 'slumdog' in the yankee fashion in print and the boom, and everyone would celebrate the triumph of this repulsive rags-to-riches story with obcene hurrahs, and people not even being slightly uncomfortable with the word?

"Woof! Woof! This is all so boring!"

Sigh, the Indian advertisement industry too has ceased to manufacture simple wish-fulfillment messages: of a TV that made your neighbours green with envy, a red soap that could be used alternately as a brick and a magic token for winning football matches, a scooter that 'united' India, or simply those 'amazing whiteness'-inspiring detergent powders of Lalitaji and (oh ho!) Deepikaji that lost their appeal once the publick took to mall-visiting sprees, and chucked all their old clothes out somewhere.

But these are remembrances of things past, and no one can be forced to read Proust anymore.

I was inside a ramshackle Kolkata bus last week when I spotted a rather strange advertisement outside the schlock South City mall:
"You shall be judged by the colour of your skin; your second skin."

In a sense, the product which happens to be some fashionable clothing has become irrelevant: the advertiser with the exaggerated imagination of an ant inside a Myrmecophaga tridactyla's snout is trying work directly on self-congratulatory images and dreams using coloured words. Images and dreams inspiring "colour confidence", and revealing the rest of the world in its true (bad) colours, words that remind you once more of the complex past and confused present that your country suffers inspite of all that fashion the advertisers offer you, dear Neo, this time you get to choose a skin instead of a pill!

"Woof! Colourman, colourman, which colour do you choose?"

¡Ay, Caramba! I have a suggestion, though, and I think I've mentioned it somewhere above in the oblique. But in case you're bored, let's forget that and let me sing for you a old ad jingle of times when you never thought of the big, bad world. And in case you've been wondering, Myrmecophaga tridactyla is the scientific name of a morose 6-ft long snouty creature found in Central and South America that lives on ants.

“Washing powder Nirma, washing powder Nirma
Dudh si safeedi, Nirma se aaye
Rangeen kapda bhi khil khil jaye
Sabki pasand Nirmaaaa. Washing powder Nirma.
Woof. Woof.”

[Credits: See this blog by Vinayak Razdan if you're really nostalgic about the Indian advertising world of the eighties. The image of Lalitaji is borrowed from At the Edge.]

The inferno of living

"The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."

-Calvino [Invisible Cities, 1972]

Too many people have died

Pete Seeger has grown old, Bobbie Dylan has changed, and what you thought were your tunes and words have died. But yes, too many people have also died in the meantime. You learn it from the sophomoric television that Israeli planes are dropping bombs at Gaza. Men, women, and children wiped into oblivion under the fire and the debris.

You've watched...

You've watched the flames rise up on the screen as the newscaster on some Indian channel switches to discuss the weather over New York sky, even when you're across the globe. Or when she invites someone who's an expert on global recession, CO2 emission, on Obama's radicalism and Chomsky's pacifism, on aardvarks, emus and intergalactic refrigerators aboard India's moon mission, someone who'll now discuss with a serious face all the implications of the UN chief Ban Ki-moon's sudden discovery: "Too many people have died." Really?

When was the first time you had watched? Oh, it had been the CNN coverage of the bombing of Baghdad in the early nineties, you and your friends played "Scud" and "Patriot" in the courtyards of crumbling colonial houses. Or simply gaped at Pranoy Roy showing his GK in World This Week as how the UN could never tolerate such an aggression on Kuwait. And now since you've grown older, you remember important events as how you watched or missed them on TV, and under what circumstances, often or not as glimpses that left without visible traces.

You had been doing a maths homework, and planning to watch Superhit Muqabila (the old crappy Channel2 TV show on Indian TV that listed the most popular movie songs), when you caught a glimpse of Russian planes bombing Chechnya. Did you, at that time, think that children of your age were getting killed in their sleep? Oh no, you had been busy playing with a toy Uzi and a model fighter plane and bombing terrorist hideouts in the backgarden.

Then time had flowed, the sun rose, moved across the sky and set, and you were reading Kundera, laughing, forgetting, and eating a crampy cheese-burger at the canteen when the twin towers crumpled. An undergrad was yelping like Tarzan as he ran across the university, spreading the news: "Hello! Everyone! Pentagon has been fucked." You returned home and watched the tragedy and all the melodrama that followed. You saw it again and again, and thought why America is hated throughout the world.

You now know the answer why.

You had heard of bombs being dropped in Afghanistan, and had rushed to the canteen where they were busy watching a cricket match. No, you couldn't switch the channel. No, not even during the advertisements when beautiful females and macho males were gulping down Pepsi, Coke, or similar toilet cleaners, and asking you to do the same. You had to wait till you could travel back to your district home, and be content with the few seconds of national television news that told you little of what happened in Afghanistan, but what every revolting politician said, shouted, screamed, winked or farted to the media during that day. (Radical flag marches, effigy-burnings of Bush followed, you melted in a universe of hot-blooded slogans, but to what effect? The killings continued, the marchers felt bored, and left)

You also know by now that 24/11 is never the direct coefficient of 9/11; just some stoopid Indian journalists pretending to be too intelligent apes after the Mumbai attacks, which some people suspect might be a covert operation of Mossad. You never know, but you know exactly why you hate these TV journalists. It's perhaps why you had stopped watching the idiot box after you had 'grown up'. Ah!

What do you feel like in 'newsless' oblivion?

The second attack on Iraq was part of shared office excitement and individual searches. Your colleagues clustered around a desktop as you together watched Saddam swinging. And you watched all the pictures of the dead Iraqi kids, shifted uncomfortably through innumerous blogs and YouTube videos posted by Iraqi bloggers who thought that they would make the world understand, and you felt like screaming. But then, time flew, and before you knew the occupation of Iraq had become so commonplace that a hundred people killed everyday ceased to be 'news'. But now, since the bombs are dropping on Gaza, what will you do? Will you sit before the TV, and switch to another comfortable channel that speaks of lifestyle? Or do another survey of blogs, videos, and podcasts, and rest content that at least you're more informed than the others?

I don't know, but gentle reader, once again, let me wish you all my scorn and hatred for all the military-industrial empires of the world. And for all who've died in Gaza, it will be very easy to say in the glib way of those like us who can lead uninterrupted placid lives far from their pain that the oblivion they suffer would be a fate worse than death. But no fate is worse than being roasted alive, believe me.

Stories, statistics, and lives

"Without individuals we see only numbers: a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, "casualties may rise to a million." With individual stories, the statistics become people — but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless.

Look, see the child’s swollen, swollen belly, and the flies that crawl at the corners of his eyes, his skeletal limbs: will it make it easier for you to know his name, his age, his dreams, his fears? To see him from the inside? And if it does, are we not doing a disservice to his sister, who lies in the searing dust beside him, a distorted, distended caricature of a human child? And there, if we feel for them, are they now more important to us than a thousand other children touched by the same famine, a thousand other young lives who will soon be food for the flies’ own myriad squirming children?

We draw our lines around these moments of pain, and remain upon our islands, and they cannot hurt us. They are covered with a smooth, safe, nacreous layer to let them slip, pearllike, from our souls without real pain.

Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives.

A life that is, like any other, unlike any other."

- Neil Gaiman [American Gods]

"Take the slack"


DAY TWO: It's three o'clock in a jungle few kilometres close to the hills of Jharkhand, and a pack of jackals are having hysterics somewhere close, unaccustomed to humans camping in their free-trade zones at the penultimate day of the European calendar year."Ka-hua, Ka-hua," they talk amongst each other.

A devout jackal trying to sink his teeth into an Extremely Unnegotiable Roti (probably one of those I unsuccessfully tried to have at dinner with something vaguely resembling half-roasted indigestible brinjal) speaks: "Ho, ho, Ho-Ka-Hua, these humans are trying to climb those rocks even that extremely smelly black animal with hooves and a tuft of beard avoids climbing. Lord, they must be mad."

"You doubt," chips in another, "Ha, these rocks are extemely slippery and I wish someone slips and falls and breaks his neck. We'll have our party then. Damn this recession, Ka-Hua."

"Yeah, I hope it's the fat, er, healthy one with thick shiny bits of glass over his eyes," says the devout jackal persistently negotiating the Extremely Unnegotiable Roti, and probably a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs. "Ha, ha, Ha-Ka-Hua. Did you see him climbing? An overaged overweight Tarzan of the Apes, swinging in space like a hopeless elephant."

"Let's hope he falls, let's hope he falls, Ka-Hua, Ka-Hua," they scream in indecent chorus, as they forage close to the tents of the Rock Climbing Trainees. But thankfully The Virus Boy With Extremely Smelly Socks had been forced to keep his shoes and socks outside the tent flap, and now they act as an active deterrent for all nocturnal creatures.

I wake up. I am almost sweating from a nightmare of what passed as the previous day, myself on all fours, clawing and scampering over a huge barren rock formation, seemingly close to the clouds, and the plains far down below, a rope with a bowline knot tied loosely to my waist faintly inspiring security, and with my bottle-glassed spectacles foggy with sweat. I think of having a drag, but the free smoking zone is a steep climb half a kilometre uphill ("Smoking is strictly prohibited in the camp areas"), and I'm cozy inside my sleeping-bag like a wizened dracula neatly folded up inside a coffin and with painful tent-pegs stuck deep in his heart, knees and toes. I resist the temptation.

But now someone imploringly tugs hard at my rented sleeping-bag, smelly from the devil-knows-how-many past expeditions, as I try to balance myself into a comfortable position from the inside. I find I'm perched atop a slippery foam mattress, and inside a knee-high tent packed tight with three occupants and all the men campers' rucksacks, reminding you of all the pungent and immoderate zoo smells you ever experienced. The tent's inside is foggy and wet, with sweaty vapours dripping down the sides.

"Dada, please, I've to go to the loo." My sleeping bag gets a simultaneous hard pull. It's The Absolute Drinker of Old Monk Rum and Persistent Loo-Goer who has been going without his essential fluid for the last two days.

"Go on, what's troubling you?" But he's persistent: "You don't understand, I have to go to the loo."

"No need to climb up high," I groan, contemplating the freezing cold outside. "The instructors are sleeping, especially Madame Chiang, and you can just get behind the tent, climb a little downhill, and find yourself a cozy place next to the weedy pond," I say weakly to the speaker. "Damn, they'll pull us up mercilessly in just an hour an a half for the horrid 3km-run and exercises. Why don't you control your emotions and get a little sleep?"

But The Absolute Drinker of Old Monk Rum and Persistent Loo-Goer is desperate, he had spent seven years at a military school where they issued single-barreled rifles and bullets to students for chasing down stray dogs. His claim to fame was an encounter he had on the roads last year with five drunken brawlers, whom he claimed to have knocked down with one-for-each Mike Tyson punches. And he's known to have carried a menacing Rambo-style knife to the Sunderbans, intent on killing any man-eating tigers on land or river, if they happened to cross his way. But now, it's a different voice speaking.

"You've to get up," The Absolute Drinker of Old Monk Rum and Persistent Loo-Goer almost shouts, and then, drops into a whisper: "There're jackals outside. You know I'm not afraid of jackals, but uuff, they are simply too many." Cold logic!

A torch flares up inside the tent, and I realise with horror that The Virus Boy With Extremely Smelly Socks is awake and thinking of getting out of the tent. But he's faster than me, and before I can throw myself out of the tent, I'm overthrown by the, the, what you call it, eek ... The Smell. By the time I'm out of the tent, both of my tent-mates have disappeared, and The Smell steps out of the tent and proceeds to devour the night sky, hung overhead like a damp smelly sock. Risking no more, I feel for the wrap of tissues in my pockets, spare a glimpse of Orion and the desolate celestial hunter high up in the sky, and limp towards the weedy pond, groping in the dark.

"Let us catch you littering close to the camp site, and I promise I'll make you use your dinner plate to clean up everything, tissues and all," Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, an overtly stern-looking camp instructor had warned the previous day. A schoolteacher by profession, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek is one of the singularly stern disciplinarians I've ever seen since my schooldays who uses words like stinging whips, even on people who thought they had conveniently left their school life nightmares some decades behind. But indigestible half-cooked brinjals and Extremely Unnegotiable Roti(s) can work wonders in your intestines, and make you brave enough to risk all possible outcomes in extreme darkness; yes, even the wrath of angry schoolteachers and Chinese gods of malice.

Edging on the weed pond, I sense The Absolute Drinker of Old Monk Rum and Persistent Loo-Goer easing himself right next to the pond, with The Virus Boy With Extremely Smelly Socks posed as a brave sentry between him and the jackals, absent-mindedly fiddling with a pen-drive, which I'm sure contains half a million lethal viruses. Without a second thought, I light up a cigarette, smile uncomfortably at The Virus Boy With Extremely Smelly Socks for I had shouted at him in the morning after my toothpaste and toothbrush mysteriously smelled of his socks, and proceed to look for a cozy spot.

True were the words of the court jester who told the king of Nabadweep after a prince was born that he felt happy as if he had just relieved himself. True werest thy words, Old Master Rabelais, who found true happiness in expunged emotions and other bodily virtues. And true werest thou, divine alchemist Paracelsus, who insisted that nothing was to be learned of life if you avoided the mysteries of putrefactive fermentation. Ah, heaven! I too shat like I had never before!

The next day, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek lines up all the trainees, and proceeds to launch another tirade: "This will be your last warning, how many times do I've to tell you, blah, blah, blah!" And her suspicion zeroes in on a defiant fidgety kid doing the final rounds of his engineering college, whom she keeps under stricter gaze for the rest of the camp. Poor kid, he's spared the cleaning-up, but his sneaking out and smoking reaches a conclusive end. I exchange a nirvana glance with The Absolute Drinker of Old Monk Rum and Persistent Loo-Goer, and we quietly proceed to climb on to our free smoking zone for a refreshing drag before our bones are bashed against the rocks...

Words, warmth, and peace

You wander...
You wander through the mindlessness of ether, you wear your trousers rolled, and you see words and images combining and confusing the odd zeroes and ones that supposedly make meaning in the void, your activity limited to a vacuous stare patiently negotiating the occasional and listless flicking of a screen.

Ah, but you still got your old yellowing books, armour, and a rusty sword, dear, and your love for the fantastic, for unusual, unheard-of adventures which once opened up vast horizons, the end of which now can't be foreseen, even when the sound of the motor whirring in the background no longer resembles that of a giant windmill...

Where are you?
Long, long ago, in the company of Pantagruel on a strange beach, you had once encountered words frozen in time from the last winter. The people who’d spoken might be dead, but their words and whispers remain. You used the palms of your hands, breathed some warmth, and held the words close to your ears, and listened to their tales.

Remember? Remember and breathe...
Relax now and breathe. Breathe easy and deep like the man who dreamed of making a fire in the Jack London tale. The year’s almost over, home’s someplace called nowhere, and apart from intentionality, the smiling-faced pecunious people who are usually content with lighting candles and spewing useless words on violence are planning more harm. Others, too, are playing out their confused parts of the zealous activist who is unable to act for himself but can only act for others (“oh, the proletariat”, “ah, the exploited and dispossessed”) or for ends and abstractions (“world peace” and, yes, “global revolution”).

You know nothing will come of the candles and the guns, but smoke; dense, dull, congestive smoke.

Wishes for the dead, the living, and the half-deads...
Refresh your mind, please, once again, this time of the year when there’re only smokes and mirrors. All you’ve got is your memories, and a sobriety shaped by those memories that want meaningful words, and warmth. And a sense of peace- for yourself and others, striving to overcome their isolation, and still looking for meaning.

From a strictly secular and non-religious viewpoint, here’s me wishing you for the new year:
As-Salāmu `Alaykum (“Peace be upon you”) and warmth.

[Pix Credit: The beautiful artwork above is by Anthony Russo, a freelance illustrator living in Rhode Island. I found an illustration of his while googling, and I've been a fan ever since. Here's a link to Russo's homepage.]

Speak to Me

Speak to me when the stars are dead or gone
and the streets are emptied of the pained and painted faces
of reporters howling over their cameras,
when there's solitude of the kind
only you can imagine, a salty breeze playing
and there's always enough blood flowing in the sideways.
You know there're no words melancholic enough
only a strange twisting somewhere deep inside.

Speak to me when it's all over
when those moments of crises are past,
when the answers of pathogenic power are no longer
generalized narcosis or collective stupefaction,
the always delirious and disgusting manifestations
of faith in all its forms,
or when what they ask is only to be left out of it.
But us, what do we do?
Have we truly finished interpreting the world?
Or exhausted all old meanings, perhaps
to make a new point?

[Image: Death and the Mother, 1910, by Kathe Kollwitz.
From Allen Memorial Art Museum]

The best and the worst of martial arts movies

This week resulted in a curious film-viewing adventure when I happened to watch a few martial arts movies, cutting across genres, and downloaded via bit torrents, while there was a state-sponsored film festival in the city. The public's memory is proverbially short, but I still happen to remember the wicked things that happened in some villages during last year's film festival, and I still retain the aversion and the reasons for not going in to the 'festival' again.

Anyway, back to the films I viewed. Here's a brief review of the best and the worst of them.

Kuro Obi (Black Belt), a 2007 Japanese Karate film starring real-life Karate black belts, is one of the relatively good ones.

Demonstrating some fluid Goju-Ryu and traditional Shotokan techniques without stunt rope tricks, the film is about two students competing to inherit their sensei's black belt. It starts off excellently with a practice session in a secluded dojo where the Jap military (this is in 1930s) comes in to take over the school. The protagonist searches for meaning in his Karate, while the other student goes on to challenge karatekas on behalf of the military, in search of a stronger opponent.The climactic fight in B&W is less of karate though, the 4th Dan hero and the 5th Dan challenger, kick, butt and grapple in the mud like we used to do in junior school.

Chocolate (2008), a Thai film by the Ong-Bak director Prachya Pinkaew, is a story of an autistic girl picking up martial arts skills similar to Taekwondo by watching the practitioners of a Muay Thai school (?!). The plot is thin, and a pretext for displaying martial arts skills.

This film has some spectacular stunts performed by the young girl Yanin "Jeeja" Vismistananda, and obviously, the stuntmen acting as villians' seconds; this also marks the director's only preoccupation to outdo Hollywood special effects by using real-life dangerous stunts that can scarsely be imitated. Towards the end, you actually see a stuntman falling down from the ledge of a three-storied building, and breaking his neck. Adrenalin booster, yes. Martial arts spirit, no. For you're bound to feel sorry for the unnamed stuntman and question the mindlessness of this violence.

I also saw Red Belt (2008), one that I would rate as one of the best martial arts films I've ever seen. It has less to show of martial arts techniques, apart from some good Jiujutsu moves, but it's definitely about martial arts philosophy, a serious film concerning the role of ethics in the life of a martial arts practitioner. You get real things to learn from here, than say, from stoopid MMA films like Never Back Down.

Here in Red Belt is a Brazilian Jiujitsu instructor Mike Terry who nevers goes into tournament fighting for he thinks it weakens the spirit (rightly so). He sees himself framed by big money and comes to know of his best student committing suicide to save his instructor's honour. Then Terry gets caught in the middle of a big MMA prize fight (staged) between a Brazilian jiujitsu champion and a Japanese fighter, as his honour as a practitioner and the question of the survival of his dojo, are both at stake. But he doesn't step into the ring, as you could have expected. The story takes a new turn when he ignores the glare of the cameras and the attention of the know-it-all commentators, and proceeds rather quietly to "end this charade". Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mike Terry is simply awesome; this needs watching even if you think Krav Maga and fashionable MMA butt-grabbing is all about martial arts.

And here comes the worst. But I did laugh a lot. The funky sound track could be one of the solid reasons for you to watch this film, provided you've got the right kind of humour.

Ah, I saw Black Belt Jones (1974), a Blaxploitation action film starring Jim Kelly who's best known for his role in Enter the Dragon and it's shaped by the same director, Robert Clouse.

This movie has incredibly flat characters speaking, walking, dressing, howling, grabbing and shrieking Karate all throughout, and their acting is invariably and incredibly bad. And yes, Kelly uses Karate even while courting. You also get to see Karatekas shooting fists in a mournful way as their teacher's ( who happens to be Scatman Crothers) corpse is lowered into the grave- something so hilarious that it gives you serious stomach cramps.

"Oooooooeah!" goes the hero Jim Kelly making strange grimaces whenever anybody comes near him or when he's just watching his reflection on a polished elevator door. And sometimes he's just fascinated with his white telephone. The final scene with the carwash bubbles is a visual treat; completing the delightful mix of karate, James Bond technicolor movies, girls on trampolines, and lots and lots of butt-kicking. There happens to be a certain display of hostility on the part of 'good guys and gals' karatekas to the male genitalia; the sheer number of kicks to the bonkers and the grabs are, er, for the lack of better words, embarrassing.

Apart from the overdoses of very-badly choreographed karate, this is also one of the funniest comedies ever made. I guess, without being intentional.